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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004 08:10 pm

backstage pass 11-25-04

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It's Thanksgiving, and that means the start of the Christmas season.

The holiday theater season kicks off next week with A Yuletide Festival of Song and Dance, a show by the Mature Mob that's being presented Thursday-Sunday, Dec. 2-5, at the Hoogland Center for the Arts. This year's production, in which Mrs. Santa Claus and the elves recall memorable holidays, is performed entirely by senior citizens. All of the familiar holiday songs are there, and the choreographic lineup includes tap, ballroom, and even line dancing. The show, directed by Don Bailey, is almost sold out. For tickets, call 217-523-2787.

The Springfield Ballet Company is presenting three performances of The Nutcracker at the Sangamon Auditorium on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 4 and 5. The production, featuring the Illinois Symphony Orchestra playing Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's beloved score and Julie Guttas as artistic director, becomes more elaborate each year and is always worth a repeat visit. For tickets, call 217-206-6160.

Blackburn College in Carlinville presents its own Nutcracker this year on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 18 and 19. This production features a narrator to weave together all of the plots of E.T.A. Hoffman's story. Call 217-854-3231.

Last year, Gus Gordon presented a live radio/stage performance of A Christmas Carol. This year, Gordon's company repeats the '40s-era radio studio format, complete with period costumes and sound effects, in a production of It's a Wonderful Life, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 3 and 4, and 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5. Ed MacMurdo and Mary Young are featured in the roles made famous by James Stewart and Donna Reed. The performance will be taped and broadcast on WUIS (91.9 FM) at 7 p.m. Christmas Eve and 3 p.m. Christmas Day. For tickets, call 217-523-2787.

On yet another stage at the Center for the Arts, the Springfield Theatre Centre presents Scrooge: The Musical, a Broadway-style version of the popular Dickens story. Leigh Ann Smith directs a large cast featuring Roger Streu in the title role. The show plays Friday-Sunday, Dec. 10-12 and 17-19.

One nonholiday production is playing, and it's a good one: Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, one of the great, great plays, is being presented at Illinois State University's Westhoff Theatre, Friday-Sunday Dec. 3-5 and 7-11. The Seagull is a comedy/drama centered on a famous Russian actress and her family. For tickets, call 309-438-2535.

But back to Thanksgiving -- or, more precisely, giving thanks:

Springfield boasts a wealth of talent, and some amazing actors and performers have played on local stages. One local actress with whom many these days may not be familiar is Mildred Miller, who performed here for more than 50 years under the stage name Mildred duLany. She celebrates her 90th birthday on Tuesday, Nov. 30. One of Springfield's best character actresses, Miller continued performing onstage well into her 80s. I worked with her on productions at the Springfield Theatre Centre, the New Salem Chautauqua Series, and the StoreFront Theatre in Havana of Morning's at Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Chicago Gypsies, and Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory.

Miller is the kind of actress who brings to mind the phrase "a real trouper" -- always positive and always making sure her audiences were entertained.

Truly a theater pioneer, Miller, along with her late husband, Bill Miller, brought dinner theater to Springfield in the 1950s after having performed in stock productions back East. Among her favorite shows were Private Lives and Blithe Spirit. The couple played at the old Abe Lincoln and Leland hotels in Springfield, as well as Clayville, and toured to many small towns in Illinois.

Drop Miller a card at the Sunny Acres Nursing Home, R.R. 3, Petersburg, IL 62675.

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