Present Imperfect

2004 brought gifts galore (but one big lump of coal)

William Dean Howell's fanciful short story "Christmas Every Day" makes a persuasive case that life would be monotonous indeed if the glories of December 25 were to become a daily habit. Nevertheless, theater reviewers hope for a little Christmas, if not every day, then at least every week. And during the past year we have been gifted with glory more than we might have expected. In the spirit of giving back, here's a year-end nod to some of the players who helped to make all four seasons bright.

In the spring Diane Petersonand Magan Wilesbrought a sense of pathos and epiphany to Stray Dog's sensitive retelling of Tennessee Williams' oft-told The Glass Menagerie. Kate Baldwinwas both luminous and wrenching in the Rep Studio production of the two-character musical The Last Five Years. Robert Elliottpractically had to scrape the carbuncles off his crusty performance as the brutish captain in the Rep's Mister Roberts. Joe Hanrahanheld viewers rapt in St. Nicholas, a one-man morality tale about the vampire that resides within us all. Terry Meddowsand Stellie Sitemananchored a frothy cast in HotHouse's McCarthy-era spoof Red Herring. Bill Lynchand Steve Isomwere as in sync as Butch and Sundance in the exhilarating New Jewish mounting of the stirring AIDS musical Falsettos.

Summer got off to a strong start thanks to Sandra Reaves-Phillips' titanic performance in the Black Rep's musical Raisin. (Kudos too to choreographer Keith Tyronefor bringing the show's "African Dance" sequence to enthralling life.). Out in Forest Park, as the petulant leading lady in 42nd Street, the delightfully acid-tongued Beth Leavelwas the Muny's standout performer, while in the title role of Annie young Natalie Ann Bramwas a charmer. Among the summer's nonmusicals, Kevin Beyerwas virtuoso as court composer Antonio Salieri in St. Louis Shakespeare's Amadeus.

Autumn rolled in with the Rep's strongly acted The Crucible. It's the character roles that linger in the memory: Olivia Keisteras a rag doll of a serving girl and Dane Knellas a Massachusetts farmer whose saltwater-stained face perfectly reflected his wizened portrayal. Terry Meddowsbrought devilish sedition to song-and-dance in ECHO Theater's infrequently staged Marat/Sade, and Meghan Maguirewas all poise and confidence in the role written for Katharine Hepburn in Off Center's The Philadelphia Story. Cory Colemanwas an ethereal Edna Pontellier in Washington University's adaptation of Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening.

Although winter didn't officially arrive until last week, the cold weather brought another round of strong performances, most notably in HotCity's chillingly effective debut production, The Exonerated. Lavonne Byers, Ron Himes, Steve Isom, Dennis Lebby, Robert A. Mitchelland William Whitakerbrought a sublime simplicity to the task of excoriating the American criminal-justice system. Then there was the ubiquitous Robert Elliottagain, bringing a different kind of crust to Sir Toby Belch in the Rep's Twelfth Night. Most recently, in the memory play Hearts, Christopher Limberinstilled a howling humanity to the role of a St. Louis army veteran who is haunted by his experiences in World War II.

That much-overused word "ensemble" nevertheless seems warranted for the four men who inhabited Hearts,as well as for the three-man cast of Metro Theater Company's captivating stage piece Captain Lindbergh's Ocean Flight, which has landed at the Missouri History Museum in both 2003 and '04. One might wish that it would become an annual occurrence.

Other Christmas wishes? It's fine that former St. Louisan Jason Danieleyreturns to town with his bride Marin Mazziefor brief appearances like last week's Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra holiday concerts. But how can we get these two Broadway theater luminaries to perform in a play here? Last spring they took Los Angeles by storm, as it were, in the rainmaking musical 110 in the Shade. Can't Santa bring that production to town?

On a less festive note, it's worth noting that the summer Shakespeare Festival is still only inching forward in its efforts to transform that cavity east of Art Hill into a workable playing space. Of course everyone wishes it well -- but in four summers the festival has yet to hire a director who has manifested one iota of the imagination and intelligence shown by its own music director, Robin Weatherall, when he recently made his directing debut with Richard III at St. Louis Shakespeare.

But the year's biggest theatrical tragedy, a proverbial lump of coallarge enough to fill the stockings of all Rockettes past and present, had to be the Muny's production of Breakfast at Tiffany's. That merry little opus has become the standard against which all bad theater is measured. Inevitably now, whenever two or more local theater critics begin to carp about some recent disappointing show, in time someone will pipe up, "At least it wasn't as bad as Breakfast at Tiffany's," and the critics will be shamed into silence. If we were to put forth one single New Year's resolution, it would be that Muny staffers and board members would resolve to have learned something from the Tiffany's experience. Here's hoping that in the future they won't be so cavalier about allowing executive producer Paul Blake free rein to mount shows whose only dubious merit is that they happen to have been written by -- you guessed it -- Paul Blake.

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