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Community theaters had it all this year

Which borough can boast more than 26 community theaters? Queens, of course. A transplant to Queens, I was introduced to local community theaters a few years back when I saw two productions of my favorite musical, “My Fair Lady,” in one year: a terrific one at St. Mary’s Drama Guild in Woodside, and a silly one four months later with another group. I have since learned that the quality of local community theaters ranges from “totally professional” to “totally in need of professional help.” But somehow, it’s almost always great fun to see what groups are up to.

After the horror of Sept. 11, Queens theater groups met the challenge to keep theater going, resulting in quite a display of imagination, variety, and quality. Of the plays that I saw since September, here are the ones I cite for their quality, albeit some with reservation. If you saw any of these plays, you got your money’s worth. If a favorite play or group of yours is not on the list, I can only say that I will work harder to see more productions in the future.

The plays are listed in chronological order. The ratings are as follows:

**** = excellent

*** = very good

** = good

* = good with reservations

Fall-Winter 2001

• Room Service (Theatre Time, Whitestone) A nice cast, particularly the supporting players, earmarked this production. However, this comedy is about the Depression, when people desperately needed work, and that was never felt in the pacing or characterizations. What we got instead were lots of cute sight gags. **

• Nuts (Douglaston Community Theatre) Adult, powerful drama with innovative staging and special effects. This production was the best drama in Queens this year. It brought to life the true-life sanity hearing of a prostitute charged with murder, with her hard-fighting attorney pitted against the prostitute’s own mother and stepfather. The entire cast was excellent. ****

• I’m Not Rappaport (Beari Productions, Middle Village) An earnest cast worked overtime to animate this emotional story of two old men on a park bench, sharing their different lives. Pacing was the issue here, and it’s always a bit hard to believe younger men in old men’s make-up, but the emotions were real and the characterizations sincere. ***

• Fiorello (Free Synagogue of Flushing Theatre Group) The best musical production of the year, this production was well cast, from the leads to the chorus, with just a few clunkers. The energetic production numbers attested to tireless preparation. Mayor LaGuardia had boundless energy — and three cheers for those card players. ***

• I Hate Hamlet (Theatre à la Carte, Douglaston) This comedy about the ghost of John Barrymore helping an actor who is facing his debut as Hamlet, had a stunning set, great costumes, an outstanding Barrymore, some exceptional ladies, and expert pacing, but was marred by quirky acting styles for the other two characters. ***

• South Pacific (St Mary’s Drama Guild, Woodside) Nowhere near the high-water mark of last year’s “The Sound of Music,” this production boasted a grand Nellie and Bloody Mary. **

• A Man for All Seasons (Parkside Players, Forest Hills) This great play about the “innocent” St. Thomas Moore was oddly cast, with a rather severe St. Thomas and a Brooklyn-voiced narrator at the helm. When I felt compelled to cheer for the “villain” (who was excellent), I knew things were a bit askew. Yet the production was still successful in the power of its message. ***

Winter-Spring 2001

• Second Bananas (Parkside Players, Forest Hills) This fluffy romp about actors sabotaging their own play featured a delightful cast, including a guy who spoke in four accents, a Mafia hit-man on the prowl, a clueless ingénue, a gay production assistant with an attitude, a soap opera star who made animal sounds, and an Italian director who demanded total obedience. ***

• Witness for the Prosecution (Theatre Time, Whitestone) Agatha Christie’s masterpiece about an apparently avenging wife and her clueless husband, who turn the tables in a shocking finale, was performed by a good cast—albeit with a few clunkers. However, these performers needed more psychological depth to make these great roles really convincing. ***

• You Can’t Take It with You (Colonial Players, Hollis Hills) A lovely set and diverse cast worked hard to make sense out of this Depression-era play. The grandfather and the countess were exceptional. But why did the director attempt to move the play to modern day? You can’t talk about 1930s salaries, while holding a cell phone in your hand. **

• Hello Dolly! (Marathon Players, Little Neck) A fine leading lady was the notable contribution here. She sang and acted with charm and style. Hello, Dolly, indeed! *

• The Odd Couple, Female Version (Beari Productions, Middle Village) Two solid leading ladies, whose different personalities nearly bring them to blows, made this production work. The card players ensemble, however, needed drill, drill and more drill to quicken their pace. However, they all took time to develop cute individual personalities. **

• The Mousetrap (Theatre à la Carte, Douglaston) Our TimesLedger review called this, “a perfect production.” I did not write the review, but agree completely. With great depth of characterization, tart style, a juicy blend of humor and suspense, eerie lighting and music, and a great set, I have rarely seen Agatha Christie’s time-honored classic done so well. ****

• Over the River and Through the Woods (Douglaston Community Theatre) My Italian antennae told me that only one of the four “Italian” grandparents in this cast was anywhere near Italian. Sorry guys, but wigs and make up do not produce the required Italian temperament. Yet the cast did give a decent enough reading of the play and young couple was terrific. **

• Denial (Baker’s Repertory, Little Neck) Some solid performances and an intriguing plot about the idea that the Holocaust was a hoax resulted in a gripping, disturbing production ***

• Once Upon a Mattress (Parkside Players, Forest Hills) With a fine leading lady and a delightful ladies’ ensemble, this production was bound to please. However, some of the cast was working at a such cartoon-like level that this retelling of “The Princess and the Pea” lacked the humanity and charm that is at its core. **

• Move Over Mrs. Markham (Phoenix Players, College Point) The best comedy in Queens this year, this British sex farce featured enough confused identities, sexual innuendo, and comic confrontations to fill a TV series. Generally well played, with some standout performances, the pace, unfortunately, was not as quick as it needed to be sustain the laughter. ***

• The War of the Worlds (Gingerbread Players, Forest Hills) This staging of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast done as a radio play with “eyewitnesses” walking up to the “microphone” to describe an alien invasion of Earth had style, humor, and ultimately, impact. But why was that sound technician sitting in modern dress in the middle of the set? ***

Based on the quality of these productions, I commend the following groups for the overall excellence of their contributions to quality local theater in Queens this year:

• 1st place: Theatre à la Carte (Douglaston)

• 2nd place: Parkside Players (Forest Hills)

• 3rd place: Douglaston Community Theater

Honorable Mention:

Theatre Time (Whitestone); Beari Productions (Middle Village); Colonial Players (Hollis Hills).

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