Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My Gold Medal Goes to "Walk, Don't Run"

With the London Summer Olympics in high gear, there are all sorts of lists of Olympics movies floating around out there. There's a lot of love for Oscar-winner "Chariots of Fire," of course, as well as "Cool Runnings," about the novelty of the Jamaican bobsled team; "Jim Thorpe -- All-American," with Burt Lancaster as the Native American decathlete; "Miracle," about the 1980 US hockey team; and even "Million Dollar Legs," a 1932 W.C. Fields movie about the fictional country of Klopstokia and their Olympic efforts.

But there's one movie that everybody has completely overlooked. It's got Cary Grant. It preserves the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics for posterity. It centers on an Olympic event that is both funny and obscure. It's an Olympified remake of a classic film. What's not to love about "Walk, Don't Run"?

Okay, so Cary Grant is not the romantic lead, just the matchmaker scheming to get Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton together. And, yes, that plot concept -- where a man and a woman unexpectedly have to share an apartment -- has been done a lot, not always with the best results, and, yes, "The More the Merrier," the post-World War II precursor, was terrific.

I don't care. I love "Walk, Don't Run." Cary Grant is as charming and wonderful as ever, even if he's playing Cupid instead of Romeo. He has a killer scene where he strips down to his skivvies to try to catch up with Hutton while he's racewalking, and that alone is worth the price of admission. And it's Grant's last film. Every Cary Grant-o-phile needs to see it for that reason alone.

Plus Samantha Eggar makes a pretty, fresh kind of 60s chick, much less vapid than most of that period, and Jim Hutton's brand of sweet, awkward romantic hero is very appealing. I like their chemistry, and I love the milieu of Tokyo in the bright pop 60s.

So if you need a little Olympics on the side, an Olympics that includes Cary Grant in his underwear, you can watch "Walk, Don't Run" instantly at Amazon.com, or order the DVD through either Amazon or Turner Classic Movies. Quick! Before they get past the racewalking event!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Will "Damn Yankees" Hit It Out of the Park for Prairie Fire?

Baseball fans in the 50s knew what it was like to despair of anyone other than the Yankees winning the World Series. Sure, the Dodgers sneaked in there a couple of times, but baseball in the 50s was all Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto... Damn those Yankees, anyway!

That's why a guy named Douglass Wallop came up with a Faustian hook for his novel, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," in which a fed-up Washington Senators fan accepts an offer from a devilish smooth talker named Applegate. If middle-aged nebbish Joe Boyd signs on the dotted line, he will immediately transform into Joe Hardy, an amazing young baseball phenom who can single-handedly turn the Senators into winners. Will Joe sell his soul for a winning baseball team? Or will he find a way to use his exit clause and get back to his wife with his soul intact?

The novel came out in 1954, and was quickly turned into a Broadway musical, with old hand George Abbott and Wallop creating the book, and Richard Adler and Jerry Ross writing music and lyrics. Adler and Ross, proteges of Frank Loesser, were fresh off "The Pajama Game," which had won the 1955 Tony Award for Best Musical. Bob Fosse's "Pajama Game" choreography also won a Tony, and he was in place for "Damn Yankees," as well, working with Gwen Verdon, who was cast as Lola, the sexy siren who tries to tempt Joe Boyd and his younger alter ego, Joe Hardy, into sticking with the devil's bargain.

With Verdon dancing Fosse's choreography in numbers like "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets,""Damn Yankees" was a smash, winning seven Tonys, including Best Musical, Leading Actor (Ray Walston, as Applegate), Leading Actress (Verdon), Featured Actor (Russ Brown as Van Buren, the manager), Featured Actress (Rae Allen as Gloria Thorpe, a sports reporter), and Best Choreography (for Bob Fosse).

The show has been revived on Broadway only once, in 1994, with Victor Garber as the devil and Bebe Neuwirth as Lola, and Jerry Lewis stepping in as a replacement Applegate in his Broadway debut.

With so much dancing, "Damn Yankees" is a bit of a departure for Prairie Fire Theatre, as they tend to err on the side of Gilbert and Sullivan or musical revues. But their singers ought to be able to sell songs like "Heart" and "Whatever Lola Wants" with ease, making their "Damn Yankees" a good bet for baseball fans and musical fans alike.

Jennifer Lumsdon directs these "Yankees," with Kyle Wynn as Mr. Applegate, Whitney Spencer as Lola, Bob Mangialardi and Chris Stanford as Old and Young Joe, Kevin Wickart as Van Buren, Aimee Kerber as Gloria Thorpe, and Stephanie Swearingen as Meg Boyd, the wife Old Joe leaves behind for his baseball dream.

"Damn Yankees" opens August 4th, followed by performances on August 5, 10, 11, and 12. Friday and Saturday performances begin at 7:30 pm, with a 3 pm curtain for Sunday matinees.

For all the details, you can visit Prairie Fire's "Damn Yankees" Facebook page, or their website, which now has a reservation option, as well.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ament Photos at Main Gallery 404

Karen Ament
Bloomington's Karen Ament has a collection of photos of rural Central Illinois scenes now on display (and for sale) at the Main Gallery 404 in Downtown Bloomington.

Included in the show are matted photos, both framed and unframed, as well as photo note cards. Ament will be in the gallery for First Friday festivities on Friday, August 3 from 5 to 8 pm, and she invited you to come out then to meet her when you see her pieces. If you'd like a sneak preview of Karen Ament's work, click here.

Other artists appearing at the gallery for First Friday on August 23rd are Aubrey Pontious and Amy Wolfe. You can visit the Main Gallery 404 website here, and see a list of August events here.

The gallery is located on the west side of Main Street, south of Crossroads, and across from the Coffee Hound. Its normal hours are 12 noon to 5 pm on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and 7:30 am to 4 pm on Saturdays.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

"Midwestern Voices" Continues with Jennifer Blackmer and "Alias Grace"

The Midwestern Voices Playwrights Festival, a New Play initiative from Illinois State University in conjunction with the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, brings its second new work to the table tomorrow.

Jennifer Blackmer
Jennifer Blackmer's "Alias Grace" is the second of the three plays being presented under this "Midwestern Voices" umbrella, and like Philip Dawkins' "Miss Marx: The Involuntary Side Effect of Living" before it and Ike Holter's "Hell-Care," coming up in August, "Alias Grace" is a brand new piece being given a staged reading by actors from the Illinois Shakespeare Festival's professional company.

Playwright Jennifer Blackmer is in B-N for a four-day residency that includes the reading tomorrow at 3 pm at Bloomington's historic Vrooman Mansion. The reading is open to the public and free of charge.

"Alias Grace" involves Grace Marks, one of Canada’s most notorious murderers. Grace, an Irish immigrant, maintains that she has no memory of killing her employer or his housekeeper. Raising issues of insanity, memory, culpability, innocence and guilt, "Alias Grace" is described as "a thrilling exploration of... the darkest places of the human mind."

Blackmer is a director and playwright, as well as Associate Professor of Theatre at Ball State University in Indiana. Her work has been produced at at theater and museums in New York, Chicago, Washington DC, Minneapolis and Indianapolis, Ball State University, and the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, where she currently serves as Playwright in Residence for the International Theatre in Museums workshop. Her play, "The Human Terrain," was selected for Playwrights’ Week at The Lark Play Development Center and was a finalist at the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center. Other recent plays include "Elegy No. 5" (Manhattan Shakespeare Project Emerging Female Voices) and "Delicate Particle Logic" (Playwrights’ Center, Minneapolis). Blackmer also directed the American premiere of Cathy Ostlere’s "Lost at Indiana Repertory Theatre." She is a member of the Dramatists’ Guild, the Mid-America Theatre Conference, the International Museum Theatre Alliance and The Playwrights’ Center.

The staged reading of "Alias Grace" starts at 3 pm on Sunday, July 29, at the Vrooman Mansion in Bloomington. Parking is available on the street.

MIO Brings You "Don Giovanni" as Planned

The Midwest Institute of Opera, founded by John and Tracy Marie Koch, has been working hard this summer to bring Mozart's "Don Giovanni" to ISU's Center for the Performing Arts starting tomorrow.

As announced back in April, this production of the classic Latin Lover opera is conducted by Joshua Greene of the Metropolitan Opera and directed by James Marvel, who has international directing credits include New York's Lincoln Center. But the two Kochs are also involved with everything to do with "Don Giovanni" as well as "The Pirates of MIO," a mini-version of "The Pirates of Penzance," which Tracy Koch directed, and "Don Giovanni in Concert and Arias Galore," which takes selected pieces from "Don Giovanni" along with other aria favorites.

Unfortunately, Tracy Koch reported yesterday that her husband John had been in an accident while on his motorcycle, resulting in a severely broken leg and a hospital stay in Peoria. Still, Tracy Koch assures us that the MIO shows will go on, and one way you can support John Koch in his recovery is to come out and see the season they've worked so hard to bring to fruition.

That means you can still see the first of the two concerts ("Don Giovanni in Concert and Arias Galore") conducted by Ben Nadel, tonight at 7:30 pm; the full production of "Don Giovanni" tomorrow, July 29, at 3 pm, or Tuesday, July 31, at 7:30 pm; or the second concert, conducted by Michael Onwood, on Monday the 30th at 8:30 pm.

All of these events are being held at the Center for the Performing Arts on the ISU campus. You can find more information about "Don Giovanni" and the concerts and MIO personnel at their website here.

Friday, July 27, 2012

CATS Prowls at Miller Park Starting Tonight

Miller Park Summer Theatre will open their production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats" tonight, with a slight adjustment in time due to the heat.

"Cats" opens tonight at the theater in Miller Park, with performances Saturday and Sunday this weekend, as well as Friday and Saturday next week. Sunday, August 5, has been reserved as a rain date. Performances were originally scheduled to begin at 7:30 pm, but have been pushed back to 8 pm to make it a little easier on the actors as well as the audience.

For this Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts production, Perry Self directs a cast of 50+ adult and child performers donning their best feline make-up and costumes in order to sing and dance their way through this ALW/Trevor Nunn/Gillian Lynne take on T. S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." Among the cats who perform for your pleasure, you'll find 25-pounder Bustopher Jones; Rum Tum Tigger, the ladies' man of felines; Mr. Mistoffelees the magical cat; Rumpleteaser and Mungojerrie the cat burglars; and Grizabella, who used to be a glamour puss, but now can only dream of past glory. It's Grizabella who sings the show's big hit, "Memory," near the end of the show.

The BCPA poster above tells us that this "Cats" is the first-ever to be produced in Bloomington-Normal. I can't attest to the veracity of that claim, but it's certainly interesting. "Cats" is the second-longest-running show in Broadway history, and it won seven Tony awards when it premiered on Broadway in  1983. It has toured the US repeatedly -- I think I reviewed it four or five times when tours came through Champaign-Urbana -- and it is an international hit, translated into ten languages, with productions "in over 20 countries and in about 250 cities, including such diverse destinations as Buenos Aires, Seoul, Helsinki and Singapore."

If you prefer your "Cats" in your own back yard, the Miller Park venue, where admission is free and refreshments are close at hand, may be just the ticket. For more information, call the BCPA at 309-434-2787, or visit the Miller Park Summer Theatre "Cats" page here.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

"All My Children" Actors in Ottawa for "Harvey"

Actor Walt Willey, who played Jackson Montgomery on the daytime soap "All My Children," has a history of coming back to Ottawa, Illinois, to put on shows for a hometown crowd.This year's choice is "Harvey," the 1944 classic written by Mary Chase about a man who has a large and quite invisible bunny friend.

"Harvey" was a hit back in 44, playing 1775 performances at Broadway's 48th Street Theatre, and again this year, with Jim Parsons from TV's "Big Bang Theory" in the lead role of Elwood P. Dowd, the guy with the rabbit habit.

In Ottawa, Willey himself will play Elwood, with his WilleyWorld Productions partner Kim "Howard" Johnson and several Ottawa actors playing opposite him. Also of note in the cast: Vincent Irizarry, another "All My Kids" star.

Irizarry played heartthrob Lujack on "The Guiding Light" before appearing in the movie "Heartbreak Ridge" and then soaps "Santa Barbara" and "The Young and the Restless." On "All My Children," he was the evil (and yet very sexy) Dr. David Hayward, mad scientist who brought dead people back to life and fixated on certain women he couldn't have.

He will also be playing a doctor -- Dr. Lyman Sanderson -- in "Harvey," as the other people in town try to get ol' Elwood committed because he believes in an imaginary six-foot rabbit.

"Harvey" opens at the Ottawa High School Auditorium on Friday, July 27, continuing through the 29th. For performance details, visit the WilleyWorld Facebook page.

"Lucky Stiff" Now Playing in Champaign-Urbana

You've probably heard about "Weekend at Bernie's." But what about "Lucky Stiff"?

This delightful musical, the first collaborative effort of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, involves a dead guy getting hauled around for comic effect, just like "Bernie," but pretty much everything else is different. And better.

In "Lucky Stiff," a nice, boring shoe salesman named Harry Witherspoon finds out that his uncle -- an uncle he never met -- has left him six million dollars. Or, more precisely, the possibility of six million dollars. To get the money, Harry has to take his uncle -- or, more precisely, his uncle's corpse -- on the vacation of his dreams to Monte Carlo.

There is another contender for the six mil, however. And that is the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn, where sweet, committed Annabel Glick toils on behalf of her furry friends. Annabel decides to follow Harry and his uncle (dressed up and pushed around in a wheelchair) to watch out for the interests of the Dog Home.

Meanwhile, several other nefarious parties, including thieves, gamblers and shady ladies, are shadowing the proceedings, too.

Although there's definitely some dark humor happening, what with the dressed-up corpse and a missing heart, "Lucky Stiff" is really charming and fun, and the songs are quite melodic and easy to love. You can see a synopsis of the show and its numbers here.

This new "Lucky Stiff" is a production of the Urbana Park District, featuring Cameron Cornell as Harry, Erin Cleveland as Annabel, Emma Lloyd as Rita, the near-sighted former lover of Uncle Tony, Kenna Mae Reiss as Rita's brother Vincent, Jonah Herzog as mysterious Luigi, Sarah Vavrin as Dominique du Monaco, a nightclub performer, Andreas Ruiz-Gehrt as the emcee, Caroline Gillette as the lawyer, and Jessica Duchinsky rolling around as the body in the chair. There are also tap dancers, featured dancers, a dog corps, and a large ensemble of background players and chorus.

The show opened last night at the Parkland College Theater. It continues through this weekend, with tickets from $7 for children to $14 for adults. For all the details, visit the "Lucky Stiff" Facebook page here.

IWU Fills in the Spaces in 2012-13 Theatre Season

Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Theatre Arts announced most of its schedule for 2012-13 earlier this year, with all kinds of goodies in the works.

At that time, we knew about "A Shayna Maidel," Barbara Lebow's look at a Jewish family, which includes two sisters, one who escaped to America long ago and the other a Holocaust survivor; "9 to 5: The Musical," a fizzy stage version of the Dolly Parton movie hit about working women dealing with a sexist boss; Shakespeare's "As You Like It," which features one of his strongest and best heroines; and the annual faculty choreographed dance concert, all at McPherson Theatre.

For the E. Melba Kirkpatrick Lab Theatre, Shelagh Stevenson's "The Memory of Water," another sister play, this one about Irish siblings struggling with different views of their shared childhood, and "The Breach," by Catherine Filloux, Tarell McCraney and Joe Sutton, about New Orleans and its Hurricane Katrina woes, had already been released as part of the season.

Newly announced is "Red Devils," Debbie Horsfield's 1983 play about four female fans of Manchester United, the legendary British football team. These working-class women eat, sleep and breathe Manchester United, so when they score tickets to the Cup Final, all bets are off.

With Horsfield on the roster, IWU is offering a female-centric year, both in terms of playwrights and the themes explored in the plays. And that extends past the McPherson/Kirkpatrick season.

IWU Assistant Professor Scott Susong notes that he "will cover all three waves of feminism this season since I will be directing 9 to 5, the Music Theatre Society musical in concert 1944's Arlen/Harburg Bloomer Girl (a Celeste Holm vehicle) and the world premiere of All the Kids Are Doing It, book and lyrics by Kate Thomas and music by Joey Contreras (both fresh out of the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program) for our Music Theatre Workshop."

You may recall a discussion of "Bloomer Girl" with regard to Celeste Holm's career here.  The musical involves one Evelina Applegate, a girl who doesn't want to wear the hoop skirts put together in her dad's factory, instead insisting she will only wear the radical bloomers invented to make women more mobile as they took on bicycling, tennis and other active pursuits not suited to a big old dress.

"All the Kids" involves gender and sex in the new cyber world, with a look at the kind of sexual and collegiate politics that keeps hitting the headlines at Jezebel and Gawker. You may recall one of those stories, one that involved a gender switch, when a Duke University student who happened to be female posted detailed accounts of her sexual encounters in an email to friends, who forwarded the saucy "thesis" to everybody they knew. Scandals involving male athletes hiring strippers or rating their sexual partners are nothing new, but this one, with a female behind the bawdy emails, was something different, creating a firestorm of controversy. Did the student's actions constitute harassment, invasion of privacy, bad taste, or just good fun, the same kind of hijinks men have been engaging in for centuries?

Joey Contreras, one of the creative minds behind "All the Kids Are Doing It," notes that this new show is a completely original piece inspired by, but not in any way connected to, the events at Duke or any other specific school. He writes that the musical focuses on, "an ambitious girl from a small town, determined to be a writer, but who suddenly finds herself nominated as 'The Ring Around Girl' -- the one who will be passed around sexually amongst the top campus fraternity brothers at Webb University. Desperate for material for her Senior Memoir class, she decides to turn the tables on the fraternity by using and exploiting their sex-fueled tradition as the focus of her piece, which ultimately finds its way online in the most damaging of ways. It absolutely touches on gender and sex issues in a cyber world, but beyond that, it also explores how young adults are constantly on a quest to fit in and stand out without realizing the possible consequences of their actions."

All in all, it sounds like Contreras and Thomas have created a very provocative piece that anybody who followed all those Jezebel and Gawker pieces is going to want to see.

To see the IWU School of Theatre 2012-13 season, including ticket information, click here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A New Find: "The IT Crowd"

We were recently introduced to a Britcom that's been around for awhile, long enough to get nominated for a bunch of BAFTAs, British Comedy Awards and International Emmys, and to spawn Americanized and Germanicized versions.

New to us, not new at all to discerning viewers, "The IT Crowd," which can apparently be pronounced either as the "it" or the "I.T.," as in Information Technology, crowd, involves the three odd members of the tech department at a company called Reynholm Industries. From left on the front of the Season 2 DVD, shown here, you'll see the three main members of the team. There's Roy, played by Chris O'Dowd, who seems to know something about computers but not about dealing with people; Jen, played by Katherine Parkinson, who knows nothing about computers but talked herself into a job, anyway; and Moss, the one with the intriguing side part in his hair, played by Richard Ayoade. We learn at some point in the series that Moss lives at home with his mother, and she's the one who chooses his lovely wardrobe of flood pants and little plaid shirts and ties. That certainly makes sense. They're all fairly clueless in their own ways, with some awkward and unfortunate interactions with normal people.

Parkinson is the one with a trophy on her shelf -- she won the award for Best Comedy Actress at the 2009 British Comedy Awards for her role as Jen -- but Ayoade is probably the break-out star. When the American version was being proposed, Ayoade and his character of Moss were included, and he is now starring in "The Watch," just released yesterday, with Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill. Ayoade even made the poster.

"The IT Crowd" is especially hilarious to people who work with computers and recognize the stereotypes and jokes, but it seems to have worked with the non-techies in the crowd, as well. And if those American and German versions didn't work, well, it's certainly not the fault of creator Graham Linehan, since his original British show is absolutely hilarious, on-target and distinctive. Lineham is also the creative mind behind "Father Ted" and "Black Books," both of which show up on PBS in the U.S. fairly often.

Of the episodes I've seen so far, the Season 2 opener, "The Work Outing," stood out for all the right reasons. In that one, Jen has a date with a man named Phil, who she thinks is a good dating prospect. But then he takes her (with Moss and Roy in tow) to the theater to see "Gay! The Gay Musical," which makes Jen think her date might possibly be, oh, I don't know, maybe gay? Meanwhile, neither Roy nor Moss is comfortable with the theater bathroom and its unpleasant attendant, so Roy tries to use the handicapped bathroom but gets caught, with increasingly complicated repercussions, and Moss goes for the staff bathroom, getting himself swept up in a different kind of drama.

All 24 episodes of "The IT Crowd" are available on Netflix or Amazon. And they're definitely worth your while.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Night TV: Keeping an Eye on "Newsroom" and "Leverage"

Sunday night continues to be the best TV watching around, even without "Once Upon a Time" and "Mad Men," which finished up their last seasons in May and June, respectively.

Tonight, you have a choice of the 2012 Teen Choice Awards, "The Bachelorette" final episode, new chapters of "Breaking Bad," "Falling Skies," "Political Animals" and "True Blood," or any number of options involving housewives, sharks, food, sex and comedy.

What else? How about "The Newsroom," at 9 pm Central on HBO? Its new episode is called "Amen," and it involves cranky anchor Will McAvoy and his dysfunctional gang of TV people hitting February, 20111, when Governor Walker created a firestorm in Wisconsin (with legislators fleeing the capitol and teachers and supporters occupying it) over the issue of public employees and their right to unionize, contrasted with the uprising in Egypt that toppled President Mubarak. Which story is more important in terms of how the newsroom apportions its resources and focus? Or are they really part of the same big picture of "political thuggery" and power grabbing?  I'm thinking Will & Co. will think Wisconsin is more important, so that everyone can learn a lesson about Ameri-centric thinking. Just a guess.

My other top pick for the night is the second episode of the new season of "Leverage" on TNT. Last week's season premiere brought the gang of con artists led by Timothy Hutton's Nathan Ford into contact with Howard Hughes's famous Spruce Goose, with guest star Cary Elwes as their mark.It wasn't my favorite episode ever, and the central conceit -- that they could fool Elwes's character into believing he was actually flying the plane when it was all smoke and mirrors -- was a little too far out there for credibility, but it still showcased the talents of this crack team of hustlers in an amusing and entertaining way, and it set up an intriguing mystery in the closing seconds. Is there a conspiracy happening within the team? If so, who's in and who's out?

As you can tell from the cards in the image above, the team includes five members with different skills. There's Hutton as Nate the Mastermind, Gina Bellman as Sophie the Grifter, Aldis Hodge as Hardison the hacker, Christian Kane as Eliot the Hitter, and Beth Riesgraf as Parker the Thief. One of the show's strengths is how it utilizes all five of them, playing them off each other, and I have high hopes they'll each get some focus in "The Blue Line Job," tonight's episode, which involves a hockey player the team is trying to help stay out of fights.

There's a picture floating around of Eliot, the team's muscle, in a hockey uniform, too, which gives you a hint of how he plays into the plot. Pun intended. Treat Williams is the guest star, but there's no clue yet whether he has something to do with the hockey storyline or the other one, about a mysterious person keeping a watchful eye on the group and their less-than-legal activities. You can watch a promo video here.

"The Blue Line Job" airs tonight at 7 central on TNT.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sparkling Celeste Holm, 1917-2012

If you are familiar with Celeste Holm from movies or television, you probably know her as the sparkling sophisticate of "Gentleman's Agreement" or "The Tender Trap," the smart, savvy best pal in "All About Eve" or "High Society," the coolly sardonic voice behind "A Letter to Three Wives," or even the aristocratic matriarch on the daytime soap opera "Loving."

But before she became Hollywood's go-to girl for class and elegance, Holm had made a name for herself on Broadway in very different roles -- as the original Ado Annie, the "Cain't Say No" girl in "Oklahoma," and the titular "Bloomer Girl" who defies convention by wearing pants. And sings about it.

When Holm passed away July 15 at the age of 95, she had at least 24 Broadway shows, 25 films and 78 TV acting appearances on her resume. She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1947's "Gentleman's Agreement," and was nominated for that same award twice more, for her performance as a tennis-playing nun in "Come to the Stable" and as Margo Channing's snappy best friend Karen in "All About Eve."

It seems odd that "Gentleman's Agreement" is the one that won her the Oscar, since she doesn't come on screen until the 34-minute mark, and she doesn't appear very often after that. Still, she jumps off the screen in her role as Anne Dettrey, a vivacious, sympathetic fashion editor, someone who immediately understands and gravitates toward Phil Green, the magazine writer played by Gregory Peck, who is pretending to be Jewish in order to write a story about anti-Semitism. Her character is much more appealing than Green's love interest, snobby, vapid Kathy, played by Dorothy McGuire. You find yourself wondering why Green is beating himself up about Kathy when he has a chance with luminous, lovely Anne, who is smart enough not to be a bigot from the get-go.

Holm had a knack for giving her characters a special spark, a lively intelligence, and a wry sense of mischief that set her apart. That's especially true in "A Letter to Three Wives," where all she's working with is her voice. As the person who wrote the letter to the three wives (to tell them she has run off with one of their husbands), Holm narrates the film and supplies it with all kinds of personality and delicious humor, making her character the most interesting one in the whole shebang, even though we never see her.

So far, nobody has announced any kind of marathon as a tribute to Ms. Holm, but somebody certainly should. In the meantime, you can make do with one of her last films, "Alchemy," airing on the Encore channel in the wee hours of the morning on July 23, or "Come to the Stables," the one about two feisty French nuns (Holm and Loretta Young) trying to set up a hospital for children, on Turner Classic Movies at 10 pm on July 25.

Friday, July 20, 2012

This Weekend It's All About Abe

How many Lincolns can you handle? There will be at least four live and in person this weekend, as Bloomington celebrates its 4th annual Lincoln's Festival (AKA Lincoln's Bloomington Fest & Civil War Days) with events in and around downtown Bloomington, the McLean County Museum of History, the David Davis Mansion, Burr House, the Bloomington Public Library, the BCPA, Franklin Park and the Illinois Wesleyan University Quad.

The four Lincolns I'm counting are John Bowen, playing Abe during his lawyer days in "The Affray," a production of Illinois Voices Theater performed at the courthouse inside the McLean County Museum of History; Max Daniels as President Lincoln, meeting children and overseeing a military ball with Mrs. Lincoln (Donna Daniels) at the David Davis Mansion; Lincoln reenactor Chris Hotz scheduled to appear in Franklin Park with Frederick Douglass (portrayed by Bob Thurmond); and Dick Benach appearing as Abe the family man in a later piece also at Franklin Park.

Plus, of course, there's always the bronze statue on the bench outside the McLean County Museum of History, ready and willingto share a picture with you; and the Lincoln-Fell-Davis statue called "Convergence of Purpose" in Lincoln Park outside the BCPA.

Although "The Affray" opens tonight, the other programs are centered on Saturday and Sunday. They range from Civil War era crafts demonstrations to battle reenactments, a scavenger hunt and a coloring contest for kids, speeches and historical presentations, military maneuvers and demonstrations, music, food, and tours. The Downtown Bloomington Association offers a nice run-down of events here, with a big poster pulling everything together here.

Last I heard, Sunday's performance of 'The Affray" was sold out, and tonight's was getting perilously close. If you want to nab a ticket to the Friday or Saturday shows, you'd better act fast and get a reservation in at the Museum at 309-827-0428. John Bowen takes on the role of Abraham Lincoln as a savvy defense attorney trying his best to get an acquittal for a client accused of murder, with Todd Wineburner as the prosecutor on the other side of the courtroom, Nick McBurney as defendant Peachy Quinn Harrison, and David Flanders, James Keeran and Rhys Lovell among those playing witnesses and personnel at the trial.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Nominations Are In: Emmy Love for "Mad Men" and "Horror Story"

Emmy nominations (and wins) are always iffy business. I still can't believe John Larroquette won four in a row for his role on "Night Court" back in the 80s, and, yes, I'm still holding a grudge.

On the other hand, Ed Asner holds the record for most wins by a male performer with seven, and there is nothing wrong with that. I love Ed Asner. The more Emmys for him, the better.

More recently, the Academy been annoying me by continuing to toss nominations (and one inexplicable win) at Jon Cryer and the execrable "Two and a Half Men," as well as shrill, annoying "Glee" and shrill, annoying Kristen Wiig, while overlooking deserving actors like Nick Offerman, Danny Pudi, Alison Brie and Casey Wilson, and excellent shows like "Parks and Recreation," "Community" and "Happy Endings." Last year, "Parks and Rec" finally eked out a nomination for Best Comedy. Not this time.

But Jon Cryer and Kristen Wiig are still on the list, with Cryer adding insult to injury by moving from a nomination as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series category to Outstanding Lead Actor. Oh, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. I nominate you for Outstanding Attempt to Drive Julie Crazy.

But there's more than just bad news when it comes to this year's Emmy Awards. Thank goodness.When Jimmy Kimmel (standing in for Nick Offerman, who was waylaid by bad weather) and Kerry Washington ("Scandal") announced the entire list this morning, "Mad Men," the AMC period piece about the stylish, sexy, sexist world of advertising in the 60s, was at the top, with 17 nominations, tied with newbie blockbuster "American Horror Story," the FX series being called a miniseries for Emmy purposes, with 17 of its own.

When the awards are given out on September 23, "Mad Men" will be vying for its fifth straight win in the Outstanding Drama category. That would put it one ahead of four-times-in-a-row Drama winners "The West Wing" and "Hill Street Blues" and four-times-overall-with-an-interruption-from-"Northern Exposure" winner "L.A. Law." Can "Mad Men" take the Big 5 over competitors "Boardwalk Empire," "Breaking Bad," "Downton Abbey," "Game of Thrones" and "Homeland"?

"Downton Abbey" won as Outstanding Miniseries last year, so it is definitely a contender, even though critics were less in love with its second season than its first. But opinions were mixed on "Mad Men" this year, too. And then there's "Breaking Bad," "Game of Thrones" and "Homeland," any of which might find itself at the podium.

Although "Mad Men" leads the pack with those 17 nominations, including nods for Outstanding Lead Actor Jon Hamm, Lead Actress Elisabeth Moss, Supporting Actor Jared Harris, Supporting Actress Christina Hendricks and Guest Actress and Actor Julia Ormond and Ben Feldman, the other contenders picked up a few of their own, too, with last year's winner Peter Dinklage from "Game of Thrones" again nominated in the Outstanding Supporting Actor category, "Homeland" stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis up for Lead Actress and Actor, and Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Giancarlo Esposito, and Mark Margolis all nominated for "Breaking Bad." Meanwhile, "Downton Abbey" picked up a whole lot of love for their upstairs (Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery and Maggie Smith) and downstairs (Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt) contingents.

"The Good Wife" missed out on an Outstanding Drama Series nod, but did pick up nominations for Lead Actress Juliana Margulies, Supporting Actresses Archie Panjabi and Christine Baranski, and Guests Dylan Baker, Michael J. Fox and Martha Plimpton.

On the comedy side, "Modern Family" continues its domination of pretty much everything Emmy, with a shot at its third Best Comedy Series award in a row. In case you're keeping track, "Frasier" has the record in the Comedy category, with five wins between 1994 and 1998. "Modern Family" seems like a shoe-in for #3, considering the fact that the show owns four of the six slots in the Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series category, with wins for Eric Stonestreet and Ty Burrell the past two years. Maybe Ed O'Neill or Jesse Tyler Ferguson will take it this year, spreading the joy around the cast. Julie Bowen and Sofia Bergara are back on the Supporting Actress list, too. Bowen won that one last year.

Other nominees for Best Comedy Series are "The Big Bang Theory," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "30 Rock," and new shows "Girls" and "Veep." I found "Girls" unwatchable and "Veep" so-so, but clearly the Academy voters are not on the same page.

Lena Dunham, creator and star of "Girls" and perennial nominee Julia Louis-Dreyfus, now up for "Veep" will vie with quintessential manic pixie dreamgirl Zooey Deschanel ("New Girl'), Edie Falcon ("Nurse Jackie"), Tina Fey ("30 Rock'), Melissa McCarthy ("Mike and Molly"), and my favorite, Amy Poehler ("Parks and Recreation") in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series race.

Lead Actor in a Comedy Series brings back Jim Parsons from "The Big Bang Theory," along with Larry David playing himself in "Curb Your Enthusiasm," a show I thought was canceled several tears ago, Alec Baldwin one more time in "30 Rock," the always magnetic Don Cheadle for "House of Lies," a show I didn't like at all, the irreverent Louis C.K. for "Louie," and, yes, Jon Cryer in "Two and a Half Men." Sigh.

In the miniseries area, "American Horror Story" dominated, racking up nominations for Outstanding Mini, Outstanding Actress Connie Britton, Supporting Actresses Frances Conroy and Jessica Lange and Supporting Actor Denis O'Hare.

For Connie Britton to win, she'll have to get past Julianne Moore ("Game Change"), Nicole Kidman ("Hemingway & Gelhorn"), Ashley Judd ("Missing") and Emma Thompson ("The Song of Lunch").

The Lead Actor nominees are just as stellar, including Kevin Coster ("Hatfields and McCoys"), Benedict Cumberbatch ("Sherlock"), Idris Elba ("Luther"), Woody Harrelson ("Game Change"), Clive Owen ("Hemingway & Gelhorn") and Bill Paxton ("Hatfields and McCoys").

Other things that jumped out at me: Kathy Bates got one nod for "Harry's Law," a show that didn't get a whole lot of notice, and another for a guest shot on "Two and a Half Men," Michael J. Fox is nominated in both the Comedy and Drama Outstanding Guest Actor categories, two of my favorite actors, David Strathairn and Denis O'Hare, are competing for Supporting Actor in a Miniseries, Betty White is up for hosting reality show "Off Their Rockers," and "So You Think You Can Dance" owns three of the five Outstanding Choreography nominations, with former competitor Travis Wall part of the fourth for his work on "Dancing with the Stars."

For all the nominations and all the categories, click here. Stay tuned for predictions as to who will win and who will go home empty-handed as we get closer to September 23. All bets are off without John Larroquette in the race.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tonight: Special 2-for-1 Preview of "The Rivals" at Illinois Shakes Fest

If you've already seen the Illinois Shakespeare Festival productions of "Othello" and "As You Like It," you may be getting impatient to complete your ISF summer season with show #3.

If so, tonight is your lucky night. "The Rivals," Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 comedy of manners, leaps onto the stage at Ewing Manor tonight at 7:30 pm with a special dress rehearsal. Even better: This preview performance offers buy-one-get-one-free tickets. Official opening night is tomorrow, but that preview ticket offer may be hard to resist, especially for a show like "The Rivals," which last played the Festival in the summer of 1990. Yep, 22 years ago.

I remember that production as being funny, fresh and an all-around great time. Then, Philip Earl Johnson, who returns to Ewing Manor fairly often at MooNiE the Magnif'cent, played stalwart young Captain Jack Absolute, who is at the center of Sheridan's romantic romp.This time out, Jack is played by Dylan Paul (pictured at right in the banner above). Jack is the son of a wealthy nobleman, but he pretends to be poor, honest Ensign Beverly to catch the eye of one Lydia Languish. Lydia is a girl with romantic notions about following her heart and eloping with a nobody; she rejects outright any suitor of position or wealth.

Lydia is smitten with Ensign Beverly, not realizing that he is the same person as Jack Absolute, the candidate her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, has arranged for her. And, yes, it's that same Mrs. Malaprop who has given her name to "malapropism," the idea of using the wrong word -- a word that vaguely sound like the right one -- in the wrong place. And so she begs Lydia to "illiterate" Ensign Beverly from her memory, offering that Captain Jack is "the very pineapple of politeness."

Mrs. Malaprop is hoping to catch the eye of Sir Lucius O'Trigger, a hot-headed Irishman in dire need of funds, but he has set his sights on Lydia, the young heiress, as has a country squire named Bob Acres. That leaves Lydia with the problem of three feisty suitors (four if you count both of the identities Jack is running around with) as well as conflict from her guardian Mrs. M., Jack's dad, and a bunch of friends and servants who keep muddying the waters.

It's all in good fun, just the kind of thing director Deb Alley excels at, and we've already seen from "As You Like It" that actors Paul, Gracyn Mix (Lydia), Alexander Pawlowski IV (Bob Acres) and Lisa Wartenberg (Lydia's friend Julia) can handle the comedy just fine. Taking a break from the tragedy of "Othello," Matt Penn, Amanda Catania and Corliss Preston will take on O'Trigger, saucy maid Lucy, and the mangled language that is Mrs. Malaprop.

"The Rivals" promises to be a real summertime treat, with performances tonight (two-for-one preview), tomorrow, and July 22, 24, 26 and 29 and August 2, 4, 8 and 10.

You can see the performance choices here, and order tickets here. Don't forget to bring a picnic or order one, or to come early for jazz in the courtyard, a backstage tour, or the "Three Wills and a Shakespeare" preshow.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

TV Round-Up: The Good, the Bad, and the Bunheads

It may be that I just wasn't paying attention in previous summers, too caught up in "Mad Men" to notice what else was on telly. But this year, there seems to be a lot more fresh programming in July than I recall.

I've tried to sample things here and there, with mixed results. But, hey, it's fun to have so many new options.

The new generation "Dallas" on TNT has continued to be snappy, soapy and fun. I haven't got a clue where all the scams and counterscams are taking J.R., Bobby, their oil or their families, but that isn't really important. "Dallas" has already been picked up for a new season, and it's easy to see why. There is a lot of swagger and splash there to keep viewers entertained, and if the youngsters are played by pretty-but-unskilled actors, well, that's a soap for you. I do wish they'd found some young females who were more compelling, but maybe in time...
Grade: B for Bravado

Speaking of young females... "Bunheads," airing on ABC Family, started with promise, but quickly wore out its welcome with me. Part of that is the incessant chatter that passes for house style with Amy Sherman-Palladino, as well as the heavy layer of quirk. When everybody is so very quirky, when everybody speaks in the same relentless rhythm, nothing stands out.

I still love Sutton Foster as a TV presence, however, and the plot has not gone where I expected it to. Defying expectations might be a good thing, but here, it's only because the plot hasn't really gone anywhere. We should be well past set-up and into actual PLOT by now, but it sure doesn't feel that way. All we're getting are minor squabbles, as Fanny (Kelly Bishop) remains intractable, unsympathetic and unbelievable, Michelle (Sutton Foster) flaps around not fitting in, and Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), the girl from ballet class who is too nice and not thin enough for ballet, continues to suffer humiliation like a passive aggressive mother pushing cake on her and an uppity co-worker who makes her dumpster jump so she smells bad. I can't believe I even wrote that. "Bunheads" jumped right off my schedule with that dumpster.
Grade: A Dumpster D

I also enjoyed Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" when it started on HBO. Jeff Daniels is terrific as Will McAvoy, a cable news network anchor who has made more than a few missteps in his personal life, and he is backed up by a strong cast pulled from the New York stage, including John Gallagher, Jr. ("Spring Awakening"), Alison Pill ("Mauritius") and Thomas Sadoski ("Other Desert Cities"). Sam Waterston is wry and amusing and quite different from his usual senior statesman roles as Will's bow-tied boss, Dev Patel is charming as a staff smarty-pants, and Jane Fonda's cameo as the Big Boss was certainly tart and on target.

What's not to like? Sorkin's dialogue is every bit as idiosyncratic (and rapid-fire) as Sherman-Palladino's, which gets wearisome after awhile, with the same everybody-sounds-alike problem. And the main female characters, including Pill's naive newcomer, Emily Mortimer's hotshot producer who used to be romantically attached to Will, and Olivia Munn's supposedly brilliant economist, veer from lame and indecisive to headstrong and irrational, from emotionally over-the-top and psycho to juvenile and pouty, from one unattractive, stereotypically female trait to the next. We know Sorkin can do better -- he wrote Allison Janney's C.J. Cregg, after all -- but these women are weak sisters so far.

Back in the newsroom itself, all these fast-talking crazies do actually come together when Sorkin launches the big story of the week, when they stop with the interpersonal hijinks and show why they do what they do. There are flashes of brilliance, of "West Wing" Sorkin, there. I'm hoping for more of that and a lot less Insane Female Posse as "The Newsroom" winds on.
Grade: Boys A-, Girls B- for an overall B

Newer than those are TNT's "Perception," with Eric McCormack as a Monk-meets-Sherlock-meets-House-meets-"A Beautiful Mind" sleuth who happens to have great crime-solving skills along with mental instability, and USA's "Political Animals,' where Sigourney Weaver subs in for Hillary Clinton as a former First Lady who has become Secretary of State.

McCormack is likable enough as neuroscience professor Daniel Pierce in "Perception," and he does a nice job balancing the character's braininess with his hallucinations and mental illness, but the rest of the show feels formulaic and tired, and Rachel Leigh Cook isn't believable for one minute as his FBI agent pal and former student. Given that this is familiar turf from so many previous TV sleuths, there really isn't anything that sets "Perception" apart or makes it all that intriguing.
Grade: So So C-

"Political Animals," meanwhile, is a potboiler of ambition and double-dealing inside one very visible fishbowl. On the frontline, we've got Sigourney Weaver's Elaine Barrish, her ex-husband/the ex-president Bud Hammond, played by Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, their twin sons, handsome good guy Douglas (James Wolk) and handsome screw-up T.J. (Sebastian Stan), as well as Elaine's wisecracking mom (Ellen Burstyn). On the other side are some rivals and opponents, including Adrian Pasdar and Dylan Baker as the current president and VP, and a feisty reporter (Carla Gugino) who has been focused on the Barrish/Hammond family for years.

I was fine with both boys, with Burstyn, Pasdar and Baker and even Gugino, but both Weaver and Hinds left something to be desired. Her line readings felt arch and artificial to me, and Hinds, a formidable actor on film and on stage, seemed sleazy and clumsy where Bud needed to be charming and smooth to have captivated voters (and women, including Elaine) the way he did.
Grade: Loses in the Primary for a D+

That means I will not be tuning in for more "Perception" or "Political Animals." Like "Bunheads," they don't make the grade for my summer schedule

Monday, July 16, 2012

"You Can't Take It With You" Auditions Tonight and Tomorrow at CP

Community Players is holding open auditions tonight and tomorrow night at 7 pm at the theater on Robinhood Lane for its upcoming production of the classic Kaufman and Hart comedy "You Can't Take It With You."

Performances of the play are scheduled for August 30 through September 9.

Director Jeremy Stiller and Producer Joel Shoemaker are looking for actors to fill seven female roles and twelve male roles, including:
  •  Young lovers Alice Sycamore and Tony Kirby
  • Tony's staid and respectable parents
  • Alice's crazy mom and dad, Penelope and Paul Sycamore
  • Alice's sister Essie and Essie's husband Ed
  • Grandpa Vanderhof
  • Mr. De Pinna, an ice man who dropped by the Sycamore house eight years ago and never left
  • An IRS agent named Wilbur Henderson
  • Boris the opinionated ballet master
  • A former Grand Duchess from Russia who is now a waitress
  • An alcoholic actress with overly dramatic ways
  • Two servants who don't really understand any of it
  • And several FBI agents who've come looking for Communist Manifestos.

Program from the original Broadway production
Suffice it to say that all the Sycamores (with the exception of Alice) are more than a little eccentric. Grandpa doesn't believe in taxes, Dad is making fireworks in the basement, Mom is trying to write a lurid potboiler of a play, Sis is a candy-making ballerina, and Bro-in-Law has a habit of printing whatever strikes his fancy, including seditious broadsides. Their friends and colleagues are even stranger, which leads to comedy when Tony and his stuffy parents pop by to meet their potential in-laws.

"You Can't Take It With You" won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1937, and has continued to be revived successfully in community theaters, high schools, and regional productions ever since. The 1938 film directed by Frank Capra starred Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur as Tony and Alice and took home that year's Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, while a 1983 Broadway revival with Jason Robards (as Grandpa) and Colleen Dewhurst (as Olga the Russian duchess) also earned good notices and a Drama Desk nomination for Maureen Anderman, who played Alice.

The play and its message -- that life should be fun -- has never really gone out of style. For more information about Community Players' auditions for "You Can't Take It With You," check out this Facebook page.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

"White Collar" Is Back, Sans Collar

I've had a weakness for TV shows about con men since "It Takes a Thief" back in 1968. In that era of suave spies and crimefighters, with Men and a Girl from UNCLE, I Spy, Maxwell Smart, Mrs. Peel in her catsuit and stilettos, and the Mission: Impossible force donning new disguises every week, Alexander Mundy (played by Robert Wagner) still stood out. His dashing fashions, devil-may-care attitude, clever heists and nifty cat burglary established him as a perfect romantic antihero for the late 60s. It didn't hurt that my beloved Fred Astaire popped up as his dad, the equally light-fingered Alistair Mundy, every once in awhile.

USA Network's "White Collar," which began its 4th season last week, is very much like "It Takes a Thief." No Fred Astaire, of course. And a little more serious in tone. But still... Incredibly handsome thief? Check. Caught by the government and forced to do his thieving for them? Check. Given a by-the-book overseer who becomes his friend? Check.

If anything, Matt Bomer is even better looking than Robert Wagner was in 1968, although it may just be that Wagner's ascots and swoopy hairdo haven't held up well. But Bomer is certainly handsome, and "White Collar" made no bones about capitalizing on that, keeping him half-dressed and emerging from the surf, no collar of any kind to mar the view, in the premiere episode of Season 4.

The production values and plots of "White Collar" are also a lot more sophisticated than "It Takes a Thief," as you would suspect. Plus they've attempted to deepen the characters and give everybody motives for what they do, with lots of mystery about exactly who Bomer's Neal Caffrey is and why he's drawn to this exciting, dangerous life. All good stuff.

At the end of last season, Caffrey had done enough and stayed clean long enough to get out from under the deal he made with the FBI, but then a nasty G-Man played by Beau Bridges pulled a sneaky maneuver to keep him under the Bureau's thumb forever. So Caffrey's handler/friend, Peter Burke (played by Tim DeKay, the Bizarro Jerry from "Seinfeld"), gave him the signal to go on the lam with his best pal, quirky Mozzie (Willie Garson, famous for playing Carrie's friend Stanford on "Sex and the City"), before the Feds and bad, bad Beau Bridges could nab him.

When we took up with Neal to begin Season 4, he and Mozzie were hanging out on an island somewhere. Somewhere without an extradition treaty. Neal was doing his usual gorgeous guy routine, coming onto a pretty local woman, making sand castles of the New York skyline, and handing over money to buy silence as to his presence on the island.

Meanwhile, back in NYC, Peter and his wife (Tiffani Thiessen, best-known for "Saved by the Bell") were scrambling to figure out where Neal was so they could warn him that another hard guy from the FBI was on his trail. Mekhi Phifer ("ER" and "O") plays the new enemy, one Agent Collins.

Things looked dire for Neal at the end of "Wanted," the season premiere episode, with Collins in charge, even though we know that can't last for long. Can it?

This is one show where I'm not sure how they're going to resolve the problems they've set up, and that's all to the good. For a slick suspense show, you have to have some surprises built in. How long will Neal stay on the run? Will Neal end up working for the FBI again, forced to be their in-house thief and work with Collins? How will Peter figure into things since his role in helping Neal escape has been uncovered? Will they both go on the lam, with Mozzie and Tiffani Thiessen in tow, to gather evidence to knock over Beau Bridges and Mekhi Phifer? Or will that all get figured out in Episode 2, "Most Wanted," which airs next Tuesday?

If you missed "Wanted," USA will be showing it again tonight, after the premiere of their new show "Political Animals," which stars Sigourney Weaver as a former first lady. The start time for "White Collar" and its "Wanted" episode is 10:24 pm Central tonight. If you can't get enough of the con-man capers, TNT's "Leverage" comes back tonight, too, with its team of smooth operators taking on another case, "The (Very) Big Bird Job," at 7 pm Central.

And "Most Wanted," that second episode of "White Collar" that should pay off how Neal gets out from under the gun, will be back in the usual Tuesday slot next week, airing at 8 pm on July 17 on the USA Network.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Midwestern Voices Starts on Sunday With Philip Dawkins and "Miss Marx"

New plays all around! Right now, new one-acts by Midwestern writers are being celebrated in Heartland's "New Plays from the Heartland" project (and what a great forum last night with playwright Doug Post in conjunction with that), and it's almost time for the other new play initiative in town -- the Illinois Shakespeare Festival's Midwestern Voices Playwrights Festival -- to start up, as well.

The Midwestern Voices Playwrights Festival is a way for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival to showcase three up-and-coming playwrights from the region by giving each a four-day residency that includes readings of their new plays as performed by members of the ISF professional acting company. All three readings are open to the public, and they'll take place at Bloomington's historic Vrooman Mansion.

Philip Dawkins
The first chapter in the Midwestern Voices project takes place this Sunday, July 15, with a reading of Philip Dawkins' new play, "Miss Marx: The Involuntary Side Effect of Living," scheduled at 3 pm The Miss Marx in the title is Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, the German economist and philosopher who wrote "The Communist Manifesto" and "Das Kapital," defining socialism as an alternative to capitalism and changing the world for generations. From each according to his abilities -- to each according to his needs. Progress can be measured by the social position of the fair sex, the ugly ones included. Workers of the world unite: You have nothing to lose but your chains!

Dawkins' play deals with Eleanor Marx's "efforts to create a world where every human is respected and loved." Even the ugly ones.

A resident playwright at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, Dawkins is the author of "The Homosexuals," presented by About Face Theatre at Victory Gardens last year in a very well-received production. The Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones called the play, "ambitious, substantial and deeply impressive." Dawkins’ new play, "Failure: A Love Story," will take the main stage at Victory Gardens beginning November 16.

Jennifer Blackmer
Playwright Jennifer Blackmer is the next "Midwestern Voice" to share a reading, as her new adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel, "Alias Grace" gets the spotlight on July 29 at 3 pm. "Alias Grace" involves Grace Marks, one of Canada’s most notorious murderers. Grace, an Irish immigrant, maintains that she has no memory of killing her employer or his housekeeper. Raising issues of insanity, memory, culpability, innocence and guilt, "Alias Grace" is described as "a thrilling exploration of... the darkest places of the human mind."

Currently living in Indiana and teaching theater at Ball State University, Blackmer is a director, educator and playwright. Her play, "The Human Terrain," was selected for Playwrights’ Week at The Lark Play Development Center and was a finalist at the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center.

Ike Holter
Ike Holter's "Hell-Care," a provocative new play about the American way of health, finishes up the "Midwestern Voices" season on August 5 at 3 pm. In the play, a Chicagoan almost loses his mind when he tries to jump through all the hoops in his way to get to free health care. In the end, he must choose which is more important, his health or his very sanity.

Holter also wrote "Hit the Wall," which enjoyed a sold-out run at the Steppenwolf Garage and then became a selection for the summer season at Chicago’s Theatre on the Lake. "Hit the Wall" was a production by Chicago's Inconvenience company, where Holter is resident playwright. He is also the Associate Artistic Director at Nothing Without a Company.

The free performances begin promptly at 3 pm. Each will include an artist talkback immediately following the performance.

The Vrooman Mansion is located at 701 East Taylor Street in Bloomington, Illinois. Street parking is available.

If new plays are your thing, if Philip Dawkins is your thing, if you are a student of Marx or Marxism or playwriting or you'd just like to sit inside the Vrooman Mansion and hear some provocative new theater from a brilliant new voice, you'll want to pencil this one in on your schedule.

To recap the important bits for this weekend: Philip Dawkins, "Miss Marx: The Involuntary Side-Effect of Living," 3 pm, Sunday the 15th, Vrooman Mansion.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

DGS's Jan Heiteen Inducted Into National High School Hall of Fame

The National Federation of State High School Associations annually inducts stand-out coaches, officials and athletes who've made a mark in high school arenas into its Hall of Fame. It's the highest honor the NFHS has to offer, with the Illinois High School Association, a member of the Federation, terming it the "highest achievable accolade in high school sports and activities."

This year, along with basketball stars Kevin Johnson from California and Fred Hoiberg from Iowa, Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan of Alabama, and swimming coach Rod Harman of Oregon, who just completed his 54th year as a coach, the National Federation honored Illinois's own Jan Heiteen, the astonishingly successful speech and theater coach from Downers Grove South High School. Above you'll see Jan's official poster from the NFHS summer meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was part of the big, splashy awards ceremony with production values to rival one of her own shows. For once, instead of her students, it was Jan in the spotlight!

Heiteen has been a phenom in high school coaching since 1975, while still a student herself at the University of Illinois. As a college sophomore, Jan began as an assistant coach on the Champaign Central High School speech team, moving to positions at Waukegan and Maine East after graduation. She started at Downers South in 1978, and by 82, had helped her team make it to a 3rd place finish in state competition. With legendary coach John Hires, Heiteen and Downers Grove South took home seven state championships (plus five more 2nd place trophies and two 3rds) in the next 19 years. After Hires's untimely passing, Heiteen took over the reins all by herself, adding another nine state championships with her Individual Events teams, including back-to-back 1st place finishes in 2011 and 2012 and state championships eight out of the last nine years. Her teams have included (by my count) 56 individual state champions, with five champions this year alone.

After the 2012 IHSA championship, Heiteen took her kids to the National Forensics League National Tournament in June, where they earned a prestigious "School of Excellence Award." That's Heiteen below with students Billy Chengary and Michelle McCarthy, 4th place finishers in the Duet Interpretation event at the National Forensic League competition in Indianapolis. Chengary was one of Heiteen's 2012 IHSA champions, as well, taking the title in Dramatic Duet Acting with partner Erin Walsh.

Heiteen is Illinois's first Hall of Fame winner in the Fine Arts category, following notables from Illinois like Dike Eddleman, Red Grange, Bart Connor, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Quinn Buckner, and H.V. Porter, the man who invented the term "March Madness."

IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman said, "This is an incredible honor for an incredibly deserving individual. We are so proud to have Jan represent Illinois, the IHSA and high school speech and drama across the country in this distinguished club. It is very fitting that Jan is the torchbearer among Fine Arts inductees from Illinois in the NFHS National High School Hall of Fame.”

As always, Heiteen is blazing trails. Although she hasn't said what's up next for her now that she has retired from DGS, you can bet excellence, enthusiasm and a whole lot of energy will be involved. Congratulations, Jan Heiteen, Hall of Famer!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"New Plays from the Heartland" Take the Stage This Week

Heartland Theatre’s annual one-act play competition, “New Plays from the Heartland,” begins this week, with an open forum with playwright/adjudicator Douglas Post on Thursday night and then performances of the winning plays on Friday and Saturday.

The 2012 edition of “New Plays from the Heartland” began its process way back in 2011, with Heartland’s panel of experts (including Heartland’s Artistic Director, Mike Dobins, and local theater practitioners, writers and artists) choosing a theme for the year’s competition. They selected “Summer in the Heartland,” asking playwrights from throughout the Midwest to submit their one-act plays that dealt with some aspect of this time of year in the central part of the country.

And once they had the submissions before them, those judges read and analyzed all the “Summer in the Heartland” plays before choosing the best of the best to send to Doug Post, this year’s final judge, to select the winners to be performed this week at Heartland under the direction of Mike Dobbins.

To give the inside scoop on his own playwriting process as well as how he handled choosing the winning plays, Douglas Post (seen at right) will conduct an open forum on Thursday, July 12, at 7:30 pm at the theater. Post is a founding member of the Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble in Chicago, plus he teaches at Chicago Dramatists and is the Chicago Regional Representative for the Dramatists Guild. Nationally, his plays have been produced in New York, Chicago and LA, while internationally, he’s had work produced in Austria, Canada, China, England, Germany and Russia. He has also been commissioned to write screenplays for Warner Brothers. and NBC, teleplays for WMAQ-TV, and done several radio adaptations of his scripts. On three occasions, he has been selected to develop his work at the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference and once at the O'Neill National Music Theater Conference. He has received the L. Arnold Weissberger Playwriting Award, the Midwestern Playwrights Festival Award, the Cunningham Commission Award and three Playwriting Fellowship Awards from the Illinois Arts Council, and has been nominated for a Joseph Jefferson Award and an Emmy Award.

Post’s forum is open to the public and free of charge.

If you’d like to see what Doug Post chose and what Midwestern playwrights came up with on the idea “Summer in the Heartland,” you will want to attend the performances of the plays on Friday and Saturday. And if you do, you’ll be seeing these winning playwrights and plays:

Andrew Head (FIREFLIES)
Andrew is originally from Evansville, IN. He relocated to Normal last summer while chasing after the woman he finally married this May. Andrew graduated from Bradley University in 2007 with a degree in Theatre Arts. At BU he dabbled in acting and playwriting, performing in plays like ANGELS IN AMERICA and NIGHT OF THE IGUANA. He was also fortunate enough to have one of his own works, titled BUTCHER: THE PLAY (inspired by Cursive’s The Ugly Organ album) performed at BU. Andrew appeared on Heartland’s stage in February as Dennis in MARITIUS. In the fall, Andrew will begin his MFA in Acting at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Thanks always to Kat, for continually making his work better.

Terri retired from Illinois State University in 2005 and became active in Young at Heartland, the senior theatre troupe associated with Heartland Theatre. She began writing plays for the group and subsequently had published a book of short plays. In addition to acting and writing, she does stand-up comedy and is busy restoring a 1930s Route 66 building in Normal. She thanks the NEW PLAYS FROM THE HEARTLAND sponsors and committee, Ann White, and Mike and Gail Dobbins for their hard work in keeping live theatre relevant and vibrant. She credits her late husband, Bill Sanders, for the inspiration for her most successful plays.

Lori Tate Matthews (FARMERS' MARKET)
This fall marks the world premiere of Lori Matthews’ first full-length play to make it to the professional stage. Barter Theatre, a regional theater in Abingdon, Virginia, will produce OCTOBER, BEFORE I WAS BORN, a script that won the Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights in 2011 and was named as a finalist for the Woodward/Newman Drama Award in 2012. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has also contracted the play for their 2013/14 season. Lori’s previous work has received readings at Chicago Dramatists, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Madison’s Playwrights Ink. Workshop versions of her plays have appeared at the Wisconsin Wrights Festival and The Second City. Lori lives with her husband, Greg, and their two children in Stoughton, Wisconsin.

Andrew Head’s FIREFLIES involves a married couple who are quite sure they belong together. The question is where. Ryan yearns to see new sights and experience new adventures, while Jess prefers her own back yard. Yes, they are crazy about each other. But how do people – even people in love – resolve that kind of gap in hopes and dreams, in distant stars and nearby fireflies?

Instead of romantic love and its complications, Terri Ryburn’s LEMONADE AND LIGHTNING BUGS focuses on a mother and son. They, too, clearly love each other. But he is a practical lawyer who wants her to move forward, move on, face reality. And she just wants things to be the way they were. Progress? It ain’t progress if it means leaving her lemonade and lightning bugs behind.

Rounding out the group of winners is Lori Tate Matthews’ FARMERS’ MARKET, a look at the territorial implications of who goes where and who knows how to be neighborly when it comes to selling their wares. Sandy has manned the same stand for absolute ever, and she gives out advice, conversation and camaraderie along with her corn and cucumbers. But Anika is brand new. And her motives are a lot murkier than Sandy’s. The flowers she displays may be pretty, but Anika spells CONFLICT at the Farmers’ Market.

These three new plays will be presented in staged readings (with some costumes, props and set pieces) at Heartland Theatre on Friday, July 13 and Saturday, July 14, with both performances at 7:30 pm. There is no set ticket price, but you are asked to contribute a $5 donation at the door. For reservations, email boxoffice@heartlandtheatre.org or call 309-452-8709.

The “New Plays from the Heartland” project is funded by The Town of Normal Harmon Arts Grant and sponsored by Paul and Sandra Harmon.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Last Week for Les Miz from Normal Parks & Rec

This year's show put on by Normal Parks and Recreation Summer Music Theatre started two weeks ago, and last week, they even canceled a show due to the extreme heat.

But the good news is that the heat has lifted a little and there is one weekend's worth of performances left to see "Les Misérables," the School Edition, at the Connie Link Ampitheatre, which is adjacent to the Normal Parks and Rec office near the Constitution Trail. That office is located at 611 N. Linden, and parking is available there, in the lot at Linden and Underwood Park.

So... "Les Miz," the School Edition. It is mostly the same as the regular "Les Miz," with the same characters and themes at the forefront, with just a few verses and short bits cut here and there to make it about half an hour shorter.

"Les Miz," the musical, features music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, with original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and the English version of the lyrics reworked and created by Herbert Kretzmer. Schönberg and Boublil wrote the book for the show, with director Trevor Nunn and director/playwright John Caird adapting it for the first London production.

The musical is based on the 19th century French novel by Victor Hugo, about a man named Jean Valjean who steals a loaf of bread and thereby sends himself into a whirlpool of injustice, fate and free will, crime and punishment, rebellion and redemption. Although many people assume it's about the French Revolution, it is, in fact, set some years after that one, focusing on the years 1815 (just after Napoleon) to 1832, when Paris students attempted an uprising against the ruling elite.

For the Normal Parks and Rec production, directed by Bryan M. Vandevender, Matthew Henry of Olympia plays Jean Valjean, while Garrett Medlock of Normal University High School, plays Valjean's nemesis Javert.

The role of Fantine, the poor woman who struggles to survive in a hostile world, is performed by Bloomington High School's Megan Riley, with Miranda Harris from Normal Community West as Eponine and Larissa McCoy from Normal Community as Cosette, the two younger women in the piece.

Ryan Groves from Normal Community West appears as Marius, the idealistic student who is the object of both Eponine's and Cosette's affections, while Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, the comic thieves who keep popping up to steal the silver, are portrayed by Ramsey Hendricks and Mackenzie Buob, both from Bloomington High School.

The rest of the ensemble includes 68 high school and junior high students (if I counted right), all working hard to create the world of early 19th century Paris.

For this student production of "Les Miz," tickets are $4 for adults and $2 for students. Because this is outdoor theater with seating on the grass, you are reminded to bring your own lawn chairs or blanket. The remaining performances are July 12, 13, 14 and 15, with all shows at 7:30 pm.

The Normal Parks and Rec Summer Music Theatre Facebook page is here if you need more information.