13th Annual ABEs salute Lehigh Valley Stage:
The big news for the Lehigh Valley theater community in 2018, was, of course, Civic Theatre of Allentown’s successful $5.5-million “The Next Act” capital capaign to renovate and reopen its historic Nineteenth Street Theatre, namesake of Allentown’s West End Theatre District.
The other 2018 story of note in ABEs-land, as in the 13th annual Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton (ABEs) Lehigh Valley Press Focus awards for locally-produced theater, was the success of Northampton Community College’s Summer Theatre season, which consistently drew crowds to its shows on the Bethlehem Township main campus. NCC, which combines professional and local talent in its productions, produced five shows in two months, including three musicals.
The region’s 2018 summer theater season was especially vibrant, led by the 27th season of The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival and the 38th annual season of Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre.
As Carole Gorney, a reviewer for Lehigh Valley Press Focus, noted in her overview (Focus, Aug. 17) of the 2018 Lehigh Valley summer theater season: ”Lehigh Valley theater groups really upstaged themselves the summer of 2018 with a total of 20 outstanding productions in three months, more than half of which were lavish musicals.”
While the ABEs typically laud community and professional theater in the Lehigh Valley, and the Focus section annually runs its “High School Musicals” series, highlighting the annual Freddy Awards competition, special mention should be made of high school fall drama productions in 2018.
Typically, because of the the annual Freddy awards for high school musicals presented in May at the State Theatre Center for The Arts, Easton, Lehigh Valley high schools present dramas in the fall and musicals in winter and spring.
Parkland High School presented a student production of “26 Pebbles,” playwright Eric Ulloa’s drama about the 2012 tragic shooting in which 20 students and six adult staff members died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Mark A Stutz, Director of Visual and Performing Arts, Parkland School District, who directed “26 Pebbles,” spearheaded the effort for Parkland to present the important piece as its fall play, which was chosen to be performed in December at the International Thespian Society Pennsylvania State Conference in December at North Penn High School, Lansdale, Montgomery County.
The Parkland production wasn’t the only area fall high school theater drama tackling a challenging topic.
The Emmaus High School drama department presented “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time,” playwright Simon Stephens’ play about a person with autism.
The Northampton Area High School drama club presented the still-topical “The Diary Of Anne Frank” by playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
At Salisbury High School, where Director Will Erwin encouraged students to stage, direct and crew their own plays in a “One-Act Festival,” in lieu of a traditional full-length fall drama.
In 2018, in addition to articles and interviews in advance of area theater shows, including national touring productions performed in the area, Lehigh Valley Press Focus published 43 theater reviews, including 25 theater reviews by Carole Gorney, 17 theater reviews by Paul Willistein, and one review by Dawn Ouellette.
That compares, for example, to 35 theater reviews in 2017, 39 reviews in 2016, 38 reviews in 2015 and 31 reviews in 2014.
As a final note, we’ve seen many changes in the Lehigh Valley journalistic community in 2018. Yours truly noted his 50th year as a professional journalist, starting as a paid freelancer while a Southern Lehigh High School junior (where I played District Attorney Flint in “The Night Of January 16th” and went on a Faye Sprandel English class trip to the American Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Conn.).
While at The Globe-Times newspaper, I started the Sigleys, named for theater reviewer Dan Sigley. Soon after starting at Lehigh Valley Press, the ABEs began. This is our lucky 13th ABEs. Here’s hoping there are many more.
Producer: Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre: Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre (MSMT) works closely with the Muhlenberg College Theatre and Dance Department, which The Princeton Review 2019 edition of “The Best 384 Colleges” ranked No. 9 for “Best College Theater,” placing the program among the Top 12 in the United States in 10 of the past 11 years. MSMT generated star power with “How To Suceed In Business Without Really Trying” lead Frankie Grande’s performance bringing his sister, pop star Ariana Grande, and her then boyfriend Pete Davidson of “Saturday Night Live,” to the west Allentown campus to see the musical. To top it off, “Beauty And The Beast” opened MSMT’s 38th annual season. Scenic Designer Edward T. Morris gave the MSMT production a delightful storybook feel, working with Lighting Designer Gertjan Houben. Magic Consultant David Caserta added to the stagecraft. Costume Coordinator Barbara Erin Delo, Makeup Designer Joe Dulude II and Wig and Hair Stylist Kim Danish created believable representations of the inanimate objects the castle-keepers turned into: Cogsworth (Bob Fahringer, wonderful as always), the clock; Lumiere (Zachary Spiegel, with solid comedic timing), a candlelabra; Babette (Allison Bloechl), a feather duster; Mrs. Potts (Lauren Curnow, in a tremendous turn and voice), a teapot; Chip (Nathaniel Rock, who was just perfect), a teacup; Madame de la Grande Bouche (Jenna Leigh Miller), a dresser with drawers, and the Beast (Alan Mendez, dashing underneath the costume). The cast of 35, which included an Ensemble of 20, was capably directed by Gary John La Rosa, with Choreographer Ann Cooley, and Music Director Ed Bara, with an 11-piece orchestra. The musical opened with a prologue narration with images projected on a frame at stage center. “Belle,” the opening number was sung by Belle (Ashley Hiester, Lehigh Valley summer theater season’s breakout star), Gaston (Jon McHatton, in terrific form and vocals), Lefou (Noah Sunday-Lefkowitz, a great scene-stealer), the Three Silly Girls (Danielle Costanzo, Maura McColgan, Elissa Wells) and the Townspeople. “No Matter What” was earnestly sung by Hiester and Neil Hever (Maurice). In addition, MSMT again teamed with Atlas Circus Company for “Tal: Beyond Imagination,” a “world-premiere circus performance for kids, parents and everyone else.”
Director, Musical, Charles Richter, “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre: With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, and based on the 1952 parody book by Shepherd Mead, the terrifically-entertaining musical was directed with impish charm by MSMT co-founder Charles Richter. “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” at Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre succeeded like nobody’s business because everybody was trying and yet they made it all appear so effortless.
Musical: “Ragtime,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. “Ragtime” is profoundly relevant to contemporary societal problems in the United States. In the hands of Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze, who directed PSF season-opening musicals, including “Evita,” 2017; “West Side Story,” 2016; “Les Miserables,” 2015; “Fiddler On The Roof,” 2014; “Oklahoma!,” 2013, “Ragtime” was another PSF blockbuster. Nkrumah Gatling (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.) had incredible charisma and a voice that reached the back rows. Destinee Rea (Sarah) had a wonderful stage presence and a stunning voice. Razze directed “Ragtime” with a superb sense of showmanship, astounding production values, and a cast of lead performers who seemingly stepped off the Broadway stage and onto the Main Stage of Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, where “Ragtime” opened PSF’s 27th annual season.
Original Musical: “Dictators 4 Dummies,” Touchstone Theatre, The “Tyrants of Tomorrow Telethon” was the fictional television show setting for the musical satire, “Dictators 4 Dummies,” written and directed by Christopher Shorr, with input from fellow Touchstone ensemble members. The ingenious script, musical score and lyrics are based on Shorr’s “The Fascist Playbook,” a list he has been compiling for years about authoritarian tactics. Shorr’s biting satire could not have been more relevant as it exposed through humor all-too-familiar ploys to discredit critics, the media, and destroy trust in facts.
Choreography: Karen Dearborn, “How To Suceed In Business Without Really Trying,” Muhenberg Summer Music Theatre. The cast of 17 and an additional 11 in the Ensemble were put through their paces by Choreographer Karen Dearborn and backed by a 10-piece orchestra with Music Director Bryan L. Wade.
Actress, Musical: Tessa Grady, “42nd Street,” Bucks County Playhouse. Tessa Grady played Peggy Sawyer with a combination of innocent insecurity and can-do bravado. She has to be one of the fastest tap-dancers ever. Her feet were a blur as she tapped her way across the stage, in turns, spins, in place, and even backwards. Grady is a triple-threat (sings, dances, acts) as was the 17-member Actors Equity and six Acting Apprentice cast in the phenomenal Bucks’ “42nd Street” production directed by Bucks County Playhouse Artistic Associate Hunter Foster. With at least one dozen cast members on stage tapping in unison, with precision on-point poise, in stunning choreography by Jeremy Dumont, the effect was amazing.
Actor, Musical: Frankie Grande, “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre. Frankie Grande portrayed J. Pierrepoint Finch at his jaunty, hysterical best. Grande did it all: act, song and dance (including speed-tap and a handstand flip). “I Believe In You,” the American Songbook standard with Finch (Grande in his own winsome interpretation) and The Men, and “Brotherhood Of Man,” the show’s signature showstopper, with Finch, Womper (Dan Dobro), Biggley, Miss Jones (Krystal Hall belts it out) and the Male Ensemble, were outstanding.
Ensemble, Musical: “Million Dollar Quartet,” Bucks County Playhouse. Yes, it’s a jukebox musical, i.e., hit after hit hung on a storyline on stage, but “Million Dollar Quartet,” which replicates the legendary Dec. 6, 1956, jam session of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash at Sun Record Studios, Memphis, Tenn. Ari McKay Wilford (Elvis Presley) had the moves that got “The King” ready for his waist-up closeup on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Brandyn Day (Jerry Lee Lewis) is an incredible piano player and honky-tonks it atop, around, and on the upright. John Michael Presney (Carl Perkins) has the guitar chops to lead the band. Sky Seals (Johnny Cash) not only has the bass-baritone, guitar-strumming and speaking voice down for “The Man In Black,” he just about steals the show as a kind of reincarnation of the country icon.
Play: “Shakespeare In Love,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. You’ve heard of a couple’s movie? PSF’s “Shakespeare In Love” was a couple’s play. The romance between Shakespeare (Luigi Sottile, a buff Bard) and Viola De Lesseps (sensitively-intense Mairin Lee) is tinged with youthful enthusiasm and rounded out by life’s circumstances. As directed by PSF Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy, “Shakespeae In Love” was a romantic-comedy for the ages and the sages.
Original Play: No ABE awarded for 2018 in the Professional Theater category.
Actress, Play: Mairin Lee, “Shakespeare In Love,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. As Viola De Lesseps), Mairin Lee is never the blushing bride (promised to Lord Wessex, played by Christian Coulson, who portrays peevishness to the hilarious hilt). Instead, she’s a strong, independent woman, even around her Nurse (Jo Twiss, evoking laughter with her every utterance). Lee is delightfully Lucille Ball-like with her darting eyes and asides when she dons a male disguise to audition for “Romeo And Julliet.”
Actor, Play: Christian Coulson, “King Richard II,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. As Richard II, Christian Coulson brought the monarch’s vulnerability at the core to the fore so that, despite the king’s flaws, mistakes and insensitivity as a leader, he rendered him a sympathetic character. Coulson portrayed a ruler who withdraws, turns inward, becomes ruminative in his ruination, and comes up with some darn good speeches, among them: “I wasted time and now doth time waste me.” Witnessing King Richard II’s descent from the throne is painful. He sees all, senses all, bears all with a dignified, muted, gentle presence. He’s the king of pain.
Ensemble, Play: “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. The “as-is” in Shakespeare era production was sans director, sans costume designer, sans scenic designer, but not sans talent. PSF’s “all-stars” of veteran performances brought their A-Game to the Schubert Theatre stage, including Anthony Lawton, Susan Riley Stevens, Greg Wood, Spencer Plachy, Jim Helsinger and Eric Hissom. “All’s Well That Ends Well,” which brought down the curtain on PSF’s 27th season, was a tetter-totter of tragedy and laughter, but mostly laughter. “All’s Well That Ends Well,” indeed.
Director, Play: Patrick Mulcahy, “Shakespeare In Love,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. PSF Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy hit all the right notes and tropes in what was the most satisfying Shakespeare production, albeit a Shakespeare-themed production, in years at PSF. From the casting of some 24 excellent actors so well-matched to their roles (plus, the actors were in repertoire with “King Richard II”) to an insistence on briskly-delivered dialogue, to complicated head-spinning crowd scenes, to lovely Elizabethan courtly-dancing (beautifully staged by Dance Choreographer Erin Sheffield), to swift backstage-front stage point of view shifts, to the staging of thrilling sword fights (by Mulcahy, also Fight Director), to rousing music and singing, to a trap-door, to, yes, Spot the dog (Buddy Igor), Mulcahy’s “Shakespeare In Love” had all you could ask for in a professional summer theater show.
Costume Design: Lisa Zinni, “Shakespeare In Love,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. The bejeweled, sumptuous costumes for the men and women by Costume Designer Lisa Zinni were dazzling and provided pageanty, especially for Queen Elizabeth (an imperious and stunning Starla Benford). Viola De Lesseps (Mairin Lee) attire was exquisite, including a turquoise gown and a creamy wedding dress. The gowns glowed thanks to Director Patrick Mulcahy’s stage blocking and Lighting Designer Eric T. Haugen, who used the full palette from profile spot, to splashes of mood-enhancing color, to lightning, working with Music Designer-Sound Designer Liz Filios.
Scenic Design: Daniel Conway, “King Richard II,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Scenic Designer Daniel Conway created an impressive formality (a gold sunburst crest, later collapsed, looms above the king’s throne) in tall wooden tower structures and walkways to serve multiple purposes in multiple scenes. Conway’s two-tiered set evoked The Globe Theater in “Shakespeare In Love,” which was in rep with “King Richard II” at PSF.
Lighting Design: Eric T. Haugen, “King Richard II,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Lighting Designer Eric T. Haugen’s meticulous work created castle interiors and exteriors with swift mobility, and the unseen flick of a lighting cue.
Sound Design: William Neal, “King Richard II,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival: Sound Designer William Neal incorporated non-melodic percussive tones and a pastiche of repeated words in television news reports to add to the element of unease and intrigue.
Producer: Civic Theatre of Allentown. Civic Theatre not didn’t need a barn to put on a show. The nonprofit which gives Allentown’s West End Theater District its name, renovated its huge Nineteenth Street Theatre in a $5.5-million capital campaign that is ongoing. The ornate ceiling, back wall mural and details throughout the interior were restored. New seats, lighting and sound system are among the major improvements that enhance the entertainment experience for movie-goers as well as theater-goers. With the transformation, Civic Theatre takes its place alongside Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown, and the State Theater Center for the Arts, Easton, as stunning historic venues.
Musical: “Billy Elliot The Musical,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. The Lehigh Valley debut of the Elton John musical was well-timed to the reopening of the Nineteenth Street Theatre and the opening of Sir Elton’s farewell world concert tour at PPL Center, Allentown. Civic Theatre Artistic Director William Sanders and the entire Civic staff deserve heartfelt praise for bringing this pertinent production to life to fill the West End Theater District’s storied venue with a show of equal splendor. “Billy Elliot The Musical” was a gem of a production in the newly-minted gem of a theater.
Original Musical: No ABE awarded for 2018 in the Community Theater category.
Actress, Musical: Kathleen Oswalt, “Billy Elliot The Musical,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. As Mrs. Wilkinson, the ballet school teacher, Kathleen Oswalt, who has given Civic audiences many wonderful performances (“Nine To Five,” “God Of Carnage,” “Cabaret”), outdid herself. Oswalt played the range of the bristling, overbearing dance teacher: sassy and brassy, but also tough and tender. She was in fine voice in dialogue and song and dance.
Actor, Musical: Parker James Fullmore, “Billy Elliot The Musical,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. Crucial to the success of Civic Theatre’s “Billy Elliot” was the casting of a young actor who could sing, dance and act. Parker James Fullmore filled the bill and then some in the title role. The musical’s show-stopper of show-stoppers, “Electricity,” proved why without a doubt that if there wasn’t a phenomenal young talent like Parker James Fullmore,” there might not have been a “Billy Elliot The Musical” at Civic. Fullmore was in great form, with a terrific stage presence, clear voice, and poised and athletic in ballet, dance and gymnastic scenes.
Ensemble, Musical: “Billy Elliot The Musical, Civic Theatre of Allentown. The Ballet Girls were nine impressive young dancers. Robert Trexler, who impressed previously at Civic (“Young Frankenstein,” “The Full Monty”), achieved something more as Dad. His singing was something to behold in “Deep Into The Ground” with the Full Company, and “He Could Go And He Could Shine,” with Dad, Tony (Ryan Murphy) and the Ensemble. Joann Wilchek-Basist brought a special pathos to Grandma, especially in “We’d Go Dancing” with the Men’s Ensemble. The gauntlet was thrown down in the very first number, “The Stars Look Down,” with powerful chorus singing by the Full Company in the signature music by Elton John, which elevated the show throughout.
Director, Musical: William Sanders, “Billy Elliot The Musical,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. Civic Theatre Artistic Director William Sanders took a chance with the agit-prop dialectic meets dancing mineworkers of “Billy Elliot.” Sanders, assisted by three choreographers, including Deena Linn, Sarah Parker and Jennifer Haltzman Tracy, the latter for the ballet sequences, kept the complex storyline streamlined and moving briskly, propelled by a superb 10-piece orchestra conducted by music director Frank Anonia.
Choreography: Joanellyn Schubert, “Crazy For You,” Pennsylvania Playhouse. Choreographer Joanellyn Schubert brought rousing, well-synchronized tap-dancing to the stage in “Crazy For You,” based on George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930s hit movie, “Girl Crazy,” for a musical where 1930s-style tap-dancing is a key component of the show.
Play: “Tuesdays With Morrie,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. Written originally as a best-selling memoir by sportswriter Mitch Albom, then turned into a TV movie and later a play by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, “Tuesdays With Morrie” celebrates life and death as natural progressions. The script is full of humor and hope, with the overriding theme that what matters in the end is humanity and love. In Morrie’s words: “The wise and wonderful things you want to say at the end are the kind of things you should say all your life.” The plot centers around the relationship between Albom, played sensitively by Will Morris, and Albom’s former sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, who is dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), played by Barry Glassman, who gave another gripping performance in the title role. Director William Sanders avoided the temptation to overdramatize the scenes, letting the authenticity of the bonding between the two men create the emotion and tell the story
Original Play: “A Softening Of Her Eyes,” Crowded Kitchen Players. “A Softening Of Her Eyes,” the story for which is based on a true story, is particularly challenging, especially in the era of the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements. “Eyes,” given its world premiere by Crowded Kitchen Players (CKP), was written and directed by CKP co-founder Ara Barlieb. While the drama doesn’t resolve societal problems, it illuminates socio-economic underpinnings. CKP’s “Eyes” was powerful theater.
Actress, Play: Trish Cipoletti, “A Softening Of Her Eyes,” Crowded Kitchen Players. Trish Cipoletti was so in character as Leslie Grant, a radio talk-show host, that you would think she could easily get a job as one. Cipoletti was cooly efficient and evinced a wonderful eloquence.
Actor, Play: William Alexander Jr., “A Softening Of Her Eyes,” Crowded Kitchen Players. William Alexander Jr. (Emmanuel Thorogood Morris) gives a strong and believable performance. His charisma, crucial to the role, is unquestionable. Alexander also made good use of the stage and involved the audience, as if it was the radio or courtroom audience.
Ensemble, Play: “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” Pennsylvania Playhouse. Director Rody Gilkeson created a stylish production visually, technically and dramatically. He assembled a marvelously well-balanced ensemble. The would-be writer Eugene was played by Jack Miller, who juggled nuances of a conflicted teenager with ease. Kelly Herbert James as Kate, Eugene’s loving, but stern mother, deftly underplayed her character’s fatigue, frustration and anger by letting her face and posture tell the story. The cast included Rachel Williams (Aunt Blanche), Adriana Sfar (Nora, Blanche’s daughter), Kristin Henrikson Shea (Stanley, Eugene’s older brother), Nick Englesson (Jack, Eugene’s father) and Alexa McFillin (Laura, Eugene’s younger sister).
Director, Play: George B. Miller, “The Fox On The Fairway,” Pennsylvania PIayhouse. Director George B. Miller, whose credits include 45 years in theater and film, fine-tuned every scene to keep up the frenetic pace. Miller’s talented cast hardly missed a beat. Pat Kelly (Henry Bingham) and John Corl (“Dickie” Bell) were a perfect pair of rivals. Kelly was every bit the John-Cleese-type victim for whom nothing seems to go right. Corl was the textbook arrogant schemer who tricks Bingham into the bet. Brian Welsko (Justin Hicks) was the script’s designated comedian in terms of lines and physical antics. Jeanie Olah (Pamela Peabody) added a sophisticated and good-natured sexual flair to the proceedings.
Costume Design: Elizabeth Marsh-Gilkeson, “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” Pennsylvania Playhouse. Costume Designer Elizabeth Marsh-Gilkeson took pains to provide the look of 1930s authenticity with Laura’s saddle shoes, and Eugene’s golf knickers, tall socks and argyle sweater.
Scenic Design: Joshua Deruosik, “Billy Elliot The Musical,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. Technical Director-Scenic Designer Joshua Deruosi brought a gritty realism to the settings and characters with shop-worn sensibilities that bolstered the entire production.
Lighting Design, Will Morris, “Billy Elliot The Musical,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. Lighting Designer Will Morris used the full range of colors to evoke mood and enhance the action on stage.
Sound Design: Randall Utsch, “Billy Elliot The Musical,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. Sound Designer Randall Utsch utilized the Nineteenth Street Theatre’s new sound system to great effect.
Tim Roche Memorial “Meanwhile ... “ Comedy Award: “Hairspray: The Broadway Musical,” Munopco Musical Theatre. “Hairspray,” the original 1988 film by John Waters was ahead of its time in addressing the issues of bullying, fat-shaming, diversity, celebrity culture, and white supremacy. It’s done without the divisive rants of social media, TV pundits, and podium-pounding politicians. Instead, it’s all dolled-up with great joy, seamless entertainment, a danceable beat, dresses and wigs, and even a touch of actual hairspray. Kudos to Munopco for bringing “Hairspray” back to life in the Lehigh Valley, where it was partly-born. As John Waters might say (he did in an email): “Quite a life that old gal ‘HS’ has!”