While 2008 is ending on a recessionary note economically, there’s little doubt that the St. Louis theater scene continues to grow, at least as far as the number of productions is concerned.  In reviewing my notes about shows covered this year, I noticed that the number I saw in person, 128, was at least 85 short of the total presentations offered by touring, professional, community and college companies in the area.  And that doesn’t count the dozens of performances offered by the burgeoning cabaret crowd.

So what stood out among the throng?  While poring over reviews and notes, I tabulate nine shows that received the top-of-the-line ‘5’ rating, with another two dozen or so just behind at 4.5.  Certainly, it appears that the caliber of presentations offered to local audiences seems to continually improve, doubtless aided and inspired by the Kevin Kline Awards now bestowed annually upon the best and brightest among local performers and technicians.

In examining the list of shows seen in the last 12 months, invariably some productions fade a bit in memory while others grow stronger, a true test of their lasting effect on this reviewer.  Here, then, are some reflections about several particularly strong presentations:

Strong dramas were plentiful on local stages.  The Rep’s Studio Theatre was the setting for a pair of splendid works, The Vertical Hour and Rabbit Hole.  The former work, written by David Hare, dealt with the meeting of two brilliant professionals on opposite sides of the Iraq war, played with calculated precision by Anderson Matthews and fiery ardor by Gloria Biegler.

The latter story is a sad, affecting tale by David Lindsay-Abaire about two parents trying to piece together their lives after their only child is killed in an accident.  Director Jane Page offered a strong realization of the sobering story, aided by an achingly effective sound design by Tori Meyer and superb performances by Victoria Adams-Zischke, Carolyn Swift and Ashley West.

The Rep also brought great theater to its Off-Ramp series with The Little Dog Laughed, a wicked tale about an aggressively ambitious Hollywood agent and the steps she takes to ensure that her gay, leading-man talent stays in the closet.  Director Rob Ruggiero turned in another splendid effort, aided by a strong cast led by the magnificent Erika Rolfsrud, who threatened to turn the show into a one-woman tour de force performance.

Stages brought us a pair of memorable musical presentations.  The Music Man demonstrated director Michael Hamilton’s innate understanding of what makes a musical tick, and featured a strong performance by Graham Rowat in the title role and some terrific supporting work by actors such as Whit Reichert, Steve Isom, Ben Nordstrom, Bill Lynch, Mike Dowdy and Gretchen Hewitt.

Thoroughly Modern Millie eschewed political correctness for a look at a starlet from Kansas searching for fame on Broadway circa 1922, played out on a gorgeous Art Deco set designed by Mark Halpin.  Mamie Parris, Ben Nordstrom, Graham Rowat, Kari Ely, Devin Ilaw and Allan Mangaser led the talented cast.

The Fox treated us to a terrific biography of The Four Seasons musical group with a strong touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical, Jersey Boys, guaranteed to please Baby Boomers who remember the music but also featuring a surprisingly strong story.  And Mamma Mia!, back for a fifth visit, continues to be an extremely entertaining evening, even if the story is silly, for ABBA fans.

Like Stages, The Muny showed that an old warhorse can still trot with a spirited rendition of My Fair Lady.  Robert Westenberg was consistently strong as the difficult Henry Higgins, while Catherine Brunell was a thorough delight as the spirited Eliza Doolittle.  An excellent supporting cast included Joneal Joplin, Zoe Vonder Haar, James Anthony and Anthony Cummings.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis presented a delightful rendition of Jacques Offenbach’s seldom performed Tales of Hoffman, in a lively adaptation written and directed by Renaud Doucet and Andre Barbe, played out on an intricate, M.C. Escher-style set, filled with colorful costumes that reflect each of the three disparate acts.  Ailyn Perez suitably played the many facets of the heroine, Stella, Garrett Sorenson was an amiable Everyman as Hoffman and Jennifer Johnson was a real treat as his “good” muse.

Muddy Waters Theatre each year devotes its season to one playwright.  This year it triumphed with a pair of exquisite presentations of Tennessee Williams dramas.  Vieux Carre was a beautifully modulated production directed by Annamarie Pileggi that looked at the collection of losers, outcasts and misfits who occupy a New Orleans boarding house that becomes the residence of a young writer from St. Louis in 1938.  The outstanding cast included Kevin Beyer, Julie Layton, Jared Sanz-Agero, Sally Eaton, Karen Wood, Luke Lindberg, Peggy Billo, Joshua Thomas, Lynelle White and Charlie Heuvelman.

Muddy Waters also scored with an arresting production of The Night of the Iguana, with Thomas fervently portraying a womanizing minister seeking sanctuary in a Mexican resort.  Jerry McAdams efficiently directed a strong cast that also included Julie O’Neill, MaryBeth Sherr, Bruce Collins, Sally Eaton and Ben Ritchie on a wonderful set designed by Sean Savoie.

The Black Rep presented an exhilarating musical titled Sarafina!, set in Soweto, South Africa in 1976, about an idealistic group of students who protest the government’s apartheid regime.  Producing director Ron Himes delivered one of his finest efforts, successfully corralling the talents of his youthful and exuberant cast, led by the irrepressible and charismatic Sharisa Whatley in the title role.  Regina Garcia designed the wonderfully atmospheric set, and Keith Tyrone’s choreography was a standout feature of the production.

The Orange Girls, who always seem to find provocative works, delivered a powerful drama titled The Road to Mecca, another drama set in apartheid-era South Africa.  This one explores the relationships between an idealistic teacher who works in Cape Town, an elderly and fiercely independent artist living in a remote and repressive village and an Afrikaner minister determined to move the artist into a retirement home.  Excellent performances by Brooke Edwards, Nancy Lewis and Richard Lewis, respectively, elicited by director Sarah Whitney, with fine technical work by Sarah Woodworth (costumes), Marc Moore (lighting), Brian Beracha (sound) and Scott DeBroux (set).

Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company consistently presents offbeat, clever works in unusual performance venues.  He chose Dressel’s Pub as the site for a witty, entertaining work titled The Good Thief by Irish playwright Conor McPherson.  With a clipped Irish accent, Hanrahan made this one-act, one-man show engaging and compelling from start to finish.

Scott Miller, artistic director of New Line Theatre, brought back one of his favorite works, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, which features a book by John Weidman.  Miller scored a coup by casting actors who successfully conveyed in looks, mannerisms and performance a disparate group of malcontents who each killed or attempted to kill the president of the United States.  Top-notch work by Matthew Korinko, Zachary Allen Farmer, Amy Leone, Cindy Duggan, Christopher “Zany” Clark, Brian Claussen, Jeffrey Wright, Scott Tripp, Aaron Allen and Andrew Keller in the title roles.

The always inquisitive mind of director Steve Callahan unearthed a gem titled Ladyhouse Blues, written by native St. Louisan Kevin O’Morrison, which was given a grand and loving rendition by Act Inc.  Set in south St. Louis and set just after World War I, it tells the story of widow Liz Madden and her four loving daughters who live in a “ladyhouse,” i.e., one not yet inhabited by returning soldiers.  Kim Furlow anchored the gifted cast with a sturdy portrayal of Liz, with fine work by Emily Strembicki, Carli Miller, Allison Courtney Hoppe and Valerie Jean Waters.

Another company that turns up in surprising venues is Echo Theatre, which chose Third Baptist Church as the site for an affecting drama titled Mary’s Wedding.  Magan Wiles and Ben Nordstrom excelled as a spirited Canadian young woman and the local farmboy who begins a shy and gentle courtship with her before he enlists in the Canadian Cavalry Corps and journeys to Europe in 1918 to participate in the last cavalry charge in military history.  The chemistry between the two players established a poetic rhythm to their characters in director Eric Little’s seamlessly paced production.

Jerry Vogel brought infectious charm and unbridled passion to The Concert, a wonderfully rhapsodic work about a Cuban musician who carries the dream of reuniting his Beatles cover band when he steals a statue of John Lennon from a park in Havana.  Filled with glorious versions of Beatles tunes such as Nowhere Man and Yesterday, the Upstream Theater production directed lovingly by artistic director Philip Boehm featured fine performances by Vogel, J. Samuel Davis, Peter Mayer and Norman McGowan as the band members, along with Briston Ashe as a dog (no kidding) and Farshid Soltanshahi as the motionless statue of Lennon who charmingly comes to life.

The Beatles also were the focus of a fun-filled evening at West Port Playhouse titled She Loves You!  Set in two acts labeled “1964-66” and “1967-69,” the multi-media presentation showcased the talents of four musicians who capably play the roles of John, Paul, George and Ringo as their musical style continued to evolve, but their ability to please millions of fans remained constant.  The show also incorporated hilarious TV commercials and newsreel footage of the times.

Stray Dog Theatre mounted a whimsical and effective presentation of the Stephen Schwartz-Roger Hirson musical, Pippin, at the Tower Grove Abbey.  Artistic director Gary Bell dressed his players as colorful gypsies in a production that was smart, stylish and sassy.  On-stage pianist David Horstman provided expert musical support for the spirited cast, which included Jeffrey Wright in the title role and Jeffrey Pruett as the cynical Leading Player, as well as Laura Kyro, Julie Venegoni, Leslie Sikes, Tyler Vickers, Chuck Lavazzi, Melissa Flynn, Julie Nagy, Michelle Sauer, Natasha Soro and Evan Robinson.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio co-founder Milton Zoth was at the top of his directing game with a riveting and provocative presentation of French playwright Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone.  Set in Nazi-occupied France, it suited the look and feel of fabled Thebes following a bitterly fought civil war.  Veteran actor John Contini was never better as Creon, showing us all dimensions of the man who would be king.  Equally excellent opposite him was Emily Baker as the title character, filling the part with passion, intelligence and a burning desire for justice.  Excellent support was provided by David Wassilak, Teresa Doggett, Megan Vickers, Aaron Orion Baker, William Roth, Ben Ritchie, Roger Erb, Paris McCarthy and Kelly McCarthy.

The Actors’ Studio also delivered a powerful performance of a sobering drama titled Nine Parts of Desire by playwright Heather Raffo, who originally played nine different roles as Iraqi women affected and savaged by the unspeakable atrocities of war.  Director Zoth divided up the acting chores between three gifted players, namely Brooke Edwards, Mary Schnitzler and Sara Renschen, who performed on a set by Patrick Huber that presented three different performing areas, with wonderful costuming by Teresa Doggett.

HotCity Theatre, which specializes in edgy and new material, presented an arresting drama by Theresa Rebeck titled The Scene.  The modern cautionary tale was alternately fitfully funny and scarily alarming as it delineated the destruction of a middle-age man and the dissolution of a marriage he carelessly casts aside.  Director Chuck Harper kept the focus on the characters and made the effort both breezy and ruminative.  Peter Mayer, John Pierson, Kate Frisina and Jennifer Nitzband comprised the excellent cast.

Other notable works performed during the year included an energetic and rousing version of The Comedy of Errors and a winning production of King Lear, both produced by St. Louis Shakespeare.  New Jewish Theatre presented an alarming story about modern skinheads titled Cherry Docs, with Charlie Barron as the indifferent killer and Joel Lewis as the complex Jewish attorney assigned to defend him.  And West End Players Guild offered an interesting and affecting take on A Perfect Ganesh, a wonderfully written and witty work by Terrence McNally.

While several presentations, such as Antigone, The Good Thief, The Night of the Iguana, Mary’s Wedding, Sarafina! and Assassin, vied seriously for a presence on the Top Ten list, the following productions are offered as the 10 best of 2008, in ascending order:

(10) The Dead Guy, by Hot City Theatre.  A scathingly funny and also highly disturbing view of America’s slavish devotion to celebrity worship and the hallowed “15 minutes of fame.”  Marty Stanberry’s direction was insightful, clever and spot-on, as were the performances of Rusty Gunther, Lavonne Byers, Adam Flores, Susie Wall, G.P. Hunsaker and Melissa Rae Brown;

(9) Scorched, by The Orange Girls.  An American premiere, this epic tale of the savage treatment of several women in a nameless Middle Eastern nation was a sober, gripping journey into the banality of evil as directed impeccably by Tom Martin.  Exhaustive and memorable performances were delivered by a terrific cast including Nancy Lewis, Michelle Hand, Magan Wiles, Brooke Edwards, Joel Lewis, Meghan Maguire, Robert Mitchell, Kevin Beyer and Bruce Longworth;

(8) Sweeney Todd, touring show at The Fox.  Rarely performed in St. Louis, this 1973 masterpiece by Stephen Sondheim came to town for just one weekend.  In a rendition of the newly stylized version from 2002, 10 performers not only acted magnificently but also played a variety of instruments superbly in telling the cautionary folk tale of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street;

(7) Blood Knot, by Upstream Theater.  John Pierson and J. Samuel Davis were riveting as a pair of brothers, one dark-skinned and one light-skinned, living in the suffocating prejudice of South African apartheid in 1961.  Under the precise and measured direction of Philip Boehm, these two marvelous actors gave us glimpses into the dreams and ugly reality of two tortured souls;

(6) Harlem Duet, by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company.  An imaginative script by Djanet Sears examines the life of Billie, the black first wife of Shakespeare’s Othello, in a ‘prequel’ that is set in three different eras of American history.  Innovative and dazzlingly directed by Ron Himes, with expert performances by Kingsley Leggs and Cherita Armstrong and  strong support by Linda Kennedy, Monica Parks, Dennis Lebby and Nicole Fabbri;

(5) The Late Henry Moss, by St. Louis Actors’ Studio.  Sam Shepard, the troubadour of the dark side of the fabled American west, provided the meaty script about two disparate brothers living in the shadow of a brutish father in a production brilliantly realized by director Milton Zoth and a wonderfully talented cast comprised of Kevin Beyer, David Wassilak, William Roth, Brooke Edwards, Larry Dell and John Pierson;

(4) Grace, by RiverCity Theatre and Vanity Productions.  A troubling story about a tightly wound Christian evangelist, director Greg Johnston’s production was everything provocative drama should be, with outstanding performances by Jason Cannon, Sarah Cannon, Dan Shea and Chad Morris;

(3) Smoke on the Mountain, by Mustard Seed Theatre.  The singing Sanders family has visited St. Louis numerous times in the last several years, but this production by Mustard Seed easily is the best.  Director Deanna Jent captured the warmth and humor of this homespun piece in a most affectionate realization.  She also expertly selected the cast, which not only delivered their lines with expert comic timing but also played a mean fiddle, mandolin, banjo, piano, ukulele and you-a-name-it with carefree abandon.  Colleen Backer stole the show as June, the Sanders daughter who is expert at sign language malapropisms, with wonderful efforts as well by Chris Limber, Deborah Sharn, Christopher Hickey, Tim Schall, Jennifer Theby, Dylan Duke, Joe Schoen, Kirsten Wylder, Ann Cailteux, Leslie Wobbe and Raphe Makarewicz;

(2) Twelve Angry Men, by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.  Reginald Rose’s courtroom work was one of the titans of drama in TV’s golden age a half-century ago, and was an exhilarating evening of theater at The Rep under the inspired direction of Martin Platt.  Powerful, engaging, provocative, stimulating, absorbing and timeless, the production was beautifully realized on Judy Gailen’s smart set that conveyed the atmosphere of the times, with marvelous lighting by Dan Kotlowitze and period costumes by Claudia Stephens.  The riveting ensemble cast included Jerry Vogel, Jeff Talbott, Greg Thornton and Peter Van Wagner among the myriad jurors debating a murder verdict;

(1) High Fidelity, by New Line Theatre.  Based on a novel by Nick Hornby, this stylish musical didn’t last long on Broadway, but its first incarnation beyond the Great White Way was a smashing success under the inspired direction of Scott Miller.  Superbly capturing the essence of Hornby’s characters, led by music-store-clerk-turned-owner Rob, the energy and passion of Miller’s cast was infectious and immensely appealing.  Jeffrey Wright showed us Rob’s vulnerability and sweetness beyond the rock ‘n’ roll sass, and his easy-going musical style delightfully conveyed the show’s triumphant spirit.

There was expert support from Aaron Lawson and Zachary Allen Farmer as Rob’s slacker buddies and marvelous work by a strong cast that included Kimi Short, Margeau Baue Steinau and Todd Micali.  The musical score by Tom Kitt, with clever lyrics by Amanda Green and amusing book by David Lindsay-Abaire provided delightful raw materials for Miller and his able artists, who included choreographer Robin Michelle Berger, costumer Amy Leone Kelly, set designer David Carr and lighting designer Michael Bergfeld.

Really, there were many, many productions this year that showed considerable skill and ability on the parts of the performers on stage and the artists behind the action.  Let’s give thanks for this artistic renaissance, and look forward to what’s ahead in 2009.