It's been a busy year in Nashville theater in 2012, with audiences treated to a whole slate of theatrical offerings spanning multiple genres-from productions of time-honored classics to new and original contemporary works, from dramas to comedies, from straight plays to musicals-and giving local theater-goers more opportunities than ever before to be challenged by the onstage magic created by some of Tennessee's most talented and gifted artists.

While voting continues on the BWW Nashville Theatre Awards and the BWW Tennessee Theatre Awards, we've busily been compiling our own lists of First Night's Top Ten of 2012 to focus the spotlight on the truly outstanding performances and performers who've graced Tennessee stages during the year quickly coming to its climax. And on Sunday, January 6, at Midwinter's First Night we'll be announcing the names of the individuals and productions that truly stood out in 2012.

But there is no award more coveted than the First Night medal that will be presented for the Outstanding Theatrical Event of 2012. While the ultimate winner will be revealed on January 6, these ten events are the best of the best and one of them will be singled out for presentation of the medal. Last year's winner was MAS Nashville's Five, the production that unleashed a renaissance of cabaret performance in Music City USA.

Who will win this year? Any of the ten productions listed are worthy...

- 8, Rhubarb Theater's staged reading of Dustin Lance Black's dramatization of the court battle over California's Proposition 8. Directed by Robyn Berg and featuring a stellar cast of Nashville actors, Rhubarb's one-night-only performance of 8 joined with performances throughout the country to focus attention on the subject of marriage equality. Performed at Darkhorse Theater, Berg's cast featured Rhubarb's artistic director Trish Crist, Nettie Kraft, Ryan William, Paul Cook, Anthony Just, Jim Al-Shamma, Phil Perry, Phil Brady, Matthew Raich, Dance Theatre of Tennessee's Christopher Mohnani, Lisa Marie Wright, Laurel Baker, Raemona Little Taylor, Steven Parnell, Wesley Paine, Christopher Bosen, Kellye Mitchell, Larry Bridgesmith, Caleb Pritchett and Jerry Henderson.


- The Color Purple, directed by Clay Hillwig and Tim Larson, and produced by Circle Players and Tennessee State University's Theatre Department. The first local production of the acclaimed musical based upon Alice Walker's best-selling book and the Stephen Spielberg film that it inspired, The Color Purple starred the luminous LaToya Gardner as Celie, the fiery J. Karen Thomas as Shug Avery and Cristina Fentress as Sophia. A thrilling collaborative effort from the region's oldest community theatre company and the historically black university celebrating its centennial in 2012, the production was held-over (a rarity in Nashville) and earned its place on this list with outstanding performances, production values and a stunning cast.

- With taut, focused direction by Beki Baker and what is arguably the finest cast of actors to be assembled on a Nashville stage in recent memory, Nashville Shakespeare Festival heated up winter with its remarkable production of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's timeless tragedy rife with unbridled ambition, conspiratorial plotting, revenge and deception. Starring legendary NFL running back Eddie George, late of the Tennessee Titans, in the title role, the production featured a startlingly deep, and equally awesome, bench of players giving the leading man ample support. When you opened the playbill and read the names Brian Webb Russell, David Compton, Eric D. Pasto-Crosby, Jon Royal, Denice Hicks, Robyn Berg, Will Sevier, et al, you were assured of a finely acted dramatic tragedy; add to that list the names of such fine younger actors as Matthew Raich, Caleb Pritchett, Daniel Hackman, Elizabeth Walsh and Maya Abram and the presence of the beautiful Tamira A. Henry as Caesar's adoring wife Calpurnia, you are guaranteed a memorable night of theater, one in which you are plunged headlong into the conspiracy playing out before you and which will, most certainly, transform and transport you to ancient Rome while underscoring the political intrigue that permeates our own 21st century.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.

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