South County audiences count themselves lucky to have plenty of good, local theater offerings to choose from – summer stock in the historic barn at Matunuck’s Theatre By The Sea, improv, farce and tragedy at downtown Wakefield’s Contemporary Theater Company, and quality work from the up-and-coming students in Kingston at the University of Rhode Island. Thanks especially to CTC’s continued growth, 2019 was a year when there were often multiple shows playing at once, year-round, nearly every weekend. Productions in 2019 dealt with a wide range of topics, but common themes included rebellion, intergenerational conflict, coming of age, as well as identity and the search for self. Here’s a look at our five favorite shows from 2019:
“Hamlet” (CTC)- A smash hit of the fall season, CTC’s production of “Hamlet” was both ambitious and humble, painting a nuanced portrait out of what might be the greatest play in the English language. CTC’s artistic director Christopher J. Simpson offered a condensed vision, providing a sensitive look at the complex constellation of relationships at the heart of the play. Tammy Brown’s interpretation of the title role was a highlight of the year, offering an honest and vulnerable exploration of Hamlet’s mind. Brown’s central performance was supported by a strong cast, particularly MJ Daly’s expansive and complex depiction of Gertrude, as well as comic relief provided by Rebecca Magnotta and Laura Kennedy, reprising their roles from Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”
“The Wolves” (URI) – URI Theatre scored big with their thoughtful and affecting production of “The Wolves” by Sarah DeLappe. This contemporary play, which follows a girls’ indoor soccer team’s pre-game warmup rituals over the course of a season, drew a vibrant and intricate portrait of the individual characters interwoven into a collective coming-of-age story. Full of vivid and fiery performances, this was a true ensemble piece which succeeded on the skill and teamwork of the all-female cast. “The Wolves” once again displayed URI Theatre’s sensitivity and boldness in confronting stories which center the voices and concerns of young people.
“Newsies” (Theatre By The Sea) – This summer’s most memorable show in Matunuck was Theatre By The Sea’s rowdy and energetic production of Disney’s “Newsies.” The star of this production was Charlie Sutton’s choreography, which showcased the performers’ grace and athleticism. Ensemble numbers like “The World Will Know” and “Seize the Day” dominated, but Clay Robert’s expressive and emotional rendering of the street-smart newsie Jack Kelly was a standout. Katie Claire McGrath gave a strong performance as the intrepid aspiring hard news reporter, Katherine Plumber. Along with the hard-earned gravitas, “Newsies” was an unflaggingly energetic and fun production which pleased summer audiences.
“A Brief History of the Earth and Everything in It…” (URI Theatre) – URI Theatre’s ambitious 2019-2020 season launched with a cheeky musical comedy which asked big questions about the meaning of life and the revolutionary power of musical theater. Directed by Rachel Walshe and co-sponsored by the URI Honors Colloquium on “Religion in America,” the show told the story of an eclectic group of third graders as they plot against their elementary school principal, who happens to be a conservative candidate for Governor. The five-person troupe of elementary school students was led by Conor Delaney’s eager earnestness as “popular” kid Derek, and Lauren Jannetti’s scene-stealing moments as the smart and sassy Maya.
“Wonder of the World” (CTC) – An offbeat departure from the lighthearted summer fare typically on the menu, CTC’s “Wonder of the World” was one of the most innovative and thought-provoking productions of the year. The show made the most of the zany, rapid-fire comic frenzy, but never lost sight of the tragedy right below the surface. Alexis Ingram set the tone in the central role of Cass, accepting her character’s desperate journey for finding meaning in a world where meaning is hard to find. Steph Rodger gave one of the finest tragicomic performances of the year as Lois, a delightfully poignant counterpoint to the main character. “Wonder of the World” was another example of CTC’s ability to use theater as a productive place of discovery where big questions can be explored through laughter and tears.
The Rebel Theater Group at South Kingstown High School also enjoyed a noteworthy smash hit musical, “The Addams Family,” and will present their own version of Disney’s “Newsies” in 2020. CTC will feature “We are Proud to Present” by 2019 Pulitzer Prize Winner Jackie Sibblies Drury, as well as their much-anticipated fall mainstage musical, Stephen Sondheim’s classic “Into the Woods.” Theatre By The Sea’s exciting 2020 lineup will include the jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Funny Girl,” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” The 2020 season finale will be the surprise Broadway hit “Kinky Boots” featuring an original score by Cyndi Lauper. URI closes their 2019-2020 season with Shakespeare’s “Richard III” followed by “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”
While 2019 might be hard to top, area theatergoers have a lot to look forward to in 2020, which should have something for everyone.