Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Gilbert and Sullivan Unplugged
Is it possible that Labor Day is upon us, eight months down and only four to go in 2018? The region I cover seems to fall nicely into two separate communities, divided by an 11-mile toll bridge. To the north Tampa and St. Petersburg, to the south Bradenton and Sarasota, with a very occasional foray into Charlotte County even further south. Both communities have yearly "best of" considerations: Bradenton/Sarasota at this time of year, spearheaded by Sarasota Herald Tribune critic Jay Handleman and called The Handies; Tampa/St. Pete has the "Theatre Tampa Bay Awards" awards in the spring, with a group of critics and others doing the nominating. I like to remember all that excelled without having to decide that one was better than another. Here are many of the productions that linger in my memory.
Musicals create a minor problem in that one of our fine community theaters opens its first production of the season in August, so it becomes hard to figure out which season that production belongs in. Last year the opening was 42nd Street and I included it as part of the 2016-2017 season, so the 2017-18 ended with Manatee Players' production of Disney's Newsies, which featured the best dancing I have ever seen on a community theater stage. The energy was staggering. The season kicked into high gear in November with Once at Florida Studio Theatre, a production I liked, though but not the musical itself, and Evita at Asolo Rep, brilliantly mounted by Josh Rhodes (which helped him get him the nod to helm Grand Hotel for City Center Encores! in New York last spring). Evita was stunningit made the sequences of the rich commenting on Eva's rise to power more integrated into the whole than previous productions. It was galvanized by a super star performance from Ana Isabelle in the title role. Ending Asolo Rep's season was an equally fine production of Ragtime, which I consider one of the finest musicals of its era. This was a minimalist production, a cast of 17 where 30+ had been in the Broadway version, but I never felt a loss of power.
This was the season I began to make the trek to Tampa's Straz Center to cover a few of the major touring productions. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's Fun Home impressed with fine performances from Kate Shindle and Robert Petkoff, even if the size of the hall dwarfed this intimate musical.
Up in St. Petersburg, American Stage in the Park offered a lively The Producers dominated by the always wonderful Matt McGee as Max, while freeFall scored with Daddy Long Legs and The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!). St.Petersburg Opera had a big success with its production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man where it seemed that there was a whole town on stage.
West Coast Black Theatre Troupe revived A Motown Christmas after the season opening In the Heights, which was a triumph for all, but especially Michael Mendez as Usnavi. Their summer production was an entirely original affair, Rockin' Down Fairytale Lane, with book, music and lyrics by Artistic Director Nate Jacobs.
There was much to admire in our three award-winning community theaters. At one point in February, all three had memorable productions on the boards, Manatee Players with Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Players Centre for the Performing Arts with Bullets Over Broadway (I liked the production, not the musical), and Venice Theatre with a Dreamgirls that was only slightly less fabulous than the last time I saw it on stage, the last performance in Boston just before it hit Broadway. Other successes for these companies included a well sung A Little Night Music for Manatee Players, and The 1940s Radio Hour and a well danced Singing in the Rain for The Players Centre.
There was much to admire on the drama side as well. Asolo Repertory Theatre offered Roeas part of its repertoire season, a look at the history of the historic Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision and all that has come after it. This is a large, sprawling affair that only this company would be likely to produce locally. Also, their sit down production this year, Branden Jacob-Jenkins' Gloria, was provocative and brilliantly staged by Greg Lemming. Courtesy of this company and its adjunct conservatory, I was able to reacquaint myself with French theater of the absurd via Ionesco's Rhinoceros in a brilliantly wacky production directed by Frank Galati (Asolo Rep) and Anouilh's The Rehearsal (Asolo Conservatory).
American Stage in St. Petersburg was home to several interesting dramas, The Royale early in the season, and Marjorie Prime and Strait of Gibraltar in the spring. While I found Bad Jews, which ended their season, problematic, it was a big hit for them, requiring the addition of extra performances.
Florida Studio Theatre was a bit inconsistent with its winter Mainstage series, but Native Gardens and Honor Killing gave audiences something to think about, and in their Stage II Series, How to Use a Knife was a provocative look at the issue of immigration and provided a platform for one of two fine performances by Sam Mossler (Other People's Money was the other).
Urbanite Theatre continues to provide modern edgy work. This is a place where not every play is going to be a good fit for every audience member, but when something connects, wow! For me, Echoes was the undisputed hit from their 2017-2018 season, while the first two productions of their 2018-19 season, which begins in the summer and runs until late spring, Incognito and Wakey, Wakey proved fascinating to me. The latter proves my point about individual tastes being more important here than at other theater companies, because someone I respect told me he founded it worthy of sleeping through. A special presentation, White Rabbit Red Rabbit proved more interesting in its conceit, which was an actor opens a sealed envelope and begins reading cold, than the actual play, at least for me.
The Motherfucker with the Hat at Asolo Conservatory gave me an opportunity to experience a play with a strong reputation. With a high level of vulgarity, this is one I was not sure I was going to warm to, but there are important issues at play here and and I was able to get past my reservations. Strong performances by the entire cast helped greatly, along with outstanding direction.
I was also able to make acquaintance with another play I have been fascinated by (if only from a distance), Take Me Out, presented by Studio 620 in St. Petersburg. Despite an almost non-existent budget for a play that makes strong demands, director Bob Jones was able to mount a quite strong production. The play turns out not to be the great American Gay Play, but nonetheless an interesting one.
Christmas brought an excellent stage version of The Little Prince, which nicely caught the tone of the original book. Said production was nicely led by Will Garrabrant, later William Garrabrant when he played Edgar in Asolo Rep's Ragtime.
Comedy tends not to be a big draw for me unless character driven or achieving a high level of excellence. Among the comic productions that scored, we had an eye-popping production of Shakespeare in Love from Asolo Rep, Murder for Two in Florida Studio Theatre's Summer Mainstage series, and What the Butler Saw from Dog Days Theatre. Christmas brought us the ubiquitous Santaland Diaries from Venice Theatre. It was well done, but I find David Sedaris' caustic humor does not wear well on me over 90 minutes.
Sarasota Opera had success with a work unknown to me until I saw it, d'Albert's Tiefland, and their production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut was solidly sung. St. Petersburg Opera presented Faust and did quite well by it. French opera seems to be an excellent fit for them. Later in the season they had a good go with The Magic Flute, which is not my favorite Mozart opera. Sarasota Ballet revived its production of The Secret Garden, which was created for them three years ago. I saw the first go round, which I enjoyed a great deal. The revival smoothed out any rough edges and this show should be on its way to presentations by other ballet companies. I got my first look at their acclaimed John Ringling's Circus Nutcracker in its second revival, which is every bit as dazzlingly colorful as a first class traditional production. I do not bring the depth of knowledge of ballet to the table as I do with opera and theater, and my exposure is far less, but Sarasota Ballet's Dreams of Nature, a program of Frederick Ashton's The Dream and David Bintley's Still Life at the Penguin Cafe, showed me just how much richness the ballet world holds for me to discover.
Circus Arts Conservatory presented its full length production under the banner of Circus Sarasota, Ovation, This year's Summer Circus Spectacular was again a joint production between Circus Arts conservatory and Ringling Museum of Art. Both shows fed my love of circus. Musical events that remain in my memory include the local return of The Swingaroos in a new program of Broadway favorites, The Music of the Night, Gilbert and Sullivan Unplugged at Florida Studio Theatre Cabaret, and Diverged Diznee part of Venice Theatre's summer cabaret series.
I am grateful that I live in an area so rich with live performances and now its time to look forward to 2018-19 and all that it will offer.