Every year, local professional theater companies devote themselves to putting on the best shows possible. Although some companies have deeper pockets, more Actors’ Equity contracts or a grander facility than others, talent makes itself known and creativity always rises to the surface no matter the pay scale or the palace.
The Cleveland Jewish News wants to recognize excellent productions and performances from the past year. There is no shortage of either across our many Cleveland area stages considering the breadth of this year’s award recipients.
Only those professional productions originating in or staged by local troupes are taken into consideration. Most performances were reviewed during their opening night productions.
Best Drama: “Glengarry Glen Ross”
Beck Center for the Arts
In David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the playwright sets out to expose the savagery of capitalism by exploring the pressure-cooker world of unscrupulous real estate salesmen in Chicago in the 1980s, a time when the American economy was suffering through a deep recession. The men who populate this play have the unenviable job of selling something people don’t want and can’t afford and to close the deal. For the actors, this play is a dream and a nightmare. The material is rich and the characters are drawn with intriguing complexity, but the dialogue and its unique rhythm are difficult to memorize and master. Both were accomplished by Beck’s outstanding ensemble of veteran players. Director William Roudebush’s vision and sharp sense of humor, and his production team’s attention to detail, were very much in evidence in every aspect of this brilliant production.
Best Comedy: "Into the Breeches!”
Cleveland Play House
George Brant’s “Into the Breeches!” does what good comedies do: offer sugar-dusted social commentary that finds audiences laughing uproariously through the tears during the performance and lost in thought while heading for the exits afterward. The play – about a theater company 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 – started life as a 10-minute contribution to Cleveland Play House’s 2015 centennial season, when 10 local playwrights were commissioned to write short-form stories covering each decade of the company’s existence. Director Laura Kepley recognized all the dramatic and comedic opportunities created by Brant’s expanded reimagining and put together a remarkable cast and crew capable of embracing and delicately embellishing each of them.
Best Musical: “The Music Man”
Great Lakes Theater
“Yee Gods!” That’s more than young Zaneeta Shinn’s trademark expression of elation in Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man.” It’s the sound of astonishment coming from audiences during Great Lakes Theater’s remarkable rendition of the musical. The show took home nearly every Tony Award when it premiered on Broadway in 1957, and the reasons why – the sturdy story set in a nostalgic time capsule, the hummable music with particularly memorable lyrics, the romanticism seasoned with comedy at the expense of, but never insulting to, Midwestern sensibilities – were all on display at the Hanna Theatre. Director Vicky Bussert delivered everything with a spellbinding up-tempo that kept audiences gasping for breath and absolutely mesmerized when not breaking into spontaneous applause.
Best Director of a Drama: Sean Derry
None Too Fragile Theater
Pubs – with its instantaneous comradery among strangers, the confessionary function of the barkeep, and an assortment of down-on-their-luck denizens – are great places to set a play. It could even be argued that one of the most monumentally depressing and theatrically engaging places in all of theater is Harry Hope’s Saloon, where Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” takes place. A northern English pub is at the heart of Jim Cartwright’s “Two,” which features a bickering, middle-aged husband and wife who run the place and serve drinks to the dozen or so definitively damaged regulars who pass through their pub on this particular evening. Everyone – the barkeeps and their imbibing clientele – was played by the talented Derdriu Ring and David Peacock. With Sean Derry at the helm – whose hands-on directing and scenic design helped create astounding verisimilitude in the performances and an impressionistic rendering of a tavern on the stage – this production was a master class in quick-change character study and the artful personification of human frailty.
Best Director of a Comedy: Adam Immerwahr
“Ken Ludwig’s Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood"
Cleveland Play House
Playwright Ken Ludwig has mastered the farce formula – the silly situations that escalate into mayhem, the witty repartee delivered at lightning speed, and the performance of highly stylized, high-energy physical funny-business. His most recent plays, including “Ken Ludwig’s Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood,” are comical take-offs of others’ serious works. And thanks to the efforts of director Adam Immerwahr and his designers, this CPH production was nearly as action-packed as the 1938 film starring Errol Flynn, with plenty of playfulness in the otherwise authentic and highly entertaining swordplay. It was also just as amiable as the 1973 Disney cartoon telling of the tale, so much better acted than the 1991 “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” with Kevin Costner, and just as silly as Mel Brooks’ 1993 “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.” This production found a remarkable balance between whimsy and stage worthiness.
Best Director of a Musical: Joanna May Cullinan
Epic. That’s how the $10 million musical “Ragtime” was promoted when it arrived on Broadway in 1998. It was epic in size with its 50-person cast, sumptuous sets and extravagant costuming. And it was epic in scope with its telling of the state of the American Dream at the dawn of the 20th century as seen through a multi-strand story of three groups of Americans in and around New York City – the affluent white suburbanites who are represented by an upper-class Victorian family in New Rochelle; the African Americans who are represented by Harlem jazz pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem jazz pianist; and the immigrants who are represented by Tateh, a Jew from Latvia. While the tale remained the same in this Cain Park production, everything had been pared down to a bare elliptical stage, an intimate in-the-round staging, a 26-member cast and a 10-piece band. And it worked beautifully under Joanna May Cullinan’s direction, which found the core humanity that drives this musical. Despite its small size, this wonderful rendition of “Ragtime” stirred the soul and soared.
Best Musical Director: Jonathan Swoboda
“Man of La Mancha”
Earlier this year, there was an utterly charmless revival of “Man of La Mancha” in London’s West End that was set in modern-day surroundings and featured in the title role an unpersuasive actor who was famous for things other than musical theater. This was the most recent example of a theater trying to do something different in its production of this iconic Broadway classic. Fortunately, Porthouse Theater director Terri Kent opted to cast remarkable homegrown talent (including the masterful Fabio Polanco as Cervantes) and a few Broadway-tested ringers in her gorgeous, traditional staging. The actors had no difficulty accessing the longing for goodness and nobility in Dale Wasserman’s tale of a corrupt world. And, through his 11-piece orchestra, music director Jonathan Swoboda captured all the emotion and charm in Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s score, particularly the timeless anthem “The Impossible Dream” that helped win the show’s 1966 Tony Awards.
Best Choreography: Martín Céspedes
Beck Center for the Arts
Based on Roald Dahl’s darkly satirical children’s book, “Matilda: The Musical” tells the story of an ignored 5-year-old girl (alternating performances by Ella Stec and Sophia Tsenekos), who uses the power of her mind and her love of books as weapons against the ignorant and demoralizing adults in her life. The musical is true to the original work in style and substance, which means that it inherits Dahl’s wonderfully warped worldview that allowed for 5-year-olds at Matilda’s school to be played by older children (Marissa Dingess, Clara Endleman, Owen Hill, Grace Mackin, Finn O’Hara, Ellie Ritterbusch, Nolan Tiech and Colin Willett) and older children to be played by young adults (Piper Bruce, Antonia Cangelosi, Kaelin Curran, Antonio DeJesus, Eli Owens and Sam Sommer). Good thing, for they were better equipped to master Martín Céspedes’ high-energy, cinematic choreography that filled huge production numbers like “Revolting Children” with gorgeous and often roguish imagery that facilitated the Scott Spence-directed storytelling and reinforced its theme of child-empowerment.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Drama: Jason Martin
The New York Times theater critic raved over Will Eno’s early one-man monologue “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” calling the caustic yet comedic Pulitzer-finalist play “stand-up existentialism.” In Eno’s newest work “Wakey, Wakey,” the existentialism is served sitting down. Wheelchair-bound, actually, and told by a physically and mentally diminished man in the last throes of life. In an abundance of non sequiturs caused by increasingly fading faculties, Jason Martin as Guy toggled between consciousness, sub-consciousness and self-consciousness as well as between the trivial and the profound to share with us what he had learned in life so that we would not take ours for granted. Martin’s playfulness and gentle accessibility, performed under Christopher Mirto’s direction, made us want to offer our undivided attention. And it was his ability to frame this conversation as a most generous, noble and agonizing gesture by Guy that made us hang on each and every word.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Drama: Tarah Flanagan
Cleveland Play House
Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s “An Iliad” offers a compressed, contemporized and intensely compelling take on Homer’s nearly 3000-year-old epic poem “The Iliad.”
The 100-minute, one-act play has made the work even more accessible by the highly theatrical, direct-address storytelling performed by a single actor portraying a veteran chronicler of the decade-long Trojan War. In the Cleveland Play House incarnation, directed by Andrew Carlson and Tarah Flanagan, Flanagan herself played The Poet. In taking on a role written for a man, Flanagan more effectively channeled the extreme emotions penned by the playwright and more vividly depicted the vulnerabilities of the story’s characters, both God and Man. Flanagan’s passionate devotion to this piece of performance art – which required immense physicality when enacting brutal battle scenes and extraordinary stamina to sustain a state of perpetual motion – was awe-inspiring.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Comedy: Jonathan Dyrud
“The Taming of the Shrew”
Great Lakes Theater
In 2011, when Great Lakes Theater last paid a visit to Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” the company transported the masterwork from the 1590s to the 1980s and from the Italian city of Padua to a fashionable L.A. boardwalk. And it turned the comedy into a burlesque-infused romp. This time around, under Sara Bruner’s direction, the only adjustment in an otherwise traditional staging of this epic battle of the sexes pertained to the implicit 16th century sexism in the play. Rather than disguise it in outrageous comedy, Bruner called it out and made a key adjustment in Petruchio’s temperament, which was masterfully handled by actor Jonathan Dyrud. Most productions depict Petruchio as an abusive heel or dim-witted opportunist who wages psychological warfare on Kate (a wonderful Jessika D. Williams) to win her and her dowry. He is someone to laugh at. Here, he was someone to laugh with for Dyrud’s Petruchio was a clever, likable and playful rogue who saw the winning over of Kate as a game rather than a lesson. He toyed with her, knowing that Kate was too bright and obstinate to be easily conned into capitulation and, in doing so, won over the audience.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Comedy: Treva Offutt
At the epicenter of “Rasheeda Speaking,” Joel Drake Johnson’s divisive water cooler comedy with a race-baiting theme, is African-American front office receptionist Jaclyn, played wonderfully by Treva Offutt. While out sick for five days when the play begins, her white employer, Dr. Williams (John Busser), reveals in an early morning meeting with his loyal office manager Ileen (Mary Alice Beck), also white, that he was never happy with the decision to hire Jaclyn and asks her to monitor Jaclyn’s work habits to build a case for dismissal for Human Resources. Under Sarah May’s direction, Offutt mined all the comedy in this otherwise dark depiction of a toxic workplace, at times living up to the doctor’s perceptions that she was a condescending prima donna who did not fit in but then subtly morphing to reflect each new layer of revelation that the playwright threw her character’s way. All this effectively forced audience members to recognize their own cultural predispositions and unintended biases.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical: Calista Zajac
French Creek Theatre
Claudia Shear and Tim Federle’s musical adaptation of Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 novel “Tuck Everlasting” follows 11-year-old Winnie, who, after the loss of her father, runs away to the woods behind her house. She stumbles upon the Tucks, a family of four that unknowingly drank from a magical spring in the wood and will live forever. Winnie promises to keep the Tuck’s secret, which she may indulge in herself after deciding if eternal life is a blessing or curse. The musical opened on Broadway in 2016 but closed after 39 performances due in large part to the lack of the intimate staging provided by French Creek Theatre, the heart generated by director Fred Sternfeld, and the 15-year-old Calista Zajac in the lead. Zajac’s remarkable voice came with equally strong acting, and it was her spunk, sense of adventure and touch of rebellion that lifted this sentimental musical to new and memorable heights.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical: Brian Marshall
Mercury Theater Company
Three things became abundantly clear while watching Mercury Theater Company’s production of “Chaplin,” the heartfelt but quite mediocre bio-musical about the creator of the Tramp and his epic rise and dramatic fall in silent film-era Hollywood. The first was that the show was a devised star vehicle for the rare performer who can not only act and sing but convincingly emulate Charlie Chaplin’s endearing on-screen persona. Mastering the Tramp’s naivete, pathos, subtlety and underlying athleticism is a difficult task made even more so by the show’s frequent display of archival film footage of the real Chaplin in action, which provided an immediate and potentially humbling point of comparison. The second and third were that Brian Marshall was born for the role and there was nothing humbling about his spot-on and highly entertaining portrayal.
Best Performance by an Ensemble: “Central Concern”
Cleveland Public Theatre/Ohio City Theatre Project
Imagine if Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s political satire “Threepenny Opera,” where the characters make life decisions based solely on the desire for material things, was about the Ohio real estate industry. Then picture this play-with-music living inside the grotesque world of a Hieronymus Bosch painting that is populated by the menacing but buffoonish Blue Meanies from “Yellow Submarine.” Such is “Central Concern,” a delightfully subversive and genuinely bizarre work conceived and directed by Pandora Robertson. The storytelling was delivered by a quick-witted, fully vested and vocally talented ship of fools – Jeannine Gaskin, Wesley Allen, Maes Lunaria, Roxana Bell, Chris Walker, Jonathan Apriesnig and Daniel McNamara – in whiteface, colorful wigs that looked like layers of modelling clay, and grotesquely distorted over-padded costumes, designed by Carolyn Dickey. They performed slapstick and satire, sang songs about real estate, swarmed en masse to engage the audience in semi-belligerent but harmless Q&A, and offered no shortage of synchronized truth-telling.
Best Design – Scenic/Lighting/Costuming:
Cheri DeVol, Trad A. Burns and Inda Blatch-Geib
“Glengarry Glen Ross”
Beck Center for the Arts
“Glengarry Glen Ross” revolves around fast-talking salesmen imbued with absolutely captivating dialogue full of testosterone-fueled profanity and void of grammatical eloquence. But for all their boisterous sound and flailing fury, these men are small and insignificant outside of their limited realm – a reality represented in this Beck Center production by their being dwarfed in overstuffed, high-back booths and garish ceiling-to-floor curtains in the restaurant where, in the first act, they drank after work. The second act was in the real estate office, a den of thieves where the salesmen’s competitive nature, sense of entitlement and worst personality traits were laid bare. Here, office walls intersected at awkwardly acute angles with windows that introduced no source of natural light. All this was beautifully designed by Cheri DeVol and accentuated by Trad A. Burns’ dramatic lighting. They, along with costume designer Inda Blatch-Geib and her remarkable eye for realism and period-perfect fashion sense, were co-stars in this production.
Best Design – Projections: T. Paul Lowry
How does one create a visual backdrop for a play like Jennifer Haley’s “The Nether,” that travels between the real world to an immersive virtual reality the likes of “The Matrix” and “Inception?” Director Shannon Sindelar called on projection designer T. Paul Lowry, who generated remarkably dimensional digital imagery of green landscapes with trees whose leaves rustled in the breeze, a gorgeous blue sky with meandering clouds overhead, and a city skyscape dramatically cast in shadows.
All this was seen through three large windows on an otherwise dark and bare stage that transitioned to a virtual Victorian bordello, designed by Patrick Rizzotti and lit by Marcus Dana, when a beam of light scanned the space that set into motion the illumination of the wall’s decorative wainscoting and the pixelated accessing of a computer program. “Just because it is virtual doesn’t mean it isn’t real,” says one of the characters. Lowry’s colorful and animated images prove this to be true.
Congratulations to those recognized and to all the theater artists who delivered wonderful work that so enriched our lives.