On Theater: Solo shows shone at Playhouse

Of the seven productions staged during 2011 at the Laguna Playhouse, four of them featured one-person casts. And two of these surged to the front ranks as this column's choice for the theater's best shows of the year.

Both "Shirley Valentine" and "This Wonderful Life" — each based on a fully cast movie — excelled as solo accomplishments. And both featured performers who had previous experience with their roles, increasing the depth of characterization in each case.

In the case of "Shirley Valentine," the show marked the return of director Andrew Barnicle, who had just finished a 20-year run as artistic director of the playhouse with an admirable production of "Private Lives." Barnicle guided the star's interpretation with a steady and guiding hand, to paraphrase this paper's review.

"Shirley," as this column observed, "requires the perfect leading lady, and Deedee Rescher fills that role beautifully as a frustrated 46-year-old Liverpool housewife who yearns for a fling on a Greek island — and goes for it." The show was labeled "the perfect antidote for life's frustrations."

As for "Wonderful Life," actor James Leaming excelled by "honing in on the focal points of the story and impersonating the interpretive styles of the actors who played these characters" in the movie. Leaming "does yeoman duty with this all-time classic" under the direction of Peter Amster.

As for "Private Lives," this column observed that "Barnicle is at the top of his form in his farewell directorial thrust, keeping both the action and the dialogue richly robust. The Laguna Playhouse has nailed this classic comedy."

Also enjoyable were "I Left My Heart," a tribute to Tony Bennett; and "Girls Night," a patchy story line that served as a launching pad for some memorable musical nostalgia.

Hershey Felder returned in the other two solo performances for "Maestro" and "The Great American Songbook."

The performances of Rescher and Leaming were, not surprisingly, the best of the year at the playhouse. Felder continued to impress audiences, though not as strongly as in his previous interpretations of Gershwin, Chopin and Beethoven.

The cast of "Private Lives" — Winslow Corbett, Joseph Fuqua, Julie Granata and Matthew Floyd Miller — also delivered effectively, as did the ensemble from "Girls Night."

With 90 seasons in the books, the longest tenured theater in Orange County heads into 2012 with another musical offering, "Lonesome Traveler," opening Jan. 14.

TOM TITUS covers the local theater scene for the Coastline Pilot.

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