Kevin Babbitt, Jessica White, Michael Kelly, and Jonathan Grafft in the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's The 39 Steps

A hearty welcome to the theatre fans and theatre-curious among you – it's time for the Fourth-Annual Reader Tony Awards!

“Tony,” of course, refers to my collegiate housemate Tony, and not – repeat, not – the legendary Antoinette Perry whose nickname is synonymous with theatrical excellence. But coincidentally enough, just like the shiny metal-plated objects named after that more famous stage icon, the figurative trophies bestowed in the Reader Tonys are meant to celebrate yet another phenomenal year in theatre – and with 2019's area lineup boasting 10 more mentions than usual!

In past years, with the voting contingent including four active Reader reviewers and myself, it was easy to come up with awards-show-friendly quintets of inclusions, with the five of us all contributing one mention per category. In 2019, we had the great fortune of having a trio of reviewers – Rochelle Arnold, Pamela Briggs, and Madeline Dudziak – on the area-theatre landscape, with each of them covering at least 25 local (or local-ish) productions for a grand total of 79 reviews. Meanwhile, my own busier-than-usual theatre schedule forced me to miss more area shows than I have since 2004, and I consequently didn't feel comfortable about contributing my own mentions.

So, a dilemma: What to do for the 2019 Reader Tonys? Switch to only three inclusions per category?

Hellz no.

Sarah Willie and Andrew Bruning in Genesius Guild's Hamlet

What follows are six raves in 10 categories by three tireless and talented writers and theatre fans – samplings of excellence within the thrilling diversity of options available to us. And because no awards ceremony would be complete without a place for us to take a bathroom break, it's time now for a reading of the rules!

Rochelle, Pamela, and Madeline were asked to write about two area shows, and/or the talents within, for each of the 10 categories, citing no production more than three times overall and no venue in the same category twice. All shows had to be locally produced – no tour stops allowed – and no one could name a spouse or a family member or an editor, though the productions they were involved with were open for inclusion. And yet again, for the sake of our collective patience, everyone was restricted to write-ups of no more than 50 words. No need to send gifts. Your silent thanks are enough.

Happy Holidays and New Year, all! Enjoy the 2019 Reader Tonys!

– Mike Schulz

Maggie Woolley and Aaron Sullivan in the Prenzie Players' Macbeth

Production

The 39 Steps, Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (Pamela Briggs). Jonathan Grafft was the quintessential befuddled bloke, Jessica White played three very different women, and two men portrayed everyone else. Multiple locations created with the same basic items, and absurd bits exploiting the set's limitations, added to the fun. Director Jennifer Kingry staged the play ingeniously for her in-the-round venue.

A Green River, Mississippi Bend Players (Madeline Dudziak). What can I say about this production that I didn’t say in July? It had everything accounted for: It was visually stunning; the talent pool was deep; the staging was fantastic; the subject matter was emotionally gripping and thought-provoking. Director Philip Wm. McKinley’s drama was everything theatre hopes to be.

Holiday Inn, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Rochelle Arnold). I was shaking the blues away with this fast-paced, energetic musical, choreographed by director Shane Hall, that simply knocked my socks off. The scenic artistry by Jeff Weber and Morgan Griffin was extravagant and helped pull every element of the show together. The cast even tap-danced while jumping rope.

Into the Woods, Timber Lake Playhouse (Rochelle). Directed and choreographed by Paul Stancato, this charming, lyrical musical was a journey of make-believe through an enchanted forest with incredible characters and classic storybook tales. A cleverly designed set was the perfect canvas for Little Red Riding Hood, the beanstalk's Jack, et cetera. Reliving my childhood never felt better.

Macbeth, Prenzie Players (Madeline). Nearly a full year later, I’m still in awe of this show that not only had me sympathizing with the Macbeths but kept me glued to my seat for fear of getting caught in one of the many epic battles. Catherine Bodenbender’s clever direction made this classic fresh and exhilarating.

She Kills Monsters, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Pamela). This production of a quirky script included many amazingly realistic, complex fights between several actors with wicked-looking weapons, and intermingled real and fantasy realms, yet made clear distinctions. The skilled comedic and authentic acting of its very young cast directed by Jaclyn Marta left me laughing – and crying.

Joanna Mills and Tristan Odenkirk in the QC Theatre Workshop's Gruesome Playground Injuries

Director

Lora Adams, The Man with Bogart's Face, Black Box Theatre (Madeline). It takes a great deal of directorial talent to transform a radio play into a full night of theatre, and beyond keeping the pacing quick and the stage business interesting, Adams delivered enough silent background antics, well-timed comedy, and reining in of technical elements to send us back in time.

Gaye Shannon Burnett, Marie & Rosetta, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Rochelle). Burnett's passion for gospel music was evident in this production, and her simple staging was refreshing. Featuring only two characters, this show was amazingly encouraging, and I felt the director’s heart exemplifying the strength of a pair of African-American women establishing themselves as one of musical history's great duet teams.

Cory Johnson, Biloxi Blues, Mississippi Bend Players (Rochelle). Under Johnson’s outstanding direction, Biloxi Blues was brilliantly funny and inspiring. With the Brunner Theatre transformed into the barracks of a diverse mix of soldiers, I felt like I was attending an off-Broadway production, I laughed until I cried, and all the actors made me truly feel their raw emotions.

David M. Miller, Assassins, Black Box Theatre (Pamela). This isn't a fun, feel-good musical – it's complex and sometimes ugly – and the concepts and large cast would be difficult to manage even in a bigger venue. Yet Miller pulled it all off, making it acceptable to laugh at killers' dark emotions and be touched by their tumult.

Max Moline, Gruesome Playground Injuries, QC Theatre Workshop (Madeline). Moline took two actors and two benches and turned them into a story that spanned 20 years and many different locations. He also pushed Tristan Odenkirk and Joanna Mills to emotionally charged extremes that were as beautiful as they were balanced in comedy and tragedy.

Lara Tenckhoff, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (Pamela). Tenckhoff put together an energetic, fun-to-watch, near-flawless production of this new-ish musical. The strong, Broadway-level acting, singing, and dancing of the young cast elevated the farcical material to virtuoso territory, and while the script could easily have been overplayed, the performances were delightfully nuanced and wholly entertaining.

Jazmin Mendez-Barradas, Elle Winchester, Emmalee Hilburn, Mattie Gelaude, Payton Brasher, and Stephanie Moeller in the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's Five Women Wearing the Same Dress

Lead Actress

Hillary Erb, Billy Elliot: The Musical, Spotlight Theatre (Rochelle). Erb was dazzling in her role as Billy’s hardcore, edgy dance coach Mrs. Wilkinson. With a cigarette dangling from her mouth, the performer was absolutely believable as she instructed Billy in the art of movement, and she drew me into her character with subtle, captivating body language.

Mattie Gelaude, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Pamela). I felt like I was in the room with this production's women, and in a cast of excellent naturalistic actors, Gelaude was outstandingly genuine. Her complex Meredith sulked, but didn't disappear; she shouted, but didn't overdo. Gelaude's enviable acting skills, evident in every role, were in full bloom here.

Kitty Israel and Emma Regnier, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Prenzie Players (Madeline). On their own, both Israel and Regnier were great. But what made these two brilliant was the way they worked together to bring down Shakespeare's Falstaff. Jake Walker's direction made these two stars shine brightly, and the merry wives, who well-played their titular roles, deserve many accolades.

Cory Johnson, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, QC Theatre Workshop (Pamela). Many actors are expert comedians; others are masters of tragedy; some are both. Few, though, can hit such highs and lows in one show as Johnson did. She was funny, furious, and anguished over the unimaginable betrayal by her character's husband, and made Johnson's difficult role a real, raw woman.

Chelsea Ward, Sister Act, Quad City Music Guild (Rochelle). Ward really brought the funk to this lively musical, and I loved watching her saunter about the stage while showing off her stellar vocals. She has enormous charisma and is marvelous in everything that I've seen her in – which, if you include local television commercials, is quite a bit.

Megan Warren, The Spitfire Grill, Spotlight Theatre (Madeline). The role of the redemption-seeking Percy is a huge undertaking, but in Warren's hands, it felt like an easy one. Plus, the music perfectly suited her voice. From its opening notes to its final bow, director Kelsey Walljasper’s show was brilliant, thanks largely in part to Warren.

Sherry Konjura and Tom Walljasper in the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Shear Madness

Lead Actor

Adam Cerny, Silent Sky, Black Box Theatre (Pamela). Always terrific, Cerny floored me in this production, with his serious, dedicated scientist Peter becoming a hilariously clumsy schoolboy upon seeing his crush. After one particular entrance, he struggled to speak, but left after 15 seconds of silent acting that was the funniest thing I've seen all year.

Rob Keech, Beauty & the Beast, Quad City Music Guild (Madeline). I know that Gaston is the villain, but I’d 100-percent watch a spin-off musical about this chauvinistic hunter … so long as it starred Keech. With his swoon-worthy vocals, no wonder there was a chorus of fawning females following his every move in Bob Williams’ tale (as old as time).

Tristan Odenkirk, Biloxi Blues, Mississippi Bend Players (Rochelle). Odenkirk was brilliant as the lovable, aspiring Brooklyn writer Eugene Morris Jerome. Clearly a consummate professional, he engaged the audience with a unique East Coast accent and terrific stage presence, and there was never a dull moment in Odenkirk's always-interesting, always-sharp performance. This guy definitely has the “it” factor.

Ian Sodawasser, Big: The Musical, Spotlight Theatre (Rochelle). Sodawasser was incredibly adorable and childlike in his role as the suddenly adult Josh, and his silly grin, fancy dancing on an oversized keyboard, and all-around great acting were delightful. Casting this actor as the lead in Big was spot-on for the Spotlight.

Calvin Vo, Avenue Q, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Pamela). Playing changing emotions throughout a show is challenging enough. It's next-level acting to do so with one hand encased in foam, portraying everything with both puppet and face – and while singing and dancing, yet. Amidst a heavily talented cast, Vo really shone. His expressions alone could've carried the story.

Tom Walljasper, Shear Madness, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Madeline). Walljasper's been in everything and is always good, but he took things to a whole different level in Warner Crocker’s interactive comedy. With apparent ease, Walljasper, as Tony, was personable, hilarious, and incredibly clever, and his pre-show antics were as wonderful as the scripted production – it was “shear” genius.

Mind Punyanuch-Pornsakulpaisal and Rami Halabi in the Mississippi Bend Players' Dames at Sea

Featured Actress

Marissa Elliott, Jesus Christ Superstar, Quad City Music Guild (Rochelle). Boasting a dark, brooding countenance as the evil Annas that was especially compelling, Elliott's intensity blended with great stage presence and a creepy foreboding that I found fascinating. She seems to be a very complex and diverse actress who thoroughly enjoys performing.

Mattie Gelaude, The Crucible, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Rochelle). The way that Gelaude contorted her face, stared out into the audience, and appeared to look right through her co-stars was captivating and eerie. She made her bewitching Abigail riveting, fascinating, and frightening, and I was simply mesmerized by Gelaude's hauntingly beautiful performance.

Emmalee Hilburn, Assassins, Black Box Theatre (Pamela). There are several comedic bits in this heavy musical, but Hilburn brought both humor and humanity. Whenever her Sara Jane Moore was onstage, I could breathe easier and enjoy the levity, even if seeing this average woman plotting to kill was a chilling reminder that murderers are people, not monsters.

Mind Punyanuch-Pornsakulpaisal, Dames at Sea, Mississippi Bend Players (Pamela). A musical should have a cast with amazing singing and dancing skills, as this one did. All musicals should boast a luminary like Punyanuch-Pornsakulpaisal. Her impressive voice, exceptional dancing, and compelling presence made her exceptionally delightful in her role as Joan. This young woman will no doubt continue to astound.

Elizabeth Shaffer, Blithe Spirit, Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (Madeline). Every single time Shaffer came on stage, whether at a dead sprint or an over-exaggerated slow walk in director Tom Morrow’s escapade, it brought an immediate smile to my face. Edith’s employers may not have appreciated her gait, but I sure did, and even when possessed, Shaffer was hilarious.

Jo Vasquez, The Wolves, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Madeline). It hardly seems fair to single out one player from Cynthia Taylor’s cohesive soccer team. But Vasquez stole my heart with her attempts to work herself into conversations throughout this tale, with her on-stage soccer skills earning her a spot on a team overflowing with drama, love, and commitment.

Adam Sanders, Adam Beck, and Marissa Elliott in Quad City Music Guild's Jesus Christ Superstar

Featured Actor

Kevin Babbitt and Michael Kelly, The 39 Steps, Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (Pamela). This pair played multiple incidental roles, and some pivotal ones, with numerous changes in costume and demeanor. Kelly, a real-life model good guy, effectively played stern and evil (among other things), and Babbitt is a master of regional British accents, giving credibility to the main character's journey.

Adam Beck, Jesus Christ Superstar, Quad City Music Guild (Rochelle). Beck had the look (a well-manicured goatee with slicked-back hair), the voice (richly deep), and the dark countenance with attitude that made his role as Jesus Christ Superstar's Caiaphas extraordinary. His bass voice resonated throughout the auditorium and straight through my soul.

Ben Dow, Man of La Mancha, Timber Lake Playhouse (Rochelle). Dow is one of those extremely talented actors whom you never forget. His melodic voice is one of the best around, and as the Padre in Man of La Mancha, he stole scenes with his simple but intense expressions. With roaming eyes and raised eyebrows, Dow always kept me engaged.

Josh Malone, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (Madeline). In director Dana Skiles’ show, Malone played naïve Billy Babbit with a perfect stutter and bashful quality that made him incredibly endearing, as was his goofy grin while clutching his stuffed-animal friend. Malone’s extreme range of emotions delivered in a matter of minutes at the climax was profoundly heartbreaking.

Aaron Sullivan, Hamlet, Genesius Guild (Madeline). Don’t get me wrong: Sullivan’s larger role of Polonius was certainly enjoyable. But when, after Polonius’ death, Sullivan reappeared – this time as the gravedigger in Alaina Pascarella’s open-air Shakespeare – it was hilarious. In a show that puts a capital “T” on Tragedy, this was welcome, particularly noteworthy relief.

Brycen Witt, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Augustana College (Pamela). A great comedian and seriously adept dancer, Witt deployed both skills as nepotism's poster boy Bud, who has it in for a fellow employee. His lines were funny; his slick interpretations made them funnier. I grinned every time Witt stepped onstage, because I knew it was gonna be a treat.

ensemble members in the Spotlight Theatre's Miracle on 34th Street

Costuming

Ellen Dixon, She Kills Monsters, Augustana College (Pamela). In the fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons, monsters are sundry and plentiful. Dixon created amazing, mobile amalgams of costumes and puppets for the Monster Melee Chorus, some involving makeup effects. These huge, bizarre creatures made the battles especially tense. The humanoids were also pleasingly clad, particularly Tilly and Farrah.

Peggy Freeman, 42nd Street, Quad City Music Guild (Pamela). When a big musical is about staging a big musical, the costumes must be spectacular, and Freeman's were. She ultra-glamorized stars for stunning entrances, transformed chorus girls into enormous glittery coins, made sure white tuxedos were dance-worthy, and handled dozens of other ensembles with flair.

Gregory Hiatt, Holiday Inn, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Rochelle). Hiatt’s 1940s costume designs were smart and sassy, and from the men’s suspenders to the women's colorful and intricate bonnets, all of the fabrics were high-quality with a lot of flair and consistency. This designer never disappoints and always complements whatever production he's involved with.

Cory Johnson, A Doll's House, Part 2, QC Theatre Workshop (Madeline). I don’t think director David Bonde’s Ibsen continuation would have been nearly as successful without Johnson’s gorgeous costumes, something I didn’t give nearly enough credit to in February: three dresses and a suit that perfectly set the stage for who these characters were and what they represented to society. Brava!

Alexis Lotspeich, Miracle on 34th Street, Spotlight Theatre (Rochelle). This was the last show I reviewed this year – a film classic that wound up quite good on-stage – and Lotspeich's costumes particularly impressed me with their lovely varieties of color and creativity. The wardrobe included everything from animals to angels to adorable, candy-striped stockings with bright-green tutus.

Sara Wegener, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Madeline). Six months later, I still appreciate how Wegener transformed most of the cast into pigs without excessively piggy details. Keeping it classy was the name of the game, and while all the costumes were fun, keeping the Big Bad Wolf in business-casual really elevated director Ashley Mills Becher’s entire production.

ensemble members in Augustana College's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Scenic/Lighting Design

Joe Cantalupo and David Goldstein, The Little Mermaid, Timber Lake Playhouse (Rochelle). Goldstein pulled off one of the year's most creative scenic designs, utilizing recyclable-plastic milk jugs, water bottles, and other odds and ends to replicate bubbles under the sea, making for a cool 3D effect. And Cantalupo's lighting complemented the set with its blue and purple hues shimmering like actual water.

Phil Cathoir and Jennifer Kingry, The Crucible, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Rochelle). Kingry's lighting design was subtle and ethereal in setting the tone for each scene, while the rustic-looking scenery built by Cathoir was simple yet effective, with its rich woodwork popping against the black stage. The ambiance was amazing and really added so much to this show.

Brittany Crist, Robert Crist, and Bob Williams, Beauty & the Beast, Quad City Music Guild (Madeline). Williams directed and designed a huge show in a relatively modest space, and every location was spot-on. (My favorite was Belle’s house, which was loaded with detail.) When paired up with the Crists' lighting designs for the magical transformation at the end? Absolutely fabulous.

Whitney Lehn Meltz and Cameron L. Strandin, Mamma Mia!, Timber Lake Playhouse (Pamela). This breathtaking revolving set evoked Greece with its rustic circular white walls and steps, blue doors, flowers, and vines. Meltz crafted spaces for scenes indoors (bedroom) and outdoors (tiki bar), while Strandin bathed them in hot yellow sunlight, dappled them with gentle moonlight, and electrified them with flashing disco pulses.

Aaron Randolph III, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, QC Theatre Workshop (Madeline). I imagine designing a set that represents the house of an award-winning-architect character would be daunting. But if Randolph was worried, it wasn't evident in the show's charming, modern-looking living room. Catherine Bodenbender’s presentation also required lots of (replaceable) details to make the set feel like home. Randolph delivered.

RaeEllen Walker, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Augustana College (Pamela). Walker's beautiful set also looked as solid as a real building, with the floor painted with multi-colored inlays and a black marble effect, curved staircases to a second level, and columns with gold trim. The changing light cues softened the angular look. What a lovely place in which to perform.

Zach Hendershott and Kathryn Jecklin in the Black Box Theatre's The Last Five Years

Music/Sound

The Best of the Bootleggers, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Rochelle). Conceived and written by Brad Hauskins with musical arrangement by Laura Hammes, this production was a stunning compilation of oldies but goodies. Enjoying some of the best pre-show material in the Bootleggers' 43-season history, I was blown away with the high level of professionalism and fabulous choice of songs.

Grumpy Old Men: The Musical, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Pamela). John Payonk's Chuck, this show's affable general-store/bait-shop owner, visits a new arrival – another kind soul. He returns and literally sings her praises in “An Angel,” and Payonk's face seemed lit from within as wonder, joy, and tenderness filled his voice. This unexpectedly transcendent operatic number was astounding.

The Last Five Years, Black Box Theatre (Madeline). You’ve got to appreciate the Black Box for using live musicians for their musicals, and director David Miller’s musical featured excellent accompaniment thanks to music director Jonathan Tuner on keyboard, Josie Trenary on violin, and Michael Wahlmann on cello. I can still hear “The Schmuel Song” like it was yesterday.

Mamma Mia!, Timber Lake Playhouse (Pamela). The hyper-talented Lara Hayhurst, as Tanya, was at the top of her comedy game. And when Logan Dolence's Pepper pursued her, Tanya took charge and told him energetically with voice, face, and body to back off. The fantastic backing singers and dancers helped make “Does Your Mother Know” a showstopper.

She Kills Monsters, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Madeline). Thank you, Eric Teeter, for a sound design that so perfectly set the scene. His pre-show score featured "Jump Around" by House of Pain, which mentally placed me in the 1990s before I realized that was exactly the time period we were going to in Jaclyn Marta's production.

The Who's Tommy, Clinton Area Showboat Theatre (Rochelle). With its powerful Pete Townshend tunes and musical direction courtesy of Laurie Lewis, this rock opera cranked up the volume and delivered memorable songs including “See Me, Feel Me,” “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” The lyrics, meanwhile, tell the story in the most fantastic way.

Joseph Lasher and Quinnie Rodman in St. Ambrose University's The Little Prince

Memorable Moment

The Farewell, The Little Prince, St. Ambrose University (Pamela). Joseph Lasher and Quinnie Rodman played their roles with puppets, their tones naïve and straightforward, but still heartfelt. Rodman skillfully made her marionette Fox move like a real canid, and when she jumped into Lasher's Little Prince's arms, it was heartbreaking, making me think of those I've loved and lost.

The Handsomeness, Into the Woods, Timber Lake Playhouse (Rochelle). Beneath a beautiful glowing moon and perched atop the set looking over the audience, the charmingly handsome princes portrayed by Logan Dolence and Conor Jordan were quite the pair. They were incredible together, bouncing one-liners off each other in the most comical of ways. What's not to love?

The Miracle, Matilda: The Musical, Spotlight Theatre (Madeline). Director Sara Tubbs, choreographer Steph DeLacy, and music director Megan Warren gifted audiences with perhaps the most well-rounded nine-minute opening scene/song/dance number I’ve ever witnessed. “The Miracle” had everything. Strollers. Clowns. Kids. Confusion. Cake. Mesh hospital underwear. Exuberant dancing. Brilliant vocals. It was, frankly, miraculous.

The Tapping, 42nd Street, Quad City Music Guild (Pamela). This showy tap routine was a classic, cheery, colossal wave goodbye to the audience after an evening packed with fabulous songs and dances. The line of performers filled Music Guild's big stage with smiles and energetic, sophisticated steps. In gorgeous garb and backed by a live orchestra, they were thrilling.

The Uplift, Marie & Rosetta, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Rochelle). I was having a particularly bad day when I saw this, but was completely uplifted, with tears of joy, singing along to its gospel songs with Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Teresa A. Moore) and protégé Marie Knight (Chelsea Ward). The evening was refreshing and encouraging – just what the doctor ordered.

The Walrus(es), The Little Prince, QC Theatre Workshop and St. Ambrose University (Madeline). It can be lonely when your favorite animal is the oft-forgotten walrus. Imagine my seven-year-old’s delight, then, when they were mentioned in this QCTW production – twice! Months later, we noticed that Daniel Rairdin-Hale’s SAU version trimmed walruses down to one mention ... but comparing the performances was topnotch fun!

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