2014 True West Award: Shannan Steele




It would have been easy to skip Tarzan The Musical at the Arvada Center. Broadway critics went after it like Scar feasting on Mufasa in The Lion King. OK, so Scar didn’t exactly pick his brother’s bones clean, but you get the picture: Of all the stage adaptations in the Disney theatrical machine, Tarzan is easily the most derivative. The New York Times was particularly tough, describing Phil Collins’ score as made up of “soda-pop songs that evaporate as quickly as bubbles on a pond.” It equated an afternoon at Tarzan to an expensive afternoon at a day-care center. Ouch!

So when the Arvada Center turned over a slot on its 2013-14 season to a patron vote, I can only imagine there were a few gulps among the powers-that-be when Tarzan climbed to the top of that poll’s vine.

Shannan SteeleBut it turns out that skipping Tarzan would have meant skipping out on much of what the Arvada Center does best. Director Gavin Mayer’s production sported a botanic wonderland of a set (by Brian Mallgrave); evocative sound and lighting (David Thomas and Shannon McKinney); colorful costumes (Meredith S. Murphy); and “flight director” Geddy Webb’s aerial magic working beautifully in concert with Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck’s airborne choreography. For a story as simple as Tarzan, it turns out staging the musical was not even a remotely simple undertaking.

But most of all, skipping Tarzan would have meant missing Shannan Steele as you have never seen her before. You know: As a jungle boy’s gorilla baby mama. Steele brought a very human heart to her role as the matriarchal gorilla who raises the infant Tarzan after leopards snatch his human parents – and her own baby ape. This is a cookie-cutter role in lesser paws. But whether Steele is playing the heartbreakingly wounded video dater Rose Ruiz in the Denver Center’s I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, or infertile mom Pam in Cherry Creek Theatre’s Baby the Musical, she can’t help but add layers of emotional significance to roles like mama Kala in Tarzan. Maybe that’s because she’s a mother herself, but I think it’s more because that’s just who Steele is, and always has been. 

As Kala, Steele had to sing or say some seriously syrupy stuff. (Like, “You’ll Be in My Heart!”) But she managed to be … yes, steely, in presenting Tarzan’s surrogate mama as a fierce protector who jeopardizes her own “marriage” to keep him and, ironically, to ultimately teach the boy what it means to be a man.

Steele, who’s from Laramie, is a longtime Arvada Center favorite but is also familiar to DCPA audiences. She’s been performing this month in A Christmas Carol (closing today). Love, Perfect, Change holds the distinction as the longest-running production in Colorado theatre history. She also appeared in the Frank Sinatra musical My Way at the Garner Galleria Theatre, along with The Taffetas and The Last Five Years. She also was the choreographer for Cherry Creek Theatre’s brother-sister musical John & Jen this past May.

And just so you know: She’s no ape. Steele graduated with a math degree from Regis University, and earned her masters in physical therapy.

The critics weren’t wrong about Tarzan: From Bat Boy to Jekyll and Hyde to King Kong to The Lion King to Oedipus Rex, this is familiar storytelling territory. But Steele managed to make it feel deeply relatable to anyone who is a mother – or has had one. Furry, matted or smooth-skinned – that’s just who she is.

                                 2014 TRUE WEST AWARDS

1. Norrell Moore
2. Kate Gleason
3. Amanda Berg Wilson and Jeremy Make
4. Ben Cowhick
5. Robert Michael Sanders
6. David Nehls
7. Adrian Egolf
8. Emma Messenger
9. Buntport’s Naughty Bits
10. Tim Howard
11. Gleason Bauer
12. Daniel Traylor
13. Aisha Jackson and Jim Hogan
14. Cast of ‘The Whipping Man’
15. Rick Yaconis
16. Michael R. Duran
17. Laura Norman
18. Jacquie Jo Billings
19. Megan Van De Hey
20. Jeremy Palmer
21. Henry Lowenstein   
22. Sam Gregory
23. Wendy Ishii
24. J. Michael Finley
25. Kristen Samu and Denver Actors Fund volunteers
26. Matthew D. Peters
27. Shannan Steele
28. Ludlow, 1914
29. Spring Awakening and Annapurna
30 Theatre Person of the Year Steve Wilson

The True West Awards, which began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001, are the longest-running continuously administered awards program in Colorado theater. This year, the awards have been re-conceived to simply recognize 30 award-worthy achievements in local theatre, without categories or nominations. A different honoree will be singled out each day for 30 days.

The True West Awards are administered by arts journalist John Moore, who was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since founded The Denver Actors Fund and taken a groundbreaking position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist.

*The DCPA Theatre Company is not considered for True West Awards, which are instead intended as the DCPA’s celebration of the local theatre community.

Moore’s daily coverage of the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

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