While the local theater scene felt less ‘busy’ than the last few years, a couple hundred productions were available to patrons in search of something new—or something familiar and beloved—to entertain them. Of the approximately 135 productions I viewed this year, dozens were splendidly presented. The following list ranks the 11 productions that made the most impact—in one reviewer’s opinion—in this fabulous year:
• No. 10 (tie): Way to Heaven (New Jewish Theatre) A Red Cross representative visits a Nazi concentration camp in 1942 and discovers that its Jewish prisoners have their own ‘village’—all a cruel ruse concocted by the camp commandant. In the New Jewish Theatre presentation, director Doug Finlayson subtly revealed the multiple layers of the script in cunning and fastidious fashion.
• No. 10 (tie): Memphis (Touring Production at The Fox) It’s 1951 in Memphis, and an aimless young white man named Huey Calhoun wanders into a black blues club on Beale Street and is swept away by his fervor for the music. Memphis is a joyous musical and a living, breathing history lesson, smartly capturing the simmering prejudices of America in the 1950s that resulted in the Civil Rights movement.
• No. 9: Angels in America (Stray Dog Theatre) Artistic director Gary Bell started preparing his cast a year in advance for their daunting challenge of memorizing playwright Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning scripts that cover seven and a half hours over two complete plays. The Herculean effort was stunning in both parts, which were performed in repertory over successive weeks at the Tower Grove Abbey theater.
• No. 8: The Hairy Ape (Upstream Theater) Slight in construction and expressionistic in style, this short tale of a proud stoker on a steamship whose very existence is questioned by a vacuous, upper-class woman was given a haunting and riveting rendition by Upstream’s artistic director Philip Boehm.
• No. 7: Ain’t Misbehavin’ (STAGES St. Louis) Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller became renowned as a jazz pianist and composer who hit the top of the pop charts in the 1920s and ‘30s. Decades after his youthful death, devotees Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. put together a Tony Award-winning Broadway revue focused on Waller’s works. STAGES set this rendition with its characters essaying the roles of the original 1978 Broadway cast—a clever touch by director and musical stager Michael Hamilton.
• No. 6: Good (St. Louis Actors’ Studio) John Halder is a professor of literature at a German university in 1933. When his ideas about euthanasia catch the fancy of Adolf Hitler, he is asked to join the Nazi movement—and ultimately convinces himself that theories about euthanasia, genetic purity and self-satisfaction are actually ‘good.’ Playwright C.P. Taylor’s magnificent drama was given a powerful, engaging and engrossing presentation by director Milton Zoth, and key to its success was B. Weller in the central role of Halder.
• No. 5: Sunday in the Park with George (The Rep) George, indeed, is in the park throughout this landmark two-act musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. In the first act, 19th century French painter Georges Seurat works on his towering masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. A century later, his great-grandson, struggling with his own artistic visions, visits the inspirational land of his ancestor. Director Rob Ruggiero’s production fully realized the work’s magnificence in a breathtaking interpretation of both the musical and the painting that inspired it—a resounding triumph on many levels.
• No. 4: Sweeney Todd (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis) Opera Theatre mounted an exhilarating and absorbing presentation that was top-notch in every respect. Rod Gilfry, who sang the title role in a Parisian performance last year, was commanding as the tortured and brooding Todd.
• No. 3: The Violet Hour (Max & Louie Productions) On April Fools’ Day 1919, aspiring publisher John Pace Seavering faces a serious dilemma. With money enough to publish just one work, he must choose between “a grouping of pages” compiled by his college pal, Denis McCleary; or the memoirs of his clandestine mistress, famous black songstress Jessie Brewster. Playwright Richard Greenberg’s two-act gem is a masterpiece of cunning and deception, and director Sydnie Ronga’s interpretation was intoxicating and intriguing.
• No. 2: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (The Black Rep) Four black musicians, who arrive at a Chicago recording studio on a wintry day in 1927, kill time until renowned blues singer Ma Rainey arrives with her stuttering nephew Sylvester and a young woman. She insists that Sylvester record the introduction to her latest song, just one in a series of aggravations for the band, her manager and producer that lead to short fuses in the cheap and decrepit old studio. The Black Rep’s production featured a cast that was uniformly superb.
• No. 1: Clybourne Park (The Rep) Chicago’s Clybourne Park neighborhood in 1959 is a fine place to live—if you look like its white residents. When a black family purchases a home there, the president of the neighborhood association asks the white couple selling the house to reconsider. In the drama’s second act—fast forward to 2009—the same brick bungalow is sought by a trendy young white couple who meets resistance from the black community that inhabits the neighborhood. Director Timothy Near’s presentation was a superior example of insightful writing and crystal clear interpretation that grabbed your heart and soul in an iron vise.
Who knows what 2013 will portend on local stages? Doubtless, though, we’ll be treated to artistic theatrical triumphs every bit as profound as what we were fortunate enough to witness and experience this year.