The List of Outstanding Productions of 2014
Our highly subjective list (and we’ve probably left some off inadvertently) in alphabetical order
A Chorus Line – Maltz Jupiter Theatre
Assassins – Zoetic Stage
Bad Jews – GableStage
Clark Gable Slept Here – Zoetic Stage
Edges – Slow Burn Theatre
Gidion’s Knot – New Theatre
Hurricane – Arca Images
The King and I – Maltz Jupiter Theatre
Mothers and Sons – GableStage
Murder Ballad – Actors’ Playhouse
My Old Lady – Palm Beach Dramaworks
Peter and the Starcatcher – Arsht -U of Miami
Sunset Baby – Primal Forces
The Trouble With Doug – Arts Garage
By Bill Hirschman
We tire of proselytizing to critics, producers, directors, actors and patrons around the country about the high level of quality and diverse array of work delivered month in and month out in South Florida theater. Fortunately, all we have to do is point to what was wrought here in past 12 months or so.
New work, old work, old work that felt like new work, plays ripped so recently from New York that there’s still taxi exhaust clinging to the scripts. And quantity as well as quality: the number of Carbonell-eligible offerings rose from 73 to 89 this year, and that’s not all of the professional productions by a long shot.
Here’s a look back at 2014 including a very subjective subjunctive reductive deductive list of outstanding shows, performances and developments guaranteed to make someone unhappy they were not on the list. Take comfort in that there was so much good work that this is the crème de la crème de menthe.
Outstanding Productions (in no intentional order at all)
— Gidion’s Knot (May): This was simply one of the best theatrical experiences of the year. We’ve said it before: The quality of New Theatre’s work is among the most variable in the region, partly because it often develops new works. But every couple of years it slams a home run out of the park like this one that keeps us coming back show after show. From the passionate and nuanced performances of Christina Groom and Patrice DeGraff Arenas as a troubled teacher and grieving mother of a student to the finely-paced direction of Ricky J. Martinez, Gidion’s Knot was exemplary of one of the reasons we go to theater: work that is wrenching, thought-provoking, shocking and visceral in ways no film can be.
—-Murder Ballad (October): Like Floyd Collins, Violet and Songs For A New World, Actors Playhouse made another courageous choice outside its traditional audience’s comfort zone with this noirish rock musical. Every element was laudable from David Arisco’s direction to the musical direction by Eric Alsford to performances by Chris Crawford, Blythe Gruda, Mariand Torres and Mark Sanders, not to mention the vision to transform the upstairs balcony theater into an in-the-round Soho bar courtesy of Gene Seyffert. We all kid Executive Producing Director Barbara Stein for her opening night speeches, but we’ll happily sit through them so long as she has the guts to produce something like this every couple of years.
—-Assassins (February): With a go-big-or-go-home attitude, Zoetic Stage chose for its first musical, the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman work about the curdling of the American Dream and yet the resilience of this country —all seen through the prism of would be Presidential murderers. Director Stuart Meltzer and a superb collection of actors and designers scored, forgive me, a bull’s eye. The most stunning aspect was how deafening its themes resonate nearly a quarter century later in today’s polarized world of disaffected people feeling impotent unless they resort to violence to be heard above the din. Special nods to Michael McKeever’s set design, Ron Burns’ lighting, Nicholas Richberg’s zealot Booth and Chaz Mena’s unhinged Sam Byck.
—-Bad Jews (November): Not everyone of taste and sophistication liked GableStage’s comedy-drama. But we did. Poisonous passion imbued this 21st Century examination of the century-old issue of assimilation — a mercilessly funny and bracingly savage jeremiad couched in the embrace or avoidance of Jewish religion, traditions and culture. But it posed hard questions for any immigrant population whose forebears arrived after the Mayflower or the Mariel boatlift. Director Joseph Adler, a cast of 20-somethings and the insightful playwright Joshua Harmon crafted an alloy of intellectual ideas and excoriating emotions. And the gunpowder in the mix was the stunning performance of Natalia Coego who brought variation and nuance to a role which basically required her to rant on and off for 90 minutes.
—-Mothers and Sons (October): Last season, we saw in New York this insightful, thought-provoking show about the lasting damage from the AIDS crisis and a look how differently four generations of Americans have, are and will someday view life as a homosexual. We knew it would be at GableStage in less than a year. What we didn’t know was how Adler and a couldn’t-be-surpassed cast would produce arguably an even better production by gradually ripping open the deep emotional wounds inflicted decades earlier. And it depicted the process of rending apart the psychic scab in unforgiving real time with no merciful quick cuts or arty montages.
—The King And I (March): The Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s glorious production reminded you that when it’s done right, really right, nobody can touch Rodgers and Hammerstein for well-crafted musical theater marked by heartfelt lyrics and soaring melody. As with Hello, Dolly! two years ago, director Marcia Milgrom Dodge and the Maltz team respected the tropes of the time-honored piece, but they didn’t try to recreate a familiar production. The work seemed harvest fresh even though many of the songs and scenes are as iconic as the polka in “Shall We Dance.” For instance, the often-boring and lengthy ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” was transformed into a Thai shadow puppet play projected on a screen the size of the stage.
—–My Old Lady (December): Palm Beach Dramaworks’ finely-crafted, witty and ultimately moving production of Israel Horovitz’s play exposed the sometimes unintentional, sometimes thoughtless psychological injuries that parents inflict upon their children. Those progeny must come to terms with wounds whose scabs have never coagulated before they can achieve a satisfying emotional life as adults. Under William Hayes’ fine direction, headliner Estelle Parsons, previous visitor Angelica Page and standout actor Tim Altmeyer luxuriated in this cornucopia of delightful wordplay among articulate, literate characters and an insightful examination of human relationships careering clumsily through a thorny thicket toward a hopeful resolution.
—-Peter and the Starcatcher (October): Slyly irreverent and surreptitiously touching, this alternative origin story for Peter Pan derived from the books by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson was delightfully daffy in its humor and gloriously indulgent in all disciplines of stagecraft. This was the best effort to date of the joint productions of the Arsht Center’s Theater Up Close and University of Miami theater department. A no-excuses cast was led by Abigail Berkowitz, a senior from New Jersey, as a precocious go-getter whose inability to disguise her genuine superiority is off-putting to her shipmates and endearing to any of us who have ever believed that we were, indeed, the smartest person in the room. And best of all was Nicholas Richberg as Black Stache. More on him later.
—-A Chorus Line (January): High-kicking off the year was the Maltz’s flawless production. The surprising strength was delivering everything that your memory recalled fondly of past productions but infused it with a welcome innovation that makes you glad you ventured to see it again. The magical element was that this first-class no-asterisks ensemble and director/choreographer gently underscored more than most productions that aching of all people yearning to be who they have discovered they are and who they want to be.
—-The Trouble With Doug (April): Sometimes theater works even when you can’t quite explain how or why or even quite what you saw; all you recognize is that your mouth turned into a grin, your brain cells churned and you felt your throat tighten up. Such was the quirky, thematically fuzzy but thoroughly entertaining new musical at Arts Garage. The titular trouble was the archetypical twenty-something hero turning into an actual slime-oozing, lettuce-addicted slug as embodied by the brilliant Clay Cartland under Margaret Ledford’s direction. A bow as well to the assured music direction by Paul Reekie, and the scruffily engaging music by Will Aronson and lyrics Daniel Maté.
—-Clark Gable Slept Here (March): Out and out comedies don’t often make best-of lists but, face it, Zoetic Stage’s world premiere of a Michael McKeever acidic satirical script directed by Stuart Meltzer and with a cast mentioned lower down in this story was arguably not just one of the funniest shows of the year, but one of the best executed period.
Best Shows Almost No One Saw, But Heck, Just Among The Best Shows All Year (a three-way tie):
—-Hurricane (November) Miami favorite son playwright Nilo Cruz expanded his own short play into a full-length work and then directed it himself for a criminally brief run at Arca Images in Miami. We wrote at the time: “The meteorological tempest dies down, but the emotional tumult rages on at a Cat 5 level…. Rarely do South Floridians see such a highly polished and boundlessly inventive alloy of words, sounds, movement and stage pictures as Cruz does here…. Savor Cruz’s ability to create poetic metaphor out of the most everyday vocabulary, his ingenious use of set pieces like a hotel luggage cart, his endlessly varied use of body language bordering on modern dance, his ability to help his actors (Serafin Falcon, Andy Barbosa and especially Lela Elam) wrench glowing emotion from their souls. This (was) precisely what so many non-traditional companies aim for and only occasionally come close to achieving.”
—-Edges (December): Only a few hundred people saw it because it was a two-night fundraiser for Slow Burn Theatre Company and West Boca High Community School’s theater department. If it had run longer, this cult song cycle by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dogfight!, A Christmas Story) would have been a shoe-in Carbonell nomination for everyone involved including the ensemble cast of singing actors or acting singers Abby Perkins, Nicole Piro, Bruno Vida and Alexander Zenoz. With passion and intelligence, they delivered the gorgeous music and insightful lyrics about the interior life of young adults in the 21st Century. The minor miracle was that it was put together in five days by director Patrick Fitzwater and musical director Eric Alsford. We attended the second night and our only regret was that we hadn’t gone the night before — so we could have returned to see it all over again.
—-Sunset Baby (December): Here was a play no one had heard of by a playwright few had heard of, Dominique Morisseau. But this tale directed by Keith Garsson for the fledgling Primal Forces Productions in Fort Lauderdale was a scalding look at the fragility of dreams, examining the imperfect multi-faceted legacy of idealistic black revolutionaries in the 1970s and the cold hard world that their pragmatic children are trying to survive today. More, it was about what those children will do with that legacy. Sunset Baby was part dysfunctional family drama, part life on mean streets, part history lesson, part sociological tract, and all first-rate drama written, directed and acted with a fiercely consuming fire by John Archie, Ethan Henry and Makeba Pace.
Plus as honorable mentions:
Biggest Surprises (Pleasant Division): Critics go into every show with an open mind, but buried in the back of their brains are expectations that they happily scrap when the show before them surprises them. These did not quite make our “best of” list, but they are worth considerable praise nonetheless: Outré Theatre Company’s unnerving production of Back of the Throat that depicted abuses that post 9/11 paranoia enabled (mounted in October before the Senate Intelligence Committee report was released), What’s New Pussycat (August) at Broward Stage Door, which proved that the unpromising prospect of a plotless revue of ‘60s standards could actually soar once again with fine singers and fresh arrangements that made the songs seem new; and Church (August), Thinking Cap Theatre’s thought-provoking look at organized religion and faith by recreating an outdoor tent revival without a snark or wink in sight, Antony and Cleopatra (January), GableStage’s ambitious co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Public Theater was by turns admirable and disappointing, which makes it also qualify for….
Biggest Surprises (Not-So-Pleasant Division): No one can bat 1000 and theaters need to be allowed to fail if they are to grow. So despite our high hopes, some shows disappointed. The Wick’s Mame (December) had a lovely Leslie Uggams, but was a pallid production; the road show of I Love Lucy Live was a serious misfire all the way around other than the charismatic Miamian E.L. Losada; the script of Actors’ Playhouse’s Mid-Life Crisis 2 needed a lot more work before its world premiere, and the real heartbreaker was the late Plaza Theatre pulling out all the stops including rewriting the script for the musical Rags, but it lay in tatters.
On The Road Show Again Award: Surprisingly, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (November) was delightful even when Oscar Hammerstein’s script was completely replaced by fairy godfather Douglas Carter Beane. Another surprise was the return visit of The Book of Mormon to the region at the Arsht in December which actually played better than its first visit to the Broward Center the year before.
Best Wedding On Stage, Best Staging of a Wedding, Best Original Song, Best Hair: The Shamy Wedding of Shane Tanner and Amy Miller Brennan on the stage at Actors’ Playhouse where they met, officiated over by David Arisco, with music and an original song provided by Eric Alsford, hair by Patrick Fitzwater. It was a special by invitation-only affair for one night only, but should have a successful run for decades and decades.
Outstanding Performances (with an invisible nod to the directors involved)
Christina Groom and Christina Groom and Chri….: We’ve never seen this diminutive redheaded dynamo give anything but an energetic and polished performance, from her French princess in New Theatre’s Henry V to the dissolute party girl in Outré Theatre’s The Wild Party to the lesbian in Kutumba’s The Beebo Brinker Chronicles. But none of it prepared audiences for her brothel-full of distinctly different characterizations as multiple call girls in Have I Got a Girl For You at Island City Stage (April). And even that was eclipsed by her superb work as the troubled schoolteacher in New Theatre’s Gidion’s Knot (May). Shame on local directors for not hiring her for nearly every week of the year.
Nicholas Richberg and Nicholas Richberg and Nicholas Richberg: Is it possible to turn in three more different, yet perfectly realized roles in one year than the zealotry of John Wilkes Booth in Zoetic Stage’s musical Assassins (February) and the conflicted hero of Zoetic’s The Great God Pan (May) and the gloriously scenery-chewing pirate in Peter and the Starcatcher (October) in what we called “one of the best demented, daffy, comic scene-stealing performances seen in South Florida in many, many seasons.”
Bloody Good: We’ve been unabashed fans of the talented Anne Chamberlain going back several years now, encompassing her work with Alliance Theatre Project and the early days of Slow Burn Theatre Company. Audiences finally caught on to just how talented she is with her work in 2013 in Slow Burn’s Into The Woods as Cinderella and the daughter in next to normal. So folks were paying attention in October when she rewarded them with her superb performance as the title character in Carrie. (October)
Outstanding Performance Among Stiff Competition: Anyone playing against such masters as Estelle Parsons and Angelica Page and coming out even on the same level would be cause for bragging. But Tim Altmeyer’s finely-grained, idiosyncratic and completely believable creation of a deeply troubled son was arguably even better than his castmates’ at Palm Beach Dramaworks’ My Old Lady. (December)
Outstanding Pas de Deux: Pros Angie Radosh and Michael McKeever in Gablestage’s Mothers and Sons were so good that even playwright Terrence McNally was impressed when he visited (September). Both gave much different but equally valid performances than those seen on Broadway. But the give-and-take banter turning into rancorous arguments were work that should have been assigned to every acting class in the region to audit.
Outstanding Menage á Trois: John Archie, Ethan Henry and Makeba Pace were superb as a fiery dysfunctional trio in Primal Forces Productions’ Sunset Baby in December. We’ve always known Archie was a fine actor and Henry has been bracing audiences with muscular performances over the past few years. But the headline is reserved for the ferocious, mercurial, sexy multi-layered creation of Pace.
The You’re Gonna Hear From Me Award: Well, we already have heard from her because she’s on this list, but we’ll bet that someday you’ll have bragging rights that you saw Faiza Cherie in The Pride, Back of the Throat and Othello all in one year, long before she becomes a boldface name in New York and/or film. Regardless of the diverse characters she is playing, Cherie inhabits each so completely that you never catch her acting.
Best Nude Corpse: Robert Johnston dead and alive and dead again in Clark Gable Slept Here took away the breath of many audience members trying to burn the image in the memory banks. (March)
The Gregor Samson Morphing Award: Year and after year, Clay Cartland gives inventive comic and dramatic performances in straight plays and musicals, but this year he got to do both in one of the most entertaining and affecting performances all year, as the title character who turns into a slug in Arts Garage’s The Trouble With Doug. (April)
Hardest Working Man In Show Business: Shane Tanner, who hasn’t got time to take a real honeymoon until sometime late next year. Runner up: Mike Westrich who seemed to be everywhere.
The Hardest Working Man In Shoe Business: Ron Hutchins, who choreographed the Wick’s 42nd Street, Actors Playhouse’s cavorting Lady of the Laker Girls in Spamalot and the Boca Raton Theatre Guild’s Pippin and Chicago. And then went to China twice to show them how it’s done.
The Hardest Working Woman in Shoe Business: Julie Kleiner whose charm and charisma poured out of those shining eyes and broad smile while dancing her heart out in The Wick’s 42nd Street in January and White Christmas the previous November.
Best Performance While Pregnant (Again): Julie Kleiner in The Marvelous Wonderettes in October, previously pregnant while in Hairspray
Outstanding Performance In Shorts: City Theatre’s Summer Shorts is slowly improving the overall quality and consistency of its offerings. But the standout performance this summer was Tom Wahl in Tornado in a quiet tale of a man in a sportswear store buying a football outfit for his son. To give away any more would to spoil future productions of the work. But Wahl was compelling while playing a subdued everyman.
Best Blue Collar Angel: Several folks will tell you Karen Stephens is angelic, but she made the playwright’s strange left turn into fantasy perfectly credible in GableStage’s The Mountaintop about the last night of Martin Luther King Jr. (March).
Outstanding Ensemble: Ask five theater people what ensemble acting is and you’ll get five answers. So who knows if this is the right category? But suffice it to say that in Zoetic Stage’s Clark Gable Slept Here director Stuart Meltzer melded a first-rate cast of Michael McKeever, Lela Elam, Vanessa Elisa, Clay Cartland and Robert Johnston playing off each other flawlessly in a co-dependent trapeze act. (March)
Most Hilarious Slow Burn Of The Season: Elizabeth Dimon as the Catholic mother as the truth slowly seeps into her consciousness about the implications of the very last round of surprising family secrets in Miracle on South Division Street at Actors Playhouse (December).
What Kind Of Day Has It Been: A Miscellany
Sunrise, Sunset: We lost the Plaza Theatre in Manalapan at the very start of this season. But other small companies were hanging tough like Outré Theatre Company. M Ensemble which seems to go underground for months at a time, resurfaced. Primal Forces Productions established itself with two shows, one a major success in Sunset Baby. Thinking Cap, still in transit to new digs, produced the wonderful Church in a tent in a parking lot and the intriguing Pool (No Water) in rented space.
Sometimes People Leave You Halfway Through The Wood: The heart of regional theater took a beating this year with the deaths of Jay Harris, Terry M. Cain, Jerry Gulledge, Laura Ruchala, Dana Castellano and Jerry Waxman, among others.
In The Wings: No one can be sure exactly what form it will take, not even the players, but something promising is in the offing as far as the resurrection of the Coconut Grove Playhouse. An architect has been recommended for the conceptualizing, design and oversight of the project as envisioned by the county: a $20 million complex featuring a 300-seat theater to be occupied and operated by GableStage. But a group of well-heeled arts activists led by Mike Eidson want to expand that into a much more ambitious $57 million complex that would add among other things a second 700-seat theater to the ground plan, with much of the additional money coming from donations from philanthropists, corporations and foundations.
Facilitating Facilities: This was a banner year or two for renovations, transfers and expansions. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre opened a $2.5 million expansion and upgrade in October 2013 with plans for a future expansion in the next couple of years. The Broward Center unveiled the last of a $56 million expansion, culminating in December with the opening of Huizenga Pavilion with a ballroom and a restaurant. The Arsht Center opened up a new outpost for Books & Books plus a restaurant in December. Slow Burn opened a workshop and rehearsal space in Oakland Park. Infinite Abyss is opening a new storefront space at 2304 N. Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors (not many more audience seats, but more backstage space and bathrooms than its old home at Empire Stage). Thinking Cap Theatre began renovations, then had an unexpected delay and has restarted work on space in a former church renamed the Vanguard at 1501 S. Andrews Ave in Fort Lauderdale. Arts Garage got the blessing of the Delray city officials late last year to buy the entire first floor for a major and permanent expansion.
Best Benefit From A Move: Sometimes getting evicted ends up being a blessing. New Theatre had to move out of the Roxy Theatre Group reportedly due to physical plant problems and took temporary refuge at the warehouse space at Artistic Vibes. But when it landed at South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center, something inexplicably happened to the company’s productions. The quality of its work still varies, as it does with most companies, but even leaving out its triumph with Gidion’s Knot, the overall quality has risen a few notches since the move.
The E for Effort As Well As Most Of The Rest Of The Alphabet Award: Pembroke Pines Theater of the Performing Arts is a proud community theater with a long history. But its production of Les Miserables (July) set a benchmark for quality in amateur theater in the region, including a cast of varying levels of talents, led by the fine performance of James Cichewicz as Jean Valjean.
The Bert Lahr Courage Award: Slow Burn Theatre Company’s co-founder Patrick Fitzwater acknowledged frankly and proudly a few months ago that his company is not always looking to produce “perfect” musicals. It often chooses a show that has a cult following, or was a commercial failure on Broadway and is worth a second viewing, or is outright flawed but which has outstanding elements that deserve to be seen. As a result, South Florida audience have been incredibly lucky to be gifted with memorable shows this past year including Parade (January) Chess (March) and Carrie (October). Runners up: Murder Ballad and Church.
Most Expensive Spectacular: H2ombre was an innovative, flawed, sometimes enthralling, sometimes boring, visually breathtaking, repetitive and very expensive experiment in multi-disciplinary theater of a sort (July). Water, water everywhere soaked the audience already immersed in a multi-media experience. It represented the Adrienne Arsht Center’s most recent foray into bankrolling a seven-digit show with hopes of transferring it elsewhere, similar to its The Donkey Show in 2012. In this case, the theater fronted a good portion of the $1.8 million price plus the $230,000 a week operating costs for the seven-week run in Miami. Even at one hour, the show felt a bit long because the creators got hypnotized exploring at length what each new special effect could do. It wasn’t helped much by an indecipherable narrative. It probably needs to go back into the garage for some more work before it will be snapped up by Las Vegas or Comicon. But, to be sure, the visual effects and the merger of stagecraft techniques were undeniably stunning.
Outstanding Visuals Without A Seven-Digit Budget: Reportedly, the chameleonic set by Yoshinori Tanokura and vibrantly imaginative costumes by Ellis Tillman for the Arsht/University of Miami production’s Peter and The Starcatcher (October) cost more than most local companies’ entire annual budget. But you can’t deny that it was a tour de force of theater craft and artistry.
Outstanding Philanthropists: Katherine and Antonio Amadeo mounted two different play festivals to help pay medical bills of local art activist Dana Castellano fighting against cancer. It earmarked the proceeds of its annual 24-Hour Theatre Project, normally a fundraiser for the Amadeo’s own Naked Stage theater company.
The King Solomon Split The Baby Award: Little else this season divided audiences so much as these two shows: First, Miami Theater Center’s Hedda Gabler transmogrified to a contemporary setting with a modern reworking of the language. Second, Mad Cat Theatre’s quirky fairy tale of a polluted town with only three remaining residents, Centralia. We really enjoyed the daring and imagination imbuing both productions, but some people absolutely hated one or both. Their loss. As that 17th Century theologian Sly Stone wrote: “Different strokes for different folks…” Runner up: A similar division marked the reception for GableStage’s Bad Jews.
Most Obscenities Per Minute: Probably Bad Jews in which a group of G– D– 20-somethings effin’ talked exactly like everyday motherf—ing young adults @#$%^&&** talk among themselves.