As Belle, the heroine of the Quad City Music Guild's Beauty & the Beast, Jenny Winn is a complete cartoon, and I mean that in the best way possible. It's generally thrilling when performers deviate from the expectations associated with a well-known character, but playing a role exactly the way an audience expects it to be played has its own rewards, and in Beauty & the Beast, Winn gives such a flawless approximation of a living-and-breathing animated figure that you might find it impossible not to stare at her with a big, goofy grin plastered on your face.

The Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse enjoys a luxury that no other theatrical venues in the area do: Its productions, on average, run about eight weeks each, allowing good shows plenty of time to eventually become very, very good shows. Given this, I'm guessing that the theatre's latest offering, Pump Boys & Dinettes, will, by its closing night on September 17, end up ... fine.

In real time, a half-second isn't all that long - roughly the amount of time it takes to swallow - but, on stage, it's surprising how long it can feel.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, currently being presented at the Timber Lake Playhouse, is a little bit Jesus Christ Superstar, a little bit Frank Wildhorn, and a whole lotta Les Miserables, but it has a narrative structure and momentum that's all its own, and it's continually surprising - I can't recall the last time I felt so alert at the theatre. (It helps that this musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel is unfamiliar to most of us, having been produced only once before - at the Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre - in 1994, and having gone through extensive revision since then.)

Saturday's opening-night production of Aristophanes' The Knights, which closes Genesius Guild's summer season and runs through this weekend, began with a few words from Guild founder - and uncredited Knights scribe - Don Wooten, and it's hard to imagine the evening commencing on a more charming note.

Perhaps the biggest pleasure in attending an entire season of summer-stock theatre lies in the chance to see familiar faces in show after show. If a company's actors have impressed you in the past, just noticing their names in a new program is enough to make you smile, and I've now smiled throughout four consecutive shows at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (CAST). By this point, I'm so happy just seeing Katherine Walker Hill and Nicole Horton and Chris Amos and Craig Merriman and Patrick Stinson and Sandee Cunningham and Michael Oberfield and the rest of CAST's 2005 ensemble that it barely matters what show they're in; with actors this enjoyable, audiences are all but guaranteed to have a great time. (It's a wonderful argument for remaining faithful to a theatre ... and for purchasing season subscriptions.)

Overreaching in the arts is often a good thing. Take, for example, The Will Rogers Follies, the latest presentation from Ghostlight Theatre, Inc. This is a hugely ambitious musical comedy. Not only does it aim to reproduce the experience of the Ziegfeld Follies stage shows in all their splendor and extravagance, but it's meta-theatre as well. The production is narrated by Rogers (Shane Partlow), who freely admits to being dead for decades, yet Rogers also converses onstage with the actual Ziegfeld (voiced by the show's director, Steve Flanigin), and other performers drop in and out of character to comment on the action as it progresses. Rogers also receives occasional visits from a long-dead pilot (Dr. Walter E. Neiswanger), while we in the audience are treated to musical contributions from others who are, similarly, deceased.

Ah, Genesius Guild. By the time the company's Saturday-night production of Much Ado About Nothing commenced, the quality of the show barely mattered, because I was already thoroughly amused by the audience.

If there's one theatrical axiom I've subscribed to over the years - both as a performer and as an audience member - it's this: If anything is going to go wrong with a production, it'll go wrong on opening night. (Things also tend to go wrong when the show is being videotaped or ... ahem ... when a critic is in the audience, but that's a whole 'nother story.)

In the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's production of Damn Yankees, the characters you might find yourself adoring the most aren't the devilish Applegate, or the seductress Lola, or newfound baseball star Joe Hardy, despite the considerable talents of those playing them. They're Joe and Meg Boyd, whose story sets the plot in motion, and who - as portrayed by Rob Engelson and Nicole Horton - provide the show with more cumulative emotional impact than you might be expecting. Horton isn't on stage as often as some of her co-stars, and Engelson appears even less frequently, but their spirits hover over the whole production, and it's not until the last scene that you realize just how much of Damn Yankees' success rests on how much you like Joe and Meg.

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