I’ve been pretty damn blessed to see lots of great theatre this past year. And while lots of it was excellent, some was okay, and a few shows were downright snoozers, themagic of theatre in the Bay Area was on full display in 2012. I was also able to get out to New York City for three shows, two of which made my list (Sorry Ricky Martin, still loved the show). In order of the calendar, here is a retrospective of my top 10 shows of the year.
- Double Indemnity – San Jose Repertory Theatre (January) – This piece was loaded with intrigue, bringing forth a dazzling murder-mystery to Downtown San Jose. Carrie Paff’s turn as siren housewife Phyllis Nirlinger meshed nicely with John Bogar’s simple insurance salesman Walter Huff. Richard Ziman’s multiple-character turn as both Phyllis’ murdered husband and an investigator who puts together the disturbing pieces was a great display of range.
- Memphis – The Sam S. Shubert Theatre, Broadway (April) – The TheatreWorks Silicon Valley-born creation sparkled on the New York City stage, as well as a dazzling touring production which came through Downtown San Jose this year. The 2010 Best Musical Tony Award winner was blessed to keep a hold on five of the original cast members through its entire Broadway run, including the great Montego Glover as Felicia, J. Bernard Calloway as Felicia’s intimidating brother Delray, and the tortured and silent Gator, played brilliantly by Derrick Baskin. Filling in masterfully for Chad Kimball, who created the role of Dewey Calhoun was “Rent” star Adam Pascal.
- Red – Berkeley Repertory Theatre (April) – In Les Waters’ final show as associate artistic director, he directed a masterpiece, tethered with a brilliant acting performances by David Chandler, portraying tortured artist Mark Rothko. What I said at the time in regards to Chandler’s performance: “What’s left of his hair is in a constant flux, while a varied collection of classical vinyl recordings add a most interesting paradox. The beauty of the music, the anger of the work, and the fury of an artist.” What was so alluring about this production was the minutiae of the studio – priming a canvas, eating Chinese food, work lights. Waters’ penchant for shaping new work during his tenure in Berkeley is something the Bay Area will miss. Thankfully, he will continue his relationship with the Rep from his gig at the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville.
- Porgy and Bess – The Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway (April) – Without a doubt, one of the most magical theatre experiences I have had as a theatergoer. As I watched this show, I was so blown away by the fact that each note is steeped in the history of race in America, of desegregation amongst theatre audiences and a master class in storytelling. Director Diane Paulus’ direction was not terribly overstated and on a very simple set, allowing for the emphasis to be right where it needed to be – the music. The visceral performance of Audra McDonald, a beauty of a person and a gem of the American theatre on and off stage, was stunning. Add in the power and grace of Norm Lewis’ Porgy and David Alan Grier’s Sportin’ Life, and you have a show rich with grace and tenacity. To hear the sublimely beautiful notes of “Summertime,” covered in popular music by anyone and everyone, in those opening moments, as well as McDonald’s reprise was pure bliss in the Big Apple. Tony Award voters agreed – 10 Tony nominations and two awards garnered, including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for McDonald.
- Million Dollar Quartet – Broadway San Jose (May) – This simple plotted music extravaganza absolutely shook the walls of the Center for Performing Arts. As someone who grew up with this music from my dad, who sang in a nostalgia oldies band when I was a kid, so much honor and detail was paid to these masters of hot wax – Carl Perkins (Lee Ferris), Jerry Lee Lewis (Martin Kaye), Johnny Cash (Derek Keeling) and Elvis Presley (Cody Slaughter). Of all the words I used in my review of the show, only one was really needed – badass.
- In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play – City Lights Theatre Company, San Jose, CA (June) – Sarah Ruhl’s masterpiece, so beautifully directed by Les Waters in its world premiere, was once again magnificent at City Lights. So many nuanced touches brought forth by director Kimberly Mohne Hill, with some magnificent performances by the ensemble cast, with Elissa Beth Stebbins and Jeffrey Bracco at the forefront. Stebbins in particular grasped the challenges of playing the character of Catherine Givings with a hearty curiosity, while Bracco’s turn as a straight-laced scientific medical professional gave way beautifully to the tender conclusion.
- Bill W. and Dr. Bob – San Jose Repertory Theatre (July) – While the play had a few flaws when it came to certain interactions, what is undeniable is the power of the performance of the show’s title characters. Both Ray Chambers and Robert Sicular, who played Bill W. and Dr. Bob respectively, brought forth such pathos, allowing viewers into the minds of two individuals in the throes of a raging disease. As someone who did not know much of the history behind Alcoholics Anonymous, I found the subject matter fascinating, portrayed magnificently on a metaphoric stage filled with empty bottles of alcohol.
- Les Miserables – SHNSF at the Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco (August) – With lots of buzz for the movie, it is hard to imagine that you will hear a better version of Javert’s painful aria “Stars” than the version cranked out by Andrew Varela on the most recent national tour to come through the Bay. In addition, Peter Lockyer’s turn as the virtuous Jean Valjean was extremely visceral and gritty. Just like Valjean’s is the story of redemption, this particular production was my redemption as well. It went like this – on my way to the show, I lost my wallet, and didn’t make it to opening night. Luckily, I got an offer to review a few weeks later. So the wife and I get to the City, look for parking, can’t find any, and I get to the show late. Since I’ve seen the show about nine times prior, I knew exactly what moment late seaters can go in, and that sucked to miss out on the beautiful opening. So I walk into the lobby, hear that iconic opening, was told I can’t be seated, and then for some reason the music stops. Technical difficulties baby, let me in! Got to see the intro twice more, and the show started a half-hour later. Fortunately, life did not kill the dream I dreamed.
- Collapse – Renegade Theatre Experiment, San Jose (September) – This show proves one critical point about live theatre – who gives a damn about budgets, theatre size or the location. Give me a place to sit, a great story and top-notch acting performances any day of the week. “Collapse” was the best show I saw in the South Bay this year. Driven by a range-fest of a performance by Alika Ululani Spencer, Allison Moore’s brilliant script and Caitlin McGarty’s steady direction, a play like “Collapse” is why we go to theatre in the first place.
- 33 Variations – TheatreWorks (October) – Such physically demanding, visceral performances were at the heart of the story of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s four-year obsession with a simple waltz written by Anton Diabelli. The story, written by theatre pioneer Moises Kaufmann (The Laramie Project), is brilliant, full of wonderful little nuances and details (Beethoven liked soup, as evidenced by all the soup stains on his sheet music). Howard Swain’s portrayal of the petulant musical genius was delightful and sharp. And actor Rosina Reynolds performance going from fully healthy musicologist to a woman in her final moments with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, was powerful. Reynolds allowed for full invasiveness in her portrayal, a woman consumed with the man whose pettiness and musical abilities were legendary. In addition, William Liberatore’s live performance of the variations was deliciously enthralling.
May your theatergoing in 2013 be filled with everything you love about theatre. I look forward to sharing with you all more laughs, tears and thrills on our Bay Area stages tomorrow and beyond!