I had the sincere pleasure of seeing a lot of theater last year. Here are some of the highlights from Madison area performances in 2018.
Best big musical in a small space: Fun Home, Forward Theater
Translating this show from its original stadium staging on Broadway into a three-quarter round stage in the Playhouse at Overture was a challenge for the design team, but one scenic designer Keith Pitts and director Jennifer Uphoff Gray embraced with great results. Three gifted actors — Karen Olivo, Rachael Zientek and Chantae Miller — portrayed Alison Bechdel, at different stages of her life.
Most improvements on the original production, Tuck Everlasting, Children’s Theater of Madison
When Tuck Everlasting premiered on Broadway, it was not met with enthusiastic reviews. But thanks to innovative choreography and staging by director Brian Cowing — and terrific performances by leads Malea Niesen and James Ridge — no one in CTM’s Madison audiences would ever have guessed it. The visually stunning, coming-of-age musical (which also ponders death and immortality) was filled with exuberant movement and contained one of the most unusual and moving finales ever crafted — a wordless ballet that followed the main character through an entire lifetime.
Biggest performance by the smallest cast: Constellations, Theatre LILA
The play Constellations, by Nick Payne, is an enormous story that involves string theory, quantum mechanics, and the staggering capacity that we all have to shape our own lives. In the intense, fast-paced, two-person show, actors Marcus Truschinski and Andrea San Miguel enacted many of the “could-have-been” scenarios in the intersecting lives of a beekeeper and a scientist. Their ability to reveal emotional truths as the needle skipped forward and backward was stunning.
Best political commentary: (tie) The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, University Theatre and Born Yesterday, American Players Theatre
During this fractious time in our national politics, several local theaters showed us stories about the way our government should work, and what happens when it’s out of sync with the will of the people. Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, directed with impressive vision by visiting professor Shad Willingham, was stylized and stark, juxtaposing the rise of Hitler with the rise of the mafia in 1930s Chicago. Darkly dramatic sets, costumes and lighting provided a feast for the eyes and a real triumph for the undergrads involved, whose performances were noteworthy across the board.
On a much lighter note, American Players Theatre’s Born Yesterday was an old fashioned, flag-waving comedy featuring a heroine with a heart of gold. As the showgirl-turned-political science scholar, Colleen Madden proved she could communicate as much in a wink and a sassy hip bump as she could in a paragraph of text. And David Daniels illustrated that bullies and blowhards trying to buy their way into Washington have been a problem in every era.
Biggest performance by a cast of thousands: Hunchback of Notre Dame, Capital City Theatre
Overture’s Capitol Theater is an imposing venue with a lot of seats to fill. But Capital City Theatre succeeded not only in packing the house during the three-day run of The Hunchback of Notre Dame; they practically stacked performers atop one another on every inch of the stage. The enormous musical with a giant heart received a spectacular production with out-of-town talent augmented by some of the best singers and musicians in Dane County.
Best family road trip: Little Miss Sunshine, Music Theatre of Madison
The words “road trip” strike fear in the hearts of many, and at the beginning of their journey, the Hoover family at the center of Little Miss Sunshine is no different. Each person in the cramped, barely functioning van is going through a crisis and driving from New Mexico to California so little Olive can compete in a somewhat suspect beauty pageant doesn’t seem like it’s going to help. Until it does. Music Theatre of Madison’s production hit all the right notes, from dashed dreams to absolute absurdity to real familial love, and almost made me brave enough to travel with relatives again.
Best Sequel: Our Country’s Good, American Players Theatre
The stunning play by Timberlake Wertenbaker is based on historical events of the late 18th century in a newly established penal colony in Australia. When the transported English criminals begin to behave savagely in their miserable conditions, a young officer (a noble Nate Burger) suggests that they be civilized by performing in a play — The Recruiting Officer. The layered, brilliant script received a superlative production from the nimble cast of 10, playing 22 roles. Bonus points to APT for also producing the The Recruiting Officer. And for audiences who saw both shows, it was a master class in the actors’ craft.
Best use of a sandwich as a dramatic device: The Drawer Boy, Strollers Theatre
In this touching play, Sam White played Morgan, the main caregiver for both a dairy farm in rural Canada and his brain-injured war buddy, Angus (Donavon Armbruster). Fiercely protective of his friend, Morgan constantly distracts Angus from anything troubling by asking him to make a sandwich. Never have ham and cheese been used for a more noble purpose.
The worst singing, on purpose: Souvenir, Four Seasons Theater
A wealthy New York socialite named Florence Foster Jenkins rose to fame in the 1930s and ’40s for her enthusiastic — and terrible — performances of opera. She was celebrated, along with her accompanist Cosme McMoon, in the two-person musical Souvenir. In the Four Seasons production, Madison favorite Sarah Day showed off her prodigious vocal talent by purposefully performing with cringeworthy inaccuracy.