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On Stage: Readers add their 2 cents to best of shows and performers

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The other PG critics and I have had our say. Last Friday we listed the 10 best shows of 2003, led by "Twelfth Night" and "Copenhagen" (plus runners-up and honorable mentions), and Sunday, the performers of the year, led by Scott Ferrara.

Now it's the readers' turn. A couple of weeks ago I invited calls or e-mails, and about 75 people responded, some just casting a vote and some commenting thoughtfully on a range of shows and performances. Of course, the latter responses were more compelling, since this wasn't a popularity contest and a single name might be the only show that person saw all year. In other words, I know perfectly well there was some promoting of friends and colleagues. But at this time of year, all good thoughts are welcome.

The overwhelming popular favorite was Meredythe Ann Kimmel, now a freshman at North Allegheny High School, who played the title role in the CLO's "Annie." "I didn't expect the voice coming out of that tiny body to be so BIG"; "move over Britney & Christina!"; "a Broadway-caliber performance"; "What talented children we have in Pittsburgh; I actually cried, just listening to those wonderful young voices." Many messages also praised the show itself.

Others pushed for performer of the year included Anthony Rapp in City's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and Shelia McKenna, who was in Unseam'd Shakespeare's "Women Beware Women" and City's "String of Pearls" and directed the Playhouse's "Anton in Show Business." ("She has been performing so well for so long," wrote Ruth Ann Molloy.) Of Rapp, Hugh McGough wrote: "favorite performer and visitor to Pittsburgh ... [he] left a lasting impression on audiences and on many regular folk who encountered him." "Most spectacular stage performance of the year, electrifying," agreed Mara Addison.

Mary Brady, herself a performer, submitted a strong argument for Scott Sambuco as performer of the year, citing 10 performances for CLO, PMT and others, plus two stints as choreographer. Sambuco is a fine example of the dedicated professionals who are the heart of the local acting pool.

Shows receiving multiple mentions, pretty evenly bunched, were "The Chosen" at the Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh; Open Stage's "Barrymore," and especially its performance by John Imro; PICT's "Copenhagen"; and Point Park Conservatory's original musical, "Red."

A lot of people took the superiority of the (London) Globe's "Twelfth Night" for granted: Kathryn Spitz, for example, wrote: " 'The Servant of Two Masters' was definitely the best show I saw this year (other than the Globe's 'Twelfth Night,' of course)." "It was heads above anything else we saw in Pittsburgh or elsewhere this year," wrote Lida Larsen: "In fact, I am hard-pressed to even remember what the other productions were."

John Nestor, a thoughtful theater-goer of many decades, submitted his top 10: "One Red Flower" (CMU); "The Piano Lesson," "Mikado" and "The Chief" (all Public); "Miss Saigon" and "My Fair Lady" (both CLO); "Major Barbara," "Don Juan in Hell" and "Copenhagen" (all PICT); and "Red." He also included his "worsts": "Dirty Blonde" (Public) and "Urinetown" (Broadway series).

Actor/director Larry John Meyers was much taken with "Red": "I sat there for most of the night thinking, 'These Point Park kids have done it again! Just a year or so after 'Grand Hotel,' and they've put up another best show of the year! And this one is original! ... I thought it was a remarkable piece of work by all creative hands -- writer, composer, director -- and performed with such elan, as well. In a season when most of our major theaters have relied on rehashed musicals or vanity productions -- one-person show/cabaret/concert/revue where the performers are more important than the story -- this one truly had something to say. And this from a guy who isn't fond of musicals. ... And my favorite performance of the year was from a 'musical,' as well: Laura Knoop Very, who played Alma in the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's 'Summer and Smoke.'... Does opera count? It should if it's Tennessee Williams."

Bill Molloy, who sees as much theater as anyone in Pittsburgh (professionals such as myself excepted), came up with these favorites: "1. Tom Atkins and 'The Chief'; 2. Ken Bolden and Jay Keenan in 'The Dresser' (Duquesne); 3. Jeff Simpson directing 'Tuesdays at Nine' by Erick Irvis in the Black and White Festival at Penn Theater; 4. 'Bash,' Barebones Production; Patrick Jordan and Beth Hersey gave outstanding performances; 5. 'When the Water Runs Clear' by Mark Southers, an amazing playwright."

Ruth Ann Molloy put in a word for "Off the Record," even though it's just a one-night event and even though I was the producer: Chris Laitta's Dawn, Larry Meyers' astonishing Cyril Wecht as Mad Scientist, Billy Hartung's limber Michael Keaton and Jeff Howell's Gov. Rendell as mellifluous con man were four of its stand-outs.

Other shows mentioned included "Jekyll & Hyde" (Point Park), "Birdie Blue" (City), "She Loves Me" (CLO) and "Urinetown." Other performers: Erick Irvis, "Night of the Living Dead" in Beaver; Cheryl Young, "Less Than Zero" (Black and White); Ana Gasteyer, "Funny Girl" (CLO); Jay Keenan, "Fanny's First Play" (Summer Company).

More letters, edited for space:

"Among the best productions, surely PICT's 'Copenhagen' and 'Hamlet' (not as good overall, but a great performance) and Quantum's 'Wild Duck.' The best genuinely new work I saw was 'Red' at Playhouse Conservatory. Best touring show, surely far and away: 'Twelfth Night.' " -- Jeanne Drennan.

"The most interesting evening I spent in local theaters this year was 'Bug' by Dog and Pony Show, their adaptation of three Kafka short stories. It was a reminder of what can be done with imagination, no budget and a passion for theater. The creative honors should be divided among Lissa Brennan, Marty Giles and Jay O'Berski, who shared adaptation, performing and directing. Also wonderful was Holly Thuma's production of 'How I Learned to Drive,' done in fulfillment of her MFA [at Pitt]. Not only was it exquisitely subtle, as befits this very great American play, but it featured Steve Coleman in a towering portrayal, and also Pitt student Abby Ahmad, who will do great things. -- Buck Favorini.

"I'm tempted to say City Theatre's entire season was outstanding. I loved them all. But having to pick just one, I would vote for the world premiere of Michele Lowe's 'String of Pearls.' " -- Joyce Basilone.

"I perennially remain a fan of 'the kids' and would certainly hope [you include] tomorrow's stars -- the Shakespeare competition finals along with (collectively) the Kellys, Mancinis and Westmoreland's 'stars.' " -- John Noble.

"The bright and shining light in a year of mediocre theater was truly the Unseam'd Shakespeare's production of 'Women Beware Women.' This was better than Shakespeare. Jay O'Berski and Brian Czarnecki were superb. When they clashed in a deadly sword fight, the electricity could be felt around the room. And the women! Laurie Klatscher, Sheila McKenna, Elena Passarello ... they don't get much better than this." -- Anthony Hatfield.

"I think overall the professional companies -- those who use some kind of Equity contract -- were pretty solid. I give 'The Chief' all the accolades that it is receiving, especially for a role that fits Atkins 'like a glove' -- above decent writing, directing, designing combined with a great actor. However, 'Copenhagen' surprised me more (the play and the production). Interesting evenings: ... 'Anton and Show Business,' the best at the Playhouse: play, directing, design, performances, especially Susan McGregor Laine and Shirley Tanenbaum. 'Macbeth' at the Olde Bank in Natrona, under artistic director Sean O'Donnell, gets my vote for interesting concept. Ending with the witches returning through the battlefield among the dead soldiers was pretty haunting, finally meeting up with the now dead Macbeth to escort him to someplace hellish. -- Ron Necheff


Critics' corner

Another Post-Gazette critic was sick, so John Hayes stepped in at the last minute to review Sinan Unel's "Pera Palas" at Open Stage. There he met audience member Mary Ann Park -- and now, six months later, they're married.

No occasional PG reviewer sees more plays in a year than Richard E. Rauh. Here are his Top 5 for 2003: 1. "Twelfth Night"; 2. "Copenhagen"; 3. "The Servant of Two Masters"; 4. "Hedwig"; 5. "Dame Edna" and "Bash" (tie).


Calling young thespians

The Public Theater's 10th Shakespeare Monologue and Scene Contest for students in fourth-12th grades is still accepting entrants. The easiest way to register is at www.ppt.org, where you'll also find full information. Otherwise, contact Angela Vincent at the Public at 412-316-8200, ext. 721, or avincent@ppt.org, or Rob Zellers at ext. 715 or rzellers@ppt.org. Teachers can enroll groups via the Web site, by fax at 412-316-8216 or through the mail. Registration continues until Jan. 23.

The preliminary round will be Feb. 9-13 with the finalists' showcase Feb. 16. Monologues should be 25-60 lines long and scenes shouldn't exceed five minutes. Free coaching sessions are available, Jan. 17-Feb. 6, at the O'Reilly Theater, CMU and local schools.


Bottom Line

Paid admissions at city's pro theaters for week ending Dec. 28:
ReducedSC/Public (84%): 7,140
Cafe Puttanesca (81%): 867

For week ending Dec. 21:
Christmas Carol/CLO (67%): 6,748
ReducedSC/ Public (75%): 2,706
Cafe Puttanesca (80%): 1,504
S.Music/Th.Factory (98%): 628


Contact Chris Rawson at 412-263-1666 orcrawson@post-gazette.com .

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