What Kind Of Year Was It? Our Critics’ “Best Of” 2016 Lists

Mia Matthews in a tense moment with Karen Stephens and Jeni Hacker in the world premiere of Michael McKeever’s “After” at Zoetic Stage / Photos by Justin Namon

Critics and award judges have been talking about it for weeks: The sheer amount of high quality work has made evaluating the last 12 months unusually challenging, but also an opportunity to remember one of the most rewarding calendar years in recent memory.

So here’s a supremely subjective stab by all three critics here at Florida Theater On Stage at recognizing the shows and performances that stood out from a pack of productions – proof that the level of excellence in South Florida theater continues to rise every season. None of us knew what the others were choosing before we published this story and we used slightly different yardsticks for our decisions. Sometimes our choices weren’t based on “the best” per se so much as the most memorable.

Bill Hirschman’s Shows To Remember

What follows is a painfully incomplete list. This is in alphabetical order for several reasons, especially because it’s difficult comparing apples and… well, Macintosh apples and Delicious apples. Generally (but not always), the criterion was overall excellence, but be assured that many, many other shows not on this list had individual elements that were worthy of unstinting praise

After (Zoetic Stage, October) This world premiere marked some of the best work of almost everyone connected to this transcendent production about two couples and a mutual friend struggling to cope with a troubling incident and a subsequent tragedy. Michael McKeever’s script was every bit as incisive and arguably even better than his Daniel’s Husband. Stuart Meltzer’s direction was simply brilliant including subtle yet assured staging that forced the audience to look where he wanted them to. But his other triumph were the performances he elicited from this amazing ensemble of McKeever, Karen Stephens, Jeni Hacker, shattering career best work from Mia Matthews and a stunning penultimate scene from Tom Wahl.
 
Hand to God (GableStage, October) Wesley Slade gave a skillful Jekyll and Hyde performance as a troubled teenager who is either the master or the slave to a hand puppet that may or may not be inhabited by the devil. That was only the most obvious virtue of this scorchingly funny and aggressively irreverent black comedy, but not the only bragging rights in a thought-provoking production directed by Joseph Adler and featuring a strong supporting cast.
 
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Slow Burn Theatre Company, October) This courageous company was only the fifth troupe granted the rights to this dark reinvented version of the Disney animated film – far closer to Victor Hugo’s original novel. Forbidden to use any staging from earlier productions, director/choreographer Patrick Fitzwater and musical director Caryl Fantel employed every iota of their talent and experience to pull out all the stops including the use of a large talented choir to fill out the needed scope. All of the performances were solid, but the standout was Slow Burn co-founder Matthew Korinko as the complex tortured clergyman Frollo. The result was epic theater with an emotional power rarely seen locally in a musical.

 —Me and My Girl (Maltz Jupiter Theatre, December) The most undeniable strength was Matt Loehr’s jaw-dropping exhibition of song-and-dance talent in this modern reworking of a classic British musical evoking buskers and music halls. But he was matched by the irrepressible Julie Kleiner Davis. The entertainment was forged by director James Brennan, musical director Helen Gregory and choreographer Dan Knechtges, plus the Maltz’s A-list creative staff and a fine supporting cast.

Million Dollar Quartet (Actors Playhouse, October) Yes, the four principals had performed their parts before, but this local edition set the house afire recreating an impromptu jam session of up-and-coming rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, the promising Johnny Cash, pioneer Carl Perkins and the newly-minted superstar Elvis Presley. Aided by a dynamite bassist and percussionist, and the vocals of Lindsey Corey, this was one of the most blazing musical evenings of the season.

The Soul of Motor City (Broward Stage Door, June) Stage Door’s revues have been tracking an upward trend in quality; this entry confirmed that this was no accident but proof of an ever-solidifying formula for entertaining evenings. This revue of Detroit-centric music from the early 1960s through 1980s was a kick-out-the-jams tribute executed by a talented sextet and deftly created by director-choreographer Kevin Black and musical director Ben Bagby. While the raw ragged quality you felt when you first heard these tunes may not be there, the effort invested considerable feeling and thought that added a slightly different dimension to these standards.

The Normal Heart (Outre Theatre Company, September) Not a perfect production including long clumsy scenery changes, but the scrappy company scored a direct hit to the aforementioned organ. The level of anger, helplessness and sorrow rose inexorably along with the death toll, like flood waters from a storm surge in this shattering production from director Doug Wetzel and a fine cast. It featured some of the most nuanced, affecting work we’ve seen from Larry Buzzeo and Conor Walton who seemed to excavate from their spleen as well as their heart.

Passion (Zoetic, February) Even for Sondheads like this critic, Passion is not our favorite work and it is famously difficult to pull off. So it is high praise to report that Zoetic’s edition was a transcendent work of performance art with the power to rip into your psyche and reaffirm the transformative power of love. Director Stuart Meltzer and musical director Caryl Fantel helped shape moving performances of the lovers Nicholas Richberg and Anna Lise Jensen. And then there was the breath-taking work of Jeni Hacker as the complex Fosca, a career-high milestone for her and a gift to the audience.

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney (Thinking Cap Theatre, September) A superbly executed production of a devilishly difficult script by Lucas Hnath about power, megalomania and the darkness of the American Dream. Director Mark Duncan and his cast – Peter Galman as Disney, Jim Gibbons as brother Roy, Gretchen Porro as his daughter and Alex Alvarez as his son-in-law — conquered a highly theatrical script suffused with half-sentences, unfinished thoughts and unspoken but perfectly communicated subtext. Duncan’s pacing and visual staging on a small thrust arena was exemplary. But the stunning achievement was how he and his cast made this herky-jerky dialogue sound credible and ensured the audience knew what the thoughts were behind the unspoken phrases.

This Random World (Theatre Lab, December) Steven Dietz’s new play, which received a staged reading here last year, highlighted how human beings pursue their paths unaware of the interstitched pattern in the fabric of their existence. With humor, poignancy and insight, this production populated by a fine cast helmed by frequent Dietz interpreter Louis Tyrrell was a beautifully-limned entry standing as a moving thought-provoking evening that stuck to the mind and the heart for days afterward.

Rapture, Blister, Burn (Zoetic, January) Gina Gionfriddo’s incisive play was rooted in an wry examination of post-feminism — what happened after feminism succeeded in ripping out many if not all of the heinous social obstacles of the past. But this production’s finely wrought comedy-drama went much farther and deeper in examining the complex interrelationship of dreams, choices, responsibilities and consequences applicable to human beings of all sexes. It didn’t hurt that some of the region’s best actresses were collected on one stage: Margery Lowe, Barbara Bradshaw and Mia Matthews.

The Royale (GableStage, May) Miami native Marco Ramirez’s insightful pile-driving play about boxing, celebrity, racism, race relations and personal responsibility exploded across the stage and into the audience. The evening was powered —and that’s the precise word – by imaginatively theatrical staging by Joseph Adler and Rudi Goblen, Ramirez’s provocative script and intensely fierce performances. Most notable was Aygemang Clay in his first professional stage performance as an African American battling racism as well as his opponent in the ring for the title, plus the supporting work of Shein Mompremier as his sister. It benefited from Jeff Quinn’s snap-change lighting and strong supporting performances from Andre L. Gainey and Gregg Weiner.

Simply Simone: The Music of Nina Simone (African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, February) AAPACT’s Teddy Harrell produced the best musical of the year that you didn’t see. This electrifying revue had five supremely talented singers Sarah Gracel Anderson, Toddra Brunson, Deana Butler-Rahming and Ja’Nia Harden impersonating the legendary singer-songwriter at various stages, using her songbook to illustrate the arc of her life. The stunning array of voices were backed up by a nimble combo led by musical director John Harden II.

Sondheim on Sondheim (Actors’ Playhouse, March) The work by eight inspired performers and the band, molded by director David Arisco and musical director David Nagy, would not just satisfy but exceed Sondheim’s  famously demanding standards. On paper, this is simply another revue, although the raw material is better than 95 percent of its competitors. But the full rich sound of every one of the cast members and the eighth-note perfection of the band imprinted the production with the sense that this was not some greatest hits evening meant to stimulate memories. This was meant to create new ones. The singers acted each song as if it was a scene in a play rather than just delivering an emotionally disembodied presentation. And no one in this confluence of talents was better at it than Lourelene Snedeker. With “In Buddy’s Eyes,” “Loving You,” and, of course, “Send In The Clowns,” Snedeker did not deliver cabaret numbers but exquisitely wrought, deeply felt and fully-formed performances that cracked your heart open.

Honorable mentions and standouts:
 
—Everyone and everything connected to Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Avery Sommers submerging herself completely into the titular Bessie Smith: The Devils’ Music

—Florida Grand Opera for effectively mounting a piece few of its subscribers had heard of, and creating a triumph while they did it – with The Passenger.

—Keith Garsson and Genie Croft whose work at Arts Garage was so edgy and adventurous that some audiences balked. Some shows worked better than others, but patrons were guaranteed thought-provoking work you hadn’t seen and could not see anywhere else.

—Palm Beach Dramaworks showed how to reinvent and deconstruct a familiar work like 1776 to revive its inner meaning, while Actors’ Playhouse was reverently faithful to its revival of West Side Story, although Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography was made fresh by the inventions of Ron Hutchins.

And now some lesser-known awards:

The Home Home On The Range Award: Tom Wahl has never given a bad performance that we know of (even when dealing with sub-standard material) but what constantly amazes is that he doesn’t have a single “wheelhouse” to play in  — he can pretty much work the whole ship. This year, his performance throughout After was masterful, but his next-to-last scene as he silently read a letter from his son was some of the finest acting seen on stage all year. And then as soon as that show closed, he slipped into another persona – that of a wry, witty and chatty deity in GableStage’s An Act of God which required him to hold the stage for 70 minutes as a hilarious but complicated divinity.

Most Prolific Use of Chinese Takeout: Containers from Elizabeth Dimon’s comfort food of choice eventually buries her in Theatre Lab’s Three Sisters of Weehawken

Sllllooowwwwwwest Pre-Show Performance: Gretchen Porro’s ironing in Thinking Cap’s Mud

The “No Need for Speed Here” Award: Three-way tie among Matt Loehr in Me and My Girl, Maria Elena Garcia as a dozen characters in Vanguard’s Parallel Lives and Chris Crawford’s one-man multi-character tour de force as La Streisand’s minion in Actors’ Playhouse’s Buyer & Cellar.

The “Laura Hodos Award For Consistent Excellence In Show After Show After Show After Show” goes this year to ….well, Laura Hodos for Romance, Romance; The Will Rogers Follies; 1776; The Minister’s Wife, and going back a half season, The Toxic Avenger. Did we forget one? Not to mention other work across the state. She knows the Florida Turnpike better than any other actor.

The “Worst Reminder What A Hell High School Was” Award: Slow Burn, whose Spring Awakening and Carrie cover similar thematic ground. But it revived those nightmares in primary colors in the black musical comedy Heathers.

The Most Stunning Array of Clothes You Hope Neither You Nor Your Parents Ever Wore: Peter Lovello satirized — to the embarrassment of anyone who lived in that period – a parade of TV sitcoms fashions that had to be seen to be believed in Island City’s Perfect Arrangement.

Biggest Loss For All of South Florida Culture: Charlie Cinnamon

Not an award, but a quick suggestion for awards across the country: Twenty-nine musicals were recommended by Carbonell nominators this year for judges’ consideration. But five of them were pure revues and two others were really revues with a connective storyline. There were others that were not recommended or did not run long enough to qualify for Carbonell consideration. Among the straight revues were some of the most entertaining and most skillfully executed examples of the genre seen locally in many years including the aforementioned Sondheim On Sondheim and The Soul of Motor City, plus MNM’s The World Goes Round and Putting It Together.

But you can’t fairly compare them for awards purposes with lushly-produced full-fledged Broadway musicals complete with epic narratives, chorus lines and a dozen musicians in the pit. Once it could be argued that there were not enough contenders to be judged on their own merits, but now it seems time to consider whether musical revues deserve a category of their own in various award programs.

Michelle F. Solomon’s Look Back at 2016

There’s so much good theater in SoFla and while this list isn’t the exhaustive Best Of, it takes in some of the highlights that represent all that’s excellence about live theater in the region.

Sibling Success: Deborah Zoe Laufer wrote and directed the world premiere of Three Sisters of Weekhauken, which featured top-notch local actresses Elizabeth Dimon, Betsy Graver and Niki Fridh. It also marked the opening of fully-staged works at the Theatre Lab at Florida Atlantic University. The opener gave a good glimpse into the kind of work Theatre Lab can and will produce.

Thoughtful Theater: A trifecta of interesting plays at Thinking Cap Theatre showed this theater troupe to be one of the most innovative in South Florida. The plays – The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney by Lucas Hnath, and Mud by Maria Irene Fornes.

The Good Fight: Everything came together to create GableStage’s The Royale, from Hialeah native Marco Ramirez’s heavyweight script to Joe Adler’s direction to Aygemang Clay, the actor who portrayed boxer Jack Johnson with a sense of fierceness.

Bear Necessity: Island City Stage continued its quest to take on new works, focused but not exclusively on an LGBT audience. One of the best was Michael Aman’s Feeding the Bear, a first-time out of the box presentation, which although it needed a bit more fine tuning, showed promise.

Like Butta: Chris Crawford embodied Jonathan Tolins’ Alex Moore in Buyer & Cellar at Actors Playhouse. For a rabid fan of Babs (Streisand, that is), it was 90 minutes of Hello, Gorgeous.

Raising The Roof: Too bad Ricky J. Martinez’s New Theatre is no more. One of the highlights of the theater season was seeing his Miami-centric play Roof! come to life with promising young actors and a production that was inventive, imaginative and refreshing.

Murder Can Be Fun: Even though Peter Gordon’s Murdered to Death wasn’t the most original comic murder mystery, Evening Star’s ensemble cast had so much fun performing the show, it was difficult not to get caught up in the madcap musings.

All Aboard: Florida Grand Opera’s The Passenger was a glorious display. With a breathtaking set (so big the Broward Center couldn’t house the production, so it only played Miami’s Arsht) and mezzo soprano Daveda Karanas’s gripping portrayal of a despicable character, Liesa Franz, this was a theatrical jewel for Miami audiences, just the third city in the U.S. to have the privilege – it was produced only by Lyric Opera Chicago and Michigan Opera Theater.

The Play’s The Thing: Palm Beach Dramaworks expanded its sights to new play development. Artistic director William Hayes told Florida Theater On Stage that developing new plays is a way for theater companies to stay relevant and to raise a company’s national profile, among other interests. The renovated a black box theater in the upper level of their West Palm Beach location for The Dramaworkshop. Jennifer Fawcett was the first playwright to be tapped for the inaugural developmental production. She was part of a workshopped production of her play Buried Cities.

Broadway In SoFla: Broadway Across America kept the hits coming for those of us who missed a few of the great ones on the Great White Way and also gave us a chance to see some of the good stuff we saw on Broadway a second time around. Two of the standouts included a darker Cabaret, the Carole King tuner Beautiful, and the Tony Award multi-winner Kinky Boots. SIDE NOTE: BAA won’t be the same without publicist Charlie Cinnamon pitching previews and greeting us at the media table.

What We Missed: For some reason, Maltz Jupiter was off the radar this season and darn, we missed some good shows. The one that got away? The Audience, director Lou Jacobs’s turn at the West End hit.

John Thomason’s Top 10 Productions Of 2016

10. Our Lady of 121st Street, Ground Up and Rising
If a play runs, and nobody sees it, does it still make a sound? I’m oversimplifying, of course, but certainly Our Lady of 121st Street’s two-weekend run in the South Miami boondocks in late summer did not exactly scream for peak attendance numbers. Which is a shame, because director Arturo Rossi’s set-less, nearly propless production of Steven Adly Guirgis’ bustling dark comedy perfectly realized the playwright’s wild and wooly urban vision, with an eclectic cast that looked and sounded like America.

9. The Flick, Mad Cat Theatre Company
You either love or hate Annie Baker’s hyper-realistic evocation of changing times through the metaphor of a dying entertainment format, or you don’t. I happen to find it one of the more revelatory plays of its generation. But even naysayers would be hard-pressed to discount Paul Tei’s visionary staging of the production, which placed his actors in an actual former movie theater—the seats and projection booth of Miami Theater Center—to achieve an unprecedented sense of verisimilitude.

8. Mud, Thinking Cap Theatre
A play called Mud requires a theater company brave enough to wallow in the muck of its title, and Nicole Stodard’s stark, jagged production of Maria Irene Fornes’ diseased classic left its audience in need of a healthy cleanse. An unshakeable depiction of three souls pulled toward each other’s torment like corroded magnets, Thinking Cap’s Mud was a triumph of precisely controlled acting and blocking, with tech design that navigated the play’s 17 scenes with unsettling consistency.

7. Spring Awakening, Slow Burn Theatre Company
This production’s confluence of inspiration—hip, respected source material, a clear and full sound mix, a cast chock-a-block with bushy-tailed breakouts, and choreography that honored the show’s Tony-winning core while experimenting vividly around the edges—makes it Slow Burn’s Broward Center apex. Patrick Fitzwater’s ambitious mounting sold the agony and ecstasy of misunderstood youth with deep, abiding feeling.

6. After, Zoetic Stage
Michael McKeever’s latest diamond of a play opened like a superior, more-restrained take on God of Carnage’s adults-behaving-badly dramedy. But the twists in its shocking and timely narrative of bullying, homophobia, repentance and redemption expressed, once again, the playwright’s copious ability to empathize with all walks of life. With its perfect ensemble, devil-in-the-details set and Stuart Meltzer’s sportive, compassionate direction, McKeever couldn’t have asked for a better world-premiere production.

5. West Side Story, Actors Playhouse
There can be great pleasure in the familiar, especially when it’s pulled off with such precision and exaction as David Arisco’s West Side Story. Everything we fell in love with from the Bernstein/Sondheim/Robbins triple-threat flourished beautifully at the Miracle Theatre, from Ron Hutchins’ reverent and dazzling choreography to emotionally swelling performances from a carefully curated cast.

4. The Royale, GableStage
The enchanting Minister’s Wife may have been GableStage’s lone musical this year, but its exhilarating production of Marco Ramirez’s avant-garde bioplay about pioneering black boxer Jack Johnson featured choreography that bested many song-and-dance spectacles. A propulsive and percussive tribute to stripped-down machismo, director Joseph Adler, theater artist Rudi Goblen and fight choreographer Bert Rodriguez found ballet in boxing, and vice versa, while Aygemang Clay’s fierce performance emotionally grounded this stylized celebration of movement.

3. Hand to God, GableStage
“Star turn” doesn’t begin to describe Wesley Slade’s hilarious, heartbreaking and confrontational performance in Robert Askin’s dark comedy about the elaborate ways we suppress our emotions. Equally wide-ranging work from Margery Lowe and Kristian Bikic expressed sides of these skilled actors we’d never seen before, and the show’s metaphysical provocations and bracing physicality were vintage GableStage—leaving us, like Lyle Baskin’s set, torn apart by the end.

Michael Stewart Allen, John Leonard Thompson, Dennis Creaghan, & Maureen Anderman

2. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Palm Beach Dramaworks
It’s hard to imagine Jessica Lange’s Tony-winning performance in the Broadway revival of Long Day’s Journey eclipsing Dramaworks’ Maureen Anderman, who inhabited the Tyrone matriarch with shattering fragility, devolving into a broken shell of a person as gradually and inexorably as day became night. The same could be said for the rest of William Hayes’ first-rate ensemble, who successfully wrestled Eugene O’Neill’s darkest demons—and lost to them, as any dedicated actor must. Few productions in recent South Florida history were this demanding—on audiences as much as theater professionals—as well as this rewarding.

1. Passion, Zoetic Stage
Zoetic Stage’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s operatic musical achieved nothing less than a miracle: It made plausible and possibly even rational this most implausible and irrational of plots. Jeni Hacker’s benchmark-setting Fosca, Nicholas Richberg’s internally agonized Giorgio and Anna Lise Jensen’s ethereally rejected Clara combined with fearless direction, flawless musical direction, resplendent costumes and a dramatically reimagined three-tiered set design to produce a Passion that would make its creator weep.

Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:

The Nether, Area Stage Co., for producing simultaneously the creepiest and most beautiful scenic surprise of the year—set designer Jodi Dellaventura’s lush realization of a pervert’s paradise.

Million Dollar Quartet, Actors’ Playhouse, for producing a rock musical that was more rock than musical: The loud, playful, loose-limbed production felt and sounded like attending an unscripted jam session.

Smoke, Theatre at Arts Garage, for revealing “shades” of elastic funnyman Clay Cartland we didn’t know existed. Far from the hesitant romantic naïf he embodied in First Date, Cartland’s BDSM enthusiast had his mind on things other than courtship, communicating danger and carnality with scary conviction.

I Love a Piano, The Wick Theatre, for upending our expectations surrounding that most critically maligned of genres: the musical revue. The performances, direction and choreography of the Wick’s madcap Irving Berlin tribute were a sheer delight from start to finish.

1776, Palm Beach Dramaworks, for successfully scaling down a bloated musical with a multifaceted re-invention. Gender-bending founding fathers? Modern video linking the founders’ conflicts with today’s balkanized government? The score performed onstage by a lovely and immaculate chamber orchestra? Dramaworks really lets its hair down in the summer, and we like it.

Nicholas Richberg in 1776

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