Sunday, March 20, 2005

Theater in Celebration

I must admit that I am a major theater buff. One of the greatest pleasures of living near downtown Chicago was the ability to see so many touring shows. Almost all the biggies come through the Windy City at one time or another. Via the Broadway in Chicago series, I've seen shows like Lion King, The Producers, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Evita, Cats, and many more. I've also seen some smaller productions at little North Side theaters, too, such as Gilligan's Island and The Real Live Brady Bunch (starring Davy Jones and Danny Bonaduce) that have been quite good. Chicago also had a branch of the Blue Man Group, and I even saw Puppetry of the Penis, on stage, which was an absolute riot. If you're seen it on HBO, the live show is pretty much the same thing, with the guys right in front of the audience and also projected on Jumbotron for the benefit of people seated in the back rows.

As you can tell, my taste in theater is quite diverse. I already have tickets to see Lion King again this summer, and also Wicked (the story of the early years of Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West from "The Wizard of Oz"). Normally I hate returning to Chicago, but I don't mind so much when it's to see a good show. I am waiting with baited breath for a touring company of Avenue Q to get started. If you've never heard of it, it's a demented parody of the Muppets that stole the Tony award right from under Wicked's nose. But while it stars puppets alongside the human cast, it is definitely not for children. With songs like "The Internet is for Porn" and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and story lines centering around things like a gay puppet and his straight roomie (obviously inspired by Bert and Ernie), this one is for the big kids.

My favorite part is that they all live in a New York apartment building where the superintendent is Gary Coleman. No, not played by Gary Coleman. The character is Gary Coleman, and it's usually played by a short African-American woman. Sadly enough, it's not hard to envision poor Gary getting so down on his luck that he'd end up managing a tenament someday. After all, Willis turned to a life a crime, and I think Dana Plato robbed a video store, too, before eventually dying of a drug overdose. Compared to that, becoming a super would be anticlimatic.

But even though Celebration is a long way from Chicago, it is not bereft of theater experiences. I was pleased to learn that there is an active community theater group, and Celebration High School also regularly presents plays. We missed the recent community production of Harvey, but we made it a point to see the high school production of Little Shop of Horrors this weekend. The New York revival production of Little Shop is currently on tour and scheduled to visit Chicago this summer, but tickets have not gone on sale yet. Since it's one of my all-time favorite plays, I was pleased that there was a local production to give me a "fix" until I finally see the Broadway version.

The play had showings all weekend, but my husband and I decided to attend the Sunday matinee. Sunday is a quiet, lazy day for us. We usually roll out of bed late and then head over to Max's or one of the local pancake houses for a weekly breakfast treat. Make mine blueberry pancakes with bacon or country ham, plus a couple of sunny side up eggs with toast to smear in the runny yolks. Sure, I can feel the cholesterol clotting my arteries while I eat, but it's sooooo good!

After that, we usually head over to the Farmer's Market to pick up some fresh produce and maybe run to Publix for the week's supply of groceries. For the rest of the day, we just laze around (my husband, of course, slips in a bike ride) until it's "Simpsons" time on Fox.

Today we altered our plans slightly. We got a later start and lunched at Red Lobster, since the wait at Cracker Barrel was unreal. I had quite a hankering for cherry-covered pancakes, but I adjusted my sights and had clam chowder and coconut shrimp instead. Then we drove over to Celebration High School to catch the 2 p.m. show.

When we pulled up, there was a fairly decent crowd of people waiting for the doors to open. While we waited, my husband and I plastered our faces against the window to see the cast photos hanging on a poster inside. We tried to guess which of the kids would be playing which characters, since they weren't in costume in the pictures. Soon enough the doors opened up and the crowded headed inside to meet Seymour, Audrey, Mr. Mushnik, Oren the dentist, and of course Audrey II.

We plopped into two seats at the end of the front row and thumbed through the program. My husband pointed out an ad for auditions for Schoolhouse Rock Live, which is going to be presented by the Celebration Players later this year. I was estatic! As a child of the 70s, "Schoolhouse Rock" was an integral part of my Saturday mornings. Those brief little edutainment bits were responsible for helping a whole generation to pass their constitution exam. I can still remember a whole classroom of teens humming "We the people..." as they anxiously filled out their test papers.

Before Disney bought ABC (and thus the rights to the Rock) and merchandised the beejeezus out of it, it existed mostly in the memories of people in my generation. It had long since faded from the airwaves after an unfortunate attempt to bring it into the computer generation by making some new bits about Chip and Scooter the Computer. Ugh! But someone revived it as an off-Broadway show called "Schoolhouse Rock Live," and as luck would have it, it showed up in a tiny Chicago theater. I was there, of course, and to my delight, they were selling "Schoolhouse Rock Live" sweatshirts. In thos dark, pre-Disney days, you couldn't find anything with "Schoolhouse Rock" on it, so my husband and I snapped them up.

For a long time afterwards, whenever we would wear those shirts, people around us would spontaneously start humming "Conjunction Junction" or exclaim, "Wow! I remember that!" One year, we wore them to Disney World, and we were selected to be in the "Superstar Television" show. That long-gone (and sorely missed) show consisted of people from the audience being placed via blue screen magic into sitcoms such as "I Love Lucy," "Cheers," and "The Golden Girls." About 15 minutes before the show, the host would come out to select the lucky participants from a seat of people that had crowded around. It was always a treat to be in the show, but the odds could be pretty slim on days when the parks were crowded.

That day, my husband and I were quite excited; it was our first time ever being picked. We were selected to be the couple who visits the Golden Girls. As we settled in backstage, the host stopped back and said, "I just had to pick you guys so I could tell you how much I like those shirts! The whole crew is humming their favorite Schoolhouse Rock bits now." Those became our lucky shirts, and we wore them until they finally faded into oblivion. By that time, Disney was selling a whole line of Schoolhouse Rock merchandise, so we were able to get replacements, but it wasn't nearly as much fun because it was no longer unique.

You can bet I'll be front and center when the Celebration Players present their show, wearing my Conjunction Junction t-shirt. Actually, my favorite of all the bits is Rufus Xavier Sasparilla, but for some reason poor Rufus never became a mainstream hit. That's okay; I'll always love him and the aardvark, kangaroo, and rhinocerous that cause such a fuss sometimes when he takes them all the bus.

But this time around, it was Little Shop, a show I love so much that I have most of the movie dialogue memorized. When the lights went down and the opening monologue started, I amused my husband by mouthing the words. Granted, it was a high school production, but the kids really did a fantastic job. There was only one main set (the flower shop), but they still managed to convey the idea of all the scenes. They did rig up a dental chair for the big Seymour vs. Oren scene, but the funniest part of that had to be Oren's special nitrous oxide gas mask. It was a riot; when he stepped onstage wearing that contraption, the audience all cracked up. My husband is the sort of person who wants "giggle gas" just for a teeth cleaning, so now I know what to get him for Christmas.

The bum who spent most of the time at the side of the stage also got lots of laughs. During the intermission, he staggered around the theater, coughing loudly and trying to bum a buck off various audience members.

The main characters were quite well chosen, and the supporting case was strong too. All in all, it was a very enjoyable time. At the end of the first act, my husband glanced at his watch and couldn't believe that an hour had flown by already. The show was so fast paced that the time slipped by in ultra-fast motion.

I was also quite impressed with the plant, Audrey II. According to the program, it was from I never realized there was an actual internet site that rented man-eating plants for plays! At the final curtain call, the performer who played Twoey was thankfully labeled with a sign that read "The Plant" so he could get his rightful applause, since he had been hudden behind the scenes during the show.

The kids earned themselves a standing ovation, and I was very pleased that we had gone to see the show. When we moved to Celebration, part of what we were looking forward to was participating in community events. Meld that with my love of theater and Celebration is a perfect place, with its high school shows and the Celebration Players. Sure, I love attending big Broadway-style productions, but there is something so neat and unique about seeing a hometown play. Hopefully I'll get a chance to see the professional production of "Little Shop" this summer in Chicago, but today's version will always hold a fond place in my heart as my first Celebration play.

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