As a longtime theater critic, I love it when artistic directors and actors push themselves beyond the comfortable and predictably successful. A lot of local companies did that this past season, from the Asolo Rep staging a new, pre-Broadway musical (with frequent rewrites to challenge cast and crew) to “little” community theaters tackling epic or technically demanding shows. Even the venerable Golden Apple Dinner Theatre reached out to a younger, different audience with the slightly subversive Avenue Q. Sometimes it was the individual performers who dazzled with their high-wire acts, delighting us by taking us places with their talents we never would have expected. In an often exciting 2010-11 theater season where I saw just over 50 locally produced plays, ranging from classic to contemporary, provocative to uplifting, here are the shows and performers that stood out for me. (Included are shows from the summer of 2010 to mid-May 2011.)
Most Dynamic Duo
Well, naturally that would be Bonnie and Clyde, as compellingly played by Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan in the Asolo Rep’s production of the new musical of the same name (with songs by Frank Wildhorn and Don Black). Most who saw it would probably agree that the show needed some changes if it’s going to make it on Broadway, but they also had to admit to being riveted by this talented pair’s first-rate singing, convincing acting and obvious chemistry as those Depression-era desperadoes.
Most Terrific Trio
Let’s give a hand to Robby May, Steve Jaquith and Libby Fleming, who as Max Bialystock, Leo Bloom and Ulla of the many last names made the Players’ rendering of The Producers such a pleasure to watch. May especially made the role of Max (so identified with Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane) his own, but everyone involved deserves kudos, including director Michael Newton-Brown and choreographer Dwayne Barrett. No Broadway bomb here.
Best Puppet Show
The Golden Apple Dinner Theatre has made its reputation on producing Broadway classics, but they took a walk on the wild side with the offbeat, naughty Avenue Q, and it certainly paid off. Not only did the actors convincingly and comically portray their flawed but sympathetic human characters, but they took to playing with big puppets on their hands like Sesame Street pros. And BTW, nice work on designing and making those puppets, Steve Dawson and David Walker.
Best Thrill Ride
Make that thrill ride with a lot of laughs, as provided by Florida Studio Theatre’s The 39 Steps, often described as “Monty Python meets Alfred Hitchcock.” The talented four-member cast (most tackling multiple roles), under the direction of Eric Hissom, took us whizzing from a pre-World-War II London music hall to the highlands of Scotland in a tale of espionage, romance, murder and cows that never let up an almost dizzying pace. We liked it so much we saw it twice.
Most Touching Tale of True Love
That turns out to be the Banyan Theater Company’s The Drawer Boy, and there’s absolutely no sex involved at all. Rather the relationship here is between two longtime men friends, beautifully played by Kenneth Tigar and Don Walker, who for better and for worse remain tied together on a small Canadian farm. The story of how their bond came to be—one of loss, patience and devotion—was enough to make you weep, but there were smiles to be found here, too.
Biggest Energy Explosion
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe performers always seem to be nuclear-powered, but they may have set a record high with their production of Five Guys Named Moe, a salute to the songs of Louis Jordan. The concept of the Clark Peters show was thin, but no matter; when Porter L. Anderson III, Earley Dean, Donald Frison, Mikeyy Mendez, Leon S. Pitts II and D. William Hughes were singing and dancing up a storm to tunes like Push Ka Pi Shi Pie and Saturday Night Fish Fry, the evening was electric.
Best Epic All-American Musical
Talk about stretching yourself! Venice Theatre pulled out all the stops for its production of Ragtime the Musical, a sweeping, large-scale show that’s notoriously demanding dramatically, vocally and technically. That they managed to triumph with this panoramic view of American history and make every minute count is a tribute to the entire cast and crew and especially to director/choreographer Brad Wages and conductor Jason Brenner.
Best Revival of a Golden Oldie
We’ve seen Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s touching musical The Fantasticks more times than we can count, but the Players’ production, directed and choreographed by Scott Keys, was a reminder of just why this intimate, seemingly-so-simple show still entertains, with a strong cast headed by Greg Wiegers as El Gallo and Craig Weiskerger and Trina Rizzo as the young lovers. We won’t need to Try to Remember.
Best Mamet Moments
OK, it might have been the only David Mamet play on local stages this season, but even so, Florida Studio Theatre’s production of his highly charged Race was a welcome shot of adrenaline. Mamet never pulls any punches in his look at a rape case (with interracial aspects) that threatens to blow up in the faces of the attorneys preparing to defend it, and FST’s cast under director Richard Hopkins traded jabs in the ring right along with him.
Best Double Dose of Nostalgic Fun
First, the Golden Apple offered its production of the Broadway Tony winner The Drowsy Chaperone, a delightful, affectionate spoof of a typical (but fictional) 1920s musical hit, last summer. Then Venice Theatre presented its highly entertaining version a couple of months ago. Both gave us great casts (especially love both those Men in the Chair, Michael Bajjaly and David P. Brown, and both those multitalented leading ladies who supposedly don’t want to “show off” anymore, Leigh Ann Wuest and Danae DeShazer) and a boatload of fun.
Best Reasons to Celebrate the FSU/Asolo Conservatory
There are several this season, starting with their production of Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty, a scorcher with a knockout performance by Gretchen Porro as a woman scorned. (Porro also impressed in a very different role, the usually male clown Lance in The Two Gentlemen of Verona). Then there’s the Asolo Rep mainstage performances of third-year Conservatory students Will Little and Lindsay Marie Tierce, above, in Lynn Nottage’s Las Meninas, as a captive African dwarf and the lonely French queen who came to love him. These two more than held their own with the Asolo’s experienced professionals, proving once again what a jewel we have in the Conservatory.
Best Work of Art About Making Art
The word “stretch” comes to mind again concerning the Manatee Players’ award-winning production of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical Sunday in the Park with George. In a show that could provide plenty of challenges even for professionals, this community theater hit all the right notes—musically and dramatically—with pitch-perfect leads (Steve and Dianne Dawson), outstanding direction (Rick Kerby) and dazzling set design and video projections by Marc Lalosh (with some green-screen help from Matt Voye) and lighting expertise by Joseph P. Oshry Jr.
And now, for the big three—the grand winners of the 2010-2011 theater season.
Best Performance by an Actor
You would never have thought that you would sit, willingly and enraptured, while an actor playing another actor (and one who’s hugely egotistical and ignorant at that) spouted something like 450 lines of iambic pentameter—that is, not until you saw Danny Scheie flounce onto the stage in the Asolo Rep’s production of David Hirson’s comedy La Bête. Scheie ran the gamut of emotions brilliantly in his hilarious self-engrossed 30-minute speech, and although it had to be exhausting for him, it was pure exhilaration for us.
Best Performance by an Actress
If anyone seemed born to play a part, it was Kyle Ann Lacertosa as John Waters’ teen creation Tracy Turnblad in the Manatee Players production of Hairspray. Lacertosa, who teaches performing arts at Cardinal Mooney High, was a newcomer to local stages and a revelation as Tracy—not only physically right, but just as perfect emotionally as a girl with a great big heart and a dream she won’t let die. We were rooting for her all the way.
Most of us have seen the film version of Twelve Angry Men, starring Henry Fonda, at some time or other, but the Asolo Rep made the Reginald Rose classic fresh all over again. Under the sure hand of veteran director Frank Galati, the all-male company of actors gave a master class in ensemble acting. Knowing in advance how this tale of a jury deliberating over a verdict in a murder trial comes out never detracted from the escalating tension and identification we felt while watching this finely tuned cast do their civic—and theatrical—duty.