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An overabundance of dramatic riches made selecting this year’s top 10 list tougher than usual. Even though I have solicited suggestions from my fellow critics Alan R. Hall and Kate Dobbs Ariail, the ultimate responsibility for the choices below is mine and mine alone. I have listed the top 10 shows of 2008 in alphabetical order, followed by the runners-up, also in alphabetical order. Nine of the thumbnail write-ups on each show — followed by the reviewer’s initials — are from the shows’ Classical Voice of North Carolina online reviews; the 10th is a Triangle Theater Review exclusive.
• Angels in America, Part Two: Perestoika (Theatre in the Park, April 11-27) Part Two is the stronger, more focused, more compelling chapter of prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner’s two-part “Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” In Perestroika, many of the more thinly sketched dramatis personae of Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches evolve from mere caricatures to full-blooded characters. Consequently, Part Two reaps the fruit of the dramatic seeds sown in Millennium Approaches. Under the sure-handed direction of TIP development director Adam Twiss, Eric Carl and Mathew-Jason Willis strike sparks with their crackling characterizations of AIDS sufferer Prior Walter and his long-time partner Louis Ironson, who takes a powder when Prior’s emotional tide is at its lowest ebb. Willis, whose character was reduced to an all-too-familiar swish caricature in Millennium Approaches, really spreads his dramatic wings as he cruelly abandons the stricken Prior for the dishy, but still deeply closeted Republican lawyer and Mormon fundamentalist Joe Pitt (Jesse R. Gephart) — and then Louis recoils with horror when he finds out that his new main squeeze is a protégée of the ultra-conservative Roy Cohn (Dr. Kenny C. Gannon). If properly harnessed, the dramatic pyrotechnics on view in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre could go a long way toward solving the national energy crisis. — R.W.M. (To read the complete Classical Voice of North Carolina review, go to http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2008/042008/AngelsTwo.html.)
• The Drowsy Chaperone (Broadway Series South, Feb. 12-17): This ingenious, witty, and altogether wonderful one-act musical extravaganza, dynamically directed and cleverly choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, is a brilliant spoof of old-fashioned Broadway musical romances from the Roaring Twenties. As the title character, Nancy Opel is a hoot as she staggers in and out of scenes as the perpetually tipsy and always in the mood for love Drowsy Chaperone; and Jonathan Crombie is very, very funny as Man in Chair, an effete and wryly witty aficionado of Broadway shows who serves as the show’s narrator, gleefully guiding the audience through the improbable plot twists in the vintage musical-within-the-musical, also called The Drowsy Chaperone, and dropping zingers about the personal foibles of the original cast. Mark Ledbetter and Andrea Chamberlain have good chemistry and make a handsome, if improbable couple as heir to an oil fortune, Robert Martin and Broadway star Janet Van De Graaff; Cliff Bemis channels his inner curmudgeon as Broadway producer and “Feldzieg’s Follies” impresario Victor Feldzieg; but James Moye steals the show with his flamboyant, larger-than-life impersonation of the Latin Lothario and self-proclaimed “King of Romance” Aldolpho. — R.W.M. (To read the complete CVNC review, go to http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2008/022008/Drowsy.html.)
• Doubt, A Parable (PlayMakers Repertory Company, Jan. 26-Feb. 29): The icy fingers of doubt grip all four hearts in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s powerful production of playwright John Patrick Shanley’s thought-provoking four-character play about a compassionate young priest rightly or wrongly suspected of pedophilia. Doubt featured a crackerjack cast, under the sure-handed direction of Drew Barr, which included Julie Fishell as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the gruff, no-nonsense principal of St. Anthony’s Catholic elementary school, and Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Father Brendan Flynn, a handsome and charming newcomer to the parish whom Sister Aloysius strongly suspects of having an inappropriate relationship with the school’s first and only African-American student. Sister Aloysius has a mind of winter, and Julie Fishell not only does an admirable job of projecting that part of her prickly personality, but also keeping the crusty old nun credible and sympathetic, despite her obvious eccentricities and ultra-conservatism where church matters are concerned. Jeff Cornell likewise limns Father Flynn’s character in all its nuances. Also excellent were Janie Brookshire as Sister James, a brand-new eighth-grade teacher who senses something may be wrong in Father Flynn’s attentions toward Donald Muller, and Kathryn Hunter-Williams as the boy’s mother, who is worldly wise and tough as a nickel steak. — R.W.M. (To read the complete CVNC review, go to http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2008/022008/PRC.html#Doubt.)
• Europe Central (Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, Jan. 17-Feb. 2): Not since Everyman Theater Company’s forever-memorable 1970s presentation of Brecht’s Mahagonny has so much ambitious art been packed into so small a space. Little Green Pig’s production of Europe Central is even more ambitious than Mahagonny was, because Europe Central wasn’t a play to start with. The play was crafted by LGP’s “playwrights-in-residence,” John Justice and Michael A. Smith, from William T. Vollman’s 2005 National Book Award-winning novel about art and artists during and immediately after World War II in Russian and Germany. Not having read the novel, I cannot speak to the quality of the adaptation; but I can attest that Justice and Smith have created a powerful, deeply theatrical script that successfully imagines fact and concretizes the imagined into a dream-world of passionately felt truths about the realities of art, love, the State (whichever one), death, war, and hope. “There is always a war,” cries out one anguished character near the end of the play. It is art like this that gives us strength to live through that truth. — K.D.A. (To read the complete CVNC review, go to http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2008/012008/EuropeCentral.html.)
• The Eyes of Babylon (America Junction Productions, in association with Common Ground Theatre, Oct. 10-19): This incendiary autobiographical drama, penned and performed with unflinching honesty and a surprising amount of humor by Jeff Key, is as timely as today’s headlines. The tall, thin Alabama native — who still wears a high-and-tight military haircut — chronicles his evolution from a gung-ho Lance Corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps to an outspoken opponent of the Iraq War. Shortly after returning from Iraq to have surgery to repair a “sports hernia,” Key forced the Marines to muster him out, under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, when he told five million CNN viewers that he was gay during an interview on “Paula Zahn Now.” Key has been speaking out ever since. — R.W.M. (To read the complete TTR review, see Part 3B1 of our Oct. 9, 2009 issue.)
• The Island (Manbites Dog Theater, Sept. 4-13): Little Green Pig, working in Manbites Dog Theater, has opened this stunning production of Athol Fugard’s 1973 play which is set in South Africa’s dreaded Robben Island Prison. With two characters and engrossing language rich in allusion, Fugard puts moral issues older than Sophocles into the context of Apartheid. In his directorial debut, Michael O’Foghludha brings to The Island his finely honed thinking on law and justice — in his day job, he is an attorney — as well as an acute sense of dramatic rhythm and timing. Working with actors Thaddeus Edwards (John) and LaMark Wright (Winston), O’Foghludha has created a resoundingly physical production from two men talking in a very confined space. But the greater laurels go to the actors. — K.D.A. (To read the complete CVNC review, go to http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2008/092008/Island.html.)
• The Robber Bridegroom (Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy, June 18-29): Vivaciously staged by Hot Summer Nights director and choreographer Matthew-Jason Willis as his valedictory production before he moved to New York City, The Robber Bridegroom got a big bounce from dynamic dance routines that incorporate elements of square dancing, Irish step dancing, and an eclectic selection of other steps. The Robber Bridegroom starred dashing leading man Will Ray as the musical’s charismatic two-faced title character — gallant gentleman Jamie Lockhart and his infamous alter ego, that notorious rapscallion, the Bandit of the Woods — and consummate comedienne Andrea Schulz Twiss as the Bandit’s next victim, Rosamund Musgrove, the young romance-starved daughter of dim-witted but fabulously wealthy Mississippi planter Clement Musgrove (Don Bridge) and despised stepdaughter of his avaricious and amorous, but famously ugly second wife, Salome (Susan Durham-Lozaw). HSN veteran Matthew Addison transforms the part of Goat into a star turn; and TIP veterans David McNeil Henderson, Mike Raab, and Lindsay Leb are hilarious as the murderous Harp Gang — Little Harp, Big Harp, and The Raven — who are hell-bent on relieving Clement Musgrove of his fortune — and his life — before the Bandit of the Woods can beat them to the punch. — R.W.M. (To read the complete CVNC review, go to http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2008/062008/HSNK2.html.)
• Twelfth Night (Burning Coal Theatre Company, Dec. 4-21): The music made this production of Twelfth Night at Burning Coal. Introducing the Jazz Age to Shakespeare is no mean feat, and Burning Coal does this production proud with amazing performances by Yolanda Rabun as Feste and long-time, returning leading actor David Dossey as Sir Toby Belch which make this a comedy well worth revisiting Shakespeare. — A.R.H. (To read the complete CVNC review, go to http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2008/122008/TwelfthNight.html.)
• Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Party Girl! Productions, June 26-July 12): It may be true that the smartest people play the meanest games with each other. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? certainly makes a case for that, and the play’s George and Martha are contenders for the world title in marital battling. Performed here by Mark Jeffrey Miller and Nicole Farmer, George and Martha demonstrate just how vicious people can become when the loving cup is polluted with the toxic additives of failed ambition and thwarted desire. Nick, played by Ryan Brock (in a performance that recalls the young Brad Pitt’s in Thelma and Louise), is an apparently wholesome young biology professor whose surface is expertly peeled by George’s merciless word-scalpel and a fifth of bourbon. (The whole play swims in booze.) Nick’s sweet ditzy little wife, the brandy-swilling Honey, fares no better. Honey is a tough role — it takes a smart actress to look that dumb — and Beth Popelka is marvelous in it. Director Tom Marriott did a great job at establishing the crucial balance between the two couples. Brock and Popelka supply the grounding to keep Miller and Farmer’s electrical storm of a performance from blowing the walls out of the building. — K.D.A. (To read the complete CVNC review, go to http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2008/062008/VWoolf.html.)
• Yeston and Kopit’s Phantom (North Carolina Theatre, Oct. 18-26): Luminous performances by Michael Minarik as the Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera and Rebecca Pitcher as his protégé, Christine Daaé, help made NCT’s gala production of Yeston and Kopit’s Phantom sparkle, shimmer, and shine as bright as a Super Nova. Composer and lyricist Maury Yeston and librettist Arthur L. Kopit’s 1991 musical, subtitled “The American Musical Sensation,” is truly sensational and even operatic, whereas Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 London and 1988 Broadway hit, The Phantom of the Opera, has a lot in common with his previous rock operas. — R.W.M. (To read the complete CVNC review, go to http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2008/102008/Phantom.html.)
HONORABLE MENTION: All in the Timing (Ghost & Spice Productions, Jan. 11-26); Amadeus (PlayMakers Repertory Company, April 2-20); Annie Get Your Gun (North Carolina Theatre, Feb. 23-March 2); Awake and Sing! (2nd Avenue South Players, Aug. 15-31); Bent (Raleigh Ensemble Players, April 17-May 3); Blood Done Sign My Name (Duke Divinity School, Nov. 6-9); Blue Door (PlayMakers Repertory Company, Oct. 22-Nov. 9); Crowns (Burning Coal Theatre Company, April 10-27); Dreamgirls (North Carolina Theatre, Jan. 12-20); Dying City (Manbites Dog Theater, Feb 21-March 8); State of the Union (Deep Dish Theater Company, Feb. 14-March 8); Fistful of Love (Manbites Dog Theater and Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, May 15-31); George (Perihelion Theater Company, Jan. 25-Feb. 3); History of the Word: The Hip Hop Musical (The Carolina Theatre, Oct. 3-4:); Hot Mikado (Raleigh Little Theatre, Aug. 8-31); Howie the Rookie (Burning Coal Theatre Company and The Delta Boys, March 6-15); Hysteria (Burning Coal Theatre Company, Nov. 6-23); Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies (Theater of the American South, May 16-June 1); Life Is So Good (EbzB Productions and Mike Wiley Productions, Oct. 9-19); Moby Dick Rehearsed (N.C. State University Center Stage presents The Acting Company, March 25); Monty Python’s Spamalot (Broadway Series South, April 15-20); Pericles (PlayMakers Repertory Company, Sept. 24-Oct. 12); Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story: The Musical (Ride Again Productions, in association with Tarheel Tale Tellers and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of Communication Studies, Nov. 20-23:); Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll (Ghost & Spice Productions, Sept. 5-20); Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Duck Variations (Ghost & Spice Productions, April 4-19); Still ... Life (Carolina Performing Arts, in collaboration with The Justice Theatre Project, March 27-29, April 5-6); The Prisoner’s Dilemma (Burning Coal Theatre Company, Sept. 11-28); The Smell of the Kill (Theatre in the Park, Feb. 8-17); 10 by 10 in the Triangle Festival (The ArtsCenter, July 10-20); To Be Straight with You (Carolina Performing Arts presents DV8 Physical Theatre, Oct. 9-10); 2.5 Minute Ride (PlayMakers Repertory Company, Jan. 9-13); War of the Worlds and The Lost World (N.C. State University Center Stage presents L.A. Theatre Works, Oct. 28); Witness to an Execution (PlayMakers Repertory Company, April 23-27); and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (Cary Players, Sept. 26-Oct. 5).
The Best of the Best of 2008
Best Shows: Angels in America (Theatre in the Park), Europe Central and The Island (Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Party Girl! Productions).
Best Theaters: Burning Coal Theatre Company and PlayMakers Repertory Company.
Although the Durham, NC Independent Weekly only listed nine shows in its roundup of the best theatrical productions of 2008, there were altogether three 10 best lists for 2008 theater. In order of publication, they are the Jan. 4th Raleigh, NC News & Observer top 10 by Orla Swift and Roy C. Dicks; the Jan. 7th Independent Weekly top nine by Byron Woods and the Jan. 11th Triangle Theater Review top 10 by yours truly, with input from Kate Dobbs Ariail and Alan R. Hall, which is published above.
There were 17 shows by 13 theater companies named to one or more of the three 10 best lists. The best theatrical productions of 2008, named in all three lists are: Angels in America (Theatre in the Park), Europe Central and The Island (both Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Party Girl! Productions). Four other shows appeared on two lists: Blue Door and Doubt, A Parable (PlayMakers Repertory Company); Twelfth Night (Burning Coal Theatre Company); and Yeston and Kopit’s Phantom (North Carolina Theatre).
The most honored local theaters were Burning Coal Theatre Company of Raleigh (Howie the Rookie, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and Twelfth Night) and PlayMakers Repertory Company of Chapel Hill (Blue Door, Doubt, A Parable, and Pericles), with three shows each this year’s 10 best lists. Close behind was Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern of Durham, which had two shows (Europe Central and The Island) on all three 2008 top 10 lists.
• Angels in America (Theatre in the Park, April 11-27): The Independent Weekly, The News & Observer, and Triangle Theater Review.
• Bent (Raleigh Ensemble Players, April 17-May 3): The Indy.
• Blue Door (PlayMakers Repertory Company, Oct. 22-Nov. 9): The Indy and the N&O.
• Doubt, A Parable (PlayMakers Repertory Company, Jan. 26-Feb. 29): The N&O and TTR.
• The Drowsy Chaperone (Broadway Series South, Feb. 12-17): TTR.
• Dying City (Manbites Dog Theater, Feb 21-March 8): The N&O.
• Europe Central (Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, Jan. 17-Feb. 2): The Indy, the N&O, and TTR.
• The Eyes of Babylon (America Junction Productions, in association with Common Ground Theatre, Oct. 10-19): TTR.
• Howie the Rookie (Burning Coal Theatre Company and The Delta Boys, March 6-15): The Indy.
• I Am an insect: A Fluttering Processionary of Infinitesimal Ideas (Paperhand Puppet Intervention, Aug. 8-Sept. 7): The N&O.
• The Island (Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, Sept. 4-13): The Indy, the N&O, and TTR.
• Pericles (PlayMakers Repertory Company, Sept. 24-Oct. 12 ): The N&O.
• The Prisoner’s Dilemma (Burning Coal Theatre Company, Sept. 11-28): The Indy.
• The Robber Bridegroom (Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy, June 18-29): TTR.
• Twelfth Night (Burning Coal Theatre Company, Dec. 4-21): The Indy and TTR.
• Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Party Girl! Productions, June 26-July 12): The Indy, the N&O, and TTR.
• Yeston and Kopit’s Phantom (North Carolina Theatre, Oct. 18-26): The N&O and TTR.