The Year in Review
I wish I could say that the 2019 theater season in New Orleans was exciting and provocative and rip-roaring and outrageous and edge-of-your-seaty and challenging and all sorts of other superlatives.
But I can’t.
Sure, there were many good shows as well as bad ones, some fantastic productions (which I’ll get to) and some stinkers (which I won’t, at least not here), but something seemed to be missing.
I didn’t seem to be going to as many off-the-beaten-path venues as in previous years. There weren’t as many quirky productions. Where were the new production companies? Why weren’t the more established ones taking more chances?
That last question may not be fair. Probably about the same amount of chances were taken in 2019 as any other year, but, for me, not a high enough percentage of them paid off. In other words, particularly in the area of regional premieres, while some viewers may have been satisfied, with few exceptions, I wish we had been able to see other recent, more compelling scripts than what we were presented. (When will we get Fairview, Between Riverside and Crazy, Mary Jane, An Octoroon, etc., etc.?)
As for the classics, it’s almost embarrassing that, other than Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, New Orleans had no Ibsen, Strindberg, Ionesco, Shaw, Genet, Wilde, Restoration comedy, Elizabethan revenge plays, Arthur Miller, Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, Beckett, any of the Greeks, not to mention anything from non-Western (African, Asian, Latin American, etc.) writers. Really?? Not even Major Barbara which would be so appropriate these days (see Sackler funding and opioids controversy). How about a Duchess of Malfi reset in Chalmette?
On the positive side, we finally got a brand new theater facility located right in the middle of the CBD. The Beaubourg Theatre (614 Gravier St.) is a flexible black box venue with adjacent bar and munchie areas, and a lovely little courtyard in the rear. Its theater company kicked off programming there with Xavier Juárez’s engrossing production of Annie Baker’s bizarre and wonderful John featuring an ensemble of both veterans and newcomers (Troi Bechet, Joe Fredo, Janet Shea, Maile Zox) who worked together with intricate subtlety to reveal the soul of this haunting play.
Prior to John, new (yeah!) theater company No Dream Deferred occasioned my first visit to the Beaubourg, debuting with a worthy production of Tarell Alvin (Moonlight) McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water; I’m already looking forward to their upcoming production of Robert O’Hara’s audacious BootyCandy in May.
The theater at 2541 Bayou Road may no longer be brand new, but after years of searching for a home and then overseeing an extensive renovation, I’m happy to report that the drama at Southern Rep is now staying on stage where it belongs. With theater productions, musical performances, well-being workshops and even Zumba classes, the former St. Rose de Lima Church is now bustling again.
Aimée Hayes’ production of The Wolves kicked off the year with a probing look at a girls’ soccer team. Later in the season, Jason Kirkpatrick returned to NOLA to direct the Pulitzer and Tony winner August: Osage County. By revealing its humanity, which had been largely missing on Broadway, he gave us a gripping production of an important drama. Hayes, Mandy Zirkenbach, and Lara Grice stood out in a terrific cast which was led by Ellen Barry making a sensational New Orleans debut as the mean-spirited matriarch of the Oklahoma clan.
Other than the Beauborg, the only new theater space I visited (and if there were others, please keep me posted in 2020), and No Dream Deferred, the only other new theater company I’m aware of (ditto), came together for RF Keefe’s Turn It Into Smoke, produced by The Mighty Lincolns in the rectory of the Olivet Episcopal Church, the first show I’ve been to in Algiers in the 17 years I’ve been writing this column! I enjoyed Mark Routhier’s environmental staging of this drama and hope we’ll see more of the Lincolns, more at Olivet Episcopal, and more in Algiers in general.
BODYART did present its lovely immersive dance piece Maison in a private residence on Fontainebleau Drive accompanied by a scrumptious 3-course meal and live musicians. If NOLA’s theater shortage continues, perhaps enterprising local producers should consider doing more “plays in homes”; a number of such shows have been done in NYC over the past few years, Wallace Shawn’s The Fever among them.
Speaking of real estate, the tragic Hard Rock Hotel collapse forced Wicked to close sooner than planned at the Saenger Theatre, and Dear Evan Hansen and We Will Rock You to relocate to the Mahalia Jackson Theater. Having seen Rock of Ages, unchallenging but fun, there earlier in the year, I’m sure things worked out fine for those shows. Prior to the disaster, the Saenger hosted touring productions of Come From Away (as good, if not better, than Broadway), the spectacular revival of Les Miz, and Hamilton, which I’m happy I saw but, no, it didn’t change my life. Fortunately, the Saenger recently reopened.
What did change my life (well, not quite, but almost) were three brilliant presentations whose runs happened to overlap in the spring.
The joint Voices in the Dark Repertory Theater/Ashé Cultural Arts Center production of A Raisin in the Sun demonstrated how immensely prescient playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s predictions of the future were. Though one wishes that social injustices and racism would have disappeared by now, because they haven’t, Raisin remains startlingly fresh, as tho it was written just weeks ago.
Tommye Myrick directed to perfection a cast which included Ellington Benoit, Martin “Bats” Bradford, Jim Holmes, Ebony Duely Johnson, Tracy B. Mann, Christopher Robinson, and Constance Thompson. Heading up the Younger family as the matriarch Lena, Carol Sutton was simply extraordinary, delivering a nuanced and utterly unaffected performance that was, by turns, feisty, stern, & mothering, and full of resolute anger, determined pride, & unconditional love.
Matching Sutton, Michael C. Forest made an astonishing stage debut as Lena’s son. Exuding charisma, Forest captured Walter Lee’s hot-headed and bullying qualities, but also revealed his inner life with a soul-baring honesty.
The family portrayed by both black and white actors(!) in Barbecue may be the exact opposite of Raisin’s Youngers, but that’s one of the reasons making Robert O’Hara’s social satire so wickedly funny. Co-Directors Jon Greene & Torey Hayward got all the humor out of the script and guided the cast (Natasha Brown, Wayland Cooper, Naomi Daugherty, Zondra Howard, Tenaj Jackson, Chrissy Jacobs, Rebecca Leigh, Mahalia Abeo Tibbs, James Yeargain) to performances as sharp in their physicality as O’Hara’s verbal humor is.
Natalie Boyd, given the richest role in this Radical Buffoons production, brought mesmerizing depth to her character in a dual-natured performance where stillness masked a Gordian Knot of countervailing forces. She’s never been better.
Since its launch in 2015, The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans (TWTC) has never been better than with its Suddenly Last Summer starring Gwendolyne Foxworth as Violet Venable. Wearing a satiny short cape & matching dress like armor and wielding a walking stick, Foxworth employed a smooth charm to obscure Violet’s steely resolve and brought a musical quality to Williams’ words. Menacing and haughty with a subtle humor, Foxworth delivered an absolutely chilling and thrilling performance.
Sweet yet tough, as Violet’s illy used niece, Elizabeth McCoy was a well-matched adversary for her imperious aunt. On Ken Thompson’s set that hinted at an encroaching jungle, Augustin J Correro strategically deployed his actors (including Jay Canova, Ann Dalrymple, Lin Gathright, Bianca Siplin–all excellent) like chess pieces and beautifully sustained the tension throughout to create an eerie landscape of the mind perfectly suited to Williams’ heightened language.
TWTC scored again with Williams’ seldom seen Period of Adjustment. This putative comedy, at least by Williams’ standards, teeters between absurdism and genuine pathos as it anticipates Edward Albee’s wild familial battles.
Thompson again provided an ingenious indoor/outdoor set which Diane K. Baas lit with expressionistic boldness. Directors Lizzy Bruce & Ryan Bruce combined heightened realism and stylized movements to illuminate the text with the help of a fine cast featuring Tracey E. Collins, Mia Frost, & John Wettermark and starring John Lavin, Matt Story, and, in a stellar local debut, Sonia Rose Arredondo.
Arriving later in the spring, on a gorgeous evening NOMA’s Sculpture Garden was the ideal setting for The Henchman: A Shakespeare Story, playwright Michael Aaron Santos’ ingenious sequel to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unabashedly delightful, Director Kristin Shoffner sprinkled vastly imaginative fairy dust over the large, consummate cast (James Bartelle, Keith Claverie, Anna Toujas, and Alex Martinez Wallace standing out; Wallace also provided phenomenal fight choreography for this and Loyola’s Romeo & Juliet) with enchanting results for this NOLA Project production.
The NOLA Project also served up the world premiere of Adam Szymkowicz’s zany Stockholm Syndrome: Or, Remember the Time Jimmy’s All-American Beefsteak Place Was Taken Over by That Group of Radicals? Its wonderfully quirky humor fueled an absolutely wild and wacky plot, with some scary undercurrents, that well-reflected life in these crazy days.
A.J. Allegra’s first-rate, immersive staging swirled around and through the audience for this crowd-pleasing musical with tunes by Jack Craft and Skyler Stroup of Sweet Crude. Keith Claverie, marvelous as always, headed the topnotch ensemble which included Leslie Claverie, Rebecca Elizabeth Hollingsworth, Michael Krikorian, April Louise and Kathleen Moore.
Like The NOLA Project, the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen provided entertainment both musical and non.
Despite its clunky title, Higgins: The Man, The Boat, The War enlightened audiences about Andrew Jackson Higgins (1886-1952) and his vital contribution to the war effort. Ron Gural’s script made what could’ve been just a dry recitation of a Wikipedia entry into a fascinating play-with-music that kept viewers wondering “What happened next?”
Shane LeCocq provided smooth, unobtrusive direction while Robert Pavlovich astutely conveyed Higgins’ can-do spirit.
Another great American was the subject of the inaugural offering of the Stage Door’s new Songbook Series. One could argue with some of Banu Gibson’s choices for Cole Porter’s book but with 75 minutes of his songs, featuring brilliant lyrics and unforgettable melodies, this biomusical was delightful and de-lovely…and the Canteen’s accompanying food was delicious.
I think Porter would have applauded the Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane (SLT) for giving Matilda, the Musical its regional premiere; I know I did.
Director Michael McKelvey uncluttered Roald Dahl’s tale making the story of a bookish girl with a miserable home life easier to follow than the Broadway incarnation. Just as importantly, he found the perfect balance between Dahl’s over-the-top satire and hard-won sentimental realism, a tricky feat to get just right. Kelly Fouchi’s marvelously complex choreography well-conveyed the joys and frustrations of childhood.
Matt Reed was a tremendously evil Miss Trunchbull, Jessie Terrebonne Thompson & Ken Goode, Jr. oozed vulgarity as Matilda’s crass parents, and Stephanie Toups was just right as Matilda’s sweetly insecure savior, Miss Honey.
I’ve already written about how amazing Ellie Bono’s Matilda was. I returned to see Savannah Fouchi in the role (the two young actresses alternated) and she was similarly astounding. What I found fascinating was how different, yet equally valid, their interpretations were, Bono taking a more serious approach, anger simmering just below a calm surface, while Fouchi brought a lighter touch allowing us more easily to believe in her happily-ever-after denouement.
Also at Tulane, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s bubbly and captivating She Loves Me finally got its SLT debut with McKelvey presenting it straightforwardly, allowing all its prickly warmth and effervescence to come thru. As with Jefferson Turner for Matilda, Musical Director C. Leonard Raybon led the SLT orchestra to a triumphant performance.
As the feuding would-be lovers Amalia and Georg, Dody Piper and Rich Arnold radiated a magnetic chemistry as they tentatively discovered each other’s true self; both sang superbly. Bob Edes Jr., Meredith Owens, and Bryce Slocumb as colleagues at the perfume shop where they clerk each added to the show’s beguiling bouquet.
McKelvey had yet another hit with Silence! The Musical, a musical parody of The Silence of the Lambs. Silly campy fun? You bet. Entertaining? Absolutely.
Hannah Rachal played Clarice with impeccable deadpan drollness. As Hannibal the Cannibal, Kevin Murphy never overdid it, wisely offering a delectably straight approach with just enough of an edge to let audiences know he’s in on the joke. And Trey Ming’s go-for-broke characterization of the singing lunatic Buffalo Bill (sample number: I’d Fuck Me) was invaluable. All three, along with the rest of the cast, were scrumptious.
Murphy seemed to excel at playing maniacal killers this year.
In A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, the 2014 Best Musical Tony winner given its regional premiere by Le Petit Theatre, he portrayed a young Englishman who discovers he’s eighth in line to an earldom. You need only look to the show’s title to discern how he plans to conquer the castle that awaits him.
Murphy’s fine tenor, crisp comic timing, immaculate diction and sly charm, enabled his performance to far surpass that of his Tony-nominated peer. A cute and pleasant show, deftly directed by Christina Pellegrini, Guide was hard not to like, tho equally difficult to love.
Further afield out in Metairie, I didn’t expect to love the Jefferson Performing Arts Society’s (JPAS) The Sound of Music, but when done as well as it was, I found it to be a most heartwarming treat.
Opera singer Sarah Jane McMahon starred as Maria, her rich soprano voice adding an extra layer of beauty to Richard Rodgers’ glorious music. Rich Arnold may not have been the most Teutonic of Barons, but he brought a thorough emotional honesty to Captain von Trapp. Watching him and McMahon gingerly avoid and, then, give in to the Captain and Maria’s romantic attraction to each other, yeah, I’ll admit I got a lump in my throat.
At its home in Westwego, JPAS presented 100 Years of Women in Blues, Dorian Rush’s terrific overview of the women who were the founders and torchbearers of this uniquely American art form. Rush gave an abundant sampling of songs associated with those blueswomen, from Bessie Smith to Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday to Etta James. After a too long absence, it was most satisfying to have Rush back on stage.
Over at Rivertown in Kenner, I can’t quite explain it, but the first act of Me and My Girl simply plodded along while, as though some magic occurred during intermission, the second was truly outstanding. Gary Rucker starred as an ordinary chap who discovers he’s the long-lost “Earl of Hareford” along with Kelly Fouchi as his Cockney girlfriend; both went through a similar transformation. As a very proper Duchess who turns out to have a good heart, however, Chrissy Bowen gave a first-class performance throughout.
She may not be a duchess, but drag queen Dede Onassis had a breakout year in 2019. First, in May, she starred in Trey Ming’s one-act psychological musical murder mystery, The Night Fiona Flawless Went Mad; if it started off as mere camp, by the end, both the show and Onassis’ piercing performance had deepened into an acute portrait of a troubled soul.
Then in November (in addition to various other gigs around town), she presented Dede Onassis is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches, a recreation of the Tony winner’s legendary cabaret show from the late 1970s. Btw, that’s singing live, not lip-synching. It was a ballsy concept/act that she pulled off with flair.
Flair was what Goat in the Road Productions brought to Aurora Nealand’s self-released album KindHumanKind in a staged concert version of it at the CAC. Director Chris Kaminstein created a series of tableaus that fluidly segued from one song into the next in ever-surprising ways. Joshua Courtney lit each number with his customary brilliance (see also August: Osage County and Baby Doll at Le Petit). Visually sumptuous, musically engaging, I just wish Nealand’s lyrics had been easier to understand.
The only thing difficult to understand about Broadway@NOCCA was how, through some quirk of programming, 2/3 of its seventh season and 2/3 of its eighth wound up in 2019. That Audra McDonald would be jaw-droppingly magnificent came as no surprise; who knew that Beth Malone (Fun Home) and Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone) would be equally phenomenal? Clearly, producer Marc Cortale did. Any other Beths out there? Adorable Jeremy Jordan was nearly as good as the ladies; had he not been battling a cold, I’m sure he’d’ve been just as b(r)ethtaking.
Three other ladies who presented unique, original and altogether dumbfoundingly grand shows were Varla Jean Merman (Under a Big Top; alas, I was out of town for her Wishbone Show! in November); Dina Martina (Creme de la Dregs presented by Daniel Nardicio); and Bianca Del Rio (It’s Jester Joke which I caught at Carnegie Hall). Brava to each of them!
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 2019: Troi Bechet (Flowers for Halie, Southern Rep); Cereyna Jade Bougouneau (Romeo & Juliet); Enrico Cannella (The Rocky Horror, Show, South Pacific, both JPAS); Leslie Claverie (42nd Street, SLT); Amber Deselles (Once Upon a Mattress, Performing Arts Academy); Teryl Lynn Foxx (Trans Scripts — Part 1: The Women, Voices in the Dark); Rahim Glaspy (Dreamgirls, JPAS; In the Red & Brown Water); Hannah Gordon, Miranda Kramer (Roleplay, Goat in the Road Productions); Jaci Rai Guidry, Janie McNulty, Amy Schneida (5 Women Wearing the Same Dress, Playmakers of Covington);
Kathleen Halm (The Sound of Music, JPAS); Beth Harris, Suzanne Richoux, Rachel Swords (1776, Playmakers of Covington); Maria Victoria Hefte (Into the Woods, Rivertown); Leeann Hovis (Mamma Mia!, Rivertown); Sol Marina (Azul, Southern Rep); Arianna Michel (The Wizard of Oz, The Company: A St. Bernard Community Theatre); Aviyon Myles (Hamlet, Tulane Shakespeare Festival); Josiah Rogers, Brittany Williams (Songbook Series: Cole Porter); Kali Russell (Cabaret, See ‘Em On Stage); Ashley Santos, James Yeargain (Measure for Measure, The NOLA Project); Lindsey Ware, Ron Yager (Funny Thing…Forum, 30 by Ninety Theatre); Jake Wynne-Wilson (The Rocky Horror Show).
I also have to acknowledge the university programs that are training the next generation of theater artists. Some of their productions (and the actors in them) were among the finest I saw in 2019. Most noteworthy were: Keely and Du (UNO; Emily Bagwill, Claudia Suire); Machinal (Tulane; Zelda Kimble); and You Can’t Take It With You (Loyola; Zach Boylan, Shelbi Copain, Landon Simpson, Haley Nicole Taylor).
Right behind them were: Detroit ‘67 (Delgado); Life Sucks (Loyola; Esme Hill, Kathryn Miesse); The Old Man and the Old Moon (Tulane); and Othello (UNO; Justin William Davis, Patrick Hunter, Rachel Cathlynn Morris).
And if I began this year-in-review in a grumbly way, I’ll conclude with the greatest of admiration for those high schoolers trodding the boards and the teachers guiding them.
In February, I had the pleasure of going to Hahnville High School’s production of Steve Martin (yes, him) and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star. Director Lucas Harms, an actor I’ve long admired, managed, in some important ways, to improve on the Broadway version of this challenging musical. Prominent in this distinguished production were Ayme Melancon, Kadin Gaubert, Taylor Jones, Justin Rogers, and Adam Vedros.
Closer to home, at NOCCA, Silas Cooper & Amy Holtcamp’s A Wrinkle in Time was a stirring call to freedom of thought and individuality. I’ll not soon forget the dazzling scene when Emma Fagin courageously battled the evil force inhabiting her younger brother Julian Simmons and his stupendous transformation back into a little boy.
And for the sheer joy of theater, nothing can top NOCCA’s Guys & Dolls. Broadway veteran Leslie Castay guided the Musical Theater Department students to a winning combination of cheeky Runyonesque exuberance layered with achingly real emotions, both comic and serious. Betcha someday you’ll see these names on Broadway marquees: Jayden Heller, Amelia Jacquat, Grace McLean, Kyle Roth, and Renell Taylor all of whom, along with their castmates, hit the jackpot.
As the curtain rises on the new season, call me crazy, but I’m gambling that 2020 will be a winner!
Please send press releases and notices of your upcoming shows to Brian Sands at email@example.com.