2015 was a heck of a year in local theatre, and I’m not just saying that because it’s an easy line to open this article with.
Between our two professional theatre companies, our three established non-professional theatre companies, and the handful of fringe companies that make their homes in southside Hampton Roads, no less than twenty-eight plays were performed within twenty-minutes’ drive of your house, and we have many reminiscences of the fabulous art they created. So here now is AltDaily’s theatre writers’ best of 2015. We’ll hear from Garney Johnson, BA Ciccolella, Evan Lambert, Nina Martin, Matt Downey, Celia Burnett, AltDaily Ed-in-Chief Jesse Scaccia, and of course I’ll throw in my own two cents….
This was Garney’s idea, so he gets to go first.
As someone actively involved in the local theater scene all year, I don’t get the opportunity to see everything that I would like to, and if I’m going to be honest about what I consider to be the year’s standout productions, it’s difficult not to let my bias/ego lead me to list the productions I’ve directed (Kiss of the Spider Woman and Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play at Generic Theater) and/or performed in (Peter and the Starcatcher at VSC, La Traviata and La Boheme at Virginia Opera).
As an audience member, however, I was very impressed with the glitz and glamour and across the board inventiveness of VSC’s production of The Taming of the Shrew (above), directed by Patrick Mullins. With an original synth pop song score by local musician Jacki Paolella that only added to the energy of Mullins’ kinetic staging of a production full of life and color, it was unlike any other Shakespeare presentation I had ever experienced. It makes me excited to see what he has in store for us with The Tempest, being presented for one weekend at Chrysler Hall this April.
I was also very impressed with both of the musical productions I caught from Governor’s School for the Arts. Director Chip Gallagher certainly has a lot of wonderful talent to work with, and each time managed to appropriately shift focus to the strengths of the talent where necessary to fit the strength of the show itself, whether it was the strong vocals in Evita or the incredible dancing in Catch Me if You Can (with showstopping choreography by Jeff Warner). The productions aren’t just good for youth productions, they’re outstanding by any standard.
As for individual performances, the best I saw in 2015 was Julie Fishell in The Other Place with Virginia Stage Company. In a role that requires convincing strength of conviction as well as distressed mental orientation, Fishell’s performance was both captivating and moving, and entirely unforgettable.
On the musical side, I was most impressed with the young Sam Dimirksy in the role of Carl Hanratty in the aforementioned production of Catch Me If You Can. As the secret service agent pursuing con artist Frank Abegnale, Jr. (also excellently portrayed by Andrew Nelin), Dimirsky commanded the stage with his dancing prowess while also attacking the multilayered cat-and-mouse aspect of the story arc with a maturity beyond his years. Dimirsky and Nelin were also excellent as Juan Peron and Che (respectively) in the earlier production of Evita. These two young men most certainly have a bright future ahead of them.
Other standout performances from the year include Rico Robinson in the world premiere staging of The Former Prostitutes Potluck Supper by Frankie Little Hardin, and Jeff Goins in the regional premiere of the quirky off-Broadway comedy Roger & Tom by Julien Schwab (both at Generic Theater). Robinson’s scene stealing turn as former call girl and transvestite Norma would win every local acting award, if such a thing existed. Goins fourth-wall shattering and charismatic performance in Roger & Tom was so relaxed it was the rare natural performance completely free of even the slightest hint of effort.
We’re lucky to live in an area with a thriving arts community offering everything from minimalist experimental theater to high end opera. I’m looking forward to being part of the AltDaily team informing its readers on the numerous local events in the future. Because when it comes to the business of show, I hear there’s nothing like it; no business I know.
I worked a whole lot of shows in 2015. More than I can count, or even fully remember. Not all were full scale theatrical productions, but that’s the nature of the business. As a result of my crazy work schedule, I don’t get the chance to see altogether too many shows that I have not had something to do with, whether it was designing, working production in some way, having something to do with the advance, photographing, writing about, etc. That was why I was pleasantly surprised to be able to attend the opening of Virginia Musical Theater’s The Little Mermaid this past fall. I’d never had the chance to see a VMT show before, and they got my pick for favorite show of the year.
I wasn’t actually certain how you could take a movie (that happened to be my favorite when I was 4), half of which takes place underwater, and translate it to a stage show, but it turns out that you can, and that it is pretty brilliant. The group of actors they put together were amazingly talented, and made a great ensemble. The costumes were stunning, and the lighting and set worked together quite well to beautifully portray the locations both above and below the water. And in the end, really, who doesn’t love a whole bunch of people tap-dancing at the same time? (If it’s good enough for Carlin, it’s good enough for me.) Personally, I’m looking forward to the next time one of VMT’s shows falls on one of my days off!
I mostly went to see Kiss of the Spider Woman at Generic Theater because the director seemed cool and because I like gay things. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the production was not only pretty gay, but a visual and aural delight. The moving jail cells were a nice bit of whimsy in an already fantastical production, and the dreamlike, cinematic clips of Molina’s favorite film star were a clever way to flesh out his inner life. The sound and lighting quality were both on point, and all of the actors were directed to perfection.
Before seeing Spider Woman, I was a Generic neophyte, but ever since then, I’ve seen or been involved in every single production at the theater. And with Five Guys Named Moe, Pillowman and Heathers the Musical coming up, Generic is only going to keep getting more exciting.
While I regrettably was not able to sit in the audience for many shows in 2015, I feel one that I managed to see from the house seats deserves special mention. Little Theater of Virginia Beach’s summer musical, Young Frankenstein, was a fun, visual delight full of great acting and singing. However, it is most certainly James Bryan’s choice of staging that makes it stand out.
For those who didn’t get to see it, Bryan presented a live musical in black and white. Black and white costumes, black and white set, and meticulously blended makeup to render the actors into the shades of gray that appear in monochrome movies. What could have been a technical nightmare (and for all I know may have been behind the scenes) presented beautifully onstage. Add to that the stand out performances from Molly Morneault (Inga), Joe Siejak (Dr. Frankenstein), Robert Shirley (the Monster), Kay Burcher (Frau Blucher), Cliff Hoffman (Old Man/Ensemble), and Matt Downey (Igor), and it was certainly the community theater “Blockbuster” of the summer.
I was unable to observe very much local theatre last year due to my work schedule, aside from my involvement with Little Theatre of Virginia Beach. However, what struck me was the intense spirit of community at LTVB, which I was able to experience as both spectator and participant. While it may seem biased to laud the theatre were I volunteered, allow me to explain.
As an actor, I was honored to be a part of last summer’s Young Frankenstein: The Musical, which was without doubt one of the most adventurous and stalwart groups I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Aside from some technical issues, the summer heat, and a daring all black and white concept that will forever leave me terrified of Ben Nye cadaver grey, arriving for each rehearsal and performance felt less like entering a theatre green room and more like coming home. Hats off to James Bryan and his team for unifying us and delivering a joyful challenge to us.
From the audience I was transported to both a depression era farm in The Rainmaker and a 1980’s hair salon in Louisiana for Steel Magnolias. While no show is perfect, more than once I picked up on a seasoned actor throwing their energy and focus towards a younger or struggling co-star, willing them to succeed and shine. From an audience perspective there were no divas, mugging, or upstaging, but rather solid and unified teams. Both casts and production teams should hold these shows as cherished memories and highlights on their resume, especially Elizabeth Dickerson for her heart-wrenching breakdown in the final act of Steel Magnolias as M’Lynn. As the ladies of Truvy’s salon ran to embrace her, I felt myself join the rest of the audience in running with them. For just a moment, reality was on hold and our hearts opened to both the pain of loss and the beauty of community.
It was this unity that I attempted to bring into the cast and crew as a first time director for An Enemy of the People at the close of 2015. From day one I was humbled and encouraged by the outpouring of support from the leadership of LTVB, encouraging me to be bold, make choices, and never once making me feel inferior when asking for help (at times, various members who have been a part of this art form longer than I’ve been alive offered assistance before I was even aware I needed it). While the show was far from perfect (huzzah for the learning curve), I knew I had done right by the concept of community as I watched seasoned artists and newbies alike unite, to create a show, new friendships, and several Cards Against Humanity pairings that are in no way appropriate to print.
Therein lies the beauty of community theatre; total strangers learning from each other and learning together, and then bringing what they’ve learned before an audience. We have some excellent theatre in Hampton Roads, but in my experience last year, it was LTVB that brought out the best in themselves and their audiences. Congratulations on a stellar 2015, and here’s to another brilliant year.
The most rewarding theatre experience I had in 2015 was the Generic Theater’s production of Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play. I knew barely anything about the plot going in, just that a group of apocalypse survivors bond over their love of the television show The Simpsons. I expected to be thoroughly bored, but the synopses that I read did not mention that the play is really about how myths are created and the necessity of myth and spectacle for the human race. Not only was the script clever and engaging, the production employed the traditional theatre arts of mask performance, mimicry, stylized speech and movement, and live music and percussion. Director Garney Johnson did not overwhelm the audience with film images, but rather allowed the performers and designers to bring the script to life.
I appreciated the ambition of Double Dog’s boom/OR double feature using the same set of actors for both shows, which ran concurrently. Brendan Hoyle, Double Dog’s creative director, believes in expanding the boundaries of the Hampton Roads theatre scene through innovation, and pushing people to their creative limits. I enjoyed boom/OR as much for what it was on stage as what it represented for Double Dog’s and local theatre’s future.
Virginia Stage Company’s production of K2 had the most jaw-dropping set element I have ever witnessed. Before an actor said a word there was a gasp from the crowd as the mountain-sized, well, mountain was revealed. The play itself was interesting and well-acted by two actors who put forth marathon performances, but, to a large degree, the star of the show remained the phenomenal set design from the VSC team.
We would be remiss to not mention the excellent work done at the Push Comedy Theater in 2015. Their shows are consistently funny, accessible, and reasonably priced, but I would like to commend the Push for being extraordinary in two other ways: the genuine community that has formed around the theater, and the educational aspect of the Push, which has taken dozens and dozens of mere mortal locals, and turned them into improv comedians and comedy sketch writers. Just a year into its existence and already the Push is vital to our local culture.
There were two shows that blew me away from a technical standpoint last year: Virginia Musical Theatre’s The Little Mermaid was an absolutely astounding production that transfixed onstage every bit as much as the original 1989 film did onscreen. I’m pretty sure it was more than nostalgia tugging at my heartstrings as I wept pretty much the whole way through at the beauty of the pictures created by director Pierre Brault. And yes I do work for VMT, so let me also say that I found the least impressive elements of Douglas Puskas and Gabriel Firestone’s enchanting scenic design to be the ones I built myself. Also, a shout-out to 18-year-old newcomer Malia Pitrone, a local girl who beat out 200-odd other actresses for the role of Ariel. Word around the water cooler was that my boss, VMT’s Executive Director Mark Hudgins, when told by Brault of his decision to cast Pitrone, was apprehensive. But the director essentially told him, “dude, trust me.” And Hudgins did, and Pitrone KILLED it.
And speaking of outstanding actors, I have to mention the spot-on performances given by Carrissa Robertson and Dave Hobbs in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at the Little Theatre of Norfolk (above), as well as the transcendent stage appearances made by Kathy Hinson and Jeremiah Albers in Follies, Katie Matthews in The Rainmaker, and the entire cast of Steel Magnolias, all at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach.
And since I brought it up, LTVB continued in 2015 to be the best-run theatre organization – amateur or professional – in Hampton Roads. The all-volunteer Board of Directors are knowledgeable, committed, and warmly welcoming to everyone who crosses their path. There are some theatres in the area where Board membership is tantamount to a door prize for frequent volunteers, of whom little actual commitment is expected. This is not the case at LTVB: every Board member has a job, everyone is expected to do their job, and – this being understood to begin with – everyone does so with a smile on their face. It’s amazing the difference a clearly defined operational structure can make, and the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach proves that all you need really is love.
Oh, but! I said there were two shows that blew me away technically in 2015, and the second was Virginia Stage Company’s All My Sons. You may wonder what was so technically impressive about a play that takes place over the course of one day with a minimalistic static set, and well… that. VSC did everything right with All My Sons; it was a well-known show, produced inexpensively, and directed by Chris Hannah with such aplomb that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the end of the show.
I must also tip my hat to Hampton Roads’ fringe companies. I believe that pavement-level theatre done by talented people purely for the love of the art is where lightning is most likely to strike, and strike it did last year. Twice, no less. First, there was Double Dog Theatre’s boom and OR, a pair of edgy one-act comedies presented in rotating rep at the Generic Theater in February. Two plays, performed by the same small company of actors, in the same space, on alternating nights would have been an ambitious undertaking for an established theatre company, let alone an upstart like Double Dog. But sometimes it takes a small, nimble outfit to introduce such a concept into our community’s vocabulary. Then there was CORE Theatre Ensemble’s production of Othello, presented in conjunction with Tidewater Community College in November. Othello starts a conversation that needs to be had right now, and props to TCC for having CORE, with their darkly cinematic sensibilities, be the ones to begin it.
Last but certainly not least, I think the thing I liked most about theatre in HR in 2015 was AltDaily’s talented and dedicated theatre writers. Writing about theatre can be a scary proposition, especially for people who are of that community (which I’ve insisted all AltDaily’s theatre writers be). You always wonder if your op-ed or your review will offend someone, or if you might be hurting your chances of getting cast or being allowed to participate in that next project you want to do. These passionate and knowledgeable folks are all willing to put those insecurities aside and share their forthright perceptions and insights with the rest of the community, driven to do so by nothing more than their love for the art form (and maybe the occasional beer). I’m very proud of the work we’ve all done over the past several months, and can’t wait to overhear the dialogue these experts will inspire in 2016!