Best of the Arts 2011: Theater

December 23, 2011

It has been a great year for the arts on the Cape. We have seen wonderful shows and entertainments from tried and true theater companies, orchestras, ensembles, artists, and from some fresh new faces. There is plenty to appeal to all tastes and budgets, and room to explore new genres.

This is an informal look at the best of the arts on the Upper and Mid-Cape, or, rather, the best of the shows I have attended. It is is a fairly representative sampling of the offerings in theater, musical theater, vocal and instrumental concerts, art galleries and events, both amateur and professional, from Cape Codders and others.

This week is a review of the best plays and musicals of the year, in more or less chronological order, starting in January. Next week, we will list the best arts, cultural, and music events.

“Side by Side by Sondheim”

The Cotuit Center for the Arts’ production of “Side by Side by Sondheim,” was directed by Mark LiCalsi. The perfect antidote to a cold winter night, the show was a splendid review of Sondheim songs. His witty and intricate lyrics sometimes taxed the mental agility of the listener, but the songs were always entertaining and engaging, taken from a number of different musicals, some very well-known, others more obscure.

The set was elegant: a pair of chandeliers, a plush, red velvet curtain folded against the back wall, and two enormous grand pianos flanking the stage, played with style and precision by Elizabeth Beckel and Nancy Wendlandt.

But what made this show so outstanding was the professional and authentic presentation by vocalists Laura Garner, Lily Mae Harrington, Martha Paquin, Kevin Quill and Glenn Wall, and narrator Todd Bidwell. They not only sang each solo, duet, or ensemble piece with wonderful precision, expression, and tone, they became the characters in each vignette, bringing the audience into one little world of musical theater after another.

“I Hate Hamlet”

“I Hate Hamlet,” written by Paul Rudnick in 1991 and directed by Toby Wilson for the Barnstable Comedy Club, was a fast-paced, witty tale of one man’s confrontation with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” and with his own theatrical career and the people around him.

The cast was excellent, exuberantly bringing out the heart and soul—and eccentricities—of each character: an angst-ridden television actor whose series had just been canceled (Mike Devine); a swordfighting John Barrymore as Hamlet (Michael Ernst); a chain-smoking agent with a romantic past (Diana Silvester); a 29-year-old virgin (Katie Beatty); a ditzy real estate agent (Susan Cannavo); and an over-the-top Hollywood director (Chris Compton).

Though “I Hate Hamlet” was not a Broadway success, its treatment by the Barnstable Comedy Club was a not-to-be-missed production for its wonderful dialogue, its commentary on Shakespeare and the theatrical world. But the best parts were the excellent casting and the enthusiasm with which each of the actors delivered their lines.

“The Sound of Music”

The Sound of Music” is about the power of music, its power to heal a family, to honor a nation, to inspire and to bring joy. Ably directed by Joan Baird, the Falmouth Theatre Guild’s production was a delight from beginning to end, resounding with fine music, singing, dancing, and acting, and supported by impressive sets, costumes, and technical know-how. But, above all, it powerfully conveyed the indomitable spirit of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s memorable show, and the glory of music.

Jodi Edwards, as Maria, led a large and talented cast. She was perfect as Maria, the novice nun whose heart was too full of music to settle down to the quiet and dutiful life of a nun. She had a lovely singing voice, joyful and clear, and moved gracefully across the stage.

This was a superb production of one of the classics of musical theater.

“Anything Goes”

The set for “Anything Goes” was magnificent. A splendid ocean liner docked on the stage at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, beckoning the audience to cast their cares aside and climb aboard for a madcap adventure. Designed by Nicholas Dorr, the ship was two stories high, with staircases on either side of the ship. Cast members gracefully moved up and down, singing and dancing with ease. Changeable cabins, deftly maneuvered by the stage crew, added to the flexibility of the set.

Directed by Michele Colley, “Anything Goes” featured a large and talented cast of all ages, great Cole Porter songs, glamorous costumes, and an entertaining storyline.

Eileen Fendler played Reno Sweeney, doing an outstanding job on all of her vocal numbers, commanding the stage, with or without the fine chorus. “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” was particularly effective, but she also shone in “I Get A Kick Out of You,” “Anything Goes,” “Let’s Misbehave,” and “Take Me Back to Manhattan.”

Moonface Martin (Pete Steedman) played a dumb gangster, “Public Enemy No. 13.” His “Be Like the Bluebird” was hilarious, and his comic timing was perfect, as he advised his friends to “Remember, it is always darkest right before you turn the lights on.”

“The 39 Steps”

Directed by Mary Arnault, “The 39 Steps” was a wonderfully imaginative show, using only four actors to play 140 roles, quickly and comically switching back and forth between roles, often with the addition or removal of a hat, sometimes with an elaborate, but deftly executed, on-stage costume change.

The action shifted from London to the highlands of Scotland, from the theater to a train to a farmhouse, a mansion, a police station and more, with just a hint of props and stage furniture.

“Night Falls on Emerald City”

In “Night Falls on Emerald City,” a one-person show, Larry Marsland became Judy Garland, without makeup or costume, using only subtle gestures and vocal expressions. He provided an intimate portrait of the much loved, but troubled star, one year before her death from a drug overdose at the age of 47.

“Trial by Jury” and“Pirates of Penzance”

The College Light Opera Company offers a new fully staged musical every week throughout the summer at Highfield Hall, its 32-personcast of college students performing one show while they rehearse for the next, and audition for the one to follow. It is an intense schedule and CLOC should be on the list for that alone, but the shows are also some of the best around.

This year, the opener, a double bill of Gilbert & Sullivan shows, “Trial by Jury” and “Pirates of Penzance,” a nicely matched pair, stood out.

“Trial by Jury,” a half-hour curtain raiser first staged in 1875, was presented in 1930s-style costumes, in shades of blacks, whites, and grays, against a courtroom backdrop in the same colors. The operetta, which was entirely sung, told the story of Angelina’s breach-of-promise suit against Edwin. The all-male jury and the all-female chorus of reporters followed the case, as presented by the various legal personnel, until it was all resolved to everyone’s satisfaction by the judge.

As bright and colorful as “Trial” was muted, “Pirates of Penzance” was spirited and full of fun. The vocals were excellent, and the orchestra provided just the right balance, supporting the chorus and soloists with ease, and providing dramatic flourish when appropriate. The set features sparkling ocean waves in gorgeous shades of blue and green.

“Man of La Mancha”

The final show of the CLOC season, “Man of La Mancha,” directed by Corin Hollifeld, was also among the season’s very best. From the first look at the set, the richly textured, but crumbling walls of the 16th-century dungeon to the final triumphant, inspiring strains of “The Impossible Dream,” the show was magnificent. Brian Acker was outstanding as Cervantes/Don Quixote, capturing the essence of each of these very different men in his stance, vocal expression, and gestures. He and the rest of the company breathed new life into the show’s most frequently heard hit song, giving “The Impossible Dream” solid context. He was supported by an excellent cast and vibrant orchestra.

“Unnecessary Farce”

“Unnecessary Farce” was a genuinely funny, wonderfully crafted play. An undeniably silly, but not preposterous, tale, it pulled the audience in, and kept them laughing from beginning to end.

Directed by James Brennan for the Cape Playhouse, the play told of two earnest junior policemen intent on “taking down the mayor”setting up an undercover stakeout in a hotel. The beautifully constructed set showed two adjoining, mirror-image hotel rooms, one serving as the stakeout room, and the other, the mayor’s room. The policemen can see what happens in the mayor’s room through their video camera setup.

The show was often a two-ring circus, with activities in one room mimicking what was happening in the other—with a twist: one scene has two characters in the throes of passion on one bed, while on the bed in the adjacent room two characters struggle for control of a gun.

But it was not only the physical humor that was so appealing. The script was very witty, and the plot twists kept the audience intrigued—and laughing out loud. The seven professional New York actors in the show all had expert comic timing and delivery and worked well as an ensemble. All of them had appeared in Cape Playhouse productions in the recent past, and it was nice to see some favorite actors return.

“Crazy for You”

The Cape Playhouse’s production of the Gershwins’ “Crazy for You,” directed by Mark Martino, had “everything—and more,” as the man near us said to his wife, as the audience floated out of the theater on opening night, buoyed by the Broadway extravaganza we had just witnessed.

Matt Loehr was magnificent as the lead—Bobby Child—tap-dancing vibrantly across the stage, on top of a limo, a table, and a precarious arrangement of luggage, singing his heart out, and demonstrating the fine rubbery expressiveness of his body as he fell in love at first sight and tasted some potent whiskey.

He was supported by a large and very talented cast of colorful characters of New York and the Old West and a splendid orchestra that was free to play out because the cast was miked. The multiple elaborate sets were vivid and detailed, while retaining an appropriately cartoonish look, and the costumes were varied and exquisite, from cowboy duds to feather-bedecked fans. In short, the playhouse provided a very good reason to skip a trip to New York and see a fabulous Broadway show right here on the Cape.

“Quills”

“Quills” was thoughtful, wickedly funny, beautifully written, and professionally presented by the Cotuit Center for the Arts. Directed by Mary Arnault, the acting, the sets, the costumes, the lighting and the sensitivity of this production were exemplary.

Doug Wright, the author of “Quills,” wrote that art is “innately subversive,” that art, including writing, must be used to challenge the status quo. His Marquis de Sade was driven to write, even when his writing implements, his quills and more, were taken from him, in brutal acts of censorship, and, in the end, his art triumphed, changing the status quo.

The play was only loosely based on the life (and death) of de Sade. The play was no less intriguing as fiction, and it may have encouraged people to learn a little more about the real life of the man who gave us the word “sadism” and to explore the issues related to artistic censorship a little more deeply. As in life, issues were multidimensional and complex.

“Blithe Spirit”

The Woods Hole Theater Company’s production of “Blithe Spirit” was a ghost story—not spooky or scary, just slightly unsettling; it was also funny, loving (for the most part), and unpredictable. Directed by Lisa Smith of East Falmouth, the production was nicely done: a lighthearted look at séances, death, love, and marriage, with a fine ensemble cast.

Written by Noel Coward in 1941, “Blithe Spirit” offered plenty of witty dialogue and unexpected plot twists as novelist Charles Condomine (Norbert Brown of Bourne) seeks out a “complete charlatan” of a spiritual medium to use as a model for a book he is working on. Madam Acati (Louise Patrick) was just eccentric enough to be both hilarious and believable. She managed to bring back Charles’s dead wife Elvira (Jeanne Lohnes), who was strikingly ghostly, as well as sweet, catty, and manipulative.

Mr. Brown’s Charles melted boyishly in Elvira’s presence, and was torn between his dead and living wives, wanting to keep them both. Michelle Slattery, as the living wife, Ruth, was also entertaining, giving us a full range of emotions: skepticism, anger, jealousy, protectiveness, and more, as the story progresses.

“Jesus Chris Superstar”

Alex Valentine as Judas Iscariot, alone, was worth the price of admission to the Falmouth Theatre Guild’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Mr. Valentine had the perfect voice, attitude and angst for his conflicted role as Jesus’ friend, critic, and ultimate betrayer.

The show, directed by Eric W. Gomes, mixed three time periods, 30-something AD, the 1970s, and today, but it all worked. Jesus (Bobby Price) was more of a beloved “community organizer” (who can heal the sick) than a spiritual leader, while Corrine E. Coates, who played Mary Magdalene, was a highlight, with her bouncy “Everything’s Alright,” sung to comfort Jesus, and memorable “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

Jim Hill brought welcome humor and excellent vocal skills as a punk King Herod, who, along with his court of amusing characters, mocks Jesus as the “King of the Jews.”

Honorable Mentions

The year brought two new theater production companies, Theater Under the Stairs directed by Christopher Compton and Holly Erin McCarthy and Wit’s End (Really Lively) Arts directed by Laura Garner.

Theater Under the Stairs presented “No Exit,” “Medea,” and “Alice in Wonderland” at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, as well as “Avenue Q” at the Cape Rep Theater in Brewster.

Wit’s End opened with a seasonal “Christmas Punch” at the Cotuit Center for the Arts.

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