Friday, December 30, 2011

"The Apartment" Rings in the New Year at the Normal Theater

I told you a lot about "The Apartment," the second movie in the Normal Theater's mini-Bily Wilder tribute, when I reviewed the Broadway musical "Promises, Promises" back in 2010.

"'The Apartment' is very cynical about life in the 60s and the accompanying sexual and corporate politics," I wrote then, "what with the basic plotline about an everyman office drone named C.C. Baxter ... who aspires to rise through the ranks at Consolidated Insurance. The only way for him to do that is to let a fleet of higher-ups use his apartment for their extra-marital trysts. Yes, C.C. is complicit in their dirty deeds, but he's not exactly happy about it. And he also spends a lot of time on park benches in the snow while other people enjoy his apartment, plus the girl he yearns for, an elevator operator named Fran Kubelik ... keeps ignoring his affections.

I also noted that there is a fun piece of trivia in the movie: "...that the creepy execs in 'The Apartment' include 'My Favorite Martian' Ray Walston, David Lewis, AKA the original Edward Quartermaine on 'General Hospital,' and David White, who played Larry Tate, Darren's advertising agency boss on 'Bewitched.'"

Yes, I was just talking about Ray Walston a day or two ago, with reference to "Kiss Me, Stupid," and how I wished the leading man had been Jack Lemmon instead of Ray Walston. And there they are in "The Apartment," the earlier, better Billy Wilder pic, both turning in better performances than anything in "Kiss Me, Stupid."

There are a lot of things to love about "The Apartment," including the apartment itself. It's sort of an alter ego for C.C. Baxter, the comfy, a little scruffy, well-meaning nice guy who lets himself get pushed around in the name of being a loyal employee. He doesn't live in a palace, he sings opera while draining spaghetti noodles with a tennis racket, and he has a very tender heart. He and Fran are both charming misfits, brought to wonderful life by I.A.L. Diamond's and Billy Wilder's smart script, Wilder's sharp direction, and Jack Lemmon's and Shirley MacLaine's adorable, vivid performances.

Maybe it's because the movie's heart is so often on its sleeve (or on Jack Lemmon's face) or maybe because the characters are written deeply enough that they stay sympathetic, even when making terrible choices. Whatever the reason, it's easy to stick with "The Apartment," to root for C.C. and Fran, and to hiss at the villains.

Speaking of the villains... It's amusing to me that Fred MacMurray could change his stripes so completely and be none the worse for it. "The Apartment" was released on September 16, 1960, with him as the slimy heel of a boss, and then he showed up as the quintessential great dad in "My Three Sons," which premiered on TV September 29, 1960. To me (and to a million other Boomers, I imagine) he was the "My Three Sons"/Flubber/"Happiest Millionaire" guy. It wasn't until I discovered the Late, Late Show that I found out about "The Apartment" and "Double Indemnity." The point is that he did what he needed to do with Jeff Sheldrake in "The Apartment" to make the whole plot work, to make it seem reasonable that a girl like Fran (and Edie Adams' Miss Olsen) would fall for his lines, and that a schnook like C.C. would give up his apartment to get good marks from a boss like that. He's handsome, genial... And an absolute snake. Kudos, Fred MacMurray.

"The Apartment" was nominated for ten Academy Awards, and it took home five of them, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. It deserves every one.

And what a great idea for the Normal Theater to screen it on New Year's Eve. It's the perfect fit.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Catch Up With a "Once Upon a Time" Marathon New Year's Day

From left, the Hunstman, the Evil Queen, Snow White, Prince Charming,
Rumpelstilskin, young Henry and Emma Swan appear in "Once Upon a Time."

One of the few new TV shows I've liked this year is ABC's "Once Upon a Time," a kind of fizzy-pop/fairy tale/soap opera mix, with stories that show us bona fide fairy tale characters living in a very magical fairy tale realm as well as crossing over to a "real" town called Storybrooke, Maine, with other, more 20th century identities. So we see the Evil Queen acting all evil in the Fairytale world and then being a meanie (and the mayor) under the name Regina Mills. (Regina means queen, get it? I've never heard of Mills having any connection to evil, but there are all sorts of theories floating out there that her last name indicates the Evil Queen's dad was a lowly miller.) And Snow White turns up as a sweet teacher named Mary Margaret Blanchard. (Yes, her name is Blanchard, like blanche, the feminine form of the French word for white.)

As the story unfolds, it seems that almost everybody in Storybrooke has amnesia about their previous lives as Snow White, Prince Charming, Cinderella, Jiminy Cricket (yes, he's in there, too, this being an ABC/Disney show), Gepetto, etc. Our heroine, Emma Swan, is the one person who straddles both worlds, since she was never a fairytale character (the curse that kicked them all out of the magical world happened when she was a tiny baby) and didn't grow up in Storybrooke.

Jennifer Morrison, best known as one of the first-season junior docs on "House," plays Emma, wearing a series of leather jackets and a kick-ass attitude. She isn't buying the "these people are all fairytale characters" story being peddled by a boy named Henry, the biological son she gave up when he was a newborn, who drags her into Storybrooke in the first place. Henry is the one with a big, fat storybook and a steadfast belief in Fairy Tale Land, even if he is the adopted son of big, bad Regina.

Yes, it sounds complicated. It's really not. Once you get past the premise (two worlds/same set of people/different identities) and start rooting for Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) and trying to figure out how Rumpelstiltskin (Scottish actor Robert Carlyle) fits into the picture, you'll be hooked.

I'm hooked. I admit it.

To catch the few stragglers who did not try "Once Upon a Time" when it started, and to make sure they all know a hawk from a handsaw, or maybe a Magic Mirror from a Poison Apple, ABC is re-airing six of the seven episodes they've broadcast so far, starting with the pilot episode on Sunday, January 1, at 4 pm here in B-N, on WHOI. That will be followed by "The Thing You Love Most," an excellent episode, "Snow Falls," an even better one, "The Price of Gold," "The Shepherd," and "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," where we learned a lot about the Evil Queen and her true villainy and lost a character I liked a lot. Which... Is really too bad. I'm hoping he'll get better treatment in flashbacks to the Fairy Tale World.

That means you can watch the "'Once Upon a Time" marathon from 4 to 10 pm here in Bloomington-Normal, and then tune in for the first new episode of the new year on Sunday, January 8, at 7 pm Central, when the show returns to its normal slot. Coming up in 2012: Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast, and Rumpelstiltskin's back story. Woo hoo!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Billy Wilder's "Kiss Me, Stupid" Is Kind of... Stupid

When I think of Billy Wilder, I think of "The Apartment," "Sunset Boulevard," "Some Like It Hot," "Sabrina," that kind of thing. They're all smart and sharp, with varying degrees of cynicism and wit. But then there's "Kiss Me, Stupid," a try at a sex comedy Wilder co-wrote (with I.A.L. Diamond) and directed between "Irma La Douce" and "The Fortune Cookie." Let's just say that "Kiss Me, Stupid" was not well-regarded in its time. It even got a huge smackdown ("C" for "condemned") from the Catholic Legion of Decency because of its immorality. Normally, that wouldn't mean much to me, but in this case, I think I agree with the Legion of Decency. Not that it should've been condemned, but that it isn't a very good movie. (First time for everything...)

"Kiss Me, Stupid" begins with a character very much like Dean Martin, played by Dean Martin, on stage at a Las Vegas nightclub, whiskey glass in hand, surrounded by chorus girls, singing the Gershwin classic "S'Wonderful" and performing an act that sounds very much like what Dean Martin always did. He is called "Dino" and we see from the beginning that he is a bounder, a womanizer and a bit of a lush. You know, just like the real Dean Martin. Or the on-stage Dean Martin, at any rate.

"Dino" heads out of Las Vegas in a long white Italian convertible (IMDB notes say it's a Dual Ghia) and gets detoured through a dusty little town called Climax, Nebraska. Climax is the home of two wannabe songwriters, Orville and Barney. Orville is a schlemiel of a piano teacher, played by Ray Walston, while Barney, played by Cliff Osmond, runs the local gas station. Orville is married to a snazzy woman named Zelda, played by the lovely Felicia Farr, and he is unreasonably jealous when he thinks Zelda is receiving undue attention from various random men, like the milk man, her dentist, and a gawky teen who takes piano lessons. And that's before Dino hits town.

Wilder's script is smart enough to create some conflict for Orville. Yes, he is desperate to keep Zelda out of the clutches of any other men, but he's also desperate to sell a song. He's got a Hollywood star, someone who can create a hit song just by breathing on it, right there in his hometown. But how can Orville sell his song to Dino? Maybe by using his wife as bait?

Yeah, that's as sleazy as it sounds. Because of his overwhelming jealousy, there is no way Orville is really going to set Zelda up with Dino. So he and Barney hatch an idiotic plan to bring in a local hooker name Polly the Pistol, given a definite Marilyn Monroe blowsy-yet-adorable turn by Kim Novak, to pretend to be Zelda long enough to sleep with Dino and convince him to buy a song. Orville also has to pick a fake fight with Zelda to get her out of the house so they can bring in Polly the Pistol as a sub.

It's all very sex-farcey, like Feydeau if Feydeau were in 1960s Nevada, with everybody's virtue compromised and lots of odd touches, like the world's longest chianti bottle and a parrot that likes shoot-'em-up Westerns. One of the best things about "Kiss Me Stupid" is the amusing notion of sticking in previously unpublished George and Ira Gershwin tunes ("Sophia," "I'm a Poached Egg," and "All the Live-Long Day") as the songs written by Orville and Barney.

As a sex farce set in Nevada in the 1960s, however, "Kiss Me, Stupid" comes off scummy and crass. It doesn't help that Ray Walston, someone I normally love, seems very miscast and a little frenetic as the irrational, idiotic husband. The story is that Peter Sellers was originally cast as Orville, but a heart attack took him out of the film, so Ray Walston was given the role at the last minute. I can't see Peter Sellers doing any better, honestly. The film needs somebody like Jack Lemmon, who seemed to have the knack of taking what would've been sleazy in other hands and somehow making it fun and sprightly, who could portray a dope like Orville but somehow make him endearing, too. Plus, he was married to Felicia Farr in real life.

Farr, by the way, is charming. Dean Martin is just playing himself (or his on-stage persona, anyway), while Kim Novak is better than I would've expected as a floozie with a heart of gold, even if I never really believed her for one minute. Meanwhile, the poster shows Martin and Novak front and center as the stars of the picture, which is not remotely true. Walston is the lead, with Farr as his foil and Martin and Novak merely supporting players.

The other oddity is that Walston's singing voice is dubbed most of the time. But Ray Walston could sing, and the dubber (Ian Freebairn-Smith) doesn't sound anything like Ray Walston, if you've seen "South Pacific" or "Damn Yankees" and know what he sounds like. Or even if you just listen to his dialogue. Why in the world did they do that? It's not like Ian Freebairn-Smith sounds like Peter Sellers, either, if that was the original idea.

But the biggest problem here is not the performances, who sings the songs, or who carries the plot. It's the tone. It's the attempt to get funny out of what is really creepy, lightweight out of leaden, and effortless out of strained. I have my suspicions that I would accept this all much more easily if they were wearing fin-de-si├Ęcle clothes and dashing in and out of Maxim's in Paris instead of the crudball Nevada dive called the Belly Button. The IMDB tells me that somebody did just that, although it was Italy instead of France, in a 1952 film called "Moglie per una notte" or "Wife for a Night," directed by Italian director Mario Camerini, with Gina Lollabrigida as the wife. Both "Kiss Me, Stupid" and "Wife for a Night" are billed as based on a 1944 play called "L'Ora della Fantasia" by Anna Bonacci.

This way, "Kiss Me, Stupid" is worth a look at a Billy Wilder film that just doesn't work, as well as for its place in history as a film that was passed by the Production Code in effect at that time, but rejected by the Legion of Decency as well as by film-goers in general. You can see it and decide for yourself. Is it funny? Is it immoral? Is Ray Walston sweet and fun or just annoying? How do you like those Gershwin tunes salvaged from the dustbin of history?

"Kiss Me Stupid" opens the Normal Theater's mini-Billy Wilder film fest with screenings December 29th and 30th at 7 pm.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

40 Years of Urbana's Celebration Company: How the Station Theatre Came To Be

The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre in Urbana is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary season. If you are involved in theatre in Central Illinois, you've heard of the Station as pretty much of a fixture on Broadway in Urbana.

I was curious about how it all began, so I posed some questions to Celebration Company Artistic Director Rick Orr (seen at left), who has been there from Day One, and Rick was kind enough to provide answers.

I didn’t get to Champaign-Urbana until 1974, so I missed the very beginnings of the Celebration Company at the Station Theatre. Can you tell me how that all came about? Which came first, the Celebration Company, or the Station Theatre?

I had been a director at what was then called the Depot Theatre, which was a sort of branch of the English Department at the U of I. I directed a very successful revue, "Jacques Brel," which was an unusual show for them. They were primarily doing Shakespeare, Beckett, etc. "Jacques Brel" got a lot of press attention, and the owner of the building, seeing this, contacted me about purchasing the building. So I took that opportunity to purchase the theater with money gathered with some friends, and our company was formed. It was a little controversial at the time, because other members of the Depot Theatre weren’t involved.

"Jacques Brel" at the Depot Theatre.

And how did the Celebration Company get its name?

The name “Celebration Company” came from classroom notes from grad school. A theatre professor of mine, Clara Behringer, said that theatre should always be a celebration.

What was the very first show done by the Celebration Company? I notice (on the Station’s website) that "The Fantasticks," "Old Times" and "Tooth of Crime" are listed as the inaugural season. I can see some similarities there, even though they’re very different shows. Did you have a mission or a kind of show you wanted to do right from the start?

"The Fantasticks" came first. At that time, experimental theater and “happenings” were very popular. I was fortunate enough to witness some of this in New York, and I had read about it as a theatre student. I didn’t feel that this kind of theatre was represented by the theatre department at the U of I, so I was seeking out the newest work by the newest playwrights, theatre that would challenge, educate, and excite both the company and the audience. Early years witnessed some Midwest premieres, because there wasn’t a notable Chicago theatre scene at this time. Robert Falls directed "Moon Children" for us in his senior year, and this went to the Wisdom Bridge Theater, which helped create the theatre movement there. Steppenwolf was still operating out of a church basement then. I wanted to bring playwrights like Sam Shepard and David Mamet to our community, because they weren’t well known.

From that same list of shows, it looks like the Celebration Company went from three shows the first year to four the second and then made a leap to TWELVE shows the third year. How was that possible? And what in the world is “Piggly Wiggly Pop”?

"Piggly Wiggly Pop" was an original children’s show, if I remember correctly. We were an extremely small company, but energetic and motivated. The first two seasons, I directed six or seven shows, all while being a student, a TA, a tutor, and working at a “day job.” Youth and energy...

Are there any productions over the years that stand out for you as exactly what you wanted the Station to achieve in the beginning?

I think each show that a director undertakes becomes his or her favorite at the time, so it’s hard to choose one. "Buried Child" stands out, and "True West." "The Boys in the Band." More recently, "The Lieutenant of Inishmore." Just to name a few.

I know you are willing to repeat shows that speak to the company, like doing “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” 26 years apart with the same actors playing James and Mary Tyrone. What do you think is the show you’ve done the most?

I’ve personally directed "Jacques Brel" the most. It remains rather timeless to me, with music and lyrics by an author whom we lost at a young age. It’s a challenging piece. I’ve also repeated "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf," "Betrayal," "West Side Story," and "Cabaret." In some cases, repeating a show is a matter of matching the show to the talent available. They may come back again.

The Station today.

In general, how has the Celebration Company changed over the years?


The faces have changed over the years, with “new blood” constantly coming in, but we’ve continued to put the focus on the playwrights’ words and the actors’ performances. And the budgets have changed a little over the years, but only a little. We still behave as if we have no money. We’ve lost some great talents over the years, but we’ve added great talent as well.

What is the play selection process like? Do you take proposals from directors, or pick the plays and then assign directors?

It is rare that we would choose a play and attach a director later. It has happened, but it is a last resort. If a play is something we consider important, we might seek out a qualified director for it. We select plays twice a year. The committee is made up of a small group of core company members who read proposed scripts to put together a diverse season that will reflect a mix of new plays, challenging roles, and good quality.

Theater companies obviously come and go, and yet the Celebration Company has lasted for 40 years, over two recessions and a lot of changes in the area’s taste in theater. What has been the company’s biggest challenge over the years?

New plays tend to be very topical, so we always challenge ourselves to find pieces that will be timely. We want the information to be as “present tense” as possible.

What do you see ahead, in the Station’s future?

Hopefully, we will continue to train actors and technicians, as we always have, and to give them a “real world” setting in which to practice their craft. The Station will remain an intimate setting with tight budgets and an emphasis on credible acting and powerful words.

Thanks so much, Rick!



The Celebration Company gears up again with Rajiv Joseph's "Gruesome Playground Injuries," directed by Mathew Green, opening January 5. I will be running interviews with Mathew Green and his cast of two -- Katie Baldwin and Rob Zaleski -- next week, so be sure to look out for those pieces for more salient info about the Station Theatre and how it does what it does.

For more information on the 40th Anniversary Season in general, click here. If you'd like to read about the Celebration Company or the history of the Station building, click here.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Wishes Come True in "A Christmas Story, the Musical!"

Although I think I've only seen it twice, Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story" movie always lands at the top of the major "Best Holiday Movies" list. And TNT runs marathons of it every year at Christmas time. (My second viewing of the movie was yesterday, during that marathon.)

This sweet, affectionate, slightly irreverent look back at one boy's Christmas in the 1930s, fixating on the "Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time" that little Ralphie wants for Christmas, strikes a chord for a lot of people. It may be the "remember when" aspect of many of its scenes, the familiarity of the schoolroom and bullies and snowpants bits, or just the innocence of the boy who keeps coming up with new schemes to convince his parents he needs that BB gun. Whatever the reason, this is one movie that resonates.

An adaptation of "A Christmas Story" for the stage has been around since 2000, with attempts to put together a musical version since about 2006, with a reading in New York and a "world premiere" in Kansas City in 2009. This year, the producers (including Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie in the movie) decided they had the show in the shape they wanted, and they started a five-city tour that hit Chicago in late November. "A Christmas Story, the Musical!" is now playing the historic Chicago Theatre on State Street, a block away from the Macy's that used to be the Marshall Field's that figured in a lot of Chicagoland kids' own Christmas dreams.

According to the website for that musical, the plot of "A Christmas Story" comes from Jean Shepherd's published stories, radio broadcasts and public appearances in the 60s. Shepherd steps in as narrator for the movie, too, lending his charming, folksy voice to the proceedings. On stage, the musical version is lucky to have Chicago veteran Gene Weygandt in the role, and he adds a great deal of credibility and warmth to the proceedings. When he gets a catch in his throat near the end, you can hear a collective sniff throughout the audience, as well.

The show is a bit different for a big musical, in that so much of the burden of the show falls on kids, and especially on Ralphie, played with energy and enthusiasm by Clarke Hallum. The kid is terrific, carrying the show with singing and dancing and acting from curtain to curtain.

Others in the cast who acquit themselves well include John Bolton as Ralphie's dad (always referred to as "The Old Man"); Rachel Bay Jones as his very sweet but kind of dim mother; Matthew Lewis as his little brother, trapped in a snow-suit like the Michelin Man; Adam Pelty as a testy Santa Claus; and J.D. Rodriguez, understudy for the role of Flick, taking on the role without losing a beat (or a tongue).

With a book by Joseph Robinette and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, "A Christmas Story, the Musical!" comes off energetic and cheery, hitting on all the familiar anecdotes from the movie, and crammed full of bright, pop tunes that bring to mind the Maltby & Shire oeuvre in shows like "Big."

The choice of scenes seems like a no-brainer. Seriously, how could they have avoided including those much-beloved vignettes (like the leg lamp, the tongue frozen to the flagpole, the essay for school, the flat tire, the dogs next door...) without fans of the movie getting up in arms? And director John Rando's staging of most of them is creative and effective, with smoothly moving scenery, fun effects and both an awesome Visit to Santa and a Night Before Christmas that work like a charm.

As for the score, the songs are melodic (I especially liked the tune of "Ralphie to the Rescue") and cute, although having so many extended production numbers gives the show a somewhat labored feel as it wears on. The Leg Lamp kickline is hilarious and Ralphie's fantasy of being a cowboy hero is also amusing, but both went on too long for me. And I could've done without the Wicked Witch number for Ralphie's teacher, Miss Shields, even though you knew it was coming, both because it's in the movie and because Broadway star Karen Mason is playing Miss Shields.

There are rumors that the producers would like to get a berth for the show on Broadway next Christmas, and if so, they'll surely be looking for changes. So that's my suggestion -- trim a chorus or two in the longer numbers and cut Miss Shields' Wizard of Oz number entirely. I'd probably also cut the icky linguistic stereotypes during the family's visit to a Chinese restaurant. Yes, they're in the movie, but no, we don't need them now.

All in all, "A Christmas Story, the Musical!" (it cracks me up every time I type that exclamation point) is what it needs to be -- a faithful recreation of the movie featuring sharp, sunny performances, fizzy songs, an emphasis on heart and home, and a very nice memorial to Jean Shepherd.

Performances of "A Christmas Story, the Musical!" continue through December 30th at the Chicago Theatre. You can see a video preview at the official website here or visit the Chicago Theatre site to order tickets.

Friday, December 23, 2011

IWU Alum Amanda Dehnert Named One of the "Best of 2011"

I did a "Where Are They Now?" post earlier this year, to bring us all up to date on what's been happening with some of the area actors and performers I'd seen around here during their college years.

Director Amanda Dehnert is someone who graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University just before I came to Bloomington-Normal, meaning I did not see her work when she was here. But she is on the roster of IWU's "proud alums" and yesterday I noticed her name pop up in Terry Teachout's "Best of 2011" piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Teachout is a national critic, meaning he has productions from coast to coast to choose from. And he chose Dehnert's production of "Julius Caesar" as the best Shakespeare production of the year, saying, "The Oregon Shakespeare Festival hit the target with Amanda Dehnert's modern-dress Julius Caesar, whose you-are-there immediacy put me in mind of Orson Welles's legendary 1937 Mercury Theater production."

High praise indeed!

You can see a review of her "Julius Caesar" here and an article about Dehnert when she was at Trinity Rep here. And here is a video interview with Dehnert when she directed "Cabaret" at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2008.

Congratulations to Amanda Dehnert, another IWU alum made good!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holiday Gifts Abound

I realize it's down to Crunch Time for holiday gifts, but if those you are buying for are flexible about deadlines, or if you yourself took in some cash from Santa and are looking for theater, TV, movie or music ideas to spend it on... I've got some really excellent ideas.

Booking it:

I still think that Stephen Sondheim's "Look, I Made a Hat," his second volume examining and analyzing his lyrics, is a must-have. And its shiny bright pink cover looks festive for the holidays, too.

I can also recommend Katharine Weber's "The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities," which isn't really as much about George Gershwin and Kay Swift as you might imagine, but tells a heck of a yarn about the author's family history, anyway. Her father, Sidney Kaufman, emerges as the book's most colorful and intriguing character, which is amazing when you consider the other artists, eccentrics and overachievers who dance around her family tree. Weber is an excellent writer who captures a host of personalities quite well.

And my last recommendation in the book category is a new memoir by Edward Petherbridge, who starred in two of the TV choices I've listed below. It tells us how he started on the British stage and came to play roles like those as well as Guildenstern and Chasuble and includes his photographs, sketches and poems along with his prose . It's called "Slim Chances and Unscheduled Appearances," and it looks to be as elegant and charming as any performance he's ever given. Which is to say, quite elegant and charming.

From the Telly:

We already talked about the availability of both seasons of PBS's "Downton Abbey" on DVD, along with an attractive companion book. As if those ideas weren't exciting enough, there's a "Downton Abbey" calendar, too! And a Grantham family tea set! You can peruse the entire collection, from jewelry to cloches, here.

While you're on the PBS site, you can see if they've got any of your other favorites. "Poirot"? "The West"? "Broadway: The American Musical"? All covered.

Or you can revisit the Masterpiece Mystery take on Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, with Edward Petherbridge as the dashing lord with a nose for crime. That set includes "Strong Poison," "Have His Carcase" and "Gaudy Night," for all the best Lord Peter/Harriet Vane interaction.

Although it is no longer available on the PBS site as far as I can tell, the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby," which was broadcast as a Mobile Showcase Theatre offering in 1982, is available on DVD. It's a four-disc set, it will take you nine hours to watch it, and it's worth every single second.

Music:

Everything you need is at PS Classics. Seriously. New cast recordings of "Follies," "Death Takes a Holiday," "Sondheim on Sondheim" and "A Minister's Wife," studio cast recordings of "Sweet Bye and Bye" and "Strike Up the Band 1930," new albums from Kate Baldwin, Anne Steele and Liz Callaway and her sister Ann Hampton Callaway... Who could ask for anything more?

For Old Movie Fans:

Yesterday, I told you about the TCM four-movie collection that will get you "Christmas in Connecticut," "The Shop Around the Corner," the Reginald Owen "A Christmas Carol" and a lesser-known holiday film called "It Happened on 5th Avenue." Four movies for the price of one! What a deal! Thank you, TCM.

The "Astaire & Rogers Ultimate Collectors Edition" is an even more stellar idea, offering all ten movies Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together*, along with vintage short films, trailers, cartoons, and a bonus DVD called "Astaire and Rogers, Partners in Rhythm," that has interview clips and behind-the-scenes info about how those lovely movies were made. In other words, lots of cool extras! I like is to stage my own Fred-and-Ginger marathon for New Year's Eve, and this set makes that very possible and very easy.

Another favorite of mine is "The Cary Grant Box Set," which includes "Holiday" (my favorite movie of all time, which came late to video and DVD), "Only Angels Have Wings," "The Talk of the Town," "His Girl Friday" and "The Awful Truth." That set, as wonderful as it is, does not include my other top choice among Cary Grant movies, "Notorious," where Cary is a bad boy secret agent type opposite Ingrid Bergman as a bad girl with a soft spot for Cary. Still, it's good news that "Notorious" is available at all, and I'll take it as a stand-alone option.

* Those ten films are "Flying Down to Rio," "The Gay Divorcee," "Roberta," "Top Hat," "Follow the Fleet," "Swing Time," "Shall We Dance," "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," "Carefree" and "The Barkleys of Broadway," in case you're keeping track.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Movies: My First Look at "It Happened on 5th Avenue"

I wanted my own copies of "Christmas in Connecticut" and "The Shop Around the Corner," so it only made sense to buy the Turner Classic Movies collection you see at left, that combines those two classics with one of the many film versions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" (this one is the Reginald Owen vehicle from 1938) and a film I hadn't heard of, "It Happened on 5th Avenue," a post-WW II Christmas story involving ex-GIs who can't find anything to do or anywhere to live.

It's a very intriguing film, one that I don't believe showed up on Chicagoland Late, Late Shows or Dialing for Dollars. If the IMDB comments are to be believed, it was broadcast every December in Tampa, Florida, however, and for some Floridians, it's their favorite Christmas movie ever. It's definitely sweet, definitely has a message, with its story of haves and have-nots all living and working together to figure out what's truly important (Hint: It's not money), and features one of Hollywood's best character actors in Charles Ruggles, who plays the rich robber baron whose selfishness has made him a prisoner of his own wealth. Ruggles' character, Michael J. O'Connor, owns the palace on 5th Avenue which has been invaded by a gentlemanly hobo named Aloysius T. McKeever, played by veteran comic Victor Moore. Although he had some amazing credits on his resume (including originating the role of Vice President Throttlebottom on Broadway in "Of Thee I Sing"), I find Moore to be an acquired taste, one which I have not acquired. He is more palatable here, acting all charming and scruffy, with nice interaction with an equally charming dog. I don't see a credit for the dog, but he (or she) was excellent in the role and certainly made Moore more appealing.

After McKeever has made his seasonal return to the O'Connor mansion, he runs into out-of-work ex-GI Jim Bullock, played by Don DeFore, someone I know best from the old TV show "Hazel," where he played the boss. DeFore is a bit of a lightweight as the romantic hero in the piece, but he does all right. I was more impressed with Gale Storm, playing rich girl Trudy O'Connor, who pretends to be poor and on the lam so she can stay in her own house and not evict interlopers McKeever and Bullock. I knew her name, but I don't believe I've ever seen her in anything except maybe a guest role on the likes of "The Love Boat." Here, as a leading lady, Storm is pretty and perky and everything she needs to be.

Still, it's Charles Ruggles who keeps stealing scenes. He's just adorable, even if his O'Connor is a nasty old robber baron. His estranged wife, who also shows up in disguise at the (increasingly crowded) mansion on 5th Avenue, is played by the lovely Ann Harding, best known as a heroine in five-hanky dramas in the early 30s. It's nice to see Harding kick up her heels in comedy, especially opposite Ruggles.

"Gilligan's Island" fans may also enjoy seeing the Skipper, Alan Hale, Jr., in a smaller role as one of Bullock's army pals.

For me, it's fun to gawk at the lavish mansion and see what 5th Avenue in New York looked like in 1947, and also to see costumes and hairdos which look so much like what my mother wore in pictures from that era.

"It Happened on 5th Avenue" is definitely worth a look as more unfamiliar holiday fare and Life in America post-World War II. The fact that it is included in the same package as "Christmas in Connecticut" and "The Shop Around the Corner" is just icing on the cake.

Trivia note: Ann Harding played Linda Seton in the first filmed version of Philip Barry's play "Holiday." The second "Holiday," the one with Katharine Hepburn as Linda Seton, is what I usually pick as my favorite movie of all time. And that "Holiday" took place in a mansion that looks very much like the one in "It Happened on 5th Avenue." I can find nothing to suggest that they used the same set. But it sure looks the same to me.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

New Play Summit Hits Denver in February

Also in my in-box this morning... The Colorado New Play Summit, a festival organized by the Denver Center Theatre Company and Artistic Director Kent Thompson, would love for you to attend February 10 through 12, 2012. (Yes, it ends on 02-12-12, in case you're keeping track.)

The Colorado New Play Summit is a three-day festival at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, including two fully-produced world premiere productions, five readings of new American plays and a "playwrights slam," which offers excerpts from works in progress.

The world premieres this year (with descriptions from New Play Summit materials) are:

The Whale
by Samuel D. Hunter

Charlie hasn't seen his ex-wife or daughter in 17 years and has grown dangerously obese since his partner's death. In failing health, Charlie fends of family, friends and church as he doggedly tries to connect with his estranged daughter in this emotional story.

Two Things You Don't Talk About at Dinner
by Lisa Loomer

Myriam's annual Passover Seder, a multicultural mix of family and friends, threatens to explode as politics and religion hijack the conversation, severely testing the ties that bind. Is peace not possible -- even at the dinner table?

And the five readings will include a musical version of "Jane Austen," with book and lyrics by Jeffrey Haddow and music by Neal Hampton; "Ed, Downloaded," by Michael Mitnick, about a man who has chosen to have his brain stored on a disc (or maybe a zip drive?) before he dies; "The Hand of God," a new comedy about reality TV by Richard Dresser; another Lisa Loomer play, this one a slice of street life called "Homefree" that involves kids trying to survive in a hostile world; and "Grace, of the art of Climbing," a rock-climbing play by Lauren Feldman.

For more information, click here or here. To register, click here. Full Summit passes include guaranteed seating at all readings and admission to the two world premieres, as well as meals, receptions, and discounts to nearby downtown Denver hotels.

If you are a member of the American Theater Critics Association, which is holding its winter conference in conjunction with the Summit, you should register through the association for a special rate.

If You Were Wondering What to Do With That God Particle Play...


Orlando Shakespeare Theater has announced its Harriett Lake Festival of New Plays is looking for submissions. They will choose seven plays from among those submitted for performance in November 2012.

Here's what they're telling us they're looking for:

"PlayFest! The Harriett Lake Festival of New Plays (Fall 2012) is seeking new full-length plays or musicals based on or inspired by works of classic literature or historic events, famous persons, or advances in science. These events, persons, or advances can be from any age in history, including the present. We prefer (but are not limited to) plays that require six actors or less, and have an interest in one-person shows. However, even in the case of one-person shows, we are not looking for history lectures, or museum piece adaptations that are faithful to a fault, but rather dynamic new theatrical versions of classic stories that speak to the contemporary mindset.

In musical submissions, we are interested in musicals based on or inspired by the same criteria as mentioned above."

In addition, they specify that they want plays which have not received a Broadway or off-Broadway production, have no more than two professional AEA productions, have not been performed in Orlando in their current form, and have not been published for general distribution with rights held by the publisher.

They would like you to query first and only send full scripts if requested based on the query.

For all the details, they have a handy list of Playwright Guidelines here.

Given their interest in plays with historical content, "The Affray," the Jared Brown/ collaboration about Abraham Lincoln's legal career seen last July at the McLean County Museum of History, sounds like a natural.

Anyone else who has an unproduced play or musical sitting around inspired by "Little House on the Prairie," Marie Curie, Marie Antoinette, the search for the Fountain of Youth, the search for Higgs boson, or, well, anything literary, scientific or historical, take note. The Harriett Lake Festival of New Plays is looking for you!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Downton Abbey Is Back!


Have you been waiting, on the edge of your seat, for the return of "Downton Abbey," the lovely PBS Masterpiece series that shows fabulous Edwardian* costumes, a fabulous Edwardian* country home with a full array of fabulous Edwardian* aristocrats and their servants and hangers-on, and all kinds of fabulous Edwardian* intrigue involving an entailed estate, romance, class, wealth, sex and lots of lots of scheming?

It's been awhile since we last saw the Crawley family and their household. And it will be a little while till we get to see Season 2 begin on Sunday, January 8th. In the meantime, however, local PBS stations are rerunning the Season 1 episodes. Yay!!

Last night, WTVP and WILL both showed the first two episodes, where we meet the family and begin to learn about all their trials and tribulations, with the Right Honorable Robert, Earl of Grantham, (played by Hugh Bonneville), who has only daughters, seeing his (male) heirs die on the
Titanic. Before this, it's been a given that Robert's eldest daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), would eventually marry that heir, to keep Downton Abbey, (which is entailed, meaning that only males can inherit), in the family. But now there is a new heir, a third-cousin-once-removed named Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who is a lawyer, not landed gentry. Let's just say that Lady Mary isn't in the least impressed by Mr. Crawley. The Earl's American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and his imperious mother, the Right Honorable Violet, Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), also cause him problems, as does his decision to install his old batsman, Bates (Brendan Coyle), as his valet.

A lot of ground was covered in Season 1, with pretty much everybody hiding some secret or another, and everybody trying to figure out his or her place in a rapidly changing world. War is on the horizon in Season 1, and a major plotline in Season 2, as you can see by the costumes in this promotional picture for Season 2.



Episodes from Season 1 will continue next week on local PBS stations. If you missed those first two broadcast last night, you will find them here, viewable from your computer. Yay!! You can also buy yourself the DVD version of "Downton Abbey" (Seasons 1 and 2!) as a Christmas present. Or the hardcover book called "The World of Downton Abbey." Or a combination of all of them.

I am really trying to hold myself back from buying Season 2 and bingeing on it. The lucky Brits have already seen all of it, so spoilers are out there. If you don't want to know what happens to the Crawleys during the war, you'll need to be careful. And not buy that DVD/DVD/book set.

Holding self back...

*
Since "Downtown Abbey" begins with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, it is outside the Edwardian era as marked by the reign of Edward VII, which ended in 1910. Others leave the Edwardian moniker in play till the end of World War I. That's where I'm sticking. So, yes, I know that Edward VII died in 1910. And the first season of "Downton Abbey" began in 1912 and finished in 1914, with the second season covering 1916 to 1918. As long as the clothes keep looking Edwardian, I'm calling it Edwardian.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Early Bird Deadline Approaches for Heartland's 10-Minute Play Contest


Don't forget -- the January 1st Early Bird deadline is coming up for Heartland Theatre Company's annual 10-minute play contest. This year's theme is Playing Games, and you can read all about it here.

Basic idea: Write a 10-minute play with no more than 4 characters that somehow deals with the notion of Playing Games. If your use of the theme is strong and clear, you have a better shot at making it from Round 1 to Round 2 of judging. Twister, Risk, Angry Birds... Go for it!

And if you get your play in by January 1, you have the chance to get revisions from the judges. That's not a guarantee, by any means. Just a chance. If the judges are enthusiastic about most of your entry but feel that something small and easy to fix could make it a contender, they have the option to ask you for revisions. IF you get the play in by January 1.

Another hint: You have a better chance of advancing if you follow the official stylesheet. It tells you the judges' preferred format, which includes using Courier or Courier New 12 in Word. No more than ten pages, single-spaced, is strongly recommended.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Goofiness of Golden Globe Nominations

It's awards season, with all the various critics' groups and guilds nominating hither and yon, and a a whole lot of pundits trying to read them all like tea leaves to figure out who will be in Oscar's inner circle when the time comes.

The Golden Globes are always fun, mostly because they are decided by about twelve people who have foreign press credentials good enough to get onto the voters' list, they mean absolutely nothing in terms of Oscar prognostications (see first point about number of voters), they give awards to comedies, which Oscar often overlooks, the ceremony itself brings movie and TV people together at little tables where everyone seems to be smashed, and... Well, they're just goofy, that's all. They also have a preference for European actors, including Brits, which I, personally, appreciate.

So this year, who have the Golden Globes decided to shine upon?

A quick look at the nominations tells you that they like George Clooney, since both "The Descendants" and "The Ides of March" have been nominated, along with Clooney himself as Best Actor in a Motion Picture (Drama) for "The Descendants" and as Best Director of a Motion Picture for "The Ides of March," they like Ryan Gosling, nominating him for both "The Ides of March" on the Drama side and "Crazy Stupid Love" on the Comedy side, they inexplicably think "My Week with Marilyn" is a comedy, they inexplicably think Kristen Wiig is funnier than Melissa McCarthy (as IF), and they gave some love to "Midnight in Paris" and "Puss in Boots," both of which I loved. They also gave some love to "The Artist," which I keep hoping will show up somewhere close -- seriously, anywhere -- within my lifetime.

On the television side, I'm not invested in anything they nominated, although I do think "Homeland," "Game of Thrones," "Modern Family," "Downton Abbey" and Amy Poehler in "Parks and Recreation" are worth recipients of any awards they're nominated for.

Here's a look at some of the major categories; the complete list is available at the Golden Globes site.

BEST MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
The Descendants
The Help
Hugo
The Ides of March
Moneyball
War Horse

BEST MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
50/50
The Artist
Bridesmaids
Midnight in Paris
My Week with Marilyn

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The Flowers of War (China)
In the Land of Blood and Honey (USA)
The Kid with a Bike (Belgium)
A Separation (Iran)
The Skin I Live In (Spain)

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
The Adventures of Tintin
Arthur Christmas
Cars 2
Puss in Boots
Rango

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs)
Viola Davis (The Help)
Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)
Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
George Clooney (The Descendants)
Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar)
Michael Fassbender (Shame)
Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March)
Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
Jodie Foster (Carnage)
Charlize Theron (Young Adult)
Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids)
Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)
Kate Winslet (Carnage)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
Brendan Gleeson (The Guard)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (50/50)
Ryan Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love)
Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MOTION PICTURE
Berenice Bejo (The Artist)
Jessica Chastain (The Help)
Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs)
Octavia Spencer (The Help)
Shailene Woodley (The Descendants)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MOTION PICTURE
Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn)
Albert Brooks (Drive)
Jonah Hill (Moneyball)
Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method)
Christopher Plummer (Beginners)

BEST DIRECTOR – MOTION PICTURE
Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)
George Clooney (The Ides of March)
Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
Alexander Payne (The Descendants)
Martin Scorsese (Hugo)

BEST SCREENPLAY – MOTION PICTURE
Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)
George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon (The Ides of March)
Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants)
Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian (Moneyball)

BEST TELEVISION SERIES – DRAMA
American Horror Story (FX)
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Boss (Starz)
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Homeland (Showtime)

BEST TELEVISION SERIES – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
Enlightened (HBO)
Episodes (Showtime)
Glee (Fox)
Modern Family (ABC)
New Girl (FOX)

BEST MINI-SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION
Cinema Verite (HBO)
Downton Abbey (PBS)
The Hour (BBC America)
Mildred Pierce (HBO)
Too Big to Fail (HBO)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A TELEVISION SERIES – DRAMA
Claire Danes (Homeland)
Mireille Enos (The Killing)
Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife)
Madeleine Stowe (Revenge)
Callie Thorne (Necessary Roughness)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A TELEVISION SERIES – DRAMA Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire)
Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad)
Kelsey Grammer (Boss)
Jeremy Irons (The Borgias)
Damian Lewis (Homeland)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A TELEVISION SERIES – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
Laura Dern (Enlightened)
Zooey Deschanel (New Girl)
Tina Fey (30 Rock)
Laura Linney (The Big C)
Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A TELEVISION SERIES – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
Alec Baldwin (30 Rock)
David Duchovny (Californication)
Johnny Galecki (The Big Bang Theory)
Thomas Jane (Hung)
Matt LeBlanc (Episodes)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MINI-SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION
Romolai Garai (The Hour)
Diane Lane (Cinema Verite)
Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey)
Emily Watson (Appropriate Adult)
Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MINI-SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION
Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey)
Idris Elba (Luther)
William Hurt (Too Big to Fail)
Bill Nighy (Page Eight)
Dominic West (The Hour)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A SERIES, MINI-SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION
Jessica Lange (American Horror Story)
Kelly Macdonald (Boardwalk Empire)
Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey)
Sofia Vergara (Modern Family)
Evan Rachel Wood (Mildred Pierce)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A SERIES, MINI-SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION
Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones)
Paul Giamatti (Too Big to Fail)
Guy Pearce (Mildred Pierce)
Tim Robbins (Cinema Verite)
Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Auditions Announced for Heartland Theatre's "Mauritius"

Heartland Theatre has announced open auditions for its upcoming production of Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius," a play about two sisters, three shady men, and some very valuable stamps.

Auditions are scheduled for Tuesday, December 20, and Wednesday, December 21, from 6:30 to 9 pm at Heartland Theatre.

In the play, half-sisters Jackie and Mary have found a stamp collection, left by their recently deceased mother. They are at odds almost immediately over what to do with the stamps and who between them has the right to make that decision.

When Jackie takes the stamps to a dusty, run-down stamp shop owned by Philip, he is mostly uninterested and unimpressed. But Dennis, a guy always on the lookout for a scheme, thinks there's more to Jackie and her stamps than Philip is giving her credit for. Enter Sterling, a wealthy, aggressive collector who isn't the type to fool around.

About these characters, Variety said "The emotionally fraught edges of their twisty encounters [are] made all the more intriguing by the fact that items as apparently innocuous as postage stamps fuel the friction."

When I read the play, I called it "American Buffalo" with girls.

Director Sandra Zielinski will be looking for five actors. The roles are:
  • Jackie: (Age 25-40) Younger sister who wants to sell the stamps left by her deceased mother.
  • Mary: (35-50) Jackie’s older half-sister who doesn’t want to sell and disputes who the stamp collection belongs to.
  • Sterling: (Male, Age 50-65) A greedy stamp collector who is used to getting whatever he wants.
  • Phillip: (Age 45-60) World-weary owner of a dusty shop that sells stamps.
  • Dennis: (Age 30-45) A smooth, handsome wheeler dealer who is interested in Jackie, but mostly interested in her stamps.
Performance dates for "Mauritius" are February 16-19 and 23-26 and March 1-4, 2012. For more information, visit Heartland's website here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

2012 Humana Festival of New American Plays Open for Reservations

The official packet arrived yesterday to let me know that the 2012 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville 1) has set its slate of plays, 2) organized the packages that play-goers can choose from, and 3) is open for business and ready to take your reservations.

The line-up for the two Theatre Industry Weekends on March 23-25 and March 30-April 1 includes (with descriptions from Actors Theatre's brochure):

DEATH TAX by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. Maxine is rich. Maxine is dying. Maxine thinks Nurse Tina is trying to kill her. When the patient confronts her caretaker, her accusations have unforeseen--and irrevocable--consequences, in this tightly-wound thriller about money, power and the value of a human life.

EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Courtney Baron. Directed by Adam Greenfield. Alice and Gabe are desperate to adopt a child. Nance, a single mom just starting to date, struggles to connect with her teenage daughter Evie. And Evie wishes her best friend Colin would fall for her rather than just trying to fix things. With both humor and aching insight, these lives are woven together in a tale of parental hopes and fears, and of hearts consumed by longing.

THE HOUR OF FEELING by Mona Mansour. Directed by Mark Wing-Davey. It's 1967 and the map of the Middle East is about to change drastically. Fueled by a love of English Romantic poetry, Adham journeys from Palestine to London with his new wife, Abir, to deliver a career-defining lecture. As the young couple's marriage is tested, Adham struggles to reconcile his ambitions with the pull of family and home. But what if seizing the moment means letting go of everything he knows?

HOW WE GOT ON by Idris Goodwin. Directed by Wendy C. Goldberg. Hank, Julian and Luann are the flip side to the A story of hip hop's rise in the late 1980s--kids who forge a cultural identity in the white suburbs by dueling with poetry in parking lots and dubbing beats on a boom box. In this coming-of-age tale remixed, a DJ loops us through the lives of three Midwestern teen rappers who discover the power of harmony over discord.

MICHAEL VON SIEBENBURG MELTS THROUGH THE FLOORBOARDS by Greg Kotis. Directed by Kip Fagan. Meet Baron Michael von Sirbenburg: a 500-year-old Austrian bachelor living in an American city, whose secret of eternal youth involves endless first dates and a special meat tenderizer. But when his landlady gets suspicious and the ghost of a medieval comrade commands him to take Constantinople back from the Turks, Michael finds himself haunted by past and present. A hilariously dark comedy about the rigors of vampiric immortality.

THE VERI**ON PLAY by Lisa Kron. Directed by Nicholas Martin. When Jenni called customer service, all she wanted was to fix a minor problem with her cell phone bill. Instead she was sucked into a vortex of unimaginable horror. Now she wants revenge--or to get her cell phone service turned back on. Part thriller, part screwball comedy, part inspired by events that have undoubtedly happened to YOU.

OH, GASTRONOMY! by Michael Golamco, Carson Kreitzer, Steve Moulds, Tanya Saracho and Matt Schatz. Directed by Amy Attaway. C0-conceived and developed with Sarah Lunnie. Performed by the 2011-12 Acting Apprentice Company. Food, that delicious human unifier, is rife with contradiction. It can signal both comfort and compulsion, imply both nourishment and deprivation, and make your mouth water--or your stomach turn. Get ready to dig in, as five hungry playwrights join forces with twenty-two ravenous Acting Apprentices to serve up the pleasures--and paradoxes--of food.

A program of three 10-minute plays "culled from the National Ten-Minute Play Contest" will also be on the bill during the second Industry Weekend. Actors Theatre just needs to pick 'em.

Just to show how national the Humana Festival truly is: Greg Kotis (Urinetown), Tanya Saracho (Our Lady of the Underpass) and Idris Goodwin (These Are the Breaks) all have strong Chicago ties, while Lucas Hnath (The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith), Lisa Kron (Well), Mona Mansour (Broadcast Yourself), Matt Schatz (Roanoke) and Courtney Baron (A Very Common Procedure) are New York-based. Michael Golamco (Cowboy Versus Samurai) comes from the West Coast, while Steve Moulds (Emergency Prom) has ties to Minnesota and Texas and Carson Kreitzer (The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer) has worked in Minneapolis, Austin and New York. Coast to coast playwrights!

To see your choices of weekend packages, click here.

New plays! A whole weekend of them! No question -- Louisville is the place to be in March 2012.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Really, Sean Hayes?

Jerry Lewis was one thing. But Larry Fine? Really, Sean Hayes?

Back in 2002, the distinguished ISU alum played Jerry in the TV biopic "Martin and Lewis" that aired on CBS, opposite Jeremy Northam as Dean Martin. Hayes was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award for that role, along with a pile of other nominations and several wins he'd already amassed from various awards groups for his work on "Will & Grace."

After that, Hayes did the voice of an ubervillain cat called Mr. Tinkles in two "Cats and Dogs" movies, a supporting role in "The Bucket List," and a starring turn on Broadway as Chuck Baxter in "Promises, Promises." He even hosted the 2010 Tony Awards ceremony that itself won an Emmy.

So if you're Sean Hayes, what do you follow all of that up with? "The Three Stooges." Really?

Yes, really. Hayes is playing Larry, the one with the frizzy, bushy hair, opposite MADTv's Will Sasso (pretty sure he did a Curly impression on that show, too) as Curly and Chris Diamantopoulos, known for playing Rodney on "The Starter Wife" and Rob Weiss on "24" taking on the heavy bangs of Moe, the Stooge leader. The Farrelly brothers directed this masterpiece.

A trailer for this "Stooges" has already been released, although the movie itself won't come out till 2012. (No, they are not squeezing it in before the Oscar deadline is up. Too bad, huh? It's sure to be Oscar bait. HA HA HA HA HA!)

You can see a trailer here at the Internet Movie Database. The plot appears to be something to do with an orphanage, right out of "The Blues Brothers" and/or "Puss in Boots." With added mayhem, eye-poking, pratfalls, a few nuns (played by Larry David and Jane Lynch, among others) and general hilarity. Hilarity of "The Three Stooges" variety has never been my idea of a good time, but I did have a friend in college who absolutely adored them. And Jerry Lewis. Apparently Sean Hayes is listening to her for his career choices.

Imdb says "The Three Stooges" will be released on April 13, 2012. I've added images of the original Stooges and the three new ones here for comparison purposes.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Texting During Performances? Just Say NO.

Where do you stand on the prickly issue of texters, tweeters, callers and Angry Birds players during your movies, concerts and theater outings?

Some theater critics and even one theater have suggested that it's a good thing to allow tweeters and texters to tell their friends -- yes, during a show -- how much they're enjoying themselves, that that will encourage others to come out to see the particular performance they're sharing as it happens. Others (me included) think it's an awful idea, that it is very distracting to the audience AND the performers on stage if there are little blue lights or red-flashing earpieces or tapping fingers or whatever else it takes to read your email, send a text, change your status on Facebook, tweet your latest thought fragment, hear your messages or otherwise communicate with your bro, your boo, your dealer, Ashton Kutcher or your mom while you're supposed to be watching a live performance.

A movie theater in Texas called the Alamo Drafthouse dealt with this whole dilemma quite neatly last June, earning themselves some major fans along the way. Here's the whole story from the Alamo itself called "She texted, we kicked her out." It seems a young woman texted in one of their theaters even after they had repeatedly warned everybody not to. So they kicked her out. That made her mad, so she left a snotty message on their voice mail. And then they found her message so amusing that they used it for a public service announcement before their shows. It's hilarious and most welcome for anyone who has ever been annoyed at all the lights spreading out before them like Christmas decorations in suburbia every time they attend a performance.

You can see the whole lovely PSA on Youtube as well. (Note that this is the uncensored version, with all of the texter's &%$! tirade. So, yeah, you'll hear all the bad words this charming person left on the Alamo Drafthouse's voicemail.)

This isn't an issue that's going away anytime soon. Theaters will continue to make announcements that cell phones and pagers and iPads should be turned off during performances, and selfish, unthinking people will continue to ignore them.

But at least we have the Alamo Drafthouse. And before I go to the next show where I'll be fuming over the people with their faces lit up from the glowing phones under their chins, I will simply rewatch this video a few times and enjoy the Alamo's revenge.

Friday, December 9, 2011

TimeLine's Blog Offers "A Pitman's Guide to the Art Institute"

"The Pitmen Painters," a play by Lee Hall (the "Billy Elliot" Lee Hall, not the local sportscaster) wowed audiences in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where it started, and then in London at the National Theatre, on Broadway and in a Chicago production at TimeLine Theatre, which has extended its own "Pitmen" run to December 18.

"The Pitmen Painters" is a lovely play, inspired by a book by William Feaver, about bringing art into the lives of a bunch of miners who toiled in Northern England in the 1930s. In the story as told by the play, these men (who work down in the pit, hence the "pitmen" moniker) gather for an art appreciation class with a visiting teacher, but quickly find the class boring and disconnected to their lives. To learn more about what art can mean to them, uneducated, regular old folks, they begin to paint themselves. And they earn a measure of success at it, too. For awhile. It's a funny, sharp, engaging piece of drama, about who has the right to make or own art, what it takes to sell and/or sell out, how to judge talent, and whether making and becoming involved in art can change lives, whether you're any good at it or not.

TimeLine's production, directed by B.J. Jones, just made the Tribune's Chris Jones' "runner up" list for the best productions of the year, and it has been very well reviewed as well as popular. (Note the extended run.) About the show, Jones wrote, "B.J. Jones' earnest, moving and unpretentious production will, I suspect, be a very big hit for this savvy and growing company, where more and more Chicagoans have come, with reason, to trust the power, truth and integrity of the work. Hedy Weiss, at the Sun-Times, was equally complimentary: "[D]irector BJ Jones and his spot-on cast sweep their powerful brushstrokes right across your heart."

I'm writing about the show now for two reasons. 1) You still have the opportunity to catch the show before it closes on the 18th. 2) Dramaturg Maren Robinson has just blogged about an utterly fascinating trip to Chicago's Art Institute to try to find artworks and paintings that might've inspired or affected the Ashlington Group, the real painters in the play.

What a cool idea! Robinson and TimeLine Marketing Director Lara Goetsch found a Gainsborough, a Turner, several Van Goghs and Cezannes, a Henry Moore sculpture, some Picassos and a little Mondrian. As Robinson concludes, "It was a great reminder of the embarrassment of artistic riches the city has to offer." As well as a perfect companion to "The Pitmen Painters."

You can read Robinson's TimeLine blog here, watch a video snippet of the play here, or find ticket information here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Producers and Writers Nominate Their Favorite TV Shows

Today, both the Producers Guild and Writers Guild announced nominees for excellence in 2011.

The Producers Guild recognizes achievement in the production of television and film, although only nominees in Documentary Films have been announced thus far. Other film category nominees will be released January 3, according to the PGA schedule. Once those film nominations come in, you'll see a pretty good precursor for the Oscars, as the Producers Guild has a track record of picking the same films the Academy does.


On the TV side, NBC's "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation" join CBS's "The Big Bang Theory," Fox's "Glee" and ABC's "Modern Family" as comedy nominees, while dramas like HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" and "Game of Thrones" have earned nominations along with "Dexter" from Showtime, "The Good Wife" on CBS and AMC's "Mad Men." You can see the complete list of nominees here.

Note that "The 64th Annual Tony Awards” earned a spot in the Live Entertainment & Talk Television category, which is kind of fun. Voters have a choice of voting for Stephen Colbert, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Maher, SNL or the Tonys. I say, go Tonys!

The Writers Guild, meanwhile, has chosen other television shows to honor. "30 Rock," "Parks and Recreation" and "Modern Family" all made the cut, but the WGA rounded out its field with "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Louie." Tough luck, "Big Bang" and "Glee." I have to be honest -- "Community" and "Happy Endgings" would've made my own personal lists, but getting rid of "Big Bang" and especially "Glee" doesn't bother me a bit.

In drama, the WGA kept "Boardwalk Empire," "Game of Thrones" and "The Good Wife," but ignored "Mad Men" and "Dexter" in favor of AMC's "Breaking Bad" and Showtime's "Homeland."

They also recognize New Series, and in that category, they've chosen "Episodes," "Game of Thrones," "Homeland," "The Killing" and then... They went completely off the rails and picked "New Girl." I don't know what to make of that, frankly. It's hard to argue with "Game of Thrones" or "Homeland," but "New Girl"? In what universe can that compete?

Oh well. The other nominations, in categories like Animation and Comedy/Variety, are listed here.

One sad note: The Writers Guild has nominated "All My Children," "General Hospital" and "The Young and the Restless" for outstanding achievement in writing for Daytime Dramas. "All My Children" was canceled earlier this year, while "One Life to Live" bows out shortly, but poor OLTL didn't get nominated, even in its last year. The last ABC soap left, "General Hospital," is widely rumored to be getting the ax sometime soon, so who will be left to nominate next year? Will the WGA get rid of the category completely or just go with the three survivors, "Y & R," "The Bold and the Beautiful" and "Days of Our Lives," as their three nominees?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

News & Notes: IWU Spotlight, Auditions All Over, Dapier, Dickens, Kennedy and Contest

Illinois Wesleyan's School of Theatre Arts has been named Broadway World's Spotlight School of the Week. The article linked at broadwayworld.com notes success stories William Duell, Richard Jenkins, James Sutorius, Alison Vesely, Larry Neumann Jr., Lisa Marie Gigante D'Amico, Nic Diamond and Mary Heaton Carrick, all of whom emerged from IWU's theater program, but did not mention the alum currently appearing on Broadway -- Lisa Karlin, appearing in "The Addams Family" -- or the two who'll be there soon. The latter group includes Bryonha Marie Parham in "Porgy and Bess," opening at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on December 17, and Evan Kasprzak in "Newsies," which will open next March at the Nederlander Theatre. Congratulations, IWU Theatre! You can peruse pictures of proud IWU alums here.

The Station Theater in Urbana has informed us that its current production of "My Antonia," adapted from the Willa Cather novel by Jarrett Dapier, is not Dapier's first adaptation for the stage. According to a Facebook post from the Celebration Company, Dapier once wrote an adaptation of a Chris Crutcher novel called "The Sledding Hill," with Crutcher himself attending a performance. I can promise that Willa Cather will not be in attendance at "My Antonia," but you can be. Ticket information here.

Heartland Theatre annual 10-Minute Play contest is well underway, with entries coming in fast and furious. Remember that your play (which must be on the theme "Playing Games") is eligible for revisions if it gets in before January 1. The final deadline is February 1, 2012 for all entries.

Heartland has also announced that auditions for its upcoming productions, Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius" and Tracy Letts' "Superior Donuts," are coming up soon. The "Superior Donuts" audition schedule is already posted here. (Note that the auditions page currently erroneously says that performances are in September when "Superior Donuts" is really scheduled for April 12-29.) "Mauritius" details should be forthcoming any day, now that director Sandi Zielinski has completed her work on the ISU MFA showcase production of "Three Sisters."

Speaking of auditions... IWU has finished auditions and announced casting for their winter and spring performances. That includes Chase Miller as Tartuffe in "Tartuffe," Kirsten Anderson, Lizzie Rainville, Annie Simpson, Allison Sutton and Laura Williams playing five of the first women to trod the boards in Restoration England in "Playhouse Creatures," and Will Henke and Isaac Sherman as prisoners 105 and 106 in Maria Irene Fornes' "Promenade."

ISU is in the midst of its own winter/spring auditions, with callbacks happening for Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play," Caryl Churchill's "Cloud 9," William Inge's "Picnic," Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," and "La Boheme," the Puccini opera that spawned "Rent." Good luck and congrats to all those called back. (Tickets to all of those shows, as well as ISU's spring dance, symphony and choral concerts, are available at Ticketmaster if you want a jump on the best seats.)

In other news (or if you like to keep track of these things, which I do), you might be interested to hear that the Kennedy Center Honorees for 2011 are Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Sonny Rollins, Meryl Streep and Yo-Yo Ma. The gala at which they are celebrated has already been taped and will be broadcast on CBS on Tuesday, December 27, 2011 at 9 pm Eastern/8 Central. I'm thrilled I got to see Barbara Cook in person last year in "Sondheim on Sondheim" and am probably the most excited about her being honored.

In book news (or really coin news), Britain's Royal Mint has announced a Charles Dickens commemorative coin to honor the 200th anniversary of his birth. "The £2 coin...boasts a remarkable and inventive reverse design by Matthew Dent. A profile outline, immediately recognisable as Dickens has been painstakingly created from the titles of Dickens’ famous works," the Mint tells us. It really is cool to see Dickens' head created out of his titles, all fitting onto a £2 coin, even if it does look a bit like a map of South America. (See below.) If you look closely, "CAROL" and "COPPERFIELD" will pop out. I'm still looking for my own favorite, "Nicholas Nickleby." There is also a local connection to this story, since ISU's Milner Library's Special Collections Department has some nifty Dickens items.