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

By: Jan. 13, 2011

"There are no small parts, only small actors," goes the old theatrical saw that's tossed about willy-nilly to encourage budding thespians to take on roles they suspect might be beneath them and their lofty stature. But, of course, there's much truth to be found in the axiom and you will certainly see it brought to life in the efforts of the members of many acting ensembles, particularly those considered among the best in Nashville's 2010 theater season:

  • All My Sons, presented by Actor's Bridge Ensemble. As Joe Keller, Miller's ultimately flawed heroic version of American manhood personified, Bill Feehely gives a flawlessly nuanced reading, somehow blending bravado and poignancy in just the right amounts to create a stunning characterization. Feehely commands the stage artfully, giving a masterful performance that rivets the theatre-goer to his seat. His onstage turn is matched by the artistry of Cynthia Tucker's finely etched portrayal of Kate Keller, the long-suffering wife who refuses to accept that their son, Larry, believed missing for more than three years, is really dead. Tucker smartly underplays her scenes, refusing to make the easy choice, thus creating an indelible characterization. Truly, her performance is revelatory in its scope and impact. Somewhat suprisingly - and I say so only to betray my own prejudices about student actors - Feehely and Keller are given amazing support from their Belmont counterparts. Zack McCann, cast as the idealistic Chris Keller, gives a performance that is nothing short of stunning. His naturalistic manner and the easy way in which he interacts with the other actors makes his winning performance all the more moving in the play's more dramatically charged moments in the second act. And, let me assure you, if you are not moved by his scenes with Feehely, you need to get professional help. Their scenes fairly crackle with intensity. Kyla Leeds, playing lovely young Ann Deever (the former girlfriend of Larry, the long-lost son, who now has come "home" to accept Chris' marriage proposal), refuses to rely on the ingenue's usual bag of tricks, instead showing us the rich promise that is sure to come. Her Ann is multi-dimensional and Deever shows impressive range. As Ann's lawyer brother, George Deever, Jordan Parkyn gives a sensitive performance that rivals the plays' leads with its fiery intensity and the sharp delivery of his lines. But Parkyn's George does so much more than just shout and generally cause trouble in the Kellers' backyard ("the only place [he's] ever felt at home," his character tells us), rather he moves the play's action along while maintaining the exceptionally high level of acting that is evident throughout. Finally, playing the young neighbors of the Kellers are four well-cast Belmont students, all of whom perform confidently with the aplomb of actors with much more experience: Luke Hatmaker and Kristin McCalley as a young doctor and his wife, and Ben Stonick and Lindsay Phillpott as happily married parents of three young children.

  • Nine, presented by Boiler Room Theatre. Ciaran McCarthy is ideally cast as Guido, his perfectly honed dramatic technique exhibited at its zenith in his portrayal of the multi-faceted Guido, who is - at once - both cad and choirboy. As accomplished a performance as McCarthy gives, he is buoyed by the presence of a bevy of actresses who give startlingly honest performances of their own, ensuring that Nine boasts one of the best acting ensembles we've seen onstage this season. As Luisa, Corrie Miller manages to capture her character's own dual natures: she is a strong woman made vulnerable by her love for a caddish husband. Yet despite that "weakness," if you will, Luisa remains vital and engaged, ultimately proving her strength. Miller shows her own strengths in her performance, particularly in "My Husband Makes Movies," a lovely aria in which she attempts to explain Guido's ways to reporters, the public and, perhaps most evocatively, to herself. As Carla, Guido's fiery mistress, Jessica Heim gives a richly hued and completely colorful performance. A beautiful woman herself, Heim bravely displays Carla's sexually-charged charm while somehow showing us her sweet and vulnerable side (her "A Call from the Vatican" and "Simple" are perfect examples of her range as an actress), capturing the whore/madonna conundrum Guido first encountered as a Catholic schoolboy. Ashley Anderson-McCarthy (the real-life wife of Ciaran McCarthy) is lovely and serene as Claudia, Guido's soulmate (and, perhaps, the only woman he loves completely, save for his mother - warmly played by Valerie Navarre). Again, she is an example of the whore/madonna complex that afflicts Catholic men, yet Anderson-McCarthy gives a deeper, more moving reading of her character than you might expect. Her performance of "A Man Like You" is genuinely moving. As Guido's producer, Liliane La Fleur, Jama Bowen is completely immersed in her character, displaying a flair for a French accent while being both entertaining and completely convincing. But the real showstopper among this exquisite group of actresses is the luminous Kay Ayers, whose performance as Saraghina is nothing short of spectacular. As Ayers sheds her nun's habit to become the jaded prostitute who teaches young Guido (played by the particularly impressive young actor Jackson Harris) what it means to really love a woman, the show takes on a heightened sense of performance art. Ayers' "Be Italian" is the production's musical highlight, backed by an energetic and vivacious ensemble of women, she delivers the goods with a performance that is unparalleled. As already stated, Green's cast of women is consistently good, but special notice must be accorded Nancy Whitehead as Stephanie Necrophorous, Stephanie Jones-Benton as "Our Lady of the Spa" and Mary Bea Johnson as Mama Maddelena. The other, equally laudable, women in the cast include Taylor Green, Anna Pizzi-Cage, Kree Woods, Christina Candilora, Caroline Simpson, Shea Fowler and Elizabeth Ard.

  • Potty Talk, presented by Rhubarb Theater Company. At curtain, a woman named Lindsey (played by Robyn Berg) is running lines for a play she is opening in that night; she's in the ladies' room on the 11th floor of the Nashville company for which she works, going over the monologue, trying to figure out its meaning. When Lisa Marie Wright walks into the bathroom, the audience heaves a collective sigh of relief, knowing that here's an actress whose expert comic timing will elevate the onstage business.As other co-workers come and go, we are treated to some terrific dialogue and thoroughly winning interactions. Jervon Dailey, as Glendelle, is riotously funny with her superb, finely-tuned reading of her character's lines, and Laurel Baker is at her very comic best as Virginia, the lovably ditzy office functionary who, apparently, has few verbal filters. Veteran actress Wesley Paine has the most significant character arc in the piece as she at first appears all brittle and businesslike. However, as we get to know her character better and as she exposes her vulnerabilities, we are drawn deeper into her story. Act Two takes audiences into the ladies' green room at the theatre where Lindsey is making theatrical history in the absurdist Pratfall or A Life. Here we meet several new characters, including Layne Sasser's Sage, a worldly wise woman not unlike Sasser herself who dispenses wit and wisdom as easily as she pours Jack Daniels in anything that will hold it; Kellye Mitchell's Molly, whose youthful innocence may be wide-eyed but is clearly very focused; and Pat Rulon's Anne-Marie, the best "semi-professional actress" she can be, who gives Rulon the opportunity to prove why she should be onstage much more often than she tends to be these days.

  • Rear Widow, presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre. Director Lauren Shouse probably thanks her lucky stars daily for the quintet of actors doing her bidding onstage. Nate Eppler's exceptional acting skills are on a par with his splendid writing talents and he breathes life into the role of Judd Cain, the insurance company investigator, who sets out to ferret out fraud in the case of Barb Snyder and her dear, departed husband, only to find himself ensnared in Barb's fiendishly decadent web of desire and intrigue. Martha Wilkinson is perfect as the nightclub chanteuse, sexy and flirtatious at one turn, wounded and vulnerable at the next - yet always in complete control of her every move. One of the finest actresses anywhere, Wilkinson attacks her role with great zeal and is having the time of her life onstage with her equally impressive cohorts. B.J. Rowell displays a range heretofore untapped or unseen on the Chaffin's Barn stage, showing the true depths of his talents in his comic role as Ace Carlos, yet another of Barb's romantic conquests. Jennifer Richmond and Dietz Osborne, each assaying a plethora of characters who populate the seedy, smoky environs and dives of Los Angeles in 1944, show their versatility with a confidence that other actors should copy. With each successive characterization, Richmond and Osborne add shading and color to the roles, employing every option in their individual bags of tricks to create more memorable moments in a show full of them.

  • A Scattered, Smothered and Covered Christmas, presented by Nashville Dinner Theatre. 1970s sitcom diva Joyce DeWitt is in her element as the sweetly drawn Rita, with a charming earthiness that is altogether accessible and the actress possesses a genuine ability to hold the audience's rapt attention with her finely tuned performance. And while her Southern accent sounds a bit more stagey than the more natural ones surrounding her onstage, she nonetheless is on-target with her deft portrayal. Giving DeWitt a run for her money - while displaying impeccable timing and the swift delivery any sitcom star would die for - is Kay Gobbell as Peggy, the world-weary Waffle House waitress who's mother to five ne'er-do-well sons (including Vance Nichols as Steven Tyler, her daft 26-year-old) and who just doesn't have time for a man, a new romance or customers who take too long to decide what they want. Gobbell's damn good, y'all! To DeWitt's good fortune, Riggan (who wears many hats in this production as writer/director and grand poobah of the new theater) gives an able supporting cast that includes some of Nashville's best-loved stage veterans. Danny Proctor (as a well-meaning, good ol' boy truck driver who sings like an pro), Cinda McCain (once again threatening to steal every scene in which she is featured) and Charles Howard (believable as a defrocked, alcoholic preacher struggling with a special set of demons at holiday time) head the cast list that also includes some Nashville stars of newer vintage, who give outstanding performances, including the uber-talented Memory Strong (as budding songstress Summer Shey), Rusti Rae (as an otherwordly ambassador with the voice of an angel) and Jessica Thomas (as a tough-talking mother-to-be who can belt out a tune with the best of 'em). The remaining cast members (particularly John Kennerly, LaQuita James, Will Butler and Tyler Ashley) give amazingly focused performances and it's easy to lose oneself in the whole wonder of the holidays atmosphere created by the playwright and his determined cast.

  • Seussical, presented by Nashville Children's Theatre. Jeff Boyet displays his enormous range and versatility as the lynchpin of the Seussian world: The Cat in the Hat. Boyet uses every trick up his sleeve to create a memorable portrayal, singing with confidence, dancing with abandon and generally etching a unforgettable picture in your mind that is every bit as vivid as your earliest memories of Dr. Seuss' character. Boyet is given superb support from the Copeland-assembled cast that includes the sweetly evocative Shawn Knight as Horton, the always amazing Rona McLaughlin as Lazy Mayzie, multi-talented Peter Vann as JoJo and the exquisitely warm Aleta Myles, whose beautiful voice may just knock your socks off. They are joined by Cori Anne Laemmel (in her NCT debut) as Gertrude McFuzz, Henry Haggard as the Mayor of Whoville, Marin Miller as the First Lady of Whoville, and Patrick Waller and Patrick James as two of the Wickersham Brothers (with Waller taking on the mantle of Yertle the Turtle and James bowing as The Grinch). You would be hard-pressed to find a more capable, more committed ensemble taking on the task of bringing Seussical to life.

  • She Loves Me, presented by Cumberland County Playhouse. The play's sprightly staged and quickly paced action focuses on the amusing interactions of the people who work (and shop) at Maraczek's Parfumerie. Among them are shop manager Georg Nowack (Daniel Black) and newly arrived clerk Amalia Balish (Nicole Begue) whose obvious disdain for each other clearly masks deeper and definitely more affectionate feelings. Black is at his most charming as Georg, exuding charisma with every movement and throughout his carefully measured reading of the role. His performance of "She Loves Me" is clearly one of the show's most memorable and engaging moments. Black's palpable chemistry with the beautiful Begue as Amalia is sweetly compelling - and just a joy to behold.. She is nothing short of stunning, of course, with a glorious voice that perfectly matches her physical loveliness as Amalia; her winsome performance is by turns brimming with effervescence and introspection, eloquently expressed in all her musical numbers. They are given strong support by the enormously talented ensemble. Weslie Webster, with her superb timing and understated delivery, is wonderfully droll as the slightly tarty Ilona Ritter, particularly in her songs "I Resolve" and "A Trip to the Library." Britt Hancock is terrific as the caddish and romantically cavalier Steven Kodaly; Hancock's portrayal is ideally modulated and his performance of "Grand Knowing You" - my personal favorite among the score's offerings - is delivered with an artful blend of charm and smarminess. Jason Ross, who excels in his "Perspective," is well-cast as Ladislav Sipos, the shop clerk who knows his limitations and accepts them with some amount of grace. Ross effectively inhabits every character he plays and his Sipos is no different: Where Jason begins and Ladislav takes off is hard to discern. As Arpad Lazlo, the shop's delivery boy, Elliott Cunningham is delightful, possessing a certain youthful glee that's on-target for the naïve character, all of which is effectively expressed in his performance of Act Two's "Try Me." John Fionte is impressive as shop owner Maraczek, acting and singing with conviction and perfectly capturing the tone of the European gentleman in his performance. Austin Price very nearly steals the show with his well-timed, yet somehow flamboyant, performance as the maitre d' of Budapest's Cafe Imperiale, creating "A Romantic Atmosphere" (which features the comic interaction with Chaz Sanders as the cafe's clumsy busboy). Both director Michele Colvin and choreographer Leila Nelson make onstage appearances as part of the ensemble, along with Quinn Cason, Michael Ruff and Lauren Marshall.

  • Signs of a New Day: The Z. Alexander Looby Story, presented by Metro Parks Theater Department. Brought to life by a talented and engaging cast of actors, playwright/director Carolyn German sheds light on a troubling era of Nashville's history, while shining a bright spotlight on one of the city's most compelling figures, with the world premiere production of Signs of a New Day: The Z. Alexander Looby Story. Joel Diggs gives a richly nuanced performance as Looby, using a Carribean accent that never falters, as he becomes the legendary man, shouldering much of the script's weight. Alicia Haymer, as Grafta, exudes warmth in the role and almost instantly you find yourself falling in love with this nurturing woman, her performance growing in intensity as the action progresses. The other ten members of the ensemble play a variety of characters, all of whom play important roles in the story, and they each and every one give superb performances. Clearly, each of the actors is totally committed to telling this tale and they do so beautifully. The ensemble members, all of whom deserve accolades for their work, are: Patrick Benneyworth, Dave Chattam, Shon C. Jones, Aleta Myles, Willie Robbins III, Bralyn Stokes, Mark J. Thomas, Joy Tilley-Perryman, Jessica Townsend and Shelena Walden.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre. 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. Director Rene Copeland's stellar cast is led by Chip Arnold in the inconic role of Atticus Finch, the inspiring attorney who takes on a racially charged rape case in an effort to ensure that the accused is given a vigorous defense and a fair trial. Arnold portrays Atticus with a conviction and confidence that very nearly eclipses the film portrayal of Gregory Peck, imbuing his character with a low-key grace that is integrity personified. His courtroom scenes fairly crackle with intensity and dramatic import, but it is in his quieter moments (when Atticus interacts with his children Scout and Jem - here played unaffectedly with understated feeling by Margaux Granath and Christopher Dean) that Arnold's true talents emerge to great emotional effect. Bakari King delivers yet another winning performance, adding to his already bulging resume of triumphant stage roles; his portrayal of the accused Tom Robinson is stirringly felt. As the grown up Jean Louise Finch, who helps to frame the play's action with her sensitive (and somehow non-intrusive) narration, Shelean Newman walks a fine line with a confident grace that helps illuminate the plot rather than distract from it. Denice Hicks, who quite simply becomes three of the neighborhood's most colorful characters - she is, in turn, Miss Maudie, Miss Stephanie and Mrs. Dubose - is convincing in each part, showing us the true depth of her tremendous talents. Matthew Carlton is quietly effective as Judge Taylor (as well as in the less showy role of Mr. Radley), maintaining control of the courtroom and the audience with his performance. Marin Miller, as Mayella Ewell (the white trash woman who has accused Tom Robinson of rape), effectively underplays her courtroom testimony scene, thus making it all the more powerful. Bobby Wyckoff, as prosecutor Gilmer and as Boo Radley in the play's final scenes, proves once again why he is considered one of Nashville's finest and most versatile actors; his Boo Radley is a very picture of emotional restraint. Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva plays Calpurnia, the Finch family's housekeeper, with a generously commanding air, while young Isaiah Frank plays Dill (the visiting neighbor boy, based upon Harper Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote) with a fierce theatricality that captures the character's heart.But there are two members of the cast whose performances are particularly impressive and electrifying. David Compton is a revelation as Bob Ewell, the mean-spirited and racist personification of evil; Compton tackles the role with relish, giving a reading of the role that is altogether terrifying and rivets your eyes to his every scene. And Mary McCallum, in the relatively small role of Tom's devoted wife Helen Robinson, displays her tremendous gift in the scene in which she discovers that Tom has died while trying to escape from the county penal farm. McCallum's understated histrionics are so movingly portrayed that you forget you're watching a play - you feel as if you have intruded upon a horrible, personal tragedy in the life of people you know and care about. The collective performance of this acting ensemble is both emotionally draining and breathtakingly exhilarating. Copeland's heartfelt direction and smart casting choices are what transforms this often-produced script into something unexpected, theater that offers a new and unique view of Harper Lee's venerated work.

  • The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, presented by Street Theatre Company. While the structure of the show is hilarious from the start, it is the immensely talented cast of actors who bring the show to raucous, yet somehow very touching, life. Clearly, Scott Rice's William Barfee is the star of the ensemble, using his "magic foot" to spell out his words (which would make Phi Beta Kappas keel over in desperation) while delivering a tour-de-force comic performance. His late-in-the-second-act confession that he's been spelling with a handicap (he's only able to breathe through one nostril) is outlandishly funny, but somehow sweet and compelling, thanks to Rice's superb timing and completely confident portrayal. Erica Cantrell is terrifically funny as Marcy Park, the ringer who's transferred into Putnam County - where she is a student at Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows School - from Virginia (she was that state's champion the previous year, finishing ninth in the nationals) and is the poster child for over-achieving pre-teens everywhere. Cantrell's performance is self-assured and sweetly nuanced and her "I Speak Six Languages" is nothing short of delightful. Lindsay Terrizzi Hess (Logianne Schwartzandgrubenierre) is perhaps most impressive for her complete focus and the uncanny ability to play the bee's youngest contestant without a hint of phoniness or sitcom precociousness. As reigning Putnam County Spelling Bee champ Chip Tollentino, Mike Baum once again proves his amazing versatility - and he gets to sing the cleverly entitled "My Unfortuante Erection," an anthem to every adolescent boy's daily reminder that his hormones are raging. Further, Baum is given the chance to showcase his tremendous range as he takes on a couple of other characters in the farcical world that is Putnam County.Alan Smith, with a tremendous head of curly hair, plays Leaf Coneybear, the speller least likely to have landed in the bee, thanks to his third place finish in the home-school district bee. Smith's performance is guilelessly over-the-top (he can only spell when he goes into a trance-like state and he makes all his own clothes!), yet he manages to keep his character genuine and very real (perhaps most keenly felt in his performance of "I'm Not Very Smart") as he talks of his countless siblings and their aging hippie parents. The final speller is Olive Ostrovsky, played rather perfectly by Cori Anne Laemmel, who gives a richly drawn performance and her extraordinary voice soars on "The 'I Love You' Song" (which features strong support from Corrie Miller and Mike Baum as her parents). Her charming stage presence is palpable and, clearly, Laemmel has the talent to deliver the goods, which she does beautifully. Frankly, he should be giving Sutton Foster a run for her money on Broadway instead of working all over Nashville (though, lord knows, we're endlessly grateful that she is). The bee's adults are played with warmth and enthusiasm (and more than a little wild-eyed abandon) by Corrie Miller as emcee Rona Lisa Peretti, a former spelling champion herself and now Putnam County's leading realtor; Patrick Kramer as bee judge Douglas Panch, a vice principal who is returning from a five-year absence thanks to therapy, a high-fiber diet and whatever it took to pull him out of the depths created by whatever it was that happened to him way back when; and James Rudolph as ex-con Mitch Mahoney, who's serving out his public service by providing solace, comfort and juice boxes to the spellers when they, well, can't spell and are relegated to the so-called "comfort room." Like the rest of the cast, the adults are given their moments in the spotlight and they each given excellent performances: Miller perfectly embodies the former champ, with all the unbridled enthusiasm of someone who achieved their loftiest goal at 13; Kramer is ideally cast as the uptight educator with a flair for the dramatic, amid the mundane and predictable; and Rudolph plays both Mitch and Jesus (trust me, it works!) with equal grace.

Rona Carter and Shawn Knight in Seussical the Musical at Nashville Children's Theatre