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Looking Back: The O.C.'s (and L.A.'s) BEST of 2009

BroadwayWorld/Costa Mesa's Michael Lawrence Quintos looks back at the highs of this past year.

COSTA MESA, CA—As clichéd as an article like this is, I felt it was finally time to reflect on the best of this past year's Orange County (and parts nearby) Theater Productions—and since 2009 is, literally, now history. Although I have only been a regional correspondent for BroadwayWorld since July of 2009, I have been a huge "theater superfan/geek" since I could remember. I began 2009, actually, as a performer myself (and previous years before as well). So to transition into the role of someone "covering" theater became a surreal, exciting new adventure. To view productions with a new, more "official" perspective was a welcome challenge. Meeting my idols and heroes in the flesh has been such a rewarding experience. At some point, though, I really need to work on toning down the "OMG, I'm a big fan!" dork I turn into backstage... and try to put on my more professional reporter's hat more readily. Maybe.

Orange County (or "The O.C." as it's more popularly nicknamed) saw a plethora of amazing theater this past year, thanks to a hits-driven national tour line-up at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, as well as some great productions at some local/regional companies such as South Coast Repertory and The Laguna Playhouse. And by hopping on a freeway or two, nearby L.A. and San Diego provided O.C. residents even more choices for great theatergoing experiences.

These are my picks for the Best of 2009:

> BEST OVERALL PRODUCTION:

SPRING AWAKENING (National Tour - OCPAC, Costa Mesa)
With universal themes that transcend time and locale, this youth-centric musical finally arrived in Orange County armed with an awesome rock score and an ensemble cast that rivals the best seasoned actors twice their ages. It excels because the show itself and the company's performances resonated with such powerful emotions, that any minor flaws disappear into the mirror-blue night. And, as an added new treat I experienced this time around, I also viewed the show from on-stage seats, providing me with a new, more exciting perspective that literally surrounds us lucky few with love, heartache, and angst that's palpable from start to finish.

Honorable Mentions:
AVENUE Q (National Tour - OCPAC)
GUYS & DOLLS IN CONCERT (Hollywood Bowl)
LEGALLY BLONDE: THE MUSICAL (National Tour - Pantages Theatre, Hollywood & OCPAC)
MONTY PYTHON'S SPAMALOT (National Tour - Ahmanson Theater, L.A. & OCPAC)

> BEST NEW MUSICAL (OUT-OF-TOWN TRYOUTS):

MINSKY'S (Ahmanson Theater)
The Center Theatre Group seems to have some luck with producing some great pre-Broadway shows (9 to 5: The Musical, The Drowsy Chaperone), so it was no surprise that this musical comedy was one of my favorites from the year (and I remember it quite well considering the performances were in January). It's a grab-bag of musical comedy mayhem and some terrific dance numbers courtesy of director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw. It's hilarious and has some really wonderful moments... a show that can be made better with a few tweaks. It's got the same sensibilities of The Drowsy Chaperone.

Honorable Mention:
THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF SAMANTHA BROWN (OCPAC)

> BEST BROADWAY TALENT SHOWCASE CONCERT:

A Tie!!
Stephen Schwartz: MAKING GOOD (Upright Cabaret at Ford Amphitheater, L.A.)
and
MAKE-A-WISH FOUNDATION PRESENTS 'BROADWAY WISHES' (O.C. Pavilion, Santa Ana)

These were outstanding concert events that brought some of the most staggeringly talented Broadway stars on the same stages. Strangely enough, both shows somehow involve Stephen Schwartz, the maestro behind the hit Wicked. As the finale to a series of Cabaret concerts entitled "Wicked Summer Nights at the Ford Amphitheater," MAKING GOOD saw the likes of Michael Arden, David Burnham, Tracie Thoms, Audra Mae, Valerie Pettiford and Jenna Leigh Green (among others) performing their own takes on some of Schwartz's hit catalog (Wicked, Pippin, Disney's Pocahontas). Standout numbers include a hilarious duet between TV stars Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Barrett Foa, and was capped off by Schwartz himself alone, behind the piano, singing a very plaintive, heartfelt "For Good."

The BROADWAY WISHES Benefit Concert was stacked with Broadway royalty performing some amazing solo numbers that were jaw-droppingly good. Stars included Laura Bell Bundy (Legally Blonde, Hairspray, Wicked), Laura Osnes (Grease, South Pacific, Bonnie and Clyde), Megan Hilty (Wicked, 9 to 5), Kate Shindle (Legally Blonde, Cabaret, Jeckyll & Hyde), Norm Lewis (The Little Mermaid, Les Misérables, Chicago, Miss Saigon), Tim Howar (Rent, Tonight's The Night), and Eden Espinosa (Wicked, Brooklyn, Rent). The concert featured Espinosa and Hilty reuniting for the first time on the same stage since L.A.'s stand-alone production of Wicked closed in January. Every performance was thrilling and hosts Seth Rudetsky and Paul Canaan were hilarious.

Honorable Mention:
UPRIGHT CABARET PRESENTS 'CITY OF ANGELS' (La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts)

> BEST SOLO BROADWAY CONCERT/CABARET:

AN EVENING WITH Patti LuPone & Mandy Patinkin (Ahmanson Theater)
Like a couple of longtime buddies getting together to put on an intimate performance for a few friends (albeit, a few hundred), this concert—to borrow an often used phrase—was like butter. With seamless thematic transitions between incredibly sublime renditions of Broadway classics (the Carousel suite was absolutely divine). After all these years, these two made magic and I was lucky enough to have been there to witness it. And, yes, LuPone delivered once again with "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" (She repeats this triumph in her solo concert with Pacific Symphony as well).

Honorable Mentions:
Alan Cumming: I BOUGHT A BLUE CAR TODAY (Samueli Theater, Costa Mesa)
Christine Ebersole (Samueli Theater)
Eden Espinosa: ME (Upright Cabaret at Ford Amphitheater)
Patti LuPone (Pacific Symphony - Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa)

> BEST REGIONAL THEATER PRODUCTION:

THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED (Theatre Out, Santa Ana)
Douglas Carter Beane's Tony-nominated play is so witty, it has enough quotable, smart lines for years to come. This small theater's production is clever on its own, but this fast-paced comedy was enhanced further by a talented cast.

Honorable Mentions:
MY WAY: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE TO Frank Sinatra (The Laguna Playhouse, Laguna Beach)
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (Musical Theater West, Long Beach)

> BEST ENSEMBLE CAST:

SPRING AWAKENING (National Tour - OCPAC)
To go from serious 1898 play to rock concert in a heartbeat takes talent, and this eager, young cast delivers with gut-wrenching acting choices and killer vocals. The tour's lead pair of newbies (Jake Epstein and Taylor Trensch) are excellent additions to the cast. It's remarkable how touching and relatable characters can be when performed by a cast that seems invested in the emotional necessities of their roles.

Honorable Mention:
PARADE (Mark Taper Forum, L.A.)

> BEST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCES:

Taylor Trensch, SPRING AWAKENING (National Tour - OCPAC)
Vulnerable, emotionally erratic, giddy, irrational, playful, tragic, hesitant, heartbroken... a lot for a kid to go through. Thanks to Trensch's bravura acting and musical delivery, the audience connects to his Moritz so much that by the second act's events, the audience weeps at his departure.

Honorable Mentions:
Estelle Parsons, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (Ahmanson Theater)
Rachel Dratch, MINSKY'S (Ahmanson Theater)
Darius Rose, HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH (Theatre Out)
Adam Pascal, RENT (National Tour - Pantages Theatre & OCPAC)
Anthony Rapp, RENT (National Tour - Pantages Theatre & OCPAC)
Ellen Greene, GUYS & DOLLS IN CONCERT (Hollywood Bowl)
Patti Murin, THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF SAMANTHA BROWN (OCPAC)
Jenni Barber, THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF SAMANTHA BROWN (OCPAC)
Rick Holmes, SPAMALOT (Ahmanson Theater)
Nicole Erb, THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED (Theatre Out)
ElizaBeth Stanley, XANADU (OCPAC)

> BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN:

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (Musical Theater West)
Besides some terrific ensemble staging, what saves this nice, yet safe production is its amazingly alive set. A technical marvel from start to finish, this regional production boasts beautiful set pieces that are comparable to big national touring companies. The main family home and an ice-skating rink to start the second act were so well-executed that they become characters themselves.

Honorable Mention:
MINSKY'S (Ahmanson Theater)

> BEST CAST ALBUM:

HAIR (New Revival Cast)
Yes, it's not locally-produced material, but I must mention the most exciting cast recording I've heard in years. Gavin Creel, Will Swenson and Sasha Allen lead a beautifully harmonious ensemble as they attempt to capture the energy and excitement of the show itself on disc.

Honorable Mention:
9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL (Original Broadway Cast)

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Happy New Year, everyone! Here's to an exciting line-up of shows in 2010!



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