GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)
Musicals very old and brand new, an amazing journey, great comedy acting and a bit of wisdom lead my list the best professional presentations of 2019 in Northeastern Wisconsin.
The “at large” part of my title carried me far and wide to 155 productions for review in 2019.
Below are the top five (the station broadcasts on Channel 5, thus five picks) with a healthy list of honorable mentions.
“Best of” lists always split hairs, so I create two lists – one for professional and one for local productions.
My top choices in the professional category:
One. “La La Lucille” presented by Third Avenue Playhouse. One hundred years after it ran on Broadway, the George Gershwin musical is re-created with theater co-artistic director James Valcq at the helm – creating, directing and performing. The cast leaps into roles, which are spoofy and loaded with laughs. Most amazing is the re-creation (or re-imagined) choreography by James Valcq and Ryan Cappleman that includes all sorts of tricky maneuvers. The thing is amazing and funny and superbly performed all up and down. (Sturgeon Bay) Link: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/news/warren-gerds-critic-at-large-review-la-la-lucille-is-merrily-one-for-the-ages-in-theater-in-sturgeon-bay/.
Two. “Dad’s Season Tickets” by Matt Zembrowski presented by Northern Sky Theater. A world premiere musical rooted in Green Bay Packers fandom opening as the first production in a new space (Barbara and Spencer Gould Theater) – how good is that? More than pretty darn good. The show is certainly Go Pack Go, but it is much more as a full-bodied story about family and feuding and frustrations. This, indeed, is something special from Wisconsin. (Fish Creek) Link: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large/warren-gerds-critic-at-large-review-dads-season-tickets-is-a-winner-plus-in-fish-creek/.
Three. “And So We Walked: An Artist’s Journey Along the Trail of Tears” presented by playwright DeLanna Studi in Fort Howard Hall of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. In a multi-media, multi-character, multi-facted presentation, DeLanna Studi is a committed, walking conscience about the 900-mile Trail of Tears from Cherokee history. Perspective after perspective pours from this production. (Green Bay) Link: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large/warren-gerds-critic-at-large-review-and-so-we-walked-dynamic-in-green-bay/.
Four. Alan Kopischke and Noah Simon in “A Tuna Christmas” at Third Avenue Playhouse. It is one thing for these two actors to enact 11 characters each in the big-lampoon comedy, and it is another to perform seamlessly as a team. This show is beginning to end smiles, chuckles and laughs as the characters roll out on a rhythm. (Sturgeon Bay) Link: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large/warren-gerds-critic-at-large-review-a-tuna-christmas-hauls-in-the-humor-in-sturgeon-bay/.
Five. Max Quinlan, resident director of the touring production of “The Phantom of the Opera” at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. The return production was interesting because of some cosmetic alterations (not in the music or story), but more interesting was a chance I had to observe a behind-the-scenes workshop. Max Quinlan – basically overseeing everything important in the touring company – filled in students who were part of the P-A-C’s Center Stage High Musical Theater Program and went beyond nuts and bolts of the production. He humanized life in big-title professional theater, and this simple phrase to fascinated students was his No. 1 bit of advice: “Be kind.” (Appleton) Link: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/highschooltheater/director-of-touring-phantom-of-the-opera-offers-insights-in-appleton/.
Side note. Not “Hamilton”? I did not see the production at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, opting to see the production in Chicago to be able to write a preview and other features, such as: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/news/warren-gerds-critic-at-large-do-vince-lombardi-and-alexander-hamilton-connect/.
+ Frank Hermans and Darren Johnson. Each is the impetus for bunches of original shows, Frank Hermans as namesake for Let Me Be Frank Productions and Darren Johnson as leader of Daddy D Productions. They do their separate thing and come up with entertaining show after entertaining show and continue to survive and pretty much have fun doing it. Look around and look far: Do you see any other troupes like them cookin’ along long term in the same locale? (Green Bay)
Let Me Be Frank Productions also features regulars Pat Hibbard, Amy Riemer, Lisa Borley, Tom Verbrick, guitarist Dennis Panneck, keyboardist Tony Pilz and drummer Adam Cain and a rotating set of talent.
Daddy D Productions also features regulars Shelly Johnson, Angela-Thielke Zuidmulder, drummer Cody Borley, bassist Ryan Sette, violinist Alicia Michelle and clarinetist/saxophonist Kevin Van Ess and a rotating set of talent.
With two exceptions, the troupe’s individual productions are not on the list below.
Honorable mention (chronologically)
+ Touring production at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center: “Anastasia.”The musical with technical razzle-dazzle is moving, tender, energetic, danger-filled, romantic, majestic and mysterious. (Appleton)
+ “Knights on Broadway and Daddy D’s Broadway Hits!” with Darren Johnson and Kent Paulsen teaming as the two vainglorious princes in “Agony,” Emily Paulsen saucy in “When You’re Good to Mama” and Jarrod Pfarr super-satirical in “You’ll Be Back,” a King George III sendup from “Hamilton.” Pro or local? The line blurs here. (Green Bay)
+ Touring production of “Come from Away” at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. Music meets acting meets 9/11 in life-affirming ways. (Appleton)
+ “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” featuring Alan Kopischke at Third Avenue Playhouse. A one-man show of high theatricality. (Sturgeon Bay)
+ Amazing stage work and balancing acts by cast members on a titled second-level floor fill the touring “The Play that Goes Wrong” at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. (Appleton)
+ Theatre Z in a hard-core environmentally minded doubleheader of “The Children” and “Kayak.” Pro or local? Again, the local/pro line blurs. (Green Bay)
+ Harold Green creates the aura of Martin Luther King Jr. alive in a one-man presentation at Door Kinetic Arts Festival. (Baileys Harbor)
+ Northern Sky Theater’s world premiere of “We Like It Where?” that recalls how Winneconne “seceded” from Wisconsin. Corrie Beula Kovacs (co-author with her husband Stephen Kovacs) crackles as the catalytic Dotty Knowles, wife of the governor. (Fish Creek)
+ Production values are high for the Peninsula Players Theatre world premiere of “A Trick of the Light,” about a guy who can make himself invisible with Neil Brookshire exacting in the lead. (Fish Creek)
+ Mark Corkins as the grandiose Sir John Falstaff in Door Shakespeare’s production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” (Baileys Harbor)
+ “Ghost the Musical” has a lot of impact as presented by Peninsula Players Theatre. As the medium Oda Mae, Alexis J Roston adds big sparks. (Fish Creek)
+ Cassandra Bissell leads the artfulness in Peninsula Players Theatre’s presentation of the Henrietta Leavitt saga, “Silent Sky.” (Fish Creek)
+ The dead-on satire of Tom Lehrer is unleashed again in the production of “Tomfoolery” presented by Third Avenue Playhouse. Ryan Cappleman adds an astounding tap-dance sequence. Of note, one of the people who created the show in 1980 is Cameron Mackintosh, later producer of “The Phantom of the Opera” and oh so much more. (Sturgeon Bay)
+ “The Four Phantoms” at The Oshkosh Grand features colorful favorites by guys who know how to sing. (Oshkosh)
+ Elite violinist Wen-Lei Gu of the Lawrence University faculty lights up a performance by the Civic Symphony of Green Bay. A pro-local crossover situation. (Green Bay)
+ Play-by-Play Theatre’s production of “The Gift of the Magi” as a musical. Expert director Mary Ehlinger leads singer/actors Lyle Becker (as O. Henry) and Kaara McHugh and Ben Olejniczak (as the poor-as-church-mice couple) in adaptation of the classic Christmas tale. (Green Bay)
+ In the 20th “A Frank’s Christmas,” Blake Hermans and Zach Hibbard do a wild, physical version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” all the days with goofy setups. (Green Bay)