Here’s the bad news: There won’t be an official Pulsar Awards announcement this year since our staff was too small to make it out to every show. Nonetheless, our critics agreed that the local theater community deserves to be celebrated. So, without further adieu, here are the takeaways of the 2022-’23 theater season from each of our reviewers.
I generally believe that I don’t like musicals, and I typically let other reviewers have first dibs on them. Yet time and again, the local theater scene proves me a liar, and this season, it happened twice.
Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. had a very unique season in that it had no home base and instead staged its productions throughout the city and beyond. This nomadic lifestyle presented challenges that the casts and crews met with gusto. First, the company produced the Stephen Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along” in the drab, flat confines of the Lansing Public Media Center, and it was amazing. The show is a cynical story of four creative friends who grow apart, told in a reverse timeline. The minimal set worked just fine because Kate Koskinen’s costumes were fabulous. More important, the entire ensemble was outstanding in both voice and acting, although Meghan Malusek stood out for her sheer snootiness as man-eating actress Gussie Carnegie.
Peppermint Creek followed “Merrily” with the more heartwarming story “Daddy Long Legs,” staged at Bestsellers Books and Coffee Co. in Mason. This space allowed Peppermint Creek founder and artistic director Chad Swan-Badgero to outfit a lush early-20th-century interior that was the perfect size to unwind the satisfying story of a wealthy bachelor and benefactor slowly falling in love with his independent and intelligent ward. On paper, the story might sound a bit creepy, but the central theme celebrates feminism through the empowerment of education. The two-person cast of Jake Przybyla and Rachel Daugherty was well-matched in pitch, power and wit.
Lansing Community College had a strong season of shows, with two staged readings as well as three fully mounted productions. Although I enjoyed all the plays, for me, the most outstanding show of the year was “Tartuffe,” by Molière, translated by the legendary Richard Wilbur. Outstanding costumes, excellent pacing and deft characterizations brought this restoration gem to life. Erin Hoffman enjoyed a triumphant return to the stage, and I hope she continues to grace the boards in the future.
Michigan State University has a long history of placing talent in television and films, and that proud tradition is sure to continue with the current crop of talented acting students. “Bright Star” delivered on every level, with sharp direction, strong and clear acting and an impressive set. Among many deserving actors, Jacob Squire was a powerful figure, and Samantha Dobrowolski stood out with her deft comic touch.
Overall, the strongest show I saw this year was “Peter and the Starcatcher” at Riverwalk Theatre. Top to bottom, this show delivered. Please allow me to commend the Riverwalk Costume Shop, which consistently dresses its shows very professionally, especially large productions like “Peter” and “Big Fish.” An outstanding season overall from costume designer Amanda Macomber.
The 2022-’23 theater season was extraordinary, with exemplary work from all involved. It’s awe-inspiring that both Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. and Ixion Ensemble pulled off their seasons without a permanent space. Kudos on that.
But Starlight Dinner Theatre blew the nomadic performance category out of the water with its production of “West Side Story.” Staged outdoors in downtown Lansing, the show was powerful, well-performed and perfectly set. Standout performances were delivered by Miles Nowlin as Baby John and Hannah Roman as Anybodys. Director Linda Granger overcame significant issues to bring the show to life, including losing many actors a week before opening night. Despite these obstacles, Granger and her crew delivered an outstanding and beautiful rendition of the beloved musical. For those reasons, “West Side Story” gets my nod as the best community theater musical performance.
On the professional theater front, Williamston Theatre’s production of “The Magnolia Ballet, Part 1” was theatrical perfection. Performed by the ensemble of Jesse Boyd-Williams, Stefon Funderburke, Scott Norman and Timothy Hackbarth, the play was an example of transformational theater that challenged the audience and transported viewers to another world.
In the non-professional theater world, the few minutes Camryn Cardwell had at the top of “Kinky Boots” at Riverwalk Theatre were extraordinary, simple and beautiful. This young actor’s performance created the entire emotional underpinning of the show, and it was tear-inducing in both the excitement and disappointment of self-discovery. Also of note were the outstanding performances by brothers Connor and Quinn Kelly in Riverwalk’s “A Year with Frog and Toad.”
Chelsea Lake Roberts
I want to highlight two shows that couldn’t be more different, but both will stay with me for a long, long time.
“Big Fish,” which opened Riverwalk Theatre’s 34th season, delivered all I could want from a community theater musical and more. “Mrs. Harrison,” the exploration of race, personal myths and college reunions that all takes place in a bathroom, made me quite literally stop and have an honest-to-God insight about my privilege. They were both my season showstoppers.
The first show thoroughly entertained me, something the theater gets a bad rap for in our age of digital streaming, cocaine bears and instant TikTokification. Sitting through two hours of people singing and talking feels like ancient history. But “Big Fish” was my first musical post-pandemic, and the energy coming off the cast stunned me. It actually made me feel normal again. The show is about fatherhood, childhood and the natural world coming alive with stories that we create to help make life make sense. Much appreciation goes out to the talented director for expertly placing his all-ages and all-abilities cast, making creative use of the entire theater and working in such a way that it was obvious everyone was having a wonderful time together. I certainly did!
The second show made me think, something theater is more well-known for. “Mrs. Harrison” won a Lambda Literary Award, which recognizes the work of LGBTQ+ writers. I glanced at that and saw that the show starred just two women, so I expected romance! My friends and I piled into a car and drove out to Williamston hoping for intrigue, sensuality and love. What we got was something very different: Two women grappling with whom the story of Mrs. Harrison really belongs to. This show made me really appreciate the value of having a union theater in mid-Michigan. The audience examined every move by each woman for 90 minutes, and the actresses not only had to hold our attention rapt — which they did — but also slowly reveal the truth of their characters as the audience paced back and forth in our minds, wondering which woman was right and grasping for someone to root for.
There was no romance, but there was reality. And there was even running water on stage! Kudos to Williamston Theatre for bringing this play to audiences without delay.
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