Another take on romance, this one shouted across rooftops, is the musical classic West Side Story. Considering how dance-dependent it is, it's surprising that a little company like Center Stage could handle it well. But, directed by Russell M. Maitland, finger-snapping Sharks and Jets and a flailing crowd in the gym dance scene all came through. The dulcet voice of Janna Burke as Maria and the spitfire spunk of Emily Woo Zeller's Anita clinched it for us.

Harder than it looked was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Theater by the Sea. The story seems born hilarious, centering around a con artist competition between a two-bit scammer and a sophisticated French Riviera lothario, but the comic chemistry has to be there. Jason Gillman and Al Bundonis, respectively, pulled it off with sly charm to spare.

Bounty piled upon abundance — that was the Sandra-Feinstein Gamm Theatre staging of Much Ado About Nothing. Take the most uproarious, jerkin-splitting comedy of Shakespeare, pull off a wondrous, definitive production, and that's what you get. Even supporting roles were on-the-money: Tom Gleadow bursting with gleeful self-importance as Dogberry; Mark McClure eye-tearingly funny in one leisurely, wordless scene, picnicking Pee-wee Herman-style. Well, it sure helped that Fred Sullivan Jr. was directing.

Inhabiting a character rather than just acting the part. Don't ask me what the difference is, but you know it when you see it, as we did with Ed Shea in 2nd Story Theatre's I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright. Shea was Lothar Berfelde, who lived as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in East Berlin for decades, through both the Nazi and Communist eras. Not only does Shea present her with personality and respect, he also slips into some 30 other characters, wisely not turning it into a prop act by tossing on a scarf here and a hat there.

Penury doesn't preclude artistry. That's what Elemental Theatre reminded us with its first-rate production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. They apparently blew their budget on quality period costumes to capture the ambience, enhanced by performing under the vaulted arches of Providence's Beneficent Congregational Church. Some Equity actors and a company in opera-trained vocalists didn't hurt. Beginning and ending the year with great productions, Elemental showed us what theater at heart is all about.

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