THE GEM CITY
1. Disney’s “The Lion King” (Directed by Julie Taymor)
The tremendous, long-awaited local premiere of this visually stunning, Tony-winning spectacle from Taymor, Elton John and Tim Rice was a hit for the Victoria Theatre Association. Hopefully the Victoria is securing a return visit to Pride Rock for a future season.
2.“Hairspray” (Directed by Joe Deer)
Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s Tony-winning “Hairspray” received an extraordinarily jubilant presentation at Wright State University. Deer’s fluid vision, Teressa Wylie McWiliams’ fantastic choreography, Beth Conley’s spunk, Drew Helton’s authenticity and Ian DeVine’s divine dancing were among the many artistic joys. Every year, there are certain shows you crave to see over and over again. This was one of them. And I did.
3.“Caroline, or Change” (Directed by Scott Stoney)
Since 2004, I patiently waited for a local premiere of this dynamic, evocative Tony-nominated musical by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori. Unsurprisingly, the Human Race Theatre Company impressively stepped up to the plate with splendid results as led by the fabulous Tanesha Gary of the original Broadway cast.
4.“Souvenir” (Directed by Saul Caplan)
In Stephen Temperley’s intimate “Souvenir,” the life and folly of long-forgotten eccentric soprano Florence Foster Jenkins breezily unravels in a humorous and startling fashion. The Dayton Theatre Guild’s blissful production, deserving of an encore this season or next season, featured effortlessly charming performances by Reneé Franck-Reed and Charles Larkowski. What a duo!
5.“Permanent Collection” (Directed by Schele Williams)
The beauty of art and the pain of racial conflict compellingly collide in this heated drama by Thomas Gibbons. The Human Race Theatre Company’s gripping local premiere would not have been the same without the commanding presence of Alan Bomar Jones as the disaffected and unyielding Sterling North.
6. “Death of a Salesman” (Directed by Greg Hellems)
Scott Stoney’s sublime portrayal of the hapless Willy Loman and Lee Merrill’s revelatory turn as Willy’s supportive wife Linda fueled the palpable heartache within Wright State’s expertly character-driven production of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece. Hellems’ impressive straight play directorial debut particularly featured one of the most moving father-son embraces I have witnessed.
7. “42nd Street” (Directed by Rick Conant and Joe Deer)
Conant, a member of the original Broadway cast of “42nd Street,” memorably recreated Gower Champion’s choreography for Wright State’s knockout presentation which clearly astonished in the opening audition sequence alone. Those dancing feet never looked or sounded so sweet.
8. “Hello, Dolly!” (Directed by Robert and Ruth Clements)
Cedarville University’s splendidly designed, excellently performed production of Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s adaptation of “The Matchmaker” truly dazzled with striking, sophisticated elegance.
9. “Lost in Yonkers” (Directed by Fran Pesch)
Neil Simon’s heartwarming account of family dysfunction wondrously resonated at the Dayton Theatre Guild. In addition to Barbara Jorgensen’s stellar embodiment of a prickly matriarch, Philip Stock and Joel Daniel’s brotherly camaraderie and Amy Diederich’s endearing sensitivity were great assets.
Encore Theater Company, Dayton’s only community theater devoted to new musicals, simply relishes risk. The troupe delivered the goods with a comical and poignant production of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” This risqué rock opus concerning identity, heartbreak and transgender surgery could be viewed as off-putting but actually felt warmly universal and life-affirming in the flawlessly engaging hands of JJ Parkey and Abigail Nessen Bengson. In another bold move, Encore will offer the local community theater premiere of “Spring Awakening” in late January directed by Parkey. I have a feeling it could be a must-see.
Biggest Disappointment: The DayTonys egregiously overlooking “The Producers”
It’s no secret that the annual DayTony Awards will provide its share of oddities. However, the utterly shocking shut-out of the Dayton Playhouse’s production of “The Producers,” one of the best shows ever staged by the organization, will forever serve as a reminder of a flawed voting system in need of a complete overhaul.
THE BIG APPLE
Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s marvelous tale of disillusionment and regret was a hit last spring at the Kennedy Center. Even so, it grew deeper and more thrilling in its duly acclaimed Broadway transfer over the summer. Although I adored the Kennedy Center production (Linda Lavin’s tantalizing rendition of “Broadway Baby” was among the best I have heard), the current mounting, particularly blessed with definitive performances from Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell, is an indelibly cohesive product. I only wish the show could continue past its Jan. 22 closing. Special kudos to Wright State University alum Nick Verina, whose terrific Broadway debut as Young Ben (and brief loving embrace with Peters in the ravishing “Too Many Mornings”) proved simultaneously delightful and surreal.
2. “The Normal Heart”
The Tony-winning, limited engagement revival of Larry Kramer’s powerful, educational polemic concerning the early days of AIDS, fueled with exemplary portrayals by Ellen Barkin, John Benjamin Hickey, Joe Mantello, Jim Parsons and Lee Pace, packed an emotional, visceral wallop. It’s important to note that a letter written by Kramer, entitled “Please Know,” was distributed following the performance I attended. A particular paragraph stated, “Please know that the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen begins, there were 41.”
3. “The Book of Mormon”
This tuneful, crude and offensive Tony-winning laugh riot from “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” co-creator Robert Lopez took Broadway by storm, particularly garnering a male fan base not seen for a new musical since “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” Religion will always be a delicate subject but “Mormon” spoofs Joseph Smith, Africa, Bono, Orlando, Johnnie Cochran and musical theater conventions with a tongue-in-cheek flair seamlessly constructed to satisfy Broadway devotees and Cartman admirers.
4. “War Horse”
Stephen Spielberg is earning high marks for his adaptation of Michael Murporgo’s sentimental World War I account of a boy and his beloved horse. Still, there’s no denying the sheer epic beauty and whimsical puppetry on display in Lincoln Center Theater’s outstanding, deeply moving Tony-winning presentation.
5. “Good People”
David Lindsay-Abaire’s exceptionally authentic “Good People,” one of the best contemporary dramatic comedies to shed light on America’s struggling middle class, revealed the depths of cultural identity and hopelessness with brutal honesty. Tate Donovan and Tony winner Frances McDormand were perfect as former flames coming to terms with their past in South Boston.
6. “Other Desert Cities”
Jon Robin Baitz (“Brothers & Sisters,” “The Paris Letter”) could receive Tony and Pulitzer Prize consideration for his wonderfully engrossing saga about a wealthy California family battling ideologies while coping with secrets and lies. Rachel Griffiths, Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Judith Light and Thomas Sadoski stirred emotions on a fierce level that rivaled “The Normal Heart.” Anyone headed to New York City who can’t find a ticket to “Mormon” or “War Horse” should see “Cities,” which will likely become a regional theater hit in 2012-13.
7. “The Motherf**ker With the Hat”
Chris Rock’s Broadway debut could have been a fiasco but his hilarious turn as a disingenuous AA sponsor opposite the fiery machismo of Bobby Cannavale sent Stephen Adly Guirgis’ scathing, gritty, sharp and witty play through the roof.
8. “Sister Act”
If it wasn’t for the “Mormon” invasion, this totally uplifting, incredibly melodic adaptation of the Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name, heightened by Patina Miller’s breakthrough performance and Alan Menken’s delectable 1970s-inspired tunes, would have been a serious Tony contender.
Jez Butterworth’s overlong yet impactful depiction of British misfits will always be remembered for Mark Rylance’s masterful, Tony-winning performance as raw, rebellious ringleader Johnny “Rooster” Byron.
10. “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying”
A highly commendable Daniel Radcliffe took his post-“Potter” career to a new level in this cool, sleek and underappreciated revival of Frank Loesser’s classic workplace satire.
Biggest Disappointment: “Anything Goes”
I didn’t return to “Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark” this year and cannot comment on whether it remained a disaster or improved following its substantial rewrites. So I’ll choose the overrated revival of “Anything Goes,” which failed to astound aside from a Tony-winning performance by Sutton Foster, one of Broadway’s most popular triple threats.