Local theater 2021: A year of ovations and tears


The 2021 area theater season had some yang, but it was mostly a whole lotta yin.

There were positive reopenings and there were many negatives, like Zoom-only productions and losing icons. In January, local theater legend Carmen Decker died at 97.  In March, the multi-talented Thomas “Tommy” Gomez died from a heart attack at 55. Both were beloved and mourned by the theater community.

A February Zoom production full of positives was Riverwalk’s “A Doll’s House.” Director Brian Farnham made separately taped homes seem connected. Rachel Daugherty’s “Nora” in 2-D still made the Henrik Ibsen character come alive.

Riverwalk’s October main stage return with “Doubt” was the company’s biggest triumph of 2021. Seeing a strong cast well directed on a detailed set again was a powerful experience. 

“Our members and patrons moved safely and slowly in 2021 from fully online productions to outdoor cabarets and thankfully, to in-person shows in the fall,” said Jeff Magnuson, president of Riverwalk’s board of directors. “Our community is resourceful, creative, safe and has proven that the performing arts will persevere.”

Ixion Ensemble took live theater outside in April. “Dreams” was presented in the Sharp Park amphitheater. Six plays with dream-inspired themes were chosen from over 400 submissions.

In August, 16 monologues from Ixion’s “Wheel Writer’s Group” were performed in the park.  Local authors teamed with 12 actors to showcase short scripts that act as snapshots of life. 

At its new home inside the Lansing Mall, Ixion presented its relevant “The Skeleton Crew” in November. The switch from the Robin Theatre offered more stage, backstage and patron space.

Jeff Croff, Ixion’s artistic director, said he’d remember the willingness of actors and audiences to make performances possible last year. “Even if the venue was outdoors and the rehearsals were done online, everyone was committed to sharing the experience of live theater,” he said.

Williamston Theatre reopened in November with a five-week run of “This Wonderful Life.”  John Lepard reprised his marvelous, one-man retelling of the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” movie. With minimal props and setting, Lepard cleverly mimicked all the principals to standing ovations.

Lepard remembers the incredible love he felt on the stage for Williamston’s reopening.  “I had a hard time keeping my emotions in check for that performance,” he said.

Michigan State University’s Department of Theatre spent most of the year making creative virtual presentations.  That included February podcasts that offered acting coaching and an “Audio Anthology” that sounded like radio shows of the past.

A highlight was November’s live production of “Wendy and the Neckbeards.” Being able to see a large cast on stage with stunning production values was a treat.

Stephen D. Benedetto, the department’s chairman, admitted that 2021 was a year of uncertainty for MSU. “The creativity that comes from our students as we learned together how to work within safety protocols has been admirable and inspiring,” Benedetto said. “Masks have not stopped the exchange of energy between our students and patrons.”

Mandatory masks and virtual shows don’t work well for a dinner theater.  Starlight didn’t reopen until November. “We finally got to finish ‘The Lion in Winter’ after being shut down for 20 months,” said Starlight artistic director Linda Granger. “It turned out to be a beautiful show in a perfect venue.” 

Starlight Dinner Theatre moved from a Waverly school to the First Christian Church. Its high ceiling and wood timbers added authenticity to the set, which was stored in a garage for months. Kevin Burnham and Tanya Canaday-Burnham gave star-quality performances as the King and Queen.

“If the desire and determination is there, you can prevail,” Granger said. 

What Chad Swan-Badgero, Peppermint Creek Theatre’s artistic director, remembered most about 2021 are two productions. One was the haunting, virtual production “Holocaust Cantata: Songs from the Camps,” which was shown in spring. The other was this month’s “All is Calm” — the true story of the 1914 Christmas truce during World War I — performed live at four venues.

“In both cases, I was moved by the way theater and music told the story of those who had experienced extraordinary events from our history,” Swan-Badgero said.

A memorable Peppermint Creek YouTube show was “Let Us Breathe,” where five local Black voices provided compelling personal experiences.  It fit Peppermint Creek’s goal of addressing vital issues and raising awareness.

The Lebowsky Center for Performing Arts’ “Evita” in October was the year’s most dazzling production.  With formidable singing, dancing and a two-story set, the complicated musical was an antonym for Zoom. The cast was superb and Megan Meyer shined as Evita. 

“They dealt with the COVID protocols and somehow managed to learn the hardest and highest score I’ve ever heard on our stage,” said Julie Wenzlick, wife of set builder Dan Wenzlick. 

Lansing Community College’s November production “Intimate Apparel” is my favorite memory in the outgoing year’s theater. Detailed props and costumes — and terrific performances — after months of limited productions were a delight.

What LCC Performing Arts coordinator Paige Tufford-Dunckel remembers most about LCC’s season was August’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — its first in-person show after the 2020 shutdown. 

“The creative team was so geeked to be back in front of a live audience after almost two years,” she said. “The energy was amazing. It almost brought me to tears when I gave that first curtain speech welcoming everyone back.”


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