Curtain Call: The best St. Louis theater productions of 2013

Dec 19, 2013 at 4:00 am
Clockwise from left: Chauncy Thomas and Reginald Pierre in Top Dog/Underdog; Laura Michelle Kelly in South Pacific; Antonio Rodriguez in Café Chanson; Terry Meddows and Gary Wayne Barker in Waiting for Godot; Elizabeth Ann Townsend in Talking Heads.
Clockwise from left: Chauncy Thomas and Reginald Pierre in Top Dog/Underdog; Laura Michelle Kelly in South Pacific; Antonio Rodriguez in Café Chanson; Terry Meddows and Gary Wayne Barker in Waiting for Godot; Elizabeth Ann Townsend in Talking Heads.

Calendar years don't mean a lot in the theater world. Some theater companies begin in September, others in January. Some companies operate exclusively in the summertime. Nevertheless, 'tis the season to pause and appreciate, so here are a dozen theater highlights from 2013, recapped in the order in which the shows opened.

Jackie and Me (January) When's the last time you got teary-eyed and goose-pimpled at a real baseball game? This joint offering from Metro Theatre Company and Edison Theatre managed to tug hard at the heartstrings. Steven Dietz's play profiles that conflicted time in America when Jackie Robinson integrated professional baseball. The inspirational Robinson story proved relevant to young viewers and resonant for older audiences. The colorful baseball diamond designed by Scott C. Neale was as inviting as a double-header at Sportsman's Park. (DB)

Café Chanson (January) Ken Page's luminous tribute to the chanson — the French word for "song" — wasn't just an evening rife with fantastic singing, although there was plenty of that. This Upstream Theater production was about being young and foolish in wartime. There were stellar performances by J. Samuel Davis, Willena Vaughn, and Justin Ivan Brown, and two transcendent interpretations of Charles Aznavour songs; one by Antonio Rodriguez and the other by John Flack. Magnificent performances all around. (PF)

4000 Miles (January) Amy Herzog's play about a crusty old grandma and her headstrong grandson is slight. But in this Rep Studio staging, veteran actress Rita Gardner was a marvel. Watching Gardner's gorgeous performance was akin to holding a kaleidoscope up to the light and being awed as the colored gems tumble and spill. The luminous Gardner made 4000 Miles an evening to cherish. (DB)

The Whipping Man (March) So a Jewish Confederate soldier, a Jewish slave and another Jewish slave walk into a plantation in the aftermath of the Civil War...Matthew Lopez's searing play about what religion does to us and what it can do for us crackled with tension and sorrow. Ron Himes quietly dominated the stage as wise old Simon, a now-freed slave whose faith is the rock upon which he'll build his new life. Justin Ivan Brown was the ex-soldier whose lapsed faith pulled him deeper into the rabbit hole. The Whipping Man was an emotionally charged evening at the Black Rep in March, leaving us to wonder what it's going be like with a new cast at the New Jewish Theatre in February. (PF)

Waiting for Godot (April) The St. Louis Actors' Studio staging of Vladimir and Estragon's excellent adventure opened in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. The grim external events reminded us of the timelessness of the themes in Samuel Beckett's absurdest tragicomedy. Directed with love by Bobby Miller and acted by a dream ensemble (Gary Wayne Barker, Terry Meddows, aided and abetted by Greg Johnston, Aaron Orion Baker, Hayden Benbenek), this was the mind-blowing Godot for which theatergoers had been waiting...and waiting... (DB)

Legally Blonde (April) Omigod, you guys, you had to see it to believe it. Talk about a star turn. Becca Andrews' incandescent romp as Elle Woods in the slick student production at Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts was to die for. Later in the summer Andrews understudied Elle in another Legally Blonde at Stages St. Louis. The Stages folks buried her under a stocking cap and glasses, but the disguise didn't work. Like a nail drawn to a magnet, the viewer's eye went straight to Andrews, whose arms were twirling a little bit faster, whose legs were kicking a little bit higher. When you've got it, you've got it. (DB)

Talking Heads (May) The deft British playwright Alan Bennett understands that understatement can be a potent virtue. In Talking Heads three rueful monologues, each in its idiosyncratic way, etch portraits of unhappiness. In an evening of sublime civility, the vignettes were sensitively, memorably acted by Elizabeth Ann Townsend, Alan Knoll and Glynis Bell. (DB)

South Pacific (July) At summer's end, the most oft-heard theater query was, "Which Muny musical did you like better, South Pacific or West Side Story?" Our answer was emphatically the former. We chose the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic over Leonard Bernstein's Jets and Sharks only because of our infatuation with the iridescent Laura Michelle Kelly, whose Nellie Forbush was as buoyant as a beach ball. Thanks to Kelly, during the seven nights of South Pacific, even when it rained, the Muny was the sunniest place in town. (DB)

Time Stands Still (August) Perhaps the sleeper of the year. Donald Margulies' drama about the repercussions of violence failed to make waves during its New York runs, but New York is far from an infallible judge. Sometimes plays work better here, and this Insight Theatre Company production, directed with beautiful calibration by John Contini and acted by a sharply honed ensemble (Julia Crump, Chad Morris, Jenni Ryan, Jerry Vogel), barely gave the viewer time to breathe. The experience was totally involving from beginning to end. (DB)

Top Dog/Underdog (September) Chauncy Thomas and Reginald Pierre burned down the theater at St. Louis Actors' Studio in Suzan-Lori Parks' poetic meditation on poverty, brotherhood, dreams, self esteem, guns, and what it means to be young, black and male in America. It was a squirm-inducing, terrifying, heartbreaking piece of work, and Mr. Thomas should win all the awards anyone cares to hand out this year for his performance. (PF)

Night of the Living Dead (October) Stephen Gregory Smith and Matt Conner breathed new life into the tired zombie trope by going back to the source — George A. Romero's iconic film — and setting it as a hard-as-nails musical. New Line Theatre's ensemble cast conjured all the fear and loss bound into the polyphonic songs, but Zachary Allan Farmer and Marcy Wiegert were the twin cores of darkness at the heart of it all. Farmer's heroic Ben, fighting to save everyone trapped in the farmhouse, could neither comfort nor crack Wiegert's Barbra, a near-comatose woman who emerges only sporadically from her stupor to prophesy everyone's doom like a bouffanted Sybil. Director Scott Miller steadily ratcheted the tension, and then broke it all open with the single most harrowing moment to happen onstage in St. Louis this year. (PF)

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (November) Deanna Jent and her ten-man cast gave us our Christmas present early this year in All Is Calm at Mustard Seed. This a capella musical about the spontaneous truces that broke out on the front lines of World War I was as much about the power of song as it was about the spirit of Christmas. The steady barrage of folk songs and carols summoned old memories and warm feelings, even as it delayed the Great War almost 100 years ago. Though the war resumed soon enough, the feeling of peace and kindness lingered long afterward. (PF)