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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.

  • Eat the Runt. By Avery Crozier. Directed by A. Sean O'Connell. Presented by GroundWorks Theatre, Nashville. With consistently superb casting and amazingly focused direction, Avery Crozier's Eat The Runt is given its due in the play's Nashville premiere by GroundWorks Theatre. The comedy is a smartly written treatise on the arts, workplace manipulation, "human resources" and political correctness - heady subjects all that combine for one of the funniest plays of contemporary vintage that we've seen. Crozier's play manages to be both intellectual and entertaining (who'd have thunk it?) without any hint of condescension or superiority. Thanks to veteran director A. Sean O'Connell's sure-handed mounting of the work and her exceptionally well-cast ensemble, the absurdly comic tale is altogether believable and relatable. Eat the Runt provides an evening of richly compelling theatre on all levels. Staged simply and evocatively in the intimate confines of the Darkhorse Theatre, the museum offices are nonetheless presented realistically, with art lining the "walls" of the stage, providing the proper backdrop for the play's action. O'Connell's cast might well deliver the season's best ensemble performance. Clearly, it's the best we've seen thus far, featuring some new faces along with some of Nashville theatre's best-loved veteran actors, including Adele Akin, Reischa Feuerbacher, Cee Anthony, Marc Mazzone, Lily Palmer, Frank Preston and Lisa Marie Wright. Each of the actors is given an opportunity to shine onstage in Crozier's cleverly written script and they each take up the challenge with confidence. Simply put, there isn't a false moment to be found during the seemingly short two-act comedy.

  • The Fall of the House of Usher. Music by Phillip Glass. Book by Arthur Yorinks and Philip Glass. Lyrics by Arthur Yorinks. Directed by John Hoomes. Conducted by William Boggs. Production designed by Barry Steele. Presented by Nashville Opera. Disturbingly dark and awesomely foreboding, evil is certain to lurk behind the walls of the House of Usher. Springing from the fertile imagination of legendary American author Edgar Allan Poe, and re-created now as an opera by the wildly expressive Philip Glass, Nashville Opera's production of The Fall of the House of Usher represents a courageous leap of artistic faith for the company's creative brain trust. And with its mesmerizing staging conceived by director John Hoomes and production designer Barry Steele, Nashville Opera soars - bringing a brilliant production to the stage of the James K. Polk Theatre at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Shocking and riveting, provocative and challenging, this opera leaves its audience stunned and spent, grateful to have witnessed an artistic triumph of such extraordinary proportions. Glass' haunting score - using amplified instrumentation at the composer's behest - and Arthur Yorinks' libretto - exemplary in its storytelling - are faithful to Poe's original work, without being slavish. The dark story, told at its nightmarish best, focuses on the evil that resides within the walls of the Usher mansion (built, we are told, from tombstones) and the madness and depravity it visits upon the house's inhabitants. While Poe's story leaves some details to the imagination of the reader, Glass and Yorinks effectively bring to life the more disturbing aspects of the Usher family's secrets. But it is the production concept and design created by the amazingly gifted Hoomes and Steele that really sets this production apart from others. The opera's action is presented on a raised platform on the Polk stage, with a scrim in front of the singers and a screen behind them, allowing a stunning visual design that propels the story, intimately involving the audience in the onstage travails. Bringing a 21st century sensibility to the 19th century story, Hoomes and Steele have created an auspicious video that projects images - often jarring, sometimes even soothing, always provocative - on the screens, enveloping the cast and further amplifying, if you will, the themes expressed in Poe's story.

  • The Great American Trailer Park Musical. By Jean Doumanian, Jeffrey Richards and Rick Steiner. Directed by Larry Tobias. Musical direction by Ben Van Diepen. Choreography by Gabrielle Saliba. Presented by Street Theatre Company. The plot is completely nonsensical and, therefore, completely believable - if you have any rednecks, hicks or white trash in your background (as I do) - and it is so overwhelmingly, though pleasantly, over-the-top, that it's just too much fun for one visit. In fact, I think the show could develop it's own cult following given the opportunity. Tobias' fluid direction of his delectable cast of white trash portrayers is perfectly realized and there is not a false note to be found among them, although I suspect there are more than an couple of Yankees assaying the Southern roles (yeah, I'm pointing at you Cathy Sanborn Street, Cori Laemmel and Laura Matula). Frankly, y'all, they are all freaking fantastic. The music they are given to sing may be a bit derivative and what you might expect, it's still written with affection for the characters and an honest-to-God respect for time and place (and musical theatre, for Christ's sake) that you cannot help but find yourself humming along. If only every wannabe Broadway musical could have such a lineage. Tobias' direction - along with Van Diepen's polished musical direction; Gabrielle Saliba's kicky choreography; Street's sound wizardry; Wallace's expertly rendered trailer park set; Steven Steele's imaginative lighting design; and Abby Waddoups' colorful, character-driven costume design - gives this production an exceptionally strong technical underpinning.

  • Jesus Christ Superstar. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Jamey Green and Billy Ditty. Musical direction by Jamey Green. Choregraphy by Billy Ditty. Presented by The Boiler Room Theatre, Franklin. The Green/Ditty collaboration results in a elegantly refined production (kudos to scenic designer Anthony Popolo for his effective set, Corbin Green's superb lighting design and Melissa Cannon's unparalleled costume designs) that is exceedingly well-acted and which may be as well-sung as anything we've ever experienced. Particularly notable are the production's three nominal stars (although this is a cast filled with star-making performances): Ciarian McCarthy as Judas Iscariot, Ben Van Diepen as Jesus Christ and JoAnn Coleman as Mary Magdalene. McCarthy's Judas is broodingly sexy, sung with a mixture of bravado and internalized pain. With his Judas, McCarthy gives a tour de force performance that is at once athletically robust and achingly tortured. Van Diepen matches him note-for-note with a startling clarity that makes Christ's ultimate undoing all the more agonizing. He resists every notion to overact and thereby keeps his character earthbound and genuine all the while making him divinely inspiring. Coleman is a revelation. Despite some distracting nervous tics in the beginning of the piece, she grows in intensity, displaying a dramatic heft that is necessary to make her later anguish believable and real. Both of her best-known arias are exquisitely performed: "Everything's Alright" is frankly sexual yet reassuringly soothing and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" is heart-wrenchingly melancholic, effectively skirting any melodramatic overtones.

  • The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Written by the Tectonic Theatre Project's Moises Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris and Stephen Belber. Staged reading directed by Bill Feehely. Presented in Nashville by Actors' Bridge Ensemble. The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later--which had its premiere Monday night in a theatrical endeavor that was, both literally and figuratively, of worldwide proportions-is by turns provocative, moving and awesomely inspiring. Presented by some 150 theatre companies in all 50 states and around the world, the "epilogue" to the widely performed Laramie Project was staged in Nashville by Actors Bridge Ensemble and featured an 11-person cast that vividly brought the work to life. The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later offers a follow-up to the original work and was produced internationally on the 11th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was so brutally murdered by two young men near the city limits of Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. Audiences the world over were given the tremendous opportunity to share in the new work with the contemporaneous productions, an undertaking that amplifies the notion that live theatre can be transformative in its power to challenge conventional wisdom and, quite simply, provoke thought and introspection. Directed by Actors Bridge Ensemble's Bill Feehely, who doubled as the reading's narrator, the cast featured Henry Haggard, Jenny Littleton, Rebekah Durham, Ross Bolen, Brent Maddox, Jessica Pfranger, Emily Byrd, Thom Booton and Jeff Lewis. The Nashville reading was hosted by Vali Forrister, the producing artistic director for Actors Bridge, whose warmth and humanity lent an air of aid and comfort to the proceedings. Feehely and his capable cast gave startlingly fresh and genuinely moving readings, breathing life into their characters and creating a sincerely heartfelt theatrical experience.

  • Nashville's Nutcracker. Concept and choreography by Paul Vasterling. Snow Scene choreography by Robert Rodham, staged by Fiona Fuerstner. Costume design by Campbell Baird. Set design by Shigeru Yaji. Lighting design by Scott Leathers. Featuring The Nashville Symphony, conducted by Paul Gambill, Nashville Ballet music director. Presented by Nashville Ballet. The professional members of the cast, the talented women and men who comprise the heart and soul of Nashville Ballet and who pursue their art in a city better known for its music, deliver superb performances throughout. The highlight of Act One, which is replete with gorgeous visual imagery and equally gorgeous dancing amid Vasterling's staging, is most certainly the stanza-ending "Snow Scene," choreographed by Robert Rodham and staged by Fiona Fuerstner. The always beautiful and always graceful Christine Rennie and the always handsome and always authoritative Eddie Mikrut are expertly paired as the Snow Queen and King and they, once again, prove to be superior artists. It's a wonderful ending to Act One that elicits the audience's warm applause and cheers. Act Two continues this visual feast, with the beautiful "Dewdrop Waltz," danced by the exquisite Mollie Sansone as the Dewdrop Fairy and the athletically gifted Brendon LaPier as the Nutcracker Prince, performed in a gorgeous setting of garden pinks, greens and lavenders. From that stunning moment to the altogether transformative "Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy," Nashville's Nutcracker takes its rapt audience to greater artistic heights than previously thought possible. Sadie Bo Harris, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Jon Upleger, as her Cavalier, display great versatility and control, no doubt inspiring many young minds to dream of life in the ballet. The other Act Two highlights include the sensuously beautiful performance of the Snake Charmer and his Lady, danced with lithe grace by Mark Allyn Nimmo and Grace Rich, Nashville's very own homegrown ballerina; the rousing Russian dance by Damian Drake and Joseph Steinaur; the Swiss Shepherd and Shepherdess (Christopher Stuart and KrisSy Johnson) and their band of charming sheep; and, finally, Vasterling's clever take on "Mother Ginger," here intepreted as "Madame Bonbonniere" (ElizaBeth Harrison as a French confectioner) and her almost harlequinesque Bon-Bons.

  • BWW Blog: Nashville Theatre's 'Top Ten of 2009'Warriors Don't Cry. By Melba Pattillo Beals, adapted for the stage by Eisa Davis. Directed by Maryanna Clarke. Presented by Tennessee Women's Theatre Project. 

  • There may have been more emotionally draining and completely inspiring evenings of theatre before, but you'd be hard-pressed to remember anything else after seeing the richly satisfying production of Warriors Don't Cry, presented by Tennessee Women's Theatre Project. In just over an hour, Vilia Steele, in a beautifully nuanced performance, takes her rapt audience on an informative and entertaining, if too heart-breakingly real, tour through the 1957-58 school year at Little Rock's Central High School. As she becomes Melba Pattillo, one of nine African-American students chosen to challenge entrenched racial roles by integrating the public school "where the wealthiest of Little Rock's citizens sent their children to be educated," Steele ably educates her audience about our country's darker days. It's a moving experience that elicits both tears and laughter and results in new pictures of bravery and heroism etched upon your heart. The story resonates more strongly today given the tenor of our political times, as birthers and deathers debate health care reform, while conservative pundits exhort their audiences to regain control of their country, as hate and fear framed by racism and xenophobia once more claim victims across our country. It is at once Melba Pattillo Beals' personal story and a universal story of faith and redemption, of good triumphing over the forces of evil.To be honest, Steele's richly drawn portrayal and Maryanna Clarke's confident, sure-handed direction makes the upsetting subject more palatable.

  • Wicked. Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Book by Winnie Holzman. Directed by Joe Mantello. Musical staging by Wayne Cilento. Orchestrations by William David Brohn. Music supervision by Stephen Oremus. Presented by Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Everything you've heard about Wicked is true; it's an awe-inspiring stage spectacle filled with special effects, gorgeous sets and lighting, exquisite costumes, an amazingly gifted cast, a glorious musical score and an immensely entertaining, yet slightly irreverent (and maybe even a little subversive) script. It also has plot points so broad that you could drive a freight train through them, but if you're willing to suspend disbelieve and allow yourself to beocme totally immersed in the phenomenon, you can't help but walk away tremendously satisfied, humming those wonderful tunes and having a sort of "which came first: the chicken or the egg" debate with your companions. Based by composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz and book writer Winnie Holzman on Gregory Maguire's novel of the same name, Wicked may best be described as a "prequel" to L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but I prefer to think of it more as a "reimagining," if you will, of Baum's earlier work, with a contemporary eye and ear. But trying to follow a linear path from Baum's book to the Victor Fleming film to Maguire's Wicked and on to the stage musical is wrong-headed; they are at once connected by the stories' basic facts, but they are disparate in the time, place and manner in which each was conceived.The undercurrent of subversion is not new to the piece, as both Baum's book (which in reality launched a whole series of works based in Oz) and the much-heralded movie version have engendered debate about political posturing since their own debuts. For example, in the film, as the Wicked Witch of the West disappears in that bucketful of water flung at her by the simple Kansas farmgirl, she's heard to utter "What a world, what a world," which some film scholars contend was a nod to union organizers' efforts during the 1930s. In Maguire's book (which itself has become the first part of a trilogy), there are certainly political overtones to be found and Holzman's book for the musical doesn't shy away from controversy, what with its indictment of society for its prejudices, its religious zealotry (they worship the Wizard in Oz, don't forget) and the culture of celebrity-worship, and its various treatises on animal rights activism, women in positions of power and the dangers of social demagoguery. While that may sound somewhat heavy-handed and overwhelming-and something of a buzz-kill for a musical comedy-it sure as hell doesn't play that way. In fact, Schwartz and Holzman, in adapting Maguire's darker, some might say richer, novel for the stage, have found a unique way of lightening the story to make it more palatable to theatre-going audiences. They have much to say about love and friendship, the power of first impressions and, yes, even animal rights in Wicked. And it keeps you riveted to the action onstage from start to finish. During curtain calls, you'll find yourself in disbelief that you've been glued to your seat for more than two hours. That, my friends, is indicative of the storytelling efforts brought to life before you.

Photo: Colin Donnell from Wicked by Joan Marcus / photo of Vilia Steele from Warriors Don't Cry by Hatcher & Fell Photography, Nashville

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