Monday, September 26, 2011

Yet Another Blow To Peoria's History

Reprinted with his permission is the following letter to the PJStar editor from Daniel Callahan. Dan is a longtime resident of the Moss-Bradley neighborhood and lives directly next door to Westminister House.

The dogwood leaves are loosening themselves and drifting earthward here on Malvern Lane.The gentle descent into autumn has begun.

The mood is somber, as is the news about the regal presence of this street - Westminster House at 1508 Moss. That Prairie Style/"Early Modern Rectalinear" home has graced the neighborhood for over a century. After a four-year effort by Westminster Presbyterian Church, three trials and an about-face by the Peoria City Council on its historic preservation ordinance, it looks like Westminster House will be demolished. On Sept. 8, a local circuit judge ruled that Westminster Church is exempted from historic protection and has the right to tear the house down.

We who live nearby and countless other visitors to the neighborhood expected this house to survive. Built in 1901 by William Reeves, architect of Peoria's City Hall, this residence was sturdily constructed of the finest materials. These included red slate (no longer mined,) Roman brick (which accentuates its smooth planar surfaces), beveled glass, copper, limestone and fine woods. In this era, we've come to realize the ecological cost of abandoning such precious elements. Its materials alone would have merited adaptive re-use. This house also carries an incredible cultural pedigree as the private home of a master designer. It could have endured another century as both a testament of good design and superior construction.

Sadly, its church owners could not or would not see this. I have never witnessed such fervor, such determination to throw out something of great value. In a neighborhood experiencing a renaissance, where there has been so much renewed energy and reinvestment, it makes no sense to work so hard to destroy a place that could have been a lovely, inviting home. Or used for any number of institutional or community functions. Neither ethically nor economically is demolition justified. Even more ironic and disingenuous are the claims of "religious mission" that require it to be destroyed.

And yet, we must prepare ourselves to say goodbye to this grand sentinel of the bluff. I encourage readers to make a last visit before it's too late, while keeping in mind the confluence of events that have precluded its future, the failure to appreciate what an incredible architectural heritage we've inherited, the politics that have diminished the role of historic preservation locally, and the waste of resources and energy it will take to replace them.

Let us hope that we will renew our commitment to prevent future losses like this. A first step would be for the City Council to review the hastily approved revisions of Feb. 8. Those changes to the historic preservation ordinance have made it far too easy for a jewel like Westminster House to be discarded.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

- Theater Review - Ragtime

Bradley University Theater opened their 2011-2012 season on Friday with "Ragtime, The Musical".

The musical is based on the E. L. Doctorow novel of the same name. With an epic storyline and a cast of dozens, the show is a huge undertaking for any amateur theater group.

I am pleased to say Director Steve Snyder and his large cast deliver one of the finest productions recently seen on the Hartmann stage.

"Ragtime" is a snapshot of America during the first decade of the twentieth century. The show explores issues of racism, Labor strife, immigration and assimilation, as well as personal human relationships.

It intertwines the stories of three different groups - a wealthy WASP family, a group of European immigrants, and a group of African Americans seeking the American dream in an often hostile environment.

The cast of characters includes actual historical figures such as Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, and Harry Houdini.

Th show opens with a huge bang. The lavish title song introduces the entire company in a wonderful and catchy number. Featuring thirty-some actors in a perfectly synchronized performance, this opening number alone is well worth the price of admission.

...and it sets the tone for the two and half hours of excellent theater to follow.

While there is a range of vocal talent, each role is, without exception, well acted here.

With such a large number of great performances it is difficult to acknowledge just a few, but some of the top performances are as follows.

Chloe Dzielak stands out as Mother, the upper class matriarch who chooses a different course of compassion than her conservative husband. Ms. Dzielak has a beautiful voice and her acting is simply perfect. Her rendition of "Back to Before" is a knockout!

Morgan Green and Cecil Blutcher are excellent as the star-crossed lovers Sarah and Coalhouse. Their chemistry makes their performances even better.

Dakota Kuhlman is great as Tateh, the Latvian Jewish immigrant who captures the American dream for himself and his daughter.

Sarah Tilford is excellent and brings Emma Goldman to life. As Booker T. Washington, Julian Stroop shows serious maturity as an actor.

The set is simple yet functional and perfectly suited to the production. Costuming is some of the best and most elaborate that I have seen at Bradley.

The orchestra, directed and conducted by Julie A. Clemons, is wonderful.

My one and only issue with the production is that the orchestra did overwhelm some of the vocal performances. None of the actors wore microphones, and a couple of the singers did not project over the music.
...a minor complaint for an excellent production.

If this opening offering is any indication, I cannot wait for the rest of the Bradley University Theatre's season!

"Ragtime" runs through October 2nd at the Hartmann Center for the Performing Arts on the Bradley campus.
For tickets, contact the Box Office in the Hartmann Center at 677-2650.

You should not miss this show!


Sunday, September 18, 2011

September Poetry Corner

The Mourning Bride (excerpt)
- William Congreve

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
'Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
The silent Tomb receiv'd the good Old King;
He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg'd
Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
Why am not I at Peace?


Saturday, September 10, 2011

- Theater Review - Oklahoma!

"Oklahoma!" is a true American classic. It quite literally changed the face of musical theater at its debut in 1943. The very first collaboration by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the play opened to rave reviews, a record run, and even a Pulitzer.

It offers one of the most beautiful scores ever, and who can listen to a line like "The wind is so busy it don't miss a tree" and deny the genius of the lyricist?

After nearly 70 years, this still should be on anyone's list of the five greatest American musicals of all time.
Due to the show's appeal and popularity, it has been frequently staged at all levels.
Indeed, one of my own first theater experiences was when the drama club at my high school put on the play. I loved it at once and immediately rushed out to buy the soundtrack.

That vinyl soundtrack was long ago worn out and replaced by CD.
In the intervening years, I have watched the movie version literally dozens of times (really!) and I have seen the stage version several times.

So it was with high anticipation of revisiting a favorite classic that I attended Peoria Players Theater's Friday night opening of the show's debut on PPT's stage.

I hoped beyond hope that they would give this beloved show its due. Instead I was given a decent but uneven and deeply flawed production that was badly directed.

In a much earlier post, I shared my pet peeve of people talking through the overture. In a musical, the overture is PART OF THE PLAY! And for this play in particular, the overture was one of the things that made it ground-breaking in 1943. It is a beautiful and lush intro that goes well over five minutes.
Well in the Player's production, the (recorded) overture abruptly ended only a couple of minutes in; before the rude folks even ended their chattering.
There was no fade-out. The music just stopped and the curtain went up. This was a very inauspicious beginning to say the least.

The lead roles of Curly and Laurey were played by Jordan Lehman and Sarah Mayo. Mr. Lehman has a good voice and good acting abilities. I blame his rote delivery of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" on poor direction rather than any lack of talent on his part. He needed to love and respect the words he was singing.
Ms. Mayo has a beautiful voice and her performance rose above the lack of direction.

Of the entire production, the truly standout performances were Amanda Bishop as Ado Annie and Aaron Elwell as Will Parker. These actors gave superb performances, both separately and in duet.

Sally Hodge was great as Aunt Eller and Alex Larson was perfectly cast in the non-musical role of Ali Hakim.

While Derek Childs did a good job as Jud Fry, it was hard to take him seriously in some of the worst makeup I have ever seen.
Jud Fry is a volatile and cruel character, but he is not intended to be a Zombie as his makeup suggested.

One of the bright spots of this production was the "dream ballet"; it was well staged and well executed.

Some of the other dance numbers, however, were way too crowded and roughly done. I felt like I was watching an early dress rehearsal rather than opening night.

The last and perhaps greatest insult of the evening was the finale featuring a surrey with the fringe on the side.
Yes, the surrey actually had fringe sewn on the sides of the seats and no top at all!
Even that high school production back in the 70's managed to come up with an actual surrey WITH THE FRINGE ON THE TOP!

I hate to beat up on director Bryan Blanks too much (he was also responsible for the uber-turkey "Xanadu" that opened Eastlight's season), but any director who would open with half an overture and close with a surrey with the fringe on the side clearly has no respect for or understanding of his material.

"Oklahoma!" runs through September 18th at the theater in Lakeview Park.