BWW Review: 19 for 2019: The Best Local Shows and Performances of the Year

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BWW Review: 19 for 2019: The Best Local Shows and Performances of the Year BWW Review: 19 for 2019: The Best Local Shows and Performances of the Year BWW Review: 19 for 2019: The Best Local Shows and Performances of the Year BWW Review: 19 for 2019: The Best Local Shows and Performances of the Year

I don't know about you, but I had a great time at our local theatre companies in 2019.

I saw my favorite musical done right in Sarasota (the Asolo's SWEENEY TODD), and I finally experienced a show that I had read many times but had never before seen live (LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT at American Stage), a work many consider the finest American play yet written. All of the local professional companies were doing strong, gutsy work--Jobsite, Stageworks, freeFall and American Stage. We saw the birth of new companies (the Wilde Theatre Company and Vivid Theatre Productions), and the rewarding shows from some of the newer local groups (such as Innovocative Theatre).

There was plenty of strong work from our community theatre groups to celebrate, including a hilarious and ballsy AVENUE Q (Eight O'Clock Theatre), a fun LITTLE MERMAID (New Tampa Players), a wonderful young cast in CARRIE: THE MUSICAL (Richey Suncoast), and a sold-out run of the edgy HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL (MAD Theatre). This year marked the first time I reviewed shows at the Show Palace, Stage West and Aeon Theatre.

Even the local high schools, middle schools and colleges were pumping out high-quality productions--Steinbrenner, Gibbs, Alonso, TOTA, Berkeley Prep, River Ridge, Corbett Prep, the Marcia P. Hoffman School for the Arts and SPC. (It's always a good sign when high school or college theatre teachers invite me to see one of their productions; it means they have a lot of confidence and pride in their students.) In fact, one of my Top 10 selections is a show that I saw three times from three different groups in a couple of months--a high school, a college and a professional company--and yet I didn't tire of the musical; each viewing only made me like it more.

Oh....and this was also the year that a little show called HAMILTON took over Tampa for more than a month. Like I said, I had a great time watching all the wondrous (and even not-so-wondrous) shows this year.

So, without further ado, here are my picks for the Best of 2019...

1. HAMILTON [National Tour at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts]

Seeing HAMILTON for the first time in the Morsani Hall late last winter, I wondered would I be the lone soul who found myself underwhelmed, the one eye-rolling curmudgeon who didn't believe the hype and thought the whole thing overrated? As someone who still listens to the OBC recording quite often, I can state that that obviously didn't happen. HAMILTON parked its monolith in Tampa for over a month, and it became the biggest thing to hit our area since Hurricane Charley. I cried several times in it (and if I even think of its finest song--"It's Quiet Uptown"--I still tear up all these months later). Great as it is, it's not perfect (if you didn't know the songs, it would be incredibly difficult to understand Lafayette, for example), and it's not even my favorite Lin-Manuel Miranda musical (In the Heights has lovelier songs). But it matters. It's a life-changing event. As a thrill ride, as an Experience (note the capital "E"), it ranks at or near the top of a lifetime of theatre-going pleasure. I usually don't include National Tours in my year-end selections. But this one flexed its musical muscles in our area so long and so mightily, and was such a game changer both locally and nationally, that I made it the exception.

2. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET [Asolo Rep]

SWEENEY TODD, Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece, is a rollicking tour of Dickensian Hell, funny and frightening at the same time, and the Asolo production was just about the best you'll ever find anywhere. The moment the show started--with a shocking beam of light thrust into our eyes to the heart-stopping shriek of an organ--we knew that we were in for the ride of our lives. "Holy shit!" I heard someone exclaim after the opening chord made them jump out of their seats. I don't know if they ever recovered from that initial shock. Just ten actors and a handful of musicians brought this SWEENEY TODD to life. But these were not just any actors and musicians; they were the cream of the crop, from all around the country (including Broadway). Leading the way was Allen Fitzpatrick as the strongest Sweeney I've ever encountered (and I've seen many). He captured a humanity in Sweeney, a certain sadness. Fitzpatrick is so powerful as Sweeney that we root for him, even when his specific revenge moves to the general populace, even as he slits throats and, at the same time, sings longingly of his daughter. At the end of the show, when he pushed his revenge one throat too many, his tragedy became our tragedy. SWEENEY TODD celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, and it still chills after all this time, still spellbinds. It's that rare work where entertainment and art merge, and to my ears, proudly stands as the finest musical yet written.

3. LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT [American Stage]

Last June, after the performance of American Stage's production of Eugene O'Neill's greatest work, I walked out of the theatre feeling withered, dazed, probably looking like an extra from The Walking Dead. The combination of the very best writing that this country has ever produced and the tear-your-heart-out performances at American Stage (especially from Janis Stevens), in a fast three and a half hours, was almost too much. On the way home, I could barely make out a coherent sentence. I had just witnessed something so special, mammoth, epic in scope, that I was a mess. LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is considered by many scholars as the greatest American play of all time. If it's not, then what is?

4. CONSTELLATIONS [Jobsite Theater]

Nick Payne's brilliant script. Giles Davies and Georgia Mallory Guy at the top of their game. And Jobsite Theater's wondrous production--a story of love and loss as told and re-told in multiple universes. Devastatingly perfect and perfectly devastating.

5. PERFECT ARRANGEMENT [freeFall Theatre]

At first I thought PERFECT ARRANGEMENT was going to be a total farce, like an episode of Three's Company where Jack actually turned out to be gay. And it started out that way, playing like a simple comedy with a classic plot: It's 1950, the beginnings of the era of Mad Men, and two Washington, D.C. couples, the Baxter's and the Martindale's, are in a "perfect arrangement," pretending to be heterosexual neighbors when, in reality, they are a pair of same sex couples. For more than its half, it seemed like a well-written but nothing-special ditty of show, a retro-comedy of sorts. But soon it turned and then turned again, and PERFECT ARRANGEMENT became a "coming out" plea for characters who must take a stand or forever be forgotten by history. Playwright Topher Payne's clever script turned out to be a glorious sucker punch that unexpectedly left audiences in tears.

6. THE SOUND OF MUSIC [Asolo Rep]

Rodgers and Hammerstein's final collaboration has many fans who joyously and unapologetically feast on slices of its hokum pie. It has everything to make it as family-friendly as possible: a true-life romance, children singers, salty nuns, a curmudgeonly dad, a teenage love subplot, Nazi villains, and a little girl's hurt finger. All that's missing is an injured puppy. So, where does that leave theatre lovers who like their musicals the way they like their Sumatra Satin Coffee: extremely black? What about those of us who understand THE SOUND OF MUSIC'S importance to millions of fans but still cannot warm to its excessive displays of warmth? Never fear. The Asolo Rep's magnificent version solved the musical's many problems. Seeing the stunningly mounted production on the show's 60th anniversary was like seeing it anew. In the hands of the gloriously talented director/choreographer, Josh Rhodes, this SOUND OF MUSIC was more than just a show. You sensed that it was a celebration, and it changed my opinion of a musical that I thought I knew all too well.

7. PIPELINE [American Stage]

As a teacher of a Title 1 school with 90% of my students qualifying for free and reduced lunches, I witnessed and helped try to break up fights in our lunchroom the day before I experienced the Tampa Bay premiere of Dominique Morisseau's powerful PIPELINE at American Stage. Morisseau understands teachers, loves them--especially those in the inner city, brave souls who continue despite the odds, frightened but remaining strong in order to save those tough kids from becoming another sad statistic. Directed by L. Peter Callender, it's a play that left me battered, shattered, withered, and at times elated. What lessons did I learn from PIPELINE? What lessons has the world learned, knowing that this pipeline from schools to prisons actually exists and no one outside of the classroom seems to do anything about it? That's the genius of Morisseau's work: It asks all the right questions and leaves us, those of us lucky enough to have experienced this fine show, to try to answer them.

8. COPENHAGEN [Tampa Rep]

Tampa Rep started the year off with a bang--a wonderful production of Michael Frayn's beguiling, vital work. With main characters like Werner Heisenberg (a theoretical physicist known for his uncertainty principle), and Niels Bohr (the Nobel Prize winning physicist whose specialty was atomic structure and quantum theory), you don't come into a show like COPENHAGEN expecting a retread of Grown Ups 2. But don't get me wrong; it's not a dour piece, never boring, so don't expect some barren Strindberg groaner, either. (The lead character's name is Bohr, not Bore.) Frayn's play is entertaining as hell, fun in all of its nonlinear glory, hopscotching through time and space, from ghostly consciousness to earthly debates. Directed by Emilia Sargent, featuring three of the finest actors in our area (Ned Averill-Snell, Ami Sallee and Christopher Marshall), COPENHAGEN is a play about ideas, both abstract and concrete, fantastical and historical, small as an atom and large as an atomic bomb explosion.

9. COLUMBINUS [Innovocative Theatre in association with Stageworks]

COLUMBINUS is an important piece of theatre that covers the Before, During and After of the 1999 Columbine school shooting. With a dynamite ensemble, led by Ryan Fisher and Nick Hoop, we see the events from a variety of angles, entertainingly put together like a puzzle that maybe we're too scared to solve. The play opens with the characters stripping off their clothes to go to bed; in some ways this acts as a metaphor for the way these characters will eventually strip off the layers of their personalities so that we can get a glimpse of their real selves. The show then takes us on this fatal trip--from everyday life at school to the worst day of all, where two boys decide to play God and kill the world. It's like The Breakfast Club meets Natural Born Killers.

10. PIPPIN [Alonso High School; St. Petersburg College; freeFall Theatre]

If you don't like PIPPIN, it would be a nightmare; if you love it, it's dream. But I saw three very distinct versions of PIPPIN within a couple of months that gave me a newfound appreciation of the Stephen Schwartz classic.

Very few musicals capture what it's like to be a young person in search of selfhood, like Holden Caulfield sifting through the phoniness, the illusions. And that's why I believe that PIPPIN works best when performed by young people, teenagers, because they are experiencing first-hand young Pippin's struggle. And when a high school or a college perform it, it usually has so much verve, electricity, and dare I say magic, that it becomes infectious. It's a work that bleeds youth; I'm ten years younger than Berthe, Pippin's ribald grandmother, and it makes me, well into my fifth decade, feel young. I've seen several professional productions of PIPPIN, including the more recent National Tour that was more like a three-ring circus than a musical, and though entertaining with that great Schwartz score, the show ultimately left me cold and empty. But after seeing three different versions--a talented high school version, a college production, and a professional one--it tore me up. It became a very emotional experience and made me recapture those feelings from my own youth, the idealism and the disillusions, but most of all, the constant search for some kind of tangible meaning in this wacky world.

Alonso High School's production--directed by renowned theatre teacher Lisa Vorreiter and boasting terrific performances from Makenna Kirsch as the Leading Player, Jacob Atkins as Pippin, and a fine ensemble--was the most fun and energetic of the lot. St. Petersburg College had a tremendous set, a world-class title character (Martin Powers, resembling a juvenile Leonardo DiCaprio, a nonthreatening teen idol), and top-notch direction by Scott Cooper. Ironically, freeFall's professional production proved most problematic--with the lack of an ensemble marring such numbers as "With You" and "Glory." But its strengths--outstanding performances by Alison Burns, Matthew McGee (portraying both Charlemagne and Berthe) and Emmanuel Carrero--made up for any deficits. I wondered if director Eric Davis saw himself as Pippin, an artist searching for new meaning in the work itself, throwing everything into the show, pouring so much into it, too much at times, trying to unlock something new there, even when it seemed there was nothing new to unlock. Still, for the most part, it worked.

Before 2019, PIPPIN was never a favorite of mine; now, seeing these three different productions in such a short span of time, it's in my Top 10 musicals of all time.

11. BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE IN A PLAY [Female]: Emily Belvo in HEDDA [Jobsite Theater] and THE ODD COUPLE FEMALE VERSION [Hattrick Theatre]; Georgia Mallory Guy in CONSTELLATIONS [Jobsite Theater]; Betty-Jane Parks in WAIT UNTIL DARK [Stageworks]; and Janis Stevens in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT [American Stage]

It was such an extraordinarily strong year for local women that I couldn't pick just one performance.

In Jobsite's HEDDA, Emily Belvo gives something beyond a star turn; this is a thank-God-she's-in-Tampa-so-we-can-experience-this kind of turn. Her work here is haunting, mysterious--I kept trying to figure out why Hedda was making the choices she was, but I also understood that part of the power of the play is that mystery. And in Hattrick's mixed production of Neil Simon THE ODD COUPLE, she gives an ovation-worthy hilarious performance. You would never know it's the same actress.

Georgia Mallory Guy broke my heart with her stellar work, a veritable tour de force, in Jobsite's CONSTELLATIONS.

In WAIT UNTIL DARK at Stageworks, I kept forgetting that Betty-Jane Parks actually could see in real life. She didn't play into the stereotype, the easy watch-me-I'm-disabled performance that plagues lesser professional as well as community theater actors across the land. Ms. Parks did something I rarely have seen...she refused to play into the trap of portraying blindness onstage. She went against the disability, playing into the strengths of her other senses: Sound, smell, and especially touch. I found myself worrying about her throughout, and when she knocked into some piece of furniture, or searched the walls for a light switch, we believed every moment.

Last but not least, Janis Stevens in LONG DAY'S JOUNEY INTO NIGHT became a specter of sorts, floating rather than walking. There was a moth-like quality to her, yet something otherworldly. Even during the show's scene changes, Ms. Stevens' never lost character. In one blackout, we could see her as she slowly glided out of the room, her hands grabbing the walls, trying to keep her balance. We wanted to turn away from her pain, but we couldn't. Like pedestrians witnessing a particularly blood-drenched car wreck, we couldn't take our eyes off of her.

Four Great Performances. All worthy of selection. So instead of picking one and negating the others, I chose to celebrate all four.

12. BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE IN A PLAY [Male]: Giles Davies in OTHELLO [Jobsite Theater] and Chris Crawford in BUYER AND CELLAR [freeFall Theatre]

Giles Davies has had quite a tremendous year, so moving in CONSTELLATIONS and so much fun in THE THANKSGIVING PLAY. But his Iago in Jobsite's winning OTHELLO launched itself into an entirely different dimension. For my money, there has never been a more likable and splendidly sinister Iago. With him here, as Shakespeare's ultimate Dick Dastardly, the show became a nuclear joy. Davies took us on a Luciferian journey--how to destroy an upright nobleman in ten easy lessons. He puts so many subversive spins on his lines, bringing the words, four centuries old, to life in surprising ways. Iago is the star of OTHELLO, and of the many versions of the play that I have gratefully seen, Davies stands as the best.

As for Chris Crawford in BUYER AND CELLAR, he is so watchable and totally alive, that I can't imagine anyone else doing this role so effectively. He's funny, almost flirting with the audience for laughs at times, but there's masterful timing at play, and so much depth. This isn't just the portrayal of a wannabe-actor who finds his strength after his encounters with the world's number one diva and his only customer, Barbra Streisand. This is a man in search of some significance in his life, who goes for the money and leaves for the money, but finds out that the things worth remembering, the things that matter, are the things that money can't buy.

13. BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE IN A PLAY [Female]: Ami Sallee in COPENHAGEN and DINNER WITH FRIENDS [both with Tampa Rep]

In COPENHAGEN, Ms. Sallee told so much with just her eyes and put such a unique spin on her lines. This wasn't a two person show with a wife thrown onboard for a nice line or quip; her work as Margrethe was an equal entity to the two male characters, and Sallee nailed each layer of the role. And she was equally outstanding in DINNER WITH FRIENDS, reacting and always in the moment. No one is a better listener onstage.

14. BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE IN A PLAY [Male]: Nick Hoop in COLUMBINUS [Innovocative Theatre in association with Stageworks]

You might think that Hoop would be considered a leading character in the show, but COLUMBINUS was a true ensemble piece, and he stood out in that strong cast. Hoop was off the charts as Columbine shooter, Eric Harris, a truly terrifying portrait of a truly terrifying young man. He was fearsome, a fake smile scarring his face as he got through the world with a certain cache of charm. At times I found him scary in a Joaquin Phoenix-as-Joker kind of way, but it's also different than that, deeper. The way Hoop played Eric, he actually enjoyed his hate; he got off on his disdain toward mankind. In Hoop's hands, Eric Harris embraced his differences from everyone but played the game of sanity, especially when having to suffer fools not-so-lightly. He knew he was smarter than everyone else, and that arrogance, mixed with hate, played a major part in the causation of the shootings. Whenever Hoop was onstage, you found yourself not wanting to make a sound for fear that his character's heart-stopping psychopathy might turn on you.

15. BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE IN A MUSICAL [Female]: Alison Burns in MAMMA MIA [American Stage in the Park] and PIPPIN [freeFall Theatre]

2019 turned out to be one dynamic year for Ms. Burns. In American Stage's MAMMA MIA, Burns was born to play Donna. When she hit the final chill-inducing note of "The Winner Takes It All," the audience roared and cheered as if they were at a Lightning game. Stunning as she was there, she was even better in freeFall's PIPPIN as a particularly sexy Fastrada. She captured the diabolically sensual pleasures of the part and made it her own. She was so free of spirit and body, unafraid, and it worked. Her "Spread a Little Sunshine," where she spread her legs during the chorus, needed to be seen to be believed. She was by far the best Fastrada I'd ever seen, and I've seen numerous.

16. BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE IN A MUSICAL [Male]: David Mann in FUN HOME [American Stage]

As the doomed Bruce Bechdel in FUN HOME, Mann was not afraid to dive into this character's shadowy sides--a father who cruised in the darkness, seducing former students. It was harrowing stuff as he descended deeper and deeper into the character's darkness and despair. He remained a mystery, but mainly to himself, never actually being a true person, always just pretending with a forced smile that masked his true self. Mann proved here why he's one of the finest actors in our area.

17. BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE IN A MUSICAL [Female]: Janelle Richardson in THE LITTLE MERMAID [New Tampa Players]

I've seen some great Ursula's in the past, but Ms. Richardson topped them all. With a blonde wig like Ruth Brown as Motormouth Mabelle, but evil as a Mabel King witch, Ms. Richardson exuded wicked pleasure. Joie de mal. Her Ursula was frighteningly fun, sensually slithering across the floor. Her "Poor Unfortunate Souls" never sounded better. "Broadway quality!" one person said to me. Or as the stranger next to me put it right after her rousing "Daddy's Little Angel," "That was worth it right there. The price of admission. Wow!"

18. BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE IN A MUSICAL [Male]: Caleb Quezon in RENT [Corbett Preparatory School]

Best. Angel. Ever.

19. FAVORITE THEATRE-GOING EXPERIENCE OF THE YEAR: MARY POPPINS [Theatre Exceptional]

If you have never seen one of the uplifting Theatre Exceptional productions, then I implore you to drop everything and hurry to the next one. Just make sure to bring your handkerchiefs. I saw MARY POPPINS several months ago at the Largo Cultural Center...and I'm still crying with joy as I look back upon the experience. It will renew your faith in humanity at a time when we really need it.

So those are my 2019 picks. Stay tuned. Next week I will be unveiling my Best of the Decade choices in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. Should be fun. I'll see you then!



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