URBANA — Like many young folks who are active in high school theater, Jeri Hart loved it but figured she would never do it again after graduating.
She went on to major in elementary education at the University of Illinois but discovered quickly she couldn't leave theater behind.
It's in her blood.
"I realized I didn't have to give it up because I'm not majoring in it, which is great," she said.
So from her freshman year on at the UI, Hart has done a lot of theater, mainly with the Illini Union Board.
Then last spring, she joined six other UI students who were active in Illini Union Board productions to establish a new theater group: Illini Student Musicals.
The company, a registered student organization, will present its first show, "The Drowsy Chaperone," from Thursday through Saturday in the Lincoln Hall Theater, with Hart directing.
"Chaperone" also will be the first theater production to take place in the 615-seat venue since Lincoln Hall opened earlier this fall after extensive remodeling.
"It's a great space, especially with all the renovations," Illini Student Musicals co-president Aaron Kaplan said. "It has a new sound board and newly upholstered seats. The stage is wide and deep, and the orchestra will be on stage."
Kaplan, who has directed music for a few Champaign Urbana Theatre Company shows, will direct the 18-piece student orchestra for "Chaperone." All of the cast and crew are UI students, too.
"What I think is unique about the organization is it takes students from all different disciplines who have a passion for theater," said Kaplan, a graduate student in orchestral conducting. "They get to pursue their passion here."
One is Chris Johnson, a senior from Mundelein who plays the male lead of Robert Martin in "Chaperone." He's a psychology and sociology major who did a few plays in high school but became more involved in theater after arriving at the UI his freshman year.
He hopes to participate in community theater for as long as possible after he graduates. Other "Chaperone" cast members feel the same.
"Definitely, they love to do theater, but it's not what they wanted to focus on in life," said Johnson, an ISM co-president. "Theater brings a lot of people together, and that's what this musical does."
"The Drowsy Chaperone" brings together 27 cast members, with 13 in large roles, according to Hart. One reason the Illini Student Musicals executive board picked it for its first production — the company plans to present one musical each fall and another every spring — is the ensemble cast provides plenty of roles for talented students.
And, "It's a very funny show, with great music, that we thought would make a great artistic production that would appeal to the masses," Kaplan said.
Billed as a musical within a comedy, "The Drowsy Chaperone" debuted in 1998 in Toronto and in 2006 on Broadway, where it won the Tony Award for best book and best score. Kaplan said the music is jazzy and recalls the songs of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and others of the era.
"Drowsy Chaperone" is a parody of American musical comedies of the 1920s. The story, though, is set in contemporary times and revolves around Man in Chair, a middle-aged, anti-social musical theater fan who narrates the action. Portraying Man in Chair for ISM is Nick Shine, a senior in communications.
As Man in Chair plays the recording of his favorite musical — the (fictional) 1928 hit "The Drowsy Chaperone " — the musical comes to life in his apartment.
The story of "Chaperone" centers on popular actress Janet van de Graaff, who plans to marry her boyfriend, Robert Martin, and end her acting career. But she's a cash cow, so producers and gangsters go to extremes to keep her treading the boards.
Portraying van de Graff is Allison Morse, a sophomore from Cleveland and one of only four acting majors in the production.
Morse said she's a lot like van de Graff because both have big energies and are indecisive.
A "mezzo belter," Morse finds the role vocally challenging, though. The dancing is difficult, too.
But she brings experience to the stage, having performed as the lead in CUTC's "Avenue Q" and in other productions. She also has been acting in commercials and in university Web series.
"Many people say musical theater is artificial, but I don't feel that way," Morse said. "If everybody's putting their full commitment and full energy into their characters, it can't be artificial. It's real. Like any show, it's real."
If you go
What: Illini Student Musicals, a new theater group and registered student organization at the University of Illinois, presents its first production, "The Drowsy Chaperone," a musical within a comedy (music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison; book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar)
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; matinee at 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lincoln Hall Theater, 702 S. Wright St., C
Tickets: $10 for adults; $8 for students; available at the door or via http://www.illinistudentmusicals.org