Thursday, February 28, 2013

It's Noir Before the Dawn in AS YOU LIKE IT at IWU

Shakespeare's As You Like It starts in France, at the court ruled by the usurping Duke Frederick. He's a bad guy, keeping his daughter Celia on a short leash and acting all menacing to her cousin, Rosalind, the daughter of the rightful duke.

To portray the decadent duchy, director Tom Quinn makes Illinois Wesleyan University's current production all shadowy and noir, a vision of urban American in the early 40s, the land of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946), where thugs wearing Fedoras do their dirty work in dark alleys and snazzy nightclubs.

That's certainly atmospheric, turning Duke Frederick into a kind of hard-boiled Dick Powell character, with Celia and Rosalind dames in high heels not unlike the Jane Greers and Joan Powells of yesteryear, and Touchstone the clown turned into a Joe E. Lewis style nightclub comic.

But once Roz and Celia go on the lam to the Forest of Arden, we lose the noir feel, instead inhabiting a free-wheeling rural landscape where the temperature is cold but the company is warm. With music and food and furs wrapped around our exiled heroes, the dark mood lifts, the season moves from winter to spring, everybody starts getting frisky, and love is in the air. Rosalind meets up with her Orlando, Touchstone romances a local lass named Audrey, and Celia even gets a late-in-the-day suitor.

Geena Barry makes a lovely Rosalind for IWU, looking just as fetching in her boys' cap and trousers as she does in the opening cocktail dress. She matches up well with Ben Mulgrew, a more boyish Orlando than most, and their faux-wooing comes off very sweet and charming.

Elaina Henderson gives Celia a lot of personality, as well, and T. Isaac Sherman shows both sides of the Dick Powell persona, giving Duke Frederick the hard guy Powell from Murder My Sweet and Duke Senior the warm, nice guy Powell from Susan Slept Here or Christmas in July.

Jacques, the gloomy philosopher with the Seven Ages of Man speech, gets a lighter touch from Ian Scarlato, who seems to be playing for laughs in his interaction with Touchstone, here played by Will Henke as a light-footed jokester in a porkpie hat.

In the ensemble, Kate Rozycki, Maggie Sheridan, Mandi Corrao and Will Greenlee do good work adding a certain wild musical streak to the proceedings. That echoes Quinn's director's notes about the wilderness within as represented by the Forest of Arden.

Overall, this is a warm, fun As You Like It, one that looks good and moves well, with lovers and lunatics at every turn.

by William Shakespeare

Illinois Wesleyan University School of Theatre Arts
McPherson Theatre

Director: Thomas Quinn
Scenic Designer: Curtis C. Trout
Costume Designers: Mariah Williamson
Lighting Designer: Stephen Sakowski
Sound Designer: Aaron Woodstein

Cast: Geena Barry, Elaina Henderson, T. Isaac Sherman, Ben Mulgrew, Zachary Wagner, Adam Wallaser, Debra Madans, Marek Zurowski, Zach Mahler, Will Henke, Kate Rozycki, Ian Scarlato, Elliott Plowman, Briana Sarikcioglu, Angela Jos, Joey Chu, Nick Castellanos, Mandi Corrao, Maggie Sheridan, Will Greenlee.

Remaining performances: February 28 and March 1-2 at 8 pm

Running time: 2:40, including one 15-minute intermission

For ticket information, click here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

When Bad Things Happen to Good J.B.: Theology as a Circus at ISU

Archibald MacLeish's J.B., a reworking of the Job story in the Bible, was all the rage back in 1959. Its inaugural Broadway production earned the Tony Award for Best Play, and the play itself took the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as a gushing piece called "The Birth of a Classic" from The Saturday Review's poetry editor John Ciardi. J.B. was "not only an intrinsically great play," wrote Ciardi, but one that set "the model from which great poetic drama may hope to flow in our times."

Pretty heady stuff for a verse drama about Job set in a lowly circus, with God represented by a balloon seller and Satan by a popcorn peddler.

So how well does J.B. survive for our times? There's certainly still plenty of suffering to go around, and plenty of people wondering what faith is for if you're just going to suffer, anyway. J.B. doesn't necessarily provide the answers, or even redemption for poor Job, but it does offer a chance to discuss how limited some of the options are.

Under the direction of Matthew Scott Campbell for Illinois State University, MacLeish's J.B. certainly looks great. Megan J. Lane's big-top set is beautiful as well as mysterious and a little scary, and Lauren M. Lowell's costumes provide an excellent match. The motley coats, steampunk personifications of History, Religion and Science, and the White Clown's entire outfit are especially impressive. Harrison Hohnholt's lighting design helps define good and evil, and the grand masks and one creepy puppet created by Brittany Powers, Mary Rose and Mark Spain also add to the atmosphere and tableau.

The set for J.B. designed by Megan J. Lane.
Actors Andrew Rogalny and Matthew Hallahan are as grand and crafty as they need to be to play God and Satan, respectively, and Tommy Malouf does both the slick-and-prosperous and miserable-wretch sides of Job quite well, while Audra Ferguson is sympathetic as Job's equally put-upon wife. Martin Hanna, Alex Kostner and Sara Shifflet make the trio of "comforters" dark and dangerous, with Hanna and David Zallis also coming up strong as various messengers of bad news.

The White Clown is director Campbell's own addition to MacLeish's circus world -- the character is more of a Charon than a Bozo -- and Christopher Bryant gives the role a definite sense of presence as well as adding meaning to the action without saying a word. His final stage picture is especially strong.

Visually, this J.B. definitely works, with enough tricks and acrobatics to keep it engaging.

But the script... MacLeish's words are not the most accessible, and Ciardi's assessment that J.B. is one from whom all verse drama thereafter flows is not really supported in performance. In the end, the squabble between Satan and God, with Job getting in a few licks at the end, too, seems peevish and overwrought more than profound. Is God good? Is good God? Is love really the answer? I dunno.

by Archibald MacLeish

The School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University
Westhoff Theatre

Director: Matthew Scott Campbell
Scenic Designer: Megan J. Lane
Costume Designer: Lauren M. Lowell
Lighting Designer: Harrison Hohnholt
Voice and Text Director: Connie de Veer
Prop Master: Katie McCasland
Stage Manager: Gianna Consalvo

Cast: Julia Besch, Colleen Besler, Hannah Brown, Christopher Bryant, Eddie Curley, Audra Ferguson, Matt Hallahan, Martin Hanna, Tommy Malouf, James Keating, Alex Kostner, Mary Leake, Patrick O'Gara, Joshua Pennington, Andrew Rogalny, Sara Shifflet, Chana Wilczynski. Taylor Wisham and David Zallis.

Remaining Performances: February 27-28 and March 1-2 at 7:30 pm

Running time: 2:10, including one 15-minute intermission

For ticket information, click here.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Oh, Oscar...

I used to love the Oscars. I used to live for the Oscars. The year the ABC tower in Decatur fell over right before the Oscars, my college friends and I drove to Kankakee (the closest place to Champaign-Urbana we could think of that got the Chicago TV stations) and rented hotel rooms to watch the awards we would otherwise have been closed out of. When my friend Melanie and I were stuck in the back of the room during a really boring history class, we used to entertain ourselves by listing, in order, all the Best Pictures from Wings on up.

And now... When Meryl Streep showed up to give out the Best Actor trophy, I had to head to Google to remember what she won for last year. Oh, dear.

This year's annoyance factor started on the Red Carpet. Just when you thought there could be no more annoying human being on the planet than Ryan Seacrest, along came Kristen Chenoweth, whose idea of interviews was to compare her diminutive stature to everyone who came along. Hugh Jackman, Queen Latifah, Adele, Bradley Cooper's mother... Yep. Kristen Chenoweth is smaller than each of them.

And just when it seemed Cheno had the annoying thing all wrapped up, Seth MacFarlane entered the building and blew all other contenders out of the water in perpetuity throughout the universe. Instead of Bob Hope or Billy Crystal, we're now stuck with the likes of MacFarlane, the unfunny plastic man with the perpetual smirk of self-satisfaction, the one who used his hosting gig to push his TV show, his movie, his album... He started out with a song about boobs. Keepin' it classy, Academy.

The highlight for me was the salute to movie musicals, and I thought all three of the featured numbers -- Catherine Zeta Jones doing "All That Jazz" from Chicago, J-Hud belting out "And I Am Telling You" from Dream Girls, and all the major players from Les Miz plus members of the current touring company (including IWU's Casey Erin Clark) going big with a rousing "One Day More" -- came off very nicely. I wondered if we might get to see some of Oscar's earlier musicals, however. Like Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey popping up for Cabaret. You know they can do it. Or even something from Mamma Mia, Moulin Rouge, Oliver!, Gigi... Notice no one said a word about Nine, either, even though Daniel Day-Lewis was right there.

I love Adele, the winner for Best Song, and she sounded fine on "Skyfall," the winning song from the James Bond movie of the same name. But the song itself? Kind of blah. In comparison, Shirley Bassey brought down the house with her rendition of "Goldfinger," a 50-year-old Bond song. Wowza. More Shirley Bassey, please!

In terms of the awards, I don't have any real quibbles. Argo was a welcome winner for me, as was Best Director Ang Lee. Life of Pi was a hugely difficult movie to make, Lee is lovely, and he's a U of I alum. Oddly, Argo also has a University of Illinois connection, since Christopher Denham, who played one of the Americans stuck in Iran, earned his undergraduate degree in Urbana, too.

It was a foregone conclusion that D D-L would win for Lincoln, that the omnipresent Anne Hathaway would take home the award for Best Supporting Actress for Les Miz, and that Jennifer Lawrence (at left) would win Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook. She looked lovely even if she did take a tumble. She can console herself that Barbra Streisand did the same thing back in 1969. And Barbra had see-through panels on her pantsuit, so... Somewhere Seth MacFarlane is cracking himself up writing a song about seeing Barbra's butt.

The only acting award that seemed up for grabs was Best Supporting Actor. Tommy Lee Jones was the early favorite for his role in Lincoln, although Oscar prognosticators have been opining that his cranky attitude at the Golden Globes was pushing voters away, helping Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) pick up his second Academy Award in that category in four years.

I'm down with Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio winning in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, but Quentin Tarrentino for Best Original Screeplay for Django Unchained over Tony Kushner and Lincoln? Well, it was expected, but it's still stupid.

On the fashion front, almost everyone looked great. I'd pick the three Jennifers as standouts. Whether she fell or not, Lawrence looked beautiful in her pale pink princess gown from Dior Couture, Garner (right) looked better than she has in ages in a purple Gucci gown with an insane number of ruffles down the back, and Aniston (below) eschewed her normal glittery beige towel look for a beautiful scarlet Valentino number.

Oh, and Quvenzhané Wallis was cute as a button in a bright blue dress with one of her trademark puppy purses as an accessory.

A lot of fashion pundits were picking Jessica Chastain and Charlize Theron as their top choices, but the former's dress blended in too closely with her hair and skin tone to appeal to me, while the latter was stunning, but the stiffness of her white gown, as well as the preponderance of white on the red carpet, meant she didn't make my personal, uninformed, non-fashionista list.

To see Theron, Chastain, and a whole bunch of other gowns and the glitter, and a few guys, too, head over to the Tom and Lorenzo blog, where you can see it all and voice your opinion.

So that's the Oscars. On to another year. Who will we be talking about in February 2014? Daniel Day-Lewis going for his fourth? Meryl back at the podium? More Spielberg and less Tarantino? Seth MacFarlane not even invited to attend? A girl can dream.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

OKLAHOMA! Sounds Great at ISU's Center for the Performing Arts

After seeing Rodgers' and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, it's tempting to spell it Ooooooooooklahoma. And now that's stuck in your head, isn't it?

That's the thing with Rodgers' and Hammerstein's first collaboration as composer and lyricist. The songs are incredibly catchy. Whether it's "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," the one about the girl who "Cain't Say No," or the title song that celebrates OK becoming a state, they all stick with you. They're hummable, mummable melodies with bright, snappy little lyrics you can't forget even if you want to. Hammerstein's lyrics push the story forward, while Rodgers' music pushes Hammersein's book and characters along, with "Beautiful Morning" soaring to the skies, "Surrey" clip-clopping like a horse, and "Oklahoma!" running away like, oh, wind sweepin' down the plain. The score defines the world of Oklahoma! It may not be anything like the real Oklahoma in 1906, but it certainly works for this fictional state of mind.

Oklahoma! was a huge hit when it opened on Broadway in 1943 -- it played for over five years and some 2212 performances -- with Agnes De Mille's square-dance-meets-ballet choreography a major piece of its success. If Oklahoma! marked the first time Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the libretto for Richard Rodgers' music, it was also Agnes De Mille's first time choreographing a book musical on Broadway.

The story goes that De Mille insisted on "real" dancers -- from dance companies -- for her inaugural Oklahoma! instead of the usual Broadway chorus boys and girls. For Illinois State University's production, director Richard Corley and choreographer Greg Merriman use their ensemble of singers and actors along with just a few dancers, which means the choreography strays considerably from Agnes De Mille territory. Still, this production's Dream Laurey, Caroline Pilcher, is lovely.

But it's clear that the voices are the strength of this Oklahoma! The players in the main romantic triangle -- Rob Holden as Curly, Ross Kugman as bad guy Jud, and Christie Duffer as Laurey, the girl they both want -- all sing beautifully. Holden sounds terrific on "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "Oklahoma!" and he and Duffer combine perfectly when they sing out the love song "People Will Say."

Kugman not only has the deep, dark tones to make Jud's songs work, but he's a good actor, too. His Jud is more weasel than thug, which may seem different for Oklahoma! purists, but it certainly works within the confines of the ISU production.

John Ramseyer and Lauren Pfieffer also sound great as the secondary couple, aw-shucks cowboy Will Parker and his flirtatious girlfriend Ado Annie, and Nico Tangorra takes the acting honors on the night with his version of peddler Ali Hakim, another of Ado Annie's admirers. Although the original Ali Hakim, a veteran of Yiddish theater named Joseph Buloff, looked a bit like Chico Marx in the role, Tangorra has Groucho's cigar mixed with Charlie Chaplin's bowler hat. Oddly enough, that turns him into a mini Ernie Kovacs, which is a very interesting take on Ali Hakim. Kovackian or not, Tangorra navigates the comedy, as well as Hakim's trunk full of trinkets, like a champ.

Scenic designer Thad Hallstein provides a handsome barn to frame the action, with lots of worn wood and a few hanging quilts -- and real-live, on-stage surrey! -- while costume designer Amy Cain adds an impressive array of boots, hats and dresses in subdued tones from maroon to pale yellow, with a pop of color in a bright orange jacket for Ado Annie. 

ISU's Center for the Performing Arts was packed on opening night, so you would be well advised to get your tickets now. Performances of Oklahoma! continue through February 27.

Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics and book by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Original dances by Agnes De Mille

The School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University
Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Richard Corley
Music Director/Conductor: Glenn Bock
Scenic Designer: Thad Hallstein
Costume Designer: Amy Cain
ighting Designer: Mark Maruschak
Sound Designer: Shannon O'Neill
Hair and Makeup Designer: Shelby Brand
Choreographer: Greg Merriman
Fight Director: Paul Dennhardt
Chorus Master: Dennis Gotkowski
Vocal Coach: Justin Vickers
Stage Manager: Thomas P. Moster

Cast: Rob Holden, Christie Duffer, Lauren Sheffey, John Ramseyer, Lauren Pfeiffer, Nico Tangorra, Ross Kugman, Haley Camire, Thomas Bailey, Scott Guererro, Mitchell Schaeflein, Gabriela Rivera, Monica Hamilton, Theresa Moen, Christina Duris, Eric Trumpet, Kelsey Bunner, Kyle Ayers, Nick Spindler, Nick Lindmark, Josh Gouskos, Jeff Wright, Kevin Alleman, Samantha Barnewolt, Caroline Pilcher, Tess Losada, Emily Kuether, Brooke Kirschsieper.

Remaining Performances: February 23 and 27 and March 2 at 7:30 pm; February 24 at 2 pm

Running time: 3:05, including one 15-minute intermission

For ticket information, click here.


For my own amusement, I have added a picture of the Oklahoma! trifecta I reviewed in the early 90s. I think there was actually one more, but I don't have a program for that one. Oklahoma! remains the one show I asked my editor not to assign me because of the four I saw and reviewed in such quick succession.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Illinois Shakespeare Festival Returns with Mind-Boggling Array of Choices

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival sent out its season brochure this week, and there are some very new choices on the schedule under new artistic director Kevin Rich.

In addition to the usual Shakespeare mainstage shows performed during the summer at Ewing Manor -- Comedy of Errors runs from a special preview on July 5 to August 8 and Macbeth opens with its own preview on July 6, finishing up August 9 -- Illinois Shakes has added a brand-new option, Philip Dawkins' Failure: A Love Story, a "beautiful, whimsical, extraordinary" play about three sisters, the man who loves them each in turn, and an eccentric musical chorus, set in Chicago in 1928. Failure previews on July 11, followed by performances through August 10.

Ewing Manor
 But that's not the end of the surprises. For those three shows, ISF has also added a "flex" ticket option, so that you can buy an advance season pass (must be purchased before May 12, 2013) and then "spend" it on any performances you choose all season. And after last summer's heat wave, they're offering 1:30 pm matinee performances on Saturdays and Sunday, and moving them inside to the air-conditioned comfort of the Center for the Performing Arts on the ISU campus. That gives you the option of Macbeth during the afternoon of Saturday, July 20, Comedy of Errors on Sunday, July 28, or Failure on Sunday, July 21 and Saturday, July 27.

Other special projects include a staged reading of The Reign of King Edward III from the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, with ISF artistic director Kevin Rich reading the role of Edward. That's set for the CPA on Monday, April 22 at 5 pm as a kick-off for the new season and a celebration of Shakespeare's birthday, all in one.

The Improvised Shakespeare Company will offer just that -- improvised Shakespeariffic pieces made up on the fly -- on June 6 and 13 at Ewing Manor, and Lori Adams, will bring Shame the Devil, a one-woman show about 19th century Shakespearean actress Fanny Kemble, to Ewing Manor on July 1.

I feel like an informercial, but seriously, there's more! First, more improv with ISU's Improv Mafia and the Shakespeare Globetrotters Time to Make the Shakespeare, performed on the patio at Destihl Restaurant and Brew Works in Bloomington on Thursday nights in May and at Ewing Manor on Sunday evenings beginning July 14. Plus two new greenshows written especially for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival by local author Nancy Steele Brokaw. And a children's show called The Magical Mind of Billy Shakespeare, written by Kevin Rich, performed at 10 am on Wednesdays on the grounds at Ewing Manor starting May 29, with Saturday performances beginning June 1 split between Ewing,  Lincoln Park at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts and the Bloomington Farmers Market.

And there's more! MooNiE the Magnif'cent! Glenn Wilson and Friends! Adopt-a-Bard-Buddy! Costume tours! Puppet building! The John Stevens Memorial Golf Outing! Picnics with Two Blokes and a Bus and Kelly's Bakery!

Too many choices? Your mind spinning? Look out for the first event with Edward III on April 22, and then take it one step at a time through that last performance of Failure: A Love Story on August 10. And right now... Tickets are on sale. Call 866-IL-Shake or check out all the details at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival website.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Opening This Week: JB, OK and SONS

I'm trying to find a through-line to describe the three shows that open this weekend on area stages -- Archibald MacLeish's J.B., the good old Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! and Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet -- but those are some pretty disparate shows.

Although Oklahoma! was written and performed first among the three, it's J.B. that looks back the farthest for its literary material. Stick an O between that J and B, and you'll see where MacLeish's play comes from. And that would be the Book of Job in the Bible. You will probably remember Job as a very put-upon guy, one whose faith is tested by God in a sort of celestial bet with Satan, whereby Satan takes away Job's children, his wealth and his physical health to see if he can get Job to turn his back on God.

Job is mightily tested, but he remains strong in his faith. So that's your happily ever after. I don't find it all that happy myself or a terribly good reason to have faith, but... I am guessing I am not the intended audience. I may be closer to MacLeish's intended audience, however, since his version of Job, which sets the action inside a circus tent, has a somewhat different ending.

Archibald MacLeish's J.B. opens on February 21 at ISU's Westhoff Theatre. And, yes, it will be circusey. Matthew Scott Campbell directs this production, with Tommy Malouf as Job, and Andrew Rogalny, Jr. and Matthew Hallahan as the competing forces of good and evil.

Sons of the Prophet, a new play by up-and-comer Stephen Karam, also opens on the 21st. This one is directed by Gary Ambler for Urbana's Station Theatre, with Joel Higgins and David Mor as the sons in the title. Their prophet is not anyone Biblical, however, but instead Kahlil Gibran, who wrote the famous book of poetry called The Prophet. Family legend says that Joseph and Charlie Douaihy are indirectly related to Gibran, and that fact is Joseph's toe in the door to get a book of his own published. But hard luck follows the Douaihy family, not unlike what happens to Job up there. As Karam examines "how people endure the unendurable" through the tragedy and joy in one Lebanese-American family, Sons of the Prophet finds the humor and compassion in humanity.

And then there's Oklahoma! Based on a 1931 play called Green Grow the Lilacs, written by Lynn Riggs, Oklahoma! is a musical exploration of cowboys and farmers, American expansion west, romance down on the farm, girls who cain't say no, all boosted by the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein score and the exuberant choreography of Agnes de Mille. The poster for ISU's production, which is directed by Richard Corley, looks like he's bringing in some jump, jive and wail to pull the show forward from its 1906 setting to something that more approximates the time period of the original Broadway production, which premiered in 1943. Those definitely look like jitterbuggers over there on top of the state. On the other hand, the cowboy seems to riding a John Deere and I don't know that riding lawn mowers were hanging around in 1943. But it would certainly seem to indicate that this will be a more modern Oklahoma! than most.

Whether it's extra jazzy or original recipe Oklahoma!, the show will open February 22 at the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets or more information, check out the event's Facebook page here.

Monday, February 18, 2013

IWU Senior Soiree and Showcase Opens Doors for Theatre Artists

Today's the day the Illinois Wesleyan senior theater majors take their act on the road. IWU's designers and performers will spotlight their work tonight at the 2013 Senior Soiree and Showcase in Chicago, this year at Theater Wit in Chicago. That involves the talents of some 16 actors, singers and dancers, as well as eight graduating seniors who fall on the design and tech side of the theatrical equation.

Last year, director Scott Susong and his crew performed their dress rehearsal at a local church before the Chicago trip, but this time, they used the E. Melba Kirkpatrick Lab Theatre on the IWU campus before making the trek. To approximate the Theater Wit setting they'll see tonight, director Scott Susong turned the Kirkpatrick Theatre into a long, narrow space, with seating straight back from the playing area. That made for some tough sightlines, but the SRO crowd assembled to watch this showcase for their senior friends didn't seem to mind.

The show opened with two pop numbers -- Sara Bareilles' "Kaleidoscope Heart" and Yael Naim's "New Soul" -- with the entire company on stage, with "New Soul" mixed with a little Rodgers and Hammerstein ("I Am Going to Like It Here" from Flower Drum Song) performed by Patsita Jiratipayabood.

After the opening number, the program consisted of a mix of songs and dramatic pieces, with a little dance, too, the latter performed by Josh Levinson and Annie Simpson to the tune of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine."

Musical highlights included Christine Polich's lovely performance of "My Ship" from Lady in the Dark; "The Song Is You," from Music in the Air, sung very nicely by Lizzie Rainville; Amy Stockhaus's spirited take on "Starbucks," a song from WaaMu: Waiting in the Wings about aspiring to be a barista while waiting for that big show biz chance; and Rachel Grimes and Kate Rozycki combining for a fresh and funny version of "Secondary Characters" from [title of show], the perfect musical for up-and-comers.

Three scenes from Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, a play which will open at Chicago's Goodman Theater in April, also landed well, with stand-out work from Chantericka Tucker and Raven Stubbs as Hollywood maids who'd like to hit the big screen like their white employer.

The "Starbucks" song, Vera Stark and Angela Jos's scene from Lives of the Great Waitresses by Nina Shengold all seemed to resonate with these graduating seniors who may be toiling in obscurity while looking for their own big breaks after they graduate in May. Will they be making coffee, serving sandwiches or cater-waitering? Or rising right to the top like a host of IWU grads before them?

Wait and see... Tonight at 6 at Theater Wit.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

TIME STANDS STILL Tomorrow at Heartland Theatre

You may recall Dinner with Friends, the Donald Margulies play that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama back in 2000. In that play, Margulies took a sometimes comedic, sometimes serious look at two couples, longtime friends, and the repercussions in the lives of Couple No. 1 when Couple No. 2 split up. With a script that moved from the Humana Festival to an Off-Broadway production and then to HBO for a TV movie, Margulies showed a knack for understanding what makes relationships tick and what makes them explode.

He continues that quest to understand how we connect emotionally with other people, along with some added insight on how we connect emotionally with the world, in Time Stands Still, the 2010 Tony Award nominee that opens tomorrow night at Heartland Theatre.

On Broadway, Laura Linney played Sarah, the prickly photojournalist who was injured on the job while taking pictures of some far-off conflict, now returned to New York and wondering where she belongs, with whom, and under what circumstances. First she needs to heal on the outside, but then... Can she get married and "settle down" like normal people? Or is her mission in life to observe and record, but not get involved? How can she find a way to handle a life without bombs exploding and people dying every time she looks through her camera lens?

Cristen Susong
Cristen Susong, who has brought all kinds of warmth and charm to her roles in the past, will play Sarah for Heartland Theatre. This new character -- purposefully distant, sarcastic, antisocial -- seems like a bit of a departure for someone like Susong, who is quite clearly firmly connected to her family and her community. I asked Cristen whether she thought Sarah was as different from her as I did. After saying that she "can't help but get emotionally involved" in her world, Susong describes Sarah as "so able to compartmentalize. She takes the whole experience with Tariq [a colleague she lost] and she locks it away. She won't engage with the reality around her."

I think it's that distance, that lack of engagement, that Margulies was going for, both as an examination of the traditional role of a journalist -- to record and report, but not get involved or try to solve anything or save anyone -- and whether that's a healthy way to live, as well as a critical take on defense mechanisms. If looking at the world and its terrible troubles causes us pain, should we blind ourselves? If reaching out to other people causes us heartache, should we cut off the joy along with the sadness?

Sarah faces those questions in her relationship with her longtime boyfriend, James, played for Heartland by David Krostal, her editor, played by Harold Chapman, and the editor's much younger girlfriend, Mandy, played by Colleen Longo. Mandy looks at life from an opposite perspective from Sarah -- she's young, happy, naive, optimistic -- and that, too, gives Sarah pause.

The different moods in the script add up to a challenging directing assignment, but if anyone if up to it, it's veteran director Sandra Zielinski, who most recently took on Brecht's Mother Courage at Illinois State University, Chekhov's Three Sisters as a showcase for ISU's last class of MFA actors, and Joel Drake Johnson's dysfunctional family drama The End of the Tour for Heartland. End of the Tour also featured Cristen Susong, that time playing a wife, mother and daughter at the end of her rope. It was the family connections that were plaguing her in that play, and Sarah's life with no strings and no connections might've looked pretty attractive to poor Jan in The End of the Tour.

Time Stands Still opens tomorrow night at Heartland Theatre, with performances Thursday through Sunday from February 14 till March 3. For information about the play, click here. For reservation information, click here.

THE MOUNTAINTOP Continues This Weekend at New Route Theatre

I apologize for being under the weather and seriously late with info that you must have to celebrate your February properly.

So, apologies to New Route Theatre, which opened its production of Katori Hall's The Mountaintop last week. Hall's play imagines what might have happened in the last night in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., if he'd had the opportunity to ponder life, cigarettes and his earthly and heavenly missions with a lively debating partner -- the maid who brings his room service -- in his room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.

Early reports are that this is a terrific production, starring Gregory D. Hicks as the Reverend King and Fania Bourn as the maid, under the direction of New Route Artistic Director Don Shandrow. Fans have taken to the event's Facebook page to call it "terrific work" and note it was a "powerful presentation and a moving experience."

Performances of The Mountaintop continue Friday, Saturday and Sunday this week and next. Friday and Saturday performances are scheduled for a 7:30 pm curtain, while Sunday matinees will be at 2:30 pm.

You can secure tickets by emailing or by visiting the New Route Facebook page. Or you can purchase them at the door on the night of performance.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Auditions for MIDDLETOWN Now Set at Heartland

Director John Kirk has announced he will hold auditions for Heartland Theatre's upcoming production of Will Eno's Middletown on March 6, 7 and 8, 2013, from 7 to 9:30 pm each night.

This is how Kirk describes what he will be looking for:

"Middletown is a play by an exciting new talent in the theatre. Will Eno is writing for the most advanced and contemporary performer. His characters are trapped in 'the space between' their birth and their death. The title, Middletown, while it seems to be about a small town, echoing Our Town, it is much more than that. It suggests the dilemma of characters who are stuck in the middle of themselves and have not found a way out. They are truly lost in themselves and the performances should reveal that.

"What that means for the actor is perhaps best exemplified in this quote from Will Eno’s preface to another of his plays, Thom Pain.

The actor should, of course, be so comfortable and familiar with the script that words come out of him as if they are his own, as if he is making them up as he goes along… There are a lot of 'switchbacks' and changes-of-direction in the script. He thinks and feels quickly and changes his mind a lot; we all do. Both directions he might go in are true, each direction comes out of a real feeling and a real need to move in that particular direction at that particular time… Honor this, honor the largeness, the complicatedness, of human beings, and find a way to play it all as simply and truly as possible… Though there are many parts of the play that are meant to be funny, for the most part, [the characters are] unaware or unconcerned that what [is said] might be found humorous…

"There are 26 characters in this play. They will be played by 9 or 10 actors, so there will be lots of double and triple casting. You could play small parts and have a big role.

"The nature of the play makes character 'descriptions' inappropriate and actually probably counter-productive. The characters don’t really know who they; they are trying to find that out. They are human beings. So here’s a list with genders and approximate ages in order of appearance."

PUBLIC SPEAKER – Male 40s-60s
COP – Male 30s-50s
MRS. SWANSON – Female, late 30s
JOHN DODGE – Male, late 30s-40s
MECHANIC – Male, late 20s-30s
LIBRARIAN – Female, 50s-60s
TOUR GUIDE – Female, 20s-30s
MALE TOURIST – 30s-40s
GREG - Male, 40s-60s

Intermission Audience:
AUNT – Female, 40s-50s
SWEETHEART – Female, 12-16
FREELANCER – Male, 30s-40s
MAN – 20s-30s
WOMAN – 20s-30s
LANDSCAPER – Male, 20s-30s
MALE DOCTOR – 40s-50s
ATTENDANT #2 - Female, 20s-30s
ATTENDANT – Female, 20s-30s
JANITOR – Male, 30s-50s

Offstage Voices:
COP’S RADIO – Female
GROUND CONTROL – Male (Possibly seen onstage)
RADIO HOST (Science Show)– Male
RADIO HOST (Classical Music Show) - Female


When Middletown was performed at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, director Les Waters used a cast of ten -- five women and five men -- including Brenda Barrie, Francis Guinan, Ora Jones and Tracy Letts. In New York, Middletown's cast of twelve included Linus Roache, Georgia Engel and David Garrison in the Vineyard Theatre production directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. Kirk clearly has a plan for nine or ten, so look for something more like the Steppenwolf arrangement, where, for example, actor Tim Hopper played Public Speaker, Male Tourist, Greg, Freelancer, Male Doctor and Radio Host (Science Show), and Alana Arenas played Tour Guide, Sweetheart, Attendant #2 and Intercom.

For more information on these auditions, click here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Home Grown Musical Comedy in DOWN HOME DIVAS

Have you heard about Down Home Divas? If not, you'd better get up to speed quickly, because word  on the street is that this fundraiser for Illinois State University's Friends of the Arts scholarship program is almost sold out.

I'm not kidding. There are only a few tickets left for the one and only performance on Saturday, February 16 at 8 pm. Down Home Divas will take place inside the ISU Alumni Center at 1101 N. Main Street in Normal. Tickets are $25 and you can purchase them throught Ticketmaster or at the Center for the Performing Arts box office at ISU.

This down-home musical stars Connie de Veer, associate professor at Illinois State’s School of Theatre and Dance, and Michelle Vought, professor in ISU's School of Music, as old friends Deenie and Bee. The two were once roommates at Julliard, but life has taken them on different highways and byways since then. When they meet up again, their friendship -- and musical rivalry -- has become more a lot complicated.

Down Home Divas is based on the book by local author Nancy Steele Brokaw, who has previously written the libretto for shows like the Holiday Spectacular, Tortoise and Hare's Big Race and Fertile Ground, an original opera commissioned for Prairie Fire Theatre. Brokaw teamed with director Lori Adams on those Holiday Spectaculars, and Adams will be at the helm of Down Home Divas, as well. Pianist Matthew Merz will provide accompaniment.

Doors will open at 7 and a cash bar and hors d'oeuvres will be available at that time, with the performance beginning at 8. Wine and desserts will be served at tables during the show.

For more information or to read more detailed bios of the performers and artists behind Down Home Divas, click here.

Bashing SMASH, Season 2

So... That happened.

NBC's Smash, which was anything but a smash last season, came back last night with a two-hour premiere. There were some good things -- Krysta Rodriguez and Andy Mientus were fun and energetic as newcomers who don't figure prominently in the story and it was nice to see Derek the director, played by the dishy Jack Davenport, revealed and reviled for being a schmuck -- but a whole lot of bad, too.

Problem No. 1: Karen, played as a vapid brat by a lifeless Katharine McPhee, an American Idol runner-up, is just as unappealing, just as much of a black hole of chemistry as ever. Even without Theresa Rebeck, the show's creator, who was blamed for many of the show's first-season woes, Karen is still right there in the middle of ALL the plots, being told how fabulous and fizzy and all-around magnificent she is by everyone around her even as our eyes tell us she is a very dull girl who lacks any hint of star power. Note she also gets the lion's share of the promo image for the show, shown above. Last season, she was shown in that season's poster at the top of the ladder, giving away the big finale. This time, she has the biggest panel, where she can show off her patented vacant stare and parted lips. I think the half-open mouth thing is to make her seem dewy and vulnerable, but it only serves to make her look like she isn't very smart.

Meanwhile Ivy, her supposed rival, played by the talented Megan Hilty, an actual Broadway performer who starred in 9 to 5: The Musical and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at Encores!, keeps getting mauled and tossed around by idiotic plot devices, even though she has all the sparkle and charisma Karen lacks. The backstage scoop from Buzzfeed tells us that executive producer Steven Spielberg didn't like Hilty from the get-go and is presumably the reason her character was so mistreated. But why? Because he has a thing for McPhee and didn't want her to look bad by comparison? That's the only reason I can think of.

I suppose there is precedent for this kind of character craziness. Remember clomping, dopey Ruby Keeler going out there a kid but coming back a star in 42nd Street, while effervescent Ginger Rogers was back in the chorus? Yeah, but that was 1933. We expect a little more of our leading ladies -- and the plot machinations of our backstage musicals -- for 21st century entertainment.

To spruce up the landscape for season 2, Smash and new showrunner Josh Safran decided to lose Debra Messing's character's boyfriend and husband, as well as Karen's first-season boyfriend, Dev, and the conniving Ellis, who was the focus of a lot of viewers' ire. They've also added Jeremy Jordan, star of Broadway's Newsies and Bonnie & Clyde, to the roster to play a new boyfriend for Karen (of course). Jordan has shown he has the chops and the voice to shine, but they've written his character as the perfect smug and annoying counterpoint to smug and annoying Karen. Jolly.

Jennifer Hudson, who finished lower down the American Idol ladder than McPhee but has emerged as a much bigger star, also stopped by to act as a mentor for Karen (of course). She also blew McPhee out of the water in a duet, so there was that saving grace, I suppose. Except everyone around treated it as a triumph for Karen (of course).

Hilty also got a good number or two, although I will never understand why you'd give her a Crowded House song to sing when there are so many lovely show tunes sitting around that she could knock out of the park. Still, getting to perform a song from the show-within-the-show (the limp Marilyn Monroe musical Bombshell that they're all still pretending was a decent show, when... Please.) and saving the day at the end of the episode was cool. And Christian Borle, one of the few bright spots last season, is also still there and still nifty. But, of course, he gets about three lines and two of those are wasted on his relationship with swampy writing partner Julia, Messing's mess of a character.

Other than that... Way too much McPhee. Way too little understanding that what was lacking was a lead we could root for, a viable conflict, a feel for real Broadway excitement and energy, and a sense of justice -- or satisfaction or suspense -- in who emerged as the star. Instead, Smash is as much of a flop as Karen was in Bombshell, no matter how hard they try to convince us otherwise.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

ISU Theatre and Dance Ready to Spring Forward into 2013-14

Illinois State University's School of Theatre and Dance has announced the 2013-14 season. That means we now know what shows will be keeping ISU's directors, designers and actors busy from next fall through spring 2014.

First on the list is the angst-rock musical Spring Awakening, with music composed by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, scheduled for performances in ISU's Center for the Performing Arts. The musical is based on an 1891 play by German author Frank Wedekind which ISU produced as part of the 2007-08 season. The Sheik/Sater musical stays fairly close to Wedekind's plot, about the dangers looming for German turn-of-the-century teenagers with raging hormones whose parents purposely keep them ignorant about sex, sexuality, and the consequences of both. Glee star Lea Michele got her big break in the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions of the show in 2006, while her costars Jonathan Groff (also in Glee and then Boss as well as numerous stage roles) and John Gallagher, Jr. (recently of The Newsroom on HBO) took home two of the show's eight Tony Awards. For ISU, MFA director Matthew Scott Campbell will take the reins of Spring Awakening.

Dancing at Lughnasa at the Old Vic
Also slated for the CPA is Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, a memory play about five Irish sisters who live in the fictional town of Ballybeg in 1936. Our narrator, the son of one of the sisters, remembers a summer when he was seven, when each of the sisters yearned for something more, even though it would ultimately end in dashed dreams for each of them. Dancing at Lughnasa has been well performed regionally and since it opened at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1990, with a Broadway run and numerous Irish and English productions, including a 2009 London production with real-life sisters Niamh, Sinéad and Sorcha Cusack. There was even a movie version starring Meryl Streep as oldest sister Kate in 1998. Fresh off her Off-Broadway triumph with Falling, Lori Adams, ISU's Head of Acting, will direct.

The only fall show in Westhoff Theatre will be Send the Light, a docudrama about the coming of electricity to the countryside, created by Bloomington-Normal resident (and ISU alum) Don Shandow, with songs by another Bloomington-Normalite (and ISU alum) Phil Shaw, and incidental music by David Berchtold. Shandrow, who is also the artistic director at New Route Theatre here in town, previously produced Send the Light in 2007 and again in 2011, with a cast that included local actors like Rhys Lovell and Irene Taylor. I believe it first played at the McLean County Museum of History, and then the Eaton Gallery as part of New Route's One Shot Deal series. This time it will find itself inside the black box known as Westhoff Theatre, directed by ISU faculty Connie de Veer and Michael Vetere.

Glyn Maxwell's The Forever Waltz, a contemporary verse play that retells the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, will be the first show of the season in Centennial West 207. Maxwell is a British poet and playwright whose plays Wolfpit (written in iambic pentameter) and Broken Journey played at New York City's Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. MFA director Leah Cassella will direct The Forever Waltz, which Talkin' Broadway reviewer Lindsey Wilson called "surreal, electrifying and poetic" as well as "more precarious than any murder mystery, more intelligent than any run-of-the-mill updated myth, and certainly more twisted and intriguing than any show I have seen in quite some time."

Centennial West 207 will also house the second half of Tony Kushner's "Gay Fantasia on National Themes," also known as Angels in America Part II: Perestroika, one of the best plays of all time. Angels in America won Kushner a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and two Tony Awards for Best Play (for its two separate pieces), and it hit No. 7 on the American Theatre Critics Association list of "most significant" plays of the 20th Century. And it won another boatload of prizes -- Emmy Awards this time -- when it was made into a stunning 2003 HBO miniseries directed by Mike Nichols and starring (wait for it) Meryl Streep, along with Al Pacino, Justin Kirk, Mary Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Ben Shenkman, Patrick Wilson and original Broadway star Jeffrey Wright.

The lovely DVD cover of the HBO miniseries
Angels in America is an epic tale, set in the 1980s, concerning the AIDS plague, Mormons, Jews, human pustule and power broker Roy Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg, a drag queen turned night nurse, too much valium, the world's oldest living Bolshevik, and, of course, angels. Both parts of Angels in America have recently been revived, with critically acclaimed productions at New York's Signature Theatre (starring Star Trek's Zachary Quinto and Smash's Christian Bohrle) and Chicago's Court Theatre. I've seen both pieces of Angels in a small black box theatre -- Steven M. Keen directed them both at Urbana's Station Theatre some years ago -- and they worked beautifully. The intimacy of the setting provided challenges for Kushner's magical effects but also brought the sweetness and the pain in the story up close and personal. So we'll see what MFA director David Ian Lee does with his Perestroika in CW 207.

Angels in CW 207 and then... Fairies in the Center for the Performing Arts! ISU professor (and stage movement guru) Paul Dennhardt will direct Benjamin Britten's opera version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the beginning of 2014. Britten composed the music for this Midsummer, while Peter Pears wrote the libretto based on Shakespeare's play. Although there was a very well-regarded production of Midsummer the Opera at Chicago's Lyric Opera in 2010 (seen above), I am afraid I've never seen it. I did see (and hear) bits of Britten's Noye's Fludde in the movie Moonrise Kingdom, however, and that was charming and wonderful. This season's Midsummer (the play) should wet your whistle for the opera next year.

So who is the Mrs. Packard in Emily Mann's Mrs. Packard, scheduled for the CPA after Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream? According to materials at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre, where Mrs. Packard premiered in 2007, she was a real person sent into an insane asylum by her husband in Illinois in 1861. "Based on actual historical events, Emily Mann, author of Having Our Say, Execution of Justice, and many other acclaimed plays, creates a gripping and ultimately triumphant account of one woman's determination to right a system gone terribly wrong." This one will be directed by MFA director Vanessa Stalling, who was at the helm of The Maids last semester.

Director Leah Cassela will tackle Diana Son's Stop Kiss, an Off-Broadway hit in 1998 that explores the relationship between two women, Callie and Sara, who are attacked and beaten when they kiss on the street in New York City. Callie walks away with minor injuries, but Sara is more seriously hurt, causing repercussions that fuel the rest of the play. In an interview with Asian Week, Son said, "In the play, Callie and Sara are having their own private interaction when somebody in public is stopping them and saying, 'I have an opinion about you, I’m going to identify you.' That’s an experience I’ve had because of my ethnicity and gender, and certainly, one I’ve had because of my perceived sexuality. One day, my husband and I were walking on the street, and because I have short hair and I had on a suede jacket and jeans, when we stopped to kiss, a guy called us 'faggots.' So I can’t say that only because I am Korean American do I know what this is like; I know it from many points of view." Stop Kiss will play in Westhoff Theatre in 2014.

ISU's seasons always include Shakespeare, but the choice for 2014 will be the lesser-known Pericles, which was probably a joint effort between Will S. and a contemporary named George Wilkins. It's got all kinds of maritime mishaps, with pirates and storms and shipwrecks and a missing child named Marina (because she was born at sea). I've enjoyed Pericles both times it's appeared at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in recent memory, and I look forward to seeing what David Ian Lee does with it in Westhoff Theatre.

And finishing up the season will be The Exonerated, the gripping true story of six men and women wrongly sent to Death Row put together from interviews, letters and official documents by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. "Moving between first-person monologues and scenes set in courtrooms and prisons, the six interwoven stories paint a picture of an American criminal justice system gone horribly wrong and of six brave souls who persevered to survive it." After a successful run on stage, The Exonerated was turned into a TV movie in 2005 directed by Bob Balaban, with a cast that included Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover, Delroy Lindo and Susan Sarandon. The poster image you see at left is from that version of The Exonerated. For ISU, Cyndee Brown will direct this chilling docudrama about everything that can go wrong in the American criminal justice system.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Comedy, Nietzsche and the Meaning of Life in GROUNDHOG DAY

You know what you're supposed to be watching right now, right? Groundhog Day!

The tradition of Groundhog Day is that a large, furry rodent emerges from his burrow on February 2 of each year, and his reaction to the weather outside gives us information about how long the winter will last. If it's sunny enough for the groundhog to see his shadow, it presages six more weeks of col weather. But if it's cloudy or otherwise murky enough that he doesn't see his shadow, we can all celebrate an early spring. Go, vision-impaired groundhog!

Legend has it that Groundhog Day began in the United Stated with German settlers in Pennsylvania, as a celebration of Candemas Day. And that's why Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil is the granddad of groundhog prognosticators.

In Illinois, we have two choices (that I know of) for weather forecasting woodchucks on Groundhog Day. There's Peoria (or environs, anyway), where Gertie tells the future of the weather at the Wildlife Prairie State Park. And Woodstock, where the film Groundhog Day was filmed back in 1992. Although Woodstock was only standing in for Punxsutawney in the movie, the town has embraced the Groundhog phenomenon as if it began there.

I am happy to report that all three prime groundhog sites -- Punxsutawney, Peoria and Woodstock -- have predicted an early spring this year. Yes, that's right. No groundhog has seen his shadow today.

That gives you even more reason to celebrate by watching the movie Groundhog Day. Directed and co-written by Chicago native Harold Ramis, Groundhog Day is a lovely piece of work. Part romantic comedy, part philosophical exploration of the meaning of life, the film has been embraced by Christians, Jews and Buddhists as well as a film scholar who thinks it's a perfect illustration of Friedrich Nietzsche's "thoughts about eternal return."

The beauty of Groundhog Day is that it does all its heavy lifting, all it soul searching, with a light, sweet tone that keeps you smiling and engaged throughout. As the story of a man, a sarcastic, shallow weatherman, who keeps waking up to the same day, who can't get unstuck from Groundhog Day until he learns and grows and becomes a better person, Groundhog Day has a clear message about embracing life tucked inside the comedy. Bill Murray's patented smart-ass character works perfectly inside that conceit, and he shows what a good actor he can be with Phil the weatherman's growth arc. Andie MacDowell is just fine as the warm and sympathetic love interest, while Chris Elliott and Stephen Tobolowsky (who plays Ned Ryerson, which happens to be the name of a guy I went to high school with -- Hi, Ned!) create wonderful supporting characters.

And the screenplay, credited to Ramis and Danny Rubin, is a terrific example of why comedy works as an art form and how well it can illuminate our lives. If I'm honest, I am much more moved by this movie than any five-hankie weeper. As we near the Oscars and their annual beatification of brooding dramas about death, war and "important" topics, that's a good lesson to remember.

If Groundhog Day is on the telly today, I'm not finding it in the listings. But it is available from Netflix and Amazon, and, of course, I own a copy.

Happy Groundhog Day! You know where to find me.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Got a Fever for Live Performance in February?

 I know it's hard to get used to the fact that it's 2013, but not only are we in a new year, we're now finished with January and dipping our toes in February. No, I'm not ready for Feb. But I'm trying to pretend I am, anyway!

Community Players' production of the operatically inclined farce Lend Me a Tenor finishes up its run this weekend. You have three performances left -- 7:30 pm tonight and tomorrow night or 2:30 pm on Sunday -- with tickets available here.

Red Devils, Debbie Horsfield's play about female football fans in Manchester, England, takes the stage inside the Melba J. Kirkpatrick Lab Theatre at IWU on February 4, 5 and 6, with all performances at 8 pm. Visiting Assistant Professor Christopher Connelly directs this gritty take on "working-class characters festering from a life on the dole, a life where soccer is the only activity to stir the imagination." That quote is from an LA Times review of the play from 1993.

Eureka College's production of Myth and Bricks, a one-act by Dustin Robert Blakeman, starts February 5, with performances through the 7th. Eureka College senior Jarrod Barth directs and stars in this look at a man, a brick and the relationship between the two.

In Bloomington, New Route Theatre opens Katori Hall's The Mountaintop on February 8, with Gregory D. Hicks starring as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fania Bourn as the hotel maid he meets on the last day of his life, in a production directed by New Route Artistic Director Don Shandrow. The Mountaintop runs from February 8 to 24 at the theatre tucked inside the YWCA of McLean County. You can reserve tickets by emailing or you can purchase them at the door on the night of performance. For more information, click here for the Facebook event page for The Mountaintop.

Grammy-Award winning a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock sings in celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana on February 9. This all-female vocal group shares "the legacy of African American music through jazz, hip hop, the blues, spirituals, rap, reggae, and gospel hymns." For the complete schedule of events devoted to that sesquicentennial celebration at the University of Illinois, click here.

Although Donald Margulies' Tony-nominated play Time Stands Still looks at love, marriage and commitment, it really isn't what you'd call romantic. Instead, photojournalist Sarah is wondering whether a safe, secure life with her longtime partner James can possibly mean as much as the time she's spent recording war and strife in the world's hot spots. Love? Career? Safety? Danger? Connection? Detachment? Which of these is the most important? Sandra Zielinski directs Time Stands Still for Heartland Theatre, with Cristen Susong as Sarah and David Krostal as James, in performance beginning February 14. Click here for ticket information and here for performance dates and times.

Illinois State University's spring theatre season begins February 21 with J.B., the allegorical verse play by Archibald MacLeish that tells the Biblical story of Job, but set in a circus. Yes, that's right. Job under the Big Top, with a balloon vendor and a popcorn guy standing in for God and the Devil. MFA director Matthew Scott Campbell is at the helm of this ISU production of J.B., with a cast that includes Tommy Malouf in the Job role, Andrew Rogalny, Jr., as the godly balloon man, and Matt Hallahan as the evil popcorn seller. J.B. runs through March 2 in ISU's Westhoff Theatre. Click here for event details.

As the battle between good and evil rages inside Westhoff, ISU's Center for the Performing Arts will host Oklahoma!, the Rodgers and Hammerstein cowboys vs. farmers musical with corn as high as an elephant's eye, a surrey with fringe on top, a girl who cain't say no, and all the attendant box lunches, square dances and souvenirs from Kansas City. Will Oklahoma become a state right before your eyes? Is there any doubt? For ISU, Richard Corley directs Christie Duffer and Robbie Holden as Laurey and Curley, the couple who might just be in love, in this Oklahoma! The show opens February 22 and closes March 2. To see a list of performance dates and ticket information, click here.
Oklahoma? OK!

Over in Urbana, the Station Theatre warms up with Stephen Karam's provocative Sons of the Prophet from February 21 to March 9. The play, which explores a hard-luck family who may be descended from Kahlil GIbran, author of The Prophet, was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. Longtime Celebration Company member Gary Ambler will direct Sons of the Prophet in the Station's cozy confines.

Liz (left) and Ann Hampton Callaway
On the 22nd, the University of Illinois' Krannert Center for the Performing Arts hosts sisters Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway and Boom!, their musical revue for Baby Boomers and everyone else who enjoys the song stylings of Carole King, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and Joni Mitchell. Click here for more information.

Illinois Wesleyan is offering a little Shakespeare to brighten your February days, with As You Like It, the romantic comedy set in the Forest of Arden, playing February 26-28 and March 1-3 at McPherson Theatre. Assistant Professor Thomas Quinn directs.

And closing out the month, the Opera Program Series from U of I's School of Music presents a semi-staged concert version of My Fair Lady, featuring all the music and the dialogue from the Lerner and Loewe musical. You can see this concert, featuring the work of Eduardo Diazmunoz, Artistic Director and Conductor (as well as chair of the Opera program at U of I), director Ricardo Herrera, and choreographer Rebecca Nettl-Fiol on February 28 and March 1, 2 and 3. For more information about this My Fair Lady, click here.