On balance, 2014 was not a bad year at the theater in South Florida, with a couple of blockbuster touring shows, two startling takes on classic musicals at the Maltz Jupiter and a few worthy productions from many of the area’s other resident companies. Here is my undeniably subjective list of the 10 shows I enjoyed the most during the year.
Fiddler on the Roof (Maltz Jupiter Theatre) — Rather than serving up a carbon copy of Jerome Robbins’ staging of this enduring musical on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge managed to gain special permission to think outside the box and outside Robbins’ admittedly brilliant visions of life in tradition-bound Anatevka, Russia. She remained faithful to the material of Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein, but with a welcome freshness and vitality, aided by a younger than usual company led by Robert Petkoff as an understated, yet memorable Tevye the dairyman.
Parade (Slow Burn Theatre Co.) —When it premiered on Broadway in 1998, Jason Robert Brown’s musical account of a Jewish factory foreman wrongfully accused of molesting and murdering a young female employee proved to be too dark-toned for mainstream audiences. That put it right up Slow Burn’s alley and it played to director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater’s strengths, as he evoked early 20th century Atlanta in a production both tough and accessible. Cast in the leading role was Tom Anello as Brooklyn-born Leon Frank, whose similarities to Woody Allen, both visually and in his mannerisms surely did not hurt matters.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Wick Theatre) — This superbly crafted celebration of the vintage songs associated with jazz singer-songwriter “Fats” Waller is at the top of the food chain among musical revues, conveying the essence of the man through his music without any biographical filler. Still, it requires a quintet of energetic, accomplished singer-dancers, which director-choreographer Ron Hutchins certainly got by casting five veterans of the show, notably Reggie Whitehead and Debra Walton to assure that the joint would be jumpin’.
War Horse (Kravis Center) — The boy-and-his-horse story, adapted from a children’s book by the National Theatre of Great Britain, really isn’t much. But the production, co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, employing unnervingly life-like horse puppets created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, turned it into great theater. And fortunately, after being showered with Tony Awards, the massive show took the risk of touring the country, overshadowing Steven Spielberg’s too-literal movie version.
Our Town (Palm Beach Dramaworks) — This West Palm Beach company has always been partial to Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, but it waited for its 15th anniversary season to tackle this nostalgic gem from Thornton Wilder about small town living and the cycle of life. Director J. Barry Lewis turned it into a celebration of Dramaworks’ history by casting actors who have appeared on the company’s various stages over the past decade and a half.
The King and I (Maltz Jupiter Theatre) — Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge again tackled a classic musical with choreography by Jerome Robbins, taking an unconventional approach. Wayne Hu and Michele Ragusa were impressive in the title roles of the proud Siamese monarch and the equally stubborn schoolteacher. They alone might have made the production one for the memory books. Instead, it is remembered for the stagewide Thai shadow puppet sequence that conveyed the essence of Robbins “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet, reconceived by New York’s Puppet Kitchen.
Bad Jews (GableStage) — This provocatively titled seriocomedy by Joshua Harmon cuts to the heart of the religion and culture, as two brothers and their annoyingly devout cousin are brought together by the death of their Holocaust survivor grandfather. Their clash of values ultimately centers on who will inherit a golden amulet that the old man kept hidden throughout his captivity in a Nazi death camp. Director Joseph Adler again demonstrates his skill at discovering young talent and drawing fine performances from them, notably the two antagonists, David Rosenberg and Natalia Coego.
The Book of Mormon (Kravis Center) — Still in high demand on Broadway after four-and-a-half years there, this profane and irreverent ribbing of the Mormon church and its naïve missionaries proved equally popular on the road, largely because none of its punches were pulled. The wags behind it are Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park, as well as Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez. Together, they tossed satirical darts at organized religion while also endorsing belief systems. And the trio demonstrated an affection for musical theater, with sly send-ups of iconic shows from The Lion King to The King and I.
Thrill Me (Outre Theatre Co.) — Another company exploring the bounds of musical theater produced a chilling look at the so-called “crime of the century,” a cold-blooded random murder by two privileged, preppy students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Composer-lyricist-playwright Stephen Dolginoff score was stark and icy, well matched to director Skye Whitcomb’s assured sense of unease. The result — thanks in large part to Mike Westrich and Conor Walton, the show’s entire cast — was a minimalist evening with maximal impact.
Assassins (Zoetic Stage) — This Miami troupe triumphed beyond all expectations with its first attempt at a musical, jumping in with both feet into the dark, murky waters of Stephen Sondheim’s challenging vaudeville focusing on those disaffected souls desperate for recognition, who either attempted or succeeded at killing the president of the United States. The score includes eerily conventional Broadway melodies or Americana folk songs, sung powerfully by the likes of Nicholas Richberg (John Wilkes Booth), Nick Duckart (Czolgosz), Clay Cartland (John Hinckley) and Shane Tanner as a shooting gallery proprietor.