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It is Christmas Eve and time for Robert's Reviews to publish its third annual list of the top 10 theatrical productions of the year. This year, when Scott Ross and I first compared notes, we had an initial list of 17 productions that one or both of us felt were worthy of Top 10 honors. Eight hours later, we had winnowed those 17 to 10, compiled a theater-by-theater Honorable Mentions list, and created a preliminary list of on-stage and backstage candidates for this weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter's Third Annual Triangle Theater Awards, which Robert's Reviews will publish in our next issue, which should be e-mailed New Year's Eve.
Scott and I have listed our 2003 Top 10 below, in alphabetical order, and identified the runners-up in an Honorable Mention section. We have included initialed excerpts from our initial Reviews, plus hypertext links to our original online Previews and Reviews. We will publish subscriber feedback to these selections in the first available issue. — R.W.M.
All the King's Men (Burning Coal Theatre Company, Oct. 2-26). Although flawed (as Scott Ross pointed out in his original review), the world professional premiere of playwright Adrian Hall's two-part stage adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's gritty 1946 political novel, All the King's Men, was truly an epic presentation — perhaps, the most ambitious production of the Triangle theater year — and earned considerable points for "degree of difficulty." In reviewing this sprawling five-hour play based on the checkered political career of flamboyant and corrupt Louisiana Governor and U.S. Senator Huey P. Long (1893-1935), Ross wrote: "Hall has crafted an effective distillation of the great — in all senses of that word — Robert Penn Warren novel about a young reporter's corruption under the wing of the backwoods populist Willie Stark.… This is epic theatre, like the Royal Shakespeare Company's Nicholas Nickleby or Tom Hulce's stage version of The Cider House Rules, and almost always engaging throughout its roughly five-hour running time.… [Moreover,] Hall creates some extraordinary images, utilizing sheer theatricality in pointed, potent ways — through shifting points of view, simultaneous or repetitive uses of dialogue, two-handed scenes that overlap, each scoring off the other; and narrative strands picked up, echoed, and commented on by other characters." — R.W.M./S.R. Preview: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch1003.html#KingsPre. Review: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch1003.html#KingsRev.
Cabaret (University Theatre at N.C. State, Oct. 1-5). John McIlwee directed an astonishingly effective production of the great Kander and Ebb musical, with a cast that was just about perfect, from the protean Jeff Spanner to the spectacularly effective Katie Flaherty. Sarah Schrock was a warm, funny Fräulein Schneider; Fred Gorelick gave a lovely interpretation of Herr Schultz; Curtis Kirkhoff, lithe and blond, was practically a poster child for the Nazi movement; and Will Sanders' Cliff was a well-meaning minnow swimming against the increasing current of National Socialism. Dan Seda's polymorphously perverse Emcee gave an account not of evil but of show biz with a death's-head grin. And Katie Flaherty was an utterly flawless Sally Bowles, essaying the familiar anthems with staggering force. Her performance of the title number was masterly; this Sally Bowles was desperate to convince herself that life really was a cabaret, old chum. Cindy Hoban provided exuberantly vulgar choreography, Julie Florin superbly balanced musical direction, Crawford Pratt a marvelously tatty and inventive set, Terri L. Janney some evocative, chiaroscuro lighting effects, Ida Bostian a clutch of cheerily decadent costumes. McIlwee mounted the show with authoritative command. — S.R. Preview: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0903.html#CabPre. Review: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch1003.html#CabaretRev.
I Hate Hamlet (Raleigh Little Theatre, April 11-27). This riotous rendition of Paul Rudnick's hit backstage comedy, superbly staged by guest director Rod Rich, featured crackerjack characterizations by Seth Blum and David McClutchey, plus polished performances from a strong supporting cast. Blum plays Andrew Rally, the somewhat nebbishy star of a recently cancelled television medical drama and myriad cheesy TV commercials. Brought to New York as a "name" to headline an outdoors production of Hamlet, and ensconced in a Gothic apartment that once belonged to legendary American actor — and the premiere Hamlet of his generation — John Barrymore (McClutchey), Rally is wracked with self-doubt until the swashbuckling ghost of The Great Profile magically appears to teach him the rudiments of the role. The magnificent Gothic set by Roger Bridges has gargoyles aplenty glowering at the on-stage monkey business. Lighting designer Andy Parks, special-effects designer Rick Young, and fight choreographer Chris Beaulieu work overtime to create just the right atmosphere for a place where things that normally go bump in the night, magically materialize in the living room and drink all the liquor while giving acting and fencing lessons and dating advice. — R.W.M. Preview: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0403.html#IHatePre. Review: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0403.html#IHateRev.
Last Train to Nibroc (Towne Players of Garner, Aug. 21-23). Rob Smith and Janet Doughty sparkled — absolutely sparkled — in this enchanting encore presentation of playwright Arlene Hutton's charming 1998 romantic comedy. They have definitely honed their craft since the group's award-winning September 2001 presentation of this crowd-pleasing old-fashioned comedy smartly restaged by director Beth Honeycutt. Rob Smith was a scream as smooth-talking Raleigh, an ex-U.S. Army aviator involuntarily discharged because he has "the fits"; and Janet Doughty was superb as May, a spunky recent college graduate from a neighboring rural eastern Kentucky town, who first meets Raleigh on an overcrowded train heading east from Los Angeles. Janet Doughty, who like Rob Smith turns in a highly polished performance broadened and deepened since she played the role two years ago, was a real treat to watch as she, step by step, overcame the prejudices that she learned at her parents' knee. Briefer recorded interludes of "I'll Fly Away" and "Barbara Allen," replaced the live onstage musicians that director Beth Honeycutt employed to create the "country" mood of the September 2001 production. These recordings not only paid off in a brisker pace, but had audience members asking after the show about how to buy the featured songs. — R.W.M. Preview: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0803.html#NibrocPre. Review: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0803.html#NibrocRev.
Shakespeare's R & J (StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance, Oct. 22-Nov. 9). Playwright Joe Calarco's re-imaging of the Bard was a stunning adaptation set in a Catholic boy's school where four young students surreptitiously examine Romeo and Juliet by enacting all the roles. In so doing, Calarco gets to the heart of institutionalized taboo: the forbidden bursting forth of feeling between young males in a repressive environment. Performed by a superb cast of young actors under the searching direction of StreetSigns associate artistic director Joseph Megel, the production was joyous. As Student 1/Romeo, Akil projected enormous sensitivity and a certain cunning that lent his portrayal a quality of interesting edginess. Francis A. Sarnie IV gave a lovely, iridescent performance as Juliet/Student 2, moving from skittish but pliable to swooningly entranced, triumphantly rebellious and, later, unabashedly grieving. As Student 4, Ronnie Cruz provided a sympathetic Nurse who began as caricature and finished all too human and was also a remarkably hot-blooded Tybalt. Best of all was Christopher Salazar, complex and unpredictable. His Mercutio was athletic, playful, and insouciant in equal measure; as Friar Laurence, his fury at Romeo's self-pitying emotional excess neatly dovetailed with the Catholic schoolboy's own impotent anger as his classmates step over the boundary of play-acting into genuine emotional entanglement. Rob Hamilton's set design powerfully conveyed both the medieval architecture of Verona and the sense of the Church's repressive corporeal solemnity hanging over the boys and their play, and was beautifully complimented by Steve Dubay's evocative lighting. — S.R. Preview: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch1003.html#R&Jpre. Review: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch1003.html#R&Jrev.
Stop Kiss (University Theatre at N.C. State, Jan. 31-Feb. 1). This encore presentation of playwright Diana Son's deeply moving plea for tolerance for gays and lesbians, originally staged in March 2002 but not reviewed by Robert's Reviews until this February, was a stirring drama. Deftly directed by Terri Janney, Stop Kiss starred Tracey E. Phillips as Callie and Collette Rutherford as Sara, two ostensibly straight women, virtual strangers to each other, who found themselves attracted to each other in a way that neither of them had previously experienced. This elemental attraction, which resulted in an impulsive and very public first kiss, subjected the pair to a brutal gay bashing that leaves Sara in a coma and Callie emotionally shattered. Phillips and Rutherford were absolutely stellar in portraying two complicated "normal" women — a somewhat cynical New York radio traffic reporter (Callie) and an idealistic and, perhaps, hopelessly naïve inner-city schoolteacher recently arrived from St. Louis (Sara) — who surprisingly found themselves sexually attracted. Director Terri Janney superbly guided her young and very, very talented cast through a difficult fast-paced script that parallels before scenes of the women's burgeoning friendship with after scenes of Callie coping with the fallout from the gay bashing. — R.W.M. Preview: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0103.html. Review: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0203.html.
Tintypes (Peace College Theatre, Sept. 10-16). This boundlessly ingenious musical has been a personal favorite for just over two decades, but I never expected to see it done with the unalloyed brilliance displayed at Peace College. In Tintypes, as in E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, the genteel noblesse oblige of the comfortable white male, circa 1900, was contrasted sharply with the experience of the Jewish immigrant, the black American, and the poor of all stripes. Less a plotted musical play than a kind of ragtime oratorio, Tintypes was a scrapbook illuminated by the American popular songbook. Under the astonishingly inventive yet never obtrusive direction and choreography of Deb Gillingham, a protean cast of five expertly played out all the contradictions, disparities, joys, and affirmation Tintypes bequeaths. It was the tightest, most gifted ensemble of musical performers I've seen in years: Kenny Gannon, by turns wistful, tremulous, abashed, joyous, and altogether endearing as the Chaplinesque newcomer; David Bartlett at his considerable best mouthing the empty jingoism of Teddy Roosevelt; Christian Sineath, a lyric soprano of uncommon beauty, equally adept at putting over a blazing vaudeville turn; and Yolanda Batts, who could send her intoxicated audience through the proverbial roof. Meghan Beeler had the smallest of the evening's singing voices, but displayed breathtaking comedic aplomb — her performance was like a master class in physical humor. Thomas Mauney's set was a little marvel, the musical director, Brett Wilson, assembled a band of uncommon versatility and expertise, and Gillingham's staging was immaculate in every way. Tintypes was for me the show of the theatrical year. — S.R. Mini-Preview: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0903.html#TinMini. Review: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0903.html#TinRev.
Uncle Vanya (PlayMakers Repertory Company, Feb. 26-March 23). With the possible exception of Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July, itself not unlike a Chekhov piece, no modern play means more to me — as a playwright, a spectator, or a critic — than Uncle Vanya. Chekhov's characters look at their lives — past, present, and future — and find them excruciatingly wanting. Obsession, regret, and a soul-corroding envy govern their emotions almost wholly, and we understand that change is beyond them. László Marton's production of Uncle Vanya at PlayMakers Repertory had curious textures (the time, set, and costumes were indistinct, neither the Russia of 1899 nor, wholly, of today). But Marton, using John Murrell's superb translation, rightly imagined that Chekhov transcends his own era, and proved it. The PRC cast was splendidly varied from top to bottom: Joan Darling was a Marina to treasure; Deanne Lorette's Elena hit just the right balance of narcissistic indifference and bored coquettishness; and if Kenneth P. Strong's Vanya was too self-regarding and obstreperous to be heartbreaking, he at least made no obvious play for sympathy. Best of all was the great Ray Dooley, who appeared to breathe Astrov into being. Dooley embraced all of the doctor's contradictions — the curdled cynicism and the deep romanticism just beneath, the promises made and thoughtlessly broken in an instant, the level-headed philosopher and the manic drunk — somehow finding in their seeming distinctness a coherent whole. — S.R. Preview: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0203.html. Review: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0303.html.
Underneath the Lintel (Flying Machine Theatre Company, Oct. 17-Nov. 2). Triangle audiences who missed this one deprived themselves of an experience so unique and rapturous it refreshed the spirit, fired the mind, and enriched every corner of the soul. Glen Berger's powerful monodrama, subtitled "An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences," consisted of an impassioned semi-lecture by a shabby Dutch librarian — played with extraordinary depth of feeling by Julian "J" Chachula, Jr. — which related his belief-shaking, life-altering attempt to track down the borrower of an extremely overdue book. As interest became obsession, the Librarian took us on a mystic, metaphysical journey that, much like a peeled onion, revealed layer upon layer of the miraculous. Spiritual in the very best sense, the play was concerned with some of the profoundest questions of human experience, and Chachula's performance was one of such rare acumen, joy, erudition, and anguish it could sear your skin off. Mark Perry staged the piece with pace, tension, and a superbly timed reflectiveness that meshed perfectly with the actor and the text. At one point, the Librarian wondered if he would recognize a miracle if he saw it; I saw one this season. It was called Underneath the Lintel. — S.R. Preview: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch1003.html#LintelPre. Review: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch1003.html#LintelRev.
West Side Story (North Carolina Theatre, Feb. 7-16). This spirited production of the Tony® Award-winning 1957 Broadway musical and Academy Award®-winning 1961 motion picture was a high-kicking homage to original director and choreographer Jerome Robbins (1918-99), featuring brisk and buoyant accompaniment from musical director/conductor McCrae Hardy and orchestra. NCT guest director Jerome Vivona and guest choreographer Stephen Nachamie have taken great pains to recreate Robbins' stylish staging and high-flying dance routines. The result was a superlative piece of musical theater, frequently interrupted by applause, that brought the audience to its feet at the final curtain for an enthusiastic standing ovation. Michael Hunsaker and Dana Lynn Caruso were outstanding as Tony and Maria, and Eric Sciotto and Rebecca Brancato give passionate but intensely human performances as fiery Puerto Rican gang leader Bernardo and his hot-blooded girlfriend Anita. Troy Magino was superb was Riff, the handsome charismatic leader of Jets; and Tim Caudle was a hoot as roly-poly Officer Krupke. Director Jerome Vivona, choreographer Stephen Nachamie, and an all-star cast made this one of the best full-scale musicals yet produced by the North Carolina Theatre. — R.W.M. Preview: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0203.html. Review: http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0203.html.
HONORABLE MENTION: The ArtsCenter: The Fantasticks (Fayetteville Technical Community College Players); Broadway Series South: Blast! and Jesus Christ Superstar; Burning Coal Theatre Company: Crumbs from the Table of Joy and Tartuffe; Carolina Union Performing Arts Series: Cirque — Dream It Live; Cirque du Soleil: Dralion; Duke Institute of the Arts: An Evening with Anna Deveare Smith and The Tempest (Actors from the London Stage); Manbites Dog Theater: The Shape of Things and Tim Miller in Us; N.C. State University Center Stage: Good Ol' Girls (North Carolina Theatre) and The Importance of Being Earnest (Aquila Theatre Company); North Carolina Theatre: Funny Girl, Mame, and The Sound of Music; Off-Broadway Series South: Forbidden Broadway: 20th Anniversary Celebration and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change; PlayMakers Repertory Company: Dinner with Friends, Hobson's Choice, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Salomé; Raleigh Ensemble Players: Handler; Raleigh Little Theatre: Children of a Lesser God, Cinderella, The Dance on Widow's Row, and How the Other Half Loves; Theatre in the Park: A Christmas Carol, Dirty Blonde, The Faraway Nearby, and Finale; and Towne Players of Garner: Morning's at Seven.