Broward Center for the Performing Arts
Keith Douglas

The world of five-star restaurants is kind of like the world of the theater. In both cases, the roiling backstage environment is a far cry from the perfectly presented machine the audience sees. Sean McClelland's scenic design in the Broward Center's Fully Committed envisioned the lowest rung in a restaurant's totem pole, a reservations room tucked away in the bowels of the restaurant, notches below even the private, profanity-laden hothouse known as the kitchen. As the place where an overworked phone jockey spent one hectic evening fielding phone calls from friends, parents, rivals, superagents, and desperate debutantes, McClelland's design was part man-cave, part dungeon, part collection of curiosities whose lack of explanation added to the set's quirky memorability. As uninviting as a Third World prison yet stuffed to the brim with ornamental gewgaws, the set epitomized its inhabitant's saving grace: his ability to bring character and color to a drab, soul-draining job.

This LGBT-focused theater company in Fort Lauderdale gained inestimable respect in 2013, when its acclaimed production of the Holocaust drama The Timekeepers scored six Carbonell Awards. It has kept up that winning track record since, beginning as one of a handful of theaters to share the offbeat space at Empire Stage and emerging as its most important lessee, playing to capacity audiences night after night. The keen eyes of artistic directors Andy Rogow and Michael Leeds are largely to thank for its success. Over the past year, they took a chance on world premieres — Michael McKeever's devastating Daniel's Husband and Michael Aman's POZ, an implacable ensemble dramedy concerning AIDS and spirituality — while mounting South Florida premieres of the acerbic Hollywood satire The Little Dog Laughed and the surrealist masterpiece Octopus. All were gay-specific but universally relatable, transcending the company's niche and resulting in must-see theater for all.

Readers' Choice: The Broward Center for the Performing Arts

Maltz Jupiter Theater

Shelly "The Machine" Levene, Rob Donahoe's character in Maltz Jupiter Theatre's Glengarry Glen Ross, is the last of his breed: a dinosaur from an earlier era of real-estate sales, facing extinction from the younger, filthier, more Machiavellian sociopaths who share space in his dingy Chicago office. Donahoe's portrait of Shelly's sheer desperation, colored by a nervous twitching of the legs, was heartbreaking to watch. And his faultless reading of David Mamet's intimidatingly difficult staccato speech vividly realized what, on the page, could resemble a messy word salad. Like a sputtering lawn mower emitting just enough power that you don't want to toss it out to pasture just yet, Donahoe made me care more deeply for the character than any previous production I'd seen of Glengarry, elevating him from one character in an ensemble to the show's bona fide lead.

Effusively praised in his every performance but criminally overlooked during awards season, Ethan Henry's virtuosic talents helped elevate Primal Forces' Sunset Baby from a squalid drama of criminal desperation on society's fringes to a tragic character study of a family ripped asunder. As a drug dealer and deadbeat father prone to fits of rage and jealousy, he was the wrench preventing the already rusted-out gears of his girlfriend and her estranged father (an excellent Makeba Pace and John Archie) from turning toward each other again. From his character's sneaky intelligence to his uninhibited sexuality, he blustered across his dingy apartment with the laser focus of a young Brando, and you got the impression he'd lived this man his entire life, not for the three weeks (at most!) of rehearsal. In the play's most captivating scene, he rampaged the apartment wordlessly in search of a secret, proving that even without deploying that deep, baby-makin' voice, Henry commanded our attention just the same.

@Ethan76

The greatest compliment to Ann Marie Olson's performance in Thinking Cap Theatre's Always... Patsy Cline is that I forgot I was watching Ann Marie Olson. This is what it means to disappear completely within a character, in this case this doomed singer who brought Nashville country music into the pop mainstream before perishing in a plane crash at age 30. With very little dialogue, Olson captured Patsy Cline's exuberant spirit and fundamental kindness — but what's more impressive was her pitch-perfect mastery of 27 Cline songs, from hits like "Crazy" and "Wa kin' After Midnight" to the more-obscure selections that would fill four-hour set lists at forgotten '50s honky-tonks. They're all a far cry from the traditional Broadway vocal arrangements Olson has conquered for Slow Burn Theatre, yet they seemed as comfortable leaving Olson's lips as church hymns to a reverend. If there were ever a local production that deserved its own cast album, it's this one.

There's something to be said for chewing the scenery, for playing the loudest notes so powerfully and incessantly that everything, for a brief time, disappears, until that one performance is all that remains. In her opening scene as Margaret White, Carrie's fundamentalist wacko mom in Slow Burn's Carrie: The Musical, Keelor consumed everything — the set, the music, the title character — with her unquenchable hysteria. You hated her character as much as you'd ever hated anyone on a stage in that moment, but you were transfixed. You couldn't help but marvel at her acidic delivery of every biblical condemnation aimed at her newly menstruating offspring, every physically abusive overreaction. She was — and there's no better word for it — possessed. Act II was something else, however; unlike Piper Laurie's one-note, batshit performance in the 1976 movie adaptation, Keelor's Margaret earned your pity and sympathy with the most moving number in the show, bringing the emotional house down just before Carrie's oppressors showered it in blood.

shelleykeelor.com

Arts Garage

The year's winner for this category comes with some bittersweet sentiment. Just as the Theatre at Arts Garage's final show of the season, Uncertain Terms, was about to take its first bow, artistic director Lou Tyrrell announced that he would be leaving the company at the end of it. At least he followed an old show-biz manta: Leave 'em wanting more. Though it consisted of just three plays, Arts Garage's 2014-15 theater season was arguably its most accomplished and satisfying slate of plays yet, all written by female playwrights. The How and the Why, selected by Tyrrell but directed by consummate freelancer Margaret Ledford, explored issues of evolutionary biology in a brainy and demanding production; I and You tackled teenage angst and the timeless poetry of Walt Whitman while packing a metaphysical punch; and Uncertain Terms featured a quintet of South Florida's finest actors translating a challenging new work with aplomb. Each of these plays was drastically underattended, so it's no surprise Tyrrell would want to flee to a more hospitable venue. Whatever his future holds, his final season at Arts Garage will be a tough act to follow.

Art and Culture Center of Hollywood

Jane Hart brings more than 20 years of solid expertise in the contemporary art world to her role, having worked at galleries in London, Los Angeles, NYC, and Miami. But more important, she brings with her a dash of sophistication, edginess, and fun. While other museums put on yet another Warhol retrospective or a survey of 17th-century judeo-pan-pacific pottery (zzzzzzz), she's throwing down a killer reception, hosting an interactive installation, or filling her rooms with weird and wondrous treasures. Last year, for instance, she featured an exhibit exploring the imagery on tarot cards; this summer, there's a show inspired by the hallucinogen LSD. Sri Prabha's work inspired by space and biology pushed brains to the limit; Agustina Woodgate's rugs made of stuffed animal skins gave everyone the feels. Lowbrow or highbrow, nearly every exhibition that Hart curates boasts a vision that's avant-garde and fantastic. That the spunky tastemaker is warm and mom-like is a bonus: If she believes in an emerging artist's work, she will help foster a budding career.

This once-mediocre cultural institution is well on its way to being noticed beyond South Florida, and that's thanks in large part to a rebranding, a renaming, and the direction of head curator Bonnie Clearwater, who has been at the helm for almost two years. She's brought in big-name exhibitions like Frida Kahlo and even had Julian Schnabel down from New York for a talk. She rounds out the big shows with smaller exhibits by up-and-comers like Zachary Fabri. Along with rising real estate prices, the evolution of the museum is another sign that Fort Lauderdale is on the up-and-up.

Readers' Choice: Museum of Discovery and Science

Bailey Contemporary Arts in Pompano Beach offers a space like no other in South Florida. Qualified artists can rent studios here for affordable rates: $205 to $415. The two-story building was a hotel when first erected in 1932, and now, renovated but still airy, it breathes inspiration at every turn. The space feels fresh and cozy in a way that connects folks. Be sure to check out the "Lyrics Lab: Poetry, Beats & Soul" event on Wednesdays, which Ian Caven hosts. Brave participants are backed up with live musicians, on drums and keyboards, to keep the beat going.

Readers' Choice: Norton Museum of Art

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