Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bests of 2008: Theater

Nanique Gheridian (center) stole the show in
Palm Beach Dramaworks' production of 'Benefactors.'

By Hap Erstein

1. Master Class (Maltz Jupiter Theatre) — The interweaving of the life of opera great Maria Callas, her tempestuous public coaching sessions and Terrence McNally’s musings on the nature of art makes for exciting theater, but it needs a powerful actress in the central role. It got it in the fiery, and occasionally fragile, Gordana Rashovich, who as Callas ranks with the best. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge brought out unexpected resonances in the text, turning the production into more than a one-woman show.

2. Benefactors (Palm Beach Dramaworks) — Good intentions go astray, in urban redevelopment and human relationships, in this intricate, thought-provoking drama in which playwright Michael Frayn channeled Henrik Ibsen. Todd Allen Durkin was well-cast as a self-appointed contrarian, but Nanique Gheridian took the acting honors as dithering appendage who goes through a metamorphosis to her own combustion point.

3. The Full Monty (Maltz Jupiter Theatre) — Peek-a-boo male nudity arrived on the Maltz stage for the first time and the audience ate it up. Director Alan Souza and choreographer Ron De Jesus delivered a polished, high-testosterone, inventive production about unemployed steel workers who form a Chippendale's act, and the result was the best musical package ever in the company’s short history. The cast was top-notch, but no one could stop Mimi Hines from stealing the show as the act’s salty rehearsal pianist.

4. A Body of Water (Mosaic Theatre) — Like water, this tone poem play by Lee Blessing was slippery and elusive, but those who puzzled through it found it lodged in their heads for a long time afterward. Beth Dimon and Ken Clement played a married couple who awoke each morning with no memory of each other. The onset of Alzheimer’s? A metaphor for all marriages? Even without an answer, these murky waters proved to be mesmerizing.

5. The Count (Florida Stage) — Where would American drama be without the dysfunctional family? Roger Hedden served up a prime example, with a Houston foursome of increasingly frail parents, squabbling grown children and a new addition — a mysterious count who has attached himself to the patriarch. Picture Moliere’s Tartuffe grafted onto Painting Churches, a play that could only become more relevant in the age of Bernard Madoff. Lou Tyrrell directed with equal parts confrontation and humor.

6. Souvenir (Palm Beach Dramaworks) — The history of socialite and concert singer wannabe Florence Foster Jenkins, tone-deaf but adored, is factual and you could not make up such a preposterous tale if you tried. Her climb to Carnegie Hall acclaim is lovingly laid out by Stephen Temperly and her shoes and outlandish costumes were well filled by Beth Dimon in full screech. Narrating and providing nimble accompaniment was Tom Kenaston as the improbably named Cosme McMoon, and the result was a perfect little gem of an evening. As long as you covered your ears.

7. Suite Surrender (Caldwell Theatre Co.) — Prolific local playwright Michael McKeever must have been trying to give the Caldwell an ensemble comedy hit like its rib-tickling Lend Me A Tenor when he came up with this farcical World War II-era sitcom about two stellar divas who are mistakenly checked into the same Palm Beach hotel suite. Hilarity ensued, as they say, thanks to a sublime cast headed by Beth Dimon (gosh, she’s in a lot of my favorite shows) and Suellen Estey as the stars and McKeever as Dimon’s pipsqueak factotum. This could grow into his most commercial script yet.

8. I’m Not Rappaport (New Vista Theatre Co.) — Herb Gardner’s Tony Award-winning geriatric comedy about two octogenarians on a Central Park bench did not seem to be showing its age in this assured, restrained production directed by Amy London. Matlock’s Clarence Gilyard played the sight-challenged custodian, well matched by Bruce Adler as a crusading trouble-maker, with memories of the production all the fonder knowing it was the late Adler’s swan song to the theater.

9. Blackbird (GableStage) — GableStage is not accustomed to producing love stories, but one as sick and twisted as David Harower’s Olivier Award match-up between a factory foreman and the underage girl he abused 15 years earlier obviously appealed to the company. In a year of first-rate performances, Gordon McConnell gave one of his best ever as a man trying desperately to keep his reinvented life from cracking open and Mary Rasmussen is a mercurial actress to be reckoned with.
David Alvarez in the Broadway production
of 'Billy Elliot.'

10. Billy Elliot (Imperial Theatre, New York) — OK, this one is a bit of a cheat, but get thee to Broadway to see the best new musical of the decade, Elton John and Lee Hall’s re-imagining of the 2000 gritty feel-good movie about the coal miner’s son who yearns to be a ballet dancer. It would be hard not to root for young Billy, no matter which of the three alternating lads you see, and hankies will also come in handy. Dance has been downplayed in musicals lately, but it is back forcefully thanks to Peter Darling’s choreography.

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