Hippo Manchester
December 29, 2005

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Theater: The five best shows of 2005

Something old, something new, something from the Midwest

By Robert Greene    rgreene@hippopress.com

The year 2005 was a good one for theater: The Palace Theatre in Manchester announced it was on good financial footing and local theater groups focused on turning out good shows.

On the other hand, it was also a year that revealed a weakness in the local scene —  audience. Theater groups all over southern New Hampshire, more of them every year, are competing for an already small audience pool. This pool is ever more attracted to new media — on-demand television, computer games and the Internet. And, sadly, most of these folks will only come out for “known” shows, meaning there is a whole lot of good theater out there that no one is paying attention to.

Prediction for the new year: mergers. It’s happening in Lowell already, as several theater groups that call Merrimack Rep home join forces. It means local theater heads will lose some independence but might have a better chance of thriving. Then they can put on more shows like the following five, Hippo’s picks for the best of the year.

Grease

John Campanello’s work paid off in spades July 15, when more than 1,000 people turned out for his outdoor production of Grease.

“This is beyond my wildest expectations,” the New Thalian Players board member said, just minutes before the production started in Manchester’s Veterans Park. “Twelve months ago this was just an idea, and now it’s here. I can’t believe how many people came out to show their support.”

The play started at 8:30, but by 7:30, the park was packed. The pre-show entertainment, provided by Arthur Murray Studio dancers, encouraged the crowd to get up and dance to ’50s music. Meanwhile, New Thalian volunteers handed out every single one of the 1,000 programs they’d printed for the entire weekend-long run of the show.

“Should we do this next year?” Campanello, who served as the emcee for the evening, asked the crowd during intermission.

The crown cheered back its answer, “Yes!”

Even more people turned out the next night. New Thalian’s first stab (with some help from the city and Intown Manchester) at outdoor theater, a project, known as Theater in the Park, seems bound to continue.

“We want this to become a yearly thing,” Campanello said. “I’m thinking of an outdoor theater festival, similar to what Nashua and Portsmouth have. There’s no reason why Manchester shouldn’t have something of our own.”

Chicago

Professional shows at the Palace Theatre in Manchester can be uneven and the venue historically has problems with sound (case in both points, 2005’s production of Footloose). But everything came together for Chicago, a production chock-full of dancing, catchy songs, scantily clad actors, talent, energy and an opening-night standing ovation.

The Palace’s Chicago was wickedly wonderful and offered the theater its biggest opening night ever. Headed to the parking garage after the first show, several members of the audience could be heard singing, whistling or otherwise emulating production numbers all the way to their cars, and possibly beyond.

Standouts were Susan Grady (as the ambitious sexpot Roxy Hart), Mark Nichols (as Roxy’s not sexy but steady husband Amos) and Mickey Lebrecht (Matron Mama Morton).

The lesson here is that people will come out for good adult-oriented theater. Do a good show, and it needn’t matter if it’s family-friendly. (Just say no to Annie.)

Odd Man Out

In 1977, a guy named Harvey Milk made history by being the first openly gay person elected to public office in an American city — San Francisco. He was shot to death by a colleague a year later, along with San Francisco’s mayor at the time, George Moscone. The killer was a district supervisor named Dan White, a former cop who got off easy (seven years sentenced with only five served) by claiming the number of Twinkies he ate made it impossible for him to think straight.

Odd Man Out was written by Albany, N.Y., playwright Michael John Meade two years ago. And, this year, Yellow Taxi Productions brought it to New Hampshire (14 Court Street Theatre, Nashua).

Yellow Taxi is developing a solid rep for fielding edgy, fresh productions. The set for Odd Man Out was sparse but it effectively placed the audience in hell and on the streets of San Francisco at the appropriate times. The acting was  stellar. Cast in the pivotal role as Harvey Milk, NYC-based professional actor Jeff Clinkenbeard breathed life into a historical figure, which is not as easy as it sounds. Milk is often portrayed as a saint but Clinkenbeard, armed with Meade’s strong script, made him a man of passion, caring and flaws. Local actor Andrew Hannah did a nice job playing Harvey’s also-dead partner Jack, who serves as Milk’s voice of reason in the underworld. Equally strong if occasionally over the top was Boston actor Doug Chilson as Dan White. The cast was rounded out by Manchester actor Michelle Saturley. She was great, too.

Sadly, the audience for the show — which ran only one weekend — was pretty thin. Yellow Taxi chalked it up to Odd Man being a known show, which there is some truth to. However, it also can be attributed to the fact that rent at 14 Court Street (a theater operated by the city) was too high to allow Yellow Taxi to schedule a second weekend. Word of mouth would have put many butts in the seats had there been time for that word to spread.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar is a challenging show, rarely mounted in New Hampshire community theater. Although it is one of the most popular modern musicals, the vocal demands of the two male leads, Judas and Jesus, make it a tough sell in amateur theater. Even the most seasoned professional actor can find these two roles intimidating.

The Actorsingers took on the show in May and, for the most part, staged it successfully. The Hippo reviewer gave it a “strong ‘B,’ both for the talent involved and the quality of the overall production.” She described Brian Waldron as “vocally amazing as Jesus.” Kevin Roberge, as Judas, was “in touch with the inner turmoil of his character [but] he struggled with the vocal demands of the role.”

The results of director Paul Metzger’s updating, setting the play in the modern day, were largely positive but there were some incongruent pieces, and the crucifixion was one of them. If Christ really returned today, would he still die on a cross?

The Actorsingers’ biggest strength has always been their remarkable ensembles, and this show was no exception. The 12 apostles and the chorus were wonderful vocally and handled the choreography well. The apostles blended beautifully on “The Last Supper,” while the whole ensemble sounded great on “Hosanna,” “Simon Zealotes Song” and “Trial by Pilate.”

The Music Man

Celebrating its 15th anniversary in June, Majestic Theatre went with a revival of one of its most popular shows of all time, The Music Man.

Majestic’s artistic director Rob Dionne once again suited up to play Harold Hill, the fast-talking flim-flam artist who scams the entire town into thinking he can save the kiddies by offering to lead a marching band. Also returning was Tina Brannen as Marion Peroo, the “spinster” librarian in Mason City who is at first repelled by Hill and then falls in love with him, even though she knows he’s a con artist.

Director Jude Bascom did extensive research about the real Mason City, Iowa, to prepare for the show.

“I wanted the show to be a balance of what people expect when they come to see The Music Man and some of my own vision of the show,” she said. “I think the original play by Meredith Wilson was meant to be a valentine to the people of Mason City, not a caricature. So I’ve tried to incorporate that into my interpretation of the show.”

One goal Bascom achieved was to create a multi-generational cast that is truly representative of what a real town would be.

“Our youngest cast member is 6 years old, and it goes up to our eldest cast member in their mid-sixties,” she said. “It makes a much better ensemble that way, but it wasn’t without challenges.”

The show ran three weekends.