Playing in Peoria

Grassroots theater

It's one of those great movie moments: Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) turns to Betsy Booth (Judy Garland) and says, "I know, let's put on a show." They use old Mr. Smith's barn for their elaborate musical revue. The show is such a hit that the kids raise all the money they need to save Mr. Smith's farm from the taxman, and another slice of MGM life fades to black.

Something of that spirit came to life locally back in 1986 when Theater Works opened its doors in an old barn on the northwest side of town. Since that time, it has been doing season after season of entertaining and challenging community theater for a large and loyal audience. After losing the barn a few years back, it moved to what was supposed to be a temporary home in a strip mall in the far western reaches of Peoria. Every year continues to see a new main-stage season of six productions. The summer season adds another three shows. If all that isn't enough, there is also a Wonder Works program for kids, which presents five shows a year. When the Zonie Award nominations were announced last week, 32 of them -- 10 percent of all the nominations -- went to Theater Works shows.

I asked artistic director Gregory Jaye if the location, so close to Youngtown and Sun City, has an influence on the choices for the season's productions. Not at all, as it turned out. The company has continued doing a good mix of crowd-pleasers and challengers. Last year saw both The Heidi Chronicles and La Cage aux Folles. In fact, that musical celebration of the grand art of the drag queen turned into the theater's most successful show in its nearly 15-year history. Jaye points out that he'll sometimes get complaints about strong language used in certain dramas, but never about the content.

Up next is Dylan Thomas' reflection on small-town life, Under Milk Wood, opening Friday, August 18. The coming season also features the powerful drama The Dresser and the musical My Favorite Year, making its Arizona première.

 
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