Something's been going on in the North Texas theater scene in the past few years, and it has led to 2012, a great year for quality theater. In fact, this was the best single year since I began covering the local theater scene in the late 1990s at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Major signs of the community collaborating for the better became apparent in 2011 (for example, the Horton Foote Festival; the AIDS commemoration A Gathering; and the Dallas Theater Center and Dallas Black Dance Theatre's The Wiz), as I wrote about in the 2011 Year in Review on TheaterJones. That theme continued this year, evident in such events as The Lighthouse, a collaboration between Dallas Theater Center and The Dallas Opera; and in the continuing trend of dance and theater companies working together, such as Teatro Dallas and DGDG, and the Ochre House and Dallas Flamenco Festival.
To boot, the AT&T Performing Arts Center and Shakespeare Dallas began a five-year commitment to semi-staged readings of the entire Shakespeare canon. They've done three so far, and the one I've seen, The Taming of the Shrew, was excellent. This spring, look for The Winter's Tale, all three of the Henry VI plays and Richard III.
I even heard talk about the possibility of a prominent mid-size Dallas theater company and another well established mid-size Fort Worth theater co-producing something in the future. It would be cool if that happened, although it's not without precedent. There has been Trinity River crossover with theater companies in the past, such as Hip Pocket Theatre and Dallas Children's Theater; and Stage West and Soul Rep Theatre Co.; and in 2011, with the cities' two LORT houses, when Dallas Theater Center and Casa Mañana co-produced To Kill a Mockingbird.
And just recently, we heard about a major collaboration between five prominent Dallas arts organizations, two of them that are thought to be in competition with each other (AT&T Performing Arts Center and Dallas Summer Musicals). We have yet to find out how that will pan out, but sharing back-of-house and other resources can only be good. Fingers crossed.
And there's more talk of working together coming; more on that later.
But there's something else happening aside from everyone playing nice together. It seems that all of this artistic euphony has made everyone up their game—perhaps the fact that more artists are being paid is encouraging them to stay here and make great art. Several midsize and Small Professional Theatres had standout, or at least pretty solid, years; Lyric Stage's dominance in musical theater has had a positive impact on other companies' productions of musicals; and local and Texas playwrights had a banner year.
I saw 175 shows this year (some of that was dance and opera, but mostly theater). What follows are my thoughts about it, including my list of favorite productions, performances, and more. (You can also view my Top 15 productions of the year as a slideshow by clicking the slideshow icon under the photos above.)
Let's start with a summary of who and what had a great 2012:
Philosophical debates turned into smart theater: Examples include David Ives' New Jerusalem at Stage West, Charles Smith's Free Man of Color at African American Repertory Theater, Mark St. Germain's Freud's Last Session at Theatre Three; and in a more superficial sense, Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage and Kristoffer Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at Dallas Theater Center.
Musical choruses: I have to be honest here. For years, one thing that's been holding big, splashy musicals back in North Texas has been the lack of strong chorus people. Remember, they have to dance better than the leads, and should sound as good, too ("no small parts…"). Lyric Stage, in addition to upping the game with its full orchestra performances, has been improving its choruses for years; and Dallas Theater Center usually does this well, but they mostly cast chorus roles from New York (this year's Giant and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat were no exception, with more locals in Joseph). This year, strong, cohesive choruses made all the difference at Uptown Players (The Producers), Casa Mañana (42nd Street and Grease; much of that from New York as well) and even Stage West, which doesn't do book musicals often, but did well with the charming She Loves Me. Also of note this year was ICT Mainstage's Urinetown. Community theater is a great place for chorus people to train, but when they get to the professional leagues, we should expect more. Sadly, although Theatre Three had a great year with plays and one chorus-less musical, Avenue Q, its lack of attention with the choruses in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson and Crazy for You held those shows back.
Cameron Cobb: Speaking of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, Cobb, who played the title role and is not necessarily a musical theater singer, kicked ass and took names in that show. As well as in The Turn of Screw at Kitchen Dog Theater and opposite Jac Alder in Freud's Last Session at Theatre Three. He also directed a laudable production of a tough play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, at Kitchen Dog, and the aforementioned reading of Shrew at the Winspear Opera House's Hamon Hall.
Mid-size theater companies: One of the oddities about the North Texas theater scene, considering it's one of the largest Metropolitan areas in the country, is that we have just two multi-million dollar theaters that produce their own work: Dallas Theater Center and Casa Mañana in Fort Worth (the Broadway tour producers are much larger, of course). In terms a budget, it drops off significantly after that. Dallas Children's Theater is above $2 million; Theatre Three and WaterTower are between $1 and $1.5 million; and Lyric Stage just under a mil. In other theater cities, like Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle and L.A, you'll find a few more theaters with budgets in the millions. Here, many of the theaters in the 250K to 750K range—Kitchen Dog, Uptown Players, Stage West, Circle Theatre, Undermain Theatre, Jubilee Theatre, Amphibian Stage Productions—had solid years, excepting the occasional dud in some of those seasons. Stage West, in particular, had a great year.
Oddly enough, those smaller companies with shoestring budgets who debuted around the same time that TheaterJones did, in 2009, and made big splashes when they launched and in subsequent years—Upstart Productions, Ochre House and Level Ground Arts, for instance—had less-than-stellar or downright mediocre years. Sadly, there weren't many notable upstarts in 2012, although Outrcy Theatre is promising (I really hope they stick around, and give us something again, soon); and Spacegrove Productions, which formed for the purpose of just one show, On the Eve, made one hell of a last-minute splash. More on that later.
Local playwrights: I wrote about this early in 2012, but it was a major year for playwrights who are based here or have local or Texas connections. Vicki Caroline Cheatwood, Larry Herold, Jonathan Norton, Isabella Russell-Ides, Matt Lyle, James Venhaus and Eric Steele are among the names whose works were produced in full productions this year. Keep an eye on this trend. Teresa Coleman Wash of TeCo Theatrical Productions is the DFW liaison for the Dramatist's Guild, and after a new works panel at TeCo in September (which was moderated by yours truly), she is helping build a DFW Playwrights Forum. So far, Kitchen Dog Theater, Dallas Children's Theater, Jubilee Theatre, Nouveau 47 Theatre, Undermain Theatre and ScriptWorks are among the groups that have signed up to be on board. Look for more details on that in 2013.
Also of note: TACA presented $100,000 in grant money to three theaters for new plays, which will see in the next season or so at African American Repertory Theatre, Cara Mía Theatre Co. and Dallas Theater Center. Two of the writers who got those grants are local, Jonathan Norton and David Lozano; and the other, Will Power, has strong ties here now thanks to his artist-in-residence position at Southern Methodist University. He'll be involved with TeCo's New Play Festival in February, too, which reportedly more submissions than ever before. If we can pay writers money to say and work here, who knows what would happen.
And in a late-2012 surprise, one of the best shows of the year, On the Eve, was completely homegrown.
New work commissioning is also happening big-time by Dallas Theater Center, Dallas Opera and Fort Worth Opera. Should be lots to talk about when the annual TCG conference does Dallas in June, 2013.
Comfort-free zones: I saw a lot of experimentation with ideas of space, structure and genre this year, and while it wasn't always a success, it was welcome and encouraged. Second Thought Thought gave us an interesting mix of theater and film with Eric Steele's The Midwest Trilogy. At the Ochre House, where there's always some form of experimentation, Matthew Posey's Mean put a bar in the California desert in the middle of the tiny space with the audience as its patrons. Hard to believe that this itty-bitty theater could become more intimate and in-your-face, but it did. And on the other side of that, Dead White Zombies did two of founder Thomas Riccio's plays, Flesh World and (w)Hole, in a 3,600 square-foot warehouse in West Dallas, as interactive performance installations, with the audience having to walk through the experience for different scenes. I liked (w)Hole more, but found myself frustrated with some of the dead space near the end. I'm eager for more, though. And at Amphibian Stage Productions, they restaged a work they gave an American premiere to in 2003, but this time with greater success. It was performed entirely in can't-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face pitch-black darkness. Which brings us to…
Amphibian Stage Productions: This Fort Worth company had a milestone this year, in that they were able to purchase (not just rent) a building. They renovated a former nightclub into a space with a black box theater, handsome lobby and bar, and ample storage, office and green room space, and opened it just in time for the end of the 13th season, with the aforementioned in-the-dark play. Talk about bold: opening your new space and audiences can't see the main part of it. Can't wait to see how it works out in their 2013 season, their first full season in the space. Read more about them here.
And now let's do the countdown of the best shows of the year. Considering that I saw 175 shows, I thought about doing a Top 20, but figured it's best to stick with the traditional Top 10. Then I went for the happy medium. So here's my Top 15, with 10 honorable mentions thrown in. The year was so good that I could do a top 50 of shows I'd gladly see again.
1. Oklahoma!, Lyric Stage at Irving Arts Center (June)
Normally, any good production of the most important musical of the 20th century, the one that broke ground for everything that followed, might be considered for a best-of list, but probably not for the number one slot. There's usually something more innovative and of-the-moment to like more. But this staging, directed by Cheryl Denson, wasn't merely good. It was definitive. Bryant Martin's Curly was perfect, and Kyle Cotton's take on Jud was brilliant. And of course Lyric's use of full orchestras, with Jay Dias uncovering the original orchestrations, added to the greatness. I don't need to see another production of it ever again. But of course, I will.
2. On the Eve, Spacegrove Productions in conjunction with Nouveau 47 Theatre at the Magnolia Lounge, Dallas (November)
Local actor Michael Federico and Seth and Shawn Magill of the band Home by Hovercraft started doing readings of this new musical in 2011, and then raised five grand via Kickstarter for the world premiere production, directed by Jeffrey Schmidt. On the surface it's a story of hot air balloon time travel, going from Marie Antoinette's era to the present. But as a work of meta-theater, it's much deeper than that. The cast was committed, and the use of the Magnolia Space was phenomenal. And that 11th hour visual moment of catharsis will be remembered for years. Most of all, the songs, performed by the band (Seth also played time traveler Chase Spacegrove) are fantastic, with unconventional musical theater instruments like tuba, xylophone and Irish step-dancers, whose footwork serves as both dance and music. Look for an album with these songs, sung by this cast, in 2013. And cross your fingers that they're able to stage it again. Seriously, I haven't felt this psyched about a modern rock musical since I saw John Cameron Mitchell in the original off-Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
3. The True Story of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, Amphibian Stage Productions, Fort Worth (October)
Amphibian did this play in 2003, when they were using the spaces at Texas Christian University. It was interesting then, but this time, under the direction of Jonathan Fielding, it was a must-feel experience. Performed entirely in the dark, it asked you to supply the imagination, with the help of the actors' voices (how they moved through the space, weaving in and out of the audience, is a theatrical feat in itself) and other sounds. Riveting stuff.
4. Diamond Dick: The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, Project X: Theatre at the Green Zone, Dallas (March)
Playwright Erik Ehn and Project X's Raphael Parry have been working on this play for years, and it premiered here and then was taken to New York in November for Ehn's play cycle about genocide, Soulographie, at La Mama. A highly theatrical piece using movement, puppetry, music, dialogue and historical text and facts, it was beautifully conceived, constructed and performed. Directed by Raphael Parry.
5. The Merchant of Venice and The Merry Wives of Windsor, Trinity Shakespeare Festival at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth (June)
Another stellar year for Trinity Shakes, and their most cohesive season yet. In the group's first three years, the comedies triumphed over the tragedies. This year, I give the edge to the more dramatic and difficult work, Merchant, directed by Stephen Fried and with a great ending that helped the unsettling feeling that always accompanies this controversial play. The madcap Merry Wives, directed by T.J. Walsh, excelled with the divine twosome of Lydia Mackay and Trisha Miller, and David Coffee as Falstaff. Trinity keeps upping the bar for Shakespeare. Y'all take note, and don't miss their Taming of the Shrew and Julius Caesar in June.
6. The Birthday Party, Undermain Theatre, Dallas (May)
It's tough to revive a Harold Pinter classic, and tougher to do it this well. Patrick Kelly's production of the 50-year-old black comedy was at once terrifying and hilarious, realized by a cast that understands the nuance of Pinter, with another outstanding set in the Undermain space by John Arnone.
7. The Producers, Uptown Players at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, Dallas (August)
Never would have imagined that this production would end up in my best-of list, considering I've always thought the musical vastly over-rated, especially for fans of Mel Brooks' original movie. Bad casting kills any show, but put actors in a Mel Brook piece who don't get Mel Brooks comedy, and it's dead in the water. Uptown's enormous, good-looking production, directed by Michael Serrecchia, benefitted from a tight chorus, dead-on casting and award-worthy performances from B.J. Cleveland as Max Bialystock and Brad Jackson the world's worst director, Roger DeBris.
8. The Farnsworth Invention, Theatre Three, Dallas (February)
You know those dramatizations of real-life underdog stories about the evil corporation trying to cheat an inventor/innovator out of the due he/she deserves? Usually as movies, they're treacle, no thanks to some manipulative John Williams-esque score. That might have happened in Aaron Sorkin's play about the inventor of the cathode ray tube (and this newfangled thing called television), but director Jeffrey Schmidt is too smart for that. He's a director with ideas, and this production was a quiet mediation on human drive and ingenuity. Great year for Schmidt.
9. The Whipping Man, Circle Theatre, Fort Worth (March)
Directed by Harry Parker, Matthew Lopez's searing play about three men (two slaves and the son of their former owner) just after emancipation in the South engaged us in a thought-provoking dialogue about our nation's dirty past, brotherly devotion and early signs of that fabled American dream. Great set (Clare Floyd DeVries) and costumes (Drenda Lewis).
10. Superior Donuts, Theatre Three in Theatre Too!, Dallas (March)
Director Bruce R. Coleman let the simplicity of Tracy Letts' follow-up to August: Osage County play out quietly, with nicely understated turns by Van Quattro and Christopher Piper.
11. The Real Thing, Stage West (April)
As mentioned, Stage West had a great year, with not a dud in the bunch. That was no more apparent than in this revival of Tom Stoppard's look at relationships, love, infidelity and how we play them out in our mind. One of the year's best performances, from Chuck Huber, surrounded by a solid cast of Dana Schultes, Andy Baldwin and Emily Scott Banks, among others. Directed by Jim Covault.
12. 42nd Street, Casa Mañana, Fort Worth (November)
A dance musical don't mean a thing if you ain't got that zing, and this production had it. Directed by Tim Bennett and choreographed by Dontee Kiehn, the tap was dead-on and Kristin Tucker was a firecracker as dancin' fool Peggy Sawyer.
13. Collapse, Kitchen Dog Theater at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, Dallas (February)
Southern Methodist University graduate Allison Moore, based in Minneapolis, was commissioned to write this play inspired by the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in that city in 2007, as part of a New Play Network rolling world premiere. Kitchen Dog, which is a home to Moore, was one of the theaters. Along with End Times, it was Moore's best play at Kitchen Dog. Directed by Christopher Carlos.
14. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Dallas Theater Center at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Wyly Theatre, Dallas (October)
Brash and loud, I bought into this Kristoffer Diaz play that uses the lens of professional wrestling and entertainment to look at fame and racism and stereotypes, to the discomfort of the audience. Even better was the fact that it was directed by Jaime Castaneda, a Texas Christian University graduate who worked in Fort Worth for a few years (directing at Circle and Amphibian), and has made good in New York, where he's now an artistic associate at the Atlantic Theatre Company.
15. The Diary of Anne Frank, WaterTower Theatre, Addison (January)
Here's another title I didn't expect to like as much as I did, but in Terry Martin's well-cast production, the story of the girl and her family who famously hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam apartment was the first great production of 2013. Terrific performance from Molly Franco in the title role; and a great-looking show.
The next 10 best, in alphabetical order:
- August: Osage County, WaterTower Theatre (April)
- Becky Shaw, Kitchen Dog Theater (September)
- Coyote, Nouveau 47 Theatre (January)
- Freud's Last Session, Theatre Three, Dallas (September)
- An Iliad, Undermain Theatre, Dallas (October)
- International Falls, Haven Productions at WaterTower Theatre's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, Addison (March)
- The Most Happy Fella, Lyric Stage at Irving Arts Center (October):
- New Jerusalem, Stage West
- Next Fall, Dallas Theater Center
- Solo Molemo! And the Long Tall Sallys, Hip Pocket Theatre
- War Horse, AT&T Performing Arts Center (September). A stunning theatrical achievement.
- Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway, Betty Buckley at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (April). Not really a tour, but Fort Worth native Buckley has done this show—in which she sings musical theater songs written for male characters—all over the country since debuting it in 2011 in New York. She also released the album of it this year, and it's a stellar recording. Get it.
- Bring It On: The Musical, Dallas Summer Musicals (February): A complete and utter surprise. Cheerleaders and high school politics done right, in a musical based (gasp!) on a movie. Or, the creators insist, a movie franchise.
- La Cage aux Folles, Dallas Summer Musicals (April). George Hamilton notwithstanding, a top-notch tour, featuring the great Christopher Seiber.
- John Leguizamo's Ghetto Klown, Majestic Theatre (February). How does that man keep up the energy? Great storytelling and comedy.
The year in performance:
Actor of the year: Gregory Lush: The Birthday Party, Undermain Theatre; Present Laughter, Theatre Three; On the Eve, Spacegrove Productions
- Runner-up: Chuck Huber: The Real Thing, Stage West and The Merchant of Venice, Trinity Shakespeare Festival
Actress of the year: Jenny Ledel: Pluck the Day, Second Thought Theatre; Turn of the Screw, Kitchen Dog Theater; Twelfth Night, Shakespeare Dallas; Becky Shaw, Kitchen Dog Theater; and On the Eve, Spacegrove Productions
- Runner-up: Amber Nicole Guest: The Most Happy Fella and 1776, Lyric Stage
Ensemble of the year: Oklahoma!, Lyric Stage
- Runner-up: On the Eve, Spacegrove Productions
Chorus of the year: The Producers, Uptown Players
- Runner-up: 42nd Street, Casa Mañana
More great performances:
- Jac Alder: Freud's Last Session, Theatre Three
- J. Brent Alford: The Merchant of Venice, Trinity Shakespeare Festival
- Jakie Cabe: The Farnsworth Invention, Theatre Three
- Christopher Carl: Kismet, Lyric Stage
- Jessica Cavanagh: Or, Echo Theatre
- B.J. Cleveland: The Producers, Uptown Players
- Cameron Cobb: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Freud's Last Session, both at Theatre Three; The Turn of the Screw, Kitchen Dog Theater
- David Coffee: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Trinity Shakespeare Festival; Grease, Casa Mañana; and 1776, Lyric Stage
- Coy Covington: The Divine Sister, Uptown Players
- Kyle Cotton: Oklahoma!, Lyric Stage
- Bruce DuBose: An Iliad, Undermain Theatre
- Brian Gonzales: 1776, Lyric Stage
- Sheran Goodspeed Keyton: Simply Etta, DVA Productions
- Brad Jackson: Oklahoma!, Lyric Stage; and The Producers, Uptown Players
- Ebony Marshall-Oliver: Pretty Fire, Jubilee Theatre
- Terry Martin: Next Fall, Dallas Theater Center
- Barrett Nash: My Name is Rachel Corrie, Rite of Passage Theatre Co. at Festival of Independent Theatres
- Alex Organ: The Farnsworth Invention, Theatre Three; The Most Happy Fella, Lyric Stage
- Steven Pounders: Mistakes Were Made, Circle Theatre
- Van Quattro: Superior Donuts, Theatre Three
- Christopher Piper: Superior Donuts, Theatre Three; Free Man of Color, African American Repertory Theater
- Johnny Simons: Solo Molemo! And the Long Tall Sallys, Hip Pocket Theatre
- Steven Walters: Next Fall, Dallas Theater Center
- Ashley Wood: The Night of the Iguana, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
More great ensembles:
- August: Osage County, WaterTower Theatre
- Becky Shaw, Kitchen Dog Theater
- The Birthday Party, Undermain Theatre
- Diamond Dick: The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, Project X: Theatre
- The Diary of Anne Frank, WaterTower Theatre
- The Farnsworth Invention, Theatre Three
- The Real Thing, Stage West
- The True Story of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, Amphibian Stage Productions
- The Whipping Man, Circle Theatre
Best Scenic Design: There may have been better looking and bigger sets (hello Dallas Theater Center's God of Carnage and Next Fall), but I love how Jeffrey Schmidt transformed the Magnolia Lounge for On the Eve, with multiple levels and every inch of Margo Jones' former theater space utilized to maximum effect.
Best Costume Design: Drenda Lewis, Oklahoma! and 1776, Lyric Stage
Best Sound Design: David Lanza, The True Story of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, Amphibian Stage Productions
- Runner-up: John Flores, The Turn of the Screw, Kitchen Dog Theater
Best Choreography: Ann Neiman, Oklahoma!, Lyric Stage
- Runner-up: Michael Serrecchia and Megan Kelly Bates, The Producers, Uptown Players
Best Original Music: On the Eve (by Home by Hovercraft), Spacegrove Productions
- Runners-up: Mean at Ochre House and An Iliad at Undermain Theatre
Best Theatrical Magic: On the Eve, Spacegrove Productions
- Runner-up: The True Story of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, Amphibian Stage Productions
Best puppetry: It was a great year for puppets, with Theatre Three's Avenue Q being the obvious example. Michael Robinson and the Dallas Costume Shoppe built them, and they'll be put to use again when that show returns in 2013 after a renovation of Theatre Too. But there was also memorable puppetry in On the Eve; in Lake Simons' minimal Moby-Dick at Hip Pocket Theatre; and there was that fantastic alien/dinosaur/turtle creation that was built and operated by Justin Locklear in Dead White Zombies' (w)Hole. And of course, anything Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts does at Dallas Children's Theater is worth your time. Oh, the tour of War Horse. Talk about stunning puppetry.
Best new works by local or Texas-connected writers:
- On the Eve by Michael Federico, Shawn and Seth Magill, Spacegrove Productions
- Collapse by Allison Moore, Kitchen Dog Theater
- International Falls by Thomas Ward, Haven Productions
- Coyote, by Kevin Kautzman, Nouveau 47 Theatre
- Ruth by Vicki Caroline Cheatwood, Kitchen Dog Theater
And now, let's move forward. Here's to an even better 2013.
◊ The following are also in TheaterJones' Year in Review series:
- The year in comedy by comedy writer Amy Martin here
- The year in theater by chief theater critic Mark Lowry here
- The year in dance by chief dance critic Margaret Putnam here
- More thoughts on dance by critics Cheryl Callon and Katie Dravenstott here
- The year in music and opera by chief music critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs here