Best of Springfield Arts & Entertainment
Channel 20's popular weather prognosticator Gus Gordon was active in the theater long before he began tracking storms -- he started back in the '80s, during high school in Cincinnati. His first appearance in a Springfield Municipal Opera production came in 1991, a year after he joined WICS-TV. Gordon doesn't have to capitalize on his TV popularity to get acting gigs: He's blessed with a rich and wonderful singing voice that's ensured him key roles in many popular local productions, including The Music Man, 110 in the Shade, My Way, and Forever Plaid. His passion for theater has him rehearsing between evening newscasts, and he often takes vacation time to perform. He can be seen in Sunday in the Park with George, which opens Friday, Sept. 17, and in Side by Side by Sondheim, which opens next month. Both shows are playing at the Hoogland Center for the Arts. Readers also embraced teen heartthrob Cory Blisset, another performer blessed with a great voice. Blisset recently played Huck Finn in the Muni's Big River. Mac Warren, who gave an exciting performance in Theatre Centre's As You Like It last winter, also received strong support from readers. Warren is the kind of actor who makes it all look easy.
Runner-up: Cory Blissett
Known primarily for her many leading roles in musicals over the years, Cynda Wrightsman also is a strong dramatic actress, a talent she showed to great effect in last year's 110 in the Shade. Last spring, Wrightsman gave a perfectly hilarious performance playing a has-been B-movie star in Roxy Group's Swingtime Canteen. Her comic timing was right-on, and she completely transported the audience back to the '40s. Runner-up Mary Jo Curry, now appearing in Sunday in the Park with George, is one of those singer/actors who really know how to "act" a song and communicate it. Audiences always connect with her. Other standouts recognized by readers this year: Mary Young, who hadn't performed in a long time, was back onstage last winter giving a wildly humorous and tender performance as Rosalind in As You Like It at Springfield Theatre Centre. Pat Pennington won raves for her performance in The Spitfire Grill at New Salem last summer, as did Marian Levin in the lead role of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women at STC.
Runner-up: Mary Jo Curry
John E. Erickson
Although John E. Erickson did not begin painting until late in his life, he proved quite prolific. From silkscreen prints to modernist acrylic paintings including portraits and still-lifes, Erickson produced more than 100 works from his home base in Springfield. A native of Champaign, Erickson taught for many years at the University of Illinois before retiring to Springfield and teaching part-time at Lincoln Land Community College. He was a member of the Prairie Art Alliance and Gallery, where his paintings were often exhibited. Sadly, Erickson died this past July. But the legacy of the artists named Springfield's best by Illinois Times readers lives on in his works, dozens of which will be displayed this winter at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.
Runner-up: Mike Mayosky
BEST GOSPEL GROUP
The Fantastic Jones Family
For more than three decades, Springfield's own Fantastic Jones Family has been wowing audiences with a unique blend of contemporary gospel music. A three-generation family tradition, the group performs regularly at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church -- where some of its members also serve as associate ministers -- and last year sang at Mayor Tim Davlin's inauguration. Nationally recognized, with five full-length albums, Springfield's best gospel band even has a recording that two years ago was nominated for a Best New Wave Gospel Award by Texas-based Gospel TruthMagazine. For that, and for all of their achievements, Fantastic Jones Family gets a well-deserved "amen."
Runner-up: The Chosen Ones
Hey that's quite a category you got there: No best country, cover, original, punk, funk, jazz, polka, or disco -- it just says "Best Band." And if "best" means "most popular" (and it very often does, despite what you masses-hating sourpusses think), then F5 deserves the title, given all the packed bars, overflowing festivals, and jam-packed street fairs at which they perform. Together now for several years with only a few personnel changes, the band plays Top 40, popular rock music, what the people want to hear -- and that makes it the best.
John Cota first heard Rod Grant singing karaoke and said to himself, "Wow! That guy has a great voice." He asked Grant what band he was in, and the answer was "None." So the two joined together with veteran local musicians to form the rock band Late Arrival. Many Illinois Times readers apparently think Cota is a good judge of talent: They picked Grant as Springfield's best singer. But we saw several strong contenders, representing the diversity of the local music scene. Other big vote-getters included the always-popular Trina Madonia, Gus Gordon, Cory Blissett, Nancy Kitchen, Joe Frew, Josh Reilly, and Tom Irwin.
Runner-up: Trina Madonia
BEST SOLO MUSICIAN
It's a crowded category nowadays with singer/songwriters galore and acoustic guitars everywhere you look. But it wasn't always that way in our fair city. Our winner, Tom Irwin, was a solo musician when being a solo musician wasn't cool. Yes, Irwin remembers when the only solo musicians in town were at the piano bars, blind and on the plaza, or named Miles. Many votes were cast in this busy category; other top vote recipients were Jane Hartman, Josh Reilly, Joe Frew, and Bonnie Ettinger. And yes, Irwin is the calendar editor of Illinois Times, but he didn't count the votes.
Runner-up: Jane Hartman
BEST THEATER PRODUCTION
Big River garnered the most votes in this category. Produced by the Muni in August, the show based on Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn had a strong cast, along with beautiful scenic and lighting design by Scott Richardson and Jeff Nevins. That show is always an audience-pleaser, thanks to the evocative Roger Miller score, and, well, we Midwesterners identify heavily with Twain's tales. Illinois Times readers also loved the intensity the students of Rochester High School brought to their spring production of West Side Story. Readers also applauded Theater in the Park's professional production of The Spitfire Grill in New Salem. And Julie Guttas' choreography (and the dancers who performed it) made the Muni's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers one of the summer's best shows.
Runner-up: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Illinois State Museum
502 S. Spring St., 217-782-7386
Who knew Springfield had so many museums? Some display old fuel pumps, vintage cars, and relics of Route 66. Others showcase antique firefighting equipment, military relics, and old coffins and hearses. Though they're all worth a visit, our readers pick the biggest as the best. A playground for natural-history buffs, the free-admission Illinois State Museum emphasizes hands-on learning for kids. Many of its exhibits -- on subjects ranging from the state's oldest fossils and rock formations to replicas of dinosaurs -- even include signs that read, "Please touch!" The Illinois State Museum is part of a system of museums and galleries located all over the state; you might also want to check out the museum's archaeological site in Lewistown and its artisan galleries in Chicago, Lockport, and Whittington.
Runner-up: Museum of Funeral Customs
BEST PLACE TO DANCE
2660 S. Fifth St., 217-522-7447
Is it the allure of the flashing lights, the familiar DJ music, or the large dance floor that makes Chantilly Lace our most popular choice for cuttin' a rug? Oh, it's all that and more Ñ the 3 a.m. closing time, the expansive lighted parking lot, the easy way you can tell a stranger how to find it (go where Fifth Street meets Sixth), plus good service and friendly faces. But the most important reason is the most obvious: the music. As one reader tells us, "It's got a good beat; I can dance to it; I'd give it a 98."
Runner-up: Rockin Robin
BEST PLACE FOR LIVE MUSIC
Underground City Tavern
Hilton Springfield, 700 E. Adams St., 217-789-1530
With its angled stage and many-leveled listening area, it's not literally the best place for live music. So in voting the Underground City Tavern as the best place for live music, Illinois Times readers most likely meant that the Underground City Tavern has the best live music. Nearly every Friday and Saturday, mostly roots-music bands -- blues, swing, country, folk or some amalgamation thereof -- are to be found onstage, entertaining the critters at the bottom of the Hilton. With two weekly open mics, one plugged and one un-, the UCT manages live music at least four nights a week. Other reader favorites include Marly's Pub, the Sangamon Auditorium, the Alamo, the Illinois State Fairgrounds, Jazz Central Station, and Bread Stretchers. One fan of live music voted for "anywhere." Bless her heart.
Runner-up: Marly's Pub
BEST PLACE TO SEE A MOVIE
ShowPlace 12 West
3141 Mercantile Dr., 217-793-6440
As owners of the country's ninth-largest movie-theater chain, the Springfield-based Kerasotes clan hardly needs a reason to celebrate. But this month gives the third-generation movie-mogul family yet another reason to don party hats. Not only does it mark the one-year anniversary of the grand opening of ShowPlace 12 West, but the giant multiplex located just off Wabash Avenue has also been voted the city's best place to catch a flick. With stadium-style seating, the theater has fast become a favorite for cooing teens, who cuddle in the back rows. It also doesn't hurt that popcorn and soda refills are free. And for those who like options, there's something to look forward to: The 40,000-square-foot site was designed to include three more screens.
Runner-up: Route 66 Drive In