ROBERT’S REVIEWS:
A Theatrical Newsletter by Robert W. McDowell
Special Edition December 29, 2002

THE 10 BEST SHOWS OF 2002 DEMONSTRATE
THE GROWING VARIETY OF TRIANGLE THEATER

There has to be a better way to put it. In a theater-rich region such as the Triangle, the “10 best shows of 2002” listed below in alphabetical order are, quite simply, the best of the best, painstakingly selected from a long list of noteworthy productions. But the shows honored herein are still just one man’s opinion–mine.

My list includes home-grown and touring professional productions and local community-theater presentations. It excludes collegiate productions, which ROBERT’S REVIEWS did not cover comprehensively in 2002.

Another theater critic might have a completely different 10-best list. Who’s to say which critic got it right. Either? Both? Neither? Does any critic ever get it EXACTLY right?

Members of the theater-going public read 10-best lists for amusement. But members of the Triangle theatrical community know that a spot or two on a 10-best list can mean the difference between a successful or unsuccessful grant application. Making someone’s 10-best list can also boost ticket sales as well as the pride the theater takes in a job well done.

My 10-best list, followed next week by the third annual edition of my Triangle Theater Awards, is meant to acknowledge outstanding artistic achievement on stage and backstage. Please think of the following list as a roster of the 10 best nights that I spent in the theater during calendar-year 2002. My list consists of exceptional shows that I would PAY to see again. There is no higher compliment that I can give them.

ART’ (PlayMakers Repertory Company, Jan. 16-Feb. 10) was PRC resident director Ted Shaffner’s smart and stylish staging of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s eyebrow-raising serio-comedy sensation, which debuted in Paris in 1994 and was later translated into English by British playwright Christopher Hampton (LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES). This delightful three-character drama chronicled the verbal firestorm that erupted among friends when a wealthy self-appointed art expert (Ray Dooley) paid an enormous price for a controversial white-on-white painting and the found that his two best friends and fellow art aficionados (Philip Davidson and Kenneth P. Strong) did NOT share his enthusiasm for his latest acquisition. Indeed, this impulsive purchase threatened to fracture their long-time friendship.

CHILDREN OF EDEN (North Carolina Theatre, July 12-21) was NCT’s spectacular main-stage production of the radically revamped version of this magnificent 1991 biblical musical about second chances. Composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz (GODSPELL and PIPPIN) and librettist John Caird, who co-directed LES MISÉRABLES, loosely based CHILDREN OF EDEN on the first nine chapters of the Book of Genesis, accenting Creator/creation and parent/child conflicts from Adam and Eve to Noah and, well, Mrs. Noah. Broadway veteran Craig Schulman starred as Father (God), and New York director-choreographer Tee Scatuorchio put plenty of pizzazz into imaginative and colorful production numbers that depicted the naming of the animals, the loading of the animals into the ark, etc.

CONTACT (Broadway Series South, Feb. 12-17) was a ground-breaking dance extravaganza that opened on Broadway in 1999. The National Tour starred Tony Award® nominee Alan Campbell (SUNSET BOULEVARD) and Holly Cruikshank. Campbell is a superb actor who is married to Raleigh actress Lauren Kennedy, and Cruikshank is simply unforgettable as the charismatic girl in the yellow dress in “Contact,” the show’s climactic swing segment following an amorous romp inspired by an 18th century painting (“Swinging”) and a serio-comic playlet set in a restaurant (“Did You Move?”) in which an abused wife desperately fantasizes to escape the brutal reality of her bleak life.

DEARLY DEPARTED (Towne Players of Garner, Aug. 22-24) was a hilarious encore presentation of the Towne Players’ signature piece. Superbly staged by director Beth Honeycutt, DEARLY DEPARTED gets better with every repetition. The show again starred Frances Stanley as an outspoken religious fanatic and Scott Honeycutt as her shiftless ne’er-do-well son. Tim Upchurch and Rusty Sutton again play hot-tempered brothers bickering at their father’s funeral, and Holmes Morrison headed a stellar supporting cast.

THE GUYS (Carolina Arts Festival, Sept. 11-12) is Anne Nelson’s heart-tugging two-character drama set in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. A fire department captain who lost most of his men on 9/11 seeks the assistance of a stranger, a writer, to help him write the eulogies that he will have to deliver at the memorials for his men. Broadway star and Carolina Arts Festival artistic director Terrence Mann and his wife, fellow Broadway veteran Charlotte d’Amboise, gave virtuoso performances in this moving benefit for the North Carolina Fallen Firefighters Foundation (http://www.ncfff.org/). Partially as a result of his outstanding performance in Raleigh, Mann played a three-week engagement in THE GUYS at The Flea Theatre in New York City, home to the show’s original production.

LEBENSRAUM (Raleigh Ensemble Players, April 25-May 11) is the German word for “living space.” It was Adolf Hitler’s catchphrase for territories to the east that the Third Reich must wrest from the Soviet Union and colonize so that the resurgent German people could achieve their manifest destiny. In REP’s powerhouse production of Israel Horovitz’s highly provocative but deeply human play, fictional late 20th century German Chancellor Rudolph Stroiber (David Henderson) awakes from a bone-chilling nightmare and makes a startling public appeal to six million Jews to return to Germany to live and work. The consequences are catastrophic. David and Betsy Henderson and Ben Tedder played dozens of roles with style and wit. Their crackerjack characterizations in multiple roles as resentful Germans and wary Jewish immigrants numbered among this season’s finest performances anywhere.

ON GOLDEN POND (Theatre in the Park, June 14-30) was an exceptionally good staging of Ernest Thompson’s heartwarming drama about growing old more or less gracefully. TIP founder and executive and artistic director Ira David Wood III, 55, gave perhaps the performance of his career as 80-year-old Norman Thayer, a crotchety, sharp-tongued, retired Maine college professor. Patsy Clarke and Amy Bossi co-starred as Ethel, Norman’s devoted wife, and Chelsea Thayer Wayne, the Thayers’ headstrong divorced daughter. John Aschenbrenner played Chelsea’s fiancé, dentist Bill Ray; Seth Johnson played his 13-year-old son Billy; and Andrew Sleeth played the Thayers’ friend, Charlie the mailman.

PAPER DOLL (Theater Previews at Duke, Feb. 28-March 10) starred four-time Emmy winner Marlo Thomas and Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham as two shameless 1960s self-promoters–VALLEY OF THE DOLLS author Jacqueline Susann and Irving Mansfield, her husband and business manager. Leonard Foglia (MASTER CLASS) directed this – Broadway-bound production of PAPER DOLL with just the right mixture of flash and trash. Adrian Rieder played Jésus, the dog walker whom Susann befriends and treats as her surrogate son; and Joanne Genelle portrayed Bree, Shelly, and Rainbow–three colorful fans of Susann’s novels.

A TUNE FOR TOMMY (Manbites Dog Theater, Feb. 14-March 10) was a moving biographical drama about legendary Chapel Hill troubadour and Red Clay Rambler co-founder Tommy Thompson’s heartbreaking battle with Alzheimer’s-like dementia. Written by his daughter, Jesse Thompson Eustice and Manbites Dog managing director Edward Hun, and artistic director Jeff Storer, A TUNE FOR TOMMY candidly chronicled the dramatic changes in the father-daughter relationship as Thompson ‘s illness surfaced and then became progressively worse. After workshopping the script in 2001, Storer directed a revised and expanded script based on the writings of Eustice, Thompson, and Dan Hicks. Triangle theater veterans David Ring and Marcia Edmundson repeated the roles of Thompson and Eustice, and Joe Newberry served as musical director and performed with the Hollow Rockers Band, which also included Greg Bell, James Leva, and Julie Oliver.

THE MONOLOGUES (Off-Broadway Series South, July 2-7) first played Raleigh Jan. 15-20 (with a different cast) and then returned to the capital city July 2-7 as an encore presentation of Off-Broadway Series South. Canadian film and television actress Margot Kidder–best known for playing Lois Lane opposite Christopher Reeve in four Superman movies, starting in 1978–starred opposite New York actresses Glynis Bell and Rhonda Ross in playwright and political activist Eve Ensler’s alternately hilarious and poignant Obie Award-winning play, based on frank and often very, very funny responses from a wide cross section of women to Ensler’s irreverent survey of their thoughts about, and attitudes toward, this heretofore private part.

HONORABLE MENTION (listed alphabetically by theater company or venue): “Gun-Shy” (Actors Comedy Lab); “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (Broadway at Duke); “Aida” (Broadway Series South); “The Road to Mecca” and “Travesties” (Burning Coal Theatre Company); “Mahalia, A Gospel Musical” and “1964…The Tribute” (Carolina Theatre); “Arms and the Man” and “A Lesson Before Dying” (Deep Dish Theater Company); “And Mary Wept” (Archipelago Theatre), “HairStories” (Urban Bush Women), and “Macbeth” (Actors from the London Stage) (Duke University Institute of the Arts); “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (Shenandoah Shakespeare Express at N.C. State University Center Stage); “A Chorus Line” (North Carolina Theatre); “The Importance of Being Earnest” (OdysseyStage); “Copenhagen” and “The SantaLand Diaries” (Off-Broadway South Series); “Proof” and “Sunrise in My Pocket” (PlayMakers Repertory Company); “Show and Tell” (Raleigh Ensemble Players); “Communicating Doors” (Raleigh Little Theatre); “Lend Me a Tenor” (Towne Players of Garner); “A Little Night Music” (University Theatre at N.C. State); and “Crash Diet and Other Sins” (Wordshed Productions).
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AUTHOR: Since 1973, Robert W. McDowell has written theater, book, andmusic reviews for SPECTATOR Magazine of Raleigh, the Raleigh NEWS &OBSERVER, THE RALEIGH TIMES, and NORTH CAROLINA Magazine.ROBERT’S REVIEWS has nothing whatsoever to do with any of these publications.Questions or comments? RobertM748@aol.com

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