Sunday, June 30, 2013

Verdi's AIDA from MIO Today at 3

The Midwest Institute of Opera will offer a concert version of Verdi's Aida this afternoon at 3 pm at the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts.

Verdi's four-act opera about a pair of ill-fated lovers in ancient Egypt has been an audience favorite since its first performance in 1871. Over the years, Aida has seen notable performances by sopranos Teresa Stolz, Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price and Montserrrat Caballé as Aida; tenors Richard Tucker, Jussi Björling, Jon Vickers and Placido Domingo as her lover Radames; and conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti and Zubin Mehta with the baton.

For the Midwest Institute of Opera, Cara Chowing conducts, with soprano Tracy Marie Koch in the role of Aida; tenor Tod Kowallis as her Radames; mezzo soprano Allison Robertson as Amneris, the daughter of the Egyptian king and a thorn in the Aida/Radames romance; baritone John M. Koch as Amonasro, Aida's father; bass baritone Anthony Gullo as high priest Ramfis, and bass Richard Schacht as the Egyptian king. Pianist Byul Nim La will accompany this concert staging of the opera.

The MIO version of Aida will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. Tickets are $10 and are available at the door. You may also call the ISU CPA Box Office at 309-438-2535 an hour prior to the show. Note that tickets purchased at the door must be paid for in cash.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Another Don't Miss -- NOTORIOUS -- on TCM at Midnight

The programmers at Turner Classic Movies have certainly had my number this month, what with all the film noir and a focus on screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, who specialized in romantic comedy.

Last week, they aired Holiday, the Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn comedy that sits at the top of my all-time favorite list. And now, tonight, we get Notorious, not the, but a 1946 suspense classic directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Ingrid Bergman as a bad girl, one Alicia Huberman, and Cary Grant as the dark and dangerous spy who's keeping an eye on her. He's keeping a few other things on her, too, and it's that combination of seduction, betrayal and danger that makes Notorious so delicious.

Cary Grant may have created the perfect screen hero using elegance and charm, intelligence and mischief, to make an indelible mark on film. Notorious shows off his dark side. And that is a very good side for Mr. Grant.

Even aside from Grant's drop-dead gorgeous, drop-dead sardonic spy, there's a lot to love about Notorious. Ingrid Bergman is a wonderful partner for him. He's all sharp edges, while she's all soft doubt and sensuality. You believe in the attraction as well as the doubts. Hitchcock makes sure of that.

The plot sets her up as the daughter of a Nazi convicted of treason to the United States in a very public trial. So she's the notorious one, since everyone suspects her of aiding and abetting Dad. Plus she's been known to drink and party too much, making her reputation even worse. Enter Cary Grant as Devlin, the cynical spy who woos her long enough to get her to go after one of Dad's former compatriots, now living the good life in Brazil.

That compatriot is Alexander Sebastian, a small, seemingly sweet man who has a battle-ax of a mother and some very nasty friends. The elegant and urbane Claude Rains turns Sebastian into one of Hitchcock's best villains, someone who is warm and sympathetic, clearly smitten with Bergman's Alicia, even as he plots with Nazis on the side.

The romantic complication for Devlin and Alicia is that it's his job to get her to seduce Sebastian, and to clear her name from her father's evil deeds, she has to do it, even though the two are really in love with each other. That is a pretty dandy conflict as conflicts go.

So Alicia goes through with it, playing on Sebastian's major crush to get herself into his life and his household. And then the games really begin, building to a swanky party where she has to steal a key to the champagne cellar, trade the key to Dev right under Sebastian's nose, get into the wine cellar to find the hidden uranium (I'm not making this up!) and get back to the party before anyone is the wiser. Uranium! Poison! Champagne! Jealousy! Jeopardy!

It's really, really good stuff.

I cannot recommend Notorious highly enough. It's just that good. And it begins tonight at midnight (Central time) on Turner Classic Movies.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


If it's June, it must be time for the Young at Heartland Summer Showcase! This is the tenth anniversary of the founding of Heartland Theatre's senior acting troupe, and they're celebrating that milestone by performing some of their favorite scenes from past shows. And that includes some scenes written by Young at Heartland members themselves. This year's Showcase features 21 actors in eleven short scenes, performed on stage at Heartland Theatre on Friday, June 28, at 1 pm.

The gift of Young at Heartland keeps on giving.

Young at Heartland actors prepare and workshop their scenes during two-month class sessions held with a special instructor every Spring and Fall. This year, recent ISU masters degree recipient Sarah Salazar headed up the classes, assisted by Misti Crossland, who filled that function last year. Founder and Program Director Ann B. White has once again shepherded the troupe in class and out, as they took their act on the road to the senior centers, churches and civic groups who keep their schedule full.

The Summer Showcase gives Young at Heartland performers an opportunity to show the general public what they've been working on. And it's always a popular event. Reservations are not taken, as it is purely first-come, first-served seating. That means that when the doors open at 12:40 pm, you are advised to be there! Admission is free, although donations are recommended.

For more information on Heartland Theatre or the Young at Heartland program, click the links under their names or call 309-452-870. The entire summer schedule is available here.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Everybody Ought to Have DEVIOUS MAIDS

At almost the same moment the series Desperate Housewives locked its doors, creator Marc Cherry was in the news for a pilot he was pitching to ABC. It was called Devious Maids and it was based on a Mexican TV series that was itself inspired by Desperate Housewives. But ABC passed on the Maids pitch the day after Desperate Housewives aired its finale. Lucky for Mr. Cherry and for fans of his Housewives, Lifetime picked it up a few weeks later, and they're starting it tomorrow as a bit of tasty summer entertainment.

Instead of focusing on four upper middle-class women -- one blonde, one redhead, and two brunettes, including one Latina -- all living on the same suburban street, as Desperate Housewives did, Maids looks at five Latina women, the domestic help of the very rich in Los Angeles. There's the same quirky pop style you'll recognize from Housewives, and both series begin with a death. In Housewives, it was the suicide of a member of the inner circle that jumpstarted the action. In Maids, it's the murder of a pretty, unhappy servant named Flora. But the bright colors, the ironic tone, the notion that underneath the patina of paradise lie some very dark secrets...

It all looks very Desperate for these Devious Maids. Without a narrator, however. In the former, the dead lady gave us voice-overs to cue the current action. This time out, we're on our own with beautiful, scheming Carmen (Roselyn Sanchez), working for a superstar recording artist and trying to catch his eye and her own train to stardom; sweet Rosie (Dania Ramirez), trying desperately to get her son to America; cynical Zoila (Judy Reyes), who works for a neurotic socialite (played by Susan Lucci) who'd be perfect for a Real Housewives show; Zoila's daughter Valentina (Edy Ganem), who has a thing for the boss's son; and Marisol (Ana Ortiz), who has ulterior motives for taking the maid gig.

The various heads of households include different kinds of crazy, with a whole lot of narcissism and privilege front and center. Butterfly (and maid) collector Adrian Powell (Tom Irwin) and his nutball wife Evelyn (Rebecca Wisocky) lead the parade -- it was their maid who was knifed during a dinner party -- with a lawyer (Brett Cullen) and his trophy wife (Brianna Brown) and a soap star (Grant Show) married to a very ambitious actress (Mariana Klaveno) rounding out the list of suspects. Er, employers.

I enjoyed the first episode, which is available at Lifetime, the Internet Movie Database and Hulu, if you'd care to take a look before the official debut tomorrow. The lead players are certainly attractive, and it helps that I recognize (and like) most of them from their previous work. Sanchez is as stunning as she was on Without a Trace, it's nice to see Reyes again since Scrubs was canceled, Ortiz was one of the best things about Ugly Betty, and Susan Lucci needs no introduction to anyone who ever saw All My Children. Tom Irwin, meanwhile, is a Peoria native and ISU alum, Matt Cedeno, who plays superstar Alejandro Rubio, the one Sanchez's Carmen is trying to hook, came from Days of Our Lives, and Melinda Page Hamilton, who has an odd role as a Slavic taskmaster running Rubio's household, had a memorable turn as the first Mrs. Draper on Mad Men. Valerie Mahaffey, who sticks in my mind for her role as the bad date who was into papier-mâché (with over-the-top French pronunciation) on Seinfeld, also pops up in the pilot as an unwelcome first wife.

And there's also Rebecca Wisocky, someone I remember from Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays, as the looniest tune in a loony symphony. Not sure how her character arc is going to turn out. I may be tired of her wild eyes and over-the-top insanity very quickly. Okay, I'm already tired of it. So maybe she can be the next knifing victim.

Devious Maids airs Sunday nights at 9 Central on Lifetime. There are 13 episodes in this initial order, and if the ratings are good, there may be more. I'm sort of torn -- it would be nice to tie up all the plotlines they've started in those 13 and keep it fresh, plus I'd like to see Susan Lucci back on All My Children and the stereotype of all the crazy, selfish beyotches with money is tiresome -- but, on the other hand, it is fun, and it's giving work to some talented actresses who deserve to be seen. I suggest you tune in for the premiere (or sneak-peek it at one of the links above, if you'll be glued to the Mad Men finale like me) and make up your own mind. If you liked Desperate Housewives, this may just be your cup of tea. With un poco de arsénico on the side.

Friday, June 21, 2013

JEKYLL & HYDE Opens Tonight at Eastlight in East Peoria

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Hyde, the scary horror/sci fi novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, may seem like odd material for a Broadway musical. But when you find out that Frank Wildhorn was behind it, things become a little more clear.

Jekyll & Hyde was actually Wildhorn's first stage musical success -- before its premiere at Houston's Alley Theatre in 1990, Wildhorn was best known for writing a hit single for Whitney Houston and adding a few songs for the stage version of Victor Victoria -- but by 1999, Wildhorn had three shows on Broadway at the same time, with Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War all in theatres on the Great White Way.

All three shows feature Wildhorn's trademark pop power ballads and dark, sweepy themes of identity and conflict, leading the way to Dracula the Musical, Wonderland and Bonnie and Clyde, the 2011 musical that scored a Theatre World Award for Jeremy Jordan (of Newsies and TV's Smash), with Tony nominations for his costar, Laura Osnes, and for Wildhorn's score (with lyrics by Don Black).

Wildhorn is credited with conceiving of Jekyll & Hyde with Steve Cuden, writing the music, and co-writing the and lyrics with Cuden and Leslie Bricusse. That score include huge, breakout songs like "This Is the Moment" and "Someone Like You," and a song called "Confrontation" where the actor playing Dr. Jekyll does a duet with himself and his alter ego of Mr. Hyde. Now that's not something you see every day.

East Peoria's Eastlight Theatre opens its production of big, bad Jekyll & Hyde tonight with a 7:30 pm performance. Chip Joyce directs, with a cast that includes Jarod Hazzard as both halves of the Jekyll/Hyde personality, River Stanford as Emma, Jekyll's fiancee, and Julia Myers as Lucy, the less reputable romantic interest originally portrayed by Linda Eder, who was married to Wildhorn from 1998 to 2004 and is widely considered the foremost interpreter of his songs.

Others in the Eastlight cast include Bruce Colligan as Utterson, Jekyll's friend and lawyer; George Maxedon as his father-in-law-to-be Sir Danvers Carew; and Ryan Campen, Aaron Elwell, Eric Gore, Jeff Joyce, Joe Nohl, Kelleen Purdin, Carole Rogers, Rex Urban, Scott Whitmore and Kevin Wickart as various associates and victims of either Dr. Jekyll or the dark, destructive Mr. Hyde. Jerrod Barth, Brianna Cross, Jessica Duffy, Jameson Duggan, Cody Jacobs, Anna Nabhan, Lacy Papazis, Jessie Pilcher, Blisse Stanford, Matt Stubbs, Christopher Tam, Tamera Turner and Jacob Van Hoorn make up the ensemble.

You can get more information by visiting the event's Facebook page or the Eastlight website, or arrange tickets online by clicking here.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Post-Show Panel Discussion Opens Up All of Heartland's "Packages"

I've mentioned a few times that I am working on Heartland's annual 10-Minute Play Festival again this summer, and in fact, I am a bit more up close and personal with the production side of it than in recent years, since this year, I am acting again. With two weeks of performances finished, the cast and crew will begin the second half of the run tonight at 7:30 pm, opening up the eight winning Package Plays (all written to include some sort of package or parcel, which I will detail for you in a moment) for two more weekends and eight more performances.

Every year, we give playwrights a topic -- sometimes a place or location, like the back porch and the coffeeshop in past years, and sometimes a more general concept, like "One Shoe" or this year's "Package, Parcel or Present" -- and then we sit back and wait to see how that fires the playwriting imagination. I'm not going to give away everything (you'll need to come to the panel discussion to hear the whole list) but I will tell you that we saw a lot of spies and a lot of ashes this time out. Why did the notion of a package conjure up ideas of spies and cremains for playwrights? Something in the zeitgeist, I suspect. (It wasn't in the water. We got 0 water plays. I'm sure 17 Ashes, 0 Water says something...)

And this weekend, after the 2 pm Sunday matinee, we will undertake the annual panel discussion reflecting on the process of reading and evaluating this year's ten-minute plays. First-round judges Ron Emmons, Holly Rocke and Todd Wineburner and I will discuss what we did and how we did it with the 302 short plays submitted this year, and also offer some insight into what kinds of plays we saw this time out. In other words, if you attend this year's Festival, you will see before you eight little plays that survived three rounds of judging, a host of different opinions, frequently a request for reformatting or revision, and sometimes even a spirited argument or two.

In any event, you have eight chances left to see all the parcels, bags and briefcases for yourself. Click here for performance dates and times and here to read more about Heartland Theatre's 10-Minute Plays.

To get you started, here are the eight plays presented this year and the package(s) each brings to the stage. (Please note that the images below are merely representative and not the exact items you'll see on stage.)

A shopping bag.

A shoebox.

DO NOT OPEN by Candace Perry
A large Fed Ex box.

MINCED SPIES by Doc Watson
A small parcel hidden inside a newspaper.

THE CHEESECAKE PLAY by John Frusciante
A Junior's Cheesecake shipping container.

A MILLION TIMES OVER by Molly Campbell
A ring box, a hat box, and several other boxes of varying sizes.

LAST CALL by James McLindon
A bowling bag.

A briefcase. Or maybe more than one briefcase. And maybe a purple rhinoceros. Or maybe not.

If you've already seen the plays, this should be a handy refresher. If you haven't, you can ponder what exactly is happening with each of these and then come out to Heartland to see if you're right.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I've Got This Thing for Ed Asner...

Ed Asner as Lou Grant
I've had a crush on Edward Asner since way back in the late 70s, when Lou Grant was my favorite TV show. Lou Grant was an A+ drama spun off from an A+ comedy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where Asner originally played Mary's crusty-yet-benign boss in the newsroom at WJM, a small television station in Minneapolis. Lou Grant moved Lou out of TV and into the print journalism biz, as he went west to Los Angeles to take over as city editor of a daily newspaper called the LA Tribune. Lou worked for his own crusty-yet-benign boss, blue-blood Mrs. Pynchon, played by the wonderful Nancy Marchand.

Lou Grant won some 12 Emmy Awards in its day, including two for Asner as Best Actor, as well as a Peabody and two Humanitas Prizes. Asner has won a total of seven primetime Emmys, with one for his performance in Roots, one for Rich Man, Poor Man, and three for his supporting role as Lou Grant on Mary Tyler Moore.

More recently, Asner provided the voice of crusty-yet-benign Carl Fredericksen, the man who attaches balloons to his house to fly away in Pixar's Up and returned to Broadway last year alongside Paul Rudd in a play by Craig Wright called Grace.

So why am I writing about Ed Asner now? Because he's scheduled to be in Chicago this weekend as part of a 60th anniversary celebration of the Playwrights Theatre Club, which began in 1953 and paved the way for the famous Second City troupe. The reunion event will bring together other luminaries with Playwrights Theatre Club connections like Helen Axelrood, Rolf Forsberg, George Goritz, Zohra Lampert, Sheldon Patinkin, Joyce Piven, Joann Shapiro, David Shepherd and Carol Sills, all part of a panel discussion to be moderated by Chris Jones from The Chicago Tribune.

Second City is holding this celebration at 3 pm on Sunday the 23rd at the UP Comedy Club at 230 West North Ave, on the second floor of Piper's Alley. And it's FREE. You can make reservations by contacting The Second City box office at 312-337-3992 or reserve online at The doors open at 2:15.

Here's what The Second City had to say about the Playwrights Theatre Club when it announced the event:
"The Playwrights Theatre Club was started in Chicago in the early 1950s by a group of young theater pioneers. Founded by David Shepherd, Paul Sills and Eugene Troobnick, Playwrights Theatre Club appeared on the scene in June 1953 with a production of Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. In two years, the company presented nearly thirty productions, with the company members, several of whom lived in the theatre, making all sets and costumes themselves. In addition to show rehearsals, company members regularly played Theater Games (now considered the basis of improvisational theater) created by Sills' mother, Viola Spolin. This training prepared the group for their rechristening as The Compass Players in 1955. The Compass Players opened their doors in a new, larger and air-conditioned space on July 5, 1955, presenting regular improvisational theater shows, the predecessor to the legendary form The Second City is known for today. Roger Bowen, Elaine May and Barbara Harris are among the many notable performers in the original Compass Players."
I won't be able to be there -- I've got a performance of the 10-Minute Play Festival at Heartland Theatre at the same time -- but I will be thinking about Ed Asner and celebrating his career in my own way, all the same. Maybe I'll watch some episodes of Lou Grant on Hulu (as I continue to hope they'll fill in the last two seasons so I can see the "Double Cross" episode, one of my favorites. My other favorite, "Hollywood," was in season 3 and available right now. WOOO!) Or maybe I'll watch Up, where the animated Mr. Fredericksen looks a great deal like the current version of Mr. Asner (see below). But however I choose to visit the Ed Asner archives, I'll be thinking about you, Ed!

Edward Asner, 2013
Note: While I was writing this piece, I discovered that Bernie Sahlins, legendary Second City founder who was also scheduled to be part of this event (he was a founder of the Playwrights Theatre Club, as well), had passed away just two days ago at the age of 90. No word yet on how that will affect the planned 60th anniversary event but there is also no word that it has been canceled. In fact, it may serve as a memorial of sorts for Sahlins, given that he was expected to be there and so many of the others attendees are his old friends. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Curious Case of the Daytime Emmys in a World With Only Four Soaps

Ah, the Daytime Emmys. There used to be a time when those babies were handed out in posh ceremonies broadcast on major networks in primetime. Now it's a Sunday night on HLN. (What is HLN, anyway? Home and Living Network? Apparently it's HeadLine News, formerly CNN Headline News. Learn something new every day...)

The Daytime Emmy Awards Show took place last night at the Beverly Hilton in California, where all of the soaps remaining on the air happen to be filmed. I am going to guess that most of the other programs honored are also based in LA, but that's just a guess. I have no knowledge of where they produce things like Trisha's Southern Kitchen and Dr. Oz. Or, for that matter, Morning Express, Showbiz Tonight or Good Morning America, which furnished this year's hosts for the Emmy show. I have a hard time believing that something called Showbiz Tonight is actually broadcast during the daytime, but it doesn't matter. Let's just say hosts Sam Champion, A.J. Hammer and Robin Meade, who apparently hail from the aforementioned shows, were completely unknown to me, as well as terrible hosts, and leave it at that.

In any event, the Daytime Emmys are much less of a soap opera event than a chat show/kids show/cooking show event now, mostly because there are only four daytime dramas left. The Bold and the Beautiful, Days of Our Lives, General Hospital and The Young and the Restless are it for network TV, although All My Children and One Life to Live have resurfaced on Hulu, and One Life to Live's last episodes on ABC were apparently recent enough to garner nominations for editing, writing and for the show itself. And wouldn't it have been funny if a show that hasn't been on ABC since January 13, 2012 had won all three of those awards?

Well, it didn't happen.

In an upset, Days of Our Lives took Best Drama, while The Bold and the Beautiful swept the directing and writing awards, as well taking home Best Actress for Heather Tom and sharing half of the Best Supporting Actor award, where B&B's Scott Clifton tied with Billy Miller of The Young and the Restless. Doug Davidson, also of The Young and the Restless, won Best Actor, and Julie Berman, who left General Hospital in February of this year, won Best Supporting Actress for her GH role as Lulu Spencer.

Kristen Alderson, who moved her character of Starr Manning over from One Life to Live to GH when the former show was canceled, won Best Younger Actress for playing Starr on GH, even though the internet reprise of One Life means she isn't allowed to play Starr anymore for legal reasons involving who owns the characters that originated in One Life's Llanview. Got that?

The Younger Actor award is a bit less complicated. Chandler Massey won that one for his role as Will Horton on Days of Our Lives, which he has played since 2009. Massey took the same award last year.

In other areas, CBS Sunday Morning was named Best Morning Show, Best Thing I Ever Made and Tricia's Southern Kitchen tied in the Culinary category, and Dr. Oz, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Price Is Right picked up awards as Best Talk Show (Informative), Best Talk Show (Entertainment) and Best Game Show.

Host awards went to Ricki Lake, whose talk show was canceled after one season, Ben Bailey of Cash Cab, and chef Lidia Bastianich, whose name was massively mispronounced by "Skinnygirl" presenter Bethenny Frankel. Yeah, she was definitely skinny.

The highlights of the evening included Corbin Bernsen swearing up a storm as he did an impression of his late mother, Jeanne Cooper, who was part of this year's In Memoriam reel; everybody else expressing their awe at the presence of George Lucas, who won an Emmy for the animated show Star Wars: The Clone Wars on the Cartoon Network; and Julie Marie Berman's obvious shock at winning Best Supporting Actress for a role she is no longer playing.

Otherwise... Good heavens, those hosts were terrible. Or maybe it was just all the technical miscues that were not their fault. But I have to think some of the soap stars, talk show or game show hosts hanging around would've rolled with the punches much better. I can't imagine Alex Trebek or Wayne Brady having that sort of trouble. Or, you know, Ellen DeGeneres.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

TCM Celebrates Esther Williams with 24 Hours of Aquatics

When Esther Williams passed away last week, she remained the only movie star from MGM's Golden Age who'd parlayed swimming prowess into movie musicals. Johnny Weismuller became Tarzan, but Esther Williams became America's Mermaid, the centerpiece of technicolor extravaganzas set in and around swimming pools, where Busby Berkeley choreographed elaborate water ballets involving bevvies of beauties in bathing suits. Williams did appear on land occasionally -- most notably in Take Me Out to the Ball Game opposite Gene Kelly -- but she was most famous for her water work in movies like Million Dollar Mermaid. And when her career as a professional mermaid was done, Williams became an advocate of synchronized swimming and launched a line of swim suits.

To celebrate Esther Williams' unique place in Hollywood history, Turner Classic Movies is devoting 24 hours to her oeuvre, starting with 1944's Bathing Beauty at 7 pm Central time. In that one, Williams plays a swimming teacher at a girls' school whose boyfriend, played by Red Skelton, enrolls to be near her.

That will be followed by Neptune's Daughter, where she is paired with Ricardo Montalban, at 9 pm Central, Million Dollar Mermaid, perhaps her most famous film, at 10:45 pm, and Dangerous When Wet, with Williams cast opposite her future husband Fernando Lamas, at 12:45. Like Williams, Lamas had been a swimming champ in his youth. Dangerous When Wet also featured a number where Williams cavorted underwater with cartoon characters Tom and Jerry.

And after that, TCM is offering nine more movies, all the way through Texas Carnival, which starts at 5:30 pm Central Time on Friday. If you decide to stick around for the whole film fest, you'll get plenty of over-the-top aquatic hijinks, music and comedy from Williams and costars like Jimmy Durante, Howard Keel and Van Johnson. Check out the whole schedule here.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Tony Tony Tony!

The Tony Awards are a wonderful night for those who follow what's happening on Broadway, and pretty much of a mystery to everyone else. So while I was at home thinking that Laura Benanti looked lovely and OMG, Patina Miller's water-color dress was awesome, aren't Santino Fontana and Laura Osnes just the cutest Prince Charming and Cinderella ever, wow, Christopher Durang doesn't look like I remember, and how does Martha Lavey not know where stage right is, I'm sure most people who happened across the telecast while trying to find Game of Thrones or the NBA finals were all, WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE AND WHAT ARE THEY SHOUTING ABOUT?

There were non-whos, there, of course, like nominees Tom Hanks, the most A+++-list movie star of our time, Glee's Jane Lynch, David Hyde Pierce of Frasier fame, and Tony Shalhoub, TV's Monk. Some of the presenters -- Jesse Einseberg, Sally Field, Jake Gyllenhaal, Scarlett Johansson, Zachary Quinto -- also brought movie cred, while Mike Tyson brought... I don't know what he brought. But he was there.

And host Neil Patrick Harris brought his chutzpah, charm, TV icon status and Broadway connections back once again to shepherd the whole thing from beginning to end. The Tony Awards? Well, maybe more like *NEIL PATRICK HARRIS* presents the tony awards.

I know, I know. Everybody loved his opening number, built around the idea of the show going BIGGER this year, combining bits from each of the nominated musicals, with a little Pippin magic, some cheerleaders from Bring It On and a girl group from Motown, Kinky Boots booting their way on stage, waltzing couples from Cinderella, and more kids (Annie, Matilda, Christmas Story) than you can shake a stick at, plus some shoutouts to past winners like Once and Newsies and Billy Elliot. I thought it was okay, but found the lyrics less than connected to the idea of making the show bigger. And I could've done without Mike Tyson and the bit about Berry Gordy banging Diana Ross. I mean, really?

I preferred the second number, the one written by Michael John LaChiusa to lampoon all the Broadway stars who flock to TV shows and then kinda, sorta don't make it. In the wake of NBC slaughtering Go On, Smash, and The New Normal, amazingly talented stars Laura Benanti, Megan Hilty and Andrew Rannells were more than welcome center-stage, showing just how wasted they were playing second fiddles on TV, anyway. Plus they got to sing LaChiusa's funny lyrics to music from West Side Story, Gypsy and Company, with Benanti pretending to be drunk so she could sashay her way through a "Here's to the actors with shows" version of Stephen Sondheim's "Ladies Who Lunch" (fabulous!) and then all three joining NPH to sing a take-off on "What I Did for Love" from A Chorus Line that ended with Hilty singing about how she'd done TV not for love, but for "the chance for producers and directors and writers and casting agents and just, well, everybody to see me and love me because after all, that's essentially what we all crave. Because nobody ever hugged us as children which is how we got into this business in the first place. Especially you, Neil."

Y'all can keep your opening number. I'm sticking with THIS one as the best Tony number ever.

Other highlights included Steppenwolf Theater's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf winning Best Revival, plus Best Director for Pam MacKinnon and Best Actor for Tracy Letts, doing Chicago proud and showing that Hollywood star power is not the be-all and end-all on Broadway. (Sorry, Tom Hanks. You're going to have to wait a little longer to get the T in your future EGOT.)

Surprisingly, the person who is now closest to filling out her EGOT is Cyndi Lauper, who added a T for Tony to the Emmy and Grammys she already owns by virtue of winning Best Score for the musical Kinky Boots. Kinky Boots also took Best Musical, edging out Matilda, even if the Kinky Franken-number we saw on the awards show seemed like a rehash of 9 to 5 stitched together with a little Full Monty, La Cage aux Folles and Pajama Game. Or, you know, nothing new here, even if its heart is in the right place and the crazy shoes are a lot of fun. Not that I am begrudging Kinky its Tonys. It certainly seemed more interesting than Matilda, which looked like Spring Awakening, Grammar School Edition.  Who puts a big sign that says "revolting" at the back of the stage when they don't want you to think their show is, I don't know, revolting?

Just to make for an overall dandy night for the Kinky crowd, the show also won for lead actor Billy Porter, who plays the main drag queen who helps restore the shoe factory at the center of the plot, Jerry Mitchell's choreography, Stephen Oremus' orchestrations and John Shivers' sound design.

The revival of Pippin, with its emphasis on the circus, acrobatics and a recreation of the original Fosse moves, took awards for Best Revival of a Musical, Best Director of a Musical Diane Paulus, leading actress Patina Miller (in the Ben Vereen role), and featured actress Andrea Martin (of SCTV fame), while Matilda the Musical took home awards for Best Featured Actor in a Musical Gabriel Evert, Dennis Kelly's book, Rob Howell's scenic design and Hugh Vanstone's lighting design. Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella picked up Best Costume Design for William Ivey Long..

Paulus and MacKinnon together make 2013 the first time since 1998, when Julie Taymor and Garry Hynes were honored for their direction of The Lion King and The Beauty Queen of Lenane, respectively, that female directors won both the big prizes.

The late Nora Ephron was the lone woman nominated for her writing, but the Tony voters went with playwright Christopher Durang, giving him his first Tony for the dysfunctional family comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Veteran Cicely Tyson was named Best Actress for her work in the revival of The Trip to Bountiful, while Lucky Guy's Courtney B. Vance won Best Actor in a Featured Role and Judith Light, last year's winner in the same category, took home Best Actress in a Featured Role for The Assembled Parties.

John Lee Beatty was honored for his scenic design, Ann Roth for her costume design and Leon Rothenberg for his sound design, all for The Nance, with Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer from Lucky Guy awarded the Tony for Best Lighting Design in a Play.

Check out the Tony site for complete info, lots of pictures and videos, and all the acceptance speeches, too. For the fashion report, Tom and Lorenzo are on top of it. My own Best Dressed award goes to Patina Miller and her big, beautiful gown, with Cicely Tyson's purple people eater and Debra Messing's Donna Reed dress from 1953 at the bottom of the list.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Tracy Letts Is Taking Over the Universe

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Tracy Letts has been big news for Chicago and Steppenwolf Theatre for quite some time, what with his play August: Osage County tearing it up all over the place (Pulitzer Prize, five Tony Awards, six Jeff Awards) and then getting made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Before that, plays like Killer Joe and Bug also did quite well, with lots of productions and movie versions of their own, Superior Donuts also made it to Broadway, and Man from Nebraska garnered him his first Pulitzer nomination.

Letts' playwriting is one thing, but he's also an actor to be reckoned with. His appearance opposite Amy Morton in the Steppenwolf production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (shown above) that transferred to Broadway last year has earned him a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination in the Leading Actor category. A lot of pundits are assuming that Tom Hanks will win the Tony, but given the Drama Desk... I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Letts took home off that one, too.

And now he and actress Carrie Coon, who played Honey in that Virginia Woolf, have announced their engagement.

You might think there isn't anything else Mr. Letts could possibly fit into his schedule, but you would be wrong. Come September, Letts will be starring on Showtime's Homeland, the Emmy magnet about spies, moles and international terrorists. He'll be playing a tough United States Senator who heads up a committee trying to piece together what happened that blew the lid off U.S. intelligence in the previous season.

Amy Morton, Letts' costar in Virginia Woolf, also Tony-nominated, will appear on Homeland, as well, playing a lawyer assigned to represent Claire Danes' CIA agent Carrie Mathison. That should make for a very Steppenwolfy season of Homeland.

So far, Letts has the Pulitzer and a Tony as the playwright behind August: Osage County. All he needs is an Oscar for the August screenplay and an Emmy for Homeland, and he'll have scored EPOT status, which is a lot better than the usual EGOT, anyway, right? Or maybe Letts can pull a Grammy out of his pocket, too, and put himself in the lofty EPGOT category currently occupied by only Richard Rodgers and Marvin Hamlisch.

Tom Hanks, his rival for this year's Tony, is working on an EGOT from the other side, since he already has the Oscar and the Emmy. Maybe the two can collaborate on something Grammy-worthy together...

To find out which one gets the Tony for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Play, watch the Tony Awards airing Sunday.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Chicago's Jeff Awards Honor the Best in 2012 Non-Equity Productions

Chicago's Joseph Jefferson Awards for non-Equity productions were handed out earlier this week, with When the Rain Stops Falling, an Australian play produced by Circle Theatre, Under a Rainbow Flag, a Pride Films and Plays musical production, and Smokey Joe's Cafe, a revue from Theo Ubique Cabaret, coming away with Best Production honors in the play, musical and revue categories.

When the Rain Stops Falling, a 2008 play by Andrew Bovell that looks into family ties and troubles over a span of eight decades and four generations, also won for director John Gawlik and projection designer Kevin Bellie at Circle Theatre, while Theo Ubique director Brenda Didier and musical director Jeremy Ramey were honored for their contributions to Smokey Joe's Cafe, a celebration of the 20th century pop songbook of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Pride Films and Plays had a world premiere with Leo Schwartz's Under a Rainbow Flag, a musical look at the lives of gay soldiers during World War II performed at Profiles Theatre in March and April, 2012. In addition to the Best Musical prize, Rainbow Flag earned a Best New Work award for Leo Schwartz, who wrote the score and the book.

Paul Edwards won Best Adaptation for his version of Peyton Place created for City Lit.

Acting honors were spread around different theaters and productions, with Blake Montgomery singled out for his solo performance in Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs 'A Christmas Carol.' Again, which he created and performed at the Building Stage, Lindsey Pearlman taking Best Actress in a Principal Role in a Play for her role as the female half of a pair of twins with love troubles in Never the Bridesmaid at Polarity Ensemble Theatre, Kelli Harrington winning Best Actress in a Principal Role in a Musical for her role as a French actress with love troubles in Aspects of Love at Theo Ubique, Jeremy Trager named Best Actor in a Principal Role in a Play for playing the man accused of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby in Hauptmann at Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, and Peter Oyloe winning Best Actor in a Principal Role in a Musical for playing the title role in Hank Williams: Lost Highway with Filament Theatre Ensemble.

Supporting actor honors went to Walter Briggs as the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie at Mary-Arrchie, Jason Richards as one of the puppeteers in Avenue Q at NightBlue Performing Arts, Felisha McNeal as Lola, the middle generation in Cheryl West's family drama Jar the Floor at eta Creative Arts Foundation, and Danni Smith, who played multiple roles in Michael John LaChuisa's See What I Wanna See at Bailiwick Chicago.

The cast of Sideshow Theatre Company's production of Idomenus, a rewind and replay of Roland Schimmelpfennig's musing on the mythological tale of a King of Crete who made a terrible promise, was named Best Ensemble.

The Den Theatre's City of Dreadful Night picked up awards for its scenic design by Henry Behel, lighting design by Cat Wilson and incidental music composed by Mikey Moran, while Hell in a Handbag's Sexy Baby won Best Costume Design for Kate Setzer Kamphausen.

You can see the complete list of nominees and winners here. As always, the Non-Equity Jeff Awards paint a colorful picture of what's been happening at Chicago's creative, original small theaters.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

FIDDLER Is Back on the Roof in Sullivan

Do you wish you were a rich man? Do you depend upon tradition? Is "Sunrise, Sunset" the theme song to all of your family videos and slide shows?

Fiddler on the Roof may be about a Jewish milkman and his five daughters in Tsarist Russia, but its themes are more expansive than that. Trying to survive and to hang onto a sense of family and joy in the midst of upheaval and change is pretty much what the world has always been about.

Tevye, our milkman, is faced with more upheaval than most, what with his daughters getting attached to increasingly unsuitable men, his village overrun with Cossacks, and his religion and dearly held traditions battered and besieged at every turn. But the basic theme underlying the show -- that time moves on and we must, too, no matter what the challenges -- survives, just like Tevye. Sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years. One season following another, laden with happiness and tears. That isn't just a lyric in a Broadway musical. It's reality, people.

Fiddler on the Roof won nine Tony Awards for its original 1964 Broadway production including Best Musical, with Tonys going to composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick for their score, Jerome Robbins for both his direction and his choreography, producer Harold Prince, Joseph Stein, author of the book, costume designer Patricia Zipprodt, and, of course, Zero Mostel, who played Tevye, and Maria Karnilova, who played his wife, Golde. Stars like Bea Arthur, Bert Convy, Leonard Frey, Julia Migenes and Austin Pendleton also appeared in that production, with Frey also showing up in the 1971 movie version of the show.

Sullivan's Little Theatre on the Square has done Fiddler a time or two every decade since the 70s, with stars like Tom Poston, Shelley Berman and Stubby Kaye headlining the cast. This time, Jack Milo and Therese Kincade will appear as Tevye and Golde, reprising roles they played in a recent production at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.

Karla Shook directs for the Little Theatre, with choreography by Sam Hay and musical direction by Kevin Long.

Fiddler On The Roof opens tonight at the Little Theatre on the Square, with performances continuing through June 16. You can call the box office at 217-728-7375 to purchase tickets, or get them online at The theatre is located on the square in "downtown" Sullivan, Illinois, at 16 East Harrison Street.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Joss Whedon's MUCH ADO Opens in Limited Release June 7

It created a brouhaha in the Buffy/Firefly universe when writer/director/producer Joss Whedon announced last year that he had wrapped on a mysterious film project starring several favorites -- including Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof and Nathan Fillion -- who had appeared frequently in Whedon's earlier work. This time, Whedon was talking an updated, black-and-white version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, the one with witty lovers Beatrice and Benedick sparring over who might be in love with whom. Or not in love. Decidedly not. Except sort of.

Acker and Denisof are the lovers engaging in Shakespeare's most "merry war," with Fillion as the comic relief, a verbally impaired constable named Dogberry; Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese as Claudio and Hero, the other pair of lovers; Clark Gregg as Leonato, Hero's dad; Reed Diamond as princely Don Pedro; and Sean Maher as bad boy Don John, the one plotting behind the scenes to screw up Claudio and Hero's love affair.

According to the LA Times, Whedon and his wife, Kai Cole, had hosted readings of Shakespeare plays at their Santa Monica home for some time, but for Much Ado, they went beyond just a reading, staging and filming Much Ado right inside the house. Filming in the Whedon/Cole kitchen and bedrooms was complete in a total of twelve days, accomplished while Whedon was on a break from the Avengers movie he directed.

Much Ado About Nothing by Whedon and friends premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September to mostly good reviews, and it also acquired a distributor. Which meant everyone who was eager to see this most independent of independent features was champing at the bit to get a release date.

A TV spot showing off what it will look like was unveiled in May, with a June 7 date now announced for the film's initial, very limited release, which apparently means New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. When will anybody (or everybody) else get to see Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing? June 21 is the date it's supposed to go wide, but no one is sure yet how wide that will be or how many theaters it will be released to. I'm not banking on Bloomington-Normal, to be perfectly honest, but I'm going to guess there will be a Chicago venue, and maybe even Champaign-Urbana, if we're lucky.

On a personal note, I definitely hope to see it by my birthday in August, because Beatrice's line from the play -- There was a star danced, and under that was I born -- suits my Perseid meteor shower birthdate. In the meantime, a trailer has been released and you can see it at the movie's official site. It definitely looks intriguing. I'm a little worried about the language, which doesn't seem to come trippingly off those tongues, but advance word has been so good... Fingers crossed!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Jumping Into June!

When June hits, we usually begin to talk about summer theater options. This year, it feels a lot more like early spring around here, not summer, but I guess we'll cope. And I hope all the outdoor theater people have umbrellas!

Two notes about June that are different from previous years: The mainstage plays at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival won't start till July and the University of Illinois has benched its summer rep completely. But don't fret -- you'll still find plenty of June options to entertain you.

An Australian movie called The Sapphires is currently playing at Champaign's Art Theatre Co-op. Its "girl group goes to Vietnam" sounds a bit like Dreamgirls meets The Commitments meets Shirley Lauro's A Piece of My Heart, except not sad. Inspired by "an incredible true story," The Sapphires involves a girl group of aboriginal sisters from a small, remote mission town who take their act into the middle of a war to entertain American troops. Chris O'Dowd (The IT Crowd, Bridesmaids, Family Tree) plays their well-meaning manager, while Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell are the Sapphires. Check out the trailer here. The Art has The Sapphires scheduled for performances tonight through Thursday at 7:30 pm.

Eureka College continues the Central Illinois Stage Combat workshop through June 7, plus Eureka's new high school play competition is underway, with a July 1 deadline. They're looking for ten-minute plays written by high school playwrights, with six winning scripts to be performed by Eureka College in conjunction with the Peoria Live Theatre League.

And speaking of ten-minute plays... Heartland Theatre's very popular annual 10-Minute Play Festival, this year centered on plays with packages, parcels and presents front and center, opens this Thursday, June 6, with a special pay-what-you-can preview performance. The festival continues through June 30, with all the details on the eight winning 10-minute plays here and the schedule of performances here. Call 309-452-8709 to reserve tickets.

Although Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors and Failure: A Love Story don't start till July, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival will offer its Theatre for Young Audiences choice -- The  Magical Mind of Billy Shakespeare, written by artistic director Kevin Rich -- on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout June. Performances will take place either on the grounds of Ewing Manor, the Bloomington Farmers Market, Lincoln Park or the Children's Discovery Museum. The Improvised Shakespeare Company will also perform their spur-of-the-moment Shakespearean hijinks at 8 pm on June 6 and 13 in the theatre at Ewing Manor. More information on all the Festival goings-on is available here.

And even though U of I is no longer in the summer rep business, Urbana's Station Theatre is. You can see Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts and something called Evil Dead the Musical this month, with performances from June 6-15 for Donuts, directed by Thom Schnarre, and June 27 to July 13 for the Evil Dead, whose spoofy musical adventures will be directed by Aaron Kaplan for the Station. Click here for all the details.

New Route Theatre presents Dael Orlandersmith's The Gimmick from June 7 to 16, complete with a very nice "gimmick" of their own -- librarians and teachers get in free! New Route artistic director Don Shandrow directs local favorite Jennifer Rusk as Alexis, a young girl struggling with the life she's been handed, which includes an alcoholic mother and a very bad neighborhood. But Alexis's world is opened up by a librarian who reaches out to her. And that's why librarians and teachers get free admission to this play! The Gimmick will be presented at the McLean County YWCA located at the corner of Hershey and Empire. Call 309-660-2275 or visit New Route's Facebook page for details.

Area students will come out to play at the Connie Link Memorial Ampitheatre when Normal Parks and Recreation's summer musical season begins June 13. This year's June offering is The Secret Garden, a beautiful musical based on the children's book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon (Carly Simon's sister). Normal's cast includes Caroline McKenzie as Mary Lennox, the girl who discovers the magical garden, Ryan Groves as her uncle, Archibad Craven, and Zachary Mikel as her cousin Colin.  For news about Normal Parks and Rec and their summer shows, check out their Facebook page here.

The Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company offers its summer student production of Urinetown from June 13 to 23 at the Parkland College Theatre in Champaign. Quinn Murphy stars as our hero, Bobby Strong, with Jenna Conway and Kate Meyers sharing the role of his sweet and adorable love interest Hope Cladwell. Urinetown is a very funny, very pointed satirical show, showing a neo-Brechtian dystopic world where water is scarce and "it is a privilege to pee." You can check out the whole cast list here and check in on the CUTC Urinetown blog here.