It’s called moving up to the pros. In an unprecedented ascension, actor, director, playwright and costumer Garrett Heater, a multiple Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Award winner with different community theater companies, has become chairman of the board and interim artistic director of Syracuse Opera. It’s obviously a boost for Heater, most of whose career lies ahead, but also a tribute to the professional standards some local companies have achieved.
Famous Artists claims that the October-November run of The Lion King brought in the highest gross receipts in Syracuse theatrical history with $4.1 million. More than 53,100 people paid to see it at the Landmark Theatre. There does not appear to be a public roster for previous hits, but memory suggests that this run of The Lion King appears to surpass appearances of Phantom of the Opera at the Mulroy Civic Center’s Crouse-Hinds Concert Theater and lengthy stays of Menopause: The Musical at the 499-seat Archbold Theater at Syracuse Stage.
The biggest local show of the year was the holiday co-production of The Wizard of Oz from the Syracuse University Drama Department and Syracuse Stage. Local music director Brian Cimmet was in the pit, but imported director Donna Drake and 2 Ring Circus Choreography drove the visuals. It was a triumphal moment for luminous sophomore Kate Jarecki as Dorothy. Visual and vocal echoes of the 1939 movie abounded, but it was no slavish imitation. The Cowardly Lion (Brian Michael Hoffman) sang, “If I Only Had the Nerve,” not “noive,” as Bert Lahr had it. And the sexy, alluring Wicked Witch of the North (Lani Corson, doubling as Aunt Em), on a trapeze above the action, blew away any memory of Billie Burke in that role.
Promotions for Syracuse Stage’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time emphasized that the lead actor, Mickey Rowe, had been diagnosed with a form of autism — limiting emotional expression — a disorder Christopher Boone had in the drama. Who could tell? Not only was Rowe a highly physical performer, skilled at gymnastics and mime, but deeply affecting as well. His was one of the most riveting characterizations anywhere all year.
For 13 years the Redhouse has been an ideal for space for witty, polished, verbal high comedies. Company artistic presence Laura Austin was in top form for the revival of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (March), recognized at SALT Awards time. Much more impressive, however, was Austin’s raptor-eyed agent in Douglas Carter Beane’s Little Dog Laughed (September), a less-known play. Her opening monologue, ostensibly a takedown of the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but deeply revealing of self, was a bravura performance, one of the most dazzling long speeches heard on any stage all year.
The lush, exuberant The Three Musketeers (September) was an immense crowd-pleaser at Syracuse Stage, filled with explosive movement. Choreographer Anthony Salatino was up to his trademark magic, aided by fight specialist D.C. Wright, imported from the Midwest. Travis Staton-Marrero created a gymnastic D’Artagnan, a Latin incarnation of Douglas Fairbanks. But the real star was director Robert Hupp, in his debut appearance. If this is his calling card, he promises to be welcome company.
Actor, playwright and director Rachel Lampert retired last summer after building Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company into one of the strongest artistic institutions in the area. The SALTs recognized this passage with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Many local audiences saw her enormous sense of fun for the first time with her Precious Nonsense (July), a recreation of Gilbert and Sullivan. M. Bevin O’Gara, previously Boston-based, replaced her, opening with Lydia R. Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Smart People (September), about race relations on the Harvard campus.
Tight staging and fanatic rehearsal allows a player to simulate spontaneity. Take the Redhouse’s tandem productions of two Shakespeare spoofs, The Bomb-itty of Errors and The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) in May. Both had been done locally before, Complete often flattened by clumsy amateurs. A director from New York City (Ron Liebert) and three players (Raquel Chavez, Richard Lafleur and Jeff Ronan) made these the wildest, madcap rides of the year, festooned with written-in Syracuse jokes and the best Donald J. Trump Bronx cheer achieved locally.
The Fats Waller jukebox-tribute Ain’t Misbehavin (March) is usually staged as a harmless funfest, including earlier mountings at Syracuse Stage. Director Patdro Harris plumbed new depths in those familiar numbers. Many black intellectuals shrug off Waller as a court jester, like Louis Armstrong or Sammy Davis Jr. While not politicizing lyricism, and actually heightening Waller’s humor, Harris implied he could be seen as a champion of black consciousness.
One of the joys of watching Paul Barnes’ direction of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap (Syracuse Stage, May) was feasting on exquisite period props, like the magenta turtleneck on playwright Sidney Bruhl (James Lloyd Reynolds). Key to the plot, and breathtaking to see, was the typewriter of student Clifford Anderson (Carol Howell), a perfectly preserved yellow and green electric portable made by Smith-Corona at 700 E. Water St. in Syracuse.
The farewell production at the Redhouse’s 201 S. West St. home was a revival of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s I Do! I Do!, directed by Temar Underwood. It was a departure from the company’s penchant for edginess, like Assassins or Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, or its fondness for too-big-for-the-space spectacles, like Beauty and the Beast. The two youthful, out-of-town professionals, Caroline Strang as Agnes and Luke Hamilton as Michael, invested their roles with an alluring vitality, as if they has just been written instead of a half-century ago. There was honor in sprucing up the shopworn as a richly produced bon-bon that provided an ideal date musical at holiday time.
SALT Award audiences were unmistakably nonplussed when SALT Academy members surrendered to group-think in giving all awards to one production: Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive at Syracuse Stage, including Best Play, Best Director (Laura Kepley), Leading Actress (Madelaine Lambert) and Leading Actor (Michael Brusasco). Drive was imported from Cleveland Playhouse, where Kepley is artistic director. The vote was a feckless affront to manifestly superior and fresher shows, such as May Adrales’ direction of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. There was no category for the one area where Drive actually excelled: voice and dialect coach Thom Jones’ command of the distinctive and little-known accent of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Although Brandon Ogborn is cited as the author of The Tomkat Project (Rarely Done, February), he did not write the dialogue. It came from court and other records of Tom Cruise (Jordan Glaski) and Katie Holmes (Carmen Viviano-Crafts). Tomkat was one of the most consistent laugh-getters of the last 12 months, and all the words were from people not known to be comics. Biggest surprise: Octogenarian tycoon Sumner Redstone (Roy VanNostrand) speaks in David Mamet dialogue superior to what Mamet himself has been able to deliver in decades.
Under the aegis of Syracuse Summer Theatre at the Mulroy Civic Center’s Bevard Studio space, director Garrett Heater invested all his artistic energy in the rock musical Spring Awakening (July). He enjoyed strong support from two longtime collaborators, music director Bridget Moriarty and choreographer Jodi Bova-Mele. Most astutely he cast Chip Weber and Maya Doherty as the tragic lovers. All efforts were remembered at SALT Award time.
Although Central New York Playhouse artistic director Dustin Czarny can be an imposing figure, he gives the people working with him a free hand. His naughty and florid Chicago (June) did the best business since the company moved to Shoppingtown. A few weeks later, Liam Fitzpatrick blew the roof off the place with Green Day’s explosion of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll in American Idiot (July). Many of the same cast members, dressed up and minding their manners, lit up the elegant A Little Night Music (September), guided by Abel Searor. Such wide swings in style would have been unthinkable with outfits like Shattuck-Nye and the Talent Company a generation ago.
Just getting the rights and actually staging Dave Barry’s Peter and the Starcatcher were coups for the Baldwinsville Theatre Guild, as well as for director-musician Colin Keating. With a cast full of scene-stealers, it was hard to top Matt Gordon’s Black Stache, an anticipation of Captain Hook. Then again, the top comic moment may have been prepared by costumer Jodi Wilson and Karen Palikas when they dressed the entire cast, both genders, in oversize bras for the show-stopping “Mermaid” number.
Director Shannon Tompkins put her choreographic skills to good use in reducing the ponderousness of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (October). Deeply affecting performances came from Ben Sills as the wrongly accused John Proctor, and Korrie Taylor as his wife, still with him after his confession of adultery. Silver-voiced Simon Moody as the governor, with his Colonel Schweppes beard, was the most dapper Puritan of them all.
One of the most riveting characterizations of the year was Josh Taylor’s ironically named St. Jimmy in American Idiot (July). It wasn’t just the scarlet fright wig that made him a satanic embodiment of Johnny’s (Mike Gibson’s) addiction, a monkey on his back, clawing at him.
Jimmy Curtin put a smile on the Deity himself in Act of God (Rarely Done, September). He still condemns taking the name of the Lord in vain, as when performers like Matthew McConnaughy and Kanye West boast of their “God-given talent.” “That will soon be your God-taken talent,” he snarls from heaven.
Longtime, uncomplaining spear-carrier Phil Brady rose to the head of the pack when director Kasey Polly cast him as the tragic Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men (Central New York Playhouse, March). The performance just merited a SALT nomination. Brady didn’t win, but his brand is forever transformed on community stages.
Many company regulars were in top form for Rarely Done‘s Silence of the Clams (February), such as David Minikheim as the satanic, frightening Beaver Bob and Geno Parlato as a blonde-wigged virginal victim. New faces, however, really startled. Local Shakespearean Trevor Hill was more stentorian than Anthony Hopkins had been as the insane psychiatrist Hannibal Licked-Her (lots of puns here). Newcomer Steven Paunovski obliged with a half-dozen supporting roles, including a credible Anderson Cooper.
At Central New York Playhouse, Jeremiah Thompson used his distinctive red beard to excellent effect twice, in Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice (February) as a character known as Nasty Interesting Man, and again as the back-stabber O’Brien in 1984 (August). Then he shaved it off and an entirely different character appeared: celebrity broadcaster David Frost in Frost/Nixon, the presumed lightweight with a deadly sting.
Versatile community player Tom Minion had a higher hill to climb as Richard M. Nixon. Trim and fair-haired Minion looks nothing like Nixon, but on stage he appeared to have grown jowls. Under Justin Polly’s direction, he gave us a tormented old pol, uneasy in his own skin, who finally faces the truth he has been denying in a shabby, get-rich-quick venture no respectable network would touch.
After two years of going dark, Appleseed Productions took tentative steps to return to action with a heartfelt production of Horton Foote’s Trip to Bountiful (October), directed by Tina Lee. Longtime musical comedy player Becky Bottrill (who has owned Patsy Cline) added 20 years to her persona to play Carrie Watts, the hard-pressed senior who yearns to return to a hometown that’s no longer there. Overlooked by audiences, it was one of her best outings ever.
Dan Rowlands, one of community theater’s most adventuresome directors, staged Michael Frayn’s Noises Off (September) in Baldwinsville’s Presbyterian Educational Center, a church hall. The greatest farce of the last 50 years is supposed to have a rotating stage so we can see the action from radically different points of view. He enlisted company loyalist Josh Taylor to build a two-story wooden set that could break into three sections, to be rotated on casters. It was so solid that all five doors could be slammed hard, and tax exile Casey Callaghan could hop a flight of stairs with his trousers on his ankles.
Jason Robert Brown’s autobiographical song cycle The Last Five Years (April) was seen often here about a dozen years ago, but Rarely Donr director Dan Tursi thought it should be revisited. Tenor Paul Thompson was a welcome discovery as the Brown character who has ended his marriage to the “Shiksa Goddess” as the curtain rises. Aubry Panek’s wife is heading in the other direction, discovering love at the beginning and then having it crushed. From the witty “Summer in Ohio” to the plangent “Still Hurting,” Panek, a community theater treasure, was never better.
The old Salt City Center for the Performing Arts brand was still shining when Bob Brown used it for a revival of his four-man cabaret, Leading Men Don’t Dance, including Frank Fiumano, Gary Troy and Liam Fitzpatrick, for two nights in December at Jazz Central. Performances were fund-raisers for Rarely Done Productions.
Retired humor columnist Jeff Kramer invested heavily in his third original comedy, The Golden Bitch (April) at the Cazenovia College Theater. He lined up some of the best performers in town, such as Moe Harrington, Katheryn Guyette, Michael O’Neill and Edward Mastin, who made the most of the script under Len Fonte’s excellent direction. Navroz Dabu contributed one his most attractive sets ever.
Open Hand Theater left its iconic home, “The Castle,” a Victorian mansion at 578 Prospect Ave., attractively visible from North Salina Street. When it moved to Shoppingtown Mall, the company retained some castle motifs on the façade. In the otherwise moribund mall, Open Hand is 100 paces from Central New York Playhouse and around the corner from Salt City Improv.
A musical about the lynching of an innocent man is not many theatergoers’ idea of a good time, especially as the Jason Robert Brown-Alfred Uhry Parade (July) had been a bust on Broadway. Merry-Go-Round Playhouse artistic director Brett Smock supported his choice by making the production the most innovative and affecting of the summer. Audiences were not entirely receptive, but the SALT Academy showered Parade with awards. In accepting one of them, Smock cracked, “Sometimes you have to piss people off.”
The thesis that humor or sex are more effective in a smaller room was proved again in Cortland Repertory Theatre’s The 39 Steps (June), the spoof-tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie. Cortland Rep had the sublime talents of James Taylor Odom, as the perfect “wrong man” Richard Hanna, who provokes hilarity by looking like a younger but unsmiling Richard Attenborough. Handcuffed to the mystery woman (Leah Gabriel), they flee across the Scottish heather. In a moment of astonishing G-rated eroticism, she has to take off her wet stockings while sitting by a fire.
Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre is better known for the innovative, like Mimi Quilon’s original drama Degage (July), about giving ballet lessons in a hospice, or the all-girl staging of Shakespeare’s R and J (August). Yet it cannot be topped when producing well-made if conventional comedies. Larry Shue’s The Foreigner (August), widely performed three decades ago before the playwright’s untimely death, still delivered the goods under Topher Payne’s direction. Linden Tailor was the Asian-appearing innocent beset by bigots and blockheads.
The Dave Stewart-Glen Ballard show Ghost: The Musical (August-September), based on the 1990 Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore movie, was a major surprise at Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. It had done well in British regional theaters, but had not built up as much steam here. It proved a highly effective romance with leads Derek Carley and Sara Ellis, but the most memorable song was “Unchained Melody,” lifted from a 1955 B-movie. Inevitably, the clairvoyant (Allyson Kaye Daniel in the Whoopi Goldberg part) was an overpowering presence.
The role of Jacob, the outrageous butler-housemaid of Georges and Albin in La Cage aux Folles, is the most reliable scene-stealer in musical theater. Syracuse area dancer Anthony Wright won a richly deserved SALT trophy for his efforts as Jacob in the Cortland Repertory production (June). Standing near him on stage in the less-rewarding role of Francis, the house manager of the nightclub, was Syracuse-area dancer Maxwel Anderson, who scored big as Jacob five years ago in the La Cage produced by Eugene Taddeo’s TheaterFirst company, the last one with Frank Fiumano and Bob Brown in the leads.
When Cortland Repertory opened the downtown center on Port Watson Street more than a year ago, we thought the company would be giving us year-round theater. There were edgy dark productions at first, like I Am My Own Wife in Spring 2016. The facility is a much-needed rehearsal and storage asset, but the playbills tend to feature imported items in short runs, like the appearance of stand-up comic Gilbert Gottfried. Ace comedy director Bill Kincaid also guided The Queen of Bingo (February); the laughs came steadily with thin Chris Nickerson and hefty Jason Sofge wearing skirts, without a hint of camp.
2017 also had a few curtain calls. After years with the Baldwinsville Theatre Guild, Susan Blumer (1946-2017) distinguished herself in town as a fastidious producer and scrupulous performer. One of the three partners, along with Garrett Heater and Mike Penny, in the much-lauded five-year run of the Covey Theatre Company (2010-2015), she would move the earth to make sure any prop was exactly as it was described in the script. Her versatility as an actress meant that within one eight-month period she played Bill Molesky’s mother (James Joyce’s The Dead, November 2009) and his girlfriend (Cabaret, June 2010).
Janice Frank (1930-2017) was a strong supporter of Salt City Center, where she selectively took on memorable roles. Her leading role in Driving Miss Daisy opposite the late David Walker’s Hoke and Michael O’Neill’s Boolie in October 1998 lingers in the mind.