Christmas from the Heart, which opens the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's 29th season, is a holiday-themed musical revue, and as such, it has a built-in advantage that many stage works don't: Audiences don't make many demands of it. When presented with a piece of this sort - in which the production is essentially an excuse for linking together a diverse group of carols and holiday hits - no one really cares what the story is about or whether the characters have any depth; all we ask is that the numbers are well-sung and that the show maintains a lively pace, and if it's funny or touching or particularly well-designed, those are just added bonuses.

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.)

Your enjoyment of the stage version of It's a Wonderful Life - at least the James W. Rogers adaptation currently playing at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre - will likely depend on your familiarity with the classic film. I'm guessing that those who don't already know the story will get more out of the experience than those who do, but how many of us, exactly, does that leave?

Augustana College's production of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest is perfectly acceptable entertainment, rarely inspired but always watchable. Yet it has the enormous good fortune to feature one performance that shoots way past the acceptable and enters the realm of the extraordinary - David Cocks' portrayal of the delectably devious John Worthing is the sort of riotously funny and brilliantly executed stunt that makes you more than eager for his next appearance; he's so elemental to the show's success that it's nearly distracting when he's not on stage. And here's the kicker: This is freshman Cocks' first appearance on the Potter Hall stage. The mind boggles at what may be in store for audiences over the next four years.

In the Prenzie Players' hugely entertaining production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will, there's an encounter so heart-stoppingly strong that it might be the single most effective stage moment I've witnessed all year.

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.

The Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's production of Maxwell Anderson's The Bad Seed is entertaining stuff, yet you might not believe more than a few words of it. The sincerity that director Jalayne Riewerts gives the piece is admirable, but also a little misguided, because the show often aims for penetrating insight and forgets why audiences love The Bad Seed in the first place - not for its psychology, but because of the inherent fun in watching an eight-year-old sociopath get away with murder.

My parents, being good people, raised me to believe that if you couldn't say something nice, you shouldn't say anything at all. Of course, they couldn't have imagined I'd wind up a reviewer, nor that I'd wind up having to devote 700 words to Meshuggah-Nuns!

(Warning: Though I've tried to be circumspect, details on Scotland Road's mysteries may slip out. Proceed with caution.)

The psychological drama Scotland Road, the first production in New Ground Theatre's 2005-6 season, is both entertaining and disheartening - entertaining because of the skill of director Michael Oberfield and his cast, disheartening because playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's work doesn't quite seem to deserve their skill.

As the adage goes, "Dying is easy; comedy is hard." Noises Off sure is. Saying that Michael Frayn's farce requires precision is like saying a fish requires water or Jennifer Lopez requires publicity; the show's very survival rests on the hairbreadth timing of its repartee and comic business. Frayn's work is so tightly structured and its momentum so dizzying that the slightest inappropriate pause can completely knock you out of the show's rhythm, and so I applaud Ghostlight Theatre for not only for tackling the script but often triumphing with it. Dying is easy, comedy is hard, and Noises Off is freakin' hard.

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