Dec 24 • ARTSY SMARTSY, Theater1 Comment on Year-in-review

by Shea Carver and and Gwenyfar Rohler

SHYLOCK PERSONIFIED: Donn Ansell in “The Merchant of Venice,” as part of Shakespeare on the Green, 2010. Photo by Ev Smith.

SHYLOCK PERSONIFIED: Donn Ansell in “The Merchant of Venice,” as part of Shakespeare on the Green, 2010. Photo by Ev Smith.

Each year, as we wind down the last 12 months, we often ponder the effects of the previous year on our community. As reviewers, we cull the ubiquitous top 10 list to cover trends, best-ofs, memorable happenings, news and other important what-have-yous which resonated within local theatre.

We have a lot to celebrate. Through hundreds of productions put on by numerous theatre companies and friends of theatre, many shows here remain memorable, as do the people who help see them through. Here is encore’s Top 10 Theatre Happenings of 2012, as elected by reviewers Gwenyfar Rohler and Shea Carver.

• City Stage’s production of “The Color Purple” was the best musical and Big Dawg’s “The Foreigner” was the best play of 2012. The quality of performances were unbelievable in both. “The Color Purple” is a tough book to get into such a specific format as a stage musical. Not only was the writing incredibly sharp and the music captivating and singable, the voices were unstoppable. Joy Gregory is a showstopper. All principals were stunning and meshed seamlessly with the ensemble; it was a truly memorable accomplishment.

The casting in “The Foreigner” was perfect, too, and the performances flawless. The workable set enhanced the interactions of the actors and material. Director Pam Grier deserves a round of applause for assembling all the pieces and giving talented performers the latitude to make it come alive.

• The best original script of 2012 was Anghus Houvouras’ “Diplomacy is Dead.” For his 40th birthday, encore’s film reviewer rented City Stage/Level 5 to stage a one-act comedy. Writing comedy is very difficult, but his dialogue was tight, the actors (Anthony Lawson, Ron Hasson, Steve Rassin and Jordan Stallings) hit every nail with precision and the result was incredible. It far exceeded my expectations, which were pretty high given the cast and the writer. It deserves a wider audience and I hope it is revived in a bigger venue in 2013.

• Alisa Harris opened TheatreNOW at 10th and Dock Street and employs local playwrights, actors and staff in our own community. Without question one of the most momentous changes for the local theatre scene has been the opening of her venture. Harris, a long-time pillar of the theatre community and former agent to many actors in town, bought a dilapidated eyesore on the corner of 10th and Dock streets and has opened a stunning dinner theatre and learning facility. In a community of talented people, Harris’ venue praises original works, utilizes a wonderful base of talent and pays the performers, crew and writers, as well as offers workshops and readings to adults and children alike. She also has chosen to place this just off Market Street in a neighborhood that could use some economic recovery.

• Over 50 originally written, local shows were staged in 2012. It’s a difficult number to definitively nail down, and here’s why: Every Saturday Zach Hanner writes and stages a new children’s show at TheatreNOW. Tony Moore has re-launched another recurring sitcom at Orton’s Pool Room, which runs 12 weeks or so into 2013, and the Pineapple Shaped Lamps’ kids wrote an entire season (three months) of “Thursday Night Live,” which just closed a few weeks back. That doesn’t include the numerous plays produced, which by my numbers, top at around 17. Also, it doesn’t include out-of-town shows that came to Thalian Hall or Kenan Auditorium. What tremendous creative output!

• Steve Vernon was appointed new artistic director for Big Dawg Productions. Steve is a theatrical genius. His innate sense as a director is a marvel to watch in process and inspiring to experience as an audience member. For years he has produced shows under his own label, BUMP Productions, appeared on nearly every stage in town and directed shows that range from the classics to original scripts. Like many creative and visionary types, he needs to be freed of the mundane things: programs, posters and box office to focus on the what it’s all about: the show and that magical moment for the audience.

• New faces on the scene peppered the pool of local talent with excitement this year. We saw the likes of Max Korn across many stages in town showcase his vast range, from Pulitzer Prize-winning material like City Stage’s “Next to Normal” to downright fun musicals like Opera House Theatre Company’s “Legally Blonde.” Seeing local journalist and masterful opera singer Bob Workmon in “The Most Happy Fella” remained a highlight of the year. Someone should find more stage work for Workmon; he’s a stunning leading man who shines as bright as his vocals and radiates pure joy. A precocious 9-year-old Matalin Bloomfield as 6-year-old Susan Walker in Thalian Association’s “Miracle on 34th Street” also kept hearts shining a little brighter through the end-of-year season.

• UNCW integrated the community into university theatre. With the vast talent on our scene, and the massive amount of support of local theatre, there is simply no reason for UNCW (or CFCC) to be left in the dark when it comes to helping students in theatre gain greater experience. Ed Wagenseller and department chair Andy Belser’s decision to cast local veteran actor Cullen Moss in “Angels in America, Part 1” defined a momentous step for students studying the art form. Moss not only nailed the role of Roy Cohn, but the work put in gave first-hand exposure and pointers to students who otherwise would not gain such knowledge outside of a lecture. Wagenseller also engaged the help of pro-lighting designer Don Fox and pro-costumer Jessica Gaffney to help produce it. The university and local theatre connection hopefully will strengthen ties in our community for years to come.

• Cameron Art Museum hosted a summer of City Stage’s musical revues. It provided a great place to enjoy live, local theatre!  The local performers lit up CAM’s rafters with powerful vocals and the sparse set design with technological flairs, showcasing photos and clips in the background, all led by a live trio of musicians. It made for a memorable summer of entertainment mainly because revues like “Songs for a New World” and “The All Night Strut” seemed like live art installations.

• StarNews held its inaugural theater awards show. With the amount of actors and actresses, theatre companies and writers, designers and set builders, musicians and directors taking over our theatre scene, that Wilmington hasn’t had its own theater awards show until 2012 seems preposterous. StarNews filled the gap and held its first awards show in January, thanks to the help of many big players on our scene, including Lou Criscuolo, Donn Ansell, Chiaki Ito and Justin Smith and a host of talent who performed throughout the evening. The awards ceremony returns January 9th, 2013, 8 p.m. at Thalian Hall, and will recognize all the hard work so many put forth year after year.

• Donn Ansell’s passing left a great hole in our hearts and our community. His boisterous cackle, twinkling eyes, magnanimous presence and endless amount of talent and advice drew out many mourners in August after he lost his battle with cancer. His life was celebrated in September with great affection, and the legacy he left behind proves greater than the cumulative tears shed in his wake. A thespian, creative director, radio-station owner and media personality, not to mention friend, mentor, father, life-partner and Wilmington ally, Ansell served his time with us in a larger-than-life capacity. He always helped others find their inner strengths, voices, senses of humor, discipline and accomplishments. Now, in his honor, the City of Wilmington and Thalian Association will dedicate the Lower Atrium Studio in the Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center to Ansell on Wednesday, January 9th at 11 a.m., with Mayor Bill Saffo unveiling a memorial plaque and Ansell’s daughter, Melaine Liss, in attendance. Ansell fought to save the Community Arts Center when it was in peril a few years back; its endurance ensures future generations have easy access to the arts, something Ansell adamantly advocated.

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One Response to Year-in-review

  1. Timothy J. Hunter says:

    As a former resident and member of its theatre community, I recognize a great many of the names in this list. I am proud to see how they have managed to thrive and bring so much to the beautiful little city that is Wilmington. I wish them many years of continued success. I’m simply overjoyed to learn of all they continue to achieve. Applause, my friends. Standing O’s to you all.

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