When we reflect back on a live theater production, it is often a specific moment that we recall – an instant when a playwright’s idea, a director or designer’s vision, and/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 patrons.
Theatrical missteps and creative miscarriages are similarly memorable and, for the audience if not the performers or production staff, they can be just as entertaining. Awe can be found in work both awesome and awful.
Here are 10 of this past year’s most memorable moments – both fantastic and unfortunate – from productions that have graced Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, Off-the-Square professional theaters, and other area stages.
10: One in a million
“Million Dollar Quartet” re-enacts that storied Tuesday afternoon in 1956 when a young Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley happened to gather at the Sun Records studio in Memphis for an impromptu jam session. While historical accuracy shouldn’t be expected in jukebox musicals, capturing the musicians’ manner and legendary musicianship is a must. The litmus test is if an audience leans in during the performance to get just a little bit closer to the genius that made this remarkable music, as if it was actually in the room. This happened during Cleveland Play House’s 2012 production of “One Night with Janis Joplin” featuring Mary Bridget Davies, during Karamu House’s 2017 production of “Simply Simone” with Sheffia Randall Dooley, Corlesia Smith, Mariama Whyte and Afia Mensa capturing the essence of Nina Simone, and in this year’s Beck Center production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” with Nicole Sumlin as jazz great Billie Holiday. And it happened at the Hanna Theatre when the four actors in this Great Lakes Theater production came out for an encore jam and were greeted like rock stars.
OnStage, a high-profile performing arts blog, announced that the musical theater programs at Kent State University in Kent and Baldwin Wallace University in Berea were among this year’s Top 30 in the nation. The reasons why can be found in the opening and closing moments, respectively, of their most recent productions. In KSU’s patchouli-scented “Hair,” triple-threat post-millennials morphed into flower children under Terri Kent’s direction and moved with such abandon to Martin Cespedes’ period-perfect choreography during the opening number, “Aquarius,” that audience members of a certain age had a flashback to the ‘60s and are still recovering. In the audience of the closing night performance of BW’s “Kinky Boots” – a feel-good story about outsiders struggling against the odds to gain acceptance without compromising their dreams or their souls – were six alums who had appeared in the Broadway and national touring productions of the show. Their post-graduate accomplishments speak nearly as loud as their standing ovation and their dedication to director Vicky Bussert.
8: It’s Greek to me
Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors. It is typically written by the men as well. So it is refreshing when Margaret Atwood, the author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” retells Homer’s male-centric, nearly 3000-year-old epic poem “The Odyssey” from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife in “The Penelopiad.” Though laden with Greek chorus commentary that was weighted down by gravitas in Ensemble Theatre’s recent production, this compelling play sprang to life the moment Amy Fritsche made her entrance as Penelope. As an Atwood heroine, Fritsche understood full well the prerequisite qualities of a pragmatic survivor. In addition to highlighting the heroism and horrors that took place on the home front during the Trojan War, the passion and pain in her presentation underscored the misogyny that went hand in hand with that enterprise.
7: Dobama does the dark web
By offering plays with titles like “Stupid F**king Bird,” thoroughly despicable characters and the irritating sound of cicadas in “Appropriate,” and plots that are political provocations like the one in “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again,” Dobama Theatre seems to be daring an audience to attend its recent productions. This was never more in evidence than in its brave and brilliant staging of Jennifer Haley’s “The Nether,” under Shannon Sindelar’s direction. Here, the central character (Matthew Wright) is an unapologetic pedophile whose online business provides a safe haven and playground for like-minded clientele. But the moment we learn that a middle-age man (David Peacock) is behind the pre-pubescent female avatar (Calista Zajac) who has been sexually entertaining the avatars of the adult guests, we find ourselves both appalled by this daring piece of theater and applauding artistic director Nathan Motta for serving up such gripping, cutting-edge Off-Broadway fare.
6: Now is the “Summer” of our discontent
What is the strangest moment in the newly touring and extremely troubled bio-musical “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical?” It might be when a younger version of the late-1970s/early-1980s disco icon gets a boyfriend, gets married, has a baby and gives that baby to her parents. This happens in such rapid-fire succession, so as not to delay yet another production number, that it caused whiplash in the people in the first five rows. But the winner is the moment after the opening number, “The Queen Is Back,” when pre-recorded audience adoration was piped through the Connor Palace Theatre balcony and a scripted response came from Donna (Danyelle Williamson) on the stage, as if the creators knew that the show was incapable of generating an authentic call-and-response on its own.
5: Local world premieres
We now live in a theater town where national tours are being launched, local venues are offering regional premieres of innovative and risqué plays and, increasingly, local playwrights are getting their due in world premiere productions of their works. This year, Lisa Langford got hers in the Cleveland Public Theatre production of her thought-provoking “Rastus and Hattie,” which explores how the core trauma of slavery is passed down through the generations. Earlier versions of the play received readings, workshops and rewritings in Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago, Kansas City, Sacramento, Waterford and San Francisco. But it was here in Cleveland, with the calling of the very first light cue, that this play – directed by Anne McEvoy – was finally and fully brought to light.
4: Yee Gods!
As with all classic pieces of musical theater, there are moments in Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” that have, over time, become iconic. Its first and best is the opening number in which a train car full of traveling salesmen discuss their trade in a cappella syncopation with the accelerating steam locomotive. Most productions find the rapid-fire pacing and requisite pristine pronunciation difficult, but not at Great Lakes Theater and not under Vicky Bussert’s direction. This scene was anchored by veteran company members Lynn Robert Berg and David Anthony Smith, who were also performing in “Julius Caesar” in repertory along with their cast mates. Their comfort with Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter transferred nicely to the singspiel required by the composer and, in three minutes and 30 seconds, both the tone and the tempo for this outstanding production was firmly established.
3: But he doesn’t know the territory
Like “The Music Man,” David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Glengarry Glen Ross” revolves around fast-talking salesmen. But for all the excellent actors and their absolutely captivating dialogue full of testosterone-fueled profanity and void of grammatical eloquence, it was Cheri DeVol’s magnificent scenic design and Trad A. Burns’ dramatic lighting that stole the show in the Beck Center production. In the office, Mamet’s characters possess oversized egos but are small and insignificant men outside of this limited realm. This was brilliantly represented by their being dwarfed in overstuffed, high-back booths and garish ceiling-to-floor curtains in the restaurant where they drink after work. In this terrific William Roudebush-directed production, the storytelling began the moment the audience first saw the set, before we heard the first spoken word.
2: Welcome to nowhere
The image captured in this show’s production photo comes from the final moment in “The Band’s Visit,” which came through Playhouse Square on its national tour. It depicts Egypt’s eight-piece Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, which had finally reached its destination of Petah Tikva in Israel to play a goodwill concert, having spent the entirety of the musical lost in the similarly sounding nowhere town of Bet Hatikva. The bandleader (Sasson Gabay) is about to turn and face his musicians, dramatically raise his baton just above his head, suspend it there for an instant, and then initiate the long-awaited first note. But before he does, the stage immediately goes to black and the audience’s thunderous and prolonged applause begins. Prior to this moment is a succession of other immaculately conceived, meticulously orchestrated and tenderly rendered moments that made this musical a most remarkable and memorable theatrical event.
1: My Kingdom for a codpiece
George Brant’s “Into the Breeches!” is about a theater that decides to move forward with its productions of “Henry IV” and “Henry V” without any men due to the shortage generated by World War II. It offers plenty of social commentary and no shortage of tender moments. But when Maggie (Nisi Sturgis), who is now in charge, decides to teach her female cast of amateur performers (Tina Stafford, Courtney Stennett, Elisabeth A. Yancey and Peggy Roeder) how to walk like male characters by attaching codpieces to their midriff, director Laura Kepley allows the comedy to take over and Brant’s brilliant dialogue to give way to a sight gag that surely matches any previously performed in CPH’s 104 consecutive seasons.
Here’s to more memorable theater moments in the year to come and to you witnessing every one of them first-hand.