Top 10 Shows of 2010

Gregg Weiner and Erin Joy Schmidt in Michael Weller's "Fifty Words" at GableStage, which was the top production of the year for 2010. Photo: George Schiavone.

2010 was a moving year for South Florida theater. Not moving in the quality of its productions, although there was plenty of that. Moving as in geographical relocations, announced and completed.

The year marked Florida Stage moving to the Kravis Center, the planned shift of Palm Beach Dramaworks to the Cuillo, the expansion of Broward Stage Door to the Carlyle in Miami Beach, Rising Action Theatre finding a new home at Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale and the imminent move of M Ensemble to the Miami Light Project. Whether or not there was any progress over the shuttered Coconut Grove Playhouse and Royal Poinciana Playhouse was a matter for debate.

2010 also saw the formal closure of Sol Theatre in Fort Lauderdale and the rise of Empire Stage in the same space. There was the birth of Zoetic Stage and the death of Brian C. Smith.

Of course, there was the debut of South Florida Theater Review in July, which has posted more than 120 articles, including 40 reviews, in less than six months, accumulated more than 425 Facebook friends, and recorded several thousand hits a month, all since July 24.

So here’s a look back through an irreverent and highly subjective scrapbook. Please add your own memories to the comments section at the end.

BEST SHOWS OF 2010

1. Fifty Words (GableStage)

Fifty Words tracked the disintegration of a marriage during a very dark night of the marital soul. Joe Adler’s direction was seamless and the wrenching performances by Erin Joy Schmidt and Gregg Weiner were difficult to watch because they cut so close to the bone. Lyle Baskin’s set was pitch-perfect, and an unheralded triumph belonged to Jeff Quinn’s atmospheric lighting with characters sitting in semi-darkness when nursing their wounds.

Barbara Bradshaw and Kim Morgan Dean in Mosaic Theatre's "Collected Stories."

2. Collected Stories (Mosaic Theatre)

Margaret L. Ledford’s direction was exemplary, the sets and lights were fine. But the performances by Barbara Bradshaw and Kim Morgan Dean left even casual theatergoers impressed and knowledgeable audiences breathless. If I ran a theater, I’d design a season just to provide Bradshaw with an array of roles. Watching her inject both technique and life into her characters was a master class in acting.

3. Blasted (GableStage)

Hands down, the unforgettable winner of the ‘Best Play That Many People Hated’ Award, starring Todd Allen Durkin and Erik Fabregat. Swaths of playgoers despised this dark spiral into the pit of hell, contending that it was ‘gratuitously shocking’–which was precisely the aim of the late playwright Sarah Kane and director Joe Adler’s incisive and incising production. This was superb visceral theater that made you think about the inherent cruelty of mankind ‘ if you hadn’t been so emotionally shattered. Special mention to the disintegrating set by Tom Connelly, lit by Jeff Quinn, with sound by Matt Corey and overseen every night by stage manager Kristen Pieski.

4. Copenhagen (Palm Beach Dramaworks)

It opened in late December but ran through January. It featured fine-tuned performances from Colin McPhillamy and Christopher Oden, and strong supporting work by Elizabeth Dimon. But the star was director J. Barry Lewis. He led the cast in mining and illuminating every beat of Michael Frayn’s examination of the search for truth in a world skewed by human perception ‘ seen through the prism of nuclear physics, believe it or not. In this case, the ultimate product was superior to the Broadway and touring companies of the same work.

5. Three Tall Women (Palm Beach Dramaworks)

We’re not fans of hiring out-of-town actors unless there’s’absolutely no local alternative (which occurs occasionally). But how can you argue with Beth Dixon’s brilliant impersonation of the imperious/needy doyenne? It is difficult to believe from the finely-tuned portrait opening night, but she had never played the part before and, in fact, felt that she had screwed it up in previews. Beyond that, she had strong support from Angie Radosh and Geneva Rae. But doubtless, once again, the fourth star of the show was director J. Barry Lewis who took Edward Albee’s elliptical, elusive text and made it as comprehensible as Albee may ever be.

6. No Exit (Naked Stage)

Sartre’s classic has a reputation as the ultimate castor oil theater experience (you expect it will taste bad, but you know it’s good for you). But this stark production was terrifying and surprisingly gripping since less ‘happens’ in this closed off room than in a Seinfeld episode. Credit the cast of Katherine Amadeo (who has championed the work for years), Deborah S. Sherman, Andy Quiroga and Mark Della Ventura under the co-direction of Antonio Amadeo and John Manzelli for a lacerating descent into hell.

7. South Beach Babylon (Zoetic Stage)

The first work by Miami’s newest company only made us hungry to see the rest of the season. Simultaneously funny and insightful about the challenge of maintaining artistic integrity, Michael McKeever’s script was deftly staged by Stuart Meltzer and brought to life by a cast drawn primarily from Zoetic’s resident company. McKeever’s collection of creative spirits flirted with seeming cartoonish in their zaniness, but they never felt like caricatures.

8. Bridge and Tunnel/The Year of Magical Thinking (Women’s Theatre Project)

A tie with the common element of the same company and solo performances.’ Karen Stephens proved she has more personalities than Sybil through her bravura performance as a dozen or more characters. Just by pivoting on her heel, she convincingly changed personas in what was not a theatrical stunt, but a serious illustration of the diversity of urban America. Equally impressive was Angie Radosh as just one—Joan Didion in the affecting monologue about a woman struggling to deal with psychologically crippling loss.

9. The Drowsy Chaperone (Broward Stage Door)

Stage Door does one musical really well each season and this year it scored with The Drowsy Chaperone, the joyfully affectionate send-up of ’20s Broadway musicals. If the sets, direction and choreography seemed very, very close to the 2006 original New York production, it was conceived, staged and performed with infectious verve and energy. Above all, it had veteran director Dan Kelley slipping on the persona of the narrator, the shy Man in Chair, like a comfortable button-up cardigan.

10. Academy (Maltz Jupiter Theater)

It took 10′ years for Academy to get to its world premiere.’ But John Mercurio and Andrew Kato’s story of teen angst in an Ivy League prep school was worth waiting for. The pop chamber musical had a freshness and compassion unmatched by anything other than Spring Awakening.

2010 Honorable Mentions:

12 Angry Men (Maltz Jupiter Theatre), Motherhood the Musical (G4 Productions), Dr. Radio (Florida Stage), The Dumb Waiter (Promethean), Dying City (Mosaic), Goldie, Max &’ Milk (Florida Stage), Make Me A Song: The Music Of William Finn (Mosaic) and When The Sun Shone Brighter (Florida Stage)

Lucille Ball Award

Elena Maria Garcia is simply the funniest actress in South Florida, but her colleagues recognize just how much craft she invests in that hilarity. As the monstrous superagent in South Beach Babylon she managed to be both over-the top and somehow believable. Her inventive readings are always embroidered with audible or physical punctuation. She doesn’t work on stage very often, but when she does, it’s always stunning. Just the way she arches her eyebrows is cause for laughter.

Most Underrated Actress in Town

Deborah Sherman is another actress we’d go see in nearly anything and who doesn’t work nearly often enough. Even when she’s caught in a so-so show, she shines. Although her day job is performing as a clown in children’s hospitals, she injected cold forged steel into her outstanding performance as the lesbian in Naked Stage’s No Exit. The following month she created a completely different human being as the judgmental lactation consultant in Goldie, Max & Milk at Florida Stage.

Most Consistently Excellent Production Values

Big budget: The Maltz Jupiter Theater’s lighting, costumes and sets are dependably lush and show an attention to detail down to the period gum wrapper for 12 Angry Men.

Mid-level budget: Every aspect of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ productions exemplify excellence including Brian O’Keefe’s period costumes.

No budget: Naked Stage’s No Exit was their latest example of how imagination and vision triumph over a miniscule bank balance. They made subtle emotion-altering lighting changes with fewer light bulbs than you have in your apartment.

Most Overrated Show That Most People Loved

The secret of most anarchic thumb-your-nose comedies is carefully hidden discipline and craft. The Promethean Theatre, known for fine drama like The Dumb Waiter, slips on a banana peel every time it does an intentionally sophomoric musical like last year’s Cannibal! and this season’s Evil Dead the Musical. It isn’t the content; Evil Dead is sublimely silly. It’s the sloppiness of execution in every department. It’s one thing to appear amateurish; it’s another to be amateurish.

Worst Show of the Year

No individual show has this category nailed. But I’ll nominate for consideration Fit To Be Tied from Rising Action Theatre. People in the audience pressed the glow-in-the-dark button on their watches so often, you thought there were fireflies loose in the auditorium. Even so, it still wasn’t as legendarily bad as Rising Action’s infamous 2007 Burning Blue or the Public Theatre’s painful Pastrami On Rye in 2003.

Underdog Award

Slow Burn Theatre Company struggles along in its second season at West Boca High School’s hippodrome of an auditorium. The meagerness of its budget peeks through in most of its productions. But founders Patrick Fitzwater and Matthew Korinko choose edgy musicals that few other theaters currently in business would attempt, such as Stephen Sondheim’s’ Assassins. It also provides a place to see two gifted musical actors in their repertory company: Rick Pena and Korinko himself, whose baritone and goatee remind you of Alfred Drake.

The It’s-Just-Like-Being-There Set Design Award

Michael Amico always does superlative work for Palm Beach Dramaworks, usually in a naturalistic vein and often in tandem with lighting designer Ron Burns. His sets don’t just create a convincing environment, they provide another character for the actors to play off of. Especially remarkable is his skill at dressing the set with props, whether it’s the pawned detritus in American Buffalo or the collection of canes and crutches abandoned in the corner in The Gin Game.

The Sondheim Award for Performing Sondheim

Bless Clive Cholerton and the Caldwell Theatre for concert versions of works that no one else in the region is tackling, such as Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George. This year, he gave us a glorious Follies. Yes, most of the cast was at least ten years too young for their parts, but most of them did justice to the complex score considering how little rehearsal they had together. Special mention goes to Laura Hodos and Melissa Minyard as the female leads and Eric Alsford as the musical director.

Year of the Director

Directors don’t get noticed by audiences, unless they’re executing flashy visions like Julie Taymor or Mary Zimmerman. But some of the best direction is nearly invisible to the layman, even though everything from the performers’ interpretations to the exit music is unified by their guiding hand. Two of the best are Dramaworks’ J. Barry Lewis who helmed the aforementioned Copenhagen and Three Tall Women, and Margaret M. Ledford who directed Collected Stories. It takes a theater professional to appreciate their arrangement of stage pictures, their skill in focusing the audience’s attention and their excavation of meaning for every line in the script.

Most Cursed Theater Company

Everybody is rooting for Clive Cholerton to restore the Caldwell Theatre to its former glory. But somebody must have uttered the word Macbeth backstage or whistled in the wings because illness has struck down actors in show after show. The company went through two (or was it three?) leading men in its production of She Loves Me in 2008. The old man in The Old Man and the Sea took ill in February and had to be replaced by Gordon McConnell. McConnell in turn became ill during the July run of Secret Order. Finally (we hope), Albert Blaise Cattafi, the lead dancer in Vices was seriously sick one weekend this fall.

Best New Script

It’s a toss-up between two friends and an outsider. Christopher Demos-Brown exposed the complexities and darkness behind Cuban-American politics in When the Sun Shone Brighter at Florida Stage. Michael McKeever presented one of his best plays, South Beach Babylon, for the inauguration of Zoetic Stage. Coming in just under the wire, the out-of-towner Karen Hartman’s Goldie, Max & Milk overcame the most unlikely scenario to deliver a well-constructed and highly polished story about motherhood and family that was both terribly funny and touching at the same time.

Gutsiest Calls

Two companies announced schedules this fall with at least one show their audiences won’t expect. Actors Playhouse chose a straight play with a massive cast, August: Osage County; and Broward Stage Door selected the unconventional musical, The Light in the Piazza. Honorable mention for guts goes to Zoetic Stage for starting up a theater company in the depths of a recession. Here’s wishing that all three break a tibia.

The Pushing the Edge of the Envelope Award

Touring producers have a reputation for playing it safe with reruns of Wicked, Phantom, Le Miz, Beauty and the Beast, etc. But give credit where credit is due. Broadway Across America has courageously slipped in more diverse and slightly more challenging fare, notably: In the Heights, The Color Purple and Spring Awakening ‘ all works written within this century. Yes, some older patrons looking for Hello, Dolly walked out at intermission, but these choices brought in more diverse audiences and more patrons under the age of 70.

Burn the Heretic at the Stake Award

Any true theatergoer prefers a live pit band, the larger the better. But David Cohen’s canned music for Broward Stage Door shows involves reorchestrating and rearranging the score, then performing all the parts himself. It makes presenting these musicals financially feasible by giving them the full sound they absolutely require. Without the digitized soundtrack, the shows might not be done at all locally.

Best Gift for a Theater Geek

You could have an all-Sondheim holiday with Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes is a sumptuous banquet in which the master analyzes his own work in unsparing detail and that of his predecessors. Plus there’s a DVD of Sondheim! The Birthday Concert that has several performances in addition to the dozen or so that stopped respiration when PBS stations broadcast it last month in between pledge breaks.

Also there’s the release of a DVD of Sondheim’s offbeat film musical for television, Evening Primrose. While songs from the show have been covered by other performers on compilation CDs, the Twilight Zone-ish film with Anthony Perkins and Charmian Carr has not been seen other than in museum archives or bootleg copies since its one and only airing on ABC Stage 67.

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