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Curtain Rises: 2022 a year of renewal for theater

It’s been a year of renewal for theater in 2022.

After two years of quarantine, theater troupes were in-person on stage with COVID-19 shutdowns, hopefully, a thing of the past.

At first, social-distancing, face masks and proof of vaccination were part of the theater experience. But by the second half of the year, things were starting to feel, dare I say, normal.

Theaters responded enthusiastically, offering a wide variety of plays and musicals, many of which were outstanding.

Here are my choices for the best theater of 2022 in the Lehigh Valley:

Best Set, Staging:

“The SpongeBob Musical,” Civic Theatre of Allentown. Everything came together to make Civic’s “The SpongeBob Musical” feel like you were dropped in the middle of a real-life cartoon. Director William Sanders’ attention to every detail made the show a near immersive experience, while Will Morris’ lighting design gave the stage that underwater feel, and Morris and Jan Joyce’s set was aquatically atmospheric. Add to that a large colorful cast and spot-on performances by the leads and you have a real audience-pleaser.

Best Ensemble:

“Clue: On Stage,” Cedar Crest College Theatre. “Clue: On Stage” took the fun of playing a board game and turned it into an evening of laughs. The talented ensemble cast made the familiar characters from the game “Clue” distinct and memorable. At times, the show had a Keystone Kops quality when the characters frantically ran, sometimes in circles, as they raced from room to room. Giving great performances in the roles of the six suspects were Robert Trexler (Colonel Mustard), Noel Cruz (Miss Scarlet), Alex Vidal Perez (Mrs. White), Carter Reichard (Mrs, Peacock), Mark Eichorn (Professor Plum) and Andrew Galindez (Mr. Green). However, it was Nik Georgievski (Wadsworth the Butler) who several times stole the show.

Best Actor: Bill George,

“Odysseus,” Touchstone Theatre. Touchstone Theatre’s Bill George delivered a bold and emotional tour de force in “Odysseus,” his compelling one-man play based on Homer’s epic Greek tale. Accompanied only by musician Rob Aptaker, George commanded the stage during the intense two- and one-half hours, during which he portrayed a pantheon of characters from gods and goddesses, including Zeus, Poseidon and Athena, to human mortals such as Odysseus, his son Telemachus and his wife Penelope. Most memorable were George’s highly-emotional moments such as when a prostrate Odysseus weeps in despair on the beach.

Best Actress: Trish Cipoletti,

“All You Need to Know,” Crowded Kitchen Players. Trish Cipoletti was remarkable as Althea Ruff, the woman at the center of Ara Barlieb’s new play, “All You Need to Know,” which pitted a business-minded arts commission against a woman dying of a degenerative disease. Cipoletti gave Althea an honest grittiness that made the audience (and at least some of the commission) care about her. She transformed before the audience’s eyes in riveting fashion.

Best Original Play: “Kitchen Chronicles,”

Touchstone Theater. “Kitchen Chronicles” is the culmination of a multi-year project led by Mary Wright, a Touchstone Ensemble Member. The result is joyous, touching, heartbreaking and piercingly honest. Joined on stage by her real-life daughter Katie Willmorth, the two women played a mother and daughter and made the audience feel they were sitting in their own kitchen. With humor and heart, Wright and Willmorth explored the push and pull between generations in a loving and heartfelt tribute to the under-sung heart of the home.

Best Director: Jessica Bedford,

“Silent Sky,” Act 1 DeSales University Theatre. Lauren Gunderson’s story of one of the first female astronomers who was instrumental in the understanding of the structure and size of the universe, was an outstandingly lovely and compelling production from Act 1. From the magical star-studded set to the wonderfully passionate performances of the cast, the play tells a story set in a time when women had few choices. Director Jessica Bedford used a deft hand to show the heart-breaking sacrifices the main character had to make to pursue her career.

Best Comedy: “Monty Python’s Spamalot,”

Civic Theatre of Allentown. Entertaining skits, over-the-top production numbers and outrageous performances elevated Civic Theatre’s inspired production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” The talented cast turned in hilarious takes on the memorable characters loosely based on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The craziness was non-stop, while director Will Morris skillfully held all the chaos together in one spectacularly funny package.

Best Play (Professional): “Jeffrey,”

Northampton Community College Summer Theater. Northampton Community College Summer Theater presented a hilarious and heartwarming “Jeffrey,” the poignant look at love during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The production had a great performance by Danny Rowe as the conflicted Jeffrey. On stage for most of the play, Rowe is the heart of the show, conveying an almost frantic energy that moves everything forward. The rest of the cast also gave standout performances, portraying everyone from a flamboyant dancer in “Cats” to a postmodern televangelist self-help guru. Director Bill Mutimer kept the tone buoyant, while still allowing the more serious moments to come through.

Best Play (Small Theater): “Stupid (expletive deleted) Bird,”

Between The Lines Studio Theatre. Between the Lines Studio Theatre’s production of “Stupid (expletive deleted) Bird” was sublimely smart and unexpectedly hilarious. The play, a modern-day adaptation of Chekhov’s 1896 play “The Seagull,” crackled with insight as it pondered the complexity of relationships, the cruelty of love, and the drive to create art. The ensemble cast was excellent in the dark, funny and occasionally-profound piece.

Best Play: “Indecent,”

Civic Theatre of Allentown. Civic Theatre‘s “Indecent” was a moving and devastating testament to the power of the arts. Director William Sanders crafted a thoughtful and intelligent interpretation of Paula Vogel’s award-winning play inspired by the true story of the controversial Broadway debut of Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance” in 1923. With uniformly excellent performances, the production was poetic and musical as it delved into issues such as anti-Semitism, persecution by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Holocaust. The scenes of the troupe wearing the yellow Star of David on their lapels performing scenes from “God of Vengeance” in Nazi Germany was particularly poignant.

Best Musical (Professional): “A Chorus Line,”

Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. “A Chorus Line” marked a triumphant return of Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s splashy summer musicals and the production was Broadway-caliber. From Luis Villabon’s spot-on choreography to Michael McDonald’s picture-perfect costumes to the outstanding cast, “A Chorus Line” was a nearly flawless production. From the organized chaos of “I Hope I Get it” to the perfectly synchronized kicks and formations of “One,” the performers were a joy to watch. Villabon recreated the iconic Michael Bennett choreography from the original show and it was breathtaking.

Best Musical: “The Sound of Music,”

Act 1 DeSales University Theatre. Act 1 DeSales University Theatre’s lovely production of “The Sound of Music” was totally delightful as well as moving. The musical was as beautiful to look at as it was to listen to. A wonderful Maria in Abigail Vernon led an outstanding cast, including seven children who were natural, appealing and harmonized well. When the Von Trapp family fled against the backdrop of the mountains, with the nuns singing in the foreground and the lighting mimicking early dawn, the effect was stunning.

“Curtain Rises” is a column about the theater, stage shows, the actors in them and the directors and artists who make them happen. To request coverage, email: Paul Willistein, Focus editor, pwillistein@tnonline.com

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY JACOB METZGER Abigail Vernon (Maria), left, “The Sound of Music,” Act 1 DeSales University Theatre.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ “A Chorus Line,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: TOUCHSTONE THEATRE Bill George, “Odysseus,” Touchstone Theatre.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: CROWDED KITCHEN PLAYERS From left: Pamela McLean Wallace, Trish Cipoletti, “All You Need To Know,” Crowded Kitchen Players.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: TOUCHSTONE THEATRE From left: Katie Willmorth, Mary Wright, “Kitchen Chronicles,” Touchstone Theatre.