Taking a moment to reflect on professional theater in the region leads me to the conclusion that 2014 was a strong year.
It was strong in attendance, with more seats filled across the diverse theaters, and it was strong creatively. The theater companies continued to work within their identities, differentiating themselves with a sense of their niches. Theater-going patrons had choices in the performing arts.
What follows is a look back at what stood out to me over the past year.
Most versatile player
Though first coming to view in Sacramento with New Helvetia Theatre, Melinda Parrett has become a favored actor at B Street Theatre, where artistic director Buck Busfield cast her in four quite different roles this year.
From the first of the year when she played the spoiled, moneyed Michaela in the drama “Elemeno Pea,” to the current production “Spinning Into Light,” in which she plays a upbeat Southern single mother, Parrett has moved easily from dramas to comedies and to the current musical.
Along the way she also starred in the SacImpulse production of “Orlando” as the mysterious title character in Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending 1928 novel.
Most inspired direction
Theater directing is often called the “invisible art” because the best work can be undetectable as the performances unfold. Under the directing of Janis Stevens, the strong ensemble in Capital Stage’s “The Real Thing” came together in seamlessly cohesive performance of a layered, complicated script. In my review of the production I wrote, “In director Janis Stevens’ elegant and precise new production, (Tom) Stoppard’s interlocking ideas reveal themselves with dense comic lyricism but also raw emotional immediacy.”
Music Circus’ “A Chorus Line,” with the talented Stafford Arima at the helm, was a true ensemble piece in addition to having homecoming star turns by Kate Levering and Jenifer Foote.
“Tribes” at Capital Stage presented a dysfunctional British family that was further befuddled by an innocent but pot-stirring interloper. There were pitch-perfect performances from everyone. Jonathan Williams directed.
Outstanding performances that came in pairs
As two women competing for the same soldier’s amorous attentions, Courtney Glass smoldered and Jackie Vanderbeck was radioactive in Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion” at New Helvetia Theatre.
Veteran Dee Maaske as grandmother and newcomer Teddy Spencer as grandson felt like family in Amy Herzog’s tale of two different generations, “4000 Miles,” at Capital Stage.
Rebecca Dines’ live-wire Margie and James Hiser’s cooling, seething Mike were ex-lovers who seemed on the edge of combusting when engaging each other in David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People” at Capital Stage.
Beth Malone’s country girl Nellie Forbush and John Cudia’s suave Emile de Becque were a romantic match made in musical-theater heaven in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” at Music Circus.
Kurt Johnson’s Jim Casy and Kirk Blackinton’s Tom Joad were the heart and soul of the classy production of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” at the Sacramento Theatre Company.
The performances by Kiera Anderson and Bradford Anderson in Stephen Sondheim’s “Marry Me a Little” at New Helvetia were so perfect I wanted to turn around and see it again.
Notable individual performances
Lenne Klingaman as Anna in “Anna Karenina,” Janis Stevens as Katharine Hepburn in “Kate,” Brittni Barger as Sylvia in “Tribes,” Maggie Hollinbeck as Heather in “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road,” Jerry Lee as George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and Elizabeth Holzman as Bec in “4000 Miles.”
In re-inventing movie musical heroines for the stage, Jillian Mueller came through at the beginning of the year as Alex, the welder/nightclub dancer who dreams of going to ballet school in “Flashdance: The Musical.” Mueller returns this week as Frances “Baby” Houseman, the irrepressible ingenue who gets her dirty dancing on with the resort dance teacher Johnny Castle in “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage.”
Both Chita Rivera and Eleanor Bergstein are a certain type of old-school entertainment professional I love. There’s no nonsense and no pretense. Both were clearly used to being asked superficial and obvious questions and responding in kind. In response to questions that went in slightly different directions, they each enthusiastically dug deeper into their vast experiences, and their rich conversations yielded so much more than I could ever get into the paper.
I had a few, but the show I most wanted to see this year and missed was a student production called “The Encyclopedia of Early Earth” at the Jesuit Black Box Theater directed by the wonderful Ed Trafton. Trafton and Rachel Malin adapted a graphic novel by the young British writer Isabel Greenberg, and I’m sure it was terrific. I’m still kicking myself over that one.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.