Arts & Entertainment

Stars Above RVC Stage Shine on Stars Below

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Another exciting season of Starlight Theatre is about to commence, and this year’s lineup is as big as ever. Discover what surprises await at this popular outdoor theater.

Actors rehearse The Sound of Music at Starlight Theatre. (Bill Hughes photo)

Actors rehearse The Sound of Music at Starlight Theatre. (Bill Hughes photo)

Every summer, something magical happens when Rock Valley College’s unique Bengt Sjostrom Theatre opens its roof to the skies. Natural beauty intermingles with the ethereal sounds and exceptional talent of stars below.

Starlight Theatre will open its 48th season on June 4, with a line-up that includes one of the world’s most beloved musicals and three award-winning Broadway shows. Unique to this season is a fifth “bonus” production, based on the personal life of Starlight Director Mike Webb.

Webb describes the season as “something old and something new,” mostly inspired by the comments and requests of theatergoers. It opens with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved The Sound of Music, June 4-9 and July 9-13. The story of the Trapp family singers’ escape from World War II Austria first opened on Broadway in 1959 and was made into the famous film in 1965, nearly 50 years ago, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

Tintypes, running June 11-14 and July 16-20, is filled with many of America’s most enduring and patriotic songs written between 1890 and 1917. It tells the story of America’s pre-World War I growing pains, especially appropriate in this 100th anniversary year of that war’s start.
Playing June 18-21 and July 23-27 is HONK! a family-friendly musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling,” about the life of a character that looks a bit different from the rest of the family. Although teased and belittled, Ugly sets out on an adventure of self-discovery and learns that being different isn’t so bad after all.

The fourth production June 25-28 and July 30-Aug. 3 is Monty Python’s Spamalot, the 2005 Broadway musical that earned 14 Tony nominations and three Awards, including Best Musical. Based on the 1975 comedy film Monty Python & the Holy Grail, it retells the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. It features cows, killer rabbits, French people and beautiful showgirls.

Finally, a brand new musical will be the fifth “bonus” production of the season, Aug. 7 and 9. Titled Angel – A Musical, the original work by Mike Webb and Mike Mastroianni, with music by Jim Chabucos, is the very personal tale of what happens to a family and community when they accept a person with disabilities into their lives. “The story is about the limitless realm of love, beauty, inspiration and tenderness coming from people with disabilities and the people who love and care for them,” says Webb. “It reveals the narrow thinking and shallow observations of people not fortunate enough to reach beyond their own limitations of ‘normal’ life. The play points out the negativity, meanness, and cruelty of the ‘real’ world and how ignorance and fear keep people trapped in their own thinking.”

It’s a “cirque-esque” production with flight and fantasy, says Webb. A benefit performance will be held for friends, family and staff of Rockford’s Barbara Olson Center of Hope, which helps individuals with developmental disabilities to reach personal goals.

The play is a labor of love in honor of Webb’s 20-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, who has Rett’s Syndrome, a nervous system disorder that leads to developmental reversals, especially in expressive language and hand use. Kaitlin can’t talk or walk and needs constant care from her parents, siblings and other family members.

“It’s the most challenging production of the season, and one of the hardest things I have ever done,” Webb says. “It’s a lot like life with Kaitlin. You don’t always know what to expect and you can’t plan every step of the way.”

Webb’s notes and observations about his family’s experience with Kaitlin didn’t begin with a stage production in mind. Rather, his journaling was a form of personal therapy and a part of his healing journey as he worked through his own feelings – a collection of experiences, moments and insights about caring for, and loving, a special-needs child. In time, those observations grew into a story that encapsulates what he and others have learned from Kaitlin. Much of the script was written during mornings in New York City’s Central Park, when Webb was in the Big Apple on business. As he wrote, images of light, flight, freedom and love filled his mind.

“We had to learn how she fit into our world and how special our world became because she’s in our lives,” Webb explains. “It’s the story of what Kaitlin can do, if you let her into your world. She can’t talk, but she can communicate friendship and love.”

The story is also about a family. Kaitlin’s brother Josh is a graphic artist, web designer, and illustrator; sister Marissa is a professional photographer and assistant director of Starlight this summer. Mom Katherine is a fiber artist and professor of art at Rock Valley College. They’re all portrayed in Angel, along with Webb.

“We all came to different places in our lives, but we all arrived at where we are because of Kaitlin. Everyone in the family lets her into their lives. Individuals can have a profound impact on your life, if you just let them in and accept them as they are,” says Webb.

The story exposes the narrow thinking and shallow observations of people not fortunate enough to reach beyond their own limitations of “normal” life, says Webb. The play underscores the negativity and cruelty of the “real” world and how ignorance and fear keep people trapped in their own thinking.

Carm Herman, executive director of the Barbara Olson Center of Hope, said she first learned about the musical when reading Northwest Quarterly Magazine. Webb had said he wanted to finish writing a musical about his daughter, and Herman asked him if he would allow the musical to be used as a fundraiser, in celebration of the center’s 66th anniversary.

“It’s a very moving, very visual production, and everyone, whether involved with the disabled community or not, will be touched,” Herman says. “The musical focuses on people’s abilities, not disabilities. It’s an excellent opportunity for the community to come together and support the world of individuals and agencies who work with these most vulnerable individuals.”

The Center of Hope will have an informational booth with literature about itself and Rett’s Syndrome. A silent auction will help raise money for the center, along with proceeds from all ticket sales during the night of the benefit.

Four actresses of different ages play the part of Kaitlin in the Starlight production. Although she’s a long-time Starlight actress, Marissa Webb will not be performing her own part as Kaitlin’s sister. Still, she’s closely involved with the production and her life of experience helps bring meaning to the story. She expects positive things to come as a result of the show.

“It will be remarkable, if everything comes together as it should,” Marissa says. “It will be an emotional ride, joyous or somber at times. It will hit home for some people. For others, it will be an eye-opener.”

Marissa describes her sister as her best friend, teacher, and confidant. “I’ve always wanted a sister and I know how important she is to me,” she says. “I learn so much from her every day. I’m lucky to have her in my life. The main things I’ve learned from her are to not take things for granted. Also, she teaches people there’s nothing to fear. A lot of people feel there’s something wrong with the disabled. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with them. They need love and acceptance just like everyone else.”

Jodi Beach is a local performer and the vocal director for Angel and Tintypes this Starlight season. She’s known the Webb family most of her life and remembers when Kaitlin was born. Beach recalls the joy the newborn brought into the family and how concerned everyone was when symptoms started to appear.

“Kaitlin’s parents have given their whole lives to her,” says Beach. “It was a blessing for her to be raised in a theatrical environment, where she knew only love and acceptance. There’s not a person at Starlight who doesn’t love that child. She is everyone’s angel.”

That’s why Beach found reading the script so difficult.

“I was so surprised at the attitudes of people. When they talk about people being mean at the grocery store, I had to stop reading and ask Mike if that really happened. He said it really happened.

“What we can learn from this story is that those of us raised with Kaitlin are kinder, more thoughtful and more understanding, when we see someone with a disability. We all need to be more encouraging and not give dirty looks.”

Beach predicts that the show will generate so much praise and attention that Starlight will be forced to add more performances. One of the actresses playing the part of Kaitlin is a newcomer to the Starlight stage. Christina Wheeler, a freshman at RVC, debuted as Dorothy in Studio Theater’s The Wizard of Oz and played one of the daughters in Fiddler on the Roof.

Her dream is to get a four-year degree in musical theater and to perform on Broadway. It was a London production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that sparked her love for theater. As an eighth grader, she carried the lead role of Cinderella in the play Into the Woods. Since then, she graduated from Hononegah High School and has been in a total of seven productions.

She appreciates the new pool of opportunities she has at Rock Valley. “Working with Mike Webb has been very inspiring,” she says. “He’s a great director, very helpful, and has helped me grow. I don’t know how he does it all,” she says. “I’m honored to be in Angel. It’s the first time anyone is seeing it and it’s special because Mike wrote it. It’s going to be beautiful.”

Theater provides her with an escape from real life, she says.

“I love the way you can enter into another world and take on the life of someone else for just awhile. I love singing and performing. I love it all and can’t get enough of it. I don’t want to do anything else.”

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