I came — to the East Valley nine months ago. I saw — an immense amount of theater.
After 129 productions, I’ve emerged from the darkened playhouses with a head swimming in Broadway show tunes, memorable stage moments and wonderful performances. The Valley’s sprawling theater scene, taken all in, has the power to charm, and it worked its magic on me.
Not that enough theatergoers have allowed themselves to be as wooed. Because of the Valley’s sprawl, artistic directors say, audiences have tended to stick to a favorite theater or two within a few miles of home, maybe only venturing to the Herberger Theater Center in central Phoenix or Gammage Auditorium in Tempe for a special production.
But did Mesans drive to Fountain Hills to see one of the community theater’s boffo shows? Did Scottsdale residents make the trek to the new Queen Creek Performing Arts Center when New York’s The Acting Company brought its amazing touring repertory of "Murder by Poe" and "Richard III" to town?
Nope. And that’s a shame. The 2003-04 season offered its share of warhorses and also-rans, but theater companies that occasionally bucked the urge to play it safe — what economic downturn? — rewarded their loyal-if-largely local audiences richly.
Come along as I flip through the mound of notebooks in which I charted this season’s best and brightest — and lamest, we won’t ignore those.
"Chicago," Phoenix Theatre — Phoenix Theatre’s season opener set the bar so high, all every other musical could do was limbo under it gracefully. A rip-roaring production bubbling with enough energy to threaten the structural integrity of the playhouse, this local staging of Kander and Ebb’s "Chicago" — starring a grand Natalie Ellis (Roxie) and flashy Dennis Rowland (Billy Flynn) — dealt a dazzling deathblow to the tepid national touring production that came to the Dodge Theatre five months later.
Honorable mention: "Cabaret," Desert Stages Theatre; "Show Boat," Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre West; "Assassins," Is What It Is Theatre; "A New Brain," Theater Works
BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Michael Aurit, "Cabaret," Desert Stages Theatre — He may be only 21, but Aurit took the character of the Emcee in this Kander and Ebb dark gem and infused it with a depth, creepy style and improvisational humor that belied his young age. What I wrote in January: He’s a "leering, joker-grinning, gesticulating, bisexual bastard child of Satan and a Cirque du Soleil acrobat" whose toying with the audience between scenes is "much like being assaulted by a perverted Gallagher." No character has haunted me this season like Aurit’s Emcee, crooning "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" from the corner of the tiny Desert Stages black box.
Honorable mention: Dennis Rowland, "Chicago," Phoenix Theatre
BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Jessica Godber, "Cabaret," Desert Stages Theatre — Like co-star Aurit, 22-year-old Godber may not have the professional edge of older Valley actresses, but her work in Desert Stages’ reprisal of "Cabaret" at the beginning of this year proved she has sass, sex appeal and a fire in her belly.
Honorable mention: Natalie Ellis,
BEST DIRECTOR, MUSICAL
Michael Barnard, "Chicago," Phoenix Theatre
"Catarina’s Son," Arizona State University — It hurts to admit that this ambitious imagining of Leonardo da Vinci’s life by local, first-time playwright Tak Tarbo (and performed by ASU students) was a stinker. Alas, it was.
Dishonorable mention: "Chess," Desert Stages Theatre; "Sweet Thunder," Black Theatre Troupe
"Oh, Coward," Arizona Theatre Company — What I wrote: "A grand gala of fabulously droll ditties and witticisms from theater’s very own Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, and it practically challenges its audience to wipe the smiles off their faces long after the standing ovation."
Honorable mention: "It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues," Arizona Theatre Company; "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill," Black Theatre Troupe
BEST MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENT
Alan Ruch and company, "Swing!," Phoenix Theatre — Hot, hot, hot. Little big band lays it down like it ain’t no thing.
BEST NATIONAL TOUR
"Hairspray," Gammage Auditorium — Irreverent, Tony-winning musical tour stops in Tempe and, at the last minute, we get an understudy in the lead. It didn’t matter. The show still sparkled like a funky costume jewelry bracelet.
Honorable mention: "The Sound of Music," Dodge Theatre; "Varekai," Cirque du Soleil; "42nd Street," Gammage
WORST NATIONAL TOUR
"Starlight Express," Gammage Auditorium — Andrew Lloyd Webber at his non-Equity schlockiest. Take the worst of roller derby, mix in crummy music, sprinkle with cheap 3-D effects. Shake until annoyed.
"Late Nite Catechism II," Scottsdale Center for the Arts — The reigning queen of comedy in the Valley, Patti Hannon continues her work as Sister, the Don Rickles of catechism, in a sequel to the longest-running show in the Valley, this time subdubbed "Sometimes we feel guilty because we are guilty." Long live the nun.
Honorable mention: "Comedy Tonight," Theatre Eclectic; "Menopause — The Musical," Scottsdale Center for the Arts; "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," Fountain Hills Community Theater
BEST ACTOR, COMEDY
Bruce Halperin and Terry Gadaire, Fountain Hills Community Theater’s "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" — The most over-the-top comic duo of the season proves that having a good time makes a solid foundation for great comedy. Near vaudeville.
Honorable mention: Bob Sorenson, "Over the Moon," Arizona Theatre Company; Stephan Badgett, "Holidazzle" and "Show Boat," Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre West
BEST ACTRESS, COMEDY
Patti Hannon, "Late Nite Catechism II," Scottsdale Center for the Arts
Honorable mention: Evelyn Brown-Gray, "Menopause — The Musical"
BEST DIRECTOR, COMEDY
David Ira Goldstein, "Over the Moon," Arizona Theatre Company — Masterful direction (actually, more like corralling) for wacky old-time comedy keeps it from getting too hokey, instead making for a slick, tight romp.
"Talley’s Folly," Arizona Theatre Company — I gave this show a tepid grade when I first reviewed it, but in hindsight, it was the most charming, bittersweet and delicate dance between two characters that any Valley stage offered up this season.
Honorable mention: "The Hasty Heart," Hale Centre Theatre; "Patty Red Pants," Stray Cat Theatre
BEST ACTOR, DRAMA
Andres Alcala, "Richard III," Southwest Shakespeare Company — The title’s evil hunchback is done like Kevin Spacey in "The Usual Suspects" — with disfigurement all in the acting, not in the makeup or costuming a la "Pay It Forward." Perfect.
Honorable mention: Benjamin Stewart, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Actors Theatre; Christopher Williams, "Shmulnik’s Waltz," Arizona Jewish Theatre Company
BEST ACTRESS, DRAMA
Natalie Messersmith, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Actors Theatre — Messersmith’s Maggie the Cat slinks her way through a first act that’s essentially a monologue, showing us in arched-back 3-D just how she uses her sexuality as a weapon of mass destruction.
Honorable mention: Janet Arnold, "Collected Stories," Arizona Jewish Theatre Company; Tamra Mathias, "Man With the Pointed Toes" and "The Hasty Heart," Hale Centre Theatre
BEST DIRECTOR, DRAMA
Damon Dering, "Gilgamesh," Nearly Naked Theatre — "The Lord of the Rings" has Peter Jackson, and on the Valley stage it’s Dering and his "Gilgamesh" — a sprawling theatrical epic that uses puppets, a Greek chorus, wild lighting and sound effects, and solid acting to tell the oldest recorded hero myth. Dering orchestrates the show beautifully, while leaving plenty of room for the actors to breathe.
Honorable mention: Jon Gentry, "Stones in His Pockets," Actors Theatre
BEST SHAKESPEARE PRODUCTION
"Macbeth Remixed," Actors’ Renaissance Theatre; "Shakespeare’s R&J," Nearly Naked Theatre — True, both are liberal adaptations — Joe Calarco’s "R&J" sets the tale in a Catholic boys’ school, and "Macbeth Remixed" posits that Macbeth was a grunge rocker. Fresh and inventive, wild and tender, both shows defy the typically awkward adaptations that Shakespeare’s plays get nowadays.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Richard Trujillo, "As You Like It" — As Shakespeare’s Touchstone, the jesterly companion in this Southwest Shakespeare Company show, Trujillo overemphasizes with animated gestures and speech that not only clarifies the show for audiences but also earns him its biggest laughs.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Jennifer Bemis, "As You Like It" and "Cardenio" (Southwest Shakespeare), "The House of Yes" and "Gilgamesh" (Nearly Naked Theatre) — Simply marvelous, Bemis knows when to dominate the stage and when to hang back. From goddess to psychopath, maiden to misguided lover, Bemis does it all with aplomb, depth and fun.
"The Woman in Black," Fountain Hills Community Theater — A creepy treasure that offers the best suspenseful (and tasteful) frights you’ll ever get from a stage. C’mon, director Peter Hill, why isn’t Fountain Hills doing this show again this season?
BEST ORIGINAL PLAY SCRIPT
"American Latino Redux," James Garcia — Wild, careening, comic exploration of the Americanization of the Mexican man. In which the fictional ghost of Cesar Chavez says, "I roll with the punches. They didn’t call me the Chicano Gandhi for nothing."
Honorable mention: "Citrus Valley Playhouse — On the Air!," Brian Nissen; "Benny and the Jetts," Joe Marshall
BEST COLLEGE PRODUCTION
"Noises Off," Mesa Community College — Even when director Gary Stephens had to leave just before the show’s opening for heart bypass surgery, the cast managed to put on a solid production of a classic haywire farce.
BEST CHRISTMAS PRODUCTION
"A Christmas Carol," Hale Centre Theatre — Community cast creates spooky, fun, delightful holiday tale on a massive scale, while feeling rather intimate. The Christmas ticket this season.
Honorable mention: "The Velveteen Rabbit," Childsplay; "Holidazzle," Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre West.
WORST OF THE WORST
"A Christmas Carol," Actors Theatre — Rock concert lighting and bigbudget effects can’t save lame disparaging of holiday classic.
Dishonorable mention: "Sweet Thunder," Black Theatre Troupe; "Private Lives," Phoenix Theatre; "Dearly Departed," Scottsdale Community Players
Hale Centre Theatre — Who would have thought an in-the-round theater in Gilbert could be the coziest venue for seeing high-quality community theater done in high style? The company plays it safe with family-friendly shows, but sometimes safe can be a good thing. In the hands of owner David Dietlein, it sure is. And check out those low, low ticket prices!
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Rebecca Akins (costumes and puppet design), "The Big Friendly Giant," Childsplay
Honorable mention: Sandy Dietlein and Cindy Smith, "My Fair Lady," Hale Centre Theatre; "A Christmas Carol," Hale Centre Theatre
BEST LIGHTING DESIGN
Michael Eddy, "The Big Friendly Giant," Childsplay
Honorable mention: Dennis Parichy, "Talley’s Folly," Arizona Theatre Company
Robert Kolby Harper, "Chicago," Phoenix Theatre
Honorable mention: Marc Robin, "Cats," Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre West; April Monte, "Annie Get Your Gun," Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre West; David Barker, fight choreography for "A Clockwork Orange," Stray Cat Theatre.
BEST SCENIC DESIGN
"The Underpants," Arizona Theatre Company — Robert Dahlstrom’s creamy ivory and gray apartment set, its design as comically skewed as the show itself, featured Tim Burton-style doors and walls and side and overhead flats covered in New Yorker-style doodles.
Honorable mention: D. Martyn Bookwalter, Arizona Theatre Company’s "Talley’s Folly"; Gregory Jaye, Phoenix Theatre’s "Morning’s at Seven"
BEST HAIR AND MAKEUP
Jessica Frieling, "La Cage Aux Folles," Desert Stages Theatre — Not a particularly good show, but enough troublesome makeup and wigs on male actors to qualify Frieling for sainthood.
Honorable mention: Dawn Rivard, "Cats," Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre West
BEST PRODUCTION FOR CHILDREN
"Power Play," Childsplay — Live actors + interactive video = theater for a new generation.
Honorable mention: "Anastasia Krupnik," Mesa Youtheatre; "The Velveteen Rabbit," Childsplay; "The Big Friendly Giant," Childsplay. "Frog and Toad Together," Great Arizona Puppet Theater
BEST YOUTH PRODUCTION
"Oliver!," Desert Stages Theatre
Honorable mention: "Stuart Little," Fountain Hills Community Theater; "Winnie the Pooh," Fountain Hills Community Theater
BEST YOUTH ACTOR
Luke Kanter, "Stuart Little," Fountain Hills Community Theater — Dimplegrinned cutie is catwhip-smart as beloved adopted mouse.
Honorable mention: Tyler Steging, "Oliver!," Desert Stages Theatre
BEST YOUTH ACTRESS
Michelle Chin, "Eleemosynary," Theatrescape — Eighth-grader Michelle goes toe-to-toe with two more veteran actresses in adult show, only to emerge victorious. Nothing short of astounding.
Honorable mention: Tara Hutchison, "Anastasia Krupnik," Mesa Youtheatre; Angela Kriese, "Oliver!," Desert Stages Theatre; Rylee Kercher, "Winnie the Pooh," Fountain Hills Community Theater
WORST NEWS OF SEASON
Valley theater insiders mourned the death of Copperstate Dinner Theater musical director Loren Chamberlain earlier this year. Meanwhile, artistic director Scott Campbell left Sun City’s Theater Works and Phoenix’s spunky Is What It Is Theatre dissolved, sending the the company’s Tim Butterfield to take over artistic direction at Theatrescape.
BUT THERE’S GOOD NEWS
Delores D’Amore Goldsmith and friends in the Valley theater community have combined talents to create the Arizona Women’s Theatre Company, dedicated to staging women-centric shows. An inaugural fund-raiser, "Talking With," was a success, and a full season is expected in 2004-05.