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 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!