Tuesday, May 31, 2016

THE ART GALLERY 10-Minute Plays On Stage at Heartland Throughout June

Heartland Theatre's annual 10-Minute Play Festival has been a highlight of the summer season in Bloomington-Normal since it began back in 2002. The first year, local authors were spotlighted, but since then, the competition has become global, with playwrights from all over the world entering their work. This year, on the Art Gallery theme, plays came in from the United States as well as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

THE ART GALLERY 10-Minute Play Festival opens Thursday, June 2, with a Pay What You Can preview, with 7 pm performances on the 3rd and 4th. The Festival continues on June 9, 10, 11 and 12; 16, 17 and 18; and 23, 24 and 25. For the complete list of show dates and times, click here.

This year's theme means that all of the plays are set in a gallery of some sort, with all different kinds of "art" in play. Here's the line-up of winning plays, with added information about who's directing and acting:

Sold! by Donna Hoke, East Amherst NY
The value of a piece of art may be hard to figure out, especially if a savvy buyer decides to play cat and mouse – or Clutter and Johnson – with a newbie collector. Directed by Connie Chojnacki Blick. Cast: Christopher Stucky, Kristi Zimmerman and Chris Stevenson.

The Art Gallery by Dan Borengasser, Springdale AR
Candace has an assignment to write about a new gallery for her newspaper. But the gallery – "The Art Gallery" – is both less and more than she expected. Directed by Rob Goode. Cast: Minette Donhardt, Aaron Thomas and Wes Melton (June 9-12).

Critic's Choice by Patti Cassidy, Watertown MA
Marian is an art critic. She thinks she knows exactly what Charles intends with his art. Charles thinks she has no clue. Who gets to decide what a painting means? Directed by Cristen Monson. Cast: Rick Clemmons, Michelle Woody, J. Michael Grey (June 12) and Carolyn Stucky (June 12 and 16).

Performance Art by Judy Klass, Nashville TN
"Experimenting with the whole art gallery experience in bold new ways" is all fine and good until you can't tell whether you're coming or going or Hecuba Rosenblatt is putting you on. Directed by Ron Emmons. Cast: Aszure Dorton and Abby Scott.

Abby Scott (L) and Aszure Dorton in Performance Art
Photo credit: Dana Colcleasure
I Was Fine Until You Came in the Room by Rich Orloff, New York NY
Fifty-one years ago, Pete saw Helen at an art gallery. He thought she was cute and she thought he looked nice, but… Somebody's going to have to say something! Directed by Ron Emmons. Cast: Elsie Cadieux, Chuck Pettigrew, Lizzy Selzer and Chris Stevenson.

The Art of Reincarnation by Nicole Neely, Van Alstyne TX
An artist has been digging through Lily's garbage, looking for inspiration, for hope. But how can evidence of her failures begin to add up to something beautiful? Directed by Cristen Monson. Cast: Lizzy Selzer, Aaron Thomas and J. Michael Grey (June 9-12).

The Painting by Ron Burch, Los Angeles CA
Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you see things the same. With the help of a selfie and Facebook, maybe, just maybe, the red blob can reach out to the center spot. Directed by Rob Goode. Cast: Chuck Pettigrew and Irene Taylor.

Honorable Mention by Shawn Samuelson Henry, Grosse Pointe Park MI
Kids will be kids and adults should be adults, until the adults start messing with the kids' art contest. Don’t forget, Mom and Dad – there’s "honor" in "honorable mention." Directed by Connie Chojnacki Blick. Cast: Rick Clemmons, Carolyn Stucky and J. Michael Grey (June 12).

Returning winners include Dan Borengasser, whose Auld Lang Syne earned a slot in last year's CLASS REUNION plays, and Ron Burch, who wrote Polly, one of the winning FOWL PLAYS two years ago.

For more information on THE ART GALLERY plays, click here for an overview, here for show times, and here for the list of plays and playwrights. Call 309-452-8709 or email boxoffice@heartlandtheatre.org for reservations.

And if you'd like to see (a rather impressive) list of winners from all 15 years of Heartland's 10-Minute Play Festival, try this page.

Friday, May 27, 2016

LOU GRANT Is FINALLY Available on DVD (Season One, Anyway)

As other acclaimed shows from the 70s and 80s have been released on DVD, fans of Lou Grant have been wondering when their turn will come. The answer is now, at least partially, as Shout! Factory is offering Season One of Lou Grant right now, with Season Two lined up for release in August.

Lou Grant spun off Lou (the character, played by Ed Asner on both shows) from Mary Tyler Moore, where he was the crusty boss in Mary's TV newsroom. Mary Tyler Moore was a half-hour comedy, one of the best TV comedies of all time, and it firmly established its eccentric, lovable characters, three of whom went on shows of their own. It seemed natural for MTM to spawn comedies like Rhoda and Phyllis, but Lou was the only one who got an hour-long drama. He was sent from MTM's Minneapolis to Los Angeles, and from a TV newsroom to a print newspaper, which had been part of MTM's Lou's back story. And for playing Lou, Ed Asner became the only actor to take home Emmy Awards for playing the same character in a comedy and in a drama.

As a newspaper drama, Lou Grant sent reporters Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey) and Joe Rossi (Robert Walden) out to cover topical issues like homelessness, racism, obscenity, teen pregnancy, runaway crime in a high school, and -- in the very first episode -- police corruption and a reporter's too-cozy relationship with the "Cophouse." The Los Angeles Tribune's owner, Mrs. Pynchon, played by the wonderful Nancy Marchand, often came into conflict with Lou and his methods, and even managing editor Charlie Hume, played by Mason Adams, the one who hired Lou, found himself at odds from time to time. It was great stuff, with good acting all-around and terrific individual stories.

When I was in law school, I remember being called for a survey by some group called the Tolono Busy Bees (the voice was definitely a child and I took them to be some kind of service organization for kids, like Scouts, from Tolono, Illinois) while Lou Grant was still new. They asked one question -- what my favorite television show was -- and before the words were even out of the child's mouth, I was jumping in with Lou Grant. I loved it, I loved Ed Asner's performance, and the supporting cast and guest stars were always a delight.

Over its run from 1977 to 1982, when rumor had it CBS unceremoniously canceled the show because of Asner's outspoken political beliefs, Lou Grant won 13 Emmys, a Peabody, two Humanitas prizes, a pair of Golden Globes and three Directors Guild Awards. Ed Asner won two Emmys as Best Actor in a Drama, while Nancy Marchand's performance as the formidable Mrs. Pynchon earned her four Best Supporting Actress Emmys.

Some of the highlights of the first season of Lou Grant include "Cophouse," mentioned above, "Hoax," a bit of a caper involving Lou with a disreputable old friend who claims to have a hot tip; "Nazi," about neo-Nazis in Los Angeles, with Brian Dennehy and Peter Weller in the cast; "Barrio," revealing the newspaper's lack of coverage of important stories if the people involved are Hispanic; "Judge," which earned Barnard Hughes an Emmy for his guest performance as an erratic judge who puts Lou in the clink for contempt of court; "Psych-Out," where Rossi goes undercover to investigate a mental institution; "Housewarming," where Billie looks into domestic violence, with Julie Kavner as a guest star; "Airliner," bringing the news home for Charlie, whose daughter is on a plane experiencing technical problems in the air; "Sports," where the paper looks into rumors of recruiting violations at a local college athletics program; "Hero," posing a mystery about a lifesaver who doesn't want any recognition; "Renewal," a memorable episode with Robert Earl Jones as an elderly man whose building is about to be razed, causing him a great personal loss; "Poison," about a nuclear plant that may be unsafe; and "Physical," the season finale that gives Lou gets a scary diagnosis.

Lou Grant: Season One is now available directly from Shout! Factory as well as Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Sticky's Last (Summer) Stand

Sticky in the Sticks, the theatre group that pops up with ten-minute plays at the Firehouse Pizza & Pub in Uptown Normal, will be back this Friday for one last show before a summer hiatus.

The bar in the pub half of the Firehouse acts as the stage, this time for five ten-minute plays featuring Sticky in the Sticks co-founders Connie Blick and J. Michael Grey along with Azure Hedges, Andrea Henderson, Anthony Loster, Nancy Nickerson, Terry Noel, Jared Sanders, Abby Scott, Tricia Stiller  and Cathy Sutliff. There is an "and more" appended to that cast list on the Sticky Facebook page, so you may see other faces, as well.

You do not have to be 21 to attend, although, if you're thinking of bringing the kids, you should be warned that Sticky plays invariably have mature themes. It's just how they roll. Or perhaps what comes up when you start to think about what kind of action should happen in a bar.

Doors open at 7:30 pm and you are advised to get there promptly to get the best seats. A pre-show musical act -- this month the music comes from The Gay Neighbors -- will begin at 8 pm, with the plays after that.

Admission is $8 and you may pay at the door. For more information, click here for the event's Facebook page.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Annie Baker's BODY AWARENESS Starts at IWU Tonight

Annie Baker is at the top of the list when it comes to current American playwrights. Her voice as a playwright is understated, but distinct and uncompromising, with a reliance on silence, hesitation and rhythms that sound like people we recognize. In Central Illinois, Heartland Theatre and the Station have both done Circle Mirror Transformation, one of her trio of plays set in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont, and farther afield, her Pulitzer Prize winner, The Flick, just enjoyed a successful run at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.

Body Awareness, Baker's first play produced Off-Broadway and the first play she set in Shirley, opens tonight at Illinois Wesleyan University’s E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre. Directed by IWU senior Maggie Patchett, Body Awareness is only here for three performances, beginning at 8 pm tonight through Monday.

The play takes place during "Body Awareness Week" at a fictional college in Shirley, Vermont. We meet psychology professor Phyllis, one of the organizers behind "Body Awareness Week," along with her partner Joyce, a high school teacher, and Joyce’s 21-year-old son Jared. Jared is smart, but he is also socially awkward, with enough issues that Phyllis and Joyce suspect he has Asperger’s. He is not in any way interested in therapy, although he would like to meet women. Uncertain how to approach that idea, he asks for advice from Frank, a photographer who is their house guest for the week while he serves as a visiting artist on the topic of Body Awareness. Frank specializes in nude photos of women, which does not endear him to Phyllis, who has social problems of her own, including being overbearing and pretentious. And Joyce is caught in the middle, trying to get along with everybody. Things are pretty tense from the get-go for this group, as you might imagine. For IWU, Emily Hardesty plays Phyllis, while Katelyn Van Petten takes the role of Joyce, Isaiah Rosales plays Jared, and Tuxford Turner is Frank.

For more information on the IWU School of Theatre Arts production of Body Awareness, click here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Normal Theater's Ingrid Bergman Celebration Begins Tonight

The 1944 psychological thriller Gaslight begins two weeks of Ingrid Bergman films at the Normal Theater. Gaslight will be screened at 7 pm tonight as a "Tuesday Night Classic" at Normal's classic movie theater.

And it's a great way to kick off a tribute to Ms. Bergman, since she won the first of three Oscars for her performance as Paula Anton, a new bride pushed to the limit when strange occurrences in her house -- the place where her aunt was murdered years ago -- threaten her sanity. Is Paula losing her mind? Or are there other forces at work that create the sound of footsteps overhead in a boarded-up attic and dim the gas lamps only in her presence? This is the film that created the term "gaslight" for the kind of scheme that makes someone appear mad. Gaslight co-stars Charles Boyer as Paula's debonair husband, Joseph Cotten as the Scotland Yard detective who investigates, and Angela Lansbury in her film debut as a housemaid who claims to hear and see nothing wrong. Lansbury was only 17 when she played the role, and she, like Boyer, was nominated for an Academy Award.

After Gaslight, which has just one showing, you'll have the choice of two other terrific Bergman films -- Murder on the Orient Express on May 20 and 22 and Notorious on May 26 and 28 -- as well as a documentary called Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words on May 18, 21, 27 and 29.

Murder on the Orient Express is a 1974 film adaptation of the famous Agatha Christie novel (originally called Murder on the Calais Coach) with Albert Finney as detective Hercule Poirot and Lauren Bacall, Colin Blakely, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Denis Quilley, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Michael York and -- of course -- Ingrid Bergman among the suspects when a passenger is murdered during the night on a train stranded by snow. Bergman's role as a timid, frumpy Swedish missionary named Greta Ohlsson couldn't be further from Paula Anton in Gaslight or Alicia Huberman in Notorious, showing off her versatility, and it earned her her third Oscar.

Murder on the Orient Express will be on screen at the Normal Theater at 7 pm on Friday, May 20 and Sunday, May 22.

The last Bergman film on the schedule is Notorious, my personal favorite. She's paired with Cary Grant and that is a romantic duo that works very, very well. Notorious is a Hitchcock gem from 1946, with Bergman as a "notorious" woman, a party girl living life in the fast lane ever since her German father was convicted of treason in Miami. The fact that her dad was a Nazi has given Alicia a bad reputation, too. But Grant's Devlin, a CIA type, picks her up and talks her into a dangerous proposition -- infiltrating a group of Nazis hiding out in Brazil, lead by Alexander Sebastian, played by Claude Rains. Alicia is supposed to get Sebastian to fall for her so she can gather intel on his cabal's super-secret plans. While she and Devlin are falling in love, it's his job to convince her to romance (and presumably sleep with) Sebastian, which put a serious crimp in their relationship. And then there's Sebastian's mom, a poisonous viper who doesn't trust Alicia as far as she can throw her.

You can catch (and you must catch!) Notorious at 7 pm on Thursday, May 26, and Saturday, May 28. NOT. TO. BE. MISSED.

As for Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, here's the scoop on the documentary:
"In spring 2011, director Stig Björkman meets Ingrid Bergman's daughter Isabella Rossellini and she suggests him to "make a film about Mama". Through Isabella, Stig is able to tell Ingrid's story through her own words and images. Seven time Academy Award-nominee and three time Academy Award-winner Ingrid Bergman was one of the most talented actresses of Hollywood's Golden Age with great performances in films such as CASABLANCA (1942), GASLIGHT (1944) and and AUTUMN SONATA (1978). Through never-before-seen private footage, notes, letters, diaries and interviews with her children, this documentary presents a personal portrait and captivating look behind the scenes of the remarkable life of a young Swedish girl who became one of the most celebrated actresses of American and World cinema."
Ingrid Bergman saw stardom and scandal in her life, with three marriages, three divorces, four children, and when it came to the Academy Awards, three wins and seven nominations. She starred opposite some of Hollywood's finest, bringing out the best in Charles Boyer and Cary Grant as well as Humphrey Bogart, Yul Brynner, Gary Cooper, Joseph Cotten, Bing Crosby, Paul Henreid, Leslie Howard, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains and Spencer Tracy. And, for that matter, Liv Ullman and Goldie Hawn. On screen, she glowed. Off screen... Well, you'll have to see Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words at 7 pm on Wednesday, May 18, Saturday, May 21, Friday May 27 or Sunday, May 29 to get the full picture.

Click here for the Normal Theater's May schedule.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Auditions Tonight, Tomorrow and Wednesday Night for CP Summer Musical

There's a bit of mystery surrounding Community Players' Summer Musical this year. Note that in the banner above, they don't mention the title. Hmm... I think we all know what "A tale as old as time" refers to, however. "Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme..." That would be Disney's musical version of Beauty and the Beast, whose title song includes that snippet of lyric. Given that tagline, plus the telltale rose, a beast head in profile and mention of a character named Chip in the audition info, I think the odds are pretty good that Players is putting on Beauty and the Beast this summer.

Here's how they describe the show:
Adapted from the French fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, this family musical tells the story of a prince who is transformed into a hideous monster as punishment for his cruel and selfish ways, and an adventurous young woman (who loves books) whom he imprisons in his castle. In order to become human again, the monster must earn the woman’s love before it’s too late.
If that sounds like your cup of tea, you'll need to be at Community Players Theatre on Robinhood Lane tonight, tomorrow night and Wednesday night, starting at 7 pm, to audition. They're looking for a boy or girl between 7 and 10 years old to try out for the role of Chip, and those children will be up first within the audition window.

Those auditioning (in general -- not just for Chip) will be asked to read from the script and also learn a short dance. CP has specified that anyone entering 9th grade or older may audition, and performers cast in the show who are parents will be given a chance to bring younger children for a scene or two.

If you are interested in auditioning, you should have 18 to 24 bars of prepared music ready to sing. You should bring piano music with you, as an accompanist will be provided.

And if you have questions, you may contact Alan Wilson at albry.wilson57@gmail.com

Performance dates for Community Players Summer Musical are July 8 to 10, 14 to 17 and 21 to 24.  

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Hook Up the Disco Ball! It's Time for EUROVISION 2016!!!!

In case you have no friends in Europe who are into this sort of thing (and trust me, a lot of people in Europe -- and Australia and Israel -- are into Eurovision) let me just say that this super-poppy, super-competitive song blazes across Europe once a year. In the past, if you were in the United States and you wanted to see it, you had to watch on the Eurovision webpage or Youtube. But this year, for the first time, the Grand Final will actually be broadcast in the U.S. on the LOGO channel. Get ready, because the 26 performances -- singers flanked by dancers, projections, flames, lasers, sparkles, more lights than the Las Vegas Strip -- will begin at 2 pm Central time on LOGO.

Eurovision is all about the over-the-top, the intensely tacky, the intentionally wacky. And a whole lot of power ballads. Its most famous winners were ABBA, who won for Sweden in 1974 with "Waterloo," and Celine Dion, who sang something called "Ne partez pas sans moi" for Switzerland in 1988. The first winner, back in 1956, was also Switzerland, with "Refrain," sung by Lys Assia.

Other winners of note include Lordi, a supposedly heavy metal band from Finland who were covered in costumes that wouldn't have looked out of place in Battleship Earth, Ruslana, a beautiful woman representing Ukraine who wore torn bits of leather and fur for her performance of "Wild Dances," and in 2014, a man who competed for Austria under the name Conchita Wurst with an outfit that combined a beard and an evening gown. 

This year's favorite is Russia, with Sergey Lazarev singing "You Are the Only One," accompanied by projections of giant wings and what I think may be ice chunks that he climbs. Ukraine, which has a strongly political song called "1944," sung by a Crimean Tatar named Jamala, is also in the final and expected to do well, as is Australia, whose Dami Im is singing "Sound of Silence."

Sweden is the defending champ, which is why this year's festivities are in Stockholm. Sweden's 2016 entry is a teenager named Frans offering the earnest "If I Were Sorry."

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Steven Dietz Sweetly Eludes Serendipity in THIS RANDOM WORLD

Playwright Steven Dietz is both prolific and versatile. His plays range from God's Country, a scary, fact-based exposé of white supremacists in the Northwest, to Private Eyes, a theatrical and romantic play that peels away layers of lies and fantasy around lovers who also happen to be actors, Lonely Planet, which piles up chairs to talk about AIDS, adaptations of Dracula and Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, several musicals, and Bloomsday, the recent Steinberg/ATCA citation winner that deals with two mismatched people who meet on a tour of Dublin centered on James Joyce's Ulysses.

You'll see a lot of relationships, especially thwarted or flawed relationships, in Dietz's plays, as well as a message about getting out in the world and actually living life. That's certainly on display in This Random World, the play Dietz premiered at last month's Humana Festival of New American Plays. The play's subtitle is "the myth of serendipity" and that describes This Random World rather nicely, as a collection of sweet, nice, eccentric people fail to connect with each other, often passing like ships in the night.

There's sister and brother Beth and Tim -- she's taking a trip to Nepal in an attempt to LIVE before she dies, while he's a stay-at-home guy who has failed at love and work and isn't quite ready to push past his perceived failures -- and their mother, Scottie, whose life is a lot more interesting than her children think. Around their axis spin Bernadette, Scottie's warm and competent aide; her sister Rhonda, who works at a funeral home; Tim's ex, loopy Claire; and Gary, Claire's current boyfriend who is about to break loose.

Their plotlines intersect, but never really connect, and that kind of almost-but-not-quite is Dietz's main point. He sets up the standard dramatic expectation that when these characters finally meet, there will be dramatic sparks and a POW! SOCKO! payoff. But that's what Dietz is exploring, the notion that serendipity is more likely to make us miss each other than collide.

And so This Random World actively and purposely avoids the expected payoffs. Or, as Actors Theatre of Louisville's materials on the play frame it: "Mining the comedy of missed connections, This Random World asks the serious question of how often we travel parallel paths through the world without noticing." In that way, This Random World ends up giving its audience the same "if only" ache the characters feel. It's a whole lot more satisfying than you might expect from a play that sets out to leave its characters unsatisfied.

In its Humana Festival production, This Random World was lovely and real, quite funny and quite sad. Part of that is on the page, as Dietz and the surprises he built in keep the characters and action moving smoothly.

And part was due to director Meredith McDonough's inventive staging, which employed a stream of costumed stage hands from Actors Theatre's apprentice company sliding in, out and through the Bingham Theatre's in-the-round space between scenes, showing us more of those people traveling "parallel paths through the world" even as they seamlessly changed the scenery. It was a neat trick that underlined the central idea.

Deanna Bouye (L) and Beth Dixon in This Random World at the Humana Festival
Photo credit: Bill Brymer
McDonough's cast did fine work across the board, with Beth Dixon terrific and vivid as Scottie, who knows her own mind and brooks no objections, and Deanna Bouye a delight as Rhonda, the one who thinks it's perfectly normal to offer coffee to a spirit who just walked in the front door. Nate Miller's Tim and Renata Friedman's Claire were also appealing and absolutely believable.

Dietz's plays have enjoyed a great deal of success in regional theaters over the past thirty years. Let's hope This Random World shows up, too. I'd like to see it ten or twelve more times, myself.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Note: I bring this piece back every year on Fred Astaire's birthday. So here we are again, with another year's tribute to my favorite movie star. As you will see below, Mr. Astaire was born May 10, 1899, making today his 117th birthday. This piece originally ran in 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first time I put up this post, my friend Jon contributed this as a comment. I think it's more than worthy of reviving:

A music-critic friend of mine talks about the rare performer (less than once in a generation) who can show us "the perfectibility of human endeavor" -- convince us that dancing (or acting, or classical singing), within the stylistic givens at hand, cannot be done any better than this. And Fred does this. He was a perfectionist, relentlessly so, and it resulted in filmed dance that will never lose its stature.

True though it is that he convinces us that people can fall in love while dancing, he sometimes goes even further and persuades us that people can fall in love BY dancing. There are lots of examples; a well-remembered one is "Dancing in the Dark" with Cyd Charisse in THE BAND WAGON (they're distrustful acquaintances before it starts, afterward they're dreamy with the bliss of falling in love). Sometimes those who make the movie are all but winking at us about the subtext of the dance -- I love that after the bliss of "Night and Day" (THE GAY DIVORCEE), Ginger sinks back on a settee, unable to move, and Fred offers her a cigarette.

Don't you wish we had some film of Adele? Everyone agrees that she was marvelous (some considered her the star of the two), the team lasted just into the era of talking pictures -- why didn't someone film THE BAND WAGON then?!? We have a handful of audio recordings of her but they really convey nothing of why she was a star. (By contrast, Fred's recordings show why all the great songwriters preferred to have him introduce their songs; he was a musician through and through.) I just discovered that she was on the verge of trying to make movies in the 1930s, but decided against it.

You'll be happy to hear that I use LADY, BE GOOD! in my History of Musicals class to illustrate typical (but top-quality) 1920s musical comedy.

By the way, it's always said that because they were siblings, Fred and Adele never played a romantic couple onstage. But in fact they did, twice (in now-forgotten shows). That suggests how innocently "romance" was portrayed in musicals in 1920.

And now I'm going to mark the day by watching "Pick Yourself Up." Each time I see it, I gasp at seeing Fred (and this time, Ginger as well) not only conceive something on this level, but bring it off. Perfectly.

Turner Classic Movies began its tribute to Fred Astaire's birthday at 6 am (Central time) but you can still catch a few of his movies. Royal Wedding just started, and it will be followed by Carefree, Belle of New York and Silk Stockings.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Spirited Meeting of Minds in Scott Carter's DISCORD at the Station Theatre

The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord is not what you might call an accessible title, but it does sum up Scott Carter's play quite neatly. In an unspecified afterlife that looks like a plain old room with a table and three chairs, three great men ponder why they're there, if there is a God (or a Holy Trinity) and what the Word of God really means. Each of them, we're told, fashioned his own Bible in his time. Stuck together, they have a great deal of trouble -- or discord -- putting their deeply held beliefs together into some sort of Gospel.

As a Los Angeles Times reviewer put it, this play is "the dramaturgical love-child of 'Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds' and Jean-Paul Sartre’s 'No Exit.'"

Given the idea at the center of Discord, it's hard not to think of Meeting of Minds, the talk show on PBS in the late 70s and early 80s that put together panels of actors playing historical figures. On any given episode, you'd find folks like Attila the Hun, Emily Dickinson and Galileo pulling up chairs, with their discussion guided (and kept entertaining) by host Steve Allen. Scott Carter has given Discord that same feel and energy, with a lot more at stake for the trio he's trapped in Purgatory. They're not just having a chat, they're trying to find a way out. And in the end, faith, truth, fame, fortune, hypocrisy... They're all on the table.

As Dickens, Jefferson and Tolstoy attempt to create a version of the Gospels that works for all three of them, they fall into discord and disagreement right from the start. They can't even agree on what the fundamental basis of God's creation is. Dickens says it's all about the Word, while Jefferson falls on the side of reason and Tolstoy dismisses them both, passionately arguing on behalf of the spirit. By the time each has stated his position, Tolstoy is down to only three words left of the entire Bible.

That all may sound talky or dry, but Carter's script has plenty of spark as it plays out in Urbana's Station Theatre. Director Lindsey Gates-Markel and some helpful captions from lighting designer Jesse Folks define the action nicely, and actors Gary Ambler, David Barkley and Steven M. Keen succeed in creating distinct, pithy portraits of three very different men. Keen's Jefferson is more formal and analytical, Ambler's Dickens is expressive and showy, and Barkley's Tolstoy is overflowing with earthy intensity. If each represents an idea, they're also men when push comes to shove, with regrets, weaknesses and frailties.

It's a neat trick to take something with very little plot and make it seem so active. Kudos to Gates-Markel and her talented cast for mining the conflict and the humor so well.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The original schedule for the Station Theatre's production of The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord called for the show to finish up its run this week. The Station website and its reservation page now indicate that this week's shows have been pushed back two weeks and will take place on Wednesday May 18, Thursday May 19, Friday May 20 and Saturday May 21.

Just to clarify: No shows this week. No shows next week. Shows May 18 to 21. If you would like to make a reservation for the newly scheduled week, please visit the Station's main page and click on "Make a Reservation" or call 217-384-4000 for their box office.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Catching Up with the Merry, Murderous Month of May

It's May, which can only mean one thing. Tony Awards! Or at least the Tony nominations and a whole lot of discussion about who will win. If you haven't seen the nominations list yet, go take a look now. As expected, Hamilton cleaned up in the musical categories, picking up a historical number of nominations with 16. Yes, that's more than The Producers got back in 2001 (15), as well as more than the number of colonies (13) when Hamilton was helping to nation-build and more than the number of dollars (10) a Hamilton is worth and will continue to be worth after dodging a bullet from the Treasury and their money redesign people. History! It's fun! The awards will be presented June 12 on CBS with James Corden hosting.

If you're looking for a major piece of film history, you need to see Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, which will be on screen tonight at 7 pm at the Normal Theater as part of their Tuesday Night Classics series. Renoir's film was made in 1939, when France was on the brink of World War II, but it was not well received at that time, and with no love from audiences, Nazis invading and Americans bombing, this masterpiece about different classes of French men and women playing at games of sex and romance in a country house was almost lost completely. But a restored print resurfaced twenty years later, putting The Rules of the Game at the top of "best of" lists ever since. Roger Ebert called it "magical and elusive" as he concluded it was "so simple and so labyrinthine, so guileless and so angry, so innocent and so dangerous, that you can't simply watch it, you have to absorb it."

Life looked very different 45 years later in the movie that has the late-night slot at the Art Theater and Co-op in Champaign Wednesday and Thursday. In memory of Prince, they'll be playing Purple Rain May 4 at 10 pm and May 5 at 11 pm. I lived in Minneapolis-St. Paul when Purple Rain was released in 1984, and let's just say people in those Twin Cities embraced their native son and then some. Purple Rain's picture of a talented musician with a fantastic sense of fashion, a beautiful love interest and a very messy home life defined the 80s for a lot of people. The Mod Squad's Clarence Williams III played the abusive father in the mix, with Apollonia as the stunning woman Prince's character, called "The Kid" was interested in. Prince's soundtrack for Purple Rain includes songs like "I Would Die 4 U," "When Doves Cry," "Darling Nikki" and "Let's Go Crazy" along with the title tune.

Marriage and betrayal are at the heart of Frederick Knott's thriller Dial M for Murder, on stage at Community Players from May 5 to 15. It's not so much a whodunit, since we know from the get-go that Tony Wendice, a man with murder on his mind, is the bad guy. Tony, played by Maurice Evans in the 1952 Broadway production of the play and by Ray Milland in the 1954 Hitchcock movie, has decided to do away with his wealthy wife, both because she's been having an affair and because he wants her money. But he doesn't want to get caught, so he blackmails a ne'er-do-well acquaintance into doing it for him at a time when he has a perfect alibi. And that's when things fall apart. Grace Kelly famously played the wife for Hitchcock, with Robert Cummings as her lover and Anthony Dawson and John Williams reprising their roles from the Broadway production as the criminal colleague forced into murder and the police inspector trying to make sense of it all. For Community Players, Andrew German is Tony, with Hannah Artman as his wife, Branden Smith as her boyfriend, Brian Artman as the would-be murderer, John D. Poling as Inspector Hubbard, and Jason Maloy as Thompson, another policeman.

Back at the Normal Theater, Ingrid Bergman fans have reasons to celebrate. The Normal Theater will show three of her movies -- Gaslight, Murder on the Orient Express and Notorious -- between May 17 and 28, with a documentary called Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words shown on other evenings as counterpoint to Bergman's films. Gaslight will be on screen on May 17 as a Tuesday Night Classic, with Murder on the Orient Express on May 20 and 22 and Notorious on May 26 and 28. The documentary plays on May 18, 21, 27 and 29.

Released in 1944, Gaslight stars Bergman as the victim of a scheme -- flickering lights, mysterious noises -- to convince her that she is mad. This is the movie that coined the verb "gaslight" to mean exactly that sort of scheme. Bergman plays opposite Charles Boyer, as her husband, and a very young Angela Lansbury as their maid. Bergman won her first Oscar for Gaslight and then earned her third 30 years later in Murder on the Orient Express. In this all-star adaptation of the Agatha Christie mystery novel, Bergman was cast against type as a frumpy, devout Swedish missionary who happens to be a passenger on the train where a horrible man was murdered in the middle of the night. Albert Finney plays detective Hercule Poirot, with a supporting cast that includes Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave and Michael York. Out of all of those actors, Bergman was the only one to walk away with the Academy Award.

And then there's Notorious, a sexy, suspenseful Hitchcock piece from 1946, with Bergman caught up in spy games with Cary Grant. Her father was a bad, bad man, a German who lived in the United States but was caught and tried for treason after World War II. Now Bergman's character, Alicia, has a bad reputation of her own, but Cary convinces her to team up with him to try to take down a creepy band of Nazis in Brazil. Her job entails romancing -- and even marrying -- Claude Rains, leader of the band, and trying not to get on the bad side of his evil mother. It's all very tricky, Cary plays down and dirty, and you'll need to keep an eye on the beverages in the plot, since both tea and champagne turn out to be important. I love this movie. I have its poster on my wall. Go see it on the big screen when you have a chance!

The last theater piece I have for May is Annie Baker's Body Awareness, scheduled for Illinois Wesleyan University's E. Melba Kirkpatrick Lab Theatre for three 8 pm performances between May 22 and 24. Baker's play is set in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont, also the setting for her Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens. This time, Baker looks at a college professor who has set up campus seminars on the topic of Body Awareness, her partner, her son, and the photographer who specializes in female nudes who comes to stay in their house. The play involves gender, art and what happens to when people are not only aware of bodies, but what's inside. Click here for what information is currently available on the IWU SOTA production.

If you are willing to drive to Springfield or perhaps Joliet, you can catch the Royal Shakespeare Company's Shakespeare Live! in a movie theater on May 23. The RSC celebrated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death with Shakespeare Live!, which included "performances of some of the greatest dramatic scenes ever written, played by some of our greatest actors, as well as songs, comedy, dances and music celebrating Shakespeare's legacy. The show was conceived and directed by Gregory Doran and hosted by David Tennant and Catherine Tate." Other actors who appeared included Dame Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch, Joseph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear and Sir Ian McKellen. It was broadcast in Britain on BBC Two on April 23, but May 23 will be our first chance to see it in the states, now under the title The Shakespeare Show. If you're in England, you can watch the show on the RSC site, and the RSC Shop is also promising a DVD at some point. Let's hope they make a  DVD we can see watch here, too!