Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Christmas

So this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young

A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear
And so this is Christmas
For weak and for strong
For rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong
And so happy Christmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red ones
Let's stop all the fight
A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear
And so this is Christmas
And what have we done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young
A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear
War is over over
If you want it
War is over

(Thanks to John)

Friday, December 4, 2009

- Theater Review - A Christmas Carol

Bradley University Theatre's holiday offering is the Dickens classic "A Christmas Carol - A Ghost Story Of Christmas".

I confess that I was not looking forward to this one. Although I love Dickens, this story was penned over 150 years ago and has been done in many versions; in film, on stage, for television, live and animated.
What could possibly make it interesting again?

Well, the BU production adds just enough technology along with fine performances to hold our attention and remind us how truly charming this timeless tale is.

The three spirits are projected video enhancements, and the sparse set is augmented by backstage miniatures that are shown on a large screen above the stage. The ghosts are made even more effective through the use of fog and sound distortion. (My one complaint is that the sound quality was uneven and so loud in places that it sent some frightened youngsters scurrying out of the theater.)

The performances were, for the most part, very good. Even though a couple of the actors flubbed their lines on opening night, they continued on like true troupers.
The stand out dramatic performance was Jeremy Behrens as Scrooge. He did a great job as the old Humbug who comes to understand the meaning of Christmas and the need to keep it in one's heart throughout the year.

Following the short play (under one hour), the cast showed off the backstage technology and sang some carols, including a most charming a capella duet. They then divided the full house audience up into twelve sections, and conducted a sing-along with physical gestures of (you guessed it!) "The Twelve Days of Christmas". The audience really got into this fun exercise and a good time was had by all.

This production has a short run, only through this weekend. So, if you are not yet in the Holiday spirit, please go see this show.

I guarantee you will have a dickens of a time and will be humming a carol as you leave the theater.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

- Theater Review - Cirque Dreams Illumination

First of all, this ain't really theater.

It's a gymnastics exhibition with a soundtrack and a light show.
OK, some pretty amazing gymnastic feats at that, but still just not my cuppa.

In addition to the gymnastics and a bit of magic, there was a skit involving four audience members that was cute, but predictable and much too long.

No programs were handed out for this performance...what is with that? Cost savings?

After one hour, the show abruptly stopped, and since no one had a program, people sat there wondering if it was intermission, technical problems, or a very short program. Well, it turned out to be intermission... one of the longest intermissions I can remember, nearly half an hour.

"Cirque" is of course French for "Circus", and the bottom line is this: If I want this type of fare, I will go to the circus.

This simply is not what I expect when I subscribe to the Broadway Theater series.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Here's Another Thing That Ticks Me Off!

...two things actually.

As you can tell from recent posts, I have been seeing a lot of live theater lately. In my lifetime, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to see a lot of good theater (and bad) in a lot of different places; London, New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, and a whole lot of small local theaters, here and elsewhere.
While it pains me to say it, say it I must:

The rudest theater audiences anywhere are Peoria audiences.

Here are two ways in which their rudeness continues to astound me.

1. Texting during performances. It amazes me that anyone would even consider doing this. Patrons are instructed verbally, as well as in the program to "turn off all devices". Never once have I seen this occur anywhere else; never in Chicago, never in St. Louis. And yet it happens with increasing frequency here in Peoria.
Earlier this season at Eastlight, an extended family was seated next to me; mother, father, two boys, little girl, and grandma to my immediate right. No sooner had the lights gone down than both boys whipped out their phones and began texting. Finally, I turned to Grandma and said "Please have them put their phones away. It's very distracting." Grandma looked at me like I was from another planet and then looked back to the stage without a word, to me or to the boys. Fortunately the little girl overheard and was embarrassed enough to convince her brothers to put their phones away.
At the most recent performance at the Civic Center, a forty-ish couple sat to my left. Twice during the play, the man took out his phone and began texting, shining the phone light on everyone around him. The second time, I leaned forward to give him "the look". He was of course oblivious to it, since he was concentrating on the life-and-death messages on his screen. The woman did notice, and she simply turned her back to me. Without saying a thing to her companion, she actually sat sideways in her seat for the rest of the performance.
So, to you folks who are so very important that you cannot remain out of touch with your fan club for an entire two hours, please do everyone involved a big favor and STAY HOME!

2. Talking through the overture. Just so you know that I am not a total Theater Cop, it does not bother me if someone whispers during a performance to make a comment or ask a question of a companion. If it is done discreetly, it is no big deal.
In Peoria, however, the pre-performance chatter (which often can be closer to hootin' and hollerin' than chattering) frequently continues through the overture until the curtain goes up and the actors appear on stage.
To you people, let me explain this. In a musical, the overture is part of the play!
When the music starts, SHUT UP!

Thanks for listening.
I feel better now.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is absolutely the best holiday on the calendar.

No church-going obligations (or guilt for not going!). No stress and rush with shopping for gifts or addressing cards. No flags to hoist or parades to attend.

Nope, Thanksgiving is only about eating and visiting with loved ones. And these just happen to be two of my very favorite things in the whole world.

My mother was the glue that held our family together. When she passed at a much too early age, my brothers and sisters and I divided up the holidays with a promise to never drift apart. I was fortunate to claim Thanksgiving as my holiday to host. Although most of my family live 90 miles south, this is the one day of the year when they all drive up to spend the day at my house.

It promises to be a day of good food and good times...a little reminiscing, a little looking forward, a little laughing, and maybe even a little sorrow.

Like most of you, my family and loved ones are at the very top of my things-to-be-thankful-for list.

I could write more, but there's a turkey brining, and a ham to glaze, and 10 lbs. of potatoes waiting to be peeled, and vegetables to chop, and....

Here's wishing everyone a great day with family and friends!
Don't forget to stop and consider ALL the things you have to be thankful for.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

- Theater Review - No Exit

Illinois Central College Theatre Program's latest presentation, "No Exit", is a veritable tour de force.

This dark drama is Jean-Paul Sartre's personal vision of Hell. Indeed, the entire one act play takes place in a single room in Hell. The room has one entrance door, three couches, and (of course) no exit. The set is stunning in its simplicity and effectiveness.

The fun begins when Valet, played with devilish abandon by Jacob Uhlman, leads the first of three lost souls into these new eternal quarters. Vincent Cradeau (Brenton Pfaff) is a military deserter, wife abuser, and all around coward. He is soon joined by Inez Serrano (Bethany Shuford), a low-level Lesbian clerk, home wrecker, and all around sadist. The third roommate is Estelle Delauney (Shadia Ghantous), a young attractive and vain woman who married an older man for money. When her infidelity produces a child, she throws the infant from a cliff to prevent her husband from finding out about the affair. This action causes the suicide of her lover and the child's father.

The next 90 minutes chronicle the gut-wrenching interactions of this despicable trio, and we are shown how each creates his or her own individual Hell through personal insecurities and cruelties to each other. This is summed up by Cradeau's declaration (and Sartre's most famous quote) "Hell is other people".

This performance is flawlessly directed by Robin Berkely. Jacob Uhlman has limited stage time as Valet, but he makes every minute count. The other three actors, Brenton Pfaff, Bethany Shuford, and Shadia Ghantous deliver some of the finest performances seen locally in quite awhile. Simply excellent.

Hell never looked so good!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

- Theater Review - Speed-the-Plow

The Corn Stock Winter Playhouse continues its 2009-2010 season with David Mamet's classic "Speed-the-Plow".

Mamet, a Chicago native and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, is known for his gritty, streetwise, sometimes vulgar, rapid-fire dialogue. This play provides a definitive example.

This three-character play is a classic tale of Hollywood, and the battle between money and Art. Two Tinseltown producers struggle with the choice of whether to produce a surefire formulaic blockbuster or a meaningful and artistic vision of mankind's apocalyptic doom. The choice is further complicated by the intercession of a sultry office temp. In cynical Hollywood, can true Art triumph over lust for profit?

Amy Wyckoff as Karen delivers a commendable, but somewhat wooden performance. I wish that she had projected more of the smoldering sensuality that is so critical to the role, particularly in the late night apartment scene. The rapid-fire dialogue can present a real challenge for actors, but Nathan Irwin and Dave Schick as the producers, pull it off with impeccable timing. Mr. Schick, as loyal beta-dog Charlie Fox, is particularly convincing and effective.

This is a great "alternative" play that, to my knowledge, has not been previously presented in Peoria. So, if you are looking for a new and thought-provoking theater experience, do not miss this one!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

- Theater Review - Pinocchio

Bradley University Theatre's most recent offering is a new adaptation of the classic tale of the marionette who would be a boy - "Pinocchio". The BU players have produced the play in cooperation with The House Theatre, an independent Chicago theater group. Indeed, this new version was penned by Dennis Watkins, a member of The House Theatre.
This new production was promoted as a darker, more adult tale of loss and longing. Actually, it is simply more faithful to the original 19th century story that was "sweetened up" by Disney in their animated classic. No cute singing cricket here, but rather an annoying chirper that is summarily stomped to death by the wooden boy.
The play is excruciatingly slow in parts with too many periods of long silence and too much shuffling around of the large wooden set pieces (are these meant to be in the shape of question marks?). Indeed, these wooden pieces are effective in only one scene when they become the ribs of the fish that has swallowed Gepeto and Pinocchio.
One of the joys of Bradley theater has always been the youthful exuberance of the actors. This current group is no exception. These are young people who truly love theater and being on stage and it certainly shows. All of the performances here are excellent. Dean Beever does a wonderful job in the physically demanding title role. Dana Trampas is charming as Gepeto's doomed wife. Drew Gilbert's Romeo is right on target. But, the truly stand-out performance is Steve Snyder as Gepeto. It is very difficult for a young actor to convincingly portray the nuances and movements of the elderly. Mr. Snyder captures this precisely and also conveys the proper level of pathos that the role demands.
In summary, the Bradley ensemble delivers superb performances in what is essentially a mediocre play. It is well worth your while to check out this latest BU offering.

- Theater Review - The Wizard of Oz

The Peoria Civic Center Broadway Series opened their 2009-2010 season this past week with a stage version of "The Wizard of Oz" movie. And that is exactly what it was, the movie reenacted (nearly scene for scene) onstage.

The 1939 film was an innovative and wonderful adaptation of the Frank Baum classic. Over the last seventy years, this film has become a global classic, and deeply ingrained in the collective American consciousness. In the household of my youth, the annual airing of the movie was a much anticipated event. I estimate that, in my lifetime, I have watched this movie (or parts of it) thirty to forty times. Stop anyone on the street and the odds are pretty good that he or she can quote the lines and sing the songs. This level of familiarity can only breed.......well, boredom. The one saving grace in this area was the inclusion of the Jitterbug scene, the referenced but lost scene that was cut from the film. This was a charming, if abbreviated, dance and vocal number.

There were a couple of other standout scenes. The human poppies transforming into snowflakes and the human apple trees, tricked into throwing their fruit are two of these numbers.

There have been other exciting and successful adaptations of this story, most notably "The Wiz", the 1974 Black cast musical with a completely new urban score, and of course the more recent "Wicked" which elaborated on other plot possibilities with a completely new score and state-of-the-art effects.

After seeing this currently touring version, I could imagine a group of producers meeting and discussing the monetary success of "Wicked". "Let's just do the movie version, add some nifty special effects, and take it on the road."
Well, it made for a pleasant night of theater, but I can't help thinking that the restored 70th Anniversary version of the film would have been a little more enjoyable.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Whitman in Blue Jeans

Walt Whitman is arguably one of the greatest poets of all time. In my opinion, he is certainly the greatest ever produced by this country. When, as a misfit high schooler, I was first exposed to his works, I quickly identified with this wild-looking and rebellious 'outsider' who shocked 1850's society by daring to write about the celebration of the human body, of sensuality, of the human spirit, and of the very substance that defined the young American nation. In the course of my life, I have often gone back to Whitman's opus, "Leaves of Grass" for inspiration, for solace, for just simply beautiful writing.

And so, the first time I saw the Levi's Jeans commercial using "Pioneers! O Pioneers!", I was more than a bit outraged. How dare they use these classic words to sell blue jeans! How could they commercialize such a great literary work?

However, it did send me back to reread the 'Pioneers! O Pioneers!' excerpt one more time. And this got me to rethink my initial reaction.
Poetry of any kind is a tough sell in the modern world. So maybe the jeans will sell the poetry instead of the other way around. Maybe those beautiful words will inspire a whole bunch of young people to GOOGLE them for the entire poem. And perhaps some of those kids will be inspired to take on the entirety of "Leaves of Grass". And maybe, just maybe, some nerdy, misfit high schooler will even go the extra distance and read "O Pioneers!" by Willa Cather, the truly great American novel inspired by the Whitman poem.



Saturday, October 24, 2009

- Theater Review - The Goat Or Who Is Syvia?

This four character play is the opening selection of the Corn Stock Winter Playhouse 2009-2010 Season. It is directed by Tim Wyman and features Rebecca Frankel Clifton, Tim Drew, Paul Gordon, and Daniel Evan Breese.

OK, this may not be the type of play to which you want to take your conservative Aunt Agnes.  However, If you have an Auntie Mame, she may find it simply delightful.
This Edward Albee work is the tawdry story of a (literally) beastly affair.  In the opening scene we meet Stevie the doting wife of successful architect Martin.  Martin, just turned fifty,  is at the peak of his career, having recently been chosen to design a planned "city of the future".  His marriage to Stevie has produced a son Billy whom we learn is gay.  Martin is preparing to be interviewed by his best friend Ross, a reporter.  During this interview scene we learn that Martin, who has loved and been faithful to his wife for twenty-some years is now having a love affair with Sylvia.  We also soon learn that Sylvia is a goat.  A regular four-legged barnyard critter, and, yes, their affair is sexual.
As the play progresses, we begin to understand that while the premise is indeed based on bestiality, it is, below the surface, about many things.  It is about all levels of so-called "deviant" behavior and about the limits within a society that define what is truly taboo.
Daniel Breese turns in a commendable performance as Billy, the amusingly named gay son.  Paul Gordon was convincing as family friend Ross, and also did a good job in conducting the post-performance discussion.  Tim Drew was exceptional and truly captured the naive, confused persona of Martin, who simply cannot fathom that others do not understand how some things "simply happen" and can be totally unrelated to other realities.  The best performance of the evening, however, was turned in by Rebecca Clifton.  The character Stevie has more than a little in common with another Albee icon, Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe".  She evolves from loving devoted wife, to raging wronged woman who turns the stage into a shambles of thrown and broken objects, and ultimately into a crazed she-devil who institutes her own "final solution" in the last scene.  This is the type of meaty role that any actress would love to sink her claws into, and Ms.Clifton does so with a vengeance.
And finally, kudos to Corn Stock for selecting such an edgy play to kick-off their winter season.  While so many other local groups worry too much about what plays in Peoria and thus go increasingly mainstream, this play was a nice respite for those of us who wonder if we can bear to sit through one more performance of "Beauty and The Beast". 
Corn Stock has given us true beauty with a real beast.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I know... I'll Start A Blog!

Welcome to the premier posting of "A Great Day In Peoria".

Although I have often said that the only spectator sport that interests me is politics, I intend that this blog will be more personal and less political. (Okay, I probably will not be able to help myself.)

In addition to random posts of interest, "A Great Day In Peoria" will include these recurring features:

1. WHAT'S SO GREAT ABOUT PEORIA - We all know what's wrong with Peoria. Just visit most any of the other local blogs to read about the failing school system, botched development, incompetent politicians, high crime, etc. Yet, there are those things in Peoria (and the metro area) that enhance our lives and are factors in our choosing to live here. I intend to highlight and share some of these.

2. HERE'S ANOTHER THING THAT TICKS ME OFF - Of what use is any blog if not for airing one's personal pet peeves, and believe me I have a few.

3. REVIEWS - Standard format reviews, not limited to restaurants, theater, film, music, and art; because, after all, my opinion matters!

I welcome your feedback and input.
It's going to be a great day.