Monday, November 20, 2017

Paula Vogel's Unforgettable INDECENT on PBS Great Performances

When Sholem Asch's play The God of Vengeance opened on Broadway in 1923 -- in English for the first time after many performances across Europe in Yiddish -- the entire cast was arrested on charges of indecency. Why? Asch's story centered on a Polish Jewish man named Yekel*, conflicted by issues of faith as he kept a brothel on the floors beneath his family apartment. But the real kicker, the reason prominent actors like Morris Carnovsky and Sam Jaffe got hauled down to the pokey, was the lesbian part of the story. Asch wrote Yekel's daughter falling in love with a young prostitute from downstairs, including a beautiful and tender scene in the rain ending in a kiss between the two women. And that was simply too much for the authorities.

Playwright Paula Vogel took up the story surrounding Asch and The God of Vengeance in Indecent, a poetic and powerful play that marked Vogel's first Broadway production. That's remarkable in itself, that it that long to get to Broadway for someone like Paula Vogel, with a Pulitzer Prize for Drama to her credit for How I Learned to Drive, an Obie for The Baltimore Waltz, a pile of other awards and honors, and an illustrious career teaching playwriting (and chairing the department) at the Yale School of Drama.  

Indecent ran for 128 performances at the Cort Theatre, closing August 6, 2017, with Tony Awards for director Rebecca Taichman and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, and Tony and Drama Desk nominations for the play itself. Part of what Indecent deals with is the ephemeral nature of theater. In a beautiful image in Taichman's production, the Vengeance actors show us how they and their play turned to ashes, lost in the Holocaust after they returned to Poland. But Indecent is also about the echoes that remained after the production of The God of Vengeance was physically gone. After all, Indecent reminds us that the play did change the lives of the people involved in it, especially the narrator in the piece, a stage manager named Lemml, who continues to tell us exactly that. The God of Vengeance and its kiss in the rain did imprint itself on the audiences who saw it, and it has even been performed again in Yiddish.

Luckily for all of us, a performance of the Broadway production of Indecent was filmed last August so that it could be shared and replayed. Indecent was broadcast last Friday in the regular Great Performances slot on PBS stations, but it is also streaming right now and there are reports it will also be available on early next year.

I feared Indecent might lose some of its intimacy or its power on the small screen, but it translates beautifully. Central performances from Richard Topol as Lemml and Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson as the two women in the rain are especially strong and especially moving. Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis and Steven Rattazzi play many roles, creating a seamless ensemble that brings impressionistic scenes from Vengeance and the larger picture of Indecent to life.

Taichman's staging makes the most of music by Lisa Gutkin and Adam Halva, which sets the tone as it adds joy and energy, while projections designed by Tal Yarden contribute a Brechtian note to the theatrical proceedings. A nod to the Yiddish culture that informed Asch's Vengeance and the major culture clash that arose when the Eastern European Jewish immigrants got to New York comes off both poignant and timely.

On stage or on screen, Indecent is lovely, with a depth and tenderness that makes it unforgettable.

*The character has also been called Yankl or Yankel.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Lots of HOLIDAY INN Choices Coming Up

The Fred Astaire/Bing Crosby film musical Holiday Inn is generally considered a Christmas movie, probably because it's the place where Irving Berlin introduced (and won an Oscar for) the song "White Christmas." As a result, the 1942 Holiday Inn invariably shows up on television and in art-house and vintage movie theaters as part of their end-of-the-year schedules, even though in reality the movie covers all the holidays. You can see the 4th of July spirit in the poster at left.

In the film, Bing plays a singer ("I'll Capture Your Heart Singing") who wants out of his competitive show biz partnership with Fred Astaire (he's the one who captures your heart dancing, naturally). Bing decides to retreat to the country and live on a farm. Then he has the idea to turn the farm into an inn (Holiday Inn, naturally) where he can perform only on holidays. He'll loaf the rest of the time, but put on a show for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve, Lincoln's Birthday, Valentine's Day, Washington's Birthday, Easter... Basically whichever holidays Irving Berlin was inspired to write songs for. The plot hangs on those holidays, as Bing gets a romance in the form of Marjorie Reynolds, ex-partner Fred pops up at the Inn at an inconvenient time, their rivalry rekindles, and each gets the chance to shine in multiple numbers.

The movie came out in 1942, but didn't get translated into a Broadway show until 2016. The Broadway version imported Irving Berlin hits like "Blue Skies" and "Cheek to Cheek" from other Astaire and Crosby vehicles and thankfully took out "Abraham," which was performed with blackface in the movie, but the basic plot idea with its singer/dancer rivalry over romance and the inn in the country is still there. On Broadway, Bryce Pinkham took the Crosby role, while Corbin Bleu tapped into Astaire's shoes. Yes, that sounds a lot less starry, but they compensated with big production numbers and a whole lot of splashy costumes and sets in eye-popping colors. If you'd like to see for yourself, a performance of that Broadway version has been filmed to show on movie screens as well as through PBS Great Performances and its Friday-night Broadway's Best series.

Tonight is the night for the Broadway Holiday Inn on big screens as a Fathom Event. Around here, you have the option of 7:30 pm screenings at Willow Knolls 14 in Peoria, Savoy 16 outside Urbana, or Springfield 12. If that doesn't work in your schedule, never fear. PBS has your back. They'll be showing the same Holiday Inn on the small screen, which you can watch in the privacy of your own home, on Friday, November 24, at 8 pm Central time. After that, you can expect it to stream at on this Episodes page.

And if you are more into Bing and Fred and the original Holiday Inn, the Normal Theater will show the 1942 film on that same Friday, November 24, at 10 pm, as well as Sunday, November 26, at 1 pm. Or, if you want to see Bing and Fred on your own telly, Turner Classic Movies has a January 1, 2018 option at 7:30 am Central time.

That means you can see the boffo technicolor Broadway show and the classic black-and-white movie, both on the big screen or the small screen, and compare/contrast to your heart's content.

To recap, for a screening of the Broadway Holiday Inn, you can get to a movie theater tonight (November 16) or watch on TV a week from tomorrow (November 24) or stream it online after that, or see the classic movie later that night (November 24) or the following Sunday (November 26) or set your DVR for the first morning of the new year (January 1). So much Holiday Inn!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Opening Tonight: SOUTH PACIFIC at IWU

Long before Hamilton piled up all those Tony Awards and took home the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, before it started a dizzying war for tickets that fueled scalpers and prompted outrage at its high prices, Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific did it all first. After its Broadway opening in 1949, it ran for five years and 1925 performances, with Tony Awards for Best Musical, director Joshua Logan, its score (Rodgers), libretto (Hammerstein and Logan), producers (Hammerstein, Rodgers, Logan and Leland Hayward) and scenic design (Jo Mielziner) as well as for stars Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza and supporting performers Juanita Hall and Myron McCormick. The original cast recording sold over a million copies.  

South Pacific represented Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical translation of the short stories in John Michener's Tales of the South Pacific. Michener's stories focused on the cultural, financial and military interaction between indigenous peoples, immigrants and the global powers setting up operations on top of them, all things he saw when he himself was stationed in the South Pacific during World War II.

The musical South Pacific offered songs like "Some Enchanted Evening," "Younger Than Springtime," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," "There Is Nothing Like a Dame," and "Bali Ha'i," as characters Michener had created fell in love and faced danger against a multicultural backdrop. Its messages of tolerance and acceptance, of looking for understanding instead of hatred, is why South Pacific won its Pulitzer.

For Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Theatre Arts, professor Scott Susong directs a cast that includes Emily Hardesty and Madison Steele rotating in the role of Ensign Nellie Forbush, the cock-eyed optimist from Arkansas with a racist streak hidden under her nurse's uniform, with Timothy P. Foszcz as Emile de Becque, the wealthy planter Nellie falls for. There is, of course, a conflict between them -- the fact that he has two biracial daughters. As Nellie's "carefully taught" prejudice is revealed, the show's themes come into focus.

The other plotline with a culture clashe at its heart features Holden P. Ginn as handsome young American Lieutenant Cable and Megan Lai and Juna Shai alternating as Liat, his local love interest. Paola Lehman and Kira Rangel also alternate as Liat's mother, Bloody Mary, the Tonkinese woman who makes a living selling trinkets and junk to U.S. servicemen, with Connor Wildelka donning the coconut bra of Luther Billis, the rowdy Seabee who always has his eye on the main chance.

South Pacific opens tonight at 8 pm in the Jerome Mirza Theatre at McPherson Hall on Ames Plaza on the IWU campus in Bloomington. Performances continue until the matinee on Sunday, November 19 at 2 pm. For more information on this production, click here or here. For ticket information, call the School of Theatre Arts box office at 309-556-3232 or visit this box office page online.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Kevin Kline in PRESENT LAUGHTER Tonight on Great Performances

The Great Performances series on PBS is giving us a sparkling set of choices this fall, with a lighter-than-air musical She Loves Me last month, a look behind the curtain at Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights and Hamilton, Paula Vogel's fierce new play Indecent later this month, the stage version of an old Fred Astaire/Bing Crosby movie Holiday Inn closer to Thanksgiving,and tonight's Present Laughter, with Kevin Kline in a revival of the Noel Coward comedy.

Coward wrote Present Laughter (that's the adjectival "present" in the sense of  "occurring right now," not the verb or offering laughter up on a platter) just before World War II, directing and starring in the original production a few years later. It's hard not to see the character of Garry Essendine, a charmingly egocentric actor with a grand manner and a life full of overly dramatic complications and hijinks, as Coward himself, even though a host of great actors, from Simon Callow to Albert Finney, Frank Langella, Ian McKellen, Peter O'Toole, George C. Scott and even John Gielgud in a radio version, have tried to make Mr. Essendine their own.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel directed the latest Broadway revival with Kevin Kline, whose supporting cast includes Kate Burton, Kristine Nielsen, Reg Rogers and Cobie Smulders. This Present Laughter played at the St. James Theater from April to July of this year, and the role of Garry earned Kline his third Tony Award. Trivia note: Burton, who plays Garry's wife in this production, was the ingenue back in 1982 opposite George C. Scott.

As with She Loves Me, Present Laughter will air in the Friday evening Great Performances slot on most PBS stations. You can find it locally on either WTVP or WILL at 8 pm tonight (that's Central time) and if you can't get to a television, it's also streaming online. You'll also find a video preview, a scene demonstrating Garry's way with a dressing gown, Cobie Smulders acting slinky, and the director, producer and several cast members talking about the play and Kevin Kline.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Now Playing: SISTER ACT at Community Players

You remember Sister Act, right? The Whoopi Goldberg movie from 1992, where she plays a pop singer who hides out in a convent after witnessing a crime and then helps the nuns win a singing competition?

That movie got turned into a Broadway musical, without Whoopi, but with a new score by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics), book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, and additional material from playwright Douglas Carter Beane. It was nominated for five Tony Awards, including nods for star Patina Miller and supporting nun Victoria Clark. Its score includes songs with a distinctly holy-roller flavor like "Take Me to Heaven," "Haven't Got a Prayer" and "Bless Our Show."

It's a big show with a big cast that should fill the stage nicely at Community Players. Marcia Weiss directs a cast of 32, including Latrisha Green as our girl Deloris Van Cartier, the night-club singer on the lam, and Sharon Russell as the no-nonsense Mother Superior who tries to keep her line.

Tonight's 7:30 pm performance is a preview, with regularly scheduled performances November 3 to 5, 10 to 12 and 17 to 19. Friday and Saturday evening performances begin at 7:30 pm, with Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm. For more information on the show, click here to see the Sister Act page at Community Players. You can also buy tickets directly from this page.

Can I hear an amen?

Now Playing: THREE TALL WOMEN at Heartland Theatre

Three Tall Women, Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 play about three stages of life, opens tonight at Heartland Theatre with a "pay what you can" preview performance beginning at 7:30 pm. This acerbic exploration of aging, mortality and disappointment is considered autobiographical for Albee, springing from his relationship with his mother.

To work through his issues, he's written his play around women called A, B and C, representing old age (A is 92 at the outset), middle age (B is 52) and youth (C is 26). In Act I, they are a wealthy, bitter, imperious woman, her caretaker and a representative from her lawyer's office, but in Act II, their characters shift a bit, showing how much they have in common as they progress through important chapters in their lives.

Albee himself directed the first production of Three Tall Women in Vienna in 1991. Since then, it's been produced off-Broadway and in London, with a new production starring Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill and directed by Joe Mantello set for Broadway next spring.

Heartland Theatre artistic director Rhys Lovell is directing their production, which runs through November 18. His A, B and C are Lynda Rettick, Devon Lovell and Emilia Dvorak, with Daniel Job in the non-speaking role of the Boy.

For showtimes and reservation information, click here. You can also call the box office at 309-452-8709 or email

Wednesday, November 1, 2017


The Illinois Shakespeare Festival and new artistic director John C. Stark have just announced what's in store for the summer of 2018, with all kinds of intriguing developments on the horizon.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare's domestic comedy about frisky housewives, their husbands and how they interact with Falstaff, a rowdy, blustering rascal, will open the Festival on Friday, July 5. The Merry Wives of Windsor was last performed at the Festival in 2010, in a sparkling production set in the 1920s. Deanna Jent, whose play Falling moved from St. Louis to New York with great acclaim and then back to Normal at Heartland Theatre, will direct this Merry Wives, which will get the theater at Ewing to itself that first week. Jent is an alumna of Illinois Wesleyan University, a professor of theatre at Fontbonne University, and artistic director of the Mustard Seed Theatre in St. Louis. This is her first directing assignment at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

The second play in the line-up, Henry V, the stirring "once more unto the breach" history play, wherein (spoiler alert) the same Falstaff we saw in Merry Wives kicks the bucket. Off-stage, though. Henry V was last staged here in 2007. This time, the immensely talented Karen Kessler, who directed the only production of The Taming of the Shrew I ever liked, set in 1950s Little Italy, will be at the helm of Henry V.  It's set to open one week after Merry Wives, on July 12, also at the theater at Ewing Cultural Center.

And the third play, which will be performed on campus at the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts, bows on July 19. This one will be one of the most popular plays of 2017, Shakespeare in Love, adapted by Lee Hall from the screenplay of the Oscar-winning film by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. It will be directed by Marti Lyons, another IWU alum and another in-demand director with credits ranging from Lookingglass and Chicago Shakespeare in the Windy City to Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays. Shakespeare in Love premiered on stage in London in 2014. Its North American premiere took place last year at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and it's been going gangbusters across the United States ever since.

In addition to the staggered start indicated above, Illinois Shakes' managing director William Prenevost announced that changes are in the works across the ticketing side of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. Subscription choices, seating levels and prices are getting a makeover, online ordering will be added, and the special perks that used to come with Platinum Plus tickets will now be offered to Illinois Shakespeare Festival Society members, as the Platinum Plus level of tickets is phased into plain old Platinum. All the details will be unveiled on the Illinois Shakes website as we get closer to the summer season.

SWEENEY TODD Brings His Barbery to Eureka College

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again...

Stephen Sondheim's lyrics for the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street explain most of the show right off the top. There it is, the story of a barber who seeks razor-sharp revenge on those who wronged him in the past.

And what if none of their souls were saved? 
They went to their maker impeccably shaved.

Dark humor, murder and mayhem, the most clever and sardonic of lyrics, all sung to Sondheim's terrific score, with Hugh Wheeler's book and Sondheim's songs bringing in meat pies made of people, an operatic barbering contest, a depraved and evil judge, an innocent ward sent to the booby hatch, and 19th century London characterized as a hole in the world like a great black pit.

Isabella Anderson, a student at Eureka College, will be directing this dark, delightful musical for four performances in Pritchard Theater on the campus at Eureka College starting tonight. Performances begin at 7 pm November 1, 2, 3 and 4, with no set ticket price. Instead, it's "Pay What You Decide." To reserve tickets, you can email or call 309-467-6363 to reach the ticket office.

For more information on Sondheim and Wheeler's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Streetclick here. Note that the stage musical is not the same as the watered-down, blood-drenched film version from 2007 starring Johnny Depp. The real Sweeney Todd, with all its music intact and people who can actually perform the songs the way they were intended, is much, much, much, much, much better. Like night and day better.