Sunday, December 1, 2013

It's a Month of Fred Astaire, Music, Dance and WONDERFUL LIFE at Every Turn

There is always a lot happening in Bloomington-Normal and environs in December, and yes, most of it is related to the holiday season. Most, but not all. You can expect to hear the words "wonderful life" fairly often, however. Here are some of the highlights of what's happening this month...

I already told you that December is Fred Astaire month at Turner Classic Movies, which means I will undoubtedly be glued to the telly every Wednesday. You'll find Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Follow the Fleet and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, all Fred-and-Ginger pics, along with Second Chorus, where he was paired with Paulette Goddard, and The Sky's the Limit, where Fred plays a pilot opposite Joan Leslie, spilling from Wednesday the 4th into Thursday the 5th; You'll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier, the two Rita Hayworth choices, The Band Wagon and Silk Stockings, the two with Cyd Charisse, plus Three Little Words, The Belle of New York, Yolanda and the Thief and The Ziegfeld Follies on the 11th and 12th; the last Astaire/Rogers pairing in The Barkleys of Broadway, a reprise of The Band Wagon, and The Broadway Melody of 1940, Easter Parade, Royal Wedding, A Damsel in Distress and Finian's Rainbow, an example of Astaire in his elder years, on the 18th and the cusp of the 19th; with the cream of the Astaire/Rogers crop -- Top Hat, Swing Time and Shall We Dance -- saved for Christmas night. Filling out that night will be Carefree and those Barkleys of Broadway again to round out the Fred-and-Ginger oeuvre. That's the end of Wednesdays in December, although New Year's Eve, a Tuesday, will see all three That's Entertainment packages of MGM song-and-dance clips, which of course include Mr. Astaire.

The rarely seen musical Chess is the December offering at Urbana's Station Theatre. The male half of the musical group ABBA -- Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus -- wrote the music while Tim Rice provided the lyrics for this exploration of international chess intrigue, including the hit single "One Night in Bangkok." Mikel J. Matthews directs a cast that includes David Barkley, Warren Garver and Kevin Paul Wickart in performance from December 5 to 21. Click here to get the Station scoop.

Bing, Danny and White Christmas come to the Normal Theater's big screen from December 5 to 8. That's followed by Will Ferrell as a very large Elf on December 12 and 13, a small boy's singular devotion to a Red Ryder BB gun in A Christmas Story on December 14 and 15, and It's a Wonderful Life all the way from December 19 to Christmas Eve. The others seem to pop up every year at the Normal Theater, but it's good to see Elf, a particular favorite of mine, join the class.

Illinois State University's Fall Dance Concert under the direction of Darby Wilde will be in performance December 5, 6 and 7 at the Center for the Performing Arts on the ISU campus. The program will include "classical and contemporary dance pieces including guest artist Jennifer Harge's Before I Started Flying, an abstract work exploring spiritual pathways and undesired states of being; Lachrymae, a trio choreographed by Gregory Merriman to the music of Benjamin Britten, about being alone and together; and #connected?, a collaborative work by Darby Wilde with an original score by Aaron Paolucci, which journeys into the world of social media." Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or the CPA box office at 309-438-2535.

Bloomington-Normal high school actors are invited to audition for the 2014 Intercity High School Shakespeare productions of As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet. Auditions will take place in ISU's Centennial West 214 on Thursday, December 5, from 7 to 9 pm and Saturday, December 7, from 9 am to noon. Performances are scheduled for January 31 and February 1, 2014. For more information about auditions, contact Cristen Monson.

If music is more your style for the holidays, the Madrigala offered by ISU's Madrigal Singers on December 13 and 14 may be just the ticket to ring in the season "with drinks, desserts and delights!" They will sing traditional madrigals as well as other holiday music, with pieces like "Moro Lasso," "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and "Angels We Have Heard on High" on the program.

Sally Parry directs the radio play version of It's a Wonderful Life, complete with a sound effects guy (or foley artist) on stage, scripts in hand, and all sorts of Golden Age of Radio escapades, at Community Players from December 12 to 15. Nine actors will portray the radio actors and crew, with Thom Rakestraw as George Bailey, the sweet everyman who doubts the value of his own existence, Hannah Kerns as his lovely wife Mary, Bob McLaughlin as evil Mr. Potter and other characters not so evil, Dave Lemmon as loopy Uncle Billy and other characters not so loopy, John Poling as angel Clarence and other characters not so angelic, Nancy Nickerson as Mrs. Bailey and other maternal types, Annie Weaver as Zuzu and other children, John Lieder as the announcer and Herb Reichelt as the foley artist providing key bells and whistles. Click here for all the details.

The annual event known as the Pantagraph's Holiday Spectacular offers three performances at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts from December 13 to 15. It's huge, it's spirited, it's... Spectacular! There are singers, dancers, actors, Wooden Soldiers, Alphabet Blocks, Jingle Bells and even local politicians making cameos. You can see the whole cast list here -- it's bound to include someone you know. Lori Adams is back as director, with a script once again by Nancy Steele Brokaw.

If you are looking for a totally different take on It's a Wonderful Life... I don't know exactly how this is going to work, but the Art Theater Co-op in Champaign is putting on something called It's a Heckleful Life! on Wednesday, December 18 at 10 pm. Billed as "in the tradition of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax," the Art will screen the real It's a Wonderful Life film accompanied by sarcasm, ribbing and heckling from four C-U area comedians. It sounds a bit like people throwing toast at Rocky Horror, but apparently these comedians will simply throw insults at Jimmy Stewart and company. The "Destroyers of Christmas Joy" are Jessica Coburn, Matt Fear, Charlie Hester and someone known as "Quizmaster Chris."

I admit I had a crush on Peter Noone of the musical group Herman's Hermits when I was about nine or ten. My older sisters and I had a stack of 45s like "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter," "I'm Henry VIII, I Am," "This Door Swings Both Ways" and 'The End of the World" that we listened to over and over and over. Presumably Noone and whatever incarnation of Herman's Hermits we're up to will be performing some of those as well as other Herman's Hemits hits when they come to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts on December 19 with "An Olde English Christmas with Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone." The letters are tiny and difficult to read on the poster image, but I think it says: "On a frosty night 'neath a winter moon, come and sing a Christmas tune. With good cheer and joy, we all will croon with Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone!"

And that's what's tempting me this holiday season. You'll definitely hear more about all of these as December progresses, with additions and updates along the way.

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