The quantity of local theatrical productions may have plunged in 2020 and 2021 because of pandemic-related delays and cancellations, but quality in no way dropped, as testified by this list, in ascending order, of the top 10 such productions.
10. “The Band’s Visit,” touring company at The Fabulous Fox Theatre. The winner of 10 Tonys, “The Band’s Visit” at The Fox featured both captivating music and a heartfelt story about an Egyptian musical act that accidentally lands in the wrong city while touring Israel – a highly engaging, refreshing, reaffirming and even revelatory presentation.
9. “Now Playing Third Base for the St. Louis Cardinals … Bond, James Bond,” The Midnight Company. Joe Hanrahan, founder and artistic director of The Midnight Company, was enthralling as he narrated and starred in this absorbing yarn, which he also wrote. He and director Shane Signorino made“Now Playing” rewarding and educational, accentuating both the good and the bad of mid-20th century St. Louis and American history.
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8. “Songs for Nobodies,” Max & Louie Productions. In this one-woman show, Debby Lennon became almost a force of nature by portraying 10 different characters. She displayed an impressive breadth of talent as both singer and actress in Max & Louie Productions’ richly realized interpretation of Joanna Murray-Smith’s intriguing “Songs for Nobodies.”
7. “Mlima’s Tale,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. The Rep returned to live theater in 2021 with a fascinating, expertly woven rendition of Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s drama – an affecting, informative story of modern poaching and the people who variously continue to support that illegal, destructive activity. Shariffa Chelimo Ali’s keenly focused direction astutely emphasized the true tragedy of “Mlima’s Tale.”
6. “Annapurna,” St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Under Annamaria Pileggi’s gripping direction, John Pierson and Laurie McConnell sizzled in a stunning, sobering production of Sharr Wilson’s searing two-character play. The pair gave master-class acting performances as an alcoholic former English prof and his ex-wife, making “Annapurna,” by turns, amusing and devastating – the epic journey of two people clutching the remnants of a once-proud union.
5. “Chicago,” The Muny. Denis Jones’ frenetic direction let The Muny close its abbreviated 2021 season with a crackerjack musical: composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb’s stylish, sexy and always scintillating “Chicago.” Through Jones’ inspired efforts, The Muny’s interpretation had all the razzle-dazzle one could want – or handle.
4. “Comfort,” SLAS. Again under Pileggi’s meticulous direction, Kari Ely and Spencer Sickmann performed formidably in this taut, provocative world-premiere drama by established playwright Neil LaBute. For viewers, the real “comfort” of SLAS’ “Comfort” involved enjoying important new work given such remarkable life in its debut.
3. “The Thanksgiving Play,” The Rep. In January 2020, The Rep and associate artistic director Amelia Acosta Powell delivered a hilarious holiday treat with an expert rendition of the comedy “The Thanksgiving Play,” a treasure on several levels. In it, Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse took a hysterical yet subtly educational look at so-called manifest destiny, taught in American history books for centuries.
2. “Two Trains Running,” The Black Rep. With The Black Rep’s “Two Trains Running,” set in the late ’60s, director Ed Smith wove a masterpiece of a production through the expert use of his cast and technical staff, including Broadway star James A. Williams, company founder and producing director Ron Himes and J. Samuel Davis.
1. “Dress the Part,” St. Louis Shakespeare Festival. This musical comic romp written by Chicago’s Q Brothers, GQ and JQ, presented a frenzied, hilarious hip-hop take on William Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” – set in Verona College Prep high school. Between them, Jordan Moore and Garrett Young, two sensational, manic performers, incredibly played more than a dozen roles. GQ and JQ co-directed, maintaining an incredible pace and consistent high jinks courtesy of Moore’s and Young’s incomparable performances. Kudos to St. Louis Shakespeare Festival artistic director Tom Ridgely et al. for bringing the metro area this phenomenal show.