Picking the annual Spokane Critics Circle’s Theater Awards was tough work this year.
For one thing, “spectacular” is not the word one would use in describing the ‘94-95 season. The season produced no big dramatic blockbuster, as there was last season with “Keely and Du.”
For another thing, attendance has been relatively flat at the area’s Big Three theatrical institutions: The Spokane Civic Theatre, the Interplayers Ensemble and G&B;’s Best of Broadway series. Not down, but not up, possibly reflecting some less-than-inspired play choices.
Last, and certainly least, the Critics Circle is down to being a circle of two. KPBX-FM play reviewer Jerry Kraft quit reviewing earlier this year. Fortunately, Chris Toft saw many of the major local productions for The Inlander, so he joins us as the second voice of the Spokane Critics Circle, if you can call two people a circle.
Here are my picks, followed by Toft’s. The envelope, please:
“Blithe Spirit,” Interplayers Ensemble - Nothing I saw was as enjoyable, as funny or as well-cast as this hysterical Noel Coward classic. Director Michael Weaver packed this production with inspired acts of imagination; he even transformed Elvira into a purring, ghostly sex kitten. Tony Mason, a master of the raised eyebrow, proved to be a perfect Noel Coward leading man.
This is not the weightiest of plays, but it does convey a message that you might even call profound: Death is nothing to fear. Death is something to laugh at.
The closest runner-up was the Civic Studio Theatre’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” the brilliant August Wilson play about a black boardinghouse in 1911. The Interplayers’ “Sight Unseen” was also strong, but neither of them went that extra yard into unforgettable.
Toft: “Candida,” Interplayers Ensemble - The contenders consisted of Civic’s production of “The Foreigner,” the ACT’s “The Lady In Question” and Rogue Players’ surprising “Little Women.” I decided on “Candida” because of the excellent ensemble work. George Bernard Shaw doesn’t get performed much better than this, and the actors were alert to every nuance and comic shading in the text.
“Kiss Me Kate,” Spokane Civic Theatre - When you take one of the most nearly flawless musicals of all time and stage it with unflagging energy, inspiration and quality, you get a hands-down winner for Best Musical.
Director Kathie Doyle-Lipe injects a sense of high-spirited fun into every minute of this production. The cast is outstanding, and the musical numbers are hot, maybe even too darn hot. (This show is still playing at the Civic).
The biggest competition in this category came from the Civic’s revival of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” However, since this won the category last year, I think we’ll just give it the Lifetime Achievement Award.
A special mention goes to the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s “Damn Yankees.” That, too, was a nearly flawless production of a classic.
Toft: “Kiss Me Kate,” Spokane Civic Theatre - The staging is energetic, the music crisp and clear, and the comedy rich and physical. Cheyenne Jackson, who has a fine, full voice, stood out as Lucentio. Plus, the Bard-loving bad guys were a treat.
Scott Dunckley, “The Foreigner,” Spokane Civic Theatre - Nobody did so much, single-handedly, to create a hit show than Dunckley did as the shy, retiring Charley Baker. Dunckley showed a Stan Laurel-like gift for silent comedy in this riotous Larry Shue crowd-pleaser. And when he spoke, he was even funnier.
Other strong performances came from Samuel Toffler as the lead in Interplayers’ “Sight Unseen” and from Maynard Villiers as a commanding “Cyrano De Bergerac” at the Civic.
Toft: Tony Mason, “Blithe Spirit,” Interplayers - I considered Scott Dunckley of “The Foreigner,” Brad Fondiler of “Breaking Legs” and Maynard Villiers as “Cyrano.” I opted for Mason’s very stylish portrayal of how the unflappable Charles Condomine gets rather flapped in “Blithe Spirit.” He was the center of Coward’s whirling comedy and exhibited quick wit and razor sharp timing.
Tami Grady, “How I Spent My Life’s Vacation,” Spokane Civic’s Studio Theatre - In a play about a woman with cancer, Grady’s performance covered all of the stages of grief, but never in a maudlin way. Eventually, she comes to a kind of giddy acceptance of her condition. Her stage presence and confidence, honed at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, helped carry this world premiere play.
Others whose work was extraordinary: Rebecca Rothstein in “Blithe Spirit,” Susan Mansefield in “The Misanthrope” and Christina Lang in “Candida.”
Toft: Tami Grady, “How I Spent My Life’s Vacation” and Marianne McLaughlin, “Royal Gambit,” Civic’s Studio Theatre - I decided to split my vote between McLaughlin, who made Anne Boleyn the full equal to Henry VII, and Grady, who tackled a challenging role with great ability and dedication.
Musical “The Will Rogers Follies,” Best of Broadway Series - You know it was a tough year for touring shows when this lightweight, glitzy spectacle barely beats out “The Sound of Music” starring Marie Osmond. Actually, both of these shows were completely enjoyable. Not exactly profound, but enjoyable.
Which leads us to …
“Jelly’s Last Jam,” Best of Broadway Series - The disappointment was that it did not show up. This acclaimed Jelly Roll Morton musical had to cancel out because of scheduling problems.
Toft: “The Mousetrap,” Rogue Players - I was very frustrated with Rogue Players, who absolutely wowed me with their outstanding adaptation of “Little Women,” only to put on a dull, perfunctory “Mousetrap” immediately afterward.
“Men In Suits,” Interplayers Ensemble - Dan Lauria (“The Wonder Years”) and some other Hollywood pals got together to do a reading of this new play by Jason Milligan of New York. It was an exhilarating performance and left those of us in the audience feeling as if we had been privy to something special.
Toft: The ACT in the Valley Theater-goers should turn their attention off the beaten path and throw their support behind the ACT in the Valley, where artistic director Jamie Flanery is consistently presenting very fine and very funny work. Audiences should also seek out the performances of Phedre Burney-Quimby at Rogue Players. Burney-Quimby brings astounding energy and life to her roles and deserves greater exposure.
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