BWW Review: The Best of the Decade - Reviewer Peter Nason Picks the Top 25 Local Shows & Performances of the Past 10 Years
THE 25 BEST SHOWS IN THE TAMPA BAY AREA FROM 2010 TO 2019
Nearly six years ago, when I first started reviewing for Broadway World in the Tampa-St. Pete area, the world seemed rather quaint compared to where we are now. Oh, the country was split ideologically, but it didn't seem so divisive. People surely disagreed with each other, but they weren't so overtly disagreeable. There was dislike, but it didn't overflow with vehement red-faced hatred. That's where we are now, a knee-jerk nation from seethe to shining seethe.
It seems so long ago when I started this gig, a century rather than closer to a decade.
In a world so combustible, theatre has been a refuge. And going back through the years--even the years of theatre-going before I was writing reviews--has been a thrill. It's like finding a long lost diary and re-reading it. I have seen anywhere from 700 to 1000 shows since 2010, many of them not reviewed on this website. I've been to the Equity houses, professional companies, semi-professional groups, community theaters, as well as shows from middle schools, highs schools, summer camps and colleges. I've witnessed the best of the best (anything on the list below) and the worst of the worst (a few shows that made me want to quit this wondrous life in the theatre, egregiously wasting our time; thankfully they've been few and far between).
Have I spent more time in the theatre in one way or another (as theatre teacher, director, audience member, or reviewer) then I have in actual reality? And if the answer happens to be yes, is that such a bad thing?
Writing theatre reviews is exhilarating. And I will always strive to be fair but honest; I'm here to elevate local theatre, not to bury it. Still, some people get upset at my views, and that's understandable; they put in a ton of work, and it doesn't artistically succeed for whatever reason, and I must call them out. Some actors think I hate them, which is the farthest thing from the truth (I don't hate anyone). But I must tell the truth, or why would you bother reading what I have to say? If everything was hunky dory, the best, then why would my words matter at all? I'm not a P.R. agent; I'm a reviewer. I've had to slam friends whose work was not up to par (they usually aren't upset at this either; oftentimes they thank me, agreeing with my assessment), because I must call it as I see it. You may disagree or agree, but you know I am coming from a place of fairness and honesty. And love.
So here it is, a list ten years in the making, the Best of the Decade that I've seen in the Tampa Bay area...
1. THE AUGUST WILSON CENTURY CYCLE [American Stage; 2007-2017]
I know, I know. This started before this past decade, lasting through three artistic directors at American Stage as well as various directors and casts, and contains ten classic plays. But it's my list, and nothing in our area has come close to what American Stage achieved with the Century Cycle--one of only twelve theaters in the world to perform the magnum opus by the greatest American playwright of the past forty years. Starting with GEM OF THE OCEAN, the theatre company tackled (not in order) JOE TURNER'S COME & GONE, MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM, THE PIANO LESSON, SEVEN GUITARS, FENCES, TWO TRAINS RUNNING, JITNEY, KING HEDLEY II, and RADIO GOLF.
Although you can pick and choose your favorites (FENCES and THE PIANO LESSON are usually the ones people gravitate towards), I have a place in my heart for the last of the trilogy (and the third to the last to be performed at American Stage): RADIO GOLF. Set in the 1990's, it focused on Harmond Wilks, the potential first black mayor of Pittsburgh, who along with his banker friend Roosevelt Hicks (played by the great Kim Sullivan, who has the distinction of being in every American Stage production in the cycle), wanted to save Pittsburgh's rundown Hill District. Conflicts arise throughout the show: Will Harmond turn his back on his race and live the financially lucrative dreams of the white man? Or will he wind up doing the right thing and join the oppressed, the fighters, providing a voice for the voiceless and ultimately save his community's history as well as his soul? These are the questions Wilson grapples with, and the ending--the last thing he ever wrote--has Wilks wiping war paint on his face as he ventures outside to fight the good fight. It still leaves me reeling as I remember and write about this.
At the end of the last of the American Stage productions in 2017 (JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE), I saw so many men and women wiping tears from their eyes. They were obviously crying from the power of the play they had just witnessed, but they were also tearing up because, after a decade, the Century Cycle had come to its final curtain. It will be a long time before another local theatre company does something this epically powerful, this momentous. What American Stage accomplished is nothing short of an historic achievement--a celebration of what it means to be alive in this flawed, but great nation.
2. HAMILTON [National Tour at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts; 2019]
Although I've seen many National Tours that have traveled through our area over the years, I am only including HAMILTON in the listing since it stayed in our area in its sold-out run for well over a month. If you look back at last February and early March, we in the Tampa area went through a veritable Hamilton-mania. I was concerned that the show would not live up to the hype; how could it? I needn't have worried, because it turned out to be one of the great theatrical experiences of my life. It's far from perfect, and I even prefer some of the songs in Lin-Manuel Miranda's previous show (In the Heights), but the experience of seeing it for the first time, the aren't-we-glad-we're-alive-to-experience-this rush of emotion afterwards, is why this is so high on the list. In the Heights might be able to be made into a successful movie, but HAMILTON is such a theatrical experience, as thrilling a stage-work as I've ever seen, that no movie can capture its lightening in a bottle. What The Great Gatsby was to the 1920's, and what the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was to the 1960's, HAMILTON rightfully stands as the artistic standard-bearer of the 2010's.
3. AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY [American Stage; 2011]
This one was so big that they had to move the show from American Stage into the nearby Palladium. Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of familial disfunction turned out to be one of the most emotionally draining and rewarding experiences I have ever had in the theatre. It's also probably the most edge-of-your-seat thrilling non-musical I've seen this decade. Director Todd Olson guided what has to be considered the ultimate ensemble, a dream cast if ever there was one: Julie Rowe, Lisa McMillan, Steve Garland, Wayne LeGette, Meg Heimstead, Katherine Michelle Tanner, Michael Edwards, Karel Wright, Joseph Parra, Brian Shea, Tia Jemison, Kerry Glamsch and Sarah McAvoy. McMillan had the showiest role as the pill-popping Violet--her breakdown to Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally" still shakes me almost a decade later--but it's Rowe's show. When she stood over her drug-addicted mother, screaming "I'm in control here!" at the top of her lungs, the actress could have meant that she's hijacking the show as well as the plot. Few performances have been this breathtaking to watch. And Glamsch had the most difficult part, which he pulled off--there are few things as hard as making the only normal person in a show like this as interesting to watch as the rest of this motley assemblage. A menagerie of madness.
4. INTO THE WOODS [freeFall Theatre; 2014]
For years, I have heard the droning debate about Stephen Sondheim and his muddy second acts, but I am one of the few who appreciates INTO THE WOODS' Act 2 far more than its highly entertaining Act 1. The reason is simple: Act 1 is Fairyland, and Act 2 is Sondheimland. Act 1 is the exhilaration of childhood, and Act 2 is adulthood and its consequences of the choices made in Act 1. And this freeFall production blew my mind. The set was like a Grimm Brothers playroom. It turned out to be an old-style psychiatrist office, underling the Freudian aspects of the show. And this is where director Eri Davis was able to display his brilliance, turning a musical that was never my favorite into sheer greatness. It was brilliantly staged, a maze of bodies, key props and set pieces, moving about in a high adrenaline labyrinth, and yet not once did it lose us along the way. Imagine the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" come to life with fairy tales instead of Alice's Journey and you'll get an idea of what was in store for us here. The finest production of a Sondheim musical I have ever seen.
5. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET [Asolo Rep; 2019]
Sondheim again. This is what happens when the greatest musical yet written was performed by the finest professional theatre in Florida. Allen Fitzpatrick was the strongest Sweeney I'd ever encountered. Imagine Dr. Emilio Lizardo as played by The Last Picture Show's Ben Johnson, with hair ironically like the Scissorman's in Der Struwwelpeter. Fitzpatrick brought a humanity to Sweeney, a certain sadness. His "My Friends," Sweeney's ode to his razors, is one of the greatest love songs Sondheim ever wrote, and Fitzpatrick captured this demented infatuation. Sally Wingert was deliciously devilish as Mrs. Lovett, the brains behind Sweeney's road to revenge. Thin and gangly, like a decrepit Wayland Flowers' Madame, Wingert really brought out the mastermind that is Mrs. Lovett; she's a strong woman, a survivor during hard times, manipulating the key events of the show. And as her name suggests, she loves it. James Ramlet makes for a foreboding Judge Turpin, perhaps musical theatre's coldest, most intimidating villain. He's like a Goliath Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life with long Leon Russell hair. And his rich, deep voice shook your soul, quaked your boots. And Colin Anderson's turn as the brown-nosing Beadle Bamford was brilliantly realized. With his long hair, he looked like Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a member of the 1960's rock band, Cream. And his voice, showcased in "Ladies in Their Sensitivities," was lovely, like the voice of God in the body of a mini-demon.
6. THE ROYALE [American Stage; 2017]
One powerful piece of theatre about boxer Jay "the Sport" Johnson. Although no punch was officially thrown in the realistic sense, the fight scenes of this show became works of art. We imagined the brutality of them, even though no actual blood was spilled. It's like a choreographed poetry slam, the dialogue bursting in syncopated rhythms, tribal drum beats, as if hip-hop had been performed during the early years of jazz. With the musicality of the dialogue and theatricality of the piece, THE ROYALE felt totally new, fresh in the 2010's, and yet it worked for the Jim Crow era as well. You could see the reverberations of the boxer Johnson in the African-American athletes who followed in his footsteps: the poetic swagger of Muhammad Ali; the Black Power fist-in-the-air protestations of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 and Serena Williams in 2016; and even in the more recent kneeling Colin Kaepernick controversy.
7. ANNAPURNA [Jobsite Theater; 2015]
As Ulysses in Sharr White's ANNAPURNA, the bearded Paul Potenza left an indelible mark on me. He had reached far beyond the words in a script and created an original, offbeat, lovable, horrifying, but truly human character. It's a one of kind part--where the actor had dug deep into himself and left everything on that stage. Every emotion was utilized, every physical aspect at play. He portrayed a man breaking down, with the shakes, gasping for breath, knowing his time on earth was limited, and he had to sustain this for 80-plus minutes. This is why nothing beats live theatre...in a movie, the actor would get to rest between takes; here, he must stay in character the entire time, struggling for strength, knowing he's slowly dying. It was mesmerizing to watch. He wound up breaking your heart as few performances ever have.
8. THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA [freeFall Theatre; 2016]
This musical deserved every accolade, every enthusiastic cheer, and every award it would win. Everything came together here--the score, the libretto, the cast, the direction, 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...
9. RHINOCEROS [Asolo Rep; 2018]
What makes the Asolo's RHINOCEROS so utterly riveting today is that this particular production was playing during a decade of "fake news" and "post-truths." Can RHINOCEROS, first shown in 1959, really be this timely? The show was quite funny, and you found yourself laughing out loud during it, but you also found yourself holding your gut at the same time. The true star of this Ionesco treasure chest was director Frank Galati. He guided an incredible production, where all aspects (tech, set pieces, and the acting, especially by David Breitbarth and Matt DeCaro) came together to give us more than just a memorable stage production. Here's a 60-year-old play just as horrifying, just as gut-wrenchingly funny as it was when first written.
10. THE ALIENS [Stageworks; 2017]
I recall very few plays that I've loved in quite the same manner as I loved Annie Baker's THE ALIENS. I felt protective of it afterwards, the way children do with 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.
11. THE FLICK [Jobsite Theater; 2017]
In this Annie Baker Pulitzer Prize winner about life in a movie theater, Georgia Mallory Guy was unlike any character I had ever seen. Imagine Sarah Silverman and Laurie Metcalf merged with a green-streaked space alien. Her electric Act 1 Dance Party routine was nothing short of sublime; I could have watched it--and her--all night. When I first saw THE FLICK at Jobsite Theater in 2017, it was in the wake of Hurricane Irma. We needed this show, as a community, as individuals in need of some relief, and mainly as survivors. THE FLICK turned out to be everything I adore in the theatre--a funny, moving, hands-down terrific show at a time when we really needed it the most.
12. A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE [Tampa Rep; 2018]
Directors C. David Frankel and Megan Lamasney guided a stellar production of Arthur Miller's underappreciated classic. The actors, especially Ned Averill-Snell in one of his finest performances, all worked at their highest levels, and the show was nicely paced, never slow nor dull. The brilliant Emilia Sargent, talented Nick Hoop and powerful Michael Mahoney lent amazing support to Averill-Snell's soul-stirring central work. Lea Umberger's minimal set was functional, and Jo Averill-Snell's lighting was seamless, compelling without ever intruding on the action or calling attention to itself. Connie LaMarca-Frankel's period costumes also worked well, as did Matt Cowley's sound design. The music of Igor Santos, underscored throughout, was full of doom, preparing us for the inevitable dread to come. Unlike Miller's other, more famous works, most people have not seen a proper version of A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE. But after seeing the Tampa Rep production, I felt that the world of Eddie Carbone should be required reading and viewing along with the worlds of Willy Loman, John Proctor, and Joe Keller and his 21 pilots...
13. IN THE HEIGHTS [American Stage in the Park; 2015]
Lin-Manuel Miranda's exquisite music and lyrics, along with Quiara Alegria Hudes' book, thrusts us into New York City's Washington Heights barrio, where we cared so much about the various (mostly Dominican-American) denizens. Glorious stuff. It wasn't just a show; it became an Experience, alive, the best of the American Stage in the Park productions that I have seen.
14. LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT [American Stage; 2019]
Having read Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT years ago and even having performed various scenes from it in acting classes over the decades, I had still never seen a proper production of it. And before I entered American Stage in St. Petersburg to see a first-rate version of O'Neill's work, the thought kept gnawing at me: Is LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, written in 1940 but first performed in 1956, still the greatest American play? Does it earn its slot in theatre history? Or do the theatre professors have it all wrong, and is it in the end sadly overrated? After the show, the answer to those questions became superfluous. I realized that it doesn't matter if LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is considered the magna cum laude of the American theatre experience. It doesn't matter where people place this on some trivial best-of lists. The power is in the play itself, the experience of seeing a masterpiece of bruised beauty--terrifying, pulverizing, a wallop in the gut.
15. SPRING AWAKENING [freeFall Theatre; 2013]
freeFall pushed the envelope with this sizzling production about sexuality and angst among 19th Century youths. "Totally F*cked" never sounded so good.
16. GOOD PEOPLE [American Stage; 2016]
17. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST [freeFall Theatre; 2014]
I'm not always a fan of immersive staging, but when it's done right, it can be exhilarating. And it worked beautifully with this particular show, directed by Eric Davis, based on the Ken Kesey novel. The audience sat around the entire theatre--on vinyl white couches, or around circular tables, scattered about; we're all in this cuckoo's nest together. The actors ran and fought through the crowd, hiding between chairs, standing on the backs of the couches. At times they were mere inches away from the public, and there was always something going on. Every seat was great, and every audience member got to be a part of the shared experience. James Oliver made for an electric McMurphy, a life force, magnetic, sparking the inmates (and the show) with a Tasmanian Devil vigor. The ending left the audience devastated; after the curtain call, you could see so many of them (including me) wiping tears from their eyes. You may have known the ending, but you hadn't experienced its true power quite like this. Comparing the Oscar-winning 1975 film to the astounding freeFall experience was the difference between watching a rollercoaster and actually being on the ride.
18. BETWEEN RIVERSIDE & CRAZY [American Stage; 2018]
This show lived and breathed with whatever actor was graced with the leading part of the retired cop, Pops, and that's where L. Peter Callender, gave a performance of a lifetime. After Act 1, the man sitting two seats away turned to me and said, "Wow, that's incredible acting!" But with Callender, it's more than mere acting; it's actual being onstage. Heartbreaking, real, full of pain and love, caring and loss, pride and defeat, anger and grace. His deep, raspy, commanding voice, and his withered body, as if the world was weighted on top of his shoulders, combined to create one of the more fascinating characters of modern drama.
19. THE TEMPEST: ESTA ISLA ES MIA [freeFall Theatre; 2015]
This variation of Shakespeare's TEMPEST may have been the work of various individuals, but it rested on the shoulders of one person-Eric Davis. It's such an epic one-man performance, so seemingly impossible what he does onstage, that the production couldn't even handle an understudy. It might have even been considered a vanity project, but whatever the case, it was a mind-blowing one. It went beyond awesome, beyond incredible. What Davis performed in THE TEMPEST: ESTA ISLA ES MIA was a feat nothing short of magical.
20. TIME STANDS STILL [Jobsite Theater; 2016]
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.
21. THE MOTHERF*CKER WITH THE HAT [Stageworks; 2015]
Even with that eye-opening title, TMFWTH was not just for the adventurous theatregoer; it was for anyone who has loved, lost, struggled and fought for redemption at some point of his or her life. It was for those of us who like our professional theatre smart and emotionally charged, with equal amounts of humor and edginess. I laughed often, but the show also left me shaken and, in the end, hopeful.
22. CONSTELLATIONS [Jobsite Theater; 2019]
Two of the finest actors in our area (Giles Davies and Georgia Mallory Guy) loop through multiple universes in this breathtaking love story.
23. ASSASSINS [freeFall Theatre; 2016]
ASSASSINS is one of the darkest of all musicals; it makes Cabaret look like Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. With Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics and John Weidman's book, ASSASSINS is 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's 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 interact, hang out together, and point their guns directly at the audience. It's exhilarating and chilling, a show with ice in its veins, and I don't know if I'm still over it after all these years.
24. 'NIGHT MOTHER [Stageworks; 2012]
Monica Merryman and Karla Hartley tore out our hearts in this gripping play about suicide, directed by Lisa Powers. We've seen the wonderful directorial work of Ms. Hartley's in various shows over the decade, but her shattering performance in this Marsha Norman play proved that we need to see her on the stage more often. Truly harrowing and heartbreaking.
25. 1776: THE MUSICAL [Eight O'Clock Theatre; 2016]
There was a moment in 1776: THE MUSICAL that I will never forget. It occurred near the end, when the last holdout shouted out his "yea" and suddenly our country was born. At that instant, there was a pause, a wisp of necessary silence. The characters realized what they had done. They knew that this was it, one of the most important moments in history, and they were there as witnesses. As I watched EOT's first class production of 1776, I was totally enraptured. This became one of the supreme theatre-going experiences of the decade. Yes, on par with some of the better professional musicals I'd 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 became several steps above the other community theatres because this was one terrific show.
And for the record, my 26th show would be THE CHOSEN [American Stage; 2014]. Such a great decade of theatre-going.
LOCAL PERFORMANCES OF THE DECADE THAT ROCKED OUR WORLD (in no particular order)
1. Kim Sullivan in THE AUGUST WILSON CENTURY CYCLE [American Stage; 2007-2017] and THE ROYALE [American Stage; 2017]
Sullivan, a veteran of every Wilson play in the Cycle, is a force to be reckoned with. His performances are a master acting class in acting, sheer confidence on display, with plenty of humor and precise timing. He never misses a beat in his performances, nor does he make a false move. Although not tall in stature, Sullivan is a towering figure onstage. His best moments are actually his quiet ones, where he raptly listens. He knows when to hold the spotlight, and even better, he knows when to let others have it--as he listens, always wrapped in the moment.
2. Janis Stevens in 4000 MILES [American Stage; 2016]; MARJORIE PRIME [American Stage; 2018]; and LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT [American Stage; 2019]
Here is an actress who takes her time, whether it's in the seemingly simple act of pouring a cup of coffee or reaching out and touching a young man's hand. Each movement of hers is specific; each reaction totally believable, absolutely in the moment. I don't know the real age of Ms. Stevens, but I never once doubted she was 91 onstage in 4000 MILES, slowly moving, hunched but still proud, losing the words she wants to speak but still here, struggling and persevering, and not allowing herself to become some demented Miss Havisham. In MARJORIE PRIME, she had to play two distinct characters--Marjorie and Marjorie Prime--and she valiantly succeeded with both. It was astonishing to watch, and Stevens constantly jolted the show to life in surprising ways. In this past year's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, Stevens as the drug-addled Mary became a specter of sorts, floating rather than walking, fragile and ready to break in a moment's notice. Her Jekyll/Hyde tendencies were on full display, and we had no idea what she would do next. A terrifying turn.
3. Matthew McGee in MAME [freeFall Theatre; 2015]; THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST WITH ZOMBIES [freeFall Theatre; 2015]; PSYCHO BEACH PARTY [Stageworks; 2016]; HAIRSPRAY [American Stage in the Park; 2017]; THE PRODUCERS [American Stage in the Park; 2018]; RHINOCEROS [Asolo Rep; 2018]; PIPPIN [freeFall Theatre; 2019]
It's always fun coming up with new ways of describing Mr. McGee, when he's either in or out of drag. Here is a sampling of my wide and wild descriptions of this local treasure...From THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST WITH ZOMBIES: "As the servant, Lane, McGee once again stands out with his brilliant characterizations. He looks like Ebenezer Scrooge merged with President John Quincy Adams, with a tuft of Donald Trump comb-over hair thrown in for good measure. In Act 2 and 3, McGee also plays Merriman, a second servant, who is far more dour; he reminds me of an undead Erich Von Stroheim on Benzodiazepines." From PSYCHO BEACH PARTY: "He resembles a 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. It's a hilarious turn." From HAIRSPRAY: "As Edna, McGee seems to have harkened back to the Divine years for his inspiration. But not the Divine of the 1988 film; his makeup in the early scenes reminds me of the Divine of Multiple Maniacs or the second half of Female Trouble. (Imagine Ethel Merman and Diana Dors meets a latter-day Joan Crawford.) It's a part McGee could do in his sleep." From THE PRODUCERS: "If you can imagine John McGiver, Maurice Evans and Jackie Coogan all rolled up in a single persona, then you get an idea of McGee here." From RHINOCEROS: "Matt McGee once again shows off his drag chops as the café' owner who opens the play singing an Edith Piaf tune...He may sound like Edith, but he looks more like a different Edith--Edith Bunker melded with Ethel Mertz. And when he removes his wig in a nightmarish moment in Act 2 (a terrific Ionesco in-joke--a bald soprano), he's like the Second Coming of Rachel Rosenthal, the great L.A. performance artist." And from PIPPIN: "McGee's Berthe, in a puffed out red Bozo wig the size of an ostrich (thanks to that periwig genius, Scott Daniel), is a hammy tour de force...Donning Edith Prickley glasses and a dress like something from a psychedelic album cover, he looks like either a Haight-Ashbury bag lady on too many mushrooms or a peacock on fire (can't decide which)."
4. Emily Belvo in HEDDA [Jobsite Theater; 2019] and THE ODD COUPLE FEMALE VERSION [Hattrick Theatre; 2019]
Ms. Belvo can say more with her expressive Norma Desmond eyes than any monologue could ever convey.
5. Ned Averill-Snell in THE ICEMAN COMETH [Tampa Rep; 2016]; GLOUCESTER BLUE [Jobsite Theater; 2017]; and A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE [Tampa Rep; 2018]
I have never seen a bad or even phoned-in performance from Mr. Averill-Snell. He is alive and real onstage, flesh and blood, and we have no idea where his performance will go. He's often dizzying in his unpredictability, so strong that you almost feel sorry for the other cast members in whatever play he's in (good as they may have been, your eyes are constantly on him). In THE ICEMAN COMETH, Averill-Snell was sensational as the "mad devil," Theodore "Hickey" Hickman. Hickey was the show's charismatic lead, sort of a Salesman of Death, bursting the bubble of the barflies' pipe-dreams. But for my money, I still think his finest work was in Arthur Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, as Eddie--a blue collar man with secrets he didn't even know he had. It was a tour de force to be sure, the finest acting you will find ANYWHERE. We understood his character's predicament and his motives, and questioned him, loathed him at times, and yet we could not take our eyes off him. There was an emptiness in him that was certainly hard to convey (but it was there). As the show progressed, Averill-Snell became wired, spiraling out of control, jolting the audience. That's how I would describe Averill-Snell's work in every show that's lucky enough to have him: A terrific jolt.
6. Betty-Jane Parks in A PECULIAR CROSSROADS: A CELEBRATION OF THE LIFE AND ART OF FLANNERY O'CONNOR [Silver Meteor Gallery; 2015] and WAIT UNTIL DARK [Stageworks; 2019]
Ms. Parks was sensational as the blind heroine in WAIT UNTIL DARK, but I always knew how greatly talented she was when I first saw her as Flannery O'Connor, the famed Southern writer, in Kerry Park's terrific 2015 short play. Betty-Jane Parks didn't just play O'Connor; she inhabited her spirit. Her Southern accent wasn't as pronounced as O'Connor's (the audience would need an interpreter if that happened to be the case), but she caught her witticisms, her unwavering belief system and, most importantly, her humor. O'Connor knew she was a great writer, and Parks obviously knew she had a homerun of a part here. You could see the physical downturn in O'Connor's life, as she found herself walking slower and slower due to her disease (Lupus). But you could also see the spark remaining in her eyes, the spark that wrote all of those tremendous stories. It's a triumph for the actress, breathtaking in her ability to capture the life of writer, dead over 55 years, and to bring her back to life.
7. Giles Davies in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM [freeFall Theatre; 2011]; FAHRENHEIT 451 [Jobsite Theater; 2012]; HAMLET [New Stage Theatre; 2014]; TWELFTH NIGHT [Jobsite Theater; 2015]; and OTHELLO [Jobsite Theater; 2019]
We in the Bay Area are extremely fortunate that we were here, in this particular decade, to witness the energetic genius of Giles Davies. His Puck in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM jumped, slithered and crawled all around the stage-the most physical (as well as the most thrilling) Puck that I had ever seen. (He will be playing Bottom in 2020, and I can't wait to see that!). His brilliant turn as the menacing Beatty in Jobsite's FAHRENHEIT 451 was almost too creepy for words. In New Stage Theatre's HAMLET, Davies once again stole the show, this time as the gravedigger, and proved that the size of a role doesn't matter in expert hands; he was simply spellbinding. (I wanted to re-title the play Gravedigger!). In TWELFTH NIGHT, Davies' Malvolio started off as a straight-back puritanical stick in the mud, but when he let go during a monologue near the end of Act 1, it was so expertly done that it brought Shakespeare's words to an entirely new level. And in Act 2, Davies' scenes where he dons outrageous yellow stockings and cross garters were some of the funniest bits I have ever seen. Each word tripping off the tongue, each bizarre River Dance-like movement of his legs, still has me laughing about it nearly five years later. And this past year, in OTHELLO, he created an Iago for the ages, taking us on a Luciferian journey--how to destroy an upright nobleman in ten easy lessons. He put so many subversive spins on his lines, bringing the words, four centuries old, to life in surprising ways.
8. Lauren Buglioli in CABARET [MAD Theatre; 2016] and BLITHE SPIRIT [Stageworks; 2018]
As the Kit Kat Club star, British Sally Bowles, Lauren Buglioli was nothing short of a revelation in CABARET. It was a gloriously rendered part, full of depth and passion, and yet she was also appropriately annoying, selfish, and oddly optimistic (to hide her underlying despair). This was how Buglioli introduced herself into our theatre community...with a bang.
9. Zachary Hines in VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM [Jobsite Theater; 2014]
Imagine a Harlow-haired vampire vixen, part Thelma Todd, part Theda Bara, part Carol Burnett as Gloria Swanson. Each glaring Dunaway-as-Crawford look, each over-exaggerated gesture, each pregnant pause. In Hines' hands, this is what camp should be. Precise, exquisitely timed, over-the-top yet somehow nuanced. It was a knockout performance.
10. Kaitlyn Costello in WEST SIDE STORY [St. Petersburg Opera Company; 2014]
In the famous "Quintet," Costello as Anita stood out when the entire cast was on the stage; the gangs were singing intensely about an upcoming rumble, and Tony and Maria were singing about being together, but all you could focus on was this sole vivacious women, sitting in a chair, heatedly wondering if her lover, Bernardo, would come home hot and tired in their "private little mix." Here's the main plot heading toward the double-homicide tragedy at the end of Act 1, but for a brief moment, through Costello's bravura talent and will, she steered the entire show toward her personal, more trivial wants. This is what it's like to own a role.
11. Richard Coppinger in INHERIT THE WIND [Stageworks and Tampa Rep; 2016]
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 decade: 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. Roxanne Fay in HIR [Jobsite Theater; 2018]
Fay, a local favorite, was astonishing as Paige, the mega-matriarch who was at war with societal "norms." There was a moment near the show's end, when all gloves come off, and Fay's Paige became suddenly cold and real, all pretenses removed; she spoke quietly, dismissively, all the wind knocked out of her sail. She's done. It was wounding, the moment this whole play had led to. And it was some of the best work Fay has ever done.
13. Michael Silvestri in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES [Carrollwood Players; 2017]
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.
14. Erica Garraffa in AND A WORLD TO CARRY ON: LAURA NYRO REMEMBERED [Carrollwood Players; 2015]
Ms. Garraffa, who played the difficult role of pop icon Laura Nyro in Barry Silber's play, captured everything about her--her cadence, her quirkiness, and that soulful, one-of-a-kind voice. Every time Garraffa was onstage, we believed that she was Nyro, from her looks and, more importantly, from her unique sound. It was a revelatory performance that earned the standing ovation it received on the night I saw it.
15. David Mann in CABARET [freeFall Theatre; 2012] and FUN HOME [American Stage; 2019]
Even though I had major qualms with Freefall's re-imagining of the Kander & Ebb musical--telling the story as the Emcee's flashback, thus changing the entire meaning of the show, neutering rather than strengthening it--it featured David Mann's superb, frightening, memorable work as the iconic Emcee.
16. Emilia Sargent in GROUNDED [Tampa Rep; 2017]; A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE [Tampa Rep; 2018]
Sargent has the uncanny ability to let us know what is on her characters' minds without saying a word. Exquisite work.
17. Dennis Duggan in OF MICE AND MEN [Stageworks; 2013]; A FEW GOOD MEN [Stageworks; 2014]; 12 ANGRY MEN [Knights of Columbus Circle; 2015]; INHERIT THE WIND [Stageworks and Tampa Rep; 2016]
Duggan is one of those actors that you just can't take your eyes off when he's onstage. His work in OF MICE AND MEN was heartbreaking, some of the best work by any actor of the decade. And in 12 ANGRY MEN, he started off so affable, gleeful in the fact that he's going to send some kid off to die. And then when he began to see the world changing around him, he grew quite angry, becoming by far the angriest juror. Duggan was just incredible, volcanic. Each of his performances winds up being an out of the park homerun; because of that, people started wondering...Is Dennis Duggan the Babe Ruth of our local theatre scene?
18. Chelsea Hooker in URINETOWN [St. Petersburg College; 2018]
Hooker's Penelope Pennywise was so incredible onstage that the word "stunning" doesn't even begin to cover it. During her first number, I wrote in my notebook after watching her (this was long before Aretha would pass), "Queen Latifah, Patti LaBelle and Aretha Franklin better take notice."
19. Nick Hoop in THE ICEMAN COMETH [Tampa Rep; 2016]; COLUMBINUS [Innovocative Theatre in association with Stageworks; 2019]
In Eugene O'Neill's epic, Nick Hoop was stunning and unpredictable as a sort of angel of death, Don Parritt. This charismatic young actor has an uncanny way of delivering his lines, clipping the ends of his words so they emerge from his lips like minor gunshots. And yet, we can't quite put our finger on his mystery--which is one of the highest compliments I can give. In the more recent COLUMBINUS, Hoop was truly terrifying as Columbine shooter, Eric Harris, At times I found him scary in a Joaquin Phoenix-as-Joker kind of way. The way Hoop played Eric, he actually enjoyed his hate; he got off on his disdain toward mankind. 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.
20. Alison Burns in HAIRSPRAY [American Stage in the Park; 2017]; MAMMA MIA [American Stage in the Park; 2019]; PIPPIN [freeFall Theatre; 2019]
It seems that Ms. Burns can do no wrong. Stunning as she was in HAIRSPRAY and MAMMA MIA, she was at her best in freeFall's PIPPIN as a particularly sexy Fastrada. She captured the diabolically sensual pleasures of the part and made it her own.
21. Chris Crawford in THE BUFFALO KINGS [freeFall Theatre; 2015]; PETER AND THE STARCATCHER [freeFall Theatre; 2015]; and BUYER AND CELLAR [freeFall Theatre; 2019]
Putting aside his brilliant scene-stealer in PETER AND THE STAR CATCHER and his showy, hilarious one-man BUYER AND CELLAR, I remember the first show I saw Mr. Crawford in-- as Pete Burke in THE BUFFALO KINGS, who gives some of the finest non-verbal reactions. If you are teaching subtext to students, then the scene when Crawford is trying some of vegan Olive's bizarre animal-shaped hors devours is the perfect place to start; never before has the word "delicious" sounded so nauseous.
22. Jenny Lester in BAD JEWS [American Stage; 2018] and MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY [American Stage; 2018]
Ms. Lester gives one of the decade's finest performances as Daphna in BAD JEWS. Her monologues are plowed through, like a speed demon at 100 miles per hour. It's not a likable performance, nor is it meant to be, but it's spellbinding. And anyone who saw her equally fine work in MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY will have a hard time believing that it's the same actress.
23. Michael Mahoney in THE ICEMAN COMETH [Tampa Rep; 2016]; HEISENBERG [Tampa Rep; 2018]
As played by Michael Mahoney, Larry Slade in THE ICEMAN COMETH was as memorable a character as they come. And Mahoney's performance crackled with expectant dread. We felt his weathered weariness, his doomed outlook. He has an incredible wall-rattling speaking voice, somewhere between James Earl Jones and a radio DJ, and it worked wonders here.
24. Fanni Green in A RAISIN IN THE SUN [American Stage; 2018]
Fanni Green as the matriarch, Lena, was the heart and soul of A RAISIN IN THE SUN. Green was so loving as Mama that she may remind you of your own grandmother. And the look on her face when her son finally became the man that she had always expected him to be will not soon be forgotten.
25. Nick Lerew in THE BURNT-PART BOYS [freeFall Theatre; 2014]; INTO THE WOODS [freeFall Theatre; 2014]; MAME THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST WITH ZOMBIES [freeFall Theatre; 2015]; THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA [freeFall Theatre; 2016]; THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE [freeFal Theatre; 2016]
A standout in so many shows. He left years ago, and yet we've never forgotten his stellar work in our area.
26. Georgia Mallory Guy in THE FLICK [Jobsite Theater; 2017]; CONSTELLATIONS [Jobsite Theater; 2019]
Here's one of the best compliments that I can give a performer, one that perfectly suits the amazingly quirky and heartfelt Georgia Mallory Guy: When she's onstage, we never want her to leave.
That's just a taste of the many fine performers I've seen this decade, and I know that there are so many that I didn't even get a chance to mention. But there's so much to offer locally, with both professional and community theaters alike, that you have to go out and see the riches that await you. There is nothing like live theatre, and we need to keep it growing in the Tampa Bay area. Let's hope there are many new theater companies to come, and that the established ones continue to take smart risks, continue to push the envelope. Although I loved the last decade of performances, I hope and pray that the 2020's are even stronger.
So, with that, I wish you all a Happy New Year....and Happy New Decade!