A couple of Sundays from now, at the Cain’s Ballroom, much of the Tulsa theatre community will gather in our annual ceremony of tribute, triumph, defeat, and disappointment. My previous post on the TATE’s offered some suggestions as to how this event might be more of a celebration of local theatre rather than the casino crap game it’s become. (The difference between 1st and 2nd is one judge’s indigestion and $5,000.) So check that out if you’re so inclined.
But now, with exactly nothing riding on what follows, I’ll give you my thoughts on the best shows I saw this year. Since most of them were TATE nominated, I’ll go out on a limb and make some TATE predictions as well. The big caveat here is that I did not see 2 of the TATE submitted shows, Theatre Tulsa’s ‘Don’t Dress for Dinner’ and Heller’s ‘Bad Jews.’ As far as I know, they were the best two shows of the year, and I heard good things about both of them, but I have to base my selections on what I saw, not what I didn’t see, so that’s what I’m going to do.
Interestingly, most of the TATE submissions that I saw break down very nicely into pairs. Waiting for Godot (ATC) and To Kill A Mockingbird (Playhouse) were classic stories of the kind that should be a part of any city’s theatre season. These productions were not able to make us see them with fresh eyes however, though the attempt was certainly made. There were two original shows submitted this year, by Heller and Nightingale. They were written by Emile Adams and Jack Allen, two local, very promising and very young playwrights. Original work is obviously an incredibly healthy sign for Tulsa, but also presents a greater challenge in performance, as it takes time for young playwrights work out the finer points of putting their stories onstage. The two shows I worked on, The Great Gatsby (Theatre Tulsa) and Why Torture is Wrong . . . (Theatre Pops) both had lots of good things going for them, but both suffered from the same challenge: a show written for a proscenium stage sometimes doesn’t transfer well scenically to a black box staging. If it wasn’t for that, I would have pegged either of these shows as a possible TATE contender.
So, we are now getting closer to the “envelope please” moment. My favorite shows from this past season are, in chronological order as performed, All New People (Theatre Pops), Hedwig (Theatre Tulsa), Steel Magnolias (Playhouse), Mothers and Sons (ATC), and Fuddy Mears (Nightingale/Midwestern).
Since musicals aren’t eligible for the TATE Awards, Hedwig doesn’t come into that particular picture. But it was a joyous show, with every aspect of the production done well, and especially a wonderful performance by Thomas Williams, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to mention it one more time. However, my enthusiasm also reveals just how idiosyncratic judgements like this can be. I had never seen Hedwig before, either onstage, in film, or in a YouTube video. Did my unfamiliarity with the script and music affect my judgement? If I’d seen Neil Patrick Harris do it in New York would the Tulsa production have seemed like a big yawn to me? Yeah, possibly. That’s been suggested to me by others who have seen other productions. Personally, I think I still would have loved the show. But there’s no way to know. We’re all stuck in our little bubble of experience.
‘Mothers and Sons’ and ‘Steel Magnolias’ are getting paired here because they were both excellent productions, with professional quality sets, strong and sometimes exciting acting, and with an intelligent, creative director at the helm. These were polished productions that deserve notice and support. ‘Magnolias’, anchored by Kelsey Kemper and Sydney Treat, was a delightful evening of theatre, though the play itself is light as a feather, despite the somewhat heavy handed final act. ‘Mothers and Sons’ plays on the opposite side of the aisle. It deals with significant issues with delicacy and humor, walking a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Ultimately however, it struggled to hold interest over a long evening, in spite of best efforts by its talented cast of Lisa Wilson, Sterling McHan, and Chad Oliverson.
Which leaves All New People and Fuddy Mears. These two productions also pair up well, with lots of common factors. They’re both comedies, even madcap comedies, but with a dramatic edge. They both depend on strong, over the top characterizations for their comic effect. And they both pulled it off due to some of the best performances seen this year. Meghan Hurley and Gavin Wells were spot on as the flamboyant characters driving the action in ‘People’. It’s a little harder picking out individuals in ‘Fuddy Mears’, as every character is flamboyantly over the top. But that just makes their accomplishment of nailing every character with hilarious specificity all the more impressive. ‘People’ probably felt the more polished of the two, attributable to the fact that it played in the PAC and in a single setting, as well their seamless incorporation of video to help establish back story. ‘Fuddy Mears’ was a little looser, but on the other hand the play itself sets the bar higher, demanding more from its actors and set designers. And if that challenge is met, the conclusion offers a greater payoff, which presents yet another challenge to the ensemble, as they have to find a way to move from slapstick to melancholy, and make us believe the transition.
For me, and again remembering that ‘Don’tDress for Dinner’ and ‘Bad Jews’ aren’t in the mix, ‘Fuddy Mears’ was the standout show of the season. The extraordinarily talented ensemble met all of the myriad challenges of the script, all the while never losing that sense of ‘play’ that characterizes most Odeum shows. ‘All New People’ was just as solid in its own way, the two shows bookending the season admirably. ‘Mothers and Sons’ and ‘Steel Magnolias’ are just behind these, professional quality productions, and so different that it would be meaningless to say one was better than the other, so I won’t. Which, somewhat sadly, points to another drawback in the structure of the TATE Awards.
In general, I have no problem saying this show is good, this one not so much. This is a good thing for popular arts, of which community theatre is one. And I love award shows, because they’re fun. Or at least they’re supposed to be. But with so much money riding on every award, on every place that a show gets notched up or down, it’s not fun for many of us. Hopefully the structure can evolve into something a little more friendly to the artists, where we can genuinely applaud excellence without counting our own loss.
I’m looking forward to going on the 26th, I hear the wine is free. Hope to see you there.
Arts Alliance Tulsa
Green Room OK
Tulsa Little Theatre
Tulsa Weekly Roundup
Am. Theatre Co.
BA Community Playhouse
Clark Youth Theatre
G Rated Theatre
Midwestern Theater Co.
Muskogee Little Theatre
Owasso Comm. Theatre
Sand Springs Comm. Th.
Sapulpa Comm. Theatre
Tulsa Latino Theatre
Tulsa Project Theatre
Tulsa Rep. Musicals
Tulsa Spotlight Theatre