community theater awards honor area talent

Sunset Playhouse's "Beauty and the Beast" is our choice for best show in 2017.

Sunset Playhouse's "Beauty and the Beast" is our choice for best show in 2017.



Published January 6, 2017

The bar keeps getting higher for area community theater. The talent just keeps getting better. Plus, simple sets, lighting and sound have given way to lavish set and lighting design and nearly flawless sound in many local theaters, making 2017 a great year for theatergoers in the area.

I saw more than 30 plays with nary a bad apple in the bunch. Choosing the best is akin to picking a favorite child.

Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove tops the list of area community theaters by presenting an entire season of quality shows, all popular musicals or classic plays, including “You Can’t Take It with You,” “And Then There Were None,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “Sister Act.” Three of their shows made my Top 10 list, including No. 1 pick “Beauty and the Beast.”

Waukesha Civic Theatre started the year strong, with wonderful renditions of the classics “Blythe Spirit” and “Barefoot in the Park.” Their “33 Variations” was a poignant story told with power and passion that juxtaposed the story of Beethoven losing his hearing, with that of an aging professor losing her grip on life. They rebounded from a subpar 2017-18 season- opening presentation with the well-executed “Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Lake Country Playhouse in Hartland fielded another strong lineup in 2017, opening with the clever comedy “Blind Dating at Happy Hour,” written by Shaun Kempf of West Bend. LCP’s fine cast successfully executed the comedy’s well-drawn story of the pitfalls of dating and modern relationships. Two LCP musicals really stood out—the summer offering “1776” and the wonderful fall show “Little Women.”

The New Theatre on Main in Oconomowoc, now called The Box Theatre Co. (the company moved from Main Street several years ago), continued its youth movement with fine presentations of “Seussical Jr.” and “Annie.” Sandwiched between the two was the adult comedy “The Thing About Men.”

Settled in its renovated space at North Middle School, Falls Patio Players, in Menomonee Falls, can look back on a successful 2017, highlighted by an exceptional version of Monty Python’s hilarious Camelot spoof “Spamalot.” Earlier in the year, the company offered the charming comedy “Enchanted April.”

Under the direction of Steven Decker, the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha presented “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind: 30 plays in 60 minutes.” The show offered lessons to the fine, mostly student, cast in improv as audience members shouted out the number (1 through 30) of the mini-play they wanted to see next. It was truly a unique evening of theater.

Cream City Theatre tackled the classic courtroom (actually jury room) drama “12 Angry Men” with an outstanding cast that really captured all the tension of this disparate dozen tasked with deciding the fate of a young man accused of murder.

SummerStage opened their 2017 season with a fine rendition of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.”

Following are my choices for top shows and performances in 2017.

No. 1

“Beauty and the Beast” – Sunset Theatre

From the opening scene it is apparent the show is something special, starting with a handsome, spacious set. Sunset’s lavish version has all the makings of a full-scale Broadway production in the skilled hands of director Karl Miller and music director Mark Mrozek.

No. 2

“1776” – Lake Country Playhouse

There isn’t a musical too big for tiny Lake Country Playhouse to handle. This one features not only a stellar cast of two dozen, but some handsome period costumes and wigs, plus a rich set allowing ample space for all the representatives on the tiered stage. Actual sights projected onto the curtain added to a sense of “being there.” Director Rebecca Schilling has assembled an outstanding cast.

No. 3

“Hello, Dolly!” – Sunset Playhouse

Sunset’s production, directed by Tom Weissgerber, showcases their star, Liz Norton, with the total package – fine supporting cast, a good-looking ensemble, a full-sounding eight-piece orchestra, great choreography, a handsome set, and an outstanding array of elegant costuming to enhance the musical set in New York City circa 1900.

No. 4

“Hunchback of Notre Dame” – Waukesha Civic Theatre

This is an ambitious production, directed by Mark E. Schuster, features a 19-member choir, a 14-piece orchestra and a cast of 19, including five main characters plus 14 performers playing an assortment of characters. Add to that Michael Talaska’s handsome set -- featuring the centerpiece rose window of the cathedral and a trio of huge bells hanging from the ceiling -- some creative lighting (Chris Meissner) and well-designed costumes (Sharon Sohner, Harmonie Baker and Michael McClure) plus Teresa Alioto’s well-executed choreography.

No. 5

“33 Variations” – Waukesha Civic Theatre

This is a marvelous production in so many ways, most notably its staging and the performances of a veteran cast that infuses these stories with power and poignancy, humor and humanness. Dustin Martin is the director. Raised up and at the center of the stage is a grand piano with the show’s music director Julie Johnson, at the keyboard. A large screen behind her displays the variation she is playing and other scenes related to the onstage action.

No. 6

“Little Women” – Lake Country Playhouse

This is an outstanding cast, with pitch perfect characterizations and some unusually strong individual vocals from every cast member. And the music is really quite lovely, thanks to Jason Howland tunes and Mindi Dickstein lyrics well delivered by music director Jim Van Deusen and his handful of musicians, who perform on stage. Nate Adams is the show’s director.

No. 7

“Barefoot in the Park” – Waukesha Civic Theatre

Simon’s comedy is rapid fire, and if you can’t keep up with the pace it falls flat. This cast, under the direction of Kelly Goeller, keeps the high-speed volleys at the rate of a Williams sisters’ tennis match.

No. 8

“Over the River and Through the Woods” – Sunset Playhouse

I was told that there would be laughter and there would be tears during the show. I didn’t quite get to the tears part – though there were some wonderfully done, emotion-filled scenes – but there was plenty of laughter. In fact, throughout most of the first act there was a constant array of laughter. This cast, under the direction of Brian Zelinski, does a fine job with the comedy and capturing the emotional pitches the show attains.

No. 9

“Spamalot” – Falls Patio Players

An ambitious production, “Spamalot” didn’t disappoint in any aspect. The 14-piece orchestra, conducted by Jacob Sudbrink, has a rich, full sound. Melissa Bloch-Meier’s choreography is a big hit, especially with regard to the Laker Girl dancers, who handle all sorts of moves with verve. There are dozens of moving parts in this show, all of which must be working well in order for the show to succeed. Hats off to the Patio Players for presenting this fine rendition to the community. Robby McGhee directed.

No. 10

“12 Angry Men” – Cream City Theater

Under Katherine Beeson’s direction, this fine cast presents a faithful version of the powerful play. The actors who play the strong personalities in the jury room are riveting in their performances. But what elevates the show is how well each of the dozen jurors has carved out a niche, a distinctive characterization, and how real they all seem. Audience members can relate, see themselves in that room asking the same questions, having doubts one moment and confidence in their decision the next.

Individual Performances


Benjamin Johnson – “Barefoot in the Park,” Waukesha Civic theatre

I didn’t think Benjamin Johnson could get much better than his effortless mastery of song, dance and comedy in recent productions of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Gypsy” and “Anything Goes.” This time around, he can just concentrate on comedy – Neil Simon’s, to be exact. And Simon and Johnson are at their best in “Barefoot in the Park.”

Ryan Peter Dziuba – “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Waukesha Civic Theatre

In Ryan Peter Dziuba’s hands, Quasimodo is truly a sympathetic character. But his finest moments were when he sang -- without impediment – in a booming, soaring voice that sustained its power and pitch through to the end of tunes like “Out There,” where he imagines the world outside his sanctuary.

Corey Richards and Eric Welch – “Beauty and the Beast,” Sunset Playhouse

Corey Richards’ Cogsworth and Eric Welch’s Lumiere are perhaps the best duo I saw all year. Richards’ Cogsworth is a scene stealer as he toddles around in a near constant state of consternation, spouting off in a sort of snooty, affected English to the audience’s delight. Welch moves so well as the tall, stately candelabra, swaying and bending like a graceful tree while capturing a French accent nicely. The two play off each other wonderfully. Welch also was fabulous as Prince Herbert in Falls Patio Players “Spamalot” and as Cornelius in Sunset’s “Hello, Dolly!”

James Skiba, Marty Graffenius and Noah Chudy – “1776,” Lake Country Playhouse

Skiba portrays Adams with fiery passion and energy, which is contrasted with Graffenius’s Franklin, who has an easygoing nature and ready wit. Graffenius has a marvelous ease delivering lines such as, “What are you staring at? Haven’t you ever seen a great man before?” The repartee between Skiba and Graffenius is especially enjoyable. Chudy gives Jefferson a serious demeanor and carries himself with import.  A real plus is how closely the trio resemble their historical counterparts.

Nicholas Callan Haubner and Mack Heath – “12 Angry Men,” Cream City Theater

Nicholas Callan Haubner is like a captain sailing his ship through stormy seas. His hand is firmly on the helm, always steady and objective in the face of emotion. He reveals virtually nothing about himself, simply reinforcing his passion to not send an innocent man to death. While Haubner’s No. 8 is calm and even-tempered, Mack Heath’s Juror No. 3 is prone to explosive anger. Some of the play’s finest moments involve the two, particularly when scenarios related to the killing are re-enacted. Heath has a wide range of snarls and glances, gestures and voice intonations that masterfully interpret the dialogue. 

Best Female Performances

Liz Norton – “Hello, Dolly!,” sunset theatre

As Dolly, Norton makes her entrances grandly in outfits with more material than your grandmother’s living room draperies, and hats as big as end tables, and wears them with the comfort and ease of workout clothes. The spotlight loves her, and she returns that affinity with an inimitable, engaging style.

Beth Perry – “33 Variations,” Waukesha civic theatre

This is an amazing cast, starting with Perry, who really stretches dramatically. Through her we see Katherine’s single-mindedness and strength as she chooses her own tedious opus to end her life. At one point she mumbles “my tongue has begun to die,” while we watch Beethoven also struggling with his health.

Kat Geertsen – “Little Women,” Lake Country playhouse

Lake Country Theater has found a gem for Jo in Kat Geertsen who embodies all the pluck and confidence in the heroine. No movement or gesture is lost in the intimate Lake Country Playhouse, and Geertsen uses a whole tool box of expressions to great effect. 

Bryanna Vancaster – “Spamalot,” falls patio players

Vancaster has an “American Idol “vibe, channeling her inner Kelly Clarkson and Christina Aguilera with amazing strength, clarity and range. Her “Whatever Happened to My Part” in Act II is a real show stopper.

Breanne Brennan and Anna Marie Zorn – “Enchanted April,” falls patio players

As Lotty, Anna Marie Zorn nearly floats with optimism and childlike enthusiasm in word and action. She and Breanne Brennan are a perfect pairing, providing convincing British accents and characterizations. Brennan’s Rose is quiet and unassuming, yet likeable, quite a contrast to Zorn’s buoyant Lotty.

Other Notable Performances

Courtney Denzer as the kind and wise Beth in LCP’s “Little Women.”

Ashley Levells as Deloris, the nun-on-the-run -- with attitude -- in Sunset’s “Sister Act.”

Margot Lange’s handling of multiple characters and comic timing in UW-Waukesha’s “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind: 30 Plays in 60 Minutes.”

Paul Weir’s intense portrayal of the Ghost of Jacob Marley in LCP’s “A Christmas Carol.”

Rebecca Janny’s comic ease in LCP’s “Amateurs.”

Julia Rady’s mature performances in The New Theatre on Main’s “Annie” and Waukesha Civic Theatre’s “The House Without a Christmas Tree.”

Donna Lobacz’s hilarious portrayal of Corrie Bratter’s mother in Waukesha Civic Theatre’s “Barefoot in the Park.”

Landon Quinney’s Gumby-like moves and spot-on characterization as Seymour in Sunset’s “Little Shop of Horrors.

Bryan Noll’s (as always) sincere, high-energy characters in LCP’s “Tick, Tick, Boom!” and “Little Women.”