With 1995 barely a week away, it's time to consider the highlights (and even a few lowlights) of 1994.

I've complained time and again about all of the weary, dreary old warhorses being dragged out over and over again ad nauseum. Which is why my own "top 10" list of Wasatch Front theater productions for the past year is heavily slanted toward those that took some risks. (You'll see a pared-down list next week as part of the Deseret News City Desk's annual year-in-review, but I'm listing my 10 personal favorites here).At last count, there were nearly 300 stage productions statewide during 1994. For "top 10" consideration, I arbitrarily eliminate touring professional shows and "community theater" efforts, while focusing on shows mounted by the major local companies. I do not consider Salt Lake Community College's Grand Theatre, the Hale Center Theater and Pages Lane Theatre as "community" groups. The Grand is on par with Theatre-Works West, the resident theater company at Westminster College, and HCT and PLT, which operate year-round, are more semiprofessional.

I thought the best local productions during the past year were:

1. Conversations With My Father (Pioneer Theatre Company). This one did what good theater should do: raise issues and stir debate. Herb Gardner's drama was deeply and intensely moving. Much of the credit goes to director Tom Markus.

2. A Streetcar Named Desire (Utah Shakespearean Festival). Anything the USF does is first-class, but this was an intriguing look at a landmark drama, given new meaning in an era when, hopefully, we're more sensitive to social issues.

3. Twelve Angry Jurors (StageRight Theatre Company). A tautly written piece of theater, brought into the '90s with a different concept in casting. (We need to find this company a good permanent home!)

4. Jane Eyre: The Musical (Hale Center Theater). A rich, Broadway-quality score, fine acting and a well crafted script combined to turn this into an evening of memorable theater.

5. Romeo and Juliet (Pioneer Theatre Company). Artistic Director Charles Morey's nontraditional casting gave this timeless classic a new perspective. Juliet's family was Caucasian and the rival Montagues were African-American. This raised a few eyebrows, but I thought it was effective.

6. Keely and Du (Salt Lake Acting Company). An award-winning script by the elusive Jane Martin was perfectly suited to SLAC's intimate Downstairs Theatre, with stunning performances by Marilyn Holt, Annie Kleczkowski and Tony Larimer.

7. A Tale of Two Cities (Pioneer Theatre Company). Another of Chuck Morey's classic adaptations - done with consumate skill. It maintained a nice balance between intimate story and epic scale. Dickens would've liked it.

8. K2 (TheatreWorks West). This two-character play, about climbers trapped on one of world's most dangerous peaks, was a last-minute switch in TWW's season. A tense, riveting drama.

9. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (SLCC's Grand Theatre). Dazzling and spectacular, this edition would stand up against any professional troupe. And even better, it'll be back next summer (but only three weeks . . . why not three months?).

10. Medea (University of Utah's Classic Greek Theatre Festival). Who would've guessed that an ancient drama about a mother murdering her own offspring would suddenly become as topical as today's headlines. Well acted and staged, thanks largely to the skill of director Larry West.

- AND HERE'S A GLANCE at some major events on the local theater scene during the past year:

- During the first five months of '94, the theater community was stunned by the deaths of six of its most prominent and beloved thespians. They were Nathan Hale (Jan. 30), Keith Engar (in February), Jerri Grills Christian (March 14), Ron Van Woerden (April 11), Ariel Ballif (April 21), and Mike Westenskow (May 20).

For a while it felt like I had been reassigned to the obituary desk. These exceptional people all shared their ample talents on stage, behind the scenes and, in some cases, in the classroom.

- Happier notes: Kingsbury Hall was closed for a $10 million renovation project . . . it was announced that Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" will play for 101/2 weeks at the Capitol Theatre, beginning March 28, 1996 . . . Salt Lake Acting Company inaugurated its new Downstairs space . . . and the theater departments at WSU, BYU and the U. scored an unprecedented triple sweep - sending three Utah productions to the Kennedy Center as part of the annual American College Theatre Festival project.

SLCC's Grand Theatre reopened after a $400,000 renovation with all new seating, drapes and decor . . . native Utahn Keene Curtis donated his scripts and papers to the U.'s Marriott Library (and was honored with the College of Fine Arts' first Distinguished Alumni Award) . . . and Fred C. Adams, founder/executive producer of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, received Geneva Steel's 1994 Modern Pioneer Award.

Salt Lake Acting Company solved its financial turmoil . . . but proprietors of the Desert Star Playhouse (Mike Todd) and the Off Broadway (Bob Bedore) were embroiled in a lawsuit over script ownership and production rights. Stay tuned.

- I'VE TAKEN SOME FLAK about one of my recent reviews, including a letter from two patrons who commented they "were appalled to think someone would be so very critical of a performance that we thoroughly enjoyed."

The letter reminded me of a conversation several years ago, when one local theater publicist wondered why I didn't focus on "just the nice things" about a production and inferred that they needed a good review to sell tickets.

Well, I hate to break the news, but a critic's job - whether it's reviewing television, movies, visual arts, concerts or live theater - is not merely "to sell tickets."

I have season tickets to a number of theaters in Salt Lake City.

At many of these theaters, I'm in the audience on opening night. For SLAC, the reviewers wait until after a couple of "preview" performances, which gives the cast two nights in front of a live audience to work out any last-minute bugs.

No matter what night the critic goes, there's an unwritten understanding that the performance will be ready. Maybe not flawless, but at least reviewable.

The particular performance in question, regarding the letter I received, was the opening night of "Meet Me in St. Louis" at the Grand Theatre.

While I gave high marks to the cast, scenery and costuming, I

found that the sound was disastrous, the pacing sluggish and the orchestra below par - all based on what I saw and heard from my seat in the audience.

I didn't learn until later that there were, indeed, some extenuating circumstances. There had been additions to the orchestra just the night before and, on the night I attended, Channel 9 had changed frequencies, causing unforeseen technical problems with the FM microphone system. Had I known this beforehand I would have chosen to come another night.

I had also meant to praise Georgia Marshall's choreography, but somehow this never made it into print (newspapers, too, have occasional technical glitches).

View Comments

Most of the complaints I get from theater patrons is when I take one of their favorite companies to task for a poorly executed production. All too often they contend that squeaky clean theater is automatically "good" theater.

Sorry, that's just not so.

An inept, amateurish production of "The Sound of Music" or "Fiddler on the Roof" cannot be construed as "good theater."

Of course, "Meet Me in St. Louis" was neither inept nor amateurish, just the victim of some unexpected - but not insurmountable - problems.

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