Tag Archives: Spotlight Youth Theatre

Slice of life

I enjoyed a slice of life as only Sondheim can deliver it last night, attending the first Valley production of “Sweeney Todd School Edition,” which is being performed by Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale through Sunday. Folks who hit tonight’s show can enjoy the added thrill of sharing the company’s 2012/13 season reveal.

I ran into director Kenny Grossman after the show. “You’re a brave man,” I told him. “That’s a big show for a small stage.” It only worked because of clever set design — the work of Grossman and Bobby Sample. There’s also serious fun with props, the work of Vicki Grossman. (Think tools of the meat pie trade.)

There’s even a pair of Grossmans in the cast. Carly Grossman is part of the very capable ensemble, and Jamie Grossman completely rocked the role of Mrs. Lovett. Sondheim is a bear to sing, but she’s got both serious vocal chops and delightful comedic timing. The University of Arizona musical theatre program is fortunate that she’s joining their freshman class next year.

A warning to mom and pop Grossman, however. That freshman year sails by. Seems we just sent daughter Lizabeth off to college, and she’s returning next week proud to be a sophomore already. Attend the tale of the empty nest. Several seniors in the cast share college plans in their program bios — including ASU’s Barrett College/Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Tyler J. Gasper, whose program bio notes that he’ll “soon be heading to New York City,” performs the role of Sweeney Todd. Gasper has performed with several Valley theater companies, including Arizona Broadway Theatre, Hale Centre Theatre, Theater Works and Desert Stages Theatre. Gasper’s bio also notes that he’s been cast in the Phoenix Theatre production of “Spring Awakening” so fans will know where to find him.

Several cast members were culled from Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix and the Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics in Peoria, including some I saw in another area first — a school production of “Spring Awakening.” This is another “mature content” musical and Spotlight notes that parental guidance is suggested.

Though I wasn’t wild about every element of the show, I felt sympatico with Grossman’s vision the minute I read his director’s statement. “Sweeney Todd, School Edition isn’t about violence and blood,” he wrote. “It is a very complex story about injustice.” Its themes resonate in contemporary American society, consumed by discrepencies between the 99% and the 1%.

“The characters,” adds Grossman, “are emotional and deep.” He advises theater goers to “Focus on the love and tortured souls of the characters” rather than the musical’s violence and blood. Teens will take me to task for saying this, but it’ll be a few years until they fully appreciate the depth of love hidden amidst all that blood. That’s part of the challenge in giving youth such meaty roles.

Grossman’s note also alludes to the humor in this work, which features book by Hugh Wheeler in addition to music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. I’ve seen two previous productions of “Sweeney Todd” and this was the funniest by far — in a good way. My favorite part of the show has always been a song titled “Johanna.” Butcher that and it’s all over in my book. Thankfully, Sam Brouillette (Anthony Hope) does a lovely job with the melody.

Half the fun was hearing reactions of audience members who’ve apparently never seen the musical before. The cumulative effect of revenge gone wrong is shocking in the show’s final scenes, and I enjoyed hearing a good gasp or two. But I was puzzled by the use of head mics in such a small house with actors plenty good at projecting their voices.

Still, I’m hoping folks will support the Spotlight Youth Theatre production of “Sweeney Todd School Edition.” It’s a slice of life that’s hard to find elsewhere, and it took real guts to put it on their menu.

— Lynn

Note: The musical director for “Sweeney Todd School Edition” at Spotlight Youth Theatre is Mark 4Man. Costumes are by Tamara Treat. Hair and make-up is by Angel DeMichael. Please note that although a Monday matinee is listed on their website, your final chance to see the show is Sunday, May 6.

Coming up: Museum meets asylum, Jim Gradillas talks playwriting

Update: Spotlight Youth Theatre’s 2012/13 season includes “The Little Mermaid Jr.” (Oct 26 -Nov 11), “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” (Dec 12 – Dec 23), “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (Jan 11 – Jan 27), “The Yellow Boat” (Feb 15 – Mar 3), “Once On This Island” (Apr 5 – Apr 21), “Footloose” (May 24 – Jun 6). Weigh in on their Facebook page. Post updated 5/6/12.

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Sondheim — student style

I’d never really considered the difficulty of singing Sondheim until I watched the second act of ASA’s current production of “Into the Woods.” I’d spent the first part of the evening enjoying a Rising Youth Theatre dress rehearsal, so all the fairytale folly of “Into the Woods” was well underway by the time I got there.

My own stellar singing career consisted of back-up vocals in bars with a bent for country western tunes while working to put myself through grad school. I thought everybody read Kant and Sartre steeped in bowls of stale peanuts, but nowadays I suppose we should be grateful to find folks reading just about anything.

Original Broadway cast recording of "Into the Woods"

If you’re fond of reading fairy tales, you might enjoy the twist on all things “happily ever after” that’s at the heart of “Into the Woods” — a musical featuring book by James Lapine plus music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a writer whose work I’m still exploring in the hot pink “Look, I Made a Hat.”

“Into the Woods” opened at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 1986, where George Takei of “Star Trek” fame opens his new musical “Allegiance” later this year. It moved to Broadway in 1987 with Bernadette Peters in the role of “Witch” and Johanna Gleason in the role of “Baker’s Wife” (the role Amy Adams will rock during this year’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “Into the Woods” from Public Theater in NYC).

The Arizona School for the Arts production, directed by Beck (she uses just a single name), was hysterical. Think funny, not frantic. The student cast in the role of Witch did an especially fine job singing Sondheim’s material. I’m hoping they’ll send a program my way so I can share the student’s name and give her proper credit for a truly solid performance.

I was less wowed by the set, built out (perhaps to house student musicians — who also did a stellar job) rather than recessed. I’d have preferred more of a deep, dark forest vibe, but that’s probably just my love affair with trees talking. And I’m about as qualified to design sets as I am to sing in front of even the most intoxicated patrons.

2006 Broadway cast recording of "Sweeney Todd"

Over in Glendale, Spotlight Youth Theatre is performing “Sweeney Todd: School Edition” featuring book by Hugh Wheeler plus music and lyrics by Sondheim. Music Theatre International notes that “Sweeney Todd” was adapted for youth performance by “working directly with Mr Sondheim to retain the dark wit and grand scope of the original work, with a few lyric and key changes to facilitate high school productions.”

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is based on Christopher Bond’s take on “The String of Pearls,” believed by some to be rooted at least partially in historical events. It opened on Broadway in 1979 with a cast that included Len Carious (Sweeney Todd) and Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Lovett).

Some consider “Sweeney Todd” a tale of ruin and revenge — but I’ve always been more partial to its tender, rather than tenderized, side. A family torn apart. A young man pining for a girl who’s out of reach. A motherless boy seeking to protect a childless woman from harm.

Nowadays, a click of the mouse will get you Johnny Depp when you’d really rather find Sondheim. Fond as I am of Depp’s portrayal of Todd in the 2007 film, I’d be sad to see a generation familiar only with Sweeney on the big screen. Best to enjoy “Sweeney Todd” on stage but get your tickets as well for “Dark Shadows,” where we’ll all be treated to a bit of dracula meets disco as only Depp can deliver it.

Before the musical, there was this book

A final word before you head out to support all those students charged with singing Sondheim — best to leave kids younger than middle school age at home for these shows. “Into the Woods” is best appreciated by adults, though teens also love the fractured fairy tale vibe. And “Sweeney Todd” has mature themes, including murder, that your little one don’t need swimming around in their heads.

I took Lizabeth to see the Arizona Opera production of “Sweeney Todd” when she was barely in the double digits. To this day, she’s fed up any talk about the worst pies in London.

— Lynn

Note: Folks who follow theater can click here for a list of recent Drama Desk nominations, and here for news of this year’s Tony Awards ceremony (nominations will be announced May 1).

Coming up: How groovy is that?

Update: “Sweeney Todd School Edition” is also part of Greasepaint Youtheatre’s 2012-2013 season — which also includes “13,” “Disney’s the Little Mermaid Jr.,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Dear Edwina.”  Click here for details. 5/1/12

Getting the scoop on “Godspell”

Cast members from Godspell on Broadway participated in Broadway Remembers in NYC's Times Square on 9/11 last year (Photo: Liz Trimble)

Our daughter Lizabeth flew home from NYC during winter break for Pace University, where she’s a B.F.A. in acting student. We spent her last night in Scottsdale at the Sugar Bowl, where I got both a scoop of ice cream surrounded by a cream puff and the scoop on “Godspell” on Broadway.

Lizabeth loves the show, her first exposure to anything resembling a gospel of any sort, and I wanted her take before seeing a junior production being performed through Sun. Jan. 29 at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale. Basically it’s a giant song, dance and lovefest featuring pearls from the New Testament book of Matthew.

“Godspell,” originally conceived and directed by John-Michael Tebelak, features new lyrics (the Bible and an Episcopal hymnbook had first crack at it) and music by Stephen Schwartz — whose works from “Pippin” to “Wicked” are also high on Lizabeth’s list of favorites. The current revival of “Godspell” on Broadway opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre last October, and Lizabeth would see it over and over again were money no object.

Performance of Godspell at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale

We compared “Godspell” notes via Skype after I saw the Spotlight Youth Theatre production of “Godspell,  Jr.” on Sunday — and I was quick to share my delight with both sets and costumes. Each reflects the hippie vibe associated most often with a 1973 film adaptation of the show, but the production stops short of taking all things “hip” and “groovy” too far. Bless them.

“Godspell, Jr.” works particularly well as a youth theater production because it’s less linear than most storytelling, and is easily adapted to all sorts of settings and skill levels. I loved the back-alley feel of Spotlight’s show — complete with graffiti-laden red brick wall, chain link fence and Salvation Army donation bin. Graffiti art is by Juan Evan Macias.

The script for “Godspell” leaves plenty of room for director deviations and actor ad lib, and Spotlight’s production takes full advantage of both. It’s infused with humor, but doesn’t go over the top. Most is the work of director Kenny Grossman, but he’s quick to credit the actors for improv elements that traveled from rehearsal to final production.

I was especially charmed by Samantha A. Isely’s comedic timing. Isely is “an avid performer of Spotlight” who attends Arizona Conservatory for the Arts and Academics in Peoria and sometimes seems to be channeling Carol Burnett. Ally Lansdowne and Carly Grossman delivered two of the best vocal performances, and ensemble vocals were quite beautiful.

I was thrilled to see a nice mix of new and veteran Spotlight performers in the cast. It’s always a good sign when youth theater companies routinely welcome new members into their family. Still, some loyal Spotlight fans in the audience left me feeling like a little girl peering over the fence at a really fun party. Some folks are put off by seeming self-adoration, so a bit of curbing the enthusiasm might be warranted for the high-pitched whistling types.

Performance of Godspell at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale

The show’s main characters include Jesus, played by Brophy College Preparatory student EJ Dohring, who recently played Otto in the ACAA production of “Spring Awakening.” Costume designers Tamara and Leigh Treat nailed it by putting Dohring in white denim jeans and jean jacket — plus black FDNY t-shirt. I appreciate their homeage to modern day saviors of the non-celestial sort.

Also Judas, played by Arizona School for the Arts student Bransen Gates, recently seen as Ernst in ACAA’s “Spring Awakening.” Goodman shared that the great chemistry between Gates and Dohring was an important factor in casting the show. Gates shines with angst-filled scenes like the betrayal of Jesus, while Dohring excels with upbeat expressions of pure joy.

The Spotlight production of “Godspell, Jr.” features choreography by Amanda Paige. It’s fun, youthful and fresh — and succeeded in showcasing the movement talents of the entire cast. I also enjoyed the music direction by Mark 4Man. I don’t understand  the numeric name thing, but his fans are quick to laud  it.

“Godspell, Jr.” was orginally adapted and produced by Edgar Lansbury, Stuart Duncan and Joseph Beruh. Given its unqiue adaptability to the sensibilities of youth, I hope other youth theaters in the Valley will mount the work in coming years. Who doesn’t love material that leaves room for considering the mysterious ways of God — like Taylor Swift snagging the role of Eponine in an upcoming “Les Miserables” flick.

Performance of Godspell at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale

Spotlight Youth Theatre previously performed “Les Miserables School Edition.” The next school adaptation on their plate is “Sweeney Todd School Edition,” which features book by Hugh Wheeler plus music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. They’ll also present “James and the Giant Peach” and “Annie, Jr.” this season.

Click here to learn more about Spotlight Youth Theatre auditions, camps, workshops and productions. Then get ready to enjoy the best pies in London.

— Lynn

Note: “Godspell, Jr.” at Spotlight Youth Theatre features hair and make-up by Angel DeMichael, properties managment by Vicki Grossman, stage management and lights by Vinny Jordan, and sound by Kenny Grossman.

Coming up: I’ve got something in common with Johnny Depp…

This post was updated with photos (by Craig Ross) and corrections on 1/18/12

Theater meets Christmas

Irving Berlin's White Christmas comes to ASU Gammage in Tempe Dec. 6-11

More than a dozen Valley venues are presenting family-friendly theater fare with a Christmas theme. Here’s an early round-up, listed by city, to help families who celebrate Christmas with holiday planning…

Anthem

Musical Theatre of Anthem presents a “Holiday Show” Dec. 16. www.musicaltheatreofanthem.org.

Fountain Hills

Fountain Hills Theater presents “Christmas Jukebox” Nov. 25-Dec. 18. www.fhtaz.org.

Gilbert

Hale Theatre Arizona presents “It’s a Wonderful Life” through Nov. 26 and  “A Christmas Carol” Dec. 1-23. www.haletheatrearizona.com.

Glendale

Spotlight Youth Theatre presents “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” Dec. 2-18. www.spotlightyouththeatre.org.

Mesa

Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre presents “A Christmas Carol” Nov. 17-Dec. 25. www.broadwaypalmwest.com.

East Valley Children’s Theatre presents “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” Dec. 1-11. www.evct.org.

Southwest Shakespeare Company presents “A Christmas Carol” Nov. 26-Dec. 17. www.swshakespeare.org.

Southwest Shakespeare Company performs A Christmas Carol Nov. 26-Dec. 17 in Mesa

Peoria

Arizona Broadway Theatre presents “Miracle on 34th St.” Nov. 25-Dec. 29 and “A Broadway Christmas Carol” Dec. 9-17. www.arizonabroadwaytheatre.com.

The Homestead Playhouse presents “A Christmas Carol” Dec. 1-4. www.dcranchnet.com.

Theater Works presents “A Christmas Carol” Dec. 2-18. Theater Works/Youth Works Puppet Works presents “Saving Santa” Dec. 3-24 (Sat only). www.theaterworks.com.

Phoenix

Grand Canyon University presents “Amahl and the Night Visitors” Dec. 2-11. www.gcu.edu.

New Carpa Theater Co. presents “American Pastorela” Dec. 9-18 at the Third Street Theater (Phoenix Center for the Arts). www.newcarpa.org. (Mature content)

Phoenix Theatre presents “A Christmas Story” Nov. 23-Dec. 18. www.phoenixtheatre.com.

Space 55 presents “A Bloody Mary Christmas II” Dec. 1-17 and “7 Minutes Under the Mistletoe” Dec. 17. www.space55.org. (Mature content)

The Black Theatre Troupe presents “Black Nativity” Dec. 2-11. www.blacktheatretroupe.org.

Valley Youth Theatre presents “A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail” Dec 2-23. www.vyt.com.

Scottsdale

Theatre Artists Studio presents “Holiday Music & Musings: From the Page to the Stage” Dec. 2. www.thestudiophx.org.

Sun City

Sun City Grand Drama and Comedy Club presents “Over the River and Through the Woods” Dec. 1-4. www.granddrama.com.

East Valley Children's Theatre presents The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Dec. 1-11

Tempe

ASU Gammage presents “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” (touring production) Dec. 6-11. www.asugammage.com.

If your Valley organization is presenting a theater production with a Christmas, or other winter holiday, theme — please comment below to let readers know.

— Lynn

Note: A calendar of family-friendly events is always available online at www.raisingarizonakids.com. This post will be updated as I learn of additional theater offerings with a Christmas theme. Although most of the events noted above are designed for family audiences, please note that some are “mature audience” only productions.

Coming up: Christmas concerts, A cup of cheer

Update: Some of these shows are extending their runs, so check theater company websites for the latest and greatest information. 11/26/11

Last call for theater camps!

Comedy mask in stained glass window at the Scottsdale theater where Greasepaint Youtheatre camps are held

When I spoke recently with ASU dance major Echo Laney, I asked her to share a bit about the benefits of participating in theater camps. Laney participated in Camp Broadway at ASU Gammage several years ago, and describes it as a life-changing experience.

“Theater camp opens you to new experiences,” reflects Laney. It makes for “nice networking” and helps campers “discover who they are and what they can do.” Reflecting on her own time with Camp Broadway, Laney shares that theater camp “opens the mind” and fuels powerful dreams.

Tragedy mask in stained glass at the old Stagebrush Theater in Scottsdale

I learned the hard way many years ago that many Valley summer day camps start filling up as early as February, but I know plenty of parents have yet to sit down with their children or teens to firm up summer plans — despite the fact that some camps begin next week.

For those still exploring summer camp options, here’s a nifty list of Valley organizations offering theater camps — complete with links so you can easily learn more about your many options. Don’t delay, because in many cases this really is your last chance…

Actor’s Youth Theatre at www.actorsyouththeatre.org

Ahwatukee Children’s Theatre at www.azact.org

Arizona Broadway Theatre at www.azbroadway.org

Arizona Jewish Theatre Company at www.azjewishtheatre.org

Art and Sol Performing Arts Program at www.artandsolprogram.com

ASU Gammage at www.asugammage.com

Chandler Center for the Performing Arts at www.chandlercenter.org

Childsplay Theatre Company at www.childsplayaz.org

Christian Youth Theater at www.cytphoenix.org

Creative Stage Youth Theatre at www.csyt.org

Dearing Acting Studio at www.dearingstudio.com

Desert Stages Theatre at www.desertstages.org

Do Re Mi School for the Arts at www.doremischool.com

East Valley Children’s Theatre at www.evct.org

Fountain Hills Community Theater at www.fhct.org

Greasepaint Youtheatre at www.greasepaint.org

Kirk’s Studio for the Performing Arts at www.kirksstudio.com

Life’s a Stage Productions at www.lasacting.com

Mesa Arts Center at www.mesaartscenter.com

Musical Theatre of Anthem at www.musicaltheatreofanthem.org

Phoenix Center for the Arts at www.phoenixcenterforthearts.org

Phoenix Theatre at www.phoenixtheatre.com

Scottsdale Conservatory of the Performing Arts at www.scottsdaleconservatory.com

Scottsdale Glee at www.scottsdaleglee.org

Scottsdale Studios at www.gleecamps.com

Spotlight Youth Theatre at www.spotlightyouththeatre.org

Starlight Community Theater at www.starlightcommunitytheater.org

Studio 3 Performing Arts Academy at www.studio3arts.com

Theater Works at www.theaterworks.org

Theatre Artists Studio at www.thestudiophx.org

Valley Youth Theatre at www.vyt.com

Voices: A Music & Arts Studio at www.voicesstudio.com

To learn more about theater and other camps, check out the “Summer Solutions” 2011 camp directory compiled by Mala Blomquist of Raising Arizona Kids.

If you know of another Valley organization offering summer theater camps, please comment below to let our readers know.

–Lynn

Note: Click here for links to camps that participated in the RAK Camp Fair 2011.

Coming up: Celebrating Father’s Day — arts and culture style!

In the spotlight

Samantha Utpadel of Litchfield Park remembers her daughters auditioning during 2008 for the school edition of “Les Miserables” being performed by Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale. Both Alexandra (Ixy), now a junior music major at Willamette University in Oregon, and Sophia (Sophie), now a soon-to-be senior at Arizona School for the Arts, were cast.

Beauty and the Beast cast working on choreography

Utpadel says “the show turned out to be a very special experience in many ways.” She’d started her own college studies as a theatrical design major, and helping out with costumes, hair and make-up — plus serving as spot operator for most of the run — helped Utpadel return to her roots.

“For the girls,” she says, “it crystallized a love of performance.” Utpadel describes theater as “addictive” and notes that “things kind of went on from there.” Soon she was doing serious costume duty alongside a good friend whose son got involved thanks to Utpadel’s daughters.

“Spotlight truly is a labor of love,” shares Utpadel. “It started at a time when theatre for youth was disappearing in the Valley, and is really the result of a crazy love for theatre and the belief that kids should get the opportunity to take part in that.”

Sophie describes Spotlight Youth Theatre as “an amazing place to be.” She praises them for producing consistently “awesome” work and for “being a place where I feel I truly belong.” Here’s more from Sophie in her own words…

Backstage at Beauty and the Beast

When I first auditioned at Spotlight, I was terrified, not just by the prospect of not being cast, but by not fitting in. Would the other kids like me? Would I like them? Would there be drama? Thankfully, I didn’t need to worry about any of these things. I was welcomed into the Spotlight community.

Sophie says the acceptance she’s experienced at Spotlight is a “huge part” of why she’s such a loyal fan, despite the fact that there are other youth theaters in the Valley. “I have made friends there, and even better, I have made a family.”

Doing hair and make-up backstage for Fools

Utpadel eagerly shared the 2011/12 season for Spotlight Youth Theatre with me as soon as it was released, noting that it “exemplifies” the company’s work. It’s a mix, says Utpadel, of classic and challenging materials. And it gives young actors a chance to “learn different styles of music, choreography, and scripts.”

The 2011/12 season for Spotlight Youth Theatre opens with “Cats.” Sophie recalls loving the show since she “was little” — even naming her cat “Victoria” after a white cat in the show. “I think that it will appeal to lots of people,” she says.

Rehearsing the number Luck Be a Lady

Next up is a musical double feature with a Halloween vibe — “Zombie Prom” and “Once More With Feeling” (an homage to “the musical episode of Buffy“). I suspect that my own daughter, Lizabeth, will applaud the effort. Her senior quote in the ASA yearbook is a little pearl from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Spotlight presents “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” in December, then moves on to “Godspell” during January. “Godspell” holds special meaning for Sophie because it was the first show she did at ASA. Ixy also performed in “Godspell,” as well as “Runaways,” with ASA — and she’s been in two operas presented by Willamette students.

Next up is “James and the Giant Peach,” based on a book of the same title by Roald Dahl. Utpadel describes herself as “a huge fan” of the offbeat author and already seems to be imaging the outraeous set possibilities.

Bushel and a Peck from Guys and Dolls

My own favorite from the 2011/12 Spotlight Youth Theatre season is “Sweeney Todd School Edition.” I’ve seen two live performances with Lizabeth, one by the Arizona Opera and another a touring production at ASU Gammage — and enjoyed the movie with my older daughter Jennifer.

I never tire of telling Lizabeth that “Sweeney Todd” is a love story, but she disputes the claim every time. I’m hoping the youth theater version, devoid of some of the show’s bloodier elements, will make the many moments of profound love portrayed in the piece more apparent.

Spotlight Youth Theatre closes its 2011/12 season with “Annie” — the one musical people just can’t seem to get enough of. It makes for a great mother/daughter outing. Or grandmother/granddaughter outing, according to Utpadel — who recalls that “Annie” was the first show she costumed as a sophomore in high school.

I saw Spotlight Youth Theatre earn all kinds of awards at last year’s AriZoni awards ceremony. Still, it’s clear that there’s more to this story. Sure, they’re making good theater. But they’re also creating friendships, confidence and memories — all things especially worthy of the spotlight.

— Lynn

Coming up: Summer dance and theater offerings

Photos by Samantha Utpadel

AriZoni awards a la Lynn & Liz

AriZoni 2009-2010 winner "The Goats Gruff" by East Valley Children's Theatre

Talented actors at all ages and stages. An honest-to-goodness hilarious accountant. Women whose sign language sings. A professor who specializes in stage combat.

They all came together Monday evening at the Tempe Center for the Arts for the 2009-2010 AriZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence, produced in association with Childsplay.

The event, a celebration of 20 years for the AriZoni organization, was hosted by Katie McFadzen of Childsplay and Ron May of Stray Cat Theatre. Katie was the one in the red dress.

The evening, meant to honor the finest of Valley theater from the previous season, had three “acts” — a youth awards ceremony, an adult awards ceremony and an after party (held at the Fiesta Resort Conference Center). What happens at the after party stays at the after party.

Both ceremonies opened with a video montage of Valley theater productions through the years and a performance of “If They Could See Us Now” — with hosts McFadzen and May exercising enormous restraint in saving the raciest content for act two.

During the youth awards, a bit about dancing cheek to cheek included only a charming bit of face to face time, but the adult ceremony had them bumping cheeks of a different sort (tastefully, of course). The adult ceremony also included more subtle (and not so subtle) political humor.

With the rest of the nation poking fun at Arizona politicians, pink boxer sorts and such, it only seems fair that we reserve the right to poke fun at ourselves.

Speaking of poking, the topic was one of many covered by McFadzen and May during their reading of the rules for the ceremony. “You may not poke me on stage,” quipped May, “or on Facebook.”

The duo also noted that acceptance speeches should be “deliciously short” at 20 seconds or less — although an exception was granted for a young man whose thank yous consisted of a long string of showtune lyrics.

It was sometimes difficult to hear the names of award winners because of the roar of the crowd. I remember Theater Works Youth Works being particularly rowdy at last year’s youth ceremony, but I’d have to give this year’s “loud and proud” award to Spotlight Youth Theatre — who have a real “the little theater that could” vibe.

I promise myself every year that I’m going to use my very best audience member etiquette — and there are plenty of times when I pull it off. But Lizabeth and I couldn’t help ourselves when one of her teachers at ASA, Toby Yatso, won two awards. I fully expect to see him holding a Tony Award one day because, as Lizabeth once told me, “he sparkles.” (To the people who sat behind, beside and in front of us — please pardon our enthusiasm.)

“Thank you mama for being here again to always support me,” chimed Yatso during one of his acceptance speeches. Plenty of award recipients thanked parents and fellow professionals, while some thanked their children for getting them involved with theater and inspiring them in a myriad of ways.

Several spouses (in all combinations of genders) thanked partners who worked alongside them at the theater or tended to home and family so the other could do their theater rat thing. My favorite was a gentleman who thanked his wife for staying home alone most nights to play “Halo” so he could indulge the lure of greasepaint.

Especially touching moments included the presentation of scholarships to three students studying theater, one of whom (Chelsea Groen) Lizabeth recalls acting with at Greasepaint Youtheatre as a young child. I’ll write a bit more about distinguished service and outstanding contribution honorees in a future post because their accomplishments are worthy of a higher word count.

Attendees paused for a moving moment of silence during the adult ceremony to remember three members of the theater arts community who died during the past year — Eleanor Hofmann, Scott Jeffers and Noah Todd — reflecting together that ‘there are now more stars in the sky to light our way and guide our hearts.’

I suspect we could all have some fun inventing our own awards based on Monday night’s ceremonies. My “shiniest” award goes to Katie McFadzen for a sparkling silver bustier (likely borrowed from Betty White) and Zachary Tatus, who donned a gold lame jumpsuit to perform the role of “Conrad” in a number from Spotlight Youth Theatre’s “Bye Bye Birdie.”

The “funniest five seconds” award goes to McFadzen and May for popping up through round holes in the stage to reveal a Viking headpiece and clown wig before the presentation of awards for hair and make-up design. Their use of a Childsplay prop in a rather unconventional manner might win second place — though the competition was stiff.

My “cuter than spit” award would have to go to AriZoni winner Zoe Whiting of “The Goats Gruff” with East Valley Children’s Theatre, who beamed alongside the podium as a tiny bundle of sincerity and enthusiam. I like her style.

Big winners in the 2009-2010 youth theater category included EVCT’s “The Goats Gruff” (Overall Production-Play), Spotlight Youth Theatre’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” (Overall Production-Play) and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (Overall Production-Musical), and Theater Works Youth Works’ “Beauty and the Beast” (Overall Production-Musical).

In the adult category, winners among non-contracted theaters included ASU Lyric Opera Theatre’s “The Rocky Horror Show” (Overall Production-Musical), Nearly Naked Theatre’s “Evil Dead: The Musical” (Overall Production-Musical), Desert Foothills Theater’s “Unnecessary Farce” (Overall Production-Play), Stray Cat Theatre’s “Speech & Debate” (Overall Production-Play) and Theater Works’ “All My Sons” (Overall Production-Play).

Winners among contracted theaters included Actors Theatre’s “No Child” (Overall Production-Play) and Phoenix Theatre’s “The Light in the Piazza” (Overall Production-Musical).

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around Childsplay’s McFadzen performing in “Speech and Debate” and Dwayne Hartford (now appearing in “A Year With Frog and Toad”) directing “The Rocky Horror Show.” Watch for a future post toying with the many talents of Childsplay artists on and off the Childsplay stage.

Click here for a listing of winners in each youth theater and adult theater award category — and to join the AriZoni mailing list if you’d like to receive e-mail alerts including monthly newsletters. It’s a great way to stay informed about Valley theater offerings, resources and opportunities.

— Lynn

Coming up: Real-life high school musicals, Social justice takes the stage, More season previews, The fine art of sign language, Fun with film, Arts organization fundraisers