THE GEM CITY
1. “The Light in the Piazza”
This captivating, underrated romantic musical set in 1950s Italy based on Elizabeth Spencer’s novella and featuring a challenging yet ravishing Tony Award-winning score by Adam Guettel (Richard Rodgers’ grandson) took Wright State University’s musical theater program to astonishing heights. WSU’s truly outstanding, gorgeously designed Ohio collegiate premiere of “Piazza,” which I saw three times, contained a knockout cast, a splendid orchestra, and conceptually refreshing contributions from director Joe Deer. If you missed Blaine Boyd’s incredibly passionate, vocally sublime portrayal of Fabrizio Naccarelli, he’s starring in WSU’s “Jekyll & Hyde” next month. Get your tickets now.
2. “August: Osage County”
Tracy Letts’ Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning epic received a fantastic collaborative presentation from the Human Race Theatre Company and Wright State University. The professional and student actors seamlessly joined forces at WSU under the direction of Marsha Hanna and Scott Stoney to inject striking depth and newfound comic relief into Letts’ acclaimed saga of a dysfunctional Oklahoma clan coping with the loss of its patriarch. The volatile, multifaceted performances of Susanne Marley (Violet Weston) and Kristie Berger (Barbara Fordham) were unquestionably superlative.
3. “The Producers”
The Dayton Playhouse’s utterly hilarious, magically cohesive production of “The Producers” was a surefire hit at intermission. Director Chris Harmon’s wacky cast, headlined by Saul Caplan and David Sherman, delivered one of the best first acts I have seen at the Playhouse. Among the musical pleasures was the hysterical “Keep It Gay” consisting of Charles Larkowski (Roger DeBris), Jonathan Berry (Carmen Ghia), Nick Moberg (Bryan), Bob Martin (Kevin), Cameron Elliott (Scott), Jeremy King (Sabu) and Betsy Feeser (Shirley). Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman would have been proud.
4. “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead”
Bert V. Royal’s R-rated parody of the “Peanuts” comic strip was a perfect fit for Sinclair Community College. This humorous yet gripping teen tale, expertly directed by Brian McKnight, featured a winning ensemble accented by the feisty mean girl rapport between Lauren Bernstein (Tricia) and Michelle Faulkner (Marcy).
Director Kay Frances Wean’s energetic, colorful and infectiously joyful staging of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s tuneful salute to Dr. Seuss will always be a hallmark of the Epiphany Players Drama Ministry at Centerville’s Epiphany Lutheran Church.
6. “Spring Awakening”
At one time, it seemed inconceivable that Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s raw, risqué musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 play would ever be seen on a professional stage in Dayton, Ohio. Thankfully, this Tony-winning gem received a two-night local premiere at the Victoria Theatre. Talk about a step in the right direction.
7. “Urinetown: The Musical”
Another well produced comedic achievement for the Dayton Playhouse as directed by Doug Lloyd. I particularly enjoyed “Follow Your Heart,” a highlight of Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann’s Tony-winning material tenderly rendered with humor and sincerity by James Roselli (Bobby Strong) and Kelsey Hopkins (Hope Cladwell).
8. “A Case of Libel”
Henry Denker’s compelling courtroom drama was a first-rate acting showcase at the Dayton Theatre Guild. Under the firm direction of Debra Kent, the climatic face-off between Saul Caplan (Robert Sloane) and David Shough (Boyd Bendix), resulting in Shough’s superb meltdown, was dynamite.
9. “Singin’ in the Rain”
Guided by a revamped artistic team, the Muse Machine supplied one of its most delightful student productions. Kudos to choreographer Lula Elzy for inserting a large ensemble of tap dancing diction coaches into “Moses Supposes.”
10. “The Syringa Tree”
The SEED Theatre Project, housed at the beautifully spacious Salvation Army Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, offered a riveting local premiere of Pamela Gien’s one-woman, apartheid-themed drama performed by Robin Smith under the direction of Adam J. Leigh. Smith’s dynamic mastery of character and dialect was remarkable.
Honorable Mention: “Kimberly Akimbo,” Dayton Theatre Guild; “Much Ado About Nothing,” Cedarville University; “Once On This Island,” Sinclair Community College; “Ordinary Days,” Human Race Theatre Company; “The Phantom of the Opera,” Victoria Theatre Association; “Rent,” Encore Theater Company; “The Spitfire Grill,” Beavercreek Community Theatre; “The 39 Steps,” Human Race Theatre Company; “[title of show],” Encore Theater Company; “Wicked,” Victoria Theatre Association
THE BIG APPLE
1. “The Scottsboro Boys”
The finest and boldest original musical of the year fittingly marked the final collaboration of John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”). “Scottsboro” drew protest and praise before closing prematurely, but, thankfully, this mesmerizing marvel might have a future on the big screen under the direction of Oscar nominee Lee Daniels (“Precious”).
2. “Angels in America”
Signature Theatre Company’s brilliant off-Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s thought-provoking masterpiece featured the marvelous NYC acting debut of Zachary Quinto (“Heroes,” “Star Trek”) as Louis Ironson.
3. “La Cage aux Folles”
A blissful, character-driven revival blessed by the terrific teamwork of Kelsey Grammer and sensational Tony winner Douglas Hodge. It’s worth noting that Doug Lloyd will direct “La Cage,” one of Jerry Herman’s best scores, at the Dayton Playhouse this spring.
The amazing, Tony-winning powerhouse duo of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis were a match made in August Wilson heaven.
5. “The Merchant of Venice”
Al Pacino’s commanding and perceptive portrayal of stringent moneylender Shylock gave chilling profundity to one of Shakespeare’s most unnerving plays.
6. “A View From The Bridge”
Scarlett Johansson won the Tony for her surprisingly strong Broadway debut in this stellar Arthur Miller revival, but it was Liev Schreiber who intensely owned every scene as an emotionally conflicted Brooklyn longshoreman.
7. “American Idiot”
Green Day’s gripping depiction of angst-ridden disillusionment and soul-searching was a completely visceral and unexpectedly moving experience on stage.
John Logan’s fascinating, Tony-winning exploration of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko was superbly led by Alfred Molina.
9. “Sondheim on Sondheim”
James Lapine’s eye-opening multimedia musical tribute to the legendary composer fluidly incorporated insightful commentary from the master himself recorded at his home.
10. “Driving Miss Daisy”
Alfred Uhry’s beloved Pulitzer Prize winner remains thin and hurried, but has been wonderfully revived nonetheless thanks to the exemplary pairing of James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave. Anyone heading to NYC in the coming months should avoid the imminent flop “Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark” (a boring, musically inept disaster!) and witness the delectable chemistry between two acting titans still at the top of their game.
Honorable Mention: “A Little Night Music” (opened in 2009, but freshly overhauled last summer starring Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch); “Anyone Can Whistle” (City Center Encores!); “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”; “Come Fly Away”; “Lend Me A Tenor”; “Million Dollar Quartet”; “Next Fall”; “Spirit Control”; “The Temperamentals”; “Time Stands Still”