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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Year in review: Best local presentations of 2020 in our region

Critic At Large

Led by top five

Program covers for local productions in 2020. (Warren Gerds)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – In a way, 2020 was a great year in performances in Northeastern Wisconsin.

At the start, production after production delivered the goods.

I was amazed by the consistency and wondered if the quality would last.

It didn’t.

That didn’t have to do with any theater or musical organization. It had to do with the coronavirus COVID-19, which essentially slammed the door on everything in mid-March.

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

This year, I saw 80, with 43 being live, in-person performances and the rest virtual.

Below, I start with a special mention and then list my top five picks, followed by honorable mentions.

***

SPECIAL MENTION

Rogue Theater with co-artistic directors Stuart Champeau and Lola DeVillers put on “Drive-In Theater” in a church parking lot in Sturgeon Bay. Nifty productions included “Great Americans” of famous speeches and patriotic words on July 4 and “Susan and Elizabeth: A Friendship of Consequence” near the time of the 100th anniversary of the approval of the 19th Amendment for the women’s right to vote. How cool are those connections? Shows continued through summer in the remarkable idea for keepin’ on keepin’ on. Husband and wife, Stuart Champeau and Lola DeVillers, attended services the rear parking lot of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church and put the idea into theatrical form. Local actors climbed aboard. In normal times, theater is like breathing and “just is” – just is part of what makes a community a community. Rogue Theater applied some CPR when so many live performances were gasping for breath. And then Stuart Champeau and Lola DeVillers announced they are building a theater facility from scratch!

***

One. The award-winning “Beast on the Moon” has been performed in 25 countries in 19 languages. Its performances by University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre are special because playwright Richard Kalinoski is of the faculty, and he gets the chance to direct the play again. His strength in directing comes through in performances as he influences the players to develop the many nuances of their characters. It’s a beautiful play made from seeds of ugliness, and it continues to resonate as it brings remnants of a genocide into a home in Milwaukee. I felt an honor being in the presence of a widely meaningful play being created by its creator.

Two. Birder Players’ “Chicago” razzle-dazzles ’em all around in a sensational production in Broadway Theatre in De Pere. The musical struts as it savors the blood-thirsty, sex-craving big-city headlines of the 1920s. Director and co-choreographer Alicia Birder makes the thing move, which is her trademark with big-title shows from Broadway.

Three. Lawrence University Opera Theatre in Appleton went all out with a famous title, “The Marriage of Figaro.” Colorful singing in Italian dominated the story from the 1780s that’s filled with love and marriage and lust. The orchestra was with the singers (double-cast!) every step of the way with fluid companionship. A full-scale opera – orchestra, costuming, staging, the whole nine yards – is a rarity around these parts except at Lawrence.

Four. “Shrek: The Musical” is a step beyond special in a community-campus production for Fox Theatre (University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Fox Cities Campus Theatre) in Menasha. Leading the way as hits with the audience are Lorenz “Larry” Marcus as Shrek, the green, mean ogre who is a sensitive soul at heart; Chelsey Burke as Princess Fiona, singing like a lark and tossing in some tap-dancing to fire up the action; and Ericka Wade as Donkey, with her way of being expressive and cheery and a joy to be around. Overall, it’s an all-out production.

Five. Presented by the unique, student-run Knight Theatre of St. Norbert College in De Pere, the musical “Tuck Everlasting” is filled with meaning and movement. Along with matters of life and death and time, the production has an artful aura as dance is woven in to enhance scenes. The climax is a dance representation of life, and it is fine, fine lump-in-the-throat stuff.

***

Honorable mention

+ Attic Chamber Theatre in Menasha turns back the clock to 1835 France for the scandalous “The Cure for Love,” which brims with double entendre meanings, coy remarks and spicy interplay. Berray Billington’s cast pours on a winking sense of fun.

+ Versatility in the medical profession again impresses in “Doctors in Recital” of Brown County at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts in Green Bay. It’s a showcase of otherwise hidden talent.

+ Marie Newton takes special glee in her vivid send-up of, pardon me, a frisky hick in “Birds of a Feather’ by Phoenix Players of Clintonville.

+ Also remarkable from “Birds of a Feather’ by Phoenix Players of Clintonville, Mary-Beth Kuester not only played a leading role but offered up her collection of flamingo-related items for a flashy and colorful lobby display – a true rarity.

+Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra’s “Winter” concert at Fox Cities PAC in Appleton was more like “Octane,” including the added newVoices choir and four vocal soloists for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass.

+ Faculty talent on campus at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay is let loose in “Words & Music: A Program of Monologues.” Prime thought in the review: If you’ve got the horses, ride ’em, and the evening is a blast. (If you’re paying close attention, I have other UW-Green Bay faculty members in the list of professional performances. Professional? Local? Seems to work either way. And there are other fuzzy distinctions in the lists. Things are so subjective so many times.)

+ Evergreen Productions of greater Green Bay achieves an “Arsenic and Old Lace” with a feeling of care and respect for the comedy classic.

+ Behind conductor Seong-Kyung Graham, the Civic Symphony of Green Bay puts together “Festival di Musica Italiana” with special touches in choreography by Timothy Josephs in “Ancient Airs and Dances” and operatic solos by Yi-Lan Niu and Scott Ramsay.

+ Behind the steady sureness of Patty Grossman in the title role of “Becky’s New Car,” Wolf River Theatrical Troupe of New London delivers a strong version of the quirky comedy/drama.

+ The players keep the action coming in the goofy (yet serious) comedy “The Nerd” presented by Sheboygan Theatre Company. Everybody pops with spicy/comic moments.

+ Green Bay Community Theater tastes an American classic, “Bus Stop,” and it’s theatrically delicious. Doug Landwehr explores the scholarly/seedy ways of the Professor with skill.

+ Playwright Brad Dokken of Oshkosh finds plenty of fodder of human nature in a restaurant setting in his comedy “Someplace Different” presented by Oshkosh Community Players.

+University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre delves into a 1,000-piece interlocking puzzle of “This Random World” with solid performances, and thus direction by John Mariano.

+ One play, two players, volumes of life lessons – that’s “Tuesdays with Morrie” performed by William Fricke (Morrie) and Zachary Lulloff (author Mitch Albom) for The Forst Inn Arts Collective in Tisch Mills. The production start, stop, start just as pandemic headaches crept in.

+ Eagerness to performs fills the August production of “The Dixie Swim Club” by The Forst Inn Arts Collective in Tisch Mills. Lisa Heili, Erin Renae LaFond, Nannette Macy, Shannon Paige and Vickie Svacina generate the feeling of camaraderie.

+ Wonderful teaming by Parker Drew, Warren Elliott and Alex Sabin fuels the comedy/tragedy “The Drawer Boy” presented by the Birder Players in Broadway Theatre in De Pere. The three excel at weaving through subtleties.

+ Among Rogue Theater’s “Drive-In Theater” presentations (mentioned above) is a performance feat in “Alabama Bound.” Five actors – Jamie Buesing, Lola DeVillers, Donna Johnson, Keri Grimsley and Pamela Johnson – perform solo, outdoors, on a flatbed trailer for a stage, with a wireless headset connected to a radio frequency, in front of audience members seated in their vehicles, exploring a character who has gone through tests in life. Each transports into the character.

+ Like “The Dixie Swim Club” above, “Miracle on South Division Street” was put on by The Forst Inn Arts Collective in Tisch Mills at a time when the coronavirus had live performing by the throat. Again, the cast seemed driven to perform – really wanted to be on stage telling this story with so much warm going for it.

Honorable mention (online)

+ While production values were lacking, Thomas Campbell’s “Faithfall” is dense material, and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay student actors Allie Lent and Sean Stalvey hit a rhythm in delving the complexities.

+ In “The Magic of the Holidays,” The Dance Company of greater Green Bay includes many scenes from the troupe’s beloved version of “The Nutcracker Ballet,” keeping something of its 42-year legacy going. Remarkably, each of five performances is done live without an audience in Walter Theatre of St. Norbert College and livestreamed to audiences at home.

+ Also, the popular St. Norbert College Knights on Broadway show troupe performs all of its “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” performances to an empty Dudley Birder Hall on campus, with each performance livestreamed night after night to homes.

+  University campuses have specialties. Faculty in different departments – Theatre and Radio/TV/Film – at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh put their heads together to perform “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” and “The Glass Menagerie” for online presentations. “The Glass Menagerie” worked especially well because of its performance space and the keen editing to help Tennessee Williams’ characters resonate.

In a category of its own

How can a production from 2017 qualify for recognition in 2020? When the performance that was presented live in front of an audience is recorded and then offered as part of the pool of virtual presentations that popped up this year. What happened was Kathy Treankler of the cast of “Thanksgiving on Serendipity Lane” presented by Green Bay Community Theater had a performance professionally recorded in 2017. In 2020, she sponsored online showings for the troupe. The video is like the best of community theater in a bottle: Actors having fun with a solid comedy by an area playwright (Kathy Champshure), with the audience clearly having fun, too. In a way, the showing was saying to couped-up folks, “This is what you’re missing.”

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