If you're a Simpsons fan and have always wondered what the hateful C. Montgomery Burns would look like in the flesh, you are advised to immediately secure tickets to Augustana College's production of The Miser, in which Brian Bengtson is giving a flawless approximation of Homer's hysterically hateful nemesis.

Joe DiPietro's Over the River & Through the Woods is a charming stage sitcom, and based on a final dress rehearsal held January 10, the production of it that opened the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's 2006 season is perfectly charming, too. The large, invited audience of (mostly) seniors who attended the rehearsal seemed to have a terrific time; the show's punchlines, more often than not, got their laughs, and there was no denying the sweetness of spirit that emanated from the show - if smiles were audible, it would have been deafening in the Barn Theatre.

The most telling moment in the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's splendid re-imagining of Grease is a minor one, and - like most of this production's finest moments - nowhere to be found in the original script. (It's actually an invention of director/choreographer Ann Nieman's, designed to cover a scene change.) Danny (Jeremy Jonet) and Cha-Cha (Nicole Polzella) have just won Rydell High's dance competition, yet instead of relishing the victory, Danny runs off to re-claim the heart of his true love, Sandy (Cheryl Hoffman). As the decorations come down and the stragglers depart, Cha-Cha - who has even been rebuffed by the nerdy Eugene (Mark D. Lingenfelter) - finds herself alone, and she takes a beat, gazes at the suddenly meaningless trophy in her hands, and quietly, sadly walks off stage.

Stuart Little, the family musical currently being produced at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, is a near-perfect melding of actors and material, a musical comedy so creative and ebullient that you are instructed to secure tickets even if you don't have any kids on hand to chaperone you. The show has the sweetness of spirit that E.B. White's beloved tale requires, but it's better enjoyed as an ingenious vaudeville entertainment; with little overt plotting to get in the way, Stuart Little gives audiences a bevy of delightful musical and comedy sketches, and even though some of the songs are humdrum, the presentation never is. Circa '21's production isn't just a topnotch family entertainment; it's a topnotch entertainment, period.

Adapted from David Sedaris' famed audio presentation and subsequent short story, The Santaland Diaries - the latest endeavor from My Verona Productions, currently playing at Rock Island's ComedySportz venue - is an acting triumph for its star, Adam Lewis. Playing an unmotivated 33-year-old who finds himself - to his abject shame - employed at Macy's as one of Santa's elves, Lewis is spectacular; as he enacts his character's grueling ordeals in a one-man show that's part monologue, part stand-up routine, and part performance-art piece, the actor is thrilling to watch, so brilliantly focused and ceaselessly inventive that he leaves you a bit in awe.

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.

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