Theatrical troupes across the Miami Valley eagerly returned to live performance this year following a lengthy COVID hiatus.
As a new year approaches, and in tribute to the late Stephen Sondheim, I encourage all troupes throughout 2022 to remember “anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new.”
Here are my choices for the top 10 shows of 2021.
1. Cabaret (TheatreLab Dayton)
Director Philip Drennen’s wonderfully atmospheric staging, providing the best use of the PNC Arts Annex thus far, was an achievement in character, tone, intimacy and authenticity. Charity Farrell soared as Sally Bowles, delivering one of the most thrilling renditions of Kander and Ebb’s title song I have heard, and a truly believable Joshua Stucky portrayed Fraulein Schneider with ample grace, elegance, wit and resilience.
2. Bright Star (Epiphany Lutheran Church)
Epiphany’s outstanding, vocally striking production of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s bluegrass musical surpassed the Broadway original. Director/choreographer Megan Wean Sears’ brilliant decision to expand the script’s flashback possibilities from a visual and emotional standpoint increased the material’s depth. She also offered audiences a chance to witness the remarkable performances of Muse Machine alumna Charlotte Kunesh as feisty spitfire Young Alice Murphy and an impressively mature Nick Abouzeid as Young Jimmy Ray Dobbs.
3. Hairspray (Clark State Performing Arts Center)
You still can’t stop the beat of this infectiously feel-good musical about love, tolerance and unity in 1960s Baltimore. Starring Ohio native Andrew Levitt (a.k.a. Nina West of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”) as Edna Turnblad, this exhilarating national tour deserves a Broadway engagement after crisscrossing the country.
4. The Dream of the Burning Boy (The Nerve)
Co-directed by Jenna Valyn and A.J. Breslin, David West Read’s poignant high school drama about loss, communication, regret and forgiveness captivated with natural honesty. Chris Hahn superbly portrayed Larry Morrow, a grieving teacher consumed with a secret that hindered him from being the man he could have been.
5. Mamma Mia! (Wright State University)
In a sign of the times, this joyous production directed and choreographed by Greg Hellems featured an entire cast singing while masked. Regardless, every note was crystal clear, and the performances were uniformly excellent. The dynamic duo of Sophie Hardy (Donna Sheridan) and Sarah Green (Sophie Sheridan) fueled emotions both fiery and sentimental. Hardy’s terrifically conversational rendition of “The Winner Takes It All” and Green’s marvelously inquisitive, pop-savvy treatment of “The Name of the Game” were among many standout moments.
6. Waitress (Clark State Performing Arts Center)
This winning presentation that showcases female solidarity and survival had the distinction of being the first Broadway national tour to perform in the Miami Valley post-quarantine. Sara Bareilles’ delightful score was in great hands led by Jisel Soleil Ayon as the empowered Jenna and Gabriella Marzetta as kooky co-worker Dawn.
7. Airness (Human Race Theatre Company)
Directed by Jamie Cordes and enthusiastically performed by a first-rate, totally committed ensemble, Chelsea Marcantel’s unique look at the bonds formed and lessons learned within the peculiar world of competitive air guitar was one of the most pleasantly surprising shows of the year. As every scene unfolded, more intriguing layers brought refreshing insights into focus.
8. Disney’s The Little Mermaid (La Comedia Dinner Theatre)
Directed and choreographed by Chris Beiser, this highly entertaining outing provided a fun summertime escape. In addition to strong portrayals by lovely KatieAnn Bonavita as Ariel, dashing Jeremy Smith as Prince Eric, sassy Tori Kocher as Ursula, and a cute, contemporary gaggle of Mersisters, the fabulously flamboyant Digger Howard delivered “Les Poissons” to the hilt as Chef Louis.
9. Morning’s at Seven (Dayton Theatre Guild)
Directed by Rick Flynn, Paul Osborn’s classic family dramedy was a perfect fit for the Guild. In addition to Barbara Jorgensen’s touching portrayal of soul-searching Esty Crampton, whose 55-year marriage had finally taken its toll, Jeff Sams filled his charming portrayal of insecure bachelor Homer Bolton with earnest, relatable sincerity.
10. American Son (Dayton Playhouse)
Directed by Tim Rezash, the local premiere of Christopher Demos-Brown’s racial drama packed a relevant punch. Teresa Lynn’s intensity, intrusiveness and heartbreak as Kendra Ellis Connor, a mother in distress as the fate of her only child remains a mystery, kept the action engaging and engrossing.
Contenders: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” (La Comedia Dinner Theatre); “All the Oxytocin in Your Fingertips” (Dayton Playhouse FutureFest); “CATS” (Dayton Live); “Children of Eden” (INNOVAtheatre); “Circle Mirror Transformation” (Wright State University); “Laced” (University of Dayton); “Lend Me a Tenor” (Wright State University); “Looped” (Human Race Theatre Company); “The Revolutionists” (Human Race Theatre Company); “The Sound of Music” (La Comedia Dinner Theatre); “The Wedding Singer” (Springboro Community Theatre); “Women in Jeopardy!” (Dayton Theatre Guild)
OUTSIDE THE GEM CITY
1. A Strange Loop (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington, D.C.)
2. Assassins (Classic Stage Company, Off-Broadway)
3. Caroline, or Change (Broadway)
4. Seven Guitars (Arena Stage, Washington, D.C.)
5. Company (Broadway)
6. Thoughts of a Colored Man (Broadway)
7. Trouble in Mind (Broadway)
8. Hadestown (Ohio Theatre, Columbus)
9. Six (Broadway)
10. Mrs. Doubtfire (Broadway)