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

Chris Jansen, the artistic director of the New Ground Theatre, is a self-described "Junior Theatre kid," and has the pictures to prove it. She thinks.

In the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's ingenious new production of Beauty & the Beast, the first things to catch your eye are a small bench located stage right and a large screen - it's nearly half the length of the stage - hanging upstage. On that screen is a rear projection of a rose, and it has a haunting, rough-edged quality; it looks like something that French waif on the Les Miz poster should be holding.

At Friday's nearly sold-out performance of Over the Tavern at Richmond Hill's Barn Theatre, I found myself seated next to a charming couple who engaged me in conversation. I asked whether they had heard of the play previously, as Tom Dudzick's comedy was unfamiliar to me. The gentleman responded that he'd read a little bit about it, but his wife said, "Not me. I like being surprised."

In all honesty, it might not be appropriate for me to critique the new production at the Timber Lake Playhouse, considering that at Saturday night's performance I was in it. Then again, we all were.

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.

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