The Wizard of Oz @ Champaign Urbana Theatre Company (CUTC)
Director Jeff Dare promised us the straight movie version of the iconic show, and Champaign Urbana Theatre Company absolutely delivered. Spearheaded by the vocally unparalleled Colleen Bruton as Dorothy, the perfectly cast primary roles led the The Virginia Theatre audience on the very adventure we know so well.
Utilizing not just the top community talent, but also combining adult and child actors (ranging 7-70 I'd guess) - and not to mention a scene stealing Toto - we got the full experience of charm and humor mixed with high level theatrical performance. Whitney Havice has once again exhibited her immense skill as a choreographer as the dance sequences - especially in the second act - were executed beautifully by an unexpectedly large and talented group of featured dancers. Zoe Dunn, in particular, was stunning and seems to be perhaps the most underutilized talent in the area.
Dave Ivy and Cheryl Morganson were responsible for the orchestra and vocals respectively. It is mind-boggling how a one weekend community theatre production can have this quality of sound and musicality. And of course there was the great organ with Dave Schroeder creating the iconic Virginia vibe both before and at intermission, but also contributing in places during the show - that was very cool.
THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE
In a cast this big, I can't mention all of the outstanding performances. Three things really stood out to me:
1) Will Curtis as the Cowardly Lion. Will was the youngest of the primary players - still in high school and coming off a great turn as Gaston in the CUTC summer production of Beauty and the Beast. He was perfection, making the character his own, but still being faithful to some of the magic of the original movie version. The fear and anxiety could easily have been overplayed, but he found the balance and this performance is worth the admission all by itself.
2) Susan Curtis as the Wicked Witch of the West. I was so excited about this casting, because Susan's personality is so big and wonderful that I've been waiting to see her with the vehicle to reveal that onstage. Once she put her green on - it was game on. Like her son, Will, she made the witch her own with a bit more humor and less one-note wickedness than the classic movie version. Although I was disappointed in her melting scene (spoiler alert - she melts), every scene the witch was in was riveting.
3) Laura Vavrin's costuming. What a task this must have been to costume not just the main characters, but also the dancers in their multitude of scenes, and the farm characters and the monkeys, and the munchkins. Really an overwhelming task - and it ended up broadway quality. Note to the makeup artists as well. Scarecrow in particular.
Speaking of the Scarecrow, Nick Hittle was fantastic - literally channeling the original. His experience in ballet was utilized well in the unique movements (and falls) of this beloved character. Lincoln Machula IS THE WIZARD. This man has the most unique and compelling voice in theatre and was fantastic - especially when booming as the giant Wizard head on screen. Great uses were made of the screen throughout to compliment the set. Jacob Smith as Tinman was strong and managed the difficult task of creaky movement and frozenness with ease. Jim Dieker (in his THIRTY-EIGHTH show for CUTC!!) was the most natural Kansasian as Uncle Henry and also a very funny and capable Guard of the Wizard. Kari Croop was perfection as the Good Witch - - - I just wanted more scenes for her! I also wanted more munchkin action - especially from the mayor, Cecilia Morber, who had the biggest role of the youngsters in the show.
I'm sure I've left out a lot - - - but there are just two more chances to see this great show and I want to post this so people see it and go tonight and to tomorrow's matinee! Great job CUTC!
The Last Five Years @ The Station (August 2019)
AIDA is one of my favorite love story musicals of all time. It begins with the end - two lovers preserved for eternity in each others arms. The story then takes us on a journey of how they met, fell in love, and stayed together until the end.
The Last Five Years from The Celebration Company at The Station Theatresimilarly opens (at least for one character and thus for the audience) with the end. We immediately see the devastation of the end of a relationship - the inverse AIDA - instead of eternity, Jamie and Cathy get five years.
Chelsea Collier has directed a Station masterpiece - a tight 14 song, 90 minute, 4 musician, 2 actor, 1 act show that will move you, shatter you, and ultimately leave you with so much to consider about both Jamie and Cathy, but also about your own relationships and journey.
While Cathy's story is told backwards from the breakup, Jamie's is inverted such that he moves forwards from their meeting. So the relationship is evolving and devolving until they cross paths mid-show for about ten minutes (ironically with the beautiful wedding song - The Next Ten Minutes).
Collier gives the characters separate space, with Cathy audience-left and Jamie audience-right. I don't believe they ever cross. And the way in which the characters make efforts to connect with specific audience members when telling their story (pleading their case) almost makes it feel like you are at a wedding and should choose whether you are on the side of the groom or the bride.
Collier double cast the roles such that they perform alternating nights. And having seen each over the last two nights (open final dress Wednesday and then opening night Thursday), I can assure you that this exploration is so personal and intimate that they are VERY different cast/actor determinant shows. You can ask us or easily figure out which cast is which night, but because this is a long 14-show run I highly recommend simply seeing both. It will be worth it.
Opening nights pairing was David French and JennaMarie Kohn, with Bryan Goode and Mariana Seda having performed the final dress. This is French's Station debut - and not since Warren Garver burst on the C-U scene with Chess in 2013 have I been so blown away by and excited about a new male performer to the area. It is one of the strongest performances I've ever seen as he effortlessly handled the challenging vocals, while also exuding a comfortability in his role so that while we might not like him, we understand him. Kohn has a way of expressing herself facially and playing with her delivery of lyrics that immediately broke my heart, and her vulnerability and warmth creates the perfect contrast to French's coolness. Their final song and the staging of the last prolonged scene is an image as indelible and classic as AIDA's - and the tragedy of it just broke me.
Goode and Seda are a different couple and are both more brash and direct in their approaches. Seda's Cathy is not so much wounded as angry, and she uses that brilliantly in the second half climax of "See I'm Smiling". Her character also ages back subtly through expression and wardrobe such that when we see her 5 years earlier at the end, she seems unscarred and young and so open to the love she doesn't yet know is going to crush her. Goode's Jamie is more aggressive and manic, and it was easy for me to see why this was not going to be good for Cathy. His vocal range is impressive and his powerful voice certainly doesn't need to be mic'd in the small confines of the Station.
The four piece orchestra is visible but just offstage - and the power and quality of the sound cannot be overstated (and is probably the reason the singers need to be mic'd). The string work by Barbara Hedlund and Collin Jung is outstanding and their visibility to the audience is excellent because they are clearly enthusiastic about this music and both get a chance to really shine. A small show at a small venue is so fortunate to get this quality of accompaniment.
Just like with the masterful movie Memento, I'm left wondering what the show would be like with each character moving forward - so I play Cathy forwards in my head alongside Jamie to see their love evolve together. I also am so curious about what the show would be like flipping the casting to see Seda with French and Kohn with Goode. Maybe they'll do one bonus double feature for super fans like us!
See this show. I'll be seeing it again. Cause, you know, we humans just love having our hearts broken. Like Hermes says:
'Cause here’s the thing
To know how it ends
And still begin to sing it again
As if it might turn out this time
The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek @ The Station Theatre
The stark set of The Celebration Company at The Station Theatre's The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek is comprised of asymmetrically assembled structures strewn with shattered glass. And Naomi Wallace’s brilliant play transpires in an asymmetrically presented timeline strewn with shattered souls.
We are taught in school about the Great Depression as an era, and as an economic crisis. What I hadn’t fully conceptualized until tonight was the correlation between the Depression and depression. Life stripped down to an existence devoid of comfort and stability creates more than just a hunger for food, but a hunger to be heard, to be seen, to be touched.
This is heavy and complex material for any director to take on, but for Saskia Bakker to be making her community theatre directorial debut with this show was a bold choice by Rick Orr and the artistic team at the Station, and a massive challenge for Bakker. And she crushed it.
Assembling a mix of veteran local talent with young actors back from their theatrical education endeavors for the summer, Bakker cast the five roles perfectly. The primary story revolves around the teenage characters Pace (Kat Blakeslee) and Dalton (Gabe Halstead) Their scenes were electric. Pace is one of the most compelling characters I can remember, and the energy and intensity that Blakeslee brings to it is pure magic. The alley style set (audience on both sides) and the intimacy of The Station allow for the subtlety and nuance of her performance to be fully seen and appreciated. Similarly Halstead is tasked with situational and emotional variation from scene to scene without leaving the stage and somehow deftly transforms from naïve to passionate to broken with each dimming of the lights.
David Heckman’s anguish as Dalton’s father, Dray, is heartbreaking and left me with different verses of the Dixie Chicks’ “Top of the World” running through my head with each scene – “I come home in the evening…Sit in my chair…One night they called me for supper…But I never got up…I stayed right there…In my chair.” Kevin Paul Wickart's role as the jailer ramps up dramatically in the second act, and Wickert is perfect as someone torn between the weight of regret and the desire to seize the opportunity to change.
Christine Des Garennes makes a strong Station debut as Gin, Dalton’s mother – desperately trying to hold the broken men in her family together.
We all crave touch...We all want to be seen...We all need to be heard...We need witnesses and partners as we find and travel down our path...So - let's reach out.
I can’t say enough about this performance. Considering I had front row seats in the Tony award winning Hadestown in the same week I had front row seats to Trestle at the Station – and didn’t feel any letdown or drop-off is testimony enough that this is a beautiful tragedy performed by incredibly talented actors. We are so fortunate to have this sort of art in our community. Ten more chances to see this show - I'll be seeing this again. Bravo.
The Taming of the Shrew @ The Station (June 2019)
Last night I finally made it to the Station Theatre to check out Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – directed by Laura Alcantara. Despite being on the Board at the Station, and having ultimate trust in Alcantara and her All-Star cast, I concede attending with a great deal of trepidation. Because – well – start with the title and go from there.
Two weeks ago on the show I interviewed Alcantara and Mindy Smith, the phenomenal and versatile actress playing Katarina/Katherine/Kate. They didn’t reveal much detail, but assured me that the cut of the script made it fun and tight while eliminating a good bit of problematic content, and that the production would “take what people expect and flip it upside down”.
As someone who has never done Shakespeare before (and frankly am more familiar with Bard parody than the great works themselves), the concept of cutting the script was new to me. As an actor I’m used to directors imploring – well, demanding – that the script be literally and precisely followed. After all, do I know better than the playwright? So – certainly wouldn’t that apply to the great one? Apparently not. And the task of this “cut” was given to Mathew Green, a prolific director and actor who is responsible for bringing great art to this community from on-stage and off virtually every season and cycle of shows. Green not only had the difficult task of shaping the show with the script, but also by finessing the role of Katarina’s antagonist – the gregariously arrogant Petruchio. Simply put, Green was exceptional and successful on both fronts and led this show into the surprising territory of not just being acceptably adapted, but hilarious and exhilarating.
Attending the show with an actual Shakespearean scholar to give extra validation and credibility to my novice perspective, I was treated to great insight about choices made and not made. Generally, this Professor Emeritus from the UIUC English Department was engaged and entertained throughout. I kept an eye on her and she was especially enamored with Green and Matt Hester’s outrageously costumed and portrayed Gremio. Ultimately, she was very positive about the show and especially the caliber of the talent and the production. Like the News-Gazette review by UIUC Theatre Professor Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, she was disappointed in some of the omissions of what Jenkins described as giving “short shrift to the complex journeys of the characters” by “eliminating text that does not get right to the intergender battles”. Well – if said eliminations mean cutting out the physical, mental and emotional abuse parts – then I’ll forego that complex and horrific journey any time. What they’ve done here is made this both accessible and acceptable – in a tight 1:45, including intermission – there is no lacking of furious wit and performance, while we are not subject to any of the “taming” sequences that would seem almost gratuitous to include. The audience responded heartily to the humor throughout – and it was a great house – especially for a third week Wednesday night being about 75% capacity. I watched a young girl with a teenage sister and her parents and the show appealed to all without anything that seemed to strike them (or me) as inappropriate content.
Much credit goes to visual and auditory choices that made for a rich sensory experience. The costumes by Susan Curtis were outstanding – leaving this in a period that could be 400 years ago or 400 years in the future. They were elegant, flamboyant and exotic – just like the musical inspiration of the show – Prince, whose purple rain flowed over the simple set and into several of the key wardrobe pieces. Jenkins was displeased with the “clashing design aesthetic” which didn’t create a place and time – but I found the “timelessness” of it to importantly elevate it from any particular period, and to eliminate any judgment we would have about the characters based on that era of politic or relationships.
Well – how did they do it? The script cutting, setting, and music certainly helped, but still – we literally have the words TAMING and SHREW in the title, right. The answer is in the sheer talent of the actors and the delivery and expression of words that careless handling of could still leave us with a misogynist, sexist mess. Somehow, what emerges from Petruchio and Katarina is a match. A match of untamedness, a match of desire, a match of wit, and a match of passion. Without a disparity of power between the two, and with lines delivered with winks, laughs, and other subtleties a believable love story emerges. If she has been tamed, then so has he, and both emerge as the two most present, alive and authentic of the 11 character cast.
It is unclear - even to the experts - what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote this play. It’s hard for me to believe that – even in its worst form – it was actually a statement endorsing the abuse and violence associated with the “taming”. Even in that reading, this would seem to me to be a tragedy - - perhaps with a misogynistic climate and characters, but not necessarily message. The “taming” in that reading would be tantamount to the Stockholm Syndrome or the surgical wrath of Nurse Ratchet in One Flew over the Cookoo’s Nest.
Fortunately, the Station version avoids all of that. It is a chance to appreciate the wit and fun of Shakespeare delivered by an extraordinarily talented cast, taking controversial subject matter and brilliantly flipping the script and giving us an unlikely love story of two epic characters finding kindred spirits and living an untamed life together.
In addition to Green, Smith and Hester, there are other standouts amidst the cast. In particular, Jordan Needham shines yet again as Bianca, the presumptive more desirable sister between her and Katarina. Lincoln Machula is a Baptista right out of Central Casting, with a fatherly presence combined with expressions of anger and bemusement that only someone of his caliber can muster. I was also impressed with Parker Evans (Grumio), who was given enough of a chance in the first act to show that he is a hilarious character actor and someone worthy of larger parts in the future.
Congratulations to all involved with this undertaking. It must have been a hell of a lot of work, but you are certainly enjoying the fruits of it all!