Monday, April 15, 2024

The Top 10 South Florida Plays/Musicals of 2011

For this special countdown of the best South Florida theatrical productions of 2011, I’ve included samples from my original reviews followed by new, reflective comments on how the shows have stuck with me.

10. Red at GableStage

What I said then: As a text, “Red” leans heavily on an overly symbolic, measured coldness that might distance some viewers. Luckily, Gregg Weiner, and to a lesser but still moving extent Ryan Didato, infuse their characters with such humanity that we never forget we’re looking at flesh-and-blood people and not mannequins for philosophical worldviews.

What I say now: Only in a particularly exceptional year of regional theatre could a flawless production of a pretty flawless play only capture the No. 10 spot. It just shows you what a bang-up year 2011 was. Weiner was a calmly staggering Mark Rothko, underplaying the mercurial painter’s day-to-day actions so that his outbursts had the effect of a wild animal suddenly wired to pounce. Great makeup and ambience, too.

9. Light in the Piazza at Broward Stage Door

What I said then: The songs are not infectious and poppy; rather, they have the baroque complexity of opera. Unlike most shows set in foreign countries, in which all the local characters sing in an accented English, “Light in the Piazza” has a few songs performed entirely in Italian, often without translations. And as a romance, the characters’ chemistry is rapturous, sensuous and, for Stage Door, surprisingly fleshy.

What I say now: Perhaps the most purely musical of all the year’s musicals, this 2005 Tony winner was light on choreographic razzle dazzle but unusually operatic in its emotional extremity. The cast proved more than up to the rigorous task; Gabrielle Visser and Natalie Ramirez were among the best female performances in any of the year’s musicals.

8. Fool For Love at Alliance Theatre Lab

What I said then: Howard Ferre’s sound design is spot-on, adding booming thunder to every slammed door, and Jodi Dellaventura’s scenic design properly conveys a ramshackle sense of inescapability. It’s a fine vision of entrapment for this elegant study of doomed love, a Shakespearean parable burning under the Southwestern sun.

What I say now: This modern classic from the great Sam Shepard, about two lovers quarrelling and rehashing the past in a grungy motel, found a perfect home in this tiny playhouse in Miami Lakes. It struck the right chords of claustrophobia, desperation and bruised love that the show required. Arturo Fernandez’ possessed performance as Eddie was glassy-eyed and frightening; he is, hands-down, a leading candidate for Best Actor in a Play.

7. Clybourne Park at Caldwell Theatre Company

What I said then: “Clybourne Park” is as funny as it is tragic and revealing: Margery Lowe has never been more charming than her turn as the deaf housewife in Act I, and Brian D. Coats and Cliff Burgess have plenty of opportunities to showcase their comic timing.

What I say now: Back in January, the Caldwell got first dibs on this Broadway favorite, an irreverent comedy about race relations set in the 1950s and present day. It set the tone for a full year of Important-with-a-capital-I plays at a theater that once specialized in fluff, and it remains the venue’s most compelling production. The entire ensemble was terrific, with Lowe and Gregg Weiner standing out.

6. Song of the Living Dead at Promethean Theatre

What I said then: “Song of the Living Dead” proceeds with seeming effortlessness and copious amounts of red paint and TLC. This is one of those rare, miraculous shows that gets everything right, from the minimal, multipurpose set design to the endless parade of inventive costumes to the smallest prop minutiae and the immediacy of the music.

What I say now: The best yet of the Promethean Theatre’s three horror-comedy musicals, “Song of the Living Dead” was produced on a tight budget, but one that still allowed for plenty of zombie makeup, inspired props and buckets of fake blood. Extravagant sets need not apply for this cult show, directed with loopy abandon by Margaret Ledford and approached with off-kilter passion by a cast that approached this ridiculous, South Parkian satire like it was “Les Miserables.”

5. August: Osage County at Actor’s Playhouse

What I said then: “August: Osage County” is witty and relatable, while at the same time dredging up society’s most sordid elements. It’s a play that addresses incest, adultery, pedophilia, drug abuse, suicide, alcoholism and prejudice, all of which are seen, exposed, or alluded to in the space of Sean McClelland’s extraordinary set design: a three-story home that looks like a giant, creaky dollhouse, ready to be physically – and metaphorically – toppled.

What I say now: An ambitious, sprawling account of the disintegration of a family – and, by metaphor and extension, modern civilization itself – Tracy Letts’ ensemble drama is no easy task to pull off, and for Actor’s Playhouse, it was the jewel in its crown this year. The set was like a towering dollhouse of disturbing behavior and uncomfortable truths, and the cast was a juicy talent showcase for the best actors South Florida has to offer. This mammoth piece ran for three acts and three and a half hours, and I wasn’t bored for one minute.

4. Side Effects at Mosaic Theatre

What I said then: Deborah L. Sherman is so subtle that it’s impossible to differentiate Melinda’s genuine moments from her manipulations. She convincingly inhabits the same underlying characteristics whether her character is on or off her medication, never swinging too wildly in any one direction. She’s a pendulum who’s well aware of her center.

What I say now: As far as the year’s Best Actress goes, there was Sherman’s performance as the bipolar wife of a pandering politician in “Side Effects” … and then there was every other candidate for the category, none of them matching this Herculean achievement. She brought out all of her character’s quirks and deceits, excitements and manipulations, to this modern masterpiece full of astute observations about politics, mental illness and marriage.

3. Captiva at Zoetic Stage

What I said then: Every once in a while a show like “Captiva” comes along, a play so absolutely extraordinary that it’s hard to imagine it was written by a homegrown Florida writer and not the latest darling from Broadway.

What I say now: This was South Florida’s only new play (written by Miamian Christopher Demos-Brown) that transcends its premiere status to become a major player in all the top categories of excellence for the calendar year. Director Stuart Meltzer juggled seven characters in an extended family, capturing filial turmoil with striking authenticity. The casting was spot-on, the acting sublime and the show funnier than anything else on the South Florida stage this year.

2. Crazy For You at Maltz Jupiter Theatre

What I said then: As it’s written on the page, “Crazy For You” is already an effortlessly witty show, and it’s made more so onstage with a perfectly selected cast of out-of-town talent attuned to the show’s vintage wavelength. Matt Loehr in particular is outstanding as Bobby, bringing a Jim Carrey-like elasticity to the manic, rubbery role.

What I say now: The year’s best-produced musical is almost without peer. Every element of this Broadway-ready production of a Gershwin-scored classic was accomplished to perfection, from the glittering sets to the bravura choreography to the slapstick acting. It was the epitome of jubilant escapism.

1. Masked at GableStage

What I said then: Director Joe Adler couldn’t have cast a better trio of actors. Nick Duckart and Carlos Orizondo are powerhouses of learned authenticity, as convincing as if they spent decades toiling in occupied Gaza. The veneer of performance is stripped away completely; we’re not watching “acting” so much as “becoming.”

What I say now: This was the year’s single most riveting theatrical experience, a no-punches-pulled look at the Palestinian struggle through the eyes of an Israeli playwright, directed with fearless urgency by Joseph Adler. At least two of three performances ranked among the year’s best, and the butcher-shop set was fabulously grimy.

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