Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Theater feature: The Hapsters, 2009 edition

Marcus Bellamy and Holly Shunkey
in Vices: A Love Story.
(Photo by Sean Lawson)

By Hap Erstein

Producers, who will accept any award, covet them. Actors, who probably do not realize they are rarely complimentary, list them in their program bios. What are they? The annual Hapster Awards, given for achievement -- usually “dubious" -- in theater during the past year.

So here are the 2009 Hapsters (Sorry, times are tough and we couldn’t afford envelopes):

Best Play about Current Events Written 104 Years Ago: Harley Granville-Barker’s 1905 The Voysey Inheritance, which predicted Ponzi schemes before Ponzi and the Bernie Madoff debacle long before the faux-investment adviser ripped off much of Palm Beach County’s wealth. No word yet on the Caldwell Theatre’s play selection from its major donors who were Madoff victims.

Best Onstage Self-Multilation: Six times a week, in Florida Stage’s The Storytelling Ability of a Boy, actress Bethany Anne Lind takes a nail gun and pneumatically pounds a nail into her hand, nailing it to a wall onstage as blood trickles from the nail hole down her arm. How does she do it? Very well.

Worst Broadway Two-Play Repertory by America’s Most Commercially Successful Playwright: You think you had a bad autumn? Think about Neil Simon, who was supposed to have two of his best scripts, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound in rotation in New York. But despite encouraging reviews for Memoirs, so few theatergoers showed up that it closed after a week, while Broadway Bound was scrubbed before it could complete its rehearsals.

Best High-Stepping Performance by a Pregnant Woman: Jodie Langel, who played Eva Peron in the Maltz Jupiter’s production of Evita. She coyly played for sympathy with reviewers by confiding in those who interviewed her in advance that she would be performing the strenuous role while in the family way. There is no evidence to the rumor that her baby popped out eventually singing, Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.

Burt Reynolds in Barrymore.

Gain Some: Welcome the Burt Reynolds’ Under-the-Bridge Players, a new version of the long-since defunct Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training. The new Jupiter-based company opened in December with Buddy himself taking the stage in an approximation of John Barrymore in William Luce’s play Barrymore. While there is little comparison between the two men’s acting skills, the parallels between Barrymore’s fixation on courage-inducing alcohol and Reynolds’ addiction to painkillers was unmistakable.

Lose Some: Avi Hoffman’s New Vista Theatre was headed for its most ambitious year yet in 2009. But early on, it bowed to the realities of the economy and cancelled its production of The Producers. Then bowing to the Madoff ripple effect, it canceled the world premiere of The Shop on Main Street, a serious musical that Hoffman had long workshopped. By year’s end, Hoffman looked at the company’s cash on hand -- OK, it was a brief glimpse -- and declared New Vista kaput.

Worst Swan Song Play Choice: Caldwell Theatre artistic director and co-founder Michael Hall announced his retirement in the spring, to do some traveling and some writing. He has much to be proud of in his long tenure as a pioneer of Palm Beach County theater. One of those things is not his final production, the painfully lame Agatha Christie spoof, Something’s Afoot, which he proudly, and puzzlingly, proclaimed in his program notes is one of his favorite shows of all time. Just in case his audience was already feeling nostalgic for his taste in shows?

Best Start of a New Artistic Director:
If The Hapsters were Time magazine, its Man of the Year award would go to Clive Cholerton. He burst out of the starting gate as the Caldwell’s new artistic director with the world premiere of Vices: A Love Story, a steamy dance show that proclaimed this would no longer be your father’s Caldwell. It was followed by the dramatic powerhouse, The Whipping Man, an on-point staged reading of Sunday in the Park with George and David Mamet’s take on investment cons, The Voysey Inheritance. Still to be determined, though, is whether Cholerton can bring the Caldwell’s average audience member age down below 75.

Best (we hope) Announced Moving Plans: After aborted plans to move its operations to CityPlace, an empty Boynton Beach high school, the Opera Place project and Royal Poinciana Plaza, Florida Stage announced plans to pack up and move out of Manalapan’s Plaza del Mar and into the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse. The architectural drawings look good, but injecting sufficient warmth into that space will be a challenge.

At the same time, long-eager-to-move GableStage in Coral Gables announced it will be moving a few seasons off into a mixed-use complex on the site of the long-shuttered Coconut Grove Playhouse. Hmm, if they re-name themselves GroveStage, as artistic director Joe Adler anticipates, they won’t have to get new monogrammed towels.

Worst Imitation of an Active Theater: The Cuillo Centre for the Arts has been collecting cobwebs for most of 2009, as its announced summer hiatus stretched for the remainder of the year. The only significant booking it had during the year was Looped, starring Valerie Harper as a foul-mouthed Tallulah Bankhead. Harper was impressive, but when the production arrives on Broadway later this season, expect the critics there to point out that there is no play there to support her.

In Memoriam: Richard Akins, executive director of the defunct Jupiter Theatre.
Barbara Gault, longtime manager of the Royal Poinciana Playhouse.
Shelly Gross, Broadway producer, co-owner of the Music Fair theater circuit, author and major donor to Palm Beach Dramaworks.

Thomas Jefferson Award (In tribute to President Kennedy’s quip that the greatest gathering of minds at the White House was when T. Jefferson dined alone): To the Kravis Center, for its A Conversation with Stephen Sondheim, one-night live interview with the brilliant composer-lyricist. Now, if we could only get him to buy some longer socks.

Best New Internet TV-Radio Chat Show: Aisle Say, launched June 8 on www.rpbradio.com, with co-hosts Hap Erstein and Bill Hirschmann, freelance theater critics for The Palm Beach Post and South Florida Sun-Sentinel, respectively, and it hasn't gone out of business in six months. (OK, this one is a little self-serving, but, hey, they’re my Hapsters.)

Best Productions of 2009

1. Vices: A Love Story (Caldwell)
2. Yankee Tavern (Florida Stage)
3. Barnum (Maltz Jupiter)
4. Jersey Boys (Broward Center)
5. A Little Night Music (Broward Stage Door)
6. Viva Bourgeois (Mad Cat Theatre Co.)
7. Sunday in the Park with George (Caldwell)
8. Speed-the-Plow (GableStage)
9. 700 Sundays (Kravis Center)
10. Third (Riverside Theatre)

Worst Productions of 2009

1. Something’s Afoot (Caldwell)
2. The Wizard of Oz (Kravis Center)
3. Bridegroom of Blowing Rock (Florida Stage)
4. Knish Alley (Broward Stage Door)
5. Legally Blonde (Kravis Center)

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