Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Five Terrific New Year's Movies

No ball, watermelon, sardine or rodent drop features into my New Year's Eve entertainment. I find I prefer to watch movies late into New Year's Eve instead. I have my favorite films -- five or six of the ten movies Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together, a Cary Grant marathon -- which have nothing to do with the holiday itself. But there are some really dandy movies that do involve New Year's Eve on screen. And I'm not talking about the piece of tripe called New Year's Eve, either. Or The Poseidon Adventure, which turned everybody upside-down with entertainment. If those are your style, you are forewarned to stay away from the movies on this list.

So what am I talking about? Here are my choices for starting out your New Year right with New Year's themed movies:

AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936) The entire series of Thin Man movies features sophisticated toffs in evening wear bantering, attending swanky parties and swilling alcohol, so they are all on the money for your NYE Film Fest. But After the Thin Man, the second one in the series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as the charming, crime-solving Mr. and Mrs. Charles, actually begins at a New Year's Eve party. What could be more swell? If you want to see how a party (and crime-solving) were done in 1936, put After the Thin Man at the top of your list.

HOLIDAY (1938) This is one of my favorite movies of all time. Katherine Hepburn. Cary Grant. A supporting cast that includes Edward Everett Horton. What else do you need? This is the second film adaptation of Philip Barry's Broadway play, with Hepburn as Linda Seton, the daughter of a fabulously wealthy old-money family in New York City. Self-made man Johnny Case, played by Grant, meets her sister Julia in Lake Placid and comes back to Manhattan to make it official with her, but a swanky engagement party on New Year's Eve makes it clear to everybody that he doesn't belong with snobby Julia. When Linda and Johnny dance alone in the upstairs playroom and she murmurs "Happy New Year, Johnny" with that look on her face, everybody should know what's up.

SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." That line comes from Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the fading movie queen who lives in a Sunset Boulevard mansion that's more like a mausoleum. Her faithful servant (played by Erich von Stroheim) writes fan letters to convince her she's still beloved. He was once her director. And her husband. She latches onto young, beautiful wannabe screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) and invites him to a New Year's Eve party where he is the only guest. Uh oh. Billy Wilder wrote and directed the most cynical Hollywood movie ever. And it's fantastic.

THE APARTMENT (1960) Oh, Billy Wilder. You knew how to make 'em count. If After the Thin Man and Holiday conjure up elegant days of yore  that never really were, The Apartment shows us a drizzly, grimy version of New York City in 1960 that seems very, very real. There is humor and sweetness at the heart of Jack Lemmon's C.C. Baxter, the ordinary schlub whose bosses force him out n the street so they can have trysts in his handy Manhattan apartment, and it's the humor and sweetness in the face of disappointment and reversal that make The Apartment so wonderful. The Apartment certainly exposes the craziness we all put ourselves through if we expect New Year's Eve to be a quintessentially romantic experience. If you only have time for one New Year's Eve movie, I'd probably tell you to pick The Apartment.

RADIO DAYS (1987)  The New Year's Eve scenes in Woody Allen's Radio Days show the fantasy -- glamorous stars sipping champagne at a glittering nightclub in the 1940s -- and the reality -- a very ordinary family in Brooklyn, listening to the radio and imagining the glamour elsewhere. If any movie puts the whole New Year's Eve ethos together, it's this one. Somebody has posted those scenes on Youtube so you can see what I mean. If that pan across Mia Farrow, Wallace Shawn and Tony Roberts in their sparkly gowns (Mia) and tuxedos (Wallace and Tony) doesn't tell the story of what we all think New Year's Eve should look like, nothing ever will.

I'm afraid I have to run. I have a date with Cary Grant and Jack Lemmon. Almost time to say Happy New Year, Johnny!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Celebrating the Year of the Female Playwright in B-N in 2014

There has been a lot of controversy about the lack of representation for female playwrights on American stages. I don't know if it was on purpose or just a happy accident, but Bloomington-Normal knocked it out of the park when it came to showcasing the work of female playwrights in 2014. From The Diary of Anne Frank back in January to Falling by Deanna Jent, which closed just before Thanksgiving, from stories told in ten minutes to one acts and full-length plays, we had a chance to see -- right here in Bloomington-Normal -- 21 different plays written by women, two plays co-written by women, and three musicals with music, lyrics or books written or co-written by women.

Last spring, Illinois State University gave us Diana Son's Stop Kiss, directed by Leah Cassella for Westhoff Theatre, followed by Exonerated, a "true crime" documentary piece written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen and directed by Cyndee Brown, and Mrs. Packard, a look at a particularly dark moment in women's history written by Emily Mann and directed by Vanessa Stalling for ISU's Center for the Performing Arts.

This fall, ISU came back with In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) by Sarah Ruhl, directed by David Ian Lee for the CPA, with an amazing set design by Jen Kazmierczak; Water by the Spoonful, Quiara Alegria Hudes's 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, directed by Cassella in Westhoff; and By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, from Lynn Nottage, another Pulitzer winner, directed by Don LaCasse for the CPA.

Over at Heartland, the April play was Iron, by Scottish playwright Rona Munro, a searing look at a daughter trying to reconnect with the mother she can't remember, a mother who is in prison for killing Dad fifteen years ago. Claire BonEnfant, Nancy Halper and Brigitte Viellieu-Davis won slots in Heartland's 10-Minute Play Festival, while Lori Matthews and Pamela Devon Lovell wrote winning one-acts produced as New Plays from the Heartland. And this fall, Heartland staged Julia Cho's The Language Archive, directed by Kathleen Kirk, and Deanna Jent's Falling, directed by Lori Adams, who had also directed the play in its St. Louis premiere and its off-Broadway transfer. Jent's intensely personal play was a shot right to the heart of playgoers.

New Route Theatre continued its mission to showcase underrepresented voices by bringing back The Mountaintop, Katori Hall's play about the last night in the life of Martin Luther King, and then offering Johnna Adams' mother/teacher showdown Gidion's Knot; Full Bloom, a reunion play by Leola Bellamy, Erica Thurman's Flashbacks; and Walking with My Ancestors, a journey into the past told in song, dance and the spoken word, written by ISU professor Ama Oforiwaa Aduonu.

Community Players brought us The Diary of Anne Frank, an adaptation of Anne's own words for the stage originally written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and updated by Wendy Kesselman; the musical 9 to 5, with music and lyrics by Dolly Parton and book by Patricia Resnick, and Shrek: The Musical, with music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics and book by David Lindsay-Abaire.

Illinois Wesleyan University offered 12 Ophelias by Caridad Svich and The Drowsy Chaperone, a delightful 1920s musical spoof with music and lyrics co-written by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison.

The newest theatrical venture in town, the bar plays called Sticky in the Sticks, also featured work by women, in the tradition of Sticky founder Libby Emmons. The Normal version of Sticky gave us pieces by Emmons herself as well as Jeanine Jones in its December show.

All in all, it was a very good year.  More than two dozen different women with very different voices, all represented on stages in our home town.

The work isn't done, of course. It seems unlikely this will happen two years in a row, let alone three or four. But for now, for Bloomington-Normal in 2014, we can congratulate ourselves on quietly, happily getting it done. Here's to moe of the same in 2015!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

And the "Spring" TV Season Begins...

Who remembers when there was one TV season, running from September to May? Now we have two (or more) with a lot of shows taking a hiatus over the holidays and coming back in the new year. That means cliffhangers, questions and lives in peril in November and December, with no resolution till January.

We haven't seen Downton Abbey on PBS Masterpiece since last February, but it returns next Sunday with new episodes about the adventures of the Crawley family, their servants and their friends and enemies. Click here for a preview of what's ahead at the Abbey. Let's just say, "The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!"

The Good Wife also comes back next Sunday night on CBS, jolting us back into the drama surrounding Florrick Agos & Lockhart. Alicia's campaign for State's Attorney has hit more than one bump, even if she does have a very hot campaign manager (Broadway's Steven Pasquale). Will she bow out? Or pulverize David Hyde Pierce's Frank Prady, who has revealed a nasty side under his warm TV persona? Will she hook up with the very pretty and smart Finn Polmar now that she and the hubby have agreed they can lead separate lives in private? We saw Cary (the Agos in the firm's name) take a plea for supposedly counseling drug lord Lemond Bishop and his thugs on how to break the law without getting caught, but will he end up back in jail or on the lam? Where ya goin'? Barcelona? And what about Kalinda? Not to mention the rest of Lockhart Gardner left behind, like the odious David Lee and sneaky Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox)? And what will happen to the cheeky process server played by Nathan Stark, the son of ISU's Lori Adams and John Stark?

January 4 is a jam-packed Sunday night, with returns from Brooklyn Nine Nine, CSI, Family Guy, Madam Secretary, Revenge and The Simpsons as well as Downton Abbey and The Good Wife.

Two new shows will also be taking bows. Well, Celebrity Apprentice 7 is hardly new. Or interesting. But The Donald and his collection of crazies, blowhards and nutballs will be back. This season's cast of misfit toys includes a Jonas Brother, an NFL star who should know better, two Olympic gold medalists who should know better, slew of reality TV personalities and a couple of dubious "journalists."

The other new show is a more curious (and much more interesting) proposition. What with Once Upon a Time on ABC and Grimm on NBC, not to mention all the vampires, superheroes and immortals running around the networks and all the fairytale movies that have come and gone in recent years (Into the Woods, Frozen, Maleficent, Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, Red Riding Hood, Jack the Giant Killer, Tangled, a bunch of Shreks and the companion Puss in Boots, etc.) you may wonder if we really need another fairytale show. Well, we're getting one whether we need it or not. This time it's Galavant, a musical comedy romp about a knight errant intent on getting back his lady fair. Yes, I said "musical." It sounds a bit like Spamalot meets When Things Were Rotten.

Dan Fogelman, the screenwriter behind movies like Crazy, Stupid, Love, Tangled and Bolt, is executive producer on this project, with composer Alan Menken (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) and lyricist Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid, Tangled) providing all the songs for what ABC is billing as "a 4-week comedy extravaganza."

The cast include British actor Joshua Sasse as Galavant,  Timothy Omundson (Psych) as his enemy King Richard, Vinnie Jones as Richard's chief henchman, Mallory Jensen as the lady love everybody is galavanting after, plus Ricky Gervais, John Stamos, Weird Al Yankovic and Rutger Hauer in guest roles.

Galavant appears to be set for two half-hour episodes each Sunday night from January 4 to 25, taking over Once Upon a Time's 8 to 9pm Eastern/7 to 8 pm Central time slot. Check out its ABC site for a sneak peek at the music, the cast and other behind-the-scenes info.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holiday Movies on Turner Classic Movies All Through the Night

Turner Classic Movies has already started its Christmas Eve/Christmas Day movie marathon, but there's still time to catch a whole lot of classic holiday action. If you're a fan of Jimmy Stewart, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn or Mickey Rooney, there are movies for you in the line-up.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue, a sweet little movie from 1947 about GIs moving into what they think is an empty Manhattan mansion because of the post-World War II housing shortage, begins at 11:15 am Central time, starting the holiday parade. It stars Don DeFore, someone you may remember from the Ozzie and Harriet show, as the first veteran into the mansion, with Ann Harding as a rich girl pretending to be poor to help out her new friends, Charles Ruggles as her robber baron dad, and Victor Moore, a major star of stage and screen you don't hear a lot about anymore, as Aloysious T. McKeever, a gentleman bum who knows how to keep himself in very nice housing even when he doesn't have a nickel. And you'll find Gilligan's Island's Skipper, Alan Hale Jr., in the supporting cast.

After that, Ginger Rogers appears in I'll Be Seeing You, airing at 1:15 pm CST, a 1944 film which has the dubious distinction of turning the beautiful title song into a soggy mess of choral flourishes. Aside from the song and some other melodramatic elements, I'll Be Seeing You is worth a look to see Ginger as a prisoner on a holiday furlough who meets the wonderful Joseph Cotten, playing a shell-shocked soldier who is also on leave, as they both travel home for the holidays by train. Shirley Temple is in the mix as a teenager with a big mouth.

The Shop Around the Corner, a wonderful 1940 movie full of Continental charm, begins at 3 pm CST. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan star as argumentative sales clerks in a shop in Budapest as the holiday shopping season heats up, offering lots of opportunities for snowflakes falling on romantic street scenes with a Mittel-European flair. They are pen pals as well as co-workers, although neither knows the other is the one behind the love letters. Ernst Lubitsch directed this confection with his lighter-than-air Continental touch, pulling perfect performances from the likes of Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz himself, as the owner of the shop and Felix Bressart as a member of the team at Matuschek & Co. The movie is based on a play called Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo and it's been remade a number of times, in films like In the Good Old Summertime and You've Got Mail and the stage musical She Loves Me.

Meet Me in St. Louis is up next, taking us to the World's Fair in 1904, with the Smith family, including Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien as sisters, enjoying an idyllic life until Dad (Leon Ames) announces they're all moving. Uh oh. Judy sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and there's not a dry eye in the house. It's a classic for a reason. Meet Me in St. Louis starts at 5 pm Central time.

Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner gets the marquee spot at 7 pm, showcasing Monty Woolley, who reprises his Broadway role as Sheridan Whiteside, an obnoxious radio star who visits a small-town family, suffers a slip and fall on the front steps, and proceeds to take over the household with a non-stop stream of visitors, including eccentric movie and stage stars and a parade of penguins. Bette Davis is on-board as Whiteside's put-upon secretary, with Ann Sheridan as a luscious movie star, Reginald Gardner as a crazy Englishman modeled after Noel Coward, and Jimmy Durane as Banjo, a Harpo Marx-like comedian.

One of my favorites, Christmas in Connecticut, takes over at 9 pm CST, with Barbara Stanwyck at her screwball comedy best as a magazine writer who purports to be a wife and mother and an expert on all things domestic, even though she's really single and doesn't know a stove from a refrigerator. A war hero played by the very handsome Dennis Morgan has one holiday desire -- to spend Christmas with a perfect family like hers -- and her editor, played by Sydney Greenstreet, isn't taking no for an answer. So Babs has to come up with a husband, a baby and a whole lot of picture-perfect food on short notice. S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall makes an appearance as Barbara's pancake-flipper and general helper-outer. It's delightful.

Cover Girl, a 1944 musical with Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth and Phil Silvers, begins at 11 pm CST, with 1958's Indiscreet, where Cary Grant tries to keep Ingrid Bergman on a string even though he doesn't want to marry her, at 1 am.

As we hit early Christmas morning, John Wayne, Pedro Roca Fuerte and Harry Carey Jr. saddle up for 3 Godfathers, a John Ford Western with a sentimental side. The Duke and his friends are bank robbers on the lam who find themselves unwilling caretakers of an orphaned newborn. They battle sandstorms, sweltering heat, thirst and all kinds of terrifying perils as they attempt to return the baby to her grandfather, who happens to be the sheriff trying to capture them.

Tenth Avenue Angel, a potboiler with Angela Lansbury in an early role, starts at 7 am, followed by Ginger Rogers as a Bachelor Mother at 8:30 am and Reginald Owen as one of the best Scrooges ever in the 1938 screen version of A Christmas Carol at 10:30.

Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum are unlikely lovers in Holiday Affair, airing at 11:15, where Leigh plays a widowed working mother and Mitchum yearns to build boats in California. Will he give up his dreams to take care of comparison-shopper Connie and little Timmy? Or will she give up her need for security and follow his dream with him?

In the Good Old Summertime, the 1949 musical remake of The Shop Around the Corner, puts Judy Garland together with Van Johnson as squabbling co-workers, this time in a music shop. Liza Minnelli makes her screen debut as the baby Judy carries in the final number. You can compare/contrast Summertime with Shop Around the Corner at 1 pm on Christmas Day.

Then it's the 1933 Little Women, the one with Katharine Hepburn as Jo March, at 3 pm, Love Finds Andy Hardy at 5, and a slew of Mel Brooks' movies, from High Anxiety to Silent Movie, Mel's 1983 remake of To Be or Not to Be, and The Twelve Chairs, all night long.

Monday, December 22, 2014

DOWNTON Is Back, with Remembrance, Romance and Russians. Lots of Russians.

It seems as if we've been waiting forever, but Season 5 of Downton Abbey will be back on our screens very soon. Sunday, January 4, at 8 o'clock Central to be precise.

Just to whet your appetite, George Clooney and some other interesting folks have popped up in a spoofy charity video that's making the rounds. Yes, George does look like he belongs at Downton. And so does Joanna Lumley, at her AB Fabbiest as an irreverent angel. But back to Season 5...

Because Downton's episodes air in England well before they get here, intrepid sleuths (or people who visit England) already know what will happen to the Crawleys and their friends, lovers, enemies and servants in the momentous year of 1924.*

You will recall that we made it through World War I back in season 2, so it's fitting that we are ready for Remembrance Day and a war memorial as the denizens of Downton Abbey begin the new season. This Remembrance plot puts Lord Crawley and his faithful servant Carson at odds, signaling the continued erosion of the all-encompassing power of the nobility in British society.

Some stories from the past -- Mary's hot and cold running suitors, Edith's baby and her missing baby daddy, former chauffeur Branson caught in a no man's land between the working class and the aristocracy, Thomas scheming behind the scenes, and Bates and Anna's possible involvement with a murder -- continue in Season 5, although some characters we've met before -- like Cora's American mum and brother, played by Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti -- have thankfully departed.

One change is just how much romance there is and how many characters (and generations) are involved. In other words, it isn't just Mary getting all the action. The romance in Season 5 includes the return of a long-lost love, several proposals (not all of them what you might call "decent"), a wedding, and suitors with Russian connections for both a grande dame and an ingenue, neither of whom is Mary.

Guest stars include Matt Barber, Anna Chancellor, Penny Downie, James Faulkner, Richard E. Grant, Sue Johnston, Rade Serbedzija and Catherine Steadman as dishy new arrivals, romantic rivals, and general complications in the Crawley family circle. I continue to hope that Imelda Staunton, the real-life wife of Jim Carter, who plays Carson, will show up, but no luck on that score yet.

For all things Downton Abbey, including preview pictures and video, reminders of where the plot left off in Season 4, games and quizzes, a Q&A with the real owner of Highclere Castle, and a place to shop for Downton trinkets and books, try the main PBS site for the show.

*I harbor fervent hopes that somebody fun -- Rose? Branson and little Sybil? -- will travel to New York and catch Fred and Adele Astaire in Lady Be Good at the Liberty Theatre on Broadway in December 1924, but that will have to wait till after the events of this season, which only make it to autumn of 24.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

SMASH's BOMBSHELL Back for a Benefit

When NBC started touting Smash, the 2012 TV show that promised to go backstage during the creative process of a Broadway musical, it  sounded like a Broadway fan's dream come true. Smash mixed television personalities like Debra Messing and Katharine McPhee with well-regarded film actors (Jack Davenport, Anjelica Huston) and legit Broadway luminaries (Megan Hilty, Christian Borle) and its creative pedigree was just as promising, with Theresa Rebeck, a playwright and screenwriter who knew her way around the stage and television, as well as Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the Tony and Grammy Award winners who wrote the score for the musical Hairspray, on the team.

But there were cracks in the Smash facade right from the get-go. The musical within the musical, the prize everybody was trying so hard to get on its feet and two leading ladies were trying so hard to snare the starring role in, was called Bombshell. And it was about Marilyn Monroe. Not like that hadn't already been tried. The Broadway Marilyn lasted a whole 17 performances. Bombshell, indeed. Or maybe just Bomb.

Plus the two rivals for the role of Marilyn Monroe, the linchpin storyline, were a huge mismatch. Hilty looked and acted like a Monroe type as well as a Broadway star, while McPhee was limp and listless and clearly wrong for the role. But the scripts (and the characters who were supposed to be Broadway pros) kept touting McPhee's Karen as a phenom and giving her accolades, while treating Hilty's Ivy Lynn like something to be scraped off the bottom of one's shoe. It was actually sort of bizarre.

And then there was Messing's character. A mom, a songwriter, a crazy lady wrapped in scarves... Messing had a huge TVQ left over from Will and Grace, but Julia, her Smash character, was awkward and unpleasant, and she got what may've been the worst love scene in TV history.

Smash had its highlights, too, of course. Hilty knocked several musical scenes out of the park, guest stars like Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, Jesse L. Martin and Jennifer Hudson were brought in to try to ramp up some excitement, Christian Borle was dynamite with everything he was given, and I will never be sorry to see Jack Davenport.

And quite a few people professed a desire to see Bombshell, the musical they were all working on in the first season of Smash, as an actual musical on stage, with Shaiman and Wittman's songs and the terrific numbers we got to see pieces of.

If that was your dream -- to actually witness Bombshell -- you will need to make arrangements to get to New York in June of next year. The Actors Fund and producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are putting together a one-night-only benefit concert of Bombshell scheduled for June 15, 2015, with Megan Hilty and the Shaiman/Wittman Bombshell songs we heard on Smash.

The rest of the cast and the venue have yet to be announced but Broadway World, which broke the news, advises keeping an eye on the Actors Fund site for details..

Friday, December 12, 2014

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY Has a Cast at Eureka College

Tracy Letts' August: Osage County is one of the most celebrated plays of the 21st century. After the 2007 Steppenwolf production in Chicago, the play took home seven Joseph Jefferson Awards and went straight to Broadway, winning six Tonys and nine other New York awards, plus a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Anna D. Shapiro, who was recently named Steppenwolf's Artistic Director, directed August: Osage in Chicago and New York.

Joel Shoemaker, a Eureka College alum, will direct August: Osage County for his alma mater with performances in April, 2015. Shoemaker's cast will include Christopher Tam and Stephanie Sager as Beverly and Violet Weston, the patriarch and matriarch of a deeply troubled Oklahoma family.

The plot of August: Osage County kicks in when Beverly Weston disappears and the three Weston daughters, Barbara, Ivy and Karen, along with Violet's sister Mattie Fae and various other in-laws and offspring arrive, ostensibly to offer support to Violet.

For Eureka, the three sisters will be played by Kayla Pulliam, Alexis Godbee and Emilie Dierks. Austin Bristow II will take on the role of Barbara's husband, with Ashleigh Feger as her teenage daughter. Nathan Bottorff will play Steve, Karen's fiance, along with Sarah Hall as Mattie Fae, Drew Carter as Mattie's husband Charlie and Austin Travis her son Little Charles. Completing the cast are Isabella Anderson as a caretaker for Violet and Jason Punke as the local sheriff who also happens to be Barbara's high school boyfriend.

If you are curious to see how all three stories of Weston family dysfunction will fit on the stage at Eureka College's Pritchard Theatre, you will have to wait till April. But you'll want to keep an eye on Eureka's Facebook page and theatre webpage to stay current in the meantime.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Golden Globes Announce Nominees

The members of the foreign press who annually present Golden Globe Awards to those they deem worthy of celebration in movies and television have made their nomination choices for the best of 2014. Who's inside the golden circle? Birdman, Boyhood, Wes Anderson, Julianne Moore, real people portrayed in biopics, Fargo, television entities who are not ABC, CBS or NBC, and Jane the Virgin.

On the movie side of the aisle, the foreign press have chosen to nominate:

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Into the Woods
St. Vincent

The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Amy Adams, Big Eyes
Emily Blunt, Into the Woods
Helen Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey
Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars
Quvenzhané Wallis, Annie

Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Bill Murray, St. Vincent
Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice
Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes

Jennifer Aniston, Cake
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
David Oyelowo, Selma
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ava DuVernay, Selma
David Fincher, Gone Girl
Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, Nicolas Giacobone and Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game

Force Majeure, Sweden
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem Gett, Israel
Ida, Poland/Denmark
Leviathan, Russia
Tangerines Mandariinid, Estonia

Big Hero 6
The Book of Life
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Lego Movie

Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game
Johann Johannsson, The Theory of Everything
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Gone Girl
Antonio Sanchez, Birdman
Hans Zimmer, Interstellar

"Big Eyes," Big Eyes
"Glory," Selma
"Mercy Is," Noah
"Opportunity," Annie
"Yellow Flicker Beat," The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

In television categories...

Girls (HBO)
Jane the Virgin (CW)
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
Silicon Valley (HBO)
Transparent (Amazon)

The Affair (Showtime)

Downton Abbey (PBS)
Game of Thrones (HBO)

The Good Wife (CBS)
House of Cards (Netflix)

Fargo (FX)
The Missing (Starz)
The Normal Heart (HBO)
Olive Kitteridge (HBO)
True Detective (HBO)

Lena Dunham, Girls
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
Gina Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin
Taylor Schilling, Orange Is the New Black

Louis C.K., Louie
Don Cheadle, House of Lies
Ricky Gervais, Derek
William H. Macy, Shameless
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent

Claire Danes, Homeland
Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
Ruth Wilson, The Affair
Robin Wright, House of Cards

Clive Owen, The Knick
Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards
James Spader, The Blacklist
Dominic West, The Affair

Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Honorable Woman
Jessica Lange, American Horror Story: Freak Show
Frances McDormand, Olive Kitteridge
Frances O’Connor, The Missing
Allison Tolman, Fargo

Martin Freeman, Fargo
Woody Harrelson, True Detective
Matthew McConaughey, True Detective
Mark Ruffalo, The Normal Heart
Billy Bob Thornton, Fargo

Uzo Aduba, Orange Is the New Black
Kathy Bates, American Horror Story: Freak Show
Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey
Allison Janney, Mom
Michelle Monaghan, True Detective

Matt Bomer, The Normal Heart
Alan Cumming, The Good Wife
Colin Hanks, Fargo
Bill Murray, Olive Kitteridge
Jon Voight, Ray Donovan

Tune in to see who wins on January 11, 2015 on NBC. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey will once again host.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Get Stuck on STICKY This Friday at Firehouse Pizza and Pub

J. Michael Grey and Connie Chojnacki Blick first brought Sticky in the Sticks, a site-specific piece of "pop up" theater, to the Firehouse Pizza and Pub in Normal in November. They'd planned to do a program of ten-minute plays, all set in bars and performed at a bar, on a monthly basis. And here they are, with their second set of Sticky plays ready to go this Friday.

Grey had a Sticky connection when he lived in New York City, and he thought it could be just the ticket to round out the theater scene in Bloomington-Normal. Playwright Libby Emmons created the concept and she continues to produce Sticky performances -- Secret Sticky -- in New York. You will also see her name as one of the playwrights nabbed for our own Sticky in the Sticks. (See below.)

But before J. Michael and Connie decided to launch Sticky in the Sticks, there was nothing like Sticky in this area. We have college theater at Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan, first-class Shakespeare at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, a black box with more challenging, provocative fare at Heartland Theatre, community theater at Community Players, a spotlight on diversity and underserved voices at New Route, children's theater at Seedling, and even a historical focus at Illinois Voices Theater. But we don't have ten-minute plays set at a bar, do we?

Well, we do now! The program for Friday's show, which begins at 8 pm at Fireside Pizza and Pub, looks like this:

By J. Michael Grey
Directed by Cathy Sutliff
Cast: Nancy Nickerson, Jake Rathman and Rachelle Wilson

By Jeannine Jones
Directed by J. Michael Grey
Cast: Connie Blick and Bridgette Richard

By Louis Mustillo
Cast: J. Michael Grey

By Libby Emmons
Directed by Kevin Wickart
Cast: Bruce E. Clark and J. Michael Grey

By Michael Domitrovich
Directed by Rachelle Wilson
Cast: Sam Bettis, Kevin Wickart and David Yates

By J. Michael Grey
Directed by Tricia Stiller
Cast: Connie Blick, Wes Melton and Brandon Smith

Doors will open at 7:30 pm for Friday's show. The Sticky in the Sticks folks are asking for a $7 donation at the door. That's about $1.12 per play, which... Where are you going to get a play for that?

For more information about Sticky in the Sticks, click here to see their Facebook page.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Catching Up With Casting: ISU's CABARET

If you think a musical set in Berlin just as Hitler and the Nazis are rising to power sounds like a terrible idea, you've never seen Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. There are dark and dangerous ideas at play, with pointed social commentary running underneath the plot(s) and the show's musical numbers, like the romantic song with a woman in a gorilla suit ("If You Could See Her Through My Eyes") and the ménage à trois number ("Two Ladies").

After Christopher Isherwood wrote about his experiences in 1930s Berlin in a series of short stories collected in a volume called Goodbye to Berlin, John Van Druten turned the stories into a stage play called I Am a Camera. Isherwood and Van Druten both focused on the seamy part of Weimar Germany, "a society in decay," as George Orwell put it. Their Berlin is a place where low-rent entertainment like the Kit Kat Club thrives, bringing together people on the edges. The denizens of the Kit Kat Club are at risk from the Nazis because they are different, they are decadent, and they aren't playing along with the rules. In the middle of it all is Sally Bowles, a nightclub singer who wants life to be a cabaret, a mysterious and creepy Master of Ceremonies who runs the entertainment at the club, and a somewhat distant English writer whose entrance serves as our introduction to the world of Sally Bowles.

The stage play and the subsequent musical, adapted from the play by Joe Masteroff, were both hits (and then some) on Broadway, with Tony Awards for both Julie Harris, who played Sally, and Marian Harris, who played Jewish heiress Natalia for 1952's I Am a Camera, and eight Tonys, including Best Musical, Best Director (Harold Prince) and Best Featured Actor (for Joel Grey, as the Master of Ceremonies) for the 1967 musical version, Cabaret.

The film version, directed by Bob Fosse, was just as impressive, with eight Oscars. Fosse and Company lost Best Picture to The Godfather, but took home Best Director, Best Actress (Liza Minnelli) and Best Supporting Actor (for Joel Grey again).

And Cabaret has been revived on Broadway again and again, with another pile of awards in 1998 and 2014. The show seems to get seedier and darker every time it comes back, with scantier costumes and more overt references to the evils inside and outside the Kit Kat Club.

Actors Alan Cumming (above, right) and Neil Patrick Harris have famously cycled through as the Master of Ceremonies, while the array of actresses playing Sally Bowles ranged from Natasha Richardson, who originated the role in the 1998 revival, to Michelle Williams, who took it in 2014, and Emma Stone, who'll be there till February 1, 2015. Along the way, Susan Egan, Joely Fisher, Gina Gershon, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Molly Ringwald, Brooke Shields have all played Sally.

Cabaret was produced at Illinois State University in 1997, but this time out, Assistant Professor Duane Boutté will be at the helm. Boutté's cast will feature Paige Brantley as Sally Bowles, Alex Levy as the Emcee and Jimmy Keating as Cliff, the writer who meets Sally and falls in love. Alex Gould and Gloria Petrelli will play Herr Schultz and Frau Schneider, the older couple who run afoul of the Nazis, Garrett Douglas will be Ernst, a double-dealing German who befriends Cliff, Andrea Williams will portray Fraulein Kost, a woman of dubious reputation, and Dan Esquivel will take the roles of Max, the owner of the Kit Kat Club, and a customs officer.

To see the complete cast list, including Kit Kat Boys and Girls and the on-stage orchestra ("Even the orchestra is beautiful," after all), click here.

Cabaret will play at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts from February 12 to 21, 2015.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Ring in December with Cary Grant, Holiday Movies and Spectacularity

You don't have to wait till Christmas to open these gifts. Yes, it's true -- the good stuff in December starts tonight.

It's Cary Grant Month on Turner Classic Movies all during December, and because December 1 is a Monday and Mr. Grant has a monopoly on Monday nights, the celebration begins tonight. TCM begins its Carypalooza with a pile of the early ones -- his feature film debut in This Is the Night (1932), two Mae West vehicles with She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I'm No Angel (1933), a war film called The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) where Grant serves as a rival for flying ace Fredric March, Hot Saturday (1932), a piece about the danger of small-town gossip, Suzy (1936), with Jean Harlow, and by the time it turns into December 2, The Toast of New York (1937), a historical piece about a robber baron in the 19th century, and Night and Day (1946), where he plays a very unrealistic version of songwriter Cole Porter. Things get even better later in the month, when the Cary Grant persona we all expect is on full display, with highlights like The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Gunga Din, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, and North By Northwest. Check out the complete listing here.

As if it wasn't enough for TCM to give us all that Cary Grant, they're matching it with Ingmar Bergman movies wall to wall on Wednesday December 3. Bergman movies are in a different universe from the Hollywood fare featuring Mr. Debonair, but serious film buffs need to see Smiles of a Summer Night, the charming film that inspired A Little Night Music, the beautiful and pensive Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal and its exploration of life, death and a medieval game of chess, and the intense psychological dramas Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence.

You can also get traditional holiday fare like The Nutcracker ballet, playing from December 4 to 7 in the Tryon Festival theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana. This one is performed by the Champaign-Urbana Ballet with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra with conductor Stephen Alltop.

Also opening December 4 is an "operatic farce" by Charles Mee called Wintertime. This slightly crazy piece about pairs of lovers all descending on the same cabin features a cast of ten, with David Barkley, Wen Bu, Aaron Clark, Nancy Keener, Lincoln Machula, Jeff McGill, Diane Pritchard, Kate Prosise, Deb Richardson and Evan Smith under the direction of Timothy O'Neal at at Urbana's Station Theatre. Wintertime runs through December 20 at the Station.

And on December 5, you can see Live Window Vignettes from members of Playwrights Anonymous as part of First Friday celebrations in downtown Bloomington. These window plays will happen at 5:30 pm on Friday at the Herb Eaton Gallery. Click here to see Playwrights Anonymous's Facebook page.

That Friday is also the day the Holiday Spectacular returns to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts. It really is spectacular, with a cast of thousands (okay, at least a hundred) including tappers, angels, wooden soldiers, father/daughter numbers and some fantastic voices, like Bob Mangialardi and Joe Penrod. The BCPA promises "all the blockbuster features that long-time attendees have come to love, such as the precision-dancing wooden soldiers, the mass choir nativity and an all-male a capella group" plus a whole bunch of surprises.

If you enjoyed seeing the Battling Gridleys as portrayed by Kathleen Kirk and Jeremy Stiller in October's Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery, you can see Kirk and Stiller back in those roles when the newly restored Gridley Mansion is opened to the public for a holiday tour. You can read about the historic home renovation here. Owners Keith and Diane Thompson have partnered with Easter Seals to offer this mansion tour from 5 to 7 pm on December 11. The cost is $10 per person, with all proceeds going to Easter Seals. The tour of the premises at 301 East Grove Street will include work from local artists, info from Lincoln experts and light refreshments.

And that's just some of the entertainment available to keep you in the holiday spirit.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Casting News, Part Two: HEROES at Heartland

Director John Ficca has announced his cast for Heroes at Heartland Theatre. Heroes is a French comedy written by Gérald Sibleyras, adapted and translated into English by Tom Stoppard.

The original French production premiered at the Théâtre Montparnasse in Paris in 2003. It received four Molière nominations, including Meilleur Auteur, or Best Author. Subsequently, Heroes has been translated into English, German and Spanish and produced around the world, including productions in Germany, the United Kingdom, Uruguay and the United States. Stoppard's translation debuted in London in 2005, winning the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. Its cast included Richard Griffiths (The History Boys, Withnail and I), John Hurt (The Elephant Man) and Ken Stott (Messiah, Broken Glass). Griffiths and Hurt both appeared in the Harry Potter movies, with Griffiths as evil Uncle Vernon and Hurt as Ollivander, the owner of the wand ship in Diagon Alley.

Heartland Theatre's production will feature some of Bloomington-Normal's own best actors, with Todd Wineburner, Joe Penrod and George Peterson-Karlan in the roles played by Griffiths, Hurt and Stott. Those characters are Henri, Gustave and Philippe, three veterans of World War I who find themselves living in a retirement home for old soldiers.

The play is set in 1959, somewhere in the French countryside, where the three gentleman while away their time on the terrace outside their veterans home. They do their best to ignore the nuns who try to boss them around as they gaze off into the distance where they can see a grove of poplars. Le Vent des Peupliers, or The Wind in the Poplars, was Sibleyras's original title, but Stoppard emphasized the military background of his characters when he renamed it Heroes in English.

The play is funny, sweet, a little irreverent and a bit sad, too, as Gustave, Henri and Philippe try to grapple with their own limitations and the vagaries of life in the slow lane. They occupy themselves with their pet, a stone dog who stands on their terrace, along with elaborate plans to escape their confinement to make it to Indochina, or perhaps just a hundred yards down the lane.

Heartland Theatre's production of Heroes will open February 12, with performances through March 1, 2015. Click here for more information or here for reservation info.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Casting News, Part One: OF MICE AND MEN at Community Players

John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was published as a novella in 1937, but Steinbeck already had plans to put it on stage. By November, 1937, Steinbeck's own adaptation of his novel was playing at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway, with a cast that included Broderick Crawford and Wallace Ford as Lennie and George, a troubled pair of migrant ranch hands trying to eke out an existence in California during the Great Depression. Also in the cast -- Will Geer, Grandpa Walton himself. He played Slim, a mule-team driver and a leader in the ranch hierarchy. And Leigh Whipper, the first African-American member of Actors Equity, appeared as Crooks.

By 1939, Of Mice and Men was a movie, directed by Lewis Milestone for Hal Roach Studios, but without either Crawford or Ford. Whipper was the only member of the Broadway cast to appear in the film. A newcomer named Burgess Meredith played George, the smarter, smaller half of the pair, while Lon Chaney, Jr., who went on to play the Mummy, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man, took the role of Lennie, George's mentally challenged partner.

The play came back into the spotlight in 1974, in a Broadway production with James Earl Jones as Lennie, and in 1980 in Chicago, in a Steppenwolf production directed by Terry Kinney, with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich as George and Lennie. Sinise later directed Malkovich in a film version, too. Steinbeck's play was revived on Broadway earlier this year, with James Franco and Irish actor Chris O'Dowd.

Steinbeck's story is mostly a character study, an examination of the relationship between Lennie and George, whose lives are so inextricably linked. Lennie is large in stature, but his size and strength are at odds with his fondness for petting and holding soft things, including rabbits and puppies. As they travel from place to place, always one step ahead of trouble, George and Lennie dream of owning their own ranch instead of always scraping by working for other people. But, in the end, their conflicts with the sadistic son of their ranch boss and his flirtatious wife put everything in jeopardy.

Of Mice and Men is on the schedule for Community Players in January, with performances from January 16 to 25, 2015. Penny Wilson will direct Dave Krostal, who appeared in various roles in Spamalot with Players and as a photographer grappling with ethical and relationship problems in Time Stands Still at Heartland, as George, and Rick Clemmons, well-known locally as a stand-up comedian, as Lennie.

Spencer Powell will play Curley, the "handy" man who takes an instant dislike to Lennie, with Nicole Aune as his wife, Mae. Also in the cast are George Freeman as Curley's father, the boss of the place; Joe Culpepper as Candy, an aging ranch hand; Paul Vellella as "princely" Slim; Joe Strupek as Carlson; and Thom Rakestraw as Whit. No one has been announced yet for Crooks.

For more information or to order tickets, visit the Community Players website here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving Week Entertainment

November has been stuffed with entertainment options, not unlike a Thanksgiving turkey. And it's not over yet. Yes, we've seen Falling, Meet Vera Stark, Rent, Viral, Walking with My Ancestors and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, all pretty much on top of each other. ISU's Water by the Spoonful also dipped a toe into November.

We've made it to the 25th, so that means nothing is left for November but clean-up, right?

Au contraire!

On TV, you can use the Thanksgiving break to catch up with a firecracker of a season of The Good Wife (hint: things are not going well for Cory Agos), check in on who's advancing on The Voice or who wins the mirrorball (tonight) on Dancing with the Stars, watch New Girl's Thanksgiving episode (tonight) or tune in to the annual screenings of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Welcome to America, Charlie Brown tomorrow night on ABC. You can also see the remaining episodes of Selfie, which was canceled, on Hulu, or wallow in the bright, sparkly excess of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC, with a host of performances from Broadway shows like A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Honeymoon in Vegas, Sting's The Last Ship, On the Town and Side Show. The usual holiday weekend marathons include Portlandia on IFC and Friends on TBS on Thanksgiving Day.

In movie theaters, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1 will keep you  warm, along with Birdman, Horrible Bosses 2, Interstellar and St. Vincent, all playing local screens this week.

If you prefer your movies classic, you can find a full night of road movies on Turner Classic Movies Friday, including Road to Utopia, Sullivan's Travels and It Happened One Night.

The Normal Theater echoes the road movie idea with Planes, Trains and Automobiles -- a road trip with Steve Martin and John Candy trying to make it home for the holidays -- on Thursday and Friday.

And if that's not enough to keep you busy, Bloomington Parks and Rec is hosting a Turkey Trot to help you run or walk off the pumpkin pie.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Suicide Goes VIRAL at ISU Next Week

Before he leaves Illinois State University, third-year MFA director David Ian Lee is taking on one last show. It's not just any show, either. Instead, Lee is directing a provocative piece from Mac Rogers, a play called Viral that deals with the right to die mixed together with the Youtube generation and a search for sexual satisfaction that comes from unorthodox places. Or, as the show's Facebook page describes it:

"Mac Rogers' Viral is a frank, humane and surprisingly funny look at some very complex issues -- assisted suicide, fetish, dignity and privacy in the age of viral videos, where there’s nothing so twisted that it doesn’t have an audience."

Lee is directing a cast that includes his wife, Karen Sternberg, as Meredith, a woman interested in ending her life for reasons she doesn't care to share. Garrett Douglas, Alex Levy and Katharine Rohrscheib are a trio of misfits eager to witness the moment Meredith shuffles off this mortal coil. And Pete Guither, Assistant Dean in ISU's School of Theatre and Dance, will play Snow, a mysterious "big daddy in the specialized entertainment field."

Plotwise, it's a collision of someone who wants to die, a small group of someones who want to videotape the perfect moment of death, and someone else who has experience with the medium.

David Ian Lee has made video (appropriate, yes?) interviews with his cast available on the Facebook page and lots more info on the show's website, where Lee promises "daily videos, music, essays, interviews, and other content to extend the theatrical experience." One piece of news: Playwright Mac Rogers will participate in a talkback via Skype following the Monday, November 17th performance of Viral. Again, technology and this play are a natural match!

If this edgy little play sounds like your cup of snuff, performances are scheduled for November 17, 18 and 19 at 9 p.m. in Centennial West 202 on the Illinois State University campus. To make reservations, leave a comment on the Viral Facebook page or visit

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Heartland Theatre's production of Deanna Jent's Falling continues this week, with performances at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and a 2 pm matinee on Sunday. Although it's standard operating procedure for Heartland to do three weekends of performances, Falling stands out for Heartland in several ways.

For one, this production features the same director (Lori Adams) and scenic designer (John C. Stark) as the productions in St. Louis (the play premiered at the Mustard Seed Theatre) and New York City (off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre).

For another, there are short talkbacks -- post-scripts -- after almost every performance, allowing audience members a chance to hear more about how families and society deal with autism, since that is the challenge for the family in Falling, and to allow a backstage look at how director Adams, scenic designer Stark and the cast and crew have brought Falling to life in Bloomington-Normal. The complete schedule of post-script topics and speakers is available here.

Deanna Jent
But the biggest news about Falling this weekend is that playwright Deanna Jent, an alumna of Illinois Wesleyan University who now lives in St. Louis, will be in town for a series of events grouped under the heading IWU WEEKEND WITH DEANNA JENT. Jent's visit has been made possible by Illinois Wesleyan University and Provost Jonathan Green.

As the mother of an autistic child, Jent balances her time with a thriving theatre career. She is artistic director of the Mustard Seed Theatre, a professor at Fontbonne University and also a working director and playwright. Jent acted as the commencement speaker at last spring's IWU graduation ceremony, when her son graduated, and she wrote a piece for the IWU Magazine in 2013 about some of her Falling experiences. 

On campus, Jent will speak to theater and psychology students about Falling and her life and career, and at Heartland, she will be in the audience for the Saturday night and Sunday afternoon performances of her play on November 15 and 16. She will also be present after the show on both Saturday and Sunday to speak to audiences and take questions. And she will be there on Sunday evening for a reading of her new play, Blood Lines, which takes place in a group home for adult autistic women. That reading will feature actresses from Illinois State University, Illinois Wesleyan University and from Heartland's pool of actors. Actors Olivia Candocia (ISU), Alexa Eldridge (IWU), Debra Madans (IWU), Melissa James Shrader (Heartland) and Jaimie Taylor (ISU) will take part under the director of Dr. John Ficca, Emeritus Professor from the IWU School of Theatre Arts.

The talkback sessions with Deanna Jent will follow the performances, with the Saturday night discussion beginning at approximately 8:50 pm and the Sunday session starting at about 3:20 pm. The Sunday night reading of Blood Lines will begin at 7:30 pm. Both post-show discussions and the reading of Blood Lines will take place at Heartland Theatre, and all three are free and open to the public.

For Heartland Theatre reservation information, click here. To read more about Deanna Jent and Falling, you will definitely want to check out this essay, written by Jent in 2013.

Monday, November 10, 2014

One Thousand Three Hundred Twenty Four Minutes of RENT at Community Players

Community Players' entry in November sweeps is Rent, Jonathan Larson's musical picture of Bohemian youth in New York's East Village in the early 90s, living under the shadow of addiction and HIV/AIDS as they struggle to make art, find a voice and connect to love. Based loosely on Puccini's La bohème, Rent tells a classic story of idealistic young people trying to make those ideals work when real life, in the form of things like paying the rent, finding a place to life and mortality smack them in the face.

When Larson, who wrote the score and the book, died of an aortic dissection the night before the show's off-Broadway premiere, Rent and its message of living for today took on a larger significance in the cultural landscape. It became one of Broadway's  biggest "cult" musicals, with fans -- many of them new to Broadway and to musicals -- coming back again and again to try for $20 rush tickets. It starred the likes of Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp and Daphne Rubin-Vega, sending them to the top of the Broadway ladder.

Touring companies of Rent have played in Bloomington-Normal before, this is the first time it has come to Community Players. Brett Cottone directs a cast of about 20, with Aaron Wiessing as Mark, the videographer who serves as a narrator to the piece; Sean Stevens and Sammantha Bettis as Roger and Mimi, a musician and dancer who are both HIV-positive and trying hard not to fall in love; Chris Stanford as Angel, a drag queen with AIDS who nevertheless has a sunny outlook on life; Tony Gannaway as Tom Collins, a smart, philosophical professor who rescues Angel from the streets; Breann Dawson as Maureen, Mark's ex who is now in a relationship with Joanne; Felicia Jiardina as Joanne, the politically-connected lawyer Maureen is now with; and Matthew Henry as Benny, the group's former friend who is now their landlord.

Director Cottone is joined on the technical side of the Rent equation by Bridgette Richard (assistant director), Rusty Russell  (musical director), Wendy Baugh (choreographer), Alan Wilson (producer and costumer), Tony Meizelis (lighting), Rich Plotkin and Eli Mundy (sound), Dorothy Mundy and Carol Plotkin (props), stage manager Judy Stroh and house manager Wendi Fleming.

Rent opened last weekend, but it has two more weekends to go, with performances November 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22 and 23. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 pm, while Sunday matinees start at 2:30 pm. For more information, check out Rent's Facebook page. To buy tickets, click here.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

WALKING WITH MY ANCESTORS Takes the Stage at New Route Theatre Tonight

Tonight's the night when shows are opening left and right. New Route Theatre joins the action with Walking with My Ancestors by Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum, Associate Professor of Music in the College of Fine Arts at Illinois State University. Kim Pereira directs this exploration of an African-American ancestral journey told through song, dance and the spoken word, with an ensemble cast that includes Leola Bellamy, John Bowen, Jajwannica Johnson, Cynthia Senefianso-Amedoda and Claron Sharrieff along with Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum herself.

Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum
Walking with My Ancestors centers on the experiences of Africans imprisoned in dungeons in Africa before being thrown onto slave ships and sent to the Americas. Aduonum visited her native Ghana and the slave caves there to conduct her research, and that research inspired her to write this piece, which was supported by Illinois State’s University Research Grant program; Center of Teaching, Learning and Technology; School of Music; and College of Fine Arts.

Performances at New Route's new space at 814 Jersey Avenue in Normal are scheduled for November 6, 7, 8, 13, 14 and 15 at 7:30 pm, with matinees at 2:30 pm on November 9 and 16. General admission is $10, with student and senior tickets priced at $8.

Email or call 309-827-7330 to reserve a ticket to Walking with My Ancestors.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Heartland's FALLING, Opening Nov 6, Spotlights a Family Dealing with Autism

When Heartland Theatre opens Falling, Deanna Jent's play about the challenges of living inside a family with a profoundly autistic son, it will represent Step 3 in the journey director Lori Adams has taken with this play. Adams directed the show's world premiere at the Mustard Seed Theatre in St. Louis as well as its Off-Broadway production at the Minetta Lane Theatre. And her husband, scenic designer John C. Stark, designed both productions, along with a return stand at the Mustard Seed.

What made Falling rise above all the other new plays that pop up regionally, enough to send it straight to New York? The fact that it is in part based on Jent's real life as the mother of an autistic son certainly makes it stand out. And the rising profile of autism, along with larger and larger numbers of children diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum, makes it timely and compelling.

Adams and Stark are once again on board for Heartland's take on the family drama, bringing everything they learned about Jent's script back home for the benefit of local audiences who may not have been able to get to New York or St. Louis to see it there.

For this production, Karen Hazen and Rhys Lovell, who appeared together at Heartland in Middletown in 2013, will appear as Tami and Bill Martin, the couple whose marriage is tested by the demands of their older child. Daniel Esquivel, an ISU student in the School of Theatre and Dance, will play Josh, the child in question, while fellow Redbird Ashley Pruitt will play his younger sister Lisa. The family's fragile balance begins to falter when Grammy Sue, played by Ann B. White, arrives for a visit.

Playwright Deanna Jent will add to the Falling experience with a visit to Bloomington-Normal for what Illinois Wesleyan University is calling an "IWU Weekend with Deanna Jent" over November 15, 16 and 17, including events at Wesleyan as well as Heartland Theatre. Jent will stick around after Heartland's performances on the 15th and 16th to answer questions and give the inside scoop on Falling. These after-show discussions will be free and open to the public. To cap off her weekend in B-N, Jent will be present for a reading of her brand-new play Bloodlines at Heartland at 7:30 pm on Sunday the 16th.

In addition to Jent's appearances for post-show discussions, Heartland has arranged "post-scripts" involving various issues raised in the play, from daily life and employment opportunities for people with autism to bridging the gap between theater and disability. Lori Adams, John Stark and the cast of Falling will also be available after certain performances to give their perspective on the process. For the complete list of discussions scheduled, check Heartland's Show Times page here.

Falling opens tomorrow night at Heartland Theatre with a special Pay What You Can preview performance, followed by ten performances from November 7 to the 23rd. To see the complete schedule of performances, click here. For reservation information, click here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Playwright and a Movie Star in Normal: BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK at ISU

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, opening tomorrow night at Illinois State University's Center for the Performing Arts, is part of a pleasantly female-playwright-centric season launched this fall by ISU's Department of Theatre and Dance. With Sarah Ruhl and Quiara Alegria Hudes already represented this season with In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) and Water by the Spoonful, putting Lynn Nottage and By the Way, Meet Vera Stark on the bill seems like a perfect progression.

In case you're keeping track, Ruhl was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for The Clean House in 2005 and again for In the Next Room in 2010, and Hudes was a Pulitzer finalist for Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue in 2007 and for the the book she co-wrote with Lin-Manuel Miranda for the musical In the Heights in 2009, picking up the win for Water by the Spoonful in 2012. Nottage edged out Hudes in 2009, taking home the coveted Pulitzer for Ruined. Ruhl and Nottage have also been awarded MacArthur Fellowships (sometimes called Genius Grants), Ruhl owns a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and Nottage took home a Guggenheim Fellowship. What's interesting about the pile of hardware is not that it was accumulated by female playwrights, but that the body of work it represents is so eclectic, combining comedy and drama with issues of war, family, gender, sexuality, love, career and ambition.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is satirical, amusing piece, looking into the mysterious history of a black actress in Old Hollywood. While she dreams of breaking into the movies in the early 30s, Vera is employed as a ladies' maid by a neurotic diva named Gloria Mitchell who has the reputation of being "America's Little Sweetie Pie." When a role (as a slave) is available in a melodrama where Gloria is playing a quintessential Southern belle, Vera jumps at the chance to get on screen. Yes, it's a slave. But it's a slave with lines. And even in a small role, Vera stands out. In fact, she is incandescent and unforgettable on screen, whether or not she is limited to the maids and mammy roles available to someone like her.

Vera achieves a certain level of stardom, but her story isn't happily-ever-after. By the 70s, she has disappeared from the screen, leaving a panel of scholars in Meet Vera Stark's second act to debate what happened to her and what kind of footnote to movie history she represents.

Don LaCasse directs Vera Stark for ISU, with MFA actress Faith Servant as Vera, Mary DeWitt as Gloria Mitchell, Brianna Haskell and Gabrielle Lott-Rogers as Vera's wannabe actress friends, Dan Machalinski and Wesley Tilford as major players in the film industry, and La'Mar Hawkins as a romantic interest. When the action jumps forward, Haskell, Hawkins, Lott-Rogers, Machalinski and Tilford play the academics and TV talking heads putting together the pieces that make up the real and the imagined Vera Stark.

Playwright Lynn Nottage is coming to Illinois State University as part of this Vera Stark experience. Nottage will speak to students and audience members after the November 8 evening performance and before the Sunday matinee on the 9th. Click here to see the details of Nottage's visit.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark opens November 6 with a 7:30 pm curtain, with evening performances on November 7, 8, 12, 13, 14 and 15, and a 2 pm matinee on November 9. For more information, click here. For ticket info, try this page.