A Last Look Back At 2017, A Fine South Florida Theater Season

Michael Mckenzie and Shane Tanner in ‘Sweeney Todd’ at Palm Beach Dramaworks

By Bill Hirschman

One pleasure of a theater critic’s job are these year-end retrospectives that require looking back at reviews and be reminded, “Oh, yeah, that was really great. And right, there was that. And how could I forget that one?”

Every few clicks on Florida Theater On Stage’s archives for 2017 recollected a stunning performance, a moving evening, desperately needed laughs, works that raised our consciousness, stories that made us think differently about what we thought we knew, productions that redefined our very expectations of theater.

2017 proved once again that the quality of work available for the mobile, adventurous theatergoer here continues to grow in depth and breadth. The average quality may not be at the same level as that in Chicago or Washington, D.C., or Boston because their talent pool and funding is wider and deeper. But when South Florida theaters are doing their best work, it’s the equal of the best work being done anywhere.

So the idea of citing what anyone thinks is the “best” of the year in such and such a category is ludicrous since it usually means comparing, at best, McIntosh apples and Delicious apples, if not apples and oranges.

What follows is not a “ten best” list of anything. Some of the work may not even be mentioned when awards are considered. Indeed, this is not remotely a comprehensive accounting of the well over 130 professional shows reviewed this year, not to mention the scores of collegiate, community and high school productions gracing the region. So don’t be offended if you or your favorite work is not on it. These are moments or entire evenings or just experiences pasted in my theatrical scrapbook and that of thousands more aficionados.

Zoetic Stage’s Sunday in the Park With George

The Shows-That-Were-Superb-Top-To-Bottom-And-It-Would-Take-Too-Long-To-Single-Out-All-The-People-Responsible Award: Palm Beach DramaworksSweeney Todd, Zoetic Stage’s Sunday in the Park With George, and Dramaworks’ Arcadia.

Shows you probably didn’t see and it’s your loss, toots: Ground Up and Rising’s The Good Thief, Dramaworks’ Arcadia, and Area Stage Company’s An Octaroon.

Very Pleasant Surprises Dept.: Who knew that the story of a failing Florida panhandle Elvis tribute performer desperately paying bills by subbing as a drag queen would be so funny and even moving as GableStage’s The Legend of Georgia McBride. Similarly, Broward Stage Door in Margate has been inching up its quality year after year, but it just exploded this fall with a production that blew the doors off the place, Dreamgirls.

The Consistency of Excellence
Award: Several companies have done solid dependable work throughout their seasons. But arguably, no theater has produced the consistently high quality of work season-long (and with always challenging titles in a rainbow of genres) as this year’s slate from Zoetic Stage at the Arsht Center. Seriously, folks: Sunday in the Park With George, Topdog/Underdog, The Caretaker and Fuacata!

Niki Fridh in Grounded

Taking Chances: Quietly, some theaters known for their adventurous fare are opting for slightly less risk-taking titles in order to stabilize their bottom line (who can blame them) and they plan to do it again next season. So for those theatergoers who want see work no one else is doing in South Florida, one company has joined Miami’s Mad Cat in continuing to consistently challenge the expectations of what local audiences have been lulled into accepting. Thinking Cap Theatre, based in a renovated Fort Lauderdale church, spent this past year producing thought-provoking and boundary-smashing works. Some were better than others – risk taking means not everything is a triumph – but flock to any company that mounted the hilarious and insightful Straight White Men, the tour de force Grounded, the delightful Betty Boop-inspired Collective Rage, the musical of feminist rage Lizzie, and last season’s brilliantly executed A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney.

The trifecta of winners for the unintentionally insulting category for People-Working-For-Years-Who-Finally-Get-The-Roles-They-Have-Earned-To-Show-Off-Their-Chops are:

Cindy Pearce

—– Cindy Pearce, a veteran of children’s theater and a few adult roles like Penelope Pennywise in Slow Burn’s early success with Urinetown, was hilarious and heartfelt as the lovelorn sister in Actors’ Playhouse’s It Shoulda Been You
—–Elijah Word, a tall lithe singer dancer with a 400-watt smile in the ensembles of several shows at Broward Stage Door and Marquee Theatre, was nitroglycerin in mid-explosion as the dynamic James Thunder Early in Stage Door’s Dreamgirls.
—–Michael Ursua was the musical director, post-show lobby performer and occasional actor (the padre in Man of La Mancha) for several seasons at the Wick Theatre. But this season he blew audiences away with two of the best musical theater performances of the year: a uniquely moving Zaza in MNM Productions’ La Cage aux Folles at the Kravis Center, and then as the emotionally tortured widower Archibald Craven in Slow Burn Theatre Company’s The Secret Garden at the Broward Center.

A huge kaleidoscope of great performances that ought to have been memorialized on PBS Great Performances:
 Top of the list is Shane Tanner who transformed through Sweeney Todd’s arc from an emotionally cauterized victim of injustice through volcanic rage and finally settling into an internally-logical mechanism for coping with the abyss of an infinitely monstrous realm.

But also: Niki Fridh as the ace Air Force pilot confined to flying drones in Grounded; Lindsey Corey for her divinely ditsy roller-skating heroine in Slow Burn’s Xanadu, Karen Stephens as the indomitable earth mother in Theatre Lab’s Motherland; Kevin Reilley in his fourth turn but finely executed Malvolio in New City PlayersTwelfth Night; Bruce Linser at the Wick as one of the best The Man in the Chair we’ve seen in over a half-dozen editions of The Drowsy Chaperone; Leah Sessa nailing the charming stressed-out bride Amy with the devilishly tongue twisting “Getting Married Today” in MNM’s Company; Gregg Weiner mastering one of his first times at bat in a one-character play as the Irish gangster in Ground Up & Rising’s The Good Thief directed by Collin Carmouze; Gregg Weiner as the American-next-door who plummets down the moral slippery slope in City Theatre’s Building the Wall; Clay Cartland’s patented wackiness  as the outrageous Black Stache in Slow Burn’s Peter and the Starctatcher, Clay Cartland’s blue-collar redneck turned drag queen in  Georgia McBride; Clay Cartland as one of the playful troubled siblings in Thinking Cap’s Straight White Men; Conor Walton outshining everything else as the stylish morally bankrupt St. Jimmy in Outre Theatre Company’s American Idiot in Pompano Beach; Jim Ballard as the villainous Beadle in Sweeney Todd and the demented sadistic dentist in Little Shop of HorrorsVicki Lewis (with Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s direction) delivering a unique stirring Mama Rose in a reimagined Gypsy at Maltz Jupiter Theatre; Nicholas Richberg as the outsized Tennessee Williams in Dramaworks’ world premiere of Billy and Me, and the linchpin brother in Zoetic’s The Caretaker; David Kwiat’s ragged retrobate in The Caretaker; Julie Kleiner showing completely different elements of her range as Julie Jordon in Actors Playhouse’s Carousel in Coral Gables and the spunky heroine in the Wick’s She Loves Me;   Mia Matthews’ hilarious reawakened mother in Hir at Island City Stage; and Anne-Marie Cusson’s stunning turn in Dramaworks’ Collected Stories, a masterful exhibition of her decades of hard-won craft, woven so deftly that only theater pros could see how she did it – arguably the finest female performance of the season.

The ‘Who IS That?’ Newcomer Award: Catch Mallory Newbrough in the next shows she’s in because you can bet she’ll be snatched up out of state before long. Her chameleonic turns in a single season here encompassed Janis Joplin in Stage Door’s Beehive, Belle in the Wick Theatre’s Beauty and the Beast, the vibrant Marta singing “Another Hundred People” in Company; the spoiled southern belle in An Octaroon and the lovable ditsy Audrey I in MNM’s Little Shop of Horrors. She wears a different wig in each part and could walk by you on the street unrecognized. But not on stage.

Runner Up in the category: Hannah Benitez has had a few local credits like her gentle vulnerable heroine in Slow Burn’s Dogfight last season. But her breakout triumph this season was her quirky, jittery and neurotic Daphna in Main Street PlayersBad Jews. She created a force of nature driven by a black hole inside herself.

Elena Maria Garcia

The Whatever Is Spanish for Tour De Force Award: Veteran theatergoers know that Elena Maria Garcia’s name in any playbill for any production guarantees at least one unique comic creation worth seeing. But the actress/teacher/writer who channels Lucille Ball, Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg joined forces with Zoetic’s co-founder Stuart Meltzer to write Fuácata! (Or a Latina’s Guide to Surviving the Universe, a wildly hilarious and touching expedition through the specific multi-cultural not-so-melting pot that is Greater Miami-Dade with Garcia portraying about two dozen very different Latina women.

Projecting an Emotion: I’ve been pressing the Carbonells for a couple of years to create a category for projections. While it must be integrated into the set design and lighting design, it is an art discipline all its own. A key example is Zachary Borovay’s inventive work for Newsies which did as much, if not more, than the actual set design to create the turn-of-the-century context for the show at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. Or Josieu Jean, the former Navy man with little theater experience but whose second career in graphic design and computer animation has been enhancing the visual aspect of Wick Theatre productions for two years and whose computerized animated environments become increasingly sophisticated. Or Greg Duffy’s animated projections in Zoetic’s Sunday in the Park With George, limning lines of charcoal appearing on the back wall one at a time, creating what is in Georges’ sketchbook. And Kevin Black has been providing more animated projections every year to spice up Broward Stage Door’s musical revues.

Dancing in the Street: There’s been a good deal of strong choreography this year from Kimberley Dawn Smith at MNM and Patrick Fitzwater at Slow Burn. Most notably, Al Blackstone’s choreography for the Maltz’s Newsies was superb. But the explosive execution by the Newsies’ ensemble was exemplary for its energy, enthusiasm and passion. It might not be fair to single out one person in that ensemble but Lindsay Bell, who has also been choreographing local shows as well, simply glows with her exuberance and knife-sharp movement while she stays in character and acts throughout.

Who’s The Boss? Other than stage managers, few people in theater are as crucial but get less recognition from audiences than directors because most of them (but not all) prize the invisibility of their work. South Florida is blessed with several such as J. Barry Lewis, David Arisco and Margaret M. Ledford. But three stood out this year in bold face for their vision and imagination.
—–Start with, no surprise, Joseph Adler, specifically for his work in GableStage’s The Humans. On Broadway, this work was lauded for its performances but the content and meaning eluded many people including this critic. But GableStage’s ensemble cast led by Adler made this still very flawed piece finally engaging and make some sense.
—–Stuart Meltzer showed a mastery of a wide variety of genres with Zoetic’s diverse season and several challenging student productions at New World School of the Arts.
—–Jessica E. Schulte, a newcomer to our region, spent her first weeks here bringing a playful, imaginative and detailed vision of Shakespeare to New City Players’ abbreviated but delightful and accessible edition of Twelfth Night, then survived a rollover automobile accident prior to the opening. Local theatergoers should be grateful from a selfish point of view because Ms. Schulte has a lot more to show us.

Two recipients for the Turn, Turn, Turn Award: M Ensemble, probably the oldest African-American theater in the state, had suffered artistically and financially moving from venue to venue over the years. But it came roaring back to life this year with the basketball drama The Kings of Harlem, its inaugural production at its new permanent home at the Sandrell Rivers Theatre at the Audrey M. Edmondson Transit Village.
Second, Main Street Players, a venerable community theater, took the leap to become a full-fledged professional troupe with a series of productions that validated their decision: the promising Real Women Have Curves, an even stronger science-fiction tinged play about humanity and ethics Marjorie Prime, and finally its no-excuses-needed edition of Bad Jews.

Mallory Newbrough and Robert Richards Jr. in Area Stage Company’s An Octaroon

The Go Big Or Go Home Courage Award: First, Area Stage Company (soon to have to move out of its home in south Miami) succeeded with the cutting edge satire of racism in the aforementioned An Octoroon whose protagonist is a black playwright portraying the lead in his own antebellum melodrama — in white face. Second, Thinking Cap’s rockin’ 11 on a scale of 10 feminist rage musical in Lizzie.

Doing A Lot With A Lot: It’s amazing what set designers like Jodi Dellaventura can do with a limited budget as she did with Island City Stage’s Hir, often by carefully selecting character-revealing furniture, wall adornments and props. But when provided with a comparatively generous amount, scenic designers working with expert lighting artists and projection creators can overwhelm an audiences with expansive note-perfect environment, among the most notable (but hardly the only ones) included Anne Mundell’s lavish bi-level hotel suite in the Maltz’s Born Yesterday; Michael  McClain’s rundown squat in Zoetic’s Topdog/Underdog and his gorgeous recreation of Seurat’s masterpiece in Sunday in the Park With George, and his towering collection of the detritus of lost lives in Zoetic’s The Caretaker; and Michael Amico’s upper middle class turn-of-the-century living room at DramaworksThe Little Foxes.

Well, That Was Different: Miami New Drama gave the venerable Our Town an only-in-Miami makeover with the Gibbs and Webbs speaking Spanish and Creole at home, and Mad Cat Theatre mounted two seriously offbeat evenings: the political satire Firemen Are Rarely Necessary and the Vaclav Havel double-header Protest and Audience.

In a difficult and troubling year, South Florida theater provided some of the few encouraging shining reminders of who we are, but more importantly who we want to be.

Now, raise the curtain on 2018.

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