The Year in Review
2022 was bookended by two phenomenal productions. The first was the regional premiere of Twelfth Night, The Musical, a new (2018), buoyant adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy by up’n’coming composer Shaina Taub. The second was an original, witty deconstruction with meta touches of Shrek The Musical that was far more enjoyable than that often plodding show.
The kicker? Both of these adventuresome works were done at high schools, the former at Hahnville High School in Boutte, the latter at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA).
Let that sink in. A regional premiere of a challenging new work. An original musical (even if it reconstituted songs from an older one). Wonderfully done. At high schools. And NOCCA’s (Not) Shrek — A Concert that Defies Expectation was written and put together by its Musical Theater Department’s students in just over a week!
Add to those Mount Carmel Academy’s jubilant Matilda The Musical and Lusher Charter School’s wildly imaginative Spongebob the Musical (done at Delgado Community College), another regional premiere, as well as–if I may bump up the age range a few years–the gleeful Go-Go’s musical Head Over Heels at Loyola, yet another regional premiere, and it’s cause for both celebration that our talented youth are being served so well and some head-scratching as to why I haven’t noted any musicals by local “adult” theaters.
[Note: A very few theater companies do not provide press tickets and so I can’t comment on their productions which are mostly musicals.]
While a number of memorable straight plays were done by area companies (more on those later), one couldn’t help but notice that 2022’s theater season here lacked something. Sure, the ongoing effects of Covid could be blamed, but it seemed to be more than that. One wondered why companies chose certain plays when other, more worthy ones (An Octoroon, Fairview, Mary Jane, The Antipodes, Circle Mirror Transformation, Bootycandy, Small Mouth Sounds, Between Riverside and Crazy, etc., etc.) have yet to be done here.
It may be due to economics and what producers think will appeal to audiences. It could certainly be taste, “one man’s meat is another’s poison” and all that. But something seemed to be missing which we once had in greater abundance, a NOLA quirkiness that allowed even imperfect works to be worthwhile and add some spice to the season.
That said, I suppose we should be thankful that there was any theater at all. 2022 started out with
cancellations (LPO’s The Hero’s Tragedy and the ballet portion of New Orleans Opera’s Homage to Josephine Baker) and postponements (The NOLA Project’s School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play and Choir Boy at Le Petit) due to Covid’s Omicron variant.
If Covid disruptions eventually calmed down, in July the sad announcement was made that after 36 years of offering world and regional premieres, as well as many other types of productions, Southern Rep would be bringing down its curtain for the final time. “Unfortunately, financial pressures and other considerations,” said Karen Swaim Babin, president of Southern Rep’s Board of Directors, “during these extraordinary times have outpaced the available resources.”
Whether you were someone like me, who had participated in SRep’s 6×6 10-minute plays and others of its playwriting programs; a subscriber; one of the countless theater artists who had worked onstage or behind the scenes; or just an occasional attendee, one had to acknowledge the huge loss to New Orleans’ theater community which has not, yet, been replaced.
As we mourn Southern Rep’s passing, we can salute the debuts of two new theater companies here.
Founded by Andrea Watson, Fat Squirrel produced new works (Justin Maxwell’s The Canopic Jar of My Sins and a one-act play festival), a contemporary drama (Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi) and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a remarkably diverse and ambitious slate of initial offerings, all in the course of six months. If I felt Dusa,a co-production with Lucy Faust, who also starred in it along with Desirée Burrell, Susan Gordon, and Watson, was the most fully realized of the line-up, I look forward to what Fat Squirrel has in store for us in future seasons.
After some online presentations during the pandemic, Crescent City Stage, led by Executive Director Michael A. Newcomer and Co-Artistic Directors Jana Mestecky & Elizabeth Elkins Newcomer, finally launched “in real life” with Nobel Prize-winner Derek Walcott’s Pantomime, a two-hander which featured Michael C. Forest and M. Newcomer, that explored race relations and colonialism. Crescent City Stage continues its season next month with Molly Smith Metzler’s Cry It Out and, as with Fat Squirrel, I hope it will remain trodding on NOLA’s boards for a long time.
NOLA did get a new board to trod on when the New Marigny Theater opened this summer at 2301 Marais Street, the site of the former Annunciation Church. So far, ArtSpot Productions’ The Road to Damascus has played there as well as Operating Theatre, a reproductive farce by Anita Vatshell about the future of abortion access (or lack thereof). I hope more folks will take advantage of this beautiful and much-needed new venue.
Getting back to those high school (and college) musicals, I give tremendous credit to those dedicated teachers who maintain tremendously high standards of excellence: Hahnville High’s Lucas and Megan Harms; Lusher’s A.J. Allegra; Mount Carmel’s Kristi Jacobs-Stanley; and the entire faculties at NOCCA and Loyola.
Directed by Lucas Harms, Tonya Chaney (Olivia), Timmy Gann (Sir Toby Belch), and Matthew Rechen (Malvolio) led the cast of Twelfth Night, The Musical to find the right balance between comic exuberance and delicate romance. Such was the high quality of this production that if I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine that, instead of Boutte, I was in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater…which is where this Twelfth Night played in New York.
Allegra helmed Spongebob the Musical with his usual panache. Cannon Jewel (Spongebob), Niles Cosey (Eugene Krabs), and Henry Morse (Squidward Q. Tentacles) along with the rest of the cast dived into the merriment and, outfitted in Baylee Robertson’s fanciful costumes, made Spongebob wildly fun and even touching by its end.
Savannah Fouchi reprised her enchanting turn as Matilda (seen last at Tulane Summer Lyric in 2019) at Mount Carmel. Jacobs-Stanley brought out both the musical’s snarkiness and charm via Angelina Granier (Mr. Wormwood) and Regan Nugent (Miss Honey), respectively. Director Jacobs-Stanley and Mount Carmel also impressed with Antigone in Munich, a searing drama about The White Rose, a resistance group led by college students in Nazi Germany, with Molly Martinez and Casey Swanson compellingly playing two aspects of Sophie Scholl whom the Nazis would execute for her brave actions.
I wish I could tell you more about (Not) Shrek but with 4 Shreks, 3 Fionas, 3 Donkeys, and 3 Farquaads, I have no idea who did what, just that they all did a great job. If NOCCA could get the rights to do their “Concert that Defies Expectation” on Broadway, it well might run longer than Shrek the Musical did originally!
Loyola’s Head Over Heels may not have run as long as the Broadway production but that’s not saying a lot. What it did do, under Hardy Weaver’s polished direction, was to make the characters’ plights more real and a tad less zany than in NYC. Zane Syjansky and Kaelyn Turkmany stood out in this frabjous production as did Kaci Thomassie’s dazzling costumes and Jaune Buisson’s bouncy choreography.
Our universities also proved proficient when presenting more serious works this year as well.
I had seen Dael Orlandersmith’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated Yellowman many years ago and was underwhelmed by it. So Director Ray Vrazel’s extraordinary production starring Olivia Johnson and Atlantis Clay, both outstanding, at Dillard University blew me away. Though the script remained the same, having younger, more age-appropriate actors, especially for the play’s early sections when the characters are teenagers, made all the difference for this gut-wrenching tale of colorism and class conflicts in the African American community.
UNO gave a most impressive regional premiere to Is God Is, Aleshea Harris’ blazingly powerful portrait of a dysfunctional family crossed with an Elizabethan revenge play to lacerating, and often hilarious, effect. R’Myni Watson directed with aplomb Jae’lin LaGrange and Jhai Watson as revenge-seeking twins with biology major Tithalia Lockett making a galvanic UNO debut as their bedridden mother.
Watson also directed the world premiere of Justin Maxwell’s Exhausted Paint: The Death of Van Gogh in UNO’s black box theater. Maxwell may not have covered any new ground about the Dutch artist, but his approach was unique. Other than the script’s beginning and ending passages, its twelve inner sections were done in a different order each performance, their sequence determined by randomly chosen audience members before the start of the show. Drew Stroud inhabited this hour-long monolog flawlessly, occasionally interacting with folks in the front rows with confidence and bravado.
Tulane’s Antigone may have had some slow passages, but as Kreon, the mythological ruler of Thebes, Jared Goudsmit started off unbending and unwilling to listen to others, but by the end, as Kreon, humbled, began to realize the cost of his inflexibility, Goudsmit choked on his words, creating a portrait of a broken man left looking into an existential abyss.
Also at UNO, Goat in the Road Productions (GRP) presented its annual Play/Write Showcase of student plays. Brought to life by professional actors, directors, and designers, the 8 playlets that I saw (another 8 were done the following night) were fun, witty & wildly imaginative, and gave hope that there’ll be more plays like Yellowman and Antigone in the future.
Demonstrating that those who teach can also do, GRP added to its remarkable series of immersive plays in notable French Quarter edifices about seminal moments in New Orleans history with The Family Line at the BK [Beauregard-Keyes] Historic House. Written by a twelve-member “Creation Ensemble”, The Family Line takes audiences back to NOLA’s General Strike of 1892, during which, to a great extent, divisions broke down less along racial lines than among class.
As with GRP’s previous such shows, audiences at The Family Line follow the character(s) of their choice as scenes simultaneously play out in four areas of BK House’s ground floor. Directors Richon May Wallace and Chris Kaminstein ensure that enough engrossing moments are going on at any one time so as to draw attendees in various directions as a topnotch ensemble (Joel Derby, Dylan Hunter, Grace Kennedy, April Louise, Alexandria Miles, Lisa Shattuck, KC Simms, Constance Thompson) play out the relationships and conflicts of their historically-based characters.
And why am I talking about The Family Line in the present tense? Because it’s been so successful that it’s been extended until January 29 (For tickets, go to http://www.goatintheroadproductions.org/)
If The Family Line allowed us to explore a French Quarter mansion, you had to go to a backyard in the Florida Area of the Upper Ninth Ward for Intramural Theater’s world premiere of The Cuck. And, man, was it worth it!
Sam Mayer’s jewel-like adaptation of Euripides’ Electra modernized the language and manners of its ancient Greek nobles and so made the story eminently more accessible to today’s audiences. As Electra and brother Orestes sought revenge on their murderous mother in their stratified society, one couldn’t help but notice parallels to our own haves-and-have-nots world of today.
Director Bennett Kirschner incisively drew every nuance from Mayer’s script. And if Paul Braud as the hunky but thick-headed Orestes and Venita “Vinnie” Matthews as the imperious Clytemnestra brilliantly exhibited two aspects of regal privilege, Alexandria Miles, prior to her subdued role in Family Line, triumphed as Electra by combining haute bearing, nagging guilt, deflated majesty, and so much more. One can only hope that The Cuck gets the long life it deserves far beyond the Ninth Ward.
Delayed by the pandemic, audiences finally experienced another new venue when The NOLA Project inaugurated the amphitheater in NOMA’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden expansion with its original adaptation of Treasure Island; Gab Reisman’s The Seagull; or, How to Eat It, an adaptation of Chekhov also played there. Allegra directed them both and I admired Monica R. Harris and Reid Williams in the former, and Elizabeth Argus, Ross Brill, Payj “PJ” Ruffins, and the inimitable Natalie Boyd in the latter.
The highlight of The NOLA Project’s season, however, was the aforementioned School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, well worth waiting for. Jocelyn Bioh’s knowing play transposed the elements of high school teen flicks to Ghana’s most exclusive boarding school for girls with devastating results. Tenaj Jackson made her directorial debut with a masterful job of orchestrating the proper dynamics among all the students and their teachers. Leading a marvelous cast, as the school’s rivals Aria Jackson and Jordan Bordenave were each heartbreaking in different ways as was Rebeckah Gordon-Kirk as an overweight, put upon student.
A mansion, a backyard, a sculpture garden. Add to that list of atypical venues, a gallery at The Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC) where The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans (TWTC) presented The Six Blanches in conjunction with “Backstage at A Streetcar Named Desire” an exhibition celebrating the 75th anniversary of Williams’ classic play. The short immersive work set six actresses throughout the gallery space; each performed her own continuous monolog drawn from Streetcar’s text and represented a different aspect of Blanche DuBois, for a different, slightly surreal, and rewarding event.
TWTC also gave a belated NOLA premiere to Clothes for a Summer Hotel, Williams’ final original play on Broadway. Director Augustin J Correro’s excellent production, starring a luminous Lauren Wells as Zelda Fitzgerald, did the drama justice, but also revealed why a rather experimental work like it might have failed on Broadway.
But it was when they moved away from the weightiness of Williams that TWTC gave us one of the funniest shows New Orleans has seen in years. An evening of comic one-acts by Christopher Durang and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, sent up Streetcar, The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly, Last Summer, and, as lagniappe, The Iceman Cometh. Too much? Not at all when the satire’s so sharp.
(A quick shout-out to Loyola and C. Patrick Gendusa, Chair of its Department of Theatre Arts & Dance, for enabling such companies as TWTC (Clothes, Southern Belle), NOLA Project (School Girls, Craigslisted), and Crescent City Stage (Pantomime) to utilize its facilities in this venue-challenged city. Not that a backyard or gallery isn’t nice, but some things do require an actual theater.)
Director Correro guided his cast to knowingly over-the-top, side-splitting performances. With heaving breasts & perfect comic timing, and looking like an oversexed Jessye Norman in turban and peignoir, Breland Leon fearlessly created a Blanche for the ages, spilling beer over his torso while exclaiming “Desire! Desire! Desire!” An ever-optimistic smile plastered on her face, Tracey E. Collins added to Durang’s barbed words for Menagerie’s put-upon mother with seemingly simple gestures–a rising eyebrow, a tightening grin, widening eyes–to extract every ounce of the script’s silliness. Mary Langley portrayed Stanley Kowalski as an idiot with droll understatement and then morphed into an equally ding-a-ling-y Brick. Lizzy Bruce, Roman Ellis, Jefther Osorio, and Matthew Raetz also contributed wonderfully wacky turns.
If Le Petit’s season didn’t wow me, it must be acknowledged that the French Quarter venue did try to diversify its offerings by presenting two plays (The House That Will Not Stand, Choir Boy) with predominantly African American casts; that may not seem like a lot but things change slowly at the tradition-bound community playhouse. Performers I admired included House’s Troi Bechet, Tameka Bob, Jarrell Hamilton, & Elexis Selmon, and Choir Boy’s Nicholas Javon, LeBaron Thorton, & Rosha Washington. I was sorry to see that Associate Artistic Director Kenna Moore, whose work I thought highly of, had departed; longtime theater artist Tommye Myrick is now listed as “Consulting Producer”.
Similarly, Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) broadened the range of its presentations with Fly, about the Tuskegee Airmen, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights with its all-Latinx cast. Both are worthy shows, but I most enjoyed Director Leslie Castay’s old-fashioned Holiday Inn, a stage version of the 1942 movie that featured a cavalcade of Irving Berlin songs. Backed by a full orchestra led by JPAS Artistic Director Dennis Assaf, a vital component of all JPAS musicals, Richard Arnold and Chloe Vallot made a most appealing romantic pair in this old-fashioned musical.
Fly, directed by Tommye Myrick, will be returning in February, this time to the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen where Bette Davis: Larger Than Life, Jessica Sherr’s one-woman show about the great film actress, played in October. What could’ve been a Wikipedia entry come to life, as too many of these bio-shows tend to be, instead turned out to be a fascinating portrait of an artist as a driven woman.
On the North Shore, Swamplight Theatre in Ponchatoula remounted its 2020 production of Tracers, a play written by Viet Nam war veterans in 1980 about their experiences there; it remains as trenchant as ever at it offers sad evidence of the timeless nature of war. It also provided exhilarating evidence of the power of theater to engage, enlighten, and entertain even when dealing with the grimmest of subjects.
Director Kendel D. Smith elicited sharp characterizations from his cast members, all of whom (Robinson J. Cyprian, Ben C. Dougherty, Michael Dubret, Ivan Janis, Thaddeus R. Kilpatrick, Josiah Rogers, Lee Stolf, and Smith) gave powerful, brutally honest, and fearless performances.
Christopher Manguno’s terrific production of Matilda at 30 by Ninety Theatre in Mandeville had me at times on the edge of my seat…even though it was the eighth time I’ve seen the musical. In his overall fine cast, two performances stood out.
Lean and of Napoleonesque stature, charismatic John Wesley may not look like the Olympic hammer thrower Agatha Trunchbull is supposed to be, but through the magic of his acting, he convinced you that she was, and a very scary Headmistress as well. Aided by dowdy costuming and a nondescript hairstyle, Courtney Calato Lee layered genuine sweetness with a browbeaten mien and a beautifully pure singing voice to makes an ideal Miss Honey, like Wesley’s Trunchbull, perhaps the best I’ve seen.
For sheer fun, Playmakers of Covington’s The Kitchen Witches, about two rival cable-access chefs/hostesses who find themselves working together on a TV cooking show, served up a tasty treat similar to a Chantilly cake–lotsa whipped cream plus just enough berries to give it some nutritional value. Actresses Julie Generes and Janie McNulty took full advantage of these juicy roles and combined to make a believable pair of friends-turned-frenemies with hysterical results as barbs were traded and pastry dough wound up in unexpected places.
Any other place, you might find it unexpected to have not one, but two companies producing extravaganzas in a swimming pool. Not in New Orleans where the Drifter Hotel on Tulane Avenue hosted both companies this year. Below Sea Level Productions has presented their aquatic version of WaterWorld for a number of years but this was the first time I got to see it. Aqua Mob New Orleans takes on a new epic each year; in 2022 it was Alien which became Ripley and the Cat: A Water Ballet Spectacular. Both shows played to full, enthusiastic houses and left me with a big ol’ smile on my face.
And while I’ve yet to see her do synchronized swimming, the sui generis Varla Jean Merman returned to Café Istanbul last April with Varla Jean Merman’s Little Prick after which my face hurt, literally, from grinning for 90 minutes. This “Superspreader of good cheer”emerged costumed as a syringe with a ginormous needle that shot loads of something onto the front row, accompanied by Vaccination (to the tune of Kool and the Gang’s Celebration).
Greeting the packed house with “Thank you for risking your lives”, Varla riffed on all things Covid during Prick’s first half, while the targets expanded after intermission. This expertly crafted show proved that despite the two year pandemicus interruptus, Varla’s faux serious manner and daffy persona remained brilliantly intact.
In addition to those already mentioned above, other praiseworthy folks who trod the boards in 2022 include: Jennifer Baptiste, Asia Sylvas (Blue, Slidell Little Theatre); Jake Bartush, Mike Harkins (Henry IV, Part 1, New Orleans Shakespeare Festival); Enrico Cannella, Kiane D. Davis, Micah Richerand Desonier (Shrek the Musical, JPAS); Brian Andrew Cheslik, Kati Schwartz (Tribes, Le Petit); Benjamin Dougherty, Noah Hazzard (The Play That Goes Wrong, Le Petit); Ruby Mae Exposito, Diana LaSalla (Mamma Mia!, Slidell Little Theatre); Emily Fink (Bandstand, Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane (SLT)); Bailey Gabrish (Cinderella, Holiday Inn); Krystal Gem (Sweet Potato Queens, JPAS); Rachel Looney, Jake Wynne-Wilson (Cinderella, JPAS); Jessica Mixon, Lizzy Tucker (Rent, SLT); Sofia Oprea, KC Simms (Stupid Fucking Bird, UNO); and Dane Rhodes (Macbeth, Fat Squirrel).
As the curtain rises on a new year, I look forward to many shows that will push the envelope, tickle the mind, go out on a limb, all while still providing a worthy few hours’ entertainment. Let’s hope 2023 will see more productions featuring that certain Nawlins’ “je ne sais quoi!”