I saw upwards of 55 South Florida stage productions in 2019, and while it’s fair to say that I attended some so that you, dear reader, didn’t have to, it was by and large another stellar year for tri-county regional theatre. Here are my top picks, in descending order.
10. Falling, New City Players
Deanna Jent’s heartbreaking play about a family navigating an uncertain future with a severely autistic son received a production from New City Players that was at once tender and harrowing—with a career-best, frighteningly accurate performance from Timothy Mark Davis.
9. A Streetcar Named Desire, Palm Beach Dramaworks
It’s immensely satisfying to see a time-tested classic that’s not only expertly rendered but that unearths discoveries about its damaged characters. Kathy McCafferty brought new insight and compassion into the crippling insecurities of Blanche DuBois, while Dramaworks’ technical team convincingly transported audiences to New Orleans at its seediest.
8. The House of Blue Leaves, Palm Beach Dramaworks
John Guare’s coffin-black comedy requires the deftest of directors and actors to balance its bonkers humor and shocking pathos, and Dramaworks played both to the hilt without tipping its hand. Director J. Barry Lewis crafted a combustible parable of a Vietnam-era country in flux that resonated equally in our unraveling present.
7. Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy, Miami New Drama
An appropriately maximalist, larger-than-life production about a larger-than-life sociopath, Miami New Drama’s ambitious and flavorful world premiere brought fresh theatricality to the familiar story of Miami’s drug war, and the killers, cops and families caught in its crosshairs. The coup de grace: Yancey Arias played the title character as chummy and scarily charming, so that his audience—us—were not so much his jurors as his co-conspirators.
6. The Spitfire Grill, Palm Beach Dramaworks
Having only the vaguest recollection of the 1996 movie on which it’s based, I had no idea “The Spitfire Grill” could result in such a winning translation onstage. Pitch-perfect performances helped create a richly poignant experience. Dramaworks’ attention to technical detail was as immaculate as ever, with particular kudos to the Lubben Brothers’ stripped-down musical direction, and the actor-generated sound cues that wove in and around it.
5. Memphis, Actors’ Playhouse
Far from overstaying its welcome after its superlative rendition from Slow Burn Theatre the previous season, this Joe DiPietro/David Bryan musical more than justified its second regional production in two years. Actors’ Playhouse’s rousing, roof-shaking choreography and musical direction ranked among the year’s finest, and many of the performances exceeded our already high expectations, none more so than the glorious Gabrielle Graham as Felicia.
4. West Side Story, Maltz Jupiter Theatre
A show we’ve all seen a thousand times felt unusually timely and audacious in this triumphant production from director Marcos Santana. The choreography, rather than slavishly mimic the same Jerome Robbins movement, retained balletic roots but explored modern dance vernaculars too. The added prologue and epilogue, set in contemporary storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, framed the story with aching poignancy.
3. A Raisin in the Sun, New City Players
This is what happens when a company takes an established masterpiece and simply does everything right. An astute director and exemplary cast of all-stars—I’ll single out Carolyn Johnson, who delivered the most emotionally moving speech in any production this year—spilled their guts on the stage, leaving themselves, and all of us in the audience, properly drained.
2. Sweeney Todd, Zoetic Stage
The swivel stage! The towering wall of barber chairs! The audience interaction! The self-flagellating judge! I’m no fan of exclamation points either, but when they’re warranted, they’re warranted. Stuart Meltzer’s re-imagining of Sondheim’s murderous musical was as exciting, humorous and revolting as it was transparently bold, which is to say it hit all of the source material’s marks and transcended them. Terry Hardcastle scaled the villainous Turpin to new heights of depravity, and Jeni Hacker is now the definitive Mrs. Lovett.
1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Zoetic Stage
I suppose it’s worth saying that I’ve never seen any of the national tours of this Simon Stephens mystery, but it’s hard to imagine they exceeded Zoetic’s monumentally impressive production, still fresh in my mind 11 months after its run. Beyond offering the finest work yet from Ryan Didato, this production was a marvel in every technical sense. Between its model train set, its blanket of stars, its mathematical wizardry and its actors wittily doubling as the scenery, the show’s moving parts were incalculable; it was a veritable Rube Goldberg machine, and I loved being one of its cogs for a couple of hours.
And 5 Honorable Mentions: “A Christmas Story,” Slow Burn Theatre, “Doubt: A Parable,” Actors’ Playhouse, “Fences,” Palm Beach Dramaworks, “We Will Not Be Silent,” Theatre Lab, and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” Slow Burn Theatre