Live! From wherever you're reading this! It's the Second-Annual Reader Tony Awards!
For those of you who missed our inaugural ceremony, that's maybe because we didn't have one. Instead, we published an article in which our paper's theatre-reviewing quintet of Jeff Ashcraft, Dee Canfield, Victoria Navarro, Brent Tubbs, and yours truly picked some of our favorite productions, performers, technicians, and memories from yet another inspiring, jam-packed year in area theatre.
It turned out to be, at least from our vantage points, an idea so nice we're doin' it twice.
Although the five of us each reviewed between eight and 12 local productions in 2017, that didn't stop us, as true Lovahs of the Theatuh, from seeing plenty more that we didn't write about. (Some of us were even lucky enough to direct and act in a few shows.) But even so, there was no way that we could get to everything, so please consider the following citations examples of things we loved, as opposed to the be-all-end-all of collective opinion. Our inclusions, we think, are awesome. We also know they're a mere drop in the bucket of pleasurable, exciting, hugely satisfying area theatre.
In lieu of hauling out the Price-Waterhouse team or what have you, it's up to me to explain the qualifications. None of us could cite a production for more than two personal mentions. Shows had to be locally produced. None of us were allowed to cite anything we were personally involved in. None of us were allowed to be in contention – though the shows themselves were fair game, as were reviewer spouses and kids. (Buy stock in Tubbs Talent, if such a corporation exists.)
And yes, for the sake of your patience, there was again a 50-word maximum on write-ups. Imagine a world in which that was an actual requirement for awards-show speeches. Okay, you can stop smiling now.
With all this celebration does come some unfortunate news, as Dee Canfield and Victoria Navarro have chosen to move on after two-plus years of Reader reviewing. They will be much-missed, and everyone at the Reader, me most especially, thanks them for their time, dedication, talent, and individual voices – I've greatly enjoyed, as I hope you have, hearing what these smart, theatre-loving writers have had to say about our mutually beloved art form.
But Canfield's and Navarro's departures also mean that we'll be seeking out a few new voices for our theatre-reviewing task force – be on the lookout for the official call for entry! – as we hope to continue the Reader's tradition of offering first-rate area-theatre coverage for many years to come.
Here endeth the prelude. Bring on the Reader Tonys! (And we really do need a better brand. The Readies? The Stage Hounds? The RCRrrrrs? We'll work on it.)
– Mike Schulz
Annie Jr., Augustana College, Center for Living Arts, Penguin Project of the Quad Cities (Jeff Ashcraft). Witnessing the magic when young performers with intellectual, developmental, and physical disabilities are encouraged and able to perform on-stage like any other young artists satisfied my soul in ways I cannot adequately describe. Directors Dino and Tina Hayz's opening-night presentation was the most electric, captivating production I've seen in ages.
Brighton Beach Memoirs, Mississippi Bend Players (Brent Tubbs). This show, from beginning to end, packed a huge punch through Cory Johnson's superb direction, the gorgeous lighting and set, and some of the finest area acting I've seen. A beautiful, believable telling of a great story, this inaugural-season MBP production indicated that we have much to look forward to.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Prenzie Players (Victoria Navarro). Under Kate Farence's direction, 15 amazing actors portrayed 66 characters in Bertolt Brecht's epic. This complicated story included star-crossed lovers, a woman and child on the run, a wedding/funeral, and a beheading, and it was all made accessible by the Prenzies' energy and creativity, resulting in a brilliant theatre experience.
Little Shop of Horrors, Quad City Music Guild (Mike Schulz). I thought my tear-filled happiness watching 1986's movie couldn't be replicated. I thought wrong in this stage-sunbeam made soulful through Matt Holmes' loving direction and peerless leads Andy Sederquist and Abbey Donohoe. George Schulz (no relation, BTW) voiced Audrey II, and should be court-ordered to tour the role forever.
Peter & the Starcatcher, QC Theatre Workshop (Dee Canfield). Oh joy, joy, joy – that’s what I felt in every moment of the QCTW’s production. It was just so wonderful – would that I could view it again and again. With its impeccable direction by Calvin Vo, imaginative staging, creative script, and marvelous acting, what was not to love?
Debo Balogun, Elephant's Graveyard, New Ground Theatre (Mike). A passion project shared with passionate – and compassionate – emotion, Balogun's stark, terrifying, heartbreaking take on George Brant's period drama was seamless performance-, tech-, and humanity-wise, boasting a 15-minute group stare I'll never forget. Leaving the theatre, it felt unseasonably warm. Due to Balogun's work, I was still shaking.
Tyson Danner, Broken, QC Theatre Workshop (Jeff). Danner put together the best stage ensemble I saw this past year. His ability to help Broken's actors layer their characters with so much humanity made the play's difficult, tragic subject matter connect with us on profound and emotional levels that resonated long after the closing blackout.
Kate Farence, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Prenzie Players (Dee). Everyone involved in the Prenzies’ collaborative production of Bertolt Brecht’s classic deserves special mention. But none more so than Farence, whose imaginatively realized vision took viewers deep into a parable-within-a-play through creative staging and her direction of 15 actors who portrayed more than 60 characters. Brava!
Becca Johnson, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Black Box Theatre (Brent). Johnson put together a very fun musical that never seemed to stop moving. From spinning bleachers to audience volunteers, Johnson made us feel that the cast was always in control even though it easily could've turned into “Pandemonium,” with some really excellent prop choices in Leslie Munson’s “tiny hands.”
Tom Morrow, Annie, Quad City Music Guild (Victoria). Whenever you have children and animals in a production, you have to bring some magic to make everything work – and Morrow must have gone to Hogwarts. Even though this musical has been around since 1977, Morrow established a tone that made it newly relevant in today’s political climate.
Jessica Denney, Peter & the Starcatcher, QC Theatre Workshop (Jeff). As the only female in an otherwise-male cast, Denney held her own in this Peter Pan backstory by making her Molly an exceptionally strong figure who balanced inspiration and heroism while leading her “Lost Boys” on an adventure. A study in sensational character development, Denney’s portrayal was nearly flawless.
MJ Mason, The Madwoman of Chaillot, Augustana College (Dee). Mason has a special place in my heart. She completely captivated me with her every word and action in the title role of Augustana’s production, and her ability to bring to life such an iconic, ageless, and fully-realized character was thrilling and sublime.
Samantha Matthews, Ghost: The Musical, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Brent). Sometimes, in musicals, strong acting appears to take a backseat to a strong voice. But Matthews showcased both. There was great truthfulness to her performance as Molly, even when she was playing opposite … well, a ghost. But Matthews also demonstrated rich vocals that made her portrayal that much better.
Christina Myatt, Sunset Boulevard, Quad City Music Guild (Victoria). Playing the aging diva Norma Desmond, Myatt’s command of character was spellbinding. Whether being demanding, needy, or coquettish, or appearing on the brink of madness, Myatt's performance as the delusional and desperate Desmond was both powerful and unsparing, allowing the audience to empathize and grasp the cruel unfairness of Hollywood.
Nancy Teerlinck, Murderers, Black Box Theatre (Mike). Ah, if only the “Reader Tonys” were actual Tonys. Because much like her titular character, I would kill to hear a Nancy Teerlinck acceptance speech – particularly if this wonderful performer delivered it with the bone-dry wit, abject hilarity, and powerfully subtle emotional realism she brought to murderess Lucy Stickler.
Tristan Odenkirk, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Mississippi Bend Players (Brent). To say I was captivated by Odenkirk is a true understatement. With his entertaining facial expressions, adolescent mannerisms, and impeccable comedic timing, I didn't want to take my eyes off Odenkirk's Eugene – especially after he discovered women – for a second, for fear of missing the slightest eyebrow lift.
Luke Rose, Elf: The Musical, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Victoria). I don’t know from which well of talent Circa found Rose, but I hope it's drawn from again, because this performer won my heart. Portraying Elf's ever-cheerful, charming, lovably goofy Buddy, Rose proved he could not only act and dance, but his solo elicited cheers. He's a true triple-threat.
Adam Sanders, The Diviners, Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (Mike). Sanders' excellence as an itinerant preacher came from him playing his lead more as support – commandingly passionate, but appearing far more interested in making others look good through sincere focus, empathy, and connection with his co-stars. They wound up looking awfully good. Sanders, with his performance humility, looked great.
Aaron Sullivan, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Prenzie Players (Dee). Sullivan was masterful as the corrupt judge Adzak – at times majestic, and at other times rude, overbearing, and sarcastic. But no matter his mood or intention, Sullivan was in complete command of his role and was a complete and utter joy to watch.
John Whitson, West Side Story, Quad City Music Guild (Jeff). Whitson’s ill-fated Tony was so full of hope and love that he almost sold me on his ability to overcome the warring gangs that compose West Side's angry, violent world. With his beautiful vocals and solid acting, Whitson was the perfect choice to lead this high-energy, well-produced classic.
Andrea Braddy, The Trojan Women, Genesius Guild (Dee). Genesius Guild’s production, under the direction of Dori Foster, had much to recommend it, but especially Braddy’s performance as Cassandra. Wearing a highly stylized traditional mask, Braddy wowed me with her tremendous vocal skills in her portrayal of Cassandra’s agony, foreseeing her future as a captive of war.
Megan Clarke, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, St. Ambrose University (Mike). Admittedly, I cited Clarke last year and acted with her this past summer. But to charges of bias I say: “Schmendiman!” Because playing that excitable little (male) freak in Steve Martin's absurdist comedy, Clarke was unforgettable: fearless, riotous, physically and verbally witty, and more animated than anyone on The Simpsons.
Jackie Patterson, Steel Magnolias, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Jeff). Although Playcrafters' show was staged in January, Patterson’s performance at its climax still haunts me today. When she broke down in devastating anger and anguish over the death of M'Lynn's daughter, Patterson exhibited a complex performance depth that was difficult to ignore, hard to achieve, and tough to forget.
Audrey Rose, Titanic, Augustana College (Brent). Portraying a third-class Irish passenger, Rose was a splendid singer and actress, and delivered one of the finest stage accents I've ever heard. I still remember her expression in “Lady’s Maid” when Rose shared her hopes about American life, saying much of it with just the look on her face.
Sara Tubbs, Annie, Quad City Music Guild (Victoria). As Grace, the secretary to Daddy Warbucks, Tubbs brought a natural style and class to her role, and her characterization added a sense of humanity that contrasted with the gritty, “hard-knock” times of the show's Great Depression setting. In addition, Tubbs' rich singing voice was resonant and beguiling.
Marc Ciemiewicz, A Year with Frog & Toad, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Victoria). Playing six roles in this children's musical, Ciemiewicz transitioned seamlessly from one to another, and showcased an operatic voice, to boot. He was totally immersed in each character, be it a bird, a frog, a lizard, a mole, or – my favorite – a slow-moving, literal carrier of snail-mail.
Rob Keech, Little Shop of Horrors, Quad City Music Guild (Mike). As Orin Scrivello, D.D.S., Keech (an honest-to-God dentist) did the impossible. He finally, finally, made audiences understand why Audrey would ever date this sadomasochistic nightmare – at least if Audrey's Orin were this phenomenally funny and thunderously present, and if he sang this well. Still wouldn't date him, though.
Michael J. King, Broken, QC Theatre Workshop (Jeff). I’ve always appreciated King's talents, and his portrayal of a detective who tries to uncoil the world of human trafficking was a contemporary departure from his classical roles. Amongst those of a very strong cast, his Broken performance shined a compassionate light onto a character that could've easily been two-dimensional.
Tristan Odenkirk, The Madwoman of Chaillot, Augustana College (Dee). Helpless I was, laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my cheeks – Odenkirk’s understated yet Igor-like Sewer Man portrayal was the funniest thing I've seen on an area stage maybe ever. Thankfully, his scene was short; had it gone on much longer, I probably couldn’t have survived it.
John VanDeWoestyne, Inherit the Wind, Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (Brent). VanDeWoestyne delivered Henry Drummond's lines in such fresh ways that they made all of the attorney's discoveries seem present and real, and while the courtroom setting could've inspired a “just the facts” portrayal, the actor brought life to every word he spoke. This was a true a whirl-Wind performance.
Suzanne DeReu, Doublewide, Texas, Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (Mike). Hell, I would've chosen DeReu just for Marilyn Monroe's Seven Year Itch dress accented by a floor fan for strategic wafting. But while DeRue's movie-themed ensembles were fab, her trailer-park denizens' everyday attire was superbly character-revealing and appropriate – stretch pants, jean shorts, bunny costume … . You know. Texas.
Dianne Dye, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Mississippi Bend Players (Dee). Dye’s designs have beautifully enhanced every production in which I’ve seen them featured, and this was indeed the case with her work for this Neil Simon comedy. Her costumes were wonderfully evocative of Depression-era Brooklyn, and were an important element in helping to create the play’s illusion of reality.
Dianne Dye, Zombie Prom, Mississippi Bend Players (Jeff). Dye’s costumes excel at helping make a good show great, and her vibrant colors and pattern-perfect period costuming of Zombie Prom’s high-school students and faculty were fantastic. She coordinated colors to characters, everything fit properly, and there was attention to detail right down to the shirt and sweater buttons.
Gregory Hiatt, Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Victoria). Given Snapshots' six actors and story that spans more than 20 years (sometimes out of sequence), Hiatt’s selection of clothing and high standard for detail augmented this production greatly. A few extremely quick costume changes – some transpiring under a bedsheet – had me convinced that Hiatt is a sorcerer.
Angie Stark, The Little Mermaid, Quad City Music Guild (Brent). Having to costume multiple mermaids, fish, a seagull, and a giant squid couldn't have been easy. But Stark and her costume crew did some incredible and iconic work bringing this underwater world to life – Ursula and her moving tentacles, specifically, were costume highlights from the whole year.
Kris Eitrheim, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, St. Ambrose University (Mike). After a while, it becomes easy to take Eitrheim's gifts for granted. Which is why his typically stellar, detailed period design became even more memorable when – poof! – it suddenly vanished, and, like the show's characters, we were left contemplating life, love, and the absence of that fantastic set.
Susan Holgersson, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Mississippi Bend Players (Dee). I loved this set. Through her wonderfully envisioned and constructed design, Holgersson created a comfortable yet modest family home befitting the play’s era. Containing rooms upstairs and down, it provided us with a strong sense of place and was the perfect setting for a nostalgic glimpse into the past.
Susan Holgersson, Crimes of the Heart, Augustana College (Victoria). Beth Henley's play is usually set in a homey 1970s kitchen. But Holgersson and her crew assembled a Bauhaus-meets-Dr. Seuss set comprised of dark-gray, multi-level areas with ramps and pillars that somehow reduced the Brunner Theatre's large space into an intimate stage with the focus on characters and story.
Susan Holgersson, Mike Turczynski, Ring of Fire, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (Brent). This revue not only had Holgersson's massive railroad track cutting through the stage – one so realistic that I kept waiting for a giant train to roll in – but many lovely lighting moments by Turczysnki that brought us to whole new locations without physical set pieces being moved.
Bob Williams, Alex Chaplain, Zach Chaplain, West Side Story, Quad City Music Guild (Jeff). The stark silhouettes of Williams’ balconies and chain-link fencing combined with the Chaplains' multi-hued lighting created a stark yet passionate environment for the war between the Jets and Sharks. Keeping things simple by using clean lines and fundamental colors to portray emotion helped this team establish the perfect tone.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Black Box Theatre (Dee). Director Becca Johnson's presentation was enjoyable for many reasons, not the least of which were the music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin that so colorfully and cleverly illuminated each entrant’s backstory and experience in the bee. The entire thing was pure delight.
Constellations, Playcrafters Barn Theatre (Mike). Director Alexander Richardson kicked off Playcrafters' Barn Owl Series with style, and author Nick Payne's do-over romance was made additionally stylish through composer Micah SantAmour-Bernas' edgy, haunting, brilliant soundscape that lasted – no joke – the entirety of the play's 80 minutes. Why isn't this available on Spotify?!
I Love You Because, Black Box Theatre (Victoria). With music director Amy Trimble on piano, assistant music director Mason Moss on keyboard, and Dale Huntly on percussion, accompaniment was provided for the show's 18 songs that ranged from pop to jazz to ballads to rap with some quirky tempo changes. The six actor/singers and their band were flawless.
Peter & the Starcatcher, QC Theatre Workshop (Jeff). Providing the only music in what was really a non-musical play, Mary Coker accompanied the cast on a few songs, and also underscored the emotion of the entire storyline with her adept piano-playing abilities. She was the one artist constantly within sight, and gave real power to an already superb performance.
Titanic, Augustana College (Brent). Under Ron May’s music direction, Titanic, as played by an amazing pit orchestra, sounded flawless. From the piano to the strings to everything in between, it was impressive to hear such a great score being played live – so impressive that I downloaded the score upon leaving the theatre.
The Generations, Annie, Quad City Music Guild (Brent). Theatre is home for me, so every moment I'm in one is memorable. But this year, my daughter made her stage debut with her mom co-starring, and seeing her sing, dance, and make people laugh alongside my wife was one of the proudest moments in this young father’s life.
The Grief, Tin Woman, Black Box Theatre (Dee). Throughout the show, I was perturbed with Brant Peitersen’s character not because he was was inconsolable, but because he was abrupt and rude. But when his patriarch broke and expressed his deep grief, he was completely transformed, and I was moved to tears in this year's single best moment.
The Journey, Annie Jr., Augustana College, Center for Living Arts, Penguin Project of the Quad Cities (Jeff). After any Penguin Project production, everyone involved traditionally gathers on-stage to sing and dance to Journey’s rock classic Don’t Stop Believin’. And this past March, our entire audience was on its feet – rockin’ out with tears streaming – as Annie Jr.'s special young performers rejoiced in their opening night.
The Lunatic, The Comedy of Errors, Genesius Guild (Mike). He spoke for five minutes. His character doesn't much affect the plot. But as Shakespeare's conjurer/exorcist Dr. Pinch, Jacob Lund (hysterically fake-breaded) made you ignore every sound remotely near Lincoln Park – cars, cicadas, fireworks – and focus instead on a portrayal that was weird, deeply committed, and ferociously funny.
The Wail, Sunset Boulevard, Quad City Music Guild (Victoria). This tension-filled musical builds to a tragic ending. But evidently, on the night I attended, a male patron was feeling particularly sensitive to Norma’s emotional state, because after the climactic gunshot, he loudly and dramatically yelled, “Oh-h-h, Norma!!!” The actors stayed in character. I had to stifle a charmed laugh.