The Best and the Rest

The theater year kicked off from the impossible heights of an excellent road company of The Producers and wound up, as ever, with a lot of cheesy Christmas shows. This was the year that Chicago's eccentric Theatre Eclectic relocated to Phoenix, and Awake and Sing Productions bowed with an exquisite version of The Shadow Box, only to vanish again without a trace. It was the year I foolishly mistook wig mistress Manuela Needhammer for a costume designer (an embarrassing gaffe that no local thespian is anxious to let me forget), and the year I got my first-ever stalker -- a bitter stage director whose work I'd trashed, and who spent the next several months writing me pissy (and vaguely threatening) letters.

It was also, like so many others, a year full of crappy shows, pleasant surprises, and loads of mediocrity. High on my year-end list of atrocities is Desert Foothills Theatre's production of Simply Sammy, a lifeless and uninspired show that honored the terrifically energetic and original Sammy Davis Jr. in a show performed by mostly white performers and a listless four-piece band. And I have yet to recover from Phoenix Theatre's production of Amadeus, the longest, dreariest production I witnessed all year. Sluggish direction and impossible acting -- much of it courtesy of television sitcom actor Richard Gilliland, whose Salieri was all about scenery-chewing -- reduced Peter Shaffer's funny play to an appalling muddle.

While theaters across the land celebrated Richard Rodgers' 100th birthday with musical revues and revivals, the Scottsdale Community Players brought us a crucifixion instead. That company's take on Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms featured a youthful and inexperienced cast so obviously body-miked, they looked like a gaggle of errant telemarketers. The low point of this shameful mess came with director Evelyn Tucker's "Johnny One Note," performed in a paperboard barn by a gaggle of glitter-covered chorus boys.

These lamentable entertainments were trumped by several satisfying surprises, like ATC's The Fantasticks, a production so slick and prettily sung that I was able to forget how little I like this musical. Phoenix Theatre's shrewd retread of Chicago did more than cash in on the film version's recent success -- it was actually entertaining, thanks to Michael Barnard's direction and choreography, which jazzed up the show's original 1975 staging with some swell new material.

The real bolt from the blue came in Desert Stages' rip-snorting Cabaret. If I wasn't expecting much, it's because this show, like so many oft-produced musicals, is usually mauled by small, earnest companies with smallish budgets. Kander and Ebb's familiar score is best served by wider talents than are usually found among amateur thespians, a fact that made this superb production all the more impressive. Those who missed Jessica Godber's amazing take on Sally Bowles can catch the remount, which just opened and plays for the next several weeks.

Godber's wasn't the only notable turn this year. Kwane Vedrene gave a quietly convincing performance as a young cabbie in Black Theatre Troupe's Jitney, and Luke Krueger was a standout in Stray Cat Theatre's This Is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan's sometimes funny, always moving examination of the Me Generation. Several other shows were memorable for a single performance, like Lisa Koch's in Arizona Theatre Company's Dirty Blonde. Koch played both Mae West and one of her fans in Claudia Shear's sort-of movie-star bio, which director Jeff Steitzer built around Koch, whose Mae West was -- thankfully! -- more of an interpretation of the film legend than an impersonation. Jacqueline Gaston, in a crimson dress and steel-gray wig, walked off with Is What It Is Theatre's lamentable Critic's Choice, in a performance so full of witty asides that I almost forgot how dull Ira Levin's dialogue really is. And Bob Sorenson and Debby Rosenthal (who this year began impersonating a theater critic on a local TV talk show) did what they could to enliven the deadly dull I Do! I Do! at Phoenix Theatre.

The year may be used up, but the theater season isn't. There are five more months of shows to look forward to -- like the bus-and-truck of Hairspray; Nearly Naked Theater's The House of Yes; and ATC's upcoming A Streetcar Named Desire -- and even more things to fear, like Cats at Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, Actors Theatre's Tapestry, a revue based on the music of Carole King, and something called Barry Manilow's Copacabana, which will briefly infest the Dodge Theatre in March. Choose carefully, and Happy New Year.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela