A Look Back at Sonoma County Theatre in 2017

It’s that time of year again for the usual “Best of…” lists where critics review their picks for the best (and sometimes worst) in music, movies, fashion, etc. and give people at holiday parties something to argue about. For the past three years my approach has been a little different as I prefer to offer a few “Special End of Year Awards” to Sonoma County theatres and artists. Here are the 2017 awardees:

The “Now You See It, Now You Don’t” Award –  The Santa Rosa Junior College production of It Can’t Happen Here opened on October 6 and closed on October 8. The adaptation of the 1935 Sinclair Lewis novel about the rise of a populist blow-hard to the Presidency had a lot to say about our current political climate, but not a lot of people had a chance to see it. Its run was cut short with the closure of the SRJC campus as a result of the fires.

The “Show Must Go On” Award – Many theatre companies understandably postponed their runs during the North Bay fires. Cinnabar Arts and Spreckels Theatre Company went on with their scheduled openings of Quartet and Monty Python’s Spamalot. While neither facility was in immediate danger, I was conflicted about the decision. I attended both productions, enjoyed them both, and was glad they decided to open.  That being said, I’m still not sure they should have.

The “Yes, There IS Diversity in Sonoma County, Dammit” Award – The Santa Rosa Junior College production of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s In the Heights proved the claim that there isn’t a diverse enough talent pool from which to cast many shows is suspect. Perhaps choosing shows in a season that speak and appeal to more diverse artists and audiences would widen the pool. Maybe it’s also time to check some artistic egos at the door and go and find them.

The “Big Things Come in Small Packages” Award – The studio theatres of Sonoma County’s largest companies often offered superior work to that displayed on their main stages –  6th Street’s Visiting Mr. Green and A Masterpiece of Comic… Timing and Spreckels’ The Sugar Bean Sisters and Little Women, the Musical for example.

The “Out of Left Field” Award – Not many people are willing to venture out to Monte Rio to catch theatre. You should give it a shot. You’re not going to get the bells and whistles other production companies may provide, but Curtain Call can do a lot with a little. They put on an excellent production of The Elephant Man with local comedian James Rowan giving an incredibly touching performance as John Merrick.

The “One is the Loneliest Number” Award –  I’ve been asked a couple of times “If you could open up a theatre company in Sonoma Country, what kind of shows would you do?”  Getting past the issue that no one in their right mind would open another theatre company in this area, my answer is “one-person shows.” Why? Well, this year we had Patrick Varner as a Streisand employee, Libby Villari as a former Texas governor, Sheri Lee Miller as a ghost, and David Yen as a disgruntled Christmas elf. All were highly entertaining and each came down to a single performer and an audience.

The “No, I’ve Got Something in My Eye” Award – I found myself quite taken with two holiday presentations (that aren’t really holiday plays.) Main Stage West’s Daddy Long Legs and Spreckels’ Little Women, the Musical took me by surprise. Credit the artists for getting me to dust off the adjective “sweet” in my vocabulary.

The “Better Than It Had Any Right to Be” Award – The Redwood Theatre Company has impressed me in its short life for the energy and passion they bring to their productions. As one who has never succumbed to the cult of Star Wars, my expectations for their production of Brittany Law’s original musical parody The Farce Awakens were not high. I expected it to be a bunch of young folk in cheesy costumes with dime-store props saying silly things. That is EXACTLY what it was, and yet it was all delivered with such a sense of joy and fun that they won me over.

The “If You Build It, They Will Come” Award – Sonoma County is blessed with several excellent set designers who often do wonders with relatively tiny, restricted spaces. The sets for Cinnabar’s Man of La Mancha, Spreckel’s The Sugar Bean Sisters, and Main Stage West’s The Birds all grabbed your attention and transported you to another place from the moment you walked through the theatre door.

The “Just (Don’t) Do It” Award – Just because a show hasn’t been done in Sonoma County before (or in a long time), doesn’t mean it should be done. Some are chestnuts that are best left buried (The Children’s Hour), while others just aren’t very good (David Mamet’s Race.) And why do companies recycle shows that have played in the community within the past few years? You couldn’t pick one of the other 1,000 plays available?

Live theatre continues to struggle in Sonoma County (as it does most any place else.) Like many residents, the theatre community did not escape the fires unscathed with some companies losing their performance space and others losing equipment, props and costumes. Numerous theatre artists lost their homes. Live theatre will go on because Sonoma County supports it but, as with every other part of our community, change is inevitable.

Part of that change will be me moving over to the North Bay Bohemian where I’ll be reviewing theatre on a weekly basis. My thanks to David Templeton for providing local theatre criticism for the past 16 years and for his support of my continuing to provide that coverage to North Bay audiences.

I’ll see you at the theatre.

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