Eighth annual ABEs salute LV stage
Lehigh Valley theater-goers: Consider yourself lucky in the year 2013.
What other region of similar demographics and geographic area has as much live theater as the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area?
Professional acting and directing and production values are paced each summer by Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre, with its 34rd season upcoming, and The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, going into its 23rd season, and year-round at Touchstone Theatre, going into its 33rd season.
The State Theatre for the Arts (built in 1925), in its 89th year, and Miller Symphony Hall (built circa 1896), in its 118th year, bring Broadway quality and excitement to the Valley without single ticket prices in the hundreds of dollars nor lengthy travel headaches.
Community theaters, led by Civic Theatre of Allentown, going into its 87th season, and The Pennsylvania Playhouse, entering its 68th season, continue to choose challenging work, and provide vital outlets for the Valley's many fine theater major students.
Also consider the abundance of productions during fall and spring semesters at Muhlenberg College, DeSales University, Lehigh University, Cedar Crest College, Lafayette College and Northampton Community College.
The ABEs, as in Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, now in its eighth year, lauds shows, performances and technical achievements on area professional and community theater stages.
The Focus section published 34 reviews in 2013. In October 2013, theater reviews began appearing on the Lehigh Valley Press Focus web site, making them available nationwide and worldwide to all who subscribe. With the added space on the web site, the hope is to review more area college theater and perhaps add another category in the ABEs.
The theater reviews tally for 2013: Rebekah Hawk: 2; Deb Boylan: 3; Douglas Graves: 11, and Paul Willistein: 18.
Producer: Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre. Charles Richter, Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre (MSMT) founding artistic director, guided MSMT's 33rd season with double-header hits, "Crazy for You" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." The college's tap-dance training program came to the fore, with a 16-member tap ensemble, for "Crazy for You," choreographed by Karen Dearborn and directed by Richter. MSMT finally got the rights to "Superstar" after years of trying. James Peck directed the iconic Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber rock musical MSMT debut. MSMT gives the estimated 350 Muhlenberg College theater and dance department student an opportunity to hone their skills in a professional setting, provides workshops for Allentown School District students and attracts an audience upwards of 12,000.
Original Musical: "Ulysses Dreams: an exploration of origin and destiny," Touchstone Theatre: The little theater that could once again outdoes itself with not one, but two, original shows. "Ulysses Dreams" is brave, ambitious and successful, riding the waves of plein air theater to inaugurate the South Bethlehem Greenway amphitheater. "Ulysses Dreams," with original music and text by Jp Jordan and Christopher Shorr, began as a glimmer in the eyes of Bill George and Gus Ripa, grew to an 10-person ensemble extravaganza, is an immersive theater experience and a return to Touchstone's street theater roots. By the way, runner-up to "Ulysses Dreams" is Touchstone's own "Christmas City Follies XIV," one of the funniest and most enjoyable holiday season traditions in the Christmas City. The Bethlehem troupe once again knocked itself out in originality, performance and staging.
Musical: "Jesus Christ Superstar," Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre. The production is stunning throughout: stage design (Tim Averill), choreography (Charles O. Anderson), costumes (Annie Simon), lighting (James McKernon), directing (James Peck), music direction (Ken Butler), songs ("Superstar," "I Don't Know How to Love Him") and voices (Dan Cary, Kennedy Kanagawa, Ed Bara, Joshua Neth, Jassie MacBeth).
Actress, Musical: Julia Pfender (Ado Annie), "Oklahoma!" Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. She combines coquettish humor and vocal fireworks, especially in "I Cain't Say No!"
Actor, Musical: Doug Carpenter (Curly), "Oklahoma!" Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. From the opening "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning," Carpenter lets you know you're in the presence of greatness.
Ensemble, Musical: "Oklahoma!" Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. The Act Two opening number, "The Farmer And The Cowman," and the title song's eye-popping closing number were among summer theater season 2013's most memorable.
Director, Musical: James Peck, "Jesus Christ Superstar," Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre. Peck's direction is often cinematic, with a rhythm and flow in a seamless continuum.
Choreography: Stephen Casey, "Oklahoma!" Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Casey's boot-scootin' choreography was a hoot.
Original Play: No ABE given.
Play: "Measure for Measure," Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Director Fontaine Syer, with Ian Bedford, assistant director, puts the rep in repertory with a nearly-identical cast for "The Importance of Being Earnest," featuring Greg Wood, Erin Partin, Blake Ellis, Alexie Gilmore, Julia Pfender, Brad DePlanche and Wayne S. Turney.
Actress, Play: Alexie Gilmore (Gwendolen Fairfax) "The Importance of Being Earnest," Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Gilmore gives the sense of a Gibson girl in charm and beauty, while conveying a cunning mischievousness under her umbrella.
Actor, Play: Jim Helsinger (Lady Bracknell), "The Importance of Being Earnest," Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Helsinger sailed onto the stage like a dreadnought with guns at the ready. He bites off each word and spits them out, his eyes ablaze.
Ensemble, Play: "The 39 Steps," Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Steve Burns, Anthony Reimer, William Connell and Genevieve Perrier discover nonstop laughter in the spoof of director Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1935 suspense film. Director Matt Pfeiffer is PSF's go-to guy for multiple character romps.
Director, Play: Jim Helsinger, "The Importance of Being Earnest," Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Helsinger, with associate director Matt Pfeiffer, has an impeccable sense of comedic timing, pacing and staging.
Costume Designer: Lisa Zinni, "The Importance of Being Earnest," Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Zinni's costumes are a fanciful confection of delicious colors, designs and material.
Scene Design: Tim Averill, "Jesus Christ Superstar," Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre
Lighting Design: James McKernon, "Jesus Christ Superstar," Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre. McKernon, from "Hullabaloo" (1965 - '66 TV show) rock show lighting of the King Herod scene to the chiaroscuro of the crucifixion scene, heightened the storyline's emotive power.
Sound Design: Matthew Given, "The 39 Steps," Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Given has fun, and so do we, with film soundtrack references from director Alfred Htichcock films.
Producer: Pennsylvania Playhouse: The 2013 "Director's Cut" series at the Pennsylvania Playhouse (PPH) was innovative. The PPH board solicited directors to choose the play they most wanted to direct. From their submissions, PPH chose its 2013 season: "Boeing," Boeing," director Mark Breiner; "Company," Will Windsor Erwin; "The Clean House," Tim Brown; "Aida," Laurie Zane Wieder; "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," Ralph Montesano, and "Almost, Maine," Clair M. Freeman.
Original Musical: No ABE given.
Musical: "Company," Pennsylvania Playhouse. Will Windsor Erwin directs a solid cast, including Joshua Neth, Nina Elias and Kimberly Tassinaro in the Stephen Sondheim favorite.
Actress, Musical: Charlene Jean (Aida), "Aida," Pennsylvania Playhouse. Jean, a Parkland High School graduate, is stunning in the title role. She has a wonderful stage presence and does justice to the Elton John and Tim Rice score.
Actor, Musical: Rody Gilkeson, "Les Miserables," Notre Dame Summer Theatre. Gilkeson creates a noble Jean Valjean and has the vocal range to match.
Ensemble, Musical: "Les Miserables," A huge cast of 52, including Rody Gilkeson, Elizabeth Marsh-Gilkeson, Ted Williams, Mary Catherine Bracali, Catherine Scheidel, Patrick Davis, Madeline Prentice, Samantha Prentice, Ian Gilkeson and Christian Clausnitzer, put their hearts into the pop opera.
Director, Musical: Rody Gilkeson, "Les Miserables." Gilkeson does a remarkable job with the Lehigh Valley debut of the Broadway version.
Choreography: Gwen Swanson, "Company," Pennsylvania Playhouse. Swanson's choreography let individual dancers shine in the large cast.
Original Play: No ABE given
Play: "August: Osage County," Civic Theatre of Allentown.
Actress, Play: Rebecca Burroughs (Billie Dawn), "Born Yesterday," Crowded Kitchen Players. In the iconic role of Billie Dawn, Burroughs doesn't so much as channel Judy Holliday from the 1950 classic film as go her one better, transforming before our eyes from a tough-talking, sexy, sweet swagger to a poised, elegant visage of polished elocution.
Actor, Play: Pat Kelly (Charlie), "August: Osage County," Civic Theatre of Allentown. Kelly has a prayer in one of the play's funniest scenes.
Ensemble: "August: Osage County," Civic Theatre of Allentown: Director William Sanders' solid casting fulfills the vision of Tracy Lett's 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play in its Lehigh Valley debut: Becky Engborg (Violet), Jan Labellarte (Barbara), Tom Onushco (Bill), Pat Kelly (Charlie), Sue Sneeringer (Mattie Fae), Merce Tonne (Ivy), Gretchen Furst (Karen), Kirk Lawrence (Steve), Troy Brokenshire (Little Charles), Meredith Lipson (Jean), John Kuchar (Sheriff) and Bill Joachim (Beverly).
Director, Play, Williams Sanders, "August: Osage County," Civic Theatre of Allentown: Sanders elicits nuanced performances from the big cast, letting each actor breathe life into his or her character in what is the year's most powerfully-acted and fully-realized community theater stage drama.
Costume Design: Elizabeth Marsh-Gilkeson, "Les Miserables," Notre Dame Music Theatre. Marsh-Gilkeson designed an amazing array of gowns, peasant costumes and soldiers uniforms.
Scenic Design: Jason Sherwood, "August: Osage County," Civic Theatre of Allentown: The attention to detail is outstanding. The Weston home becomes an additional character.
Lighting Design: Will Morris, "August: Osage County," Civic Theatre of Allentown. Morris's lighting is subtle and evocative.
Sound Design: Will Morris, "Next to Normal," Civic Theatre of Allentown. Morris, technical director; Justin Brehm, music director, and a six-person rock band combine to turn 19th Street into off-Broadway.
Tim Roche Memorial "Meanwhile" Award: Samantha Beedle (Mo), Jennifer Starr Foley (Kathy), "Parallel Lives," Joshua Neth, director, Allentown Public Theatre. Neth skillfully guides Beedle and Foley through 14 sketches as the duo portrays 30 characters in the 1986 sketch comedy written by Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy. Thought-provoking themes and two dynamic female actors pace the sketch comedy.