Here it is again: My favorite story of the year, the one time I get to offer unqualified praise for the folks who mostly toil with minimal pay and tons of passion: The local artists, especially the performing artists. They elevate our cultural experience, often buoyed only by the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. So a big hand to the ensembles of Pride & Prejudice and Hood, whose entire casts impressed me in 2017 precisely because they embodied the strength of ensemble acting: Unity, versatility, generosity.  

It comes as little surprise, then, that some members of those same casts stood out in other productions as well. P&P’s Bob Hess stole all his scenes in Uptown’s La Cage aux Folles; John-Michael Marrs caricatured Charles Dickens expertly in Discord; Brandon Potter stood out in Austen as one of the Straight White Men; and Wendy Welch, Mikey Abrams and especially Jodi C. Wright totally delighted audiences in the unexpected musical confection It Shoulda Been You.

Linda Leonard was also great in Shoulda, but it was her turn (again) as former Gov. Richards in Ann that became her signature role. Morgana Shaw likewise revisited a part, that of Bette Davis, in All About Bette, and she was transformatively excellent. Sherry J. Ward played herself in her self-written solo show Stiff, about her battle with a rare muscular disease, but it was an acting triumph nonetheless — one breathtakingly real.

Everyone in The Necessities was at the top of their games as well in the year’s most exciting new play: Christie Vela, Alison Pistorius, Matthew Gray and Tex Patrello. Patrello was one of the revelations this year, but hardly the only one. It is always wonderful to discover younger, newer artists, like the raw work by Zach Leyva in the monologue Tommy Cain and Doak Rapp in Ironbound, Kyle Fox Douglas as the angry teen in Br’er Cotton, and Darren McElroy in both Passing Strange and The Minotaur. Meanwhile, some experienced actors reminded us of the depth of their talent, like the unstoppable Julie Johnson as Mame, and Jennifer Kuenzer, in her best role in ages, as Desiree in A Little Night Music. Chad Cline made us laugh at ourselves as the goosey gay hubbie in Cedar Springs, and Anastacia Munoz opened our eyes and cast them to the heavens in Silent Sky.

Two actors stood out especially in 2017, though. Kyle Igneczi seemed to be everywhere: As the hero in The Minotaur, a hippie in Hair and a budding drag queen in The Legend of Georgia McBride. This guy can go places. But it was his co-star in McBride who seemed incapable of making a bad choice: Walter Lee. As Miss Tracy, he lectures a straight man about the empowerment that comes with drag; he did something similar in Hit the Wall — not lecturing about the past, but living it, as a cross-dresser in 1969 who risked (literally) life and limb to live his truth. There’s rarely ever been a false note in a Walter Lee performance, whether singing, synching or outright dramatic acting. He had a banner season in 2017 — good enough, in fact, to be named Actor of the Year.

— Arnold Wayne Jones