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Thursday, June 26, 2003 02:20 pm

Backstage pass

“Big” doings at the Muni—plus three fresh shows at New Salem

The real Billy Sunday in action Bob Large portrays the legendary preacher in “Revival! With Billy Sunday” at New Salem

Summer has started on a high note, with some memorable performances so far: Cynda Wrightsman's "Lizzie Curry" in New Salem's 110 in the Shade was heartbreaking and moving; and Titanic at the Muni boasted many powerful singers.

Now comes Muni Opera's second show of the season: Big, the Broadway musical based on the hit 1987 Tom Hanks film, in which a young boy (Nick Sullinger) is granted his wish to grow up (he does, miraculously, overnight, as played by Greg Donathan). Lori Ann Fahnders (Always, Patsy Cline) is featured in the show, along with Suzanne Kell, Nancy Cole, Flynn Hanners, John O'Connor, and middle-school student T. Duncan Parker. This is definitely a family show, and, yes, the special dance number involving the giant keyboard that lights up when the dancers step on the keys (a memorable scene in the movie) is re-created here by choreographer Suzie Collier. It's been fun to go out to the outdoor theater this week before opening night to watch all the elements come together. Everything at Muni is big--big stage, big sets, big sound, lots of paint, more lights, and a full orchestra. Local designer Scott Richardson directs and designed this show, which is splashed with eye-popping colors. You can tell every single piece of scenery has been stamped with Richardson's seal of approval.

For Muni tickets, call 793-6864, or on show nights only after 7 call 529-5787. Wednesday is Family Night, when children 12 and under are admitted free. Seniors get in for $4 on Thursday. Muni shows begin at 8:30 p.m.

Sullivan's Little Theatre on the Square is currently running Gilbert & Sullivan's 100-year-old operetta The Pirates of Penzance (through Sunday) in a production that features choreography by Springfield's Gary Shull, who staged the numbers in last summer's Muni hit Anything Goes. Next week the musical revue I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change runs July 2 through 13, followed by Grand Hotel July 16 through 27 (call 888-261-9675).

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival began their repertory season last week at Ewing Manor in Normal. The shows currently playing are King Lear and As You Like It, with Knight of the Burning Pestle (an Elizabethan-era play) beginning July 10. The season runs through August 10 (call 309-438-8110).

Three fresh shows hit New Salem this week: Two for the Show, a musical comedy revue from Branson, Missouri, on Thursday, June 26; Bob Large as the colorful evangelist Billy Sunday in Revival! With Billy Sunday this Friday and Saturday, June 27 and 28; and Hootenenanny with Ken Bradbury on Sunday, June 29. Billy Sunday (1862-1935) served up lots of good material for this Chautauqua-style re-enactment. The famous evangelist from Ames, Iowa, played professional baseball in Chicago until he was converted in 1886. Known as a fiery and humorous preacher, Sunday held revivals across the country. One in Philadelphia lasted eight weeks and over 2 million people attended. Some of Sunday's pithy sayings include:

"Churches don't need new members half so much as they need the old bunch made over."

"Home is the place we love best and grumble the most."

"Whiskey is all right in its place--but its place is hell."

Sunday is buried in Forest Park, Illinois.

Bob Large is also known for his vivid portrayal of Jack Kelso in the annual New Salem musical Abraham! Large had originally set out to put together a one-man play about Methodist hymnist Charles Wesley, but he had trouble finding enough background material. "And one morning I was channel-surfing and came across an old newsreel about the repeal of Prohibition and they were interviewing Billy Sunday, who single-handedly brought about Prohibition in the first place-- and I realized what an animated, fun, passionate guy he was."

Large researched Sunday and began writing the script over the last year. "I wrote and wrote and re-wrote, finally finishing it last February," he says. The weekend's performance, which also includes music, will be the play's premiere.

Next week a troupe from Arkansas called "We the People Players" comes to New Salem on July 4 to perform War Letters, which brings to life letters written by men and women in the military from Civil War times through the Vietnam War. The play is based on Andrew Carroll's book War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence From the American Wars.

New Salem shows start at 8 p.m.; pre-show entertainment begins at 7. Tickets are $9 for adults, $3 for children 12 and under. Call 800-710-9290 for tickets.

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