Measuring up the year on Richmond's stage scene 

1999 Critics Choice: Magical Moments

How do you measure a year?

That's the question the hit musical "Rent" asks in its tear-jerking anthem, "Seasons of Love." Maybe it's one measure of the vitality of Richmond theater that a touring show of "Rent" finally came through here this spring. Or maybe we should consider the number of new theater companies: At least three popped up here in 1999.

Then there's world-premiere shows: Richmond opened at least a dozen this year, with Barksdale Theatre's "Ella and Her Fella Frank" and TheatreVirginia's "Scandals" looking like they might have lives beyond the Richmond stage.

But while the number of new troupes and new shows gives you a quantifiable measure of the local theater scene, what about quality? You can't put a number on magic, and yes, as sappy as it sounds, there were magical moments on our stages last year. The list below is simply a recognition of those moments that stayed with me the longest and who was responsible for them.

These are the people and productions that made many of the 525,600 minutes of 1999 worth living.

Straight Plays or Comedies

Best Actress: Mary Sue Carroll in the Barksdale's "Three Tall Women"
Carroll was brilliant as a geriatric curmudgeon, alternately terrorizing and befuddling the two younger women at her disposal.

Best Actor: Chris Harcum in Richmond Performing Arts Collective's "Some Kind of Pink Breakfast"
The year was overcrowded with worthy "best actor" contestants. Jeff Clevenger showed surprising depth at the Firehouse's "Four Dogs and a Bone," newcomer Keith Winston lit up the stage in "The Old Settler" at the Barksdale, and Rodney Scott Hudson roared life into TheatreVirginia's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." But Harcum turned his one-man show into a veritable acting seminar, tossing off precise depictions of a half-dozen characters with the greatest of ease. The only shame is that Harcum has left our fair city for greener pastures. His talents will be missed.

Best Director: Richard St. Peter for "subUrbia" in Theatre IV's Theatre Gym series
This bold and bracing production signaled the arrival of an impressive new talent. St. Peter assembled a fine cast of energetic twentysomethings and led them through this powerful drama with assurance. As if to prove that "subUrbia" was no fluke, he scored again with "Stop Kiss" for the Richmond Triangle Players. Most of all, St. Peter deserves recognition for showing that risks can be taken here in Richmond and that success, at least artistically, can be achieved.

Best Production: "Cash on Delivery" at Swift Creek Mill Theater and Restaurant
So if "subUrbia" was the best directed show this year, why isn't it the best production? One word: momentum. There is a sense of escalating hysteria that every farce ever produced tries to build. The ultimate goal is to leave the audience breathless with laughter. Though many shows tried to generate this kind of comic momentum, "Cash on Delivery" was the only unconditional success of the year.

Musicals

Best Actress: Debra Wagoner in Barksdale's "Violet"
The title character in "Violet" suffers from a terrible scar that disfigures her face, yet she finds that her indomitable spirit can transcend her looks. Wagoner could have played her as a courageous, one-note hero, like "Annie" in need of a plastic surgeon. Instead, this veteran actress plumbed the depths of this complex character, finding sexuality and cynicism in addition to spunk. It was the best in the long line of great performances in Wagoner's career.

Best Actor: No One
Here's where I piss everybody off. There are some fine musical actors in this town. But this year's shows did not offer the kind of magical marriage of performer and role that has electrified the stage in years past. Here's hoping that a role comes around next year that gives some guy the room to really show his stuff.

Best Musical Director: Bob Hallahan for Barksdale's "Ella and Her Fella Frank"
In a show that was all about the songs, Hallahan made the jazz jump and the swing soar. Working with two superlative vocal talents, Rene Croan and Scott Wichmann (as Ella and Frank respectively), the peppy pianist delivered arrangements and medleys that were almost characters themselves.

Best Director: Jack Cummings III for the Barksdale's "Violet"
Last year, Cummings' kinetic directing style dampened the naive sweetness of the Barksdale's "She Loves Me." But with edgier, meatier material to work with, Cummings brought home a winner with "Violet." With scenes alternately stark and sumptuous, the New York-based director brought dazzle and delight to this moving story about prejudice.

Best Musical: "Violet" at the Barksdale
Director Cummings couldn't have made "Violet" grow without his top-notch design team and ubiquitous musical director Jose Simbulan. An excellent cast from top to bottom made this production sing. The biggest shame was that more people didn't see "Violet." The show should have been a shoo-in for an extension; instead it closed prematurely with half-full houses.

Technical Awards

Best Costumes: Jeff Fender, Theatre IV's "Blackbirds of Broadway"
Working with a limited palette of red, black and white, Fender decked out this tribute to Harlem's heyday in some truly boss threads.

Best Lighting Design: Terry Cermak, TheatreVirginia's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
This was a show with action ranging from explosive to intimate. Cermak's lighting enhanced every nuance.

Best Set Design: Brad Boynton, Theatre IV's "The Wizard of Oz"
Boynton made the alternate reality of Oz palpable, using an impressive array of theater tricks to take us over the rainbow.

Best Sound Design: Richard St. Peter, Theatre Gym's "subUrbia"
How do you talk about disenfranchised youth without a soundtrack? St. Peter's sounds matched the mood

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