This Was the Year That Is: Our two fearless theater scribes look forward to 2012

Last week RFT theater reviewers Dennis Brown and Paul Friswold selected ten theater highlights from 2011. This week they continue the dialogue with a discussion of theater in St. Louis.

Dennis Brown: Paul, I suppose that every year is a transitional year, because nothing stands still. But it would seem that there was a significant amount of movement this year, both good and ill. Let's start with the good. At the Muny Mike Isaacson is infusing the place with fresh thinking as its new executive producer. He has already brokered a new partnership with the Fine Arts Conservatory at Webster University. The addition of master classes and workshop development projects for Conservatory students is another indicator that the Muny wants to rejoin the community. Any thoughts?

Paul Friswold: I'm all for more cross-pollination between the established entities and our up-and-coming actors and technical crews. Webster Conservatory productions traditionally feature strong performances and interesting decision-making; here's hoping some of the risk-taking rubs off on the pros.

Welcome, Peabody, but remember that a theater experience begins before the lights come up on the stage.
Jason Stoff
Welcome, Peabody, but remember that a theater experience begins before the lights come up on the stage.

Brown: Obviously, it's way too early to even think about passing judgment on Isaacson. His predecessor, Paul Blake, was there for 22 years; Isaacson hasn't even been on the job for 22 weeks. But he has announced a season that, by Muny standards anyway, is loaded with potential — though perhaps I should note that last year on this same page you pushed for a 21-year Muny moratorium on shows by Andrew Lloyd Webber. You were brazenly ignored, and the Muny is going ahead with that great family favorite, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Are you one to bear a grudge?

Friswold: In a career littered with insipid melodies and characters so thin that the descriptor "translucent" is too weighty for them, Andrew Lloyd Webber really outdid himself with Joseph. If this is family entertainment, it's no wonder most murders are committed by family members — I know I'd kill to not sit through it again.

So no, no grudges.

Brown: Nevertheless, Joseph and his brothers aside, I hope for an intriguing summer. Obviously, Isaacson's first significant challenge will come with casting. If, for instance, he is able to bookend the season by persuading Sutton Foster to reprise her Tony Award-winning role in Thoroughly Modern Millie and then lure rising star Kate Baldwin back to St. Louis to play Mrs. Anna in The King and I, who could ask for anything more?

On a less happy note, the Crestwood ArtSpace already seems to have run its course.

Friswold: There's hope the ArtSpace will return to the mall after reconstruction, but that's projected for 2014. Right now Soundstage (and its spinoff project, R-S Theatrics), Avalon and Echo return to the ranks of the gypsy theater companies, along with a dozen other arts organizations formerly ensconced in the ArtSpace. I don't understand how a town with so many fallow properties has so many companies on the hoof every year. Is there no landlord out there willing to donate a building or two (*cough* tax write-off) for the sake of the arts? Think of the good will it would engender!

Am I seriously appealing to landlords for charity? Landlords, picture your company's name in lights on a marquee 40 weeks of the year. (Vanity, that's how we'll get 'em involved.)

Brown: Another huge transition this year was the reopening of the old Kiel Opera House, redux Peabody. Obviously they've spent a lot of money, and the place is comfortable and embracing. But I would remind those in charge that a theater experience does not begin when the lights come up on the stage. The night I first visited, the Blues were playing next door. Parking was a nightmare. So yes, the Peabody Opera House may finally be open, but there are still problems to solve.

Friswold: I'm willing to endure parking nightmares for the right show. But I also like the bustle of a busier downtown. You know how Grand Center looks on a Friday night when the symphony's playing, and something's playing at the Fox, and the Grandel and the Kranzberg both have crowds? That's what I want to see downtown: thousands of people out and enjoying themselves. Even better if they're supporting the arts.

Brown: I know that last week we listed memorable productions from 2011. But the talent pool in St. Louis is so strong, I would be remiss if I didn't also single out some additional individual performances. Alan Knoll and Whit Reichert brought a goofy Rowan & Martin kind of freshness to the otherwise quite serious Black Rep staging of The Real McCoy. Peggy Billo and Michelle Hand personified equal measures of conviction and passion in The Immigrant at New Jewish Theatre. Donna Weinsting's portrayal as the conflicted mother of a murderess in the St. Louis Actors' Studio staging of Nuts literally took my breath away. And John Contini was equally forceful as her duplicitous husband.

Friswold: Well if you're going to double dip on the praise, so am I. Joshua Thomas was a dashing blowhard in Act Inc.'s The Royal Family, and then he inspired every commoner and noble in England to glory at Agincort in St. Louis Shakespeare's Henry V — that's quite a range. Justin Ivan Brown delivered a nuanced and complete performance through song in Citilites Theatre's Songs From an Unmade Bed. And the entirety of Brian and Suki Peters' independent production of Cannibal! The Musical — everything and everyone from the technical crew right up to the lead actors — was magnificently done, as the streak of sellout performances attested. It's no secret to the theater community that there's a wealth of talent at work on stages across the city, but the crossover appeal of Cannibal delivered that truth to quite a few new people.

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I can't believe that you would mention every theatre in the mall even the one that closed long before the artspace closed (echo) but once again you leave out the community theatre Marble Stage who has been part of the artspace from the beginning who has put on in the time it was there 3 mainstage shows 6 Fairy tale theatre for young audiences and 3 "Lost Our Marbles" (an offshoot of Marble stage Theatre) every single year. Marble Stage has been awarded one of the best theatre companies in the St. Louis and regional area. Yet because it is classified as "Community" theatre. Marble Stage is always being left out of the press on the Artspace

Scott Miller
Scott Miller

Hmmm.. the headline says this is a look forward to local theatre in 2012... But aside from some general comments and a nod to performances from outside St. Louis being shown at the Tivoli, this is another piece about 2011.

How about an ACTUAL look ahead to the many cool local shows that have been announced for 2012 -- New Line Theatre's Cry-Baby and High Fidelity, Stray Dog's Angels in America (both parts!), the Rep's Race, [insert name here] theatre company's Avenue Q, the Muny's Dreamgirls, Shakespeare Festival's Othello, and so many other shows...