On Theater: Eli Simon and Nicole Cassesso share 2017 honors

Editor’s note: This is the last of three columns reviewing 2017 in local theater.

Excellence in the theater starts at the top — the producers who select the plays or musicals their theaters will produce, then map out the process of their implementation. Often they take on directing and performing duties as well.

Two such individuals are singled out today, one who created and has directed a summer project of Shakespeare Under the Stars since 2012, the other a musical theater actress who doubles as executive director of her theater company. Their organizational and creative skills have bolstered local theater immeasurably.

The Daily Pilot/TimesOC Man and Woman of the Year in Theater for 2017 are the artistic director of UC Irvine’s New Swan Shakespeare Festival and the executive director of One More Productions at the Gem Theater in Garden Grove, Eli Simon and Nicole Cassesso.

Simon is a Chancellor’s Professor of acting at UCI, where he chaired the drama department for five years and spent another 11 years as head of acting. Since 2012, he has overseen the New Swan festival and directed one of the two shows presented each summer.

Simon wrote a book on his theatrical specialty, “The Art of Clowning” in 2008 and describes it as “illuminating a complete system of clowning that encourages the exploration, expansion and fortification of your distinct clown persona.” He’s also the artistic director of the original clown troupe Clownzilla.

He has directed more than 100 productions at major Shakespearean festivals, regional theaters and international venues. His New Swan shows during the past five years have been highly successful.

Cassesso had quite a year. She started it off as Young Sally in “Follies,” then played the title role in a reprise production of “Always ... Patsy Cline.” She had a strong supporting role in “The Wedding Singer” and finished up 2017 with her stunning performance as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.”

This precocious young star hit the stage at the age of 3 and has been performing ever since. She won two Spirit of the Macy Awards as Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” and also has headlined shows like “Chicago,” “Company,” “Damn Yankees,” “Dames at Sea,” “Grease” and “Into the Woods,” just to mention a few.

In 2004, Cassesso and director Damien Lorton teamed up to form One More Productions, which took up residence in the Gem Theater four years later. She has produced more than 30 fully staged musicals, plays, new works, events and fundraisers, helping to raise more than $100,000 for other nonprofit organizations.

Simon and Cassesso are two of the brightest stars in the local theater galaxy and eminently qualified to receive the 87th and 88th man and woman of the year honors accorded by this publication since 1974.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

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