Samantha Joy Dubina, Jay Reynolds Jr., Hillary Elk, and Ben Mason in Bat Boy the Musical The Timber Lake Playhouse's production of Bat Boy the Musical features a cast of 15 playing some two dozen characters, more than a fifth of whom will be dead by the curtain call. Necks are bitten, throats are slashed, overdoses are administered, and through it all, Bat Boy's performers look as though they couldn't possibly be having more fun. En masse, Timber Lake's ensemble just might compose the happiest musical cast I've seen all year, and considering the material they're working with, and the director they're working for, how could they be anything less?

The Fantasticks' ensembleIn his director's notes for the Countryside Community Theatre's presentation of The Fantasticks, William Myatt writes that he was honored to helm the production, but also concerned, as Tom Jones' and Harvey Schmidt's minimalist musical wasn't originally intended for a 900-seat venue such as North Scott High School's Fine Arts Auditorium. "Would a show of such intimacy be swallowed by the size of the North Scott theatre?" asks Myatt in his program notes.

Well, if Friday night's happy audience response didn't already convince him, allow me to answer Mr. Myatt: "Nope."

members of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas ensemble Watching the cast perform in the Timber Lake Playhouse's production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is like witnessing a mass exodus on the last day of the school year; the actors appear so excited about their newfound freedom that they can barely contain themselves.

Jaci Entwisle & Jack Kloppenborg in "The Threepenny Opera" During Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera - the German dramatist's revolutionary musical-comedy collaboration with composer Kurt Weill - we're meant to feel uneasy. With its cast of beggars and rogues, obliteration of the fourth wall, and refusal to cater to conventional audience expectation (the songs here, devoid of proper finales, don't so much finish as stop), The Threepenny Opera is a fascinating, deliberately alienating piece. Our enjoyment stems from how unconventional the show is, but in no traditional sense are we meant to simply like it.

So in regard to director Corinne Johnson's Depression-era Threepenny Opera that recently opened St. Ambrose University's 2006-7 theatre season at the Galvin Fine Arts Center (and closed on October 15), was it a failing or a blessing that so many of its performers were so damned likable?

"Urinetown" ensemble In the second act of the magnificent musical parody Urinetown, the character of Bobby Strong - a novice revolutionary, and the show's ostensible leading man - sings "Run, Freedom, Run," a rousing call-to-arms to his fellow oppressed. The number, a sort of "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" from Guys & Dolls as seen through a Les Miserables filter, is one of those guaranteed show-stoppers designed to leave audiences cheering. At the Timber Lake Playhouse's Saturday-night performance of the show, however, this production number led to something even more thrilling.

Erin Childs and Seth LieberFrom the Quad Cities, a trip to the Timber Lake Playhouse will take roughly 80 minutes. But I was so happy to be returning to Mt. Carroll, Illinois, for its 2006 season opener, Thoroughly Modern Millie, that I don't think I stopped smiling once during the entire trek. The theatre's 2005 presentations of The Full Monty and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were, for me, two of last summer's absolute high points - both shows beautifully staged and refreshingly risky - and the venue itself, nestled in the woods, is large and inviting, with its productions boasting terrific design and costumes and a game, go-for-broke ensemble. It was a thrill to be returning after 10 months.

 

How wonderful and humbling the last eight months have been.

I love attending local college and university stage productions, partly because it's such a wonderful reminder of my days as a theatre major - ah, the reassuring familiarity of Augustana College's Potter Hall! - but also because the shows' participants are generally involved with theatre because they truly want to be; with the possible exception of staff members, no one's doing it just for the paycheck. (No one should ever be doing theatre for the paycheck, but that's another issue entirely.)

Since St. Ambrose University's production of Urinetown at the Galvin Fine Arts Center has already closed, there's probably not much point in a review. So consider this a thank-you note instead. I had more fun at the school's production of this 2001 musical comedy than I have at nearly any other entertainment I've been to over the past few months. The show was terrifically staged and, almost across the board, vibrantly performed, but most inspiring of all, the audience was truly alive to it; Urinetown smashes the understood conventions of musical theatre to smithereens, and the Friday night crowd appeared positively delighted that it did. The show was a risk, and one that paid off big time.

For students at Davenport's St. Ambrose University, the end of summer brings with it the usual. Buying books. Attending classes. Preparing for Urinetown.