Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Best of 2016: This Year's Best Theater Performances

The 2nd Annual Twin Cities Theater Blogger Awards are coming! 

Photo courtesy of Park Square Theater.
And I cannot wait to see how they turn out. We have had such an incredible year of theater here in the Twin Cities and let me tell you: trying to narrow down the nominees (let alone vote for only one of each category!) has been so. difficult. 

This is the best of first world problems though, is it not? I am so grateful to live in a place where the arts are not only totally accessible to the everyday citizen but also truly excellent across the board. I wanted to post a quick roundup of some of my favorite shows from the past year as well as some observations that I'm looking forward to in the coming year. Let me know your favorites and if there's anything I simply must put on my calendar (I'm starting to do programming for the year now, so please let me know! I welcome suggestions). 
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theater.
A standout for 2016 was set very early on with the production of Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square Theater. This exceptional, profound show was locally written, featuring women (and women of color!) in not only starring but production roles, and gave an honest, unflinching depiction of one of my favorite musical artists of all time: what was not to love? Zoe Saldana can go suck it; Regina Marie Williams was far and away the better Nina Simone. Her co-stars (Traci Allen Shannon, Aimee K. Bryant, and Thomasina Petrus) are no slouches either. Every second of this play gave me chills (read my full review here) and I am THRILLED that Park Square is bringing the show back this year with even more awesome music. Run, don't walk, to get your tickets - this cast is once-in-a-lifetime good and they'll be even better this time around, I'd bet money on it.
Photo courtesy of Dan Norman.
There were several repeat offenders on my list of favorites this year. From the above list: Traci Allen Shannon as Cinderella in a totally charming performance opposite David Murray (both also stood out in Theatre Latte Da's truly exceptional production of Ragtime; I didn't write a review but wow, did it blow me away). These two have wonderful chemistry, gorgeous voices, and can anchor a show whether the subject matter is serious or comedic. I hope they stick around and keep working together! Cinderella was a truly diverse, whirlwind of a production (that is showing for four more days, do NOT miss it!). The Children's Theatre had another favorite with The Last Firefly, a totally imaginative, beautiful production that won me over with it's beautiful set and story.
Photo courtesy of Park Square Theater.
Aimee K. Bryant also had a great year, serving in multiple shows including the brilliant A Raisin in the Sun at Park Square Theater. Lorraine Hansbury's classic play was giving a sterling performance from another loaded cast (including Darius Dotch, who was great with Ansa Akyea in Bars and Measures at the Jungle Theatre; and Greta Oglesby) and the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers held a thought-provoking talk back after the show.
Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
I have finally (after many years of ho-hum feelings) fallen hard for the Guthrie Theater, which is thriving under Joseph Haj's excellent tutelage. Among my favorite developments? The new program which is providing free or subsidized ticket prices; flexible programming (including the powerful one-man shows Acting Black and Hold These Truths); and some of the most uncomfortable (yet powerful) performances of the year. My favorite of the Guthrie's edgy, contemporary productions was the full home-run that was Disgraced, but there were more awesome pieces too: The Parchman Hour gave me shivers with its potent musicality and disturbing visuals; Trouble in Mind held a quiet, powerful sway over our perceptions of race in the media; and The Lion in Winter took the bawdiness of the presidential election and boiled it down into a sinister, Game of Thrones-style dessert.
Photo courtesy of Dan Norman.
Sarah Rasmussen is another repeat offender, but this time in the director's chair. I have adored her fresh, lively programming at the Jungle Theater as Artistic Director as well as some excellent turns she's taken guest-directing at other theaters (Sense and Sensibility at the Guthrie being a prime example). I was super impressed with her all-female rendition of Two Gentlemen of Verona, as well as the stunning The Oldest Boy, the last show of 2016 at the Jungle (and what a production!). Rasmussen is one to watch, and I cannot wait to see what she brings to the table in her second year at the helm. The How and The Why also featured some amazing feminist work, and Calendar Girls made it fashionable to feature women of any age; I'm predicting shows about/by/for women will continue to be trends next year, and here's hoping I'm right!
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Musicals and comedies had an excellent year as well. Sasha Andreev breathed new life into Barbra Streisand in the hilarious Buyer and Cellar; Peter Rothstein helmed two refreshed musicals (aforementioned Ragtime and a winning Gypsy); Passing Through Pig's Eye gave us spectacular tap dancing and a bold look at St. Paul's history; and perennial favorite Chanhassen Dinner Theater gave us all the gift of the year's best production design and ever-delightful Beauty and the Beast as well as a surprisingly deft production of Camelot. On the traveling Broadway circuit I really enjoyed a play (a play!) version of A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, as well as an ethereal production of Lion King and darkly hilarious, heartwarming Fun Home, which I loved for its literary references as much as for its wonderful performances.
Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts.
It was a good year for smaller companies too. I love everything Mu Performing Arts does, and I thought all of their shows this year were spectacular (including the lyrical and haunting You for Me for You; the spectacular Spectacular Story of a Filipino Hulk Hogan; and the year's best rom-com, The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up). Orange was also a surprise hit for me at Mixed Blood, the most accessible theater in town, and introduced me to a host of young actors I'm hoping stick around for future shows. And the Penumbra produced some heavy hitters too, including a striking performance of Jitney (just in time for HBO's upcoming August Wilson renaissance courtesy of Denzel Washington).

I could go on and on, but this list has gotten exhaustive and I've only scratched the surface! Suffice it to say it was an incredible year for the arts, and I cannot wait to see what 2017 has in store. Please leave me your favorites and suggestions on Twitter and in the comments; I can't wait to hear what you have to say. And don't miss the live announcement of our Twin Cities Theater Blogger award winners on Monday, January 9 on Twitter - it's a must-attend event.