Whew! Fifty-six plays and musicals after this year’s theater season kicked off, and my head is swimming with characters, tunes, plots, costumes and emotional epiphanies both large and small. Local productions covered the gamut this year, from intimate, one- or two-character vignettes to full-out musical extravaganzas to precisely orchestrated comic mayhem. True, there were some ambitious failures as well as smashing successes, but almost every show presented, whether by professional or community thea-ter, offered something to remember. And as in every Sarasota season, some electric performances, dazzling stagecraft and magic moments stood out. Here are my picks of the best of the 2009-2010 theater season—and believe it or not, I’m already eager to settle back into my seat and wait for the lights to dim and the curtain to rise on a new slate of shows next year.
The Asolo Rep’s The Perfume Shop wasn’t strictly a holiday play, but its setting in a 1930s Budapest perfumerie filled with shoppers and romance put me in the mood for seasonal celebrations. You had to believe that a little bit of magic was going to take place for those lonely pen pals, George and Amalia; and the whole production was just wrapped up with a great big beautiful bow, from set to costumes to performances.
Most Dazzling Dancing
There was lots of good footwork to be seen and appreciated on local stages this year, especially by a chronic two-left-footer like me. Some of the best took place, not surprisingly, in the Asolo Rep/Sarasota Ballet collaboration on the Tony Award-winning Contact. The show was frequently a stunner, with its perfectly reproduced Susan Stroman choreography (by Tomé Cousin), but it was the Act II scene where Girl in Yellow Dress Shannon Lewis enticed/challenged all the male denizens of a New York City bar to the beat of Robert Palmer’s Simply Irresistible that froze a moment in time for me. Oh, to have that allure, those moves—and that dress (by legendary Broadway costumer William Ivey Long).
Hottest Serving of Soul
No question, that came with the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s The Motown ’60s Revue. WBTT doesn’t need a big stage or big production values when a talented cast can effectively summon up the heyday of the Detroit-based record label with well-executed songs from Martha Reeves, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and more. If you weren’t out of your chair and moving to the rhythms before show’s end, you were dead.
Best Audiovisual Excitement
The Players Theatre’s season-closing production of The Who’s Tommy rocked our world with megastimulation for the eyes and ears, courtesy of Kirk V. Hughes’ clever set design, a host of video projections by Gary Altiero, lighting by Michael Pasquini and a rock band led by Berry Ayers. There was so much to take in with the innovative telling of this story by director Jared E. Walker that more than a few people I know saw it twice. And when the entire cast took the stage at the end to sing Listening to You, it was to create one of those rare, universal and electrifying connections between performers and audience.
Critics may not always love farces, but audiences generally do. The farcical form showed its mettle in The Players’ fast-paced Lend Me a Tenor, with a near-perfect ensemble cast put through their paces by director Roberta MacDonald. There wasn’t a weak link to be found in this tale of Italian singer “Il Stupendo,” trying desperately to get to the stage on time to play Othello—with a little “help” from his friends.
Well, of course that’s Shear Madness, the long-running com-edy/mystery hit that finally came to Sarasota, thanks to Florida Studio Theatre. Kudos to the high-energy, ever-adaptive cast (working skillfully in the improv spirit), but especially to director Bruce Jordan, one of the show’s co-creators, and anyone else who worked to spice it up with lots of up-to-the-minute Sarasota references. Audiences truly never saw the same show twice.
Best One-Woman Wonders
When you take to the stage all alone, there’s no question you have to engage with your audience, right away and consistently throughout. Several performers showed us how it’s done this past year, but I have to single out two: Karen Stephens, endlessly versatile in a roster of roles in FST’s Bridge and Tunnel, about would-be poets from diverse backgrounds performing on stage, and—dare we call it a one-woman show?—Jeremy Heideman in Venice Theatre’s Stage II production of I Am My Own Wife, where he sensitively portrayed a transvestite German art collector along with a host of other intriguing characters. Bravo!
Best Back to the Future
I can’t say that I exactly enjoyed every moment of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory’sMachinal, but it was a bold move to produce Sophie Treadwell’s little-seen 1928 play about a woman trapped and isolated by the oppressive, mechanized world around her, and equally bold for director Dmitry Troya-novsky to decide to adapt the time and setting to today, aided by Jonathan Shimon’s often disturbing sound design. Post-show discussion, please.
Venice Theatre’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was both entertaining and newish to local audiences, and Chris Caswell and Douglas Landin were a well-matched team of con men romping their way through the French Riviera and a succession of willingly gullible women. I especially loved it when Landin segued into the inbreeding-challenged Ruprecht to dissuade one ardent admirer from the idea of marriage. How silly—classy Lawrence (Caswell) and trashy Freddy (Landin) were obviously already married to each other.
to Show Biz
The Manatee Players likewise brought a new piece to town with the Kander-Ebb swan song Curtains, especially effective in numbers reflecting on the business of show (Show People and Thinking of Him/I Miss the Music). Curtains may not have been the long-running musical team’s very best, but it was enlivened by sharp turns from Steve and Dianne Dawson as a stagestruck detective and a seemingly innocent ingénue and reminded us how many shows and songs we’ve enjoyed from the composing duo over the years.
Best Rising Star
in a Musical
Where, you ask, are the stars of tomorrow coming from? How about our local stages, where we’re repeatedly impressed with the talent of young performers from toddlers to teens? Twenty-five-year-old Greg Weigers, charismatic and compelling as the older Tommy in the Players’ The Who’s Tommy, proved he could do it all: sing, dance, act and command the stage. Is that Broadway calling?
Best Rising Stars,
Not in a Musical
Though still very young, Nidal Zarour, 23, and Ally Tufenkjian, just 16, tackled some tough material (about the lasting and horrible effects of the Armenian genocide) with strength and sensitivity in Venice Theatre’s Stage II production, Beast on the Moon. Someday, we’ll talk about how “we knew them when.”
Best Impersonation of an Intellectual
And we mean that in the best possible way…Actor Paul Whitworth managed to hold our attention throughout the entire production of Life of Galileo at the Asolo Rep, making Bertolt Brecht’s often dense and wordy script about the 17th-century astronomer and his battles with the Catholic Church more palatable. Whitworth’s Galileo was sometimes appealing, sometimes appalling, but always intriguing.
of a Hillbilly
And we mean that in the best possible way, too…Ellie Pattison in the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre’s production of L’il Abner was Mammy Yokum to the teeth, right down to her corncob pipe and the way she kicked her heels together when she felt like celebrating. Try some of her Yokumberry tonic.
Best Impersonation of a Woman
OK, this is the last time we’ll use that line. But WBTT founder Nate Jacobs deserves some kind of award for the way he stepped into the part of the flamboyant Lola in the company’s Jar the Floor at the last minute without missing a beat. He took to the wig, the high heels, the skirt and the sass of Lola quickly, naturally and in a very funny way.
Most Winning Losers
The Banyan Theater Company scored twice with this category in its summer season. First came Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, funny and heart-wrenching in equal parts thanks largely to the performance of Jessica K. Peterson as an aging Irish spinster constantly belittled by her demanding mother but still hoping for a chance at romantic love. Then Margot Moreland made us love Helen, a woman of ample size and heart whose new boyfriend struggles to deal with her weight and his judgmental friends in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig. Two actresses whose strong performances made us think about the power of words to hurt. ❚
Did I overlook your favorite show or performance? Go to my blog, On Stage, at sarasotamagazine.com and share your favorite onstage moments this year.