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Thursday, June 30, 2005 01:45 am

backstage pass 6-30-05

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The show of the summer is Ragtime.

The musical opened last Friday at the Springfield Muni Opera and runs through this Sunday, July 3. There is not one weak performance in this production. In fact, this is one of those times when every single part is absolutely right. Ragtime features Mary Jo Curry, Tony D. Young, Duane Fant, Clarissa Williams, and Stephan A. Kaplan, plus a large cast of singers, all bringing E.L. Doctorow’s novel (and subsequent film) about turn-of-the-century New York to life on the Muni stage. Not many companies attempt this show because it is so big, has so many characters, and is definitely not garden-variety summer-theater fare.

Curry gives a touching performance as the mother of a turn-of-the-century WASP family in New Rochelle. Young commands the stage in every scene he performs as Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black man who finds himself fighting for what seems to be a lost cause. Cory Blissett delivers a strong performance as the young brother of Curry’s character, and Rebecca L. Sykes brings immense power to Emma Goldman. The same may be said of Robert Ingram Jr. in the role of Booker T. Washington. Both Sykes and Ingram make flesh-and-blood characters of these historical figures from the past. The heart and soul of the show, though, is Kaplan in the role of Tateh, the Jewish immigrant who finds himself struggling to make his way in the new world. Kaplan gives a huge, complex, thoughtful performance that includes everything from humor to rage to musical-comedy numbers and plaintive ballads. He is unforgettable.

Director Laurie O’Brien and choreographer Kathy Wagner move this 62-member cast around the stage to great effect. And vocal director Steve Rotello succeeds in coaching his cast in the singing of several different styles of music. This show is a chorus member’s dream — so many big goosebump-inducing anthems throughout, as well as fun songs such as the number sung by a group of men at a baseball game. Dia Langellier’s orchestra couldn’t be better. Don’t miss this one. For tickets, call 217-793-MUNI (6864).

On a sad note, Ragtime marked the final credit for local costume designer Nancy Whalen, who died last week. On the costuming scene for more than 40 years, she worked on most of the productions for the Muni and Springfield Theatre Centre each season, which puts the number of shows she’s costumed in the hundreds. She loved color and always made sure there was plenty of it on our stages.

• Illinois Shakespeare Festival’s summer season begins this week with two of the three shows in repertory beginning performances: Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays, and Twelfth Night, the Bard’s humorous look at the follies of love. Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson, director of theater at the University of Illinois at Springfield, plays Duncan in Macbeth and will portray the Lord Chamberlain in Henry VIII, which begins its run July 14. Call the Festival box office at 309-438-8110 for tickets.

• Fans of Broadway classics are invited to take in a shortened version of Guys & Dolls (titled Guys & Dolls Jr.!) at Theatre in the Park at New Salem beginning this weekend. Derry Dalby directs a cast of teens in the ’50s musical based on Damon Runyon’s characters. The show runs July 1-3 and 7-10. For tickets, call 800-710-9290.

• And music of the 1930s and ’40s continues with the final performances of Swing! in Sullivan at the Little Theatre on the Square. All the standards are there — “Blues in the Night” and “I’ll Be Seeing You,” among others — presented by a young, talented cast of singers and dancers. The show ends Sunday, and the Little Theatre production of Beauty & the Beast (one of the many productions of the musical playing in the area this summer) starts next week, running July 6-17. For tickets, call 888-261-9675.

• For a somewhat different look at acting, take a drive out to New Salem and see some of the village’s “interpreters.” Historic-site interpreters are the people at New Salem who wear 1830s clothing and are found in the various houses throughout the reconstructed village. To see Charlie Starling or Bob TeRonde as the local schoolmaster is a lesson in acting itself. These professional staff members completely transform themselves and take us back to another time. Don Ferricks, Barbara Guinan, Phyllis Hitchcock, Barbra Lagier, Deann Shelabarger, and Donna Waters are just a few of the many who regale tourists with stories, many times becoming the characters themselves. They seem to have perfected the art of storytelling to the point that you do not even realize the work involved. For information about the goings-on in the village at Lincoln’s New Salem, call 217-632-4000.

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