BWW Review: 17 for 2017: The Best Shows & Performances of the Year in the Tampa-St. Petersburg Area
I'm still trying to figure out what to make of the local theatre scene of 2017. There were some amazing highs, too many lows, and mostly everything in between.
Here's my 2017 scouting report: American Stage ended its stellar August Wilson Century Cycle on a high note, but then months later outdid themselves and produced a show that was by far the finest I had seen all year. On the other side of the Bay, Tampa Rep continued to do some exciting work with smaller shows and are honored with two picks in my Top 10. Playwright Annie Baker was given first rate productions with works at both Jobsite and Stageworks, and her plays were so brilliantly realized by both theatre companies that they rest near the top of my list. And the actors from Jobsite were particularly out of this world in 2017; most of my choices for non-musical performances of the year, leads and supporting, seem to be from Jobsite shows.
In 2017, the Tampa International Fringe Festival became a reality (and a success in its very first year). A new theatre company also opened in our area, Innovocative Theatre, and though their sole production of the year (Proof) didn't quite make the grade (or my list), it did bode well for things to come. Hat Trick provided a very entertaining (and bloody) Night of the Living Dead in time for Halloween, and it was so gruesomely entertaining that it almost made the cut.
Only one freeFall show made my Top 10 this year, but last year they were all over my chart (including the Number One production of the year, The Light in the Piazza). I don't know why their shows didn't resonate as much with me this year, but I fully expect for them to be back to pepper the Top 10 in 2018.
I was disheartened that less musicals were being produced in 2017 than in previous years, which explains why only two of them made my Top 10 (last year, five of the top shows were musicals). Still, there were some fine musicals in the area (Hairspray at American Stage, Avenue Q at Stageworks), but there were others that were essentially flawed (Three Penny Opera) and one professional production of Into the Woods that was almost to the laughable level of Plan 9 from Outer Space in its badness.
Once again a community theatre show gets on my list, but that was a unique musical from the Bradenton area's Manatee Players, a long drive from Tampa. There were some profound individual community theatre performances for me to champion (Michael Silvestri in the Carrollwood Players' production of La Cage Aux Folles and Lauren Buglioli in Mad Theatre's Disaster: The Musical come immediately to mind), and some good shows (Mad's Company, the New Tampa Players' The Wiz). But there were many not-too-good ones as well, including one beautifully mounted musical production with just one problem: the lead character could not sing.
As for the year itself, 2017 seemed like "2016, Part Deux," not a joyous time for the history books. In many instances the news events of the year were mirrored on the stages of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Hurricane Irma affected the opening weekend to local shows and literally blew the roof off of freeFall Theatre. American Stage opened The Royale, a play about racism and sports, around the same weekend when the President called out NFL players for taking a knee during the National Anthem. Even the #metoo movement recently left its mark on our area: Jobsite Theater's working relationship with a certain famous playwright was correctly terminated by artistic director David Jenkins when accusations flew regarding the writer's horrifying past treatment of women [See #4 below].
So there have been better years in our local playhouses, sure, but most of the shows on this list would make the cut in any year, and the #1 pick is a hard act to beat. So here are my choices, a remembrance of the very best that 2017 had to offer...
1. THE ROYALE [American Stage]
What a show! This Marco Ramirez play showcased the reason why there is nothing quite like live theater. It was a total experience. Although no punches were officially thrown in the boxing scenes, we imagined the brutality of them. It played like a choreographed poetry slam, the dialogue bursting in syncopated rhythms, tribal drum beats. Claps, chants, bells, stomps, all combined to create the adrenalin-pumping atmosphere of boxing. When THE ROYALE ended, I sat paralyzed in my seat. Dazed. Chills ran up my arms, chills that lasted over an hour. Months later, the play still haunts me. No show of 2017 came close to the power of THE ROYALE, which is why it easily fills my Number One spot.
2. THE FLICK [Jobsite Theater]
The genius of playwright Annie Baker is that we understand the characters in her plays better than many people in our own lives (we may know some of them, or in the case of THE FLICK, we may be some of them). We understand them through what is not said with Baker's signature long pauses, and by mere looks and fragments of sentences. THE FLICK is a show for movie lovers and theater aficionados. And it's a play I not only enjoyed to the hilt but needed to see. Summer Bohnenkamp's deft direction worked wonders, and Brian Smallheer's set was a triumph. It actually looked like a sad-sack movie house, complete with carpeted steps and fake rosy walls as if someone threw-up Hawaiian Punch all over them.
3. THE ALIENS [Stageworks Theatre]
Annie Baker again. I recall very few plays that I've loved in quite the same manner as I loved THE ALIENS. We feel protective of it afterwards, the way we do that one outsider friend that nobody else seems to quite understand. Baker's characters are classic outcasts, who think and live outside the box (literally), and we celebrated the entertaining, quietly crazed and at times heartbreaking time we spent with them. Beautifully directed by David Jenkins, with Chris Jackson, Derrick Phillips and Franco Colon giving the performances of their lives.
4. GLOUCESTER BLUE [Jobsite Theater]
What do I do about this one? It was a wonderful production, from a strong script written by a one-time playwright hero whose maltreatment of women and much worse (alleged rape) has since been brought to the surface; not even his own son could defend him. So do I keep this show on this list? Or is it too tainted? The playwright (whose name I dare not speak anymore) doesn't deserve it, but the incredible performance by Ned Averill-Snell does. Jobsite has rightfully broken ties with the playwright, and the man in question deserves all the boos and hisses coming his way. But this show was wonderful, and that memory of a great show, marred as it may inevitably be, still sticks with me, mainly Averill-Snell giving what is easily the Performance of the Year. With a performance this good, how can I not include this production on my list?
5. MARIE ANTOINETTE [freeFall Theatre]
This was not everyone's cup of Mariage Freres Tea, but it was certainly mine! Aside from Eric Davis' miraculous direction, the tech in this show was outrageously glorious. The pumping club music, the balletic scene changes, Cody Basham's lighting and video images that swirled over the walls added to the overall effect. It was overwhelming, heart pounding, one of the few recent shows where we didn't want the party to end (especially if it ended with a guillotine). Best of all were David Covach's costumes and Parker Lawhorne's wigs. These weren't mere costumes and wigs; these were works of art, like playfully poppy remakes of Fragonard paintings. MARIE ANTOINETTE was the most fun I've ever had on the way to a beheading.
6. GROUNDED [Tampa Rep]
Emilia Sargent's devastating, powerful performance in a One Woman Show. Do I need to say anything more?
7. JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE [American Stage]
As I left the theatre after watching this, I saw so many men and women wiping tears from their eyes. They were obviously crying from the power of JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE, but perhaps they were also tearing up because thus endeth the August Wilson "Century Cycle" at American Stage. As Seth, an entrepreneurial black man born free in America, Kim Sullivan, a veteran of every Wilson play in the Cycle, had never been better. This was a master acting class of a performance, sheer confidence on display, with plenty of humor and precise timing. He never missed a beat, nor did he make a single false move.
8. THE OTHER PLACE [Tampa Rep]
Sharr White's script about a woman mentally losing her grip made us question what is real and what isn't. A show like this ultimately succeeded due to the talent of its small cast. Leading the way at Tampa Rep was Lynne Locher as Juliana. This was an emotional tailspin we were witnessing, and Locher gutsily gave an incredibly strong performance, emotional warts and all. And the glorious scene where Lisa VillaMil's character (a sympathetic stranger) slowly feeds Lochner with chopsticks was maybe my favorite scene of the year.
9. HAIRSPRAY [American Stage in the Park]
As Tracy's full-figured-and-then-some mother, Edna, it goes without saying that Matthew McGee (in drag) is perfectly cast, channeling everyone from Divine to Diana Dors to Harvey Fiersein and Harvey Korman. And the show was such a memorable hoot with so many terrific performances that we almost forgave the sound issues that plagued the production.
10. 13: THE MUSICAL [Manatee Players]
My #10 is usually a quirky, very personal choice, so 13: THE MUSICAL gets the nod here. For those in the know, this Jason Robert Brown work is a favorite seldom-performed musical that's funny, bawdy, edgy, with a meaning that connects not just with teenagers, but with adults who remember the days of pimples and virginity pledges. In the Manatee Players' production, the young cast, ages 12 to 15, captured the energy of the script and delivered something that was outstanding. And young Elijah Zurek stole the show as Eddie, a preteen perv. I have seen 13: THE MUSICAL several times and even directed it more than once, and yet this group of young performers was so strong that watching them made the work feel newly alive and fresh to me.
PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR
11. BEST PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR IN A PLAY (MALE): Ned Averill-Snell in GLOUCESTER BLUE [Jobsite Theater]
As Latham, one of the hired house painters with a shady past and a love of Aerosmith, Averill-Snell does more than just inhabit the role. He is alive and real, flesh and blood, and we have no idea where his performance will go. It's dizzying in its unpredictability, so strong that you almost feel sorry for the other cast members (good as they were, your eyes were constantly on him; this was one meaty role). HONORABLE MENTION: Kim Sullivan in JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE [American Stage]; Derrick Phillips and Franco Colon in THE ALIENS [Stageworks]; Aygemang Clay in THE ROYALE [American Stage]; and Zander Morales in THE ELABORATE ENTRANCE OF CHAD DEITY [Stageworks].
12. BEST PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR IN A PLAY (FEMALE): Georgia Mallory Guy in THE FLICK [Jobsite Theater]
In Annie Baker's The Flick, Georgia Mallory Guy's performance as Rose was like Sarah Silverman and Laurie Metcalf merged with a green-streaked space alien; I've never seen anything quite like it. HONORABLE MENTION: Emilia Sargent in GROUNDED [Tampa Rep]; Carey Urban in SEX WITH STRANGERS [American Stage]; Lynne Locher in THE OTHER PLACE [Tampa Rep]; and Minka Wiltz in Natalie Symons' NAMING TRUE [Urbanite Theatre].
13. BEST PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR IN A MUSICAL (MALE): Michael Silvestri in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES [Carrollwood Players]
In Silvestri's hands, the Jerry Herman anthem, "I Am What I Am," was more than just the show-stopper it was designed to be; it was the best rendition of the song I have ever heard. And yet, as Albin, he was splendid in all of his songs. In "A Little More Mascara," Albin's philosophy of drag, Silvestri sang it slower than usual, more of a torch song than a belting drag doctrine. And Albin's attempts at acting manly in Act Two, a la John Wayne, was a sight to behold...he walked like Stan Laurel, Dick Van Dyke and Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks all rolled together. He was often hilarious, sad at times, and always someone for the audience to cheer. When Silvestri was onstage, all seemed right with the world. HONORABLE MENTION: Matthew McGee in HAIRSPRAY [American Stage in the Park]; Ricky Cona in AVENUE Q [Stageworks]; Ricky Marenda in COMPANY [Mad Theatre]; and Brian Beach and Cody Carlson in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR [New Tampa Players].
14. BEST PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR IN A MUSICAL (FEMALE): Melissa Minyard in END OF THE RAINBOW [freeFall Theatre]
Although End of the Rainbow is not officially a musical, the show had plenty of singing, with the marvelous Minyard channeling the great Judy Garland. I had issues with the script and some of the other performances, but Minyard was breathtaking as the declining diva in her sad last days. HONORABLE MENTION: Lauren Buglioli as a hysterical singing nun in Seth Rudetsky's hilarious DISASTER: THE MUSICAL [Mad Theatre]; and Julia Rifinio in AVENUE Q [Stageworks].
15. MOST FRIGHTENING PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR: Benjamin T. Ismail in THE INVISIBLE HAND [American Stage]
Ismail is known in our area more for his directing prowess than for his acting chops, but his performance here is what I will remember most from him. This was quite a rollercoaster of a role, a man to be feared and yet at times fearful, always a puzzle. I like an actor who keeps us guessing, and Ismail, with a deep British accent, kept us on our toes. The performance was so intense that it made us squirm and never let us settle comfortably into our seats.
All acting students should watch how David Jenkins ingeniously used props as extensions of his character in Martin McDonagh's A SKULL IN CONNEMARA, whether lighting a cigarette or catching his breath with an inhaler. And Broadway veteran Diana Rogers has no peer when it comes to actively listening to others onstage; she was always in the moment, always reacting, always a part of the scene even when she had no lines. HONORABLE MENTION: Richard B. Watson and Rokia Shearin in THE ROYALE [American Stage]; Chris Jackson in THE ALIENS [Stageworks]; Logan Wolfe in THE LITTLE PRINCE [freeFall Theatre]; Lisa VillaMil in THE OTHER PLACE [Tampa Rep]; and Matthew McGee as a very odd "sheep" in MARIE ANTOINETTE [freeFall Theatre].
17. BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR IN A MUSICAL: Tron Montgomery, Thomas Williams and Michael Jo'Mae in THE WIZ [New Tampa Players]
Montgomery as the iconic Scarecrow electrified the stage, a full-tilt pinball machine zapped to life. His first song, "I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday," became a rip-roaring ode to exuberance and brought the New Tampa Players show to Lazarus-like life. Montgomery danced as if tomorrow may never come, slipping and sliding and feverishly moonwalking. Thomas Williams' Tin Man has a voice that can move mountains. His "Slide Some Down to Me" was nothing short of soul-stirring, inspiring. And then the showstopper of all showstoppers, Michael Jo'Mae's Lion, was a comedic masterpiece, blissfully over the top. These performers formed such a strong trifecta that this Wiz became a must-see production. HONORABLE MENTION: Scott Daniel and DeeJay Young in HAIRSPRAY [American Stage in the Park]; and Rand Smith and Derek Baxter in EVITA [Eight O'Clock Theatre].
Looking back, it wasn't such a bad year for local theatre after all. So many treats, great shows and performances, that I forgive all of those works lost in the middle that I did not mention. Now we look ahead, so stay tuned for "18 for 2018" in a mere 365 days! Happy New Year!