Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Labor Day, the traditional dividing line for school years, has passed and most of the theatre companies that I cover are preparing season openers for the new season or will be soon. I have in the past liked to stroll through the reviews I have posted and remember the best of the year. (Unfortunately, I missed a number of productions that I had planned to cover during the months of January through April 2016, so perhaps I missed something that others thought excellent.)
Let's start with musicals, always my favorite genre. The highlight of the entire season was a spectacular production of West Side Story directed and choreographed (based on the Jerome Robbins dances) by Joey McNeely and presented by Asolo Repertory Theatre. Quite simply, this production was the best presentation of this classic musical that I have ever seen and ever expect to see. I saw it three times, and each time I was enthralled from beginning to end. Other worthy musical productions included The Color Purple by Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe; Sondheim on Sondheim by freeFall Theatre, anchored by outstanding performances by Anne Morrison and Eric Davis, A Light in the Piazza with a brilliant performance by Melissa Minyard, also at freeFall; and A Chorus Line by Manatee Players. freeFall later offered a production of The Pirates of Penzance which had little to do with Gilbert and Sullivan yet still managed to be hugely entertaining. Manatee Players also scored a one-two punch in March with an excellent production of Chess in Stone Hall while also offering Yank, a World War II love story in the smaller Kiwanis Theater. Yank was another personal favorite year because of its themes of same sex love in a long ago era.
There were also many dramatic presentations worth remembering, including two productions of August Wilson Century Cycle plays: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by WBTT and Jitney as the penultimate offering in American Stage's traversal of all ten plays. Florida Studio Theatre rang in with a pair of plays examining race, Butler and Alabama Story. I felt the best of FST's summer season was God of Isaac, perhaps because its themes spoke to me on a personal level. Asolo Rep continued its fourth season examining The American Character and scored with Ah, Wilderness!, which suffered from some cutting of the script, and the Tony winning All the Way. Urbanite Theatre continued to flex its artistic muscles with edgy fare which included Freak and The Drowning Girls in its second season. Venice Theatre offered a heartfelt look at the Holocaust with its production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly, and American Stage got off to a good start with its new Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte directing Intimate Apparel.
Springtime brought two fine dramatic presentations from two different companies, a superbly acted Driving Miss Daisy which later traveled intact to Peterborough, New Hampshire from WBTT, and a theatrical Mr. Burns, a post-electric play which honestly I did not comprehend from freeFall. Two Chairs Theatre Company under director Elliot Raines opened the Players Theatre early with productions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (September 2015) and A Streetcar Named Desire (September 2016). After three years examining Tennessee Williams, this company will turn their attentions to Arthur Miller for a few years. I caught more classical fare at Asolo Conservatory: The Actor's Nightmare paired with The Real Inspector Hound, which tested the students with absurdist comedy; The Liar, which asked them to tackle classical comedy, albeit through the modern eyes of David Ives' and Nora, Ingmar Bergman's take on the classic A Doll's House. Not all productions were equally successful. Summer Sizzlers at The Players offered Cosi, a badly flawed play which featured a star turn by local favorite Don Walker, while earlier in the season Backstage at the Players Theatre offered one of the most provocative plays seen in this area, Cock, also known as The Cockfight Play.
The Starlite Players deserves special mention. This group, led by Producing Artistic Director Jo Morello, which operates on a shoestring (if they could only afford a new pair), has given me so much pleasure during their first year and sliding into their second. The third weekend of every month they produce a program of several short comedies and draw from the pool of some of our best community theatre actors. Over the course of the first year, they have learned to find better plays and to group them into more cohesive themes.
Not musicals and not dramatic fare, freeFall gave us the area premiere of Peter and the Starcatcher, which will be reprised over the Christmas season in repertory with J.M. Barrie's original Peter Pan. Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe produced two fine revues this year: A Motown Christmas for the holiday season and How I Got Over, a survey of gospel during the summer months. Still at WBTT, Alyssa White again showed why she has the makings of a star in a showcase that also featured a stunning solo dance turn by Derric Gobourne, Jr. Asolo Rep ended its season with an imported sit down production of Hetty Feather, which has played in the West End, that I loved and others I know did not.
More concert than theatre, Sarasota Artist Series Concerts opened the season with Jerry Herman's Broadway, which gave me my first live visit with Jason Graae, a performer I have much admired on recordings, and also featured Klea Blackhurst. For mother's day this same organization showed why Rodgers and Hammerstein can and should be sung by trained voices with a concert entitled My Favorite Things.
I have also been privileged to attend several special events that don't seem to fall into any category. Circus Arts Conservatory, Circus Sarasota's Red, White and Bello!, starring daredevil clown Sarasota's own Bello Nock and Summer Circus Spectacular 2016 headlined by clown Adam Kuchler were standouts. The Ringling International Arts Festival continued to be a showcase for the unusual. This year I saw Phare, a Cambodian Circus Presentation, which was totally unlike anything I had seen before in that they attempted to tell a story using skilled circus performers, and Shank's Mare which I won't attempt to describe beyond saying that it told it's story in three different dimensions and went right into the list of greatest theatrical events I have ever seen over my lifetime.
Looking back on all of the plays, musicals, and other events I was blessed to have been able to attend and write about, I realize that, for a life long theatre geek, life doesn't get too much better than this!