Original shows cast long shadows as 2009 offered up great theater
As Broadway endured a rough year in 2008â€“09, with scores of shows — many long-running hits, like Hairspray and The Producers — closing suddenly, revivals have begun to dominate the landscape.
That trend isn’t limited to New York. The Dallas Summer Musicals’ upcoming season was designed around bringing back hits from prior seasons … many which were onstage very recently. Companies routinely revive, especially around Christmas, hits from years past.
So why, when I look back at the best of local theater this year, do the premieres stand out so?
Let’s hand it to the theater artists who create new works. Original works often require massaging, but while not flawless, the ones from this year had energy and smarts and potential — they could get you excited about the future of theater, even while delighting you in the present.
Whether they just missed my top 10 list (as Death! The Musical and Puss in Boots did) or ended up a little farther down the line (Sarah Plain & Tall, Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes, Slasher), 2009 made new plays feel ever-more relevant.
And new theater companies. Several upstarts — one called Upstart — fed good work into the pipeline. And of course, revivals and area premieres demanded attention, too. Dallas Theater Center’s hip-hop version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream inaugurated the new Wyly Theatre superbly, and the Broadway tour of South Pacific gave the Winspear a show to emulate.
A nice year, overall, as these best shows of 2009 can attest (in ascending order).
10. Hello Human Female (Audacity Theatre Lab) (world premiere). Former Dallas playwright Matt Lyle’s quirky, guerrilla comedy — part Young Frankenstein, part South Park, part Dating Game — was a balls-out spoof that piled laughs on top of ridiculous characters and screwball scene. This hodgepodge show, performed in a storefront in Deep Ellum, was anything but conventional, and one of the funniest shows of the year.
9. Mauritius (Echo Theatre). You could dismiss Theresa Rebeck’s razor-sharp drama as a Mamet-mimic, and it’s not wrong to say Mauritius is basically American Buffalo with stamps replacing coins. But Echo’s incisive, well-acted production was flush with surprises and some delicious drama.
8. This Is Our Youth (Upstart Productions). Kenneth Lonergan’s navel-gazing drama about ’80s-era urban kids living on the periphery of privilege is a time capsule of a play, but under Rene Moreno’s sober direction, with a memorable performance by Drew Wall, this peak into the early days of Gen X made for the unexpected achievement of the year.
7. Altar Boys (Uptown Players). It must be tempting to turn this parody of a Christian boy band (including a closeted gay member) into a dig at organized religion, but with catchy songs, boundlessly energetic dancing (slyly choreographed by John de los Santos) and simple pep, Uptown’s lightweight musical of the season packed a surprisingly spiritual tone.
6. Raisin in the Sun (African American Repertory Theater). The new African American Repertory Theater has a banner season, but no show topped the revival of gay playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s still-relevant exploration of the black experience, with the iconic Irma P. Hall giving a master class in realistic acting.
5. Road to Qatar (Lyric Stage) (world premiere). Who says the musical is dead unless (a) it is written by Andrew Lloyd Webber or (b) full of eye-popping effects? Certain not David Krane and Stephen Cole, who’s five-actor, flexible set world premiere about two Jews writing a pageant for an Arab potentate took absurdism to extremes — made all the funnier because it was true. Lyric has a history of debuting new musicals, but this one is about as good as they come.
4. Funny Girl (Lyric Stage). Just for comparison’s sake, Lyric also revived this Streisand hit in an elaborate production (surefootedly directed by Cheryl Denson) that, unlike Qatar, was big in every way — no more so than the dazzlingÂ performance by Kristin Dausch. It’s old-school musical genius, the embodiment of panache.
3. The History Boys (Uptown Players). The dangerously sneaky thing about Alan Bennett’s Tony Award-winning period drama is that nothing is exactly what it seems, and trying to pigeonhole the characters — whether a priggish, teach-to-the-test bureaucrat or an inspirational but deeply flawed professor. Director Bruce Coleman captured that ambivalence in a beautifully designed and carefully rendered production that challenged audiences as much as it entertained them.
2. Talk Radio (Upstart Productions). Eric Bogosian’s most celebrated play, full of profane anger, got as good a revival as possible. Director Regan Adair’s painstaking verisimilitude, from the ’80s-era radio ads to the naturalistic acting (much of it off-stage voice work by a klatch of crazy-talented performers), was inspired, but nothing more so than Elias Taylorson’s scarily-authentic portrait of a shock jock at his breaking point. You never wanted to blink.
1. Vincent River (Theatre Britain). A London woman (Sue Roberts-Birch), hounded by the media after the Mathew Shepard-like murder of her son, invites a young man (James Chandler) into her flat who may have known the boy, and … Well, to paraphrase Sondheim, what happens then is the play, and we wouldn’t want to give it away. Theatre Britain’s two character one act play debuted first at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, then was brought back by Uptown Players for an encore run. Prickly, intense and moving, this one-hour exercise in human connection, directed by Robin Armstrong, lingered like few shows do.
ACTOR OF THE YEAR
This year, the best productions also featured the best acting. Stage is an actor’s medium, and good performances of mediocre work can often elevate an entire show. That was certainly true of Kimberly Condict, whose comic timing made Don’t Dress for Dinner funnier than the script. Michael Federico also gave Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes its oomph.
Del Shores’ Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife took on tragic proportions thanks to Cindee Mayfield’s exquisitely wrenching portrayal of a defeated woman. Gary Floyd as the bon vivant George Gould Shaw in WaterTower’s Grey Gardens topped Broadway’s version; Kevin Moore’s crazy-funny stalker in I Google Myself provided the lightweight gem with a nifty edge. DTC’s Midsummer Night’s Dream siphoned some magic from Cedric Neal, Abbey Siegworth and Chamblee Ferguson, while Mark Shum returned to panto with bawdy brilliance in Puss in Boots, and Ted Wold was excellent as the harried husband in The House of Blue Leaves, Theatre Arlington’s best show in ages.
But the top shows of 2009 were performed impeccably. Jeremy Dumont tap-danced his way to stardom in Funny Girl, while Kristin Dausch, who played the title role. took the more direct route, wowing audiences with her who’s-Barbra-Streisand-again? performance in the best musical production of the year.
It was a treat to see Irma P. Hall command a stage again in A Raisin in the Sun, and Bradley Campbell’s heartbreaking work in The History Boys was matched by newcomer Alex Ross as one of his students. James Chandler and Sue Roberts-Birch’s pas de deux in Vincent River left me quaking.
But it was Elias Taylorson, playing a flamboyant and quick-witted shock jock, who mesmerized audiences in Talk Radio. Better than even Eric Bogosian (who wrote the play for himself), Taylorson flitted deftly around the play’s verbal footwork, creating a wholly believable universe of words. It was hands-down the best acting I saw onstage in 2009, making Taylorson the actor of the year.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 25, 2009.