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BWW Review: Some of the Most Memorable Moments & Local Performances of the Year

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BWW Review: Some of the Most Memorable Moments & Local Performances of the Year BWW Review: Some of the Most Memorable Moments & Local Performances of the Year BWW Review: Some of the Most Memorable Moments & Local Performances of the Year

To say 2021 was not the best year is an understatement. To say it was an awful year is still an understatement. To say it was a puke-out-your-guts, drive-spikes-into-your-brain sort of terrible year is closer to the truth. We thought 2020 was bad; just wait for the sequel. 2021, both in the theatre world and in the real world, did one thing: It sucked. It was awful for all of us for a myriad of reasons. (As for me, in a short span of time, I lost my sister and soon found myself in ICU with acute kidney failure due to an impacted kidney stone, which sounds better than it felt.)

Because it was such a feces-on-your-shoe kind of year, I didn't get to see nearly enough theatre. The shows that I did attend helped save my life, gave me hope in these turbulent times. And below is a list of some of the memorable moments and performances that I was able to experience. Sadly, I was not able to venture to freeFall, Tampa Rep or most Stageworks shows this year, and I hope 2022 will give me the opportunity to once again see their wonderful work and include them here. (Thankfully, my esteemed fellow reviewer, Drew Eberhard, was able to cover their shows for BWW.)

Broadway finally opened after a year and half absence, but its road was a very rocky one. It proved quite rough: shows suddenly closing due to the pandemic; cancelled performances; quarantined cast members. Still, heroes emerged from the wreckage to save the day--especially understudies and swings.

And then there was Thanksgiving week. I started off my week-long break by watching TICK TICK...BOOM (with Bradley Whitford portraying Stephen Sondheim) on Netflix, followed by reading James Lapine's PUTTING IT TOGETHER about the creation of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. I was halfway through the book when I heard the news from a former student that Sondheim had died. There was so much sadness, even though he was 91 and led possibly the greatest life of all time. But I never got to tell him how much he meant to me, how much his music changed my life and my students' lives. I've written about it often on Broadway World, but who knows if he's ever read any of my love letters in the guise of reviews?

And then a couple of weeks after hearing of Sondheim's passing, I watched WEST SIDE STORY on the big screen, and I was galvanized once again by a screen musical (which also happens to be Steven Spielberg's best work of this century). Later, I heard the story of a kid, seeing the closing credits of WEST SIDE STORY and saying to his parents, "I didn't know Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics!" This made my heart sing: There is no doubt that a new generation will discover this giant in the sky.

So, yeah, there's no way of pussyfooting around it...it's been a tough year.

The below list is pretty much in order of the dates produced (starting in January and ending in December); all of them give me hope that 2022 will be a much better year. To quote the Beatles in "Getting Better": "It can't get no worse."

1. Four amazing performers--Roxanne Fay, Emily Belvo, David Jenkins, and Andresia Moseley--are indubitably strong in Jobsite's DOUBT: A PARABLE

What a cast! Leading the pack was Roxanne Fay as the icy, steely Sister Aloysius. She's more than just rigid; she's a monster of sorts. Harrowing. She gritted her teeth, a la Clint Eastwood, and she spit out her words--her orders. She's an executioner of hope, snuffing out any enthusiasm or free thought. Ms. Fay may not be large in stature, but she was a giantess on that stage, Grendel's mother in black. As Sister Aloysius' soundboard, Sister James, the brilliant Emily Belvo was perky and naïve, scared and intimidated. When Sister James finally goes off on her principal, speaking up for the first time, it's a liberating moment that we want to applaud. David Jenkins as the Bronx priest, Father Flynn, had never been better. His sermons were like arias, beautifully written by Shanley and marvelously performed by Jenkins. And Andresia Moseley was more than just riveting in the small role of the mother of a boy who may or may not have been molested; she gave us a ten-minute masterwork and may have been the best in the cast. The great thing about these four performers was that they took their time and understood that an extra beat of silence may speak more volumes than any piece of well-written dialogue.

2. Nick Hoop gives the performance of a lifetime in Jobsite's HAND TO GOD

The part of Jason/Tyrone played to Hoop's strengths as an actor, mainly because he got to show off two characters at the same time--one of them growing more and more perverse as the play ticks on. It's like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde meets the Muppets. Donning a striped shirt, he's like a psychotic Peanuts character, a cartoony Norman Bates. Forget Anthony Hopkins in Magic or Michael Redgrave in Dead of Night. Hoop's work here was astounding. His puppet spasms were unlike anything I've ever observed. And yet there's heart, and heartbreak, underneath it all. It was a towering performance, perhaps the best of the year, instantly pushing Hoop to the forefront of our area's top actors.

3. Ned Averill-Snell in Stageworks' LIFESPAN OF A FACT

With that voice that can move mountains, Mr. Averill-Snell proves why he should be in every local production.

4. Playwright Natalie Symons and Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino release their first novels

In her thrilling debut novel, LIES IN BONE, Symons masters perfect pop culture allusions, from a Huckleberry Hound Halloween costume to Clarence Clemmons wailing sax on "Thunder Road" to a character resembling Mr. Roper from "Three's Company." We always knew Ms. Symons for her playwriting prowess, but with Lies in Bone, she emerges as a first-rate novelist. The same can be said for Mr. Tarantino, whose novelization of ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD I reviewed for Broadway World. I wrote that the work "doesn't take the place of the original film nor does it taint our memories of it; if anything, it actually deepens the experience. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (the novel) is packed with so many characters, it's like hanging out at a Robert Altman party."

5. High School and College Theatre is alive and kicking

I got to experience some high schools plays, including a fine THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at the Marcia P. Hoffman School for the Arts at Ruth Eckerd Hall, and a head-scratching quirky Mr. Burns, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY at River Ridge High School, as well as particularly memorable music revue, THE WORLD GOES ROUND: THE MUSIC OF KANDER & EBB at SPC. These works, and so many more that I attended (including a production of my own play, EVERY GIRL WANTS TO BE ANNIE, at Gaither High School), show that the future of theatre is indeed in good hands.

6. SHOCKHEADED PETER becomes Jobsite's surprising hit of the summer (getting a second run later in the year)

To me SHOCKHEADED PETER, based on demented German children's books, was like Jobsite Theater's Greatest Hits: Oddball puppets that would have found a home in Hand to God; aerialists directly from A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest; and most of the cast from past cult faves like Return to the Forbidden Planet and Silence! The Musical. But this cast was to die for, especially Paul Potenza, as a Cabaret-like M.C. who looks like Boris Karloff in The Ghoul, and Spencer Meyers as The Siren. His face painted like a clown-faced Droog, Meyers sang the various Germanic nursery rhymes, obviously loving and smiling through each horrific moment. There's so much glee in his voice whenever he crooned the word "dead" that it's wonderfully quite disquieting. Best of all, he hit some outrageously high notes. Klaus Nomi, move over.

7. ONCE at Eight O'Clock Theatre was so good that I wish I saw it twice

This production ranks up there with EOT's stellar 1776 from several years ago as the finest local community theatre production I've seen.

8. Sara Oliva is a marvel in Natalie Symons' THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS at American Stage

Ms. Oliva's "Mad" Mabel was quite a piece of work--part Lisa Loopner nerd, part Eunice from The Carol Burnett Show, and part Joy/Hulga from Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People." Ms. Oliva was so believable with her impairment that you really did believe the actress was blind or nearly blind. If Salieri is the Patron Saint of Mediocrities at the end of Amadeus, then Ms. Oliva's Mabel is the Patron Saint of Loners and Shut-Ins. She broke your heart more than once, but she also gave hope to all of those lonely people, those on the cusp of existence, the forgotten lot, the invisible, the downtrodden, the Eleanor Rigby's of the world.

9. With BILOXI BLUES, Vivid Productions comes of age

A stellar ensemble helps win the argument that this is one Neil Simon's finest works.

10. THE NORMAL HEART is the most powerful show I've ever seen at the Carrollwood Players

David J. Valdez directed a miracle with Larry Kramer's play about the early years of the AIDS crisis. This was one hell of a tight production, and one that held nothing back emotionally. You exited the theatre feeling punched and punchy, angry and sad. The cast remained onstage for the duration of the show, never leaving, witnessing one of the most harrowing chapters in modern times. As a person who came of age during those years, I find Kramer's play as a reminder of where we were, how far that we've come since, and how far we as a country--as a world--still need to go. After the performance, you couldn't help but exit the theatre crying--for those characters in the show and for all of those who succumbed to AIDS over the years. It's a multi-hanky play. If you didn't cry at the end of THE NORMAL HEART, then when would you ever weep?

AND ONE TO GROW ON: 11. Claude's War Hallucination in the Asolo Theatre's HAIR (the last show I saw this year)

Starting with the song, "Walking in Space," an orgy sequence complete with a sprawling universe (imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Dionysus '69), and ending with a sorrowful "What a Piece of Work is Man," this was one of the strongest sequences I'd seen in a long time. Check it out: There's a moment when a Viet Cong soldier duets with Claude on "Where Do I Go?" and it's ingenious in both idea and execution. "Abie Baby" is performed like a Sixties Motown trio, while "Don't Put It Down" becomes a Grand Ol' Opry standard. "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" has news anchors narrating the horrifying lyrics, describing the bloodshed in Vietnam: "Ripped open by metal explosion/Caught in barbed wire/Fireball/Bullet shock/Bayonet/Electricity/Shrapnel/Throbbing meat..." The effect is chilling. I would go back to see this HAIR again and again solely due to that run of songs, which, before this production, was never actually my favorite. But now it haunts me, and over a week later I still haven't stopped thinking about it.

And that's that. The things that helped me--helped us--ultimately survive. These were some of the things that got us through this labyrinth of pain, a remembrance of a lousy year past. The good news is...it's a New Year. New hopes, new beginnings. Let's raise a glass of Dom Perignon and toast to this change...out with the old (good riddance) and in with the new. I'll see you in 2022, which--knock on wood!--I hope will certainly be much better. I'll quote the Beatles again (as I continue knocking on wood): "It can't get no worse!"


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