A year of highs in Arundel theater

Traditionally, this is the time when we reflect on the past year's highs from a variety of stellar acting and musical performances by established local groups in Anne Arundel County. In 2011, we also welcomed two new theater companies of surprisingly high caliber and had a few more surprises that added excitement.

A totally unexpected 2011 high was offered by Colonial Players at their biennial Promising Playwright Contest, won by playwright Evan Guilford-Blake. His "Uncommon Language," loosely based on the controversy surrounding Camille Claudel's contributions to the work of Rodin, was sensitively interpreted by a skilled cast of eight actors in a spellbinding reading. The level was so high that I hoped the Players would consider mounting Guilford-Blake's play in a full production next season.

Another surprise was Talent Machine Company's summer production of "Can-Can," where about 20 high-kicking troupers all under age 18 delivered a spirited, athletic, precisely synchronized, polished version of a demanding cancan choreography. Although well-rehearsed, enthusiastically executed programs are a TMC hallmark, the level of dancing in this production topped any I've witnessed in my 15 years of attending TMC shows.

In mid-February, Live Arts Maryland music conductor J. Ernest Green led the Annapolis Chorale, Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and soloists in three nearly flawless performances of "Sound of Music." Maryland Hall's capacity crowd offered a prolonged standing ovation that was echoed two days later at Chesapeake Arts Center when several Performing Arts Association of Linthicum audience members pronounced this "the best show PAAL ever offered." Leads and chorus were distinctively suited to telling Rodgers and Hammerstein's timeless story.

Each winter, Annapolis Opera invites audiences to attend for free the annual vocal competition finals held at Maryland Hall in March and funded by the Helene Foundation. Many candidates from the Mid-Atlantic region compete over two weekends to get the group down to eight finalists. In 2011, the contest featured a preponderance of competing tenors — a rare event, since tenors are generally a scarce commodity. Tall tenors are even scarcer, and this year's winner, Zach Borichevsky, at well over 6 feet, was a commanding presence. Borichevsky will return to offer a concert of classical and modern arias at the first Winner's Recital at 8 p.m. March 16 to begin the vocal competition weekend.

Maryland Hall resident Ballet Theatre of Maryland continued its always high performance level during 2011, most notably in "Star-Spangled Sketches," which ended the season in April with a dramatization of history that included the bombardment of Fort McHenry, and in a spellbinding "Aladdin," blending Borodin's music in exquisitely telling the exotic story through dance to begin the current season.

The award for best actor goes to Rena Cherry Brown for her compelling portrayal of a courageous English professor battling cancer in Bay Theatre's season opener of Margaret Edson's "Wit." Brown inhabited the role, using her character's wit as a shield against the disease, later grappling with her own mortality while continuing to find solace in the poetry of John Donne, whose work Brown clearly loves.

As top ensemble performances, I would choose Jim Gallagher as Father Flynn, Mary MacLeod as Sister Aloysius, Tori Kontor as Sister James and Kelly Armstrong as Mrs. Muller (the mother of a son who may be too close to Flynn) in Dignity Players' "Doubt."

Annapolis Summer Garden rates recognition for its nostalgic tribute to Baltimore in its August production of "Hairspray." Every cast member relished being part of its authenticity, which was even captured in the rented scenery portraying Baltimore's unique Formstone glory.

Two new theater companies added excitement to the local scene. In July, Infinity Theatre offered as its second production at Children's Theatre a superbly polished "Little Shop of Horrors" that fulfilled the company's promise to bring New York professionals to the Annapolis theater scene. When Infinity returns next summer, everyone who appreciates first-rate theater should plan to catch a performance.

Compass Rose Studio Theater in Eastport Shopping Center opened in October with its first production — a monthlong run of Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers." It proved a delightful theater experience filled with worthy performances, headed by founder Lucinda Merry-Browne in a compelling portrayal of a stern immigrant grandmother. Compass Rose will offer "The Miracle Worker" from Feb. 10-March 18. Information: compassrosetheater.org.

Based on these highs, we can expect to enjoy great entertainment in our county during a fabulous new year.

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