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Curtain Call 

From shake-ups and political plays to soaring musicals, our theater critics debate a remarkable year on local stages.

click to enlarge “The Top of Bravery”

Aaron Sutten

“The Top of Bravery”

The year on stage in Richmond was remarkable any way you look at it.

The first show out of the gate was a homegrown original musical, the Quill Theatre and the African American Repertory Theatre co-production "The Top of Bravery," which wowed audiences and impressed critics in January. The year is ending with box office-busting shows at Richmond Triangle Players ("The Santaland Diaries" and "Seasons Greetings"), Virginia Repertory Theatre ("Mary Poppins"), and Swift Creek Mill ("The Andrews Brothers"). Style critics Claire Boswell, Rich Griset and David Timberline take stock of what happened during the months in-between for this year-end wrap-up:

Timberline: We can get to the onstage action in a second but I'm a little hung up on backstage news. Chase Kniffen, who has directed some of Virginia Rep's biggest hits, is leaving the company. There were shake-ups at TheatreLab with co-founder Annie Colpitts out and at Firehouse with Adam Ferguson gone. At the same time, Quill brought on former Henley Street Artistic Director James Ricks as second-in-command.

What do you two make of all the administrative shake-ups?

Griset: While it makes me sad to see Chase go, I'm excited to see what his replacement, Theatre VCU's Kikau Alvaro, brings to Virginia Rep. I caught his "Monty Python's Spamalot" at Virginia Commonwealth University this year and was very impressed. Also, James coming on board at Quill is a good sign. As this season's "Lysistrata" and other shows have shown, he's great at creating and executing bigger concepts onstage. I think that bodes well for Quill.

Boswell: Chase has directed some of my favorite musicals this year, and it is a shame to see him go. But, as Alvaro's choreography in Richmond Triangle Players' musicals "It Shoulda Been You" and "The View UpStairs" demonstrate, he's got a lot up his sleeve and I can't wait to see what he does at Virginia Rep. I am an ardent fan of James Ricks' work, and if this past summer's "Love's Labour's Lost" is any indication of what's to come, we are in for some fine Shakespeare.

One thing that really stands out to me over the last year is how often we saw politics played out onstage. I'm thinking of shows like TheatreLab's "Dry Land," 5th Wall's "Luna Gale," HatTheatre's "Hillary and Clinton," and, of course, Quill's "Lysistrata." I saw so many of the issues I was reading about in the news reflected and commented upon this year, and I hope we see more of that moving forward.

click to enlarge “The Santaland Diaries” - JOHN MACLELLAN
  • John MacLellan
  • “The Santaland Diaries”

Timberline: Me too, Claire. I think these tumultuous times really reinforce the power of theater. In "The View UpStairs," a contemporary artist gets transported to a gay nightclub in the 1970s and sees how much things have changed. It was political but grounded in very personal stories. That connection to real people on stage casts the issues in human terms that defy political tribalism.

I'm a sucker for those intense onstage interactions and this year saw plenty, going back to "Grand Concourse" at TheatreLab in February where Dawn Westbrook gave a devastating performance as a conflicted nun. While Bo Wilson's new play that premiered at Firehouse, "Food, Clothing, and Shelter," was uneven, I'll remember the powerful scene between a circus performer played by Donna Marie Miller and an abused wife embodied by Rebecca Turner for a long time.

Griset: As far as musicals are concerned, I was absolutely charmed by Virginia Rep's "In the Heights," Richmond Triangle Players' "It Shoulda Been You," 5th Wall's "The Toxic Avenger" and TheatreLab's "The Last Five Years." The level of onstage talent in those shows was incredibly high, no doubt helped by Alexander Sapp's presence in the latter two.

I found a lot to love on the play side as well, including thinkers like Triangle's "Cloud 9" and HatTheatre's "Hillary and Clinton." Josh Chenard's direction went a long way with "Desire Under the Elms" at Firehouse, updating and streamlining the old Eugene O'Neill play for a modern audience. I think Virginia Rep's "Miracle on South Division Street," currently playing at Hanover Tavern, is the perfect Christmas show.

click to enlarge “Luna Gale” - DANNY HOLCOMB
  • Danny Holcomb
  • “Luna Gale”

Boswell: My favorite show this year was TheatreLab's "Dry Land," which featured two incredible actresses, Aiden Orr and Jesse Kraemer, as young women navigating life-or-death challenges in a high school locker room. I agree that it was a great year for musicals, and I'd add TheatreLab's "Mother Courage and Her Children" and Virginia Rep's "Mary Poppins" to Rich's list.

Timberline: Even in a great year overall, some shows disappoint. I truly love the work Cadence does but both "Violet" and "Fun Home" fell short of my admittedly very high expectations. What were your biggest disappointments this season?

Boswell: I really wanted Swift Creek Mill's "Woman in Black" to scare me, and it didn't. And Quill's "Lysistrata" was almost right on the mark, but an abrupt tonal shift and revised ending turned a fun, bawdy comedy into an unnecessary tragedy, in my opinion.

Griset: I enjoyed "Lysistrata" much more than you did, Claire, but I didn't care for 5th Wall's "Murder Ballad," despite the efforts of its talented cast and crew. I also wasn't a fan of Chamberlayne Actors Theatre's "Ripcord," either for the production or the usually sterling David Lindsay-Abaire's script.

Timberline: That's funny: I really enjoyed "Murder Ballad." Just as we can expect more theatrical hits and misses in the new year, I guess we can also look forward to more heated debate about their merits. S

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