The 2019 theatre year is in the books. As with any year, there were highs and lows, but no matter, it was always entertaining. And isn’t that the point? Some companies grew stronger, creating productions so brilliant they could pass for professional. Others fell to the wayside—resigned to having their names and shows spoken of for years to come … mainly at Lula’s over a drink (or a few). No matter how one’s 2019 began, we all end it the same: as a community.
What we have here in Wilmington is special, and not seen as often as it should be. Our theatre world thrives, welcoming to all, no matter their backgrounds in the arts. Hell, it’s so active and consistent, with many productions in a calendar year, it has its own awards show (the 2020 Wilmington Theatre Awards are slated for March 11). See one show, see every show. Work on one show, or work on many. It doesn’t matter how you participated, you’re part of the Wilmington theatre community. Welcome to the family.
To the companies, actors, directors, writers, stage managers, music directors, every band member, techs, critics, venue operators, spouses who let their loved ones go away for long hours to play pretend; to anyone who takes an evening to see a show (any show!); to anyone who looks upon a stage or down upon the audience and goes, “This is my world, my art, my entertainment”: From my heart, I thank you. I thank every person who has a hand in any production I saw this year—including those who simply supported said productions. The following is a very short list of the top five shows I reviewed in the 2019 Wilmington theatre season.
5. Stones in His Pockets (TheatreNOW)
While the lights of TheatreNOW may have dimmed, its impact can still be felt. Keeping an insane schedule of shows, the now-defunct company brought a number of strange and unique productions to Wilmington month after month. “Stones in His Pockets,” a dark, Celtic slice of life by Maria Jones, was no different. The two-man cast of Jacob Keohane and Braxton Lathan Williams portrayed the entire population of a downtrodden Irish village. As locals cast as extras in a Hollywood film, Koehane and Williams seamlessly moved from one role to the next and changed their entire being to bring various characters to life. Their work was impressive, and the lives they created stayed with the audience long after the curtain had gone down and the lights came up.
4. Billy Elliot: The Musical (Opera House Theatre Company)
Based on the 2000 film of the same name, “Billy Elliot” was another Wilmington premiere that succeeded on all fronts. Thanks to the talented team from Opera House Theatre Company, the dance-heavy musical was as visually stunning as it was touching. Its moving story of acceptance and finding one’s own confidence was heartwarming and executed on stage to glorious perfection. Featuring top-notch choreography and a stellar cast from leads to assemble, “Billy Elliot: The Musical” danced its way into the hearts of Wilmington theatre-goers this season and for good reason.
3. Urinetown (Thalian Association)
A post-apocalyptic political satire about a world where one must pay to pee? Yes, please! I’d been waiting some time for “Urinetown” to be staged in Wilmington again, as I didn’t live here during its last run. Director Patrick Basquill, along with Thalian Association, did not disappoint. This show fired on all cylinders, and delivered one awesome musical number after another. And to say nothing of the set design by Tymoteusz Dvorak would be a travesty. His work creating the shanties of Urinetown was theatre magic, and utilized the Hannah Block Historic USO in ways I didn’t know possible. For a show I’d been long wanting to see, this rendition not only met my hopes, it exceeded them—delivering one of the best productions of the year.
2. The Revolutionists (Big Dawg Productions)
Big Dawg Productions has been pushing the community-theatre envelops this season, bringing new and challenging works to the Port City. Nowhere was that more evident than in Lauren Gunderson’s dark comedy, “The Revolutionists.” Finding the heart and humor of the French Revolution, the show was a well-balanced piece that educated while it entertained. The entire show was well cast, but it was Kire Stenson’s hilarious interpretation of Marie Antoinette that cemented the play as one of the years very best.
1. Lizzie: The Musical (Panache Theatrical Productions)
Of all shows I saw this year, Panache’s “Lizzie: The Musical” was the best produced play or musical. It’s a malevolent, true-crime retelling of the Lizzie Borden murders, played out to a badass punk-rock score. What’s not to love? Elisa Eklof Smith, Heather Setzler, Meagan Golden, and Georgie Simon made a perfect storm of a cast, owning the stage and show. With a rip-roaring soundtrack played by a killer band, and Simon’s absolute domination of the Lizzie Borden role, this musical was perfection. Anyone who missed it truly missed out. It was great, it was art, so yeah—10 points to Gryffindor? —Chase Harrison
It’s difficult to choose my top shows of the year. In a way each is distinct work of art unto itself. Also every performance is different, and two people can sit in the same theater and see two very different productions. Alas here it goes…
3. Mama Mia! (Opera House Theatre Co.)
The year began with the feel-good, absolutely absurd ABBA-inspired musical, “Mama Mia!” Opera House delivered great entertainment with high production values and a cast of voices that just wouldn’t stop. The score is infectious and the cast sold the whole experience with zest and joy. If you walked out without a smile on your face, your heart is beyond help.
2. Agnes of God (Big Dawg Productions)
I feel weird including Big Dawg Productions’ “Agnes of God” because it was a remount of a show whose previous run was cut short because of Hurricane Florence in 2018. But I’m glad Big Dawg brought it back because it was a remarkably good production of an incredibly challenging script. All three performers (Grace Berry, Eleanor Stafford and Jemilia Ericson) delivered believable, subtle work, palpably intensifying the script’s power struggle. “Agnes” is not exactly box-office gold. In other words, taking someone to see “Mama Mia!” is not difficult, but getting a date to “Agnes” can be a challenge. This show was worth every moment spent in the theater.
1. Jitney (Big Dawg Productions)
August Wilson has had a good run in Wilmington lately. Fracaswell Hyman has been in all four productions of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle over the last three years. Keeping pace, he appeared in the cycle’s third play, “Jitney,” a co-production of the Black Arts Alliance and Cleod Nine Productions and Triune Creative Corporation. He also was in Big Dawg Productions’ one-man show, “How I Learned What I Learned,” based on Wilson’s life. Hyman as Wilson is still rattling around in my brain, periodically surfacing to make another connection, drop another hint, and occasionally leave a bit of wisdom behind. Though Hyman’s Turnbo in “Jitney” was a loud-mouthed bully clown, it was really Maxwell Paige who was the star and the key to that show. The entire cast was great, and the production design was perfect, but Paige blew me away with this performance. There were moments that he reminded me of seeing Jimmy Smits in “Anna in the Tropics.” —Gwenyfar Rohler