By Bill Hirschman
Producing and attending theater in South Florida through 2022 was like being in the middle of Act Two of a three-act play by Tom Stoppard: You laughed, you cried and you had no idea how it was going to play out.
Audiences began to return — but to houses that might be sold out one night, and the next night have fewer people in the house than in the dressing room. Covid meant that the brilliant actress you worked opposite last night, might be replaced by an understudy tonight – or the performance might be canceled altogether.
But there was an upside to the unscripted drama: The pent-up energy, imagination and commitment of the region’s artists flowed onto the stages with such a vibrance and level of excellence that it made critics like me wonder if our standards had weakened because we were writing rave and after rave. Certainly, there were productions that crashed and clanged and clunked. I’ll grant them the dignity of not naming them.
Coming late next month: Our multi-part project tracking how local theater survived through the worst of the pandemic, what lessons were learned, what has changed today on the stage and behind the scenes, and what artists and audiences might expect in the future in content, conditions, costs and other ways.
But first, what follows is not so much a “best of the year” list – no such list can be reliable or remotely complete – but this is a random recognition of some outstanding performances, productions, trends and just moments that theatergoers and artists will carry with them into 2023. But be assured, some worthy work isn’t on this list.
There are too many candidates for a ten best list. But besides these, add in those referenced in the Memorable Performance section below.
Twelve Angry Men (Palm Beach Dramaworks) – An unequalled assemblage of A-list talent and accumulated skill merge into a single ensemble in this vibrant revival of the classic jury room drama.
What the Constitution Means to Me (City Theatre) – The collision, the contradictions of what we say democracy is, what we want it to be, and what it really is, what it really does, its strengths, its weaknesses, its virtues and its flaws are at the heart of one of the most timely and important pieces of theater to be produced in South Florida this past year.
Once On This Island (Slow Burn Theatre Company) – A glorious evening visually, aurally and emotionally, it was a journey of storytelling and song, myth and magic infused with joy, passion and a deep belief that love is the saving grace of complex human existence. Featuring the central performance by Denver-based alto-soprano Brinie Wallace as TiMoune.
Papa Cuatro (Miami New Drama) – Rarely has the immigrants’ connection to their past and future been so fully realized in a passionate embrace as in this world premiere. It was, by turns, alternately rousing, soulful, humorous, thrilling; but it was always a moving celebration of Venezuelan music refracted through the prism of the backstories of five world-class musicians now living here and abroad.
A Wonderful World (Miami New Drama) – Yes, this world premiere about the arc of Louis Armstrong’s complex life opened in December 2021 but it survived pandemic interruptions, and persisted into 2022, thank goodness. A full-out delight musical with a glorious assemblage of music, no holds barred design elements, an enthusiastic cast and terrific central performances by Juson Williams, complemented by Darlene Hope, Allison Semms, Christine Sajous and, first among equals, Nicole Henry as the four women in his life.
Overactive Letdown (Theatre Lab) – You needed to buckle up at this world premiere as a new mother crumbled under the post-partum pressures of caring for an infant, aggravated by today’s tsunami of parenting dictates from scientists, doctors, social experts and friends, our heroine Christine’s considerable intelligence, humor and charm evaporated.
And rewarding work (a woefully incomplete list here): Topdog/Underdog (Main Street Players); Bent and Educating Asher written by and starring Eytan Deray (Empire Stage); Get On Your Feet and Now and Then (both at Actors’ Playhouse) with a welcome return in the latter of Steve Trovillion; Michael McKeever’s The Code (Ronnie Larsen Presents); The Importance of Being Oscar (Thinking Cap Theatre); Dorothy’s Dictionary (Theatre Lab); The Thin Place and Luna Gale (Boca Stage); Heisenberg (GableStage); Mlima and Our Dear Dead Drug Lord.(Zoetic Stage); one is two (Island City Stage); Head Over Heels (Slow Burn Theatre Company); The Belle of Amherst and Duration (both at Palm Beach Dramaworks) with a terrific turn by Beth Dimon; Elian (Miami New Drama); and The Dahomey Warriors (M Ensemble).
Aaron Bower – Many artists in South Florida theater have fine voices, but only a few match hers in a combination of champagne clarity, expressiveness and seemingly effortless power as she proved once again in her Fairy Godmother in the Wick’s Cinderella.
Jerel Brown – The dependable and ever-present dance ensemble member exploded in the spotlight as the titular elephant in Zoetic Stage’s Mlima, and as choreographer in the Slow Burn’s vibrant Once on This Island.
Rita Cole – Once again, she graced the stage with a dazzling range of performances from the lonely seamstress seeking a better life in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Intimate Apparel to the art photographer documenting racism who is trying to control her passion with potential patrons in GableStage’s The White Card to the title character in Thinking Cap Theatre’s Fefu and Her Friends.
Lindsey Corey – In Theater Lab’s Overactive Letdown, Corey with director Margaret M. Ledford creates a new mother who spirals out of control in a harrowing descent into madness.
Ronnie Larsen – For some time, actor-producer-playwright Larsen was best known in connection with joyfully light and unabashedly lewd gay comedies. And then, in the fall of 2019, he produced his script Grindr Mom about a mother coming to terms with her son’s sexuality directed by Stuart Meltzer. Then a month later he delivered a jaw-dropping performance in a stunning play he wrote An Evening With John Wayne Gacy. While still mounting comedies, he and his company Ronnie Larsen Presents have emerged over the past season and half as a welcome theatrical presence with such work as the world premiere of a new Michael McKeever play, The Code about homophobic hypocrisy in the old Hollywood directed by Christopher Renshaw; starring in a play he wrote, The Actors, directed by Meltzer, and producing the recent Red Speedo directed by Meltzer. And beyond that, he was impressive as an actor inhabiting the love of language and a love of theatricality in Thinking Cap Theatre’s ingeniously staged The Importance of Being Oscar, a celebration of Oscar Wilde.
Margaret M. Ledford – Look back at the past 13 months or so and identify some of the best work on stage: Overactive Letdown, Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, and the amazing What the Constitution Means to Me. In each case, the lead performer gets most of the praise from the audience, but insiders recognze the superb skill that Ledford invested in collaboration to mold these performances in tone, pacing, staging, and above all, her depth of investigation of the material.
Margery Lowe – Of course, remember her multi-dimension preconception-erasing Emily Dickinson in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ The Belle of Amherst, both videoed and on stage. But even more amazing was the voluble young woman in GableStage’s Heisenberg – a performance and overall production so superior that I genuinely forgot I had seen it on Broadway with Mary Louise Parker.
Michael O. Mitchell & Annastasia Victory – Yes, they were the musical directors of the musical-in-the-making, A Wonderful World at Miami New Drama, which meant they worked through rehearsals with the musicians and actors in developing and polishing the performances. But acknowledge that while the music was all tunes associated with Louis Armstrong, they adapted, arranged and orchestrated the songs into a full score with underscoring.
Kim Ostrenko –If Boca Stage had agreed to participate in the Carbonell Awards, Ostrenko’s stunning portrayal of a Yale literature professor facing a terminal cancer diagnosis in The Sound Inside would have swept the Best Performance In A Leading Role By An Actress category. Her incarnation drew us in as she gently, subtly told us the story of her most recent months with genial self-deprecation and wry wit. Absolutely without a shred of self-pity or appeal for compassion, she was just a genial storyteller sharing a tale with us as if we were sitting over coffee. But because it is her story, this proud loner could not avoid baring herself to us.
Colin McPhillamy – Welcome any time he returns to the region, Colin played a score of roles in Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol last winter at City Theatre, a bravura tour de force allowing him to roam the stage exuding a sense that he was having as much pleasure as the audience; and then last fall he created the butcher with multiple personality complexities in GableStage’s Heisenberg.
Elizabeth Price – If Ostrenko would have had a lock on last year’s Carbonell, I’m laying bets with my bookie that next year that Price is not only on the nomination list, but walking away with the golden egg for her breath-taking work in What the Constitution Means to Me, aided in no small measure by director Margaret M. Ledford. Just weeks earlier, she was the demented fan in Empire Stage’s Misery, and earlier the guinea pig in Boca Stage’s Rx. She has become the associate artistic director for New City Players after having delivered them success after success in their history.
Gabriell Salgado – It’s been a while since a young performer has so quickly and completely become a significant figure in South Florida theater. He did fine work in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ 4000 Miles and other plays this year. But his molding by Stuart Meltzer produced his stunning bow in as the evolving creature in Zoetic Stage’s Frankenstein in October 2021 (his first professional performance) and the ultra-pragmatic athlete in this month’s Red Speedo. His name in publicity is enough to stoke interest in whatever project he has coming next.
For complex reasons, we did not see Area Stage’s immersive Beauty & the Beast, but heard such great things about it, that we hope to see it when it returns in February. We were barred from seeing the Wick Theatre’s Gypsy, but we heard from so many people including fellow cast members that Laura Hodos gave one of the most outstanding performances of her already memorable career. Two of her experienced colleagues said they would go back in the wings each night to watch her deliver “Rose’s Turn.”
Trends and Observations
—- Although almost every theater company made a big noise about connecting with the local community, some apparently don’t mean the theatrical community; some still hire more than their share of leading actors who couldn’t find Florida without a map.
—- Responding to social criticism nation-wide, South Florida companies delivered a noticeable increase in cross-cultural casting and color-blind casting, and not just in the ensemble, e.g. the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Plus there was a significant increase in plays exploring identity themes such as GableStage’s The White Card.
—- The revamped Carbonell Awards system still has a long way to go – evidenced by debatable people and shows that did get nominated and some very deserving artists who didn’t (including one win and a few nominations that absolutely defy comprehension) — not to mention (well, I will) the 3-hour 45-minute awards ceremony that ran longer than August: Osage County but in that one you could understand the words.
—- Once again, Pembroke Pines Theater of the Performing Arts, long an ambitious troupe as a community theater, continued its gradual but undeniable rise in quality seen in its Evita, Something Rotten and Sweeney Todd, the first giving Sahid Pabon a long-deserved spotlight as Che and the last two giving Ben Sandomir an opportunity to show his range and skill in the leads. Somewhere, Alvin Entin is smiling.
—- GableStage’s new Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport is now deep into her second year, slowly coalescing a fresh vision for the venerable institution. Deeply committed to learning and exploring the specificity of South Florida, she has been exploring different genres from the aforementioned scalpel sharp play about race relations, The White Card to the loosey goosey light comedy Boca. If the latter didn’t go over very well with much of anyone among GableStage’s returning patrons, the former along with Fade and Heisenberg began to outline promising parameters.
—- Florida Grand Opera continued a trend of mixing the ol’ reliables with works you likely have never seen, possibly even heard of, that speak to more contemporary issues such as 2016’s Fellow Travelers about two men pursuing a deep relationship in repressive Washington, D.C., in the 1950s.