Saturday in the Arts is a weekly feature covering a trend, subject, event or personality of local interest. It runs every Saturday morning on your site for the best entertainment and arts coverage in the area, QuadCities.com!

Twenty-twenty-one was the year we were all supposed to get back to normal, wasn’t it?

After the punishing isolation and shutdowns of 2020, the life-saving promise of Covid vaccines and a new president who actually seemed to care about the health and sanity of Americans, we were ready to turn that corner in 2021, starting with a touted “hot vaxxed summer.”

Well, that dream only becomes fulfilled if everyone does their part (you know, like the UNITED States?), including not throwing away their shot (as a certain heralded Broadway character sang). But beginning with the cataclysmic, mind-bending insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last Jan. 6 (who cares about democracy?), 2021 was destined to turn into another dumpster fire, in which we all got burned in some way. Even with vaccines, the pandemic claimed more U.S. lives in 2021 than 2020 – there were 377,883 Covid-related deaths in less than 10 months the first year, and 444,836 more as of Dec. 31, 2021.

Looking Back on Recovering From Covid, and 2021’s Best of Live Theater

And on a national holiday, we had to lose a national treasure, Betty White on Friday, the last day of the year. Just 17 days from her 100th birthday, White was an irresistible comic genius who brought so much joy into our lives for seven decades.

Of course, Covid fears and constantly changing state and federal regulations played havoc with live performances everywhere. So many musicians, dancers, actors, directors, choreographers and the myriad other essential jobs in the U.S. entertainment industry saw their livelihoods disappear. Like everywhere else, arts organizations in the Quad-Cities also took varied approaches in how they could still deliver their vital programming to the public – who desperately longed for distraction, comfort and inspiration.

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Theaters like Circa ’21 and Quad City Music Guild took the time and infinite patience to assemble virtual productions (either collections of short, filmed excerpts, or straight filmed versions of live performances); companies found ways to pretty much continue uninterrupted through most of the pandemic (like Ballet Quad Cities and Black Box Theatre), and the Quad City Symphony Orchestra innovatively took to the airwaves to offer online access to concerts, including those with a socially distanced ensemble playing with no less conviction and gusto in an empty Adler Theatre.

Looking Back on Recovering From Covid, and 2021’s Best of Live Theater

The Adler Theatre, after “Book of Mormon” in June 2018.

The theaters I’d have to give the most credit to for adhering to Covid health and safety guidelines are Black Box and Music Guild jn Moline, and the new Mockingbird on Main in Davenport, an intimate 40-seat theater that opened in late July in downtown Davenport (with tables and chairs, and fabulous performances). While Covid regulations in Illinois overall have been much more stringent than Iowa, at the Mockingbird, all guests, artists, volunteers, staff, sponsors, and media are required to show valid proof of full vaccination in order to enter the arts space. Proof of vaccination may be digital or a physical card.

They have been the only Q-C theater so far to require proof of vaccination. ​Children under 12 and unvaccinated patrons must provide proof of a negative Covid test no more than 72 hours prior to attending an indoor performance. Additionally, all guests will be required to wear masks when inside The Mockingbird. Face masks are available at the door should you need one.

The small Black Box in downtown Moline (a 60-seat theater) was the first to re-open in 2020, that July, with the two-person “Turn of the Screw,” and kept on keeping on by staging small, affecting, non-musical plays, usually with actors wearing face shields. Co-owner Lora Adams has specialized in radio plays, which has given the Black Box an old-fashioned vibe, and she’s also required all patrons to wear face masks, which has been heartening and comforting for all of us. The theater blazingly returned with its first musical in two years, “Company,” in October, a thrilling revelation and turned out to be unwittingly apt, as six weeks later, with the Nov. 26 death of its legendary composer, Stephen Sondheim.

Looking Back on Recovering From Covid, and 2021’s Best of Live Theater

“The Mountaintop” set at Mockingbird on Main.

Music Guild – which lovingly produced an “On With the Show” video cabaret last April, in place of its spring show. It combined live songs from the Prospect Park stage, and documentary-style footage (narrated by Christina Myatt) on the wonderful history of “Broadway in the Park” since the beloved institution began in 1949. They continued again in June with a streamed version of Monty Python’s “Spamalot,” performed in a nearly empty theater, using pre-recorded tracks for the first time, instead of a live orchestra. For its August and November shows, Guild enforced the rule for all performers and patrons to wear face masks.

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A personal liberation in returning to live productions

After working from home since mid-March 2020, it was a personal highlight for me to get out of the house for my first live production April 29, 2021 at Davenport’s Outing Club, to see a dress rehearsal of Ballet Quad Cities’ colorful, kooky, enchanting “Alice in Wonderland.”

After shooting photos from behind a mask, and privileged to be the only journalist there, I wrote in my review: Performed with characteristic polish, poise, and tremendous energy by the professional company, this latest “Alice” faced another hurdle in being staged at the elegant, spacious ballroom at The Outing Club in Davenport – BQC’s new home during this past (crazy and unprecedented) season.

I was lucky enough to be asked to see a dress rehearsal Thursday that was filmed by Mediacom for future broadcast – finally attending my first live, in-person cultural event in over 15 months.

Looking Back on Recovering From Covid, and 2021’s Best of Live Theater

Meghan Phillips stars as the title character in Ballet Quad Cities’ “Alice in Wonderland.”

After that Covid-fueled eternity, like being stuck in a rabbit hole or lost and starving in the desert, I lapped up the grace, beauty, and eye-popping, colorful characters with thirsty gusto (I wore a mask in the nearly empty room, and true to form, the dancers were unmasked, though they typically wear face coverings during rehearsal). The athletic, professional dancers made the Outing Club – both indoors and outdoors – their inviting home over the pandemic, until their long-awaited return to the Adler this December, for the gorgeous holiday tradition, “The Nutcracker.”

Our family has been especially cautious about Covid (my wife is still not comfortable attending an indoor live show), but I have been fortunate enough to find ways to see live theater since my first show back in early June, “Beehive” at the Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, Rock Island, switching to plated meal service instead of buffets.

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Circa has long been a home away from home for me, and it was an ecstatic thrill to be back there (or anywhere for an indoor meal) for the first time in 17 months. With six amazing female performers, “Beehive” presented an exuberant, panoramic trip through the musical, social and political landscape of the turbulent ‘60s, with outstanding renditions of more than 30 songs of the decade – many in brief, quick succession.

Looking Back on Recovering From Covid, and 2021’s Best of Live Theater

Soon after that show, I got to luxuriate in the warm bath of another nostalgic musical – the simple and simply glorious “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” at Moline’s Spotlight Theatre. I had lots of memories coming in to the stunning, soaring space of the Spotlight, to see my first production there in a LONG time, with about 75 other patrons. Co-owner Sara Tubbs perfectly articulated my enthusiasm for live theater in her pre-show introduction.

“We are just thrilled we are open, have a live audience, and are doing a musical again!” she exclaimed, on the first night Illinois allowed performance venues to open with no limits on audience capacity. (And I got to enjoy Spotlight’s classy new Blueprint bar!!). The heartfelt, poignant musical literally was “Happiness.”

Reflecting on the best of what I saw

Despite the challenges of the past year, there has been so much to be thankful for in Q-C arts and culture, especially the persistence, creativity and innovation so many people showed by giving us these wondrous products – whether on screen or in person.

After over a year of staying home, and isolated, Mississippi Bend Players producing artistic director Jackie McCall wrote in the June 2021 program that they’re “blessed to be able to bring back the incomparable shared experience of sitting in a darkened theatre amongst friends and strangers, witnessing a story unfold before our very eyes.”

Theater always has been a way we make sense of the chaos that surrounds us (together as a communal, unique experience), so staying away over the past 15 months was very painful, she wrote.

Looking Back on Recovering From Covid, and 2021’s Best of Live Theater

Jackie McCall is producing artistic director for Mississippi Bend Players.

“This year helped to prove something that theatre already knew to be true…art matters!” McCall wrote. “Art allowed us to mentally escape the confines of our homes. It entertained us, educated us, and inspired us with many wonderful virtual productions and streaming shows. And yet it wasn’t enough. Nothing can adequately replace the experience of a live performance.”

That is exactly right – we can certainly admire the wit, humor, artistry and beauty of performances while watching alone from home, but there is an intangible glory and communion to witnessing them amongst a group of strangers and friends. You are seeing something that literally can be different every time, and we’re sharing this experience, giving it an urgency, immediacy and electricity that can never be duplicated while seeing a virtual production.

Mississippi Bend Players is a professional summer stock company based at Brunner Theatre Center at Augustana College.

Mississippi Bend Players is a professional summer stock company based at Brunner Theatre Center at Augustana College.

So, while I certainly didn’t see close to every major production in the area since even June, these are my picks for the best of what I did see in 2021 in live theater –

  • Best Play: “Red,” at Mississippi Bend Players, Augustana College. Over an emotional 90-minute rollercoaster — in an action-packed, dialogue-dense one act, first-class director Cait Bodenbender and peerless actors Mike Schulz and Tristan Odenkirk grabbed your attention and never let go. It’s as riveting, passionate, thought-provoking – and deeply committed – a piece of theater I had seen in a long time.
  • Best Musical: “Newsies,” at Countryside Community Theatre, Eldridge. Bringing this thrilling 2012 musical to ecstatic life, the massive, expertly controlled production was arguably the most committed, energetic and full-throated show I had seen up to that point in the summer. It was as if the 33-member CCT cast was performing their last production before another extended shutdown; they’re clearly giving it more than the cliched 110 percent. They MEAN it, want to make it count, and it showed, spectacularly.
Looking Back on Recovering From Covid, and 2021’s Best of Live Theater

Ashley Becher is director and choreographer for “Newsies.”

  • Best Director: Ashley Becher of “Newsies,” who is a triple threat (acting, directing, choreographing). For the exhilarating “Newsies,” she took on the latter two tasks with tremendous assurance and style. You could clearly see Becher loves this show so much, partly since the story is centered around community – that people are better when they’re together and work together toward a single goal (how relevant today). And she handled the huge group dance numbers with power and panache, an exciting gift to behold.
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  • Best Actor: (tie) Mike Schulz of “Red” and Adam Cerny of “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” (Playcrafters in Moline). Schulz, a longtime actor of note, has long been one of my favorites to see on stage. He dependably brings an enviable level of intensity and commitment to every role, which perfectly suited him to the tragic perfectionist artist, Mark Rothko, in his second production of “Red” in nine years. While “Red” is only a two-person one-act, don’t get the idea it’s a small play. It contains multitudes, and many big themes – the heart and soul, meaning and motivation behind artistic creation itself is as large as the universe. Playwright John Logan – with painstaking precision, wit and care – articulately addresses the influence of mentors, parents, youth and aging, commercialism, popularity, legacies, and our own personal interpretation of art, and Schulz was again electrifying in the domineering, heartbreaking role. Adam Cerny is equally an actor I have adored for a long time and consistently brings magnetism and star power to each of his parts. So, he also was ideal as the flamboyantly gay dancer teacher in the two-person “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” at Playcrafters. Due to the strength of his personality, he has no problem commanding attention and dominating a stage. He has such a charismatic, unpretentious presence, whether it’s drama or comedy, he is so thrilling and captivating to watch.
Looking Back on Recovering From Covid, and 2021’s Best of Live Theater

Playcrafters veterans Stephanie Naab and Adam Cerny starred in “Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks.”

  • Best Actress: Shelley Cooper, “Mary & Ethel: How I Learned To Sing,” Mississippi Bend Players. A theater professor at Augustana College, Cooper also is a staggering triple threat as performer, director and choreographer, who had an equally impressively busy 2021. MBP again transformed the Brunner Theatre Center into a spacious, sophisticated cabaret with Cooper’sheartfelt, deeply personal one-woman show, “Mary and Ethel: How I Learned to Sing.” The panoramic, highly entertaining production – that debuted at the Circa ‘21 Speakeasy in September 2020, contains 26 classic musical numbers from musical theater Golden Age icons Mary Martin (1913-1990) and Ethel Merman (1908-1984). Besides commanding attention and affection in the challenging one-person format (with the great Mason Moss on piano), Cooper adeptly revealed her passion for musical theater, including many personal anecdotes, and more adroitly reflected the very different personalities and styles of the two female Broadway titans. The first half had 12 numbers made famous by the more demure, lovely and vulnerable Martin, and second half with 14 from the bigger, tougher and brassier Merman – Cooper at one point compared Mary’s voice to an oboe and Ethel to a trumpet, and you could tell the stylistic difference right from the start of the second act. That’s talent.
  • Best Supporting Actor: Adam Sanders, “Little Shop of Horrors,” Spotlight Theatre, Moline. The hilarious, dizzyingly delightful “Little Shop” is one of my favorite musicals, and it was given a pitch-perfect rendering this past fall at Spotlight. With its top-notch crew, passionate on-stage orchestra pit, to every acting part ideally cast, this has to be the most fun and fully-realized show I’ve seen yet at the three-year-old Spotlight. A good deal of that was due to the over-the-top Adam Sanders, as the villainous dentist (and Audrey’s first boyfriend), Orin. Sanders went all in, with a gleam in his dark, intense eyes, as a crazed, full-throated, evil psychopath. He was truly a gas, scary and immensely satisfying in two showstopping numbers. Sanders was flamboyant and frenzied, with a barely controlled cackle, fully making the most of both scenes.
Looking Back on Recovering From Covid, and 2021’s Best of Live Theater

Shelley Cooper

 

  • Best Supporting Actress: Sydney Dexter, “Disenchanted,” Circa ’21. In a similar style, Circa’s goofy take on Disney princesses was a much-needed relief and warm-hearted parody from top to bottom. Also in September, “Disenchanted” popped a good-natured (and often bitingly accurate) pin in the inflated, unrealistic images of 10 Disney princesses. The fun-filled, energetic musical revue – with six actresses — was given its winningly entertaining Q-C premiere, highlighted by Dexter – a Circa Bootlegger who stole every scene she was in as Belle, Ariel and Rapunzel. Always supremely silly, she was appropriately uninhibited in each role. As Ariel from “Little Mermaid,” Dexter was a dexterous, drunken redneck – once she discards her mermaid outfit, she revealed a denim skirt, knee pads, white socks and red heels. And her country crooning while hoisting a beer was a hoot. She also went all out as the stern, domineering Rapunzel, decrying that the German princess was Americanized and commercialized by Disney. With Snow White and Cinderella, Dexter gleefully owned the audience-participation number “Not Vone Red Cent” (about how Rapunzel never made anything off her merchandising), and it was about the best thing in the show.
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  • Best Costumes: “Holiday Inn,” Music Guild. Even while performed with everyone wearing cloth masks, this beautiful holiday musical was impeccable. The visual splendor was led by set designer Andy Sederquist and costume designer Joe Thomas, and my gosh, did they do their jobs with amazing professionalism and panache. The classic story’s country life (including a rustic painted backdrop) was contrasted sharply with the showbiz city life, in many sparkly nightclub scenes. There were countless costume changes in “Holiday Inn,” and the outfits were imaginatively colorful and spot-on, to evoke each of the holidays in which the scene is set. The six-member all-female dance ensemble was responsible for many of the costume changes, and together with their enviable energy, helped make the show a true gift.
  • Best Lighting: “Six Dance Lessons,” Playcrafters. This is a tough category for me to judge, in part since most people take lighting design for granted, unless they notice when something may go wrong. “Six Dance Lessons” didn’t feature much variety in lighting, but when it did, you noticed it for sure. The play didn’t just rely on the impressive talents of its actors Stephanie Naab and Adam Cerny, but the many hours and weeks of work from a 21-person crew, led by Jennifer Kingry – who not only directed, but designed the elegant, upscale, peach-colored set, operated the sound and light board, helped with costumes and did publicity photos. A good bit of the magic created on stage was produced by the beautiful backdrop of the sea and sky, and lit to tremendous effect to reflect sunsets – particularly in the “Try to Remember” waltz, and closing fadeout with “What a Wonderful World.” Those pink and orange highlights are not in the paint, but in the lights. The mural artist here was Leart Damoni, who is from Pristina, Kosovo.
  • Best Set Design: “Murder in Green Meadows,” Black Box. I also have long admired the excellent taste of Lora Adams, who has consistently presented high-quality productions, both from the performance and visual aspects. This August play featured a quartet of the Quad-Cities’ most talented, experienced actors in a tense, psychological thriller, helmed by an enthusiastic, dedicated student director, Jacqueline Isaacson. Even before a line is uttered, the upscale, sophisticated living room set is impressive to behold. I’d love to live there myself – it seems so inviting and comfortable. But comfortable is something this intense, chilling story was not. In the intelligent, unpredictable plot, Thomas Devereaux (James Driscoll), and his beautiful wife, Joan (Jenny Winn), have just moved into their dream house – literally the subdivision’s “model” home — in the quiet suburban town of Green Meadows when they are visited by their new neighbors, Carolyn (Adams) and Jeff Symons (Jonathan Grafft), and a friendship develops quickly between the two couples. Adams’ talent in set design is in partnership with her handyman husband, Michael Kopriva, a superb, exacting builder. In her program note, Adams thanked him as “husband, carpenter, enabler of dreams.” Thank you, too, Lora, for making this nightmare of a story a dream come true. And keeping this jewel of a theater alive in hard times.
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  • Best Virtual Production: “Let’s Fall in Love” cabaret, Circa ’21 and In some of the darkest days of the pandemic, last February, we got some love-filled medicine just when we needed, the online cabaret “Let’s Fall in Love.” It cleverly featured the talents (including cute interviews of couples) of many performers not only from Circa, but the Black Box TheatreCenter for Living ArtsCountryside Community TheatreDavenport Junior TheatreDouble Threat StudiosMississippi Bend Players/AugustanaQC Theatre WorkshopQuad City Music Guildand The Spotlight Theatre. Organized and edited by the boundlessly talented married couple Ashley and Bobby Becher, “Let’s Fall in Love” clearly shows not only why these people love theater and each other, but they literally were brought together by theater. If you’re a musical theater fan like me, you appreciated not only the gorgeous vocal and expressive talents of the dedicated singers here, but it was cool to learn how they met, plus value and nurture their relationship. The big finale, Elephant Love Medley (from “Moulin Rouge”) was sung (as separate couples blended together) by the Bechers, the Walljaspers, Greers, Sederquists, Churchills, Sanders(es), Tapscott and Strandin, Warren and Austin (Double Threat); as well as Brycen Witt and Virgil Hajdys (Augustana/MBP). All nine couples raised their passionate voices at the end for “I Will Always Love You.” Kudos to everyone for making this thrilling, inspiring ode to love possible, and it showed what’s possible when rival theaters also can work together, making beautiful, life-affirming music. Music and art can absolutely connect us, show us what’s important, give us a way to express what we feel — and these incredible artists all deserve our thanks and support.
Looking Back on Recovering From Covid, and 2021’s Best of Live Theater

Ashley and Bobby Becher perform “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).”

Picks from Tristan Tapscott

Here are more “Best of 2021” picks from QuadCities.com’s Tristan Tapscott (a frequent actor at Circa who also co-owns The Mockingbird on Main).

BEST MUSICAL:

  • “Newsies” brought everything to table and was a master class in what community theatre COULD be.

BEST PLAY:

  • “Red.” Astonishing. That’s it. That’s the whole comment.

BEST ACTOR:

  • Mike Schulz, “Red.” I couldn’t stop watching him and was completely lost in his performance. It was ultimate game of pretend.

BEST ACTRESS:

  • Shelley Cooper, “La Divina.” Shelley commanded the stage in a one-woman show where she not only monologued for 90 minutes but also managed to sing some wonderful operatic tunes. It takes some serious skill to pull that off.

SUPPORTING ACTOR:

  • Gary Talsky, “Princeton’s Rage,” Playcrafters. I mentioned in my review that it was some of the best acting I’d seen on Playcrafters stage, right up there with John VandeWoestyne’s Willy Loman and Ed Villareal’s Lenny.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

  • Sydney Dexter, “Disenchanted.” There was a moment where I didn’t breathe for a solid 5 minutes because I was laughing so hard at this majestic comedic tour de force!

DIRECTOR:

 Ashley Becher, “Newsies.” Becher is proving herself to be THE true MVP of the local theatre scene. She believes in what’s possible and always strives for BETTER.

SET DESIGN:

  • Cameron Strandin, “Red.” Flawless. That’s all.

LIGHTING DESIGN:

  • Cameron Strandin, “Red.” See above.

COSTUME DESIGN:

  • Greg Hiatt, “Disenchanted.” Sir Greg Hiatt is a national treasure and we don’t deserve him.

BEST VIRTUAL PRESENTATION:

This is tough because I was involved in all of them and I’m going to go ahead and say what Ashley and Bobby Becher accomplished with their virtual event, “Let’s Fall in Love,” was rad. They brought several organizations together and it was a beautiful!

 

 

Looking Back on Recovering From Covid, and 2021’s Best of Live Theater
Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.
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