Along with the
collapse of Lehman Brothers, jobs and population kept fleeing Central
New York. The always-helpful National Endowment for the Arts reported
that 98 percent of the American public will never see a live theater
production of any kind. Ever resilient, companies fought back, as if
joining Carlotta belting out “I’m still here” from Sondheim’s Follies.
So, counter-intuitively, there were two more productions than last
year, with an increasing capacity for risk-taking. Amazingly, we had a
record 13 premieres from regional stages, counting Ithaca openings. At
year’s end two new takes on familiar vehicles, Little Women from Syracuse Stage/Syracuse University Drama Department and the Talent Company’s White Christmas, were both doing sellout business. We’re still here, and we’re dancing.
Guiding light: Artistic director Tim Bond (left) instructs some of the players for Syracuse Stage’s The Diary of Anne Frank.
The downturn did have some malign
effects. Glimmerglass Opera of Cooperstown, the most labor-intensive
company in the area, cut back from its usual summertime roster of four
productions and sent out the general manager in a curtain speech to
plead for more donations. It worked, and by year’s end the ledger
looked encouraging. Syracuse Stage dropped one show and added the
holiday co-production with SU Drama, previously an extra, to the
More baleful was the decision by The Post-Standard
to omit most stage reviews from the daily’s print editions and make
them available only online. This puts additional responsibility on the
alternative weekly, the Syracuse New Times, which we gladly
accept. Stage will remain one of our prime bailiwicks, with as much
space for analysis as we can spare, and a color production pic. And the
paper will also continue with its Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Awards next spring.
Syracuse Stage. The contrast
between the end of artistic director Timothy Bond’s first season last
spring with the beginning of his second signals his adjustment to life
in Central New York. If the 2008-2009 season honed an edge, the
2009-2010 season offers comfort food.
The Stephen Sondheim review Putting It Together (January-February)
suffered from a misplaced confidence in director Rajendra Ramoon
Maharaj, whose short, unhappy tenure with the company ended last
spring. Broadway stars like Chuck Cooper and Lillias White were
first-class musicians, but Maharaj’s attempts to tart up the action did
not win over the anti-Sondheim faction while dismaying the master’s
most passionate devotees. Bridget Carpenter’s Up (February-March)
was a strained piece of whimsy about a star-struck loser’s attempts to
achieve 15 minutes of fame by putting his life in jeopardy. Director
Penny Metropulos, imported from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival,
glossed over the intimations of suicide implicit in the dialogue and
spelled out in the program notes. Susannah Flood’s fast-talking
eccentric stole the show but unfortunately disappeared in the second
Bond’s sole directing venture in 2009 was the well-received revision of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s Diary of Anne Frank (April).
Wendy Kesselman’s revamping emphasized Anne’s Jewishness and excised
optimistic passages that some have found bogus. SU Drama student
Arielle Level gave us a hyperkinetic, youthful Anne more moving in her
humanity than her saintliness. Coming just in time for subscription
renewal was Regina Taylor’s Crowns (May), an African-American
musical review linked to the ornate hats worn in black churches.
Director-choreographer Patdro Harris ably guided the five mature women
and rebellious city girl Shannon Antalan, but contralto Roz White won
top place with her “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
In a break from tradition, Syracuse
Stage presented only two shows in the fall, but both have been warmly
embraced by local audiences. Picasso at the Lapin Agile (opening
in October instead of the usual September) by Steve Martin,
self-described as born to do stand-up comedy, delivered lots of laughs
and won back oodles of fickle subscribers. SU Drama actor Craig
MacDonald as Gaston, the skeptic with prostate problems, was never in
better form. Your scowling churl at The New Times thought director Penny Metropulos was mistaken to stage Picasso as farce when Martin craves to be seen as a wide-market Tom Stoppard.
What really pointed the new directions preferred by Bond is the much-loved holiday co-production, the musical version of Little Women (November-December). Consider the contrast with Maharaj’s multicultural Godspell of
the previous year. Especially heartening was the feeling of winning
against the odds that pervades this production. Visionary musical
theater authority Marie Kemp championed the wonders of the Kim
Oler-Alison Hubbard collaboration in workshops last year, and as
Marmee, the girls’ mother, delivered the break-down-the-house solo, “I
Have a Garden.” Director-choreographer Anthony Salatino’s authority
over new material tells us any subsequent productions will have to pay
attention to what he created.
Currently running parallel in the
Storch Theater is the one-man re-creation of the 1946 Frank Capra
Christmas movie classic, retitled This Wonderful Life (December), with the dynamic James Leaming taking on all roles from Old Man Potter to ZuZu.
The Kitchen Theatre. The company
in the 73-seat venue in Ithaca (soon to be larger) becomes more of a
regional presence each year, a strong competitor at SALT time. Artistic
director Rachel Lampert has a canny eye for fresh, challenging but
accessible works done to performance standards that equal or surpass
those of any in the state, including that overpriced island on the
The year began quietly with Francesca Sanders’ one-woman I Became a Guitar (January-February),
a poetic family drama exploring how the inner life is realer than the
external. Next came the return of Brian Dykstra, the internationally
known playwright who has settled in Ithaca and written several works
for the Kitchen stage. His ironically titled A Play on Words (February-March)
applies David Mamet rhetoric to George Carlin’s mad obsessions with
language and semantics. (Two neighbors squabble over the meaning of the
line “I don’t give a hang.”) Dykstra’s works are always directed by
artistic partner Margarett Perry.
Perry also guided a second world premiere from Rachel Axler, a veteran writer from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Her comedy Archaeology (April-May)
gave us slackers in an unnamed college town reacting and adjusting from
an earthquake. Norm Johnson’s astonishing set, one of the most emphatic
anywhere all year, allowed whole buildings to shift 15 degrees on cue.
For Scott Brown and Anthony King’s two-person Gutenberg! The Musical! (June-July),
Lampert directed company favorites Karl Gregory and Tyrone Mitchell
Henderson as two dozen characters who simultaneously explain how the
printing press changed Western culture while constructing a musical
Fall selections favored the counter-intuitive. Lampert guided Bob Clyman’s sardonic comedy Secret Order (August-September), in which we learned about the back-stabbing careerists that control cancer research. Ted LoRusso’s First Day
(October-November), yet another world premiere, was a unique blend of
movement and percussion that depicted a young man’s impressions as he
took on a new job in the Big City. Lampert returned to helm the area
premiere of Arlene Hutton’s Last Train to Nibroc (November-December).
What first seemed like a budding romance about young people from rural
Kentucky at the beginning of World War II turned into an unpredictable
dialogue of status, values and self. The year ended with two more new
works by Dykstra: Ho!, a dark fantasy in which Santa Claus has become a predatory corporate entity, and A Christmas Tree Story (December), about how a Vermont youngster was rescued by a benign witch.
Getting around: Between directorial gigs for the
Talent Company and his own Rarely Done troupe, Dan Tursi (right) also
squeezed in acting time for Glengarry Glen Ross with the Wit’s End Players. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Rarely Done. Living up to his
company’s name, artistic director Dan Tursi brought in rare discoveries
never seen before in town, some to stump the most serious theater buff.
Neil LaBute is one of the most highly regarded contemporary
playwrights, largely shunned by other companies. His three one-acts set
with Mormon characters known as Bash (March) call for bravura
delivery of deeply unsettling material. David Simmons, already a
recognized soloist, properly set teeth on edge with the first, a Utah
adaptation of the myth of Iphegenia. But the evening belonged to
chillingly soft-spoken Erin Race in her first lead role as a
Edmonton-born Brad Fraser is one of Canada’s best-known and most controversial playwrights, but his Poor Superman (April-May) was reset in Syracuse with jokes about The Post-Standard and
Trexx. Production problems, like coordinating action with scenes
projected from a DVD, hampered the staging of a complex story of
crossing sexual taboos while fielding allusions to old comic books.
Good moments were shared by Brian Hensley as a philosophical AIDS
victim and Anne Fitzgerald as a wise-cracking, non-singing Elaine
Keeping all the allusions in order was a big part of the fun in Dorothy Kingsley’s Valley of the Dolls: The All-Male Version (May). For starters, Jacqueline Susann’s uber-trash novel, a roman à clef, yielded
one of the campiest movies of all time in 1967. Garrett Heater,
astonishingly fetching in drag, was at once a pouty Barbara Parkins
(from the film) doing a character based on author Susann. Josh Smith
simultaneously served up the movie’s Patty Duke doing Judy Garland.
It’s an outrageously ambitious conceit that works best with performers
adept at impersonation, like Heater, Smith and especially Jimmy Wachter.
Audience participation of a different kind was called for in Michael Heitzman and Ilene Reid’s Bingo: The Musical (June).
To keep snooty audience members from sneering at the working-class
women who are addicted to the game, everyone received cards and started
playing before and between the action. Several local actresses broke
out of their usual personae, so that height-challenged Kate Huddleston
was supposed to be a secret basketball player, and the usually sleek
Katheryn Guyette turned sleazy to deliver the naughty lyrics of
Bob and Jim Walton’s Mid-Life! The Crisis Musical (September) suffered from a title that made the revue sound like a rival to Menopause: The Musical, when it was really as sophisticated and envelope-pushing as a New Yorker cartoon.
Intimate female health questions were still part of the mix, as with
the tap-dancing pap smear routine. Some of the greatest moments of
hilarity were achieved by veteran players: Suzanne Tiffault with her
breasts caught in the wringer of “Musical Mammogram,” Shaun Forster as
a henpecked macho basketball player, Tina Lee as a trailer-trash
housewife, and Aubry Ludington Panek as a down-market Dolly Parton.
A Christmas Survival Guide (December)
by James Hindman and Ray Roderick likewise offered terrific material
hidden behind a lackluster title. Along with much spoofery, such as a
splendid Peter Irwin in a version of “Silver Bells” with cell phones,
came unashamed awe for the sacred holiday, like Dana Sovocool’s
cliche-smashing “O Holy Night.” Elsewhere, Sovocool showed off his
comic chops as we had not seen them before. In between was the fully
staged premiere of Len Fonte’s Werewolf (October), developed by
the Armory Square Players, where the playwright has been a shaping
figure. Despite the threat of the supernatural implied in the title,
the horrors faced by Syracuse high school teacher (Tom Minion) are all
too natural, if unspeakable. Good roles, too, for young student Keegan
Lounsberry and former student, now lawyer, Peggy Droz.
Simply New Theatre. John Nara’s
company, with the most controversial material seen anywhere this year,
was one of the few left struggling to use the Mulroy Civic Center, the
late Joe Golden’s bequest to the community. To meet the venue’s high
costs, Simply New arranged short runs, usually with a Saturday night
opening, and full houses. With unapologetic arrogance, the management
treated his efforts with contempt. At year’s end Nara learned he was
kicked out of the BeVard Room, which he had used so adroitly, to allow
traveling professional companies rehearsal space.
Before eviction, he had a good year. Talking With (January-February)
by the pseudonymous “Jane Martin” is often dismissed as a series of
audition pieces for women, but director Heater made sure he had the
strongest talent and also emphasized the dark themes that unite the 11
monologues. Heater delighted in casting against type, such as the
usually smiling song-and-dance girl Kristie Grant becoming an outraged
screamer or the assertively feminine Judy Schmid turned into a dikey,
hard-bitten rodeo rider. Others rose with the most demanding material,
such as the two vignettes on the acceptance of death with Rosemary
Palladino-Leone and Binaifer Dabu (in native Parsee costume), and Moe
Harrington as the Juilliard-trained aesthete who has slid from Chekhov
to something less dignified.
One of the most argued-over dramas of the past decade, Martin McDonagh’s Kafkaesque The Pillowman (March)
finally made a Central New York debut on Navroz Dabu’s amazing set,
which looked uncannily like the one in the original London production.
Former light comedian Heater (having a great year) reached a career
peak as the victimized writer Katurian, browbeaten by the good and bad
cops (Wil Szczech and Josh Canfield). Trumbo (May) presented
one man at a desk reading old letters, but for Bill Molesky it was the
fulfillment of a deep commitment and the actor’s top performance of the
year. Dalton Trumbo was a blacklisted screenwriter when movies were
still thought cultural junk, but he was a brilliant wordsmith who, in
an age before e-mail, wrote some of the most literate missives in
When attempts were made to stage Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner’s My Name is Rachel Corrie (September)
in Manhattan, censorious forces closed it down. Indeed, some audience
members came to the BeVard to scowl and not to clap during the show,
adapted from the diary and letters of a perhaps naive American peace
witness on the Israeli/Palestinian border. Newcomer Jillian Dailey’s
bravura solo explored all the nooks and crannies in an idealist’s heart
and found her a more human than willing martyr.
Finally, while the author has a reputation for impenetrability, James Joyce’s The Dead (October), the
1999 Tony winner with a score by Shaun Davey, was a surprise box-office
smash. Astute casting choices sharpened the many supporting roles, such
as having jazz singer Lorraine Grande come on as the oldest of the
Morkan ladies who host the evening, or bringing in Joe Pierce in
dundrearies as the haughty voice of the privileged classes. Susan
Blumer and Bill Molesky stole scenes as a squabbling mother and grown
son, but the evening belonged to two familiar voices, Kevin McNamara
and Aubry Panek, as the young couple whose marriage is not what they
thought it was. The second act’s solo, “Michael Furey,” for the
still-radiant Panek (formerly Ludington) was a career peak.
The Talent Company. Under
Christine Lightcap’s driving leadership, the MGM of local companies
gave us three richly produced, exuberant shows, each taking a different
artistic direction. The riskiest of the three was Marvin Laird and Joel
Paley’s Ruthless! The Musical (April), a wide-ranging spoof (Mame, Gypsy, The Bad Seed, Applause)
that was catnip for theater buffs. Costumer Jeanette Reyner never
worked better magic, including period leopard duds for the drag role of
Sylvia St. Croix (Jimmy Curtin). Baldwinsville elementary student Julia
Goodwin, an irrepressible musical bulldog, was the sine qua non for Ruthless! but lovely Julia Berger, previously in the chorus of The Producers, broke through as a gifted light comedienne who really knows how to sing.
Tursi directed Ruthless! and the
other two Talent Company productions, each a bigger project than those
at his own Rarely Done company. Lightcap and Tursi rethought the
company’s perennial favorite, West Side Story (July), injecting
new blood in a now 52-year-old show. This meant Sharks and Jets the age
of high school kids, with 15-year-old soaring soprano Mary Vinciguerra
as Maria, and Ithaca College student Tim Quartier, with a voice ready
for grand opera, as Tony. As spicy Anita, the role written to steal the
show, Maria Pedro was fresh out of Fayetteville-Manlius High School.
All grown up and professional was the choreography of Daniel Lake,
brought in from Manhattan for the occasion. Nadine Cole’s musical
direction honored one of the greatest scores ever written.
The score for Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (November-December)
was greatly improved from the 1954 Bing Crosby-Rosemary Clooney movie.
The trick was inserting earlier Berlin hits like “I Love a Piano,”
which turned into a show-stopping dance number with returning company
favorite Gary Troy (from New York City) and Brandi Ozark Weston (from
Virginia), with choreography by Michael Groesbeck. Musically, the top
of the evening went to the side-by-side solos, “You Didn’t Do Right By
Me” from Colleen Wager (formerly Walsh) and “How Deep is the Ocean”
from beardless Bob Brown, his only lead of the year.
Wit’s End Players. As in other
recent years, artistic director David Witanowski focuses his efforts on
only two shows but they must be of completely different type. Last
winter was the time for seriousness, featuring David Mamet’s landmark
drama of moral chicanery in the real estate business, Glengarry Glen Ross (January).
Michael O’Neill stood out as Shelley Levine, the guy who suffers as
much for his ethics as his inability to close a sale. William Finn and
Rachel Sheinkin’s offbeat The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (October)
was the rare example of a very recent Broadway hit on local boards. A
bevy of new faces shone as the contestants, starting with Dan Williams
as the kid with the unlikely foot method. Danielle Nash in “The I Love
You Song” was the lonely girl with only a dictionary as a friend.
Elizabeth Luttinger fired up the overachiever who could speak six
languages and could play every instrument in the pit. Brian Scott,
dressed in his Boy Scout merit badges, sang of the unfortunate effect
competition had on his, um, manhood. Alex Gherardi, relatively speaking
a veteran because of his exposure in Le Moyne College productions, got
wails of laughter from lines like “Correct” and “Incorrect.”
Appleseed Productions. Alone
among local companies, Appleseed is a forum for directors with
competing visions, with the most unlikely juxtapositions. Artistic
director Jon Wilson promotes less of his personality and personal
tastes in what we see. Only in the Atonement Lutheran Church basement
on 116 W. Glen St. does an ironic retelling of the Jekyll-Hyde story
come just before a broad comedy set in a Southern diner.
Dustin Czarny opened the year with one of the biggest casts of the season for Dale Wasserman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (January-February),
with veteran player J. Brazill reaching a career high as Randall P.
McMurphy, looking more like Che Guevara than Jack Nicholson. Continuing
a company tradition of getting a big musical on the boards ahead of
most of the summer season, Czarny revived Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (June),
proving a choice role for company regular Greg J. Hipius as Pseudolus
the slave. Some supporting roles literally belong to veteran players
such as Lanny Freshman as Senex and Michael Spinoso as Hysterium. Their
quartet, with Hipius and Mark Allen Holt as the courtesan dealer,
“Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” rightfully steals the show. Forum also
marked the smashing debut of Danan Healy, a knockout beauty who knows
how to tell jokes and can melt hearts with the otherwise lesser song,
“That’ll Show Him.”
SALT-winning director Sharee Lemos got new direction from some of her favorite players in Tom Griffin’s The Boys Next Door (March),
a sensitive comedy about the harried leader (Tom Dowd) of a group home
for the mentally challenged. Leading man good-guy Joe Pierce was
reduced to childishness, while utility character player Alan D.
Stillman plumbed new depths as the most tragic of the boys. The only
Appleseed production under Jon Wilson’s hand was the mock British
comedy, I Shot My Rich Aunt (May), really an American sitcom in
tweed. Nora O’Dea was the dowager who caught the bullet, and Wendy
Sikorski was the spicy lovely all the boys lusted for. David Vickers
stole scenes as the clergyman we thought was stuffy but really brimmed
with lust under his tight white collar.
In the doldrums of late summer
Appleseed mounted four one-acts, mostly by distinguished playwrights
David Ives, Sam Shepard and Jean Paul Sartre. Beloved local actor Al
Marshall reportedly stole the show in Kyle Bass’ Spoons, directed by Donna Stuccio. After Labor Day Dan Stevens revived Ken Ludwig’s 1930s-style farce, Lend Me a Tenor (September),
with excellent costumes by Barbara Toman. The role of the go-getting
gofer Max gave us a good picture of how much Terry LaCasse has learned
since enrolling in the drama program at Le Moyne College.
The most ambitious 2009 production at Appleseed, artistically and intellectually, was Jeffrey Hatcher’s new play, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (October-November), directed by William Edward White. A drama for our time, Hatcher’s Jekyll convinced
us that Robert Louis Stevenson’s original was impossibly naive. Jim Uva
projected both depth and breadth as the really not-so-good doctor in
his newly more complex form, but Dabu, usually a distinctive and
identifiable figure, kept popping up in disparate, who-am-I-now roles
as a child, later both adult men and women, and also something in
between. Harrington concluded the year with Della’s Diner: Blue Plate Special (December),
a cult musical-comedy from the South. Tamaralee Shutt, in a succession
of tacky costume changes, all with big-hair blonde wigs, connected with
the Southern soul.
Cortland Repertory Company. Artistic
director Kerby Thompson’s continually winning formula includes plenty
of risk, such as a dance musical set in Haiti and the documentary trial
of a playwright accused of the crime of homosexuality. Caribbean
rhythms abounded in the early Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical Once on This Island (June).
Director-choreographer Daniel B. Hess moved all the gods and demons
around the floor with quicksilver grace. Lovely Traci Allen held the
virginal but plucky center, while Kelli Blackwell shimmied like
nobody’s business in the most vibrant number, “Mama Will Provide.” Paul
Rudnick’s comedy I Hate Hamlet (June-July) pitted a
self-doubting TV actor (Dustin Charles) against the ghost of an
overbearing John Barrymore (Robert Boardman), so that the living man
might appear in Manhattan’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park. Tony Capone’s
direction hit all the right notes and drew a touching performance from
Heather Shisler in the usually thankless role as the Ophelia-like
Hess returned to direct the major musical of the summer, Jerry Ross’ Damn Yankees (July), staged in faux nostalgia
for 1955. Not very 1950s-ish was the casting of a dynamic
African-American singer, Alyson Tolbert, as the temptress Lola, who
gets what she wants. Not only can the devil, Mr. Applegate, be counted
on to have the best lines, but as embodied by company favorite Dominick
Varney he improvised even more uproarious lines in the show-stopping
soft-shoe, “Those Were the Days.”
While France and England are the nations we usually link with the idea of farce, Paul Slade Smith’s Unnecessary Farce (July-August)
posited a Scottish connection. His tartan-clad heavy, Joshua Murphy,
belched out an Edinburgh brogue more incomprehensible than those from
the druggies in Trainspotting. Former SALT nominee Morgan Reis glowed under Thompson’s direction as the accountant, a beguiling straight woman.
CRT’s bid for high seriousness, Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (August),
was undercut by director Bill Kincaid’s unwise choices. He depicted
Wilde (Brian Runbeck), an imperious wit in life, as an unhappy martyr,
while the bullying adversary, the Marquis of Queensberry (Kyle
Kennedy), morphed into a farcical cartoon figure. Stuart Ross and James
Raitt’s Forever Plaid (August-September), not seen in the past
five years, was a four-part harmony comfort for audiences still longing
for popular music before The Beatles. The show had four equally strong
players, but Christopher Lukos had the sharpest delivery of the
mock-dorky humor, and Christopher Timson smashed the vanilla mode with
Johnny Ray’s torch song, “Cry.”
Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. Now in
its 51st year, artistic director Ed Sayles’ Auburn venue, known as
“Broadway in the Finger Lakes,” remains the only company to do
turn-away business on a regular basis. MGR’s ability to draw audiences
with disparate vehicles—a flapper comedy from the 1920s, a Disney kids’
musical, and a show about working-class male strippers in
Buffalo—portends well for the future. Recession be damned: MGR could be
on the verge of a big-scale musical theater festival, like Stratford or
Niagara-on-the-Lake in the Finger Lakes, only with dancing girls.
David Yazbek and Terrence McNally’s The Full Monty (June),
which ends with blue-collar blokes showing their pink behinds, turned
out to be tuneful, complex and touching. Peter James Zielinski and Brad
Nacht proved not only tough guys can dance and sing but also that
sensitivity runs under their dirty fingernails. The one beige behind
belonged to Rob Barnes as Horse, whose “Big Black Man” really did stop
the show. Disney’s High School Musical (June-July) premiered on
television and in floorboard versions has played to different
demographics than those usually seen in Emerson Park. No matter.
Director Kate Swan made the teen characters widely appealing without
resorting to cornball emotions. Much of the heavy lifting went to
Ayessa Herrera as the Hispanic math whiz and Michael Parker Hayes as
the hoop-dreamer who has to choose between the court and the stage.
Meegan Midkiff as the scheming snot Sharpay got to have lots of vicious
Although it opened in 1925, the Vincent Youmans-Otto Harbach No, No Nanette (July-August)
still burst with tap-dancing energy. The lioness’ share of the laughs
were purloined by two women in supporting roles: Andrea A. McCullough
as the wisecracking maid Pauline, like a post-graduate Patsy Kelly, and
ultra-endowed Synthia Link as the Frisco showgirl Flora Latham.
Artistic director Sayles has said more than once that Michael Bennett’s
A Chorus Line (August-September) is his favorite show, which
explains why it was the season’s major production. Exceeding the
process of the script, he auditioned more than 2,000 aspirants for 19
roles. The top winners were Elizabeth Early as the not-quite
over-the-hill Cassie (who must wow us), Megan Jimenez who wails
“What I Did for Love,” flame-haired Kate Marilly as the cynical Sheila,
and the much too luscious (she never got “Looks: 3” as a score) Cameron
McLendon as Val in the T’n’A song.
The extended post-Labor Day season allowed MGR to reprise the smash box office and critical hit of 2006, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story (September),
with Erik Hayden once again channeling the soul of the doomed
22-year-old Texas rocker. Finally, almost up until the frost was on the
pumpkin, director-choreographer Brett Smock, a company favorite,
returned to stage I Left My Heart: A Salute the Music of Tony Bennett (October).
No attempt was made to mimic the great one, and instead Pat McRoberts,
Rob Sutton and Marty Thomas reminded us of the songs that kept Bennett
in the spotlight for more than 50 years.
Hangar Theatre. The first summer
under new artistic director Peter Flynn assured all the regulars that
the Ithaca company on the far side of Cayuga’s water was in good hands.
He brought up bosomy Emily Skinner for Claudia Shear’s Dirty Blonde (June),
the Mae West tribute. Some of the best lines came from West’s own stage
plays, which shook up all the squares in her day. “Controversial” is a
word usually associated with David Mamet, but even more so with his
2008 comedy November (July), in which a lunkhead U.S. president
(Wally Dunn) goes out of his way to offend liberal sensibilities, as if
they were somehow incompatible with the law. Jokes about the
eradication of Israel brought gasps from the Ithaca audience.
Understandably there was much applause at curtain time for the Jewish
lesbian speechwriter, Sharon Eisman, who graciously suffers under his
The hottest ticket of the summer was Jonathan Larson’s AIDS-themed rock opera Rent (August),
one of the first productions by any regional theater. Although
director-choreographer Devanand Janki managed to get the whole
sprawling monster on stage for experienced Rentheads (they
drove in by the hundreds), the very intimacy of the Ithaca space
heightened the emotions that were more diffuse in Manhattan’s
Nederlander. The juiciest single role, Maureen, permitted Catherine
Stephani to soar with the two most memorable numbers, “Tango Maureen”
and “Over the Moon.” Also standing out in the large cast was Anisha
Nagarajan as the exotic dancer Mimi Marquez.
Syracuse University Drama Department. With The New York Times calling
recent SU Drama alumna Vera Farmiga “the next Meryl Streep,” local
confidence is running high. Nothing is impossible, with a slate that
featured a Restoration comedy with real yuks, pumped new blood for a
well-used warhorse, and a show that had some accessible, even moving
William Congreve’s Way of the World (February)
astonished audiences who thought that students glued to iPods could
speak so well, with top honors to Brendan M. Cullen and Stella Heath
and loud applause for Kelsey Stalter, Jessica DeScipio and John Garry
in key supporting roles. Way was director Malcolm Ingram’s
best-ever revival of a pre-Shaw comedy. Usually sunny director Marie
Kemp, much associated with musical theater, plunged into the heart of
darkness with Rebecca Gilman’s Boy Gets Girl (March), a
hard-edged drama of stalking. Speaking some of the roughest dialogue
heard anywhere all year was James Weirich, who scared the pants off
(his intention) of audience members, while Sarah Neslusan was the girl
(make that woman) who fought back.
Many of the selections from the John Kander-Fred Ebb review The World Goes ’Round (April-May) came from shows that never play here, like Flora the Red Menace,
and we liked savoring what we’re missing. Benjamin Michael and Eric
Jarboe enjoyed stylish moments, but the review gave more to the female
side, including Naomi Seifter, Mary Kate Morrissey and Kathleen Wrinn.
Choreographer Kim Hale assisted director Nathan Hurwitz to make World as much a dance show as a musical.
Star choreographer David Wanstreet and director David Lowenstein restored the magic to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (October).
The excellence of Emma Ritchie’s soprano as Laurey lingers in the mind
months later, but two uproarious supporting comic players, Mary Kate
Morrissey as Ado Annie and Jacob Heimer as Ali Hakim, exceeded
expectations. French-Rumanian absurdist Eugene Ionesco’s one-acts, the
comic Bald Soprano and the bleak Chairs (November),
shook up audiences 50 years ago and can still rattle your brain and
your composure. Director Rodney Hudson got student actors Peter
Hourihan, Jr. and Stalter to walk and sound as though they were four
times their ages. Jasmine Thomas disrupted the nutcase order in Soprano.
Le Moyne College Boot & Buskin. After
several years of spreading its net as wide as possible, Le Moyne
returned to classics, one modern, one Elizabethan. Director Michael
Barbour’s staging of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (February-March)
emphasized the playwright’s links to Brecht, Pirandello and Joyce.
Young all-stars, already featured in other college productions,
distinguished themselves: Alex Gherardi as the Stage Manager, Kim Pompo
as the bride Emily and Zach Chase as the groom George. Shakespeare’s As You Like It (October-November),
with all the cross-dressing and peek-a-boo games in the woods, lends
itself well to college production. Director Steve Braddock reconceived
the Forest of Arden as an Adirondack Northern Exposure. Lauren
Pisano in the choice double-gendered role of Rosalind was both mighty
and alluring. Terry LaCasse, now a student but a fixture in community
theater since his childhood, created a dapper, quick-witted Touchstone.
But wait, there’s more: 2009 yielded many other floorboards footnotes:
• The Redhouse, Laura Austin’s
well-equipped facility at the edge of Armory Square, expanded offerings
in all the arts but cut back on live theater with four productions, all
running less than a week. Actor-playwright Patricia Buckley opened with
Evolution (January), the first of more than a half-dozen
original works by local playwrights. A mime with the former Gams on the
Lam company, Buckley employed expressive body language along with
original music by Marc Mellits for a comedy-drama about two dissimilar
sisters and their mother. Gams pal Leslie Noble directed, with Buckley
taking all roles.
The remaining three were all imported from out of town. Carlo Alban’s Intringulis (May)
depicted the terrors and joys of being an aspiring child actor on
public television while also an illegal immigrant from Ecuador.
Brooklyn’s three-person Debate Society returned for A Thought About Raya (October),
by 1920s-era Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms, an explosive,
transitionless, laugh-out-loud anticipation of Samuel Beckett. The
Canadian-based dance/clown/mime troupe Nuit Blanche (December)
made a memorable U.S. premiere. The deadpan humor of Buster Keaton ran
side-by-side with “Dancin’ Cheek-to-Cheek” in Chinese.
• To complete their 50 years in community theater, Jack and Doris Skillman’s Onondaga Hillplayers
had to decamp and move down the road from Inn of the Seasons to new
digs at the Links at Sunset Ridge in Marcellus. The winter show
featured the de facto repertory company of director Tank
Steingraber and players John G. Seavers, Mary Kate Migdal and Karen
Alexander in Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers (March). The foursome returned for Muriel Resnik’s G-rated sex comedy, Any Wednesday (October-November).
Migdal, as businessman Seavers’ mistress, never looked sexier and did
not let a silver tongue-stud hamper her lines. Karen Alexander, as the
cheated-upon wife, like Myrna Loy come back to the earth, got more than
her share of the best lines.
• Famous for their free performances in Thornden Park over many years, Ronnie Bell’s Syracuse Shakespeare Festival has
also been indoors during the winter at the previously inhospitable SU
Warehouse on East Fayette, fortunately remodeled before year’s end.
This year began well with Romeo and Juliet (January), featuring
an incandescent Jo D’Aloisio at the doomed Capulet girl. Some of the
strongest scenes played opposite SALT-winner Katharine Gibson as the
Nurse, younger than that role is usually seen. In Elizabeth Rex (April),
a show created at Ontario’s Stratford Festival, Ryan Maness was the
transvestite actor who teaches a grieving Queen Elizabeth, Susan
Wolstenholme, how to find her femininity. The summer production,
frequently rained out, cast Tony Bersani, one of the finest baritones
in the county, as Prospero in The Tempest (August).
• Len Fonte’s Werewolf at Rarely Done proved that the Armory Square Players’ script-in-hand
readings of new plays that take place every third Sunday continue to
pay off. Now in its 24th year, presently under Donna Stuccio’s
leadership, the organization is bigger than ever, with more manuscripts
submitted and more critics kibitzing. December brought five
entertaining playlets from Amy Doherty, Kathy Kramer, Peter Moller,
Joel Potash and Stuccio herself.
• Starting under the Appleseed aegis, Dustin Czarny also launched the improv company, Don’t Feed the Actors,
which later appeared at different venues and by year’s end was giving
birth to a new company that will produce dinner theater at the Locker
Room on Hiawatha Boulevard, north of Carousel Center.
• Every performance of Bob Greene’s interactive mystery-comedies at his ACME Mystery Company is different. Usually
housed at the Spaghetti Warehouse on North Clinton, Greene also toured
venues such as Yesterday’s Royal at Sylvan Beach. The recession-proof
ACME gave more than 100 performances while developing new scripts.
Greene’s own The Sound of Murder (January-March), spoofing the Rodgers & Hammerstein warhorse, delivered Mark Holt as Sister Adolf. C.J. Young’s Death Warmed Over (March-April)
had company regulars like Jennie Russo and Megan Flannigan playing
characters named Crystal Pane and Jane Doe. And Dan Stevens, one of the
most familiar names in community theater, wrote and starred in A Tomb With a View (September-November), in which wife O’Dea played a character named Aida Possum.
• As it has almost every May this decade, Cruizin’, conceived by New Times publisher
Art Zimmer, packed houses at—where else?—the New Times Theater at the
New York State Fairgrounds. Zimmer never appeared on stage and was
instead played by co-producer Michael Wallace, who needed a cravat, a
lapel pin and a bright blazer, while his wife Holly Wallace played
Shirley Zimmer without visual cues. The ever-changing salute to golden
oldies took on a new title, Cruizin’ with Nick and Friends, as
Nick Mulpagano with about a dozen of his favorite impressions, from
Elvis to Sonny Bono. Retained from the earlier corps of singers was
Elizabeth Fern, whose hysterical Cher upstaged Mulpagano’s Bono, but
her “Believe Me” really knocked the crowd over. A welcome newcomer to
the cast was singer-comedian Shaun Forster, whose “Earth Angel” and
“Rags to Riches” reminded how much passion there was in the beige
decade of the 1950s.
• Two new plays also pioneered new venues. Mark Cole’s An Evening with Alan and Lawrence (May)
took place at Studio 24, otherwise a photography studio on Court Street
near Sedgwick. In this one-of-a-kind dialogue between words and music,
Cole played Lawrence, an obsessed and somewhat annoying antiquarian who
matches wits with an unruffled pianist (Robert Auler), performing
selections from the romantic repertory, particularly works of Robert
Schumann. There’s conflict, rising action and a dramatic payoff when
music triumphs. Alan and Lawrence was reprised in November before a huge crowd at the SUNY-Oswego campus, where Cole is chair of the drama department.
• Another original production from the
SU Drama Department premiered at the Everson Museum of Art’s Hosmer
Auditorium before traveling to different venues around town. Lauren
Unbekant’s Woman in the Blue Dress (October) was inspired by the Renoir painting of the same title in the Turner to Cezanne art
show. Wrinn delivered a lighthearted lesson on Impressionism, the male
and female gazes and 19th-century female assertiveness. Direction from
Unbekant’s former Gams on the Lam pal Noble guaranteed that the words
• Among the baker’s dozen of world
premieres in Central New York, former Syracuse Stage artistic director
Robert Moss opened his adaptation of the early George Bernard Shaw
novel, Cashel Byron’s Profession (November) at Ithaca College.
• At St. David’s Celebration of the Arts, where theater had not previously been included, director Lemos revived Mamet’s Duck Variations (May) with Al Ross and Joe Pierce as the philosophical gents on the park bench. A labor of love, Lemos has championed Duck Variations for 30 years.
• At the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company, the big show in the intimate space on East Genesee is the current Black Nativity
(December-January) by black America’s poet laureate, Langston Hughes.
Co-directors William H. Rowland II and Annette Adams-Brown reprised the
reverent but humorous retelling of the Gospel story, with Joshua
Se’Quan Williams and Nicole Blue as the holy couple, searching for a
place at the inn.
Syracuse theater also experienced its share of curtain calls:
• Salt City Center for the Performing Arts,
the company Joe Lotito founded and gave so much of his life to, will
survive his passing. Lotito’s death at 82 in October dominated
everyone’s mind at the end of the year. Subject of a Nov. 11 Syracuse New Times cover
story, Lotito at the end commanded universal love and respect for all
he had given us. Sweeter things got said about him, all deserved, than
he had been used to hearing in life. Even in his last year, without a
permanent home, he still succeeded in what he wanted to so most:
getting shows on the boards.
Longtime associate Shirley Fenner (aka Mrs. Gerald Reidenbaugh) soloed in Widow’s Pique (January-February)
adapted from two short stories from North Carolina writers, where
Fenner lived before her return to Syracuse. They were witty and
poignant, with an unexpected touch of naughtiness. Fenner returned for
Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy (October), with David Walker
as Hoke, but the run was cut short by Lotito’s passing. At year’s end
the official announcement was that Brown would take over the Salt City
name, putting his own company, Opening Night Productions, on indefinite suspension.
• Rosemary Nesbitt, who died at 84 in
August, might have been best known as an arts doyenne in Oswego. But in
1942, while still in high school, she founded the Baldwinsville Theatre Guild,
the area’s oldest continuing theater company. And one of the great
spark plugs of the guild, John McFall, who launched 40 years of
musicals with Oklahoma! in 1966, died in November after a long illness.