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Thursday, July 29, 2004 06:16 am

Backstage pass 7-29-04

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It's always good news when a theater introduces a new show, especially during the summertime when a typical line-up consists of the tried-and-true. And it looks like Theatre in the Park's decision to stage a little-known show like The Spitfire Grill has not deterred audiences from making the short trek to New Salem.

The Spitfire Grill, which concludes its two-week run this weekend, is a musical based on a 1996 film that starred Ellen Burstyn as the proprietor of a small town diner who takes in a young ex-con looking for new start. The film caught the eye of Fred Alley and James Valcq, two Wisconsin theater composers. One of their shows, Guys on Ice, has also become a hit at regional theaters in the Midwest.

Spitfire premiered off-Broadway in September 2001. It didn't have a long run in New York, but it did become a favorite of many. Sadly, the 38-year-old Alley died of a heart attack just two months before the show opened in New York.

I became a fan of the show before I saw it, just by listening to the CD of the New York production. The music is very melodic and has a Midwestern flavor, almost a folk sound.

Director Don Russell has gathered a strong, professional-caliber cast, all good singers who can also act, including Pat Pennington, Kathryn Milner, Cathy Doyle, Brian Bomke, John Sivak, and Linda Schneider.

The Spitfire Grill plays at 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, July 29-Aug. 1. For tickets, call 632-5440.

In other area productions of note:

• Don Russell gives six performances over the next month of the one-act He Knew Lincoln in the indoor theater at New Salem. Russell portrays Billy Brown, a Springfield man who reminisces about Lincoln in this 30-minute play. He Knew Lincoln plays at 2 p.m. on July 31, Aug. 7-8, Aug. 14, Aug. 21, and Aug. 28. Admission is free.

• Jacksonville Theatre Guild opens Man of La Mancha this weekend. Ken Bradbury directs; Keith Bradbury, Ken's nephew, stars. The two last performed the show together 27 years ago at the Pittsfield Theater. Man of La Mancha runs July 29-Aug. 1 and Aug. 5-8. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. (2 p.m. matinees on Sundays). For information, call 245-1402.

• Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn opens next week at Muni. Boasting a musical score by Roger Miller, the show last played the Muni in 1994. The cast of 47 features Rochester High School students Cory Blissett and Mike Presney as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, along with newcomer Mike Wallace as Jim. Big River runs Friday-Sunday, Aug. 6-8, and Wednesday-Sunday, Aug. 11-15. Showtime is 8:30 p.m. A performance for the hearing-impaired will take place Sunday, Aug. 8.; "Family Night" (kids accompanied by an adult get in free) is Wednesday, Aug. 11. For tickets, call 793-6864.

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