First Night's Top 10 of 2012: THE OUTSTANDING THEATRICAL EVENTS

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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.

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- 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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- With the launch of the Ten-Minute Playhouse, co-curators Lauren Shouse, Nate Eppler, Christopher Bosen and Garret Schneider gave greater voice to the growing up of playwrights in the Nashville area, bringing them together with actors and directors and other theater technicians to bring their works to audiences. The Ten Minute Playhouse has quickly become a mainstay of the Nashville theatre scene and a welcome opportunity for local playwrights to present their work to the community. As of November 2012, a total of 42 plays by 29 local playwrights had received popular public readings utilizing more than 60 local actors and directors. And 2013 only looks brighter for what is now known as PLAYHOUSE NASHVILLE: Playhouse Nashville's residency at Street Theatre officially begins with the world premiere of Nate Eppler's new comedy SEXTAPE set for February 28-March 10, 2013. That will be followed by a Ten Minute Playhouse April 28-29, a second world premiere production of a new play by a local writer August 1-11, and a Halloween-themed Ten Minute Haunted Playhouse October 20-21.

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- Miss Saigon in Concert at Street Theatre Company. Building upon the success of its earlier "in-concert" productions, STC continues to dominate the genre with its November 2012 performance of Miss Saigon, featuring an amazing cast of newcomers and local stage veterans. Under the direction of Cathy Street, with musical direction by Rollie Mains, there was no life-sized helicopter landing on the stage during STC's concert mounting of Miss Saigon, The Engineer didn't take the stage while humping the top of a Cadillac car, nor was "The Morning of the Dragon" the flag-waving, people's army spectacle you might have come to expect from bigger, grander productions of the musical. But what remained in the superbly performed, if bare bones, production of the contemporary musical theater extravaganza-featuring music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and book and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr.-was the emotion, the passion and the very heart of the story that continues to resonate more than 20 years after its debut and some 35 years after the fall of the world capital that gives the story its name.

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- How often does a Nashville production boast a pedigree like this: Music by the late Marvin Hamlisch, book and lyrics by Rupert Holmes and direction by "the king of comedy" Jerry Lewis? And the results? The Nutty Professor: A critically-acclaimed theatrical event like we'd never seen in Nashville, featuring a cast and crew studded by local stars and a collection of some NYC-based performers who've stopped shows before and since, including Michael Andrew, Marissa McGowan, KLea Blackhurst, Mark Jacoby and Nashville's own Meghan Glogower, Allison Little, Stephen Kummer (and his mostly-Nashville orchestra), all brought together by producers Mac Pirkle (a 2010 First Night Honoree) and Ned McLeod. While the show's path to Broadway remains unclear, The Nutty Professor is certain to thrill audiences on the Great White Way as much as they did at TPAC!

- With Stand, his original play about homelessness and friendship in contemporary times, playwright Jim Reyland made history in Nashville theater circles by bringing together a consortium of local theater companies to mount a tour. Starring 2010 First Night Honoree Barry Scott and Chip Arnold, directed by First Night Award-winning director David Compton, the unique staging of Stand at 13 different venues, hopefully marks the beginning of a new sense of camaraderie and collaboration among area theater companies.

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- Circle Players, one of the first resident companies at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, made a triumphant return to that cultural edifice in downtown Nashville to mount its latest revival of Titanic the Musical just in time to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking in the frigid waters of the north Atlantic. With a creative team led by Tim Larson, the visionary director who first mounted the Maury Yeston-Peter Stone musical for the venerable community theater group in 2008, Titanic the Musical packed an emotional wallop and the production values of thee new mounting were truly exceptional-the sumptuous physical trappings of the production, which include the sets used in the most recent national tour and the stunning costumes provided by designer Cat Arnold and her estimable team, rival the best you've ever seen on a Nashville stage. Titanic the Musical is a fitting vehicle for Circle's first TPAC production in several years and represents the great strides made by the company in recent years, the ambitious efforts of its extraordinary group of volunteers truly representing the best of Nashville theater.

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- What better setting for the debut of a whole slate of new musicals than at Boiler Room Theatre (at the Factory at Franklin), which in 2012 unveiled its Pressure Cooker, which offered the creative teams behind nine new musicals the opportunity to show off their work to the public (which included their friends and families and representatives of the local theater community and press). From that initial offering of staged readings of nine new works, three finalists were selected to perform their shows once more, leading to the selection of the first-ever winner of BRT's Pressure Cooker: Michael McFaden's City of Light, which will be given a complete mounting at BRT next spring. With BRT consistently heralded for its musical theater offerings, this new collaboration bodes well--not only for audiences, but for the creators of new musicals--for the years to come.

- While BRT focused on the creation of new works for the musical theatre, the Ingram New Works Festival was created by Tennessee Repertory Theatre to focus on the creation of new plays. The impact on local theater has been enormous, giving voice to a collection of heretofore unknown playwrights who put their hearts and souls on display for local audiences. With a stunning slate of more "famous" playwrights leading them-including John Patrick Shanley and David Auburn-the Ingram New Works Festival annually challenges its audiences, as well as its playwrights, to strive for better theater. And it clearly doesn't hurt that Auburn's latest Broadway entry, The Columnist, had its start at Tennessee Rep and will be presented as part of its current season in early 2013.

First Night's Top 10 of 2012: THE OUTSTANDING THEATRICAL EVENTS

First Night's Top Ten Theatrical Events of 2012, the sequel: Since it's not theater, we didn't include Nashville the ABC television series, on our list of theatrical events but clearly, its impact on the local theater community cannot be denied. Featuring a host of local theaterati/glitterati among the top-flight cast led by Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere, our city has never looked brighter and shinier on camera (and we love us some bright and shiny objects) and with actors such as Ed Amatrudo, David Alford, Todd Truley, JJ Rodgers, Jeremy Childs, Jake Speck and everyone else we haven't named, it's clear that Nashville theater is filled with exceptional talent. Sure, we've made fun of the bad Southern accents and the sometimes soapy plot points, but truth is: We love Nashville! And we hope it keeps Tennessee actors on the payroll for many seasons to come!

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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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