The Year in Review
When I reviewed 2016, the Anthony Bean Community Theater had discovered it needed more funds than expected to renovate its new location on Paris Avenue. After years without a permanent home, Southern Rep had just commenced an arduous journey to turn the long-vacant former St. Rose de Lima Church on Bayou Road into the Bayou Treme Center.
Both situations continue but with sunnier outlooks. When I spoke recently with Anthony Bean, he expressed hope that additional funding would soon be available for his theater. And Southern Rep is deep in the midst of its renovations; if its new space doesn’t fully open this year, Producing Artistic Director Aimée Hayes exudes confidence that it will definitely happen by early 2019.
More welcome news came from the Valiant Theatre and Lounge in Old Arabi which opened in the Fall of 2016 with a limited schedule; at this time last year, I had yet to visit it. This past year, however, it housed a variety of worthy plays & musicals and took part in the InFringe Fest, and I happily discovered I can get to it faster than it takes to get to Tulane or Loyola for shows.
Yet finding a venue here continues to be a challenge. In 2017, enterprising producers presented shows at a derelict former movie theater (On an Average Day at the Happyland Theater); a church (White Rabbit, Red Rabbit at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church); a room adjacent to a pizzeria (Constellations and Beirut at Outlaw Pizza Company); a Bywater backyard (Chet’s Summer Vacation at Burgundy Picture House); a hotel room (Cowboy Mouth at the Frenchmen Hotel, Rm. 300); an outdoor public works recreational project (Cry You One at Mirabeau Water Garden); a country club’s dining hall (The Savannah Sipping Society at the Timberlane Country Club; a marina’s event space (Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at the Pontchartrain Landing Supper Club); and a vast art studio/ warehouse/krewe den (Caligula at Castillo Blanco).
While I always enjoy going to such unconventional spots, the theater community might want to contact our new Mayor and mostly new City Council to encourage them to give tax breaks (or other supportive measures) to landlords and developers who will convert old spaces into theaters or include them in new residential and commercial buildings.
Meanwhile, two new theater companies that debuted in 2017 appear to have staying power.
Intramural Productions was the force behind both Chet’s Summer Vacation, a new play by Sam Mayer and Sam Shepard’s one-act Cowboy Mouth. (They also participated in InFringe Fest.) Chet, about a young man’s seduction by an AC unit(!), revealed an original and quirky theatrical voice; Jeremy Webber’s creepy sound design added to the fun.
Being Artistic Director of Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre (TSLT) clearly didn’t occupy enough of Michael McKelvey’s time so he started The Storyville Collective which launched with two slam-bang productions that he directed: Hand to God, in which John Fitzpatrick made an astonishing local debut as a teenager who may be possessed, literally, by the Devil in the form of an evil sock puppet, and the campy musical Reefer Madness, in a pitch-perfect production (featuring Eli Timm, Maggie Windler, Ken Goode, Luke Halpern, Janie Heck, Elyse McDaniel, Alex Wallace, Cameron-Mitchell Ware) that provided a better high than any chemically-induced one.
Fitzpatrick and Timm combined in See ‘Em On Stage’s disturbing Thrill Me: the leopold & loeb story to give expert twin portraits of inexplicable villainy in this tale of power, entitlement and perverted sexuality. Like Reefer Madness, Thrill Me had had a forgettable local production a few years ago; this version, under Christopher Bentivegna’s precise direction, proved a memorable retelling of the “crime of the century.”
Some of the other plays that thrilled me last year included White Rabbit, Red Rabbit at which each performance a different guest actor (I saw Kathy Randels; Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg, among others, had done it in NYC) read the script which they saw for the first time as they stepped onstage. Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s solo show included audience participation and grappled with such social phenomena as power, obedience, and manipulation. Kudos to Poor Yorick, a new theater company, for offering this unique experience.
Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues didn’t wow me on Broadway. At The National WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen, it did. Victoria Reed’s astute direction evoked the proper feel of the WWII era and brought out the work’s comedy and drama with insightful, gratifying results. As a nebbishy intellectual soldier and the authoritative sergeant with whom he butts heads, Stephen Stanley and Patrick Ryan Sullivan, respectively, made these combatants an utterly winning team.
Set in the oil-bust Houston of 1987, Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate at Le Petit limned with a Chekhovian bittersweetness the maneuverings of the Gordon family siblings to insure that they maximize their forthcoming inheritances. The entire cast gave solid performances with Brenda Currin, as the family matriarch, and Carl Palmer, as her dissolute son, standouts.
Emilie Whelan’s inspired direction enabled Albert Camus’ play about one of history’s most dissolute rulers to cast off its wordiness and prickle & seduce audiences with images of horror and beauty. As the wantonly insane Caligula, the charming Ian Hoch made illogic seem logical as he ventured to conquer the existential universe wearing a satiny shirt and tighty whities. Aided by Evan Spigelman as the Emperor’s cagy mistress and Joshua Courtney’s rock’n’roll lighting, Cripple Creek’s production gave us a vision of a world we’d rather not know.
(Hoch also distinguished himself as a nerdy would-be lover in Southern Rep’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley and in a number of small parts in The NOLA Project & UNO’s Urinetown.)
In UNO’s small black box theater, Patrick Hunter produced Lobby Hero, Academy Award-winner Kenneth Lonergan’s 2001 morally complex drama set in the foyer of a Manhattan apartment building. Under Mike Harkins’ sensitive direction, the cast (Hunter, Thaddeus McCants, Garrett Prejean, Kristin Shoffner) wholly inhabited these four souls–two security guards and two police officers–you probably wouldn’t want to run into in real life.
On Kevin Griffith’s austere set in UNO’s large theater, graduate student Ryan M. Decker’s inventive direction and Diane K Baas’ punchy lighting illuminated The Royale by Marco Ramirez about a black prize fighter modeled on Jack Johnson (a powerful John Charles II, impressively supported by James Compton V and Shanda Quintal), the first African-American
world heavyweight boxing champion. Like Lobby Hero, The Royale provided an absorbing, invigorating theatrical experience.
Among the musicals that thrilled me was Caroline, or Change, a co-production between Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) and Loyola’s Theater Department. Tony Kushner drew on childhood memories of growing up in Lake Charles during the civil rights era to examine the life of a black maid and the Jewish family she works for. Director Laura Hope drew out the compassion and sensitivity of this singular musical (there’s a singing washing machine and bus). As the maid, Troi Bechet skillfully bottled her emotions until she let go with a searing 11 o’clock number.
Whether for economic, aesthetic or educational reasons, such joint professional/university efforts flourished this year. If the aforementioned Urinetown made a dark show unnecessarily darker, The NOLA Project’s partnering with Delgado Community College for A Few Good Men gave us, under Jason Kirkpatrick’s stewardship, a crackling courtroom drama with A.J. Allegra as a smart but unambitious lawyer and Michael Aaron Santos as his nemesis, both adding yet another supremely accomplished performance to their resumes. Let’s hope such collaborations continue in 2018.
In Voices in the Dark Repertory Theatre’s stunning Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, singer Sharon Martin delivered a tour de force account of the last days of the great, tragic jazz singer Billie Holiday. Tommye Myrick’s shapely staging kept Martin in motion, except for the more sober numbers, insuring that the overall visuals of this concert/drama never became static.
The season’s absolute highlight came early last year with Rivertown’s remarkable presentation of Billy Elliot, one of the great musicals of this, or any, century. Kelly Fouchi’s production may have mirrored Broadway’s, but she tweaked it just enough to make it her own. Not only did Rivertown meet the physical demands of this challenging show, but its top-notch cast (led by Elizabeth Argus, Mike Harkins, Kevin Murphy, and the extraordinary Marcel Cavaliere as Billy) ensured that it not only entertained but touched audiences deeply and movingly.
Other memorable musicals included TLST’s Annie Get Your Gun; Southern Rep & NOCCA Stage Company’s Fun Home; TLST’s Hairspray, The Company of St. Bernard (CSB)’s Hairspray (the former more polished, the latter more emotionally rewarding); Le Petit’s Jelly’s Last Jam; and NOCCA’s The Pirates of Penzance.
Other memorable straight plays included Theatre Lab NOLA’s Constellations; Loyola’s The Christians; Southern Rep’s Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2 & 3) and Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley; Gary Vandeventer’s Looped; The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans’ Not About Nightingales, the local premiere of this early Williams work; Mighty Lincoln Company’s Oleanna; Tulane Theater Department’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui; and NOCCA’s The Secret in the Wings.
Of course, in a class by herself is a certain diva whose Varla Jean Merman Sings? explored “white music” particularly of the pop variety (“the kind you hear in an elevator”) with nods to Julie Andrews, John Denver, The Captain & Tennille, The Osmonds, etc. etc. Whether surreally dressed as a giant Saltine and playing a clarinet or appearing in a brilliant video as fellow performers Dina Martina and Miss Atlantic Richfield, Varla’s (aka Jeffery Roberson) fearless artistry has never been better.
Other fabulous star turns included Jinkx Monsoon in The Vaudevillians and Randy Rainbow presented by Mark Cortale; John Waters, Diamanda Galas, and Bridget Everett & Murray Hill, all brought down by Daniel Nardicio; and Ed Asner in Ed. Weinberger’s A Man and His Prostate at Le Petit.
The Saenger began the year with Disney’s magnificent The Lion King and ended it with Lincoln Center Theater’s sublime revival of The King & I. In between, it housed the surprisingly enjoyable Carole King bio-musical Beautiful, the campy fun of The Bodyguard, the no fun Finding Neverland, and the Broadway-bound Jimmy Buffett jukeboxer Escape To Margaritaville, which needs work but just might succeed if easy-to-please Parrotheads flock to it.
Although New Orleans Opera did present the warhorses Faust and Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, it expanded its repertoire with a decent traditionally staged Sweeney Todd and a delightfully reimagined version of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. Even better was its Chamber Series and its ventures into contemporary opera (the transgender-themed As One) and tango opera (Ástor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires).
I wish I could report that I attended a plethora of noteworthy original works, but with The NOLA Project’s last-minute cancellation of the highly anticipated The Battle for New Orleans by Jim Fitzmorris, that left only their co-production with NOMA of James Bartelle & Alex Martinez Wallace’s fanciful The Spider Queen; though it still needs work to be wholly successful, Jon Greene’s fluid staging propelled the story forward to make for a hugely entertaining 2+ hours.
An honorable mention goes to Transplant by Dante Anthony Fuoco that ran at The New Movement. His series of short scenes detailing his experiences as a transplant to New Orleans amused but could have been sharper; his acting throughout all of them, however, was outstanding.
And at the risk of leaving somebody out, here are, in addition to those already mentioned, some other praiseworthy folks who trod the boards in 2017: Ashton Akridge, James Yeargain (Oleanna); Elizabeth Argus, Meredith Owens (Gypsy, TSLT); Greg Baber (Sweet Bird of Youth, Southern Rep); Sean Michael Bruno, Tucker Godbold, Aaron Richert (The Pirates of Penzance); Camille Burkey, Leslie Castay, Jason Dowies, Taylor Lewis (Fun Home); Keith Claverie, Ricky Graham (It’s Only a Play, Le Petit & NOLA Project); Vieta Collins, Jaleel Green, Brittany M. James, Alys Murray (Hairspray (CSB)); Jacqui Cross, Kali Russell (Hairspray (TSLT)); Julie Dietz (The Spider Queen); Robert Diago DoQui (Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2 & 3)); Bob Edes, Jr. (Gypsy, Hairspray (TSLT)); Rahim Glaspy, Rebecca Elizabeth Hollingsworth, Matt Reed (Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play, Radical Buffoon(s) & Rock re Theatre); Jarrell Hamilton (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stage Door Canteen); Anthony Harvey (On the Verge, Tulane); Margo Hera, John Graham Parker (Dancing at Lughnasa, Tulane); Zeb Hollins III, Sean Richmond (Not About Nightingales); Katie Howe (Annie Get Your Gun); Idella Johnson (Jelly’s Last Jam, Once on this Island, Le Petit); Alcee Jones III (Xanadu, NOCCA); Jeff Mallon (Looped); Anja Mayer-Avsharian, Kristen Swanson, Brianna Thompson (Caroline, or Change); Javier Mederos (The Christians); Damien Moses (Jelly’s Last Jam); Christopher Ramage, Emily Russell (Constellations); Christopher B. Robinson, Carol Sutton (Camino Real, The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company); Christian Tarzetti (The Little Mermaid, Rivertown); Andrea Watson (Hand to God).
Additionally, proving that there are “no small parts, only small actors,” I want to acknowledge three thespians who made the most of virtually single scene roles: Ellie Bono (Gypsy); Jess Podewell (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui); and Adam Segrave (The Little Mermaid).
And though the ZFX, Inc. & Fly Circus Space’s special effects for JPAS’ Tarzan breathtakingly allowed the Lord of the Jungle to swing through the trees, no special effect was more
dazzling than the transformation of 610 Stompers into lithe Fosse dancers and perfectly collapsing wooden soldiers in LPO’s Holiday Spectacular.
Here’s hoping there’ll be many more such dazzling effects in 2018!