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

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!