Top among the 2012 highlights in local theater included:
Local actor makes it big, No. 1. Kentucky-born Steve Kazee was languishing in Southern California when Salt City Center’s Pat Lotito said he could play leads in Central New York. That he did, for the Lotitos and also for Chris Lightcap’s Talent Company, collecting a scrapbook of glowing notices. He took those to open doors in New York City, which they did. Last spring he won a Tony Award for his performance in the musical Once.
Local actor makes it big, No. 2. Fayetteville-Manlius High School junior Nick Ziobro won the Great American Songbook Competition in June. In November and December he was a special guest with Michael Feinstein’s show at Loews Regency in Manhattan. Previously he was known for a half-dozen local roles, notably his Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) nomination for Frankie in Appleseed’s Parade (2010) and a non-singer in Jenn DeCook’s Rabbit Hole (April 2012).
Already having made it big, Broadway director Joe Montello’s staging of Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked was filling the Landmark Theatre night after night in December. Twenty-two years ago he was appearing as an actor at Cortland Repertory Theatre, most memorably in John Patrick Shanley’s Italian-American Reconciliation (1990). Another Reconciliation cast veteran, the former Russell Goldberg, now Jay Russell, was goat-headed Dr. Dillamond in Wicked.
Three companies also took steps to forge a “creative collective.” The Redhouse, a professional company, and the community companies Rarely Done Productions and Appleseed Productions usually address quite different audiences, but they do speak to each other. In fall Rarely Done head Dan Tursi joined with Appleseed’s C.J. Young and the Redhouse’s Stephen Svoboda to form The District, and unite to share artistic and marketing resources.
The woman of a thousand faces was just a face in the crowd this time. British-born comedienne and actress Tracey Ullman took her seat in Row D for the opening night performance of the Syracuse University Drama Department’s November production of John Ford’s 1633 shocker, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Her son, the multitalented Johnny McKeown, was playing the male lead, Giovanni.
This was the first summer of Merry-Go-Round Playhouse artistic director Ed Sayles’ march to transform Auburn into the Stratford, Ontario, of Central New York, featuring musical theater instead of Shakespeare. Under the flag of the Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival, the same lushly produced wide-market musicals still filled the stage at the MGR Playhouse in Emerson Park on Owasco Lake, as in previous summers. Niche-market, off-Broadway-style shows appeared in the Auburn Public Theater venue on Genesee Street. Third was an experimental series called “The Pitch,” in which audiences could eat, drink and talk to the performers.
Syracuse Stage. Tony Kushner’s autobiographical musical Caroline, or Change fused Motown and klezmer to depict an upstairs (Jewish) and downstairs (African-American) household in 1960s Louisiana. Astonishing Seamus Gailor of Cortland gave depth to the Kushner character, Noah. The title character, a humble laundress (Greta Oglesby), retains her composure while others around her are losing it.
“I’m not your rabbi or your friend,” growls abstract painter Mark Rothko (Joseph Graves) in John Logan’s Red (March). An acerbic depressive orating on an unpromising subject, the struggle to create, became the intellectual prestige hit of the year. Red was also the best outing ever for director Penny Metropoulous of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Tarell Alvin McCreaney’s The Brothers Size (April) tells a grasshopper-and-ant fable of siblings, the hard-working Ogun (Joshua Elijah Reese) and the feckless wastrel Oshoosi. Although Brothers is set in the U.S. South, director Tim Bond and choreographer Patdro Harris infused African dance and stagecraft into this drama of magical realism.
Playwright Ping Chong paid a second visit to Syracuse to gather local testimonies for Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo (September). Local residents who had endured or come near horrendous atrocities in the Republic of the Congo appeared as themselves. Chong’s formulaic dramaturgy, with rhythmic hand-clapping, undercut the depth of human suffering described.
As a kind of mime-ballet of life aboard ship, Peter Amster’s direction of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (October) delighted and enthralled. Julian Rad’s faithful condensation of the novel had Ahab (Kurt Ehrmann) express his mad obsession in long declamations of heavy, 19th-century prose. It felt more like a Greek drama, with sea chanteys as the chorus.
Only two or three songs in White Christmas (December) relate to the holidays, and the story line is both flimsy and uninvolving. No matter. Choreographer David Wanstreet’s staging of Irving Berlin’s immortal scores, especially “I Love a Piano,” costumed by Susan Branch Towne, was one of the supreme moments for the company over the entire year.
The Redhouse. Clueless tourists to India, Susannah Berryman and Laura Austin, start out as figures of fun in Terence McNally’s A Perfect Ganesh (January). In seeking the Taj Mahal, they journey inward to discover painful unacknowledged truths. Virtuosic Adam Perabo delighted by taking on a dozen supporting roles.
Speeded-up tempo turned Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night (March) into an updated farce set in the 1950s Hamptons. This time the city’s other professional company assigned top roles to some of community theater’s best players: Katharine Gibson (Viola), Binaifer Dabu (Olivia), Todd Quick (Malvolio) and William Edward White (Sir Toby).
Guest director Bill Morris, formerly of Le Moyne College, deployed an acidic touch in Morris Panych’s Vigil (May), which could have been subtitled, “How to murder your rich aunt.” John Bixler was desperately hilarious as the nephew, but veteran player Caroline Fitzgerald got most of her laughs by saying nothing.
Two singers, Samuel Bolen and Rebecca Flanders, embrace three roles, first as brother and sister in Andrew Lippa’s John and Jen (May), and then as son and mother, with the same names. The well-directed show was long on charm and even longer on history, everything that’s happened over four decades.
Ever-resourceful director Stephen Svoboda spruced up one of the most familiar musicals, The Fantasticks (September) with a dozen touches, like adding a harpist (Miriam Schilling). The fathers were turned into mothers: Amanda Bruton and Brian Detlefs. The leads, Christopher Baron and Joanna Carpenter, had strong, clear voices, and maybe you just don’t have to say “rape” in what used to be the “Rape Song.”
The striking innovation in Stephen Sondheim’s two-hour, intermission-less Assassins (October) is that the telling of nine disparate stories can be compared to A Chorus Line. It’s not like murder, says John Wilkes Booth (Chris Baron), “which is for adulterers and shopkeepers.” There were an astonishing number of laughs throughout, especially from the bungling failed-shooters played by Laura Austin and Marguerite Mitchell.
A huge cast swelled the stage for Hairspray (December), which blew out the walls. Krystal Scott, with the perfect voice and figure for Tracy Turnblad, is forever changed by her triumph. Steve Hayes’ Edna slipped naughtily into basso. Moe Harrington’s mock cabaret solo, “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” achieved some of the giddiest irony of the year.
Kitchen Theatre Company. Playwright Rob Ackerman, also part of the technical staff at Saturday Night Live, wrangled a world premiere in Ithaca for his philosophical comedy Call Me Waldo (January). A working staffer (Matthew Boston) channels the person of Mr. Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Despite giving it an excellent shot, with director Margarett Petty and a top cast, Waldo did not reach the company’s usual standard.
Red Light Winter (March), by ultra-controversial and hot playwright Adam Rapp, was the most daring drama seen on any local stage this year. A handsome young couple (Eric Gilde and Ellen Adair), previously linked in the dreamlike Canadian romance Mary’s Wedding, here defied you to like them. Rapp is one of the most talked-about young playwrights, and only Kitchen artistic director Rachel Lampert will bring him to us.
One brother (Ohene Cornelius) has gone off to become a professional in Nathan Louis Jackson’s Broke-ology (April), while the other (Chad Carstarphen) still fries chicken wings in the Kansas City ghetto. The Lear-like father (Alexander Thomas) is failing mentally and physically, and mother (Ronica V. Reddick) may or may not be there.
Playwright-director Rachel Lampert’s new work for the year was Waiting for Spring (June), with music by Larry Pressgrove. This was an expansion of a one-act, Estelle’s Kitchen, from six years ago with the action still set in 2006. What appears to be a senior citizen romance between a self-possessed widow (Carole Schweid) and an enigmatic visitor (Mark Zimmerman) turns into a mystery story.
Prize-winning playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s autobiographical memory comedy depicts the author as a 10-year-old nerd (Karl Gregory) taking etiquette lessons from an overbearing title character, Mrs. Mannerly (July). Little Jeffrey wants to be good at something, and he starts with napkin-folding. The old girl (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse) has more to tell, and she’s full of surprises.
String quartets are usually known for tight harmonies and tuxedos, but in Michael Hollinger’s Opus (October) the bickering of four egos makes for stylish but uproarious laughter. Imperious First Violinist (Michael Samuel Kaplan) gets his comeuppance, and we learn why viola players always feel unappreciated.
The Talent Company. Christine Lightcap’s shop stuck with established favorites this year, beginning with the eighth revival of Grease (July), with long-ago cast member Shawn Forster directing. The two leads, Cole Tucker as Danny Zuko and Natalie Goldberg as Sandy Dumbrowski, both Syracuse University students, were both born after the Talent Company’s first production. Katie Weber was Rizzo, the bad girl who goes everywhere.
John DiDonna came back up from Florida for the boisterous running of The Rocky Horror Show (October), spruced up with welcome new faces. Blond former professional wrestler Derek Potocki was one of the hunkiest Rockys ever, and stiff-necked Garrett Heater (Brad) and silver-voiced Laura Helm found hilarity in playing straight. Choreographer Shannon Tomkins had everybody up for “Time Warp.”
Becky Bottrill’s tribute musical, Always . . . Patsy Cline (November), is an area favorite, running now 13 years but for the first time under the Talent Company banner. A stage full of musicians to back her up made a difference. Molly Brown as buoyant Louise mixed humor with heroine-worship.
Rarely Done Productions. Adultery is as unremarkable as dandruff in Nicky Silver’s Beautiful Child (March). The mother (Anne Fitzgerald) knows about her husband’s (Tom Minion) mistress (Heather Roach). Their son with the biblical name, Isaac (Steve Smith), finds a love that violates even his parents’ minor taboos. “Who is he?” the father asks, in a vain attempt to avoid what he must learn. Director Roy Van Norstrand navigated subtle mood shifts.
Ken Davenport’s My First Time (April) broke new ground, but not in its candor of describing sexual intercourse. Actual, real-life people contributed to a First Time website, and all of them become dramatic characters, spoken by Aubry Panek, Paul Steffens, Darian Sundberg and Marguerite Mitchell. Some sex is exciting and fun, but other times it can take painful toll on a person. Dan Tursi directed.
Company alumna Lizzie Klemperer, a member of the original cast, provided the link to get Alaina Kunin and Bradford Proctor’s Bunked (June), a hit of the 2010 New York Fringe Festival, and a fresh-faced item for the take-a-chance summer slot. We see no kids in a musical about camp counselors. David Cotter, the gay half of a set of twins, is coerced into playing one of the ugly sisters in a production of Cinderella.
In a break from the usual edgy fare, director David Cotter helped to launch the kid-friendly Dormouse series with Elizabeth and Victoria Kann’s Pinkalicious: The Musical (October). In appealing to the next generation of theatergoers, we had the adventures of Pinkalicious Pinkerton (Sara Weiler, having an excellent year), a pig-tailed worshiper of everything pink, particularly pink cupcakes.
Fulfilling a promise to revive the company’s biggest hits came The Musical of Musicals: The Musical (October), an ingenious spoof of five Broadway composers. The transition from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Stephen Sondheim is the most ear-opening. Jimmy Curtin joined returning 2007 cast members Aubrey Panek, Peter Irwin and Jodie Baum.
The holiday show was a two-day run of Bernstein on Broadway (December), with lots of hits from West Side Story, Candide and On the Town.
Appleseed Productions. The top story here was offstage: the departure of artistic director Mark Allen Holt, after only two years, and the return of C.J. Young, the original A.D. two decades ago.
First-time director Alan D. Stillman took lots of chances with Tristine Skyler’s Moonlight Room (March), a subtle, downbeat work filled with nuance and telling silences. Nearly all the players were newcomers, the most startling being Erin Griffin, an actual high school student playing a character her own age. Dan Rowlands, the only veteran, delivered comic relief by being insufferable.
Kate Huddleston might look too youthful to play Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (May), but she and director Linda Lance found real humor in the character’s absurd self-deceptions. Sharon Sorkin, a sloe-eyed beauty, was an unusual choice for shy, emotionally wounded Laura, but her choked whisper embodied the agony of her disappointment.
Satirist-songster Tom Lehrer speaks in two voices in the rollicking review Tomfoolery (June). In one he’s a light and sunny W.S. Gilbert as in the tongue-twisting patter song, “The Elements,” a distinguished exit for former artistic director Mark Allen Holt. For the darker voice, look to Jimmie Curtin’s “Masochism Tango” or Greg J. Hipius’ “Vatican Rag,” a career high, wearing a bishop’s miter and carrying a tuba.
Really sticking it to critics is the thrust of Tom Stoppard’s early satire, The Real Inspector Hound (September). Two scribes (Alan D. Stillman and Robert Kovak) are preening themselves in the balcony, so pleased with their erudition and power, before they jump into the action of a kind of Agatha Christie mystery they’re watching and bungle things. Dan Stevens directed.
First-time director Pat Marzola tread a delicate line in Claire Luckham’s abortion-themed The Choice (October). No shouting, no politics, no preaching. The role of the conflicted mother, Sal, invited a smashing debut for actress Ana Pato Morley. Popular song-and-dance man Stephfond Brunson delivered dramatic depth he had not been asked for before.
Central New York Playhouse. Dustin Czarny’s shop underwent a complete overhaul in 2012. Gone is the cumbersome previous name, Not Another Theater Company, as well as the former cramped venue at the Locker Room on North Hiawatha Boulevard. With the new name comes a new space in Shoppingtown Mall, completely rebuilt by company members.
The tight old space meant staging for Patricia Catchouny’s direction of Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce (January), was cheek-by-(um) cheek. Even though characters named Trevor and Malcolm were Americanized, Nathan Faudree scored highest as a kind of Hugh Grant, stumbling instead of stuttering.
Few pocket musicals are as witty and allusive as Ryan Cunningham and Joshua Salzman’s I Love You Because (February), a gender-reversed retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. A top romantic number was called “The Actuary Song.” Director Meghan Pearson led a cast of mostly new faces, including Kasey McHale, Alex Cupelo, Jennifer Pearson and Maxwel Anderson.
Emphatically refuting the canard that live theater is for pansies was Eric Simonson’s Lombardi (April), the most testosterone-drenched drama of the year. Roy Van Norstrand might not have looked Italian and was a head taller than the legendary coach at Green Bay, but he had the iron in his pants and will. Two characteristic lines were “Freedom through discipline—a Jesuit thing,” and “Shut up, Marie.”
The second collaboration with producer and Syracuse New Times publisher Bill Brod at the New York State Fairgrounds brought in director-conductor Colin Keating. His staging of Andrew Lippa’s sophisticated revamping of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown (May) favored female players. Memorable were Krystal Scott as Lucy, soprano (!) Ceara Windhausen as Snoopy and Brianna Dugar as Sally with the show-stopping “My New Philosophy.”
Perhaps because it was the shakedown cruise in the new Shoppingtown facility, Don’t Talk to the Actors (November) by Buffalo playwright Tom Dudzick never got an even keel. It was a backstage comedy about a Polish-American playwright (Maxwel Anderson) watching his little baby get mangled. Nora O’Dea’s outrageous evocation of naughty nightclub singer Rusty Warren might have a second life as an act all by itself.
James Uva might have been a bit too young to embody the aesthete-tyrant Sheridan Whiteside in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner (December), but he gave a bravura delivery of all the show’s darts, brickbats and zingers. Newcomer Alexandra Gilman impressed as the self-obsessed diva Whiteside most wants to lock up in a box, or mummy case.
Covey Theater Company. Co-founder Garrett Heater had hands in all three productions at the Mulroy Civic Center’s BeVard Room, as actor, director and playwright, looking good each time.
Heater cast himself as the hapless, unemployable Ivy League graduate in Avenue Q: The Musical (July), a riff on PBS’ Sesame Street that finds humor in pathos. Reliable community theater favorites Sara Weiler, Josh Mele and Jodie Baum were all in top form. Nothing short of irresistible, however, was Karin Franklin-King, lured out of retirement to play Gary Coleman.
Heater’s directing challenge was to make Neil Simon’s shopworn Barefoot in the Park (September) regain some of its original luster. First he leaned on company regulars Sara Weiler (Corie, the young wife), who spoke nearly 50 percent of the dialogue, and Karis Wiggins (Ethel), who delivered a fur coat and a bed board. Newcomer J. Allan Orton unstuffed husband Paul’s shirt, and Ed Mastin called up intimations of Bill Molesky for the multi-ethnic neighbor Victor.
The new drama (now an annual event) marked a departure from previous, history-based costume items. Playing God (November) was a Yasmina Reza-like contest of art and ideas. Three disparate novelists, a romance specialist (Louis Balestra), a mystery maven (Karis Wiggins) and a critical darling (Darian Sundberg), squabble over collaboration on a single volume.
CNY Shakespeare. Terry LaCasse’s fledgling shop reached vertiginous heights with King Lear (June), a deeply satisfying production and a career high for the round-faced Alec Guinness named Mike Barbour. Lauren Pisano took double roles as Cordelia and the Fool. Quality abounded with some of the best-spoken players in the area: Katharine Gibson, Bridget Moriarty, Todd Quick and Steve Braddock.
Hubris, alas, remains a part of live theater. The stripped-down, farcical retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (July) was just too hard to pull off. It will not be a fatal blow for the company, which has announced a new home for 2013 at the Jewish Community Center on Thompson Road in DeWitt.
Syracuse Shakespeare Festival. Ronnie Bell, emulating the spirit of the late Joseph Papp, has been giving us free stagings of the Bard in the Thornden Park Amphitheater for 10 years, a significant gift to the community. Henry IV, Part I, the Prince Hal play, opened in June, followed by a company favorite, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in August.
Tony Brown, one of the most versatile and admired of local players, should have achieved a career high as Othello (February). His was a well-thought out, original tragic hero, an Othello for the age of Obama and Colin Powell, but he was undercut by a not-ready-for-primetime Iago who couldn’t temp anybody. Plenty of handclaps, though, for ivory-delicate Sara Caliva as Desdemona, and superb costumes by Barbara Toman.
The company’s most ambitious venture of the year was Jamie Bruno’s expansion of 28 sonnets into a two-hour, 40-minute Love vs. Time, a blend of music and the spoken word. A framing device has two lawyers argue for Love (Jennifer Byrne) and for Time (Trevor Hill). Much music came from the Bells and Motley Consort, the area’s favorite traditional musicians, John and Sondra Bromka. Ronnie Hill directed.
Salt City Center for the Performing Arts. Pat Lotito’s doughty little company is still showing the colors. She teamed with Open Hand Theatre’s holiday perennial, Amahl and the Night Visitors (December) by Gian Carlo Menotti, a composer whose idiom resembles Lotito’s. Joseph Downing directed an ensemble that included Samantha Sheets in the title role, and Salt City stalwarts Cathleen O’Brien and Bob Brown.
Merry-Go-Round Playhouse/Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival. The old tagline was “Broadway in the Finger Lakes,” and that was true of upmarket main stage productions at Emerson Park on Owasco Lake. Off-Broadway on the Finger Lakes was in the smaller space was at downtown’s Auburn Public Theater on Genesee Street. The experimental series called The Pitch ran upstairs in a remodeled carriage house in what was once millionaire’s row.
The Pitch had theater professionals coming to town trying to sell ideas for new shows. Audiences sat in plush easy chairs around tables, encouraging kibitzing and feedback, in the well-appointed Theater Mack. Two potential shows in an evening would be scripted but delivered ad-hoc. One from the season would be chosen to be performed the following summer, and that turned out to be Neurosis: The Musical, slated for July 2013.
At Emerson Park, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate (June) reunited nine company favorites, starting with powerhouse Karen Marie Richardson for the curtain raiser, “Another Op’nin’.” Christopher Carl and Julie Dingman Evans constantly drew sparks as the warring couple, in both onstage and offstage plots. The play-within-the-play departed from Renaissance Italy to the Hollywood retelling of John Wayne’s McLintock, which allowed choreographer Lori Leshner to make the dances country-western.
Taking advantage of her crossover hit in the 1980 movie, Dolly Parton wrote the entire score for the musical adaptation of 9 to 5 (June-July). Most songs were far from country, like Lindsie Van Winkle’s film noirish murder fantasy, “Dance of Death.” Shayla Osborn revived the Parton character, whose hair was just as real as everything else you see. Kate Swann directed.
Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (July), the ultimate golden oldie, must be honored with the best players to be found, Kimberley Doreen Burns as Eliza and Will Erat as Higgins. The all-female production team of director Jen Waldman, music director Corinne Aquilina and choreographer Lori Leshner put a feminist spin on several numbers, like having Eliza in the center of the celebration of male self-congratulation, “You Did It.”
Director-choreographer Brett Smock returned to demonstrate how much he had been thinking about Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (August) since he did it a decade ago, and the result was his male and female chorus “Kickline,” one of the most eye-popping events of the year. Josh Walden (the Emcee) and Paige Foure (Sally) updated their characters. Company favorite Sandra Karas broke hearts as lonely and conflicted Fraulein Schneider. At year’s end Smock accepted a full-time contract with the company.
All the kids in William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (September) are cartoons who burst into human beings. Company favorite Bruce Warren enjoyed his best moment of the year as the adenoidal Barfee, the ultra nerd with the magic foot-control method. Tall, skinny adult Greg Panch scored extra points as the less-than-useful word-reader.
Long thought done to death, Dan Goggin’s clerical-based warhorse Nunsense (October) skipped through a well-attended run under Ed Sayles’ direction. Veteran Maureen Quigley superseded all other versions of Sister Mary Amnesia, with riffs on Mozart and Brenda Lee. Newcomer Agnes Humphrey-Copes as Sister Mary Hubert blew off the roof with the ersatz spiritual “Holier Than Thou.”
To launch the off-Broadway MGR downtown site, Sayles slotted a winner of the New York Fringe Festival that’s been popular everywhere but never seen here. Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker’s Altar Boyz (June), both celebrated and spoofed clean-cut Christian bands. Huge crowds rushed in, on average a generation younger than those at Emerson Park. They clapped for Brian Golub as Abraham, the one Jewish singer.
The ungainly title of David Hein’s autobiographical My Mother’s Lesbian, Jewish, Wiccan Wedding (July) suggests a scruffy skit at a fringe contest, which indeed it won in Toronto. David Lowenstein’s champagne-bubbly direction enhanced the fun. Julie Dingman Evans (the title character in Kiss Me Kate) was the multicultural mother.
To ensure the quality of the biggest risk of the season, Sayles brought in director Robert Moss (emeritus from Syracuse Stage) and David Wanstreet (Broadway specialist from SU Drama) to stage Logan Medland’s charming but little-known pocket dance musical, Fingers and Toes. It was a let’s-put-on-a-show backstage drama set in 1939 with a pianist composer (Ian Lowe), a dancer (Danny Gardner) and a beautiful girl (Deidre Haren).
Cortland Repertory Theatre. As his company has established a tradition with farce, artistic director Kerby Thompson elected to ascend the grand poohbah of the form, Georges Feydeau, not seen locally in 30 years because he is tough to do. His earliest hit, Ladies Man (June), is crammed with fancy clothes, sexual humiliation, a galloping cast and six slamming doors. Michael Schafer was the guilty bourgeois, and Rebecca McGraw the queenly battle-ax.
With many cast members hired for more than one show, the kids from Rydell High School in Grease (June) looked well-scrubbed, with no Brylcreem. Great musical performers, though, starting with the leads Dylan Schwartz-Wallace (Danny) and Tess Polacheck (Sandy). Leave it to slender, dark Rin Allen as boss-lady Rizzo for a character to frighten parents.
A prime example of a megamusical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats (July) was designed for cavernous spaces but gained from the intimacy inside the Little York Pavilion. Less really is more. Two women up from North Carolina, director-choreography Barbara Hartwick, and soprano Emily Brockway as Grizabella, who sings “Memory,” made huge differences. It was the most expensive show in the company’s history, and it looked it, yet the money was well invested.
Agatha Christie-specialist director Jim Bumgardner had the right light touch for the rarity, The Hollow (August). Based on an Agatha Christie novel, The Hollow brought deeper characterization and more topicality than the usual whodunit. A wise Scotland Yard inspector (Brian Alan Hill) replaced a role given to Hercule Poirot in the novel. Dustin Charles was a hateful doctor: “Diseases are interesting, not patients.”
When an idealistic but self-centered college student (Dustin Charles) in Michael Healy’s The Drawer Boy (August) puts the lives of two bachelor farmers (Kyle Kennedy and Greg London) at risk, he does not realize he is destroying fictions people use to comfort themselves. Kennedy as the smarter brother gets the bulk of the good lines, but London’s not-quite-with-it recognition scene was one of the peak dramatic moments of the year, anywhere. Bill Kincaid directed.
Jason Bolen’s gray-and-black two-dimensional set, like panels from cartoonist Edward Gorey come to life, was the best thing about Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep (August-September), as well as the company’s best-looking show all summer. Still, the madcap farce, with two guys playing all roles, regardless of age or gender, came up a bit short on laughs. Could be the regional British accents were too heavy.
Hangar Theatre. The Ithaca company boasted three area premieres. We expected bristling bitchy humor from Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson’s Full Gallop (August), a one-woman show featuring the words of the late fashion dictator Diana Vreeland. Ballerina-thin, thrice Tony nominated Dee Hoty gave us pathos and wisdom. The scribe queen had just been fired and pulled herself together by proving that her life had been more art than commerce.
A Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s musical Next to Normal (August) command attention but themes of manic depression, madness and despair limit the show’s allure to selective audiences, such as the Hangar enjoys. Director Tracy Brigden sharpened emotions, while lead Andréa Burns sang of a troubled mind that could break hearts.
Looked at from a distance, Horton Foote’s golden-age-of-TV drama The Trip to Bountiful (September) looks like a comedy. A put-upon widow (Susannah Berryman), tormented by her daughter-in-law (Sarah K. Chalmers) longs to return to the village where she was born, only it has disappeared. Geraldine Page won her only Oscar for the movie version (1985), but Susannah Berryman, much admired in Ithaca, outclassed her every inch of the way.
But wait, there’s more: 2012 yielded other floorboards footnotes.
Ace costumer Eugene Taddeo always cared about how shows looked, and to get things done right he founded his own company, TheaterFirst. He came up with 103 garments for a revival of Jerry Herman’s deathless La Cage Aux Folles (June). The team of Frank Fiumano and Bob Brown were still in prime form, and Maxwel Anderson was a side-splitting Jacob, the madcap servant. Shannon Tompkins directed and choreographed.
Hoping to follow his signal success with Lowdown Lies (2007), humorist and playwright Jeff Kramer retained three members of that cast—Mark Eischen, Moe Harrington and Brendan Cole—for this year’s original comedy, Reaching for Marsby (March). A self-deceiving American doofus finds unlikely acclaim in a British regional theater company. Veteran character player Peter Moller stole the most scenes.
Director Jenn DeCook created DCS Full Circle Theater so she could present Shannon Tompkins in the lead of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole (April), a project that originated with John Nara’s Simply New Theater company two years ago. David T. Walker was the husband of an affluent couple grieving and recriminating over the death of a child. Star-to-be Nick Ziobro, the guy who drove the fatal car, leads to Tompkins’ healing.
The all-male Steel Magnolias fund-raiser, directed by Stephen Svoboda at the Redhouse, scored the highest number of laughs-per-minutes of any production all year. It was not, however, a spoof or a farce but played, ahem, straight, with Michael Connor as M’Lynn guaranteeing the tears through the laughter. Stephfond Brunson as the Bible-thumping newbie Annelle, David Cotter as the fated Shelby, Jimmy Curtin as the haughty Clairee, and Dan Tursi as the crabby Ouiser were all in top form. Yet Gennaro Parlato as Truvy has rarely had a better night in his life.
Marguerite and Steve Beebe’s Encore Productions, so busy in 2011, got up only one show this year. Their Church Basement Ladies (May), a Protestant answer to Nunsense, appeared at site-specific St. Luke’s Episcopal in Camillus. Kathy Egloff, who appeared in shows more often and more widely this year than anybody, had her peak moment with “My Own Private Island,” a menopause song. The Beebes want to continue with more productions and were searching for appropriate venues at year’s end.
Billy VanZandt and Jane Millmore’s loose-limbed farce The Senator Wore Pantyhose (October) heroically dispelled the grief over the death of Onondaga Hillplayers’ co-producer Doris Skillman earlier this year. Director Tank Steingraber said the play was a critique of the vulgarization of political campaigns. Bryan Allan Jones was the candidate who would suffer any humiliation to get a vote.
Bob Greene of the interactive ACME Mystery Company remains the most prolific playwright in town. ACME once again gave more than 100 performances at venues throughout New York and Pennsylvania with its unique formula for comedies in a mystery format. He has plans for new shows and additional venues in 2013.
And there were final curtain calls for several theater veterans.
Alan Milair (1931-2012), one of the few genuine Syracuse TV legends as the velvet-voiced Dr. Whitty of Channel 3’s long-running Monster Movie Matinee, in the 1960s and 1970s, late in life played the imperturbably square announcer in a half-dozen productions of The Rocky Horror Show.
British immigrant Bill West (1937-2012) might have been all over the local cultural map but was still remembered for 20 roles in the 1970s and 1980s, especially his Irish schoolmaster in Brian Friel’s Translations for Contemporary Theatre of Syracuse.
The aforementioned Doris Skillman (1924-2012) died in March. With her husband Jack she co-piloted the longest-running, floating dinner theater group with Onondaga Hillplayers, who toasted her memory with the fall production of The Senator Wore Pantyhose.
Although known in his last years for his caustic letters to the editor, Pete Bovenzi (1922-2012) founded the S.T.A.G.E. Players in 1952 and was associated with countless productions over the next several decades.