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ARTICLE: Robert’s Reviews Chooses The 10 Best Shows of 2004

by Robert W. McDowell, Scott Ross, & Alan R. Hall

Last year at this time, Scott Ross and I reread our reviews of the hundreds of theatrical productions that played the Triangle in calendar 2003 and hammered out the Robert’s Reviews list of the 10 best shows of 2003 in record time, with nary a cross word between us. That is surprising, given the passion that we as theater critics feel for all things theatrical and the opinionatedness and stubbornness of writers in general.

This year, Robert’s Reviews added Lissa Brennan, Alan R. Hall, and Todd Morman to our roster of critics. (And there will be further additions in the months to come.) So, in selecting our 10 best shows of 2004, Scott, Alan, Todd, and I put our heads together via e-mail; and the Scott and I made the final selections. (Sadly, Lissa Brennan has left the area.)

What follows is a listing of Robert’s Reviews’ choices of the 10 best theatrical productions to play the Triangle in calendar 2004, plus links to this FREE e-mail theatrical newsletter’s previews and reviews of each show. Please note that, unlike most other top 10 lists, our list includes some productions that only brightened Triangle stages for one or two days.

The 10 best shows of 2004 were (in alphabetical order):

1. Little Women: The Musical (Theater Previews at Duke et al., Oct. 13-31). The March sisters and Marmee came vividly to life in this bodacious new musical adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 coming-of-age novel, featuring a libretto by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland, and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. Superbly directed by Tony Award® nominee Susan H. Schulman, Little Womenstarred Tony winner Sutton Foster as spunky Jo March, a teenaged tomboy who delights in writing blood-and-guts stories and adapting them for herself and her three sisters to perform for their Concord, Massachusetts neighbors. Maureen McGovern was delightful as Marmee, the March family matriarch who heroically struggles to make ends meet while father is away fighting the Civil War; and John Hickok was charming as Professor Fritz Bhaer, the introspective German immigrant who finds a new life (and a new love) in Jo March. Little Women provided a rare opportunity for Triangle theatergoers to see the out-of-town tryout of a Broadway-bound musical. R.W.M.

2. Luminosity (PlayMakers Repertory Company, April 7-May 2). The playwright Nick Stafford and PRC artistic director David Hammond, who staged it with breathtaking aplomb, achieved without question the production of this theatrical season. An unalloyed miracle of intelligent stagecraft (including one of the most effective first act curtains I’ve ever seen) Luminosity posed the most urgent questions concerning murder, duplicity, economic barbarism, bigotry, racial exploitation in both the abstract and the concrete, empathy, redemption even the legitimacy of art and the ways in which we must accept even the distant past as a means of connecting with and, finally, transcending it. Triangle audiences may have to search long and hard for another play as deeply rewarding as this. I know I will. Luminosity was precisely the sort of work our theater needs and so seldom receives. It made one proud. S.R.

3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Actors from the London Stage at Duke Performances, Nov. 11-12). Five veteran British actors Guy Burgess, Caroline Devlin, Jan Shepherd, Christopher Staines, and Nicholas Tigg divided all the roles and staged a sublime production of this rollicking romantic comedy on a bare stage in simple costumes, with just five wooden cubes for scenery/seats and a few carefully selected novelty items, such as bug-eyes on springy stalks for fairies and ass’ ears for Bottom, to heighten the hilarity. Tigg was terrific as Bottom, the ham actor who wants to play all the major roles in Pyramus and Thisbe; but Burgess stole the show with his absolutely inspired performance as Puck, jester to the fairy court and a wide-eyed, grinning, pixilated sprite. Burgess nearly brought the house down with his stiff Frankenstein-like walk and jerky slow-motion thrust of his fingers in a horizontal V-for-victory sign to suggest a chink in the Wall that separated the star-crossed lovers. R.W.M.

4. A Paradise It Seems: The Short Stories of John Cheever (Wordshed Productions, July 30-Aug. 1). The snooty WASPish suburbs limned by American novelist and short-story writer John Cheever (1912-82) provide the backdrop for this provocative stage adaptation of three Cheever stories “O Youth and Beauty!,” “The Wrysons,” and “The Swimmer” written and directed by Matthew Spangler. The show featured a host of sharply etched characterizations. Spangler was a stitch as squinty eyed fading former athlete Cash Bentley, a former hurdler who brings many a party to a premature end by getting drunk and trying to reenact his collegiate track triumphs, using furniture from his neighbors’ living rooms as the hurdles. Hannah Blevins was delightful as Bentley’s mortally embarrassed wife, Louise; but Chris Chiron stole the show with his passionate performance as poor bewildered Neddy Merrill, whose fateful decision to swim home from a Sunday-afternoon party through his neighbors’ backyard pools has disastrous (and entirely unexpected) consequences for him, his marriage, and his home. R.W.M.

5. The Producers (Broadway Series South, Nov. 2-7). Retrofitting the scenario of his own riotous 1968 comedy to the late 1950s, Mel Brooks (as composer/lyricist and co-author) gave The Producers which won a record 12 Tony Awards® one of funniest musical books in American musical comedy and the most insistently tuneful, instinctively melodic Broadway score by an amateur since the days of Frank Loesser. Lewis J. Stadlen, the star of the national tour presented by Broadway Series South gave us the impecunious Broadway producer Max Bialystock whole: the greedy wheeze, the outraged geshraiof the fallen idol who knows he deserves better than the best, the unrestrained lust for gold and glory that is its own form of comedic grace, and the hilarious despair of the narrowly thwarted. Susan Stroman, the show’s irreplaceable director and choreographer, provided the most consistently, insanely, profligately, extravagantly brilliant and inventive staging of a musical since the heyday of Bob Fosse. S.R.

6. Ragtime (North Carolina Theatre, Sept. 11-19). With a trio of incandescent performers in the leading roles, this luminous production was a real super nova. A superb singer and truly gifted dramatic actor, Norm Lewis gave a magnificent performance as charismatic African-American ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. Julia Murney was terrific as Mother, a typical upper-middle-class WASP wife and mother in New Rochelle, circa 1906, until the outrageous injustice involving Coalhouse pricks her moral conscience. Tony \winner Michael Rupert gave a heart-rending performance as Tateh, a poor Jewish immigrant, scratching out a meager living by selling silhouettes on the mean streets of New York City. Director Joe Locarro made a most auspicious NCT directorial debut, demonstrating exceptional imagination and resourcefulness in staging this epic message musical in very high style indeed; and choreographer Antoinette DiPietropolo expertly reproduced Graciela Daniele’s Tony-nominated musical staging from the original Broadway production, filling the stage with flash and movement. R.W.M.

7. Silver River (Manbites Dog Theater, Feb. 12-28). Romulus Linney’s luminous, compassionate, and redemptive new play, receiving its world premiere at Manbites Dog Theater, was a stunningly crafted monodrama that provided the great Christine Morris a superb vehicle in which to exhibit the full range of her seemingly illimitable brilliance. Under Jeff Storer’s simple, yet inspired direction, Linney concerned himself with some of the profoundest notions of the last century, and this: motherhood, sensuality, the dissolution of familial ties, the social position of women in the wider spheres of influence, the grace that accompanies forgiveness, and the personal struggle to break free of accepted bounds for the sake of one’s own, tortured, soul. Those who missed Silver River may well regret it forever after. S.R.

8. Stones in His Pockets (Actors Comedy Lab and Theatre in the Park, Dec. 3-12). A Hollywood movie being shot in County Kerry, Ireland, ends up involving the entire town. This is the premise of a two-man show, Stones in His Pockets. Charlie (David Bartlett) and Jack (Tony Hefner) are the two principals in this 25-character show. Director Rod Rich set these two up so that we saw more than just the two of them onstage. This was done with music, lighting, creative staging. Part of the fun of this show was getting to watch each character “enter” and “exit.” Since neither Bartlett nor Hefner ever left the stage, watching this process was something akin to watching a film script. The two-man cast must continuously put out massive amounts of energy, because this show cannot ever stall; if it does, all is lost. And both these two gentlemen were more than up to the task. A.R.H.

9. Sylvia (Towne Players of Garner, Oct. 15-23). Director Beth Honeycutt scored another big hit with this delicious comic soufflé. Janet Doughty and Rob Smith have great comic chemistry, and exploited it to the fullest while playing Greg, a burned-out big-city business executive, and Sylvia, a spunky stray dog that Greg meets in the park and brings home to keep, much to his wife’s consternation. Greg’s disillusionment with the corporate rat race is every bit as palpable as his affection for Sylvia. Doughty’s endearing antics as a flea-infested, shoe-chewing mutt who drastically disrupts Greg and Kate’s household routine are highly amusing. Meg Dietrich plays Kate, Greg’s increasingly exasperated schoolteacher wife and the show’s straight woman, with considerable comic brio; and Michael Armstrong is a scream as Greg’s obstreperous fellow dog lover Tom, Kate’s hard-drinking old friend Phyllis, and the owlish gender-bending psychiatrist Leslie, whose deliberately androgynous “look” is designed to unearth his/her patients’ hidden feelings about sexual orientation. R.W.M.

10. Victoria (Dulcinea Langfelder & Co. at N.C. State University Center Stage, Nov. 20). There are not enough superlatives to do full justice to this magical multimedia performance by Dulcinea Langfelder & Co. Using live actors, music, slide projections, and video clips, actress/singer/dancer/choreographer Dulcinea Langfelder and cohorts (especially Yves Simard, who plays a stern but sympathetic Orderly) created an at-times hilarious but ultimately heartbreaking portrait of a spunky old Jewish lady who may have lost her memory, her home, and her cat, but has not lost her sense of humor despite suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In sublimely eloquent facial expression, gesture, dialogue, mime, and most remarkably in dance, with or without her wheelchair serving as a surprisingly supple and versatile dance partner, Dulcinea Langfelder casts new light on the shadowy world of Alzheimer’s sufferers, where inchoate fears frequently darken even the sunniest day. R.W.M.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (also in alphabetical order): Another Antigone (University Theatre at N.C. State); Beau Jest (2nd Avenue South Theater Company); Boy Gets GiRL (Deep Dish Theater); The Chosen (Theatre Or); A Christmas Carol (Theatre in the Park); Cinderella (Raleigh Little Theatre); Cirque Dreams (Broadway Series South); Comic Potential (Actors Comedy Lab); 50! Evolution of a Butch Lesbian(Laurie Wolf at Manbites Dog Theater); The Fist (Theatre Or); Floating Rhoda and the Glue Man (Raleigh Ensemble Players); Follies (University Theatre at N.C. State); The Gardens of Frau Hess (Raleigh Ensemble Players); In the Heart of America (Raleigh Ensemble Players), The Invisible Man (Aquila Theatre Company at NCSU Center Stage); Jekyll & Hyde (North Carolina Theatre); The King and I (North Carolina Theatre); Kiss Me, Kate (Broadway at Duke); The Lonesome West(Wordshed Productions); Macbeth (Tiny Ninja Theater at Manbites Dog Theater); The Man Who Came to Dinner (Towne Players of Garner); My Fair Lady (North Carolina Theatre); My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra (The Carolina Theatre); Nixon’s Nixon (Manbites Dog Theater); Not About Heroes (PlayMakers Repertory Company); Oklahoma! (Broadway Series South); One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Raleigh Little Theatre); A Perfect Ganesh (Wendell Theatre Group); Poor Superman (Raleigh Ensemble Players); Pump Boys and Dinettes (Raleigh Little Theatre); Safe House (Burning Coal Theatre Company); The Servant of Two Masters (Peace College Theatre); Shirley Valentine (Ghost & Spice Productions); Sonnets for an Old Century (Manbites Dog); Sweet Bird of Youth (Theatre in the Park); The Tempest (Shakespeare & Originals); Ten by Ten in the Triangle (The ArtsCenter); The Tragedy of King Richard II (PlayMakers Repertory Company); Underneath the Lintel (Flying Machine Theatre Company at The ArtsCenter); Vincent: An Evening of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Manbites Dog Theater); Waiting for Godot (Burning Coal Theatre Company); Women’s Minyan (Theatre Or); and You Can’t Take It With You (Raleigh Little Theatre).

Note: On Jan. 13th, Robert’s Reviews will publish its Fifth Annual Triangle Theater Awards. To start your FREE subscription to this weekly Triangle theatrical newsletter (not all of which is reprinted by CVNC), e-mail and type SUBSCRIBE ROBERT’S REVIEWS in the Subject: line.

Note: Copies of 2004 theatre materials no longer linked from this article are available upon request.

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