2019 Theater in Review

By Larry Laneer
December 16, 2019

As 2019 comes to a close, it is time to recognize outstanding achievements in theater. This was a surprisingly good year for plays. Musicals? Not so much. Only categories with outstanding work are included. Thus, some categories may not appear this year (for example, Best Sound Design of a Play and, of all things, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical). Categories (may) include work recognized as “Highly Commended.” This designation is analogous to a nomination in the category. While maybe not the best in the category, work cited as highly commended is worthy of special recognition. From 60 theatrical productions viewed in 2019:

Best Play:  Frost/Nixon (Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma).  In our present troubled times, this docudrama was both historical and as relevant as today’s headlines. With extensive use of video screens, the production was almost overwrought, but overall it came across as rock-solid and engaging.
Highly Commended:  A Doll’s House, Part 2 (Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre), Driving Miss Daisy (Pollard Theatre Company), Twelfth Night, or What You Will (Oklahoma Shakespeare).

Best Musical:  Titanic: The Musical (Lyric Theater of Oklahoma).  A deeply personal depiction of the nautical catastrophe, the show itself was titanic with a cast of 41 actors, a choir of 58 singers, and an orchestra of 21 musicians.
Highly Commended:  Curious George: The Golden Meatball (Lyric).

Best Direction of a Play:  Ruth Charnay (A Doll’s House, Part 2, Oklahoma City Rep). Charnay’s light-handed but sure staging put the CitySpace audience right in the Helmers’ living room.
Highly Commended:  Michael Baron (Frost/Nixon, Lyric), Linda K. Leonard (Every Brilliant Thing, Oklahoma City Rep), Kathryn McGill (Twelfth Night, or What You Will, Oklahoma Shakespeare).

Best Direction of a Musical:  Michael Baron (Titanic: The Musical, Lyric). In recent years, Lyric has put on musicals at the Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre employing huge casts and full orchestras. With an able director such as Baron, these shows can be satisfying spectacles, as was this one.
Highly Commended:  Matthew Sipress (Curious George: The Golden Meatball, Lyric).

Best Choreography of a Musical:  Lyn Cramer (Singin’ in the Rain, Lyric).  Cramer recreated with much accuracy Gene Kelly’s dances from the movie, with plenty of tap dancing as well.

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play:  Stacey Logan (A Doll’s House, Part 2, Oklahoma City Rep). As Nora Helmer, Logan gave an unwaveringly strong performance in a tour-de-force role.
Highly Commended:  Brenda Williams (Driving Miss Daisy, Pollard).

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play:  D. Lance Marsh (Frost/Nixon, Lyric).  Marsh captured with penetrating detail Nixon’s insecurities and self-defensiveness in a remarkable performance.
Highly Commended:  Matthew Alvin Brown (Frost/Nixon, Lyric), Jon Haque (Every Brilliant Thing, Oklahoma City Rep).

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play:  Jessa Schinske (Twelfth Night, or What You Will, Oklahoma Shakespeare). As Viola, Schinske’s performance ran the gamut from heartfelt to slapstick.
Highly Commended:  Pam Dougherty (A Doll’s House, Part 2, Oklahoma City Rep).

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play:  Tyler Woods (The Book of Will, Oklahoma Shakespeare). Playing two giants of Elizabethan theater, Woods was impressive and the highlight of the show as the imperious playwright Ben Jonson and railing actor Richard Burbage.
Highly Commended:  Stephen Hilton (Twelfth Night, or What You Will, Oklahoma Shakespeare).

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical:  Susan Riley (Beehive: The 60s Musical, Pollard). As more or less the first among equals in an ensemble cast, Riley was narrator and guiding light in a show that was much more than its inane title implies.

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical:  Lexi Windsor (Singin’ in the Rain, Lyric). With a voice like fingernails across a blackboard, Windsor was delightful as Lina Lamont, one of the great opportunists in musical theater.
Highly Commended:  Jennifer Teel (Beehive: The 60s Musical, Pollard).

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical:  Richard Riaz Yoder (Singin’ in the Rain, Lyric). As Cosmo Brown, Yoder performed almost exactly Donald O’Connor’s dance moves in “Make ‘Em Laugh,” but Yoder did it live and without retakes.

Best Scenic Design of a Play:  Ben Hall (A Doll’s House, Part 2, Oklahoma City Rep). Hall’s elegant and tasteful scenic design provided a beautiful background for the play.

Best Scenic Design of a Musical:  Dawn Drake (Curious George: The Golden Meatball, Lyric). This show is intended for young theatergoers, but the design was anything but juvenile, beginning with Drake’s scenery in a production that burst with color.
Highly Commended:  Misha Kachman (Girlfriend, Lyric).

Best Lighting Design of a Musical:  Fabian J. Garcia (Curious George: The Golden Meatball, Lyric). Garcia flooded the Plaza Theatre stage with a multi-hued palette that raised the temperature on an already hot-looking show.
Highly Commended:  Frank Labovitz (Girlfriend, Lyric).

Best Costume Design of a Play:  Jeffrey Meek (Frost/Nixon, Lyric). Meek hit the mark with 1970s costumes from the days of plaid polyester trousers.
Highly Commended:  Lloyd Cracknell and Jeremy Bernardoni (A Doll’s House, Part 2, Oklahoma City Rep), Emily Herrera (The Book of Will, Oklahoma Shakespeare).

Best Costume Design of a Musical:  Jeffrey Meek (Curious George: The Golden Meatball, Lyric). Meek’s cartoon-like costumes brought a fine production up a notch or two.
Highly Commended:  Michael James (Beehive: The 60s Musical, Pollard), Jeffrey Meek (Titanic: The Musical, Lyric).

Best Sound Design of a Musical:  Ryan Hickey (Girlfriend, Lyric). Hickey’s sound design was highly effective in establishing both rural and town locations in many varied scenes.
Highly Commended:  Anthony Risi (Titanic: The Musical, Lyric).

Oh, I almost forgot. In 2019, we saw the touring production of Hamilton. It lived up to ridiculously high expectations. We can all go to bed now.

 

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

By Larry Laneer
December 9, 2019

Pollard Theatre Company has revived It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play from last season. I see a few changes from the previous staging. But the production is still so far off the mark, it could be accused of false advertising.

PTC put its long-running A Territorial Christmas Carol on hold last year, replacing it with It’s a Wonderful Life. On paper, this looks like a great idea. The playwright Joe Landry adapted Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift” and Frank Capra’s 1946 film into this stage version. Landry sets the play in the late 1940s, when dramas were performed on radio before live audiences. The actors wear period clothing, read from scripts, and a sound-effects man provides slamming doors, splashing water, breaking glass, punches to the jaw, among numerous other noises.

I saw this play at the University of Oklahoma in 2006, so I can vouch for the script’s worthiness. In fact, it’s great fun to see actors playing multiple roles, sometimes in conversation with themselves, and the clever ways sound effects are created. If you close your eyes, you can hear the show as if it’s on the radio. That’s the point of Landry’s adaptation. Radio dramas take place mainly in audience members’ imaginations.

The PTC production begins true to the script, following the movie storyline. George Bailey strives to save the family savings and loan in Bedford Falls, New York, and gets into such a mess, he’s thinking of ending it all. He wishes he’d never been born.

But about an hour into the show, director W. Jerome Stevenson spoils the magic of a live radio drama by inexplicably inserting an intermission into the production. Radio dramas do not go off the air for 15 minutes, so audiences can take care of business or buy drinks at the bar. What I guess would be called the “second act” takes up where the story left off, but before long Stevenson completely abandons the live radio play conceit. The lights change and the actors put down their scripts and go off microphone, performing as if this were a conventional stage play. Oddly, the sound-effects man continues his work.

It took me a while from last season’s production to figure out what Stevenson is doing. The switch away from the live radio play comes in the scene where the angel, Clarence, saves Bailey from doing away with himself by drowning and, then, shows him what would have happened if he had never been born, Bailey’s expressed wish. In the movie, this scene is fantastical. Angels do not come to Earth and show people what life would be like if they’d never been born. Stevenson seems to be trying to achieve the same fantastical effect by changing the production from a live radio play to a 21st-century stage drama.

Landry has not written the script this way, so why Stevenson would make these intrusions is beyond me. Throughout the production, Stevenson lays a heavy hand on the show. He has actors constantly moving around the stage to different microphones and has them pantomime action in the script (such as eating or talking on telephones). Would radio actors do these things?

Stevenson is the director; he can do whatever he wants.  But some fine performances are lost in the superfluity. Joshua McGowen plays a credible George Bailey, although you may wonder why the upstate New York character sometimes lapses into a Southern drawl. James A. Hughes is terrific as Old Man Potter and in several other roles. Kara Chapman and Kris Schinske Wolf play multiple females. The always-solid David Fletcher-Hall is Clarence, the angel second class. Timothy Stewart does a fine job in several roles. So, you see the production has a highly qualified cast.

This play is an excellent fit for PTC. The theater makes a realistic setting as a radio studio. If the company would do the script as a live radio play, replace the recorded music with a musician (an organist!), make the sound effects even better than they are, and let the actors focus on creating characters without a lot of extraneous running around, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play could be a highlight of any theatrical season. But, alas, it is now an opportunity missed.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play by Joe Landry
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, through December 22
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie
405-282-2800

 

Review: A Christmas Carol

Dirk Lumbard and Charlie Monnot in A Christmas Carol  Photo by K. Talley Photography

By Larry Laneer
December 2, 2019

Lyric Theatre has reopened its A Christmas Carol for the ninth consecutive season, the fourth for this production. Surely, all theatergoers around here have seen this show at least once. If not, why not? Some theatergoers have been skeptical when I’ve highly praised this show, and that’s understandable.

In less capable hands, a theatrical adaptation of Dickens’s story could be maudlin or reek with religiosity. But adapted and directed by Michael Baron, Lyric’s production passes the test of time as a fine work of theater. That’s because the story is as relevant today as it was when Dickens published it in 1843, and Baron and his designers have successfully employed all the elements of modern drama. Although it would be hard for any show to retain the magic and surprise of seeing it for the first time, this production bears up even after four (or nine) years.

First, Jeffrey Meek’s beautiful costumes range from tasteful to spectacular. The authentic 19th-century clothes are handsome and detailed. You get a good look at them when the cast mingles with the audience before the show begins. Then you have the blue and white robe with a diamond-encrusted diadem Mateja Govich wears as the Ghost of Christmas Present. It bears repeating, this costume would come in handy if Govich is ever called upon to play God.

Kimberly Powers’s scenic design, mainly in red bricks, is convincing as mid-19th-century London. Movable elements and a turntable keep the action flowing through several scene changes.

Integrated with the period costumes and scenery are completely modern lighting by Weston Wilkerson and sound design by Josh Schmidt and Brad Poarch. Wilkerson employs a wide palette, and Schmidt and Poarch thunder, clank, roar, and whistle when appropriate. The Jacob Marley scene shakes the walls. The production includes several traditional carols and songs done to recorded accompaniment. Although Schmidt’s original music is highly electronic, it fits easily with the period setting.

This spectacle wouldn’t amount to much without top-notch acting and singing by the cast. Baron has made a few minor cast changes, but many Lyric regulars are back in their usual roles. Although you occasionally see a little ham, all do fine jobs. Dirk Lumbard as Scrooge is back for the fourth year. Charlie Monnot repeats as Bob Cratchit, while Nakeisha McGee is new as Mrs. Cratchit. Andi Dema returns as Fred, Scrooge’s nephew. Susan Riley and Jennifer Lynn Teel are fine in various roles. Thomas E. Cunningham is delightful in vastly contrasting roles. Brenda Williams and Matthew Alvin Brown serve as narrators and in other roles. Child parts have been double cast (the Holly Cast and Ivy Cast).

Next season will be the fifth and last for this particular staging. Lyric runs the show for five years, then brings out a completely new production. Don’t worry that it’s only A Christmas Carol. It’s hard to find fault with Dickens, and Lyric does a fine job bringing his story to life.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted by Michael Baron
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays,
2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sundays
through December 22, and 7:30 p.m. Monday, December 23, and

2:00 p.m. Tuesday, December 24
Plaza Theatre
1725 NW 16th St.
405-524-9312