BWW Critic's Choices: Best of Maine 2022

Best of Maine Theatre 2022

By: Dec. 15, 2022

BWW Critic's Choices: Best of Maine 2022

After three seemingly endless years, Maine's theatrical landscape has truly begun to come to life again after the pandemic. I am thrilled to be able to pen this article, having experienced a 2022 that saw the remarkable "comebacks" of Maine's theatres. While the year was not without continued challenges, these brave, resilient companies managed to produce first-class live theatre for grateful audiences.

These are my personal choices of the best in Maine for 2022, grouped by theatre company and show.

BWW Critic's Choices: Best of Maine 2022

1. MAINE STATE MUSIC THEATRE produced its first fully programmed season since the pandemic back in its home in the Pickard Theater in Brunswick. The four main stage shows, a co-production with Portland Stage, three concerts, and three children's shows, together with various outreach activities proved the moniker of "Revival Season" to be a truly apt one. Not only did the company mount the creatively conceived, beautifully acted and produced musical theatre for which they have won national recognition, but they welcomed back an enthusiastic public after a chilling hiatus.

The entire season was noteworthy! A stirringly heartfelt SOUND OF MUSIC, directed/choreographed by Marc Robin, reminded audiences how breathtakingly gorgeous Rodgers and Hammerstein's score is, probed the warmth, humor, and darker elements of the play, and featured a stellar cast led by Hanley Smith and Will Ray. Fresh from Broadway, Alex Sanchez directed and choreographed a production of JOSEPH & THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT that sparkled with vibrancy and joy. (The Covid-mandated cancellation of the last part of this run was the sole painful spot in an otherwise bright summer.) The long-awaited KINKY BOOTS, directed by Robin and choreographed by Kenny Ingram, closed the season with a production that exploded with energy and heart and showcased the brilliant performances of Stephane Duret (Lola) and Matt Farcher (Charlie) in the twin leads.

But, among all these excellent performances, if I had to choose only one that will remain with me - and by all indications MSMT audiences - forever, it would be the exquisitely brave, beautiful production of THE COLOR PURPLE. Directed by E. Faye Butler, choreographed by Flo Walker Harris, featuring one of the most cohesive and inspiring ensembles in recent memory, this musical adaptation of Alice Walker's powerful novel provided a searing, riveting, deeply moving experience for audiences. The all-African-American cast and creative team gifted their audiences with impeccable artistry and unsparing emotional truth, and newcomer Jaden Dominique as Celie delivered a performance of such breathtaking depth as to be unforgettable.

By programming THE COLOR PURPLE and KINKY BOOTS, Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark courageously introduced - and championed - shows that explored worlds unfamiliar to most of Maine's public and sparked important conversations about the material. That these productions and their artists were embraced so warmly and that the end result of these conversations was a new, enlightened understanding of how transformative theatre can truly be are perhaps the greatest gifts of MSMT's 2022 season.

BWW Critic's Choices: Best of Maine 2022 2. OGUNQUIT PLAYHOUSE, Maine's other large professional producer of musical theatre, also returned to fully-staged productions in its indoors venue (rather than the specially constructed outdoor pavilion for 2021). Committing much of the company's energies to new works in recent years, Artistic/Executive Director Bradford Kenney produced a season that included THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and Mr. Holland'S OPUS. But perhaps, the crowning performance of the summer was BEAUTIFUL, the Carole King musical, headlined by a luminous Sarah Bockel in the title role and a stunning visual production. BWW's Ogunquit reviewer, Dan Marois, summed up the appeal noting: "See this show and relive a time and place in musical history that has yet to be repeated." Once again the magic of music, dance, visual elements, together with true star power on stage combined to deliver an in inimitable Ogunquit evening.

BWW Critic's Choices: Best of Maine 2022 3. GOOD THEATER, again proved itself to be the "mighty little theatre that could." Under the wise and insightful artistic and executive direction of Brian P. Allen, this small, adventurous company on Munjoy Hill returned from the pandemic to produce a roster of plays, notable for its stylistic and thematic variety. Allen is adept at choosing material that will play to the strengths of the company - including the intimate space, and budgetary constraints, and he somehow manages to make "small" look "big" in the sense of imposing and important. It is also no secret that he is a huge musical theatre fan, and has found clever ways to make this medium work on the Good stage. My own favorites of 2022 include the riotously funny DESPERATE MEASURES, directed by Allen with musical staging by Raymond Marc Dumont. A musical take-off of MEASURE FOR MEASURE, set in the Wild West, the Good production and its strong cast gleefully frolicked through the numerous misunderstandings of the plot.

But, perhaps the most ambitious undertaking Allen has essayed in the history of the theatre is his Fall 2022 mounting of Rodgers and Hammerstein's CAROUSEL, the largest production ever in the history of the Good. Using the Robert Russell Bennett twin piano version and shaping the material into a kind of chamber version, the production, nonetheless, reminded audiences of how masterful the work is and how - despite politically correct naysayers - the material is poignant, truthful, and ever worthy of performance.

BWW Critic's Choices: Best of Maine 2022 4. PORTLAND STAGE, under the leadership of Anita Stewart, continued its programming of provocative new works. Among the outstanding selections from 2022 were SABINA, a new chamber opera about a pioneer of early psychoanalysis and the muse of Carl Jung, Sabina Spielrein. With a book by Willy Holzman and a dark modernist score by Louise Beach, this proved to be spellbinding theatre.

Another musical play - co-produced with Maine State Music Theatre - diametrically different in tone and style - was SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN, a comedy about a Baptist singing group, and the revelations, both funny and touching, which emerge at their evening song service. The seven-person multi-talented cast played twenty-seven different instruments, and proved themselves appealing vocalists and actors.

Portland Stage, which managed to produced a few very small works during the pandemic, has happily returned to its full potential and is planning a very welcome refurbishment of its facility this coming year.

BWW Critic's Choices: Best of Maine 2022 5. PUBLIC THEATRE, under the leadership of Christopher Schario and Janet Mitchko, continues to entertain Lewiston-Auburn audiences, mostly with comedies. It opened its 2022-2023 season with an especially stylish production of Patricia Milton's THE VICTORIAN LADIES DETECTIVE COLLECTIVE. This witty contemporary spin on the Victorian murder mystery confronts convention, gender bias, and a serial killer all in one fast-paced, delightful evening. Directed by Schario, the mystery unfolded in a heady concoction of suspense, thrills, and laughter.

Looking back to 2022, Maine has reason to celebrate the return of theatre to its stages, large and small, and to look forward in 2023 and beyond to a resumption of the growth, experimentation, and artistic excellence that has marked the state's theatrical landscape.

Photographs courtesy of the respective theatres

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