Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Roar! The Music of The 1920s and Beyond
Hard to believe we're coming to the end of August; another school year is starting, and with it a new theater season. I find this a great time to look back at the plays and musicals I have been lucky enough to see this year and remember how rewarding many of them were.
This season the plays, especially the dramas, seemed to stand out. One that has not left my conscious is Stalking the Bogeyman, simply the finest portrayal of childhood sexual abuse and its aftermath that I've even seen in any form, presented by Florida Studio Theatre in its Stage II series. With a stunning performance in the leading role by David Perez Ribada, this was simply theater at its most intimate. A few months later, Bonita, presented by Urbanite Theatre, examined the same issue from a female's perspective, delivering a one-two punch on this subject. The Florida Studio Theatre Stage II series was also home to two other worthy dramas, Gidion's Knot and The Exonerated.
A play that caught me by surprise was The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety, presented as Asolo Rep's stand alone production. Although the basic setting, the world of pro wrestling, did not interest me, this play was about much more. This production was visually stunning and anchored by another memorable performance by Pierre Jean Gonzalez. I ended up returning to see the production a second time.
American Stage ended its season with three thought-provoking contemporary dramas. Their Informed Consent, The Invisible Hand, and Sex with Strangers were all excellent productions, and each challenged audiences in different ways. Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte will continue the pattern, offering three dramas at the end of next season as well.
For politically minded people, like me, Asolo offered The Great Society about LBJ's full presidential term and The Originalist about the late Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court Justice.
It was also a season of August Wilson; American Stage finished its presentation of the 10-play cycle with Joe Turner's Come and Gone, WBTT continued their intended cycle with a very strong The Piano Lesson, and Venice Theatre presented Fences in the Pinkerton Theatre, with Phillip Cherry far better than Denzel Washington in the film version. I have now seen nine of the ten century cycle plays, with only King Hedley II eluding me.
Two more plays at Urbanite fascinated me. My Barking Dog was the finest production of their season, while Ideation was a play that stuck in people's minds for a long time. As recently as late July a theatergoer stopped me to discuss this play. It was provocative in the way that only theater seems to be able to be.
Other plays that stood out in an all-around fine season included A Streetcar Named Desire by Two Chairs Theatre, (it's good to get to see these classic American dramas once in a while), Good People at American Stage (I finally became convinced that this is an extraordinary play), Book of Days and A View from the Bridge (an imperfect production due to the youth of the cast) at Asolo Conservatory, End of the Rainbow at freeFall and, The Little Foxes at Asolo Rep. Florida Studio Theatre's summer Mainstage series offered Doublewide in a rolling world premiere and The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, an uplifting play in which the wonderful Jeffrey Plunkett played nine roles with great warmth and humanity.
Comedy seemed to often be a stepchild in this region, but Relatively Speaking at the new Dog Days Theatre and Beau Jest at Players Center for the Performing Arts Summer Sizzler Series kept me laughing.
Many musicals were introduced to this area by various companies. New to this region were Billy Elliot (Venice Theatre), Big Fish (Players Center), The Bridges of Madison County (Manatee Players), and Sister Act (Venice Theatre). Starlite Room presented a production of Heathers a mere four weeks from the date it was first discussed. Considering that the venue is really not set up for such a large production and a host of other obstacles, this was a season highlight. A few older pieces that were still area premieres, at least as far as I can tell, included The Toxic Avenger and Blood Brothers (both at Venice Theatre) and Peter and the Starcatcher (Manatee Players).
Fall brought big scale productions of Guys and Dolls at Asolo Rep and Million Dollar Quartet at Florida Studio to open their respective seasons. Both productions were well received by critics and audiences. At the end of the season, Asolo Rep offered a world premiere production of Beatsville, which I liked a lot, but audience opinion was divided. This was a co-production of 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, and it will be remounted there.
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe showed their best in musical productions this season: an excellent production of The Wiz, a repeat of Black Nativity, and two Nate Jacobs original reviews, Girl Groups, 60s Explosion, in the spring and Broadway in Black over the summer.
Dewayne Barrett had an extraordinary season of directing, leading off with the previously mentioned Billy Elliot and two productions at Manatee Players, Little Shop of Horrors, and The Full Monty. The last two shows exceeded any productions of the shows I had seen previously, and both are favorites.
Other musicals that turned up in the region that I enjoyed were Gypsy (Players Centre), two productions of Assassins seen three weeks apart (freeFall and Manatee Players), Hairspray (American Stage in the Park), and Once on This Island (Venice Theatre).
Several opera productions showed off the companies at their best, including two at Sarasota Opera, The Italian Girl in Algiers, a favorite of mine, and The Love of Three Kings, which I had previously only known through a recording, and The Tales of Hoffman at St. Petersburg Opera.
Some events don't easily fall into a category. Presented by Artist Series of Sarasota, Todd Murray's Croon: When a Whisper Became a Song was a wonderful evening of baritone crooning, and in the spring this same organization presented Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway in their show Sibling Revelry. Ringling International Arts Festival is always interesting, even if this year's version did not seem to be their strongest. Two circus events, Synergy, this year's edition of Circus Sarasota presented by Circus Arts Conservatory, and Incredibello presented by Ringling Museum and Feld Entertainment were entertaining for this circus nut. Florida Studio Theatre weighed in with two strong cabaret shows this summer, The Blue Eyed Bettys and Carole J. Bufford in her show Roar! The Music of the 1920s and Beyond.
The arts scene in Tampa Bay and Sarasota/Manatee is as strong as many areas with much larger population bases. As always, I'm looking forward to many of the announced productions for 2017-18.