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Thursday, July 14, 2005 10:19 pm

backstage pass

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Calvin MacLean as Malvolio and Sean Ryan Kelley as Feste in the Illinois Shakespeare Festival’s production of Twelfth Night
PHOTO BY PETE GUITHER

So much theater is being performed in the region right now, it’s impossible to see it all. Fortunately, I was able to enjoy three excellent productions last week that prove central Illinois a great theater center: Beauty & the Beast in Sullivan, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Bloomington, and Broadway, a delightful relic of the Roaring ’20s, in Urbana.

Because the Muni is staging Beauty & the Beast on the big outdoor stage in August, I decided to see a smaller version of the musical at the Little Theatre on the Square. As usual, the directing and design team configured a big musical to fit a small stage — and the intimacy actually works for this show. Strong performances here more than make up for the lack of a large cast. Among the highlights are Ann Borders as Mrs. Potts, especially in her rendition of the title song; Whit Reichert as Clogsdale; Michael Haws as Maurice; and Kristen Smith as Belle. Haws’ character, the heroine’s father, brings to mind Christopher Lloyd’s Doc in the Back to the Future films. Reichert’s comedic skills are always on target, and his characterization of the clock is hilarious. Strong performances are delivered by Aaron Lake as the Beast and Luke Mills as LeFou. The show runs through July 17; Fiddler on the Roof begins July 20. For info and tickets, call 217-728-7375 or visit www.thelittletheatre.org.

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival’s summer season includes Macbeth, Henry VIII, and Twelfth Night, which I saw Sunday night at Ewing Manor, a gem of an outdoor theater. Joel Fink of Chicago’s Roosevelt University directs Twelfth Night, setting it in the Victorian era. As is usual with this theater company, the blending of professionals with student actors works well, and the cast boasts some exceptional actors, especially David Kortemeier as Sir Andrew, in a riotous performance, as well as festival artistic director Calvin MacLean, who portrays Malvolio.

The festival’s Green Show (an always-fun preshow performance beginning at 7 p.m. in the courtyard), titled “What You Will,” and is presented in a hilarious game-show format. The festival runs in repertory through Aug. 13. Call 309-438-8110 for tickets or visit the festival’s Web site, www.thefestival.org.

My favorite show is an old chestnut of a play being given a stunning performance at the Studio Theatre at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Sue Lawless directs Broadway, a seldom-produced play by George Abbott and Philip Dunning. (Lawless directed a 1920s musical, The Five O’Clock Girl, that I saw on Broadway in the early 1980s, and she has a strong feel for period pieces such as this one.) Lawless brings a museum piece to life and has a perfect cast that’s up to the task.

A hit when it opened in 1926, Broadway influenced many later shows and movies. Its story, that of a chorus girl and song-and-dance man trying to make it in showbiz, and its characters — gangsters, a Times Square cop, a chanteuse, a nightclub owner, and other denizens of the theaters — should be familiar to audiences. If you want to see something fun and top-drawer, this is the show. Broadway runs through July 31 (in repertory with My Three Angels and Last of the Red Hot Lovers). For info and tickets, call the box office at 217-333-6280 or visit krannertcenter.com.

• The Muni’s production of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, starring Mary Myers as Annie Oakley and John O’Connor as Frank Butler, opens this weekend. Chuck Hoots directs the show, which enjoyed a recent revival on Broadway in a reworked version.

Mary Myers has climbed from the orchestra pit, where she is usually conducting or playing percussion, to take the star spot onstage, and it’s about time. Myers has thrown herself and her strong voice into the role, and the audience will embrace her in a part that has been played by Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, and Bernadette Peters. The show runs July 15-17 and 20-24. Call 217-793-MUNI for tickets; more info is available at www.themuni.org.

• Last week the Springfield community lost another longtime member, Virginia O’Brien. O’Brien, who died July 5, had been involved in local theater for many years, working on and performing in shows at the Muni and the old Springfield Theatre Guild. She played Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music and Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret and appeared in many other musicals, including Carousel, Irene, Gigi, Tenderloin, The Music Man, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. She also enjoyed working in smaller alternative theater, such as plays directed by Guy Romans in the 1970s and productions of the Mid-America Playwrights Theatre. I got the chance to work with her when she played a character in a Sangamon Valley Historical Society cemetery walk at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Virginia was of the old school, definitely a “There’s No Business Like Show Business” trouper.

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