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Top 10 St. Louis Theater of 2011 | Andrea Braun

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theat tommyThere’s no way to compare such disparate theatrical fare in any sense of their competing with each other, so my selection criteria was based entirely on how much I enjoyed, admired, and was moved by a production.

 

“Best of” lists are problematic by nature. For example, I’m less a fan of musical theater than so-called “straight plays,” so my picks are influenced by that preference. Opera makes my head hurt and I’m tired of most of the stuff The Muny does (plus it’s hot out there). Stages is generally technically perfect, but I miss live music. Sometimes a mistake or two makes the performance experience richer. (That observation does not, however, apply to errors due to under-rehearsed or incompetent actors.) And to contradict myself completely, two of my picks, including what I consider the best show of 2011, are—wait for it—musicals.

The following are shows produced by professional companies, although much worthy work is done in community and student theater. This choice helped narrow the field. And one caveat: There’s no way to compare such disparate theatrical fare in any sense of their competing with each other, so my selection criteria was based entirely on how much I enjoyed, admired, and was moved by a production. These are my top 10, entirely subjective, and readers will, of course, have their own opinions.

1. The Who’s “Tommy” | Stray Dog Theatre

A show that I saw twice; I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more energized by a production than this one. For me, it succeeded on all levels, from performance to sets, costumes, lights—the whole package. Antonio Rodriguez dazzled as the pinball wizard and the ensemble was, to me, near-flawless. Direction by Justin Been and Gary F. Bell, who again put a big cast on a small stage, brought Pete Townshend and Kit Lambert’s “rock opera” to vibrant life. I don’t have enough superlatives, so I’ll just end this the way I wound up my review at the time: Wow!

2. Awake and Sing | New Jewish Theatre

Steven Woolf doesn’t often direct outside of the Rep, but he made an exception for this Clifford Odets classic that reads like it shouldn’t work, but plays like the sixth game of the 2011 World Series. Bobby Miller (wearing his actor’s hat here) is a revelation as an 80-year-old patriarch who doesn’t get the respect he deserves from his daughter (Elizabeth Ann Townsend), who is trying to keep a family together during the Depression inNew York City. An ending that I found hokey on the page was inspiring as interpreted by Woolf through Aaron Orion Baker. Julie Layton and Jason Cannon had white-hot chemistry as lovers, and even the smaller parts were fully realized, from Gary Wayne Barker’s henpecked husband, Jerry Vogel as the successful brother, Jordan Reinwald as the put-upon husband of Layton’s character, and Terry Meddows, who is memorable as the building’s janitor in just a couple of brief scenes. Having done some research for the show, I did see a number of rehearsals and several performances during April, but I’d have happily gone to every single one of them.

3. The Price | Avalon Theatre Company

Everyone has seen Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, but productions of The Price are relatively rare. This one was knocked out of the park by director Bobby Miller, working with a cast of four outstanding actors: John Contini, Peggy Billo, Peter Mayer, and Bob Harvey. The play runs the risk of being static because it all takes place in a dingy attic and, as is generally the case with Miller’s work, it is talky. But Contini and Mayer, completely believable as brothers whose father has recently died, and Billo as Contini’s character’s wife make us hang on every word. Great play, brilliantly executed.

4. Red | The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s season opener directed by Steven Woolf (Artistic Director of the company) is a symphony of language delivered in support of the purity of art and a whole lot of other topics. Based on the story of Mark Rothko’s decision to allow his paintings to be displayed in permanent exhibition at the then-new Four Seasons Restaurant back in the 1960s, and his later reversal of that decision, make for a stimulating evening. Bryan Dykstra, who brings Rothko to vivid life, and Matthew Carlson, as his assistant whose character develops throughout the play, perform a pas-de-deux of linguistic intercourse unparalleled in any play I saw this year.

5. Shadowlands | Mustard Seed Theatre

It’s clear by now that Mustard Seed gets “Best Company of 2011” (an award I just made up) because this was another outstanding offering, and the first of the season way back in January. Gary Wayne Barker and Kelley Ryan have never been better than they were under Deanna Jent’s direction in this touching story of the late-in-life love story of Oxford don and author of the Narnia books (among others) C.S. Lewis and the American Joy Gresham who approaches him as a fan. Richard Lewis is appropriately stuffy as Lewis’s judgmental bachelor brother who comes to love the brash Joy also, despite Lewis’s friends’ snobbish disregard for her. A beautiful, sad, but ultimately uplifting story; I saw it twice.

6. Godspell | Mustard Seed Theatre

Godspell may be pushing 40 years of age, but director Deanna Jent and her energetic ensemble make this story of Jesus’ three-year journey of preaching and teaching fresh again. A few contemporary touches have been added (the one I thought was the most fun being Justin Ivan Brown’s “Sassy Gay Friend” riff), but mostly they stick to the basics. This production also was graced by the best set I saw this year: Dunsi Dai’s interpretation of an urban street enhanced by Michael Sullivan’s versatile lighting. J. Samuel Davis is a charismatic Jesus, and his followers are a multitalented group of artists who sing and dance the Gospel of St. Matthew to a fare-thee-well.

7. Falling | Mustard Seed Theatre

Deanna Jent’s first full-length play about a family who is living with a teenage son’s severe autism is a punch right to the gut. Jent lives the story she tells, which gives it even more resonance. Lori Adams’ thoughtful direction and the performances by an extraordinary cast consisting of Michelle Hand, Greg Johnston, Katie Donnelly, Carmen Larimore Russell, and especially Jonathan Foster as the son around whom all these other characters orbit, no matter how difficult it is (for the parents) or baffling (for the grandmother) or just plain awful (for the sister). Falling’s St. Louis run was extended twice, and the show has been optioned for an off-Broadway production in 2012, which is richly deserved.

8. The Visit | Stray Dog Theatre

\This was an impressive rendition of a difficult play last June. Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s work was interpreted by Gary F. Bell and a cast of thousands (well, 16, actually, but that’s a lot of people on the Abbey Stage). Both stylish and stylized, Julie Layton and Travis Estes play long-ago lovers. He’s done her wrong and she’s back to collect her pound of flesh. Great stuff well played by all.

9. Murdering Marlowe | West End Players Guild

Robert A. Mitchell directed this hilarious, bloody romp positing the idea that “Will” Shakespeare, a young and so-far unsuccessful poet and playwright, took out a hit on his friend “Chris” Marlowe. Marlowe, an unregenerate drunk and sexual omnivore, has become the most successful playwright in London. He’s bigger than Bieber, and there’s no room for Will’s work. How this all plays out and remarkable performances by a cast led by John Wolbers as Marlowe and Michael B. Perkins as Shakespeare made for a terrific time at the theater in November.

10. Danny and the Deep Blue Sea | NonProphet Theatre Company

This searing two-hander brought together Brooke Edwards, who is missed on local stages since she’s been at Western Illinois U. working on an MFAin directing, and NonProphet co-founder and Artistic Director Robert A. Mitchell, who was also at the helm of this show. Danny opened the 2011 season in April with a dizzying blend of humor and hurt, violence and romance, and a sense of hope in the midst of despair. Both actors were as good as I’ve seen them, and I was drained by the end—and I mean that in a very good way.

Note: Due to illness and travel, I did not see any local shows in December this year, so this is more a “best of the first 11 months” list. There’s a lot of good stuff coming up in the new year, so thanks in advance for supporting local theater.

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