Arts & Leisure

They staged a lot of wonderful works

“NEVER THE SINNER” is the OC Tribune’s best stage drama for 2017 (GWC photo).

By Thom deMartino

How do you determine the “best,” when what you have to choose from is already masterful?
Having reached the end of 2017, we here at the Orange County Tribune wanted to acknowledge the remarkable – often sublime – work accomplished by our local community theaters in this past year.
This is by no means the entirety of O.C.: there are some brilliant theaters doing outstanding work outside the Tribune’s beat of Huntington Beach, Westminister and Garden Grove: but for the sake of brevity, we draw from the reviews we have featured this past year.
The Gem, the Westminister Community Playhouse, the Rose Center, Shakespeare O.C, Golden West College Mainstage theaters – with limited resources, often relying on the generosity of patrons, these select venues in have consistently brought some stellar examples of the value of live theater to Orange County residents.
So, with no further ado:

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy: Nicole Cassesso for “Cabaret”
As one of the pair of founding members of the Gem Theater’s One More Productions in-house acting troupe, Cassesso has had a hand in numerous productions — sometimes behind the scenes, but often upon the stage, with performances in “Follies”, “Always, Patsy Cline” and even “The Holiday Gem”. But it was her turn as Sally Bowles, the carefree yet troubled (even arguably nihilistic) songstress of the Kit Kat Klub in “Cabaret”, belting out ballads and breaking hearts as she ignores the political and cultural firestorm around her, that moved audiences and elevated the performance to a remarkable level.
Best Actor, Musical or Comedy: Chris Caputo for “My Fair Lady”
Caputo has had a villainous year at the Rose Center theater: playing the bloody lead in “Sweeney Todd”, the devilish tempter Mr. Applegate in “Damn Yankees” and the callous Mr. Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life”. But his performance in “My Fair Lady” as the irascible Henry Higgins showed not only the professor’s haughty, self-important personality, but also a creeping vulnerability that only the audience was really privy to — transforming a potentially detestable bully, and humanizing him.
Best Supporting Actress, Musical or Comedy: Cora Riley for “The Tempest”
While the works of Shakespeare may frequently seem inaccessible to modern audiences, often it is the portrayal by the actor that lends itself to comprehension. Miranda, daughter of the mage Prospero in Shakespeare Orange County’s “The Tempest”, has strength, compassion and determination in a patriarchal age, resisting becoming a two-dimensional damsel in distress… Riley’s radiant performance helped bring the well-rounded character to life.
Best Supporting Actor, Musical or Comedy: Danny Diaz for “Cabaret”
The category may be musical or comedy, but there was considerable drama, even tragedy, in “Cabaret” — with timely subtext as well. The weighty events occurring both in and around the Kit Kat Klub and the heavy subject matter are framed by the giddy musical numbers performed by the mercurial Emcee: played with delightful relish, even dark glee, by Diaz.

THE RISING THREAT of Naziism in Germany is a theme of “Cabaret.” Its the OC Tribune’s best musical of 2017 (OMP photo).

Best Ensemble, Musical or Comedy: “Cabaret” at The Gem Theater
As previously mentioned, there were a number of stand-out performances in the Gem Theater’s “Cabaret”: but the entirety of the show was brought together not only by the leads, but the whole ensemble. Colorful and frenetic dancing, musical numbers and lively club atmosphere could not have been realistically created without the various sundry and sensual entertainers of the Kit Kat Klub — too numerous to name here, but breathtaking in their work.
Best Actress, Drama: Darri Kristin in “The Wisdom of Eve”
There’s always someone waiting in the wings to steal the spotlight, something discovered by the aging star Margot Crane in the Westminister Community Playhouse’s “The Wisdom of Eve”. Kristin’s Crane could be merely bitter, or unlikable for her cattiness, and yet elicits sympathy from the audience with her vulnerability, as they are privy to her sowing the seeds of her own downfall when she takes the deceptively mousy — and secretly scheming — Eve Harrington into her confidence.
Best Actor(s), Drama: Matthew Cobb and Alex Jean for “Never the Sinner”
A striking Golden West College-produced drama based on the true story of 1920’s thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb, the performances by both Cobb and Jean are so powerful as to be inextricable: the two are a matching pair, one playing off the other, lesser without their other half. The smug confidence and superiority of the two in being above the rabble’s bourgeois morality only begins its slight crumbling when they realize the possibility that the punishment for their crimes may not be death, but separation from one another — perhaps the only consequence that strikes fear into the killers’ hearts, deftly and sympathetically portrayed by the talented actors.
Best Supporting Actress, Drama: Savannah Smith for “Macbeth”
Again, the mark of the skilled actor’s craft is to elicit sympathy for a seemingly irredeemable character. In the Martie Ramm-directed Golden West College production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, Smith’s Lady Macbeth is sinisterly seductive and persuasive, riveting the audience, as she stokes her husband’s aspirations and inspiring him to bloody action: and yet, haunted by the sanguine ghosts of her deeds and meeting her end, the viewer cannot help but feel the loss of the dark-hearted would-be queen.
Best Supporting Actor, Drama: Scott Keister for “Never the Sinner”
Arguments for and against the death penalty have been debated for ages, whether or not an eye for an eye is truly justice, or merely leaves the world blind. Keister’s work in “Sinner” as the renowned — but weary and heartsick — defender Clarence Darrow is on par with other powerful previous performances in “Orphans” and “Waiting For Godot”, as he frames the contradictions that capital punishment embodies: if it really is justice, or merely an expression of revenge — fodder for humanity’s bloodlust.
Best Ensemble, Drama: “On Golden Pond” at the Westminister Community Playhouse
As with a number of the selections on this list, “On Golden Pond” is a combination of both comedy and drama, which is likely what makes it so true-to-life and resonant. While all the performances are striking in this production, it is as a whole that the actors bring to life this family dramady: excellent portrayals of the tribulations of age, the turmoils of a family still sundered by resentments, and both the inevitability and acceptance of change, make this show a stand-out of the 2017 season.
Best Director, Drama: Tom Amen for “Never the Sinner”
With such a complex psychological study, it takes a keen eye to be able to note the subtleties of the characters, and be able to inspire and bring them out of your actors. (Arguably, it helps having such a skilled cast as well.) Amen accomplished exactly this in the GWC Mainstage Theater production of “Sinner”, leaving the viewer with a haunting visage of a lack of humanity, and society’s attempts at comprehension of its absence.
Best Director, Musical or Comedy: Damien Lorton for “Cabaret”
Lorton’s work on numerous other productions (as the other founding member of One More Productions) has been stellar, but “Cabaret” was taken to a whole next-level. Timing is everything, as they say: and the pacing of this production kept the audience on the edge of their seats at the elevated tables in the “club.” The vision for a production begins with the director, brought to a beautifully debauched and troubling fruition under Lorton’s direction.

Best Drama: “Never the Sinner” at Golden West College Mainstage Theater
In the category of drama, the stand-out performances, set design, direction and challenging real-life events in “Sinner” set it apart from the other excellent productions that we reviewed in the 2017 season.
Best Musical or Comedy: “Cabaret” at The Gem Theater
In a similar fashion, 2017 had a number of remarkable musicals and comedies: but the production value, novel theater-in-the-round set design, rousing and risque song-and-dance numbers and edgy subject matter of “Cabaret” elevated it from entertainment to art.

Related articles:
“Cabaret”:
https://orangecountytribune.com/2017/10/06/you-experience-cabaret-not-just-watch/
“Never the Sinner”:
https://orangecountytribune.com/2017/10/15/complex-motives-are-explored-in-sinner/
“On Golden Pond”:
https://orangecountytribune.com/2017/11/17/shining-staging-of-on-golden-pond/
“My Fair Lady”:
https://orangecountytribune.com/2017/02/23/my-fair-lady-is-loverly-at-rose-center/
“The Wisdom of Eve”:
https://orangecountytribune.com/2017/02/04/dark-irony-well-done-with-eve/
“The Tempest”:
https://orangecountytribune.com/2017/07/20/tempest-is-a-perfect-fantasy-storm/
“Macbeth”:
https://orangecountytribune.com/2017/11/13/mesmerizing-magical-macbeth-at-gwc/

 

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