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A round of applause: Reviewing the year in Midpeninsula theater

Arts writers look back on standout productions, performances and moments

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Most memorable moment of 2019 for local theater fans? No doubt one of them was TheatreWorks Silicon Valley winning the Regional Theatre Tony Award, an enormous feather in the cap of founder Robert Kelley (who was also honored with a local Lifetimes of Achievement award) as he went into his final season as artistic director of the company. But TheatreWorks never rests on its laurels, offering another fine year's worth of productions, including a stellar version of the hilarious Hitchcock spoof "The 39 Steps," a wonder of comic timing that had audiences crying with laughter.

If comments on Palo Alto Online's Town Square forum are to be believed, "Archduke," which was workshopped at TheatreWorks' New Works festival a few years back, drew mixed reactions. I, however, called its regional premiere "moving, bold, strange and empathetic," in addition to very humorous. Back at the year's start, Weekly theater critic John Orr gave rave reviews to "Frost/Nixon," calling it an "astounding, not-to-be-missed 110 minutes of theater" and lead actor Allen McCullough's performance as Nixon "transcendently brilliant."

Its current offering, the world premiere of Paul Gordon's new musical adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" (another New Works alum) has audiences swooning for this fresh, funny take on the centuries-old romantic comedy.

Dragon Productions Theatre Company had a big year, its first under the leadership of new co-artistic directors Bora "Max" Koknar and Alika Spencer-Koknar, who took over where founder Meredith Hagedorn left off (Hagedorn also gave a very endearing performance as doomed queen Marie Antoinette in "The Revolutionists" in January). The little downtown theater offered many fine productions this year, but perhaps most surprising to me was its intimate and visceral Second Stages version of William Shakespeare's "Macbeth," breathing new life into a play I thought I had seen and read too many times to be impressed by but that ended up striking a deep chord. In addition to its main stage productions, the space was enhanced by ongoing circus series, festivals (some in cahoots with Fuse Theatre), comedy, open-mic and music nights, children's programming and more, including a new batch of classes in partnership with its neighbor, Broadway by the Bay.

Speaking of which, Broadway by the Bay in March this year offered a near-perfect version of the pop-rock opera "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," a dreamy, rainbow-hued riot of music, comedy and dance that showcased its impressive production values, choreography and ensemble strengths.

Over at Mountain View's Pear Theatre, Artistic Director Betsy Kruse Craig announced she's stepping down at the end of the year but plans to remain involved as an actor and director. Orr named actor Fred Pitts' performance in "Sweat" at the Pear as one of the year's best. "Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play received an excellent staging at The Pear ... with an overall fine cast and a great set," he said. "But Pitts, who in real life is a doctor, was brilliant." He also enjoyed the quick-fire character changes by the cast of the theater's annual "Pear Slices," which showcases original shorts by local writers. More recently, Weekly writer Janet Silver Ghent called the Pear's ambitious one-woman production of "You/Emma" "imaginative," "well-crafted" and "poignant."

It was a good year for updates on some lesser Rodgers & Hammerstein classics. Foothill Music Theatre this summer presented a charming (pun intended) version of "Cinderella," updated for modern tastes by making Cinderella a much more active heroine yet still retaining most of the beloved fairy tale elements. Kuo-Hao Lo's scenery, too, was sublime, and the result was a family-friendly treat.

Palo Alto Players mounted an updated R&H production of its own with David Henry Hwang's rewrite of "Flower Drum Song ." By keeping most of the songs but jettisoning most of the cringe-worthier aspects of the stereotype-laden original script, this production was a funny, touching and very welcome story of the Chinese-American experience in mid-century San Francisco. Another favorite this year from Palo Alto Players was the screwball comedy "One Man, Two Guvnors," especially for the delightful skiffle soundtrack performed by an ace band of musicians and, occasionally, members of the cast.

To the west, Los Altos Stage Company went bold with shows like "American Night" and "Admissions," comedies which tackled prescient issues with wit and aplomb. The former was a surreal trip through one would-be citizen's dream, while the latter took on the sometimes-hypocritical world of elite education. Both seemed to slightly baffle and rattle their audiences; a risk well worth taking.

What might 2020 bring to the local theater scene? We're looking forward to finding out.

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