Critical rankings of the best of 2016 in screen, stage, tube/online and books  … plus our local Actor of the Year

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A nurse (Walter Lee) comforts his friend dying of AIDS (Garret Storms) in ‘Angels in America,’ right.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES Executive Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

stage-bugI saw a lot of good local theater in 2016. But great…? Well, that’s a matter of judgment (which is, of course, what I’m here for), but there were fewer “OMG–yass!” productions than it seems North Texas has produced. Of course, there was also a lot of turnover in the theater world, with the departures of Dallas Summer Musicals’ Michael Jenkins, WaterTower’s Terry Martin and more. Still, there was much fun to be had, from original local musicals to thought-provoking dramas to comedies that left us rolling. Here are the best we saw.

10. Death the Musical II (Pocket Sandwich Theatre). Despite modest production values and a sometimes-awkward staging, this original comedy stuck in my head because of the brilliant songwriting and laconic wit of composer-playwright Scott A. Eckert — already one of North Texas’ best musical directors, but also a funny and creative inventor of his own shows.

9. The Intergalactic Nemesis (tour). The season’s most unexpected theatrical creation was less a play than an immersive sensory experience. A cheesy faux graphic novel about alien invaders comes to life in a series of colorful panels projected overhead, while actors voice all the roles … and Foley artists recreate the sounds a la an old-fashioned radio play. Funny, engaging, unique … and best of all, a sequel returns in the spring.

8. The Great God Pan (Second Thought Theatre). A young man reconnects with a childhood playmate, who reminds him that they were both molested … only the man has no recollection of it. Was he the victim of sexual assault, or has the trauma shrouded his own past from his consciousness? Amy Herzog’s psychological drama is starkly rendered by director Carson McCain with a re-invented Bryant Hall space in a heartbreaking look at the power of the mind.

7. It’s Only a Play (Uptown Players). It’s opening night of a new Broadway show, and the cast and crew are gathering in a posh New York apartment to await the reviews. Behind the scenes, bitter rivalries, fragile egos, naïve newcomers and desperate has-beens zing each other with the brio of low-budget torture-porn. Terrence McNally’s rewrite of one of his earliest plays was probably the funniest thing on stages last year.

6. The Lord of the Flies (WaterTower Theatre). Kelsey Leigh Ervi is still quite young, which makes her skills as a first-time big-budget stage director all the more enviable. She mounted a stellar production of William Golding’s allegorical novel (which I have seen done before, with miserable results) and put the young cast to great use in a dramatic, eerie and technically massive production.

5. The Toxic Avenger (Uptown Players). This musical, based on a cult B-movie from the 1980s, is almost legendary for its cleverness … and the fact it has only be staged twice ever (in Houston, and Off-Broadway in NYC). Uptown Players was able to obtain the rights and demonstrate that yes, a camp comedy about chemical waste and romance can be terrific. Hearty laughs, catchy songs and an unexpected romantic nature set it apart.

4. Gloria (Dallas Theater Center). In three scenes, we see the pitfalls of professional storytelling, from magazines to book publishing to Hollywood, in this dark-hearted and stinging comedy.

3. The Big Meal (WaterTower Theatre). Director Emily Scott Banks took a sprawling play that portrays the entire life-cycle of a family over decades and made it fly by, while simultaneously evincing one of the most vigorous crying fits I’ve admitted to in public. Wrenching, powerful and expertly acted and designed.

2. Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches (Uptown Players). It’s been nearly 20 years since Tony Kushner’s iconic play was on the stage of the Kalita Humphreys Theater, and UP’s version — helmed by director Cheryl Denson, with a cast Broadway would envy — proves how powerful and timeless (yet timely) this sweeping story it. Angels is as full of humor as it is sadness (often overlooked), and its scope and the fluidity of the staging made its three-hour run time feel like a blink, gone as fast as the lives AIDS snuffed out. It shook you.

1. The Thrush and the Woodpecker (Kitchen Dog Theater). A mother (Kristin McCollum) and her college-aged son (Carson Wright) live banal lives on a remote bluff, until one day they receive a visitor (Diane Casey-Worman) — a figure from their past who has been search for these two for 20 years. Is she a sociopath? A demon? Or just delusional? Steve Yockey’s reverie on the nature of justice, and the capacity for human forgiveness (or lack there of), was 2016’s most shocking mystery.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 30, 2016.