The top 10 performing art showstoppers of 2019

10. “Sleuth.” Brian Connolly (left) and Dale Button. JACK GRACE photo

Over the past eight years, this annual top-10 list of performing art showstoppers at year’s end has become my favorite backstage column. Yes, these live-on-stage moments are my personal favorites, but palpable audience elation is the deciding factor in what warrants a glimpse back as we say aloha to 2019.

10. How did they do that? The fast-paced and suspenseful “Sleuth” featured many memorable moments. Like an epic tennis battle, Dale Button and Brian Connolly landed aces, advantage and frequently reached match point only to return to deuce. However, even more impressive were special effects co-designed by Ally Shore and Daniel Vicars. These stage magic moments were the best executed tricks I’ve ever seen. The finest was when a gun was fired and a vase on the mantel shattered with paramount precision.

9. “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” Marsi Smith makes a few appearances on the 2019 list, one of the most memorable being her seduction of Benjamin Braddock (Elisha Cullins) in “The Graduate.” Tastefully staged by director Rick Scheideman, Mrs. Robinson entered from a bathroom topless and propositioned Ben. Like a form of choreography, the scene was carefully presented with no real nudity from the audience’s perspective. The humor and provocativeness of the scene, combined with Smith’s wonderful performance, made this one of the most unforgettable stage moments of the year.

8. “A good song makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you think.” So said Randy Noojin as Pete Seeger in his award-winning, one-man performance at the 2019 Fringe Festival. The “SEEGER” showstopper was preceded by a 1950’s concert story. “Present were two young, black preachers who had just led a successful boycott in Montgomery, Ala., the Rev. Martin Luther King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The next day, my friend Anne drove Dr. King up to Kentucky, and she remembers him in the back seat humming the song and saying, ‘We Shall Overcome, that song really sticks with you doesn’t it?’ “ What followed was a spontaneous, chicken-skin audience sing-along.

7. “Honey, I’m still free.” One of the funniest and most jubilant showstoppers of 2019 was “Mamma Mia’s” “Take A Chance On Me.” Marsi Smith and Dean Watt performed this uproarious number so well that it was worth the price of admission alone. The petite Smith chased the tall and athletic Watt like a predator as he hysterically fled in panic while knocking over chairs and scurrying across the Historic Iao Theater stage.

9. “The Graduate.” Marsi Smith (left) and Elisha Cullins. ORA SCOTT photo

6. Pentameterrific. Dale Button’s mouthful of a solo, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from “The Pirates of Penzance,” was the epitome of a show-stealing moment. At the apparent conclusion, which seemed to be performed at light speed, the audience erupted in applause only to discover that there was more. Button then proceeded to do an even faster encore that could best be described as awe-inspiring.

5. Death by chocolate. It couldn’t be a top 10 list without the gallons of chocolate-flavored blood that spewed from the ProArts Playhouse stage in “Evil Dead: The Musical.” Jake Pecaut as Ash lifted the production to its frenzy with “I’m Not a Killer.” Forced to decapitate his now zombie girlfriend Linda (Felicia Chernicki-Wulf), Pecaut then shot her headless, chainsaw wielding torso before attacking her head with the same chainsaw. Chernicki-Wulf continued to sing and speak while her blood doused the front row like a sprinkler. Adding charm to the quixotic vignette were the singing and dancing Moose and Gopher puppets that joined in the merriment.

4. Stage Hog. In “White Hawaiian” Eric Gilliom recreated his 1988 Broadway debut in the mega-flop “Carrie: A Killer Musical.” In the funniest scene I witnessed all year, Gilliom danced across the McCoy Studio Theater stage in full 1980s metal-band glory with a life-size stuffed pig strapped to his waist, singing “Kill the pig, pig, pig, pig/Kill him, kill him, kill him and make him bleed/Get the blood, blood, blood, blood/Kill the pig, make him bleed/Take the blood that’s all we need.” I have no idea how he maintained a straight face, but I now know why “Carrie” closed so quickly.

3. Sex Dolls. It’s not crazy to suggest that 2019 was the year of the puppet, and if one person deserves the credit, it’s puppet designer and coach, Stephie Garrett. Her supreme puppet showstopper of 2019 came in “Avenue Q.” While on their first date at a bar. The Bad Idea Bears (Ally Shore and Marsi Smith) suggest that Kate Monster (Kathryn Holtkamp) and Princeton (Logan Heller) order some “harmless” Long Island iced teas. Skipping ahead, the puppets end up in bed having high-decibel sex while their superintendent, the Gary Coleman (Baron Davis), fielded angry calls from the neighbors. In response Davis serenaded the puppet lovers with “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want When You’re Makin’ Love.”

2. “A middle-aged man in an uncomfortable suit.” “The Boys Next Door” featured many impressive acting performances, but the most moving powerful dramatic showstopper of 2019 was the bravura monologue offered by Rueben Carrion. In this spellbinding stage scene. Carrion’s Lucien stepped outside of his severe mental limitations for a flickering moment to elucidate his “confusion” to the audience.

8. “SEEGER” – JACK GRACE photo

1. Caution in the wind. On a windy November night, a crowd of a few thousand people gathered at MACC’s in celebration of their 25th anniversary. As creepy circus music began to play, Australia’s “The Spheres” swayed wildly in the breeze 14-feet off the ground as gigantic paper lanterns glowed with multi-colored light. Slowly, four performing artists emerged, eventually perched on top of the orbs, as the flexing poles suspending them bended and oscillated with perceived peril. The crowd of all ages was spellbound by these post-modern circus daredevils, and though brief, “The Spheres” was most singularly sensational performance of the year.

7. “Mamma Mia!” Marsi Smith (left) and Dean Watt. JACK GRACE photo

6. “The Pirates of Penzance.” Chloe Chin (from left), Stefani Peterson, Kiegan Otterson, Leighanna Locke and Dale Button.

5. “Evil Dead The Musical.” Jake Pecaut (left) and Felicia Chernicki-Wulf. PETER SWANZY photo

4. Eric Gilliom in “White Hawaiian.” Luna Maria Photography

3. “Avenue Q.” Ally Shore (from left), Logan Heller, Kathryn Holtkamp and Marsi Smith. JACK GRACE photo

2. Rueben Carrion in “The Boys Next Door.” JACK GRACE photo

1. “The Spheres” – LIEM PHO NHOM photo


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