BWW Review: BWW Critic's Choices: Best in Maine 2019
As evidenced by the breadth of nominations for Broadway World's Annual Audience Choice Awards, Maine's theatrical landscape seems to grow and flourish with each new season. For a state as remote as we are, we boast two prestigious regional theatres now in their second half centuries - Maine State Music Theatre and Ogunquit Playhouse - which are leaders on the national regional scene and which have become destinations for travellers from far flung places. Add to these an array of countless other companies of every size and philosophic bent, and you have a colorful, rich artistic arena that grows more interesting each year.
I am privileged to get to sample these performances as Broadway World'sMaine editor and to be able to compare many of them favorably with shows I see across the country, in New York and London. These are my personal choices of the best in Maine for 2019, grouped by theatre company and show.
# 1. MAINE STATE MUSIC THEATRE completed its 61st season in 2019 by proving that its gala diamond jubilee the year before was merely a launch into a new stratosphere. This company consistently heads my honor roll of choice not only because of the world-class quality of its productions, but also because of the seemingly unfettered artistic and institutional growth it has forged in the past seven years. Each year, MSMT challenges itself to mount ever more complex productions with a roster of talent that has either come from Broadway or been discovered in Brunswick and is then destined for the Great White Way. And each year, the company has expanded its repertoire by adding touring performances, co-productions, concerts, and educational outreach experiences that continue to burnish its reputation and create new audiences for live theatre.
The 2019 main stage season produced one blockbuster hit after the other in a wide range of styles, from the dazzling jazz of SOPHISTICATED LADIES with the legendary E. Faye Butler and Felicia P.Fields, to the classic heartwarming HELLO, DOLLY!, headlined by a stellar cast starring Charis Leos, and these topped by an unforgettably magical WIZARD OF OZ directed by Curt Dale Clark and Marc Robin, choreographed by Robin who also starred as the Scarecrow together with Carolyn Anne Miller, Ian Knauer, David Girolmo, and Susan Cella. But perhaps MSMT's most significant accomplishment this past summer was the East Coast premiere of Robin & Clark's TREASURE ISLAND A MUSICAL ADVENTURE, one of the most compelling, imaginative, poetic, and soaringly grand new works to be written for American musical theatre in quite some time.- one which focused industry attention on Maine and which featured the local debut of a young artist destined for great things, Michael William Nigro as Jim Hawkins.
In addition to the main stage shows, MSMT created a lively co-production of GREASE with Lewiston's Public Theatre, featuring an age-appropriate cast of its Educational Fellows and local actors, and mounted its fourth co-production with Portland Stage - a rousing rendition of Fats Waller's AIN'T MISBEHAVIN.' The concert series- completely sold out - brought stars like Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash and E. Faye Butler and Felicia P. Fields to the Pickard as well.
MSMT, under the inspired leadership of Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark and Managing Director Stephanie Dupal, has charted a course that is adventurous, demanding, exciting, and rewarding to those who take the journey with them!
# 2. TIE
THE GOOD THEATER, the small resident company at Portland's St. Lawrence Center led by Brian P. Allen and Steven Underwood, has, within its sphere, made similarly bold advances in programming and breadth of season. Adding to its traditional four productions, the Good has begun to program readings, concert stagings, and smaller works concurrently with the main stage offerings, utilizing its space and challenging its audience to the fullest. The 2018-19 season, which had begun with a breathtaking production of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT, also featured a powerful production of A DOLL's HOUSE PART 2, a riotously funny HOMER BOUND, and the Good's first ever full musical with book, the Ahrens and Flaherty work, LUCKY STIFF. The 2018 holiday BROADWAY AT THE GOOD boasted an incandescent Valerie Perri. The largely residenttechnical/design company knows how to make the most of the space, and Allen as an artistic director excels at choosing repertoire precisely calibrated to the dynamics of the house and his cast. The programming is varied, thought-provoking and always compelling in human terms. The Good Theater is the little theatre company who could and who DOES - deliver!
OGUNQUIT PLAYHOUSE celebrates its 87th season in 2019 with a razzle dazzle lineup of impeccably produced Broadway-quality shows which featured the company's signature policy of bringing numerous established stars to their stage. The repertoire featured a sparkling KINKY BOOTS, a reprise of the crowd favorite JERSEY BOYS, a biting CABARET, and a stunning new production of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Ogunquit Playhouse, under the leadership of Bradford Kenney, continues to reaffirm its historic place in American musical theatre at the same time that it seeks to explore new repertoire to keep the canon alive
# 3. THEATER At MONMOUTH celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019, no small feat for a small rural company devoted primarily to the classics. Utilizing the natural gifts of the jewel box Cumston Hall Theater, TAM has made a virtue of sleek, elegant, minimalist productions that focus on the acting talent and on the text. Interspersing Shakespeare and other European classics with a few contemporary plays, TAM focuses on a theme - this year "What dreams may come.." Under the leadership of Dawn McAndrews, TAM succeeds in attracting a loyal summer audience and in fulfilling its mission throughout the year to bring Shakespeare to schools. Highlights of thre 2019 season included HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, INTIMATE APPAREL, and an exceptionally gripping HAMLET.
# 4. PORTLAND STAGE, under the leadership of Anita Stewart, continues its commitment to developing new work and to the nurturing of contemporary playwrights. Steadfastly serious and socially conscious, they remain true to their mission of diversity and thought-provoking plays. Highlights of the 2018-2019 season included the historical drama Ben Butler and Monica Wood's HALF LIGHT, as well as the perennial favorites, A CHRISTMAS CAROL and THE IMPORTANCE OF BEIG EARNEST. They closed their season with their now customary co-production of a musical with MSMT, the raw and riveting AIN'T MISBEHAVIN', in which the lovely intimate space was transformed into Harlem's Cotton Club.
# 5. BIDDEFORD CITY THEATER, the only community theatre on the list, deserves this special shout out for the adventuresome spirit of their productions and for the generally fine quality of the work. In an ambitious season that included SWINGTIME CANTEEN and THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, Artistic Director Linda Sturdivant mounted a luminous production of the rarely heard and fiercely difficult LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, replete with a cast of fine singing actors headed by Miles Obrey, Rebecca Rinaldi, Brian McAloon, and Jaclyn Grigg.
Photographs courtesy of the respective theatres