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|Eight Times Five: Ensembles, Musical Numbers, Stagecraft, Couples, Newcomers, Collegiate Performers, Minors, & Exits|
|Theatre - Feature Stories|
|Written by Mike Schulz|
|Monday, 21 December 2009 06:00|
Five Inspiring Ensembles
Powerful lead performances and scene-stealing supporting turns are always welcome; one- and two-character shows can be a gas. But for my money, nothing quite beats the theatrical pleasure of watching a tightly knit ensemble in action, and the following five productions ensured that this pleasure was a continual one.
Doubt: A Parable. The February debut of this Green Room Theatre offering was both perfectly and awkwardly timed, arriving as it did on the heels of author John Patrick Shanley's film version; the title was fresh in audience's minds, but the show's cast was also competing with recent memories of the Oscar-nominated Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis, and Amy Adams. Major kudos, then, to Melissa McBain, Jeremy Mahr, Shellie Moore Guy, and Jessica Sheridan (née Stratton), who invested director Tyson Danner's parochial drama with wicked intelligence and grace, and made you forget all about that Doubt starring ... . Hmm ... . Who was in the movie again?
Swimming in the Shallows. Thanks to our area's plethora of acting talent, you can occasionally describe a show as boasting "an all-star cast" without sounding silly. And how else would one describe the talent recruited for director Chris Jansen's New Ground Theatre production, which featured Pat Flaherty and Susan Perrin-Sallak as a quarrelsome married couple, Lora Adams and Kimberly Furness as anxious lesbian lovers, and Eddie Staver III as an amiable serial dater who finds romantic bliss with a shark? Playwright Adam Bock's script was too determinedly quirky, but the performers made it sail, and recent Augustana College graduate Rob Sullivan not only kept up with his intimidating co-stars but made his mako emerge as a figure of true warmth, wisdom, and humor. With bite.
Five Women Wearing the Same Dress. More Augustana gifts were on display as students Jessica Benson and Sara Potts and instructor Molly Todd teamed up with Kate Heiman and the invaluable Ryan Mosher-Ohr for the Riverbend Theatre Collective's delightful (and, given its author, surprisingly corpse-free) production of this Alan Ball comedy. The bridesmaid banter was delivered with bitchy relish, but the actresses' repartee was so unforced and comfortable that the punchlines were never just punchlines; they always sprouted from a place of lived-in character. And when he arrived late in director Allison Collins-Elfline's production, the effortlessly engaging Andy Lord slipped into the ensemble with absolute ease and conviction.
Long Day's Journey Into Night. Just when I had all but given up hope on ever seeing a stage production of my favorite play ever written, along came the Harrison Hilltop Theatre's top-tier take on Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece. And if I had any lingering doubts about local actors being able to perform this four-act, three-and-a-half hour family tragedy with the passion and fervor it deserved, they were promptly erased by the magnificently controlled, emotionally present, and oftentimes richly funny portrayals of Ray Gabica, Jackie Madunic, Jason Platt, James Bleecker, and Maggie Woolley. I can die happy now.
Almost, Maine. So, if you caught director Gregg Neuleib's Richmond Hill Barn Theatre show, which was your favorite pairing in author John Cariani's romantic-comedy roundelay? Stacy Herrick and Jason Platt, exchanging exquisitely tender awkwardness while sitting on a park bench? Jessica Nicol and Alex Klimkewicz, the former trying, with apologetic delicacy, to sneak away from the latter's motor-mouthed barfly? Platt and Chris White, as two salt-of-the-earth guy's guys who find themselves literally falling for one another? Any of the duos enacted by this superb five-person ensemble could conceivably qualify, but I'm going with the lovely, heartbreaking partnership between Nicol and White, who met a far happier fate than their Marcia and Phil characters did - on Halloween night, Jessica Nicol became Jessica Nicol White. Sometimes life is even better than art.
Five Ass-Kicking Musical Numbers
Astonishingly, there are theatre fans out there who, for whatever reason, just don't care for musicals. (I'd consider not even speaking with these people, but it seems rude not to talk to your parents, so ... .) For those who do care, and care a lot, about one of the few art forms that Americans can take honest credit for, area theatre provided some especially dazzling highs over the past year.
"We Go Together," Grease. By the time the Timber Lake Playhouse's cast - under the direction of James Beaudry - delivered its rousing, exhilarating take on Act I's climactic number, it was clear that the company's season-opening production was in very, very good hands. By the time the ensemble sang the song's reprise at the end of Act II - after two hours of fantastically spirited, inventive work - it was clear that the company's entire summer was going to be in very, very good hands.
"I've Been Everywhere," Ring of Fire. All throughout the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Johnny Cash jukebox musical, the show's six actors and five musicians performed the Man in Black's repertoire with knockout panache and personality. But when all 11 teamed up for director Ann Nieman's dizzily enjoyable, lyric-trading coup de grâce at the show's finale, I was pretty convinced that even though it was only January, I wouldn't see a more invigorating, magical production number at the theatre all year.
"I'm Flying," Peter Pan. And then, five months later, Circa '21's Peter Pan flew in. Literally. Brittany Church sang Peter's ode to flight with such exuberance, and young actors Lauren VanSpeybroeck, Zach Finn, and Tanner Konrardy delivered such matching energy, that the number would probably have killed even if the actors just ran around the stage flapping their arms. They didn't, of course, and while I can't recall if the song was interrupted for applause five times or six, either way it was about half as many as director Jim Hesselman's joyous airborne spectacle deserved. (Runner-up for best Peter Pan number: The ingeniously percussive "Ugh-a-Wugh," which our opening-night crowd applauded for a full minute. Seriously.)
"Can't Help Falling in Love," All Shook Up. For those who haven't seen this satiric Elvis Presley revue, its Act I closer is designed as a parody of Les Miserables' "Do You Hear the People Sing?" number, in which, one by one, individual voices - and individual passions - converge into a glorious, rabble-rousing climax. As performed by director Bob Williams' splendidly gifted, 34-voice ensemble in Quad City Music Guild's summertime spectacular, this Elvis anthem topped Les Miz by making you teary-eyed with emotion after an hour-plus of being teary-eyed with laughter.
"Keep It Gay," The Producers. Were there more lyrically clever, musically impressive numbers on hand in director Kevin Pieper's presentation of Mel Brooks' theatrical skewering? Perhaps. Was there a more achingly hysterical one than this über-swishy satire of Broadway bitchery, with such veteran Music Guild talents as Mark McGinn, Mike Millar, Harold Truitt, Joe Urbaitis, and Tom Vaccaro happily releasing their inner fa-a-a-abulousness? Not on your life.
Five Examples of Inventive (and Cost-Efficient) Stagecraft
As a theatre patron, there's no denying the thrill you get from seeing just what your ticket price is paying for, and our area is frequently treated to visual wonders at Circa '21, Music Guild, and Timber Lake, and in pretty much anything assigned to St. Ambrose designer Kristofer Eitrheim. Yet just as impressive this year were the technical contributions behind this quintet of shows, proving that while a sizable budget is always beneficial, imagination itself is priceless.
Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. There was no way the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre, with its intimate playing area, was going to lend Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical extravaganza the grandiosity it's generally associated with. Instead, director Patrick Stinson and designers Adam Parboosingh, Candace Zak, and Shannan Osborn went for ingenuity, and came back with a clever, TV-influenced dreamscape featuring inspiringly simple and continually inventive nods to Star Trek, Bonanza, and - with puppets filling out the cast of brothers - even Sesame Street.
Murder at the Howard Johnson's. Okay, so I didn't laugh a whole lot at this farcical presentation at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre. But here's something that I did find hysterical: the décor. With the play's three segments each set in different living quarters, director Chris Zayner and set designer (and co-star) Jeff Adamson provided masterfully subtle variations on a theme; the rooms looked identical to one another until you really stared at them, and noticed just how witty the blandly serviceable chain-hotel furnishings - especially the almost-but-not-quite-identical wall paintings - actually were.
True West. By the year's end, the Harrison Hilltop had transformed itself into an urban apartment-building exterior, a ramshackle country estate, and a Depression-era ranch. But I was equally impressed when director Louis J. Hare and designer Chris Walljasper employed the space's built-in kitchenette as an actual kitchen, and let actors Andrew Harvey and Eddie Staver III systematically trash it with wadded up paper, beer bottles, an insane bevy of toasters, slices of bread that stuck to the wall, and shards from a demolished cuckoo clock. Stagecraft rarely gets more hilariously low-rent.
Around the World in 80 Days. Unlike the movie, the stage version of this family-adventure travelogue doesn't feature a hot-air balloon. It does, however, feature a moving train, a monsoon, a cowboys-and-Indians battle, and even a freakin' elephant. Incredibly, though, Richmond Hill director Jennifer Kingry - who designed the production's lights, sound, and set - made magic by embracing the material's giddy, play-acting possibilities, allowing impossible stage pictures to work through sheer creativity. Her makeshift elephant, by the way, garnered applause. Too bad Kingry wasn't on stage to garner some of her own.
Laughing Stock. Admittedly, technical director Kingry and scenic designer Angela Rathman faced a lesser challenge in director John VanDeWoestyne's sweetheart of a Richmond Hill comedy, as they were entrusted to turn the Barn's theatre into ... a barn theatre. But they also delivered what was handily the low-budget-stagecraft delight of the year, with a riotous imagining of Laughing Stock's failing community theatre and its idea of "special effects," accomplished with fishing wire, a pulley, and a malfunctioning, mechanical vampire bat. Honest to God, I'll never watch Dracula in quite the same way again.
Five Wonderfully Romantic Pairings
"Isn't it roma-a-a-an-ti-i-i-ic ... duh duh duh duh du-u-uh, duh ... ." Okay, so I don't know the words to that song. But the grin-inducing happiness these stage couples provided kept the music running in my head all the same.
Andrea Millea and Joe Urbaitis, South Pacific. Audience members leery about another revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's musical warhorse likely had their fears allayed within the first minutes of director Brian Nelson's thoroughly winning Countryside Community Theatre offering. Excellent singers and inspiringly honest actors, Millea and Urbaitis were so charming, and made such a touching connection with one another, that it was almost as though the iconic roles of Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque had never been played before.
Stephanie Seward and Sam Wagner, Annie Get Your Gun. And Countryside goes two-for-two on inspired stage romance. Portraying the guileless young knife-thrower Tommy Keeler and assistant Winnie Tate, Wagner and Seward were a radiantly expressive team, their singing and hoofing as graceful as their first-rate comedic instincts. Interestingly, the roles of Winnie and Tommy were cut from the musical's legendary 1966 revival, a decision that - after witnessing Seward's and Wagner's infectious happiness in this production by directors Christina and William Myatt - is now a head-scratcher for the ages.
Meredith Jones and Kyle Szen, The Wedding Singer. In performances to knock Adam Sandler's and Drew Barrymore's byplay out of your head forever, Timber Lake's Szen and Jones were the most exquisite of the organization's many exquisite rom-com couplings this season. From their first scene in this giddy stunner by director Brad Lyons, the duo was so brilliantly well-matched vocally and temperamentally that their longing and eventual romantic anguish lent actual weight to this frothy '80s concoction - in the parlance of one of the decade's bigger hits, every shared moment between Szen and Jones hurt so good.
Jackie Skiles and Stan Weimer, Busybody. Playing director Joseph R. DePauw's contentious Cockney maid Lily and grouchy Detective Baxter, Skiles and Weimer were most definitely not in love in the Richmond Hill's July comedy. (Not only that, but their characters would likely smack anyone making the accusation.) Yet with their hysterical bickering moderated by a genuine sense of affection, these Richmond Hill veterans effortlessly suggested a longtime married couple who have had it up to here with one another's company ... and still wouldn't want things any other way.
Stephanie Burrough and Jeff De Leon, Hate Mail. In this Riverbend comedy, not only did Burrough's and De Leon's snide, condescending, occasionally amorous pen pals not much like each other; until the play's final tableau, they didn't even look at each other. Yet with their razor-sharp comic instincts and unyielding verbal wit, De Leon and (Reader employee) Burrough were still the anti-romantic pairing of the year, gracing even the nastiest insults with something approaching tenderness. Off-stage, the co-stars/co-directors are what might be called "an item," and I pray that their real-life relationship is more like Hate Mail's final minute than its preceding 90.
Five Exceptional Newcomers
None the young talents listed below is brand-spanking-new to theatre - they were just new to me. But their eye-catching turns were uniformly impressive, and suggested that the area's talent pool just got a little bit deeper.
Ben Simkins, Bash. Amidst a Phoenix Theatre Company cast that included frequent (and, as they were here, outstanding) area performers Chris White, Jessica Sheridan, and Abby Van Gerpen, recent Rock Island High School graduate Simkins was charming, controlled, and utterly terrifying as a newly engaged jock with some serious homophobia issues. As directed by Tyson Danner, Simkins' gradual character meltdown was all the more unnerving for being so unexpected, and so frighteningly rational.
Dani Helmich, Who Am I This Time? In Scott Community College's utterly charming one-act, Helmich played an endearing, timid young woman who discovers inner fire after being cast in a play. And you could imagine parallels between the character and the real-life Helmich if, under Cari Anne Cooney's direction, she didn't exude such confidence and love of craft from the get-go; in her hands, even shyness teemed with crackling spirit. Helmich, by the way, followed her work here with roles in the Prenzie Players' The Winter's Tale. So far, so really-good, Dani.
Nic Anderson, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I'll be honest: I didn't care for St. Ambrose University's take on this popular musical comedy. At all. But I routinely found myself in stitches while witnessing Anderson's hilariously gruff, barking enthusiasm as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd. Frequently pouncing on his lines with such force that they should've been checked for bruises, Anderson's drawling lawman was an enjoyable, even touching, cartoon, and now I can't wait to see the actor in something that's ... you know ... not The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
TeAnna Mirfield, Henry the Sixth: Richard, Duke of York. The second of director Don Wooten's two-part Henry presentations boasted several figures of spectacular malevolence: Michael King's Richard, Jacob Lyon's Clifford, Scott Naumann's Edward. In her role as Genesius Guild's Queen Margaret, Mirfield looked ready to eat those guys for lunch. With her fiercely powerful focus, thrilling stage presence, and shattering vocal assuredness, Mirfield stormed off with her scenes, and left me wondering if the actress was still too young for Lady Macbeth, Medea, and Clytemnestra. 'Cause I'd sure as hell show up.
Cari Downing, The Rocky Horror Show. Damn it, Janet, I love you! Okay, maybe it's too soon for love, but after witnessing Downing's wickedly enjoyable area debut at the Harrison Hilltop, I sure do like her a lot. Her wide-eyed dizziness as the dippy virgin Janet was a tongue-in-cheek hoot from minute one, yet when Downing tore into her Act II solo begging for someone - anyone, really - to "touch-a, touch-a, touch-a, touch me!", she gave director Dave Mahl's musical a jolt of pure comic chutzpah... and comic sexiness to match. Steve Lasiter's coming back for next October's production of the show. How 'bout you, Cari?
Five Outstanding Collegiate Performances
A really sensational college or university production makes me incredibly nostalgic for the glory days of my own theatre-major experiences. And the sweeping satisfaction I get from watching first-rate collegiate portrayals - including the five listed below - can stick with me for so long that it sometimes feels as though I never left college. (Granted, college loans can also make you feel this way, but that's a whole 'nother story ... .)
Jake Lange, The Big Funk. Talent abounded in director Scott Irelan's Augustana rendition of John Patrick Shanley's cryptic and absurdist comedy. But in between the philosophical discourse and the (literal) tightrope-walking and the dinner party from hell, Lange - also first-rate in January's less-than-first-rate The Learned Ladies at Augustana - kept things blessedly sane, portraying Shanley's surrogate with charm, inventiveness, and dazzling comic skill. And the relaxed and effortlessly engaging actor also played his last scene here in his boxers, so go ahead and add "bravery" to that list.
Jen Altenbernd, Omniscience. Another brave Augie actor working for director Scott Irelan. I was a fan of Altenbernd's work in Dead Man Walking, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Learned Ladies, but had no idea that she possessed the emotional fire and thrillingly concentrated fervor on display in Tim Carlson's science-fiction drama; playing a former Special Ops agent suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the performer was startling, nuanced, and explosively effective. With its Big Brother themes and multimedia projections, Omniscience was oftentimes a paranoid bliss-out. When Altenbernd was on stage, it was just bliss.
Emily Kurash, Lettice & Lovage. As someone who saw Kurash's first stage portrayal at St. Ambrose - in 2005's The Threepenny Opera - and her every mainstage appearance since, I felt like a proud parent watching the actress hit a personal apex in director Corinne Johnson's Peter Shaffer comedy. Kurash traversed her character arc from grim stoic to sloppy drunk to rejuvenated life force with radiantly naturalistic dexterity, and I only wish that the performer's consistently fine theatrical efforts had gotten more in the way of the recent graduate's schooling. Some of us were really hoping for a fifth year.
Ryan Westwood and Sarah Ulloa, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. If you were lucky enough to catch Westwood's and Ulloa's musical partnership in the Green Room's john & jen last year, the news that they were teaming up as Stephen Sondheim's meat-pie makers was almost too good to be true. It turns out their performances were, too. Director Michael Kennedy's St. Ambrose production - the last one before his university retirement - was grand, ghoulish, and glorious, and its leads drove the material with excellent vocals and superlative dramatic and comedic skill; I'd call Sweeney Todd their finest stage work to date if Westwood's and Ulloa's consistent greatness didn't make that such a tough call.
Five Major Minors
And just when you were feeling intimidated by the talents of college students, here are five - okay, seven - youths who lent extraordinary dimension to the term "kids' stuff."
Sydney Crumbleholme, Jakob Dodd, and Morgan Williams, Papa's Angels. Walking off with Playcrafters' November presentations is becoming something of a habit for high-schooler Crumbleholme, who followed her divine title portrayal in 2008's Anne of Green Gables with her charming, expressive Becca in director Tom Morrow's holiday presentation - and pulled off the touching acting feat sans dialogue, no less. (Thankfully for us, the mute Becca did occasionally speak via voice-over.) Yet Crumbleholme was far from the only gifted youth on hand here, and offering first-rate musical bookends to the production, Williams and Dodd delivered sprightly fiddle solos that were only slightly less engaging than the smiling, appealing, and understandably confident performers playing them.
Sarah Stephan, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. There were youthful talents aplenty in director Jalayne Riewerts' wonderful rendition of Barbara Robinson's yuletide novel. Yet Stephan, in a remarkably poised Clinton Showboat debut, managed to be the production's most touching and most hilarious figure. Her mean-spirited Imogene caused you to choke up when the girl, in a lovely release of honest emotion, learned the true meaning of Christmas. The rest of the time, especially when Imogene responded to her classmates' sincerity with crack one-liners and an unshakable deadpan, you were choking on your laughter.
Emily Baker, Seussical. Actress Linda Hunt won an Oscar for playing a man in The Year of Living Dangerously. Couldn't someone fashion an award for Baker, for her wholly convincing - and marvelously entertaining - performance as JoJo in this Music Guild offering? With her impressive vocal pitch, stellar focus, and preternaturally assured comic instincts, the fifth-grader handled a demanding leading role with spectacular aplomb, all but stealing director Andy Davis' show even from such potential show stealers as Jenny Winn's Gertrude and Eric Reyes' Cat in the Hat. Linda had better watch her back.
Alysha McElroy-Hodges, A Raisin in the Sun. Lorraine Hansberry's Beneatha Younger - the character played by McElroy-Hodges in director Fred Harris Jr.'s drama - is 22 years old. McElroy-Hodges herself, at the time of Playcrafters' presentation, was 14. But this Rock Island High School student was so poised and polished, and so effortlessly, scene-stealingly funny, that she never once appeared to be standing in her adult co-stars' shadows. Considering how much confidence and natural talent she exudes, I'm betting that McElroy-Hodges could soar in just about any role available to her, though she might want to wait a year or two before taking on, say, Hedda Gabler or Amanda Wingfield. Then again, maybe not.
Samuel Javaherian, Trojan Women. As any actor will tell you, playing dead is no easy feat. In the case of Javaherian, though - hauntingly grave and heartrending as the doomed son of Andromache - I'm guessing the task may have been even rougher, as this Prenzie Players cast member isn't in third grade yet. (A hearty brava to director Jill Sullivan-Bennin for helping elicit this naturalistic performance.) He does, however, have genetics on his side, as the son of the Prenzies' Anne Javaherian, and the nephew of the troupe's Cait Bodenbender, Maggie Woolley, and Beth Woolley. It's like the Baldwins ... but with Samuel displaying far more charisma than Stephen.
And an Honorable Mention:
Sunshine Ramsey, Junie B. Jones & a Little Monkey Business. Ramsey isn't a minor, and is actually the mother of a minor of her own. But if there was a funnier, more expressive, and more believable stage portrayal of a five-year-old this year, I sure as hell didn't see it. In director Kimberly Furness' production, Ramsey's Junie sang, danced, and confronted her elders with fearless comic abandon ("Hey, Helen!" Junie shouted to her grandma, "I want some answers here!"), and Ramsey herself was an explosion of youthful personality from start to finish. Who knew hyperactivity could be this much fun?
Five Unforgettable Exits
"Leave 'em laughing" goes the old expression. But leaving 'em gasping, crying, and applauding, it seems to me, is pretty effective, too. I can think of no better way to wrap up the year in theatre than with five of 2009's most notable goodbyes, beginning with what is perhaps the most famous exit in theatrical history ... .
Andy Lord, The Winter's Tale. Since they chuckled in anticipation of director J.C. Luxton's bit, it's a safe guess that most of my fellow audience members were equally antsy to see how, exactly, the Prenzie Players would pull off Shakespeare's "Exit, pursued by a bear" thing. After watching Lord's hapless Antigonus get dispatched via Beth Woolley and a bearskin rug, I think we'd all agree that barring the casting of an actual bear, no future staging of the moment will be quite as surprising, clever, and shockingly funny as this one.
Maggie Woolley, Henry the Sixth: The Contention. The performer exuded gutsy, indefatigable energy throughout part one of director Don Wooten's Shakespeare two-fer. But when Woolley's Joan of Arc, none too happily, was dragged off-stage for a rendezvous with a stake, her voluble anger reached epic proportions, and left the Genesius Guild crowd in thrall to both the character's and the actress' explosive life force. "Oh, I liked her," whispered the woman sitting behind me. Didn't we all.
Eddie Staver III, Glengarry Glen Ross. "F--k you! F--k the lot of you! F--k you all!!!" And with the slam of a door, Staver, in his role as hot-headed-weasel extraordinaire Dave Moss, earned deserved, raucous applause in director David Bonde's Curtainbox Theatre Company production three of the four times I saw it. (That fourth was performed for a more-restrained-than-usual Tuesday-night crowd, although a woman sitting directly in front of me did respond with a restrained-but-vigorous golf clap while whispering, "Yay!" Agreed.)
Andrew Benson, A Year with Frog & Toad. As the "snail with the mail" entrusted to deliver an important letter, St. Ambrose's Benson prepared for his journey with freewheeling musical-comedy gusto, and exited the stage like a bat out of ... . Well, like a bat on tranquilizers. Underwater. With the current against him. He repeated this shtick three times in director Daniel Rairdin-Hale's exhuberant production, and each time was more riotous than the one before.
Ryan Anderson, Kevin Maynard, Ryan Mosher-Ohr, Angela Rathman, and Nicholas Charles Waldbusser, The Last Mass at St. Casimir's. They stood side by side, they stared at the portrait on the wall, they walked out the door ... and they left those of us who had seen all three of director Susan Simosky's Pazinski-family dramedies wishing desperately that we could follow them. Hands down, Richmond Hill's June show featured area theatre's most beautiful, affecting, and elegant ending of the year.
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