As the calendar ends, a lazy columnist's thoughts turn to summing up the previous year in a numbered list: top 10, terrible 20, middling 14, yada yada. Honestly, I'm too exhausted from eating to count that high. So instead, here's an unscientific, purely subjective, laughably incomplete and possibly incoherent selection of my most memorable moments in Orlando theater during 2009.
My fanboy-favorite theatrical experience came last June, courtesy of Cirque du Soleil's 25th anniversary: I got to interview founding member Carmen Ruest (complete with stilt-walking lesson) and see the never-gets-old La Nouba from killer seats. Otherwise, for high-dollar theater, this is largely a one-house town since the Plaza Theatre pulled the plug on its local stage series, though traveling productions do drop into the schedule. If you want to see a Broadway production without a drive to the coast (or airport), the often-carped-about Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre is your only choice. The Fairwinds Broadway Across America touring series delivered handsomely this year, especially with the Tony-winning Frankie Valli bio-play Jersey Boys, which proved that not only can you create a "jukebox musical" with real heart and craft, but you can take it on the road without losing any of its power.
Unfortunately, the touring trucks also delivered some stinkers, ranging from ruined childhood films (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) to flea-bitten warhorses (Cats) to a middle-school-quality T-bird train wreck (Grease). But not even the terrors of Riverdance could compete with what I calculate as, penny for penny, the biggest disappointment imported into Orlando last year: the heavily promoted, fancy-fundraiser-priced, embarrassingly amateurish "adaptation" of The Tempest during Orlando Shakespeare Theater's otherwise excellent PlayFest. If only Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis had shown half the life on stage as Prospero that she did in our fun phone interview, there would have been a lot less snoring.
Between community theaters, independent producers and the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, I can't possibly pick just one top show. Listing a handful of shows, including Theatre Downtown's Death of a Salesman and Altar Boyz, PB&J Theatre Factory's Snack, Mad Cow Theatre's I Am My Own Wife and Love Song, Schave & Reilly's Department of Angels and VarieTease's Lullaby, just scratches the surface of the talent. And nothing could top the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra's concert staging of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in conjunction with Mad Cow; from the Bob Carr balcony, with homegrown talent standing beside Broadway vets Faith Prince and Davis Gaines, it looked and sounded like we'd been transported to the Great White Way.
In the "unclassifiable oddity" category, after I disqualify performance artist extraordinaire Brian Feldman as being in a league of his own, there was one clear winner: Macabre Vignettes II, the Halloween puppetry-dance-art installation masterpiece created by Leah Marke and Tamara Marke-Lares. Shame that it was paired, as part of Ibex's Orlando Puppet Festival, with Bride of Wildenstein, my pick for the worst one-man-drag-horror- puppet-musical of 2009. Or ever.
But my favorite development in our community is the growth of theater in exciting new places. Wade Hair opened Breakthrough Theatre of Winter Park, near the newly expanded Winter Park Playhouse. Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows expanded beyond whodunits with a slate of scripted comedies. And the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre got out of the Cameo (which continues to host arts events) and into their own Cherry Street space, which they've in turn opened up to other artists. GOAT's goodwill toward "competing" theaters is one of the best things of 2009. Go raise a glass at their Starving Artist New Year's Party, where $15 will buy you food, karaoke and plenty of "Auld Lang Syne" (whatever that is).
Sadly, thanks to the riotous response to Al Krulick's recent Jekyll and Hyde review, GOAT is also the poster boy (along with Facebook's "Orlando Peoples Critic") for my least-favorite footnote of the year: the death of what little civility was left online. Once upon a time, a director receiving a critical review would let the work speak for itself or, at worst, send a letter to the editor correcting any factual errors. Today, everyone feels compelled to defend every decision online, not always with the nicest of language. Who are these unaccountable assholes attacking artists with caustic comments, hiding behind the cover of "Anonymous," heedless of the emotional toll they take? If you're sick of intelligent dialogue being drowned out by foul-mouthed fools who can't figure out how to register a decent pseudonym, e-mail the owners of your favorite websites (hint, hint) demanding they disable anonymous commenting.
The death of online civility is my least favorite thing, but Holy Crap (!) and Other Adventures of Nonsense at the Fringe was a darn close second. You'd have to be a big fan of absurdism or psychedelics to like that one. I am both, and I still hated it.
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