Tuesday, August 15, 2017

At ISU, Shue's FOREIGNER Is Out and Shepard's LIE OF THE MIND Is In

The School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University has announced a change in their schedule for the upcoming 2017-18 season.

Due to "the horrific events taking place in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend," the SOTD will be removing the previously planned production of The Foreigner by Larry Shue and replacing it with A Lie of the Mind by Sam Shepard.

The Foreigner is a much-performed comedy about a sweet man visiting a rural cabin in Georgia who pretends not to speak English so he won't have to talk to people, but his new "foreigner" status causes all kinds of problems. The Foreigner may be hilarious, but it involves Klansmen, including hoods and weapons, and it is understandable that that sort of thing doesn't seem all that funny at the moment.

A Lie of the Mind is altogether different, about toxic masculinity and domestic abuse, as the play examines what happens to the families involved after a man beats his wife to the point of brain damage. The statement from the School of Theatre and Dance notes that the selection of a Shepard play honors "the recent passing of this award winning playwright."

If A Lie of the Mind occupies the same space as The Foreigner, it will play in the ISU Center for the Performing Arts from September 27 to October 1 and will be directed by Lori Adams.

Other shows on the SOTD agenda for 2017 include She Kills Monsters, a 2011 play by Qui Nguyen involving Dungeons and Dragons, directed by Paul Dennhardt for the CPA in performance from October 27 to November 4; two classics -- Sophocles' Oedipus directed by Kristen Schoenback and Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well directed by Enrico Spada -- in repertory in Westhoff Theatre between October 13 and 28, and the Fall Dance Concert under artistic director Sara Semonis for the CPA November 30 to December 2.

Things are a bit less clear-cut in the spring, although there is information that directing MFA candidate Schoenback will be back at the helm for Anne Washburn's dystopic fantasy Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play in Westhoff from February 16 to 24, 2018, while her colleague Spada will direct The Illusion, presumably playwright Tony Kushner's adaptation of Pierre Corneille's 17th century comedy, in Westhoff  March 30 to April 7, 2018. After that, the Mozart opera Cosi Fan Tutte will play the CPA from March 2 to 9 under a director to be named later and a show to be named later will be directed by John Tovar for the CPA from April 13 to 21.

To keep up with School of Theatre and Dance news, follow their Facebook page here.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Casting Update: Heartland's EARNEST Begins Its Bunbury Business September 7

Heartland Theatre Company and director Don LaCasse have announced who'll be pretending to be Earnest (spoiler alert: there is no Earnest or Ernest) when Oscar Wilde's delightful period comedy The Importance of Being Earnest opens September 7th.

The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed in 1895, which is also when it's set. Earnest takes place in fashionable English settings like a London flat and the garden of a country house, and its cast of elegant characters are generally floating around in gowns with giant leg-o-mutton sleeves and feathered bonnets (the ladies) or silk cravats and high hats (the gents). Wilde is sending up society and puncturing its pomposity, which means you must see what that society looked like in 1895.

The most memorable character in the play and the clearest example of snobbery among the finer classes is Lady Bracknell, the formidable dragon who sniffs at her daughter marrying a man whose pedigree cannot be ascertained. After all, Jack Worthing was abandoned as a baby, left in a handbag at the railway station. A handbag! She also has all the best lines in Wilde's deliciously witty play, like this one: "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."

Because it's such a wonderful role, men have strapped themselves into Lady Bracknell's corset quite a lot, with acclaimed performances from the likes of Brian Bedford, Geoffrey Rush and David Suchet. Still, my favorite Lady Bracknell is Dame Edith Evans in the 1952 movie version of the play. Apparently director LaCasse is also a fan of the female Lady Bracknell, since he's cast local favorite Kathleen Kirk to play Lady B for Heartland.

The four lovers in the play -- Algernon, Jack, Cecily and Gwendolyn -- will be played by Kyle Redmon, Timothy Olsen, Emilia Dvorak and Jessie Swiech. Joining them will be Julie Riffle as Miss Prism, Cecily's governess, and Dean Brown as Dr. Chasuble, a local rector, with Chuck Pettigrew and Larry Eggan as Merriman and Lane, the perfectly composed manservant and butler who bring in the tea (and possibly cucumber sandwiches) at inopportune moments.

Wilde called The Importance of Being Earnest "a trivial comedy for serious people," but it's actually not at all serious as long as it skates along with the proper fin de siècle feel.

You'll find The Importance of Being Earnest on stage at Heartland Theatre beginning with a Pay What You Can preview on September 7, followed by Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances through the 23rd. For the complete list of performance dates and times, click here. For reservation information, see this page.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Casting Update: Community Players' ALL MY SONS

When Arthur Miller's All My Sons, a fierce family drama about fathers and sons and the failed promises of the American Dream, takes the stage at Community Players later this month, veteran actor Dave Lemmon will lead the cast as Joe Keller, a partner in a factory that sent defective parts to aircraft used in America's war effort during World War II. When 21 pilots died as a result of those cracked cylinder heads, Joe's partner at the factory, a man named Steve Deever, took the fall, while Joe walked away, publicly exonerated. But now Joe's chickens are coming home to roost, as his son Chris is engaged to Deever's daughter, and the truth about what really happened can no longer be hidden.

Miller deals with issues of honor, loyalty, money, truth, lies and family, with plot threads involving Joe's wife Kate, who refuses to believe that their other son, Larry, who has been MIA for three years and was once romantically involved with Ann Deever, is really gone; Ann's brother George, who thinks that Joe is guilty and doesn't want his sister involved with a Keller; as well as how much we're willing to lose in the name of prosperity and affluence.

For director Bruce Parrish, Lemmon will play the head of the Keller family at Community Players, with Darlene Lloyd as Kate Keller and Len Childers as son Chris. On the other side of the airplane parts scandal, Rachel Houska will play Ann Deever and Nick Benson will play her brother George.

In the 1947 Broadway production, Ed Begley played Joe, with Arthur Kennedy as Chris and Karl Malden as George, but it was director Elia Kazan who took home the Tony, along with one for playwright Arthur Miller for Best Play. In the most recent revival in 2008, John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest and Patrick Wilson formed the Keller family, with Katie Holmes in her Broadway debut as Ann.

All My Sons opens with a preview performance at Community Players on Thursday, August 31, followed by evening performances on September 1, 2, 8 and 9, and Sunday matinees on the 3rd and the 10th. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here to visit Players' All My Sons page.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Prairie Fire Opens Their MOST HAPPY FELLA Thursday August 3

The Most Happy Fella, a 1956 musical with book, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, brings a little bit of wine country to town this week. Prairie Fire Theatre and director Dawn Harris will open their Most Happy Fella Thursday August 3rd at 7:30 pm in Westbrook Auditorium at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Prairie Fire specializes in performing "professional, first-rate musical theatre and light opera" in Bloomington-Normal and that has often meant Gilbert & Sullivan, with a little Irving Berlin or Lerner and Loewe to mix things up. I haven't seen anything from Frank Loesser there before, but we haven't been without Loesser on local stages, as Illinois State University has done Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in recent memory. The Most Happy Fella is more operatic than those two shows, which means it fits securely in Prairie Fire's sweet spot.

This warm, charming musical about the romance between an older man -- an Italian immigrant who has become a successful grape farmer in California -- and a younger woman, a waitress from San Francisco who happened to pick up Tony's love letter, premiered at Broadway's Imperial Theater in 1956, running for 678 performances and earning six Tony nominations. The song "Standing on the Corner," the one about "watching all the girls go by," was a major hit from the show. Since then, The Most Happy Fella has been revived on Broadway three times, with an Encores! production at New York City Center starring Shuler Hensley, Laura Benanti and Cheyenne Jackson in 2014. You can see a teaser video of that production here, and that video will also give you a preview of Loesser's lush, romantic score.

For Prairie Fire, artistic director Robert Mangialardi will play Tony, the good-hearted but sometimes foolish grape farmer, with Laurel Beard as Rosabella, the beautiful girl he loves. Blake Miller takes on the role of Joey, the handsome young farm foreman whose picture Tony used when he sent letters to Rosabella, while Kelly Riordan and Kevin Alleman play a second couple, Cleo and Herman, who also encounter romantic difficulties. In the 1992 Broadway revival, Scott Waara, who played Herman, was the one who came away with the Tony, maybe because he's the one who leads "Standing on the Corner," or maybe because he gets to be the bouncy, dancy guy on "I Like Everybody" and "Big D."

For more information on Prairie Fire Theatre's Most Happy Fella, click here or call 309-824-3047. Performances run from August 3 to 6, with evening performances at 7:30 pm and matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3 pm.

Saturday, July 29, 2017


Tony Kushner subtitled his Angels in America "a gay fantasia on national themes." The nation he was referring to was, of course, the United States of America, which is referred to constantly throughout both plays and gets that "America" reference in the title, as well. After seeing both parts of Britain's National Theatre Live cinema presentation of Angels in America, I think I've centered on my biggest problem with this particular take on Kushner's masterpiece. It's just not American enough.

Nathan Lane emerges as a powerhouse in both Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, perhaps because he isn't struggling to find that essential Americanism under Roy Cohn's skin. He's got it. It's to Russell Tovey's and Andrew Garfield's credit that they are better attuned to it, too, and that they both turn in excellent, well thought-out and well executed performances.

As Prior Walter, the man in the center of the action, the prophet, the victim, the one with "gay fantasia" swirling around him, Garfield has the showier role and he makes the most of it. I still think he's channeling Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard too much for his own good, and he looks like he could be Anne Hathaway's twin brother (Anne and Andrew in Twelfth Night, anyone?) but he does jump into Prior's pajamas with both feet, so kudos there.

But I think Russell Tovey is even better as Joe Pitt, the self-loathing gay Mormon lawyer who just can't seem to make his life work. In Part One, Joe is hobnobbing with powerbrokers like Lane's Cohn, imagining himself as a player in Reagan's America. In Part Two, after the explosions of Millennium Approaches, Joe has come hard up against his lies and deception. He's a little panicked and a lot off-balance as he tries to find some sense of who he is. Tovey navigates all that beautifully, with an inner glow that makes it understandable that someone like Roy Cohn would want him on his team, that Louis would be attracted to him, even knowing his politics, that Prior would be devastated to realize THIS is his ex-lover's new beau, that Harper would have married him in the first place. Suddenly the pieces fit.

I can't say that the pieces fit for Susan Brown as Hannah Pitt or Amanda Lawrence as the Angel, however. Brown is better as the World's Oldest Living Bolshevik and her Ethel Rosenberg is good enough in the excellent Kaddish scene, but her Mother Pitt never seems like an American for even a minute. Hannah may be plain-spoken and stiff of spine, but she is also naive in some ways, unknowing instead of uncaring. Brown's Hannah is all rough edges and hard knocks with no layers of humanity underneath. And she can't fully suppress her British enunciation. Lawrence also struggles with the American accents, and she never gets past that problem far enough to sink into her characters. She is undermined by her costumes, as well, which don't take her from the glorious, androgynous white vision carved from Greek marble described in Kushner's Millennium script to the battling black harpy of Perestroika, but leave her as a hard-luck little insect Angel, scraggly and unkempt, throughout. Her version of a Mormon mother who steps out of a diorama is even less successful, blunting the impact of Kushner's "jagged thumbnail" speech and dimming the play's messages about change and suffering.

Those messages are hard to catch throughout Marianne Elliott's production. If this Millennium takes its time to breathe as it sets things up, the companion Perestroika seems to wander and unravel. For a play that debates the wisdom of standing still versus moving ahead, there just isn't enough forward momentum.

Part of that lies in the direction of individual scenes and part of it comes from the murky-after-midnight scenic design, which remains mystifying. Yes, we've lost the revolving set pieces edged in neon (for the most part, anyway) but the new vast and impersonal space with an arching dome -- something like the ceiling inside an old movie palace -- is just as perplexing. I enjoyed the levels and lifts and some of the stage pictures created, like Prior's ladder to heaven, Roy slipping out of his death bed and onto a new plane, and Harper trying to hang on as her scenery is swept away, but in general, the vast expanse swallows up the action. And this stingy version of the Bethesda Fountain, the location for the final scene of the play, is underwhelming at best.

Kushner's play is so beautiful and his characters so strong that it pulls you in even in the places that this particular production falters. There is, after all, some new wisdom to learn from every new Angels in America. This time out, I was struck by a particular speech delivered by Prior:

"Then I'm crazy... The whole world is, why not me?"  As he tells us, every morning he wakes up and it takes him "long minutes to remember...that this is real, it isn't just an impossible, terrible dream."

What could be more timely, more right now than that?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

PEOPLE OF EARTH Is Back (and Not a Moment Too Soon)

Last year, People of Earth emerged as one of the best shows of the fall TV season. Sweet, odd, whimsical... It was different enough to be intriguing, with characters who were engaging enough to keep me wanting to find out what happened next.

And now it's back, with its loopy humor, cranky aliens (reptile, short gray and tall white), confused humans and generally oddball tone intact. Thank goodness! Let's just say I need People of Earth and its insanity to keep me sane.

The first episode of the new season aired Monday, but don't worry if you missed "New Beginnings," the season premiere. You can still catch it on the TBS site or find repeat screenings tonight at 6:30 pm Central, tomorrow at 11 pm, or Friday at 5 pm. "Uneasy Alliance" is up next at 9:30 pm Monday night.

So where are we in the world of People of Earth and what's ahead for Ozzie, the skeptical journalist (played by Wyatt Cenac) who has finally embraced the fact that he was abducted by aliens as a child? Rebel reptile Jonathan Walsh (Michael Cassidy) and his exploded-robot assistant Nancy (Debra McCabe) are trying to put the pieces back together; little gray Jeff (Ken Hall) is still mourning lost comrade Kurt (Don Nelson) and plotting revenge against group therapy leader Gina (Ana Gasteyer), the one who ran over Kurt; tall, pale alien Don (Björn Gustafsson) has fallen in love with Kelly, one of the members of the group, while pretending to be an Icelandic barista; Gerry the UFO expert (Luka Jones) finally got his wish as he got sucked up by a spaceship; a new boss -- a floating box named Eric (voiced by Peter Serafinowicz) -- has taken charge of that spaceship, and a hardliner of an FBI agent who once shot herself in the foot has shown up in Beacon, where our group lives and meets, because she is determined to find Jonathan, who she thinks is a white-collar criminal on the lam.

Nasim Pedrad, who has comedy chops good enough to go toe-to-toe with Cenac and Gasteyer, is playing Agent Alex Foster. I have no idea where her storyline will take her, but I wouldn't be surprised if she were a love interest for Ozzie, given that he seemed interested in Kelly, but she is entangled with Don, and the other females in the group are all taken. Or if not taken, involved, since Yvonne (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and Gerry were just starting to connect when he disappeared, neurotic Chelsea (Tracee Chimo) is into Father Doug the Catholic priest (Oscar Nuñez) and Gina has way too much on her plate to deal with romance. Of course, Agent Foster could also fall for Walsh the reptile, since he is very attractive when he's wearing his human skin. Or she could fall for no one and stay true to her mission. Since creator David Jenkins and his writers continue to surprise me, I'm going to go with that last choice.

Can't wait to find out, though! Next Monday, look for "Uneasy Alliance" at 9:30 pm Central Time on TBS.

Monday, July 24, 2017


The first half of Britain's National Theatre's take on Tony Kushner's blistering and beautiful Angels in America arrived in cinemas last week, looking and sounding just as timely and affecting as ever. The depth of Kushner's language may be what hits you first, but it's the humanity of his complex, imperfect characters that keeps the Angels fire burning throughout Part One: Millennium Approaches.

This production, directed by Marianne Elliott, has been much buzzed about, partly because of its casting. With Nathan Lane playing Kushner's version of closeted gay powerbroker/Joe McCarthy acolyte/friend of Trump/poisonous toad Roy Cohn and Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, a sweet gay man with AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic, there was bound to be notice taken. Both Lane and Garfield are turning in terrific performances, making it clear they were cast for more than just their star-power.

Lane is not the cuddly musical-comedy star you may expect from The Producers or La Cage aux Folles, although the jokes about the latter show at the beginning of Millennium Approaches do take on added amusement coming from him. But as the play proceeds, he starts biting off chunks of Roy Cohn and spitting them out, not afraid to go dark and disturbing when he needs to. He also works beautifully with Russell Tovey, who is really stellar as Joe Pitt, the resolute, married Mormon lawyer who is fighting his attraction to men and unsure about almost everything in his life. Joe can be a difficult character to communicate, given all that repression. But Tovey takes him to a much more vital place. He may be tortured and wrong-headed, but this Joe is alive and searching. He may also be the best Joe I've seen, and with Lane half of the best Roy/Joe combination.

Garfield's Prior is (and should be) the opposite of Joe's turned-in persona. At the outset, Garfield seems to be going for drama queen gusto with his Norma Desmond take on Prior, but his scenes with James McArdle as Louis, Prior's boyfriend who can't handle illness or death, put him in the proper context to break your heart. Garfield has some really fine moments when life (and the fantasia part of Kushner's "gay fantasia on national themes") hit him where it hurts, creating some of Millennium's most powerful scenes.

I also enjoyed Denise Gough, whose Harper Pitt is fragile and strange, but also intelligent, as she negotiates her messed-up marriage and the "threshold of revelation" that connects her to Prior as it gives her some unpleasant truths about her husband. And Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is on target as Prior's ex-drag-queen friend Belize, although I'm hoping he is a little more memorable in Part Two when Belize's role grows.

I was less fond of McArdle's portrayal of Louis, which was interesting if not fully satisfying. He sounds as if he's channeling Gene Wilder to get an American Jewish mood, but... This Louis is really not Jewish at all. He even mispronounces "anti-Semitic." And that's a problem, given that Kushner opens the play with a rabbi who is telling us that Louis's Judaism is bred in the bone. Still, McArdle's killer speech about politics and race shows he can handle the density of the language and still make it seem spontaneous, which is key.

The final two actors in the ensemble -- Susan Brown and Amanda Lawrence, who both play multiple roles -- are less than impressive. Brown is fine as the rabbi, but I didn't care for her stiff and chilly take on Hannah Pitt or the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and Lawrence struggles to sound American throughout, especially when playing a homeless woman slurping soup in the Bronx. Her entrance as the Angel, which is supposed to be "very Steven Spielberg" and knock-your-socks-off theatrical, is definitely underwhelming, although that seems mostly due to director Elliott's choice to go with hoisting her Angel on the backs of black-clad crew members instead of flying her in through the ceiling and smashing some plaster. This is a bit too minimal and pedestrian.

Ian MacNeil's scenic design and Paule Constable's lighting are also minimalist, focusing on three separate spaces where industrial gray flats edged in neon revolve to carry actors in and out. It's got the look of an Edward Hopper painting now and again, but it's awfully murky, at least on screen, and neither Hopper nor a dystopic Big Brother wasteland suits the material all that well. It's not clear whether the cinematic work needed to transport the action from the National's Lyttleton space to movie theaters is at fault or whether it looked this vast and gray on stage, too, but it's distancing. I have hopes that will improve for Perestroika, too.

In any event, Tony Kushner's masterpiece is strong enough to overcome a few missteps. Or an army of missteps, for that matter. Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika can't come soon enough. It will be here -- in cinemas nationwide -- Thursday, July 27 at 7 pm.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

ANGELS IN AMERICA, From National Theatre Live in London to Movie Screens

When you see a play or musical you really love, your reaction may be that you never want to see another production of it, that that one was perfect and you don't want to impose any new production over your memories of the perfect one. Or you may want to see as many different productions of that show as possible. Follies? Arcadia? I'll go see either of them anywhere I can manage. Good, bad or indifferent, there is no production of those shows I will not try.

Angels in America, Tony Kushner's two-part "gay fantasia on national themes" that sweeps together Mormons, Jews, Reagan Republicans and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, falls into that category. I saw both parts -- Millennium Approaches and Perestroika -- on stage in New York and in Chicago in the early 90s. The Broadway and touring productions were very different, but each was deeply personal, deeply political, heartbreaking and fabulous in its own way. I also loved the small-but-mighty Angels directed by Steven M. Keen for Urbana's tiny Station Theater. And the all-star version version on HBO. Yes, I've struggled through several college productions that didn't send me and found myself unable to get to farther-flung Angels that were very warmly received.

This month, we all have the chance to meet another Angels when Fathom Events and National Theatre Live bring the current London production from the National's Lyttelton Theatre, directed by Marianne Elliott, with Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn and Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, to movie theater screens all over Great Britain and the United States. Part One: Millennium Approaches, airs this Thursday, July 20, with Part Two: Perestroika the following Thursday.

You can find a theater near you at this link. There's nothing in Bloomington-Normal, but in the just-about-50-mile range, you can find the Willow Knolls 14 in Peoria or the Savoy 16 outside Champaign-Urbana. Both theaters are showing both parts of Angels in America at 7 pm on their respective Thursdays and you can purchase tickets now.

If you'd like to read more about Angels in America at the National or see videos, interviews and photos, check out this page at the National Theatre website.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Emmy Nominations 2017

When Emmy nominations were announced yesterday, I had two reactions: The race for Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series or Movie may be the strongest Emmy race in history, and what the heck is wrong with Emmy nominators when it comes to The Leftovers?

Master of None
Modern Family
Silicon Valley
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Will Atlanta sneak in and upset Veep and Modern Family, the perennial contenders? Does anyboy really care what Modern Family does at this point?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
Tracee Ellis Ross, Blackish
Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie
Jane Fonda, Grace and Frankie
Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Allison Janney, Mom
Pamela Adlon, Better Things 

Can anybody take down Julia Louis-Dreyfus? Ever?

Donald Glover, Atlanta
Anthony Anderson, Blackish
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent
Aziz Ansari, Master of None
William H. Macy, Shameless
Zach Galifianakis, Baskets

Emmy voters love streaks, and Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent is one of them. Even though the show itself isn't nominated this year, don't bet against a third straight win for Tambor.

Vanessa Bayer, Saturday Night Live
Anna Chlumsky, Veep
Kathryn Hahn, Transparent
Leslie Jones, Saturday Night Live
Judith Light, Transparent 
Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live

AKA the Saturday Night Live category. I'd pick Anna Chlumsky, who has been fantastic on Veep from the get-go, but I think an SNL player will take it. Probably McKinnon again.

Louie Anderson, Baskets
Alec Baldwin, Saturday Night Live
Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Ty Burrell, Modern Family
Tony Hale, Veep
Matt Walsh, Veep

It's lovely to see Tituss Burgess's name, if not Ty Burrell's. Burrell is back for the eighth time in a row. Yes, he's good, but he's not that good. It doesn't matter -- Alec Baldwin is going to win for his recurring role as our current president on Saturday Night Live.

The Crown
The Handmaid’s Tale
Stranger Things
This Is Us
Better Call Saul
House of Cards

Who will win? Probably The Handmaid's Tale, although Stranger Things has been buzzy, too, just not as recently as The Handmaid's Tale. But where is The Leftovers? I've asked that for the past few years to no avail. This last season was the best of all and really, really deserved a nomination.

Claire Foy, The Crown
Keri Russell, The Americans
Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale
Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder
Robin Wright, House of Cards
Evan Rachel Wood, Westworld

Elisabeth Moss and The Handmaid's Tale have made a huge impact on this year's TV landscape. I can't imagine anyone but Moss winning, although Claire Foy's QEII was impressive, too.

Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us
Matthew Rhys, The Americans
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards
Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan
Anthony Hopkins, Westworld
Milo Ventimiglia, This Is Us
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul

It's fantastic to see Sterling K. Brown and Milo Ventimiglia make the list from This Is Us, which bowed to excellent ratings and critical reaction last season. I'd probably vote for Matthew Rhys from The Americans, long overlooked by Emmy voters, but it's hard not to go with Brown, who was note-perfect all season. And then there's Anthony Hopkins. The TV Academy loves its Brits as well as its movie stars. Hopkins is both. As well as an Oscar winner. 

Uzo Aduba, Orange is the New Black
Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things  
Ann Dowd, The Handmaid’s Tale
Chrissy Metz, This Is Us
Thandie Newton, Westworld
Samira Wiley, The Handmaid’s Tale 

There should be enough awards to give one to each of the actresses in this outstanding category. They're all that good. I'd probably go with Samira Wiley, but Ann Dowd is hard to overlook.

Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul
David Harbour, Stranger Things
Ron Cephas Jones, This Is Us
Michael Kelly, House Of Cards
 John Lithgow, The Crown
Mandy Patinkin, Homeland
Jeffrey Wright, Westworld

Ron Cephas Jones has my heart in this category, even though I'm bummed not to see Michael McKean's name for Better Call Saul. Just don't give it to John Lithgow, please. His Winston Churchill was OK, but that's it, and he has been way over-rewarded by the Emmys in the past.

Big Little Lies
Feud: Bette and Joan
The Night Of

I thought Big Little Lies was stronger work all around than Feud and I'd love to see the former win, even as I expect the latter to take the Emmy.

Black Mirror
Dolly Parton’s Christmas Of Many Colors: Circle Of Love
Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Sherlock: The Lying Detective
The Wizard of Lies

Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies
Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies
Jessica Lange, Feud: Bette and Joan
Susan Sarandon, Feud: Bette and Joan
Carrie Coon, Fargo
Felicity Huffman, American Crime

The battling divas of Feud take on the wounded modern women of Big Little Lies. I thought Kidman and Witherspoon were more impressive than the campy Feud ladies, and neither Lange or Sarandon really captured the screen legend she was portraying, but... Lange wins a lot, even in bad roles. Still, it could be anybody's prize in this jam-packed category.

Riz Ahmed, The Night Of
John Turturro, The Night Of
Ewan McGregor, Fargo
Robert De Niro, The Wizard of Lies
Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: The Lying Detective
Geoffrey Rush, Genius

I'm expecting Ahmed or Turturro to win. McGregor really doesn't belong with the others; his dual roles on Fargo were pretty lame when all was said and done.

Regina King, American Crime
Laura Dern, Big Little Lies
Shailene Woodley, Big Little Lies
Judy Davis, Feud: Bette and Joan
Jackie Hoffman, Feud: Bette and Joan
Michelle Pfeiffer, The Wizard of Lies

Laura Dern was beyond amazing, although Jackie Hoffman was pretty great, too. I'd be happy with either of them winning.

Alexander Skarsgard, Big Little Lies
David Thewlis, Fargo
Alfred Molina, Feud: Bette and Joan
Stanley Tucci, Feud: Bette and Joan
Bill Camp, The Night Of
Michael Kenneth Williams, The Night Of

There isn't a bad choice in the bunch. Skarsgard and Thewlis were both creepy, scary and terrific in their roles.

The Amazing Race
American Ninja Warrior
Project Runway
RuPaul’s Drag Race
Top Chef
The Voice 

This is one category where I am always bemused. Why so much love for The Voice and The Amazing Race? I have no idea. I'd say give the award to newcomer RuPaul's Drag Race.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
Jimmy Kimmel Live
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Late Late Show with James Corden
Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Real Time with Bill Maher

Go, Samantha Bee!

Wanda Sykes, Blackish
Carrie Fisher, Catastophe
Becky Ann Baker, Girls
Angela Bassett, Master Of None
Kristen Wiig, Saturday Night Live
Melissa McCarthy, Saturday Night Live

Riz Ahmed, Girls
Matthew Rhys, Girls
Dave Chappelle, Saturday Night Live
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Saturday Night Live
Tom Hanks, Saturday Night Live
Hugh Laurie, Veep

Alison Wright, The Americans
Alexis Bledel, The Handmaid’s Tale
Cicely Tyson, How to Get Away with Murder
Ann Dowd, The Leftovers
Laverne Cox, Orange is the New Black
Shannon Purser, Stranger Things

Ben Mendelsohn, Bloodline
BD Wong, Mr. Robot
Hank Azaria, Ray Donovan
Denis O’Hare, This Is Us
Brian yree Henry, This Is Us
Gerald McRaney, This Is Us

Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg, Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party
Gordon Ramsay, Masterchef Junior
Alec Baldwin, Match Game
Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, Project Runway
RuPaul Charles, RuPaul’s Drag Race
W. Kamau Bell, United Shades of America

Antiques Roadshow
Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives
Fixer Upper
Lip Sync Battle
Shark Tank
Who Do You Think You Are?

Born This Way
Deadliest Catch
Gaycation With Ellen Page
RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked
United Shades Of America With W. Kamau Bell

Carpool Karaoke Primetime Special 2017
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee Presents Not The White House Correspondents’ Dinner
Louis C.K. 2017
Sarah Silverman: A Speck Of Dust
Stephen Colbert’s Live Election Night Democracy’s Series Finale: Who’s Going To Clean Up This Sh*t?

Hairspray Live!
The Oscars
Super Bowl LI Halftime Show Starring Lady Gaga
70th Annual Tony Awards

The Emmy Awards will be presented by CBS on Sunday, September 17.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Philip Dawkins and NEW PLAYS FROM THE HEARTLAND Starting Tomorrow

The Mike Dobbins Memorial New Plays from the Heartland project -- combining a one-act playwriting contest with staged readings and a master class for the winning playwrights as well as a public forum to allow the prominent playwright who selected the winners to interact with the Bloomington-Normal community -- is back this week at Heartland Theatre.

The festivities begin tomorrow night at 7:30 pm when Philip Dawkins, this year's playwright in residence, offers his remarks and takes questions on the art of playwriting in a forum that is free and open to the public. You may remember Dawkins' name from the play Failure: A Love Story, a musical tragicomedy in verse performed at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in 2013 after a successful run at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater. Dawkins is also the author of Miss Marx: Or the Involuntary Side Effect of Living (Strawdog Theatre -- Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Work), The Happiest Place on Earth (Side Show Theatre/Greenhouse Theater Center), Le Switch (About Face Theatre, The Jungle), Charm (Northlight Theatre), The Homosexuals (About Face Theater) and the musical adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches with composer David Mallamud (Children’s Theater Company, Minneapolis). His lyrical, whimsical style makes him a unique voice in American theater.

The three winning New Plays from the Heartland will be performed as staged readings beginning at 7:30 pm on Friday and Saturday and 2 pm on Sunday, directed by Heartland artistic director Rhys Lovell. This year's winners are Golden Land by John Adams of Richmon Heights, Missouri; All Sewed Up by Marty Seigel of Bloomington, Illinois; and Annabelle's Last Stand by Todd Wineburner of Pontiac, Illinois. Here's what Heartland has to say about each of the plays:

GOLDEN LAND by John Adams, Richmon Heights MO
A chance meeting in New York in 1904 illustrates that the apple seldom falls far from the tree. The age-old conflict between the disenfranchised and the privileged plays out on a tenement stoop on a hot summer day.

ALL SEWED UP by Marty Seigel, Bloomington IL
Owners of a small-town business and the town manager go head to head against a high-powered corporation. The lingering smoke from an old flame can’t mask a critical flaw that will bring one side down.

ANNABELLE’S LAST STAND by Todd Wineburner, Pontiac IL
A house is not just bricks and mortar; it’s dreams and memories too. And that’s worth fighting for, as a sheriff who is reluctant to exercise his authority soon learns.

For more information on the Mike Dobbins Memorial New Plays from the Heartland, Philip Dawkins or the winning plays, you can visit Heartland's website for the full scoop. Please note that this new-play festival is made possible by the Town of Normal Harmon Arts Grant and sponsored by Paul and Sandra Harmon.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Q Brothers' I HEART JULIET Sold Out for the Summer at Illinois Shakes Fest

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival is reporting that I Heart Juliet, the Q Brothers' hip-hop version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set to play 11 performances this summer as part of the Festival season, is completely sold out.

Westhoff is a smaller venue than the stage at Ewing Manor, so it's not surprising it would sell out even if the other shows in this summer's season -- A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Amazing Cymbeline -- still have tickets available. No word on how many seats are still open, however, so it's probably best to get your tickets secured now. Keep in mind that season tickets are out, since I Heart Juliet is full, so you will be looking for single tickets to the other two.

A waiting list has been started in case they get any cancellations or additional performances are added to accommodate the interest. You may reach the Festival box office at 309-438-2535 to be added to the waiting list or to ask about Midsummer and Cymbeline tickets. You may also visit the Illinois Shakespeare Festival website for updates and to browse your performance options.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Your Chance to Catch FALSETTOS on Screen in Bloomington July 12, 15 and 16

The recent Broadway revival of Falsettos -- the William Finn and James Lapine musical about a gay Jewish man named Marvin, his ex-wife, his son, his new lover, his psychiatrist (who is smitten with Marvin's ex) and the two lesbians next door -- ended its run at the Walter Kerr Theatre on January 8.

To share the Falsettos joy with those who didn't get to see it in New York, Live from Lincoln Center and Lincoln Center Theater are bringing a filmed version of the show to cinemas nationwide starting July 12.

That means we can all share the Falsettos experience, as Marvin falls in love with Whizzer, his new boyfriend, his son Jason prepares for a bar mitzvah, and ex-wife Trina tries to navigate this new world, with some funny stuff and some very sad stuff, offering a portrait of some of the highs and the lowest lows imaginable for gay men in 1979, when it's set. The 1992 Broadway production won Tony Awards for its score and book, with five more nominations, and the recent revival was nominated for five more, including nominations for its Marvin (Christian Borle), Trina (Stephanie J. Block), Whizzer (Andrew Rannells) and psychiatrist Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz).

We have two options to experience Falsettos in Bloomington, with New Vision Ovation Cinema Grill off Towanda-Barnes Road and Wehrenberg Galaxy 14 on Wylie Drive both offering screenings. Falsettos shows up on the Ovation screen on July 12, 15 and 16 and at Galaxy 14 on July 12 and 16.

For more details or to get your tickets now, or if you are looking for showings in other places than Bloomington-Normal, you can visit this Falsettos page at Screen Vision.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Family Drama, Musicals and More at Community Players in 2017-18

Ready or not, it's time to think about fall seasons at area theaters. Community Players announced their 2017-18 season earlier this month, with season tickets now available. What's up at Players as we move into fall?

Arthur Miller's complex family drama, All My Sons, opens September 1, with performances through the 10th. Bruce Parrish will direct this "gripping classic by a master playwright," which "explores the father son dynamic and the corruption of the American Dream." Miller took the idea for the play from a newspaper account about a World War II scandal involving defective aircraft engines used in military planes. In the play, which is set in 1947, we meet Joe Keller, who was accused of selling a flawed part for aircraft engines that resulted in the death of 21 pilots. He was cleared, but that isn't the whole story. His wife Kate is in denial, both about Joe's part in the scandal and about her son Larry, who has been missing in action for several years. Younger son Chris also went off to war, but he has returned, and his realization that his father is not the man he thought he was forms the central conflict in the play. Parrish will hold auditions for All My Sons on July 17 and 18. You can see details on characters and casting here.

The November choice is the musical Sister Act, based on the 1992 movie with Whoopi Goldberg as a wannabe diva who goes on the lam -- hiding in a convent -- after she witnesses a crime. She is a force to be reckoned with in the confines of the convent, but her musical talent gives her a chance to bond with the sisters. Marcia Weiss will direct this one, with auditions in September and performances November 2 to 19. Alan Menken wrote the music for the Broadway musical version of Sister Act, with lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner.

If you need to lighten up your January, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), may be just the ticket. This funny, fast and furious race through the works of Shakespeare, with the history plays as a football game and Hamlet in 30 seconds (and then in 30 seconds backwards), has been very popular since the three men (Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield) who created the Reduced Shakespeare Company and launched The Complete Works at Edinburgh's Festival Fringe in 1987. Look for auditions for this three-person (usually three-man) show in November and performances January 11 to 21, 2018. Brett Cottone will helm the Reduced Shakespeare madness for Community Players.

After that, it's Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's fractured fairytale musical that offers a different look at the magical obstacles facing Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (the one with the beanstalk), a childless Baker and his Wife, a pair of charming Princes, and a Witch who has a thing about her garden. Into the Woods premiered on Broadway in September 1987, with a well-received revival in 2002. Those two productions earned a total of 20 Tony nominations; the show was named Best Revival along with awards for its score, book and lighting design, and best actress Joanna Gleason, who played the Baker's Wife in the original production. Into the Woods will be on stage at Players from March 8 to 25, under the direction of Sally Parry.

Then we're back to scalding family drama -- with some very black comedy at its heart -- in the form of Tracy Letts' blistering August: Osage County, focusing on the messed-up members of the Weston family. Entertainment Weekly called it "Southern-fried familial dysfunction" and that's as good a description as any. August: Osage County premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater in 2007, followed by a Broadway run that earned five Tony Awards, incouding Best Play. It also won a Pulitzer Prize for Letts. August takes the stage from May 8 to 14, 2018, directed by John D. Poling.

The season finishes up with family-friendly Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the perennial favorite from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice that tells the Biblical story of Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, who can read dreams to predict the future. His 11 brothers are not happy about their dad's favoritism, spurring a nasty plan that sends Joseph into Egypt as a slave. He may start out with nothing, but he ends up interpreting dreams for the Pharaoh and rising to power and influence before once again coming face to face with his brothers. Aimee Kerber will direct this pop-rock musical in performance from July 5 to 22, 2018.

Season tickets are now available, either by downloading the order form at the top of this page or this page. For more information, you can try the box office at 309-663-2121 or email boxoffice@communityplayers.org.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Young at Heartland Takes the Spotlight June 23 and 28

It's always a hot ticket when the Young at Heartland troupe of senior actors perform. Every summer, they take the stage at Heartland Theatre for two showcases that highlight their acting and writing talents.

Young at Heartland's actors, all over 55, will perform at Heartland Theatre on Friday June 23 at 1 pm and Wednesday June 28 at 7:30 pm. There are no reservations and no set price; they simply ask for a donation at the door. And yes, it's a popular event, so you are warned to get there early -- at least 20 minutes before curtain, when the doors open -- if you want a good seat.

No word on what they'll be performing in this year's program, which represents the culmination of a two-month acting workshop led by veteran director Sandra Zielinski, but I can see what looks like chefs, clowns, firefighters, a matador, a bunch of Wizard of Oz characters, and a bevy of fans and fanatics in this year's photo. (Click on the image above to see a larger copy.) The scenes and short plays these actors perform were all written just for them by current and former YAH colleagues.

Young at Heartland was founded by Ann B. White and continues under her leadership, with two semesters of workshops and performances each year. Ann is the one holding her pom pom high (fourth from the left) in the photo above. She was recently named one of eight area "Women of Distinction" by the YWCA of McLean County for her stellar work with Young at Heartland.

For more information on Young at Heartland, click here. You can also see their entire schedule of area performances here.

Monday, June 19, 2017

IWU School of Theatre Arts Announces Mainstage Choices for 2017-18

Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Theatre Arts has announced via Facebook what will be on stage for the mainstage part of their 2017-18 season. No dates yet and the official IWU Theatre page is still showing last year's schedule, but at least we know what we'll seeing if not exactly when. I'm guessing checking back on that page periodically should yield a schedule at some point.

If the order of the photos indicated the order of the shows, first up will be Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel's wistful, haunting memory play set in County Donegal in Ireland in 1936.  The Lughnasa in Dancing at Lughnasa refers to the August harvest festival. The five Mundy sisters are struggling to get by, from the eldest, Kate, a tightly wound schoolteacher, to Christina, the youngest, who has a child but no husband or other means of support. Their lives only get more difficult when their older brother, who'd been a Catholic missionary and chaplain in Africa, returns for unspecified reasons, but has trouble mentally balancing the world he left behind and the one he's reentered. Christina's son Michael is the narrator of the play, standing in for Friel. He appears as an adult to step back into the action of his childhood. Dancing at Lughnasa was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, thereafter transferring to London, where it won the Olivier Award for Best Play in 1991. On Broadway, it also took the Tony for Best Play, along with awards for director Patrick Mason and Best Featured Actress in a Play for Brid Brennan, who played Agnes, the shy, tentative sister somewhat overshadowed in the middle of the family, in its Dublin, West End and Broadway productions.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1949 musical South Pacific comes next in the picture scroll. Everybody knows "Some Enchanted Evening," "Bali Hai" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," right? Based on James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, this South Pacific features music by Rodgers, lyrics by Hammerstein and book by Joshua Logan, telling the stories of Americans stationed on islands in the Pacific. There's Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, who faces her own prejudices when she falls in love with a French plantation owner named Emile de Becque who has mixed-race children; a squadron of rowdy Seabees led by Luther Bills; and Lieutenant Cable, a forthright young officer in the midst of dangerous missions and a love affair with a native woman. As a child, I remember thinking Nellie was an idiot for her bigotry against two kids who were half-Polynesian, but that's the point of South Pacific, that our prejudices are not innate or logically justifiable but "carefully taught." The original Broadway production won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and piled up ten Tony Awards, including winning Best Musical along with awards for its book, score, director, producer and scenic design, and sweeping the acting categories, with wins for leads Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, who played Nellie and Emile de Becque, and featured actors Myron McCormick, who played Billis, and Juanita Hall, who played Bloody Mary, the enterprising mother of Cable's beautiful love interest.

Next on the list in Eugene Ionesco's absurdist drama Rhinoceros, wherein the citizens of a French town inexplicably start turning into stampeding rhinoceroses. One by one, they sprout horns and hoofs, as a lone man, Berenger, tries to hold out against the onslaught. Rhinoceros was written in 1959 and is widely regarded as a cautionary tale about how mass movements like Fascism and Nazism can take over and turn people who were once reasonable human beings into fanatical monsters. In other words, it's perfect for our current international political landscape. Although actor/producer/director/mime Jean-Louis Barrault played Berenger in the original French production and Laurence Olivier took the role in London, it was Eli Wallach who made Berrenger (now with an extra R) his own on Broadway, with Zero Mostel as his intellectual friend John (originally Jean) who turned rhino in front of his eyes. In the showier role, Mostel was the one who won the Tony as Best Actor. In the 1973 film, Gene Wilder played a new version of Berenger called Stanley, with Mostel reprising his role.

In a real change of pace from the politically and personally provocative to just plain fun, the last show in IWU's mainstage season is the roller disco musical Xanadu, based on the 1980 film that starred Olivia Newton-John as a Greek muse. On Broadway, Kerry Butler took the Newton-John role, while Cheyenne Jackson played the man she's trying to inspire. Douglas Carter Beane spruced up the book from the film script, adding more mythology and a whole lot of parody to send up the campy movie. Along with the roller skates, songs from the movie like the title song and "All Over the World" came with it from screen to stage, with added hits like "Have You Never Been Mellow?" and ELO's "Strange Magic." Click here to see Jackson, Butler and the rest of the cast perform "Don't Walk Away" on the Tonys.

In case you're wondering, it was Kelli O'Hara who was nominated but did not win the Tony for the 2010 revival of South Pacific, whose poster image you see up top, while Kerry Butler -- the blonde in the poster just above -- was nominated but did not win for Xanadu in 2008.

Watch this space for more details on all these shows as dates are added. Check here for IWU's Laboratory Theatre schedule once that's added.

Monday, June 12, 2017

DEAR EVAN HANSEN Wins Big at Lackluster Tony Awards

After last year's Hamilton-a-palooza, I suppose any Tony Awards ceremony would've been a let-down. But this year... Yeah, it was really a let-down. Most of that stemmed from host Kevin Spacey, who seemed more interested in showcasing himself than the various winners and nominees. One more impression and I was going to throw something. Do the people who are in love with Dear Evan Hansen even know who Johnny Carson is?

Don't get me wrong. There were a couple of fun performances -- Bandstand and Natasha, Pierre et al. looked like fun and had a lot of energy -- and some more-than-worthy wins, like the marvelous Gavin Creel for the revival of Hello, Dolly! and Illinois' own Laurie Metcalf for A Doll's House Part 2. I was also happy to see Kevin Kline win his third Tony, with this one 36 years after his last. In case you're wondering, he last won as the lead actor in a musical for The Pirates of Penance back in 1981 and before that, as a featured actor in a musical for On the Twentieth Century in 1978. All he needs is featured actor in a play, and he will have the acting categories covered.

I also loved that the authors of nominated plays got the spotlight to introduce their own plays instead of dragging out some unrelated hockey player or Hollywood star. Playwrights Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel should've been on Broadway well before this, so let's applaud the fact that we got to see them on the Tony stage if only to introduce their plays. More of that, please!

On the downside, it's a travesty that James Earl Jones received his Special Tony for Lifetime Achievement during a commercial, along with sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, who received a special Tony for their work on The Encounter, the folks from Regional Tony winner Dallas Theater Center, and Isabelle Stevenson humanitarian award winner Baayork Lee. I'd rather see any and all of them ten times over than Kevin Spacey's impressions or the Rockettes.

Here are your nominees, with winners in bold and listed first:

Dear Evan Hansen
Come From Away
Groundhog Day
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Oslo by J.T. Rogers
A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath
Indecent by Paula Vogel
Sweat by Lynn Nottage

Hello, Dolly!
Miss Saigon 

Jitney by August Wilson  
The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman
Present Laughter by Noel Coward
Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare

Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen
Christian Borle, Falsettos
Josh Groban, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
David Hyde Pierce, Hello, Dolly! 
Andy Karl, Groundhog Day

Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly! 
Denée Benton, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 
Christine Ebersole, War Paint 
Patti LuPone, War Paint
Eva Noblezada, Miss Saigon 

Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!
Mike Faist, Dear Evan Hansen 
Andrew Rannells, Falsettos
Lucas Steele, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 
Brandon Uranowitz, Falsettos 

Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen 
Kate Baldwin, Hello, Dolly! 
Stephanie J. Block, Falsettos 
Jenn Colella, Come From Away 
Mary Beth Peil, Anastasia

Kevin Kline, Present Laughter 
Denis Arndt, Heisenberg
Chris Cooper, A Doll’s House, Part 2 
Corey Hawkins, Six Degrees of Separation
Jefferson Mays, Oslo

Laurie Metcalf, A Doll’s House, Part 2 
Cate Blanchett, The Present
Jennifer Ehle, Oslo
Sally Field, The Glass Menagerie
Laura Linney, The Little Foxes

Michael Aronov, Oslo 
Danny DeVito, The Price 
Nathan Lane, The Front Page
Richard Thomas, The Little Foxes
John Douglas Thompson, Jitney 

Cynthia Nixon, The Little Foxes 
Johanna Day, Sweat 
Jayne Houdyshell, A Doll's House, Part 2
Condola Rashad, A Doll's House, Part 2
Michelle Wilson, Sweat

Christopher Ashley, Come From Away 
Rachel Chavkin, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 
Michael Greif, Dear Evan Hansen 
Matthew Warchus, Groundhog Day 
Jerry Zaks, Hello, Dolly! 

Rebecca Taichman, Indecent 
Sam Gold, A Doll's House, Part 2 
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jitney
Bartlett Sher, Oslo
Daniel Sullivan, The Little Foxes

Santo Loquasto, Hello, Dolly! 
Linda Cho, Anastasia
Paloma Young, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Catherine Zuber, War Paint 

Jane Greenwood, The Little Foxes
Susan Hilferty, Present Laughter
Toni-Leslie James, Jitney
David Zinn, A Doll's House, Part 2

Mimi Lien, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Rob Howell, Groundhog Day
David Korins, War Paint
Santo Loquasto, Hello, Dolly!

Nigel Hook, The Play That Goes Wrong
David Gallo, Jitney
Douglas W. Schmidt, The Front Page
Michael Yeargan, Oslo

Bradley King, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Howell Binkley, Come From Away
Natasha Katz, Hello, Dolly!
Japhy Weideman, Dear Evan Hansen

Christopher Akerlind, Indecent
Jane Cox, Jitney
Donald Holder, Oslo
Jennifer Tipton, A Doll's House, Part 2

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen
David Hein and Irene Sankoff, Come From Away
Dave Malloy, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Tim Minchin, Groundhog Day 

Steven Levenson, Dear Evan Hansen  
David Hein and Irene Sankoff, Come From Away
Dave Malloy, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Danny Rubin, Groundhog Day 

Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand 
Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, Groundhog Day 
Kelly Devine, Come From Away
Denis Jones, Holiday Inn
Sam Pinkleton, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 

Alex Lacamoire, Dear Evan Hansen 
Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen, Bandstand 
Larry Hochman, Hello, Dolly!
Dave Malloy, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

And that's all she wrote for the Tony Awards of 2017. Let's hope that's also all she wrote for Kevin Spacey as a Tony host.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Encores' GOLDEN APPLE Is Delicious

From time to time, my friend Jon Alan Conrad is inspired to write a guest piece for this blog, which makes me very happy indeed. Jon is always insightful and immensely knowledgeable. Who wouldn't be delighted to offer a forum for his writing? 

Here's Jon's take on The Golden Apple, which he recently saw as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center.

We lovers of musical theater finally saw our long-standing wish granted in May 2017, when the series "Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert" marked the end of its 24th season with a production of The Golden Apple.

For an explanation of "Encores!" I'll save space by referring to my previous column about an earlier production of theirs, commenting in addition that their events long ago stopped being "concerts" in any sense beyond the orchestra's presence onstage. (Apparently their standard Playbill caveat, that the performers might carry their scripts, now contractually frees them from actually doing so.) As to "our wish," naturally I can't speak for everyone. But subscribers, watching the list of "Encores!" titles (here  -- or here, if you enjoy a quiz format) mount up over the seasons, have indulged in a fan's privilege and dreamed up lists of future possibilities. And although we've seen some gratifying rarities over the years -- St. Louis Woman, Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Paint Your Wagon are four that they also recorded -- many wish lists (Cynthia Nixon's, for one) kept The Golden Apple at the top.

The Golden Apple itself? It's a collaboration between lyricist John Latouche (remembered for his contributions to Cabin in the Sky and Candide) and composer Jerome Moross (probably best remembered for epic movie scores like The Big Country. There's no speaking, or even operatic talk-singing (recitative); it's all in song forms, ranging from that sweeping Americana sound heard in Moross's movie work to vaudeville, blues, soft-shoe, and ragtime.

And that's not all. In this compact two-hour opera-musical, Latouche and Moross retold the Iliad and Odyssey, setting it in Washington State (near our own Mt. Olympus) around 1900. At the start, the boys come home from the Spanish-American War to small-town contentment, until farmer's daughter Helen runs off with traveling salesman Mr. Paris in his hot-air balloon. The guys, having pledged to take care of her, troop off to the big city to bring her back. She returns with husband Menelaus readily enough at the start of Act II, but that leaves the men still far from home, susceptible to the perils of the Odyssey -- Calypso, Scylla-Charybdis, Sirens, Circe -- embodied as the temptations of the coming century -- status, wealth, sex, power -- until everyone has vanished except Ulysses, who comes to his senses and returns home to Penelope.

All this playful classicism was catnip to the critics when The Golden Apple opened at the Phoenix Theatre in March 1954 (one of the first off-Broadway musicals) as part of its repertory season. A transfer to Broadway to capitalize on its cult popularity with a longer run seemed a good idea, but after opening at the Alvin Theatre in April, it managed only 125 performances, leaving behind the published play and a highly truncated recording of highlights, mementos that fail to convey its stature and expansive musicality. But surviving photos and accounts suggest a jewel of an original production, elegantly designed and directed, and cast with great care. The folksy tunefulness in Act I creates a lovely picture of small-town life, blossoming into expansive moments like Ulysses and Penelope's duet of marital contentment, "It's the Going Home Together," or Helen's sultry seduction of Paris (and a favorite of song stylists ever since), "Lazy Afternoon." Then in the new big-city atmosphere of Act II, vaudeville specialties (starring the folks from Act I in new guises) pop out, like the slick vaudevillian "Scylla and Charybdis" routine promoting the stock market, and the hula-flavored enticements of "Goona Goona Lagoon." An interlude with the waiting Penelope gives us the soaring aria "Windflowers," and the final unsure reunion the impassioned duet "We've Just Begun." By the end, we've had a colorful experience that retold a classic tale in a witty way, and we've also learned something about ourselves. What more could you ask for?

Somehow, while other ambitious shows from the 1950s remain well-remembered, and while regional opera companies search for popular-flavored classics to fill out their seasons, nobody seems to know about, or want to produce, The Golden Apple. Even the recent release, at long last, of a full-length recording, welcome as it is, hasn't seemed to change this situation much.

So the Encores! production meant more than just the chance to see an insider's seldom-seen title: it showed the world what a fine piece of writing it is, and maybe it can persuade managements to stage more productions of it, and let its take its rightful place among the masterpieces of popular musical theater.

Presentations like the one I saw on May 13 (partway through a run of seven performances) will go a long way toward raising awareness of it, and promoting a wider fondness for it. It was certainly given the full treatment, with the biggest chorus the series has employed, multiple costumes for everyone, some evocative if skeletal sets, and no cuts whatever. Michael Berresse, having brightened several past entries as a performer, directed with fine attention to both character and theatrical effect (aided by choreographer Joshua Bergasse), and the Encores! Orchestra sounded its customary best under Rob Berman's reliable baton, doing justice to Moross's own orchestrations (assisted by Hershy Kay), among the most gorgeous written for the theater.

Some Encores! productions have provided all-star casts to enjoyable effect (like their No, No, Nanette with Rosie O'Donnell, Sandy Duncan, Beth Leavel, Charles Kimbrough, and Mr. Berresse), but The Golden Apple followed the other possible pattern, assembling an ensemble cast suitable for a real production. (And thereby eliciting a fleeting wish that they could just stay together and settle in for a long run.) There was not a single weak element anywhere, so instead of coming up with a varied series of commendations for every name in the cast, I'll link to a personnel list, a photo gallery , and two montages of in-performance videos to give the details and establish the general excellence. That will allow the mention of just a few outstanding participants without seeming to criticize the others. For instance, the sinister Hector Charybdis who appears in Act II as mayor and guide to temptation was suavely embodied by Jason Kravits, familiar as countless sleazy lawyers and judges on television but clearly an old hand with a top hat and a cane. The trio of local "goddesses" (Miss Minerva, Mrs. Juniper, and Lovey Mars) whose rivalry ignites the plot, and who transform into temptations in Act II, were delightfully embodied by Alli Mauzey, Ashley Brown, and Carrie Compere. Ryan Silverman supplied a mellow baritone and the right reckless confidence as Ulysses. Especially memorable were two actresses new to me: Lindsay Mendez (well known to fans of Wicked, but not previously to me), sultry and giddy as needed for Helen, and Mikaela Bennett (unknown to most of the audience, I dare say, as her Juilliard graduation was still a week in the future) bringing a richly soaring soprano to Penelope. Both ladies had the special spark that can make time stand still -- a most welcome illusion, because I didn't want the show to end, ever. Let's hope that everyone's local theater company becomes motivated to schedule a production next year.

Monday, May 29, 2017

SPEECH & DEBATE on Screen (on iTunes)

A film version of Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate is now available to rent through iTunes. Karam wrote the screenplay for the film based on his own play, which opened Off-Broadway in 2007 as part of the Roundabout Underground initiative.

Speech & Debate, the play, has been well-performed since then, including at Urbana's Station Theater in 2008 and at Illinois State University in 2011.

Speech & Debate involves three teenagers in Oregon, none of whom exactly fit in. Diwata is overflowing with the desire to PERFORM!, Howie is gay and looking for a way to express that at a hostile school and Solomon sees himself as a crusading journalist. Together, they revive their school's moribund debate club to expose the hypocrisy and perfidy of the adults around them. By turns, they're funny, wounded and outrageous, especially when they perform a musical with a witch from The Crucible time-traveling to meet a gay, teenage version of Abraham Lincoln.

Sarah Steele, an actress you may recognize from her role as Marissa Gold on The Good Wife, played Diwata in that Roundabout production ten years ago, and she is back as Diwata for the movie. She's joined by Liam James (The Family) as Solomon and Austin P. McKenzie (he played Melchior in the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening on Broadway) as Howie.

Karam and director Dan Harris have opened up the stage play, which showed only the three high school students and one adult, at least far enough to include space for actors like Skylar Astin, Roger Bart, Janeane Garolfolo, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kal Penn, Gideon Glick (who played Howie in the original production), and Lin-Manuel Miranda as part of the tableau.

All that, for $3.99 on iTunes.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Coming Soon: 2017 Illinois Shakespeare Festival Opportunities & Options

If it's almost summer, it's almost time for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. If you haven't purchased tickets yet, there's still time to choose single seats or a season pass. And a call just went out for volunteer ushers, which may also get you in to see the show.

Here's the scoop on what's happening this summer:

A Midsummer Night's Dream is up first with a preview performance on June 28 and official opening night on the 30th. After that, you'll find 16 more performances in the theater at Ewing Manor through August 11. This Midsummer is directed by Robert Quinlan, head of the MFA directing program at Illinois State University. Quinlan's previous Illinois Shakespeare Festival credits include Richard II and Macbeth. Festival favorite Tom Quinn leads the cast as Bottom, with Jordan Coughtry as Puck, Thom Miller as Oberon, Nisi Sturgis as Titania, and Jesse Bhamrah, Susie Parr, Raffeal A. Sears and Emily Wold as the four Athenian lovers lost in the forest.

Next on the agenda is not just any Cymbeline but an adaptation for six actors created by Chris Coleman called Shakespeare's Amazing Cymbeline. The ensemble consists of Coughtry, Miller, Quinn, Sears and Sturgis and Patrick Toon, under the direction of Andy Park, who also directed Peter and the Starcatcher and Failure: A Love Story in Festivals past. The preview for Amazing Cymbeline happens on June 29, with performances on stage at Ewing Theater from July 1 to August 12.

The Q Brothers return to the Festival with I Heart Juliet, "bringing their incredible energy, humor, and hip-hop verse to Shakespeare’s timeless masterpiece, Romeo & Juliet." You might've seen the Q Brothers' take on Two Gentleman of Verona called Q Gents back in 2015. This time, ISF Artistic Director Kevin Rich is at the helm with a cast that includes the Q Brothers Collective (GQ, JQ, Jax and Pos) and ten members of the Festival company. I Heart Juliet opens July 9 in Westhoff Theatre on the ISU campus, continuing at Westhoff till August 8. For all the details, click here.

If you're wondering who's who on the design team this year, look for Joe C. Klug as scenic designer for all three shows, with Dan Ozminkowski as lighting designer and Kieran Pereira in charge of sound design. Splitting up costume design duties, Nicholas Hartman will conceive the wardrobe for Amazing Cymbeline, Christina Leinicke for I Heart Juliet and Tyler Wilson for Midsummer.

In addition to these three shows, you'll have five chances to see The Improvised Shakespeare Company and Wednesday and Saturday morning performances of the fairytale Sleeping Beauty under the Theater for Young Audiences umbrella.

And about that volunteer usher opportunity... You can wear what you want, pick your dates (with some flexibility), and even see the show for free, as long as seats are available. Read more about it here. If ushering sounds like something you'd enjoy, contact ISF House Manager Dave Hansen at dlhans1@ilstu.edu.