East Penn Press

Thursday, November 15, 2018
PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEINCivic Theatre “The Next Act” Capital Campaign leaders, from left, Sharon Lee Glassman, Co-Chair; Greg L., Butz, Co-Chair; Zachary Jaindl, Honorary Co-Chair; Christine Taylor, Honorary Co-Chair, Jane Heft, Co-Chair, and Dr. Barry Glassman, Co-Chair, at Nov. 15, 2016, campaign launch at Lehigh Valley Trust Building, Allentown. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEINCivic Theatre “The Next Act” Capital Campaign leaders, from left, Sharon Lee Glassman, Co-Chair; Greg L., Butz, Co-Chair; Zachary Jaindl, Honorary Co-Chair; Christine Taylor, Honorary Co-Chair, Jane Heft, Co-Chair, and Dr. Barry Glassman, Co-Chair, at Nov. 15, 2016, campaign launch at Lehigh Valley Trust Building, Allentown. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus
PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEINFrom left: Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze and PSF Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy, seen here in the seating area of the Main Stage theater, had a recording-breaking 25th anniversary season for productions on the Main Stage and in Schubert Theatre, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, Center Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEINFrom left: Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze and PSF Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy, seen here in the seating area of the Main Stage theater, had a recording-breaking 25th anniversary season for productions on the Main Stage and in Schubert Theatre, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, Center Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus
PHOTO BY GREG ROTH, THE MEDIA PEOPLECivic Theatre’s “Assassins” cast, from left, Kirk Lawrence, Alex Michaels, Kristen Stachina, Jarrod Yuskauskas, Will Morris, Tracy Ceschin and Robert Trexler. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus PHOTO BY GREG ROTH, THE MEDIA PEOPLECivic Theatre’s “Assassins” cast, from left, Kirk Lawrence, Alex Michaels, Kristen Stachina, Jarrod Yuskauskas, Will Morris, Tracy Ceschin and Robert Trexler. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus
CONTRIBUTED PHOTOAugust Fegley, left, portrayed Carrie, and Tracy Ceschin, right, portrayed Carrie’s mother, Margaret, in Civic Theatre’s production of “Carrie: The Musical.” Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus CONTRIBUTED PHOTOAugust Fegley, left, portrayed Carrie, and Tracy Ceschin, right, portrayed Carrie’s mother, Margaret, in Civic Theatre’s production of “Carrie: The Musical.” Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus
CONTRIBUTED PHOTOBarry Glassman, left, portrayed Norman Thayer, Jr., and Rebecca Engborg, right, portrayed his wife, Ethel in “On Golden Pond” at Civic Theatre, Allentown. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus CONTRIBUTED PHOTOBarry Glassman, left, portrayed Norman Thayer, Jr., and Rebecca Engborg, right, portrayed his wife, Ethel in “On Golden Pond” at Civic Theatre, Allentown. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus
PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ“West Side Story” opened The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival 25th anniversary season. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ“West Side Story” opened The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival 25th anniversary season. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus
PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ“Blithe Spirit,” The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ“Blithe Spirit,” The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus
PHOTO BY KENNETH EK“In The Heights,” Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus PHOTO BY KENNETH EK“In The Heights,” Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus
CONTRIBUTED PHOTOFrom left, Bill George (Royal Grand Vizier), Emma Chong (Deryn) and Mary Wright (Maj) in the world premiere of “Bhudoo” for Touchstone Theatre’s 35th anniversary season. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus CONTRIBUTED PHOTOFrom left, Bill George (Royal Grand Vizier), Emma Chong (Deryn) and Mary Wright (Maj) in the world premiere of “Bhudoo” for Touchstone Theatre’s 35th anniversary season. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus
CONTRIBUTED PHOTOJustin Guarini, center, in “Cake Off” at Bucks County Playhouse. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus CONTRIBUTED PHOTOJustin Guarini, center, in “Cake Off” at Bucks County Playhouse. Copyright - ©2016 Joan Marcus

11th annual ABEs salute Lehigh Valley Stage Records set, anniversaries observed, quality astounds

Wednesday, January 11, 2017 by Paul Willistein pwillistein@tnonline.com in Focus

To power-phrase, it was the best of times and it was the best of times in Lehigh Valley regional theater in 2016.

There didn’t seem to be a down side to the up side of theater in the Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton area, which continued with a robust mix of the innovative and familiar in-locally-produced shows, plus national touring productions that stopped in the Valley.

It seems that Valley residents who are theater-goers and those who travel to the Valley to see theater couldn’t get enough.

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) set box office records in its 25th season.

Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre (MSMT), in its 36th season, took a chance with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In The Heights” and took it to the heights.

The national touring production of “Rent” paced sold-out shows at the State Theatre for the Arts, Easton, celebrating ‘‘90 years of Wow.”

Children’s theater and other stage shows continued at Miler Symphony Hall, Allentown, a venue that goes back some 117 years.

Officials at Civic Theatre, Allentown, which launched a $5.5-million capital campaign, say attendance for its 89th season was better than ever.

It was a year when community theater in the Lehigh Valley became regional theater.

Think about it. How many regions have the depth and breadth of theater as does the Lehigh Valley? In Pennsylvania, for example, does Reading, Wilkes-Barre-Hazleton, Harrisburg, York, Lancaster or Erie? The number of theaters, venues and stage shows in the Valley is probably only surpassed by Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.

There seemed to be a bit more diversity on Valley stages. The contrast of old-school Latino and contemporary Latino themes was evident with PSF’s “West Side Story” and MSMT’s “In the Heights.” Allentown Public Theatre’s “The Island” and the guest-artist production of “Aliens, Immigrants, and Other Evildoers” for Touchstone Theatre’s 35th anniversary season, added to the diversity, as did the shows of Sing for America.

Other theater groups were also adventuresome: Crowded Kitchen Players, with its original play, “Pints, Pounds and Pilgrims,” and staging at the new Unicorn Theatre, Catasauqua; Global ImpActors Group, “Proof,” Macungie Institute, Macungie, and Star of the Day Productions, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” McCoole’s Arts & Events Place, Quakertown.

Valley stalwarts, Pennsylvania Playhouse, in its 51st season, with Christopher Durang’s “Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike,” and MunOpCo, in its 89th season, with Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” continued to expand their repertoire.

Bucks County Playhouse, in its 77th year after closing in 2010 and reopening in 2012, unveiled a renovation-expansion project as officials announced record-breaking attendance.

In 2016, the Focus section of the Lehigh Valley Press newspapers and web sites published reviews of 39 plays and musicals. That’s up from 38 reviews in 2015 and 31 reviews in 2014. And it’s in addition to the many advance features about area theater productions.

By reviewer, the 2016 theater review tally is: Deb Boylan, 1; Ashleigh Strange, 2; Ellen Wilson, 3, Carole Gorney, 8, and Paul Willistein, 25.

Based on the area theater shows that I saw in 2016, with input from Focus reviewers, here’s the 11th annual ABE Awards, as in Allentown Bethlehem Easton. Passages quoted are from 2016 Focus reviews.

REGIONAL THEATER

Producer: Civic Theatre.The $5.5-million “The Next Act” capital campaign to return “the historic 19th Street Theatre to its original splendor as a landmark arts facility and focal point of Art Deco architecture” was launched in late 2016. Civic again produced a season rich with the traditional and edgy on its main stage, and, in a return, in Theatre514. Kudos to Civic Artistic Director William Sanders, Associate Artistic Director-Production Manager Will Morris, Managing Director John Hedges and the entire Civic staff and board.

Musical: ”Assassins,” Civic Theatre:The stunning Stephen Sondheim musical about assassins and would-be assassins of United States’ presidents kept you riveted in your seat. Technical Director Alexander Michaels utilizes a scrim lowered at the conclusion on which the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination is projected, a chilling reminder that, while we are watching a play, it’s based on real events too horrific and too frequent to imagine.

Original Musical: “Steve Brosky: The Musical - Living Here in Allentown.”Presented at the Charles A. Brown Ice House, Bethlehem, the musical about the singer-songwriter’s roots also received an ABE in this category for its 2015 world premiere production in Quakertown.

Actress, Musical: August Fegley, “Carrie: The Musical,” Civic Theatre.In the title role as Carrie is an amazing August Fegley. who manages an extraordinary range of emotions, all the more impressive because she is portraying a character of her own age. Among standout songs: “Open Your Heart,” a duet sung beautifully by Fegley and Tracy Ceschin (Margaret, her mother); “Dreamer in Disguise,” a duet by Fegley and Thomas Riley (Tommy, a student); a duet by Fegley and Kristen Stachina (excellent as Miss Gardner, the gym teacher) in “Unsuspected Hearts,” and Fegley and Ceschin blending wonderfully in “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance.”

Actor, Musical: Jarrod Yuskauskas, “Assassins,” Civic Theatre.“Assassins” is book-ended by the 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth (brilliantly portrayed by Jarrod Yuskauskas) and the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald (portrayed with impressive accuracy by Matt Meckes). The performances of Yuskauskas and Meckes pace the show. Yuskauskas opens the show in splendid voice with “Everybody’s Got the Right,” which, in a reprise, concludes the musical.

Ensemble, Musical: ”The Little Princess,” Sing for America.The Gilbert Family, driving force behind Sing for America, celebrating its 10th anniversary, showcases not only their own incredible talents, but those of area performers, many of them children and young adults. This is a Gilbert family affair. Tasia Gilbert is director. Taryn, Tasia and Teara Gilbert are choreographers. Teara Gilbert is costume designer. Jewel and Jorne Gilbert are set designers. Mom, Gina Gilbert, is production manager. Dad, Bruce Gilbert, plays a lead role as Captain Crewe. Dance is as integral to this production as song and there are several interpretive dance pieces and large-scale numbers featuring the ensemble.

Director, Musical: William Sanders, “Assassins,” Civic Theatre.The Civic production does “Assassins” justice. Director William Sanders explores the context of the text and the psychology of the lyrics, revealing insights into the psyches of the assassins and would-be assassins, and the American psyche. It’s American psychos meets American psyche. Sanders keeps many of the actors on stage in character, as if ghosts. The use of fun-house mirrors and the actors donning their costumes lends a jarring yet oddly reassuring sense that, yes, this is a play. Sanders keeps the emphasis on the songs and the subjects, with the actors playing it straight.

Choreography: William Sanders, “Carrie: The Musical,” Civic Theatre.It’s a rousing, well-paced, song-filled (11 songs in Act I and 12 songs in Act II, including three reprises) big entertainment. Music Director Steve Reisteter leads the seven-piece pop-rock band, which plays the songs, with music by Michael Gore and lyrics by Dean Pitchford, in a bouncy and compelling manner. The production is paced by superb performances by a mostly young, high-energy cast. The students, hailing from Muhlenberg College, Emmaus High School, Parkland High School, Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Bethlehem Catholic High School, among other area schools, bring believability to “Carrie: The Musical.” They, after all, have lived or are living the story that this production so capably tells.

Play: “The Miracle Worker,” Pennsylvania Playhouse.The drama, based on Helen Keller’s 1903 autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” focuses on the often tumultuous battle of wills between Helen (Hannah Kurczeski) and Sullivan (Jenna McBreen). The scenes require immense energy and both actors are up to the task. In their complex characterizations, Kurczeski and McBreen compellingly manage the transition from purely physical conflict to intensely sensitive expressions of utter despair and pure joy of discovery. There’s an impressive cast of a dozen supporting actors. Jim Long as Captain Keller, Helen’s bombastic father, dominates most of the scenes, just as his character dominates the Keller family. Makenna Masenheimer is charming as Helen’s indulgent mother, adequately evoking the right balance between compassion and frustration, while maintaining the decorum of a Southern wife. Brett Mathews is convincing as Helen’s half-brother. Director Clair Freeman capitalizes on the intimacy of the Playhouse space, allowing audience members to become close observers.

Original Play: Ara Barlieb, “Pints, Pounds & Pilgrims,” Crowded Kitchen Players.The world premiere of “Pints, Pounds & Pilgrims,” a comedy written and directed by Ara Barlieb, is not only near nonstop laughter, it’s near nonstop nose snorts. “Pints, Pounds & Pilgrims” is paced by a blisteringly funny script and two superb lead-role performances by Brian McDermott as Simon Wexler, director of an Irish theater group, and David Oswald as Benjamin Foolscap, director of a Hoboken, N.J., dinner theater, as well as a fine supporting performance by Dan Ferry as Michael, head of the Inishbofin, Ireland, theater festival. Barlieb directs with the assuredness of a coach who pushes his team to achieve its best. And achieve they do in a comedy that could itself be presented at theater festivals. To echo the play’s dialogue of encouragement to the actors: “You have what it takes when the curtain rises.” The same can be said of the Crowded Kitchen Players and “Pints, Pounds & Pilgrims.”

Actress, Play: Kathleen Oswalt, “God of Carnage,” Civic Theatre.Kathleen Oswalt (Annette Raleigh) is magnanimous, to a point. When that point is crossed, she goes ballistic in one of the play’s most startling scenes. Oswalt puts the C in “Carnage.” Welcome to the “emotional cul de sac.” This is an actors’ and director’s tour de force. Director Will Morris and the cast of Holly Cate (Veronica Novak), Chis Egging (Alan Raleigh), Robert Trexler (Michael Novak) and Oswalt don’t disappoint. The ensemble delivers one hour and 20 minutes of verbal (and some physical) mayhem, nasty looks and even nastier laughter.

Actor, Play: Barry Glassman, “On Golden Pond,” Civic Theatre.It’s time for the Thayers to undrape the furniture and reopen the house for their 48th New England summer at Golden Pond. Norman Thayer, Jr. (Barry Glassman) trundles down the living room staircase one step at a time and takes the short little steps of the elderly to the screen door. Glassman captures the irascibility of Norman in a way that is charming and amusing. Glassman gives a commanding performance as understated as it is powerful. Plus, he has superb timing. That’s key because Norman has many of the best laugh lines.

Ensemble, Play: “The Island,” Allentown Public Theatre.The setting for “The Island” is Robben Island, South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was held. John (Ryan Fields) and Winston (Jamil Joseph) are prisoners. Two dancers, Chiedu Mbonu and Theophilus Timothy, and a drummer, Vernon J. Mobley, augment the dialogue. “The Island,” written by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, is directed by Anna Russell, APT artistic director. Fields plays the role of John with the right touch of levity. Joseph plays Winston with deep bitterness and resignation. Their underlying dramatic tension is compelling under Russell’s fine direction.

Director, Play: George B. Miller, “Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike,” Pennsylvania Playhouse.The production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike” does the playwright proud. If Durang could make the drive from his Bucks County residence to Bethlehem to see the production, he would be immensely impressed with the cast’s performances and the direction by George B. Miller of the zingy comedy that opens the Playhouse’s 51st season. Miller understands the nuances in the Durangian wit, which is propelled by bewilderment, resignation and hope, often in “Vanya,” in that order. Miller elicits wonderful performances from the “Vanya” cast. Miller dedicates the Playhouse production to Matthew Stitzer, a Lehigh Valley actor who died Jan. 21, 2016.

Costume Design: Kate Scuffle, “Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike,” Pennsylvania Playhouse.The “Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike” costume design by Kate Scuffle is character-appropriate with the costume party outfits a hoot.

Scenic Design: Alexander Michaels, “On Golden Pond,” Civic Theatre.The easy-going (for the most part) production is enhanced by the cozy set design by Alexander Michaels, working with scenic artist Jan Joyce, with a wonderful tree-silhouetted backdrop; suffused with indirect lighting by Will Morris.

Lighting Design: “A Christmas Carol,” Civic Theatre.Will Morris merits triple kudos for his very functional set design, proper Victorian costuming for 120 cast members, and superb lighting effects. The two-tiered set provides visually interesting movement for actors during street scenes, and an observation point from which Scrooge and his ghosts can look down on Christmases past, present and future. Morris’ lighting effects wonderfully illuminate the mysterious visitation of shadowy specters, and just as perfectly transform scenes of holiday gaiety into ones of darkest gloom.

Sound Design: Helene Confer, “The SantaLand Diaries,” Civic Theatre.Director Will Morris sets the stage, along with Helene Confer, Sound Designer, and Deena Linn, in charge of Props, creating a hubbub of anticipation with Christmas songs (including The Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas, Darling”) and recorded public address announcements (“Store opens in five minutes. Get ready. Ho, ho, ho.”) in the “SantaLand” break room, with its schedule calendar, clothes rack with costumes, coffee station with working microwave (the better to heat those “Hot Pockets”), table and chairs, Santa throne and big red star.

Tim Roche Memorial “Meanwhile” Award: “Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike,” Pennsylvania Playhouse.Playwright Christopher Durang’s “Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike,” set in a Bucks County family manse, grows in stature with repeated viewings, no more so than in this remarkable Pennsylvania Playhouse production. Durang’s smart sendups of pop culture (the 1978 movie “California Suite”) and celebrity (the TV show “Entourage”), as well as local shout-outs (“What kind of name for a town is Upper Black Eddy?”) and theatrical asides (“It was all rather Pirandellian.”) are great fun. Director George B. Miller elicits wonderful performances from the “Vanya” cast. Each makes us laugh with their antics, even as each brings pathos to his or her part.

PROFESSIONAL THEATER

Producer: Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.With three plays by Shakespeare, a musical based on Shakespeare, a classic British comedy, and two plays for children, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival celebrated 25 seasons, and set attendance and ticket revenue records for the second year in a row. The 2016 PSF season’s estimated 39,750 patrons and $1.2 million in ticket revenues topped 2015’s 38,567 patrons and $1.1 million in ticket revenues, a 3 percent and 4 percent increase, respectively. The season’s opening “Luminosity Gala” also set records in attendance: 514 people, and revenue: $150,000-plus. “West Side Story” was the second most attended production in PSF’s history, just 1 percent less than the record holder, 2015’s “Les Misérables.” “The Little Mermaid” set an attendance record for a children’s show, at more than 9,700. “Julius Caesar” played to more than 90 percent capacity. PSF employed a record 44 members of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional stage actors and stage managers. After nearly 150 performances in just under 10 weeks, the season closed Aug. 7, 2016. PSF’s 25th anniversary season, dedicated to its founder Father Gerard J. Schubert., couldn’t have been a more fitting tribute. Kudos to Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy, Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze, Managing Director Casey Gallagher and the entire PSF staff and board.

Director, Musical: Dennis Razze, “West Side Story,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.If you think you know “West Side Story,” either from having seen a previous stage production or the 1961 movie version, think again. Until you’ve seen the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of “West Side Story” directed by Dennis Razze, you don’t know “West Side Story.” The classic 1957 musical leaps, jumps and sings with excitement.

Musical: “West Side Story,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.PSF’s production is Broadway-caliber on every level. It gleams like a switchblade, is as unforgettable as a favorite song and resonates with ripped-from-headlines reality thanks to its brilliant 36 actors and gifted technical artists.

Original Musical: “Bhudoo,” Touchstone Theatre.“Bhudoo,” created by Jp Jordan, Christopher Shorr and the Touchstone Ensemble and directed by Jordan, had it’s world premiere in Touchstone’s 35th anniversary season. The musical is paced by good songwriting, by turns comedic, romantic and philosophical, written by Jordan and Shorr, and with fanciful costumes by Lisa Jordan, The premise is that Araman, the Royal Grand Vizier (Bill George), is being challenged in an election by Maj (Mary Wright) and Deryn (Emma Chong). There are some great rhymes and word play and excellent three-part harmonies by George, Wright and Chong, who accompany themselves on ukulele. The one-act play is immensely engaging, chiefly because of the calibre of the three performers, aka Touchstone’s all-stars. “Bhudoo” is not unlike a comic opera. The audience is in on the joke via “Bhudoo Beans” (pocket-size boxes of Just Born “Ike and Mike” candy). The “bean-counter” pun is not lost. And so goes the vote.

Choreography: Stephen Casey, “West Side Story,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.The choreography, based on the original Broadway production Jerome Robbins’ choreography, by Stephen Casey, working with Fight Director Michael Rossmy, moves the massive dance ensemble with the precision of a military drill sergeant (10 Jets, 10 Sharks, six Jet Girls and six Shark Girls, who sometimes seem to be on stage all at once) and the balletic grace of Balanchine buoyancy, and in unison yet. The Ballet Sequence, leading to the “Somewhere” solo and concluding in the “Procession and Nightmare,” is a sizzling example of stagecraft of the highest order by top-notch actors as directed by Dennis Razze and Casey.

Actress, Musical: Ryah Nixon, “The Rocky Horror Show,” Bucks County Playhouse.The musical’s concept is to create a live version of a 1950s’-to-early 1960s’ “Science Fiction Double Feature,” and the opening number does so from the outset with incredible energy paced by the powerful singing and dancing of Ryah Nixon (Magenta), a real belter dominating every scene she’s in.

Actor, Musical: Justin Guarini, “Cake Off,” Bucks County Playhouse:Justin Guarini is a triple-threat in more ways than one, playing three characters (with the emphasis on “characters”) in “Cake Off”: Jack DeVault, a smooth-talking host of a televised cooking contest, the Millberry Cake Off, and hilarious support-stocking roles as Lenora Cass and Nancy DeMarco. Guarini, who proves a great comedic actor, is in fine voice in the solo spotlight, “You Think Millberry.” Bucks County Playhouse gets back to its roots with “Cake Off.” The Playhouse, originally a grist mill, Hope Mills, burned down in 1790 and was rebuilt as New Hope Mills, thus giving New Hope its name. With “Cake Off,” the flour has still not settled.

Ensemble, Musical: “In The Heights,” Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre.“In The Heights” by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) leaves you slack-jawed in astonishment at not only the lyrical alacrity of Miranda, but the physical dexterity of the actors’ singing and performances as directed by James Peck. It triumphs with the talent of a predominantly young, vibrant Latino cast, with demanding choreography by Samuel Antonio Reyes, which incorporates salsa and merengue. Gabe Martinez, in the lead male role of Usnavi, right from the opening number, sings the “rap-sody” with a rapid-fire intensity that seems impossible. Martinez relaxes into the quieter side of Usnavi in “It Won’t Be Long Now,” with Tiffany Byrd (Vanessa) and Zach Jackson (lively and humorous as Sonny), and “Champagne,” with Usnavi’s love interest, Vanessa, with Byrd again in splendid and soaring voice. Bree Ogaldez (Nina) has most of the spotlight numbers: “Breathe,” with her crystalline voice immediately impressive, and with her love interest, Benny (the always impressive Jakeim Hart), in “When You’re Home,” “Sunrise,” “Everything I Know” and “When the Sun Goes Down.” At the center of the cast is Roberta Meek (a cheerful “Abuela” Claudia), whose resonant voice embraces all in “Patience and Faith” and “Hundreds of Stories.” Memorable in supporting roles are Robert Torres (Kevin, car service owner), noteworthy in “Useless,” and Wilma Rivera (Camila, his wife), a show-stopper in “Enough.” Proving there are no small roles is Eric Thompson (Piragua Guy) in the comedic number “Piragua.” Supporting-role comic-relief standouts include Victor Abreu, Jr. (Graffiti Pete), Jamie McKittrick (Daniela, salon owner) and Emily Spadaford (Carla, salon employee). The Ensemble includes Nicollette Amico, Tim Canali, Dianna Cortorreal, Vivian Cruz-Rivera, Gabrielle Hines, Ricardo Negron, Nathaniel Rosario and Jarred Rosario-Riche.

Play: “Blithe Spirit,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production of the Noël Coward classic of couples behaving comedically has the proper balance between “blithe” (”showing a casual and cheerful indifference considered to be callous or improper”) and “spirit” (double-entendre here: “the nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character; the soul” and “those qualities regarded as forming the definitive or typical elements in the character of a person”). Talk about “ecto-plasmic manifestation”: Broadway is manifest at the Pa. Shakespeare Fest.

Original Play: Mary Wright, “Mae Swe,” Touchstone Theatre.“Mae Swe” (pronounced “May Sway” and Burmese for “My Friend”) is based on Mary Wright’s early years in Burma where she was born to parents who were Baptist missionaries, as well as stories she gathered from 30 interviews she did with family members, and refugees from Myanmar (pronounced Me-yan-ma, and formerly known as Burma) who emigrated to the United States and now reside in the Lehigh Valley. In the one-woman show, eight years in the making, Wright, a Bethlehem resident and Touchstone Ensemble member, plays several characters, using figures from Burmese history and folktales, Burmese puppets, music, lacquerware and Burmese attire. Jennie Gilrain, a Touchstone Theatre veteran, directs “Mae Swe.” It’s an extraordinary manifestation of a journey in the search for belonging.

Actress, Play: Eleanor Handley “Blithe Spirit,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.Eleanor Handley as Elvira channels (as befits a dear-departed) the sass of Jean Harlow in her tart-tongued delivery and the slinky substance of Marlene Dietrich as she swans across the stage like a sylph. She leans back. She lounges. She prances. She dances. Blonde-topped and red-lipped, hands firmly on hips, she gives a drop-dead stare in a gray gown. No one has a ghost of a chance in her presence.

Actor, Play: Ian Merrill Peakes, “Blithe Spirit,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.Ian Merrill Peakes as British novelist Charles Condomine bustles with nervous energy, internal consternation and the supercilious capacity of the overly self-assured. This is a masterful performance.

Ensemble, Play: “Julius Caesar,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.Patrick Mulcahy directs the cast like a chess master calculating his moves on the white-board stage design by Steven TenEyck. In Mulcahy’s keen and meticulous direction, Julius Caesar is Christ-like and without blemish. Keith Hamilton Cobb, an imposing figure, strides the stage like a colossus (“This man has become a God,” Cassius marvels-warns) and yet he’s likable, humble and the least wrath-filled God this side of the universe. Each of the lead actors has his day in the soliloquy spotlight. Thanks to Mulcahy’s precision, each fires off lines with force, understanding and meaning. Mulcahy is careful to assuage relationships between the leads, especially Cassius and Brutus. You sense the characters are well aware their roads are not less traveled and lead straight to hell. Greg Wood assays an in-your-face Cassius, at once wheedling and powerful in a tightly-wound, intense, eye-focused, full-battle mode performance. Henry Woronicz presents a thoughtful, steadfast and patrician Brutus in a sympathetic manner unlike the reputation that preceded him. Spencer Plachy is a dashing Marc Antony, portraying a lean, forthright, yet intelligently duplicitous leader. Christopher Patrick Mullen creates a feverish, rueful and cantankerous Casca, who would stoop to conquer. Other standouts in the some 19-member cast include Rosalyn Coleman (Calpurnia), commanding the stage as Caesar’s wife; Grace Gonglewski (Portia), vulnerable as Brutus’s wife; Jacob Dresch (Decius Brutus), and Steven Dennis (Cicero).

Director, Play: Anne Lewis, “Blithe Spirit,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.In the charming production, director Anne Lewis elegantly balances the very attributes of the brilliant title inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem (”To A Skylark”) in the cast (has there ever been assembled a more perfect ensemble at PSF?). Lewis mines the mnemonic devices at the core of Noel Coward’s brilliant comedy, given its first staging in 1941 in London’s West End and New York City’s Broadway, with a sure-fire plot that is simplicity personified in its complexity. Lewis carefully stages this impeccable production with lovely attention to letting the actors go word-to-word (with some references in the script to the words of Shakespeare) and the lovely felicity of language and keen observation that is Coward: “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”

Costume Design: Michael McDonald, “West Side Story,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.Costume Designer Michael McDonald eschews the leather look for preppy ties and shirts for the Jets (the Caucasian gang), chooses purple hues (Prince homage?) for the Sharks (the Puerto Rican gang), and dresses the women in lovely dresses.

Scenic Design: David P. Gordon, “Blithe Spirit,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.The set (baby grand, fireplace, mantle, mirror, columns, bookshelf, drapes, lamps, sumptuous sofa and chairs) by Set Designer David P. Gordon is exquisitely-detailed.

Lighting Design: Travis Michale, “The Rocky Horror Show,” Bucks County Playhouse.Christmas tree lights, purple hues and clever effects dominate in the Lighting Design by Travis Michale. The entire stage is used to give the impression of a dark and stormy night. Call it Yard-Sale Gothic.

Sound Design: Patrick Moren, “In The Heights,” Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre.Sound designer Patrick Moren and Music director-conductor Ed Bara and a nine-piece band recreate the sounds and music of Washington Heights, a Manhattan, New York City, N.Y., neighborhood where Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music for “In The Heights,” was born. The sheer energy of the piece spills off the stage and carries over to the heads, hands and hearts of the audience. “In The Heights” is irresistible. It cajoles, charms and cashes in on its dynamic score. “In The Heights” is an exuberant exhortation of a lively locale and lives, not only of Washington Heights, about two hours east of Allentown, but of a closer neighborhood, about 15 blocks east of Muhlenberg College.

What were your favorite plays, performances, actors, directors and artists from the 2016 theater season in the Lehigh Valley? email: pwillistein@tnonline.com