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.

It's too bad that so many of us greet the news of another area production of Fiddler on the Roof with an audible groan, because the show itself is really, really good. The music is marvelous, the characters are enjoyable, the story is well-plotted and touching, it's always funnier than you remember it being ... if you're a musical-theatre fan and if you've never seen it, you have no excuse. But, let's face it, it can be a daunting musical to sit through. "I love that show," you'll hear people say, "but, Jesus, it's long ... ."

There are two styles of drama going on in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, or at least there are in the Richmond Hill Players' current production of it: domestic and melo-. A prequel of sorts to the author's more widely known The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest features, as its central figure, patriarch Marcus Hubbard (Stan Weimer), the richest man in Bowden, Alabama, circa 1880. A cruel, conniving, even murderous despot, Marcus is universally reviled, especially by his children - Benjamin (James V. Driscoll), Oscar (Steve Mroz), and Regina (Keri Cousins) - all of whom, for reasons of their own, want their hands on the family fortune.

"It's a shame it all has to end," says our heroine, Lotty (Karrie McLaughlin), at the end of Playcrafters' Enchanted April. I completely agreed. The production currently running at Moline's Barn Theatre is unexpected in the best way possible: Who knew this light, frothy, harmless little romp could be this intoxicating?

Circa '21's Winnie the Pooh at The Rocket through July 23

At the opening-day performance of Winnie the Pooh, the air was already so festive - their doors may be temporarily closed, but the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse is still in business! - that the show was the recipient of enormous goodwill even before it began. Balloons decorated the street, the Rocket Theatre was alive with the noise of excited young uns, the parents seemed in surprisingly good moods ... it was a pretty sweet sight. If you have as much fondness for Circa '21 as I do - and I know some of you do, 'cause I've seen you there ... - the atmosphere alone would have made Winnie the Pooh worthwhile.

 

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