Financial forecasters say that the Great Recession is winding down, with encouraging signs of an improving economy outweighing lingering negative effects such as high unemployment.

Interestingly, local theater has seemingly thrived in recent years, in number of productions if not robust coffers for various local companies.  ‘Tis a fact that area stages have been busy this past year offering an increased bounty of professional, community, college and cabaret performances.

More and more shows seem to be getting better and better.  From January through December I observed 144 local presentations, more than half of all the “theatrical” offerings available.  A total of 45 productions merited a rating of 4.5 or 5 on our five-star rating system.  If it seems that giving one-third of the presentations such high marks is excessive, it also demonstrates how the quality of local shows has continued to improve in recent years.

There was plenty of high-caliber work to go around.  The Muny presented a magnificent version of the sprawling musical, “Titanic,” as well as a stirring rendition of the classic “Show Boat” as Muny executive director Paul Blake announced he would retire following the 2011 season.  Mike Isaacson of Fox Associates is moving over to The Muny and will helm the legendary outdoor palace beginning in 2012.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis offered a superior version of “A Little Night Music” to celebrate the year of composer Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday, and also presented a whimsical rendition of Mozart’s enduring “Marriage of Figaro.”

The Rep proved that ‘venerable’ can be good with a delightful presentation of “You Can’t Take It with You,” and delivered a powerful and poignant production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”  The Shakespeare Festival presented a wonderful interpretation of “Hamlet,” with Jim Butz energizing in the title role, while St. Louis Shakespeare gave us a beguiling version of “The Tempest” with an ingenious, serpentine set designed by Christie Johnson and an arresting musical score by Jeff Roberts to underscore the magical effect of The Bard’s fantasy.  And the Black Rep mounted the finest version of “Romeo & Juliet” I have ever seen, setting its Motown-flavored show in Venice, Illinois. 

Stages brought us a highly satisfying “State Fair,” while The Fox hosted the touring production of the magnificent revival of “South Pacific.”  The Black Rep delivered a star turn by Vanessa Rubin in the title role of “Yesterdays: An Evening with Billie Holliday,” that unflinchingly showed both her public allure and private degradation.

New Line Theatre artistic director Scott Miller presented a provocative and compelling version of a show titled “The Wild Party” that had indifferent success off-Broadway in the 1999-2000 season, based on a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March about an abusive clown and a showgirl dancer caught in their own fatal attraction in the waning moments of vaudeville, with masterful performances by Jeffrey Pruett and Deborah Sharn.

One-person shows often can be stolid and dreary, but Teresa Doggett and Donna Weinsting were exceptions to that oft-observed rule.  Doggett was thoroughly ingratiating as the middle-class Englishwoman, “Shirley Valentine,” getting a second shot at life in a highly rewarding Stray Dog Theatre presentation, while Weinsting was at her best as an elderly Canadian woman at the mercy of junkies and bureaucracy in Echo Theatre Company’s “Another Home Invasion.”

St. Louis Actors’ Studio delivered with a smart, stylish telling of Neil Labute’s uncomfortable tale, “The Shape of Things,” as well as a rousing rendition of Tom Stoppard’s blend of history and music, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” and hilarious turns by Joneal Joplin and Whit Reichert in the title roles of “The Sunshine Boys.”  Mustard Seed Theatre offered engrossing productions of the politically charged “Fires in the Mirror” and Lynn Nottage’s poignant drama, “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” as well as enchanting rendition of Moliere’s timeless comedy, “Tartuffe.”

There were polished and pleasing presentations of the World War II psychological drama, “A Picasso,” at West End Players Guild and the cleverly conceived and executed story, “Proof,” about the movable line between genius and madness, in a first-rate production by Insight Theatre.  New Jewish Theatre offered a pair of intriguing works in its shiny new theater, the serious drama, “My Name Is Asher Lev,” and the jaunty musical tribute to Sophie Tucker, “Last of the Red Hot Mamas.”

Dramatic License Productions gave us a memorable telling of “That Championship Season,” Jason Miller’s sad tale of a group of men living in the glory days of their youth, the perennial favorite, “Steel Magnolias” that opened its new theater in Chesterfield, and a richly rewarding holiday show, “This Wonderful Life,” with Alan Knoll playing dozens of parts from Frank Capra’s enduring holiday flick, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

HotCity Theatre’s annual GreenHouse series has uncovered a number of gems since its debut, including “The Sinker,” a mysterious and arresting drama written by Jami Brandi that received a first-rate production under Annamaria Pileggi’s sharply focused direction.  HotCity also presented a dazzling rendition of Christopher Durang’s warped but rollicking new effort, “Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them” under artistic director Marty Stanberry’s measured guidance.

Comedy was front and center, too, in a number of wacky and offbeat works that jelled on local stages.  St. Louis Shakespeare scored with Jane Martin’s clever, updated paean to Chekhov, “Anton in Show Business,” while Stray Dog Theatre hit the mark with an engaging version of Douglas Carter Beane’s cautionary show biz tale, “As Bees in Honey Drown.”  And the fledgling Default Theater combined forces with the ephemeral Vanity Theatre for an amusing presentation of “All in the Timing,” several cleverly comic skits by David Ives.

Looking back on the year’s reviews, however, the following shows merit special recognition:

“Huckleberry Hostel,” presented by OnSite Theatre (honorable mention).  For sheer imagination and creativity it would be hard to top this consistently engaging and delightful new play by Dan Rubin.  The playwright ingeniously wove two plays into one, so that an audience was divided in half at the beginning, with some seeing one part of the show develop as the other half saw an ‘alternate universe’ of sorts unspooling on a second set, both having to do with a wacky landlady and several characters at her Soulard hostel inspired by Mark Twain’s classic “Huckleberry Finn.” A charming and witty tribute to Missouri’s favorite literary son in the centennial year of his death under Justin Rincker’s inspired direction, with appealing performances by Ann Marie Mohr, Jenn Bock, Emily Piro, Antonio Rodriguez and Rincker.

“Equus,” presented by HotCity Theatre (tie for 10th).  Peter Schaffer’s fascinating story about a young man who inexplicably blinds six horses was just as engaging as its original 1975 production in a sterling presentation mounted, so to speak, by HotCity Theatre and director Doug Finlayson.  From James Anthony’s masterful portrayal of a middle-aged psychiatrist sleepwalking through his own life to Drew Pannebecker’s precise portrait of the disturbed teenager, this presentation galloped in stirring fashion.  Aided with the contributions of handsome supporting performances by Steve Isom, Ruth Heyman, Emily Fischer, Kelly Ryan, Brian Jones and Michael Perkins on John Armstrong’s evocative set, HotCity’s rendition showed the championship pedigree of Shaffer’s probing drama.

“Evita,” presented by New Line Theatre (tie for 10th).  With posters of modern political figures framing his production, New Line artistic director Scott Miller reminded everyone what an invigorating and provocative work this musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice still can be.  Drawing uncomfortable parallels between charismatic politicians and easily swayed followers, New Line’s rendition featured a sizzling performance by John Sparger as the revolutionary Che, a deliberately toned-down Todd Schaefer as Argentinian dictator Juan Peron and Taylor Pietz displaying a beautiful voice and haunting presence as Peron’s mistress-turned-wife Eva Peron. With the crisp accompaniment of the New Line band conducted by Chris Peterson, Miller’s “Evita” was visceral, raucous and always entertaining.

“The 39 Steps,” presented by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (9th).  Adapted by Patrick Barlow from a novel by John Buchan that inspired the memorable 1935 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, this witty and hilarious comedy veers wildly from the movie to leave its own distinctive mark.  In contrast to the tension and suspense of the flick, Barlow’s version is a riotous send-up of Hitchcock’s distinctive style.  Under Martha Banta’s manic direction, just four performers played some 140 or so quirky characters over Scottish hill and dale and into a London theater.  Paul DeBoy handsomely handled the pivotal role of a dapper Englishman-turned-unwilling adventurer, caught in the snare of a mysterious femme fatale played deliciously by Marina Squerciati, with Michael Keyloun and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson essaying dozens of precious minor bits.  Clever references in James Wolk’s set, Barlow’s script and even Mic Pool’s sound design to famous Hitchcock scenes embellished this clever good time of a comedy.

“Long Day’s Journey into Night,” presented by Muddy Waters Theatre (8th).  Each year, Muddy Waters Theatre devotes its season to works by one noted playwright, such as Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams or Sam Shepard.  This season’s productions of works by Eugene O’Neill concluded with a standout presentation of his masterwork, “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”  Kari Ely gave a luminescent performance as the drug-addicted matriarch of the Tyrone clan, with Robert Ashton as her wealthy but miserly husband, an actor who has settled for the fame and familiarity of a single role.  Joshua Thomas was excellent as their wastrel older son Jamie while Aaron Orion Baker captured the sensitive tendencies of younger son Edmund (a theatrical version of O’Neill himself), with delightful support by Jennifer Theby as the spirited family maid.  Cameron Ulrich’s direction was almost balletic as he choreographed the relentless sniping of this dysfunctional but oddly loving brood.

“Five Guys Named Moe,” presented by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company (7th).  This musical revue by Clarke Peters is inspired by the music of legendary performer Louis Jordan, precursor of rock ‘n’ roll and known as “King of the Jukebox” for his cavalcade of hits spanning three decades.  The Black Rep offered a snappy, effervescent production directed by artistic director Ron Himes with the smooth accompaniment of musical director Charles Creath’s tight combo, an imaginative set designed by Chris Pickart dominated by a mammoth old-time radio and a rainbow of wild colors in Daryl Harris’ costumes.  Drummond Crenshaw, Horace E. Smith, Herman Gordon, Sean Walton, Gary E. Vincent and Anthony Tarvin Jr. were the dazzling quintet of title “Moes” and the hapless dude they visit to inspire in his lackluster romantic life.

“Master Class,” presented by Stray Dog Theatre (6th).  Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning drama is a poignant study of the prestigious master classes in the early 1970s at the Julliard School taught by legendary opera luminary Maria Callas.  Lavonne Byers’ bravura performance as the sad, lonely Callas was the centerpiece in a meticulous and brilliant presentation precisely guided by artistic director Gary Bell.  Martin Fox provided subtle support as Callas’ pianist Manny, while Jessica Tilghman, Leslie Sikes and Jon Garrett added well-calibrated portrayals of a trio of students.

“Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake),” presented by Echo Theatre Company (5th).  Echo artistic director Eric Little has a knack for finding little known, offbeat works that often celebrate the unsuccessful quests of quirky misfits.  Such is the case with this nifty gem by Sheila Callaghan that packs a bountiful supply of laughs and thought-provoking drama in its single quick act detailing the efforts of a troubled teen to blow up the drafty, decadent old apartment inhabited by her and her widowed mom.  In a bit of inspired lunacy, that apartment has murderous intentions of its own.  “Crumble” was insightfully directed by Little and featured engaging performances by Kirsten Wylder as the befuddled mom, Colleen Backer as her cat-crazy sister, Chelsea Serocke as the disturbed daughter, Terry Meddows as the self-absorbed building and Justin Ivan Brown as the celebrity fantasies of mom and daughter.

“Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” presented by New Jewish Theatre (4th).  Artistic director Kathleen Sitzer intentionally waited until her troupe’s 10th anniversary to mount a production of that most famous of all Jewish playwrights, Neil Simon.  She selected a work that not only showcases Simon’s unfailing ability to craft clever one-liners that support amusing stories, but also one which expertly captures that one brief shining moment (well, a clever composite, anyway) of the stunning array of writers who introduced Simon to his craft in the heyday of TV comedy and the classic “Your Show of Shows.”  Director Edward Coffield’s masterful direction utilized the expert comic timing of such local stalwarts as Bobby Miller (a wise-cracking blend of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks), Alan Knoll (Sid Caesar), Gary Wayne Barker (Woody Allen), Jordan Reinwald (Larry Gelbart), Christian Viera (Simon), Kirsten Wylder, B. Weller, Bob Harvey and Alexandra Woodruff.

“August: Osage County,” presented by The Fox Theatre (3rd).  Big, bold, bawdy and brash, Tracy Letts’ sprawling saga of a dysfunctional family on the Oklahoma plains won both the Tony Award for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008.  The Westons are a savage lot lurking barely beneath the veneer of civilized society, even if patriarch Beverly Weston is a retired professor and poet of some acclaim.  The combination of Letts’ superior dialogue, remarkable pacing for the three-hour drama achieved by director Anna Shapiro and the exhilarating performances of the 13-member ensemble of this touring production made “August: Osage County” a consistently engaging and exhilarating adventure into the dangerous realm of the mentally and emotionally unstable.  Estelle Parsons and Shannon Cochran stood out among the marvelously nuanced performances as the foul-mouthed matriarch and the strongest-willed of her three adult daughters, respectively.

“A Doll’s House,” presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio (2nd).  As part of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s season of “love and honor,” STLAS presented this quintessential work by Henrik Ibsen, often referred to as the “father of modern drama.”  A new translation by Zinnie Harris makes Ibsen’s structured dialogue more conversational and accessible to contemporary audiences.  Performed resoundingly by a disciplined cast under the expert tutelage of artistic director Milt Zoth, “A Doll’s House” made for a compelling and extremely satisfying evening of thought-provoking reflection.  Julie Layton delivered a stellar performance as Nora, a subjugated wife in a 19th century Norwegian village, a richly textured reading that superbly delineated Nora’s gradual emotional growth and intellectual development.  R. Travis Estes offered a convincing portrayal of Nora’s self-centered, shallow husband, with excellent supporting turns by Missy Miller, Greg Johnston, Chad Morris and Sally Eaton.

“Crime and Punishment,” presented by The Rep (1st).  Another adaptation of a classic piece of literature, this one-act, 90-minute production was far and away the best local presentation in 2010. Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus concocted their own brilliant adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s intense, 19th century psychological masterpiece about Raskolnikov, an educated but impoverished young man who kills an elderly pawnbroker and then engages in a battle of wits with the deceptively perceptive police inspector Porfiry (prototype for TV’s “Columbo”).

Everything worked flawlessly in this engrossing, mesmerizing presentation directed by Stuart Carden, which featured a brilliant lighting design by Brian Sidney Bembridge and a scenic design by Gianni Downs that emphasized the strident chaos of Raskolnikov’s troubled psyche.  Jimmy King’s lean and hungry look was perfect in depicting the killer’s inner ragings and convoluted thinking.  Amy Landon was superior in several supporting roles as Raskolnikov’s devoted mother, the taciturn pawnbroker and a compassionate young woman driven to prostitution yet possessing an unyielding faith in God. Triney Sandoval completed the cast in two roles, as the young woman’s dissolute father and as the amiable, cunningly sharp inspector.  “Crime and Punishment” was a compelling and fascinating journey into actions, consequences and possible theological implications.

As the ‘bar’ for local performances continues to be raised each year, we the audience benefit from the plentiful supply of talented artists, both on stage and behind the scenes, and are richer in spirit and mind because of their passion to their craft.  Here’s a heartfelt thanks for all their tireless efforts.