Year Of The Blockbuster

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   This year’s wrap-up of the Sarasota area theatrical season immediately brings up the elephant in the room. Which is, how can most local productions, however strong or satisfying, compete with a Broadway-caliber musical like the Asolo Rep’s world premiere of A Tale of Two Cities? Not surprisingly, that world-class production did dominate my awards […]


   This year’s wrap-up of the Sarasota area theatrical season immediately brings up the elephant in the room. Which is, how can most local productions, however strong or satisfying, compete with a Broadway-caliber musical like the Asolo Rep’s world premiere of A Tale of Two Cities? Not surprisingly, that world-class production did dominate my awards this season, but it says much about the quality of hometown theater that, in several categories, it was by no means a sure thing.

That thorny issue aside, what kind of season was it? A very exciting one, with the ambition and talent of A Tale of Two Cities, and a very full one, as well; I attended almost 60 plays, ranging from British farces to big-cast musicals to world premieres to provoking dramas to one-person shows. I can’t say I noticed any overall theme in such a diverse season, but one thing remains clear: The Sarasota-Bradenton area has some of the most talented, hard-working actors, musicians, designers, directors and stage managers to be found anywhere.

Plays included in this story opened between June 2007 and mid-May of 2008; I have not included cabaret shows or touring productions at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. 

 Best Costume Design

The nominees are:

David Zinn for the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s A Tale of Two Cities. From the richly decorated attire of French aristocrats to the muted browns and blacks of the revolutionaries who work to unseat them, Zinn’s designs rendered a panoply of color and characters.

Katherine Roth for the Asolo Rep’s The Constant Wife. Roth’s elegant costumes summoned up just the right air of 1920s sophistication for this Somerset Maugham comedy of manners, helping the actors to look at ease in the fine settings of a very comfortable upper middle class life.

Martha Hally for the Asolo Rep’s Smash. From schoolgirl uniforms to stylish ladies’ and gentlemen’s wear to groundskeeper’s togs, Hally presented a clearly delineated—and fun to look at—world of Shavian Britain pre-World War I.

David A. Walker for the Manatee Players’ Cats. One has to give credit to Walker for making the performers in this show so absolutely convincing and comfortable with themselves as purring, clawing, tumbling felines.

Derek Lockwood for the Manatee Players’ Ragtime. Turn-of-the-20th-century America was captured well in Lockwood’s white summer dresses, Atlantic City beachwear, showgirl glitz and humble immigrant attire.

And the award goes to: David Zinn, for the Asolo Rep’s epic A Tale of Two Cities.

Best Set Design

The nominees are:

Tony Walton for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities. Well, duh…of course Tony winner Walton would get the nod for his wonderful design for this Broadway-bound show, a set of movable two-story towers that made it possible to swiftly change the scene and the mood, from the Bastille to a London courtroom to taverns and homes of all kinds on both sides of the channel. 

Erik Flatmo for the Asolo Rep’s The Constant Wife. Flatmo’s luxurious modern design paid homage, at least in part, to the famed “white room” of 80 years ago by interior designer Syrie Maugham, but he carried it off with his own theatrical panache.

Nathan Heverin for the Asolo Rep’s The Play’s the Thing. Another look back to an earlier design heyday with the streamlined art deco look of a 1930s Palm Beach hotel suite—one we’d be glad to check into anytime.

Kate Edmunds for the Asolo Rep’s Smash. Edmunds’ bright, colorful but slightly skewed set design, of a peculiar 1910-era British girls’ school, neatly matched the satiric tone of this adaptation of a Shaw novel.

Donna Buckalter for Venice Little Theatre’s Urinetown, the Musical. No doubt Buckalter had a considerably lower budget to work with than her fellow nominees, but she turned what she had to good use in a set that took us to a dark and intimidating underground world of pipes, tunnels and, yes, public bathrooms.

And the award goes to: You guessed it—Tony Walton for A Tale of Two Cities.

Best Lighting

The nominees are:

Richard Pilbrow for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities. Pilbrow wrote the book on stage lighting—literally—so it’s no surprise that his work on this Dickens classic cast such carefully conceived shadows and rendered such dramatic hues of black, white and red.

Lap-Chi Chu for the Asolo Rep’s Equus. From mysterious and brooding to institutional to climactic, the lighting played a crucial role in this tale of a troubled teen, especially in the most revelatory scenes.

Joseph P. Oshry for the Manatee Players’ Cats. Oshry’s work provided just the atmosphere needed for a Jellicle Ball, the mysterious Macavity’s appearances and disappearances and more catlike behavior.

James D. Sale for the Asolo Rep’s Misery. Sale’s lighting helped set the right spooky mood for this Halloween-timed scary story set in an isolated farmhouse.

And the award goes to: Richard Pilbrow for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities.

Best Music Direction

The nominees are:

Jerry Steichen for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities. Steichen and his small orchestra led the way triumphantly in delivering composer Jill Santoriello’s songs, a varied mix of ensemble rousers, love song duets and introspective solos.

Rick Bogner for the Players of Sarasota production of Jekyll & Hyde. A stalwart on the local community theater scene, Bogner once again lent excellent support to a cast that included some of the area’s finest stage singers.

Joyce Valentine for the Players’ Candide. A beautiful but notoriously challenging Leonard Bernstein score was given a top-shelf treatment by Valentine and her larger-than-usual orchestra—bravo.

Nathan Rifenburg for the Manatee Players’ Cats. Rifenburg guided the cast through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s much-loved score with gusto and polish.

Michael Sebastian for Venice Little Theatre’s Urinetown, the Musical. Sebastian contributed direction that was hard-driving and always in charge.

And the award goes to: Jerry Steichen for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities.

Best Choreography

The nominees are:

Warren Carlyle for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities. Really more a matter of overall musical staging than simply choreographing dance numbers, Carlyle’s masterful work, full of creativity and craft, delineated how this world premiere would be presented and perceived.

Bob Trisolini for the Players’ Grand Hotel. Always appealing to watch, Trisolini’s dance moves here were evocative of the time and place and exceptional in conveying character and mood.

Thomas Dewayne Barrett for the Manatee Players’ Cats. Of course Barrett had Gillian Lynne’s definitive original choreography to draw on, but he made it work with impressive physical prowess and spirit for his community theater dancers.

Brad Wages for Venice Little Theatre’s Urinetown, the Musical. Wages added his own inventiveness to the musical numbers here, and they were delivered with high energy and a sense of both fun and drama.

Rick Kerby for the Manatee Players’ Ragtime. Kerby successfully matched his moves to the production’s period and shifting moods as well as his dancers’ individual talents.

And the award goes to: Warren Carlyle for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities.

Best Direction

The nominees are:

Michael Donald Edwards for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities. To Edwards goes much of the credit for making the pre-Broadway staging of this grand musical such a success.

Murray Chase for Venice Little Theatre’s Stage II production of The Pillowman. Chase took a chance (as he often has with Stage II productions) with some dark material and made it work on both a serious and comedic level that went beyond shock value.

Debra Whitfield for Florida Studio Theatre’s Stage III production of In the Belly of the Beast. Whitfield’s direction of this true tale of the incarcerated Jack Abbott took off with a high degree of tension and ratcheted it up throughout the evening, leaving us almost as drained as the actors must have been by evening’s end.

Gil Lazier for the Banyan Theater Company’s A Doll House. Former Banyan artistic director Lazier demonstrated once again his gift for presenting a stage classic with a sympathetic, respectful—but never derivative—touch.

Rick Kerby for the Manatee Players’ Ragtime. Kerby took on the daunting task of adapting this large-scale, panoramic musical to the small Riverfront Theatre stage and succeeded through hard work and creative inspiration.

And the award goes to: Michael Donald Edwards for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities.

Best Supporting Actress

The nominees are:

Natalie Toro in the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities. It’s hard to say if Toro’s turn as the vengeful Madame Defarge was exactly supporting, since she dominated the Asolo stage whenever she took it. But she certainly played her part with consummate artistry.

Julianne Randolph in the Players’ Grand Hotel. Randolph won the audience’s hearts as a lively, likeable Flammchen, dancing and singing up a storm as a stenographer with big dreams.

Barbara Bradshaw for Florida Studio Theatre’s Pure Confidence. Bradshaw added verve and presence to the role of a strong-minded Southern woman dealing with an era of change.

Ally Tufenkjian in Venice Little Theatre’s Urinetown, the Musical. Tufenkjian was right on the money as savvy street urchin Little Sally, delivering her lines and lyrics with a fun sense of sass.

Kim Gardner-Kollar in VLT’s Urinetown, the Musical. Channeling Carol Burnett channeling in turn a combination of Joan Crawford and Norma Desmond, Gardner-Kollar was a hoot as the tough enforcer for a heartless corporation charging people for the right to—ahem—use the facilities. But she was in fine voice as well.

And the award goes to: Natalie Toro for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities—a bravura performance.

Best Supporting Actor

The nominees are:

Nick Wyman for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities. Another case of almost stealing the show away from the leads whenever he appeared, Wyman did a memorable turn as the duplicitous but always intriguing spy-rogue John Barsad.

Joe Cassidy for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities. As Ernest Defarge, Cassidy had some of the show’s biggest songs to deliver, which he did with talent to spare.

Bryan Torfeh for the Asolo Rep’s The Play’s the Thing. Torfeh’s comic work as an egotistical actor-ladies man forced to spout a series of impossibly complicated lines to save his own neck was a highlight of this show, drawing ever-escalating laughter from the audience.

Chip Fisher for the Players’ Grand Hotel. Fisher was in his element as an ailing, mild-mannered bookkeeper determined to live it up for once—and taking us along for the ride.

Steve O’Dea for Venice Little Theatre’s Stage II production of The Pillowman. O’Dea played a childlike young man whose misunderstanding of his brother’s fiction writings spells doom for them both with an uncannily convincing mix of innocence and slyness.

And the award goes to: Nick Wyman for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities.

Best Actress, Musical

The nominees are:

Jessica Rush for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities. Much of the role of Lucie Manette is simply to be the object of desire for two very different men, but Rush added some strengths of her own to a woman faced with the impending loss of the love of her life.

Catherine Randazzo for the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre’s Funny Girl. Randazzo’s always delivers her roles with spunk and style, making performer Fanny Brice a natural role for her. She did it her own way, with no Streisand overtones, and made us care about Fanny’s hits and heartaches.

Charlene Clark for the Golden Apple’s Chicago. So never mind it’s her second time around as tough gal Velma Kelly; Clark seemed even more believable—and, if possible, in even better physical shape—for her performance this time.

KT Curran for the Golden Apple’s Can-Can. This 1950s Cole Porter musical showed its age at times, but Curran was always a delight as the clever, charming nightclub owner Pistache.

Dianne Dawson in the Players’ Jekyll & Hyde. Dawson started out years ago playing mostly ingénue roles; she’s developed into a highly versatile performer, as evidenced by her moving work as the doomed prostitute Lucy, a victim of her own demons as much as the killer Hyde.

And the award goes to: Dianne Dawson for the Players’ Jekyll & Hyde.

Best Actor, Musical

The nominees are:

James Barbour in the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities. It was impossible to deny Barbour’s onstage charisma as the cynical but redeemable Sidney Carton—or the power of his rich baritone voice. Hard to take your eyes and ears away from.

Joey Panek in the Golden Apple’s Evita. Panek has been a frequent performer on the Golden Apple stage, but before this role as the observer-participant Che, he never had the chance to display so much of his talent and range. You might call it a breakthrough role.

Elex Bornett in the Manatee Players’ Ragtime. Relative newcomer Bornett turned in a dynamic performance as wronged pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr,. proving himself a triple threat as actor, singer and dancer.

Steve Dawson in the Players’ Jekyll & Hyde. Another frequently seen performer who never fails to deliver, Dawson pulled out all the stops in the dual roles of the evil Hyde and the well-intentioned Jekyll, hitting the dramatic and musical heights required.

Ken Basque for the Manatee Players’ Ragtime. In a large community theater cast, Basque was a standout as struggling Jewish immigrant Tateh, utterly right and believable in the role.

And the award goes to: It’s to all these actors’ credit that they can compete with Broadway star Barbour, but especially to Dawson’s in such a challenging role. That’s why I’m calling it a tie between James Barbour for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities and Steve Dawson for the Players’ Jekyll & Hyde.

Best Actress, Play

The nominees are:

Dana Green for the Asolo Rep’s The Constant Wife. Green worked her way through the role of a cheated-on spouse who’s cleverer than anyone else onstage with impressive aplomb.

Sharon Scruggs for the Asolo Rep’s The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead. In this one-woman show, Scruggs ran the gamut, portraying both male and female characters of varying ages and types in an interlocking story with great energy and stellar confidence.

Colleen McDonnell for the Banyan’s A Doll House. McDonnell engaged us as Nora in her initial lightheartedness, her ensuing desperation and, eventually, her transformation into a woman seeking a new way of life.

Lisa Morgan for the Banyan’s The Faith Healer. Morgan was haunting as the longtime lover of a healer/con man, telling her side of their life together in a monologue that revealed depths of loss and anguish.

Devora Millman for the Asolo Rep’s Misery. Millman was both scary and sympathetic—but mostly the former—in her role as crazed fan Annie Wilkes.

And the award goes to: Sharon Scruggs for the sheer virtuosity of her work in the Asolo Rep’s The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead.

Best Actor, Play

The nominees are:

Juan Javier Cardenas for the Asolo Rep’s Equus. As a troubled teenager forced to excavate his own psyche to heal, Cardenas was touching and up to the difficult task.

Jeremy Heideman for Venice Little Theatre’s Stage II production of The Pillowman. Heideman skillfully portrayed a persecuted writer trying to hold on to his gift for—and right to—storytelling.

David Sitler for Florida Studio Theatre’s Stage III production of In the Belly of the Beast. Sitler dug deep for his performance as convicted killer and longtime prisoner Jack Henry Abbott, and the results were riveting.

Richard McWilliams for FST’s Stage III production of Underneath the Lintel. You might not think a one-man show about a librarian on the trail of an overdue book would be intriguing theater, but thanks in large part to McWilliams’ engaging, lively performance, it was.

Eric Hissom for the Banyan’s The Faith Healer. Hissom successfully walked the tightrope of this role as a hard-drinking, unreliable philanderer whose doubts about his own gifts and place in the world nevertheless make him sympathetic to us.

And the award goes to: A tough call, but I’ll go with Sitler for FST’s In the Belly of the Beast.

Best Play

The nominees are:

The Banyan’s A Doll House, which brought fresh new life to the Ibsen classic.

Florida Studio Theatre’s Stage III production of In the Belly of the Beast. The true-life story of killer-prisoner-writer Jack Abbott took us to some dark places, but there was considerable conviction and skill in the telling.

Venice Little Theatre’s Stage II production of The Pillowman. Both gruesome and comedic in its tale of a fiction writer caught up in several cases of child killings, this daring production warranted thoughtful and intelligent treatment, and it received it.

The Asolo Rep’s The Constant Wife. Outstanding production values and a cast well tuned to sophisticated Maugham dialogue made this one memorable.

The Asolo Rep’s Doubt, a thought-provoking, well-acted look at the moral battle fought between a nun and a priest in John Patrick Shanley’s taut award winner.

And the award goes to: FST’s hard-hitting In the Belly of the Beast.

Best Musical

The nominees are:

The Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities. Sweeping, passionate, swiftly moving and involving, with those great Dickens characters and some stirring music by Jill Santoriello, Tale brought the audience along on an epic journey.

The Players’ production of Jekyll & Hyde. A dark and vocally demanding musical, given a strong staging and some fine performances.

The Manatee Players production of Cats. A stellar outing for a community theater cast that stretched themselves—purr.

Venice Little Theatre’s production of Urinetown, the Musical. Well cast, well executed and a lot of fun to watch.

The Asolo Rep’s Working. A bright, often touching re-imagining of the Studs Terkel-based musical, with admirable performances and staging.

And the award goes to: The Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities—a landmark production and an often thrilling theatrical experience.