Arts & Entertainment

Starlight Theatre Kicks Off 49th Season

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It’s time once again to enjoy quality musical theater under the stars at Rock Valley College. Get a sneak peak of what’s to come this year.

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Starlight Theatre cast and crew in rehearsal for “Mary Poppins.” (Marissa Webb-Tonkovic photos)

One might think that, after 31 years, Mike Webb would get used to the relentless stress of churning out amazing productions for theater fans across the area.

Not so.

“I haven’t slept in weeks,” says Webb, director of Starlight Theatre, just weeks before the curtain goes up on the theater’s 49th season. “People say, ‘You always do this and it always works out.’ People think I wiggle my nose and it all gets done. But that’s not the case. It’s sometimes a grueling, painful experience to make it all work. And one thing affects another thing if you move or change something.”

Located on the campus of Rock Valley College in Rockford, Starlight Theatre has been known for its exceptional musical theater for decades. And with a star-studded lineup featuring “Mary Poppins,” “The Last Five Years,” “Memphis” and “Young Frankenstein,” this season promises to be no exception.

“I love the fact that all four productions are strongly casted,” Webb says. “With two big productions on either end – “Mary Poppins” and “Young Frankenstein” – it takes a lot of stuff to do them. Overall, I’m pleased with the mix of shows this season.”

One way to come up with that right mix is Webb’s self-imposed rule of finding shows – he doesn’t repeat any production for 10 years. But in the world of entertainment, things can change quickly.

“This season started out differently than it ended up,” he says. “‘Mary Poppins’ unexpectedly became available. I was working on getting ‘Grease’ when ‘Memphis’ became available, so I went after it with a vengeance. I wanted ‘Young Frankenstein’ a couple years ago and it just became available. There are a lot of factors that go into getting a show. The production could be part of a national tour or someone has locked down the rights. There are all kinds of pressures on a theater our size to get the shows we want.”

All four productions are new to Starlight this year, which always creates a challenge for Webb and his crew. “Some productions are easier to figure out how to do,” he says. “But you have to work your way through things like set designs. We have heavy scenery that takes pure, brute strength to put each show together.

“The scale of the ‘Mary Poppins’ production, for example, is huge. It’s a Disney spectacular and it’s overwhelming. Within three or four minutes on stage, we visit seven locations. One minute we’re on the roof, then in the nursery and then in the parlor. How do we do that? We just have to work our way through it until we master the thing. It takes an army. We’ll have 50 in the cast, 50 on the crew and 25 in the orchestra.”

For the past three years, Samantha Owen has been working on off-Broadway productions, such as concerts and cabarets. But the Rock Valley alumna jumped at the chance to come home for the summer to audition for the lead role in “Mary Poppins.”

“This is my first experience with the show,” she says. “Everything was organic for me. I had to start from square one. The show is much more complex than I anticipated. But the story is wonderful and the complexity is inspiring. Mary Poppins is a character I always wanted to experience. This gives me a great foundation with a character I can build on and hopefully do again.”

“Mary Poppins,” everyone’s favorite nanny, takes the stage July 8-12, starting at 8 p.m. Based on the books by P.L. Travers and the classic Walt Disney film, “Mary Poppins” thrilled Broadway audiences for more than 2,500 performances and received nominations for nine Olivier and seven TONY Awards, including Best Musical.

The story begins when jack-of-all trades, Bert, introduces the audience to 1910 England and the troubled Banks family. Children Jane and Michael have sent many-a-nanny packing before the umbrella-travelling nanny arrives on their doorstep. Mary takes the children on many magical and memorable adventures, but the children aren’t the only ones she profoundly impacts. With patience, kindness, and a little bit of magic, Mary and Bert help the family set things right.

Webb went to see “Mary Poppins” in London and returned home convinced it was right for Rockford. “It was everything you expected and more,” he says. “It’s got Disney magic sprinkled throughout the whole thing, like people flying up chimneys. When I saw it, my first thought was, ‘I’ll never be able to do this play.’ The numbers are touching. It’s a great story with some surprises along the way. It’s a great piece for our first local production.”

Bert is played by Peyton Schoenhofer. “Fans can expect the best of Mary Poppins,” says Owen. “This musical has so much more depth than the Disney version but with the favorite songs and moments that people expect.”

“The Last Five Years” is an emotionally charged and intimate musical that follows two 20-something New Yorkers who fall in and out of love over a five-year period. The show’s unusual arrangement sees Catherine telling her story backwards while Jamie tells his story chronologically; the two storylines converge just once, as the characters exchange their “I do’s” in the middle of the show. The musical runs from July 15-19 at 8 p.m.

“It’s a charming piece about a relationship between a man and woman and five years in their lives,” says Webb. “It’s challenging work but it’s just a beautiful, heartwarming production.”

Written by Jason Robert Brown, “The Last Five Years” has been translated into a number of languages and was named one of Time Magazine’s 10 best shows of 2001. A film adaptation starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan was released in February.

“The Last Five Years” features Karen Manley Kahler as Catherine and Matthew Myers as Jamie. With just two cast members, the production features the smallest cast ever to take the Starlight stage. “It’s a musical that’s very intimate for this theater, but people love the show,” says Webb. “It’s interesting, beautiful and touching.”
“Memphis,” a musical by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, is about a white radio DJ who wants to change the world and a black club singer who is ready for her big break.

“It’s loosely based on this guy who drops out of school and can’t hold down a job,” says Webb. “He moves through a series of radio stations and takes over one studio and locks himself in the booth and plays this music. The station gets tons of phone calls of approval. It’s the birth of rock and roll. It has great music, dancers and singers. The cast is phenomenal.”

“Memphis” runs from June 17-20 and July 22-26; 8 p.m., with an additional 2 p.m. performance June 20. The local production stars Ray Fanara as Huey Calhoun, John Stanford as Delray and Jayla Williams-Craig as Felicia. “Memphis” is the winner of three 2010 Drama Desk Awards, an additional trio of 2010 Outer Critics’ Circle Awards, and four 2010 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Orchestrations. It played on Broadway from 2009 to 2012.

Rounding out the season is an electrifying version of “Young Frankenstein,” June 24-27 and July 29-Aug. 2 at 8 p.m., and June 27 at 2 p.m. From the creators of the Broadway sensation “The Producers,” this monster musical comedy adapts Mel Brooks’ hilarious film “Young Frankenstein” into a brilliant stage creation.

With the help of hunchbacked sidekick Igor, and leggy lab assistant Inga, Frederick finds himself in the mad scientist shoes of his ancestors. He brings to life a creature to rival his grandfather’s. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein is played by Charlie Rasmann and Nathan S. Forrester is The Monster.

“It’s a full musical,” Webb says. “There’s lots of expanded numbers and silliness that abounds. It’s great fun with Mel Brooks’ humor. It’s funny stuff and a great cast.”

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