It was a record year for Judy Russell Presents.
In 2018, the local live entertainment company put on more shows in a single year than ever before. They also saw the biggest public reaction at the box office. All of their events did strong sales numbers, no downturns in the bunch and a couple of them could have been held over were it not for the fact the cast and crew are all comprised of community volunteers.
The February production of Cabaret rang up ticket sales and critical acclaim en route to major talent buzz for lead actors Shelby Meaney (as Sally Bowles) and Owen Selkirk (as The Emcee).
After that high-profile stage victory, Judy Russell Presents went in a direction less travelled by the veteran production company. They assembled a cast of actors that staged the all-dramatic play 12 Angry Jurors and entered it in the Central Interior Zone Drama Festival.
For a team focused almost exclusively on presenting musical theatre events, this was a departure and an experiment that seems to have worked on a number of levels.
It established connections with local community performers who aren't prone to participate in musical theatre but are hungry to work with a script.
It provided a meaningful project to rising directoral talent Anna Russell.
The show won four of the 13 awards at the May festival.
From there, it was an easy transition to the company's big summer blockbuster, Legally Blonde. Meaney once again led the cast to score a second wave of acclaim in the same calendar year. Again, the critics and the fans agreed on the show's entertainment value.
They weren't finished. As always, the company presents a holiday favourite during the Christmas season. Every second year, in keeping with its ballet fundamentals, they do The Nutracker. This was one of their off-years for that, so instead they did A Christmas Carol starring Gary Chappel as Scrooge. It was the third time staging this seasonal favourite - again, more of a drama than a musical - and the public gave it a strong response during the thick of the Christmas rush.
Judy Russell Presents is a branch of Enchainement Dance Centre, which is also linked to the Performers North Entertainment Company not-for-profit society, the Russell Audio-Visual sound and lighting company, Central Interior Tickets and the Prince George Playhouse.
In addition to these formal productions, the team also presented a pair of recitals for their dance students, a fundraiser show for Performers North, a trip to the BC Annual Dance Competition held each year in Prince Rupert, a pair of student shows for School District 57, a suite of six numbers for the Festival of Trees event to raise funds for the Spirit of the North Healthcare Foundation, plus readying the in-house dancers for their own local competitions, classes and exams.
"All my life I've tried to live by the words 'go for it' but now at this stage of my life I look back and it's 'gone for it, so now what?'" Judy Russell said. "What does 'go for it' look like going forward? We have done so much, and other people in the city have done so much, that nothing is automatic anymore. Is it time to push for bigger and better or is it time to coast a bit? And what is bigger? What is better? How is that actually defined?"
It may be Judy Russell's name on the company, but there are three generations of Russell (and Murray) family actively working under the production umbrella, plus raising the very young fourth generation.
There is also a large contingent of dancers, backstage crew, administration and operation personnel, plus many others who support the effort.
"I am truly appreciative of the support from my family, team and community," Russell said. "We do have a true team going on, and that's how I managed to survive - and I use that term loosely - a year with a record number of productions and projects."
None of it would be possible, she said, if the public didn't respond positively to the offerings on stage. Some shows sell better than others (The Producers and Les Miserables are particular standouts) but her shows now come with a time-tested assurance of artistic quality. That is seen not only in direct indications like ticket sales but also in signs like how many Prince George performers leave for professional positions across Canada and other places in the world.
It is also seen when musical theatre shows come to town on professional tours and the local audience can see a narrowing gap between these and the all-local productions.
" I think people in Prince George have generally decided that live productions are fantastic," Russell said. "The more the merrier. I really believe to be true that the more there is to do, the more likely people are to do it on a regular basis and make a habit of it. Every month in this city there are a couple of great things to go see, sometimes a whole lot of great things, and that makes people plan it out and think it through and be involved.
"There is a very big appetite for the live performing arts in Prince George," she added. "And Prince George loves supporting its local performers. If there's a P.G. connection to it, it makes the P.G. audience proud, and the more connection there is, the prouder they are. I include myself in that."
Will 2019 break another record for Judy Russell Presents?
It is set to be a year for The Nutcracker so that strongly suggests what is coming next winter, but will there be another drama in May for the community theatre festival? Will there be a summer blockbuster? Will Russell ever return to an outdoor production as was done for past mega-events like Jesus Christ Superstar, West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum? Will there be a classic on the agenda like Cabaret was or will it be a Broadway newcomer title like Legally Blonde was?
"We are coming off a really big year. To some degree we are tired, but to some degree we are energized," said Russell. "It's not all on a few people anymore, the team is bigger and getting more experience all the time. All I can say right at this moment is, we have some announcements coming soon and we can't wait to do what we do for the community we love."