I love making lists. Love it. And I get an annual charge out of composing "10 best"s for the Reader based on my movie-going experiences: 10 Best Films, 10 Best Guilty Pleasures, 10 Best Action Blockbusters Based on a Pre-Existing
Toy ... .
So when I started thinking about my forthcoming Year in Theatre recap a few weeks ago, I thought it might make for a fun change of pace to compose "best" lists for area stage productions.
Of course, with 64 theatrical works to cull from as opposed to the 164 (and counting) movies I've seen in 2007, a slew of top 10s seemed a bit much. But certainly I could come up with top fives: best comedies, best musicals, best actors and actresses ... . What a great idea, I thought.
That great idea lasted all of five minutes.
Comparing the stage presentations at local venues - and the individual achievements therein - isn't so much comparing apples to oranges as it is comparing apples to oranges to grapefruits to pomegranates to watermelons. How, for instance, can you fairly compare a hugely scaled musical at Rock Island's Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse to a small-scale one performed a few blocks away at The Green Room? How do you compare community-theatre productions at the Quad City Music Guild, Genesius Guild, Countryside Community Theatre, and Playcrafters and Richmond Hill Barn Theatres - where most participants volunteer their time and energy - with the professional (i.e., paid) offerings at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre and the Timber Lake Playhouse?
And how do you compare performances? Are the portrayals at Augustana College, St. Ambrose University, and Black Hawk College somehow less worthy of "best" consideration because they don't yet have the experience of actors working for New Ground Theatre, My Verona Productions, or the Prenzie Players? Isn't Miranda Lipes' work in Black Hawk's Going Underground, for example, beautiful partly because she's still so new to the theatrical process, whereas Diane Greenwood in Richmond Hill's California Suite is marvelous precisely because of her extensive stage experience?
Instead of compiling "bests," then, I've taken a more (almost) random approach: lists of 12, 10, five, and three that, I hope, give a fair indication of the extraordinary wealth of talent and variety found in 2007's area stage productions. As usual, and to my continual shame, I've given short shrift to directors and technical artists in the area - and I hope they recognize acknowledgment of their shows here as acknowledgment of their work, too - and the lists are hardly exhaustive.
But the following are people and moments that have stuck with me throughout another remarkable journey through the year's theatre scene, even though I certainly have more fond memories than the ones you'll find here.
10 Great Performances
Lora Adams, Bad Dates. In New Ground's solo comedy, Adams - who rattled off her dialogue and changed clothes with spectacular quickness and offhanded wit - wasn't just an effortlessly likable and charming monologuist; she was a dynamic, one-woman bedroom farce. Never has the act of watching someone try on shoes - for 90 minutes! - been so bewitching.
Melissa Anderson Clark, Thoroughly Modern Millie. Music Guild's production was a pretty enormous show; how exactly did Clark fit the whole thing into her pocket and stroll off with it? Exuding ceaseless joy and demonstrating powerful vocal chops, the actress even pulled off the pratfall of the year, when Millie's misguided attempt at seducing her boss found her landing smack on her ass. I was practically on my ass from laughing so hard.
Adam Clough, Oklahoma! Oh, what a beautiful baritone! From the opening seconds of Circa '21's Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, Clough entranced the audience with his supremely rich, commanding vocals, and he proved to be as marvelous an actor as he is a singer; you've rarely, if ever, seen the egotistical Curly played with such disarming depth.
Heather Herkelman, Anything Goes. It would be hard to imagine a more intimidating group of local talents than the ones who populated Music Guild's musical comedy, and this supremely inventive, radiant, and hysterical young actress swiped the production away from all of them. The show's best comedic bit? Herkelman's Erma frantically searching for a note stashed in her toilet-paper-stuffed brassiere. Its second-best? Herkelman's expression while searching, which implied, "Not again ... ."
Mandy Landreth, Sylvia. For her first major role on the Playcrafters stage, Landreth was given a literal bitch of a part as A.R. Gurney's humanized puppy, and was so ferociously funny that her comic candor shocked as often as it amused - making her even funnier. (I can still hear her vociferous shriek at a passing feline: "I hate your guts, kitty! And don't! You! Ever forget it!")
Kent M. Lewis, Irving Berlin's White Christmas. There are plenty of reasons to catch Circa '21's current musical, but try finding a better one than the confident, thrillingly versatile Lewis, who erases all memories of Bing Crosby in about 30 seconds. And delivering a smoky rendition of "Blue Skies," stunningly well-choreographed by Ann Nieman, the actor leads something too rarely seen on area stages: a truly sexy musical number.
Jeremy Mahr, King Henry the Fourth. In a recent comment posted on the Reader Web site, an anonymous writer stated, "I'd see Jeremy Mahr in 52 productions a year." Ah, if wishing made it so. Always excellent, Mahr was positively hypnotic in the second part of the Prenzie Players' Henriad trilogy; unlike his dying ruler, the audience didn't dare cough for fear of ruining a perfectly realized moment.
Nathan Meyer, Seussical. Jack Sweeney's sad-sack elephant Horton was close to perfection. Meyer's Cat in the Hat somehow seemed even better than perfect; his performance might have been pulled directly from Dr. Seuss' id. There wasn't a second in this Countryside Community Theatre production when Meyer's entire body wasn't wholly invested in the goings-on; this was, without a doubt, the year's most thrillingly fearless comedic performance.
Eddie Staver III, The Glass Menagerie. The first line heard in the Green Room's production of Tennessee Williams' play was Staver's Tom telling us, "Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve ... ." Did he ever. Authoritative, intelligent, and a sensationally believable drunk, the actor gave a sterling interpretation of an archetypal role ... and did the same thing six weeks later as Billy Bigelow in Carousel. Is it too soon to declare him the De Niro to the Green Room's collective Scorsese?
The cast, King o' the Moon. Yeah, this is a total cheat. But pinpointing just one member of Susan Simosky's extraordinarily funny, moving, and, above all, giving ensemble would be an even bigger one. So thank you to Richmond Hill's Angela Rathman, Chris White, Jessica Nicol, Matt Gerard, Ryan Mosher-Ohr, Ryan Anderson, and Bill Hudson for the faux family of the year. Any chance you guys want to adopt me?
Five Honest Tear-Jerkers
Tony's death, West Side Story. After the opening night of Circa '21's musical, I thought that Mishi Schueller and Kimberly Willes - tremendous singers and tremendous actors - formed an astounding, passionate Tony and Maria, and their characters' romance was deeply felt. But when I saw the show again three weeks later, their already sublime portrayals seemed to expand in youthful optimism and tragic grandeur, and the climax hit you like a slap in the face. The duo's final embrace, followed by Willes' unsuppressed anger and grief, was the stuff that legendary local theatre is made of.
Charlotte's farewell, Charlotte's Web. Damn that Janos Horvath. No adult wearing a rubber pig nose had the right to be that touching. The friendly spider's passing has been making readers and filmgoers bawl for decades, and when Megan Kelly's Charlotte said goodbye to Horvath's Wilbur in Circa '21's family musical, the performers hit graceful notes of melancholy and acceptance; a moment that could have been played for easy sentiment felt as honest and unaffected as E.B. White's prose.
Morrie's lunch, Tuesdays with Morrie. It's entirely possible that the most transfixing dramatic moment of the year involved a man raising a fork to his mouth. In My Verona's production of Mitch Albom's beloved nonfiction, a full minute is spent witnessing a dying professor attempt to feed himself while his former student watches in misery and horror, and thanks to the big-hearted, emotionally astute partnership of actors Ray Gabica and Adam Lewis, what might have made for excruciating viewing was closer to exhilarating.
"Dona Nobis Pacem," King Henry the Fifth. As if the Prenzie Players hadn't already provided enough marvels in their trio of Henry plays, they saved the most surprising and overwhelming touch for part three, when Cait Bodenbender's Chorus figure began singing this benediction to the dead soldiers around her, who slowly stood up, grasped hands, and began to sing along. And then, Brian Nelson - who portrayed Falstaff in King Henry the Fourth - stepped out from the wings, joined in with that gorgeously moving baritone of his, and escorted his fallen brothers to heaven. Honest to God, I'm welling up just thinking about it.
"You'll Never Walk Alone," Carousel. Choosing to set Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic within the confines of a German concentration camp could have been an appalling, disastrous decision. Yet the shock of the Green Room's presentation wasn't just that the conceit worked - and worked without being exploitive - but that the production actually had something to say about the Holocaust, expressing the notion (as Life Is Beautiful did) that art has the capacity to sustain even when life itself proves unbearable. The ensemble's expressions during this climactic number - as they offered a heartfelt performance of what will likely be the last song their characters ever sing - were beyond haunting; they seemed to reach directly into your soul.
Five Amazing Ensemble Numbers
"Saved," Smokey Joe's Cafe. There were more than a dozen musical performances in Timber Lake's electrifying revue that could rightly be called show-stoppers, but on August 10, this one nearly did stop the show. With the fiercely energetic ensemble singing backup, April Thornton's peerless gospel wailing in this spirited Lieber & Stoller number was interrupted for applause at least three times, and at one point, the cheering was so loud that the crowd threatened to drown out the amplified singers.
"Speed Test," Thoroughly Modern Millie. From what I gather, Gilbert & Sullivan's spirit is indeed alive and well, and living in Kevin Pieper. The Music Guild veteran performed his character's tongue-tying patter song with delirious brio, and when Millie and the chorus joined in, the musical torrent of words produced a bracing, giggly rush - you kept thinking there was no way the performers would be able to sustain all that energy, yet they pulled it off with flying colors.
"Jacob & Sons," Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. And speaking of colors ... . As someone who's seen this musical about a dozen times and who's performed in it about six dozen times, I didn't necessarily expect to be bowled over by one of Music Guild's Joseph tunes. But then I didn't necessarily expect to hear Andrew Lloyd Webber's ensemble-opener sung by a cast of 98 voices, either. Damn.
"Beehive" finale, Beehive. Strictly as a musical number, this show-closer was perky and perfectly pleasant. But as it was sung by the Music Guild talents whose solos had been knocking our socks off for two hours prior - Sarah Larrabee with "Society's Child," Sarah Ulloa with "Natural Woman," Sheri Hess with "The Beat Goes On," Jackie Madunic with "Proud Mary," and on and on - the song felt less like a curtain-call reprise than a gift to the audience, allowing us one more chance to hear those spirited, sassy voices.
"Comfort & Joy," Bat Boy: The Musical. With a series of small groups and individual voices gradually joining to form a rousing chorus, this Act I climax could be taken as a parody of Les Miserables' Act I climax ... if only it weren't even better than Les Miz's Act I climax. Incredibly, Timber Lake's ensemble of stellar singers proved to be just as gifted comedically, and the fervor with which they spat out this number's hysterical lyrics ("By next week you'll be gone, six feet under my lawn ... !") made you, much like the title character, hungry for more; intermission couldn't have ended soon enough.
Five Memorable Romances
Nicholas Nolte and Lyndsie VanDeWoestyne, Patience. Or: When Dumb Met Dumber. In Genesius Guild's and Opera@Augustana's winning version of Gilbert & Sullivan's too-infrequently-performed operetta, Nolte was fabulously, cluelessly self-centered ("Yes, Patience, I am very beautiful ... "), and perfectly matched with VanDeWoestyne's ditsy dairy maid; the actress' cheerfully vacant smile suggested that the only romantic partner more fitting than Nolte's romantic poet would have been a mirror.
Jack Kloppenborg and Erin O 'Shea, The Fantasticks. Young love had a slightly tougher time reaching its happy ending in this endearing Countryside Community Theatre musical, considering how ready - nay, eager - O'Shea's teen was to ditch Kloppenborg's earnest beau. But before the sweet resolution, the actors composed one of the year's most delightful (and most vocally adept) mismatches: O'Shea with her hilarious egocentrism, Kloppenborg with his deadpan seriousness, which was somehow just as hilarious.
Jim Driscoll and Tyla Cole, Miranda Lipes, and Molly McLaughlin, Death Takes a Holiday. In Richmond Hill's theatrical take on the famed Alberto Casella novel, Driscoll - portraying the physical embodiment of Death - verbally seduces Cole and McLaughlin, and eventually runs off with Lipes. That dog. Yet you didn't exactly feel badly for the ladies; their scenes with the magnificently droll and unsettling Driscoll were sensationally good, and featured an almost startling amount of intimacy and eroticism.
Bryan Lopez and Pamela Crouch, Strangers on a Train. "Startling," however, doesn't begin to describe the on-stage canoodling of Lopez and Crouch ... considering that their characters were mother and son. (All together now: E-e-e-e-ew!) Playcrafters' thriller featured plenty of creepy, nasty moments, but none was quite so squirm-inducing as the "playful" touching between Crouch's wickedly inappropriate harridan and Lopez's deeply disturbed (and disturbing) mama's boy; when Lopez laid in his mother's lap while she gently stroked his chest, Oedipus himself might have shuddered.
Dan Hernandez and Marianna Caldwell, Fortinbras. Wanna get depressed? Check out Lee Blessing's pseudo-sequel to Hamlet, which St. Ambrose staged with Hernandez and Caldwell portraying the deceased (yet still wildly frisky) Claudius and Gertrude. Apparently, not only are the dead still having sex, but if these actors' hysterically voracious performances are to be trusted, they're having it with greater frequency - and enjoying it a lot more - than you are.
Five Notable Collegiate Portrayals
Ryan Westwood, Charlotte's Web. In St. Ambrose's production of E.B. White's barnyard tale, Westwood managed to be that rare performing animal as rib-tickling and fully alive as Kristofer Eitrheim's set. The actor's big-hearted, wide-eyed Wilbur stared in awe at the wonderful magic of the world around him ... kind of the way the audience - and not just the kids in attendance - stared at him.
Neil Friberg, Going Underground. This debuting dramatic comedy at Black Hawk was filled with terrific performances. I'm singling Friberg out because his obsequious tube passenger was a tricky balancing act, as the actor found a successful way to play a comically unbearable character without, in the process, becoming unbearable. Quite the opposite, actually.
Jovon Eberhart, All My Sons. Eberhart, enacting Arthur Miller's sad, hopeful matriarch, did something really rare for a student actor: She steadfastly refused to make her character likable. Her powerful performance in St. Ambrose's drama was fascinating because deep reserves of sorrow and anger kept the character from being as warm as you wanted her to be, and as warm as she absolutely shouldn't be.
Kevin Wender, The Taming of the Shrew. Sometimes actors just need a wild, silly disguise to most fully emerge as themselves. And portraying Hortensio in Augustana's topnotch Shakespeare comedy - after previously playing Orlando in Genesius Guild's June As You Like It - the actor seemed thrilled to release his inner goon, and was riotous as the foppish, frequently disguised Hortensio.
Andrew Harvey, Fortinbras. The sight of Hamlet peering through the purgatory of a TV screen in St. Ambrose's comedy was the giggle-inducing visual gag of the year. Harvey's Dane - performed with such deadpan wit and perfectly calibrated Shakespearean agony that the even actor's non-presence on stage was thrilling - is why it was infinitely more than a giggle-inducing visual gag.
Three Notable Youngsters
Lauren Plumley, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. There were so many great child performers in Richmond Hill's holiday bon bon - more than two dozen, in fact - and props to director Jalayne Riewerts and the inspiring grown-up actress Stacy Herrick for keeping the youthful ensemble in check. But every time I think of Plumley's performance, it takes all my effort to keep from cracking up. Watching her own the stage with riotous entitlement, this six-year-old was an unabashed scene-stealer, and her hyperactive Pageant enthusiasm was all the more magical for being so honest. "Sha-za-a-a-am!!!" indeed.
Abby Pauley, Irving Berlin's White Christmas. Her role as General Waverly's young granddaughter can be played with enjoyable show-biz savvy, as evidenced by Ashley Lewis and Hannah Solchenberger (alternating performances) in Circa '21's White Christmas. But in July, the Timber Lake Playhouse's Pauley played Susan Waverly as a sadder, more serious character than you may have been expecting, and in the process, provided the show with lovely layers of melancholy; Susan's fear for her grandpa's security felt genuine, and whenever Pauley teared up, damn if you didn't tear up, too.
Lauren Van Speybroeck, Charlotte 's Web and A Christmas Carol. You could call her Circa '21 portrayals unaffected and naturalistic, and they are, but these descriptions don't hint at just how smart Van Speybroeck's work is. I'm a little freaked out by the talents of this sixth-grader; her Fern Arable was so fine that Dakota Fanning herself would have been happy to steal from it, and she's most definitely a solid match for her adult co-stars in Carol - at the performance I saw, she even boasted the most consistent British accent. That show, by the way, runs through December 23, so you still have a few more days to catch her in it. Seriously. Call for tickets now.
Three Surprising Belly Laughs
Heather Pieper, Thoroughly Modern Millie. If you saw this Music Guild presentation, you 'll remember the moment: Briefly interrupting the chief villain's scheme, Pieper hustles across the stage, chatters incessantly, cackles at her own dizziness, and exits. Cue the audience howls. Pieper's role here lasted about 15 seconds, and they were probably the most deliriously nutty 15 seconds in the whole production; the mind boggles at what this actress might do with even more stage time.
Ben Webb, Stuff Happens. Augustana's production of David Hare's political drama featured a bunch of crackling actors in unconventional roles - Caucasian Brian Bengtson as Condoleezza Rice, for example - but the play, with its exploration of post-9/11 international diplomacy, wasn't exactly designed to be a laugh riot. That made the show's rare punchlines not just welcome but surprising, and the most welcome, surprising one of all was delivered by Webb's Tony Blair, who responded to a description of the Queen Mother as beautiful with an offhandedly dismissive, and absolutely hysterical, "Well, yes ... in her way ... ."
Jeremy Kelly, The Ugly Duckling. Not to undersell the actors in Black Hawk College's family entertainment, but the most hilarious moment in their production - at least at the April 11 performance I attended - actually came from off-stage, when Kelly's character discovered he wouldn't be getting the princess' hand in marriage, and a little girl in the audience reacted to his dejection by shouting, "I like you!" After a large, appreciative laugh, Kelly earned an even bigger one with his retort to the child: "I like you."
Three Triumphs Over Material
Flaming Idiots. Even for the typically contrived genre of door-slamming farce, Playcrafters' summer comedy was pretty weak. (I'm sorry, but exactly why were they shaving the corpse, again ... ?) But a fantastically game cast led by Scott Naumann and director Craig Michaels succeeded in keeping your mind off the plotting through clever character choices and enjoyably demented throwaways; Les Etheridge, as a frustrated actor/waiter, performed egocentrically hysterical "warm-up routines" that I've actually seen actor/waiters perform, but Etheridge's didn't make you want to slap him.
Dead Man Walking. Tim Robbins' adaptation of his 1995 capital-punishment drama isn't really a bad script. It's just a movie script; Robbins' work - which features achingly expository monologues and awkward scene changes that cry out for an editor's aid - doesn't appear re-thought for the stage at all. Blessedly, director Jeff Coussens and the thoroughly invested Brian Bengtson and Kyle Roggenbuck, among others, made this Augustana production riveting despite its patchiness. Based on an Oscar-winning film or not, Augie's student actors handily outclassed their play.
Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver. Every season, it seems, Circa '21 produces one script that I just can't stand; this maudlin, pious, and bafflingly presented assemblage of Denver tunes was the winner for 2007. Thankfully, though, even the bum scripts at Circa '21 are generally performed well, and director Tony Parise's musical was performed extremely well. The show's wildly talented sextet - Sarah Amandes, Adam Clough, C.K. Edwards, Kimberly Furness, Brad Hauskins, and Lina Kernan - were divine in their harmonies and even better in their solos; the cast was like an anesthetic blocking the pain of the dialogue.
Three Examples of Art Mirroring Life
Erika and Christopher Thomas as sweethearts in Thoroughly Modern Millie. For nearly two hours, Christopher's Asian henchman stared at Erika's ditsy priss with undiluted adoration, and she barely noticed he was there. Ah, young love! In the most zanily unpredictable of many zany, unpredictable flourishes within this roaring-'20s farce, the married Thomases wound up matched at the musical's end, and the audience couldn't have been happier about the union - watching the pair's hesitant romance blossom was like being part of a first date in which everything goes magically right.
Jeff and Liz Blackwell and Mike and Jackie Skiles as married couples in California Suite. It probably didn't take a lot of work for these married couples to act like married couples. But it takes skill and a playful spirit to make Neil Simon's "Visitors from Chicago" playlet as enjoyable - and seemingly effortless - as it was here. Knocking each other senseless with fists and the playwright's pummeling one-liners, Richmond Hill's quartet dug into their one-upmanship with great relish.
Jim and Patrick Adamson as lifelong friends in Catfish Moon. Similarly, it probably didn't take much effort on the Adamson brothers' part to establish a comfortable bond, but I've rarely seen best pals played so beautifully. In Playcrafters' March production, these natural comedians punctuated their punchlines with the weight of human experience, and seemed to relate to one another in a shorthand that takes a lifetime to acquire. When Jim's character registered his disappointment with Patrick's with an anguished "You broke ... my heart," and Patrick's face revealed that this was true, suddenly Catfish Moon was a better play than the one Laddy Sartin actually wrote.
Three Line Readings I Won 't Forget Anytime Soon
"No, here it is." Wanda Deitrick in Richmond Hill's Arsenic & Old Lace.
"Oh! Oh! Oh!" Julian C. Jarrell (pictured) in the Prenzie Players' Othello.
"What?" Jennifer Gilbert in the Clinton Showboat's I Love You, You 're Perfect, Now Change.
Maybe you just had to be there. I certainly hope you were.