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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Year in review: Best professional presentations of 2021 in Northeastern Wisconsin

Critic At Large

Led by top five

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

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – As live, in-person professional performance years go in Northeastern Wisconsin, 2021 was challenged.

For months at the start, companies created make-do virtual productions viewed on computers or whatever. Some projects impressed and brought new experiences to companies’ audiences.

And then, when live, in-person performances trickled back, eagerness to perform in and see shows swept through theaters. That underlined how important the performing arts are as part of the fabric of where we live.

So, my top five best-of professional shows, followed by honorable mentions.

One. Victor Santiago Asuncion, performing in November with the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra in Thrivent Financial Hall of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton. “How many continents have you performed on?” someone asked in a pre-performance session. “I haven’t performed in Antarctica,” Victor Santiago Asuncion said, signaling his caliber. On stage, notes poured from his fingers like the varying personalities of rainy weather – from mists to downpours. The music was that of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, not the lovely and exciting fantasies of “The Nutcracker,” but sheer dynamism of an elevated-level concerto. Sounds seemed to arrive easily, rising from the piano as if it were eager to be heard. This was a defining experience in how the piano can be played. And the audience erupted at the end.

Two. Northern Sky Theater’s “Home for the Holidays” in late December in Gould Theater in Fish Creek. Originality was all over this program featuring company stars Karen Mal, Matt Zembrowski and notably Fred “Doc” Heide, one of the company founders and show-makers. Doc Heide’s gift is thought-to-music. His material included the pandemic, the Packers’ name, the Three Wise Men and teachings of Julian of Norwich from the 14th and 15th centuries. That last piece found the three performers teaming for an aura of the profound.

Three. An online presentation of Lauren Gunderson’s “Natural Shocks” by Jennifer Vosters performing for Third Avenue Playhouse of Sturgeon Bay. This was part of a play reading series that went beyond simply reading a script. Working from memory, Jennifer Vosters performed in her parents’ basement while moving about with a hand-held iPhone camera. The illusion was a woman was taking safety from an approaching tornado. She really fears spousal abuse, though the phrase is never mentioned. The performance crackled with intensity. A bonus was a post-performance talkback with the actor, director, facilitator and author, speaking from the San Francisco area. Lauren Gunderson called what she saw “breathtaking.”

Four. The Anaïs Mitchell musical “Hadestown” on tour at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton. The story is two centuries old, and the presentation is today. The orchestra performs on stage, some actors play instruments, part of the stage rotates and players mostly sing their parts. Darkness lurks in the form of the character Hades. The love-at-first-sight of Orpheus and Eurydice is tested again. Alas, Orpheus still looks back and dooms Eurydice to hell, but the experience is riveting.

Five. The Griffon String Quartet in performances online and in-person at venues in Door and Brown counties. The group is Northeastern Wisconsin’s own classical music string quartet, something that has never been done before. There’s more to the concept than performing, and access to fine music performance is easy through a series of ventures that continue to pop in the calendar. The players are personable and fonts of information as they introduce selections. And the music is lovely, challenging, dynamic – the whole shebang of aural artistry.

***

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 performances, with 43 being live and in-person 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 professional productions.

***

Honorable Mention

+ Northern Sky Theater’s online “Love: It’s Not Just for Lumberjacks” in January – and any in the series of themed compilations the company presented online early in the year. The shows were an entertaining reminder of the swath of talent – originating and then performing – that graces the Door County company.

+ “Bent Compass,” an online presentation of a play in February on the YouTube Channel of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. An articulate Army medic/veteran (Colin Sesek) set the table for a friend/professional actor who writes (Neil Brookshire) to present an illuminating play that explores a soul. The university augmented the production with assistance services for veterans.

+ Steve March-Tormé in a live, in-person STEEM concert in March in the Meyer Theatre in Green Bay. The radio personality and entertainer is quite fluid in the pop/jazz spectrum on piano and in voice.

+ Lachrisa Grandberry in “Sunset Baby” in March as part of the online play reading series of Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay. Lachrisa Grandberry’s gritty, inflamatory character in this production was 180 degrees away from her cheery roles with Northern Sky Theater. And the play explores the toll a cause can take – how family life suffers in the name of a higher calling.

+ Northern Sky Theater’s “The Fisherman’s Daughters” with book, music and lyrics by Katie Dahl starting in June and “Whatever Happened to Karl Janko?” with book, music and lyrics by Matt Zembrowski starting in August – both outdoors in Peninsula State Park Amphitheater. All original, fascinating characters, lustrous music – the company trademarks were delivered in bundles.

+ Play-by-Play Theatre of Green Bay in a live, in-person offering of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in June inside the Art Garage and outside near it when the weather permitted. Director Carolyn Silverberg ignited her cast in the version that was contemporary in its look and music.

+ Ryan Schabach in the title role and many more characters in the Door Shakespeare presentation of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” outdoors in July at Bjorklunden near Baileys Harbor. This was a tour de force rush with Ryan Schabach giving all with bolts of energy.

+ Midsummer’s Music in a concert in Kress Pavilion in Egg Harbor in July. This was just one concert of an abundant array by committed professional musicians.

+ Peninsula Players Theatre with “Talley’s Folly” in July and “Romance in D” in August in the company’s Theatre in a Garden near Fish Creek. Some restrictions applied to the region’s historic, high-level company, and its productions were engaging visually and in content. Wonderful stuff.

+ Northern Sky Theater’s online presentation of “Not Even Remotely” in July. This version squeezed two goofy characters into a small apartment as they tried to pitch a full-scale musical about Frankenstein. In ways, it worked better than the live, in-person version in Gould Theater near Fish Creek – but either way, Alex Campea and Doug Clemons cranked out 1,000-watt energy.

+ Molly Rhode in a multitude of Door County characters in a return production of “Naked Radio” starting in August at Northern Sky Theater’s Gould Theater near Fish Creek. The company mainstay was especially great as a “Dr. Who” superfan.

+ The touring “Wicked” at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton. On its fifth visit, the show continued its wizardry as it attracted more than 4,400 eager showgoers and grossed more than $13 million. What a shot in the arm for center – and enthralling and DAZZLING.

My list of best-of local performances arrived online Sunday (the link).

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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