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Thursday, Jan. 8, 2004 02:20 pm

Backstage pass

Springfield Theatre Centre’s production of Annie opens Friday, Jan. 9

The new year has begun, the Center for the Arts in downtown Springfield had a spectacular opening, rehearsals began this week for Springfield Theatre Centre's winter production of Edward Albee's powerful drama Three Tall Women, and STC unveils its production of Annie Friday night, promising to start 2004 off on a very high note.

But first, there are still some notable theater moments from 2003 that need mentioning.

In my last column ["Break a leg or two," Dec. 25], I mentioned the performances of Cynda Wrightsman (110 in the Shade) and Carly Shank (Proof), both local actors in top form. The year was very strong on acting, especially from Troy Kemp's moving from an almost ballet-like Gollum in The Hobbit to the troubled Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (both at STC), a strong, understated performance in 110 in the Shade at New Salem, and then creating a memorable Henry Higgins in Muni's My Fair Lady.

Ed Smith's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, also featuring Amy Wyckoff, Nancy Cole, Regan Smith, and Martha Plog, and Dennis Darling's original music for The Hobbit were two strong additions to the season at STC.

Muni Opera gave us some great moments last summer, including Scott Richardson's creative, eye-popping set designs for Big. Also, the colorful costumes in The Wizard of Oz,coordinated by Phyllis Maynerich, enhanced that show, which boasted the best trio of Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man one could ever imagine seeing. Mark Silberman, Ben Viele, and John Hinrichs seemed born to play those roles. Add to that Judy Burnette's hilarious and scary-at-the-same-time Witch of the West. Muni also gained high marks for producing two new works (Titanic and Big) and next summer will continue with the new musical Honk! Much was made of what went into the sinking of the Titanic onstage but the best thing about Titanic was the strong acting and powerful voices from the ensemble.

The highlight of New Salem's season was the acting ensemble of 110 in the Shade, which also featured the best performances I've seen from Gus Gordon, Karl Bockemeier, Jim Hepworth and audience favorite Rob DeCroix. Newcomer Charlie Germann and T. Duncan Parker gave great performances as Oliver Twist and Artful Dodger in Oliver!, which also boasted yet another strong turn by Carly Shank as Nancy.

The year ended with A Christmas Carol. As this tale, like Nutcracker, is so well-known and produced in theaters so often, Gordon Productions gave it a new look, producing it as a radio play in a 1940s-era studio onstage at Theatre Centre. The show was re-broadcast on WUIS (FM 91.9), which was the best by far of all the seasonal overkill heard on radio.

Looking forward, Julie Davis is staging a great Annie, running at STC Jan. 9-11 and Jan. 16-18. Her cast could not be better and she has made this show (which, face it, can be a trial for some to sit through) move brightly, thanks to Scott Richardson's fast-moving set design, Doug Hahn's and Bill Bauser's music, and Gary Shull's choreography. The number, "Easy Street," is always a showstopper but it's even been topped here by Gus Gordon, Carolyn Otten, and Lori Ann Fahnders performing Shull's expert choreography.

Davis was able to cast a group of orphans that really work well together, young Clayton Joyner shows off her voice during the "NYC" number, and 11-year-old Cassy Gaddis is a true find playing the title role. She's so good, fresh, and obviously talented, but not at all spoiled (like some Annie's can be!). She's a trouper-in-the-making in fine voice and displaying some wonderful acting skills. Don't miss this: you can't go wrong. For ticket information, call 217-523-0878.

Lastly, local actors have a chance to join a comedy improv group that meets weekly on Wednesdays at the Jacksonville Theatre Guild office building, located at 210 W. College Ave. in Jacksonville at 7 p.m. Brad Manker is the leader of the troupe, which currently has about 15 members and plans to give some experimental performances this winter. For more information, call the guild office at 217-245-1402.

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