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BWW Blog: Nashville Theatre's 'Top Ten of 2009'

BWW Blog: Nashville Theatre's 'Top Ten of 2009'

With the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" mere moments away, minds are apt to be caught up in reflection, remembering the year now ending as a new one awaits just over the horizon. Certainly that's what I've been doing lately, looking back over the past year in Nashville theatre as I pencil in dates in my new 2010 (Here's a question to ponder: Is it "two thousand ten" or "twenty ten"...think about it and get back to me) calendar for the shows set to open in the months ahead.

Since I have returned to the world of arts criticism - thanks to, last July - I've seen dozens of offerings from some of Tennessee's finest performing arts companies. And it's been a mixed bag: some good, some bad and a lot in between. The Nashville creative community remains as vibrantly engaged as ever before, with a mix of old and new companies, veterans and newcomers, mounting productions that run the gamut from the traditional to the experimental. There are generous helpings of the classics, blended artfully with the contemporary, comedies and dramas of all genres, and musicals which further underscore Music City's role in the entertainment world.

In the second half of 2009, during the months in which I again began to cover the arts after a seven year absence, I saw some memorable undertakings and, looking ahead to 2010, there are some promising productions coming up. When putting together my very own Top Ten of 2009, the first thing that became apparent to me was that musicals dominate the list. It only makes sense, at least to my way of thinking, that productions of musicals would be exemplary in Nashville: the pool of musical talent here is amazingly deep.

So here, in alphabetical order, are my picks for Nashville theatre's Top Ten of 2009:

  • Dearly Beloved. By Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten. Directed by Jim Himelrick. Presented by Towne Centre Theatre, Brentwood. Dearly Beloved is the wonderfully funny, shockingly true-to-life and on-target skewering of a Texas family on the occasion of the wedding of one of its favorite daughters. While it may not be set in West Tennessee (where I grew up) and the family in question my be the Futrelles, it's certainly a universal story of Southern families-so much so that those three wacky Futrelle sisters (Frankie, Honey Raye and Twink) could very well be my three sisters (Charlotte, Stella Mae and Bobbye Dale). Seriously, folks, there's so much comedy in this rollicking play that no matter where you grew up, you're likely to recognize your own family members. Directed by Jim Himelrick, the action takes place in the small Texas town of Fayro, with most of the action taking place in the fellowship hall of the Tabernacle of the Lamb Church. The occasion is the wedding of Tina Jo Dubberly and Parker Price; Tina Jo is the daughter of Frankie Futrelle Dubbery and her husband "Dub" (of course), and Parker is the son of widow Patsy Price ("the queen of what passes for high society in Fayro"). Tina Jo's wedding, the culmination of her mama's dream, is set to a Gone With the Wind theme, with bridesmaids in hoop skirts, the processional to "Tara's Theme," and Rhett and Scarlett dolls atop the piano in the fellowship hall, where the potluck wedding dinner will be served after the nuptials.

  • Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. Book by Linda Woolverton. Directed by Laura Lindsey. Music direction by Mitch Fuller. Choreography by Kate Adams-Johnson. Presented by Nashville Dinner Theatre at the Senior Center for the Arts, Donelson. If you ever needed any evidence that musical theatre is alive and well in Music City USA, you need look no further than Nashville Dinner Theatre's production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. It is superbly acted, beautifully sung and confidently staged. It remains a compelling piece of theatre, as moving as any I've ever seen. Directed by Laura Lindsey, who makes good use of the space (she sends her actors all over the building it seems as she involves the audience in the play's action) and utilizes her amazingly talented cast to great effect, Beauty and the Beast is enormously entertaining. From the first notes of "Belle"(which, quite frankly, is one of my favorite showtunes) to the evocative "Home," from the hilariously over-the-top "Gaston" to the show's memorable title tune, the company delivers the musical goods. Mitch Fuller's music direction is terrific and his orchestra nothing short of excellent. Suffice it to say that "Be Our Guest" gives the audience everything they hope for-and then some. Some delicious choreography by the peripatetic Kate Adams-Johnson, the ebullient dancing of a cast of seemingly hundreds of people, Lindsey's theatrical staging and outstanding costumes by Jane Schnelle all combine to make it one of the evening's certain highlights. This is what musical theatre is all about: creating magic night after night, transporting audiences to worlds only imagined and touching hearts with genuine, loving gestures-and that's exactly what this show is all about, anyway. This is a show full of highlights, not the least of which is the total commitment from every member of the cast. From Belle and her Beast (who's kinda hot, I gotta tell ya) to the smallest plate in the china cabinet, the cast uniformly delivers top-notch performances. It's extraordinary to find such attention to detail in community theatre, yet here it is in all its glory. Certainly, you have to suspend disbelief and immerse yourself in the fairy tale-like aspects of the story. The Senior Center for the Arts doesn't have the budget for a full-scale Broadway production, but they put their money to good use, giving us an economical production that pays off handsomely. Brad Kramer's set design is well-conceived and colorful, but it's relatively simple. That may be why it works so well; there aren't a lot of special effects, thus giving the cast the opportunity to use their talents to articulately relate the tale.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.

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