2012 Top 11 in St. Louis Theatre* | Andrea Braun

best2012 sqI’m counting to 10 like Spinal Tap does because I couldn’t figure out which show I could drop from this list.


2012 hairyape

I’m counting to 10 like Spinal Tap does because I couldn’t figure out which show I could drop from this list. 2012 in St. Louis theater has been, as it is every year, an adventure. Some productions were outstanding, and you’ll read about 10 (okay 11) of them here followed by a list of those who nearly made the cut. This year seemed especially hard to narrow down. Any of the shows listed here, including the nods in the “honorable mentions,” could easily be in someone else’s top 10. Actually, they could be in mine on a different day or certainly in some other years. Here’s what I saw that was very, very good, in no particular order except for the first, which is truly Number One.

1. Stray Dog Theatre | Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia

Stray Dog Theatre pulled off a stunning production of this 6½ hour Tony Kushner theatrical gem told in two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” on alternate weekends over a six-week run. The cast was composed of excellent actors, some doing the best work I’ve seen from them. Angels begins in 1985 and is built around the AIDS crisis at its height in Reagan America. This Pulitzer Prize-winning opus is one of the great pieces of 20th century theater, and this Herculean effort did it proud. Directed by Gary F. Bell and performed by an excellent cast—Steve Peirick, Rachel Hanks, Sarajane Alverson, Greg Fenner, Aaron Paul Gotson, and the stunningly good Ben Watts, Laura Kyro, and David Wassilak—it is firmly lodged in my consciousness. I saw nothing better in this past year, and I don’t expect it to be topped anytime soon.

2. Rep Studio Theatre | The Invisible Hand

Ayad Akhbar’s clever hostage drama has a surprising number of funny moments, but they don’t break the tension in this unexpected story of a bond between a hostage and his guard in Pakistan. John Hitchcock as captive and Bhavesh Patel make an appealing pair, supported by Ahmad Hassan and, in a cameo, Rep regular Michael James Reed. Seth Gordon directed the show with a fine (invisible) hand and a solid understanding of the meaning of the title taken from Adam Smith’s economic theories. In the review of this play, I referred to the audience developing a kind of Stockholm Syndrome as we are held captive by the story and the actors. I stand by that.

3. Opera Theatre of St. Louis | Sweeney Todd

One of the rare “crossovers” in musical theater, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street can be staged as an opera or as a conventional musical; its complex score and dramatic plot is that flexible. This production was beautifully sung and acted by Rod Gilfry, perhaps a bit too appealing as the title character; Karen Ziemba as Mrs. Lovett and Timothy Nolen as Judge Turpin lead a splendid ensemble, and the orchestra played every note of Stephen Sondheim’s score with precision and artistry. Ron Daniels directed with OTSL musical director Stephen Lord in charge of the pit.

4. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Mainstage | Sunday in the Park with George

Stephen Sondheim (with James Lapine) gets another nod for this beautiful production directed by Rob Ruggiero, who usually comes to town once a year and puts on a killer show. Here is his 2012 contribution. Ron Bohmer is the obsessed painter George Seurat, and this is the fictionalized story of the making of his most famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Erin Davie is his neglected lover, Dot, whose story drives the weaker second act. But George deserves its place on the list for its absolutely stunning visuals. The tableaux of Seurat’s work recreated by the cast are arresting, almost breathtaking.

5. HotCity Theatre | The Divine Sister

From the sublime to the ridiculous, after Sondheim comes Charles Busch, the writer of this play, plus Psycho Beach Party, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, and other outrageous comic “tours de farce.” Here, John Flack, Stages St. Louis’ go-to guy for supporting roles in nearly all of its musicals, becomes a star by putting on a nun’s habit and emoting his heart out as Mother Superior of St. Veronica’s convent and school in 1966 Pittsburgh. He has hilarious support from Lavonne Byers, Kirsten Wylder, Susie Wall, Chopper Leifheit, and Alyssa Ward. This also gets a special mention for making me laugh more than anything else I saw this year. Marty Stanberry directed with humor, of course, but also heart.

6. R-S Productions | 9 Circles 

A new company, R-S spun off from Soundstage Productions, now closed, which specialized in readers’ theater. R-S has grown up under Artistic Director Christina Rios to put on full productions of the kinds of shows off-Broadway once provided. They had a successful year overall, but to me, this was the best of the season. Bill Cain’s searing drama about a soldier who fought in Iraq and has been charged with a horrifying crime is hard to watch but, at the same time we are compelled not to look away. Greg Hunsaker directed St. Louis newcomer Michael Scott Rash to one of the best performances of the year. He was ably supported by B. Weller, Michelle Hand, and John Wolbers.

7. Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis | Othello

When your company only does one show a year and has a big budget to do it, we expect greatness, and most of the time, we get it. This year’s Othello was close to 2010’s Hamlet (both directed by Bruce Longworth) in overall excellence. Justin Blanchard’s Iago is one for the ages, and while not the strongest Othello I’ve seen, Billy Eugene Jones conveyed the essence of Shakespeare’s ultimate outsider whose lack of confidence in himself enables tragedy engendered by the ultimate villain to occur. Heather Wood is a lovely Desdemona and Joshua Thomas a dashing Cassio, with a large supporting cast of fine actors.

8. Upstream Theatre | The Hairy Ape 

Philip Boehm gave us a rare opportunity to see a Eugene O’Neill play that is not often performed, but is certainly worthy of attention. In fact, the existential examination of man vs. machine is as relevant now as it ever has been. It was flawlessly staged by director Boehm and performed by Christopher Harris as the aptly named “Yank,” a frightening, mesmerizing mountain of a man who, literally, rages against the machine. Each supporting performance is fully formed and felt, as well, with Tim Schall, John Bratkowski, and especially William Grivna as the old salt, Paddy. Michelle Burdett Elmore and Maggie Conroy provided solid support, as well.

9. Max and Louie Productions | The Violet Hour

Sydnie Grosberg Ronga was at the helm of this outstanding rendering of Richard Greenberg’s weirdly wonderful play involving a magical machine, a kind of time travel, a couple of love stories, a publishing business, and a most unusual assistant known only as “Gidger” acted by one of the best utility players in St Louis, Antonio Rodriguez. Drew Pannebecker was his buttoned-up boss, a kind of Gatsby figure without as much angst, and Monica Parks was outstanding as Pannebecker’s older, wiser lover. Betsy Bowman managed to be both adorable and scary, and Jake Ferree’s high-energy turn as a college buddy of the publisher’s was also notable. It was engrossing and different.

10. Stray Dog Theatre | Spring Awakening 

This is, for me at least, the “year of the dog.” Save one, every 2012 show Stray Dog put up was a winner. This was a touching rendition of the Broadway Tony Award-winning rock musical which opened the new season. From unlikely source material, Franz Wedkekind’s 1891 drama, banned it its own time for its graphic depictions of teenage sexuality. Zach Wachter and Melissa Southmayd play young lovers whose story ends in heartbreak, and Ryan Foizey turns in exquisite work as a boy with a demanding father who is experiencing difficulty in school and in coming to terms with his own sexuality. Chris Peterson added strings to his rock ensemble to excellent effect, and Justin Been’s direction contained many interesting choices.

11. New Jewish Theatre | Way to Heaven 

Doug Finlayson directed a heartbreaking and frightening story of a “model concentration camp.” Based on a true story, the camp was faked to pass an inspection by the Red Cross, showing happy, productive citizens, well-schooled and nourished children, good medical care, and enviable living conditions. Jason Cannon was imposing as the Commandant; Terry Meddows played the “mayor” of the “town” with pride, as well as fear; and Jerry Vogel provided narration at the beginning and end. The ensemble cast was excellent, too, with an especially effective turn by 10-year-old Elizabeth Teeter, and even big actors like Julie Layton in small parts. Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga has written a minor masterpiece.

Honorable Mention (11 shows, again, in no particular order): Urinetown and Fully Committed (Stray Dog Theatre), Eleemosynary (Slightly Askew Theatre Company), Dinner With Friends (Dramatic License Theatre Company), The Adding Machine (R-S Productions), Season’s Greetings and Good (St. Louis Actor’s Studio), Lost in Yonkers and Talley’s Folly (New Jewish Theatre), Going to See the Elephant (Mustard Seed Theatre), The Foreigner (the Rep). And I’ve still had to leave some worthy efforts out, even with allowing myself 22 citations total, which is, by the way, a great problem to have. Please make it your 2013 resolution to GO SEE A PLAY!

*Touring productions at the Fox and Peabody Theatres have not been included. Also, I did not see any of the Muny’s musicals in 2012. As always, I must add that I have not seen everything presented in this calendar year. For example, noteworthy shows I missed (according to other “best” lists) include but are not necessarily limited to Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Stages St. Louis), No Child (The Black Rep), Stupefy! The 90-Minute Harry Potter (Magic Smoking Monkey), and Bug (Muddy Waters Theatre). | Andrea Braun

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