Our ‘Tony Awards’ highlight abundance of good local theater offerings

Even those who have no particular fondness for theater should scan this annual list of "Bests" and get a feeling for the diversity of the entertainment world in Las Vegas.

Forget the Strip for a moment. What follows is a sample of some of the exciting work being done in local neighborhoods in the world of drama, comedy and musicals. I call this "Las Vegas’ Tony Awards," since it’s compiled by a Tony committee of one — me. I hope these "bravos" in this 12th annual edition at least suggest to readers that shopping for good theater beyond the tourist corridor is worth the effort.

This season I saw about 100 theater-related productions (from September 2008 through August 2009), and reviewed 72 of them. Of those, 23 were rated in the "A" range. That makes for the highest percentage of outstanding shows I’ve encountered in a dozen years of critiquing. Either I’m getting soft, or the shows are getting better. I think the latter.

I’ve omitted any academic productions, because schools have assets not available to community playhouses.

The envelope please?

Outstanding Theater Troupe: One of the pleasures of hanging around Vegas for a while is watching local playhouses grow in quality. In 20 short years, Signature Productions has earned a reputation for the best in musical theater. This past season, their mountings of "Beauty and the Beast" (with P.S. Productions), "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (both at the Summerlin Library) and "Once on This Island" (at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park) ranked among the year’s most admirable undertakings. Under Leslie Fotheringham’s artistic direction, we were reminded that traditional can be exciting, too, if made new with vitality and talent.

Outstanding Production: What made Found Door’s October "The Dumb Waiter" (part of Test Market’s annual Beckett Festival at Mission Building) such a memorable experience was that not only was it well-acted (by Erik Amblad and Drew Yonemori) and well-directed (by Ela Rose), it captured the spirit of author Harold Pinter. Not an easy task. It was equally frightening and funny, just as we’ve been told the great playwright should be.

First runner-up: Las Vegas Little Theatre’s "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Second runner-up: Signature’s "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Outstanding Actor: As an apparently confused con artist waiting in a tiny room for his orders in carrying out a mysterious mission in Found Door’s "The Dumb Waiter," Erik Amblad as Ben made his character fastidious, authoritative and dangerous. The care he took in folding up a newspaper, and the no-nonsense voice he used when going over the rules with his less-experienced partner (Drew Yonemori) left no doubt that the character Amblad played was a player not to be messed with.

First runner-up: Brandon Albright in P.S. Productions/Super Summer Theatre’s "Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story." Second runner-up: Garry Lunn in LVLT’s "How the Other Loves."

Outstanding Actress: Olga Rios as diva wannabe Googie Gomez in Las Vegas Little Theatre’s November "The Ritz" (written by Terrence McNally and directed by Walter Niejadlik on the mainstage) gave us a perfectly scaled, exaggerated Puerto Rican-accented, half-madwoman off-key entertainer determined to become a star. She was stuck during the play performing in a gay bathhouse, but Rios made it clear this woman was going places — if only to the nuthouse. The actress’s exuberance made us fall in love with this kook and all her impossible dreams.

First runner-up: Erica Griffin in the Katherine Gianaclis Park for the Arts production of "Sundrops." Second runner-up: Kelly Albright for Signature’s "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Outstanding Supporting Actor: Joe Hynes’ achievement in playing what some might call a "nerd" in LVLT’s "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" was that he got us to not only laugh, but to genuinely feel for his socially challenged character. Hynes’ William Barfee was able to breathe through only one nostril, able to spell only by having his foot dance out the letters, and incapable of muttering a complete sentence, except when competing. It’s rare to find an actor so skilled at striking just the right balance, so that we take his character seriously and laugh with affection rather than ridicule.

First runner-up: Cory Benway for LVLT’s "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Second runner-up: Paul May in P.S. Productions/Super Summer Theatre’s "Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story."

Outstanding Supporting Actress: Kellie Wright as Mrs. Meers, a supposed 1920s Chinese woman who manages the worst and funniest "Oriental" singing and speaking voice you’re likely to hear in a while helped make Signature’s "Thoroughly Modern Millie" one of the season’s most side-splitting spoofs. Wright is gifted with Ethel Merman’s authority and Rosalind Russell’s stature. As a bonus, she exhibits a dancer’s control of her body.

First runner-up: Jamie Carvelli in LVLT’s "The Distance From Here." Second runner-up: Gloria Hoffman in LVLT’s "Moon Over Buffalo."

Outstanding Director: Ela Rose’s interpretation of Harold Pinter’s "The Dumb Waiter" for Found Door was perhaps better appreciated if you had seen dozens of bad Pinters in the past. Rose found Pinter’s weird voice, with pacing that seemed immaculately thought out, suspenseful and comic. She knew how to wring every drop of menace out of the playwright, going way beneath the words that Pinter uses to tell his story.

Special Award: To the late actress/playwright/painter Barbara Rollins who, in her 31 short years, contributed an enormous vitality to the Las Vegas theater community. Her last performance was in September’s "7 Blowjobs" at the Onyx for Cockroach Theatre, of which she was a founding member.

Outstanding Set: Steve Huntsman’s physical environment for Signature’s August musical "Once on This Island" (directed by Huntsman at the Spring Mountain Ranch) was rich in visual surprise, with Kabuki flavors, screens, and a stage floor that never seemed to sit still. Huntsman’s design made sure that the show was the homage to storytelling that it was supposed to be.

First runner-up: Brandon McClenahan and Timothy Burris gave us an inventive look at the inner workings of the woods, illustrating the daily lives of three insect groups in featuring the daily lives of three insect groups in Insurgo’s April "The Insect Play" (written by Josef and Karel Copek, and directed by McClenahan at the Onyx). Second runner-up: Chris Mayse for his creation of an apocalyptic mood with graffiti-strewn blocks that resembled any burnt-out city in Atlas’ January "Trojan Women 2.0" (written by Charles Mee, directed by Mayse at the Onyx).

Outstanding Lights: Jay LeDane’s illuminations gave the set in Signature Productions’ "Once on This Island" an inner glow. The lights seemed to spring from the soul of a mixed bag of foreign and ancient looking objects, so that we were immediately put in the mood for a spiritual story from the land of long, long ago.

First runner-up: David Schulman for his ability to suggest the loud excitement of show-biz in P.S. Productions/Super Summer Theatre’s "Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story." Second runner-up: Chris Mayse for his eerie, dark effects that set the foreboding tone of Atlas’ "Trojan Women 2."

Outstanding Costumes:Steve Huntsman’s inventive threads for Signature Production’s "Once on This Island" put the finishing touches on a visually stunning production. Colorful without being gaudy, memorable without being too attention-getting, Huntsman’s work was beautifully integrated into the other elements of this unusual musical.

First runner-up: James Guinn for his delightfully detailed and perfectly scaled clothing in Rainbow Company’s "The Samurai and the Princess." Second runner-up: Victoria Shaffer for her sometimes colorful, sometimes appropriately and cleverly plain creations for Rainbow Company’s June "The Reluctant Dragon" (written by Mary Hall Surface, directed by Karen McKenney at the Charleston Heights).

Outstanding choreography: At the risk of overkill, we have to again recognize Signature Productions’ "Once on This Island." Shannon Winkel’s infused the musical a marvelous sense of fun, respecting and yet at times poking gentle fun at the calypso-inspired score. She achieved a unity of spirit in her dancers, which made the cast members seem to come from the same bottle of magic.

First runner-up: Teresa Martinez and Shannon Winkel for their forever showstopping routines in Signature’s "Thoroughly Modern Millie." Second runner-up: Tracey Langran Corea for her energetic, sensual sense of play in "Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story."

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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