14th annual ABEs Salute Lehigh Valley Stage: From plays to musicals, theater unbound in 2019
Lehigh Valley regional theater continued to delight, surprise and impress in 2019.
The ABEs, as in Allentown Bethlehem and Easton, is an attempt to encapsulate a year’s-worth of plays and musicals produced by Lehigh Valley nonprofit theater companies.
This is the 14th annual ABEs. The overview is based on stage shows seen and-or reviewed by myself and Carole Gorney. Admittedly, we didn’t see every show in 2019.
For purposes of scale, the ABEs are divided into two categories.
There’s Professional Theater, i.e., whereby the actors, who are often members of Actors Equity, a professional union, are cast in most of the lead roles, and the technical jobs are mostly fulfilled by members of professional stagecraft unions.
There’s Community Theater, whereby a theater group’s staff may be paid, but the actors usually are not.
Another line of demarcation is that shows in the Professional Theater category typically have higher budgets, not only for the actors, but for sets, costumes, lighting, sound and musicians.
While advance articles, including “Curtain Rises,” about one-night stage shows, such as national touring productions frequently presented at the State Theatre Center for the Arts, Easton, are published in the Focus section in the eight Lehigh Valley Press newspapers (East Penn, Salisbury, Parkland, Northwestern, Whitehall-Coplay, Northampton, Catasauqua and Bethlehem) print newspapers and eight websites, one- or two-performance plays and musicals are usually not reviewed in Focus.
The ABEs is not intended to be encyclopedic, nor competitive, but rather an attempt to celebrate, examine and, perhaps help unify the region’s theater scene.
The Lehigh Valley has a long and storied theater tradition. Allentown used to be a try-out town, where shows were presented on the way, hopefully, to Broadway. Think of a try-out town as a test market, where a show’s songs, scenes and roles might be added, subtracted or adjusted depending on audience reaction.
The Marx Brothers’ film, “The Cocoanuts” (1929), with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and a book by George S. Kaufman, opened Dec. 8, 1925, on Broadway. “The Cocoanuts” is said to have played The Lyric, now Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown. according to my late father who told me he saw the show at the Lyric when he worked there as an usher. I’ve been able to confirm “The Cocoanuts” had a tryout Oct. 26, 1925, in Boston, and then Philadelphia.
Legend has it that references to Peggy Sawyer, “the best little tapper from, Allentown, Pa.” and “hit me like a Mack Truck” in the movie musical, “42nd Street” (1933), starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, are a tribute to Lehigh Valley’s textile, silk and other industries “angels,” i.e., backers or investors, in Broadway shows. The synopsis for the 1980 Broadway musical based on the movie references: “Auditions for 1933’s newest show, ‘Pretty Lady,’ are nearly over when Peggy Sawyer, fresh off the bus from Allentown, Pennsylvania, arrives in New York City with valise in hand.”
There have been attempts to go in the other direction, from the Lehigh Valley to the Great White Way. With the exception of the Obie-winning plays (“Hot Keys,” 1992) of Allentown Jeff Weiss and his partner, the late Richard Martinez, whose transgressive musicals premiered in New York City but were about Krautstown, aka Allentown, stage shows that originated in the Lehigh Valley have never quite lived up to the lyrics of, if you “can make it there,” you “you can make it anywhere,” as songwriters Fred Ebb and John Kander put it in their theme song for director Martin Scorsese’s film, “New York, New York” (1977).
Lehigh Valley actors and artists, including Phoenix Best (DeSales University, 2015; Broadway, “The Color Purple”), Dee Roscioli (DeSales University, 1999; Broadway, “Wicked”), Frankie Grande (Muhlenberg College, 2005; Broadway, “Rock of Ages”) and Michael McDonald (Civic Theatre of Allentown; Tony nomineee, Broadway, “Hair”), have made it from here, the Valley, to there, New York, N.Y.
You don’t have to go to New York City to see entertaining theater. There are many terrific shows and performances in the Lehigh Valley. Just take a look at the 14th annual ABEs,
In 2019, there were 43 theater reviews published in the Lehigh Valley Press Focus, including 27 by Carole Gorney; 15 by me, and one by Erin Ferguson.
This compares to, for example, 41 theater reviews in Focus in 2018; 35 theater reviews in Focus in 2017; 39 reviews in 2016, 38 reviews in 2015, and 31 reviews in 2014.
Theater reviews can be searched by title, theater and review publication date on the Focus page of Lehigh Valley Press:
Now that we’ve ambled out the preamble, here’s the 14th annual ABEs.
Producer: Rody Gilkeson, Theatre Administrator, The Pennsylvania Playhouse, Bethlehem. Gilkeson, Lehigh Valley actor, singer, director and producer, took the reins of what could be called the Valley’s “little theater that could.” Gilkeson mounted a mix of crowd-pleasing (Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” whodunit) and crowd-challenging (The Muppets for adults musical, “Avenue Q”) fare not seen in recent years at the charming venue.
Musical: “Sunset Boulevard,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. States the review: “‘Sunset Boulevard’ is a storied and legendary place, the proverbial street of dreams, brought to the stage in the perfect venue, Nineteenth Street Theatre, Allentown, where the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has its Lehigh Valley debut to open Civic Theatre of Allentown’s 2019-2020 season. It’s a jewel of a show in a jewel of a venue.”
Original Musical: No ABE given
Actress, Musical, Elizabeth Marsh-Gilkeson, “She Loves Me,” Pennsylvania Playhouse; “Mamma’ Mia!,” Munopco Music Theatre, in its Lehigh Valley community theater debut. Marsh-Gilkeson is one of the Lehigh Valley actors who’s a draw, bringing audiences to a show to hear her clear soprano voice and see her feisty stage presence. She can lift nearly any lyric to an emotional highpoint, as with “Vanilla Ice Cream” in “She Loves Me” and “The Winner Takes It All” in “Mamma Mia!”
Actor, Musical: Todd Rizzuto, “Sunset Boulevard,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. “Todd Rizzuto as Max von Mayering, Norma Desmond’s doting, faithful servant and chauffeur ... becomes the architect of artifice, even more prominently so than in the original 1950 Hollywood movie classic co-written and directed by Billy Wilder” ... ‘The Greatest Star of All’ ... is sung so convincingly by Rizzuto that we’re convinced to go along for the ride” ... “Rizzuto presents a stoic tragic figure, only to open up in robust voice in ‘The Greatest Star of All’ and the ‘New Ways to Dream’ reprise in Act I,” states the review.
Ensemble, Musical: “Disenchanted! The Musical,” Star of the Day Productions. “The actresses, aka princesses, sang and danced their way through a bevy of royal complaints in ‘Disenchanted! The Musical,’ a hilarious princess parody,” directed by Will Windsor Erwin, states the review.” Characters in the Lehigh Valley premiere included Snow White (Madeline Huggins), Cinderella (Jessie Dau), Sleeping Beauty (Kirsten Almeida) The Princess Who Kissed a Frog (Juanita-Renay Shockley) The Little Mermaid, Belle and Rapunzel (Julisa Trinidad) and Hua Mulan, Pocahontas and Princess Badroulbadour (Christina Concilio). “That pretty much exhausts the inventory of female fairy tale royalty,” states the review.
Director, Musical: Williams Sanders, “Sunset Boulevard,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. Sanders, Civic Theatre Artistic Director, played to the strengths of the Andrew Lloyd Webber score with a towering performance by Pat Birnbaum as Norma Desmond, “the tragic actress who’s still a legend in her own mind” with “emotionally-charged vocals for ‘With One Look,’ ‘New Ways to Dream’ and ‘The Perfect Year.’”
Choreography, Musical: “Avenue Q,” Pennsylvania Playhouse, Choreographer Joanellyn Schubert, collaborating with director Clair M. Freeman. not only had to choreograph the actors in “Avenue Q.” who are visible to the audience and handle the puppets, but also the 11 puppets, who were no dummies.
Play: “Buyer & Cellar,” Civic Theatre Of Allentown. “A highly creative concept, an immensely funny script, a tour de force performance by Timothy Janovsky, and incredible stagecraft ties the entire production together ... Janovsky portrays not only Alex More, but also Barbra Streisand, her husband Josh Brolin, her assistant Sharon, and More’s gay boyfriend Barry,” states the review.
Original Play: “The Suicide Club,” Crowded Kitchen Players. As Groucho Marx famously said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me for a member.” And so it goes with “The Suicide Club.” The play by director-playwright Ara Barbieb, subtitled “A Seduction of Afflicted Souls,” was inspired by the short stories of Robert Louis Stevenson published in 1867. Turns out the grim carryings-on have a happy ending.
Actress, Play: Cheryl Moritz, “Who’s Holiday,” Civic Theatre of Allentown: “Cindy Lou is the show. Moritz’s energy is boundless, her comic-timing flawless and her ability to engage the audience remarkable,” states the review. Moritz is a Lehigh Valley thespian treasure.
Actor, Play: Barry Glassman, “Amadeus,” Northampton Community College Theatre. While technically a college theater production, the inclusion of Glassman as Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), court rival in the play to creative genius enfant terrible Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart deserves notice. “Glassman is ever-riveting in the performance, convincing in a portrayal that at once creates sympathy and disdain for Salieri,” states the review.
Ensemble, Play: “Noises Off,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. “Civic Theatre Associate Artistic Director Will Morris took on a formidable task and hits the mark. He successfully guides the nine-member cast through the challenges of farce, including the requirements for broad characterizations, limitless energy and impeccable comedic timing. Morris’ blocking and choreographing of the multitude of stage business was remarkable,” states the review.
Costume Design: Will Morris, “Sunset Boulevard,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. Morris created “gorgeous costumes of shimmering gold on gold,” as the review states, for Pat Birnbaum as Norma Desmond.
Scenic Design: Sam Roff, ”Who’s Holiday,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. The cartoonish set wonderfully conveyed a sense of Middle Earth meets trailer park meets yard sale.
Lighting Design: Will Morris, “Sunset Boulevard,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. ”There are several impressive sequences, including screen projections of vintage black and white film footage, and a scrim when Norma’s limousine pulls up to the movie studio gates, thanks to Lighting Designer Will Morris, Technical Director Sam Roff, and Set Designer Joshua Deruosi.”
Sound Design: Randall Utsch, “Christmas Carole 1944,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. Sound Designer Randall Utsch helped to make the ghosts scary, the songs of the era heard, and the cast’s concluding carols sing.
Tim Roche Memorial “Meanwhile” ... Comedy Award: “Who’s Holiday!,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. Billed as “A New Comedy With a Twist Of Rhyme,” the script by Matthew Lombardo, as delivered gleefully by Cheryl Moritz, was the toast of the Lehigh Valley theater holiday season.
Producer: Touchstone Theatre. “Festival UnBound,” the multimedia project two years in the making, produced some 20 events and ran 10 days in October 2019. The festival took a measure of Bethlehem’s southside 20 years after Touchstone’s landmark “Steelbouund” production when SteelStacks was a twinkle in the Christmas City star. It was a big year for Touchstone Theatre, which also produced a terrific 20th production of “Christmas City Follies.”
Director, Musical: Bill Mutimer, “Fallsettos, Northampton Community College Summer Theatre. “NCC Theatre Department Chair Bill Mutimer took on a challenging task in terms of subject matter, the need to strike the right balance between humor and poignancy, and ensuring that relationships on stage rang true.” states the review.
Musical: “Bring It On,” Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre. Director Jim Peck “infuses the musical with a winning enthusiasm. By the end of Act One, the concluding ‘Bring It On’ production number brings the theater-goer in, too.” ... “with the addition of cheerleading (including backflips, front-flips, lifts and drops” ... “Choreographer Samuel Antonio Reyes keeps the large cast of 12 and ensemble of 15 dancing, leaping and strutting almost nonstop.”
Original Musical: “Christmas City Follies XX,” Touchstone Theatre. A play with music, but a musical nonetheless. Bill George’s “Curly Cue Rue,” autobiographical song (primed with potential as an animated film and children’s book) and Emma Ackerman’s “Oy Vey, Another Hanukkah Song” are only two of the memorable original songs as winsome as they are wise.
Choreography: “Crazy For You,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. “A veritable stampede of tap dancers takes over the Main Stage ... The cast even dances during curtain call. Director Gina Lamparella elicits incredible performances from every cast member.” ... “They tap, standing on chairs. They tap on tabletops.” ... “At one point, there’s a line of tap dancers from one end of the Labuda stage to the other.” ... “Choreographer Stephen Casey infuses the show with an intense, aggressive yet graceful style and the dancers respond with precision,” states the review.
Actress, Musical: Laura Frye, “Anything Goes,” Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre. “Bringing a graceful dignity to her role in song is Laura Frye (Hope Harcourt), who excels in her spotlight number, ‘Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye’; ‘It’s De-Lovely,’ her duet with Sean Kenny (Billy Crocker), and ‘All Through The Night,’ her duet with Kenny and the Sailor Quartet,” states the review, noting that MSMT co-founder Charles Richter directs “Anything Goes” with a respect for the era and an enthusiasm for Cole Porter’s songs.
Actor, Musical: James Morogiello, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Northampton Community College Summer Theatre. “Thanks to the sensitive performances of James Morogiello, the audience was able to glimpse into the heart and mind of Jesus ... Morogiello was marvelous at striking just the right balance between ambivalence and resignation.” In “his solo, ‘Poor Jerusalem,’ his beautifully controlled falsetto notes bespoke his anguish and sorrow,” states the review.
Ensemble, Musical: “Christmas City Follies XX,” Touchstone Theatre.
Emma Ackerman, Samantha Beedle, Sean Patrick Cassidy, Adam D. Ercolani, Bill George, Meara Gill, Alexander Vogelgesang and Mary Wright. The 20th production was as sweet as Santa’s milk and cookies, and gifted in myriad ways the real reason for the holiday season. In many ways, it was Touchstone’s best-ever “Follies.” And all done with ukuleles, no less.
Play: “The Secret,” Mock Turtle Marionette Theater. The world premiere about H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Bethlehem native and poet, during “Festival UnBound” was part of “Finding H.D., A Community Exploration of the Life and Work of Hilda Doolittle,” a year-long series of events organized by the Lehigh University English Department, Bethlehem Area Public Library, the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center and Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre. Doug Roysdon, Artistic Director, Mock Turtle Marionette Theater, was chief writer of the multimedia performance that mixes narrative, song, music, poetry, puppets and actors. Script collaborators were Jennie Gilrain, William Reichard-Flynn, Aidan Gilrain-McKenna, Matilda Snyder, Kalyani Singh and Seth Moglen.
Original Play: “Prometheus/Redux,” Touchstone Theatre. “Prometheus/Redux” was the astounding opening work of “Festival UnBound.” “Prometheus/Redux,” commissioned for “Festival UnBound,” is written by Gerald Stropnicky, a founding member of Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, and directed by Christopher Shorr, Touchstone ensemble member and director of theater at Moravian College. Music is by Harry Mann. Images and footage from the Steelworkers Archives are incorporated into the work as is an image of the implosion of Martin Tower, former Bethlehem Steel Corp. headquarters.
Actress, Play: Mairin Lee, “Henry IV, Part 1,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. The “original practices” production flips the script. Mairin Lee plays the role of Prince Hal, Henry, Prince of Wales “handsomely ... “She sublimates her femininity to serve the text. In a vibrant and electric performance, Lee transitions from playboy Hal to soldier Hal, reflected in her reflection held with steady gaze as the lights fade on Act One,” states the review.
Actor, Play: Christopher Patrick Mullen, Brad DePlanche (tie), “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. You couldn’t have one without the other in the hilarious comedy directed by the inestimable Jim Helsinger. Playwright Charles Ludlum’s parody was the 2019 summer theater season’s hat trick. You even got a PSF “Irma Vep Cheat Sheet” of two pages of insider’s references. “‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’ is how they do it. ... “‘irma Vep’ is so campy, you could pitch a tent,” states the review.
Ensemble, Play: “Prometheus/Redux,” Touchstone Theatre. Touchstone Theatre cofounder and ensemble member Bill George returned as Prometheus. It’s 20 years after he left The Steel and now, instead of being chained to the ladle, he is bound to a hospital bed, suffering liver failure. The cast included former steelworkers, a county judge and members of previous generations of the Touchstone ensemble.
Director, Play: Dennis Razze, ”Private Lives,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. “It’s called ‘Private Lives,’ but the lives of two couples are on public display in the 1930 Noel Coward comedy. Talley Gale, Matthew Floyd Miller, Eleanor Handley and Luigi Sottile are “directed with meticulous grace by PSF Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze” ... “While Razze knows language is king in ‘Private Lives,’ so is body language. Razze lets several scenes play out in pantomime. Nary a word is spoken, while revealing volumes. Letting words of wit be articulated and hang in the air with the right amount of pause to sink in is crucial, and successful in Razze’s direction,” states the review.
Costume Design: Michael McDonald, “Anything Goes,” Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre. “The profusion of women’s gowns, men’s suits and accessories by Costume Designer Michael McDonald is dazzling,” states the review.
Scenic Design: John Raley, “Anything Goes,” Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre. “The charming ocean liner” by Scenic Designer John Ralsey “opens up like a pop-up book,” states the review.
Lighting Design: Steve TenEyck, “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. “Scenic and Lighting Designer Steve TenEyck works deeply colorful hues and brighter lighting flashes,” states the review.
Sound Design: Matthew Given, William Neal, “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. “Original Sound Design by Matthew Given and Sound Designer William Neal keeps the audience on its ears with plenty of smart starts,” states the review.