By Bill Hirschman
I’ve been working on my Carbonell judges’ first round nominating list. No, no. I’m not going to give away anything about my picks, nor should anyone interpret anything in this article to be a hint.
The thing is: We can only submit five shows in the first nominating round. Which poses a problem because it’s been yet another memorable year for South Florida theater in which the level of quality continued to rise, the drive to experiment thrived and the scrapbook of memories flowed to bursting.
So, my first try at a nomination roster for excellence will have to be culled because it currently lists 8 best plays, 11 best actresses in a play, 10 best actors in a play, 10 best actresses in a musical, 9 actors in a musical, 8 supporting actresses in a musical, 9 ensembles, musical directors for 14 shows, 8 scenic designers (the Carbonells do not provide a category for the separate contributions of projection designers), and 18 best directors for a play, although two people had three mentions each. I could have added three to almost every category.
This process requires reexamining every production from the year. That meant random memories, both cherished and disappointing, popping in and out:
— Angie Radosh slipping instantly between a troubled open-faced child and an adult with dementia in Primal Forces’ Breadcrumbs;
— the upbeat memorial for Iris Acker spearheaded by her friend Tony Finstrom (Attention was paid, Arthur Miller); we miss them both beyond words.
— Anna Lise Jensen fighting a failing microphones on the opening night of Zoetic Stage’s Fun Home and still nailing the part into the stage floor;
— seeing Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son bow in NYC the same week we saw Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband a few blocks away;
— watching on television as the students from Margery Stoneman Douglas perform at the Tony Awrds;
— the household goods of Beauty and the Beast turned into puppets at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre;
— Cat Greenfield and Julie Rowe’s emotionally eviscerating rendition of “Ludlow Massacre” in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Woody Guthrie’s American Song;
— the kinetic dancers in Slow Burn Theatre Company’s Memphis who made even the terpsichorean-challenged want to get up and join them;
— the stunning projections at Actors Playhouse’s world premiere of Havana Music Hall;
— and the better-than-Broadway production of Indecent at Dramaworks. The list could encompass two score more vivid shards of memory.
What follows is not a best-of list, but a random paging through those memories – with a few observations as well.
Bet The Farm On Them: One quiet but striking trend this season is consistency of quality – the kind of reliability that used to translate into season subscriptions. Five companies stood out that way this year.
Despite all the sturm and drang trying to get approvals to take over the Coconut Grove Playhouse, GableStage’s Joe Adler (plus guest directors Michael Leeds and Gail Garrisan) produced show after show that made patrons think (even made some people uncomfortable) about issues and mirror-like portraits hitting close to home – especially about race relations. They included White Guy on the Bus, Actually, Admissions, Gloria, I’m Gonna Pray For You and If I Forget.
Slow Burn is another. It has a split-personality favoring light-hearted spoofy work and then serious works, but does both equally well. To wit: Rock of Ages, Legally Blonde, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Disaster!, Freaky Friday, Memphis and the glorious Bridges of Madison County. Our praise in reviews this year was so uninterrupted that you might wonder if we were dating someone in the company.
Zoetic Stage knows no bounds as far as genres. Director Stuart Meltzer and his creative team took on new work, such as Christopher Demos-Brown’s Wrongful Death and Other Circus Acts. The transcendent Fun Home, which proved to the national tours that passed up South Florida that an audience for serious musicals exists here. And coming up soon, talk about courageous, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.
Special mention is due Primal Forces, which moved into the former Sol Theatre in Boca after a few shows at Empire Stage. Its budgets are tiny, production values spare and it rarely has a cast larger than three. But directors Keith Garsson and Genie Croft have produced intimate works that take a back seat to no one and give actresses some of the best parts available in contemporary works you have never seen and likely never heard of. This year: Breadcrumbs, An Accident and Communion.
Performer Of The Year: Anna Lise Jensen. She could fill an entire Carbonell category by herself. Look at the range of her work this year, combining a gorgeous voice with expressive acting plus an ability to play several instruments on stage — every facet executed with passion and skill. Look back on Slow Burn’s Bridges of Madison County, Zoetic Stage’s Fun Home, Actors Playhouse’s Once, Dramaworks’ Indecent, and MNM’s I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.
Close behind is Elizabeth Price, responsible for two amazing performances in Thinking Cap’s Crooked and Primal Forces’ An Accident, and, late last year, directing Straight White Men for Thinking Cap.
You’re Gonna Hear From Me: This was the year that some artists, who had often worked in ensembles and supporting roles before this, became impossible to ignore.
Kimmi Johnson has been performing and teaching in the region for a few years, most notably in her terrific turn as the shiksa girlfriend in Main Street Theatre’s Bad Jews. But this was the year she was impossible to ignore as an up-and-coming mainstay with a radiant smile, liquid singing and engaging acting as the daughter switching bodies and physicality in Slow Burn’s Freaky Friday and as the middle Alison discovering her sexuality in in Zoetic’s Fun Home.
Similarly, Aaron Bower has been a reliable hand for some time, lending her elegant cool to various productions, but this year she was a major virtue as Muriel, the “other” con man’s victim, in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Broward Stage Door and then later as the infinitely patient Grace in the Wick Theatre’s Annie.
Not a performer but a company: The evolving troupe New City Players working out of the Vanguard in Fort Lauderdale is delivering ever more promising work. It won’t be long before they become major players. Their dense intricate two-hander Constellations was a standout in anyone’s season, with Mary Gundlach orchestrating fine work from Jessica Schulte and Jordon Armstrong. It even entertained with two works that I had said I didn’t care if I ever see again but which they made well-worth a patron’s investment of time: Art and Clybourne Park.
The New Kid On The Block Award: Okay, Miami New Drama isn’t brand new, but few companies have been born so nearly fully formed. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Michel Hausmann, this troupe based at the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road has an adventurous spirit whose productions don’t always land well (Terror last year) and, in fact, is sometimes a mixture (Our Town last year). But when it succeeds, always with stories steeped in Miami’s multi-cultural environment, its work is impressive, such as its re-visioning of Miss Julie as Queen of Basel, One Night In Miami, the breathtaking multi-media spectacular contemplation of race and prejudice, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (co-produced with Asolo Repertory Theatre from Sarasota).
Resurgence: At the risk of sounding condescending, the venerable M Ensemble has been famous for commitment and passion but inconsistent quality. But ever since it moved into the Sandrell Rivers Theater with Kings of Harlem last year, the company has come roaring back to a level that makes some of its work reaching “don’t miss” territory: This year alone, we’re grateful to have caught the rousing God’s Trombones and an entry in its second run at the August Wilson canon, the epic tragedy Seven Guitars.
Color blind casting: This past year has underscored the array of superbly talented African-American talent struggling to make a professional life here. Productions like the aforementioned M Ensemble pieces and the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center’s The Colored Museum made me downright angry to see the breadth, depth and sheer number of terrific African-American artists we have here who seemingly have to wait for a Memphis or Raisin or August Wilson play to get satisfying work down here. If that means “mainstream” artistic directors need to be more open to color-blind hiring, so be it. This isn’t being altruistic or noble; these are artists who have proven with their work that they will enrich your theater-going life and we are the poorer for not seeing it.
Case In Point: Artistic directors need to stop what they are doing and hire two men connected to The Colored Museum. Jeffery “J. Case” Cason Jr., who electrified audiences as the choreographer and lead dancer in God’s Trombones, slipped seamlessly and convincingly into the skin of three distinctly different powerhouse characters in Museum: a transgendered nightclub queen, a satiric mashup of Raisin’s Sidney Poitier role and a half-dozen other parts that now border on stereotypes, and finally a street kid trying to keep a businessman from tossing away his past. All shared a loose-limbed lithe Ray Bolger physicality, an uninhibitedly daffy sensibility and a FPL power plant glow like Three Mile Island.
And then there was its director Jamel Booth, a recent grad of Florida A&M University in his professional directing debut, but who unified the evening with vision, polish, inventive staging and unabashedly high-energy, deep-diving verve.
It’s Alive! It’s Alive: Slow Burn, Actors’ Playhouse, Zoetic Stage, MNM Theatre Company and even Palm Beach Dramaworks’ summer shows always strove to hire live bands for their musicals, even when that required expensive time to reduce the arrangements for a quartet or quintet. But other theaters have been hit and miss in hiring musicians, especially when the producers feared the audience would feel cheated not to hear the full sound they remember from 33 rpm records. So some have relied on digital recordings, which incidentally are much cleaner, crisper and more luxurious than before.
But nothing is better than a live band; so acknowledge that the Wick Theatre and the Broward Stage Door since it moved to in its new digs in Lauderhill have been contracting with local musicians for the past several months to provide that irreplaceable live sound.
You Can’t Win ‘Em All: No artist or collection of artists (or critic) succeeds every time. Some memorable disappointments this year, some due to the scripts, some due to the execution: The Radicalization of Rolfe at Island City Stage, Reservoir Dolls at Outré Theatre Company, Actors Playhouse’s Noises Off, Confessions of a Nightingale and the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s Steel Magnolias.
Casting The First Stone: Make of this what you will. More and more companies are casting their leads, directors and designers more and more frequently from not just out of town, but from out of state. Start the discussion….
Shows I Really Didn’t Care If I Ever Saw Again, But The Productions Changed My Mind: Art at New City Players and both Hedwig and the Angry Inch(es) from Outré Theatre Company and Slow Burn Theatre Company.
Meatloaf Again? All of these shows were well-done this year, but, good grief, can’t we find something else: South Pacific, Annie and Hairspray. And maybe I should throw in Rocky Horror and Little Shop of Horrors. And I love Avenue Q and Spelling Bee, but let’s give them all a rest.
Movin’ On Up: Besides Primal Forces moving back to Boca, Broward Stage Door finally settled into a reliable home by opening at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center, a beautiful-to-look-at facility. The seating is cramped and it has a lousy microphone system, but on the plus side it offers wings, flies, dressing rooms and plenty of bathrooms for the audience – plus a snack bar with popcorn. In other real estate news, Island City Stage and Infinite Abyss continued their upgrading of their shared Wilton Manors home, now renamed the Wilton Theater Factory.
The Bert Lahr Courage Award: In a region whose mainstream audiences have not had a reputation for embracing boundary-shattering work, several companies deserve praise for experimenting with material, tone, style and approach. Some pieces work better than others, some are too long, some are head-scratchers, some need a strict dramaturg. But some — sometimes the very same ones — make you think and see in different ways, and some transform the way you will look at theater from now on. All of them regularly risk their fiscal futures on such work and deserve patronage. So give it up for Thinking Cap Theatre, Island City Stage, Juggerknot Theatre Company and Miami New Drama.