We’re not like the rest of the country, thankfully. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that attendance at live theater edged down nearly 1 percent in the last year, but that’s not what happened here. Syracuse Stage reported a strong spring and two hits in the fall. Cortland Repertory Theatre turned in the best box office of its history, and Auburn’s Merry-Go- Round is doing so well it’s about to launch a musical theater festival that will draw national audiences. Among community theaters, Rarely Done and Not Another Theater Company enjoyed several sellout performances. Several start-up ventures took off, while Steve Braddock’s Gifford Family Theater came to an end—but because the grant ran out, not that audiences didn’t love it. Braddock left town to become head of the drama department at Niagara University. Also saying farewell was actor Bill Molesky; his record of seven trophies from the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) awards may never be beaten.
Syracuse Stage. For most of 2011, really two halves of different seasons, producing artistic director Timothy Bond gracefully fused two callings: the entertainment that fills the house and artistic works of such quality as to distinguish the company as worthy of national ranking. From this viewpoint August Wilson’s Radio Golf (February) is the most significant production of the year, even though it’s an imperfect work; the playwright was on his deathbed while trying to complete it. Wilson’s Pittsburgh Decalogue lies close to Bond’s heart, and his confidence in the material is always palpable. Set in a decade when gentrification had become a major theme and the protagonist can aspire to run for mayor, Radio Golf still assigns the best speeches to an old man hardened and made wiser by the vicissitudes of the African-American past.
August Wilson specialist Thomas Jefferson Byrd walked away with the show. This was a co-production with Rochester’s GeVa Theatre, whose stage is designed with exactly the same dimensions as Syracuse Stage to facilitate collaboration. Longtime observers could smile quietly that Syracuse Stage, in the smaller, less affluent city, looked like the senior artistic partner.
The January slot, which usually draws the smallest crowds, was filled with sellout crowds for Jonathan Larson’s rock opera Rent. Collaboration with the Syracuse University Drama Department brought the talents of director-choreographer Anthony Salatino, as well as all those lean young bodies for the dance numbers. Where Rent was challenging, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker (March), the most resilient of all Golden Age television dramas, offered upbeat comfort. Paul Barnes’ empathetic direction proved that years of community theater productions had not dimmed the power of deaf-blind Helen Keller’s (Jacqueline Baum) discovery of language. As Annie Sullivan, the title character, Anna O’Donoghue broke new ground with a divided character whose strong faade marked her private war with personal demons.
Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House (May) was a welcome and eccentric change of pace, perhaps a bit offbeat and off-Broadway for some tastes. Gisela Chípe was perfectly cast as the insouciant Brazilian housemaid who doesn’t like domestic chores and who would rather tell jokes.
Her long one, with pelvic thrusts, looks dirty, but she never translates it. Director Michael Barakiva ably navigated the rapid and loopy changes of tone in the first and happier of his two visits.
Architectural changes to the 820 E. Genesee St. facilities over the summer influenced how subsequent artistic decisions would unfold. The 499-seat Archbold acquired an orchestra pit, facilitating the current big holiday musical The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but also allowing room for the SU Drama Department musical The Cradle Will Rock (September- October). With the students in the bigger house, Syracuse Stage moved the edgier opening production, Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (September), to the revamped Storch Theatre (previously known as the Experimental), now seating 270. Jeffrey Hatcher, one of Syracuse’s favorite playwrights (Three Viewings, A Picasso), delivered a post-modernist, strippeddown Screw by having two players, Curzon Dobell and Kristen Sieh, morph from living characters into the dead. Despite director Barakiva’s best efforts, the results were anything but chilling; it was the only disappointment of the year.
Spirits bounced back up with Tim Bond’s direction of Tom Griffin’s The Boys Next Door (October), about a group home for the mentally disabled. Bond steered past two snares, one that any comedy about such unfortunates would be wincemaking, or, second, that it would be too sweet. Instead, in one of his best calls of the year Bond gave us a touching love scene between rotund Sean Patrick Fawcett and Alanna Rogers (a recent SU Drama graduate), whose sugar was cut by flirting near the edge of absurdity. The production was also memorable for thwarting disaster. Actor Ellis Foster as the gentle Lucien died suddenly a week before opening night. William Hall Jr., last seen in Fences (2010), was summoned from the West Coast and performed not only flawlessly but movingly.
Also invited from the state of Washington was director Linda Hartzell, the only American who had ever helmed Adrian Mitchell’s massive adaptation of C. S. Lewis’ seven Narnia books, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (December). That new orchestra pit made things better for Dianne Adams McDowell’s delivery of Shaun Davey’s veddy English Edwardian score. Unusual in such collaborations with SU Drama, student performers, such as Jenaha McLearn as the curious daughter Lucy, seized the chance to shine. The battle of good vs. evil pitted a Medusa-like Witch (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan) against a benign but aggressive beastie, the Lion (Jordan Barbour), seen as Collins in January’s Rent. Corey Wong’s scenic design blended with Catherine Hunt’s costumes to suggest Maxfield Parrish’s vision of the otherworld.
The Redhouse. Remodeling, reorienting, rebooting.
Although it’s been with us since 2004, the Redhouse turned itself into a new company this year. The addition of SubCat Music Studios next door meant the entire block had become a fulltime arts complex. With the new, leisurefriendly lobby leading to the parking lot instead of the street, the Redhouse now faces Armory Square instead of having its back to it.
Along with music, film and the visual arts, live theater became, once again, a highly visible component in the company’s offerings. This recommitment appeared well before the remodeling with Stephen Svoboda’s original AIDSthemed drama Odysseus DOA (January).
Although overwritten and derivative, the play was penned seven years earlier and had appeared at Svoboda’s earlier artistic home at the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts at Blue Mountain Lake. Quite a different reception from Redhouse management meant that Svoboda was invited to leave the Adirondacks and join the team reshaping the Armory Square complex. The April production was Melissa James Gibson’s Obie-winning [sic], with Matt Chiorini, the dynamic new faculty member from Le Moyne College, John Bixler from Odysseus DOA and Redhouse regular Laura Austin. Making his directorial debut was the previously New York City-based Anton Briones, who stayed on to become marketing director and to star in Bat Boy in the fall.
Evidence of regime change emerged over the summer with short runs of fare not seen in the previous six years and at venues far from the company’s home at the corner of South West and West Fayette streets. First came “Shakespeare by the Lake,” a six-player selection of Romeo and Juliet as a June fundraiser at a private Skaneateles residence, and then reprised in Auburn, Clifton Springs, Cazenovia and in Armory Square. Second was a staging, with masks, dances and song, of the 12th-century poem Conference of the Birds at St. Lucy’s Church on Gifford Street in Syracuse’s inner city. It was back to the suburbs in August for Mary Zimmerman’s retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which calls for players to enter a pool to deliver some lines. The 40 seats at the Dalton residence, dubbed “Lake Farm,” were filled for every performance. With Svoboda and associates vacating the Redhouse stage, it was able to play host to Crisis of Civilization, an independent one-man August show by Ranjon Ghosal of Bangalore, India, based on the works of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
In the fall two imports preceded the arrival of two raucous, in-house musicals. Folktales of Asia and Africa (September), from the legendary La Ma Ma Inc., employed witty avant-garde stagecraft to appeal to youthful audiences. The one-woman show Radio Star (Oct. 6-8) promised to be the first in the “Red Light Series,” acknowledging that the neighborhood around 201 S. West St. had once been the city’s own Storyville. Tanya O’Debra wrote and performed Radio Star, a Ludlamesque spoof of 1940s radio thrillers that had previously appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe and Montreal’s Just for Laughs as well as in Manhattan. These led to the area premiere of the double-cult musical Bat Boy (October), the campy spoof of tabloid Gothicism decorated with witty riffs on Broadway hits. Anton Briones energized the title role, while Stephen Svoboda provided in-your-face direction. It was the loudest show of the year, with the cast miked on the minuscule stage, trying to shout down the band. This led to a revival of The Wiz (December), pulsing with the urban rhythms of nearby neighborhoods.
Kitchen Theatre Company. Comfortably settling into its still-new 99-seat facility, the Ithaca venue delivered more than its share of temple-smashing new works along with recent prestige hits. Collaboration with Cornell University director Melanie Dreyer brought the highly individual Turkish-American S/He (May) by Zeynep Kaar and Tammy Ryan. On one set with the same actors wearing the same costumes, two parallel narratives play out in alternating successive scenes in Pittsburgh and Istanbul. With globalization and the triumph of American popular culture, Turks and Americans look pretty much the same, but when it comes to matters of gender and presumed “honor,” the twain aren’t meeting during this one-of-a-kind eye-opener. Culture clash also lay at the bottom of Jason Odell Williams’ At a Loss (June), a world premiere. A beautiful Israeli girl, Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn), who does not speak English, finds herself stranded in a Virginia motel when she thinks her mother (Norma Fire) has been killed. The guy who comes to help turns out to have links to the mother’s repressed past. The role of Ayelet calls for fluent Hebrew, ably supplied by Cohn, the playwright’s wife, who astonishingly was once a tank commander in the Israeli Defense Forces. Company artistic director Rachel Lampert’s only original work was the short run of In the Company of Dancers (September-October), on the intertwining public and private lives of performers.
Among the area premieres was Annie Baker’s Obie-winning Circle Mirror Transformation (August-September), directed by Norm Johnson. A disparate group of Vermont townies find that exercises in acting class reveal more than expected.
Alison Scaramella resists group think, but company veteran Greg Bostwick has the juiciest secrets. Critical acclaim all over Canada vaulted Stephen Massicote’s two-player Mary’s Wedding (June) across the border. Rachel Lampert directed this multilayered story of a country girl and her lover who goes off to World War I. Luminous Ellen Adair is always seen in her nightgown, and Eric Gilde (also seen in Syracuse Stage’s The Miracle Worker) indeed embodies the girl’s dreams.
In Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s slapstick, absurdist, intellectual comedy, boom (February-March), an eager girl, Jo (Alison Scaramella), coos, “Random sex is the last glimmer of hope in a decaying society.” Jules (Jimmy King) would love to respond to such a come-on, only he’s a microbiologist living underwater. Syracuse-raised Ronica V. Reddick was irresistible as a hip mistress of ceremonies. The revival of Polly Pen’s mini-opera Bed and Sofa (January), originally seen in 2002, showcased Camillus-born soprano Erica Steinhagen. Susannah Berryman directed this offbeat ménage a trios based on a Soviet silent film. Two one-actor shows explored prominent ethnic niches. It was Irish-Catholic for Carl Danielsen in Martin Moran’s The Tricky Part (March), and the African-American migration from the segregated South to the violent North for Charlayne Woodard in her own Neat (October). Finishing the year was Charles Ludlam’s madcap farce The Mystery of Irma Vep (December), directed by Rachel Lampert, with Tony Roach and Jesse Bush playing all roles, male and female.
Rarely Done Productions. As an actor and director Dan Tursi was always at ease with broad-market popular entertainment, but when he founded his own company, he hoped to fuse several niche markets to support what Central New York was not getting to see, fare from off- and off-off-Broadway, lofts, attics and festivals. He has succeeded. Ignoring the economy, Rarely Done has enjoyed some of its best box office ever. Even though Tursi works with a board and sometimes assigns direction to others, audiences know what he’s going to deliver and show up even if they don’t know the titles.
Corpus Christi (March) by big-time playwright Terrence McNally (Master Class, The Full Monty) is highly known, being the most-often-closed-before-opening American play of the last two decades. McNally, a gay and spiritual man, sets the action in his home Texas city of the convenient name. A protagonist named Joshua (Ryan Diana) preaches love and acceptance in a hostile environment and is killed for it. From a distance it resembled The Laramie Project, about the death of Mathew Shepard, and Ty Marshal was a chilling heavy.
In an abrupt change of pace (but still all-Tursi) came Roger Bean’s The Marvelous Wonderettes (April), about the charms and squabbles of girl groups from the prerock era. The ingenious idea of resetting the action 10 years later in 1968 for the second act made this a more interesting show than its predecessor, The Taffetas. All four singers, Jodie Baum, Katie Lemos- Brown, Aubry Panek and Sara Weiler, were experienced company regulars who dazzled throughout. One of the hottest tickets of 2011, Wonderettes will appear again next February. For the more-outrageous-than-thou June slot, Tursi brought in Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party, a spoof of Gidget and surfer movies crossed with 1950s horror motifs. The first act was heavy going, and for a show with so many players in drag, jokes often arrived with additional pathos; at one point, the sadsack Chicklet (Christopher James), pulled down her halter top to moan, “Look. I’m as flat as a boy.” Jimmy Wachter, Jimmy Curtin, David Minikeim, Peter Irwin and newcomer Marguerite Newton-Fulton were in excellent form, however.
The name of author-composer Dennis T. Giacino was new to most folks, but his satirical review, Disenchanted: Bitches of the Kingdom (September), arose in New Jersey, then became a fixture in Orlando before being performed worldwide. The two titles were a tip-off that this was really two shows, half Disney satire and half feminist complaint. Tall brunette Julia Berger dominated as a Snow White who had no intention of waiting for her prince to, um, come. Comely Sarah Elmer spoofed the Beauty opposite the Beast, a role she had sung straight six years previously under her family name of Sarah Harrington. Playwrights Jessica Bland and Erik Jensen might have put together The Exonerated (October-November), but most of the words came from wrongly convicted innocents formerly on death row. Rough, abrasive language implied authenticity but also told us these were not candidates for the Rotary Club. Linda Lance directed with passionate commitment, helping Robb Sharpe achieve a career high as the guy whose real punishment came from other prisoners.
And just to make sure we were not overcome with holiday sugarplums, James Webber and David Church’s Judy’s Scary Little Christmas (December) went heavy on the scary. Evoking the spirit of Tim Burton rather than Jacob Marley, Scary was like Sartre’s No Exit with gags and songs. Garrett Heater’s entrance as Joan Crawford was the single most hilarious moment on any stage all year. Brian Pringle’s Richard Nixon, mixing pathos and bathos, was his best outing in years, Jimmy Wachter provided heavy lifting as Judy, and Tamaralee Shutt belted with brass as Ethel Merman.
Appleseed Productions. The company that invites directors to follow their own muses favored mostly safe bets this year, but also reinvented one of the chestnuts of American comedy. The paradigm challengers were two musicals that came in winter and spring. Douglas Carter Beane’s Music from a Sparkling Planet (January) contrasted television broadcasts from the late 1960s to what happened to those viewers who aged in the present. William Edward White directed, getting bravura performances from Rita Worlock in dual roles. First-time director Colin Keating brought in Arnold Lobel’s beguiling musical, A Year with Frog and Toad (April-May), kind of an inverted Peanuts in which zoomorphic grown-ups acted out childhood anxieties. For veteran player Daniel Bostick the rueful Toad was one of his best outings in many years, nicely balanced by the ever-cheerful Frog played by Ben Standford. Navroz Dabu’s recreation of the illustrations from the Frog and Toad books contributed mightily to the uniquely wistful tone.
Noel Coward’s name might be one of the most familiar from stage comedy, but Dan Stevens’ production of his three oneact plays, Tonight at 8:30 (March), was an area premiere. The title originally applied to 10 one-acts, which could be shuffled to suit the occasion or available cast. For all its many laughs, Tonight was most interesting as an exercise in repertory, where a walk-on in Part I, played by Michael Carroll, becomes the lead in Part II. Tonight’s sharpest satirical barbs are aimed at snobs (Part III) and hoity-toity four-flushers (Part II) but Coward also comes down hard on show-biz people (Part I). Verbally dexterous and malleable players looked good here, like Tom Minion, William Edward White and especially Anne Fitzgerald.
Young director Dan Rowland has not paid much attention to theatrical history, which is a good thing. He can look at shopworn items as if he had just found them, which he has. His staging of Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace (June-July) got the old bones to get up and dance. Anne Fitzgerald and Betsy York were lovable as the poisoning aunts, and Justin Polly was winning as the drama critic who turns in his reviews before going to the theater. Astounding, however, was Nathan Faure’s Uncle Jonathan, proving that Boris Karloff has been superseded on fright night. Binaifer Dabu trampled gender lines to play Dr. Einstein, a role written for Peter Lorre. In the next show Dabu was back as a woman, Joy Davidman, the somewhat abrasive New Yorker who invades the comfortable world of Oxford Christian apologist C.S. Lewis (Tom Minion). William Nicholson’s Shadowlands (September) was a labor of love for director Sharee Lemos and something of a risk, despite having been a successful movie in 1993. Joy enters Lewis’ life, bestowing him with his first love affair, and then dies excruciatingly from cancer. Lewis’ monologues are long and philosophical, but skillfully illuminated by Minion and Lemos.
Director Dan Tursi, as if he were not busy enough with Rarely Done, revived Arthur Miller’s much-studied drama of the Salem witch trials, The Crucible (October-November), to surprisingly large audiences. In a break with convention, Tursi directed Darian Sundberg to give us an alienated existential hero in victim John Proctor, rather than the liberal martyr he is often seen to be. This shift also transforms the portrayal of the two prominent women: Hinda Crewell as the now scowling but protective wife Elizabeth and young Kathleen Kennedy as Abigail, who leapt from innocent to conniving seductress. The season ended with a revival of The Old-Time Christmas Radio Hour (December), an under-rehearsed, stumbling satire on the amateurishness of small-town radio. It was a regular in the early years of Appleseed, but had not been seen in more than 10 years. With luck it will not come back for another 10. Better yet, 50.
Not Another Theatre Company.
Dustin Czarny’s company violates conventional wisdom by never trying to cultivate a niche audience. His 2011 offerings mixed farce with heavyweight drama, the overly familiar with off-the-wall irregular, broad comedy and Stephen Sondheim sophistication. Last year’s SALT-winning director Meghan Leigh Pearson helmed Paul Slade Smith’s madcap Unnecessary Farce (January). If you can believe there might be a Scottish mafia, then you’re prepared for the most unlikely don of them all, Kathleen Egloff as the jaw-dropper. St. Valentine’s Day brought two intimate one-acts in which real-life married couples played loving adulterers, directed by Greg Hipius. Cathy Greer-English and Mark English were upper-class sinners in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters. (Nora O’Dea and Dan Stevens alternated on some nights.) Farther down the social scale was the ubiquitous William Van Zandt and Jane Millmore’s You’ve Got Hate Mail, as Navroz and Binaifer Dabu showed how email has added frenzied speed to infidelity. Hate Mail delivered much saltier language: When asked why she closes her messages with the letter V, Binaifer’s character responds, “Those are my upturned legs waiting for you, baby.”
The father-and-son directing team of Daniel and Steve Rowlands argued that Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (March-April) had not yet been done to death. J. Brazill’s Oscar was such a slob he picked and ate pieces of shredded potato chips off his dirty socks, the ones with the hole in the toe. When Gerrit Vander Werff’s Felix cleared his nasal passages he sounded like a brass instrument. A co-production with the Syracuse New Times at the New Times Theater ensured that the Sondheim fairy tale musical Into the Woods (May) would be the best-appointed in the company’s short history. Two women stood out in the large cast: tall, dark Carmen Viviano-Crafts as Cinderella, especially in the solo, “No One is Alone,” and blonde beauty Danan Tsan as the Witch. Then again, the Eastman-trained Tsan, formerly known as Danan Healy, is covered by grotesque makeup and Deb Ritchey’s costumes much of the time.
The summertime frolic, Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy’s Reefer Madness: The Musical (July), followed the script of the 1936 midnight-movie favorite with glee, where two nice kids are corrupted by the demon weed. Big-voiced Jodie Baum had some of her best moments of the year as Mae, the big mama of the drug den, aided by pusher Stephfond Brunson (who also choreographed). Alan D. Stillman’s green-skinned Satan stole many scenes. For the biggest drama of the year, Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, singer-dancer Katie Lemos-Brown made her directing debut. Not only did she secure the integrity of the attractive female attorney, Katie Deferio, but she showed great ease in the otherwise all-male cast. Newcomer Jordan Glaski’s portrayal as the feckless boy maturing under fire, Lt. Kaffee, establishes an excellent reputation. As the monstrous villain Lt. Col Jessup (“You can’t handlethe truth!”) who must dominate the action, Lemos-Brown conjured up the transmogrification of all-round good guy Joe Pierce into Mephistopheles. We did not know he had it in him. Finishing the year, company regulars Greg Hipius and Gerrit Vender Werff Jr. borrowed improvisational skills from NATC’s Don’t Feed the Actors comedy troupe to bring Jayston Williams and Joe Sears’ Greater Tuna franchise into the Christmas season.
Covey Theatre Company. In only its second year, Garrett Heater’s outfit has established at least three distinctions. It’s the only company using the technically advanced BeVard Room of the Mulroy Civic Center. It promotes ambitious original dramas by the company founder. And it can be counted on to elbow out other companies at SALT Awards time. Terry Johnson’s The Graduate (May) adapted the landmark 1967 film, but made subtle and important changes. “Plastics” was no longer the most important line, and was almost passed over. Heater now enjoys such confidence he can easily attract good talent, such as Rob Fonda in the title role, Wil Szczech, Katherine Guyette, Genaro Parlato and Kimberly Panek. Moe Harrington, cast wildly against type as Mrs. Robinson and less sympathetic than in the movie, caused all the attention, however. It was the most-talked-about performance anywhere all year; discussion usually began with the insistent, “Didja see?” Yasmina Reza’s Art (July) was booked to give all-time top SALT winner Bill Molesky one last role before he left town for sunnier climes. This is the play where one man (Michael O’Neill) buys an enigmatic piece of modernist art and a friend (Josh Mele) disparages, while a third named Yvan, played by Molesky, is in the middle. While others have portrayed Yvan as a lightweight or a fool, Molesky invested him with deep existential angst, somehow finding humor while skating near pathos and despair. It was a high-note ending for the most admired male actor of recent years.
Heater was playwright, director and costumer for his original drama The Romanovs (October), which amplified but did not alter the last days of the last Russian royal family. He elicited compelling performances from David Witanowski as the doomed czar, Katharine Gibson as the deluded czarina, and Kate Huddleston as a gullible noblewoman. Christof Deboni as the hemophiliac prince gave the most affecting child performance seen anywhere all year. With the despicable charlatan Rasputin, Heater went over the top. The rape scene with Kimberly Panek was a milestone gross-out. Bruce Paulsen, an announcer for WCNY with a Hampshire cream voice, was asked to embody every conceivable human vice, including B.O. The result seemed supra-human, like a backlot creature from Universal Studios, rather than an all-too-human.
Salt City Center for the Performing Arts. Two years after the death of company founder Joe Lotito, and still lacking a permanent home, Salt City soldiered on, led by the indefatigable widow Pat Lotito. Longtime friend and supporter Bob Brown revived his all-male review Leading Men Don’t Dance (January), in which six pals perform some of their strongest numbers. One pal was Gary Troy, later to star in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Brown, however, meant it when he said he was retiring from the role he is most associated with, the title character in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (April). Two newcomers, Henry Wilson as Jesus and Jason Klug as Judas, took over the leads, acknowledging in interviews that they were pre-teens when Salt City’s Superstar began its run. Brown also directed and took the lead in Man of La Mancha (October), unmistakably his favorite stage role for his expansive baritone. This was a musically distinguished production, with some of the best available talent in the pit, opera singer Cathleen O’Brien as a powerhouse Dulcinea and, through O’Brien’s influence, New York City-based tenor Richard Koons in two roles. After the show closed, Brown married O’Brien at the Welch-Allyn Lodge in community theater’s most stylish social event of the year.
The Talent Company. Both of Christine Lightcap’s shows this year were risks, but only the first paid off handsomely. The farcical Hitchcock spoof Wrong Window! (April) originated with New Jersey playwrights Billy Van Zandt and Jane Millmore. While most people don’t know their names, they were produced three times across the area in 2011. Knowledge of the 1954 Hitchcock movie Rear Window was not necessary as important details were fudged to move the action along. Shawn Forster, cast against type, was the villain espied across an apartment courtyard. Korrie Strodel (then three months pregnant), Colleen Wager, Jon Wilson and David Minikheim were all in top form in this ensemble comedy under Lightcap’s direction. Navroz Dabu’s ingenious, reversible set allowed it all to happen. Curtains (July-August), a backstage mystery-comedy, had been John Kander and Fred Ebb’s last collaboration and a substantial Broadway hit, but local audiences seemed not to have heard of it. Under Dan Tursi’s direction, two experienced players—Bill Coughlin in a fluffy toupee as the stage-struck detective, and lovely Julia Berger as the redheaded lead female—never looked or sounded better. Lightcap, Casey Ryan, Berger and Patrick Pedro’s quartet roasting critics, “What Kind of a Man?,” should have a post-show life of its own.
Syracuse Shakespeare Festival. In a rare departure from works by or about the Bard, the company offered a twonight January run of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, which allowed Kate Fahey and Mark Weatherup to revisit the lovers’ duel they introduced as Beatrice and Benedick in the previous summer’s Much Ado About Nothing. Veteran community theater player Jamie Bruno took over the challenging but little-seen Antony and Cleopatra (February). It was unconventional in that the conception of Cleopatra (Alisa Kimbrough) borrowed from Shaw’s idea of the Egyptian, whereas the Roman conqueror came out fatuous rather than tragic. Kimbrough’s death scene—yes, with the asp—worked astoundingly well. Patrick Pedro as Enobarbus was the most effective with Shakespeare’s poetry.
Encore Presentations. Steve and Marguerite Beebe’s company was a start-up last year, with only one production in 2010. This year they had one show at St. Valentine’s Day and then three in succession during the fall, bringing respectable crowds back to the Glen Loch restaurant. Reach (February), a world premiere by SUNY Oswego graduate Ryan Sprague, was set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Gorgeous but wounded Danielle T. Valeriano has shut love out of her life. Initially suspicious-looking old beau Ryan Santiago accepts a lot of abuse, including being spat upon, before the two SUNY Oswego graduates can reach a St. Valentine’s Day ending. Seven months later director William Edward White, previously much associated with Appleseed Productions, brought over Jeanne Michels and Phyllis Murphy’s Queen of Bingo (September), which had previously been seen in Fulton. Betsy York and Marguerite Beebe were sisters of contrasting physiques and temperaments in this darkish comedy set in working-class Chicago. White himself was the voice-of-doom Caller and Stephfond Brunson a scene-stealing clergyman in this odd choice for a dinner theater venue.
White followed this with The Bad Seed (October), by Maxwell Anderson, and brought along many Appleseed people. Lucy Digenova was appropriately abrasive as the rotten little title character, recent Le Moyne graduate Kasey McHale was winning—if a bit young—as the mother, and Judy Schmid was unsettling as the guest who said too much. Dan Rowlands was even scarier than the title character as the handyman, LeRoy. For the holidays, Marguerite Beebe brought in Dan Goggin’s Nuncrackers (December), the third of six sequels to Nunsense, and cast herself as the mother superior. Strange to say in a show spoofing The Nutcracker, yet the dancing nun, Mary Leo, was cast aside and replaced by a guy, Tyler Spicer, who doubled as choreographer.
Twist Cabaret Theatre. Veteran comic actor Shawn Forster and musician Josh Smith launched this newest of start-ups at the Twist Ultra Lounge, 252 W. Genesee St. Although Twist’s shows have drawn good crowds, they have been flying under press scrutiny, through conflicts rather than design. Highly regarded performers like Tamaralee Shutt and Dana Sovocool were in Broadway Rocks (September-October), with selections from recent hits like Wicked and The Book of Mormon. Nunsense A-Men (October) had guys under the wimples, with Forster as the tough-talking Robert Anne, Josh Kimball as the dancing Mary Leo, Roy George as the jivey Mary Hubert, Wade McGowen as the clueless Amnesia and Jimmy Curtin as the bosslady Regina. Twist closed the season with another evergreen, Forever Plaid (November), with Forster as Frankie, a role he has played for 20 years.
Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. This will be the last summer Ed Sayles’ company is not a part of the projected Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival, which could very well transform Auburn into the Stratford, Ontario, of upstate New York. In anticipation of things to come, MGR staged one production, Cooking with the Calamari Sisters (July-August), at the in-town Auburn Public Theatre. The sellout houses and extended run were encouraging to see, yet the coarse, lowbrow comedy of two guys, Jay Falzone and Daniel T. Lavender, in drag as two outrageous Italian clichés will not, we hope, be a portent for the future. Syracuse Stage was able to pay off many bills with the comparably downmarket Menopause: The Musical.
Meanwhile, back at Emerson Park on the shores of Owasco Lake, crowds were big for the five scheduled musicals, all produced to meet MGR’s exemplary standards. Curiously, only one was a recent Broadway hit, that interracial spoof of the 1960s, Hairspray (June-July). In a show that calls for unique body types, nationally known LenaAnna Amato has become a Tracy Turnblad specialist. Sure enough, her “Good Morning Baltimore” stops the show. Her comic turns with tall, skinny (and beautiful) sidekick Mary Claire King (an SU Drama student) shot out sparks. In the most celebrated drag role of recent years, corpulent Darryl Winslow turned in an unusually straight Edna Turnblad, touching in her soft-show duet with mismatched husband Brian Runbeck.
Sayles himself began the season with Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (June), not showing its 77 years as it was running concurrently in Manhattan. Local boy made good Todd Lattimore gave us a more assertive Billy Crocker, just as refined Julie Cardia put polish on Reno Sweeney’s brass. Weighty Bruce Warren, an Ithaca College graduate, delivered the most hilarious Moonface ever seen, while lovely Kimberly Burns as Moon’s moll Erma turned the usual throw-away “Buddie, Beware” into a dazzler, wonderfully choreographed by Lori Leshner.
Dance also dominated 42nd Street (July-August), Gower Champion’s aggrandizement of the 1933 movie, based on the music of Harry Warren. Brett Smock, MGR’s favorite directorchoreographer, came back to get all those dancing feet moving in this flawless production.
Christopher Carl proclaimed show-biz mythology as producer Julian Marsh. Julie Kavanagh was the dancing fool Peggy Sawyer who steps in when the aging star, Rebecca Spencer as Dorothy Brock, drops out. Parochial schools of 50 years ago are the milieu of Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? (August-September), a show close to Ed Sayles’ heart. David Scott Purdy was a more assertive lead than in other productions, although Kimberly Burns could not be made into an ugly fat girl, no matter how much makeup and costuming tried. Another local run of Roger Bean’s Marvelous Wonderettes (September) was slated after Labor Day with a director, Tricia Tanguy, and a small cast, but this show still has enormous appeal. Julia Goretsky was Betty Jean, the grumbly one; Holly O’Brien was Cindy Lou, the brunette princess; Lulu Lloyd was Missy the dim red-head; and Meredith Beck was Suzy the tiny, loud blonde.
Cortland Repertory Theatre. Kerby Thompson’s company in the century-old pavilion in Little York enjoyed the best box office by playing its proven scheduling formula to the hilt: open with a farce, move to a big musical or two, and throw in a stylish Agatha Christie. Neil Simon is known for sitcoms rather than farces, but his Rumors (June) can keep company with Louis Feydeau and Ray Cooney. Thompson directed, assuring he could have some of his most trusted players, such as Dustin Charles as the ambitious politician and Jackie Washam as his trophy wife. Nicholas Wilder delivered that high-speed nutsy recapitulation of every fool thing that’s happened, required in farces.
Kander and Ebb’s Chicago (June-July) seemed a little risqué in such a familyfriendly house, yet director Bill Kincaid and choreographer Kevin P. Hill held nothing back. The evenly matched battle of the murderesses pits rag-doll blonde Charlotte Fox as Roxie against “All That Jazz” brunette Rin Allen as Velma. Two important men, however, are cast against type. Clean-cut Thompson takes a lot of Brylcreem and swagger to turn himself into “sleazy Mick” lawyer Billy Flynn, but his “Razzle Dazzle” tops the show. Similarly, Danny Blaylock is a natural macho, just the guy to play a cop, so it takes a stunning reversal for him to be the harmless cuckold Amos in “Mr. Cellophane.” Almost as good as Chicago but more popular with audiences was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (July). Some dated items were spruced up, so that go-go girls are now cheerleaders. Narrator Jacqueline Nuzzo had a throat of gold, while the Pharaoh/ Elvis (Bradford B. Frost) dominates much of the second act, but this time restrained rather than high camp.
The Agatha Christie mystery, A Murder is Announced (August), was an adaptation of a novel rather than an item written for the stage. This is the work that introduced Miss Marple (Carol Burns), who, unlike her incarnations in later movies, is a woman no one notices. Some audiences were confused, but the original version turned out to be effective. Reprising a show that opened at Syracuse Stage 11 years ago amid controversy, Michelle Lowe’s The Smell of the Kill (August) features three women who have locked their husbands in a freezer and are unsure about letting them out. Charlotte Fox was the not-sodumb blonde. Erica Livingston was the tormented one, and Morgan Reis was the devious one. Finally, April Woodall was Florence Foster Jenkins, the world’s worst soprano, in Stephen Temperly’s comedy. Bill Kincaid directed and played the longsuffering accompanist. Literally not knowing whether the laugh or cry, audiences found this a laughter-through-the-tears experience.
But wait, there’s more: 2011 yielded other floorboards footnotes.
• Some of the most memorable performances of the year came from companies mounting only one or two shows, often speaking in highly individualized voices neglected elsewhere. The two one-player shows from Studio 24 were both helmed by SALT-winning veteran director Gerard Moses, the first at the Studio itself on Grant Boulevard north of Sedgwick and the second at Jazz Central. Mark Cole and Patrick Murphy’s Take All My Loves (May) rearranged Shakespeare’s sonnets to make an illustrated autobiographical narrative that matched well with what scholars have discerned in recent decades. Cole, head of the SUNY Oswego Drama Department, made so many familiar lines (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) startling and new. Another labor of love was SALTwinner Karis Wiggins’ Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins (November). As Wiggins portrayed her, the late, beloved journalist Ivins was much deeper than a witty gadfly, but she was damned good at that, too. The character who emerges shines in many facets, only one of which flashes a rapier.
• The ad-hoc group named for the Barbour Family reprised a production of Brian Friel’s two one-acts known as Lovers (January), with paterfamilias Michael Barbour as director, that had been seen in Manhattan the previous year. Both acts are ironically titled: “Winners” deals with the death of teenagers, “Losers” presents the riotous liberation of middleaged sweethearts. Alec Barbour and Megan Dobbertin evinced poetry and pathos in the first, but Michael and Susan Barbour’s lubricious love scene in the second was one of the most hilarious moments anywhere all year.
• Michael Barbour’s former student, Terry LaCasse, launched Central New York Shakespeare Inc., not to be confused with Ronnie Bell’s company. The first production from CNYShakes (its website name) was Henry V x 7 (August), a stripped-down version of the heroic history play, directed by Le Moyne College’s ubiquitous Matt Chiorini, at the Catherine Cummings Theatre in Cazenovia.
• Jack and Doris Skillman’s Onondaga Hillplayers, now in Marcellus, always draws packed houses for its reliable dinnertheater comedies. Love, Sex and the I.R.S.
(October), by William Van Zandt and Jane Millmore, was a madcap farce modeled on Brandon Thomas’ Charley’s Aunt. Tank Steingraber directed Tallon Larham as the macho guy who puts on a dress to avoid paying more taxes.
• Enjoying another successful season in its 15th year, the ACME Mystery Dinner Theater produced revivals of favorites as well as three original scripts: A Wee Bit O’ Murder, Deadline and Fiddler on the Loose. Along with its usual gig on Thursday nights at the Spaghetti Warehouse, ACME logged more than 100 performances at venues throughout New York state and Pennsylvania. Those included universities, hotels, restaurants, banquet facilities as well as a paddlewheel boat.
• We lost some reliable players in 2011.
high-stepping song-and-dance man, Fred Hauser, died in February. He’d
been ailing a long while, but it still wasn’t his time. Joe Layou Jr.,
memorable in the Talent Company’s How to Succeed in Business and Todd
Ellis’s The Outsiders, succumbed to cystic fibrosis at age 26 in July.
Out-of-towner Ellis Foster died during rehearsals for The Boys Next Door
for Syracuse Stage in October. His unseen Lucien was commemorated in
the program. And legendary arts journalist and reviewer Joan E.
Vadeboncoeur left us in January at age 78, working hard right up to the
end. She never forgot the name of even the most obscure spear-carrier to
tread local boards.