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Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2007 10:40 pm

Heating up the stage

The weather’s just another challenge for outdoor theater vets

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La Cage aux Folles runs through Aug. 19 at the Little Theater on the Square.
Untitled Document Every year at least one Muni Opera show suffers from the intense summer heat. This year’s victim was Oklahoma!, which ended the Muni season this past weekend. For a period show in which everyone — especially the women — wears layers of clothing, it’s no fun, but it’s a part of performing outdoor theater. This brings to mind the question we ask of ourselves each year: Why do we do outdoor theater, especially in central Illinois? Not only has the cast of Oklahoma! dealt with the upper 90-degree temps, Theater in the Park at New Salem also opened its production of Li’l Abner last week, during the hottest weekend of the summer.
Pam Brown played Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! during the recent heat wave. “We audition for Muni in March, and you tend to forget what might come your way in August,” she says. “One night before the show my internal temp went too high when they put the wig on me and I was literally boiling over, but I was able to finish the show because we had a prepared nurse on our staff, ready in the wings with ice packs, cold compresses, and cups of water. I was able to cool down with ice packs in my hose and a cold compress under the neck of my dress.”
For pros like Brown, adversity offers a special thrill. “It is kind of a challenge to see if your show can beat, or stand, all of the elements — heat, rain, chilly nights,” she says, but theater, she adds, is her passion. “I’ll take on anything — and survive — in order to do it.”
Shelly Flickinger of Theater in the Park says that she enjoys the challenge “of being able to finish your line of dialogue despite the fact that a gnat has just flown down your throat!”
Flickinger says that she wouldn’t trade an occasional gnat snack for the opportunity to perform at New Salem, which she loves for its intimacy, “the trees all around us, the sound of the crickets — it’s just beautiful!”
Muni veteran Donna Ragan says, “I have performed in extremes as far as temperature and misting rain, have eaten bugs, and competed with all the noise nature has to offer. I love theater, and I love being able to be part of something that gives so much back to the community.”
“Would it be better indoors?” Ragan asks. “Maybe, but on those nights when the weather isn’t perfect and there is still an audience waiting to be entertained, you kind of want to work harder, because if they are willing to brave the elements, they really need what you have to offer.”
Of course, it’s not just the actors and stage crews who must deal with the weather. We have some loyal audiences who brave the heat and show up for the performances. Li’l Abner, running at New Salem through Sunday, Aug. 20, is based on the famous comic strip by Al Capp and was a hit in the 1950s on Broadway. It is a fun night out with a winning musical score and some great performances, especially Michael Murphy as ‘Marryin’ Sam.’ Kudos to Linda Schneider and musical director Dave Shaeffer. (For tickets, call 800-710-9290). • The Little Theatre on the Square in Sullivan is finishing up its final show, the musical La Cage aux Folles, running through Aug. 19. The musical, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical (score by Jerry Herman, book by Harvey Fierstein), is a tuneful throwback to the 1960s Herman musicals (Hello, Dolly!, Mame). The show has lots of laughs and the cast is good, especially Chicago actors John B. Boss and Michael Haws in the lead roles. • The Little Theatre will stage a fall show, Honky Tonk Angels, running Oct. 18-21 and 25-28. Next season’s lineup has also been announced: Cabaret, Guys & Dolls, West Side Story, Annie and the new Elvis musical All Shook Up. (Call 888-261-9675 for tickets).

Contact theater writer Phil Funkenbusch at Phil.Funkenbusch@Illinois.gov.
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