Thursday, December 29, 2011

Laughs, tears and song: A look back at 2011's theater scene

As 2011 comes to close it is clear that a vibrant theater scene continues to thrive in North Conway, N.H. North Conway’s two community theater companies, Arts in Motions and M&D Productions, and one professional company, Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company, put on a wide range of comedies, dramas and musicals over the course of the last 12 months. Here are highlights for each of the companies’ seasons.

Arts in Motion

Arts in Motion started the year off with “The Fantasticks,” a light, frothy entertainment that was a showcase for its, mostly, young cast including Matt Stoker, Rafe Matregrano and Emilie Jensen. Jensen in particularly left a lasting impression thanks to assured comic timing and powerhouse vocals. In the show's best number “Round and Round,” through clever choreography that was performed with precision, it appeared as if Matregrano was controlling Jensen's movements like a puppeteer.

Matregrano later appeared in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” reprising the role of Jesus Christ, which he previously played in M&D’s “Godspell.” The role allowed Matregrano to show off his impressive vocal range, but he wasn’t the only one in the cast that made an impact. Paul Allen in the relatively small but crucial role of Pontius Pilate had a powerful voice matched by commanding stage presence. Holly Reville brought warmth and compassion to Mary Magdalene. She had a pure, clear and beautiful voice. Matregrano, Allen and Reville didn’t merely sing the songs, but put genuine conviction, passion and turmoil into them.

Kennett High School teamed with Arts in Motion for “Guys and Dolls,” a production whose rehearsal schedule didn’t mesh with Mother Nature’s schedule. Canceled rehearsals led to a stressful but rewarding run up to opening night. The principal leads of the show, Taylor Hill, Hannah Paven, Philip Mathieu and Kevin Ahearn, had roles that allowed them to stretch and play against their usual types. “It was a completely different role from things I've done in the past,” Hill said. “Sarah is really conservative. I'm not really used to playing a conservative role, so I guess that was challenge in itself.”

Arts in Motions’ best show of the year was “The Miracle Worker,” the moving and inspiring story of Helen Keller, a deaf and blind girl, who, thanks to the love, support and perseverance of her live-in tutor, Anne Sullivan, overcomes her handicap in a time when no one thought it was possible. Limited by a clunky first act that is a flaw of the show rather than the production, director Barbara Spoffard and the actors found the heart and soul of this true story. Julie Lanoie was a solid Sullivan and found the delicate balance between self-assuredness and a fear of failure. The power of the scenes in the second act in which Lanoie worked one on one with Megan Perrin as Helen was undeniable.

M&D Productions

M&D Productions had a busy year with nine productions. The year’s strongest for M&D was “The Diary of Anne Frank,” an emotionally draining production that was a moving tribute to all those who died during the Holocaust. Under the direction of Dennis O'Neil, all the actors gave performances that nearly a year later still linger. Jessica Biggio was quite the revelation as Anne Frank. At 14, she showed skills well beyond her years and handled the role with grace and poise. Richard Russo as the patriarch of the family had a final monologue that was profoundly moving.

A close second for raw power was “Misery’s Child,” an adaptation of Stephen King’s “Misery,” the story of an author held captive by his self-proclaimed number one fan after a nearly fatal car accident. This is just a two-person cast, but the caliber of the performances and direction by Ken Martin made the production an engrossing and unrelentingly tense experience. Once again Russo, this time as author Paul Sheldon, gave a subtle, quiet, restrained and precisely timed performance. Janette Kondrat as his nurse/captor Annie Wilkes gave a surprising performance unlike anything she had done previously. The way she turned in a moment from sunny and nearly childlike to angry, spiteful and violent was deeply disturbing.

The provocative musical “Spring Awakening” was another high point of the year that had the company bringing in a few professional actors. It is a testament to the level of talent of our local “amateurs” that the cast blended together seamlessly. The pros didn’t come down to a lesser level, everyone comes up to their level ability. Of those locals, the best of the cast was Molly Paven, who had strong vocal and acting range.

A reliable talent throughout the season was Eric Jordan, a consummate scene stealer of the highest order. His work as the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz” was a highlight of that production. It was a wonderful physical performance that took its toll on the actor, but that was worth it. In “The Odd Couple: The Female Version” Jordan along with Doug Collomy, completely re-energize the second act as the hilarious Costazuela brothers. Jordan even showed off low-key romantic charm as the only male cast member of “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.”

Another constant throughout the year was set designer Deborah Jasien who consistently created astounding sets in the limited space at Your Theatre. In addition to her work for M&D, she did set designing for Arts in Motions’ “The Miracle Worker.”

Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company

The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company returned for its 41st season of professional summer musical theater and put on five shows and added a sixth show, “Barefoot in the Park,” in the fall. “Barefoot in the Park,” a Neil Simon play, marked a departure for the company which has traditionally stuck with musical theater. Real-life couple Grant and Liz Golson, regulars with the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company, returned for this special fall production to play newlyweds who have their love put to the test when moving into a small New York apartment. Grant Golson proved himself to be an excellent physical comedian and Liz brought a bright smile and bubbly and likable personality.

The Golsons had already proven their worth earlier in the season. Grant Golson had the title role in “Sweeney Todd,” the season’s best production. It is a darkly satiric, musically complex tragedy of revenge that isn’t easy to perform, but the ensemble pulls it off. Director Andrew Glant-Linden and set designer Daniel Thobias developed their own unique staging of the production. The show opens at an insane asylum with the inmates forming a chorus that sets up the show. As the show begins proper, the padded cell walls of the set are pushed and pulled to transform into 19th-century London and the inmates become the characters of the play. It was a fascinating choice that added a subtext that all of London was mad. At the center of the show was Grant Golson, who was in fine form vocally.

Liz Golson had a memorable performance in “A Chorus Line,” a show with the simple plot of potential dancers auditioning for a director (the mostly disembodied voice of Grant Golson). She gets the show’s biggest laughs as Val, who on the bawdy “Dance Ten; Looks Three” explains how she got plastic surgery to make her body match her dance abilities. It is a hilarious number and Liz Golson brings it across exceptionally well. “A Chorus Line” is an ensemble show, though, and as such there were other highlights in the cast including Jack Haynie, who gave an exposed, vulnerable and moving monologue about his character growing up and struggling with his homosexuality and finding himself as a dancer in a drag show.

The season also featured old favorites “Annie” and “Damn Yankees” that were well mounted and remained fun, but overly familiar. The bright and buoyant energy of the youthful “Hairspray” was a welcomed variation that provided breezy fun.

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