First Night's Top Ten of 2010: Nashville's Best Directors

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If theater audiences in Nashville and Middle Tennessee owe a huge debt of gratitude to the directors who helm the year's finest productions, you can only imagine how the actors lucky enough to work with those insightful, creative men and women must be! The Top Ten Directors of 2010 have resumes anyone would be proud to claim as their own and when you consider that they - year after year - excel at what they do, then you cannot help but be impressed by the breadth and depth of their abilities. Frankly, it boggles the mind. These are Nashville's best directors of 2010...

  • Michele Colvin, Brigadoon, Cumberland County Playhouse, Crossville. Lerner and Loewe's classic musical about the mythic Scottish hamlet that appears but once every 100 years is romantic and moving, directed and choreographed with skill and panache by Michele Colvin who proves her mettle in every scene, every moment, every nuance expressed in this spectacularly produced work. Colvin's mastery is evident throughout the show in every possible way. This Brigadoon encapsulates musical theater at its finest, that which makes musical theater so transformative, so affecting and so transcendent: It whisks audiences away to another time, another place, insisting upon the complete suspension of disbelief to be caught up in its dream-like tale of such romantic proportions that you cannot help but lose yourself in the exquisitely performed scenes and awesomely rendered songs. Colvin's spot-on choreography (she generously gives a nod in the program to the original dances created by the legendary Agnes DeMille for the original Broadway production) is a highlight of the show, particularly in Act Two's sword dance (performed by Austin Price, Chaz Sanders, Michael Ruff and Elliott Cunningham) and her dual roles as director and choreographer are perhaps at their zenith in Act Two's opening "The Chase," which is evocatively underscored by Murphy's orchestra and brought so vividly to life through Colvin's actors.

  • Scot Copeland, The Diary of Anne Frank, Nashville Children's Theatre. No matter how many times you see The Diary of Anne Frank, you cannot helped but be moved by the story and the renewed realization that such horrors as the Holocaust actually took place in a civilized world. Perhaps even more horrifying is the notion that some people insist the Holocaust never happened, that it is merely a fabrication by the Jewish-controlled media and political reactionaries attempting to foist an untruth upon the world. How important then is this play - now onstage at Nashville Children's Theatre in a stunning production helmed by NCT producing director Scot Copeland - designed for younger audiences? Frankly, its impact is immeasurable, but it most certainly presents the story of young diarist Anne Frank in such a way that younger audiences should never be able to forget the Holocaust, nor should they ever question the reality of those dark days in the human experience. The story is rendered even more timely, and even more heartbreaking, by the January 11, 2010, death of Miep Gies, the brave Dutch woman who was one of the Frank family's protectors during their more than two years of hiding in the "secret annex" of the company building owned by Frank. Throughout her life, Gies kept the Anne Frank story alive through her many works and efforts and her loss must have affected this company beyond measure as they were in the final days of rehearsals before the show's opening. The timing and the impact of Gies' death makes Copeland's interpretation of the time-honored work by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett even more astoundingly heart-rending and moving.

  • Rene Dunshee Copeland, To Kill A Mockingbird, Tennessee Repertory Theatre. Nashville theater audiences owe a huge debt of gratitude to Tennessee Rep's creative team - led by producing artistic director Rene Dunshee Copeland, scenic and properties designer Gary Hoff, costume designer Trish Clark, lighting designer Phillip Franck and technical director Tyler Axt - for the exceptional production of To Kill A Mockingbird. It is one of the finest acted Tennessee Rep productions in the company's storied 26-year history, and it shows that even the best-known and most beloved literary creations can be reimagined and mounted in a manner both unexpected and surprising. Copeland has made some very judicious cuts to playwright Christopher Sergel's script which result in a production that is eloquently moving in tone and depiction, yet somehow completely contemporary and timely. Copeland's deftly directs her cast through the plot, which is well known to virtually any American who can read, with inventiveness and attention to detail.

  • Bill Feehely, Vincent in Brixton, Actors Bridge Ensemble. Under the strong and capable direction of Actors Bridge's founding artistic director Bill Feehely, the play tells of young Vincent's sojourn in London, considering how his love affair with a woman more than twice his age - the woman who inspired him to follow his heart and his dreams even while she watched hers wither on the vine - completely changed his life's direction, resulting in the legendary artistry for which he is best known. One of this season's most beautifully acted productions, Vincent in Brixton is moving and emotional, funny and evocative. Thanks to Feehely's wealth of experience and his discerning eye, it is a lively affair, completely engaging the audience in the tale being told onstage. By turns immensely entertaining and thoroughly inspiring, Vincent in Brixton is also heart-wrenching in its candor and honesty and the multi-layered performances of Feehely's talented cast only gives the play deeper meaning and resonance.

  • Mike Fernandez, Doubt, David Lipscomb University Theater. Provocative and compelling, John Patrick Shanley's script for Doubt remains stagebound - albeit a Pulitzer Prize-winning, stagebound masterpiece - until a confident director and cast take on the challenge of mounting a production, in which to breathe life into the characters created so vividly by the playwright on the written page. With Shanley watching from the audience on opening night, director Mike Fernandez and his cast found themselves under the most terrific pressure one could imagine and they took up the challenge with grace, delivering a stunning production that does the theatre program at Lipscomb very proud. Led by Nashville theatre stalwart Nan Gurley as Sister Aloysius and Baylor University professor Steven Pounders as Father Flynn, Fernandez's cast is uniformly consistent and committed to their performances. Fernandez's direction is crisply focused on the play's action and his deft hand is seen throughout the players' onstage interactions that fairly crackle with intensity. Fernandez's even-handed direction is confident and imaginative and the actions moves along at a nice pace.

  • Corbin Green, Nine, Boiler Room Theatre, Franklin. Ignore the urge to rent the DVD of the recent, misguided film version of the Arthur Kopit/Maury Yeston musical; you will be disappointed and while you will likely come away with renewed respect for the talented Penelope Cruz, you won't have the enriching, invigorating and provocative experience you are guaranteed by McCarthy and company, under the expert direction of Corbin Green, musical director Jamey Green and choreographer Lauri Gregoire. Boiler Room's superb production is artfully and creatively brought to life by the talented cast who bring Green's artistic vision so compellingly to the stage, telling the story of Guido's slow descent into despair and madness with a vigorous grace that is somehow unexpected, but is so genuinely expressed.

  • Clay Hillwig, The Grapes of Wrath, Circle Players. Featuring a stunning lead performance by Heather Alexander in the pivotal role of Ma Joad, director Clay Hillwig scores an artistic success with his production of Frank Galati's The Grapes of Wrath - based upon John Steinbeck's epic novel - to open Circle Players' 2010-11 season at The Keeton Theatre. Performed by Hillwig's large cast against the backdrop of Jim Manning's beautifully conceived and exquisitely realized set that magically transforms the Keeton's intimate stage into a panoramic view of dustbowl Oklahoma, the fiery Southwest and the lush, verdant fields and orchards of California, The Grapes of Wrath is a visual tour de force that other community theater companies - frankly, any theater company of whatever ilk - should aspire to achieve. Hillwig's creative vision for the play is obvious, as is his understanding of Steinbeck's source material, and he is able to bring his imagination to the stage effectively

  • Matt Logan, A Christmas Carol, Studio Tenn. With Studio Tenn's first full season opening to critical acclaim and audience approval with the Logan-directed production of Hello, Dolly!, the company's artistic director could have simply rested on his laurels and brought the holiday season offering of A Christmas Carol to the stage without much fanfare, simply directing the seasonal chestnut by rote. Instead, Logan's staging of Paula Flautt's adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic is nothing short of extraordinary. Creatively and imaginatively staged, the play's action is almost cinematic in its flow, with the cast in constant movement to propel the story along its way. Logan's vision for the piece is stunningly designed and is brought to life by a superb cast that includes some of Nashville's favorites (including Chip Arnold as Scrooge, Shelean Newman, Matt Carlton, Ross Brooks and Shannon McMinn Hoppe) and introducing audiences to some very talented newcomers (including Jonathan Blakeley and Adam Curvin), while directing Harpeth Hall freshman MaryKathryn Kopp in a particularly impressive performance as The Ghost of Christmas Past.

  • Michael Roark, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, ACT 1. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - Edward Albee's scathing evisceration of marriage and indictment of suburban morality - is brought to the Nashville stage once again in a superbly acted and confidently directed production. First staged by ACT 1 in its 1989-90 season in a critically-lauded staging directed by Peg Allen and headed by a cast that included A. Sean O'Connell, it is revived now as part of the company's 20th anniversary season, once again proving the power of Albee's exquisitely created words and plot and the frankly horrifying characters whose lives play out onstage. Director Michael Roark's effective staging of the piece - and the spectacularly theatrical, yet somehow low-key and effectively underplayed, performances of Melissa Bedinger Hade and Ed Amatrudo - adds to the visceral reactions experienced by the audience in this almost epic dismantling of an American marriage, circa 1960-something. Staging Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a daunting task for any director and Roark courageously takes up the challenge to deliver a production that soars far beyond what could be expected. This ACT 1 revival delivers a night of live theatre that moves at a good clip despite the production's almost three hours' running time

  • Lauren Shouse, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Street Theatre Company. Thanks to Street Theatre Company's stellar production of the William Finn-Rachel Sheinkin-Rebecca Feldman musical comedy, I'll be wallowing in self-pity until I find better ways to occupy my time and better memories to fill my mind - or a bright, shiny object catches my eye. But for now I am happy to reflect on the joyous and frivolous fun that is director Lauren Shouse's superb and sparkling staging of the musical that somehow manages to be both completely contemporary and gloriously traditional in a musical-comedy-sort-of-way. Shouse's exceptional cast of actors, accompanied by music director Rollie Mains' talented musicians and featuring the sprightly choreography of Paul Cook, are sheer perfection as The Bee's crew of over-achieving - sometimes cringeworthy, yet always lovable - middle school spelling phenoms. Shouse's direction is top-notch and her seasoned creativity is apparent throughout the show, which is presented in two acts, with a 15-minute intermission. You are likely to find yourself so completely caught up in the onstage action that you will be amazed how quickly those two acts pass.

Pictured: Matt Logan

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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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