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Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004 12:04 pm

Backstage Pass

Swingtime Canteen

When Roxy Group's Swingtime Canteen opens this weekend at the Center for the Arts, many will remember the weekend after 9/11 when this valentine to the World War II-era USO shows first played at New Salem. Hearing the cast sing "I'll Be Seeing You" four days after the tragedy at the World Trade Center was almost too heart-wrenching to think about, but it was also some kind of cathartic experience. So, what will the feelings be this weekend, hearing that song again as audiences reflect on the many U.S. military men and women who have died in Iraq in the past year, as well as those serving over there right now?

Remembering back to that week two years ago, director Scott Richardson noted that they did consider canceling the performance at the time. "But we decided that since the show was actually inspired by the World War II USO shows we would proceed, in the tradition of the USO, and try to be a morale booster to those who needed it."

There is a scene in the show with loud air-raid sirens and bomb effects. Because the show was performed on the outdoor amphitheater at New Salem, the staff warned campers that they'd be hearing these effects during rehearsals and performances for a few nights.

Swingtime Canteen is more than just a musical revue of great standards. It actually has a semblance of a story and the singers play characters putting on the show. Cynda Wrightsman plays a faded movie star and sings "You'll Never Know" and "A Nightingale Sings in Berkeley Square." Included in the long list of songs are: "Apple Blossom Time," "Sentimental Journey," "Accentuate the Positive," "In the Mood," and an Andrews Sisters medley.

Ann Collins, who was in the show two years ago and is repeating her role in the current production, remembers that week and those performances well. "Each night I came out on the stage to give a speech to the audience, to sort of tell them what they were going to hear, and talk about why we were doing it. Each night before going out to give that speech, I'd wonder if I'd be able to do it. You know, every show we do, we do it for the audience, but that production was even more so. This time we want to be able to give people an hour-and-a-half to get away from things, to just come and be entertained."

Alongside Collins and Wrightsman, Swingtime Canteen also features Elizabeth Donathan, Lori Ann Fahnders, and Amy Welch. The show runs Feb. 27-29 and March 5-6 (for reservations, call 753-6100).

Among other performances of note:

• The Acting Company comes to Sangamon Auditorium with one performance of Shakespeare's powerhouse Richard III, at 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 27 (for tickets, call 206-6160). One of the nation's acclaimed theater companies since its start in 1972 (with actors such as Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone), the actors of the current troupe have actually been in-residence in Springfield all this week, giving a five-day intensive theater arts program for students at Lanphier High School.

• "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players" is the beginning of a famous speech from Shakespeare's As You Like It, being staged by Michael Savage at Springfield Theatre Centre next week, running March 5-7 and 12-14. This production models itself after a version produced at the Public Theatre in New York last year in which all the characters are played by a group of seven actors. Savage's actors (including Felicia Coulter, Jim Cox, Sandra Fritz, Mary Young, Chris McCombs, Erin Sanders and Mac Warren) bring a raw energy and beautiful simplicity to one of Shakespeare's best comedies. This is going to be a fast-paced production and a great introduction to the Bard (for tickets, call 523-0878).

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