By Bob Abelman
When we reflect back on a live theater production, it is usually a specific moment that we recall – an instant when a playwright’s idea, a director’s vision, or an actor’s performance surpasses an audience’s expectations and something special happens.
Such moments seem frozen in time and suspended in space. It is these isolated, elusive and brilliant moments that keep theatergoers coming back for more and win over the next generation of subscribers.
Theatrical missteps and creative miscarriages are similarly memorable and, for the audience if not the performers or production staff, they are just as entertaining. Awe can be found in work both awesome and awful.
Here are ten of this past year’s most memorable moments – both fantastic and unfortunate – from productions that have graced Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, Outside-the-Square theaters, and other area stages.
10. I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face
As Henry Higgins in Great Lakes Theater’s “My Fair Lady,” under Victoria Bussert’s direction, actor Tom Ford was playful, passionate and absolutely charming. These are characteristics rarely associated with the role. As such, his songs “Why Can’t the English,” “I’m An Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn to Him” were humorous and thought-full reflections of Higgins’ worldview rather than the droll barbs typically thrown in other productions. And Higgin’s eleventh-hour “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” was so much more than a song of regret; it was a moment of genuine heartbreak.
9. Matthew Wright in drag
There was much to love about Beck Center’s “Ruthless” – an outrageously campy, thoroughly self-aware musical comedy mashup of psychological thriller films – starting with 11-year-old triple threat Calista Zajac as the featured sociopath. But the moment when classically trained actor Matthew Wright stepped on stage as Sylvia St. Croix – adorned in a thigh-hugging dress and makeup applied with a spatula – was the moment when the show boldly exceeded the boundaries of outrageous and dared to go well past campy.
8. Girls gone Wilde
Actual actresses ruled the Mamaí Theatre’s production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” Mamaí’s greatest strength is its ability to assemble an ensemble of remarkable female performers, and Rachel Lee Kolis as young Lady Windermere and Heather Anderson Boll as the mysterious newcomer Mrs. Erlynne handled every one of Oscar Wilde’s poignant, empowering soliloquies and each pointed piece of social commentary with astounding virtuosity.
7. “The Wild Party” sizzles
“Some love is fire: some love is rust/But the fiercest, cleanest love is lust.” So begins the seedy, Jazz Age narrative poem “The Wild Party,” on which Andrew Lippa’s lyrical musical of the same name is based. Several moments into Blank Canvas’ summer production, the theater’s air conditioner expired and, by the second song, the steamy, sticky and sweltering atmosphere perfectly matched the sexy score and its lusty performance by a superb seven-piece band – Ian Huettel, Ernie Molner, Zach Davis, Skip Edwards, Matt Wirfel, Jeff Fabis and Jessica D’Ambrosia. Clearly, this show is best served hot and with high humidity.
6. A store-bought musical
For a theater company best known for its unbridled imagination, which earlier this year was put on display in its wonderfully minimalistic “Finian’s Rainbow,” Mercury Theatre’s “The Little Mermaid” felt like an off-season, off-strip Vegas show. The production’s eye-candy costuming was rented from The Kansas City Costume Company, its set pieces were imported from Virginia Musical Theatre, and a pre-recorded soundtrack was purchased from Music Theatre International. From the opening moment, this prefab production was absolutely beautiful to watch but so very disappointing to see.
5. Once more into the fray
There will not be many more opportunities for 88-year-old veteran actor Don Edelman to ride the boards at his beloved Chagrin Valley Little Theatre. After all, how many plays call for a grumpy Old Jew character that the energetic and undersized Edelman has not already mastered and performed? The moment he walked on stage as the devout and despondent title character in Jeff Baron’s endearing “Visiting Mr. Green,” which was directed with immense tenderness by Carol Jaffee Pribble, the audience was privileged to witness what talent and tenacity can achieve when given time to properly mature.
4. A bad revue
Popular during the Golden Age of bad entertainment, the revue is musical theater’s ugly ancestor. Its place of performance has been largely reduced to cruise ships, amusement parks and, inexplicably, Akron. Actors’ Summit’s production of “Tintypes,” a revue that offered a tour through 19th century America by way of public domain ditties, was the company’s grand finale, for founders Neil Thackaberry and MaryJo Alexander called it quits after 17 seasons. They produced over 141 shows, most of them superb and some truly spectacular… just not the one that left the lasting last impression.
3. Turning the Paige
Even with a feisty redheaded orphan, an adorable dog and 40 talented teenagers on stage, it was impossible to take your eyes off of Payton St. John during Magnificat High School’s recent production of “Annie.” While ensemble members are asked to blend in and not pull focus, these were impossible expectations for the younger sister of Magnificat alum and Inside Dance Magazine’s “2015 Dancer of the Year” Paige St. John. From the moment of Payton’s first perfect pirouette, it was clear that her kind of precision, passion and stage presence can’t help but call attention to itself.
2. When locals go national
The Tony Award-winning musical “Beautiful,” about the life, times and tunes of Carole King, came through Playhouse Square on national tour. It brought with it Cleveland-born actor Ben Fankhauser in a featured role. When the touring “Kinky Boots” recently strutted on stage at the Connor Palace Theatre, there was local actress and Baldwin Wallace University grad Patty Lohr in a supporting role. How wonderful to witness – whether for a few fleeting moments or for the duration of a production – the high-profile success stories that got their start on Northeast Ohio stages.
1. Showcasing Stockholm syndrome
Playwright Rajiv Joseph has a remarkable proclivity for examining big-ticket issues by way of small-scale stories. In “Mr. Wolf,” at the Cleveland Play House, a young girl played by Juliet Brett was abducted and hidden from the world by an astronomer played by John de Lancie who believed she can unravel the mysteries of the universe and find God. Early in the play, the entire set receded deep into the far recesses of the performance space and nearly vanished among the surrounding stars, suggesting the infinite expanses of the universe as well as the astronomical odds of this girl’s parents ever seeing her again. It was a moment when the playwright’s idea, director Giovanna Sardelli’s creative vision, Timothy R. Mackabee’s innovative stagecraft and the actors’ brilliant performances became so much greater than the sum of these parts.
Here’s to more memorable theater moments in the year to come and to you witnessing every one of them for yourself.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Dec. 9, 2016.
Lead image: Patty Lohr, far right top-tier, and the “Kinky Boots” national tour ensemble. Photo | Matthew Murphy