By Bill Hirschman
2015 produced a wild variety of snapshots to paste in the theatrical scrapbooks: a male Dolly Levi, a possibly homicidal dimwit slicing carrots, the heartbreaking consequence of passing on gay marriage, an unhinged kidnapper forcing her captives to learn nonsense, Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal taking on live stage drama, a tsunami engulfing a Japanese village, theaters moving into stages an entire county away from their first venues, a green-gunked survivor of toxic sludge singing love songs to his blind librarian girlfriend. You know, just another year for regional theater in South Florida.
But for a region still fighting a long-ago debunked national perception of mediocrity and timidity, South Florida once again earned a reputation for risk-taking artistically and financially. Sometimes the bets paid off; sometimes they didn’t. But no one can argue that region did not flush away any sense of being a moribund dusty theatrical museum.
What follows are some of the outstanding, notable, interesting, off-the-wall or just plain intriguing work that was done – perhaps an entire evening, perhaps just a moment, plus trends, triumphs and tragedies. Caveats: This roster is not just subjective but woefully incomplete; don’t feel slighted if you’re not on the list. And importantly, as a Carbonell Awards judge, let me underscore that this in no way represents what I will be voting for or even campaigning for with other judges; the Carbonell criteria I use often is different than what this list represents. This is a just a smattering of what stuck to the roof of my brain.
—The So Fresh That You Don’t Mind Having Seen It Six Times Already Award: As with its Hello, Dolly! a few seasons back, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre did not reinvent Les Misérables so much as apply as imaginatively fresh a palette as humanly possible. By investing its considerable artistic and fiscal resources — and by hiring several people familiar with the show — the Maltz delivered a Les Miz better than any road tour and competitive with any Broadway/West End production. We wrote in March: It’s “like watching an art restorer wipe away decades of obscuring grime from a canvas and savoring what you forgot was hidden underneath – even seeing colors you didn’t know were there.” To read our review, click here.
–The So Good I’d Happily See It Another Six Times Award: Actors Playhouse, home to the superb Floyd Collins, Murder Ballad and In The Heights, set a high water mark in February with its production of Ragtime. The direction, acting, singing, musical direction, design elements, on and on and on were as exemplary as regional theater gets – not to mention a massive economic wager that encompassed hiring a record-setting 40 cast members. It stands as Actors’ finest mainstream work ever, as accessible and satisfying as it was passionate and thoughtful. To read our review, click here.
—The It Doesn’t Get Much Better Than This Award — There were many superb dramas this year, but only a few were in the class of Buried Child at Palm Beach Dramaworks. This production of an almost opaque surrealistic Sam Shepard work (there’s a redundancy) was brilliantly illuminated by director J. Barry Lewis, a stunningly effective cast and a creative team working at the top of their game. Among the heroes were Paul Tei reminding us once again that he is not only a talented director-producer, but a stunningly dangerous actor. And Rob Donohoe’s central performance was breath-taking, especially his hypnotic stationary soliloquy near the end of the play. To read our review, click here.
—The Best Shows You Probably Did Not See Award: We have a three-way tie for these shows by small companies with short runs and minimal marketing other than Facebook. First, the new Marquee Theatre Company alternates “big shows” like Aida at the West Boca Community High School auditorium with intimate chamber musicals staged in the Parkland dance studio of its founders Ben Solmor and Andrew Shultz. For the latter, it mounted a full-powered and powerful production of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For A New World, which “sliced open the studied flat affect of the ‘Whatever’ generation to expose inner lives as vibrant, complex and tumultuous as that of any group before them. Inserting considerable choreography, the ambitious new troupe delivered an emotionally and aurally powerful excavation of the angst roiling inside young adults.”
Next, Ground Up and Rising’s Vincent River in August was a shattering, superbly acted and directed mystery about a fatal gay bashing whose secrets you could see coming. But the journey getting there was overwhelming as two wounded people circled each other warily, clumsily reached out needing something painful and precious from the other, failed each other, fulfilled each other, hated each other, loved each other, all in a dance of human relations. If the show had been eligible, the production, director Collin Carmouze, and actors Robert Johnston and Beverly Blanchette would have easily made into it into the list of Carbonell finalists. To read our review, click here.
And finally, the world premiere in September of Tsunami. This multi-disciplinary offering by Nilo Cruz and Michiko Kitayama Skinner was a moving work of glorious theatricality that no other art form can duplicate. The melding of movement-infused acting with superb designs of lights, shadow puppetry, sound, costumes, sets and projections graced the black box space at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. It proved that what is endlessly worth examining and celebrating is how human beings cope and what that says about who we are, what we are capable of and some insightful guidance on how our souls can survive as well as our bodies. To read our review, click here.
—Audience and critical reaction was all over the spectrum, but you have to genuinely honor Lee Roy Reams and Marilynn Wick with the Wizard of Oz Cowardly Lion Courage Award for the second major production of Hello, Dolly! to cast a man as Dolly Levi. The courageous Reams not only starred without a wink to the cross-gender casting but directed it as well. To read our review, click here.
—There Are Many Kinds Of Parking Lots: I-95 from Ives Dairy Road to the Arsht Center and back. Where’s a Tardis when you need it? And speaking of the parking and the Arsht, its board ought to push the city commission to cap the already outrageous and audience-chilling parking lot fees, especially to prohibit the rates being jacked them up when there are multiple events in the neighborhood.
—The Wear Out The Superlatives Award: When the house lights returned after Daniel’s Husband’s staged reading about a year ago, I said to playwright Michael McKeever and anyone who’d listen, “This must get done.” Island City Stage was way ahead of me and had it on the boards that summer at Empire Stage and then revived it this month at the Levis Jewish Community Center in Boca Raton. It’s not just that it was serendipitously topical in this banner year for human rights. The victory in McKeever’s script, Andy Rogow’s direction and the work of a uniformly superb cast starting with Antonio Amadeo was their total commitment and fearless excavation of the human heart in extremis. It was a journey that illuminated the universality of any two people who love each other regardless of the lovers’ sexuality and yet was specifically defined by the gay men at its center. Along with The Timekeepers and several other pieces during the last two seasons, it cemented Island City Stage’s reputation as a company committed to far more than silly sex farces. To read our review, click here.
—The Best Choreography You Have Never Seen Before, Well, Maybe You Have Depending On Your Leisure Time Activities Award: Barbie Lazaro for the vertical terpsichorea executed so well by Lindsey Corey in Zoetic Stage’s Stripped in November.
—Newcomer of the Year: The fledgling Marquee Theater Company provided a stunning debut for Alexandria Lugo, a musical theater student at Broward College, in the title role of Elton John’s Aida. We wrote in September, “Her clarion expressive mezzo-soprano can caress a song or belt paint off the ceiling, but it is simply the instrument she uses to transmit to an audience a purity of feeling. Her lithe body is usually quite still, but it occasionally bursts out with a frenetic fervor to lead the troupe in a dance number. But most potent is her face with soulful eyes radiating reined-in pain or joy, and a smile that runs from rueful to joyful – all mirroring the shifting emotions of her character’s soul.” We’ll bet dinner that you’ll see her on Broadway someday. To read our review, click here.
—The Up And Comer Award: Smolderingly handsome Robert “Bobby” Johnston has been noticed in various efforts include the nude corpse in Zoetic’s Clark Gable Slept Here. But 2015 was the year that his talent and skill emerged undeniable, starring as Outré Theatre Company’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. But his standout performance was the mesmerizing, emotionally complex creature in Ground Up and Rising’s aforementioned Vincent River in August. We wrote at the time: “From his opening moments as a seemingly typical but troubled teenager, then to his shattering marathon aria near the end of the play, Johnston gives a superlative performance, although he burrows so deeply into the reality of the character that it never seems like an actor at work. His Davey is by a score of turns sometimes suspicious, caring, angry, respectful, needful, arrogant, compassionate, on and on, all displayed unbidden on his soulful face. In each case, Johnston dives deep into Davey’s being and brings up a pure emotion that resonates with anyone watching.”
—Best Reason To Buy a Taser: I’d use it on the increasingly rude, thoughtless, self-centered South Florida audiences — from the people who text mid-show to those who talk throughout to those who walk out one scene before the show is over to those who walk out during curtain calls to those who when told to turn off their cellphones only put them in their pocket or purse. But the winner is the unnamed boor who answered her phone during Ann Marie Olson’s climatic performance of “Rose’s Turn” at Broward Stage Door’s Gypsy this winter and then proceeded to continue to have a conversation. And the lout wonders why her kids turned out so badly.
—The Finally Award: We wait years to see some solid performers get the role that shows everyone what we’ve always known they could do. Finally, it’s been that year for Shane Tanner and Ann Marie Olson. Tanner, who outshone everyone as Jud in The Wick’s Oklahoma, finally got to show his charisma, depth and range as the lead in Slow Burn Theatre Company’s Big Fish. Olson had a double coup as the vibrant title character in Always… Patsy Cline at Thinking Cap Theatre and as the indomitable Mama Rose in Stage Door’s Gypsy. Two runner ups: Lindsey (Forgey) Corey who has nailed role after role in Slow Burn’s comic musicals, finally got the opportunity to hit a home run in a serious role as the anguished mother in Zoetic’s Stripped. And recognize Mia Matthews’ solid but unique rendition of the rapacious talent agent in Island City Stage’s The Little Dog Laughed.
—The Sybil Award: Hands down, the winner is John Manzelli for his masterful impersonation of a disco ball of dazzling characters in Fully Committed at the Broward Center’s Abdo New River Room in January. With unequaled vocal and physical chops, he created 40 distinct characters switching off every few seconds. To read our review, click here.
—The Kaleidoscope Award: Katherine Amadeo and Antonio Amadeo’s tour de force under Joseph Adler’s direction in Constellation at GableStage. To read our review, click here.
—The Most Moving Experience Award (also known as the Betting the House Award): Slow Burn and Outré Theatre moving to Broward, Naked Stage building a new venue in West Palm Beach, Alliance Theatre Lab moving to Barry University, Lou Tyrrell moving to FAU’s Theatre Lab, Keith Garsson (of the shuttered Boca Raton Theatre Guild) and Genie Croft (of the shuttered Women’s Theatre Project) moving to Arts Garage, Palm Beach Dramaworks buying an off-campus space for rehearsals and plans to build a black box theater in its current home, Maltz Jupiter Theatre very quietly starting another multi-million-dollar fund-raising campaigning for a major expansion, Infinite Abyss opening a new venue to house it and Island City Stage in Wilton Manors, Vanguard Sanctuary for the Arts opening in Fort Lauderdale and the old Florida Stage space in Manalapan reopening for various genres as the Palm Beaches Theatre.
—The Chicago Does Anybody Know What Time It Is Award: A tie for the Royal Poinciana and Coconut Grove playhouses.
—The Hey, That Wasn’t Bad At All Award: Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal in the kick off of the national tour of Love Letters.
—Best Lead Performances By Actors Hired From New York: Gregg Goodbrod has played Jean Valjean three times before and Aloysius Gigl has portrayed Javert, but they invested the Maltz’s Les Miserables with a freshness that made the audience feel they had not seen it before. Runners up: Almost all of the leads in Actors Playhouse’s Ragtime (although Tally Sessions and Melissa Minyard are honorary South Floridians having played here so often).
—Best Supporting Performance By An Out Of Town Ringer: Lewis J. Stadlen as curmudgeonly Vandergelder in The Wick Theatre’s Hello, Dolly! in November. Sure, it’s a part right in his wheelhouse and he’s done it before, but it was an unalloyed pleasure watching a pro execute a comedy role as well as it can be done.
— Einstein Was Right: Time and space are, indeed, elastic. Proof: The Maltz Jupiter Theatre and the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center seem to get farther and farther away every year. It’s a good thing their offerings are so strong.
— If You Can Make It There…: New York sometimes seemed a South Florida annex this year as several local talents performed and/or had their work performed in the Big Apple. Among them: Avi Hoffman winning raves and ovations as Willy Loman in a Yiddish-language Death of a Salesman; Mark Della Ventura’s one-man show Small Membership (that premiered at Alliance Theatre Lab) played at the NYC Fringe Festival; Casey Dressler shared her The Wedding Warrior with the United Solo Fest; and Stephen G. Anthony, Nick Santa Maria and Paul Louis in Real Men (which bowed at Actors Playhouse in 2012 with the added words Sing Show Tunes…and play with puppets) that is still running at New World Stages. Many members of the cast and creative team of On Your Feet – the Broadway bio-musical about the Estefans no longer live here but they form a 305 expatriate brigade including an amazing Ana Villafane, Alexander Dinelaris, Henry Gainza, Natalie Caruncho, Andy Senor Jr., Andrea Burns, Emmanuel Schvartzman among others.
—Sometimes People Leave You Halfway Through The Wood: On a related note, the brain drain of young South Florida talent trying their luck in New York City continues steadily with the loss of such talents as Anne Chamberlain, Lindsey Johr, Joanna Penny, Darrick Penny, Bruno Vida, Marckenson Charles, Giordan Diaz, Lauren Bell, Stephanie White, Emilie Papp, Nick Duckart — and many others planning to go in 2016. But two losses really shook the foundations of the community here: First, Arsht Vice-President Scott Shiller, who nurtured local companies like Zoetic, who brought in outside companies like The House Theatre of Chicago to demonstrate that highly theatrical offerings could succeed, and who brought in off-the-wall summer extravaganzas that tried to redefine popular mainstream performance art with varied success. But the toughest body blow was the retirement of Christine Dolen as a full-time theater critic for The Miami Herald. Her influence was incalculable and we look forward to however she applies her talent in the future.
—Not every artistic gamble works and South Florida had enough misfires to deserve a column of its own. But the biggest disappointment was the Dreamcatcher / Arsht Center production of Into the Woods in January which was in most facets nearly but not quite adequate – a phrase that should never be attached to a Sondheim show. The most crippling aspect was TV personality Tituss Burgess as the Witch, working way out of his range in every sense of the word. But whenever his West Coast schedule prevented him from appearing (which was several times) the role was filled by the infinitely better Laura Hodos. Still, only former Miamian Arielle Jacobs consistently came out of this with much luster as the Baker’s Wife. To read our review, click here.
—The Antidisestablishmentarianism Award: You’ve likely seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at least twice if not more often. But Slow Burn Theatre, in only its second production at the Broward Center, gathered members of its unofficial repertory troupe plus some newer faces to inject polished comedic and vocal skills plus a decidedly emotional core into a show usually categorized as “charming.” The result was the funniest and most affecting version of the William Finn-Rachel Sheinkin-Rebecca Feldman work for which we’ve saved Playbills. The outstanding ensemble cast (is that an o-x-y-m-o-r-o-n?) under Patrick Fitzwater and Manny Schvartzman’s leadership boasted Rick Peña, Christian Vandepas, Jen Chia, Jessica Brooke Sanford, Kunya Rowley, Kaitlyn O’Neill, Matthew Korinko, the hilarious Mark Della Ventura and the heartbreakingly poignant Anne Chamberlain. To read our review, click here.
— Barbara Sloan and Niki Fridh with the help of Nicole Stodard win the How The Hell Do They Memorize All Those Words Award for the brilliantly acted avalanche of verbiage in Thinking Cap Theatre’s Vita and Virginia in April. To read our review, click here.
—In theory, the Outré Theater Award should go appropriately to well-named Outré Theatre Company for its exciting Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, even more polished revival of Thrill Me and the less successful but daring Bed and Sofa. But the winner this year, with oak leaf clusters, goes to the incredibly eclectic Thinking Cap Theatre which doesn’t push the edge of the envelope; it just tears the envelope up. Since it moved into the Vanguard, the schedule has encompassed the mainstream country-western musical bio Always…Patsy Cline, a disco riff on The Importance of Being Earnest, a surreal and perplexing The Map of Virtue, a brilliant Waiting For Waiting For Godot that turned Beckett’s tale into an off-stage vaudevillian double act, the daffy hoot The Book of Liz by the Sedaris siblings, an erudite examination of the artistic sensibility in Vita and Virginia and, going back six months, the revivalist Church performed in the Vanguard’s parking lot under a tent. Led by Nicole Stodard and a steady core group, their common thread is imagination, talent and skill put in service of adventurous theatricality. Unquestionably, not everything on such a diverse palette can please all of its patrons all the time. Some efforts are so far out on the cutting edge that they teeter close to toppling over. But it is never, ever boring and it is always intellectually challenging. We’d take a chance on seeing nearly anything they chose to mount – and on our own dime.
—Some Last Glimpses That Will Last: Ellie Patterson, Stephanie Genovese and Christina Groom with her trumpet as the most louche strippers ever seen in Stage Door’s Gypsy; Palm Beach Dramaworks’ set design and execution for Picnic and Les Liaisons Dangereuse; the inventive and copious set dressing for Thinking Cap’s Waiting For Waiting For Godot; the glorious vocal and instrumental sound of Dramaworks’ summer musicals A Little Night Music and 110 In The Shade; the gloriously orchestrated cacophony of musical obscenities in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s atypical production of Glengarry Glen Ross; New Theatre once again surprising audiences with the teenage tech Leveling Up plus a surprising effective Twelve Angry Men and intriguing Women Playing Hamlet; a scorching GableStage edition of the topical Disgraced; the poorly-named but surprisingly entertaining and thoughtful Stars of David: Story To Song, and finally FAU Theatre Lab’s staged concert version of Fugitive Songs which we hope to see in a full production next year.
Have a happy New Year and we look forward to waving to you from the aisle.