Given the worst economy since the Hoover
administration, further blackened this month by the failure of Syracuse
China, local theater’s real news is that it has remained so sturdily on
the boards. The New Times covered only seven fewer productions, counting more distant summer venues, than in 2007, and actually two more than in 2006.
The shrinkage was most visible in
musical productions, usually the source of the hottest competition at
SALT Award times. Holly Wilson’s Theatre ’90 troupe folded after 18½
years, taking with it the memory of countless child sopranos in red
dresses belting out “Tomorrow.” Growing instead are more literary
productions, like Simply New’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Agnes of God or Appleseed Productions’ The Trojan Women,
the kinds of shows not seen much in the previous 10 years. That’s at
odds with the recent National Endowment for the Arts announcement that
between 1992 and 2008 the annual audience for non-musical, live drama
and comedy fell from 25 million to 21 million. In the same period those
wanting to see musicals each year rose from 32 million to 37 million.
Syracuse Stage. Spring and fall
became bookends for two artistic regimes and two contrasting
sensibilities. Former artistic director Robert Moss’ penchant for dark
humor was never given more graphic display than in Martin McDonagh’s
political comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore (January), which
called for a vigorous scrub-down of the stage after every performance.
M. Burke Walker’s perfectly ambivalent direction of John Patrick
Shanley’s Doubt (February), one of the finest productions of
the Moss era, allowed couples to think each had seen a different show.
The rap send-up of Shakespeare, The Bomb-itty of Errors (March),
demonstrated Moss’ willingness to take risks, but pleased mostly the
high school audiences bused in to matinees. Moss’ farewell was a fresh
look at the supposedly done-to-death confection, The Fantasticks (May). Moss was right: The show is deeper than it looks and, like live theater itself, ever-renewable.
Bond’s guidance of the aforementioned Ma Rainey
(September) provided first-class direction of one of the major American
dramas of the last generation. If, as reported, Syracuse University
Chancellor Nancy Cantor wants Bond to give Syracuse Stage national
recognition, this put him on his way to accomplishing that. Three of
the four Bond productions of 2008 drew on multicultural themes. Ping
Chong’s arrangement of personal narratives known as Tales from the Salt City (October)
divided audiences. Some found the stories of hardship and exclusion by
what Chong calls “undesirable elements” to be poignant and moving;
others complained that an original presentation about our Salt City had
no Italians, Germans, Irish, Poles or Jews. Beloved local actor Al
Marshall stole the show, however: His line, “I’ve never been anywhere
where the water tastes better,” will live on.
New associate artistic director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj revamped the musical chestnut Godspell (running
through Dec. 28) to give it a Caribbean vibe. Anthony Salatino’s
choreography changed steps in every non-western nation until the action
ended in New Orleans. Reports from cast members indicate that Bond’s
tightening of the show before opening night could qualify him as
assistant director. The parallel holiday production at the Storch
Theatre, David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries (through Jan. 4), made what was once a coffeehouse monologue look like real theater.
Day by Day: American Idol reject Anwar Robinson found his voice as Jesus Christ in Godspell, running at Syracuse Stage through Sunday, Dec. 28. MD PHOTO
Kitchen Theatre Company. After
being shoehorned into a corner of the pre-Civil War former hotel at 116
N. Cayuga St., Ithaca’s Kitchen will move around the corner and west
two blocks to an art deco-era facility at 417 W. State St. Instead of
the former 73-seat theater, Kitchen will now boast a whopping 99 places
to sit. Rehearsals will take place on State Street next summer, with
the final relocation coming at some point in the next 18 months.
Back on Cayuga Street, the company’s
offerings were dominated by artistic director Rachel Lampert’s original
shows and formidable modernist classics. The Lampert comedy Bed No Breakfast (January-February),
with music by Larry Pressgrove, brought together a group of disparate
strangers in a snowbound bed-and-breakfast in Michigan’s Upper
Peninsula. Company favorites dominated, including acerbic but
philosophical Norma Fire as the owner (and emcee) and red-haired Erica
Steinhagen as a lyrical but pregnant runaway. Steinhagen was also one
of the title characters in the revival of Lampert and Pressgrove’s Tony and the Soprano (November-December), much praised by The New Times in its first run in early 2007. In between was Harold Pinter’s Old Times (March-April);
Margarett Perry directed with disarming clarity, so that what is
reputed to be one of the Nobel laureate’s most obscure plays came off
like Noel Coward with more bite. Perry also took the helm of The Two of You (August-September),
a world premiere comedy by her frequent collaborator, Brian Dykstra.
Kind of a David Mamet with charm and better manners, Dykstra builds
comedy by reversing expectations and pushing the limits of dramatic
Director Jesse Bush was in charge for Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (October-November),
universally acclaimed as one of the masterworks of the last 50 years,
yet rarely mounted. Perhaps that’s because the protagonist, Winnie,
never moves, first being buried in sand to her chest, and then to her
neck in the second act. The role was a triumph for Ithaca College
faculty member and Kitchen regular Susannah Berryman; her struggle for
happiness was tragic. The year’s other great female lead at the Kitchen
was Patricia Dell as Florence Foster Jenkins in Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir (June).
The real-life Jenkins was the world’s worst soprano and Dell, an
admired cabaret singer specializing in Kander and Ebb, had to stoop to
conquer. She bridged the oxymoron: touching absurdity. Tim Bond had
scheduled Souvenir for Syracuse Stage in January, but canceled it. This one would have been hard to beat.
Rarely Done Productions. Dan
Tursi’s outfit at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., has carved out a
market niche, doing plays most companies are afraid of touching. David
Ives’ All In the Timing (March) delivered mordantly witty
sketches, although director Brian Hensley’s gutsy decision to let
audiences choose the order of the short acts also worked against the
timing (that word again). Veteran thespian Judith Harris was ultra-hip
in her handling of David Mamet’s madcap self-parody Romance
(April), with some of the year’s edgiest comic lines: “Having a goy
lawyer is like having a straight hairdresser!” Tom Evanicki’s Bath House: The Musical (June)
gave us four singing men in towels and little else and another opening
for Jimmy Wachter, for whom 2008 has been a boom year. Opera singer
Peter Irwin, terrific but under-appreciated in 2007’s Musical of Musicals: The Musical, here became an adroit, light-footed comic.
Stuart Hample’s Children’s Letters to God (September)
was geared to the school market that Tursi used to serve. Andrew Dain
was the sensitive one at the edge of adulthood; Alec Funiciello was the
funny kid. More grown-up were the kids in Bert V. Royal’s Dog Sees God: Confessions of Teenage Blockhead (October), which gave us, without violating copyrights, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts
gang in the midst of hormone-laden adolescence. We guessed Ryan Diana’s
identity before seeing his initials, “CB,” and cringed at Angela Newman
as the black-hearted brunette known as “CB’s Sister.” For the holidays
Tursi revived Jeff Goode’s The Eight Reindeer Monologues (December) from three years ago and added Goode’s comparable Seven Santas to
make a demented double-bill. Amid an all-star cast of terrific
community players like Aubry Luddington-Panek, Jodi Bova, Alan
Stillman, J. Brazil, Jordan Glaski, Christopher James and Gennaro
Parlato, Becky Bottrill was the scariest and David Minikheim the most
Simply New Theatre. John Nara has
not explained how his troupe came back from the dead to dominate this
year’s SALT Awards, but his secret is to build selections around the
talents of superb performers, either well-known or underappreciated.
Alas, Simply New announces productions on shorter notices than most
companies, and when it employs the BeVard Room of the Mulroy Civic
Center that means a Saturday opening so that nearly all shows did not
have the audiences they merited. First up was Harvey Fierstein’s trio
of one-acts, Safe Sex (March-April), reprised from 20 years ago
with two from the original cast, Bill Molesky and Dan Tursi. The third
act, “On Tidy Endings,” was also the most political: A male longtime
companion (Tursi) confronts the wife (Maureen Harrington) of a man
recently dead from AIDS.
Molesky had juicier roles in the next two productions. In Jeffrey Hatcher’s Three Viewings (May),
another trio of one-acts, he was a small-town funeral parlor host
trying to hustle a woman coming to the funerals of prominent townies.
Shannon Tompkins, one of the gentlest persons in the county, gave a new
face to viciousness, as a thief who steals jewelry from corpses. And
willowy Rosemary Palladino-Leone reached a career high as the widow
riding an emotional roller-coaster, telling us what she has learned
about her late husband.
For Oscar Wilde’s deathless farce The Importance of Being Earnest (August), Molesky
took on Lady Bracknell, one of the choicest roles in the English
language. In drag (special low-heeled pumps) but without falsetto,
Molesky gave us a tragic dowager, disappointed in the state of the
modern world, but still hilarious. Audaciously counterintuitive, it was
the best thing he did all year.
Three powerhouse performances pulled the audience’s emotions in John Pielmeier’s wrongly thought-to-be-old-hat Agnes of God
(September-October), the drama of the pregnant nun in the convent where
there were no men. Whose side were we on?: the skeptical but
sympathetic lawyer (Karis Wiggins), the worldly take-no-crap mother
superior (Kate Huddleston) or the touched-in-the-head title character
(Katherine Gibson), whose mad scene was staged in ways not anticipated
by any previous production.
The Talent Company. Chris
Lightcap’s venerable company reduced this year’s output to three shows
at the State Fairgrounds’ New Times Theater. Dan Goggin’s Nunsensation! The Nunsense Vegas Review (February-March)
had the girls from Hoboken up to the same old tricks. Hard-working,
often underappreciated Erin Race got frothy laughs as Sister Amnesia. High School Musical (June-July), the anti-Grease, reprised much of the January 2007 production, and brought lovely Danielle Lovier back to town.
Mel Brooks’ The Producers (November-December),
on the other hand, was an event. Director Dan Tursi, reunited with the
Talent Company after two years, doubled as the horrible director in the
show, Roger DeBris. Previously brunette Katie Lemos delivered plenty of
oomph as Ulla, while character leads Joe Spado as Max and Ryan Boyle as
Leo proved that upstate Christian boys know how to handle Jewish urban
anxiety. Company head Lightcap was Max’s eager-to-surrender senior
citizen benefactor. Stealing the show scandalously were Jimmy Wachter,
who turned sidekick Carmen Ghia into a masterpiece of timing, and David Witanowski, whose mad Nazi playwright Franz got more laughs than that character has ever earned, including in both movies.
Wit’s End Players. David Witanowski’s company, always a contender at SALT Award time, offered Steve Martin’s comedy on the clash of ideas, Picasso at the Lapin Agile (April),
at the New Times Theater. Two young players, fresh from the Le Moyne
College program, scored big time, Nick Barbato in the title role and
Rozlynn Jakes-Johnson as a fetching damsel, with clever support by
Daniel Flynn as a youthful Einstein. Out at the Cazenovia College
Theatre, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (July) drew big crowds
and filled the stage. The grand cast included Josh Mele in the title
role, muscular-voiced Jodie Baum as Mrs. Lovett, one of her first
leads, plus Alec Barbour, Sarah Naughton, Tina Lee as the ambiguous
Beggar Woman and Bill Molesky as the Judge. Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies
were on sale at intermission; there were many takers.
Appleseed Productions. Jon
Wilson’s company in the basement of Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W.
Glen Ave., continues its record of bravery with the first Greek drama
done outside the Syracuse University Drama Department within living
memory. This year, though, it started a trend of revisiting familiar
properties to find new energy in them. Barbara Lebow’s Left Hand Singing (January)
was a fictionalized treatment of the families affected by the 1964
civil rights murders in Mississippi, with top performances by Carmen
Viviano-Crafts as the naive idealist and Jacoura R. Fields’ hard-headed
realist. Director Dan Stevens brought out all the queenly powers of
wife Nora O’Dea as Hecuba in Euripides’ The Trojan Women (February-March),
with welcome assists from Wendy Sikorski as the vixenish Helen and
Heather J. Roach as the deranged but truthful Cassandra. John Bishop’s The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 (May) was a riff on the old Bob Hope comedy The Cat and the Canary, loaded
with movie trivia. Rick Signorelli was memorable as the pretentious
director, ditto Christopher James as the chameleon detective. Plaza Suite (June),
yet another trio of one-acts, looked upfront like another stale Neil
Simon vehicle, and so surprised audiences with its subtlety and
vitality. Bryan Allen Jones directed the first playlet, “Visitor from
Mamaroneck,” giving Binaifer Dabu her best role of the year as the
heartbreaking neglected wife opposite an unfeeling Bob Fullenbaum.
Surprising also was William Edward White’s revival of George Axelrod’s Goodbye Charlie (September),
which most people think of as a mediocre film about gender-crossing, if
they remember it at all. White argued successfully that Charlie
was really a comedy of manners and introduced us to newcomers Jason
Reed and Laura Ciresi Starr. Director Patricia Elise Catchouny opted
for a modern-dress Dracula (October) and got a worthy
performance from SALT Peoples’ Choice winner Gerrit Vander Werff, cast
against type in the title role, although he was partially upstaged by
Alan D. Stillman as Renfield and David Simmons as Van Helsing. The
husband-wife team of director Dan Stevens and actress Nora O’Dea
returned in Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy of time travel Communicating Doors (December), where Anne Fitzgerald stole scenes as a shy dominatrix in a skin-tight, form-hugging, black leather costume.
Hangar Theatre. It was the summer
of the interregnum on the other shore of Cayuga Lake. Former artistic
director Kevin Moriarty had lit out for Texas, and newcomer Peter Flynn
had not yet arrived. That was the opening for retired Syracuse Stage
head Robert Moss, still a popular figure in Ithaca because of his
earlier tenure at the Hangar. Moss himself directed J.T. Rogers’ The Overwhelming (June),
a recent critical hit about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The terror on
stage did not rely on swinging machetes but rather the impossibility of
well-meaning outsiders to grasp the depths of depravity. Somewhat less
than it could be was Nilaja Sun’s No Child . . . (June), with a
title making wordplay on George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind. Sun
created a one-woman show with multiple roles about trying to bring
theater education to a tough Bronx high school. Ithaca’s Rachel Holmes
took the role here. Dan Knechtges’ choreography for Oklahoma! (July)
demonstrated that this inexhaustible evergreen is also a landmark in
the evolution of dance musicals. In a show that had a limited run in
late evening, Theresa Rebeck’s Bad Dates (June-July), director
Wendy Dann sharpened the edge of feminist humor. An import from the
2004 Syracuse Stage season was John Cameron Mitchell’s rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch (August), with
director Michael Donald Edwards called up from Sarasota, Fla., and
Aaron Berk back in the role of the genital-diminished Hedwig (aka
Hansel). Still in the cast was lovely Sarah Pickett, whose mustache in
the first act almost fools us, even now.
John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World (August)
is that rare play that’s deep enough to fill a thousand term papers but
still really fun when performed. Director Moss said he had been wanting
to produce it for years, and in his summer back in Ithaca had his
chance. Many cast members were veterans of Syracuse Stage’s Lieutenant of Inishmore, such
as the splendid Christian Conn in the title role here as Christie.
Newark-born Moss guided all the accents. If this is to be the last Moss
show to be covered by The New Times, he exited giving us his best with a labor of love.
Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. Now in
its 50th year, this Auburn company had one of its biggest summers ever.
Dubbing itself “Broadway in the Finger Lakes,” MGR has established high
production standards and is the only local company that regularly
enjoys turn-away business. Joe DiPietro’s All Shook Up (June) had been reviled by Manhattan critics as a jukebox musical, yet it exceeded
expectations in every way. The male lead, Chad (David Sattler), mixed
swagger with vulnerability but was no mere Elvis impersonator. The plot, a riff from Twelfth Night (!),
called for a cross-dressing heroine, Noel Molinelli, and an imposing,
somewhat older and gorgeous woman, Amy Halldin. Then came the year’s
most ambitious production seen on any local stage west of Glimmerglass:
Boublil and Schonberg’s Les Miserables (June-July). Experienced
director Christa Justus structured the sprawling enterprise so that
“One More Day” was sure to swell hearts. Tad Wilson’s Jean Valjean
could stand with the greatest performances we remember from cultural
capitals, as could Ernie Pruneda’s Marius and Christopher Carl’s Javert.
In one of the year’s most startling
transformations, the menacing villainy of Carl as Javert somehow
morphed into the mincing insipidness of his turn as Roger DeBris, the
incompetent director hired to ruin Springtime for Hitler in Mel Brooks’ The Producers (July-August).
Although a show rooted in pre-World War II burlesque and vaudeville,
director Ed Sayles came up with a posh production, almost the epic
equal of Les Miz. An otherwise throwaway number like
Leo’s “I Wanna Be a Producer” (performed by Geno Carr) was magnificent,
and the show-stopping “Springtime” overflowed with visual hilarity.
Plagued with mishaps, on the other hand, was Little Shop of Horrors (August-September),
where the most outstanding performance came from Audrey II, adroitly
handled by puppeteer Marc Petrosino. In an unanticipated risk after
Labor Day, Sayles imported a regional hit from Minnesota, Jim Stowell
and Jessica Zuehlke’s Church Basement Ladies (September-October), with star comedienne Greta Grosch. Based on the regional best-seller Growing Up Lutheran, Ladies was a pastiche of barely plotted gags and songs, a Protestant answer to Nunsense.
MGR veteran Maureen Quigley, a last-minute cast replacement and three
decades too young for the role, delivered a hilarious old prude as
Cortland Repertory Theatre. Ever-youthful
Kerby Thompson has made himself a revered public figure in Cortland
County with a winning mix of the reassuring, the quirkily offbeat and
the gutsy. Audiences know that even if they never have heard of the
show, they’re going to have a good time, such as the gentle spoof of
the disco era, Rick Seebers’ 8-Track: The Sounds of the 1970s (June). Theatergoers have come to expect an Agatha Christie mystery, but director Jim Bumgardner enriched that chestnut The Mousetrap
(July). Dustin Charles’ Detective Trotter bristled with class anxiety,
and Joshua Forecum’s Christopher Wren was squirming atop a perch
previously occupied by Psycho’s Norman Bates. Thompson’s direction of the summer’s big musical, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (July-August),
underscored the show’s roots in New York City’s Actors Studio. Daniel
B. Hess’ choreography was as relentlessly exuberant with the football
players as with Miss Mona’s girls.
While all these were credits to the
company, two riskier productions really helped CRT make its mark in
2008. Bert Bernardi’s direction of choreography of the hyper-camp Johnny Guitar: The Musical (August-September)
wasted no time with flaccid subtlety. You did not have to see director
Nicholas Ray’s landmark 1954 film to get the hilarity of this
role-reversing western. Scott Moreau was posturing beefcake in the
title role, and Chris Nickerson the kinetic Dancin’ Kid. High-voltage
electricity leapt between Chrysten Peddie’s vampish Vienna (the Joan
Crawford role) and Megan Rozak’s pit-bullish Emma (the Mercedes
McCambridge part). But with Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men (August),
whose large cast must have broken the bank, Thompson proved that his
company is about more than parfaits and marzipan. Bill Kincaid’s
hard-hitting direction erased memories of film actors in the same
roles, even if we know the story. Jonathan Self as Lt. Kaffee was a
playboy prosecutor educated into maturity by pursuing the case, and
Kyle Kennedy shook the timbers with the speech that begins, “You can’t
handle the truth!” as the initially charming but compromised Lt. Col.
Jessup. Packed houses stood in ovation night after night.
Syracuse University Drama Department. Despite
the lack of a pit in the Arthur Storch (formerly Experimental) Theater,
four of the year’s six productions were musicals. Given the resources
of the Syracuse Stage complex, the glut of talent among the students,
and the disregard for box-office tyranny, SU Drama can go where no
other company dares. Mary Zimmerman’s lavish, cultish, exuberant Arabian Nights (February)
is a case in point. Lovely Danielle van Gal, one of the stars of the
current crop of students, played eight roles, each in a different
costume by Megan Moriarty. Director-choreographer Anthony Salatino and
music director Nathan Hurwitz joined forces for the thunderous Sweeney Todd (April-May), with a non-majoring student, Eric Bilitch, scoring in the title role.
John Kander and Fred Ebb’s feel-bad musical flop Steel Pier (October)
lacks hit songs, but director-choreographer David Wanstreet transmuted
it into pure gold. His staging of the death-sprint after hours of
marathon dancing was a truly wrenching moment. Leslie Noble’s tight
direction of Carlo Goldoni’s Italian farce Servant of Two Masters (March) ran more smoothly than a Swiss watch. Lanford Wilson’s off-Broadway hit from the 1960s, The Rimers of Eldritch (November),
presented problems no other company would accept: achronological
speeches and 17 players who never leave the stage. Director Gerardine
Clark solved them, drawing memorable performances from Kristian
Rodriguez, Patrick Murney, Amy Shapiro, Alanna Rogers and Tara Windley.
Le Moyne College Boot & Buskin. Anjalee Nadkarni’s farewell production, Anton in Show Business (February),
by the pseudonymous “Jane Martin,” was characteristic of her time here.
The offbeat comedy about producing Anton Chekhov in San Antonio pushed
student abilities to the limit and maybe a bit beyond. Rhawnie Reil,
Alecia Wortman and Marissa Roberts met the challenge, and tiny,
feminine Kim Pompo delivered three drag characters. Michael Barbour’s
black box production of An Evening of Ives (April) covered some of the same ground as Rarely Done’s All in the Timing,
also by David Ives, but with some brilliant, never-before-seen bits.
Alex Gherardi, Eileen Behan, Zach Chase, Katie Edwards and Mike Kuhla
were there for the laughs. Nadkarni’s departure meant a return to
classicism in the fall, with Steve Braddock’s mounting of Oscar Wilde’s
An Ideal Husband (October-November), which boasted period
costumes worthy of the Shaw Festival. Fiona Barbour stole scenes as a
Lady Bracknell-worthy dowager, Nick Barbato was the goody-good husband
with something to hide, and Eileen Behan was the naughty scarlet woman
who wanted to reveal what was hidden.
But wait, there’s more: 2008 yielded many other floorboards footnotes.
• The award to a performer showing grace under pressure goes to tenor Drew Slayton of Syracuse Opera. Called in last April to sing the lead, Canio, in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
at the last moment, Slayton performed flawlessly on Friday, even
without a single rehearsal with the rest of the cast. While practicing
a handstand before Sunday’s matinee, Slayton fell, breaking his
clavicle. Clearly in pain, he went on with a cape that covered his
useless arm in a sling. Still singing in top form, Slayton was getting
along fine until the scene where he is supposed to strangle the
soprano, Nedda (Jee Hyun Lim), but he could get only one hand around
her neck. Ms. Lim wins the supporting award for so graciously assisting
in her own murder.
• In the year’s best conventional
wisdom-defying moment, octogenarian playwright-actor Lou Cutell arrived
from Hollywood and, without any local connections, brought his senior
citizen sex comedy Viagara Falls (title misspelled for
copyright reasons) to the nearly always empty Carrier Theatre of the
Mulroy Civic Center in mid-July. With his better-known co-star Harold
Gould (The Sting, Rhoda), Cutell easily filled the place and
left lots of smiles when he moved on to the next burg. Instead of
leaving behind a silver bullet, he told us, years after the demise of
Summerfest, that there is a summer market for live theater in Syracuse.
• After being thwarted countless times,
Robert “Tank” Steingraber finally got his cherished British comedy on
the boards for this Onondaga Hillplayers production. He took The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery (February-March)
to Jack and Doris Skillman’s always-sold-out dinner theater at Inn of
the Seasons, 4311 W. Seneca Turnpike. It turned out to be a clever
idea, a kind of community theater Noises Off in which
everything goes perfectly wrong. Kelley Loan-Witter scored in five
roles, shortly before being sidelined by serious illness.
• ACME Mystery Company’s moving
force Bob Greene reports another successful year in 2008, providing
more than 100 performances at a variety of venues throughout New York
and Pennsylvania. The interactive spoof mystery comedies still continue
at the Spaghetti Warehouse, 689 N. Clinton St. ACME, which exclusively
uses materials developed by local playwrights, plans to perform four to
six new scripts in the coming year.
• Armory Square Playhouse founder David Feldman, godfather of hundreds of many area playwrights, resigned as artistic director after 23 years.
• The Redhouse, Syracuse’s other
professional theater, has become a multi-use facility where live drama
is still a part of the mix. The sole, in-house production was the
artistically successful edgy comedy Lovesong (May) by John
Kolvenbach, making its East Coast premiere. Peter Moller, much
associated with Redhouse’s ancestor, Contemporary Theatre of Syracuse,
directed. Other shows were imports. Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s The Eaten Heart (September-October)
was the identical performance that the cutting-edge Debate Society
presented in New York City. November brought Peter Brooks’ Le Tragedy de Carmen, a pocket version of Bizet’s warhorse songfest, done in cooperation with Syracuse Opera.
• Artistic director Todd Ellis cleverly employed the same initials, SCT, for his parallel companies Syracuse Civic Theatre and Syracuse Children’s Theatre. After the disappointment of his Broadway-bound Idol: The Musical in 2007, the “Civic” side of the equation pulled back. The major production was an adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (November), shown in matinees to school audiences. Ellis says he is no longer “producing Cecil B. DeMille or any musicals.”
• Joe and Pat Lotito’ peripatetic Salt City Center for the Performing Arts appeared at three venues this year. Aubry Ludington-Panek revived Joe DiPietro’s comic revue I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (January-February)
at St. Claire Auditorium; Panek had appeared in the long-running
Rochester production of this show, and no other director knows it
better. Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw (May), a little-seen
misfire, was at the State Fairgrounds’ New Times Theater. Most
congenial was Jazz Central for Shannon Tompkins and Bob Brown’s
direction of Side by Side by Sondheim, with singers Cathleen O’Brien, Elizabeth Fern, Dana Sovocool and Shawn Forster in top form.
• Now settled into new digs at 805 E. Genesee St., the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company mounted two dramas this year. Yale Drama graduate Samuel L. Kelley directed two one-acts in September and October: The Blue Vein Society
was Kelley’s adaptation of a short story by 19th-century
African-American writer Charles Chesnutt, with the Blue Veins as
haughty pale sorts who sought to exclude socially their darker
brethren, and Sweat, George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of a
Zora Neale Hurston story, which featured rising international star
Tinuke Oyefule. Company head Bill Rowland and Annette Adams-Brown
collaborated on Langston Hughes’ self-described “gospel song play” Black Nativity (through Jan. 11), a joyous, high-spirited retelling of the Gospel of St. Luke.
• Steve Braddock’s annual productions for Gifford Family Theatre
might be Syracuse’s best-kept theatrical secret, despite their playing
to constantly sold-out houses. Most adults do not realize that Gifford
shows, at Le Moyne College’s Coyne Center for the Performing Arts,
include some of the most ingenious staging to be found anywhere in the
area. Steven Dietz and Allison Gregory’s Go, Dog, Go (May) adapted the P.D. Eastman book popular for more than 40 years. Like Susan Strohman’s The Lion King, Dog brought
an avant-garde sensibility to popular entertainment, as well as
concepts from French post-modernism, to make kindergartners giddy. The
oldest member of the cast, a 20-ish Carmen Viviano-Crafts, was
hilarious in dual roles.
• Syracuse Shakespeare Festival artistic
director Ronald Bell’s move indoors (to SU’s downtown Warehouse
building) presented the company with daunting challenges, with such
matters as lighting and sound. An under-rehearsed Hamlet (January) presented too many supporting players who did not know their lines; it’s an unusual Hamlet where King Claudius (Brendan Cole) comes off as the most sympathetic character. Amy Freed’s The Beard of Avon (April)
began with a promising concept, the story of the dissolute Earl of
Oxford who might have been the “real” author of dramas attributed to
Shakespeare. Elizabeth Holmes distinguished herself in two roles, as
Anne Hathaway and a city flirtation known as Lucy. Chronic rain in
August, however, did not stop the festival from mounting The Comedy of Errors at Thornden Park.
Syracuse theater also experienced its share of curtain calls:
• Because they were public
figures, the deaths of Jean Daugherty and Armand Magnarelli were widely
noted. What is remembered here is their lifelong generosity to local
theater. Daugherty was a stalwart with the late Father Charles
Borgogoni’s Pompeian Players. Magnarelli was also a regular with the
Pompeians, but he was a favored character player everywhere, memorably
as Humphrey Bogart in Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam. Until shortly before his death his Witch Doctor entrance stopped the show in the annual running of Art Zimmer’s Cruizin’.
• Barbara Stone Gibbons’ contralto, the most
distinctive in the area, belonged to one of the most admired community
theater actresses of her era. Although equally adept at farce and
classics, like Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, she wanted to be remembered for the Grace Kelly role in Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl; Barbara, really, did it better.
• Kevin Surrette founded his own companies, one gutsy enough to stage Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Tamaralee Shutt said Surrette was owed more credit for the revamped Cruizin’ in 2007.
• Lovely Heather Weeks wowed us all as
Helen Keller opposite Kate Huddleston’s Annie Sullivan in a 1997 Salt
City Center production of The Miracle Worker. She was downed by cancer before she had a chance to show what was coming. Heather was 24.