Friday, May 30, 2014

Try Out the SUMMER ARTS SAMPLER for a Bundle of Hot Tickets

The Area Arts Round Table, a cooperative venture aiming to bring together different threads in the local artistic tapestry, is offering one big Summer Arts Sampler to give you a taste of local theatre and music from early June to late August.

The cost of the Sampler is $60, and that provides access to six different performances at six different venues.

Your choices range from selected dates at Heartland Theatre Company's 10-Minute Play Festival and New Plays from the Heartland to a trio of Music for a Summer Night chamber performances from the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, a trio of My Fair Lady performances from Prairie Fire Theatre, Thursday nights and Sunday matinees in July at Shrek the Musical at Community Players, a  scattering of July and August dates from the Illinois Shakespeare Festival's Anthony and Cleopatra, Elizabeth Rex and Much Ado About Nothing, and three different Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts events, including singer Sebastian Bach, the Bruegala beer fest, and Northern Exposure, a showcase of Chicago music.

Your $60 passport will get you into one show from each of the six participating organizations on the dates they've set aside for the Summer Arts Sampler. You can see the specific dates and performances to choose from here.

If you're ready to go, you can purchase your Sampler online -- scroll down and check the Summer Arts Sampler circle under Donation Information -- or in person at the Garlic Press in Uptown Normal. That will get you a voucher that you can exchange for the official "passport" at the first venue you visit. Please note that you do need to make reservations in advance when you've chosen where and when you want to try out your Sampler.

The AART estimates that this bundle of tickets is a $250 value, which means the $60 asking price is a pretty darn good value. And it's best to act quickly, since they are stopping when 250 Samplers have been sold.

Click here for all the Summer Arts Sampler details.

There's been some trouble with the links to the specific Sampler page, so if you find yourself with an error message, just go to the main Area Arts Roundtable page and then look for Summer Arts Sampler info there.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


The Broadcast Television Journalists Association has announced who and what its members deem worthy of nomination for the 4th annual Critics Choice Television Awards.

The BTJA differs markedly from the Academy and its Emmy nominations on the comedy front, with no love for Modern Family, finding slots for shows like Broad City on Comedy Central and HBO's Silicon Valley instead. More familiar titles like The Big Bang Theory, Louie, Orange Is the New Black and Veep are the other contenders in the Best Comedy category, with Big Bang also earning nods for actor Jim Parsons, supporting actresses Mayim Bialik and Kaley Cuoco and guest performer James Earl Jones.

Big Bang's five nominations lead the pack among comedy series, although dramas like CBS's The Good Wife and Showtime's Masters of Sex also earned five nominations each, along with mini-series Fargo on FX and The Normal Heart from HBO.

The Good Wife herself, Juliana Margulies, is nominated, along with supporting actress Christine Baranski, supporting actor Josh Charles and guest actress Carrie Preston, while Master of Sex earned nods for actress Lizzy Caplan and actor Michael Sheen as sex researchers Masters and Johnson, as well as guest actors Allison Janney and Beau Bridges. For Fargo, it's lead actors Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, supporting actress Allison Tolman and supporting actor Colin Hanks who are nominated, with lead actor Mark Ruffalo, supporting actress Julia Roberts and supporting actors Matt Bomer and Joe Mantello singled out from the all-star cast of The Normal Heart. I think anyone who saw The Normal Heart knew that Bomer would emerge as an awards-contender for his searing, heartbreaking turn as a beautiful man whose beauty is ravaged by AIDS, but Mantello is a bit more of a surprise. I love his work in general, and I have to think he is being recognized in part for playing the lead role, the one Ruffalo took in the HBO movie, when The Normal Heart was produced on Broadway in 2011.

Masters of Sex and The Good Wife share the Best Drama category with The Americans, Emmy favorite Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and True Detective. In terms of networks, that's HBO 3, AMC 1, CBS 1, FX 1.

Masters' guest actress Allison Janney has another nomination, too, for her work on the comedy Mom. She's one of three actors with two nods. The others are Martin Freeman, who plays a hapless (but murderous) insurance salesman on Fargo and Sherlock's right-hand man Watson on Sherlock, and Walton Goggins, nominated for his roles as a whip-smart criminal on Justified and a guest performance as transsexual Venus Van Dam on Sons of Anarchy.

In general, I'm happy to see Adam Scott and Robin Williams recognized in the Best Actor in a Comedy Series category. The former is too often overlooked, while the latter headlined a show that was canceled too soon. I loved The Crazy Ones. I would've welcomed some appreciation of Bob Benson himself, James Wolk, in The Crazy Ones, as well. ABC's Trophy Wife and Fox's Enlisted are the others who find themselves in the Already Canceled But Still Nominated arena; Albert Tsai of Trophy Wife and Keith David of Enlisted are both vying for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy.

Over on the drama side, Josh Charles is very much deserving of recognition for his stellar work as Will Gardner on Good Wife, even if he really ought to be in the leading actor category instead of supporting, and it's always nice to see Jeffrey Wright's name, even if Boardwalk Empire didn't have its best year.

The lack of love for anyone from Mad Men is also intriguing. Perhaps the critics will feel differently after seeing Mad Men's May episodes. They may be sorry they overlooked Broadway legend Robert Morse now that he's danced off screen.

Without further ado, here are the main categories. To see all the nominations, click here.

The Big Bang Theory 
Broad City
Orange Is the New Black 
Silicon Valley 

Louis CK, Louie 
Chris Messina, The Mindy Project 
Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley
Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation
Robin Williams, The Crazy Ones 

Ilana Glazer, Broad City 
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep 
Wendi McLendon-Covey, The Goldbergs
Amy Schumer, Inside Amy Schumer
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation
Emmy Rossum, Shameless

Andre Braugher, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Keith David, Enlisted
Tony Hale, Veep 
Albert Tsai, Trophy Wife
Christopher Evan Welch, Silicon Valley
Jeremy Allen White, Shameless

Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory
Laverne Cox, Orange Is the New Black
Kaley Cuoco, The Big Bang Theory
Allison Janney, Mom
Kate Mulgrew, Orange Is the New Black
Merritt Wever, Nurse Jackie

Uzo Aduba, Orange Is the New Black
Sarah Baker, Louie
James Earl Jones, The Big Bang Theory
Mimi Kennedy, Mom
Andrew Rannells, Girls
Lauren Weedman, Looking

The Americans 
Breaking Bad 
Game of Thrones 
The Good Wife 
Masters of Sex 
True Detective

Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad 
Hugh Dancy, Hannibal 
Freddie Highmore, Bates Motel 
Matthew McConaughey, True Detective
Matthew Rhys, The Americans
Michael Sheen, Masters of Sex 

Lizzy Caplan, Masters of Sex
Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife 
Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black
Keri Russell, The Americans
Robin Wright, House of Cards 

Josh Charles, The Good Wife
Walton Goggins, Justified
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
Peter Sarsgaard, The Killing
Jon Voight, Ray Donovan
Jeffrey Wright, Boardwalk Empire

Christine Baranski, The Good Wife
Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad
Annet Mahendru, The Americans 
Melissa McBride, The Walking Dead 
Maggie Siff, Sons of Anarchy 
Bellamy Young, Scandal 

Beau Bridges, Masters of Sex 
Walton Goggins, Sons of Anarchy 
Allison Janney, Masters of Sex
Joe Morton, Scandal
Carrie Preston, The Good Wife 
Diana Rigg, Game of Thrones 

An Adventure in Space and Time 
Burton and Taylor 
Killing Kennedy 
The Normal Heart 
Sherlock: His Last Vow 
The Trip to Bountiful 

American Horror Story: Coven 
Bonnie & Clyde 
Dancing on the Edge 
The Hollow Crown 

David Bradley, An Adventure in Space and Time
Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: His Last Vow 
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dancing on the Edge 
Martin Freeman, Fargo
Mark Ruffalo, The Normal Heart 
Billy Bob Thornton, Fargo

Helena Bonham Carter, Burton and Taylor 
Minnie Driver, Return to Zero
Whoopi Goldberg, A Day Late and a Dollar Short
Holliday Grainger, Bonnie and Clyde
Jessica Lange, American Horror Story: Coven
Cicely Tyson, The Trip to Bountiful

Matt Bomer, The Normal Heart 
Warren Brown, Luther
Martin Freeman, Sherlock: His Last Vow 
Colin Hanks, Fargo 
Joe Mantello, The Normal Heart 
Blair Underwood, The Trip to Bountiful

Amanda Abbington, Sherlock: His Last Vow 
Kathy Bates, American Horror Story: Coven
Ellen Burstyn, Flowers in the Attic 
Jessica Raine, An Adventure in Space and Time
Julia Roberts, The Normal Heart
Allison Tolman, Fargo

Friday, May 23, 2014

Community Players Announces SHREK Cast

And the cast just announced is a big one, befitting a show like Shrek the Musical, which offers an entire fairytale world of singing and dancing cookies, princes, princesses, monsters. elves, fairies, pigs, dragons and bears (oh, my!) There's also a puppet (Pinocchio), a couple of Wonderland types and a Wicked Witch, among others.

Leading the cast as the big green ogre himself will be Chris Terven, who recently played King Arthur in Community Players' production of Spamalot. His romantic interest, enchanted Princess Fiona, will be played by Lisa Groves, with Jennifer Maloy and Joe MacDonald as her royal parents and Jaron Rhoda as The Wrong Man (AKA Lord Farquaad).

Matthew Henry is set to play Shrek's best buddy the Donkey, while Ramsey Hendricks takes on Pinocchio and Aimee Kerber is Gingy, the gingerbread cookie who keeps rolling along.

This production, which is set to run from July 11th to the 27th at Community Players, features an ensemble of sixteen in addition to over 30 named roles and a children's ensemble that comes in at about 21 little ones. That means you are very likely to see a friend or neighbor kicking up his or her heels (or his or her hooves -- remember there's a donkey and several pigs in the mix) in Shrek the Musical.

For more information as well as the complete list of players, click here to see the Community Players Facebook page for the show and the main page at their website.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

PBS Clues in the Lineup for MASTERPIECE MYSTERY! in 2014

(L to R) David Tennant, Matthew Rhys, Anna Maxwell Martin & Shaun Evans
There's more than just Downton Abbey and Sherlock on PBS. And, yes, Downton will be back with season 5 in the United States in 2015 and Sherlock will be back with season 4 in 2016.

But first... PBS has announced the full schedule for "MASTERPIECE Mystery!" for 2014. It's a swoon-worthy schedule, what with David Tennant, Jack Davenport, Matthew Rhys and Matthew Goode in the midst of it. Although David Suchet may be hiding behind a rather eccentric mustache, he, too, qualifies as swoon-worthy for his intelligence alone.

David Tennant is probably best known for his tenure as Doctor Who, but he was also a memorable Barty Crouch Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a fine Richard II with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and a really terrific tortured detective in Broadchurch. He'll be playing that same role (with a new name) in the American remake of Broadchurch called Gracepoint, which will premiere on FOX in the fall. But first...

The Escape Artist, in which Tennant will play a "brilliant defense lawyer with a storybook family and a potent nickname," comes to PBS in June. The nickname is, of course, the Escape Artist, as this barrister specializes in getting his clients (guilty or not) out of tight legal corners. But then he comes up against a tough case -- and a really creepy client -- that changes everything. Sophie Okonedo also stars as a rival defense attorney. Although The Escape Artist ran in three one-hour episodes in England, it is set for two 90-minute episodes on June 15 and 22 on PBS. You can see a preview of the first show on the PBS page for Episode 1.

Next up is Shaun Evans as the rookie Constable Morse before he became Inspector Morse in the second season of Endeavor, which runs from June 29 to July 20 in the Sunday night Mystery! slot. The four episodes are titled "Trove," "Nocturne," "Sway" and "Neverland," if that offers any hints as to what young Endeavor Morse is up to this time out.

David Suchet and his version of Hercule Poirot return for two mysteries, "The Big Four" and "Dead Man's Folly," on July 27 and August 3. Suchet is absolutely my favorite Poirot, better than Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney or even Hugh Laurie (in Spice World.)  He and his little grey cells will take on cases set up for him by Agatha Christie in 1927 and 1956, respectively.

And then it's Breathless, "a stylish and compelling new medical drama set in London in 1961," with the handsome and talented Jack Davenport, who you may remember from Smash or The Talented Mr. Ripley (he was much better in the latter than the former) or even from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. There he is at right, looking all debonair and slick, sort of like the gynecological version of Don Draper, surrounded by one redhead, one blonde and one brunette. As the press release tells the story, "Breathless opens in 1961, a time when Britain was on the brink of the '60s revolution – abortion is illegal and the contraceptive pill is only just available to married women. Set in and around a busy gynecology unit, medicine becomes the perfect stage to play out the shifting and complex moral codes of early 1960s society." You can see for yourself August 24 to September 7. This sounds more soapy than mystery, but Jack Davenport is always worth a look.

For more classic mystery stylings, there's more of Miss Marple with Julia McKenzie in September and more of Inspector Lewis with Kevin Whately in October. And then it's P.D. James' version of Jane Austen, with Death Comes to Pemberley, a sequel of sorts to Pride and Prejudice, casting Elizabeth (played by Anna Maxwell Martin) and Darcy (Matthew Rhys) as a married couple some six years after the events of the book. They are hosting a weekend at their country estate, Pemberley, including a ball, but, of course, things go terribly wrong and one of their guests ends up quite dead. Jenna Coleman plays Elizabeth's sister Lydia, while the dishy Matthew Goode, currently appearing on The Good Wife, appears as her feckless husband, George Wickham, who is involved up to his epaulets in the murder plot. Look also for Penelope Keith as Lady Catherine de Bourgh and James Fleet and Rebecca Front as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Lizzy and Lydia's parents. Death Comes to Pemberley comes to PBS on October 26 and November 2.

And that's what will be filling your Sunday nights with plenty of MASTERPIECE Mystery! from June to November. Time to stock up on tea and cakes so you'll be ready when the time comes. You can see all the info here if you're aiming to fill out your datebook.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

BCPA Throws a Party to Launch New Season

The Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts is offering snacks and punch along with an advance look at their 2014-15 season next Wednesday, May 28. This announcement party is free, although attendees will be encouraged to become "Arts Partners" with the BCPA and to buy tickets to upcoming events. The doors open at 5:30 pm and the presentation on the new season starts at 6 pm.

Last summer the BCPA brought the Missoula Children's Theatre to Miller Park for two musicals. No word on that, but I wouldn't be surprised to see that kind of collaboration happen again. And if it doesn't, there will surely be more concerts and shows added as time progresses.

Summer BCPA events we already know about include a "Bayou Bash" on June 21 and a "Bruegala" on August 22 and 23. The former is a free concert with a Cajun theme, while the latter is a two-night fundraiser and beer festival with "an opportunity to enjoy some great music on the lawn and some of the world's best beers inside the beautiful BCPA." Tickets for the Bruegala are priced at $15 and are available to those over 21 only.

In addition to hearing lots more details about what will be coming this summer and fall at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts at the launch party on the 28th, you will have the opportunity to buy tickets, join their Arts Partners program, ask questions of staff, enjoy punch or a snack, buy a beverage from the cash bar, or check out the new artwork in the BCPA lobby. That new artwork consists of mobiles created by local students who participated in a recent sculpture workshop at the Creativity Center.

For more information, click here or here or keep an eye on the BCPA website.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Sneak Peek at U of I's 2014-15 Theatre Season

In what is being called a "High energy, contemplative, unexpected, reverent, inspiring, and esteemed" season, the University of Illinois Krannert Center for the Performing Arts will showcase music, dance, drama, opera, circus, acrobats, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, and the Day of the Drum in its 2014-15 lineup of events.

Tickets will go on sale at 10 am on August 16th for all of these concerts, shows and celebrations, with the Opening Night Party featuring Mariachi Sol de México, Tiempo Libre and Samba Soul officially kicking off the fall season on September 12.

More details are promised for July 24, but in the meantime, here are the theatrical highlights that popped out at me.

Naomi Iizuka's version of Ovid's Metamorphoses, called Polaroid Stories, will open the Illinois Theatre season on October 2, 2014, with performances through the 12th. U of I's Department of Theatre has taken on Iizuka's darkly poetic work before with Anon(ymous) in the Studio Theatre several years ago. Polaroid Stories began its life at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 1997. Iizuka sees Ovid's characters as street punks and runaways in an unfriendly world of drugs, violence and danger. I remember being especially moved by her depiction of Narcissus as a self-absorbed gay hustler and Orpheus and Eurydice as a possessive, abusive boyfriend and the girl who can't get away.

Next up is Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth which won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, on stage at Krannert Center from October 16 to 26. Like Polaroid Stories, Skin of Our Teeth harkens back to an older source. In this case, it's the Bible, with that "skin of our teeth" title as well as references to Cain and Abel and maybe Noah's Ark sprinkled in among its journey from New Jersey on the brink of an Ice Age to a major flood and a major war. Through farce and folderol, Wilder tells the story of a regular old suburban family that manages to survive everything, by the skin of their teeth, of course.

Donizetti's comic opera The Elixir of Love, about a poor, besotted young man who procures a phony love potion in order to woo a wealthy girl, is on the schedule for November 6 to 9, followed by Oh What a Lovely War from November 11 to 16. Oh What a Lovely War,  a 1963 anti-war musical developed by Joan Littlewood and England's Theatre Workshop, was created by that ensemble company as a reaction to World War I, juxtaposing cheery period music with dire statistic and stories of war. You can read more about this seminal work here. That kind of expressionistic, collaborative work seems very 60s in retrospect. What will it look like in 2014, with a hundred years gone since World War I, the war to end all wars, began?

The Nutcracker will be back in December, and the Russian National Ballet will be back in January, this time with Romeo and Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.

From last year's Illinois Theatre production of Shakespeare's The Tempest
February brings Tango Buenos Aires, Circus Oz and a new chapter in The Sullivan Project, wherein Tony Award-winning director Daniel Sullivan pulls together a new play and a first-rate cast of actors to offer Central Illinois audiences a look at how new dramatic works are developed nationally. Last year's Lost Lake by David Auburn will be part of the Manhattan Theatre Club's 2014-15 season, illustrating the potential for Sullivan project plays.

Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow checks in to close Februray and open March, with 'Tis Pity She's a Whore hot on its heels. 'Tis Pity is a 17th century tragedy written by John Ford. The common wisdom is that it was too incendiary for its time but is a lot more popular now, probably because of its tempestuous, incestuous plot, involving a brother and sister who are undone by their impossible passion for each other. Love! Murder! Poison! Torture! Revenge! Incestuous pregnancy! A heart on a stick! 'Tis Pity She's a Whore has it all. And you can see it from March 5 to 15 in 2015.

Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales, a prison drama written in the 1930s but not performed till the 90s,  comes to Krannert from April 9 to 19, followed by the Sondeim/Lapine musical Into the Woods for what appears to be four performances from the 23rd to the 26th. Sondheim and Lapine's fabulous fairytale and its not-so-happily-ever-after message need more than four performances if you ask me, but Cinderella, Rapunzel, the two Princes, the Witch, the Baker and his Wife, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and his Mother (as well as his magical cow), plus the vengeful Giant, will make it all fit somehow.

Check out the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts website for details as they're added. And remember, tickets for these events as well as all the ones I didn't tell you about, like Renee Fleming, Wynton Marsalis, Rosanne Cash and the Chicago Symphony, go on sale August 16 at 10 am.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Auditions Coming Up for SHREK and MY FAIR LADY

If you are of a musical bent, there are two sets of auditions coming up that may be calling (or singing) your name.

First up will be Community Players' auditions for Shrek the Musical on May 18, 19 and 20, from 6 to 9 pm each night. Shrek the Musical is the live, more musically inclined version of the first Shrek animated movie, telling the story of a sweet green ogre and the princess he falls in love with. In both versions, the ogre has a talking donkey sidekick, short enemies in high places, and a whole bunch of fractured fairytale folk to fill out his story. On Broadway, he also got a bunch of songs, with music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics from playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who also wrote the book. Songs include "Big Bright Beautiful World" and "Morning Person," as well as "I'm a Believer," borrowed from the movie.

Just as a bit of comparison, you will remember that Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy were the voices of Shrek, Princess Fiona and Donkey for the film, while John Lithgow voiced evil Lord Farquaad. Brian d'Arcy James, Sutton Foster, Daniel Breaker and Christopher Sieber took those roles on Broadway, with the help of extensive costuming to make them look like their animated alter egos. Plus Sieber had to walk on his knees to get teeny tiny Lord Farquaad up and running. Everybody from that group except Breaker picked up a Tony nomination, but costume designer Tim Hatley was the lone winner.

Community Players will be looking for adult and child performers for its Shrek, with auditions for kids in grades 3 to 8 scheduled for 6 pm and auditions for adults (considered anything older than 9th grade) scheduled for 7 pm. The younger set will be asked to sing 16 bars and show off their dance skills, while adult auditions will consist of singing, dancing and reading from the script. For more information on Shrek the Musical auditions, click here or here.

At pretty much the opposite side of the musical spectrum, Prairie Fire Theatre will hold auditions for My Fair Lady, based on the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, on May 28 and 29.

My Fair Lady is a Lerner and Loewe classic, featuring megahits like "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On the Street Where You Live," "With a Little Bit of Luck," and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" as it tells the story of a lowly Covent Garden flower girl turned into a lady by an arrogant language expert. It ran for an astonishing 2717 performances on Broadway from 1956 to 1962 and picked up six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Actor for Rex Harrison, Best Director for Moss Hart and Best Costume Designer for Cecil Beaton.

Oddly, neither Julie Andrews nor Stanley Holloway won for their standout performances as Cockney urchin Eliza Doolittle and her dad Alfred.

Harrison and Holloway were there when the movie was made in 1964, but Audrey Hepburn (dubbed by Marni Nixon) took over for Julie Andrews. The movie My Fair Lady walked off with eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Harrison was once again a winner, along with costume designer Cecil Beaton, but Hepburn and (once again) Holloway had to be happy to be nominated. When he won Best Actor, Rex Harrison dedicated the award to both Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn, his two "fair ladies."

Rhys Lovell, who took the reins of A Little Night Music for Prairie Fire last year, will direct My Fair Lady this time out. Lovell is looking for ten women and twelve men of all ages to play everything from Eliza and her dad to Henry Higgins' compatriot Colonel Pickering, Henry's long-suffering mother, and a variety of buskers, footmen and society folk who populate both the low and high worlds where Eliza finds herself.

The role of Henry Higgins has been precast -- Joe Penrod will play that single-minded task master -- but everything else is open. Auditioners are asked to prepare a short musical selection from any show they like. An accompanist will be provided.

Auditions will be held in Room 308 of Illinois Wesleyan's Presser Hall on Tuesday, May 27, and Wednesday, May 28, from 6 to 8 pm each night. Note that performances of Prairie Fire's My Fair Lady are scheduled to take place from July 31 to August 3 in IWU's Westbrook Auditiorium.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Thursdays Will Be Shondays With Viola Davis and HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER

Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder
Since TV producer Shonda Rhimes has enjoyed a great deal of success with Grey's Anatomy, her take on the classic medical drama, and her soapy, shocking political series Scandal, there will be a lot of eyes on her third show headed to ABC in the fall.

This one, given the incendiary name How to Get Away With Murder, stars Viola Davis, a crackerjack actress who happens to share my birthday, as a defense lawyer and law professor who doesn't mind a little dirty dealing, obfuscating or lying to get her clients out of jail. Davis isn't just a fabulous actress -- she's a two-time Oscar nominee (for The Help and Doubt) and a two-time Tony winner (for Fences and King Hedley II) who will bring major chops to ShondaLand.

ABC has released the trailer for How to Get Away With Murder, which looks just as dishy and delicious as Rhimes' other shows, even if it bears no resemblance to any law school I've ever seen. In the trailer, Davis's Annalise Keating* tells her students that she will not be teaching theory, but instead, how to act like a real criminal defense attorney, in court, from the get-go. That's the exact opposite of what we were told on the first day of my law school, but no matter. Perhaps Keating's Middletown University Law School is built differently.

She goes on to say that her criminal law class will be built around the use of three courtroom strategies: Discredit witnesses, introduce a new suspect, and bury the evidence. Those are all things real lawyers do, but not under those names (impeaching witnesses, alternate theories of the crime and motions to suppress sound a bit more realistic), not in every case and not with what appears to be Keating's cheerful disregard of illegal searches, privacy, perjury and obstruction of justice issues. If she's really going to depend on this "discredit, introduce and bury" thing every week, I'd say it will get boring quickly. But I doubt that will really happen. I've seen Scandal and how quickly it devolved into international conspiracies and bombs and assassinations and things that are well beyond the scope of a fixer like Olivia Pope.

As How to Get Away With Murder begins, we see both university and courtroom settings, cheerleaders and a bonfire, some suspicious goings-on, a little sex to liven things up, and some sort of murder plot that involves Keating as more than just legal counsel. Alfie Enoch, who has appeared in Harry Potter movies, plays Wes, the most fresh-faced and naive among the law students, while Jack Falahee from the Twisted TV series and Aja Naomi King, who has been in Black Box and Emily Owens M.D., seem to be the more savvy (or possibly sleazy) 1Ls in Keating's class.

ABC is giving How to Get Away With Murder a prime Thursday slot, moving Grey's Anatomy to 7 pm (Central time), followed by Scandal at 8, and this newest Shonda entry at 9.  All of which will make for a very Shondalicious Thursday night on ABC.

*The imdb listing says she's Annalise DeWitt, but Davis clearly says "Keating" in the trailer. Recent name change? Boo boo? I went with the trailer, in any event.

Monday, May 12, 2014

THE ODD COUPLE Is Back and Community Players Has 'Em

Quick! Who was the first Odd Couple on Broadway?

Neil Simon's play about two mismatched roommates hit the Great White Way in 1965, in a production directed by Mike Nichols that stuck around for 964 performances. It won Neil Simon his first Tony Award (as "Best Author," a category that doesn't exist anymore) and took home trophies for Nichols, scenic designer Oliver Smith, and lead actor Walter Matthau, who played messy Oscar Madison. The neat half of the apartment was played by Art Carney, famous from The Honeymooners.

And after that... The Odd Couple spawned a 1968 movie with Matthau and Jack Lemmon, a 1998 movie called The Odd Couple II, also starring Matthau and Lemmon, a long-running TV series with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall (seen at right), and two more trips to Broadway, with Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers in a female version of the play in 1985 and Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in an updated Odd Couple in 2005.

The show is a natural for community theaters, since it's funny, the situation (divorced men who are not exactly a good fit are forced to share an apartment) doesn't go out of style, and it uses one set and a cast of eight. Community Players did The Odd Couple in 1968, 1990 and 2001 (with female leads) and they're bringing it back for 2014. This time, Jeremy Stiller has directed and designed the set, with Brian Artman and Tom Smith as Oscar the Slob and Felix the Neatnik, respectively. Also in the cast: Andy Cary, Drew German, Allen Popowski and Thom Rakestraw, with Stacy Baker and Bridgette Richard as the Pigeon Sisters from upstairs.

The Odd Couple opens this Thursday, the 15th, with a pay-what-you-can preview, followed by performances from May 16 to 25. Tickets (for every night except that first preview) range from $7 to $15. They appear to be selling fairly briskly, but good seats are still available as I write this.

Check out the event's Facebook page for all the details.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Happy 115th Birthday, Fred Astaire!

It's time for my annual Fred Astaire's birthday post! This is my second repost in a row, but I am willing to make an exception for FRED ASTAIRE'S BIRTHDAY, which should totally be a national holiday. Since I don't have control over national holidays, I will keep the tradition alive by reblogging this piece right here, right now!

May 10th used to be a holiday in my household, as I always tried to celebrate the birthday of my favorite film star, Fred Astaire. I remember taking a cake with 80+ candles on it to my office one May 10th in the 80s, with co-workers fearing we were going to set off the sprinkler system if we actually lit it up to attempt to blow it out.

Now that my beloved Fred has been gone for awhile (he died in 1987, at the age of 88) I no longer send him a birthday card (obviously) or eat cake in his honor, although I still try to celebrate in my own way. This year, that way is to talk about him on my blog, to let everybody who reads this in on the significance of May 10th in our cultural landscape. And also, of course, to let myself wallow in a little Astaire-o-rama just for fun.

Frederick Austerlitz was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 10, 1899, as the world was moving from horse-and-buggy thinking into automated everything. Movies, cars, radio, music coming from your very own Gramophone or Victrola... The world was breaking wide open.

As America entered the 20th Century, Fred Austerlitz and his older sister Adele were taking dance lessons at the behest of their mother, who hoped to create a brother-and-sister act for the vaudeville circuit. By 1905, they had moved to New York and adopted the name Astaire as part of Ann Austerlitz's plan to achieve stardom for her children.

Everybody thought Adele was the one with the talent, while Fred was clever and creative, picking up dance styles easily as well as noodling on the piano and other instruments. Their brother-and-sister act did very well pretty much from the start, landing a spot on the Orpheum circuit, and eventually getting themselves into a Broadway show, a Sigmund Romberg revue called Over the Top, in 1917.

From there, they got larger spots in bigger shows, and were quite the splash in a show called Stop Flirting! in London in 1922. The show didn't do much in New York under the name For Goodness Sake, but additional Gershwin songs were added for London, boosting the Astaires' role. Suddenly they were the toast of London, and Stop Flirting! ran for an amazing 418 performances.

After that, Lady Be Good, with hits like "Fascinating Rhythm" in the score, was created just to showcase Fred and Adele in New York. It was the biggest hit yet for George and Ira Gershwin, as well as the perfect mix of song, dance and romantic comedy to highlight the charms of the Astaires. And if I ever run into anybody who has perfected time travel, I plan to request December 1, 1924, so I can walk into the Liberty Theatre on Broadway and see Fred and Adele open in Lady Be Good.

Fred found movie stardom on his own, after Adele had decided to drop out of the act to marry Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish, the son of the Duke of Devonshire, in 1932. At first, Fred continued on stage by himself, with Cole Porter's Gay Divorce and the hit song "Night and Day" paving the way for his solo career. Then Fred made his way to Hollywood, like so many stage stars before him, to see what he could do on the big screen.

Supposedly, some bigwig or other watched his screen test and concluded, "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." That's the story, anyway. At any rate, Fred got a walk-on in an otherwise dreadful Joan Crawford pic called Dancing Lady in 1933, and from there, danced into history at RKO Studios when he was paired with Ginger Rogers for a fizzy, fun picture about airplanes and romance in Brazil called Flying Down to Rio.

Although neither Astaire nor Rogers was keen on being part of a team, their success in the filmed version of Gay Divorce, now called The Gay Divorcee, as well as Top Hat, Shall We Dance and Swing Time, pretty much assured their names would be linked forever. They were huge for RKO, they were huge for Hollywood, and they were huge for the development of musicals on film.

Astaire was more than just a gifted dancer and charming performer. He sweated every detail of every dance, rehearsing and re-rehearsing until every step, every turn was sheer perfection. There are all kinds of famous stories about chicken feathers and beaded sleeves and bloody shoes getting in their way when they danced, but on screen, Astaire and Rogers look like La Belle, La Perfectly Swell Romance.

For me, Fred Astaire represents the best of what Hollywood can do (or could do, back in those early days of movie technology). Astaire-Rogers Land is a world where everybody can sing and dance (and does, whenever they feel like it), with beautiful music accompanying them as they and their fabulous costumes waft in and out of swanky (and enormous) black-and-white rooms decorated in wonderful Art Deco style. Fantasy, sure. But what a fantasy.

With or without Ginger, Fred is my idea of swoony, swell romance. He projects a certain gentility and sweetness along with all that easy elegance; his on-screen persona suits the tinkly tunes as well as the funny novelty numbers and the dramatic, romantic ballads, like “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “One for My Baby,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and my absolute favorite song of all time, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

Nobody did it better. Ever. Yes, with Ginger, but also with Rita Hayworth and Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire made you believe that people can fall in love when they’re dancing. Isn't that a lovely thing to believe in, just for an hour or two?

As it happens, I discovered a few years ago that my husband’s grandfather, Carl Frick of St. Charles, Illinois, was born on the exact same day as Fred Astaire. As far as I know, Carl Frick wasn’t a dancer and he never considered leaving St. Charles for fame and fortune on the vaudeville circuit. Two men, born the same day in different Midwestern towns. One stayed in the Midwest and raised a dancing daughter, who had a decidedly non-dancing son (my husband). The other went east with his sister, developed a whole new style of dancing on film, and became an enduring screen legend as well as an example and inspiration to pretty much every dancer who came after him. Whether that was fate, destiny, or just the roll of the die, I'm glad Carl Frick stayed in St. Charles to raise his daughter June, and I'm glad Fred Austerlitz became Fred Astaire.

As Fred says in The Gay Divorcee, “Chance is the fool’s name for fate.” Or “Fate is a foolish thing to take chances with.” Or something.

If you're looking to start your own Fred Astaire film collection, I highly recommend the Astaire & Rogers Ultimate Collectors Edition, released in 2006. It has all ten Astaire/Rogers pics on DVD, plus extras like trailers and ads, vintage shorts and cartoons, and behind-the-scenes "featurettes." It's a lovely set, and perfect for the completist.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Best Movie Moms for Mother's Day

I have a habit of bringing this one back for Mother's Day. And I haven't changed my mind since the last time, either!

Lists of movie moms inevitably include Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce and Psycho's mom. Maybe even the over-the-top stage mother in Gypsy. Yeah, I'm not going for any of them. Instead, my idea of a movie mom is more like, well, the list below.

Best Movie Mom, Classic Category
Jane Darwell as Ma Joad
My favorite mom in the classic period of Hollywood movies is Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath. She's not the lead, but she is everything that represents home, love and stability as her family must take to the road in the wake of foreclosure, hunger, death and separation. Born Patti Woodward to a wealthy Missouri family (her dad was the president of a railroad), Darwell was not the kind of poor Okie she played in The Grapes of Wrath, but she definitely made an impact. The scene where her son, Tom Joad, played by Henry Fonda, tells her that he will be there, the everyman who stands in "Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there," is probably the most famous bit of Grapes of Wrath and Darwell is certainly the anchor in that scene. But I defy anyone not to get a little teary when Ma Joad packs up the remnants of her household, holding up a pair of earrings and looking at her reflection in the side of a metal coffee pot. As she remembers who she used to be and all that she's leaving behind, accompanied by the melancholy sound of the song "Red River Valley," Darwell looks at us, straight ahead, with a subtle yet devastating expression on her soft, worn face, and you see the whole plot, the whole punch of the movie right there. Jane Darwell won an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category for her performance, and she certainly deserved it.

Best Movie Mom, Funny Category
North by Northwest isn't exactly your standard comedy, but Jessie Royce Landis, who wasn't nearly old enough* to play the mother of her on-screen son, Cary Grant, is so fresh and funny playing a sardonic society mother who totally and completely has her playboy son's number, that you'll forget the Hitchcockian suspense and just smile every time she's on screen. Landis had an extensive Broadway career before and after her screen debut in At Your Service in 1930. On Broadway, she played Jo in Little Women and Hermione in The Winter's Tale, and on film, she was Grace Kelly's wise and witty mother in To Catch a Thief a few years before she played Cary's mum in North by Northwest. Clearly, she'd have been a better match for Mr. Grant than a mother, but it's all good. Jessie Royce Landis did the knowing eye-roll better than just about anybody.

Mr. Grant and Ms. Landis in North by Northwest
Best Movie Mom, Most Like a Real Mom Category
ET with Dee Wallace
I remember a friend opining that Steven Spielberg creates good movie moms. I think that's true, with none more real and warm and just all-around mom-a-riffic than Dee Wallace in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Wallace's Mary doesn't do anything special or spectacular; she just goes about her business as a caring, loving single mother to her children, Elliott (Henry Thomas) and Gertie (Drew Barrymore), even when an alien starts living in her son's closet. If I were under ten again, I'd pick this modern, lovely, regular-old mom for my family. Dee Wallace has been in a ton of horror movies, giving them the same grounded, real presence she provides in E.T. And she showed up a few years ago on The Office, once again playing a mother. (This time she was Andy Bernard's mom.)

Best Movie Mom,Cartoon Category
Elastigirl and Her Voice, Holly Hunter
Holly Hunter has done at least two memorable film moms, with her barren-but-yearning, babynapping Ed in Raising Arizona making an impact, along with her sweetly fierce Helen (AKA Elastigirl) in The Incredibles. Moms with superpowers probably deserve a category of their own, but what makes Helen stand out is how normal she is, even in her spandex suit, and how well she looks out for her kids and her husband, even in the face of assaults from supervillains. Hunter also deserves mention for making Helen feel real and sympathetic simply through the use of her voice.

Best Movie Mom, Musical Category
Meryl Streep in "Mamma Mia"
Meryl Streep has played a lot of moms in her career, and if we'd seen more than just a flashback where she saves her kids and the family cat in Defending Your Life, I might be inclined to pick that luminous and lovely performance. But, alas, she's more "romantic heroine" and less "mom" in that one. I'm sure she's picked for Sophie's Choice a lot, too, but that is such a difficult and terrible movie for any mother that I'm not going there, either. So I'm going with Mamma Mia, where she plays against type as a goofy, hippyish mother who isn't sure which of her three boyfriends from the past is the father of her daughter. Mamma Mia is certainly not the best musical around, but Streep is delightful, dancing around in her overalls, nothing like the Grande Dame of the American Screen, making herself absolutely convincing in an otherwise not-believable-in-the-least movie. I don't know. Maybe I should remove Meryl after her scenery-chewing turn as a Mom from Hell in August: Osage County. But I still like her in Mamma Mia.

*The oft-repeated story is that Landis was almost a year younger than Grant, which the Internet Broadway Database thinks is the correct information. The Internet Movie Database, however, has Landis born in 1896, making her 7-and-a-bit years older than Grant. Certainly not old enough to be his mother, but at least not younger. Who's right? My husband, who likes genealogical research, has located Jessie Medbury (her birth name) on the 1900 Chicago census as a three-year-old, and then again on the 1910 and 1920 censuses when she was 13 and 23, respectively. So my household is going with 1896 as Jessie Royce Landis's year of birth.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Lauren Gunderson's I AND YOU Wins 2014 Steinberg/ATCA Award

I have been remiss in catching up with news from last month's Humana Festival, including the awarding of the prestigious Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics New Play Awards, which annually recognize playwrights for notable scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City. The Steinberg/ATCA awards bestow $25,000 and a commemorative plaque to the overall winner, with two additional citations for $7500 each.

Lauren Gunderson
This year, Lauren Gunderson’s I and You, described as a "delicate but droll play about teenagers exploring life and death" received the $25,000 prize, while Christopher Demos-Brown's Fear Up Harsh and Martin Zimmerman's Seven Spots on the Sun took the $7500 citations.

With total awards of $40,000, the Steinberg/ATCA Awards are the largest national new play awards in the United States which recognize regional theaters as an important growing ground for new plays.

Gunderson's I and You was first produced at the Marin Theatre Company in the San Francisco Bay area in October 2013. That production was part of a "rolling world premiere" program supported by the National New Play Network, an initiative that gives plays a chance to be presented at three theaters in quick succession, with different creative teams and different kinds of theater. Playwrights like Steven Dietz, Quiara Alegria Hudes and Theresa Rebeck have participated in this rolling world premiere program, which is intended to help plays and playwrights "attain the momentum needed to join the repertoire of frequently-produced new American works."

I and You features two characters -- Caroline, a high school student who needs a liver transplant, and a fellow student named Anthony, a basketball player who loves poetry and playing the saxophone. Because of her health issues, Caroline hasn't been at school in some time, and the play begins when Anthony arrives at Caroline's house intent on completing a school project on Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. She's prickly and even obnoxious; he's affable and outgoing. She may be dying; he is brimming with life. As they continue their discussion of poetry "with verve," the two teenagers venture into issues of mortality, humanity and connection shaped by Whitman's words. And by the end... As ATCA materials tell us, "With in humor and sharp insights, the play grows quietly toward a surprising, overwhelmingly moving conclusion."

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Gunderson is a playwright in residence at the Playwrights Foundation, and a member of Just Theatre’s New Play Lab. She was profiled last year in American Theatre magazine at just about the time I and You began.

Check these links to see more information on the Steinberg/ATCA Awards and the other new plays nominated and cited this year.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

What May May Have to Offer

May is a funny month for entertainment options in Bloomington-Normal, as students move out and theaters finish up their spring seasons. That means you'll have to act quickly to catch the last performances of the gripping drama Iron at Heartland Theatre in Normal, starring Lori Adams and Alyssa Ratkovich as a mother and daughter attempting to reconnect after years of separation due to the mother's incarceration, and Parkland College's production of Monty Python's Spamalot, the fizzy and silly musical about knights of the round table looking for a grail, holy or otherwise. They are certainly different sorts of theater, but both shows finish up this weekend, and both have received very good notices, so if you can get your hands on a ticket, they're both well worth your time.

Also in Champaign, the Station Theatre continues its run of Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, directed by Kay Bohannon Holley and starring Steven M. Keen, Carolyn Kodes-Atkinson, Joi Hoffsommer, Joel Higgins and Kate Riley as the wealthy but dysfunctional Wyeth family of Palm Springs. Baitz's newest play was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama

If you are a fan of British films or of the amazing Jim Broadbent or Lindsay Duncan, you'll want to check out Le Week-End at the Art Theater Co-op in Champaign, on screen till May 8. The premise of the film -- that long-married couple Nick and Meg travel to Paris for a second honeymoon to try to find the spark their relationship has lost -- is set up nicely in the film's trailer. Le Week-End was directed by Roger Michell, known for rom-com Notting Hill and the recent soft-focus FDR pic Hyde Park on Hudson, and is described as a "magically buoyant and bittersweet film." Le Week-End will also move into the Normal Theater for a short stay from May 29 to June 1.

Before that, the Normal Theater is focusing on Audrey Hepburn as directed by Stanley Donen for four nights, starting with Charade, the delightful 1963 romantic caper/spy film that paired Hepburn with Cary Grant, on May 8 and 9. The Hepburn/Grant romance is given even more sparkle by the terrific Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer song also called "Charade" that pops up in the movie. Then it's time for Funny Face, the 1957 musical where Audrey is a beatnik turned into a fashion model by photographer Fred Astaire, on the 10th and 11th. As it happens, May 10 is Fred's birthday. You can celebrate by catching Funny Face at the Normal Theater, taking a look at Holiday Inn on the RETRO channel on May 16, or staying up till the wee hours for The Belle of New York on Turner Classic Movies on May 22.

Community Players takes a break from musicals to offer the Neil Simon classic The Odd Couple, opening May 15. Brian Artman and Tom Smith play mismatched roommates Oscar and Felix for director Jeremy Stiller, with a supporting cast that includes Stacy Baker, Andy Cary, Drew German, Allen Popowski, Thom Rakestraw and Bridgette Richard. Performances of The Odd Couple continue through May 25. Tickets for this show and for the 2014-15 Community Players season are available now.

Players will also hold auditions for their upcoming production of Shrek: The Musical from 6 to 7 pm (for kids from 3rd to 8th grade) and 7 to 9 pm (for everybody older than 8th grade) on May 18, 19 and 20. For all the details, check out the Shrek Auditions Facebook page.

As part of its Summer Arts Festival, Eureka College Theatre will hold a stage combat workshop in Eureka in collaboration with Western Illinois University beginning May 19. The workshop will include 30 hours of instruction in stage fighting with single sword and quarterstaff, with additional "Dueling Arts Certification" in unarmed and small sword categories. At the end of the workshop, students will be tested for Society of American Fight Directors certification. Please note that enrollment is limited to 18 and that college credit may be available for participants. Click here to see costs and other important information.

Instead of Whose Line Is It, Anyway? -- the TV improv show that started in Britain and then spawned two American versions --  the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts will host Whose Live Anyway? at 7:30 pm on May 31. I feel the need to point out that it should probably be "Who's" to indicate "Who is live?" as opposed to "Whose," which really makes no sense in this context. But I guess these are improv performers, not people who necessarily know their "whose" from their "who's." Anyway, a quartet of performers who frequently visited Whose Line , including Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops, Jeff B. Davis and Charles "Chip" Esten, who has since broken out as an actor on ABC's Nashville, will take on some of the games they did on the television show as well as some new ones. This is not the first time Whose Line personnel have visited Bloomington, but it may be the first time since Esten became a major TV heartthrob. For more information, click here.