By Richard S. Gubbe
Mike Webb may be the luckiest award-winning director around. After pulling off a stellar season in 2013 fueled by the storm created by the movie Les Miserables, he used the whirlwind to have one of his best box-office seasons at Rock Valley’s College’s Starlight Theatre. This year, Webb has two plays that can draft along the swirl of the international resurgence of The Sound of Music and the Monty Python production Spamalot.
Although he claims there was no pre-planning involved, as luck would have it, he has two hot musicals, and as he says, one for the boys and one for the girls.
Sound of Music got a surge when NBC aired a live version that drew much acclaim and some disdain. Nonetheless, Webb will ride the classic to perhaps his biggest box office draw, likely to surpass Les Miserables and its 11,000-plus draw. Phantom of the Opera remains his largest feat at 1,000 more in 2003 for 13 shows. Webb paid $35,000 for the rights to do 11 shows of Les Miserables, one of his personal favorites that was coupled with another, Starlight Express, both ambitious and arduous tasks in the same season. The reward was being named the best director in the state, and at this point, Sound of Music is outselling Les Miserables. Webb had planned to do Sound of Music last season, but the opportunity arose to grab the sizzling Les Miserables.
“This is a return to our roots,” Webb said of his milestone season.
The season opens this week with the Rogers and Hammerstein masterpiece of Sound of Music, which runs through Saturday and again July 9-13.
Riding the coattails of the famous von Trapp family is “all about the girls,” Webb said. “The live television version was a nice accident to happen.”
From the book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, the show is based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Many songs from the musical have become standards — “Edelweiss,” “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Do-Re-Mi” and the title song. The original Broadway production starring Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel opened in 1959.
Christopher Berndt will play Captain Georg von Trapp and Rose Tures is Maria at RVC.
Tintypes (June 11-14, July 16-20) features five strong voices in a musical revue set a century ago.
“Tintypes is a lost musical, early Americana, turn-of-the-century stuff and a great evening of music,” Webb said. “It’s one of the first things I ever saw off Broadway.”
Tintypes features just five actors and was created by Mary Kyte with Mel Marvin and Gary Pearle set in the throes of the Industrial Age. Exploding immigration and the infusion of electricity, the telephone and passenger cars form the backdrop, coupled with the patriotic works of George M. Cohan and John Philip Sousa and the ragtime of Scott Joplin.
Honk! (June 18-21, July 23-27) is a musical adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story of the The Ugly Duckling, invoking a message of tolerance. The book and lyrics are by the British songwriting duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The musical is set in the countryside and features Ugly — mistaken as an ugly duckling upon falling into his mother’s nest and rejected by everyone but his mother, Ida, a sly cat who only befriends him out of hunger.
Webb describes this children’s tale as “a great deal of fun” that is “brilliantly retold” by Drewe and Stiles of Mary Poppins fame.
The musical debuted at The Watermill Theatre in England in 1993. The West End production opened in 1999 and won the 2000 Olivier Award for Best Musical. Local singing talent Jodi Beach is the vocal director for Webb in this one, powerfully blending young and even younger local talent.
With Spamalot, Webb said he had to balance a season schedule between what the audience wants and what the actors want. Monty Python’s Spamalot (June 25-28, July 30-Aug. 3) is one the actors wanted, and a group of them approached him about taking on the Eric Idle spoof and he obliged.
Spamalot is a musical comedy adapted from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Like the film, it is an irreverent parody of the Legend of King Arthur. Spamalot was directed by Mike Nichols and opened on Broadway in 2005. All sprouted from the 1970s British TV show and slowly made its way to America with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, then soared with Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Actors Jerry and Kathy Stevens met at Starlight in Camelot in 1988, then married. Now, they return as a sarcastically different King Arthur and Lade Guinevere in Spamalot. The English intellectual slapstick ends when Arthur and Guinevere get married in a Vegas-style wedding.
Former TV anchor Eric Wilson is Lancelot in this wild comedy that is rated PG, the only lofty rating in the family-oriented bunch.
Angel The Musical
The season also will include Angel The Musical to benefit the School of Hope Aug. 8. The local production from a book and lyrics by Webb and Mike Mastroianni and music by Mike Chabucos will feature two shows. Call (815) 921-2160 for info.
Although many seasons draw comparisons, Webb is content to treat them all as children, now numbering 30. Each season is different, he says, and he remembers each in its own way, dating back to the early days of modest digs. While Webb dates back to 1985, the dream began nearly 20 years earlier. When the main arteries that bordered Rock Valley College were two-lane farm roads, the audience sat on rocks among the trees and tapped into a nearby fire hydrant courtesy of the late Reuben Johnson, then in charge of Community Services at RVC, and a band of fledging theater students.
The current surroundings that opened in 2001 are a far cry from the 1967 seating at Finian’s Rainbow. To date, more than 22,200 cast members have performed for more than a million people who have viewed 118 productions, including Webb’s directing of Evita in 1985.
“We charged you for a space on the lawn,” Webb reminisced. He said early casts included all local artists, many of them Boylan grads, who thought they were then treated as “second-class citizens” by the community and viewed as having no careers left. There are many Boylan grads and other local grads on cast lists today, many whom use the opportunity to land college scholarships or paid jobs in bigger cities from coast to coast. Webb has become a pied piper and a launching pad for careers.
“We obviously have a big pool of talent, remarkable,” Webb said of auditioners who make their way from the Chicago suburbs, the Madison, Wis., area and cities and towns to the south and west. “No one is paid. It’s a legacy thing,” Webb said. A few artistic staff members are paid union scale, and there are some set-making jobs for student workers.
Loyal cast members have many long rehearsals to attend that are run as strictly as any large city would, including push-ups for every minute late.
Some musicals held nowadays in the cozy, 1,100-seat outdoor setting of the Starlight Theatre under a retractable roof are running for at least their second time around.
“We’ve done just about all of them,” Webb said. The shows and faces of casts and crews change around one constant.
“Change is part of everything that you do,” Webb said. “I guess I’m the one that’s been through all 30 years of it.”
From the June 4-10, 2014, issue