Wichita has always been a good theater town, supporting a diverse array of live performance groups, from resident professionals and touring Broadway shows to dinner theater, original melodrama, avant garde cabaret and experimental venues, not to mention various amateur and kids groups.
Here are my – admittedly highly subjective – picks for the best that Wichita had to offer in 2014:
1. “West Side Story” (Music Theatre Wichita): The sheer number of goosebump-inducing moments, both musically and dramatically, made this beloved but oh-so-familiar “Romeo & Juliet” musical a vital experience again. Ryan Vasquez and Ali Ewoldt as star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria had arguably the best voices I’ve heard on stage and did justice to their haunting and deceptively difficult ballads. Directed by Mark Madama and exuberantly restaged by choreographer Mark Esposito after the Jerome Robbins’ original, this was a terrific ensemble effort where every character was allowed to be a compelling entity.
2. “South Pacific” (Music Theatre Wichita): Director Wayne Bryan and his remarkable cast didn’t just dust off one of the classic warhorses of Broadway. They polished it to a glossy, enduring sheen. Based on the 2008 Broadway rewrite, James Michener’s story about impressionable young Americans in World War II discovering a diverse world outside their comfort zone restored necessary elements of bigotry and hypocrisy that were soft-pedaled in the past. Erin Mackey as naive nurse Nellie and Mike McGowan as mysterious French planter Emile had an easy chemistry that made the unlikely couple more fun, more poignant and, yes, sexier than in past versions.
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3. “The Spitfire Grill” (Wichita State University): This bluegrass-flavored musical about a young woman (Hannah Fernandes) with a prison past who settles in a small rural town full of suspicion and secrets and ends up changing the lives of everyone around her was a gorgeous little gem about love, loss and redemption. The songs by James Valcq and Fred Alley were sometimes funny, sometimes hauntingly poignant, but always with a straight-forward truthfulness that was revealing and moving. The student voices were strong and clear and worthy of any professional stage.
4. “Driving Miss Daisy” (The Forum Theatre): Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about the unlikely bonding of a rich, demanding Jewish widow and her calm, diplomatic, supremely patient black chauffeur over three decades provided an exquisite showcase for local veteran actors Gina Austin and Huron Breaux. Austin’s Miss Daisy was amusingly crotchety but poignantly fragile, and Breaux’s Hoke never lost track of his dignity. The actors, like their characters, proved to be a perfect match.
5. “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” (Theater League): Rather than be a slimmed-down version of the Broadway original, this elegantly lavish touring production filled Century II’s stage from top to bottom and side to side with multilayered, beautifully painted drops and see-through scrims to create everything from a vine-clogged enchanted forest to a quaint French village to a looming Gothic castle. It also featured the sumptuous Tony Award-winning costumes by designer Ann Hould-Ward. Magical.
6. “42nd Street” (Music Theatre Wichita): When the opening number proved to be a wall-to-wall, tap-happy showstopper, you knew you were in for a great time. This ultimate Cinderella story was based on the 1933 Ruby Keeler/Dick Powell movie about a fresh-faced kid (Tessa Grady) who steps off the bus in New York and rises from the chorus to become an overnight star in a Big Broadway Show.
7. “Man of La Mancha” (The Forum Theatre): Wichita native and Broadway veteran Ray Wills was an inspired choice in the dual role of 16th-century Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes and his idealistic, chivalrous and utterly mad knight Don Quixote as they both search for their “Impossible Dream.” Wills skillfully embodied the elegant wit and posture of the aristocratic Cervantes as well as the dignified, if shabby, gravitas of bumbling Quixote. Karla Burns, another Wichitan who made her mark on Broadway, was a delightful if unexpected cross-gender choice as Quixote’s faithful servant Sancho. Both were in fine voice in a large, complex and elegant revival.
8. “Orphans” (Wichita Center for the Arts): This riveting in-the-round production of Lyle Kessler’s Tony Award-winning tragicomedy put audiences almost literally in the line of fire. It was directed by Shaun-Michael Morse with fights staged by Danette Baker. Damian Padilla, running on rage, and Sean Gestl as his sweet-natured, mentally challenged younger brother were absolutely compelling as petty thieves camping out in an abandoned Philadelphia tenement. They plan to make a big score by holding for ransom a well-dressed businessman. But the tables are turned when he turns out to be a Chicago mobster, and turned again when the three begin to form the unlikeliest of families.
9. “Shrek the Musical” (Crown Uptown Theatre): When a major love song erupts with belching and breaking wind, you know you have a Broadway musical that even a 10-year-old boy could love. This raucous, ridiculously entertaining musical romp about everybody’s favorite green, grouchy ogre (Ryan Everett Wood), his overeager sidekick Donkey (Lyonel Reneau) and his thoroughly independent Princess Fiona (Brittney Morton) was as busy as a three-ring circus and often as surprising. Wood and Reneau were veterans of the national “Shrek” tour, Morton was a powerhouse soprano, and, in a highlight comic turn, Matthew Rumsey (who also directed) was a diminutive dastardly Lord Farquaad.
10. “Memphis” (Theater League): Despite the exuberant music, joyous dancing and obvious youthful fun, this Tony-winning best musical never lost track of its serious message about the destructive, corrosive nature of racism in 1950s America. Inspired by real-life Memphis radio DJ Dewey Phillips, it tells of a scuffy, uneducated white boy (Joey Elrose) who finds his life’s purpose when he falls for a talented black singer (Jasmin Richardson) and decides to bring the R&B sounds of famous Beale Street to the world. Loud, brash and energizing, this show by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan wore its heart on its sleeve and made us want to stand and cheer.