Sun-Gazette reviewer gives his picks for 2017’s notable plays
Excluding the 20 plus high school plays seen as a Ray of Light adjudicator for the Community Theatre League, the number of collegiate, community theater, touring companies, professional ensembles and Broadway shows seen this year, increased by 36. This number was down a few as the Courtyard Theater closed in 2017.
Of the three dozen plays and musicals presented on local and area stages, here is my annual Baker’s Dozen — and with the exception of the first one — in no particular order — of the most notable, nifty and nicely staged productions of this past year.
• “Fun Home” (Millbrook Playhouse) — Much hyped but also a big risk for artistic director David Leidholdt to select this musical (which has a lesbian as the protagonist) was a well deserved critical and popular success. Notable and the clear choice as the top production in the area was attended by Allison Bechdel, whose graphic novel of her life in nearby Beech Creek funeral home formed the basis of this stellar staging.
• “Smoke On the Mountain” (United Covenant UCC) — Notable as Jacquie Engel rounded up a new family of “Sanctified Sanders Singers” for this entertaining songfest of gospel and bluegrass tunes. Engel also played the matriarch Vera to highly appreciative audiences.
• “The Music Man” (Community Theatre League) — There’s no “Trouble” (my friends) to note that last season’s colorful closer was nicely staged, featured rousing renditions of Meredith Wilson’s score, and notable as the largest cast CTL ever amassed on stage.
• “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” (Penn State Centre Stage) — Notable as the first play overseen by new artistic director William Doan following the retirement of Dan Carter. Postponed from April, Tony Award winner Ruben Santigo-Hudson’s show raised poignant questions on race, and was a complete sellout during its limited run.
• “Gunpowder Joe: Joseph Priestly, Pennsylvania, and the Great American Experiment” (Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble) — James Goode excelled in the title role in Anthony Clarvoe’s world premiere of the 18th century theologian’s life as a liberal political dissenter, radical religious leader and renowned chemist. Priestly’s living in nearby Northumberland added another notable connection to this commissioned work.
• “Titanic” (Christ Wesleyan Church) –With a 65-member cast of congregation members and community actors, and a live orchestra playing Maury Yeston’s stirring score, the “ship of dreams” made a notable docking in Milton last summer. The powerful production was often visually stunning as scenes were played both on the large proscenium stage and also in the rowboats along the auditorium’s sidewalls.
• “Peter and the Starcatcher” (Allenberry Playhouse) — As the prequel to “Peter Pan,” this production was the first show to reopen the historic playhouse which had been closed for a year when the original Heinze family siblings retired. The new owners Keystone Theatrics made welcomed major renovations to both the theater and the resort’s housing prior to the grand reopening this summer.
• “A Comedy of Tenors” (Millbrook Playhouse) — High notes and low jinx marked this often hilarious production which was nicely staged on the cozy Cabaret stage. Notable as Millbrook again successfully turned to Ken Ludwig, whose farcical script of merry mix ups tickled everyone’s funny bone.
• “Avenue Q” (Community Theatre League) — CTL’s decision to stage this triple Tony award winner caused a stir, but director Jacquie Engel discovered an enthusiastic audience which embraced this “adult” musical. Notable in that the strong cast and their puppets produced some funny and thoughtful provoking entertainment.
• “Rent” (Center for the Performing Arts) — Jonathan Larson’s ground breaking rock musical landed in State College’s Eisenhower Auditorium for one performance in April. Notable as this 20th Anniversary Tour of the Pulitzer Prize winning musical still generates highly diverse emotions as a vibrant reimagining of “La Boheme.”
• “Cosi fan tutte” (Penn State Centre Stage) — This fully produced opera, with a dazzling score by C.A. Mozart, was notable as a combined production of Penn State Schools of Theater and Music. Also noteworthy is that its conductor was Gerardo Edelstein, who is also the music director of the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra.
• “A Christmas Carol” (Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble) — As director and sound designer, Richard Cannaday provided new and distinctive touches and twists to this holiday classic. Cannaday’s expert direction was aided by the stellar performance of Rand Whipple, a BTE co-founder who notably returned almost 40 years later, to again play Scrooge.
• “A Christmas Carol” (Open Stage of Harrisburg) — This is neither a misprint nor a mere duplication! The 120-seat theater, tucked away in a Harrisburg parking garage, presented a “visually pretty,” and very fresh looking rendition of this ghost story of Christmas. This nicely staged production was also notable as area favorite Stuart Landon’s first holiday season, since assuming the reins as OSH’s artistic director this summer.