Adam Sanders, Chase Austin, and Sethe Christensen in The Wedding Singer

Despite Broadway's 2019-20 season being cut short by two-and-a-half months and a dozen-plus shows that never opened, it was decided, in October, that this year's Tony Awards would still be handed out, pandemic be damned!

Of course, nominations were announced five months later than usual, and a date for the ceremony still hasn't been set, and it probably won't be “this year,” and trophies likely won't be literally “handed out,” and many categories have fewer nominees than usual, and one category has only one nominee … . (Believe it or not, though, Moulin Rouge! The Musical's Aaron Tveit – the sole contender for Leading Actor in a Musical – still doesn't win the award outright, as he apparently has to get at least 60-percent of “yes” votes before the prize is his. Which just seems cruel.)

Taking the Antoinette Perrys as our inspiration, however, we theatre lovers at the Reader have decided that Our Show Must Go On, too. So even though we've been given far fewer titles to choose from than usual, with our own categories and the excellent work within abbreviated out of necessity, we happily welcome you, ladies and gentlemen, to the Fifth-Annual Reader Tony Awards!

Determining a format for our not-even-virtual ceremony proved challenging, to say the least, despite our intrepid team of theatre reviewers Rochelle Arnold, Pamela Briggs, and Madeline Dudziak being more than up for the challenge. To put things in perspective: Last year, all three of them reviewed at least 25 area productions apiece. This year, for hopefully understandable reason, they reviewed 10 … collectively. A few other one-weekend shows were seen, if not reviewed, and I managed to catch seven titles (that I didn't direct) myself, but it quickly became evident that our usual practice of everyone citing a recipient or two from 10 categories was going to be impractical.

Kayla Jo Pulliam and Matthew Walsh in The Turn of the Screw

But we also didn't want deserving work to go unmentioned, and didn't want year-end tradition upended despite fewer possible citations. And we really didn't want to go all Aaron Tveit on the process and only have one acknowledgment per category. So we made some compromises.

Not including our annual “Memorable Moment” closer in which we'd all participate, I asked each member of our reviewing trio to pick three categories she'd like to contribute to out of six condensed-for-2020 options: Production/Director, Lead Actress, Lead Actor, Featured Actress, Featured Actor, and Technical Achievement. They all did, and I filled in the three slots remaining, giving us six categories with two citations each, every category boasting a different pairing of writers.

As a friend texted after I explained the plan: “That sounds really … complicated.” But it actually wasn't! And even though this article is hardly the theatrical behemoth it's been in past years with five or six citations over 10 categories, we hope this year's Reader Tonys will, as always, at least offer a sampling of the wonderful work done, even if there wasn't nearly enough of it to go around.

Just like in past years, the same rules for citation applied for this one: None of us were personally eligible for mention, although the productions we were involved with were; ties were allowed if the performers were in the same show; and no author's individual write-up could exceed 50 words. As always, our brevity is our pleasure. Hopefully yours, too. (For more, and longer, area-theatre reminiscences, please check out "Hindsight Is 2020: The Year in Area Theatre.")

So while we cross fingers that next year will offer some semblance of “normal” regarding area theatre, and that 2021 in general won't be, you know, 2020, we hope you enjoy this admitted grab bag of memorable shows, performances, and moments that continued to remind us why we still treasure this marvelously collaborative and fulfilling art form. Pandemic be damned.

- Mike Schulz

Kayla Jo Pulliam in Three Viewings


Three Viewings/Lora Adams, The Black Box Theatre (Pamela Briggs). Exceptional actors plus a great script by Jeffrey Hatcher equaled a fascinating, entertaining evening. These three funeral-home monologues achieved the perfect balance of comedy and drama, and James Driscoll, Kayla Jo Pulliam, and Adams (as actor and director) led me through a thicket of heartbreaking, hilarious, and shocking moments.

The Wedding Singer/Ian Sodawasser, The Spotlight Theatre (Madeline Dudziak). With its marvelous mix of sweet and sappy, upbeat energy, and a cast fully owning their '80s vibes, I’m sad for anyone who missed this Sodawasser-directed production. The show would likely be a 2020 highlight even if there hadn’t been a pandemic-caused theatre dry spell. It was that awesome.

Sarah Hayes, Kim Kurtenbach, Shelley Walljasper, and Sherry Konjura in The Savannah Sipping Society

Lead Actress

Kim Kurtenbach, The Savannah Sipping Society, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Rochelle Arnold). Kurtenbach, whose natural acting style won me over, was the embodiment of pure joy in her performance as Randa, a middle-aged architect looking for new career opportunities. This leading lady was hysterical with her one-liners, impeccable timing, and spunky personality, and also looked fabulous in a vibrant monarch-butterfly-looking dress.

Kayla Jo Pulliam, The Turn of the Screw, The Black Box Theatre (Pamela). I felt understanding and sympathy as Pulliam's governess struggled to do right by two young children, even as their lives got weirder. And the final scene flipped the story: Was she victim, victor, or villain? Pulliam's rich characterization defied any easy definition, and she was enthralling in this demanding role.

Tristan Odenkirk and Peter Alfano in Waiting for Godot

Lead Actor

Peter Alfano and Tristan Odenkirk, Waiting for Godot, The Black Box Theatre (Pamela). A theatre classic. A tricky script. Alfano and Odenkirk seized this challenge – triumphantly. Their engaging, naturalistic portrayals drew me into feeling as uncomfortable, gloomy, or hopeful as their characters. As sometimes-prickly Estragon and often-sunny Vladimir meandered through this bewildering play, the actors transformed the bleakness into a bromance.

Malik Harris and Michael Penick, Kinky Boots, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Mike Schulz). Musicals are generally more successful with romantic love than platonic love. Vociferous cheers, then, to Harris' and Penick's beautiful stage friendship. While these empathetic, funny-as-hell performers sang spectacularly, they also convinced you that their ebullient drag artist and straight-laced executive not only admired each other, but really adored each other.

Tyler Hughes, Abigail Carpenter, Andres Garcia, and Jaren Schoustra in The Shape of Things

Featured Actress

Jaren Schoustra, The Shape of Things, St. Ambrose University (Mike). Playwright Neil LaBute, that clever bastard, generally reserves hateful fates for endearing characters. The supremely controlled, confident, magnetic Schoustra, however, kept you transfixed knowing that when the worst inevitably came, her unfairly maligned Jenny would learn and grow from the experience, rather than be demolished by it. Take that, LaBute!

Rachelle "Shelley" Walljasper, The Savannah Sipping Society, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Rochelle). Walljasper is an absolute hoot, and makes acting look easy. She brought her own unique flair to the jilted housewife Marlafaye, and when her character dressed up like a cantankerous jester, she really cracked me up. This performer has a way of stealing scenes simply by participating in them.

Nolan Schoenle, Jenya Loughney, and Ghazy Mahamid in The Boxcar Children

Featured Actor

Adam Sanders, The Wedding Singer, The Spotlight Theatre (Madeline). Sanders’ Sammy was 100-percent #sidekickgoals. He and his on-again/off-again lady friend Holly made their subplot every bit as captivating as the main tale. Plus, credit where due: Sanders sang the heck out of everything while simultaneously rocking a mullet and mustache, carrying a bass, and likening himself to the McRib.

Nolan Schoenle, The Boxcar Children, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Rochelle). Schoenle left it all on the stage with compelling portrayals of Dr. Sam Truman and Big Mike. He radiated a magical charm in every scene he was in, and it was quite impressive to watch him sail around with a cane and a limp, pouring out his heart and soul.

Milak Harris, Michael Penick (both center) and ensemble members in Kinky Boots

Technical Achievement

The 39 Steps: A Live Radio Play, The Black Box Theatre (Mike). Attending my first area show post-shutdown, with the face-shielded performers six (carefully measured) feet away from one another, it was easy to remember that theatre artists can triumph under any circumstances – even mostly absent technical enhancements. Homemade-sound operator Tom Vaccaro and his terrific castmates offered silly, ingenious, well-timed proof.

Kinky Boots, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Madeline). Between Greg Hiatt’s blend of casual and sparkly costumes that packed a perfect punch (as did the many memorable pairs of titular footwear), Dianne Dye’s wiggery, and Christie Kerr’s upbeat choreography that had the audience literally up on its feet dancing along, this production’s technical touches were utterly unforgettable. Smashing!

Kelsey Notestein and Miles Potje in Junie B. Is Not a Crook

Memorable Moment

The Décor, The Savannah Sipping Society, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Rochelle). A marvelous set construct by scenic artist Susan Holgersson left me overwhelmed with gratitude to be back in the theatre this September. The audience was welcomed by a warm, inviting porch and lush veranda accented with a glowing blue back-light courtesy of Heather Hauskins. In that moment, I felt blessed.

The Exit Interview, Their Town, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Pamela). The many relatable scenes with talented actors were topped by Brant Peitersen's Mike mulling the possible, career-ending loss of his long-time radio gig. Fans loved him, but Mike was helpless against the caprices of his bosses and the market, and Peitersen's masterful combination of bitterness, humor, and resignation moved me.

The Grown-Up Laughter, Junie B. Is Not a Crook, Augustana College (Mike). Loads of kids, naturally, were at Augie's über-delightful family comedy. But I was also exceedingly cheered by the unexpected sight of a hefty crowd of adults: parents, college students, and others who, like me, no doubt relished the profoundly goofy shenanigans and roared like children during a day-long SpongeBob marathon.

The Power Nap, Waiting for Godot, The Black Box Theatre (Madeline). In a production in which everything happens while nothing actually happened, it may seem odd to say that when Peter Alfano’s Estragon took a nap because he just couldn’t deal with his circumstances anymore, it was memorable. I dare you to find me an on-stage moment that embodied 2020 more.


For more on the local stage scene, visit "Hindsight Is 2020: The Year in Area Theatre."

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