Smile Politely

2017’s summer theatre season preview

The summer theatre season announcements have been coming in earlier and faster this year, with dribs and drabs all over the SPlog. I’ve posted a few photos, made a few comments, but it’s about time I rounded them all up and gave you the rundown. The idea that town “empties” out over the summer is overplayed, but if you haven’t stayed through this particular season before — rest assured, there will be plenty of things to do. In fact, those of us who stay tend to go a little off-book… take risks we might not otherwise while the town is entirely full. While the productions offered this summer vary in topic and form, they all promise to be entertaining. Keep reading for a breakdown by production company, and at the very end there will be a month-by-month calendar for your planning convenience. 

The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre

The Party – The Station Theatre – June 1st-17th

Written by Tom Basden

Directed by Tom Mitchell

The Party is a newer play written by a youngish comedian about student idealists who seem to truly understand how government works: i.e., amid discussions about sex trafficking or China’s global influence, there are intense debates about the party’s name and when it would be proper to break for a snack. While it’s lambasting modern Western politics, it is funny enough that the promotional video made for it back in 2010 has retained its “Funny” status on, shown below. In the hands of director Tom Mitchell, who I first experienced directing the satirical Hay Fever, it seems certain that an expert cast will be well-guided to significant laughs.

The Foreigner – The Station Theatre – June 29-July 15

Written by Larry Shue

Directed by Thom Schnarre

This Obie-award winning farce takes a humorous look at trust. Froggy has arranged a break for his best friend Charlie, who has been tirelessly taking care of his terminally ill wife. Guilt-stricken for leaving, and socially-awkward even for a Brit, Charlie can’t face the strain of making small-talk with the other lodgers in Georgia, USA. Logically, this results in Froggy passing around the fib that Charlie is foreign and doesn’t understand English. Secure in the knowledge that he won’t understand their secrets, the other vacationers at the lodge don’t censor themselves around him. Hilarity ensues, plots are revealed, the KKK is thwarted. From what I’ve read, this play is a font of physical comedy and caricature, so director Schnarre’s ties with the local improve scene may prove very fortunate for those of us seeking a fun summer evening spent at the theatre.

Marjorie Prime – The Station Theatre – July 27-Aug 12

Written by Jordan Harrison (pictured right)

Directed by Mathew Green 

While summer theatre tends to be fun and funny, it also has the chance to be more exploratory. That being said, the fact that Marjorie Prime was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer and has been made into a Sundance-premiering film makes it seem likely that this play will also be quite popular. An emotional drama with a near-future sci-fi twist, Marjorie depicts the life of its titular character as told back to her by a robot shaped after her husband as he appeared in his 30s. The pair live in the home of their daughter and her husband, who are getting through their lives and working out their reservations about the AI technology among them. It sounds like a more-consensual The Notebook, but the presence of Stephen Root in the original cast assures me that there will be plenty of comedic opportunities, too.

Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company (CUTC)

Hairspray: the musical  – Parkland College’s Harold and Jean Miner Theatre — June 15-25

Written by Scott Wittman, March Shaiman, Mark O’Donnell, and Thomas Meehan

Based on the film by John Waters

Directed by Laura Anne Welle

CUTC’s annual Kathy Murphy Production always features up-and-coming young talent in C-U between 6th and 12th grade. This year, they’ve chosen the once-risqué musical Hairspray featuring a beautiful singing and dancing girl who just happens to not fit in with the 60s aesthetic. Aside from that, she loves “downtown” rhythm and blues music, and supports two friends who are in love despite being from different races. All this radicalism might just be due to the fact that her mom is a man in drag, but probably she’s just an intelligent human being. 

I love that this production, which usually finds a way to stress social consciousness with its young actors, is performing a musical that focuses on inclusion and acceptance, and the only villains are those who are intolerant. Our cities are taking steps to raise “The Nicest Kids in Town.”


Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – Parkland College’s Harold and Jean Miner Theatre — Aug 3-6

Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice

Directed by Jeff Dare

Whatever your feelings about musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or the Bible – honestly, this show is fun.  Just your typical story of familial betrayal, being sold into slavery, and rising to an influential position in government as a result, all to catchy earworm tunes sung by a powerful female voice and a talented ensemble. It’s an unexpected political tale about how one person can change a country’s fate for better or for worse, and how positive things are achievable even when it seems like a tyrant is in charge. After just one viewing, “Those Canaan Days” and “Benjamin Calypso” became part of my vocabulary. Since it’s a family show, that’s over 30 years of saying “ben-hah-meen is tote-tuh-ly co-co-nuts” whenever anyone says “No ifs or buts”.


Twin City Theatre Company (Twin City Squared)

Shotgun – SoDo Theatre — June 8-18

Written by John Biguenet

Directed by Liana Alcantara

A shotgun-duplex (or “double-barreled shotgun”) is a name for what would happen if you put two railroad apartments in separate buildings that share one adjoining wall. In New Orleans, this architecture is fairly common, which is where this particular social drama takes place. The levees just broke four months ago, and homeless from the flood, a white man and his teenage son rent the other half of a shotgun-duplex from a black woman and her father. I was impressed by Prince Robertson in the recent Sleep Deprivation Chamber, and I look forward to seeing more of him in this smaller-cast play.

Bleacher Bums – SoDo Theatre – July 6-16

Written by Chicago’s Organic Theatre Company (from an idea by Joe Mantegna)

Directed by Wendy Galloway

Close your eyes and take yourself back, far, far back to a time before the Cubs had won a World Series. I know it is difficult to imagine, but the longer you’ve been a fan, the easier it should be to remember the repeated anticipation and heartbreak, the resignation yet unflagging devotion. Now imagine a comedy about a group of people who willingly subject themselves to this: a nerdy guy who doesn’t shower but loves stats; a cynical gambler; a take-charge businessman; a fan who has been blind since birth (metaphor!); a young superfan who hasn’t had time to be beaten down yet; and a pretty girl who cares more about her tan than the team. Consider what they would say and do while their team is playing rivals – The St. Louis Cardinals. Annnnnnd scene.


Billy Elliot – Parkland College Harold and Jean Miner Theatre — Aug 25-Sept 3

Written by Elton John and Lee Hall

Based on the film by Lee Hall

Directed by Donnie Kehr

Yes, it’s the Billy Elliot you’re thinking of – the musical version of the film that did not make Jamie Bell as famous as he deserves to be. More importantly, it’s the story of a miner’s son who accidentally, and then secretly, learns ballet instead of boxing while his family is embroiled in the miner’s strike of 1984-5. His father and brother have strong feelings about both the strike and the dancing, and let those feelings affect Billy’s future. One thing worth mentioning is that the director, Donnie Kehr, was in the original Broadway production. To me, however, the most interesting aspect of this particular production is that choreographer Whitney Havice has teamed up with both Art In Motion and Defy Gravity. There are going to be some huge production numbers with a lot of kids who went to a special set of dance-instruction sessions just to get prepared for this. Not only will you get an evening of entertainment, but your ticket directly helps improve the talents and repertoire of our cities’ performing youth.

Urbana Park District Youth Summer Theatre

Seussical the Musical – Parkland College Harold and Jean Miner Theatre – July 20-23

Written by Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens, and Eric Idle

Directed by Katie Odom

In true Seussian fashion, this childlike play filled with nonsensical words has underlying themes of a grown-up fashion: censorship, diversity, loyalty, commitment, morality (during both war- and peace-time), and interracial parentage. It’s a good work of theatre which can slyly introduce thought-provoking concepts to a willing audience, and between the catchy tunes and colorful imagery, it seems as though adults and children alike will leave different than before.

Calendar rundown:


June 1-17 The Party

June 8-18 Shotgun

June 15-25 Hairspray

June 29-30 The Foreigner


July 1-15 The Foreigner

July 6-16 Bleacher Bums

July 20-23 Seussical the Musical

July 27-30  Marjorie Prime


Aug 3-12 Marjorie Prime

Aug 3-6 Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Aug 25-Sept 3 Billy Elliott 

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