BWW Review: 16 for 2016 - The Best Shows and Performances of the Year in the Tampa-St. Petersburg Area
It's been a hard year, to put it mildly. Some people are even claiming that 2016 has been "the worst year ever." Judging from a number of events--including the horrific Pulse massacre; the shootings in the black community; the shootings of police officers; ISIS; what will go down in history as the absolute worst election that has sadly brought out the lesser angels in so many of our fellow Americans; and the deaths of so many iconic stars of the big screen (Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, and now Carrie Fisher), the little screen (Alan Thicke, Florence Henderson, Garry Shandling), theatre (Edward Albee), sports (Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer), and especially music (David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, and a slew of others)--those naysayers have a point. Let's just say that 2016 is the worst year since 2001, or if we really had a bad time, the worst since 1968.
That's where the arts are so important, especially the stage. Theatre saved my life in a tumultuous year. The plays I saw and reviewed, as well as so many individual performances, must be celebrated. We have to find our pockets of happiness, those things that we can hold onto and that bring us joy as the world seems like it's being eclipsed by darkness.
In some ways, my list for the best in local theatre in 2016 is tied to the current events. Some of the shows were seen immediately after the horrific Pulse nightclub shooting, which occurred only an hour or so from the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. Others were reflections of the political climate, including one show that would not exist in its current state without the election of 2016 (see #8). There were shows about the horrors of war, the love of art, class warfare, Presidential killers, outer space duels, the birth of our nation, and quiche-eating lesbians.
We needed theatre this year. I guess we should need it every year; it is the lifeblood of our community, or at least it should be. But in 2016, the local theatre scene became an oasis, our artistic savior, the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. And I thank all of our local theatre companies for producing works that either offered an escape from the terrors of our world or a mirror telling us why these terrifying events were occurring.
So, with a hearty Happy New Year, here are 16 for 2016: The shows and performances that meant the most to me this year...
THE BEST LOCAL SHOWS OF 2016
1. THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA [freeFall Theatre]
This musical is deserved of every accolade, every enthusiastic cheer, and every award it would win. Everything came together here--the score, the libretto, the cast (especially Melissa Minyard, Kelly Pekar, and Nick Lerew in his finest performance), the direction by Eric Davis, the choreography, the set, the orchestra, even the setting (my favorite city in the world, Florence, Italy). Watching this beautifully realized production, I sat in awe, knowing that this is what we go to the theatre for. To learn, to grow, to be entertained, to empathize, to laugh, to cry, to understand, and to love.
2. GOOD PEOPLE [American Stage]
A powerful production of David Lindsay-Abaire's insightful script, but it's Rebecca Dines as Margie that moves this up to the second spot. You understand her in the same ways that you connect with a good friend who may drive you crazy or a family member that you just want to see on Thanksgiving. She is not necessarily a nice soul, or "good people" (she's too knee jerk for that), but she has inklings of kindness and there is an adorable shyness that sometimes seeps through in Dines' performance. She's real--a person, not a caricature--with a real, understandable chip (or two, or three) on her shoulders.
3. TIME STANDS STILL [Jobsite Theater]
Jobsite ended their 2015-2016 season with a proverbial bang. TIME STANDS STILL had it all: Powerhouse performances, a provocative script, incredible set and make-up, and an important theme brought to life with intelligence and empathy. And when you exited the theater, you replayed the scenes, the debates, the meanings, in your head. You also couldn't shake Joanna Sycz's riveting performance as an injured photo journalist. Her work stayed with you, and like viewing photographs of war, ultimately left you haunted.
4. JITNEY [American Stage]
In this memorable production of the August Wilson play, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid as Becker was a towering presence, extraordinarily strong with a rich voice that I could listen to forever. As his son, AdrIan Roberts brought out the stoicism of a man who has wronged others but wants to make amends. The two connected and battled beautifully, and their Act 1 closing scene was as resonant, as deep, and as moving a sequence as you would likely find. When the lights came up at intermission, the woman sitting next to me looked dazed, shell shocked, like she had been in a battle herself. Personally, I had tears in my eyes. One person asked me if I was a father, and if that happened to be the reason that it was so emotional for me. "No," I answered, "but I am a son." August Wilson's words, and Abdul-Rashid's and Roberts' brilliant line-readings of those words, resonated no matter who we are.
5. ASSASSINS [freeFall Theatre]
No one can deny that ASSASSINS is one of the darkest of all musicals; it makes Cabaret look like Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. And freeFall Theatre was the perfect local company to bring this darkness to life. With Sondheim's music and lyrics, and John Weidman's book, ASSASSINS became a collage of sorts, a vaudevillian horror revue, and a rollicking look at the losers at life who decide to leave their mark with the help of a gun. It played like the flip side of Disney's Hall of Presidents, where all the Commanders in Chief from different time periods stand in one room together. Here, all the assassins from 1864 to 1981 interacted, hung out together, and pointed their guns directly at the audience. It was exhilarating and chilling, a show with ice in its veins, and months later, I'm still not over it.
6. THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE [freeFall Theatre]
This is one show that will brighten any dull day. It's like a science fiction acid trip (the ending of 2001 or The Black Hole set to 80's pop songs). And it became music director Michael Raabe's finest hour or two. His re-imagining of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" is a contender for my favorite single moment in any Bay Area show this year. With more than a hint of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (the song AND the lighting from the famous video), it is a number so uncannily scrumptious that I didn't want it to end.
7. 1776 [Eight O'Clock Theatre]
As I watched EOT's first class production of 1776: THE MUSICAL, I was totally enraptured. This became one of the supreme theatre-going experiences of the year. Yes, on par with some of the better professional musicals I've seen, and yet it was performed by a community theatre group where the actors weren't even paid. But EOT is not just any community theatre. As I have often said, they are a step above most other community theatres. With 1776, they would now be several steps above the other community theatres because this was one terrific show.
8. TARTUFFE [American Stage]
I worried that this updated, Trumped-up TARTUFFE wouldn't be as funny in the post-election haze, but word is, it became even funnier. The real star of this show, aside from Ricky Wayne's Tartuffe and Ned Averill-Snell's Orgon, was Jerid Fox's luscious set. It's a grand creation that once again sets American Stage apart from other local professional companies. The nouveau riche McMansion resembled a wedding cake of sorts. And it even included a sliding glass door and, yes, a small swimming pool that was put to ingenious use. Fox's design is arguably the Set of the Year.
9. FIVE LESBIANS EATING A QUICHE [Stageworks Theatre]
This opened the weekend of the Pulse shootings, and we Floridians needed a chance to laugh and escape from the horrors of our world. And this very funny show featuring five hilarious performances certainly did the trick. It's a beautifully produced throwaway, and perhaps the most theatre-going fun we had all year.
10. THE PITMEN PAINTERS [American Stage]
One of the best acting ensembles in a long time and a meaningful, powerful overall production, where even the set changes came across as works of art.
PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR
11. Richard Coppinger in INHERIT THE WIND [Stageworks Theatre & Tampa Rep]
This Stageworks/Tampa Rep production of INHERIT THE WIND was passable, not great, but it included one performance that stood out as one of the best I've seen all year: Richard Coppinger as Henry Drummond, the fish-out-of-water lawyer based on Clarence Darrow. There was not one false move in anything Coppinger did, and when he entered the stage, he sparked the play's action and the other actors as well. (When he wasn't present, it was pretty slow going at times.) His performance was so good that sometimes I wondered if this production should have been retitled "The Richard Coppinger Show."
12. Lauren Buglioli in CABARET [M.A.D. Theatre of Tampa]
As the Kit Kat Club star, British Sally Bowles, Lauren Buglioli was nothing short of a revelation. It's a gloriously rendered part, full of depth and passion, and yet she's also appropriately annoying, selfish, and oddly optimistic (to hide her underlying despair). It was a star turn, and Buglioli brilliantly introduced herself into our theatre community.
In this mammoth production of the Eugene O'Neill epic, Michael Mahoney's performance as Larry Slade crackled with expectant dread. We felt his weathered weariness, his doomed outlook. He had an incredible wall-rattling speaking voice, somewhere between James Earl Jones and a radio DJ, and it worked wonders. And as Theodore "Hickey" Hickman, Ned Averill-Snell was spellbinding. Hickey is the show's charismatic lead, sort of a Salesman of Death, bursting the bubble of the barflies' pipe-dreams. He didn't enter until well over an hour of this five-hour production, but when he ultimately arrived onstage, he more than left his mark.
14. Fo'I Meleah in LIZZIE [Jobsite Theater]
Along with Buglioli in Cabaret, the find of this season was Fo'i Meleah, who portrayed the Borden's maid, Bridget, in this demented rock show based on the killings of Lizzie Borden's parents. This was a goose bump performance if there ever was one, the one we recalled as we walked out of the theatre, dazed and bludgeoned by the horrors in Borden Land. Her "Mercury Rising" was to die for.
15. Smaller Roles Steal the Show in Various Productions - Scott Daniel in SPAMALOT [American Stage], Stu Sanford in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR [Eight O'Clock Theatre], Trevor Lloyd in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST [New Tampa Players], Caroline Jett in SILENT SKY [Tampa Rep], Maya Naff in 4000 MILES [American Stage], and Katrina Stevenson in THE GREAT GATSBY [Stageworks Theatre]
Scott Daniel played a myriad of supporting roles in American Stage's version of Monty Python's SPAMALOT (IN THE PARK), all of them home runs in hilarity; his version of "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" is still the best I've ever heard.
In Eight O'Clock Theatre's inspired JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, Stu Sanford's imposing Caiaphas stood out with his deep, powerful voice.
On the other side of town, in the New Tampa Players' production of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, you'd think the leads would be the ones we'd flock to. But in this production, it was Trevor Lloyd, who made the most of the smaller role of D'Arque. Although we had to wait to see Lloyd make his main appearance in Act 2, it was worth the wait.
Caroline Jett in Tampa Rep's SILENT SKY was also simply sensational in her supporting role, one of the best performances by anyone all year.
In 4000 MILES at American Stage, Maya Naff was extremely funny and over the top as the leading character's self-described slutty date, Amanda. The show was quite good, but Naff upped the ante with her scene-stealing brief appearance.
And then there was Katrina Stevenson as Myrtle in Stageworks' truncated version of THE GREAT GATSBY. Several outstanding performances saved the show from mediocrity, but special mention must be given to Ms. Stevenson, who remained dead on stage for well over fifteen minutes, her eyes open the whole time. Never did the illusion break; we didn't ever see her breathe. If an award for Corpse of the Year popped up during Awards Season, then Ms. Stevenson as the cadaverous Myrtle would win it hands down.
With his wild eyes, Zachary Hines in drag played the split-personalities of the ingénue in PSYCHO BEACH PARTY as a sort of combo of Norma Desmond, Mink Stole, and Susan Atkins of the Manson Family. Alongside Hines' extraordinary turn was the inimitable Matthew McGee, also in drag; he was the weird synthesis of Susan Hayward as Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls, Joan Crawford in her Straight-Jacket years, and John Wayne Gacy as Pogo the Clown. Lastly, the delightful Ricky Cona appeared as the celebrity, Bettina Barnes, who resembled a young Chita Rivera in Rizzo attire. So for drag fans out there, Hines, McGee and Cona finally appeared in the same show together, which was a cause for celebration. That's a mighty lot of drag power, a Holy Trinity of Camp.
And that's that. I'm now looking forward to another incredible 365 days of wondrous theatre-going. So get ready for "17 for 2017" this time next year!