GREEN BAY AREA REGIONAL NEWS: Brown County

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Year in review: Best local performances of 2021 in our region

Critic At Large

Led by top five

Program covers for local productions in Northeastern Wisconsin in 2021. (Warren Gerds)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – In one way, 2021 was terrific on the performance scene in Northeastern Wisconsin.

For months at the start, we went without live, in-person performances. Some of the make-do virtual productions impressed nonetheless.

And then, when live, in-person performances came back, eagerness to perform in and see shows arrived like a refreshing, invigorating breeze. That underlined how important the performing arts are as part of the fabric of where we live.

So, my top five best-of shows, followed by a bunch of honorable mentions:

One. “Something Rotten” by the Birder Players at Broadway Theatre in De Pere. The atmosphere was electric. Everyone on stage and in the audience was eager to have some fun again. My review at the time says, “What happened was a performance and audience response of full-on release. Big applause and cheers greeted song after song by the skilled and inspired players all the way through the silly, smart and sassy show.”

Two.* Let Me Be Frank Productions’ “Menoma Mia!” or “A Frank’s Christmas” or “Pennings from Heaven” or etc. Oh so much was iffy, but this Green Bay-based show troupe kept on trooping with new shows by the Frank Hermans-Pat Hibbard duo in front of protocol-controlled audiences – if folks braved to come out. There was fun to be had in large-scale splashes of singing and telling cockamamie tales for laughs with a few pointed and/or sassy remarks.

Three.* The entourage of Daddy D Productions in “Rave On,” etc., etc. Again: Oh so much was iffy, but this Green Bay-based show troupe kept on trooping with new shows in front of protocol-controlled audiences – if folks braved to come out. Around the personable core – singers Darren Johnson, Shelly Johnson, Angela Thielke-Zuidmulder and Michael Blair – are special splashes from versatile violinist Alicia Michele (who also performs with the Fox Valley Symphony) and super-improvisational clarinetist Kevin Van Ess (bandsman extraordinaire, including around Lambeau Field on game day).

Four. Music Theatre-Summer Stage of St. Norbert College in De Pere in “The Curtain Rises Again.” It was the first original creation in the almost 60-year history of Music Theatre. The COVID-19 pandemic was stifling, and this show expressed the power of the human spirit. From my review: “Key in the elaborate collaboration are director Stephen Rupsch and musical director Kent Paulsen. The two formulated a template of a theme idea – shared life here at a time of trial – brought in personal experiences and song thoughts of 12 souls, and then searched the wide world of soul-searching musical theater songs to shape the picture.”

Five. Sheboygan Theatre Company presentation of “Songs for a New World.” Along with a standard cast of four singers for the popular Jason Robert Brown musical, director Amanda Ellis blended in the artistic motion of two dancers. From my review: “The show is a big-think project. The characters are complex and at a demanding point in their life, including sailing to a new world, sewing the flag for a new nation built on sacrifice and envisioning better by way of basketball. Jason Robert Brown has a way of aural portraiture that draws on jazz here, melancholy ballad there and rat-a-tat spitfire note-making there. The signature song, ‘The New World,’ lies warmly and invitingly on the ear. The song is used in segues, bringing another character to a moment of truth – or hoped-for truth.”

*-Last year, I had the troupes in the professional ranks. This year, I put them in the local ranks. The line is fuzzy. Either way, they’re notable. And there are other examples.

***

In a normal year, I see 155 productions for review in the 75-mile broadcast radius of WFRV-TV, Channel 5.

In 2020 – also affected by COVID-19 – I saw 80, with 43 being live, in-person performances at the start of the year and then a vast majority of the rest virtual at the end of the year.

In 2021, I saw 141 performances. At the start of the year, most were virtual performances. I saw 50 such in the course of the year. The rest – 91 live and in-person (me always wearing a mask) – were mostly in the second half of the year.

Below, in somewhat chronological order, is a list of honorable mentions among local productions.

***

Honorable Mention

+ “With This Ring” by Green Bay Community Theater. This was an anomaly. The production was recorded in 2019, funded by a cast member. Shown again virtually in February, it was a reminder how wonderful live performance is with audience response. To that point, the performance scene was dominated by performances with no in-house audiences and zero audience feedback. This showing fed a hunger.

+ Lawrence University New Music Ensemble in March. The livestream concert of stretched-imagination music, normally just heard and witnessed in live performance, was interspersed with new imagery in the digital dimension.

+ University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre with “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” in March and “The Laramie Project” in April. Forced to go virtual, the creative team added powerhouse images to the excellent student (mostly) performances.

+ Celtic Folk with “Sentimental Journey in Song… Music Through the Decades” at Plymouth Arts Center in April. The singers and musicians charmed with their warmth.

+ Wolf River Theatrical Troupe of New London with “Steel Magnolias” in June. The beloved story’s mother and daughter were played by Deb Ostrander opposite her daughter, Lindsey Uvaas. What a beautiful connection – and beautifully played.

+ Attic Chamber Theatre based in Menasha with “Jeeves a Sea” in July, “Lifespan of a Fact” in August and “The Outsider” in November. There are no cobwebs in Attic’s productions – skillfully presented and played. Excellent casts and direction.

+ The Forst Inn Arts Collective with “A Streetcar Named Desire” in July, “Fun Home” in October, “The Smell of the Kill” in November, etc. There’s nothing like seeing the Tennessee Williams classic up close and personal with an exciting cast. In “Fun Home,” youngsters in the cast were one bonus, and the other was executive director Michael Sheeks’ construction of a fireplace mantel that turned into a casket.

+ Wolf River Theatrical Troupe in New London with “Always… Patsy Cline” in July. The return production continued to click with Molly Brown as Patsy Cline and Debbie Martin as superfan Louise Seger. The audience again bought into the illusion they created.

+ James Porras II with Coastal Players of Marinette/Menominee performing “Boeing Boeing” in Peshtigo. All-out farce all the time. Impressive.

+ Parkview Playhouse of Manitowoc with “110 Stories” in September. The cast channeled characters swept into the 9/11 story on the weekend of the 20-year reminders. Great timing with moving impact.

+ AVB Community Band, including concerts in September in Ashwaubenon Performing Arts Center and December in the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts. The congeniality of director Mike Ajango and announcer Bruce Deadman were just part of the experience of hearing the band that knows how to play and loves playing.

+ Box in the Wood Theatre Guild of Shawano in “You Can’t Take It with You” in September. The players became their characters, and atmosphere filled the theater that was set up in a unique way.

+ University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre in the Eugene O’Neill classic “A Moon for the Misbegotten” in October and world premiere of Richard Kalinoski’s “A Bear in Winter” in November. Quality all around.

+ Manitowoc Symphony Orchestra with “The Original Dracula” in October. The silent movie “Nostferatu, A Symphony of Horror” from 1922 caught the audience unawares en masse, and the crowd seemed spooked and enthralled at the same time.

+ Sheboygan Theatre Company Studio Players’ “The Edgar Allan Poe Afterlife Radio Show” in October. Among all kinds of spicy moments was a performance of “The Raven” with Kerri Rank expertly, colorfully, dramatically and wonderfully reciting/enacting the famous poem that tumbles along on rhyme leading to haunting storytelling with punchline after punchline. Terrific.

+ Christopher Fontaine for his amazing over-the-topness as a medium in local writer Kerrylynn Kraemer’s “The Ghost Elizabeth” presented in October by Plymouth Arts Center Theatre Company.

+ After months of torque and turmoil, “Songs of Healing and Hope” – a full, comforting chorus and an orchestra every bit in step with an aura of peace and release – presented by Dudley Birder Chorale of St. Norbert College in a concert on campus.

+ UW-Green Bay/Theatre on the Bay’s down-to-earth presentation of Jeff Daniels’ comedy “Escanaba in Da Moonlight” in Marinette, which is not dat far away from Escanaba, don’t cha know?

+ “All Together Now” separate presentations by Green Bay Community Theater and The Forst Inn Arts Collective in Tisch Mills in the global, pandemic-inspired display of cleverness and unity through music theater. All the players “got it,” which was infectious.

+ Aisa Rogers in the song “Day after Day” in the UW-Green Bay Theatre production of “Fun Home” in November. Portraying a wife with gifts of her own who endures her husband’s shattering ways, Aisa Rogers defines her character’s beauty, ache and agony in nuances in her voice, her body and her facial expression. She entered a persona in song.

+ Fond du Lac Community Theatre’s production of “Twelve Angry Jurors” in November. All around, the acting captured the earnestness of the jurors in the enduring story. Commitment ran through the performances.

+ Lyle Becker in the Green Bay Community Theater production of “Greetings!” in November. A forever actor on the local scene, Lyle Becker provided the foundation – as a cantankerous sort – for solid performances all around the fascinating story.’

+ UW-Oshkosh, Fond du Lac Campus presentation of “All is Calm” in December. The production breathed new life into the campus theater story, with the singing of “Silent Night” in English, German and French part of the play’s moving presence.

+ Abrams Spotlight Productions presentation of “Guys and Dolls” in December. Two notes: Any time Will Knaapen shows up on a local stage, sparks happen. After playing larger-than-life Miles Gloriosus in the troupe’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” he returned in flashy fashion as big-man-in-town Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls.” ALSO, Carolyn Silverberg attacked what seems to have been a bucket-list role for her as Miss Adelaide, the forever-engaged nightclub tootsie. Carolyn Silverberg is a Shakespearean-trained actor/director, and she knew how to pull out all the stops in one of the best character roles in all of musical theater.

+ Evergreen Productions’ “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” in December at St. Norbert College in De Pere. The cast captured the oh-so-much-more surrounding the story of the most famous columns in American newspaper history.

+ Chad Lemerande as Ebenezer Scrooge in Birder Players’ “A Christmas Carol, The Musical” at Broadway Theatre in De Pere in December. Chad Lemerande has played the role before for the company, and his force again fired up the cast in a concept that improves on the original story of Charles Dickens.

+ Waupaca Community Theatre presentation of “Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical” at Gerold Opera House in Weyauwega in December. The cast seemed to be inspired by the historic location and full house, and the nun performances were loaded with pizzazz. The night was further memorable for me because of excitement surrounding a nearby house fire that I photographed for possible on-air WFRV News use.

+ “Mistletoe Musings” of The Forst Inn Arts Collective in Tisch Mills. In the annual show that changes every year, friends get together in song and storytelling.  

The list could go on, such as the “Nutcracker” productions and other individual performances within casts. It was an extraordinary year for the eagerness and hunger to perform. And all the while facing challenges. So, hats off to many, many people.

MONDAY: The best-of list of professional performances in the region in 2021.

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