Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
When it comes to conquering roles, looking great is sometimes half the battle. And certainly the lavish 19th-century Viennese gowns that costume designer Rick Pena created for Laura Hodos in the first act of Slow Burn's Romance/Romance contributed to the intimidating nobility of her character, which is central to her motives. But she also lived the part and more, embodying both the statuesque regality and the yearning to break free from the strictures of upper-class privilege. In the first act of Keith Herrmann's musical, in which she and Matthew Korinko hid their aristocratic trappings and began "dating" in the guise of penniless working-class denizens, she brought an infectious effervescence to the role, her every song evoking the pop of a champagne bottle. Act Two is set in the humdrum, plainclothes Hamptons of the 1980s, but even with less-exciting material on which to build, Hodos remained irrepressible. This was a year of sensational performances from Hodos, who can make the most difficult passages seem effortless.
A show whose title conjures swingers clubs and hedonistic Craigslist searches had better be hot. And the Theatre at Arts Garage's production of Laura Eason's Sex With Strangers was indeed smokin', with enough sexual tension and torn-off clothing to turn its spectators into voyeurs. It was also a witty, sophisticated, and trenchant observation on the changing social mores and literary shifts of the 21st Century. Jacqueline Laggy starred as a 40-something novelist piecing together her sophomore book after a middling response to her debut, and Michael Uribe shone as a misogynistic millennial with a successful media empire centered on his playboy ethos. The actors smoldered and simmered and punched and counterpunched in equal measure, their pitch-perfect chemistry humanizing this pointed mystery through its boldly open conclusion. Arts Garage's entire theater season scratched at libidinous itches, but only Sex With Strangers had the performances to back it up.
Slow Burn's regional premiere of this Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik Tony winner offered the visceral thrills of a rock show within the tight structure of a Broadway musical. In the inspired hands of director Patrick Fitzwater, this tragic coming-of-age narrative about teenage sexuality flowering in an authoritative 19th-century Germany bristled with the sort of angst, frustration, retaliation, and liberation rarely heard (or seen) since Pink Floyd's The Wall. From the precarious chair choreography of "The Bitch of Living" to the ravishingly lit, cobalt dreamscape of "The Mirror Blue Night," Fitzwater's choreography reinvented wheels and kept them turning efficiently at the same time. Sean McClelland's set, with its subtle nooks and crannies, flawlessly balanced artistry and economy, while the actors conveyed oceans of feeling with single drops of expression, finding an aching tenderness among the adolescent cacophony. Whether or not you've seen the Broadway tours of Spring Awakening, it's hard to fathom a better production.
Michael Leeds' world premiere of Who Killed Joan Crawford? at Island City Stage was an amusing respite from a season dominated by works of political and social provocation. Predicated on the durable stereotype (or just flat-out reality) that gay men love Joan Crawford, Leeds' comedic murder mystery is built on an ingenious conceit: a birthday gathering of Crawford devotees who are required to show up dressed as a favorite Joan role. When one of the Joans is found in a closet, hung in more ways than one, it sets off a chain of mysterious deaths, forcing the others to suspect the obvious: One of these men, clad in the frocks of '40s femmes fatale and crazed, eyebrow-arching matriarchs, is a killer. Spiked with the inside-showbiz humor at which Leeds excels — on top of everything, it's the night of the Tony awards, whose importance is just as paramount for some of the Joans as fingering the serial killer in their midst — Who Killed Joan Crawford? proved equally adept at surprising us. And at a lean 75 minutes, it didn't overstay its campy welcome.
Dramaworks began its recent season with back-to-back Carbonell-winning gems late last year: William Inge's classically structured, voluminously populated Picnic, with its career-best performance from a virtuosic Margery Lowe; and Alan Bennett's coming-of-age drama The History Boys about, among other things, sexual misconduct in an English grammar school. Don't be surprised if the company accrues more statuettes for its stellar, benchmark-setting work in early 2016 as well. In an era when intermission-less 80-minute plays are the new standard, few companies would subject their audiences to the three-and-a-half-hour family exorcism that is Long Day's Journey Into Night. But Dramaworks' exemplary production forced us to wallow with Eugene O'Neill's demons, the final act representing the most artistically fertile discomfort imaginable. Its follow-up play, the sweet and teary Outside Mullingar, flawlessly exhibited the company's romantic side with a superbly acted, wondrously designed rendition of the John Patrick Shanley hit. These four works added up to a perfect synthesis of source material and production values.
Readers' choice: Broward Center for the Performing Arts
When she's not acting in musicals, Avery Sommers brings grace and elegance to her solo performances at cabaret venues around the country. But as the pioneering blues siren Bessie Smith in the Theatre at Arts Garage's The Devil's Music, she easily eschewed tact and niceties, embodying the brassy and boisterous legend through every lascivious hip movement and shrapnel-leaving F-bomb. From her mannerisms to her voice to her costuming, she could have passed for Smith's doppelgänger. Without ever leaving the stage and besotted by a bottomless selection of alcohol, Sommers' version of Bessie performed 15 numbers in a variety of styles — from a cappella gospel to swing to spartan blues — while sharing a life story rife with triumphs and tragedies. Though primarily a celebration of Smith's art, Sommers expressed plenty of subtle acting chops between the numbers, evident in the way her righteous anger segued naturally into knowing smiles or when she found the cracks of vulnerability in her character's towering persona.