By Richard S. Gubbe
Starlight Theatre Director Mike Webb combines some of his favorite shows along with the theater’s best box office draw in 50 years when the season opens with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang today at Rock Valley College. There are two giant Andrew Lloyd Webber productions on tap in The Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ Superstar along with a sentimental favorite offered for the third time in Children of Eden.
“Very few theaters ever make it to 50 years,” Webb told The Rock River Times before the opener. “We’re the longest running theater in the region and hopefully it will continue another 50 years.”
In the fall of 1967, a group of Rock Valley College students wanted to perform a musical beside the picturesque farm pond to bring their community outdoor performances. With the guidance of Reuben Johnson, acting Dean of Community Services, they chose Finian’s Rainbow, which explores the overcoming of racial barriers through hard work and a little bit of magic. Opening night of Finian’s Rainbow was a greater success than anticipated.
For 49 years, the seats have evolved from lawn chairs to the spacious, 1,000-seat marvel with a roof that opens and closes with the weather. In June 2013, the 135,000-square-foot facility known as Bengt Sjostrom Theatre was now Starlight Theatre, designed by Belvidere native Jeanne Gang and Studio Gang Architects. The design’s most unique feature is its 200-foot, retractable star-shaped roof, which opens like the petals of a flower, allowing audiences to enjoy the night sky with the option of being protected from inclement weather.
RVC theater outdoor productions number more than 140 with casts and crews totaling nearly 25,000 with total attendance upward of a million people.
Chitty Chitty Bang, Bang
With music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and his brother, Robert B. Sherman, the MGM Motion Picture achieved instant acclaim. The G-rated play was adapted for the stage by Jeremy Sams with the licensed script adapted by Ray Roderick. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the musical was inspired by the 1968 film produced by Albert R. Broccoli, which was in turn inspired by the novel Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car by Ian Fleming.
Webb said Fleming’s children’s book to his son was the beginning of it all. The RVC show will feature a motorcycle that goes backward and three cars onstage. Webb is putting this show on stage “was harder than Mary Poppins.”
Chitty takes a musical adventure with an out-of-this-world car that flies through the air and sails the seas. An eccentric inventor, Caractacus Potts sets about restoring an old race car from a scrap heap with the help of his children Jeremy and Jemima. They soon discover the car has magical properties including the ability to float and take flight. Trouble occurs when the evil Baron Bomburst desires the magic car for himself but the family joins forces with Truly Scrumptious and batty Grandpa.
The RVC stage production of Chitty features a car made in Indiana just for the RVC show. Performance dates are June 8-11 and July 6-10.
Jesus Christ Superstar
This is also the third go-round for Jesus Christ Superstar. Propelled by a stirring score from Andrew Lloyd Webber, both satirical and tender, Jesus Christ Superstar illuminates the human spirit with a passion that goes straight to the heart.
The first rock opera, created as a concept album at the end of the turbulent ’60s, was centered on the world’s most famous social and political rebel. Jesus’ meteor-like rise in renown provides, as the title suggests, a parallel to contemporary celebrity worship to become Jesus Christ Superstar. As his radical teachings are evermore embraced, Judas increasingly questions the enlightened motives of this new prophet, resulting in betrayal. Christ’s final days are dramatized with emotional intensity, thought-provoking edge and explosive theatricality.
Webb has Nelson Gutierrez as Jesus and crosses gender lines in the cast with female Judas. “It’s not meant to be controversial but to allow someone to experience Judas,” he said. Jim Chabucos returns to play guitar for the show. Performance dates are June 15-18 and July 13-17.
The Phantom of the Opera
The Phantom of the Opera was last performed in 2011, breaking Webb’s unwritten rule of never twice within 10 years. But Phantom was his biggest money maker and if this is to be Webb’s final season, he wanted to make it as big as he could.
Phantom was Starlight’s single highest ticket seller ever, Webb said. He invited past cast members back and the most notable to return is Samantha Owen as Christine.
Webb said the demand was there to do the show and he saved a few bucks by using past props and costumes. The script will feature a few changes, he added.
From the book by Webber and Richard Stilgoe with song lyrics by Charles Hart, the show had the highest gross box office receipts ever, Webb says. Based on the novel Le Stilgoe, The Phantom of the Opera tells the story of a masked figure who lurks beneath the catacombs of the Paris Opera House, exercising a reign of terror over all who inhabit it. He falls madly in love with an innocent young soprano, Christine, and devotes himself to creating a new star by nurturing her extraordinary talents and by employing all of the devious methods at his command.
Classic songs that came from the show include Think of Me, Angel of Music, Music of the Night, All I Ask of You, Masquerade and the title song. Performance dates are June 22-25 and July 20-24.
Children of Eden
Children of Eden is a Webb favorite and was also performed the first season Starlight opened as well as the first season offered in the United States in 1997.
“I was shopping for a new show and we did the American premiere,” Webb said. “It didn’t do very well in London but I liked it. I listened to a cassette and said ‘I am doing this play.’”
Webb and lead Jerry Stevens met during the Studio Theatre offering of Sunday in the Park with George at RVC. “It was a sellout and in the middle of the show, Jerry turns to me and said, ‘Isn’t it time to do Children of Eden again?’ I called and asked Karen (Manley Kahler) and she said yes also.”
Based on the story of Genesis, the age-old conflict of parents and children an epic, heartfelt musical that is G-rated. From musical theatre greats Stephen Schwartz and John Caird comes an inspirational musical about parents, children, faith and centuries of unresolved family business.
“It has a great message of getting along as a family and stopping violence,” Webb said.
Adam, Eve, Noah and the “Father” who created them, deal with the headstrong, cataclysmic actions of their respective children. The show ultimately delivers a bittersweet but inspiring message: that “the hardest part of love is letting go.”
The production stems from the book by John Caird with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz from the original concept by Charles Lisanby. The show uses a large cast to take on the story of the Old Testament in a moving, foot-stomping experience. Children of Eden is recommended for faith-based groups looking for a large-scaled pageant with sweeping music. Performance dates are June 29-July 2 and July 27-31.