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Thursday, June 5, 2003 02:20 pm

Backstage Pass

Theater in and around Springfield

The Springfield Muni Opera opens this weekend with the Broadway show Titanic: the Musical (June 6-8 and 11-15). With a score by Maury Yeston (Phantom), Titanic won five Tony Awards six years ago, including Best Musical.

The tragic story was turned into a stage musical almost a year before the release of the 1997 blockbuster movie. The Muni production, directed by Paul Presney Jr., boasts a large ensemble cast of 45, including Cory Blissett, Ann Collins, Pat Pennington, Ron Seney, Ed Smith, Fred Wassell, and Steve Williams. Judy Denton is the vocal director, Mary Myers the orchestra conductor, and Susan Collier the choreographer.

Presney has directed Phantom and State Fair for the Muni, and he's been mapping out this show over the last two years. The elaborate clothes have been custom-made by New England's Tracy Costumes. "For this show we've basically designed an entire stage, which includes three moveable stages, so it's much more than a 'set,'" says Presney. "The main stage piece is over 50 feet long, and backstage is a maze--several different levels and stairways. The cast calls it 'the labyrinth.'" Though everyone looks forward to seeing how the set will work, Presney hopes it will play a secondary role to the characters onstage.

Titanic: The Musical runs through June 15 in the outdoor theater by the lake (call 793-6864 or 529-5787 after 7 p.m. on show nights only). Wednesday is Family Night, when children 12 and under enjoy free admission. Seniors Night is Thursday, with senior citizens getting in for a $4. All Muni shows begin at 8:30 p.m.

This year the Muni has added new sound amplification and stage lighting, as well as lighting around the grounds. A great boost is the addition of another exit out of the parking lot for eastbound traffic.

Bob Crowe, producer of Theatre-in-the-Park at New Salem, went a bit out on a limb with the season-opener, 110 in the Shade. The show will play beautifully in that outdoor space, but most people won't be familiar with the musical. Still, the fact that the stars are Cynda Wrightsman and Gus Gordon--as well as that the 60-member cast features the Menard County Singers--should draw folks in to see this one. Musical theater lovers call this show a lost treasure. Don Russell directs.

110 in the Shade definitely deserves a wider audience. It has a melodic score by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (The Fantasticks) and is based on the 1954 Broadway play The Rainmaker by N. Richard Nash. A 1957 film starred Katherine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster, who memorably played the con man promising to bring rain to a drought-stricken Western town. The musical version opened on Broadway in 1963 and ran for 330 performances.

"This has been a show I've been dying to do for years," says Gus Gordon. "It doesn't get performed very often, so when Don asked if I'd be interested in doing in it, I jumped at the chance. How often does the weatherman get a chance to play 'The Rainmaker?'"

The cast also features Karl Bockemeier, Rob DeCroix, Jim Hepworth, and Troy Kemp.

"It's a great show," says Gordon. "But it had the misfortune to open in the same season as Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl, and kind of got lost in the shuffle." Call 1-800-710-9290 for tickets.

Wildloon Productions concludes its powerful production of A Walk in the Woods, with three more performances (June 6-8) at the Springfield Theatre Centre. The two-character play by Lee Blessing features Don Schneider and Doug McDonald as American and Russian diplomats trying to work out an arms agreement in Geneva, Switzerland. Though a weighty subject, it's also a play with real humor, and for once these types of characters are allowed to be played as flesh-and-blood human beings. Pat Anderson is the director. Call 523-0878 for ticket reservations.

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