Alyssa Castro, Olivia Lyman, and Lauren Larson in Quad City Music Guild's Mamma Mia!

With the fruits of our non-laborious labors landing in your laps (or on your laptops) just in time for gift-giving week, your intrepid theatre correspondents Rochelle Arnold, Pamela Briggs, Madeline Dudziak, and I officially welcome you to the sixth-annual Reader Tony Awards! Now returned to full fighting strength after 2020's truncated-by-necessity ceremony!

For those who don't remember, and for those who understandably choose not to, the Reader's annual celebration of local and local-ish stage accomplishments was pandemically forced to look a little different last year, considering that our area's traditional assemblage of 80-ish theatrical productions was whittled down to, like, 12. Troupers that we are, we went on with the show regardless, but in a format that only allowed for six categories as opposed to the usual 10, and only two write-ups for each category instead of the six we initiated in 2019.

Gary Talsky, Doug Kutzli, Kira Rangel, and TJ Green in the Mockingbird on Main's Deck the Halls: A Holiday Musical

And in all honesty, our area still didn't completely return to über-expansive form in 2021. While an absence of their titles hopefully won't continue into 2022, there were no new shows from the Prenzie Players, the QC Theatre Workshop, or New Ground Theatre. Venues such as the Playcrafters Barn Theatre, the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre, the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, and the Spotlight Theatre found their seasons starting later in the year than usual. Quad City Music Guild, Augustana College, and St. Ambrose University delivered months of virtual presentations before re-opening their doors to the public. Genesius Guild produced fewer works than in the past; the Mississippi Bend Players switched to a season of one-weekend runs.

But consider what did happen! Professional summer-stock companies the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre and Mt. Carroll's Timber Lake Playhouse – both shuttered for 2020 – came roaring back to life, as did Eldridge's Countryside Community Theatre. Moline's Black Box Theatre opened nine shows between March and December. Davenport's new venue The Mockingbird on Main was launched and produced a half-dozen works over the last six months. And unlike their combined 10 in 2020, Rochelle, Pamela, and Madeline were able to review a full 57 area stage productions this year, with yours truly also managing to get his butt to a theatre nearly two dozen times since March. It may not have been 2019 again, but it sure as hell wasn't 2020!

Philip Tunnicliff in Genesius Guild's Hippolytus

That being said, there were still several area productions that, due to scheduling conflicts, our team was collectively unable to cover, for which we sincerely apologize. But as always, the Reader Tonys are meant to be a representation of the awesomeness of our area-theatre scene as opposed to any kind of final word on the subject. So we chose to take a slightly different tack to reach a similar result this year: the same 10 categories that we covered from 2016 to 2019, but with our three reviewers and myself offering one-and-a-half opinions per. Everyone got to submit an entry for each category, and then Rochelle, Pamela, and Madeline chose five additional categories they wanted to augment with another mention. I added my two cents to the five categories remaining, and presto! Picks o' Six 2021! Ain't math grand?

As in the past, the same rules applied. No one could personally cite a show more than three times. Every title had to be produced in the area – making touring stops at Davenport's Adler Theatre, for instance, ineligible – and no one could hand a figurative Tony to a spouse, family member, or editor, though productions they were involved with were fair game. Ties were allowed, but only when two or more performers from the same show had equivalent stage time. And yes, you'll be relieved to learn, no one's individual write-up was allowed to exceed 50 words. I have yet to meet anyone who either wrote for or read the Reader Tonys who had a problem with that.

Adrienne Jane and Michael Alexander in the Black Box Theatre's I & You

Sadly, our annual recap does come with the news that Rochelle Arnold – who contributed more than five dozen articles since her Reader debut in the spring of 2018 – has decided to move on from regular reviewing duties, and her talents and enthusiasm will certainly be missed. But with Pamela Briggs and Madeline Dudziak happily still on-board, we'll continue to provide the informative, incisive, and entertaining area-theatre coverage you've come to expect, and will no doubt be adding a new voice or two to the team in 2022.

So stay tuned – and in the meantime, enjoy the 2021 Reader Tonys! It's great to be back! Like, for realz back!

Mike Schulz

Bethany Sanders and Noah Hill in the Spotlight Theatre's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Timber Lake Playhouse (Pamela Briggs). Director Natalie Novacek's backwater-brainiac battle featured bright tweens of many temperaments, with six adults providing genius portrayals. Those playing adults were likewise brilliant. Every voice was powerful; the acting and improv cracklingly comical. Trances, crushes, rants, cartwheels, sabotage, a divine visitation, and a kid dancing on one foot spelled F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C.

Constellations, Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (Mike Schulz). An achingly romantic, imaginative two-hander by Nick Payne, directed by the magnificent James Beaudry, starring the staggeringly gifted Timber Lake Playhouse alumni Jess Ford and Alexandra E. Palkovic. No way was I missing this. There was probably also no way I wasn't going to fall madly in love with it.

Deck the Halls: A Holiday Musical, Mockingbird on Main (Madeline Dudziak). This delightful little dose of yuletide cheer provided lots of laughs and enough Christmas spirit to help Santa’s sleigh fly for years. With just a cast of four and running under an hour, Tristan Tapscott’s pint-sized original show was here to remind us all to not underestimate new works.

Mamma Mia!, Quad City Music Guild (Madeline). A talented cast, beautiful set, stunning lights, completely unique and hilariously good flipper dance, background actors serving an actual purpose, glorious costumes, and ABBA tunes? Colleen Houlihan’s production was every bit the unmitigated joy 2021 needed. A phenomenal and triumphant return to live theatre in Prospect Park.

The Sound of Music, Spotlight Theatre (Pamela). A big show requires massive amounts of time and exertion, even if done poorly. Director Sara Tubbs' production, however, ran amazingly smoothly, with many exceedingly talented folks working in harmony. Like the movie, it was a gratifying panoramic feast for eyes and ears – but, being live, worlds better.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Spotlight Theatre (Rochelle Arnold). Directed and produced by Spotlight co-founders Brent and Sara Tubbs, this show had colorful characters, whimsical props, and bright set designs. A playful musical nicely put together with lots of imagination, the lighthearted production featured cartoon animations periodically flashing onto a backdrop, plus fantastic lighting that added wonderful silhouettes.

Mike Schulz and Tristan Odenkirk in the Mississippi Bend Players' Red


Cait Bodenbender, Red, Mississippi Bend Players (Madeline). This glorious production looked at the concept of art as a whole: its creative process and ultimate value. Certainly a demanding challenge, but Bodenbender slayed it with a presentation that was both visually stunning and mentally stimulating. Her directorial acumen guided the whole experience to a crescendo of artistic prowess.

Jennifer Popple, Macbeth, Augustana College (Mike). Following her springtime knockout One Flea Spare, Popple crafted a sleek, stylish, legit-scary and -funny Scottish Play, and while Shelley Cooper's movement coaching was sublime, it augmented – rather than overwhelmed – the director's inspired guidance of actors and expert staging. This Macbeth was worth catching twice. So I did.

Kayla Jo Pulliam, I & You, Black Box Theatre (Pamela). A one-set production in which two teens sat around talking about school, music, and poetry – but bigger than that. This intriguing drama-with-comedy ended with a hugely shocking revelation that literally tears this little world apart, and Pulliam did marvelous wonders with this moving, outstanding, hard-to-stage play.

Kira Rangel, The Mountaintop, Mockingbird on Main (Rochelle). Rangel made skillful use of an intimate space, offering great direction to her two-actor cast: Anthony Hendricks as Dr. Martin Luther King and Erica Faye as the mysterious maid Camae. This drama was a poignant look into the unique inner struggles of one of history's most influential civil-rights leaders.

Tommy Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt, The Music Man, Countryside Community Theatre (Pamela). Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt led a big cast through well-loved musical numbers and wordy scenes. The leads sang dazzlingly, acted naturally, and presented novel takes on their characters. The townsfolk sang and danced their hearts out. The kids were exceptionally talented. The topnotch crew put everything together beautifully. Nothing halfway about this production.

Mike Turczysnki, The Whistleblower's Dilemma, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Madeline). Staging brand-new works can be difficult, especially when the playwright is checking in, too. But Turczynski is a fantastic director to bring something to life for the first time. With its great physical comedy, swift scene transitions, and awesome staging all around, Turczynski’s production was something to be proud of.

Erica Lee Bigelow, Brooke Myers, Kira Rangel, Ravyn Davis, Savannah Bay Strandin, and Noel Jean Huntley in the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Beehive: The '60s Musical

Lead Actress

Cait Bodenbender, Mollie Schmelzer, and Melita Tunnicliff, Hippolytus, Genesius Guild (Madeline). As a constant stage presence, this Greek chorus was a indeed a constant presence throughout Michael Callahan’s production. What a trio! Whether speaking in unison offering commentary, guiding the stage action, or merely listening intently while sorting their washing, Bodenbender, Schmelzer, and Tunnicliff were a genuinely captivating group.

Noel Jean Huntley, Macbeth, Augustana College (Madeline). There truly aren't enough positive adjectives to describe Huntley. Her spin on Lady Macbeth was unbelievably impassioned, and she leaned into the grief her character felt without restraint while manipulating her way to the top; Huntley stole focus in all the right ways. This performance was nothing short of phenomenal.

Noel Jean Huntley and Kira Rangel, Beehive: The '60s Musical, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Mike). While their co-stars were wonderful, Beehive generally belongs to its Tina/Aretha and Janis tribute artists – and Rangel and Huntley effing owned this production. These powerhouse vocalists/interpreters should immediately tour solo showcases for all three icons. Granted, that would require cloning Rangel. It feels like a science experiment worth exploring.

Adrienne Jane, I & You, Black Box Theatre (Pamela). Caroline is a caustic, mercurial teenager, critically ill, and trying to evade a strange classmate, and Jane did exceptional work displaying the shifting hues of this complex, emotional girl trying to be cool and controlled. She made Caroline a rich, fully real person – not just a stereotypical defiant youth.

Kim Kurtenbach, Disenchanted!, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Rochelle). Kurtenbach shined in this Disney-princess satire. She was the comedic epitome of Snow White – one a little rough around the edges, but dressed to the nines – and combined sassy with sexy when delivering lines such as “Do I look like I need to wait for a prince?”

Wrigley Mancha, Matilda: The Musical, Quad City Music Guild (Mike). Despite the performer donning a face mask, I'm sure I didn't miss a single euphoric grin or touchingly down-turned despondent expression in Mancha's thunderously present, jubilant, excitingly sung portrayal of Matilda. The seven-year-old who accompanied me was riveted by this young dynamo. So was the guy 46 years her senior.

Caleb Mathura and Roy Brown in the Timber Lake Playhouse's Jesus Christ Superstar

Lead Actor

Ben Gougeon, An Oak Tree, Mockingbird on Main (Madeline). It takes an obscene amount of skill to be able to act opposite an actor who has never read the script, which is exactly what Gougeon did each and every night. It’s ironic, really, that his character was a hypnotist, given that his performance was so mesmerizing to witness.

TJ Green and Calvin Vo, “Jacques”alope, Mockingbird on Main (Mike). Best buds playing best buds. Easy feat, right? Maybe so. But perhaps one made a li-i-i-ittle bit tougher by Green and Vo having to visibly nail a bromance while also creating comically distinct personae, performing lightning-quick verbal-slapstick routines, chatting with a dude in cactus garb … and keeping straight faces.

Anthony Hendricks, The Mountaintop, Mockingbird on Main (Rochelle). Despite having an extravagant amount of dialogue, Hendricks delivered his lines in a simple and conversational manner. I felt like a fly on the wall while watching the actor portray Dr. Martin Luther King in the most compelling way, and deliver a riveting performance that captured my heart and imagination.

Jacob Johnson, Little Shop of Horrors, Spotlight Theatre (Pamela). As written, Seymour's a schmendrick, and many might've leaned on the lines alone for laughs, maybe adding some tired Jerry-Lewis-style shtick. Yet Johnson's fresh, authentic portrayal expressed both meekness and strength, provoking hilarity and sympathy, and his control over his fine voice and limber body made shy Seymour a hero.

Caleb Mathura, Jesus Christ Superstar, Timber Lake Playhouse (Rochelle). A rising star for sure, Mathura’s portrayal of Jesus was absolutely breathtaking – one of the best I’ve ever seen. His falsetto was remarkable, with a piercing quality so appropriate for this role, and Mathura employed his expressive eyes and facial expressions to make you feel his every emotion.

Philip Tunnicliff, Hippolytus, Genesius Guild (Mike). Another face-masked performance – but this one intentional, not circumstantial! No doubt employing his years as a Guild vet, Tunnicliff made you feel deeply for a man who, in truth, was oftentimes a douche. That Hippolytus' tragic fate still meant something was testament to the actor's abjectly honest, bighearted portrayal.

Susan Perrin-Sallak and Kevin Babbitt in the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's Outside Mullingar

Featured Actress

Katelyn Baughman, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Timber Lake Playhouse (Pamela). Quintessential overachiever 13-year-old Marcy is a superstar in languages, music, and sports. The energetic, charming Baughman, meanwhile, sang frenetically of Marcy's accomplishments, dancing around the stage and expressing both pride and unbearable stress. When Marcy threw the bee, her joy at defying expectations instead of exceeding them was contagious.

Abbey Donohoe, Company, Black Box Theatre (Mike). Amidst Company's fearsome talent, Donohoe was MVP for playing April as I've never seen her before: smart as hell. Traditionally a ditz, this stewardess instead emerged as ultra-savvy, and in going for curious as opposed to needy, Donohoe's skill – and Sondheim's elastic lyrics – made this a fabulous choice.

Autumn Key, Ain't Misbehavin', Timber Lake Playhouse (Rochelle). Always capturing my attention as her character Nell crossed the stage with slinky body language, Key was super-sultry and beautiful. In this enticing musical, she was a smoking-hot triple threat, displaying great dance skills, a dynamic voice, and the ability to convey Nell’s personality through believable acting.

Kady Patterson, Clue: On Stage, Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (Madeline). In a cast of familiar favorites, Patterson stole focus more than once with Mrs. White’s silent responses to the goings-on in Boddy Mansion. Under Dana Skiles' direction, people kept dying right and left, but Patterson’s reactions never got less interesting … even with flames on the side of her face.

Susan Perrin-Sallak, Outside Mullingar, Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (Mike). Maybe a sentimental choice, considering Perrin-Sallak has played my stage mom three separate times. Her regality, subtle emotionalism, and razor-sharp comic instincts as a grieving Irish widow, however, made me wish I was her child a fourth time. Apologies, Jessica White. You were fantastic. I still totally wanted your role.

Sara Wegener, Dick Tracy: A Live Radio Play, Black Box Theatre (Madeline). I loved how Wegener brought apparent disinterest to an entirely new level with her character in Lora Adams' production. If there was a contest for the best stage scream in 2021, Wegener would win that category, too, because her deadpanned shrieks were the absolute funniest things I’ve seen/heard in years.

Will Crouch and Roger Pavey in Augustana College's One Flea Spare

Featured Actor

Kevin Babbitt, Outside Mullingar, Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (Pamela). When Babbitt first entered, his Tony exuded weary stoicism. When he spoke, he unleashed cranky bluster in a formidable Irish accent. And all throughout, Babbitt was blunt, exasperating … and likable. Tony's contentious relationship with his son was completely convincing. So was his love and regret when he said goodbye.

Jack Bevans, The Music Man, Countryside Community Theatre (Pamela). Whenever the charismatic Bevans showed up, it felt as if the stage lights became brighter and warmer. His Marcellus was full of spark, shenanigans, and enthusiasm, his dancing and singing were topnotch, and Bevans made it all look as natural as breathing. He's great. He'll no doubt keep getting better.

Will Crouch, One Flea Spare, Augustana College (Mike). Employing a pitch-perfect Cockney dialect, Crouch was hugely entertaining and sinister as the watchman who practically dared his trapped charges/victims to leave their home during a devastating pandemic. The actor's malignant yet hilarious creepiness made you fear for anyone physically encountering the man. But at least he was - luckily? - outside.

Brad Hauskins, The Church Basement Ladies in You Smell Barn, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Rochelle). Hauskins was impressive as he played three different musical-comedy roles. But I particularly enjoyed him as Tillie, the local columnist tapping away on her typewriter singing “Tillie’s Tidbits” as she rolled around in a chair, and resembling Tootsie with a curly red wig, bright orange hat, and white cat eyeglasses.

Greg O'Neill, The Whistleblower's Dilemma, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Madeline). No one embodies “Featured Actor” more than this production's O’Neill. Playing a multitude of characters ranging from an evil boss to a drunken bar patron, he was completely committed to whichever role he portrayed. Even his villain was lovable – a testament to O’Neill bringing his all to his performance(s).

Daniel Williams, Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn, Quad City Music Guild (Madeline). Admittedly, Williams often plays the same slightly buffoonish, over-dramatic character that showcases his sweeping vocals, excellent dancing. and ability to charm. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and Williams was phenomenal as Ted. An excellent dance partner, he elevated everyone around him to his level of greatness.

ensemble members in the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's All Shook Up


Peggy Freeman, Matilda: The Musical, Quad City Music Guild (Mike). The eternally amazing Freeman passed away in October. I want to belatedly hug her for myriad reasons. I'd also love to tell her how superb Matilda's costumes were – including the mandated face masks. Melissa Anderson Clark's had tacky jewels stitched in! Tony Hiatt's had a freaking mustache drawn on!

Gregory Hiatt, Disenchanted!, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Mike). This is either a wardrobe thing or a prop thing. But when, amongst innumerably winning costumes, Aladdin's Jasmine floated onstage with a magic carpet at her waist, I was teary-eyed from laughter. This was the hands-down-funniest area show I've seen in years, and Hiatt's contributions were a significant reason why.

Gregory Hiatt, Saturday Night Fever, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Rochelle). When it comes to dressing up his performers, Hiatt is truly the best. In this disco-era musical, we saw plenty of bell-bottoms, plaid suits, pantsuits, large-collar shirts, oversized jewelry, and stunning sequenced outfits that simply sparkled. Every costume was well-fitted and dazzling, empowering each actor to dance the night away.

Rebecca Rankin, All Shook Up, Clinton Are Showboat Theatre (Rochelle). Rankin’s Elvis-meets-Twelfth-Night costuming was impressively diverse, featuring a soldier’s uniform, a mechanic’s jumpsuit, a dress to fit a male actor playing a female role, men’s clothing fitting a woman, suspenders and loafers for the guys, '50s style dresses for the gals, and a great leather jacket for the lead.

Joe Thomas, Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn, Quad City Music Guild (Madeline). If audiences were capable of offering a slow clap for costumes, Thomas would’ve received one for his visually stunning collection for Holiday Inn. Albeit ridiculous, the Easter bonnets alone would have qualified these costumes for greatness, and the Christmas-wreath tutus put things over-the-top in a good way.

Sara Wegener, The Sound of Music, Spotlight Theatre (Pamela). With variety and quality, Wegener accomplished a huge feat: She assembled habits, evening dresses, tuxes, military uniforms, sailor suits, three-piece suits, party dresses, dirndls, lederhosen, and play clothes with multiples of each in different sizes. The outfits were appealing and period-appropriate, and looked natural alongside the others. Brava!

Becky Meissen and the Bug Bears in St. Ambrose University's She Kills Monsters

Scenic/Lighting Design

James Kyle Davis, Brian C. Seekfort, and Samuel Verdino, Constellations, Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (Rochelle). Seckfort's set design for this time-twisting romantic drama was unusual and futuristic, boasting a wooden platform that looked like a spaceship's launching pad. And as the performers circled around the platform, it was admirably highlighted in different spectra, beneath a purple hue, by lighting designers Davis and Verdino.

Kris Eitrheim, Aaron Hook, and Daniel Rairdin-Hale, She Kills Monsters, St. Ambrose University (Pamela). Among other effects, this production boasted an outlandish netherworld throne and an enormous, multi-headed beast, with hand-held set pieces providing animation-like effects. (A tree became a dragon's head with flickering flames!) The panoply of innovative scenery and gorgeous lighting wizardry created as much magic as the D&D characters possessed.

Jennifer Kingry, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Mike). Suggesting the design for a tchotchke-free Golden Girls episode, director Kingry's set gave the outstanding Stephanie Naab and Adam Cerny loads of room to banter, bitch, and, most importantly, dance, and her lighting effects smartly echoed mood and emotional candor. I would've happily watched seven seasons of this on NBC.

Michael Kopriva, Murder in Green Meadows, Black Box Theatre (Madeline). Kopriva created a completely stunning-in-its-normalcy set – a true model home come to life with attention to detail not often seen. The artwork that adorned the walls was beautiful, and I still wish my own walls could accommodate the large painting of trees that adorned this playing area.

Brent Tubbs, Little Shop of Horrors, Spotlight Theatre (Mike). You might think the Spotlight's extravagant opulence would overpower a show as lean and mean as Little Shop. But it proved perfectly fitting for Tubbs' comically dramatic, memorably hued lighting effects and admirably rotating Skid Row set ... even when things didn't go according to plan. (See “Memorable Moment” below.)

Brent Tubbs, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Spotlight Theatre (Rochelle). I loved Tubbs' cutout-type sets that were very (appropriately) cartoony, such as the bright orange piano and yellow mailbox. And his lighting effects were done in a way that allowed for great depth and dimension while the fun background tones blended well with the colorful scenery.

ensemble members in Countryside Community Theatre's Newsies: The Musical


Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Timber Lake Playhouse (Rochelle). Timber Lake's musical revue played like a professional rock concert, with audience members going absolutely wild. They were on their feet clapping, cheering, and singing along to such classic tunes as “Peggy Sue,” “Maybe Baby,” and “Oh Boy,” and amidst the positively charged atmosphere, the acoustics were fabulous.

Church Basement Ladies, Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (Pamela). Five glorious voices elevated a standard-yet-catchy show-biz score, and rang sweetly in solos, duets, and multi-harmonies – the performers sounded like they'd been singing together for years. The pro-level musical skill and genuine enthusiasm in these talents was extraordinarily satisfying, and even made me want to be in this show.

A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, Timber Lake Playhouse (Pamela). This portrait of 1950s country/pop legend Patsy Cline is painted with nearly non-stop music, and the colors are vibrant and beautiful. Star Felicia Finley has an incredible voice, a wide vocal range, and lively allure, and the on-stage band provided the perfect toe-tappin' sounds and vocals to back her up.

Disenchanted!, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Mike). Boasting some of the finest solos and harmonies I've yet heard at Circa '21, I'm citing this stage riot over Beehive only because I was previously unacquainted with Disenchanted!'s hysterical, gloriously sung songs. But really, it's a tie between all-female ensembles. Sheesh. Men can't catch a break in this industry … .

Newsies: The Musical, Countryside Community Theatre (Madeline). With live pit musicians and a huge cast of 30-plus actors, Ashley Mills Becher’s production hit all the right notes and sounded great while doing it. Plus, even though the cast danced scarily close to the pit, no one fell in to figuratively – and literally – impact the musicians.

Smokey Joe's Café, Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (Rochelle). With music direction by Kory Danielson and Harrison Roth, the show's company of singers delivered smooth, silky harmonies. Highlights included “Young Blood,” “Stand by Me,” “On Broadway,” and “Love Potion #9,” but each singer offered a unique flair and personality to every Lieber & Stoller song that was performed.

Adam Cerny and Stephanie Naab in the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks

Memorable Moment

The Furry Interloper, The Piano Lesson, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Madeline). It was so great to see a packed house attending one of August Wilson’s best stories brought to life on opening night. It was surprising, though, when halfway through the first act, a little dog wandered out from backstage, through the action, and into the audience. Still: one-hundred-percent unforgettable!

The Inspiration, La Divina: The Last Interview of Maria Callas, Black Box Theatre (Rochelle). In portraying the lovely Callas, Shelley Cooper's stellar vocals genuinely blew me away. As the actress belted out her big notes, I was reminded of “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind, another famous opera singer. And apparently, saying so in my review helped inspire Cooper's next production: the story of Jenny Lind.

The Prayer, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Timber Lake Playhouse (Pamela). Mitch is an uncomfortable "comfort counselor" roped into consoling the eliminated spellers. Eventually, though, he embraced his role, and sent a contestant off with heartfelt praise and advice in a joyous, uplifting company gospel number. Eli Nash's magnificent voice overwhelmed me in this sublime, energy-filled musical experience.

The Reminders, The Guys, Black Box Theatre (Rochelle). I remember where I was, and what I was doing, on September 11, 2001 – especially on that clear Tuesday morning when, suddenly, coordinated terrorist attacks against the U.S.A. were executed by highjacked commercial airplanes. In memorializing that day, The Guys was an emotional piece that brought forth painful memories.

The Sing-along, Little Shop of Horrors, Spotlight Theatre (Mike). Midway through Act II, Audrey II broke down. Literally. Yet our enjoyment didn't stop. Because amidst the sounds of behind-the-curtain resuscitating drills was our audience joyfully singing along to Neil Diamond's house-music tune “Sweet Caroline” (Bah bah baaaaah!), reminding us all that a happy show creates happy, and forgiving, audiences.

The Tango, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Pamela). Man, woman; tall, short; younger, older; rude, refined; broke, rich; breezy, reserved. Unsurprisingly, they clash. Surprisingly, they also dance, and this unlikely twosome become one. In their tango, veteran performers Adam Cerny and Stephanie Naab moved together in character, beautifully to and fro in graceful sync, with hilariously deadpan expressions.

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