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Thursday, March 3, 2005 03:51 am

backstage pass 3-3-05

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How long has it been since a high-school show caused controversy? A few years ago, Springfield High School’s production of a harmless Gilbert and Sullivan operetta caused a stir when a female student was cast in a male role. And a few high schools around the country have received some ire by staging The Laramie Project, a play about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepherd in Laramie, Wyo., but I’m still not sure why this play is considered controversial.

This weekend, Chatham-Glenwood High School is staging Chicago, and that selection apparently has alarmed a handful of adults who think the musical’s themes may be inappropriate for high-school students. “Absolutely perplexed” is how one mother, in a recent letter to the State Journal-Register, described her reaction to a high school’s decision to stage a play that features “murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, treachery.”

Laurie O’Brien directs the high-school production of the show, which is based on a 1920s play about a Chicago woman who shoots her husband and becomes a media darling during her trial. O’Brien is the kind of teacher who selects challenging plays that will give her students good experience and broad exposure to what American musical theater is all about. Two years ago she directed another Bob Fosse musical, Pippin, and last year she dusted off the 1940s musical Brigadoon. And she is fortunate to have some talented students to take on these big roles. Kates Rotroff and Yael Warach are the two leads (played by Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the film adaptation), accompanied by Joe Candioto, Aaron Smith, and Rebecca Herrington in featured roles. I’m sure that the production, which runs this Friday-Sunday (March 4-6) will end up proving another feather in Chatham-Glenwood’s cap.

Speaking of high-school drama programs, one of the area’s best is offered by Rochester High School. This one, too, has given students challenging works to perform. Last year Dave Shaw directed a powerful production of West Side Story. And this weekend (March 4-6) he is directing the students in a fascinating play, Steven Dietz’s Still Life with Iris. Set in Nocturno, a fantastical world inspired by author/illustrator Cooper Edens, the play tracks the journey a young girl takes to regain her memory and her home.

The play, produced around the country since its premiere at the Seattle Children’s Theatre in 1997, explores how the loss of one’s past steals the future as well and how our past defines who we are. This is not just a show for young people: The writing is exceptional and engaging, with a script full of fascinating characters. Don’t miss this one. Performances will be held in the Old Middle School gym on the Rochester High School main campus.

Another local high school that continues to raise the bar for local teen theater is Sacred Heart-Griffin. Steve Kaplan has directed such shows there as Children of Eden, Rags, and Les Misérables. Next week he helms the Broadway musical of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The show plays two weekends, March 11-13 and 18-20. To reserve tickets, call 217-787-9732.

In other news:

• Some local college students who do not regularly take part in theater have joined up to stage a production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. The show, produced by the University of Illinois at Springfield’s Women’s Issues Caucus, is directed by Candi Clouse, a graduate assistant in the women’s-studies program. The Vagina Monologues plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 5, in the Studio Theatre of the UIS Public Affairs Building. A preshow discussion with cast members starts at 7 p.m. in the UIS Visual Arts Gallery. For ticket information, call 217-206-7173.

• Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson of Springfield directs Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie for Illinois College TheatreWorks, with performances March 3-6. For tickets, call 217-245-3471.

• The Springfield Figure Skating Club presents its annual Spotlight on Ice at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, March 5, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 6, at the Nelson Recreation Center ice arena in Lincoln Park. These shows have become ever more elaborate and theatrical in the past few years. For ticket information, call 217-753-2800.

• Springfield Municipal Opera Association auditions begin this weekend. Adult auditions for the summer musicals (The Sound of Music, Ragtime, Annie Get Your Gun, and Beauty and the Beast) begin at 8:30 a.m. March 5, 6, and 12 at the Hoogland Center for the Arts. Callbacks take place March 13, and children’s auditions will be held Saturday, March 19. For more information, visit www.themuni.org.

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