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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 02:55 am

A winter full of fine Springfield theater

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The cast of the Hoogland Center for the Arts production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ : Kevin Ford, Lynexia Owens, Debbie Ross, Tosh Gorens and Joel Tinsley-Hall.

The new year begins with exciting theater in Springfield, with the now-playing Chess, a musical by Benny Anderssen and Bjorn Ulvaes (of ABBA fame) with lyrics by Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), in a production directed by Laurie O’Brien at the Hoogland Center for the Arts, continuing this weekend (Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.)

The story, about a romantic triangle involving a woman and two chess champions, one from Russia and the other from the United States, is set during the Cold War years. Chess ran for three years when it premiered in London in 1984. I saw the 1988 Broadway production on the last performance of its short, three-month run. It is one of those shows that has great music and has developed a cult audience.

The production features towering performances by Michelle Boone, Kellan Fant, Josh Ratz and an ensemble of terrific voices, with vocal direction by Steve Rotello and choreography by one of the best up-and-coming artists, Anna Bussing. This Springfield Theatre Centre production is playing at the Hoogland Center, 420 S. Sixth Street in downtown Springfield. Call for tickets (217-523-2787) or online at www.hcfta.org.

Perfect timing is the upcoming production of the fantastic Fats Waller musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the Hoogland Center Jan. 27-29 and Feb. 3-5. This is a musical revue of songs by Waller, who wrote during the heyday of the Cotton Club in Harlem, sung by a cast of heavy-hitters including Kevin Ford, Tosh Gorens, Lynexia Owens, Springfield’s own diva, Debbie Ross, and Joel Tinsley-Hall. Ain’t Misbehavin’ was a Tony Award-winning and long-running hit on Broadway in the 1980s. Gus Gordon is directing with Matt Vala as musical director, choreography by Gary Shull, with Jane Hartman on piano. It’s a coup that Ross was coaxed to take part in a stage musical – it’s about time!

And a hilarious show, The Queen of Bingo, stops in Springfield to play two performances at the Hoogland, Sat.-Sun., Feb. 11-12. This is a comedy about two sisters who find meaning in life at the local bingo game – and the audience gets to play too! Call for tickets (217-523-2787) or online at www.hcfta.org.

A new play is being staged at the beautiful new Legacy Theatre on Lawrence Avenue in February: Den of Thieves, directed by Nicole Sylvester, Feb. 17-19 and 24-26, a black comedy by one of the best of the new generation of playwrights, Stephen Adly Guirgis. He has written some exceptional plays including Jesus Hopped the A Train, Our Lady of 121st Street and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, which is a favorite of mine in recent years.

Den of  Thieves is an intense, roller-coaster ride of a play about a group of misfits who join forces to steal a stash of unprotected drug money, somehow ending up prisoners in the basement of a mob boss. It has been produced around the country and has become a favorite with actors and audiences. This playwright knows how to tell a good story, writes outstanding, larger-than-life characters, yet characters that we can all identify with. And we are usually thrown off balance when he takes the story to a place we weren’t anticipating. The ensemble cast includes Cait Boatman, Blake Detherage, Paul MacDonna, Patrick Russell, Diane Sahogun, Larry Smith and Zach Wingerter. This show is the debut of a new company, Less Is More Independent Theatre, and will play in the lower-level lounge space at the Legacy (101 E. Lawrence St.). Call 800-838-3006 for tickets (or visit www.atthelegacy.com). This is definitely a new company to follow.

February can’t go by without a Lincoln play. Kari Catton is directing Heritage by P. J. Barry for Springfield Theatre Centre at the Hoogland Center, playing Feb. 17-19 and 24-26. Heritage is about the women who influenced Abraham Lincoln’s life, featuring Cynthia Higginson as Ann Rutledge, Pat Pennington as Lincoln’s stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnson, and Pam Brown as Mary Lincoln. An extra addition to this show will be period music performed by Mark Mathewson, Eric Schroeder and Steve Staley. Call for tickets (217-523-2787) or online at www.hcfta.org.

And the great 33rd Ill. Vol. Regiment Band will offer a Civil War-era music concert at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, Sat., Feb. 11, at 1 p.m., featuring Civil War dancers.

Theatre-in-the-Park auditions take place Sat., Feb. 4, at Western Oaks Baptist Church, Old Jacksonville Rd., from 9-3, for Father of the Bride, Bye, Bye, Birdie, Civil War Journeys, Damn Yankees! and To Kill a Mockingbird. (Info at www.theatreinthepark.net.)
So, you see, the winter season has never been a downside for theater-going in Springfield. These shows are all worth checking out.

Phil Funkenbusch is an avid fan of local theatre. He can be reached at. phildean5@att.net.

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