Singing praise for a season of drama and artistic set design

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Looking back at the area’s 2019 theater season, it was hard to pick out just one notable aspect.

This season’s Pulsar contenders, up to now, included seven ensembles — many with especially potent casts. Riverwalk Theatre’s “A Piece of My Heart” and “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown,” Ixion Theatre’s “The Wolves,” Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.’s “The Humans,” Over The Ledge Theatre Co.’s “Summer Retreat” and “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” and Starlight Dinner Theatre’s “Something’s Afoot” all had notably congruous casts.

The sonic season pointed to the area’s stock of gifted singers, dancers and talented musicians.

There were seven strong musical performances. Riverwalk had “Pippin” and “Charlie Brown,” and Owosso Community Players featured “Cabaret” and “Matilda.” OTL had the “Trailer Park Musical,” Starlight's “Something’s Afoot” and PCT offered “Bright Star.”

This season, many female leads took to the center stage. Of seven compelling actors in “A Piece of My Heart,” only one was male. “The Wolves” had an all-female cast of 10, plus director Jacquelyn Marks and assistant director Sadonna Croff. Seven of 21 plays staged this season had women as directors.

Williamston Theatre’s “The Safe House,” written by Lansing’s own Kristine Thatcher, spotlighted Karen Sheridan’s powerful performance as an aging grandmother. Ixion’s, one-woman show, “Apples in Winter,” showcased Paige Tufford, who believably played a grieving mother of an incarcerated son.

Miah Nash’s “Nina” and Ny ‘kieria Blocker’s “Nina Simone” were unforgettable in Lansing Community College Performing Arts’ “Sunset Baby,” written by Dominique Morisseau, an American playwright and 2018 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant." Rachael Steffens’ confident acting and Scottish accent helped make LCC’s “Belle Moral” a play to remember. And seventh-grader Alexis Bruner often stole the show as Matilda Wormwood with her sophisticated singing and acting in OCP’s “Matilda.”

The season has also seen spectacular scenic designs. OCP is known for lavish sets, “Cabaret” and “Matilda” among them. The multi-story creations, dungeons and a library built by designers Dirk Rennick and Dan Wenzlick were remarkable.

“Cabaret’s” settings stretched beyond Owosso’s Lebowsky Center stage. Some audience members were seated onstage and the main floor was surrounded by cast placements. “Matilda” included floor-to-ceiling, letter “blocks,” a retro living room, and drop-down jail bars.

PCT’s ambitious “Bright Star” used the entire Temple House Fellowship Auditorium space. Substantial set pieces designed by Director Chad Swan-Badgero flowed on and off the massive floor. Different homes and offices, a bar, a library and more were simulated by wood pieces on wheels. Tracy Smith and Geoff Stauffer designed PCT an astounding two-story set for “The Humans” featuring an authentic, spiral staircase.

LCC’s “Sunset Baby” had a detailed and impressive apartment setting by Robert Fernholz, rare for a black box. For the one-man “A Christmas Carol” at Williamston Theatre, Kirk A. Domer designed a massive wireless-radio-with-curtains backdrop. 

Bartley Bauer’s classy set design for LCC’s “Belle Moral” was multifaceted, realistically old-fashioned and complex. So was Michael Gault’s design for MSU Department of Theatre’s “Frankenstein,” but with a stylishly eerie look.

Even smaller enterprises managed amazing sets. For “Trailer Park,” Joseph Dickson, Mary Job, Jeff Miller, Miranda Hartmann, Brian Farnham and Adam Carlson combined talents to construct a realistic trailer with exposed interior, park dressings that cleverly masked the band and a trailer that opened to reveal a gaudy strip club.

Starlight upped their game with its set for “Something’s Afoot.” The sophisticated Jim Lorenz design featured a stairway, booby-traps everywhere and a large vase that swallowed Colleen Bethea’s, “Lettie.”

The Pulsar season is far from over, yet it’s clear there are already award-worthy shows.

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