Thursday, January 04, 2018

What Was the Best Theater of 2017?

Carolyn Marie Monroe and Sofia Raquel Sanchez in Lydia (John Ulman)
It’s that time for the annual recounting of theater in the Seattle area. 2017 was a pretty great year for musicals. The 5th Avenue Theatre started off the year with a rousing version of Pajama Game with the by-now taken-for-granted wonderful local cast and then bookended the year with a warm, sweet Holiday Inn with another terrific local cast augmented by special guest Lorna Luft. They also provided a moving, historic and excellent production of Ragtime.

We sometimes need a reminder of just how strong our pool of musical performers is. Seattle has become a hub for new musical development and continues to strengthen as a “try out” venue for musicals heading for New York City. That brings more top talent to town to stay.

Village Theatre strengthened its already-strong new musical program by hiring Brandon Ivie to formalize his already created bi-coastal lifestyle and backing their new Beta Program (debuting this week with the next trio of developmental musicals). Their season provided my pick for Best Musical production of 2017: Dreamgirls! It was said to be on Steve Tomkins “bucket list” before he transitions from Village Artist Director and our fair community now has enough top African American talent that they can blow our socks off in productions such as these. Their vigorous productions of Newsies and Into the Woods were also a lot of fun.

Rich Gray had a great year starring in two quintessential roles that were perfect for him in The Nance at ArtsWest and Murder for Two by The 5th Avenue and ACT Theatre. Timothy McCuen Piggee and Adam Standley turned The Legend of Georgia McBride into a musical treat (though it’s considered a play). Showtunes! Theatre Company provided two treats that will likely never become “full” productions with The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Randy Scholz and Megan Parker heading up a beautiful Bridges of Madison County. Taproot Theatre supported a brand-new Jane Austin musical, Persuasion.

ArtsWest produced a first with a racially-diverse Sweeney Todd, with the fabulous Corinna Lapid Munter as Mrs. Lovett. Also, Katherine Strohmaier and Aaron Lamb self-produced the best The Last 5 Years I’ll likely ever see, because they alternated playing piano and singing in a tour de force production I hope they remount so more people can see it!

Plays Of Color – Expanding Our Universe
Mentioning “racially-diverse” leads into bringing happy notice to the strong, powerful showings in 2017 of major African American and Asian American or simply Asian stories on stage: Sound Theatre Company’s Hoodoo Love, Book-It Repertory Theatre’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and ArtsWest’s Milk Like Sugar brought African American-focused stories and performers front and center, and also put spotlights on Black Women’s voices. Malika Oyetimein flexed her directing muscles in several major shows this year.

Seattle Public Theater’s The World of Extreme Happiness looked at life in China; Nadeshiko, by local playwright Keiko Green, also at Sound Theatre Company, told a Japanese tale, and ACT Theatre gave us a rousing Chinese American tale with King of the Yees.

A one-woman show by Y York, Sycorax, turned Shakespeare’s The Tempest on its head to surmise that Caliban’s mother was black and that was why she and Caliban were despised. West of Lenin brought us Three Americans, where two of the monologues were by persons of color, all the writers were persons of color and the third monologue focused on a transgendered relationship.

Racial relationships or history were prominent in a number of excellent productions: Blues for Mr. Charlie by The Williams Project, Six Degrees of Separation by Theatre9/12, Barbecue by Intiman, Welcome to Braggsville by Book-It Repertory Theatre, Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act by Theater Schmeater, A Civil War Christmas by Taproot Theatre, and a play reading at 18&Union of Nicky Davis’ biting comedy, Brunch, about five white women sitting around brunching and talking about race.

ArtsWest also brought us a Pakistani American family story with The Who and the What. ACT Theatre produced a fascinating play about Deaf culture: Tribes. Forward Flux Productions debuted a world premiere, No More Sad Things, about a native Hawaiian. Klara Cerris starred as a teenager who was rejecting of her Latina heritage in 26 Miles at West of Lenin.

Strawberry Theatre Workshop produced my choice for Best Play of 2017, Lydia, with deft direction by Sheila Daniels and a devastating, heart-wrenching leading performance by upcoming talent Sofia Raquel Sanchez (who is still in the middle of studying at Cornish).

(IM)Pulse, a dance theater piece by Spectrum Dance Theater’s Donald Byrd provided the Outstanding Male performance of the year, Craig MacArthur. In a piece that reminded us of the historic prejudices against LGBT people and the AIDS crisis, this was a gut-punch that will be remembered.

Two autobiographical shows were outstanding in their content, their performers, and their impact. Yankee Pickney by Jehan Osanyin and Ode by Nike Imoru told engaging and thoughtful stories.

Best Women in Male Roles
Ms. Imoru also took part in all the Shakespeare-with-women shows this year, with powerful performances in both parts of Bring Down the House (the Henry plays) at Seattle Shakespeare Company with upstart crow and Rebel Kat’s production of Coriolanus: Fight Like a Bitch. It’s not quite all the way to “usual” for women to play these roles, but it certainly has become one way to cast talented women in large roles and change the feeling of a classic play.

Best Local Writing
Wayne Rawley gave us a treat when he decided to recreate three of his older “late night” offerings from  Theater Schmeater’s past in his Money and Run series. While many of the characters repeated in each of the three, he deliberately cast different folks in each one. It was a pretty massive and fun undertaking. Darian Lindle created what promises to be a worthy episodic offering with her history-blends-science-fantasy play, SILON (The Secret and Impossible League of the Noosphere) in The Baltimore Plot, produced by Live Girls! Theater.

Katie Forgette cracked open a small family drama at Taproot Theatre with Evidence of Things Unseen. Her partner in life, R. Hamilton Wright, brought his manic, magical Greensward to MAP Theatre.

Honorable mention goes to a play where the first act was great. Cherdonna’s Doll House, written by Cherdonna Sinatra (Jody Kuehner) and produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre was an awe-inspiring spectacle for the first act.

Other Strong Performances
Included in honorable mentions are the strong performances in Taproot’s Relativity, ACT Theatre’s The Crucible and Azeotrope’s Building the Wall. Theatre22 had a quiet, but scary winner with Downstairs. Washington Ensemble Theatre has my Favorite Set of the year in Teh Internet Is Serious Business with set and lights by talented Tristan Roberson and a great ensemble of actors. Ghost Light Theatricals also provided a lovely production of Madeleine George’s play, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence.

Made Me Laugh
I like to finish up with a category where I am hard to please – comedy. Taproot Theatre had a fun production this year that included a lot of laughs: Room Service. And Seattle Repertory Theatre produced my Best Comedy of 2017: the riotous and very unprim-and-proper Pride and Prejudice.

2018, Bring It! I’m ready!

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