Monday, June 11, 2018

Tony, Katrina and the Tony Awards

Actor Tony Shalhoub and the musical in which he currently stars--The Band's Visit--took the Tony Awards by storm last night, with ten wins overall, including awards for leading actor Shalhoub, leading actress Katrina Lenk, featured actor Ari'el Stachel and director David Cromer, as well as Itamar Moses' book, David Yazbek's score, Jamshied Sharifi's orchestrations, Tyler Micoleau's lighting design and Kai Harada's sound design. And, of course, Best Musical.

The pieces performed from nominated musicals didn't really showcase anything too exciting, although Lenk was lovely singing "Omar Sharif" from The Band's Visit, offering a hint of the show's power, and Hailey Kilgore and the cast of Once on This Island showed why they won Best Revival of a Musical. I also enjoyed the funny and fizzy performance from Gavin Lee and some underwater creatures from SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical.

On the play side, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child took home six Tony statuettes, winning Best Play (even though playwright Jack Thorne was shut out at the microphone), Best Direction of a Play for John Tiffany, as well as scenic, lighting, sound and costume design awards. Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane were both honored for their performances in the new millennial production of Angels in America,which also won Best Revival of a Play. And living legends Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf won for their two-thirds of Three Tall Women.

Hosts Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban provided an amiable and entertaining presence throughout and I'd be happy to see them back in those positions in future years. Other highlights included a performance of "Seasons of Love" from the musical Rent by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Bruce Springsteen with a heartfelt, if mostly spoken performance at the piano, and the divine disco stylings of "Last Dance" from the Donna Summer musical.

Here's how the 2018 Tony Awards unfolded:

Andrew Garfield, Angels in America

Laurie Metcalf, Three Tall Women

Lindsay Mendez, Carousel

Itamar Moses, The Band’s Visit

Nathan Lane, Angels in America

Catherine Zuber, My Fair Lady

Katrina Lindsay, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two

Ari’el Stachel, The Band’s Visit

Tyler Micoleau, The Band’s Visit

Neil Austin, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two

Glenda Jackson, Three Tall Women

David Cromer, The Band’s Visit

John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two, by Jack Thorne

Kai Harada, The Band’s Visit

Gareth Fry, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two

Angels in America, by Tony Kushner

David Zinn, SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical

Christine Jones,Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two

Jamshied Sharifi, The Band’s Visit

Justin Peck, Carousel

David Yazbek, The Band’s Visit

Once on This Island

Tony Shalhoub, The Band’s Visit

Katrina Lenk, The Band’s Visit

The Band’s Visit

Monday, June 4, 2018

Mad About Musicals--June on TCM

This month, Turner Classic Movies is featuring a host of movie musicals all day long on Tuesdays and Thursdays as part of what they're calling Mad About Musicals. In addition, TCM and Ball State University are hosting an online class on that same theme. Although the Mad About Musicals course officially began yesterday, you can still enroll here.

Here's how they're describing the Mad About Musicals "deep dive" experience:
Running from June 3-30, this FREE interactive experience will give you an entertaining deep-dive into the Hollywood musical, from the 1930s to the 1970s, with addictive multimedia course materials, digital games, ongoing interactions with your fellow film fans on the TCM message boards, and more!
You can also see the syllabus and answers to some frequently asked questions on that same page.

And if you're not into taking classes, you can still see a whole lot of musicals between June 5, when Going Hollywood, a little-known MGM musical from 1933 starring a very young Bing Crosby opposite the infamous Marion Davies, starts things off at 5 am Central time, and June 29, when Oliver!, the Oscar-winner from 1968, finishes the parade at 5:15 am.

By my count, there are 93 movie musicals running on TCM between those two, ranging from perennial favorites like Top Hat and American in Paris to lesser-known works that you absolutely have to see, like Hallelujah from 1929, the first all-black musical from a major studio; Strike Me Pink, a 1936 Eddie Cantor vehicle with Ethel Merman in the mix; Shirley Temple doing a Fred-and-Ginger number in Stowaway, also from 1936; and Chubby Checker in a 60s oddity called Don't Knock the Twist. There's also some Busby Berkeley, Ruby Keeler, Jimmy Cagney, operettas, the real Fred and Ginger, a touch of Lubitsch, Maurice Chevalier, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Kathryn Grayson, June Allyson, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Cyd Charisse, Esther Williams, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Sondheim, Kander & Ebb, and big-time Broadway musicals represented on screen.

That's a whole lot of singing and dancing and a fascinating way to see how Hollywood directors, choreographers, cinematographers, designers and screenwriters found a way to bend film effects to showcase music and performers. Yes, there are omissions, but so much good stuff, too. I doubt anyone can plant themselves in front of the TV to see every single one of the moving pictures TCM has chosen, but I suggest you fire up the DVR and catch as much as you can.

For all the details and a look at the schedule, you'll want to start here

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Musicals, Comedy, Drama and Something Brand New at IWU in 2018-19

The School of Theatre Arts at Illinois Wesleyan University has announced five shows (and one "To Be Announced" notice) for its 2018-19 season, with two musicals, one drama, a Shakespeare comedy, a dance concert and a new piece to be written and directed by a SOTA senior.

For the Jerome Mirza Theatre, the first show offered in the fall will be Stop Kiss, Diana Son's 1998 play about two women who meet, start to fall for each other, and kiss on the street, with a whole lot of fallout afterwards because of that one small kiss. The scenes in Stop Kiss are played out of order, with Son telling her story in pieces as fragmented as the lives of the two women. Professor Nancy Loitz will direct this story of love and compassion trying to find a way in today's world.

Next up in the Mirza, Professor Jean Kerr will direct the Broadway musical Curtains, which ran for over 500 performances at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in 2007 and 2008. It was nominated for eight Tony Awards, with David Hyde Pierce winning Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as a Boston police lieutenant who just happens to be a major fan of musical theater. The plot's afoot when he is called upon to investigate a murder that happened during the curtain call for a very bad musical in an out-of-town tryout. The score of Curtains was written by the legendary Kander & Ebb, with the book by Rupert Holmes, who won a Drama Desk Award for his efforts. Curtains has a curious creative history: Kander and Holmes provided additional lyrics after the death of Fred Ebb, and the entire show is based on an idea from Peter Stone, who also passed away with only part of the story finished.

Spring at the Mirza will feature A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare's fantasy of fairies and mortals mixing it up in the woods, directed by Visiting Professor Christopher Connelly.

The spring season will finish up with the annual dance concert, directed by Sheri Marley, in the Mirza Theater.

Two other shows have been announced for the E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre. The "To Be Announced" show, written and directed by Nick Valdivia, a senior in Design & Technology, will fill the Lab Theatre in the fall, while Violet, a musical drama based on the short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts, with music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics and book by Brian Crawley, will take the Kirkpatrick space in the spring, in a production directed by Associate Professor Scott Susong.

Violet has a history both on and Off-Broadway, with a Playwrights Horizon production in 1997 that won best musical honors from the Lucille Lortel and Drama Critics Circle awards along with a special Obie for Jeanine Tesori, and then a one-night Encores! staging and a Broadway production in 2014 that starred Sutton Foster, Colin Donnell and Joshua Henry. Foster played Violet, a bitter, wounded young woman who suffered a terrible accident when she was a child. Violet's last hope is that a TV evangelist on the other side of the country can heal her horribly disfigured face, so she gets on a bus to find her miracle. Along the way, she meets (and plays poker with) two soldiers who have their own stories to tell. Violet is set amidst the byways and highways of America in 1964 and its score reflects that setting with bluegrass, blues and gospel styles.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Krannert Center Announces 50th Anniversary Season

The University of Illinois' Krannert Center for the Performing Arts began its life as an artistic venue in April 1969, after a gift of 16 million dollars from Herman and Ellnora Krannert.

As Krannert Center press materials frame it, the Krannerts' "belief in the intrinsic value of the arts, their bold vision for the future, and their passionate loyalty to the University of Illinois helped bring into being what is widely considered the nation’s leading university-based performing arts center."

To spotlight its 50th anniversary, Krannert Center is launching a two-season celebration that will include "friends, colleagues, artists, and patrons past and present" along with projects from music, theater and dance units under the College of Fine and Applied Arts.

What's in store? "Patrons can expect boundary-pushing commissioning projects and new works, beloved familiar faces alongside new rising stars, invigorating performances from university faculty and students, and time for reflection, inspiration, and merriment—including a special April 2019 weekend that will mark the 50-year anniversary of Krannert Center’s opening."

An opening party on Friday September 7 launches the celebration, with "a high-energy gathering five decades in the making that will feature a musical lineup of Ranky Tanky, Baracutanga, AJ Ghent, Mucca Pazza, and CU’s own New Orleans Jazz Machine. Food and beverage sales, a vintage car display on Goodwin Avenue, and an invitation to dress from a decade of choice—1960s to the future—will round out this annual favorite, made even better by a free admission price."

They've also announced that the 2018-19 season will include events like the Los Angeles Master Chorale performing the Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter), living legend Itzhak Perlman, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Great Hall, as well as many other events and artists, from The Builders Association presenting the Krannert Center-supported Strange Window: The Turn of the Screw to Ann Hampton Callaway and Susan Werner, two cirque troupes and Ballet Folklórico de México and Russian National Ballet Theatre. You can browse all those options here.

If you're interested in Illinois Theatre, the producing arm of the University of Illinois Department of Theatre, they will open their season on October 4 with Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter, directed by Tom Mitchell for the Studio Theatre. Wasserstein's play deals with a woman descended from Ulysses S. Grant who is being considered for the position of Surgeon General.

Next up is the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with performances from October 18 to 28 in the Colwell Playhouse. That will be directed by J.W. Morrissette, who took on Stephen Sondheim's Assassins at Krannert last year. Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for Forum, while Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart wrote the book for this farce based on the work of Plautus. Sondheim's lyrics promise "comedy tonight" as a slave named Pseudolus, played by the likes of Zero Mostel (on Broadway and in the film), Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg (both in the late 90s Broadway revival), wheels and deals to try to win his (or her) freedom.

November will see The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, Peter Weiss' 1966 Tony winning play about revolution and class struggle, both in the theater and in the world. Directed by Laura Hackman for the Studio Theatre, Marat/Sade is scheduled to play from November 1 to 11, 2018.

Ike Holter's Hit the Wall opens the new year in the Studio Theatre, with performances set for January 31 to February 10, 2019. Robert G. Anderson directs Holter's "sweaty, messy, sexy" take on the Stonewall Riots in 1969, which includes a live band and a "multivoiced narrative."

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Simon Stephen's award-winning play based on the best-selling book by Mark Haddon,will play in the Colwell Playhouse from February 28 to March 10. Haddon's book offers the story of an autistic boy who goes on a journey to find out who really killed his neighbor's dog, with the stage production using all the tools of drama, from lights and set pieces to sound and choreography, to create the world as the boy experiences it. Latrelle Bright directs for Illinois Theatre.

The season finishes with Because I Am Your Queen, a devised "feminist fantasia in one act" created by Mina Samuels, that imagines a collection of dramatic women, like Hermione from Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, Victor Hugo's Lucretia Borgia, Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart and Euripides' Medea, spending a day together at a spa. Samuels will work with Tectonic Theatre Project founding member Barbara McAdams, who will direct, using Moment Work to further develop the piece in conjunction with U of I theater students. Because I Am Your Queen reigns in the Studio Theatre from March 28 to April 7, 2019.

For more information on these shows as well as the entire 2018-19 lineup at Krannert Center, visit the site here. Tickets for the new season will go on sale Saturday, July 14, at 10 am, and you may purchase them at, call 217-333-6280 or by visiting the box office at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on South Goodwin Avenue in Urbana.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Tony Nominations 2018

It's that time again, when Tony nominators offer their lists of the best and brightest in Broadway shows.

On the play side, there's new work by Ayad Akhtar and Lucy Kirkwood, revivals of Albee, Kushner, O'Neill and Stoppard, and the hotly anticipated Harry Potter shows, while the musicals range from something sweet and silly--SpongeBob SquarePants--to something deep, meaningful and moving in The Band's Visit.

This year's awards ceremony will be hosted by pop stars with Broadway connections, with Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban doing the honors on June 10. Bareilles wrote the score for Waitress (and popped in to play the lead for a couple of shifts) and contributed some songs to the SpongeBob SquarePants musical, for both of which she's earned Tony nominations, while Josh Groban was nominated for his leading role in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

Here's the complete list of nominees:

The Children by Lucy Kirkwood
Farinelli and the King by Claire van Kampen
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two by Jack Thorne
Junk by Ayad Akhtar
Latin History for Morons by John Leguizamo

Angels in America by Tony Kushner
The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill
Lobby Hero by Kenneth Lonergan
Three Tall Women by Edward Albee
Travesties by Tom Stoppard

Glenda Jackson, Three Tall Women
Condola Rashad, Saint Joan 
Lauren Ridloff, Children of a Lesser God
Amy Schumer, Meteor Shower

Andrew Garfield, Angels in America
Tom Hollander, Travesties
Jamie Parker, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Mark Rylance, Farinelli and the King
Denzel Washington, The Iceman Cometh

Susan Brown, Angels in America
Noma Dumezweni, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Deborah Findlay, The Children
Denise Gough, Angels in America
Laurie Metcalf, Three Tall Women

Anthony Boyle, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Michael Cera, Lobby Hero
Brian Tyree Henry, Lobby Hero
Nathan Lane, Angels in America
David Morse, The Iceman Cometh

Marianne Elliott, Angels in America
Joe Mantello, Three Tall Women
Patrick Marber, Travesties
John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
George C. Wolfe, The Iceman Cometh

Miriam Buether, Three Tall Women
Jonathan Fensom, Farinelli and the King
Christine Jones, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Santo Loquasto, The Iceman Cometh
Ian MacNeil & Edward Pierce, Angels in America

Jonathan Fensom, Farinelli and the King
Nicky Gillibrand, Angels in America
Katrina Lindsay, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Ann Roth, Three Tall Women
Ann Roth, The Iceman Cometh

Neil Austin, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Paule Constable, Angels in America
Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer, The Iceman Cometh
Paul Russell, Farinelli and the King
Ben Stanton, Junk

Adam Cork, Travesties
Ian Dickinson, Angels in America
Gareth Fry, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Tom Gibbons, 1984
Dan Moses Schreier, The Iceman Cometh

The Band's Visit
Mean Girls
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

My Fair Lady
Once on This Island

Lauren Ambrose, My Fair Lady
Hailey Kilgore, Once on This Island
LaChanze, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Katrina Lenk, The Band’s Visit
Taylor Louderman, Mean Girls
Jessie Mueller, Carousel

Harry Hadden-Paton, My Fair Lady
Joshua Henry, Carousel
Tony Shalhoub, The Band’s Visit
Ethan Slater, Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical

Ariana DeBose, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Renée Fleming, Carousel
Lindsay Mendez, Carousel 
Ashley Park, Mean Girls
Diana Rigg, My Fair Lady

Norbert Leo Butz, My Fair Lady
Alexander Gemignani, Carousel 
Grey Henson, Mean Girls
Gavin Lee, Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical
 Ari’el Stachel, The Band’s Visit

Michael Arden, Once on This Island
David Cromer, The Band’s Visit
Tina Landau, Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical
Casey Nicholaw, Mean Girls
Bartlett Sher, My Fair Lady

Tina Fey, Mean Girls
Kyle Jarrow, Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical 
Jennifer Lee, Frozen
Itamar Moses, The Band’s Visit

Robert Lopez & Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Frozen
Jeff Richmond & Nell Benjamin, Mean Girls
Adrian Sutton, Angels in America
David Yazbek, The Band’s Visit
Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler & Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper & Rob Hyman, John Legend, Panic! at the Disco, Plain White T's, They Might Be Giants, T.I., Domani & Lil'C, Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical

Christopher Gattelli, My Fair Lady
Christopher Gattelli, Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical 
Steven Hoggett, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two 
Casey Nicholaw, Mean Girls
Justin Peck, Carousel

John Clancy, Mean Girls
Tom Kitt, Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical
AnnMarie Milazzo & Michael Starobin, Once on This Island
Jamshied Sharifi, The Band’s Visit
Jonathan Tunick, Carousel  

Dane Laffrey, Once on This Island
Scott Pask, The Band’s Visit 
Scott Pask, Finn Ross & Adam Young, Mean Girls 
Michael Yeargan, My Fair Lady
David Zinn, Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical

Gregg Barnes, Mean Girls 
Clint Ramos, Once on This Island 
Ann Roth, Carousel 
David Zinn, Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical
Catherine Zuber, My Fair Lady

Kevin Adams, Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical 
Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer, Once on This Island 
Donald Holder, My Fair Lady 
Brian MacDevitt, Carousel 
Tyler Micoleau, The Band’s Visit

Kai Harada, The Band’s Visit 
Peter Hylenski, Once on This Island 
Scott Lehrer, Carousel 
Brian Ronan, Mean Girls 
Walter Trarbach and Mike Dobson, Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical

Chita Rivera
Andrew Lloyd Webber

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY Opening This Week at Community Players

Playwright Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer Prize for his blistering August: Osage County, a family drama laced with the kind of deep, dark humor that comes from people who've learned from birth how to push each other's buttons. August:Osage County pushed a few buttons of its own; after its premiere at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, it went to Broadway where it picked up five Tony Awards, including Best Play, and then made it to the big screen, with a star-studded cast that included Meryl Streep as Violet, the take-no-prisoners matriarch of the Weston clan, Sam Shepard as missing patriarch Beverly Weston, and Julia Roberts as their oldest daughter Barbara.

Since it first lit up the stage, August: Osage County has been quite popular, with theaters across the country anxious to dive into this story of three generations of family dysfunction. There are all kinds of good roles for actors to get their teeth into, and the three-story home that houses the disparate members of the Weston family and their in-laws, plus a Native American caregiver, a local sheriff, and an extra fiancé, is almost a character of its own. Although many theaters just don't have room for that much real estate, it doesn't stop smaller theaters, like the Station in Urbana, from getting creative. As it happens, August: Osage County is currently playing in those cozy confines, in a production directed by Mathew Green.

At Community Players Theatre, where the play opens this week, scenic designer Jeremy Stiller has a more expansive space to work with, and he's just the kind of designer who will make good use of it. Director John D. Poling is at the helm with a cast that includes Kevin Yale Vernon as viper-tongued Violet, Alan Wilson as her husband Beverly, and Abby Scott, Michelle Woody and Wendy Baugh as their daughters Barbara, Ivy and Karen. Len Childers appears as Barbara's estranged husband, who has left her for a younger woman, with Hannah Blumenshine as their teenage daughter, Brett Cottone as Sheriff Gilbeau, who dated Barbara when they were young, and John Bowen as Steve, Karen's shady fiancé. In another family unit, Anne Cook will play Mattie Fae, Violet's sister, with Randy Offner and Nathan Brandon Gaik as her husband and son. Connie Blick takes on the role of the Native American housekeeper who sees a lot more than is probably healthy.

This is not a sweet or gentle piece of work and you are advised that it contains adult language and situations. Community Players is asking for mature audiences only to attend this production.

August: Osage County opens at Community Players with a preview performance at 7:30 pm on May 3, with evening performances to follow at 7:30 pm on May 4 and 5 and 11 and 12, and Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm on May 6 and 13. For more information, click here. If you are ready to buy tickets, you can do that here.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Celebrating Remarkable Women: SEVEN from Coalescence Theatre Project

This weekend, Coalescence Theatre Project will present the Central Illinois premiere of the play Seven, a collection of pieces by award-winning women playwrights focusing on "true stories of seven women who bravely fought for the well-being of women, families, and children around the globe."

Called "a riveting piece of documentary theatre," Seven was created from personal interviews with women from around the world who have "triumphed over huge obstacles to create major changes in human rights in their home countries." From Afghanistan to Cambodia, from Guatemala, Ireland, Nigeria and Pakistan to Russia, these women take on domestic violence, human trafficking, poverty, education, peace and equality as they tackle the most human of human rights.

As the play's logo puts it, "Seven celebrates remarkable women changing the world."

Seven's playwrights are Paula Cizmar, Catherine Filloux, Gail Kriegel, Carol K. Mack, Ruth Margraff, Anna Deavere Smith and Susan Yankowitz, and the actresses performing their words for Coalescence include Jennifer Cirillo, Anastasia Ferguson, Gayle Hess, Elaine Hill, Nancy Nickerson, Claron Sharrieff and Irene Taylor.

This production, directed by Marcia Weiss and produced by Don Shandrow, will be presented at the Normal Theater on April 21 at 3 and 7:30 pm and April 22 at 7:30 pm. It is a joint presentation by the Normal Theater and Prairie Pride Coalition.

For more information, visit the Coalescence event page or this page devoted to Seven the play, with bios of the women and their playwrights, a gallery of images, and other details on where Seven has been and where it's headed. Anna Deveare Smith, who is probably the best-known among the playwrights for exactly this kind of theater, contributed the piece on Nigeria's Hafsat Abiola, who founded the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy to promote education and leadership opportunities for young women across Nigeria. Abiola became a human rights activist after the murder of both her parents, activists themselves. It's her kind of story that lights up the fire in Seven.

Tickets for Seven range from $5 to $7 and can be purchased in advance at the Normal Theater or at the door the day of the show.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Legendary BALM IN GILEAD Opens Tomorrow at ISU

Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead occupies a special place in American theater history. It was Wilson's first full-length play, establishing him as a major voice in the 60s off-off-Broadway movement at  La Mama and marking a seminal point in off-off-Broadway history. It also created a major moment for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre when company member John Malkovich directed a production of the play in 1980, putting a national spotlight on Steppenwolf and actors like Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, Glenne Headly, Jeff Perry, Joan Allen, John Mahoney and especially Laurie Metcalf, whose amazing monologue lit up the stage.

Since most of Steppenwolf's ensemble came from Illinois State University, a new production at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts makes perfect sense. It's a nod to ISU theater history, to some of its most notable alumni, and to the kind of rock-and-roll theatrical style that drove those alums into the national consciousness.

John Tovar directs the ISU Balm in Gilead that opens tomorrow night at 7:30 pm, with a large cast that includes Angie Milton as Darlene, a wounded, naive newcomer to the grungy all-night diner in Manhattan where the action is set; Steve Carr as Joe, a small-time drug dealer with a big problem and a big debt; Troy Schaeflein as Dopey, a junkie and something of a narrator; Tori DeLaney as Fick, a down-and-out addict; Betsy Diller as Ann, a former teacher turned street hooker; and Jack VanBoven, Dylan Dewitt and AnneMarie Owens as the cafe's manager, cook and server. Tino Avila, Abbie Brenner, Parker Carbine, Rashun Carter, Krystina Coyne, Taylor Eaves, Christian Frieden, Jeremy Gavin, Rondale Gray, Mikey Hendrickson, Malachi Hurndon, Will Olsen, Sarah Seidler, Clare Ellen Supplitt, Al Vitucci, Bobby Voss and Asa Wallace round out the ensemble as assorted users, pushers, hustlers, drunks, bad guys and whores who hang out there, with Katie Capp, Rachel Katz and Josephine O'Shaughnessy as a trio of rowdy children who make a scary Halloween run through the disarray. 

Balm in Gilead runs at the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts from April 13 to 21, with evening performances at 7:30 pm and a matinee on April 15th at 2 pm. For more details or to reserve tickets, contact the CPA box office at 309-438-2535 between the hours of 11 am and 5 pm on weekdays. You may also purchase tickets online at Ticketmaster.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Gunderson and THE BOOK OF WILL Win Top Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award

Over the weekend, the American Theatre Critics Association announced the 2018 winners of the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Awards, which shine a spotlight (and reward) playwrights for professionally produced work premiering outside New York City. With the top award and two citations, the Steinberg/ATCA Awards give out a total of $40,00 each year, making the awards the largest national new play program of its kind. Every year, they are announced on the Saturday of the last weekend of Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson continued what has been a banner year, as she was the recipient of the the top award of $25,000 and a commemorative plaque for her play The Book of Will, which premiered at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts last year. Gunderson's scenario takes place after the death of Shakespeare, when two of his friends--Henry Condell and John Heminges--attempt to preserve his plays for posterity. As the Denver Center frames it, "the two actors are determined to compile the first Folio and preserve the words that shaped their lives. They’ll just have to borrow, beg and band together to get it done. Lauren Gunderson weaves a hilarious and heartfelt story inspired by the true story of Shakespeare’s First Folio."

In a world with so many Shakespeare festivals eager to produce work that involves him* and a playwright with a good deal of buzz right now, it seems likely you will see The Book of Will somewhere near you very soon. The Book of Will has been published by Dramatists Play Service.

Molly Smith Metzler's Cry It Out, an insightful look at how new motherhood affects three very different women (and one man), took a $7500 cash prize, along with Ike Holter's The Wolf at the end of the Block, a searing drama about a crime outside a boarded-up Chicago bar that underlines the jagged gulf between people of color and the police. Cry It Out premiered at last year's Humana Festival, while The Wolf at the End of the Block was presented by Teatro Vista at Victory Gardens Theater. You can find Cry It Out at Dramatic Publishing, while The Wolf at the End of the Block is scheduled to be published by Northwestern University Press along with Holter's entire seven-play Chicago cycle.

The other finalists were Linda Vista and The Minutes, both by Tracy Letts, and Objects in the Mirror by Charles Smith.

At the same event at the Humana Festival, Chelsea Marcantel's Airness, a breezy and energetic look at an air guitar competition, was named this year's winner of the M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award recognizing an emerging playwright.

*For recent work involving Shakespeare as a person, see: Lee Hall's Shakespeare in Love, coming to the Illinois Shakespeare Festival this year, after productions in London, the Stratford Festival in Canada, Chicago, etc.; Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex, a smash at Illinois Shakes in 2014 after it, too, played at the Stratford Festival and Chicago Shakes; and Bill Cain's Equivocation, a previous Steinberg/ATCA winner from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Score One for the Girls: THE WOLVES at the Goodman's Owen Theatre

Against all kinds of obstacles, women in theater have thrown down the gauntlet on more than one front. Freedom from harassment, decent access to directing, design and stage management jobs, consideration for women playwrights and actors when artistic directors are choosing their seasons... It's all on the table. And it only makes sense. If you look around when you go to the theater, you already know that audiences are more likely to be made up of women. But how have theaters responded? Is anything getting better? From my perspective, the answer is yes and no. Locally, we've seen some progress*, a continuation of good work**, and a decided retreat into Same Old Same Old White Guy Theater***. But Chicago's Goodman Theatre has taken the ball and run with it, with programming like Sarah DeLappe's The Wolves, directed by Vanessa Stalling, who earned her MFA in directing at Illinois State University.

The Wolves is a wonderful choice, an inside look at a team of girls playing soccer and what's important to them. Stalling is the perfect director for it, too, with her emphasis on the physical side of theater, and appreciation for women on stage who can "look strong, be aggressive or take up space." That is exactly what these soccer players do as they run through practice, joke around, pick at issues they may not exactly understand, vie for playing time, and struggle with things like friendship, teamwork, sexuality, parents and mortality. None of it is revolutionary, just new, because somebody is finally listening in to teenage girls who find joy in strength and competition, pushing and kicking their way in a world that isn't all that welcoming.

DeLappe's script uses overlapping, fragmented dialogue that kicks around in a much less disciplined fashion than the drills the girls are running, veering from global atrocities to yogurt, yurts, tampons and maxi pads with breathless speed. Both the dialogue and the action are choreographed and tricky, but Stalling keeps her actors on their toes throughout the play and together, they drive the narrative perfectly. Whether or not any of these women actually played soccer during their high school years, they've brought their skills up to a level that reads like the real thing. Their stamina and focus are amazing.

As #46, Erin O'Shea stands out both with her soccer prowess as well as her acting, delivering emotional depth as an outsider who can't quite figure out the social cues that come so easily to her teammates. ISU grad Cydney Moody is a delight as #8, the more naïve one who falls apart when she finds out that the national tournament will be in Tulsa instead of Orlando, while Sarah Price makes smart girl #11 a real treat. I also enjoyed Isa Arciniegas as the no-nonsense captain of the team, Taylor Blim as a sweet girl who shows signs of an eating disorder, Angela Alise as the stressed-out goalie, Mary Tilden as a goofball whose jokes don't exactly land, and Aurora Real De Asua and Natalie Joyce as the most socially advanced of the bunch. Meighan Gerachis arrives late in the game, but she makes quite an impact with a heartbreaker of a monologue.

The Wolves is staged in the round (or rectangle) in the Goodman's Owen Theatre, with the audience up close to the action. Set Designer Collette Pollard has created a simple but effective space lined with artificial turf and surrounded by netting that allows for in-your-face athletics. Mikhail Fiksel's sound design and Keith Parham's lighting design add a blast of energy, as well.

Because it has proved so popular, The Wolves has been extended past its original end date. That means you can still see it through March 18 if you can get a ticket.

By Sarah DeLappe

The Owen Theatre at the Goodman Theatre
February 9 to March 18, 2018

Directed by Vanessa Stalling
Set design by Collette Pollard
Costume design by Noël Huntzinger
Lighting design by Keith Parham
Original music and sound design by Mikhail Fiksel
Dramaturgy by Kristin Idasak

Production Stage Manager: Nikki Blue
Soccer Skill Building Coach: Katie Berkopec

Cast: Angela Alise, Isa Arciniegas, Taylor Blim, Aurora Real De Asua, Meighan Gerachis, Natalie Joyce, Cydney Moody, Erin O'Shea, Sarah Price and Mary Tilden

* Illinois State University has done excellent work in spotlighting plays by women, people of color and from authors outside the United States, in its last two seasons. In Urbana, the Station Theatre is devoting most of its current season to women playwrights and women directors.

** New Route Theater in Bloomington-Normal continues its mission of giving a voice to underrepresented communities and ethnically and culturally diverse playwrights. 

*** Heartland Theatre has just announced a new mainstage season that will be 100% white male voices, after two seasons with paltry representation (a play by Anna Zeigler in 2017 and book and lyrics by Tina Landau in this year's Floyd Collins are the sole contributions of women) and more than double the number of roles available to men over those seasons.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

American Theatre Critics Announce Steinberg/ATCA New Play Finalists

The American Theatre Critics Association has released the names of the six finalists for the 2018 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, which spotlights playwrights for professionally produced work premiering outside New York City. The Steinberg/ATCA Awards hand out $40,00 each year, making these awards the largest national new play program of its kind.

This year's finalists are The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson, Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler, Linda Vista by Tracy Letts, The Minutes by Tracy Letts, Objects in the Mirror by Charles Smith, and The Wolf at the End of the Block by Ike Holter. Chicago is strongly represented in this group, with two plays from Letts that premiered at Steppenwolf, Smith's play from the Goodman Theatre, and Holter's play, which was presented by Teatro Vista at Victory Gardens.

Here's how the ATCA committee describes the plays chosen:
The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson, about the efforts of Shakespeare's contemporaries to preserve his words after his death, "fires on all cylinders" according to one panelist. Said another, it "wrestles with big questions: Why we create and how we deal with death? What constitutes a legacy? And how a surpassing love for something bigger can make every sacrifice worth it." It's "all the more impressive given that we know how the story will end." "And it's funny — genuinely funny — in a way that feels contemporary and yet not cynical." The Book of Will had its world premiere at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler focuses on the bonds and barriers between two new mothers across a backyard and across class differences. According to panel members, it is "heartbreakingly original in wrestling with issues of female friendship and class and privilege while still being a story about two people one quickly feels strongly about." "Their challenges come across as very real and accessible without being trivialized." Cry It Out premiered at the Humana Festival.

Linda Vista by Tracy Letts focuses on "a man-child who is lonely and wants to be loved — while remaining too immature to do the work involved in making that happen." With, according to a panelist, some of the "smartest, funniest dialogue of any play this year, it also features female roles exceptionally fresh and well crafted." "Letts runs it out of control and then brings it back," said another. It features, "smart observations on marriage, fatherhood, and aging" and, noted yet another, "It's like getting smacked with a metal ruler while someone's telling jokes." Linda Vista premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

The Minutes, also by Tracy Letts, reads like "this is Grover's Corners and Winesburg, Ohio through the eyes of Shirley Jackson." It's "a very weird roller coaster ride" through an absurd town council meeting that leads to "a magnificent tribal reveal soaked in the saddest truth about humanity." "I could see where this would be an actor's and director's dream with a WOW finish." The Minutes also premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

Objects in the Mirror by Charles Smith "compellingly takes us into the mindset of the masses of refugees fleeing wars and other violence and their struggle against great odds to survive and escape." It's about both "the price of immigration, and the importance of identity, with a second act that feeds on the first act in clever ways but takes us in a new direction." "I was also moved," said one panelist, "by the identity crisis at the heart of the play—the hunger to reclaim a self and name that no longer belong to you." It conveys "a great deal about how worlds apart people can be, how different their ideas of how to help." Objects in the Mirror premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

The Wolf at the End of the Block by Ike Holter is, according to one panelist, "a play I can't get out of my head, from one of the most exciting emerging voices in American theater." It "melds gorgeous, often comedic dialogue into a very dark reality" in "a play that matters." Centered on a beating outside of a Chicago bar, it's "honest about how flawed the would-be heroes of the piece are — refreshing, given the amount of paint-by-numbers agitprop out there right now." Presented by Teatro Vista, The Wolf at the End of the Block premiered at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater.
These six finalists were selected from eligible scripts recommended by ATCA members from across the country.  To read about the history of the Steinberg/ATCA awards and see past winners, click here.

The top award of $25,000 and two citations of $7,500 each, plus commemorative plaques, will be presented April 7 at the 2018 Humana Festival of American Play at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Oscars, Year 90, Now One for the Books

In a year when some of the biggest Oscar drama happened on the red carpet, with lots of speculation that the major stars would be sidestepping E! network's Ryan Seacrest, things shaped up pretty well and pretty much as expected inside the 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony. Jimmy Kimmel was an affable host, the proceedings went along smoothly with no major gaffes, and there were undoubtedly a lot of ties for prizes at Oscar parties.

In the biggest categories, Guillermo del Toro and his Beauty and the Beast story, The Shape of Water,  emerged victorious, scooping up Best Picture and Best Director to go with awards for its score and production design.  

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won two of the big acting awards with Best Actress for Frances McDormand and Best Supporting Actor for Sam Rockwell, while first-time producer/director/screenwriter Jordan Peele walked away with the Best Original Screenplay trophy for Get Out and 89-year-old James Ivory became the oldest Oscar winner ever with his win for his adapted screenplay for Call Me By Your Name.

Adding a little more fuel to the fire that real (as opposed to fictional) characters are more likely to win awards, Gary Oldman won Best Actor as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour and Allison Janney added to her awards season sweep as Tonya Harding's horrible mother in I, Tonya.

Dunkirk won for its film and sound editing as well as sound mixing, while Blade Runner 2049 picked up awards for its cinematography and visual effects.

Disney/Pixar's Coco won as Best Animated Feature, with songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez winning with their sweet song "Remember Me" from that film. 

And here's your complete list of winners:

Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out

Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green, Logan
James Ivory, Call Me by Your Name
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, The Disaster Artist
Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game
Virgil Williams and Dee Rees, Mudbound

Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick
Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 
Jordan Peele, Get Out

Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049
Bruno Delbonnel, Darkest Hour
Dan Laustsen, The Shape of Water
Rachel Morrison, Mudbound
Hoyte van Hoytema, Dunkirk

A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
The Insult (Lebanon)
Loveless (Russia)
On Body and Soul (Hungary)
The Square (Sweden)

"Mighty River" from Mudbound, Mary J. Blige
"Mystery of Love" from Call Me by Your Name, Sufjan Stevens
"Remember Me" from Coco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
"Stand Up for Something" from Marshall, Diane Warren and Common
"This Is Me" from The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Carter Burwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water
Jonny Greenwood, Phantom Thread
John Williams, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk

The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner
Loving Vincent

Dear Basketball
Garden Party
Negative Space
Revolting Rhymes

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Faces Places
Last Men in Aleppo
Strong Island

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
Knife Skills
Traffic Stop

DeKalb Elementary 
The Eleven O’Clock 
My Nephew Emmett 
The Silent Child 
Watu Wote/All of Us

Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, Baby Driver
Jon Gregory, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Tatiana S. Riegel, I, Tonya
Lee Smith, Dunkirk
Sidney Wolinsky, The Shape of Water

Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett and Joel Whist, War for the Planet of the Apes
Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould and Neal Scanlan, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover and Gerd Nefzer, Blade Runner 2049
Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza and Mike Meinardus, Kong: Skull Island
Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner and Dan Sudick, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Alex Gibson and Richard King, Dunkirk
Ren Klyce and Matthew Wood, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Mark Mangini and Theo Green, Blade Runner 2049
Nathan Robitaille and Nelson Ferreira, The Shape of Water Julian Slater, Baby Driver

Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater and Tim Cavagin, Baby Driver
Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke and Brad Zoern, The Shape of Water
Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett and Doug Hephill, Blade Runner 2049
Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker and Gary A. Rizzo, Dunkirk
Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker and Michael Semanick, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Consolata Boyle, Victoria and Abdul
Mark Bridges, Phantom Thread
Jacqueline Durran, Beauty and the Beast
Jacqueline Durran, Darkest Hour
Luis Sequeira, The Shape of Water

Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Vieau, The Shape of Water
Nathan Crowley and Gary Fettis, Dunkirk
Dennis Gassner and Alessandra Querzola, Blade Runner 2049
Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, Beauty and the Beast
Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, Darkest Hour

Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard, Victoria and Abdul
Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick, Darkest Hour
Arjen Tuiten, Wonder

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Opening Tonight: RHINOCEROS at IWU

Eugène Ionesco was really big in the 70s, when I came of age. My junior high theater teacher assigned two of his plays (The Lesson and The Bald Soprano) for a whole semester's worth of class work. I seem to recall Ionesco in my French textbook, including an image of a nose shaped like a circular stair. And I saw (and fell in love with) Rhinoceros when another high school used it for its contest play. There was no actual rhinoceros in that one, just puffs of dust as they supposedly ran by and physical work by the actors whose characters turned into them. The 1974 movie starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, who'd played the same role in the 1961 Broadway production, also eschewed real rhinoceroses in favor of Mostel chewing the scenery. But the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis built immense rubbery rhino outfits for their production in the 80s. And that, too, worked like a charm. Or a rhinoceros.

Whether Illinois Wesleyan University is giving their prop and costume people a rhino-sized workout remains to be seem. But their own Rhinoceros, that timely parable about regular people inexplicably embracing the beasts inside (and outside) to go along with the crowd, opens tonight at 8 pm at the Jerome Mirza Theatre at McPherson Hall on the IWU campus.

Here's how IWU's press materials describe their take on Rhinoceros:
The sublime is confused with the ridiculous in this savage commentary on the human condition. A small town is besieged by one roaring citizen who finds himself turning into a rhinoceros and who proceeds to trample on the social order. As with any "disease," more citizens become infected. "An allegory for our times." - The New York Times "It’s satirical humor, combined with its provocative theme and surprisingly moving ending, results in an evening that is strange, disturbing and arresting." - New York Post
The IWU Rhinoceros stars Chris Woodley as Berenger, a listless young man who is nonetheless a holdout from rhinomania; Will Mueller as Jean, his more punctilious friend; and Maya McHowan as Daisy, the woman Berenger loves. Brooke Emmerich, Holden Ginn, Melissa Iheakam, Paola Lehman, Jean Salgado, Juna Shai, Megan Spencer, Cami Tokowitz, Tuxford Turner, Travis Ulrich, Robert Wilson and Libby Zabit will make up the rest of the rhino-ravaged town.

Rhinoceros runs from February 27 to March 4, with performances at 8 pm Tuesday through Saturday and a matinee at 2 pm on Sunday. You can order tickets online here or call the box office at 309-556-3232.

Monday, February 26, 2018

MR. BURNS Electrifies at ISU

Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play has been around since 2012, but it seems even more timely now than it did then. Are we edging closer to the kind of apocalypse Washburn envisioned? Probably. As other playwrights and authors continue to grapple with the end of the world, Washburn is the only one that uses The Simpsons, blending pop culture, humor and wit into her dystopic nightmare.

Washburn opens with a small group of survivors after some kind of nuclear meltdown. They are sitting around a fire, trying to occupy themselves by retelling a classic Simpsons episode, the one where Sideshow Bob plots to kill Bart by trapping the whole family on a houseboat. That's the "Cape Feare" episode, riffing on Cape Fear, the 1991 movie remake of the previous Cape Fear from 1962. As the survivors in Mr. Burns focus on the fragments of "Cape Feare" they can remember, they also drop desperate pieces of information about their current reality, the one where whole cities lie empty, supplies are limited, almost everyone is dead or missing, and the few who are left are wary of everyone else, guns at the ready.

From this minimalist beginning, we move seven years into the future for Act II, where the campfire group from Act I plus a few new friends are part of a traveling troupe of players whose stock in trade is now performing "Cape Feare," complete with commercials for things like chablis and Diet Coke, goodies they remember from their pre-meltdown life. We learn there are other rival companies trying to monopolize The Simpsons turf, lines from the show have become a sort of currency, and surviving is still a cut-throat business.

And in Act III, 75 years farther along, we see just how far this storytelling odyssey has taken humanity, as they now use Simpsons characters like Homer and Bart in a grand mythic pageant. The Simpsons -- or at least a version transformed, overwritten and mixed up by 75 years of retelling -- has become the ritual and scripture of the new world, layered with new meaning to try to make sense of what happened way back when.

By the end, Illinois State University's production of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play plays like Greek tragedy, liturgy and Simpsons cosplay put in a blender, and that's exactly as it should be. Director Kristin L. Schoenback keeps the pace humming, with the necessary snap and crackle to hold an audience over three acts, and a strong overall vision of how and why we build stories.

The entire company is strong, doing equally well with the spontaneity of the early going and the stylization of the end. Thomas Russell and Johanna Kerber carry the narration nicely in Act I, while Megan Compton and Owen McGee step up as wannabe actors in Act II, and Sarah Ford and Everson Pierce face off sharply in Act III.

Scenic designers Allison McCarthy and John C. Stark, costume designer Amanda Bedker, lighting designer Laura Gisondi and properties manager Nick Chamernik make valuable contributions to the edgy and striking visual landscape that shifts from a dark campfire to a quick-and-dirty world of found objects and then a golden temple. I'm not sure who was responsible for the masks, but they're pretty nifty, too.

Choreographer Mattilyn Nation and fight choreographer Paul Dennhardt deserve credit for keeping things moving when they need to, and sound designer Morgan Hunter, music director Pete Guither and "chart hit" composer Jordan Coughtry up the ante on the aural side.

All in all, this Mr. Burns is provocative and snarky, with all the jagged pieces in place. It's also a helpful reminder to start memorizing Simpsons episodes now. You may need them in the coming nuclear apocalypse.

By Anne Washburn
Music by Michael Friedman. Lyrics by Anne Washburn

The School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University
Westhoff Theatre
February 16 to 24, 2018

Director: Kristin L. Schoenback
Music Director: Pete Guither
Choreographer: Mattilyn Nation
Fight Choregrapher: Paul Dennhardt
Scenic Designers: Allison McCarthy and John C. Stark
Costume Designer: Amanda Bedker
Lighting Designer: Laura Gisondi
Sound Designer: Morgan Hunter
Dramaturg: Nicole R. Kippen
Properties Master: Nick Chamernik
Chart Hit Composer: Jordan Coughtry
Assistant Director: Asa Wallace
Stage Manager: Kiara Irizarry

Cast: Paige Brantley, Erika Clark, Megan Compton, Sarah Ford, Emily Franke, Josh Harris, Lauren Hickle, Johanna Kerber, Emma Lizzio, Owen McGee, Daija Nealy, Everson Pierce, Pat Regan, Cody Rogers, Thomas Russell, Deanna Stewart and Caitlin Wolfe.

Running time: 2:30, including two 10-minute intermissions.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

ASSASSINS Is a Misfire at U of I

In Look, I Made a Hat, Stephen Sondheim's book that collects and discusses lyrics he wrote from 1981 to 2011, he talks about the genesis of the show Assassins, which he describes as a "book musical masquerading as a revue, featuring nine of the thirteen assassins who have attempted to kill the president of the United States."

It's an odd idea for a musical, perhaps, to look at the infamous assassins who have slithered around the underbelly of America, but no stranger than murderous women in Chicago in the 20s or the midlife  crisis of an Italian director or Sondheim's own forays into loony bin inmates and a barber consumed with razor-sharp revenge. But perhaps because its subject matter seemed "a little wrong," Assassins was produced off-Broadway first, at Playwrights Horizon, in 1990, with a cast that included Victor Garber, Terrence Mann and Debra Monk among its assassins. It's been steadily produced since then, with a very strong production at Urbana's Station Theater all the way back in 1992, and a splashy revival on Broadway in 2004 that earned a Tony for Michael Cerveris. Along the way, through London and San Jose and St. Louis, Assassins has been adjusted a bit here and there, including the addition of a song, but its basic structure, that book musical masquerading as a revue, remains constant.

Sondheim called John Weidman's book "a collage," and that's as accurate as anything, mixing people from different times in American history, working within its own time and space, overlapping pointy, sharp-edged pieces of the American Dream with gunpowder and fried chicken, with a sense of the theatrical infusing its grimy deeds. At its heart, it's a small musical, one that works just fine in a black box theater. (See: Station Theater production mentioned above.) That means it should be fine in the University of Illinois Studio Theatre in Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. And yet... It isn't.

Director J.W. Morrissette and scenic designer Daniela Cabrera rely on thin candy-cane-striped scaffolding and a circular stair set against the east side of their black box, with seating on the other three sides. There are signs and ephemera scattered here and there, with big dollar signs or "the right to bear arms" or other evocative phrases painted on set pieces, strings of twinkly lights, and a nine-piece orchestra tucked under the narrow platform that spans the top of the scaffolding. Unfortunately, Morrissette has chosen to play significant scenes on that gallery, up there next to the ceiling, which is hard to light and hard to see from major portions of the audience. And the orchestra is pitched too loud and too close, often drowning out singers valiantly trying to negotiate Sondheim's lyrics. Since this is a show that tells its story through its lyrics, that's a big problem.

Morrissette has the benefit of MFA actor Jordan Coughtry as John Wilkes Booth; Coughtry has the vocal and acting skills to make his part of the narrative really sing. Yvon Streacker is also good as Guiseppe Zangara, the man who tried to kill FDR, and the other members of the ensemble have good moments, but they are too often hampered by staging that leaves them isolated and distant from their fellow players and choreography that seems chaotic and messy. As a result, the pace and the individual characterizations suffer.

I saw the show on opening night and it may be that the pieces will gel as it continues its run, that everyone will settle in and find the truth instead of indicating the drama in their characters. I hope so. Assassins is too good a show for missed opportunities.

Assassins continues through February 11 at the Studio Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana. Although there is currently a waiting list for every performance, there were quite a few empty seats on the night I saw the show, which should mean there's a chance you'll get in from that waiting list.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Community Players 2018-19 Season

Community Players Theatre has announced plans for its 2018-19 schedule, opening the season with Peter and the Starcatcher in September of 2018 and finishing it with The Addams Family musical in July of 2019. Their season is the usual mix of plays and musicals, with one Tony-Winning Best Musical (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), one musical based on characters from cartoons (Addams Family), one play based on characters from another beloved play (Starcatcher), one play based on a beloved American novel (Little Women), one musical based on a movie from the 90s (The Wedding Singer) and one play that spawned a movie in the 90s (A Few Good Men).

Peter and the Starcatcher, Rick Elice's freewheeling, let's-put-on-a-show take on Peter Pan, spun off from a novel with a very similar name (Peter and the Starcatchers) written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Although it features music by Wayne Barker that was nominated for a Tony, it isn't really a musical and it was also nominated as Best Play in 2012. It won a Tony for Best Featured Actor Christian Borle, who played the villainous Black Stache. As described on the Community Players site, "From marauding pirates and jungle tyrants to unwilling comrades and unlikely heroes, Peter and the Starcatcher playfully explores the depths of greed and despair… and the bonds of friendship, duty and love." Auditions for Peter and the Starcatcher will take place July 9 and 10, with performances from September 6 to 16, 2018.

Next up is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the Broadway musical that played for 964 performances and won six Tonys in 1964, with another 156 performances and two Tonys in 1972 and 715 performances and one more Tony in 1996. In the original Broadway production, star Zero Mostel, featured actor David Burns, director George Abbott, producer Hal Prince, writers Burt Shrevelove and Larry Gelbart and the show itself all won Tonys. Stephen Sondheim's songs ("Comedy Tonight," "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," "Lovely") were part of the Best Musical award even if he didn't get singled out for his score. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum takes comedy back to its roots, combining situations from time-tested, 2000-year-old comedies of Roman playwright, Plautus, with the infectious energy of classic vaudeville." With auditions in September, Forum is set to open November 1 and run through the 18th.

To open 2019, they'll be back in play territory with Little Women, which is not the 2005 musical, but a 1996 drama version of Louisa May Alcott's Civil War era novel adapted for the stage by Marisha Chamberlain. There have been any number of takes on Alcott's story of the five March sisters growing up and figuring out who they are against the backdrop of war, loss and love, with actresses as different as Katharine Hepburn, June Allyson, Susan Dey, Winona Ryder and Sutton Foster all taking on Jo, the second-oldest, who dreams of becoming a writer. Maya Thurman-Hawke played the role last year in a three-episode Little Women from the BBC. "Interlaced with warmth, family loyalty and traditional values, all these important events provide us with a better understanding of our own lives. Penned by Louisa May Alcott 150 years ago, this much-loved classic tale’s message is still relevant for audiences today." Look for Little Women auditions in November 2018 and performances January 10 to 20, 2019.

The main character in the original film version of The Wedding Singer was a schlubby 80s guy who made his living, such as it was, performing at weddings. On Broadway, stars Stephen Lynch and Laura Benanti took on the roles played by Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore on film, with a new score written by Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics), plus two songs -- "Somebody Kill Me" and "Grow Old With You" by Tim Herlihy and Adam Sandler. Herlihy wrote the script for the movie and co-wrote the book for the Broadway show with Beguelin. This is how Players describes the plot: "It’s 1985, and rock star wannabe, Robbie Hart, is New Jersey’s favorite wedding singer. He’s the life of the party until his own fiancée leaves him at the altar. Shot through the heart, Robbie makes every wedding as disastrous as his own. Enter Julia, a winsome waitress who wins his affection. As luck would have it, Julia is about to be married to a Wall Street shark, and, unless Robbie can pull off the performance of a decade, the girl of his dreams will be gone forever." With all the big hair and crazy dances you'd expect from the 1980s, The Wedding Singer will play from March 7 to 24, 2019, with its auditions scheduled for January.

On the big screen, A Few Good Men was famous for Jack Nicholson snarling "You can't handle the truth," but Aaron Sorkin's 1989 Broadway play featured Tom Hulce, Megan Gallagher and Stephen Lang in the roles Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Nicholson took on film. The play also put Sorkin on the map and paved the way for critical successes like The West Wing, The Social Network, Moneyball and Molly's Game. A Few Good Men centers on court martial proceedings where two Marines face possible court martial stemming from the death of a fellow Marine at Guantanamo Bay. "The Navy lawyer, a callow young man more interested in softball games than the case, expects a plea bargain and a cover-up of what really happened. Prodded by a female member of his defense team, the lawyer eventually makes a valiant effort to defend his clients and, in so doing, puts the military mentality and the Marine code of honor on trial."After auditions March 11 and 12, A Few Good Men will be up and running May 2 through 12, 2019.

Ooky and spooky, The Addams Family musical had its try-out in Chicago in 2009 with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth playing Gomez and Morticia. After some tune-ups and fixes from bookwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and composer Andrew Lippa, The Addams Family hit Broadway in March, 2010. It focuses on parental and marital issues as Wednesday comes of age and falls for a regular boy, while Mom and Dad deal with their own romance going stale. Meanwhile,  Uncle Fester is in love with the moon, Mama, Pugsley and Lurch are up to no good, a host of Addams ancestors are swirling around the rafters, and Wednesday's boyfriend's uptight parents are caught in the middle. As Players would have it, "Everything will change for the whole family on the fateful night they host a dinner for Wednesday’s ‘normal’ boyfriend and his parents." This one gets three nights of auditions -- May 11, 12 and 13, 2019 -- with performances set to start July 11 and finish up July 28, 2019.

For details and information, visit the season announcement page at the Community Players website.