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Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003 02:20 pm

Backstage pass

A fall feast: Jack Benny, dueling Shakespeare, prestigious workshops, and the National Theatre of the Deaf

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Jack Milo is Jack Benny in "Now Cut That Out"

Springfield Theatre Centre's 56th season began last week with Neil Simon's latest Broadway comedy, The Dinner Party. The production winds up this weekend, with performances October 3 through 5. Set in a Paris restaurant, the play brings together three divorced couples in a chance encounter. The show, directed by Darin Harms, features Linda Castor, Rob Huck, John McAdams, Mike Murphy, Lisa Pauley, and Patricia Young. The Dinner Party is an adult comedy, not suited for children (call 523-0878 for tickets).

Gordon Productions mounts Jack Milo's one-man show Now Cut That Out: Images of Jack Benny, October 3 through 5 at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School, 1200 W. Washington. A hit last year at Sullivan's Little Theatre on the Square, the show details Benny's life and career, from childhood to vaudeville to radio, television, and Vegas (call 725-8134 for more information).

College shows are just starting up again, and in Jacksonville Illinois College TheatreWorks and MacMurray College are both staging productions of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet over the next two weekends. It's tempting to view these dueling shows as an extension of the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues. But both productions promise their own novel approaches. The first weekend, October 3 through 5, belongs to Illinois College.

"I don't want to say too much and spoil some cool surprises, but it will not be a tights-and-doublets production," says director Jon Austin. Erin McDonald of Springfield is Juliet and Doug Zerjal of Mascoutah is Romeo (call 245-3471 for tickets).

MacMurray director Nancy Taylor has set her version in an urban setting with a mixture of modern and Renaissance costuming. The MacMurray production runs October 9 through 12 (call 479-7208).

Lincoln Christian College is staging the drama I Never Saw Another Butterfly October 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m. This powerful and moving play takes place at Terezin, a military garrison set up as a ghetto during World War II, a way-station for people heading to Auschwitz (for tickets, call 732-3168, ext. 2254).

The musical Rags plays Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington October 7 through 12 (call 309-5567-3232), and Illinois State University's production of Amadeus is playing through October 4 (call 309-438-2535).

Broadway and cabaret singing star Ann Hampton Callaway is coming to Springfield to sing with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra and has agreed to conduct a master class on singing for musical theater this Monday, October 6, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. in the sanctuary of Central Baptist Church, 501 S. Fourth. This is a free class, sponsored by the Muni Institute. If you're interested in attending, please send your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address to: TheMuniInstitute@yahoo.com or The Muni Institute, 2505 Muirfield, Springfield, IL 62707.

Chicago teacher and director Sheldon Patinkin will be holding workshops at the Springfield Theatre Centre on October 11. The first begins at 9 a.m. for youth 13 to 18 years old. The second session, beginning at 1 p.m., is for those older than 18. Patinkin, a teacher at Columbia College, is a founding father of the Second City, and he's directed many superb productions at Steppenwolf Theatre. For more information, call Alicia Colber at the Theatre Centre (523-0878).

Ken Bradbury's new play, Singing at Seven, is receiving its premiere at the Jacksonville Theatre Guild. Performances continue this weekend, October 3 through 5. I've been working with actors Bradbury, Sylvia Burke, Felicia Coulter, Darlene Edwards, and Jodi Heitbrink on this play about a couple living and surviving together in a retirement home. It's always heartening to see a community theater going out on a limb with something new. Of course, Bradbury has been a fixture in central Illinois, but this play is a little different from what his audience expects. Curtain time is 7:30 Friday and Saturday; a Sunday afternoon matinee is at 2 (call 245-1402).

Sangamon Auditorium is bringing in the Tony Award-winning National Theater of the Deaf's critically acclaimed Oh, Figaro! this Friday, October 3, at 8 p.m. Oh, Figaro! is an adaptation of two French farces by Beaumarchais--The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro--updated to the streets of Spanish Harlem and the mansions of the Hamptons. The play has been a big hit with audiences since it began performances earlier this year. And next at the Sangamon Auditorium is Mozart's grand opera Don Giovanni, playing one performance Friday, October 10, at 8 p.m.; it's presented by Teatro Lirico D'europa. Call 206-6160 for tickets. What a feast!

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