COMMUNITY THEATER: From ‘Medea’ to ‘Chicago,’ it was a memorable year

By Milan Paurich

As the curtain closes on yet another calendar year, it’s time to look back at some of the more memorable community-theater moments of 2010. In that celebratory spirit, here is my annual highlight reel of the productions, performances and behind-the-scenes talent that impressed, entertained and inspired me the most over the past 12 months.

Hopefully, next year will bring even more “moments to remember.”

  1. Molly Galano: In the Robert Dennick Joki-directed Oakland Center for the Arts production of Margaret Edson’s “Wit,” Galano delivered the sort of wondrous, career-defining performance that every actress dreams of achieving at least once in their life. Infinitely subtle and as delicately layered as a sonnet, Galano’s unforgettable tour-de-force deserves to be studied in acting classes for generations to come. Not willing to rest on her laurels, Galano followed that April triumph with another career highlight playing Euripedes’ most iconic protagonist, Medea. Galano’s quietly seething performance as an aggrieved spouse made the audience complicit in every step of her character’s vengeful campaign. And in the Youngstown Playhouse’s recent “Inspecting Carol,” Galano earned some of the show’s biggest laughs as a transplanted British ham trapped in a no-talent backwoods theater company. If Galano lived in New York or London, she would be routinely hailed as one of the premier actresses of her generation. New York and London’s loss is the tri-state area’s gain.

  2. “Dinner With Friends”: Director Christopher Fidram did it again. Like Fidram’s legendary 2009 production of “Rabbit Hole,” his Oakland Center for the Arts staging of Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play showed what’s possible when you select a superb contemporary drama that hasn’t been staged locally before, cast it with the finest available talent and orchestrate every nuance to sheer and utter perfection. In an ideal world, ensemble acting of this caliber (John Cox, Cheryl Games, James McClellan and Laura Phillips were all nothing short of spectacular) would be the norm, not the exception. But since we all know that’s rarely the case, it was simply an honor to bask in the collected glow of this amazing quartet of actors.

  3. Rust Belt Theater Company’s “Greek Trilogy”: Some of the most exciting theater of the past year took place at the Calvin Center on Mahoning Avenue. Robert Dennick Joki’s Rust Belt Company brought the funky, bohemian vibe of off-Broadway to the Youngstown area, and it was just the shot in the arm we needed. Joki’s summertime trilogy of classic Greek tragedies were not only refreshingly accessible but irresistibly entertaining as well. Perhaps only the guadruple-threat talent behind “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas” could have appreciated the fact that plays such as “Electra,” “Medea” and “Antigone” are really just super-sized soap operas at heart. With these thrillingly operatic productions, Joki and Company truly brought the “opera” part of that sudsy equation to brilliantly vivid life. Kudos to Terri Labedez (Electra), Molly Galano (Medea) and Candice DiLullo (Antigone) for their towering central performances, which ranked among the year’s finest.

  4. “Our Town”: Fresh on the heels of its August sweep at the Marquee Awards, the Victorian Players kicked off its season with a surpassingly lovely revival of Thornton Wilder’s evergreen classic that set a new benchmark for Youngstown’s “little theater that could.” Director Sam Luptak Jr.’s jewel boxlike production was so beautifully, thoughtfully cast and sensitively rendered that I can’t imagine a more touching — or satisfying — version of the 1938 Pulitzer winner. As Emily and George, Lisandra Stebner and Dylan White delivered well-nigh definitive interpretations of their roles, and David El’Hatton’s Stage Manager was a masterly feat of thespian leger demain that deserves to become the stuff of local legend.

  5. Kayla Boye and Joshua Lewis: In the smashing Youngstown Playhouse productions of “Chicago” and “Curtains,” respectively, Boye and Lewis impressed as future musical-comedy powerhouses with their knockout, take-no-prisoners performances. Playing kewpie-doll chorine wannabe Roxie Hart, adorable YSU sophomore Boye made everything she did — acting, singing and dancing — seem positively effortless. And Lewis — in an astonishing YP debut — was as remarkably assured as he was effortlessly charming. Let’s hope we see a lot more of these two wonderfully gifted young performers in the near future.

  1. Musicals at the Youngstown Playhouse: Thanks to the patient stewardship of new executive director Mary Ruth Lynn, the best musicals of the past year were all Youngstown Playhouse productions. Michael Dempsey’s brassy, glitzy “Curtains,” David Jendre’s wildly impressive “Chicago” and David Mullane’s buoyantly entertaining “The Wedding Singer” proved that the YP magic truly is back. With their typically top-notch production values (props to indispensable tech directors Jim Lybarger and Johnny Pecano, and costume mistress extraordinaire Cherie Stebner), these Playhouse dazzlers were as eye-popping and drop-dead gorgeous as anything you could find on Broadway.

  2. “Blithe Spirit” (Youngstown Playhouse); “The Mousetrap” (New Castle Playhouse); “Sherlock Holmes: THE FINAL ADVENTURE” (VICTORIAN PLAYERS): This jolly trifecta of chestnuts delivered the community-theater equivalent of comfort food. Directed by Mary Ruth Lynn, “Spirit” had such a fizzy effervescence and infectious joie de vivre that it was impossible to resist; Jack Ballantyne’s “Mousetrap” was an unexpectedly sprightly divertissement that made Agatha Christie’s 1952 warhorse seem springtime fresh; and Sam Luptak Jr.’s affectionate homage to London’s most famous “consulting detective” was so briskly paced and juicily acted that it could turn even Holmes-phobes into Baker Street Irregulars. None of them would ever be confused with gourmet feasts, but collectively these three stellar productions were as soul-satisfying as a home-cooked plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes (heavy on the mushroom gravy, please).

  3. “Alice in Wonderland”: If this delightful Youngstown Playhouse production of Lewis Carroll’s timeless perennial is any indication, children’s theater in the Mahoning Valley is as good — and in some cases better — than much of what passes for “grown-up” entertainment these days. Stylishly and wittily directed by Candace DiLullo and Johnny Pecano, “Alice in Wonderland” featured Jim Lybarger and Pecano’s fabulous set design, Cherie Stebner’s stunning costumes and deliciously apropos makeup effects courtesy of Kerri Rickard. It also contained a slew of terrific performances (including impish Zachary Bernat’s scene-stealing Cheshire Cat and Molly Galano’s riotously funny Queen of Hearts).

  4. “Macbeth”: Michael Dempsey’s wildly, flamboyantly ambitious Youngstown Playhouse production of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” was like a budget-busting Hollywood spectacular — except you didn’t have to check your brain at the door. The decision to forgo dodgy British accents in favor of colloquial, plain-spoken verse was a shrewd one, as was Dempsey’s streamlining of the text for clarity and pacing purposes.

  5. Scott Mackenzie: Mackenzie’s extraordinarily layered performance as Big Daddy in the New Castle Playhouse production of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” single-handedly justified director Lester Malizia’s decision to revive Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer winner. The Westminster College professor showed such an intrinsic understanding of what makes Daddy tick — a genuine tenderness alternating with the coarsest vulgarity — that you felt the weight of his presence even when he was offstage.

And no Top-10 list would be complete without at least some mention of the single most memorable (and uniquely satisfying) community- theater experience I had this past year: directing the Oakland Center for the Arts production of David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow.” Because of the whole conflict-of-interest thing, I’m not able to include the beyond-brilliant performances of my nonpareil cast (John Cox, Candace DiLullo and David El’Hatton) on this list. But their amazing contributions helped make my “Speed” experience the extraordinary adventure and palpable joy that it was. And yes, folks, it’s going to be tough returning to “civilian” duty after that once-in-a-lifetime experience.