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|Theatre Highs in 2009|
|Theatre - Feature Stories|
|Written by Mike Schulz|
|Monday, 21 December 2009 06:00|
Whether you attend stage works sporadically or, like me, you saw 85 shows in the past year, anyone who enjoyed even one will understand that feeling of leaving a venue thinking, "Wow ... that was really good." I experienced that sensation numerous times this year, and while this list is hardly exhaustive, it'll hopefully give you an idea of just what you've been missing if you missed out on 2009's offerings.
All Shook Up (Quad City Music Guild) - Imagine Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with Elvis Presley songs. That's All Shook Up. Now imagine watching a Twelfth Night with Elvis songs while high on nitrous oxide. That was the experience of Music Guild's All Shook Up, a production so laugh-'til-you-cry riotous that it being sung so beautifully was almost an afterthought. Almost. Understanding that comedy is never funnier than when played with deadly seriousness, director Bob Williams' cast enacted romantic anguish with appropriately Shakespearean fervor; somehow, Melissa Anderson Clark, Bryan Tank, J. Adam Lounsberry, Jackie Madunic, Mike Millar, and other veteran talents managed to be both as hysterical and as moving as I've yet seen them on stage. And while a few body mics, on the night I attended, functioned erratically, there was absolutely nothing dicey about the ensemble's thrilling vocals and music director David Blakey's outstanding orchestra. All throughout, the collective passion on display suggested that this dizzy pop extravaganza was actually high art. And you know what? It was.
The Big Funk (Augustana College) - Collegiate stage pleasures abounded in 2009: the winning performances in Black Hawk College's The Dinner Party and Scott Community College's Who Am I This Time?; the grand Grand Guignol of St. Ambrose University's Sweeney Todd and the storybook endearment of its A Year with Frog & Toad; the esoteric, multimedia fun of Augustana College's Omniscience. But for whatever reason, it was Augie's staging of John Patrick Shanley's haunting and wildly surreal stage debate that affected me the most deeply. A goodly part of my reaction, no doubt, was personal, as the show immediately sent me back to my own days as an Augustana theatre major; my friends and I would've rassled with a script like The Big Funk's until we were (happily) blue in the face. But my pleasure was mostly due to the production achieving such a stunning equilibrium: At no point did director Scott Irelan, his cast, or his technicians appear to be anywhere but on the exact same Shanley page.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Timber Lake Playhouse) - In truth, four of Timber Lake's summertime presentations - among them Grease, The Wedding Singer, and Wait Until Dark - could've easily landed on this list. But if pressed for my favorite 2009 experience at the Mt. Carroll theatre, I have to go with this wildly hysterical and clever musical farce, one so buoyantly performed and endearingly mean-spirited - and no, that's not a contradiction - that you left completely jazzed and ready to watch the whole thing over again. Much of the credit, of course, goes to composer David Yazbek for the fiendishly witty score and lyrics, but the lion's share goes to an actual Lyons - director Brad Lyons. Blessed with what I felt was the overall strongest acting company yet recruited over the five seasons I've visited Timber Lake, Scoundrels' helmer orchestrated the escalating madness with masterly assuredness, making his end-of-summer retirement as artistic director even more saddening than it otherwise would've been. The shows will go on, but Lyons will be much missed.
Glengarry Glen Ross (Curtainbox Theatre Company) - There is, I'm sure, a fine line between loving a stage production and being obsessed with a stage production, and after my fourth viewing of the Curtainbox's one and only 2009 offering, I was reasonably certain I'd crossed it. Can anyone who saw the show blame me? Under David Bonde's fantastically smart and inventive direction, David Mamet's corrosive real-estate-swindler comedy was profanely exhilarating from beginning (that blistering Michael Kennedy tirade!) to end (that unforgettable Pat Flaherty meltdown!), and with a cast that included David Furness, Louis Hare, Aaron Randolph III, Daniel D.P. Sheridan, Eddie Staver III, and Tristan Tapscott, there were acting show-stoppers galore. Bonus points were earned for the scenic change of the year, which found the cast systematically trashing the office set at the top of Act II, and my only regret with the production, really, is that I didn't have the chance to catch it a fifth time. In Mamet-speak, this show was un-f---king-believable.
Henry the Sixth: Richard, Duke of York (Genesius Guild) - Taken with its predecessor, Henry the Sixth: The Contention, this two-part presentation of three of Shakespeare's history plays lasted roughly five-and-a-half hours. How on earth did director/adaptor Don Wooten manage to make you wish it were even longer? To be sure, Michael King's Richard was a major factor, as his fearsome villainy left you jonesing for yet another follow-up. (Which, to our good fortune, we'll be getting next summer with Genesius Guild's Richard III.) But Wooten's handling of both Richard, Duke of York's story and staging was positively teeming with excitement, and the show boasted the sorts of wickedly entertaining performers whose work makes you grin months after witnessing it: TeAnna Mirfield, fiercely intense as Henry's warrior queen; Scott Naumann, a divinely loathsome Edward; Jacob Lyon, as thrilling here as he is when dancing for Ballet Quad Cities. (And that's awfully thrilling.) I understand that there are people out there who think the Bard is a snooze. I'm guessing they didn't see this production.
The Last Five Years (Riverbend Theatre Collective) - In what was a first since assuming theatre-reviewer duties in 2005, I caught two separate versions of one show on successive nights, attending the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's Last Five Years on a Thursday and Riverbend's the following evening. This was by no means a hardship, as composer Jason Robert Brown's two-person musical is pretty damned wonderful, and the Showboat's take on the material was lovely. Riverbend's, though, was extraordinary, so gloriously well-performed and, in the end, emotionally devastating that it only sparked the merest flicker of déjà vu. As the alternately overjoyed and heartsick lovers who narrate their doomed romance through song - one in chronological order, the other in reverse-chronological order - Allison Collins-Elfline and Dana Joel Nicholson sang beautifully and acted with radiant confidence and skill, their characters' journeys underscored, literally, by an absolute dream of an instrumental quartet. Director Jennifer Kingry's offering may have been small-scale, but it was a triumph of wit, nuance, and deserved confidence.
The Last Mass at St. Casimir's (Richmond Hill Barn Theatre) - Following the curtain call for director Susan Simosky's trilogy-ender, I found myself the first patron in the lobby, where the show's ensemble was waiting to greet departing audience members. I was momentarily caught off-guard by this, and probably should've immediately said something to the quintet - Ryan Anderson, Kevin Maynard, Ryan Mosher-Ohr, Angela Rathman, and Nicholas Charles Waldbusser - about how much I enjoyed their sublime work in this spectacularly funny and moving dramatic comedy, especially after loving the first two parts in author Tom Dudzick's series. (With Simosky directing, Over the Tavern was staged by Richmond Hill in 2005, and King o' the Moon in 2007.) Instead, the first words out of my mouth were, "You bastards," mostly because I was really hoping that no one would catch me crying. The Last Mass at St. Casimir's was a magnificently warm, wise, big-hearted entertainment. If you were lucky enough to have seen the series' previous installments, too, your enjoyment was likely multiplied threefold.
Peter Pan (Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse) - Having seen well over 100 productions at Circa '21 over the past two decades, it takes an incredibly special one to land on my list of top-five favorites. Peter Pan lands in the top three ... and, off the top of my head, I can't think of which two might rank higher. (There's every chance I'm not alone in feeling this way; on opening night, the ovations that greeted several numbers here, to say nothing of the show's curtain call, were more thunderous than any I've ever heard at Circa '21.) With its stunning-across-the-board cast performing wonders on Susan Holgersson's miraculous set designs - and costumer Greg Hiatt offering plenty of miracles of his own - director Jim Hesselman's musical was like the vacation you never wanted to return from or the dream you never wanted to wake from. There were huge laughs, there were unexpected tears, and there was more than enough magic to make everyone who saw the show feel like a kid again.
A Raisin in the Sun (Playcrafters Barn Theatre) - When Lorraine Hansberry's family drama was first announced as a Playcrafters title for 2009, the news was both hugely welcome (because it was more-than-past time for a local production of the piece), and somewhat questionable (because, as local producers can tell you, this is still a community in which finding available, interested actors of color can be a painstakingly difficult process). But whatever one's initial qualms, they were likely made moot by director Fred Harris Jr.'s elating and deeply poignant production. Few theatrical joys are quite as invigorating as watching a show that's cast almost entirely with unfamiliar talents, and as led by the exquisite Shellie Moore Guy, the ensemble of Curtis Lewis, Shanna Nicole Cramer, Alysha McElroy-Hodges, and young Xavier Marshall composed a dream of a stage family; their joking, bickering, and undying affection felt as vibrant and true as Hansberry's words. The show was bliss; thank you, Playcrafters, for recognizing that with great risks can come really great rewards.
The Winter's Tale (Prenzie Players) - If you weren't able to see November's production of Shakespeare's notoriously challenging comedy/tragedy/romance, at least know that you had company; prospective patrons were turned away from five sold-out performances during the show's six-performance engagement. A modest proposal for this troupe that stages three classical presentations per year: Four-months runs of each. Because, really, when the Prenzie Players are working at the quality level of their Winter's Tale (or, for that matter, 2009's Much Ado About Nothing and Trojan Women), no curious theatre-goer should be turned away. From the hushed pre-show conversation between David Furness and Stephanie Moeller to the wrenching anguish of Adam Michael Lewis, from Jeremy Mahr's delirious monkeyshines to the heart-stopping subtlety of Beth Woolley's climactic transformation, director J.C. Luxton's witty, ravishing, emotionally direct rendition secured itself as an instant Prenzie classic - and that's without even considering the applause-worthy genius of "exit, pursued by a bear." Seriously, this troupe has to stop topping itself sometime, right? Uh ... right?
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