10 Most Memorable 2013 South Florida Theater Productions. Well… 11, Okay… 12

Slow Burn Theatre Company's next to normal

The entire cast of Slow Burn Theatre Company’s next to normal

By Bill Hirschman

As certain as mistletoe and Auld Lang Syne are top ten lists from arts critics. These are the shows that spoke to me personally and professionally, the ones I’d want to see again.

Ten theatergoers would likely come up with ten different lists. For instance, two shows on our honorable mention list weren’t even recommended by Carbonell nominators for consideration by the judging panel. That’s not a criticism of anyone’s taste, just a recognition that there is always a multiplicity of taste.

As certain as hangovers and sleeping in New Year’s Day, these lists will elate some folks, anger others and disappoint still others. It’s damn difficult whittling down the list, thus the addition of a list of honorable mentions. If your favorite theater or memorable production was left off, take comfort that it was a pretty strong season. Or maybe you just have no taste.

In alphabetical order:

Dancing At Lughnasa (Palm Beach Dramaworks, May): One of the disappearing theater genres amid blockbuster musicals is the slow, sweet sad song. And as this production shows, nobody sings them like the Irish  — or Palm Beach Dramaworks under J. Barry Lewis’ assured fine-grained direction. Executed by a wonderful ensemble, this story of five impoverished sisters struggling to stay together required a 21st Century audience to downshift their metabolism a bit. But the reward was a melancholy but oddly affirming elegy that acknowledged the universal pain of life with a rueful and compassionate smile. The most memorable scene was the famous moment during which the sisters ripped away their inhibitions and propriety to indulge in a wild, spirited impromptu dance that exposed their deep repressed passion for life. To read our full review, click here.

Colin McPhillamy in Exit The King

Colin McPhillamy in Exit The King

—-Exit the King (Palm Beach Dramaworks, March-April) Praise is due Dramaworks simply for being a commercial theater courageous enough to undertake anything by Eugene Ionesco. But its triumphant production of this absurdist masterpiece about mortality — part Marx Brothers, part Existentialism –featured tour de force performances by Colin McPhillamy and Angie Radosh, plus endlessly inventive direction by William Hayes with Lynette Barkley. McPhillamy created a baggy pants clown whose bottomless bag of broad vaudevillian tricks made palatable a king who was unredeemably selfish, self-centered, ineffectual, childish, petulant, even downright nasty – a Sears catalogue of human failings that are all too familiar from the mirror. In a scene we can still summon up, Radosh’sQueen, gently and with inestimable compassion, guided her King’s passage from life to death. Resembling a mother urging an infant to walk, she did the opposite, helping him let go and find peace. Full review: click here.

—-Fear Up Harsh (Zoetic Stage, November) Local playwright Christopher Demos-Brown’s craft deepens with every work and this one about returning vets and the corruptibility of some “honors” was easily one of the best shows of the season. This drama was a mercilessly penetrating interrogation of how our need for heroes — a need even among the heroes themselves – can trump the very values of truth, honor and loyalty that they fought to preserve. The cast of Shane Tanner, Stephen Anthony and newcomer Jessica Brooke Sanford was fine and Stuart Meltzer’s direction was strong. But the impact – a well-chosen word — was ratcheted up several notches by the standout performance of Karen Stephens as a scarred veteran struggling with the baggage from the war that she brought home to a homeland unworthy of her sacrifice. Full review: click here.

—-An Iliad (Outré Theatre Company, April) The young company whose unofficial motto is “go big or go home” went epic with its wrenching production of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s modern reworking of the Homeric classic about the Trojan War, directed with inventive staging by Skye Whitcomb with Sabrina Lynn Gore. Stefanie Howard’s lighting, Danny Butler’s soundscape and Sean McClelland’s wasteland of a set were all brilliantly evocative. But leaving the best for last, Avi Hoffman vaporized every vestige of his song-and-dance comedian persona with a transfixing performance as the war-weary storyteller/poet. Full review: click here.

In the Heights (Actors’ Playhouse, Coral Gables, March) You can carp that this was so close a recreation of the original Broadway production that it bordered on photocopying. On the other hand, you can cheer that it was as close a recreation of the original Broadway production that… well, you get it. Nine months later, this hip-hop-infused tale of an extended family in the barrio of Washington Heights remains one of the most vibrant and joyful evenings spent in theater this year. Every aspect was first rate, starting with the leadership of director David Arisco, choreographer/musical stager Stephanie Klemon and musical director Manny Schvartzman. In a cast of universally superb actors, singers and dancers, the standout, of course, was Nick Duckart’s charming Usnavi. Not since the same theater’s legendary Floyd Collins in 2003 have I wanted to turn around and go right back the next night. Full review: click here.

—-The Lion In Winter (Palm Beach Dramaworks, December) This deceptively difficult play is, as we write, getting as fine a stage production as we’ve seen of this fictionalized look at Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitane and their sons fighting over land, power and missing parental affection. Director William Hayes leads an adroit cast (especially leads Tod Randolph and C. David Johnson) in James Goldman’s unsparing examination of just how base the human animal can be in the grip of power, greed and ambition. Full review: click here.

—-The Longing and the Short Of It (The Theatre At Arts Garage, November) Few people have heard of composer/lyricist Daniel Maté, but if the talent he showed in this chamber musical is any indication, you will soon. This examination of nascent, burgeoning and disintegrating relationships is a collection of songs with no book, no plot and perhaps the faintest wisp of developmental arc, unified by the author’s vision and a loose theme. Yet, that doesn’t undercut the effectiveness of the individual pieces nor their accumulated weight at the end of the evening. Longing offers 23 songs, some wryly humorous and many resonating deeply with the audience’s own experiences. The lyrics are nimble with internal rhymes as well as prosaic clichés that smoothly slip into poetry. All are populated by urbanites struggling with anxiety, loneliness and the yearning for human connection that may be the hallmark of this era. Director Max Friedman led a fine cast including local veteran Elizabeth Dimon. Full review: click here.

Cliff Burgess and Betsy Graver in Arts Garage's Lungs

Cliff Burgess and Betsy Graver in Arts Garage’s Lungs

—-Lungs (The Theatre At Arts Garage, March)  Actors Betsy Graver and Cliff Burgess, guided by director Tyrrell, delivered a breathtaking and bravura production of a brilliant, but maddeningly difficult script by Duncan Macmillan. The playwright provided no indication that a scene has changed in a show made up of ever morphing vignettes, plus he wrote broken field running rhythms for the characters’ arias. Tyrrell’s staging and the actors’ skill made the changes crystal clear by simply pivoting on a heel. In one staging image that stays with you, one character indicated the passage of time by walking across the stage and saying a different line every few steps. The play examined the fragility and tensile strength of relationships. Lungs depicted the conundrum of deciding whether to deal with loved ones with your head or your heart. At the risk of opening an old wound, it is exactly the kind of adventurous work Tyrrell did at Florida Stage but with a tenth of the budget. Full review: click here.

—-next to normal (Slow Burn Theatre Company, October) This profoundly poignant production was about as good as it gets in South Florida theater. If the title was in lower case letters, the production deserved to be in all capital letters. It affirms that the underdog troupe in West Boca has graduated into a first-rank producer of theater in the region. A musical about a family struggling to cope with the mother’s bipolar condition – culminating in electroshock therapy – may not be everybody’s cup of Xanax, but it prevailed as a complex, upsetting, harrowing material but ultimately moving 2 ½ hours, even though it only offered a glimmer of hope shining in the darkness. Kudos are due director Patrick Fitzwater and musical director Manny Schvartzman and a terrific ensemble including Sharyn Peoples, Anne Chamberlain, Bruno Vida, Clay Cartland, Jason Edelstein and Matthew Korinko. For those who have seen other productions, Slow Burn’s was notable for making the story about the entire family rather than skewing it too much on the mother. Full review: click here.

—-Savage In Limbo (Alliance Theatre Lab, November) Normally, a flawed piece of work doesn’t make this list. So that underscores what a surprisingly strong production this was. Five supposedly inarticulate people hold forth in a seedy Bronx bar in a profligate torrent of existential philosophy and metaphorical verbiage. If playwright John Patrick Shanley let them go on way too long plowing the same ground, this cast under Adalberto Acevedo’s direction twisted at the audience’s heart as they depicted humanity’s fundamental yearning to change their lives and find “something better.” With crackling electricity and an earnest sincerity, the Alliance company conquered a script that is both lovely in its lyricism and risks wearing out its welcome by endlessly running full out in a hamster wheel getting nowhere. It’s a testament to the pyrotechnics and energy of the cast and the director that the audience willingly stayed with it. Full review: click here.

—-Side Show (Slow Burn Theatre Company, February) This cult musical that most mainstream audiences had never heard of was an unalloyed moving triumph based on the love lives of Siamese twins. Far from being a bizarre exploitation worthy of a tabloid, it was a heart-breaking depiction of how every human being searches for love – sometimes in vain. We said at the time that “There is more passion pouring off the stage in Slow Burn Theatre Company’s thrilling Side Show than in ten other musicals we’ve seen in the past year put together.” Later to be matched by next to normal in the same season, it was a benchmark in the troupe’s maturation. It was cleanly directed, deftly designed and tenderly acted by singers Kaela Antolino, Courtney Poston, Conor Walton, Rick Peña and Matthew Korinko. Full review: click here.

—-The Timekeepers (Island City Stage, October) South Florida audiences are a little crisped out over Holocaust plays. But this one by local playwright Dan Clancy punched straight through your viscera. This tale of an equally prejudiced Jew and a homosexual bonding in a concentration camp wasn’t the archetypical drama with emotional fireworks. Instead, director Michael Leeds and stars Michael McKeever and Mike Westrich prevailed through a deliberately-paced but riveting story. The shattering result was a testament to their expertise – some of the best work all three have displayed locally. The claustrophobic work shed bounded by barbed wire also featured the best set seen in the tiny Empire Stage venue. Full review: click here.

But that’s only the tip of the quality iceberg.  An even more incomplete list of honorable mentions:

—-Thoroughly Modern Millie (Maltz Jupiter Theatre, March) This was just what it wanted to be: a silly romp so frothy you’d think you just stepped into a bubble bath. If it was about as substantial as cotton candy that didn’t stick to your ribs very long, the co-production with the Paper Mill Playhouse was a delightfully sweet confection whipped up by some very talented folks. Especially notable was the hilarious turn by Burke Moses as the fathead boss.

—-Blow Me (Mad Cat Theatre, August) Even the people connected to this bio show about fashion icon Isabella Blow acknowledge that it was not a perfect work. But the intriguing script by Jessica Farr was promising, the avant-garde direction by Paul Tei was artful and the central creation by Erin Joy Schmidt was stunning, among the best performances of the year.

—-GableStage’s Cock was a fascinating kaleidoscopic look at a bi-sexual love triangle with a standout performance by Nicholas Richberg; GableStage’s Good People asked how much is success rooted in character and how much in luck, and its My Name Is Asher Lev was a touching look at driving artistic ambition.

Barbara Bradshaw and Erin Joy Schmidt in Actors' Playhouse's Other Desert Cities

Barbara Bradshaw and Erin Joy Schmidt in Actors’ Playhouse’s Other Desert Cities

—-Actors’ Playhouse’s hilarious musical Ruthless was a solid hoot including the bipolar performance of Amy Miller Brennan as the suburban housewife and Broadway diva; and its Other Desert Cities was an expertly executed story of a wealthy but troubled family portrayed by, among others, Barbara Bradshaw, Erin Joy Schmidt, Antonio Amadeo and Lourelene Snedeker. Not everyone was impressed, but we remain undeterred champions.

—-All New People (Zoetic Stage, January) Comedy is as tough, if not tougher than drama. Few companies pulled it off as well as in this magical, hilarious and touching production of Zach Braff’s hysterical yet insightful script about four insanely disparate and damaged thirty-somethings struggling with the aloneness of being alive, featuring Nicholas Richberg, Amy McKenna, Betsy Graver and Todd Allen Durkin under Stuart Meltzer’s direction.

—-Outré Theatre Company often tries out musicals in concert stagings. The wisdom of this was seen this season in its successful full production of Jonathan Larson’s tick…tick…BOOM that it had mounted in a workshop the season before. This past season it mounted a pretty fleshed out concert version of the anarchic satirical rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. We hope to see the full staging in a coming season.

—-The Fort Lauderdale branch of Broadway Across America presented two of the best works offered by any of the regional presenting house in quite some time, The Book of Mormon and War Horse.

—-Palm Beach Dramaworks mounted impressive summer concert productions of the musicals Company and Man of La Mancha with extensive staging by Clive Cholerton.

—-Winning the award for the most unlikely success of the season was Michael Kooman and Chris Dimond’s Dani Girl, performed as part of the Theatre At Arts Garage’s new summer series of staged readings of musicals. The bare bones production about a 9-year-old girl fighting the reality of cancer through her imaginative fantasies will likely get few productions anywhere ever, but Louis Tyrrell’s courageous offering remains one of the most moving and funny evenings we spent in the theater this year.

Finally, we’re not saying these were terrible productions; some were adequate, some weren’t. But they were, at best, disappointments based on our expectations: Arsht Center/University of Miami’s Metamorphoses, Outre’s Much Ado About Nothing, Boca Raton Theatre Guild’s Chicago, New Theatre’s My First, My Fist, My Bleeding Seeded Spirit, Kutumba Theatre Company’s The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, and Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s Singing In The Rain.

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