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Thursday, Aug. 7, 2003 02:20 pm

Backstage pass

Another “Oz” opens at the Muni, “Distant Thunder” closes at New Salem, and poets return to the parlor of the Vachel Lindsay Home

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Sunday is the last chance to see the world premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Bounce” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago

Some shows keep coming back every few summers--Grease, Fiddler on the Roof, Peter Pan. This summer it's The Wizard of Oz at the Springfield Muni, opening this weekend and running through August 17.

Directed by Leigh Ann Smith, this Oz is based on the 1988 version produced by London's Royal Shakespeare Company--it's close to the MGM movie musical. The cast couldn't be better. Sacred Heart-Griffin High School student Lauren Vala is Dorothy, and her yellow brick-road companions are John Hinrichs as the Tinman, Mark Silberman as the Lion, and Ben Viele as the Scarecrow. Viele delayed his move to L.A. just for this play. "I got an itch to do one last Muni show before I leave," says Viele, an Illiopolis High School grad who spent last fall studying in New York at the School for Film and Television. Hinrichs is studying mathematics at the U. of I. in Champaign-Urbana. He was Lysander in last year's A Midsummer Night's Dream at New Salem, and his performance two years ago as a deaf boy in Rochester High School's Mother Hicks was one of the best turns by a high school student I'd seen.

Judy Burnette is having the time of her life playing the Wicked Witch of the West. She is scary, but also very, very funny. Balancing out the evil Burnette is Julia Harney's Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.

The man behind the curtain is being played by Abdul-Hakim Shabazz. "The Wizard is an enlightened snake oil salesman," says Shabazz. "He may try to scam you, but he won't let you lose all your money." Shabazz hosts a radio program Saturday mornings on WMAY. He is also a comedian and will be appearing at the Funny Bone this fall.

This Oz will offer a lot of laughs, a few scares (the flying monkeys really fly, thanks to ZVX Flying Illusions from Las Vegas), and a lot of color to end the Muni season. Call 793-6864 for tickets.

The musical Distant Thunder concludes its run this weekend in the outdoor amphitheatre at New Salem. Written by Ken Bradbury and Bob Crowe, the show features Don Schneider and a big cast singing the story of the people who lived at New Salem in the 1830s. This is the third summer for the show, which includes 13 song-and-dance numbers. Call 632-5440.

Corn Stock Theatre, housed in a big tent in Peoria's Bradley Park, is currently staging the downstate premiere of Anne Nelson's 9/11 drama, The Guys, through August 9. The Guys is a two-character play about a Columbia University English professor who helps the captain of a Manhattan fire station put together the many eulogies he must deliver at memorial services for his fallen men. Corn Stock's next show is Meet Me in St. Louis, running August 22 through 30. Call 309-676-2196.

Lincoln Community Theatre completes its run of 1776 on August 9 at the Johnston Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Lincoln College. Call 735-2614.

Bob Crowe--for the past seven years the producer of shows in the outdoor amphitheatre at New Salem--is retiring after this summer, so next year Wildloon Productions will be at the helm. Wildloon has produced The Orphan Train, Our Lady of Route 52, and the recent A Walk in the Woods. The New Salem season will be a joint effort between Pat and Kari Anderson of Wildloon Productions and Shelly Flickinger of Petersburg. "Our goal is to provide the surrounding communities with historical dramas, musicals, and family entertainment," says Anderson.

The "Poets in the Parlor" series at the Vachel Lindsay Home, 603 S. Fifth Street, will feature a reading by Sandy Baksys on Saturday, August 16, at 3 p.m. Baksys will read from Lindsay's work as well as her own. In the coming months, local poets John Knoepfle, Marcellus Leonard, and Dan Guillory will be featured. Call 524-0901 for more information.

Musical theater fans have through August 10 to see the new Stephen Sondheim show, Bounce, in its initial tryout at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Set from the late 1800s to the 1930s, Bounce tells the story of the American Mizner brothers (great performances by Richard Kind and Howard McGillin), who were known for making fortunes and then losing them. It shuts down this weekend, and then the show will go through rewrites before opening again this fall at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Sondheim (Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods) is still a master at lyric-writing and the book by John Weidman (Assassins, Pacific Overtures) takes us on a decades-long, episodic ride from the gold rush in Alaska to the real-estate boom in Florida. It seems to be up to director Hal Prince (Follies, Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera) to shape the show into the hit they're all hoping for. Call 312-443-3800.

Auditions for Springfield Theatre Centre's opening show this season, The Dinner Party by Neil Simon, will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. on August 16 (call 523-0878 for scripts and information).

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