By Milan Paurich

As the curtain draws to a close on yet another calendar year, it’s time to take a look back at the community theater productions I reviewed for The Vindicator in 2009. Although there weren’t any local productions of “South Pacific” this annum, I experienced my share of “enchanted evenings” nonetheless.

In that spirit, here is my annual highlight reel of the productions, performances and talent that impressed, entertained and captivated me the most over the past 12 months.

With luck, next year will bring even more cherished “moments to remember.”

1. Robert Dennick Joki

Oakland Center for the Arts MVP. Joki could have probably filled my entire top 10 all by himself. Beginning in February with his galvanizing production of “Bug” (featuring a stunning lead performance by the fearless Terri Labedz) and continuing through this month’s delicious revamp of Yuletide perennial “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas,” Joki was at the top of his game in 2009 as director, actor, writer and even indefatigable costume/set designer.

Picking a favorite from such a bevy of Joki riches (“Reefer Madness,” “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” “Rent Jr.,” “The Rocky Horror Show,” et al) is a fool’s game. Most impressive of all may have been Joki’s one-man show, “I’m Not That Girl,” that played for just one weekend in June. Anyone privileged enough to have seen it still gets goosebumps recalling Joki’s well-nigh definitive rendition of “The Dark I Know Well” from “Spring Awakening.”

2. “Ragtime”

The single most impressive local production this year was Top Hat’s sublime rendering of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ 1998 musical “Ragtime.” I’m not sure how Top Hat major domo Brian Palumbo did it: particularly on the Fairview Arts and Outreach Center’s diminutive stage. Yet “Ragtime” astonished me with its clockwork precision, derring-do and sheer chutzpah. In a truly inspired cast (including such estimable talents as Jennifer Kuczek, Bill Marr and Anthony Villa), YSU students Joshua W. Green and Nikita R. Jones delivered the sort of transcendent, electrifying performances that deserve to become the stuff of local legend. Top Hat’s other 2009 shows (“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “The Earth Trembled”) were terrific, but “Ragtime” is the one that belongs in the time capsule.

3. “Rabbit Hole”

By picking a contemporary drama that hadn’t been staged locally before and judiciously sprinkling it with the very best available talent, director Christopher Fidram made great community theater look deceptively easy. His Oakland Center for the Arts production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play was effortlessly elegant, beautifully understated and filled with wonderfully unfussy, naturalistic performances (Sara Klimenko, Joel Stigliano, Candace DiLullo, L.J. “Tess” Tessier, Cheney Morgan). It wasn’t until leaving the theater that you realized just how extraordinary — and extraordinarily moving — the experience was.

4. “Fiddler on the Roof”

This New Castle Playhouse revival offered incontrovertible proof that nobody does vintage Broadway tuners in the tri-state area as well as NCP mainstay Michael Cavalier. Naysayers have accused Cavalier of playing it safe by sticking to the tried-and-true rather than veering out of his perceived comfort zone. Of course, that unfair criticism discounts Cavalier’s genius at capturing the essence — what makes a classic “classic” — of some of the American theater’s most beloved and enduring musicals. July’s “Fiddler” evinced all of the strengths (a bustling, vocally adroit cast; impeccable production values; seamless transitions between scenes; crackerjack pacing — of a first-rate Cavalier enterprise.

5. John Cox

While everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Youngstown Playhouse finally reopened its doors last summer after a 10-month hiatus, it was Dr. John Cox who deserves the lion’s share of kudos for helping them stage their Lazarus act. For directing two YP shows back-to-back (“Barefoot in the Park” and “Blues in the Night”) in the finest summer-stock fashion, Cox proved that he’s the greatest mensch on the local community theater scene.

Whether playing the lead (NCP’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”), a glorious, glorified cameo (YP’s “Miracle on 34th Street”) or writing, directing and producing his sensational reimagining of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” for WKBN-AM 570 radio this November, Cox made it abundantly clear what a triple-threat talent he is. I can’t wait to see what Cox’s nascent Rosebud production company has in store for 2010.

6. Sara Klimenko and Lisandra Stebner in “The Miracle Worker”

Director J.E. Ballantyne Jr.’s Victorian Players’ production of “The Miracle Worker” was hampered by a cumbersome three-act structure and an uneven supporting cast. Plus, some of playwright William Gibson’s dialogue sounded a tad stilted and overly prosaic 50 years after its Broadway premiere. But thanks to the formidable acting duet of Klimenko and Stebner, Ballantyne proved to be something of an alchemist himself. Stebner delivered a performance of such heartstoppng authenticity and unbridled conviction as the young Helen Keller that you truly believed she was deaf, blind and mute. And a superb Klimenko — portraying Keller’s teacher-mentor Annie Sullivan — matched her every step of the way.

7. “Driving Miss Daisy”

If community theater at its best is truly a collaborative effort, this Oakland Center for the Arts production of Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winner was a triumph for all concerned. Unlike some versions of “Miss Daisy” where the pacing is deliberately slowed down in an attempt to simulate the unhurried rhythms of genteel Southern living, director Terri Wilkes brought such a metronomelike sense of timing that there were no lulls in the action. And her incomparable cast (Molly Galano, Johnny R. Herbert and endearing audience surrogate Eric Kibler) deserved every standing ovation — and Marquee Award — they received.

8. “All My Sons”

The near-existential malaise experienced by many returning World War II vets was transformed into a scathing critique of “The American Dream” in Arthur Miller’s 1947 masterpiece. J.E. Ballanytyne Jr.’s foursquare interpretation of “All My Sons” at the New Castle Playhouse Annex Theater last summer triumphed thanks to the vividly-drawn and quietly devastating performances of Scott Mackenzie, Stefan Lingenfelter (in a spectacular NCP debut), Molly Galano, Caryn Nicholson and Jeff Carey. Because wartime profiteering (think Halliburton or Blackwater) and the betrayal of a nation’s honor and trust by “upstanding” paternal types (hey there, Dick Cheney) are still very much a part of our national fabric, Miller’s play remained as spookily relevant as it was 60-plus years ago.

9. Jason Green in “Dracula”

As fly-and-spider-gobbling lunatic Renfield in the Terri Wilkes-directed “Dracula,” Green’s demoniacally voluble tour-de-force was so wickedly entertaining and daringly original that you almost wished the entire Youngstown Playhouse show had been devoted to him. Green proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are no small parts, only small actors.

10. Denise Sculli in “Kitchen Witches”

Christopher Fidram’s snappy pacing and Sculli’s bravura comic performance as cable cooking show diva Dolly Biddle made Caroline Smith’s lowbrow, high-concept crowd pleaser seem better than it is in this Trumbull New Theatre blockbuster. Sculli (so memorable as Annie Wilkes in Fidram’s “Misery” two years ago) was a total delight, never more so than when assuming the persona of kitchen wench “Babka” at the beginning of Act One. With a Ukrainian accent as thick as a pot of borscht, the side-splitting Sculli brought down the house with her “Borat”-worthy malapropisms.

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