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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2003 02:20 pm

Backstage Pass

“Oliver!” at New Salem, the 1800s in Lincoln, and plays for the short attention span. Plus, a confession . . .

Lee Slider, as Dr. Phineas Fairhead, demonstrates the art of phrenology at an “1800s Craft Fair” this Sunday in Lincoln

OK, I admit it: I saw Muni Opera's The Wizard of Oz three times. It was just one of those special productions in which the audience and the actors each contribute to making an uncommon theatrical event.

What did the audience bring? Well, the kids brought their imaginations, for one--and whoever says that kids these days lack imaginations is wrong. Just ask Julia Harney, who played Glinda, the Good Witch. Throngs of children surrounded her after every performance: "You're real, aren't you?" I heard one young girl ask her parents how Glinda could be in the movie and in Springfield at the same time.

The actors seemed born to play their roles. Muni may trot out a version of Oz every few summers--it is a money-maker, after all--but they'll have to wait a few extra years to live down the memory of Leigh Ann Smith's production.

The Wizard of Oz is all about creating magic, an increasingly difficult task in these days of blockbuster, computer-generated movies. Though the effects here were fun and well-done, they played little part in making the magic work. The actors, aided by a crack creative team, took us out of our time and into theirs. The magic bubble burst only when the Cowardly Lion came out with a reference to The Lion King. Though it got a big laugh, the joke also sacrificed a bit of the team's remarkable achievement--the suspension of disbelief.

Still, that's a small complaint. The humor and the drama of this Oz will go down in the history books: it was Muni's second most successful show in 53 years, with more than 14,000 people attending the eight performances.

Oliver!, playing through this weekend in the outdoor amphitheater at New Salem, is Lionel Bart's 1963 Broadway musical version of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. Rich McCoy directs a cast of strong performers, including Dennis Rendleman as Fagin and T. Duncan Parker as the Artful Dodger. Charlie Germann is the youngest Oliver Twist I've ever seen, yet he was able to hold the center of this big show, eliciting a lot of sympathy from the audience. All of the lead players created memorable, full-blooded characters, but the best was Carlyn Shank as Nancy, especially in her rendition of "As Long as He Needs Me," a lesson in acting that should not be missed (call 632-5440 for tickets).

This weekend Jason Goodreau's Phoenix Theatrical Productions presents a series of one-act plays and monologues, dubbed appropriately the "Short Attention Span Theater Project." It plays for two nights, Friday and Saturday, August 22 and 23, at 8 p.m. at the Springfield Theatre Centre. Goodreau has assembled his cast of young performers from Springfield and surrounding towns. Featured pieces include: playwright Christopher Durang's Mrs. Sorken, in which a well-meaning but slightly scatterbrained lecturer delivers an introduction to the theater; This Is a Test, dealing with the nightmare of taking a test you are clearly unprepared for; Shel Silverstein's All Cotton, about a woman who attempts to get a refund on a "guaranteed" blouse from an exclusive boutique; and The Last Touchy-Feely Drama on the American Stage, a satirical look at an ambitious community theater production, complete with color commentary from three sportscasters.

How did Goodreau select these plays?

"They were basically chosen because they personally made me laugh out loud, which I generally never do," he says.

As part of Lincoln's sesquicentennial celebration, Postville Courthouse will be the site of an "1800s Craft Fair" on Sunday, August 24, from 10 to 4. Artisans will be on the grounds demonstrating period arts and crafts. Lee Slider of Decatur portrays Dr. Phineas Fairhead, demonstrating the art of phrenology, the 19th century "science" of analyzing character by studying the shape of someone's skull. There will also be music by the Theshers and the Prairie Aires, and Don Russell performs He Knew Lincoln at 1:45. Zeno's Carnival of Culture is a Galena theater troupe recreating an old-time sideshow performance--with such stunts as fire eating and walking on glass--at 12:30 and 2:45 (call 732-8930 for more information).

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