A look back at 2017’s finest showstoppers

Malcolm Grissom, Maui Fringe Festival’s “Best Performer,” was one of the top 10 stage moments of 2017. Jack Grace photo

Show business traditionally takes a holiday at the end of the year, and a lot of show people holiday on Maui. Because local stages are relatively dark this time of the year, I borrowed an idea of former Backstage columnist Sky Barnhart from 2011. It has become one of my favorite columns to write — a look back on the finest performing arts showstoppers at year’s end. As I have said in the past, these top 10 stage moments are a few of my favorite things, but abundant audience enthusiasm is what dictates a look back as we say aloha to 2017.

10. Malcolm Grissom’s “song” at the Maui Fringe Theater Festival. Grissom was chosen as the best performer of the Maui Fringe Theater Festival, and was singled out by The Maui News columnist Kathy Collins in “Sharing Mana’o.” I was deeply moved by Grissom’s solo play, but Collins summed up the power of his stage work much better than I can.

“Inspirational. Meaning artistic; thought-provoking; stirring; inspiring,” shared Collins last January. “His greatest life challenge came at the age of 9, when he was stricken with Reye’s syndrome, a debilitating disease of the central nervous system. He persevered through years of therapy to regain his speech, motor skills, even thought processes. In the first few minutes of his presentation, Malcolm explains that the brain damage is the reason he sounds ‘like a gay Muppet — and if I ever catch Reye, I’m gonna kick his butt!”

At the end of Grissom’s solo show, “Me, My Song and I” he asked, ‘What’s your song?’ His is “Que Sera, Sera,” and his leading us all in a singalong of the song was a “stirring; inspiring” moment.

9. Amelia Couture’s aerial dance in Adaptations Dance Theater’s “Bring It Home” concert. In June, I attended Adaptations Dance Theater’s second annual “Bring It Home” dance concert. As I said in Backstage at the time, “The final, and most haunting movement ‘… a thing with feathers,’ was absolutely (and at times, literally) breathtaking. Soloist Amelia Couture worked aerially with a rope, ascending what appeared to be 30-feet-in-the-air at times. Climbing, hanging and falling — only to catch herself with her feet and legs — left the audience gasping on several occasions.”

Amelia Couture’s aerial dance in Adaptations Dance Theater’s “Bring It Home” concert. Ajja Deshayne photo

Couture’s close cropped hairdo combined with her solo struggle evoked a Joan of Arc simile and was my favorite dance piece of the year.

8. The shared doobie in Maui OnStage’s “9 to 5 The Musical.” One of my favorite laughs of the year came in Maui OnStage’s production of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5 The Musical.” Lina Aiko Krueger, Kathryn Holtkamp and Lia Krieg found themselves over-snacking and sharing a joint after a rough day at the office. When Holtkamp asked “what did you say this is called,” Krueger answered “Maui Wowie.”

But it was the second joke that was my favorite moment, as a stoned Holtkamp stared at the buxom Krieg and asked “Are those real?” Krieg, sporting her larger than life, blonde Dallas-do, replied, “As real as my hair.”

7. Medea’s lament in the Oh Boy Production’s take on Euripedes’ tragedy. In the title role of Oh Boy Productions’ “Medea,” Jennifer Rose’s performance was an absolute masterpiece. Rose conveyed supreme strength, elicited fear and even delivered several uncomfortable laughs.

The tragic ending of “Medea” was certainly powerful, but Rose’s address on the lowly state of females was my favorite moment: “Of all creatures that can feel and think, we women are the worst treated things alive.”

Medea’s lament in the Oh Boy Production’s take on Euripedes’ tragedy. Jack Grace photo

6. Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s drum solo in “Nogales: Storytellers in Cartel Country.” In March, the performance at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, was so exceptional that I said it should be considered as one of the top plays of 2017. Author and performer Richard Montoya captivated the McCoy Studio Theater crowd.

Although it was a powerful drama based on the heartbreaking border shooting and murder of Mexican teenager Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, Montoya, a comedic tour-de-force, played the now presidentially pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio with a surreal cartoon quality, and, though he is the villain of “Nogales,” his sarcasm and antics made him quite likeable. My favorite moment was watching an intoxicated Arpaio rock out to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” while guzzling a bottle of Cazadores tequila and pounding out the iconic solo on a taiko drum.

5. The handshake in “The Elephant Man” at ProArts Playhouse. It was just a handshake, but that handshake in the ProArts production of “The Elephant Man” was one of the most powerful stage moments of the year. Like Rose’s Medea, Ricky Jones’ portrayal of John Merrick was nothing short of a masterpiece. Paired opposite Hoku Pavao Jones as Mrs. Kendal, the two delivered the profoundly memorable last scene of act one. Kendal insisted upon shaking Merrick’s hideously deformed right hand, not his “quite beautiful” left hand. The action unleashed an intensely authentic emotional display by Ricky Jones that deeply moved audiences to tears nightly.

4. The arrival of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” on stage.You knew it was coming; the entire show revolved around it. But as Caractacus Potts (Ricky Jones) tinkered in his workshop, Grandpa (Dale Button), Jemima (Dakota Welch) and Jeremy (Kanoa Gorring) waited — as did the audience.

And then there she was. Sparkling, mobile and breathtaking. The car was the star of “Chitty” and most of that credit goes to designer Ally Shore and the Chitty Pit Crew: John Glob, David Neegard, Bob Offerman and Maggie Stump.

Kathryn Holtkamp, (from left) Lina Aiko Krueger and Lia Krieg brought the house down in “9 to 5 The Musical.” Jack Grace photo

3. Miranda Sings’ magical sword trick. After an evening of showcasing her dreadful singing, dancing and dating skills, the one and only Miranda Sings offered up a magic trick. As a sword passed through her neck, she sang “Think of Me” from “Phantom of the Opera” to sheer Broadway perfection, deflating to her unfortunate Miranda vocals each time the sword was removed –back and forth, faster than the tick of a second hand, repeatedly for several minutes. It takes one talent to sing perfectly and another to sing badly on purpose. To be two separate people (Colleen Ballinger and Sings), and then switch from one to the other so quickly, belongs in a separate category of Andy Kaufman at the Improv meets Julie Andrews in “My Fair Lady.”

2. Eddie Izzard’s Wembley story in “Force Majeure.” If you’ve never seen Izzard, just know that he goes. His brain travels at the speed of light.

The tangent started as a story of going to Wembley Arena to see “Jesus Christ Superstar.” That followed with an admission of his dislike of musicals.

“I’d go see ‘Die Hard The Musical,’ “ he said.

He proceeded to perform its imagined signature song, ” ‘Yippee ki-yay . . . M-er F-ers.’ “

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” on stage. Jack Grace photo

Next, he described the Indian cab driver that drove him from Wembley to Piccadilly. When he got in the car, the cabbie asked “will you be going back to Wembley?” Izzard’s inflated ego made him assume the driver knew who he was and was referring to his record-breaking-attendance performance at Wembley — he was wrong. Embarrassment acknowledged, Izzard then jumped into explaining how similar Welsh accents are to Indian accents and demonstrated the subtle difference as if a screwdriver was altering his voice.

1. The Wonderheads send Francis to the moon in “LOON.” My absolute favorite night of theater in 2017 was, without a doubt, The Wonderheads’ “LOON.” Mask-imagineer Kate Braidwood enthralled me for 50 minutes as Francis, the lonely, loveable janitor that fell in love with the moon.

There were many memorable moments in “LOON,” but it was the theatrical creativity and puppetry of the scene that launched Francis into outer space (in an effort to bring the moon down to earth for an enchanting courtship) that was my favorite. The wonderfulness of “LOON” was Braidwood’s ability to make audiences believe that the mask changed in expression, which it did not. Braidwood’s mask presented Francis’ sadness, amusement, hope and aggravation as a mesmerized audience delighted in the misadventure and cheered on a happy ending for Francis.

Eddie Izzard’s Wembley story in “Force Majeure.” Andy hollingworth photo

The Wonderheads send Francis to the moon in “LOON.” Photo courtesy The Wonderheads