Friday, December 11, 2015

Ho Ho Ho! Sticky Comes Back to the Bar Next Week

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Sticky...
Sticky in the Sticks is promising "a lot of Christmas Spirit" in this month's installment of pop-up theatre at the Firehouse Pub and Pizza in Uptown Normal, scheduled for Friday the 18th.

Cue the Irish coffee, the gingerbread martini, the candy cane cocktail, the rum-loaded eggnog. It's time for "Bottoms up, Lights Down," as we celebrate Sticky, the December Edition.

The Sticky troupe works with material set at a bar, transforming a real-life, actual pub into a theatre for the night. This month's collection of plays -- set to start about 8:30 pm next Friday in Normal, after musical guests War Painted Horses finishes -- is "bound to take you through laughs, maybe some tears, stomach aches, and memories, because," as Sticky always points out, "anything that can happen can happen in a bar." Especially over the holidays, when people have a tendency to partake of liquid spirits even more than usual.

This month's group of actors includes founders Connie Blick and J. Michael Grey as well as Bruce E. Clark, Susanna Doehler, Andrea Henderson, Kari Knolton, Anthony Loster, Will Lovell, Megan McCann, Devin McCloskey, Terry Noel, Spencer Powell, Jared Saunders, Brandon Smith and Anne Tobin. That's Connie you see in the photo at the top of this post. She's the one with her arms open wide to welcome December fun.

Please note that you don't have to be 21 to attend, but mature audiences are recommended due to language and themes. Doors open at 7:30 and you are well advised to be there early to get a good seat.

For more information, click here for the Sticky Facebook page.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Awards Season Begins with SAG and Golden Globes Nominations

The Golden Globe Awards have always been a bit of a lightweight when compared to other movie awards like the Oscars, given that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the organization that gives them, is quite small (about 90 members) and rather obscure. Their track record isn't great -- Pia Zadora was their "New Star of the Year" in 1982 for a terrible movie called Butterfly, amidst allegations that her fabulously wealthy husband bought the award for her, and as recently as 2011, a movie called The Tourist nabbed a nomination as the Best Motion Picture (Musical Comedy), with, again, rumors that HFPA members had been bought off with a lavish weekend of entertainment. If you don't remember The Tourist, don't worry -- it was panned by critics and pretty much bombed at the box office in the United States.


The Globes had one big saving grace, however. They brought together nominees from film and television, which didn't happen anywhere else. That advantage was lost when the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA has a combined membership over 165,000) entered the awards game, also spotlighting performances in both movies and TV. Since these honors were coming from their peers in SAG, actors tended to pay more attention to who was getting what.

Even if nobody takes the Globes very seriously, they are still a good time, with free-flowing liquor, famous people sitting at tables instead of stuck in an auditorium, and a lot of actors showing up to present and get their awards. The emphasis on funny, irreverent hosts like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in 2014 and Ricky Gervais last year, doesn't hurt. Gervais will be back in 2016, where he will almost certainly bring out his best pokes, jabs and lampoons. The man is merciless as well as funny.

As for the Screen Actors Guild and their awards... No funny host, no major network, but they'll be there January 30, 2016 on TBS and TNT, and their winners are much more likely to give you a hint of who'll win the Oscars.

SAG announced their nominations first, so let's take a look at who and what is singled out. (I couldn't find the list on SAG's own site, so these are taken from reports in Variety and the Los Angeles Times.) You'll see a lot of similarities between this list and the Golden Globes' nominations, for however much that means. Some quick thoughts: Homeland, Downton Abbey and House of Cards have all seen better days, Fargo and The Leftovers deserve a lot more attention than they're getting, Key and Peele are both great, but they're hardly an ensemble, and it seems SAG is looking for old favorites, nominating some actors in both film and television based on previous performances instead of what happened on our screens this year.

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A CAST IN A MOTION PICTURE
Beasts of No Nation
The Big Short
Spotlight
Straight Outta Compton
Trumbo

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A MALE ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Johnny Depp, Black Mass
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A FEMALE ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn 
Sarah Silverman, I Smile Back

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A MALE ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Jacob Tremblay, Room 

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A FEMALE ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Helen Mirren, Trumbo
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY AN ENSEMBLE IN A DRAMA SERIES
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
Homeland
House of Cards
Mad Men

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY AN ENSEMBLE IN A COMEDY SERIES
The Big Bang Theory
Key & Peele
Modern Family
Orange Is the New Black
Transparent
Veep

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A MALE ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Rami Malek, Mr. Robot
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A FEMALE ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES
Claire Danes, Homeland
Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey
Robin Wright, House of Cards

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A MALE ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Ty Burrell, Modern Family
Louis C. K., Louie
William H. Macy, Shamless
Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A FEMALE ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES
Uzo Aduba, Orange Is the New Black
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie
Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Julia Louis-Dreyfys, Veep
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A MALE ACTOR IN A TELEVISION MOVIE OR MINISERIES
Idris Elba, Luther
Ben Kingsley, Tut
Ray Liotta, Texas Rising
Bill Murray, A Very Murray Christmas
Mark Rylance, Wolf Hall

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A FEMALE ACTOR IN A TELEVISION MOVIE OR MINISERIES
Nicole Kidman, Grace of Monaco
Queen Latifah, Bessie
Christina Ricci, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles
Susan Sarandon, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe
Kristen Wiig, The Spoils Before Dying

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A STUNT ENSEMBLE IN A MOTION PICTURE
Everest
Furious 7
Jurassic World
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation

OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A STUNT ENSEMBLE IN A COMEDY OR DRAMA SERIES
The Blacklist
Game of Thrones
Homeland
Marvel's Daredevil
The Walking Dead

SAG LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
Carol Burnett

And now for the Golden Globe nominations. Let's take a moment to say thank you to the Hollywood Foreign Press for honoring Rachel Bloom from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend with a nomination in the world of TV.  Note that several people have double nominations for Golden Globes -- Idris Elba, Mark Rylance, Lily Tomlin and Alicia Vikander -- while Elba and Rylance join Helen Mirren with two nominations from SAG.

On the head-scratcher side, I have nothing against the soapy mess that is Empire or the soapy romance epic that is Outlander, but you've nominated them instead of Mad Men? You've got The Martian in the comedy category? Christian Bale is a supporting actor in The Big Short for SAG but a lead for you? And, like the Screen Actors Guild, you've overlooked HBO's absolutely fantastic The Leftovers and its amazing cast? But you had room for American Horror Story: Hotel and Lady Gaga, even though the two are absolutely lame together? What is wrong with you, you 90 special snowflakes in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association?

BEST MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Room
Spotlight

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Rooney Mara, Carol
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
Will Smith, Concussion

BEST MOTION PICTURE – MUSICAL OR COMEDY
The Big Short
Joy
The Martian
Spy
Trainwreck

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MOTION PICTURE – MUSICAL OR COMEDY
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Melissa McCarthy, Spy
Amy Schumer, Trainwreck
Maggie Smith, The Lady in the Van
Lily Tomlin, Grandma

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – MUSICAL OR COMEDY
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Steve Carell, The Big Short
Matt Damon, The Martian
Al Pacino, Danny Collins
Mark Ruffalo, Infinitely Polar Bear

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MOTION PICTURE
Jane Fonda, Youth
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Helen Mirren, Trumbo
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MOTION PICTURE
Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

BEST DIRECTOR – MOTION PICTURE
Todd Haynes, Carol
Alejandro G. Inarritu,The Revenant
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Ridley Scott, The Martian

BEST MOTION PICTURE – ANIMATED
Anomalisa
The Good Dinosaur
Inside Out
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie

BEST MOTION PICTURE – FOREIGN LANGUAGE
The Brand New Testament (Belgium/France/Luxembourg)
The Club (Chile)
The Fencer (Finland/Germany/Estonia)
Mustang (France)
Son of Saul (Hungary)

BEST TELEVISION SERIES – DRAMA
Empire
Game of Thrones
Mr. Robot
Narcos
Outlander

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A TELEVISION SERIES – DRAMA
Catriona Bale, Outlander
Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder
Eva Green, Penny Dreadful
Taraji P. Henson, Empire
Robin Wright, House of Cards

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A TELEVISION SERIES – DRAMA
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Rami Malek, Mr. Robot
Wagner Moura, Narcos
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul
Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan

BEST TELEVISION SERIES – MUSICAL OR COMEDY
Casual 
Mozart in the Jungle
Orange Is the New Black
Silicon Valley
Transparent
Veep

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A TELEVISION SERIES – MUSICAL OR COMEDY
Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Jamie Lee Curtis, Scream Queens
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
Gina Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin
Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A TELEVISION SERIES – MUSICAL OR COMEDY
Aziz Ansari, Master of None
Gael Garcia Bernal, Mozart in the Jungle
Rob Lowe, The Grinder
Patrick Stewart, Blunt Talk
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent

BEST TELEVISION LIMITED SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION
American Crime
American Horror Story: Hotel
Fargo
Flesh & Bone
Wolf Hall

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION
Kirsten Dunst, Fargo
Lady Gaga, American Horror Story: Hotel
Sarah Hay, Flesh & Bone
Felicity Huffman, American Crime
Queen Latifah, Bessie

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION
Idris Elba, Luther
Oscar Isaac, Show Me a Hero
David Oyelowo, Nightingale
Mark Rylance, Wolf Hall
Patrick Wilson, Fargo

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A SERIES, LIMITED SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION
Uzo Aduba, Orange Is the New Black
Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey
Regina King, American Crime
Judith Light, Transparent
Maura Tierney, The Affair

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A SERIES, LIMITED SERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION
Alan Cumming, The Good Wife
Damian Lewis, Wolf Hall
Ben Mendelsohn, Bloodline
Tobias Menzies, Outlander
Christian Slater, Mr. Robot

Friday, December 4, 2015

Discovering an Undiscovered Classic: New, Funny, Political Ibsen at Heartland


It's not surprising that Henrik Ibsen would center a play on a critique of politics and politicians. He was a playwright very much in tune with his times, with his harsh look at immorality and religion in Ghosts and the government cover-up at the heart of An Enemy of the People. But... Funny?

Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, A Doll's House... Not exactly a barrel of laughs. There are lighter moments in Peer Gynt in some directors' hands, but even so, Ibsen's reputation as a playwright is not built upon comedy.

But A League of Youth, a play that came a year after Peer Gynt and ten years before A Doll's House, relies on cynical humor to tell its story. Ibsen's jabs at Norwegian politics made A League of Youth very popular in Norway, although it has only rarely been done outside that country. It did get a professional production in England that kept the Norwegian setting and added an Obamaesque poster (seen above) to underline the political nature of the action. That Nottingham theater also created an intriguing trailer for their League of Youth here.

Chicago playwright Nigel O'Hearn has taken a different tack with the material, calling it An Alliance of Brats, making the characters American and setting the play right now at an Iowa caucus during the presidential race. The spine of the play is still there, focused on an upstart who decides to launch a political campaign, pulling in young, disaffected voters to topple the corrupt fat cats. But that upstart is compromised by his own runaway ambition and lack of principles almost before he gets started. O'Hearn is banking on the fact that political naivete, demagogues and backroom deals never go out of style. Witness the current presidential campaigns...

Joey Banks, a third-year MFA acting candidate at Illinois State University, is working with O'Hearn and director Sandra Zielinski to give An Alliance of Brats a try-out of sorts, a staged reading at Heartland Theatre with a strong cast combining ISU actors and local favorites and some design elements to see how it works. There are discussions scheduled after each performance -- tonight's features the playwright himself along with McLean County Board representative Victoria Harris -- to look into the play's issues and this new adaptation more deeply.

Banks will play Ted Staynsgore (Stensgård in the original), the opportunist who kicks the alliance of brats into gear, with Todd Wineburner as Elias Bratsberg, a local aristocrat and money man; John Bowen as Monty Patronymic, a rich landowner; Bethany Hart as Audra Lundestad, the establishment politician; Kelsey Bunner and Gabrielle Munoz as Bratsberg's and Patronymic's daughters who become romantic interests for Staynsgore;  Mitch Fscher as Erik Bratsberg, shady son of the power broker; Colin Trevino-Odell as Alekson, a newspaper man; Jaimie Taylor and Tommy Kawalek as other members of the press; Andrew Piechota and Alejandro Raya as a manager and doctor who work for Bratsberg; Tim Wyman as a once-wealthy man and general troublemaker, and Riley Zobel as one of the young voters Staynsgore is reaching out to.

An Alliance of Brats has three performances left. Tonight and tomorrow the show begins at 7:30 pm, with a matinee on Sunday at 2 pm. For all the details on who's speaking after each performance, check Heartland Theatre's showtimes page. For this event, tickets are $5, payable at the door. To make a reservation, call 309-452-8709 or email boxoffice@heartlandtheatre.org

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like December

There's a lot to stuff in your stocking this month, with some interesting not-so-holidayish items, (like a very special trio of staged readings) to go along with the classic Nutcrackers (and more Nutcrackers) and Christmas concerts.


This week, Heartland Theatre is doing something a little different -- a staged reading of a completely new (updated and contemporized) version of an "undiscovered Ibsen classic" in collaboration with Illinois State University's School of Theatre and Dance. Although Ibsen's title was originally translated as A League of Youth, this new version by playwright Nigel O'Hearn is called An Alliance of Brats. It's political and timely, with a cast led by ISU MFA actor Joey Banks, directed by Sandra Zielinski, with talkbacks on political topics scheduled after every performance. You can see An Alliance of Brats for a $5 donation from December 4 to 6, with the playwright himself in house on Friday the 4th. Click here to check out the schedule and the lineup of guest speakers after the show.

Turner Classic Movies is offering way too many holiday movies for me to enumerate them. But you can peruse the list here, with a choice of Scrooges (Albert Finney and Reginald Owen) as well as the cream of the holiday film crop with Meet Me in St. Louis, Christmas in Connecticut and The Shop Around the Corner. The holiday parade at TCM starts on Thursday at 8 pm with It Happened on 5th Avenue, a slight but sweet romantic comedy about GIs solving the post-World War II housing crisis for themselves by moving into a posh but empty 5th Avenue mansion while its millionaire owner summers in warmer climes. TCM finishes up December with a whole lot of Marx Brothers and Thin Man movies on December 31.

Hayao Miyazaki’s much-beloved Spirited Away makes the lineup at Champaign's Art Theater Co-Op this month, with screenings from December 5 to 10. This beautiful piece of animated fantasy sends a young girl named Chihiro deep into an enchanted theme park, battling demons, witches and sorcery to save herself and her parents. Spirited Away ranks No. 30 among IMDB's list of the all-time best movies. To see showtimes and a trailer for this Oscar-winning film, click here.

Music for the Holidays at ISU December 5 and 6
Illinois State University’s annual Music for the Holidays concerts will take place at 3 and 7 pm on December 5, and 3 pm December 6, in the Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall on the ISU quad. Music for the Holidays includes traditional holiday music performed by instrumental and vocal ensembles from ISU's School of Music at ISU, with orchestral pieces such as Russian Christmas Music and Hanukkah Festival Overture, choral arrangements of the Christmas Waltz, "Pat-a-Pan" and "Still, Still, Still," and an arrangement of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Audience members are encouraged to join and sing along. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for faculty/staff and $10 for students and seniors.

Illinois Wesleyan's annual Christmas Choral Concert takes place December 6 at Holy Trinity Church. This special holiday concert will feature IWU’s Collegiate Choir, University Choir and Chamber Singers, conducted by Professor of Music J. Scott Ferguson. The Lincoln-Way East High Schol Chorale, conducted by Matthew Granger, will also perform. For more information, click here.

The Normal Theater is branching into live theater with a special staged reading of Lillian Hellman's gripping family drama, The Little Foxes, directed by Patrick O'Gara, on Tuesday, December 8, at 7 pm. The role of Regina Gibbons, the scheming matriarch of a poisonous family, has been played by Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Anne Bancroft and Elizabeth Taylor, but O'Gara has put together an all-star cast of his own, including local powerhouses Lori Adams, Dean Brown, Gregory Hicks, Kyle Fitzgerald, Don Shandrow, Claron Sharrieff and Todd Wineburner, along with all three members of the de Veer acting family. Yes, this Little Foxes includes Connie, Gwen and Mark de Veer on stage at the same time. I would say it's not to be missed, but that should be apparent from the cast without any input from me. The Normal Theater will follow that up with a screening of the 1941 movie version of The Little Foxes, starring Bette Davis, with a screenplay penned by Lillian Hellman herself. (Note that the image accompanying this paragraph is from the 1997 Broadway revival with Stockard Channing.)

New Route Theatre's According to John on December 11
New Route Theatre is up and running in December with According to John, a new piece based on the Gospel of John in the New Testament, written and performed by Ron Roman, another of Illinois State University's third-year MFA actors. This solo performance, a staged reading, takes place at the First Christian Church of Bloomington on December 11 at 7 pm. Tickets are available at the door on the night of the performance. There is no set ticket price, but donations are encouraged. Email new.route.theatre@gmail.com for more information.


This month they're busy rehearsing The Crucible, their January show, at Community Players, but in the meantime, Players is also offering a "Holiday Movie Night" double feature with The Muppet Christmas Carol, where Michael Caine plays Scrooge alongside Kermit as Bob Cratchit (with songs!) and Christmas Vacation, with Chevy Chase tied up in lights as the crazy Griswolf family gathers for the holidays. Players' "Holiday Movie Night" is set for December 12; doors open at 4:30, with the Muppets starting at 5 and Chevy Chase & Co. taking over at 7. And it's free!

Singer Sal Viviano comes to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts on December 12 with his tribute to Frank Sinatra called Perfectly Frank: Celebrating a Century of Sinatra. December 12 happens to be Mr. Sinatra's birthday -- his 100th, as a matter of fact -- so you are promised cake if you attend this concert, which will cover Sinatra hits like "Luck Be a Lady" and "My Kind of Town." Viviano doesn't sound a great deal like Sinatra (you can hear a lot of him on the long teaser video posted on the BCPA site) so this is clearly not intended as an imitation.

Carols in the Courtroom on December 15
Illinois State University's Civic Chorale hosts Carols in the Courtroom on December 15 at 7:30 pm in the Governor Fifer room of the McLean County Museum of History. And hot cocoa and Christmas cookies will be available, as well. Once again, admission is free, but donations to help support ISU's Civic Chorale will be accepted. Professor John M. Koch is conducting, with Patricia Foltz at the piano and Julia Kay Jameson at the harp. The event has a Facebook page here.

On December 18, Illinois Central College's Guest Artist Series celebrates a different musical superstar when "tribute artist" Carla DelVillaggio and pianist Chris Rottmayer present Simply Streisand: Holiday Memories to put the spotlight on Barbra. No word on what songs DelVillaggio will be performing, but it could be anything from "Jingle Bells" to "Ave Maria" to "It Must Have Been the Mistletoe," all of which have appeared on Streisand's Christmas albums. For performance and ticket information, you can visit ICC's page for the event.


If you need a Christmas gift for somebody who likes Shakespeare (and specifically the Illinois Shakespeare Festival), the Festival is offering subscription packages now, with plenty of time to stick Viola and Orsino, Hamlet and even a little Peter Pan under the tree. Individual tickets won't go on sale till February, but this is your chance to get your choice of seats with your season tickets now. All the details are available at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival website.

Plenty of opportunities to give yourself the gift of theater this December!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

GIANT Steps Into Illinois Wesleyan's Newly Crowned Jerome Mirza Theatre Next Week

If you have an opinion of Giant, it's probably based on the 1956 movie, a big, technicolor extravaganza as big as its Texas setting, starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. The movie script was a little different from its source material, a popular novel by Edna Ferber, mostly to make the character of Jett a better fit for James Dean, but both paint a panoramic picture of the Giant in the title. That Giant is Texas itself, as oil men, ranchers and cowboys stake their claims between 1925 and 1952.

Giant came along for Ferber after she was already a best-selling novelist and successful playwright, with books like So Big, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1924, Show Boat, Cimarron and Saratoga Trunk, quickly turned into movies, and hit plays Stage Door, The Royal Family and Dinner at Eight, all co-written with George S. Kaufman. Show Boat was also adapted into a much-loved stage musical with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Jerome Kern.

Although Ferber wrote Giant and Show Boat more than 25 years apart, they share certain themes. Both arc over several generations of American family history, told against a backdrop of ambition and desire, with relationships marred by the racism and bigotry swirling around the characters and strong women who try to make their families and the world a better place.

Show Boat was turned into the famous Broadway show quickly, but Giant took more than 50 years to get its musical version. Other than Dmitri Tiomkin's sweeping Oscar-nominated score for the movie, nobody set Giant to music till Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson went back to the novel to create a stage musical for New York's Signature Theatre. Their Giant was commissioned as part of Signature's American Musical Voices Project, with a 2009 premiere.

Since then, LaChiusa's score and Sybille Pearson's book have been reworked and refined through readings and try-outs, culminating in the show's official premiere Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre in late 2012. That production starred Broadway luminaries Brian d'Arcy James, Kate Baldwin, John Dossett, Michele Pawk and Dee Hoty, all of whom appear on the cast recording.

But the first production of this fully-realized Giant outside New York will be right here in Bloomington-Normal. That doesn't happen very often, that area audiences get first dibs on a big, bold musical straight from New York. It's quite a coup for director Scott Susong, the one who nabbed the show for Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Theatre Arts. When Susong's cast takes the stage at the Jerome Mirza Theatre in IWU's McPherson Hall next Tuesday at 8 pm, they will be musical theatre trailblazers. That's no small thing for professionals, let alone college students.

Susong writes, "Over the past fifteen years as an academic I have fanatically touted Michael John LaChiusa’s work to my students. I have been fortunate to have had the right mix of talent to actually present his work twice before at Illinois Wesleyan University, Lucky Nurse and Other Short Musical Plays (2011) and Hello Again (2011) and now to have the opportunity to tackle another LaChiusa piece is simply exhilarating."

If you saw either Lucky Nurse or Hello Again at IWU, you know that Susong and LaChiusa are a dramatically successful pairing.

Why does he keep coming back to LaChiusa?  Susong explains, "From the time that I was introduced to his work with the success of his 1994 Lincoln Center production of Hello Again I have felt that his music speaks directly to me as an artist. For me he is my generation's Stephen Sondheim. Like Mr. Sondheim, Mr. LaChiusa has made a career by defying audience and critical perceptions of what makes a musical. Where others contemporary theatre composers have a tendency to gravitate towards nostalgic recreations of popular films, Mr. LaChiusa finds inspiration in the unforgiving human condition. His work creates and inhabits worlds that would be appropriate for playwrights like Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill -- but are realms that most musical theater composers and librettists would not dare enter. For me, this piece is deeply personal and has been almost therapeutic to work on with my gifted company. After a two year hiatus from the IWU stage, while directing professionally abroad and on sabbatical, the challenge of wrangling this epic tale of my native Texas has provided a wonderfully rewarding return to my academic home."

Also returning to his academic home for this production is Evan Kasprzak, the IWU student who danced to stardom on the television show So You Think You Can Dance. You may recall that Kasprzak came back to Normal to finish his degree and then leapt onto Broadway in Newsies. Now he has stepped in as choreographer for this Giant.

Susong's cast is led by Danny Adams and Kelsey Bearman as ranch owner Jordan "Bick" Benedict and his wife Leslie, with Evan Dolan as Jett, the bad boy who strikes oil and throws everyone's lives into turmoil, Haley Miller as Vashti, the woman Bick was supposed to marry, and Kenny Tran as Angel, whose life and family continue to intersect with the Benedicts. Julia Cicchino appears as Bick's sister, Luz, while Steven Czajkowski takes on the role of Uncle Bawley, and LeeAnna Studt, Trev Gabel and Yuka Sekine are part of the second generation of the Benedict dynasty. Forming the Texas tableau around them will be Cathy Colburn, Alexa Eldridge, Conor Finnerty-Esmonde, Timothy Foszcz, Emily Hardesty, Jeffrey Keller, Cadence Lamb, Christopher Long, Carlos Medina, Eli Miller, Evan Rumler, Steven Schnur, Jaclyn Salgado, Juna Shai and Libby Zabit.

Giant opens November 17 at the Jerome Mirza Theatre at Illinois Wesleyan University, with performances running through the 22nd. For ticket information, call 309-556-3232 or visit the IWU School of Theatre box office page.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND Is the Musical Show You Should Be Watching

Are you watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, created by and starring Rachel Bloom, on the CW? The odds are you're not, because its ratings are quite low. It's up against The Voice and Dancing with the Stars at 7 pm Central on the CW, so that seems like a foregone conclusion, but even so...

It's got Santino Fontana. Yes, that Santino Fontana. Prince Charming from the recent Broadway Cinderella, Moss Hart in Act One and Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest, the voice of Hans (the bad guy) in that boffo Disney movie Frozen, and the original Joseph Douaihy in Stephen Karam's critically acclaimed Sons of the Prophet for New York's Roundabout Theatre. He is versatile, he sings beautifully, his acting chops are major, and he's on this goofy little musical comedy on the CW. He will also be in Jennifer Lopez's new show, Shades of Blue, playing a character named Stuart Sapperstein opposite J-Lo's gritty cop. Gonna guess he isn't a tough guy in that one, either.

Santino Fontana with his Frozen alter-ego
In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fontana plays Greg, the nice guy who initially likes the heroine, Rebecca Bunch. She's the crazy ex-girlfriend of the title. She's not his crazy ex-girlfriend, mind you. And that's the plot hook of this show -- that Rebecca, a very good attorney, drops her big-money New York job and moves to West Covina, California, after running into an ex-boyfriend -- sweet and hunky Josh Chan, someone she fell for at summer camp way back when -- and learning that he is now in West Covina. Rebecca moves to West Covina, too, gets a job, and then keeps trying to impress and/or snare Josh, the boy of her dreams.

Rebecca's dreams are a big part of the show, since she keeps conjuring up fantasy musical numbers to showcase what's happening in her life. The best ones so far have been Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) as all four members of a boy band, and Greg and Rebecca (Fontana and Bloom) in a black-and-white art deco world right out of Astaire-and-Rogers Land where he urges her to "Settle for Me." The video is highly addictive. Also adorable. And twirly!

Which isn't to say I don't have problems with the show. On the good side, Bloom is funny as Rebecca, I get to see Fontana on my television, the cast is top-notch, the cynical, self-deprecating writing can be fun, and the musical interludes are awesome. On the bad side... It's hard to watch shake Rebecca when she's so self-involved and obtuse, the humor has a tendency to get a little gross (which is not my favorite style of comedy, to say the least),  the legal parts are really, really wrong-headed, and I don't think I can handle "Rebecca chases Josh while being an idiot around Greg" as a plot strategy much longer, even if everybody involved is acting the heck out of it.

That's the dilemma, really -- Crazy Ex-Girlfriend doesn't strike me as the kind of material than can last more than one season, because there really needs to be some movement on the Rebecca/Greg front, pulling her away from her self-destructive infatuation with Josh, even though that's the whole premise of the show. Meanwhile, the ratings are so bad that I'm concerned it will even make it through a whole season, although personally, I would love to see Rebecca make some progress on the maturity front and get some resolution of the love triangle (or rectangle) before it's gone.

Episodes so far have revolved around Rachel setting up camp in West Covina and interacting with coworkers, meeting Josh's super-cool girlfriend, throwing a party in an attempt to see Josh, going on a date with Greg (when "Settle for Me" happens) and last night, trying to be a good person after the disastrous date with Greg where she made it clear she was anything but. Next week we get Rebecca snagging an invite to Thanksgiving at Josh's house and then "I'm So Happy that Josh Is So Happy!" on November 23rd. Greg will show up in the Thanksgiving episode, and he even gets a father to play off in that one. Since Rebecca has major Daddy issues, I'm guessing Greg's dad will be around for conflict, as well.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend airs at 8 Eastern/7 Central Monday nights on the CW.  I'm going to need you to put aside your Voice and DWTS issues for a few weeks, just long enough to resolve its plot and show off all those nifty musical interludes.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Tragedy of War: TROJAN WOMEN Takes the Stage Tonight at ISU

You won't find many 2400-year-old plays that survive and flourish in the 21st century. But that is exactly what The Trojan Women has achieved since Euripides brought his play to the theater competition at the City Dionysia festival in 415 BC, during the Peloponnesian War. The Trojan Women came in second that year. The obscure playwright who won doesn't really matter, because Euripides and The Trojan Women have triumphed where it counted. They're still here.

Among Greek tragedians of the time, Euripides was not as big a name as Aeschylus and Sophocles, who racked up far more Dionysian victories than he did, but by the 18th and 19th centuries, English poets were lauding him and writing odes in his honor. Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously called him:

Our Euripides, the human,
With his droppings of warm tears,
And his touches of things common
Till they rose to touch the spheres.

There's something in the "common" and "human," as well as a focus on women, that helps explain why modern writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Ellen McLaughlin (not to mention Carole Braverman and her Yiddish Trojan Women) have been drawn to translate and adapt his work. After all, there has always been war and women have always been used and abused as "trophies, spoils, baggage," as McLaughlin's script puts it.

Connie de Veer, who is directing The Trojan Women (and McLaughlin's adaptation) for Illinois State University's School of Theatre and Dance, echoes that thought. "The Trojan Women is an anti-war play that focuses chiefly on the costs of war levied on women," she writes in her director's note for the play. "The women of Troy suffer colossal losses -- of loved ones, home, identity, status, selfhood, purpose, and finally, ownership of their own bodies. Sadly, such is the nature of war to this day."

De Veer goes on to quote Grace Halsell and an article in The Washington Report about the fallout on women after the Serbian war. Halsell says, "... women have always suffered from rape--especially during wartime. Helen of Troy was a war trophy. So was Cleopatra. They go under the heading: to the victor belong the spoils. Rape was always regarded as an inevitable by-product of war."

Recognizing that and personifying the consequences of war is exactly what The Trojan Women is all about. With their city reduced to a pile of ash behind them, these sisters, wives and daughters face a future of exile, rape, slavery, and endless mourning for the parade of loved ones they've lost.

Although that kind of climate may seem difficult for today's college kids to access, de Veer gives credit to her actors and designers. In her words, they "have worked courageously and honestly to access their own grief, loss, and longing in order to tell this story with truth, passion, and compassion. We hope our efforts invite you to do the same, uniting us all across barriers of culture and time, in the universal and inevitable hard work of grieving."

Her cast includes Brandi Jones as Hecuba, the queen of Troy; Bree Haskell as Helen, the stolen bride whose angry husband started this war; Clare Supplott as mad Cassandra; Mary DeWitt as Andromache, the widow of Trojan hero Hector and mother to his doomed son;  Mark de Veer as god Poseidon; RJ Cecott as Talthybius, a Greek soldier; and Spencer Brady, Paige Brantley, Olivia Candocia, Gina Cleveland, Krystina Coyne, Vanessa Garcia, Johanna Kerber, Becky Murphy, Shakeyla Thomas, Samantha Peroutka, Leah Soderstrom and Kaitlyn Wehr as the Women of Troy.

Scenic designer is Samantha Gribben, Anna Hill designed the costumes, Kyle Techentin did props and Hannah Beaudry is in charge of hair and makeup for the production, while Laura Bouxsein is stage manager.

The Trojan Women begins tonight at Illinois State University's Westhoff Theatre, with performances continuing through November 14. For information, click here. For tickets, you can call the box office at 309-438-2535 or go directly to Ticketmaster.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Lynn Nottage's INTIMATE APPAREL Opens Tomorrow at Heartland


If you saw By the Way, Meet Vera Stark last year at Illinois State University, you know that playwright Lynn Nottage + director Don LaCasse + actor Faith Servant adds up to some fine theatre. The team is back, this time at Heartland Theatre, with Intimate Apparel, a different kind of Nottage play.

Nottage won the Pulitzer Prize, for Ruined, her emotional and dramatic look at women abused and "ruined" by war in the Congo, plus a Guggenheim fellowship and a MacArthur "genius" grant, along with a host of other awards and fellowships. Her voice as a playwright is distinctive but also versatile, ranging from the Alice Down the Rabbit Hole modern-day stylings of Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine, produced locally by New Route Theatre; Crumbs from the Table of Joy, a family drama set in the 1950s that has been compared to The Glass Menagerie and A Raisin in the Sun; the afore-mentioned Vera Stark, a fun and irreverent look at what it meant to be black and talented in Old Hollywood; and Intimate Apparel, probably her most-produced play, which focuses on an African-American woman in a different historical period.

Intimate Apparel's Off-Broadway production at the Roundabout Theatre starred Viola Davis and took home Obie, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Davis, with another Outer Critics Circle win for the play itself, an Obie for Derek McLane's set, Lucille Lortel Awards for set and costumes, and a half dozen nominations in other categories.

Its action is set in 1905, a time when a talented seamstress like Esther -- more of an artist than a tradeswoman when it comes to the beautiful lingerie she creates -- can scratch out a small place for herself in New York City, even as she cruises past the far side of 30 unmarried and on her own. Yes, the lace and silk confections she sews are popular with both sides of the street, with white society ladies and juke-joint African-American women alike. But Esther wants more than dressing up other people in sexy underthings. She wants love, romance, intimacy... Maybe even the respectable marriage her landlady keeps pushing.

In Nottage's script, Esther comes into contact with people outside her own small circle, from a sympathetic fabric merchant who happens to be an Orthodox Jew, an African-American prostitute, a wealthy white woman trapped in a stultifying marriage, and a pen pal halfway across the world. The pen pal, a working man in Barbados who's worked on the Panama Canal, is the source of much of Intimate Apparel's drama. Is he the man Esther sees in his letters? Can he be what she needs?

For director Don LaCasse, Faith Servant, a third-year MFA candidate in acting at ISU, will take on Esther. Servant played the glamorous maid-turned-actress Vera Stark last year; Esther Mills is more real, less sparkly, but definitely a showcase for an actress. The rest of the cast is equally strong, with some of Bloomington-Normal's best actors, including Fania Bourn, seen last year in New Route Theatre's powerful production of The Mountaintop; Rhys Lovell, Heartland's Artistic Director who can always be counted on for first-rate performances; Elante Richardson, seen on stage at ISU in Happy Endings and Day of Absence; Jennifer Rusk, who made a vivid impression in Community Players' Hairspray and as Eliza Esque with Illinois Voices Theatre; and Megan Tennis, who went from ISU's Pride and Prejudice last spring to Brighton Beach Memoirs a few months ago.

Rusk will portray Mrs. Dickson, Esther's respectable landlady and confidante, with Bourn as Mayme, a prostitute who buys garments from Esther, Tennis as Mrs. Van Buren, Mayme's society counterpart, Lovell as Mr. Marks, the Jewish merchant, and Richardson as George, the mystery man from Barbados.

Intimate Apparel is a beautiful play -- a real standout even on Lynn Nottage's outstanding resume -- and its issues of aspiration, longing and loneliness should resonate with almost everyone. If you'd like to read more about Nottage, try this piece in The Guardian or this Interval interview

Intimate Apparel opens tomorrow night at Heartland Theatre with a special 7:30 pm "Pay What You Can Preview," followed by evening performances on November 6 and 7; 12, 13 and 14; and 19, 20 and 21; and matinees at 2 pm on November 15 and 22. For reservation information, click here. For a list of performance dates and times, click here.

Monday, November 2, 2015

November News

Everybody's gearing up for drama (and comedy and music) as we head into that long slide toward the holidays. What exactly are area theaters up to before the December madness begins? Read on!

The Trojan Women, adapted by Ellen McLaughlin from the tragedy by Euripides and directed by Connie de Veer, opens November 6 in ISU's Westhoff Theatre. The play's focus is on the collateral damage from a lengthy, devastating war, specifically on the women left in pieces when the battles are done. Performances of The Trojan Women will take place at 7:30 pm on November 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14, with a matinee performance at 2 pm on Sunday, November 8. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors; call the Center for the Performing Arts Box Office at 309-438-2535 to buy tickets or get them online at ticketmaster.com.


Still have a hankering to see Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet? Tomorrow and Wednesday, the Art Theater Co-op in Champaign will screen the National Theatre Live presentation of the London stage production, directed by Lyndsey Turner (Posh, Chimerica) and starring the Cumberbatch himself. Others in the cast include Sian Brooke as Ophelia, Anastasia Hille as Gertrude, Ciaran Hinds as Claudius and Jim Norton as Polonius. The Art has Hamlet set for 6:30 pm on Tuesday the 3rd and 1:00 pm Wednesday the 4th. Click here for info on this "event screening."


Heartland Theatre's November show is Intimate Apparel, a beautiful play about a woman named Esther, an African-American seamstress who makes exquisite undergarments for high and low society in turn-of-the-century New York City. Esther dreams of love and respect, but both things are hard to come by in her world. Playwright Lynn Nottage won the Pulitzer Prize (for Ruined) and a MacArthur "genius" grant. Don LaCasse directs Intimate Apparel for Heartland Theatre, with third-year Illinois State University MFA actor Faith Servant as Esther, Elante Richardson as her pen pal from the Panama Canal, Fania Bourne and Megan Tennis as two very different customers, Jennifer Rusk as her landlady, and Rhys Lovell as the Jewish fabric merchant she forges a connection with. LaCasse and Servant also teamed up for Nottage's Meet Vera Stark last year at ISU, when the playwright herself spoke on campus. Intimate Apparel runs from November 5 to 22; click here for ticket info or here to see a schedule of performances.


If you're in the mood for some blonde ambition, Legally Blonde the Musical may be just the ticket. This musical version of the book and movie about a fizzy sorority girl who follows her ex to Harvard Law School opens with a preview performance on November 5 at Community Players. The Players cast features Breeann Dawson as Elle Woods, the pink-loving blonde who tries to prove she has a brain, with Aaron Wiessing as the uptight boyfriend who dumps her for law school, Colleen Rice as his new (more serious) girlfriend, Jacob Deters as the sweet TA who helps her out at Harvard, Joe McDonald as a mean professor, Sharon Russell as her new friend, a hair stylist named Paulette, and Kim Behrens Kaufman as a client accused of murder. Legally Blonde runs through November 22, with weeknight performances at 7:30 pm and Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm. 

Also coming up this month at the Art Theater in Champaign: Suffragette, the new movie starring Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter as women fighting for the right to vote in Britain in the early 20th century, and two hugely influential pieces of American cinema in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. Follow the links under the titles of the movies to see times and dates. In general, Suffragette is playing from November 7 to 12, The Godfather has showings between November 6 and 12, and The Godfather Part II runs between November 13 and 19.

ISU's annual Fall Dance Concert takes the stage at the Center for the Performing Arts November 18 to 21, under the direction of Sara Semonis. Keep an eye on the ISU CPA Facebook page or check in with the box office at 309-438-2535 for more information.

Illinois Central College Theatre presents Adam Bock's The Drunken City beginning with a 7:30 pm performance on November 13. Bock has a sharp, highly theatrical voice that matches up perfectly with this cynical, funny look at three brides-to-be embarking on "the bar crawl to end all crawls." You can see ICC's calendar of November events here and click through for tickets and more information.

You'll find a very different kind of musical at Illinois Wesleyan University when the School of Theatre Arts presents Giant, a musical version of Edna Ferber's novel spanning several generations of Texans trying to make their mark. This is quite a coup for IWU and director Scott Susong, since the show has only been seen in development and in an Off-Broadway production at the Public Theatre in 2012. Michael John LaChiusa (Hello Again, The Wild Party) created the music and lyrics, while Sybille Pearson (Baby, Sally and Marsha) wrote the book. IWU's Giant plays for six performances from November 17 to 22, and ticket information is available here or by calling the box office at 309-556-3232.

Sticky in the Sticks, the pop-up theatre that does its popping once a month at the Firehouse Pizza and Pub in Normal, will be back November 20th with another program of 10-minute plays. Sticky features local talent, led by founders Connie Blick and J. Michael Grey, putting on short plays which happen to be set in a bar and are therefore performed in a bar. Local playwrights like John Poling, John Kirk and J. Michael Grey himself have seen their work bellied up to the bar at the Firehouse. Doors open at 7:30 pm, the musical guest usually starts at 8, and the shows go on about 8:30 pm. It's first come, first seated, so you are warned to get there early to get the best view. Bottoms up, lights down!

At the end of the month, note that Community Players will hold auditions for The Crucible, Arthur Miller's searing indictment of the Salem witch trials, on November 23 and 24, and Heartland Theatre will hold auditions for Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris's Pulitzer Prize winner, on November 30 and December 1. Players has a list of roles they're looking to fill here, while director Rhys Lovell should be posting what he needs for Clybourne Park here sometime before the 30th.

November is also National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) if you'd like to participate in this "write the novel you always said you wanted to" project. And all month long, Heartland Theatre is accepting submissions in its two New Play initiatives -- 10-minute plays set in an Art Gallery and one-acts on the theme "A Key" -- with all the details on what they're looking for and how to enter here for 10-minute plays and here for one acts. Feel free to use NaNoWriMo to write a play instead of a novel if you're more inclined that way.

That ought to keep you busy in November!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

CUCKOO'S NEST Flies Into ISU Starting Friday

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest got its start as a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, at the time a would-be writer who was both working the night shift at a veterans' hospital and volunteering as a subject in hallucinogenic drug experiments. Kesey was just a bit ahead of the "tune in, turn on, drop out" phenomenon, but you can see that coming in his Cuckoo world, where patients at a mental hospital are fiercely controlled and subjugated, drugged (or shocked) or otherwise beaten down to try to make them conform.

With the hit book in 1962 and a stage version by Dale Wasserman in 1963, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest hit a collective nerve about the dangerous effects of repressive authority on individuality and self-expression. Movie star Kirk Douglas took the lead role of cocky, explosive Randle McMurphy in the Broadway production that featured Gene Wilder as timid inmate Billy Bibbit and Daniel Boone's Ed Ames (who was not actually Native American, but was cast as in Indian roles fairly often) as Chief Bromden, the huge, silent man who serves as the narrator of the novel and the play.

It took till 1975 to get Hollywood to take on Cuckoo's Nest. By that time, Kirk Douglas was too old to play McMurphy, so he handed off the film rights to his son, Michael, who got it made with Miloš Forman directing Jack Nicholson in the lead role, Louise Fletcher as evil Nurse Ratched, Will Sampson, an imposing actor from the Creek nation, as the Chief, Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit, and Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and Vincent Schiavelli as inmates on the ward. Kesey famously dropped out of any interaction with the movie version when he found out that this story would no longer be told in the point of view of Chief Bromden, but the movie was still a major hit, sweeping the five major Oscar Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Nicholson) and Best Actress (Fletcher).

Lori Adams, head of the acting program at Illinois State University, directs a stage Cuckoo's Nest, with Kyle Fitzgerald as McMurphy, Kate Vargulich as his nemesis Nurse Ratched, Matt Frederick as Chief Bromden and Josh Pennington as Billy Bibbit. The rest of the cast includes Trisha Bagby, Robert Hunter Bry, Daniel Esquivel, Ryan Groves, Natalie Kozelka, Alex Levy, Lindsay Nolan, Andrew Piechota, Luke Rahtjen, Thomas Russell, Mitch Sachdev, Mario Silva and Wesley Tilford. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest opens October 23 at ISU's Center for the Performing Arts. Performances continue through the 31st, with weeknights and Saturday night at 7:30 pm and a Sunday matinee at 2 pm on the 25th. For tickets, you can go directly to Ticketmaster or call the ISU CPA box office at 309-438-2535 between 11 am and 5 pm Monday through Friday.

Friday, October 16, 2015

SHOW BOAT on Live from Lincoln Center Tonight (on Most PBS Stations)


Showboat, the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II musical about life upon the wicked stage with a stage that's floating down the Mississippi, is often credited as the first musical with a story integrated with its score as well as the first musical with both black and white performers singing together on stage. Showboat was based on a novel by Edna Ferber, a novel that told the story of three generations of the Hawks family. When it begins in the latter part of the 19th century, Captain Andy Hawks owns a river boat called the Cotton Blossom that stops to put on shows at towns along the Mississippi. As Ferber weaves her story through the years, moving from the Cotton Blossom to Chicago and Broadway and back to the boat, she tells a story about show biz ups and downs, the danger of life on the river, faithless men, and friends and lovers torn apart when post-Civil War racism rears its ugly head.

Most of those elements are retained in Hammerstein's book for the musical Show Boat, with an emotional boost from songs like "Ol' Man River," "Make Believe" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." With the title now two words instead of one, Hammerstein sweetened the ending and tweaked the characters and plot a bit. The show connected with audiences right from the start and has been revived again and again. The original 1927 production was way too early for Tony Awards, but the 1994 revival took home a pile of them.

The NY Philharmonic's concert staging for Show Boat with Norm Lewis at front
If you've so far missed Show Boat in your life, you are in luck. The New York Philharmonic has produced a semi-staged concert version with a powerhouse cast which PBS is offering as part of its Live From Lincoln Center programming. That means you can see a lean, mean Showboat, with Vanessa Williams as Julie, the woman at the center of the miscegenation plot, Fred Willard and Jane Alexander as Cap'n Andy and his wife Parthy, British star Julian Ovenden as gambling leading man Gaylord Ravendal and the amazing Norm Lewis as Joe, the one who sings "Ol' Man River," from the comfort of your living room, as long as your living room has access to a PBS station.

Our local PBS -- WILL in Urbana and WTVP in Peoria -- will both air Show Boat tonight, October 16, at 8 pm. Check your cable or broadcast TV guides for the number that gives you in your household, but they are at 12 (WILL) and 13 (WTVP) on my Comcast listings.

If you would like to see some video to whet your appetite as well as give you an idea what "semi-staged" means in this context, click here to see the Live from Lincoln Center site. You will also notice that "Mis'ry's Comin' Round" is included, sung by NaTasha Yvette Williams as Queenie. The song was cut during previews for the original Broadway production but restored for the 1994 production. And it certainly sounds worth your time in this one.

Thanks, Live from Lincoln Center!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

HAMLET/Cumberbatch/HAMLET

Hamlet may be 400 years old (and then some), but the Danish prince and his sea of troubles have never been more popular.

Blown Youth, a play inspired by Hamlet, just finished its run at Illinois Wesleyan, while the real deal Hamlet is on the schedule for IWU's McPherson Theatre next spring. Hamlet is also part of the recently announced slate for next summer's Illinois Shakespeare Festival, with actress Deb Staples, who played both Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth I for the Festival in 2014, as the melancholy Dane.


And then there's the current Barbican production of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This one has been a hot ticket on the fall English theatre scene, as you might expect. It's Benedict Cumberbatch, after all. Sherlock! Khan! Alan Turing! He's done Frankenstein (both the doctor and the monster). He's done Richard III. He's not old enough for Lear. So Hamlet it is.


Luckily for those who haven't been able to get a ticket or don't happen to be in London, National Theatre Live is sharing the Cumberbatch Hamlet on movie screens all over the United Kingdom and the United States. Most theatres are showing Hamlet tomorrow, October 15, including the Savoy16 south of Urbana as well as theatres in Orland Park, Chicago Heights and Woodridge.

If you miss it tomorrow or have other plans for your Thursday night, never fear. The Art Theater Co-op in Champaign will offer encores of this National Theatre Live performance on Sunday, November 1 and Wednesday, November 4. You can click either of those National Theatre links for more information on where and when you can see it.

Monday, October 12, 2015

They're Baaack... And Stickier Than Ever!

After a summer off, things are getting Sticky again at Firehouse Pizza and Pub in Uptown Normal.


This Friday is the kick-off for the second season of bar-centric ten-minute plays -- all the plays take place in a bar and are also performed in one -- brought to life one Friday night a month under the Sticky umbrella. October's chapter of "Bottoms Up, Lights Down" -- a short-form way to refer to a theatrical experience where you get a drink and settle in for about half a dozen short plays performed in front of you at the Firehouse bar -- is scheduled for Friday the 16th. The doors will open at 7:30 pm, with a musical act at 8 and a curtain time when the music is done. You are forewarned to get there at 7:30, because seats are at a premium and you will want the best view of the bar.

This month's program is described like this: "Familiar Sticky faces join together with new Sticky faces to bring you a night of 5 ten minute bar plays about life, past love, dreams, and a hermaphrodite cat." 

Sticky's October acting troupe includes Connie Blick and J. Michael Grey, the founders of Normal's Sticky in the Sticks, along with Bruce Clark, Ben Gorski, Devin McCloskey, Anthony Loster, Wes Melton, Jared Saunders, Chris Schneider, Lizzy Selzer and Cathy Sutliff. Although you don't have to be 21 to attend, you should be aware that Sticky material can be provocative (like the hermaphrodite cat, for example) and may contain colorful language and mature themes. 

At right, you can see an overhead image of Sticky in action. Again, note the crowd. Get there early!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Illinois Shakespeare Festival Lets the Cat (and the HAMLET) Out of the Bag


The Illinois Shakespeare Festival has announced its 2016 line-up of summer plays. And the winners are...

Hamlet, Twelfth Night and Peter and the Starcatcher!

Hamlet and Twelfth Night are the Shakespeare choices, obviously, with Rick Elice's  Peter and the Starcatcher taking the "other" spot. That wildcard slot has been filled in recent years by funny, fizzy stuff like the Reduced Shakespeare Company's The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) -- twice -- and last year's Q Gents, the Q Brothers hip-hop take on Two Gentlemen of Verona, as well as classics like Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals and an updated version of Scapin, plus newer, less easily pigeon-holed material like Philip Dawkins' Failure: A Love Story.

Elice's Peter and the Starcatcher, a prequel of sorts to the Peter Pan story, is both fun and energetic, with a little music and a lot of imagination and high-flying movement, meaning it should fit in just fine at the Shakespeare Festival. Elice adapted the play from a 2006 children's book with as similar name written by Dave Barry (yes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist) and Ridley Pearson (New York Times best-selling author). The play was directed by Elice's husband, the late actor Roger Rees, and Alex Timbers, with a 2009 production at California's LaJolla Playhouse, followed by an off-Broadway run in 2011, a Broadway production that opened in 2012, and an another off-Broadway run after that. The Broadway version of Peter and the Starcatcher (whose logo you see here) was nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning for its scenery, costumes, lights and sound, and bringing Christian Borle a Tony for his performance as "Black Stache," the forerunner to Captain Hook.

David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in the
Royal Shakespeare Company's 2008 Hamlet.

Hamlet's last appearance at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival was in 2004, but I have stronger memories of the 1997 production, when it was played in repertory with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the Tom Stoppard play which takes two of Hamlet's minor characters and looks at the action from their point of view. The 1997 production set Prince Hamlet and the rotten court of Denmark in the early part of the 20th century, with a doomed aristocratic look that reminded me at the time of Brideshead Revisited. Now I think we would say upstairs at Downton Abbey, but the idea is the same -- the melancholy and madness of a privileged son in an age of privilege. It's impossible to guess where they will take Hamlet this time, since pretty much everything has been tried somewhere, from Hamlet on a blank stage to a Russian fugue state, Star Trek's holodeck, a corporate boardroom, a repressed 1950s European kingdom, and an urban jungle where the title character is an angtsy rebel in a T-shirt and jeans. As well as, of course, a traditional Elizabethan setting where Hamlet wears black tights and a doublet. The possibilities are endless.

As for Twelfth Night... The Illinois Shakespeare Festival famously began its history with a production of the play directed by Dennis Zacek that was described as "futuristic space age" in tone and I seem to recall a Dickensian Christmas production as well as one that looked a bit like the Arabian Nights. Viola, the ship-wrecked twin dressed as a boy who wanders into Duke Orsino's court and falls in love, is one of Shakespeare's brightest, most charming heroines. Orsino and Olivia, the other two legs of the romantic triangle, can be a bit soggy, given that he's pining after her and she's in mourning and having none of his overtures, but they can also be quite wonderful in the right hands. And the supporting players -- a drunken oaf named Sir Toby Belch, his silly friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Malvolio, Olivia's uptight steward -- can also be hilarious or wrenching, depending on how they're handled. I recall an Illinois Shakespeare Festival production in the mid-90s with actor Frank Nall slipping into Malvolio's yellow stockings where it all worked like a charm. The 1996 film version with Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter was also lovely. (See poster above.) Fingers crossed for another one like that either of those!

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival will begin its 39th season with preview performances on July 5,6 and 7, and official opening nights on July 8, 9 and 10. You can visit their Facebook page here or check out their website here.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Hang on Tight -- October's Getting Scary!

October is brimming over with Things to Do, ranging from a little musical comedy and a big announcement to a whole lot of drama.

This first weekend in October is a big one for local theater, with events that include Fences, the August Wilson play about a garbage collector who once dreamed of becoming a major league baseball player, opening in Westhoff Theatre at Illinois State University, Little Shop of Horrors and its big green carnivorous plant from Outer Space at Eureka College Theatre unfurling its leaves, and eight characters in the annual McLean County History Museum/Evergreen Cemetery Walk showcasing local history taking their places grave-side in Bloomington. Over in Champaign, Parkland College presents Jennifer Haley's video-game-based scary story Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom tonight through October 10, while the Station Theatre offers Will Eno's The Open House, a quirky and strange dysfunctional family drama, from tonight through the 17th.

Fences is one of Wilson's "Century Cycle," with a play devoted to each decade of African-American life in the 20th century. This one takes place in the 1950s; its original Broadway production earned four Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Director for Lloyd Richards, Best Actor for James Earl Jones and Best Featured Actress for Mary Alice. Like James Earl Jones and Mary Alice before them, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis won Tony Awards in the 2010 Broadway revival for their performances as Troy Maxson, a garbage man with thwarted dreams, and Rose, his second wife. In a related August Wilson note, Denzel Washington recently announced his intention to produce filmed versions of all ten plays in the "Century Cycle" for HBO, with Fences -- which Washington will direct, produce and star in -- up first. Viola Davis will be there for Fences, as well.


ISU's Fences is directed by Duane Boutté, with a cast that includes Hannaniah Wiggins as Troy, Marixa Ford as Rose, Emmanuel Jackson as their son Cory, Gregory Hicks as Troy's younger brother Gabriel, Bryson Thomas as Lyons, Troy's son from a previous marriage, Timothy Jefferson as his friend Bono and Janiya Franklin as Raynell, a late addition to the family. Performances are scheduled for October 2 to 4 and 6 to 10. For ticket information, click here.


Illinois Wesleyan enters the fall theatrical fray with the Midwest premiere of Blown Youth, a play that serves as playwright Dipika Guha's response to Shakespeare's Hamlet. Guha muses, "It was borne out of my desire to challenge the notion that Hamlet (the character) is the embodiment of human consciousness when he is, in fact, a man. Where Hamlet’s madness smacks of genius, would a woman in his shoes be seen as just as stunningly witty and seductive -- or just a pain in the ass hysteric?" IWU's production of Blown Youth is directed by Nancy Loitz and opens with a performance at 8 pm on October 6. Call 309-556-3232 to reach the box office.

October 6 is also the date for the big announcement of what the Illinois Shakespeare Festival has planned for next summer. They promise a "spectactular" season coming up in 2016, but you'll have to wait till after the 6th to find out exactly what that entails.

The theatre program at University of Illinois kicks off its fall season with Michael Gene Sullivan's 2006 adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 opening October 15 in Colwell Playhouse at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Tom Mitchell directs this stage version of the classic science fiction novel that introduced concepts like "Big Brother," "doublespeak" and "thought crimes" to the lexicon. Click here for more information.  

You can also catch a free concert version of the musical Dreamgirls at Krannert Center presented by the Banks, Bridgewater, Lewis Fine Arts Academy on Sunday, October 18th. Local C-U singers Noah Brown, Crofton Coleman, Sherrika Ellison, Tyra Nesbitt and Erica Smith will light up the Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen score, which features big pop hits like "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," "One Night Only" and "I Am Changing."


Whose Live Anyway? with a cast that includes Jeff B. Davis, Greg Proops and Ryan Stiles, as well as Nashville heartthrob Charles "Chip" Esten, returns to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts on October 17 for one performance only at 7:30 pm.

On October 23, Illinois State University's School of Theatre and Dance is back with Dale Wasserman's stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, directed by Lori Adams for the Center for the Performing Arts. Cuckoo's Nest was an award-winning (and frequently banned) book written by Ken Kesey before it became a play, and an award-winning movie directed by Milos Forman afterwards. The role of rebellious mental patient Randle McMurphy, played by Kirk Douglas and Jack Nicholson on stage and on film, will be played by Kyle Fitzgerald for ISU, with Kate Vargulich as his nemesis Nurse Ratched, and Josh Pennington and Matt Frederick as fellow inmates. I haven't seen an image for the ISU production, so that is Ken Kesey's book cover you see here.


Walking With My Ancestors, Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum's powerful examination of the ghosts of slavery as expressed in song, dance and words, returns to New Route Theatre, again directed by Kim Pereira, for one night only on October 23. This time, Walking With will be presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington at 7:30 pm on the 23rd. Tickets are available in advance by e-mailing New Route at New.Route.Theatre@gmail.com or at the door on a first come/first served basis for a suggested donation of $10.

And that's what I have for you to pencil into your calendars right now. Stay tuned for updates as I get them!