By Milan Paurich
As one of The Vindicator theater critics, I covered a lot of community theater in 2008. Some productions were instantly forgettable; others became lodged in my memory bank like a beautiful song you can’t get out of your head.
The season itself was cut short by the Youngstown Playhouse’s announcement that they would be postponing two of their fall shows until next summer. The sagging economy — nationally and locally — seemed to impact a lot of the theater I saw this past year. Spirits were down, and the energy level in some of the plays and musicals I reviewed felt off as well, which only made the shows that gave us a much-needed lift all the more special, and even more of a reason to cherish them.
In that spirit, here is my annual highlight reel of the productions, performances and behind-the-scenes talent that impressed and captivated me the most in 2008.
With luck, next year will provide even more moments to remember.
Under the auspices of Top Hat Productions, Elton John and Tim Rice’s theme-park-reimagining of the same-named Giuseppe Verdi opera found its soul. By eliminating the original production’s distracting bells-and-whistles (grandiose sets, costumes and special effects), Top Hat’s “Aida” focused on what really mattered: a lush pop score, gorgeously sung by some of the finest vocalists in the area, and a love story with timeless appeal.
Top Hat proved that you don’t need budget-busting production values if you’ve got actor/singers such as Rachell Joy and Brian and Julie Palumbo to help sell your material. It was an eye (and ear)-opening revision, and all future productions of “Aida” would be wise to follow Top Hat’s lead.
2 “The Glass Menagerie”
Staged with little fanfare in New Castle Playhouse’s boxy Annex Theater this September, first-time director Erika Stickel’s pitch-perfect rendering of Tennessee Williams’ most poetic and indelible work felt like a tiny miracle. I’ve rarely seen a community theater production with such spot-on casting, and the brilliant performances (by Molly Galano, John Pecano, Candace DiLullo and Cheney Morgan) deserve to become the stuff of local legend.
Even though it was sold as a grand theatrical spectacle with all of the glitz and glitter that the (simulated) sinking of an ocean liner entailed, what was most striking about this Youngstown Playhouse triumph was the almost hushed level of intimacy that John D. Holt and his illustrious company brought to the show. It was a chamber piece disguised as an extravaganza, and all the more satisfying because of that. “Titanic” offered further proof that nobody does musical theater in the Valley better than YP Managing Director Holt.
4“Glengarry Glen Ross”
It’s always exciting to see a local theater company tackle an uncompromisingly adult play such as David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1984 masterpiece, which makes no concessions to the dinner theater crowd. It’s even more exciting when they actually manage to pull it off. Director Joe Scarvell made sure that his bravura Youngstown Playhouse cast didn’t miss a staccato beat or (Harold) Pinter-ian pause in Mamet’s gleefully profane dialogue. The ease with which John Cox, Chris Fidram, John Holt, et al slipped under the skin of their slimy characters was the season’s greatest feat of theatrical alchemy.
5 “South Pacific”
Michael Cavalier’s superb New Castle Playhouse staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved 1949 Broadway classic proved why many consider “South Pacific” one of the greatest musicals ever written. By bringing new vitality and luster to a show that, for all intents and purposes, should have been shrouded in dustballs, Cavalier made a good case for its continued relevance and enduring appeal.
6 “Enchanted April”
David El’Hatton’s Youngstown Playhouse production of Matthew Barber’s frothy trifle of a play did so many things right — flawless casting; Jim Lybarger’s sumptuous scenic design which magically transported us to a cozily rustic Italian villa; breezy, insouciant pacing that never lulled for a moment — hat it was tempting to overpraise what was essentially a minor divertissement. Yet El’Hatton managed to find the sweet spot that elevated his dimestore material into great popular art.
7 Stephanie Holt and Stephanie Ottey
While neither of these community theater icons worked often enough in 2008, their infrequent appearances were always a cause for celebration. Breezing in at the end of “Titanic”’s Act One, Holt delivered an electric jolt of energy as nascent feminist Charlotte Cardoza. In “Enchanted April,” Holt was virtually unrecognizable as excitable, hunchbacked crone Costanza. She turned what could have been a throwaway part into the show’s indisputable comic highlight. And in the Youngstown Playhouse’s “Company,” Ottey channeled the young Diane Keaton at her ditzy-adorable best as guileless flight attendant April. Ottey’s thrilling rendition of one of Stephen Sondheim’s most beautiful songs — the plaintive one-night stand elegy “Barcelona” — became a minor masterpiece of bittersweet farce.
8 David El’Hatton
As director (see above), actor (note his scene-stealing turns in “A Few Good Men,” “Enchanted April,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Company”) or simply as one of our most passionate, articulate community theater crusaders, El’Hatton deserves props for being this area’s most exciting — and indispensable — triple-threat talent.
9 “Night of the Living Dead”
The Oakland Center for the Arts wildly popular Halloween presentation went a long way toward rehabilitating the reputation of zombies. Director Chris Fidram’s decision to play the material straight — minus the self-reflexive irony that’s ruined so many post-modern creature features — proved to be a smart one. A fiendishly committed cast, an effectively eerie monochromatic set, ingenious “Whacky Shack” lighting effects and ghoulishly effective makeup all contributed to the gruesome fun. Also impressive was how Fidram shrewdly incorporated every square inch of the Oakland’s intimate space — both on and off stage — to create an ambient, theater-in-the-round effect. His zombies were much closer than you’d imagine; and possibly a lot closer than some of us would have liked.
22Despite some built-in flaws (George C. Wolfe’s 1986 “Museum” seemed a tad dated in the post-Tyler Perry era, and Bert V. Royal’s “Dog” was basically a precious, one-joke conceit stretched into a longish one-act), these two Oakland productions were among the most enjoyable, high-energy shows of the year.
“Museum” spotlighted the talents of some terrifically gifted, if criminally underused black performers (including Rozz Chapman, Lois Thornton, Kenneth Brown and Carla Gipson); and the first-rate ensemble of promising young actors from “Dog” (especially Ric Panning, Alecia Sarkis, Amato D’Apolito and Denise Glinatsis) made me hopeful for the continued strength of community theater in the Valley.