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Critic's Choice: Best of Maine 2016


Having had the privilege to serve as Broadway World's Maine Editor for more than three years now, I can say with pride that the state, though remote as it may seem from the epicenter of the theatre world, Broadway, is blessed to be home to so many thriving theatre companies who produce exciting, vibrant seasons. As I compiled my list for 2016 with many familiar names, I was also struck by the extraordinary consistency of excellence these companies maintain. Here are my personal choices of the best in Maine, grouped by theatre and show.

1. MAINE STATE MUSIC THEATRE had, by any standard, a season for the record books! Not only did they draw sold out crowds for virtually every show, but the four Brunswick productions and one co-production with Portland Stage proved stunning in every regard - from the depth of talent to the sophisticated production values to the striking versatility of the programming! Beginning with the East Coast premiere of the new chamber version of Ghost, which MSMT co-produced with the Fulton Theatre, and seguing to an electric staging of Evita - both directed/choreographed by the incomparable Marc Robin, the season went on to offer a heart melting Fiddler on the Roof directed/choreographed by Gary John La Rosa and a joyous Mamma Mia! realized by Mark Martino. Employing some of the largest casts in the company's history, the season featured compelling performances by Gregg Goodbrod, Liz Shivener, E. Faye Butler, and Mike Backes in Ghost; Kate Fahrner, Matt Farcher, and Nat Chandler in Evita, Bill Nolte and Susan Cella in Fiddler, and Lauren Mufson in Mamma Mia! - among ensembles which were perfect in every way. And, as always, the intern company seems to get better and better each year, this season under the supervision of Raymond Marc Dumont; their performances in the Curt Dale Clark-directed A Grand Night for Singing and Jack and the Beanstalk and the Dumont directed Aladdin, not to mention their exuberant contributions to the main stage shows - (who will forget the bottle dance in Fiddler?) - all testify to the richness of this training program. Then, lastly, there was the historic collaboration with Portland Stage - which extended both companies' seasons and proved to be the highest grossing show in Portland Stage's history: Frank McCourt's The Irish and How They Got That Way again directed/choreographed by Marc Robin with an impressive set by Anita Stewart and four rollicking, heart-rending, vocally spectacular performances by Curt Dale Clark, Peter Cormican, Charis Leos, and Cary Michele Miller. (It will be a long time before I forget Clark's haunting rendition of "Danny Boy" or Miller's wrenching "Fields of Athenry" or the side-splittingly funny funeral scene performed by the entire ensemble.

Once again, one has to recognize the artistic vision of MSMT's leadership, Curt Dale Clark and Stephanie Dupal, who have continued to challenge themselves and their collaborators not only to meet but also to exceed every expectation of excellence. Earlier in the season in a review, I had written that "integrity" (in the sense of excellence and wholeness) was a word I would use to describe this theatre company's work. To that, I would now add "generosity"- that open, exuberant embrace of the magical properties of musical theatre and a joyous willingness to share these with their audiences.

2. GOOD THEATER under the energetic artistic direction of Brian P. Allen, also produced a season of plays that was remarkable in every way. Opening with the world premiere of Mamma's Boy (honored in my column last year), Allen went on to direct/producer a rip-roaringly funny Shear Madness and a beautifully staged account of Moss Hart's Act One - the latter one of the largest casts in Good history - both featuring memorable performances by Michael Wood. What makes one consistently sit up and take notice at the Good Theater is the note-perfect scale and substance of Brian P. Allen's direction - coupled with his instinct for choosing a thoughtful balance of works that all resonate with intensity, wit, and heart.

3. OGUNQUIT PLAYHOUSE produced one of its longest seasons in memory this year, offering an excellent mix of styles and genres of musical theatre. Its grand coup for the season was the pre-Broadway production of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which marshaled huge choral forces and fielded lavish scenery, anchored by a blazing performance by Bradley Dean as Claude Frollo. Director BT McNicholl brought warm nostalgia to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and the season closed with a reprise of the hugely popular Million Dollar Quartet.

4. PORTLAND STAGE's season offered its usual roster of new plays and socially conscious revivals - among them To the Mountaintop, My Name Is Asher Lev, Dancing at Lughansa -all produced with impeccable professionalism, though perhaps they scored their biggest successes with the wacky three character sendup of The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring the brilliant chameleon talents of Dustin Tucker, and in their exceptional co-production with Maine State Music Theatre, The Irish and How They Got That Way. (see above)

5.PORTLAND PLAYERS & BIDDEFORD CITY THEATER share this spot as two non-equity theatres which gave Maine some productions as fine as any one might see on any stage. Directed/choreographed by Raymond Marc Dumont, Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party at Portland Players proved to be a difficult, disturbing, yet brilliantly conceived theatrical evening - one which was marked by electrifying staging and intense, unsparing performances throughout. Portland Players also mounted a similarly gripping account of Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Michael Donovan, and featuring two mesmerizing performances in the leads by Joel Crowley and Joanna Clarke. Lastly, Donovan also gave Portland audiences a stirring rendition of The Crucible in what was an overall fine season.

BIDDEFORD CITY THEATER treated Maine audiences to a powerful production of the Pulitzer Prize winning musical, Next to Normal, directed by Linda Sturdivant with a fine acting ensemble - no small feat with a work of this difficulty and caliber.

Honorable Mention for Community Theatre goes to LYRIC MUSIC THEATRE for producing an ambitious, well-balanced season with numerous highlights, among them a classy production of The Music Man, starring David Van Duyne, a wistful Secret Garden, and a gripping Sweeney Todd with a strong Zach Handlen in the lead.

Congratulations all!

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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold