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The Envelope, Please 

Presenting the best (and worst) from the theater year gone by

The good news is the world didn't end in 2011. The bad news is that the doomsayers now are gearing up for annihilation in 2012.

If life as we know it is headed down the crapper, we might as well crack open that 60-year-old Macallan single malt and consider the best (and worst) of what we've seen on area stages during the past 12 months. Here goes.

Best Drama: In a crowded field, the trophy goes to The Life of Galileo at the Cleveland Play House. Kicking off their new digs in style, CPH mounted this elegant and thought-provoking work by Bertolt Brecht in the intimate confines of the new Allen Theatre. The space served the material well, and director Michael Douglas Edwards found many ways to show off his exuberant imagination. Runners-up: Insomnia: The Waking of Herselves at Cleveland Public Theatre, Trying at Cesear's Forum, and Legacy of Light at CPH.

Best Comedy: It's hard to beat the Bard for chuckles when the production company is on its game. So Great Lakes Theater brings home the gold with The Taming of the Shrew. This was a balls-out attack on a classic, featuring contemporary slang, rock music, and airborne oranges. And still, old Will's words managed to shine through Tracy Young's high-voltage direction. Runners-up: Present Laughter at CPH and Love's Labours Lost at the Ohio Shakespeare Festival.

Best Musical: It's a three-way tie! Next to Normal at Playhouse Square shares the honors with another touring show, the return of Jersey Boys. And standing right there with them is Karamu's God's Trombones. From bipolar disorder (Normal) to rough-and-tumble crooner/hoodlums (Boys) to gospel fervor (Trombones), the past year proved that any story can be sung — entertainingly and memorably. Runners-up: Chicago at Porthouse Theatre and Hairspray at Beck Center.

Worst Show: The Playhouse Square production with perhaps the longest title of the year — An Evening With Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking — turned out to be an exercise in tedium. Built around a Q&A with Lucy, the script, co-written by Ball's daughter, Lucie Arnaz, was unfunny, uninteresting, and damn near unbearable. Runners-up: Cabaret at Great Lakes Theater and Circle Mirror Transformation at Dobama.

Best Actor: Tough call here, but the laurels go to Scott Plate. His portrayal of Joey in Dobama's riveting A Steady Rain was understated but powerful. Displaying a range of ethical strengths and emotional weaknesses, Plate was totally believable as a monotone Chicago cop. Runners-up: Terence Cranendonk in Endgame produced by the Cleveland Museum of Art, Dana Hart in St. Nicholas at Ensemble Theatre, and Larry Nehring in The Seafarer at Dobama.

Best Actress: Heather Anderson Boll was outstanding in local playwright Eric Coble's dark comedy My Barking Dog at Cleveland Public Theatre. Playing off Nick Koesters' computer geek and apartment-house busybody, Boll fashioned a sympathetic yet weirdly subversive lost soul. Together, they made a telling statement about the challenge of integrating urban development and the natural world. Runner-up: Chris Siebert in Insomnia, also at CPT.

Worst Performance: Well, tan my hide if the winner isn't George Hamilton in Playhouse Square's touring production of La Cage Aux Folles. Acting as if he was posing admiringly in front of a mirror, Hamilton was so in love with himself that he couldn't spare a moment to interact with his co-star, the fine Christopher Sieber. Runner-up? Hah! Nobody even comes close.

Best Play With Politics: Ensemble Theatre did Clifford Odets a big favor by goosing up the wattage on his Waiting for Lefty script, a passionate piece that dealt with the value of labor unions. And it was politically timely too, since Ohioans were voting on State Issue 2 — a bill that would have severely hampered public employee unions — just weeks after the show closed. Runner-up: Grizzly Mama at Dobama.

Hottest Play: It was sexy time in 1580 in the bawdy The Miracle at Naples. Written by David Grimm and performed with raunchy delight by the folks at Convergence-Continuum, this was a ribald pleasure hunt featuring multiple dalliances and flirtations. Runner-up: Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant at CPT.

Most Controversial Play: A conservative Catholic group picketed outside Beck Center when Jerry Springer: The Opera was showing. Apparently they considered it blasphemy to refer to Jesus as possibly gay and God as a fascist tyrant. Amid the din, director Scott Spence and choreographer Martin Cespedes forged a tight ensemble performance that rippled with attitude. Runner-up: Ruined at Karamu.

That's a wrap for this year. So polish off that scotch, put on your best Armageddon gear, and prepare for another amazing year of theater in Cleveland in 2012.

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