Friday, September 25, 2015

It's Neil Simon Weekend

Neil Simon owns more Tony and Oscar nominations than any other writer, at least according to PBS and their American Masters documentary about him. They also say that he's the only writer ever to have four simultaneous Broadway productions. The New Yorker, meanwhile, says that "since 1970 almost no day has gone by without a professional production of a Neil Simon comedy playing somewhere in the country."

According to my count, he has 14 Tony nominations plus three wins, four Oscar nominations, and four Emmy nominations dating from 1957 to 2001. Oh, and he has a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Lost in Yonkers.

If you're curious about what four plays were running at the same time, a quick check of his Internet Broadway Database credits show Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity (for which Simon wrote the book), and Star-Spangled Girl all playing from December of 1966 to June of 1967. That's what you might call running the Broadway table.

Right now, you have two opportunities to see Simon's work in person, with Brighton Beach Memoirs, the semi-autobiographical piece about a teen boy in Brooklyn in the late 1930s, at Illinois State University's Center for the Performing Arts through the 27th, and The Odd Couple, the perennial favorite about mismatched roommates that's spawned two movies and two TV series, at Illinois Central College in East Peoria this weekend and next.

And if that isn't enough Neil Simon, you can top it off with the movie version of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, starring Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft as a married couple adapting to major changes when events conspire against them. Turner Classic Movies will air The Prisoner of Second Avenue at 7:15 am on Monday, September 28.

But before that...

Third-year MFA director Jonathan Hunt-Sell is at the reins of Brighton Beach Memoirs, one of Simon's most successful plays both artistically and financially. The play's original production spent three years on Broadway and earned Tony Awards for director Gene Saks and actor Matthew Broderick, who played Eugene Jerome, the stand-in for Simon. For ISU, Garrett Douglas takes the role of Eugene, with Jimmy Keating as his brother Stanley, Gloria Petrelli and Graham Gusloff as his parents, Christina Duris as Aunt Blanche, and Cassandra Conklin and Megan Tennis as his two teenage cousins, whose presence causes Eugene even more tsuris in the crowded Jerome household.

Tickets are available at the College of Fine Arts box office at 309-438-2535 or through Ticketmaster. Four performances remain, with tonight's curtain at 7:30 pm, 2 pm and 7:30 pm performances tomorrow, and another matinee on Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are also available through

Over in East Peoria, ICC presents The Odd Couple starting tonight at 7:30 pm. The original production of The Odd Couple ran for 964 performances from 1965 to 67, winning four Tonys, including awards for Best Actor Walter Matthau, Best Director Mike Nichols, Best Scenic Designer Oliver Smith, and a Best Author Tony for Neil Simon himself.

For ICC, Robin Berkley directs, with scenic design by Rob Fulton, who most recently did the spectacular set you see at Heartland Theatre for the play Tribes. Berkley's cast includes Chris McHenry as Felix, the fussy neat freak roommate, and Alek President as Oscar, the messy one.

Tickets to The Odd Couple are priced at $5 for students and $7 for adults. Call 309-694-5136 for more information.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TRIBES Finishes Its Powerful Run at Heartland Theatre

Heartland Theatre's Tribes -- a powerful, irreverent, emotional play about an idiosyncratic British family with a deaf son who has functioned as the quiet eye of their hurricane -- has already finished two weekends of performances. What does that mean? Only one weekend left!

Audiences have been responding very enthusiastically to director Sandra Zielinski's production, led by Illinois State University MFA actor Colin Law as Billy, the deaf son caught in the crosshairs of a smart, ferociously verbal family. His parents are writers of different stripes; his sister fancies herself an opera singer, and his brother is in the midst of a thesis about linguistics and language. At the play's onset, Billy doesn't know sign language, but he is a skillful lip reader. But as the others shout around him, sparring with quips, insults and some very colorful curses, Billy tires of trying to keep up. Is everyone too self-involved, too impatient to notice how much their son doesn't fit into this tribe?

When Billy meets a young woman named Sylvia, everything changes. She is pretty much his opposite, a hearing child born into a deaf family, someone fluent in sign language and very much a part of the deaf community. Billy is taken with her fairly quickly, but he's also taken with this new world she's opened up. And that's the premise at the center of Tribes. Where does Billy belong? What does his family owe him? What does he owe them? Is Sylvia stealing him away from them, or is he using her as a life raft?

Raine's play has some tricky twists and turns, moving from comedy to despair and back again,and Zielinski and her actors navigate the trouble spots beautifully. Colin Law is terrific as Billy, giving the play a steady center and then deconstructing it bit by bit as the drama escalates. He is matched nicely by ISU senior actor Kaitlyn Wehr, who has fire and elegance as Sylvia, the girl of his dreams. Both tear it up when it comes to expressing emotion through sign language, a credit to dramaturg and signing specialist Brooke Hausmann.

The ensemble is strong across the board, with Timothy Wyman and Cristen Monson adding warmth and irascible charm to the family mix as Billy's parents, Aaron Sparks portraying troubled brother Daniel with edgy vulnerability, and Connie Blick turning sister Ruth into a tempestuous (and funny) drama queen.

Rob Fulton's scenic design is as eccentric and detailed as the family it houses, offering a perfectly drawn platform for their messy, complicated lives, while Jeanine Fry's costumes are especially good for Ruth and Sylvia, giving us visual clues about who they are.

Tribes continues through the 27th, with performances tomorrow, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and a matinee at 2 pm on Sunday. The Thursday performance features sign language interpreters.

To see show times, click here. Try this link for reservation information.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Theatre Hall of Fame Announces 2015 Honorees

Every year, a few new honorees are inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, reflecting lifetime achievement in the American theater as voted upon by . This year's inductees are:

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the songwriting duo behind musicals like Ragtime, Lucky Stiff, Once on This Island and Seussical as well as the movie Anastasia.

Ken Billington, principal lighting designer for Radio City Music Hall from 1979 to 2004, as well as the lighting designer for almost a hundred Broadway shows.

Merle Debuskey, press rep for Broadway shows from The Rose Tattoo in 1952 through Racing Demon in 1995.

Robert Falls, an Illinois native (and U of I grad) who has been closely identified with Chicago theatre; he's served as artistic director of both Wisdom Bridge and the Goodman Theatre.

Stacy Keach, the powerhouse actor who has played everything from Buffalo Bill in Arthur Kopit's Indians to P. T. Barnum, Lear and Richard Nixon.

Tony Kushner, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright behind Angels in America.

Roger Rees, the late Welsh actor and director who rose to prominence in the U.S. (and won a Tony) when he played the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company's epic production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Julie Taymor, the director and creative visionary who put The Lion King on Broadway (as well as Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark).

Roger Rees (center L) in Nicholas Nickleby
The Theater Hall of Fame was founded in 1971 by James M. Nederlander, Earl Blackwell, Gerard Oestreicher and L. Arnold Weissberger, with the 90 first inductees honored in October, 1972.

Here's how the process is described in an American Theater Critics Association press release:

"This year's ballot was mailed in July to 275 members of the Theater Hall of Fame and American Theater Critics Association. Fifty nominees are listed each year on the ballot. To be nominated, a theatre professional must have 25 years in the Broadway/American theatre and five major credits."

The 2015 Theater Hall of Fame Ceremony and Dinner will take place on November 16 at 7:30 pm (Eastern) at the Gershwin Theatre, followed by a supper at The Palm.

The Theater Hall of Fame is the only nationally trademarked non-profit organization that honors the professionals of the American theatre. This annual celebration supports these on-going programs: the Video Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts/Lincoln Center, the THF Dorothy Strelsin Memorabilia Collection at the Gershwin Theatre and the THF Fellowship Grants for Emerging Theater Artists.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Let's Catch Up with September

Yes, it's late, but it's the day after a holiday weekend, which is the perfect time to take store of what's coming up. September! Back in school, theatre scene set to simmer, everybody looking for entertainment...

There's plenty of drama happening out there! Serena and Venus Williams are battling in a quarterfinal at the US Open even as we speak, and that's about as dramatic as it gets. And later tonight, Stephen Colbert hits the desk for his very first Late Show from the Ed Sullivan Theatre in Manhattan. If his Comedy Central show was any indication, it will take Colbert a night or two to really get rolling. But once he's got his Late Show legs under him, watch out! Tonight Stephen hosts George Clooney and Jeb Bush, with Jon Batiste leading the band. You can find Mr. Colbert et al. on CBS after the nightly news.

Community Players opened the Michael Frayn backstage farce Noises Off last weekend, but they'll be back this weekend, too. Darlene Lloyd stars as Dotty Otley, an English actress a bit past her prime, taking her act on the road with a bad farce and a terrible company of actors. The hapless troupe includes Dotty's much-younger boyfriend, Garry Lejeune, played for Community Players by Thom Rakestraw, and much-beleaguered director Lloyd Dallas, played by Brian Artman, who himself directed Noises Off at Players a few years ago. There's also an aging dipsomaniac (played by Alan Wilson), a gossip (Bridgette Richard), two dim bulbs (Hannah Kerns and Chris Terven), a sleep-deprived stage hand (Jon Hubal) and a stage manager (Erica Sommers) who really does have it all together, except everybody else keeps getting in her way. Suffice it to say several people end up in their underwear at one time or another and there are a whole lot of slammed doors, sardines and stairs to run up and down. Noises Off continues at Community Players through the 13th. Click here for ticket information.

Nina Raine's Tribes, an Olivier nominee for Best Play in its inaugural production in London in 2010, begins at Heartland Theatre on Thursday the 10th with a Pay What You Can Preview, running till September 27. Tribes is a family drama, circling around Billy, born deaf into an intensely verbal clan. He can read lips but he has never learned sign language. That's just fine by his family, even if he tunes them out on occasion. But then Billy meets Sylvia, a hearing young woman from a deaf family. Sylvia is very good at sign language. She understands Billy's "tribe" much better than he does at the onset of the play. Tribes is a provocative play with strong language and a lot to say. Sandra Zielinski directs a cast that includes Colin Lawrence as Billy, Tim Wyman and Cristen Monson as his parents, Connie Chojnacki Blick and Aaron Sparks as his sister and brother, and Kaitlyn Wehr as Sylvia, the catalyst for change. Showtimes are listed on this page, with reservation info at the bottom.

In television news, Dancing with the Stars returns to ABC on the 14th, with Doctor Who (seen above) coming back to BBC America on the 19th; Gotham (Fox), The Voice (NBC), The Big Bang Theory (CBS) and Castle (ABC), all on the 21st; soapy goodness Empire (Fox) and Nashville (ABC) on the 23rd; and Shonda Rhimes' Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder both back on ABC on the 24th. There's new stuff popping up, too, from Scream Queens on Fox on September 22 to ABC's much ballyhooed Blood and Oil and Quantico on September 27.

Here's something you don't see every day... A one-man Wild Bill Hickok show. Walt Willey, who starred as one of Erica Kane's most lasting romantic foils on the daytime soap All My Children, comes to the BCPA in Wild Bill! It's billed as "an evening with James Butler Hickok starring Walt Willey," although it's actually an afternoon in this case. Bloomington's stop on the Wild Bill! tour is at 2 pm on September 20th. If you're wondering what this exploration of the life and times of Western legend looks like, you can catch a teaser video on Youtube.

The fall theatre season at Illinois State University starts on September 23 with Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, directed by Jonathan Hunt Sell in the Center for the Performing Arts. Brighton Beach is the first of Simon's autobiographical trio of plays, with the fictional character of Eugene standing in for Mr. Simon in all three. In this one, Eugene is a teenager in Brooklyn during the Depression, obsessed with baseball and girls and trying to survive in his crowded household. Garrett Douglas will play Eugene for ISU, with Jimmy Keating as his brother Stanley, Gloria Petrelli and Graham Gusloff as his parents, Christina Duris as Aunt Blanche, and Cassandra Conklin and Megan Tennis as cousins Laurie and Nora, who move in and cause Eugene no end of tsuris.

Prairie Fire Theatre offers A Night of Big Band Music on September 25 and 26. The two Nights will take place at Illinois Wesleyan's Memorial Center on 7:30 pm each night. According to the Prairie Fire site, tickets aren't on sale yet, but will be soon.

And, to bring this full circle, another late night host steps into the box on September 28 when Trevor Noah officially takes on The Daily Show on Comedy Central in the wake of Jon Stewart's departure earlier this summer. He won't be Jon Stewart, but I guess we'll have to see if he can make it work.