What’s the best word to sum up Philadelphia’s theater community in 2012? Unpredictable.
Offstage, the biggest unexpected news was April’s demise of the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia—an organization best known for producing the Barrymore Awards, which celebrate excellence in local-area theater. Instead of holding its annual Barrymore Award ceremony, a slate of nominees were compiled, out of which came the eventual winners recognizing the best of Philly’s 2011-12 theater season. (None will be awarded for the 2012-13 season, though a meeting was recently held to determine the future of what has become a nationally recognized award.)
Another notable controversy arose two months prior over Villanova University’s cancellation of a planned personal-narrative workshop to be led by gay playwright/actor Tim Miller. The decision by Villanova President Father Peter Donahoe—himself an acclaimed director, who, at one point, led the school’s theater department—came in the wake of criticism by conservative Catholic organizations not associated with the college.
On a more positive note, Philadelphia got its first new performance space in some time when Azuka Theater—with the help of the nonprofit Art for Sacred Places—opened the new Off-Broad Street Theater in the vast subterranean labyrinth that runs beneath the First Baptist Church at 1636 Sansom St. Also making Off-Broad Street their home stage is the vaunted Inis Nua Theatre Company. The space gets its name from the Off-Broad Street Consortium, which serves as an umbrella group to advocate for small Philadelphia companies, several of which plan on also staging their work at First Baptist Church in the near future.
Among the biggest treats in 2012 was the number of excellent musical productions. It’s no secret that musicals are, generally speaking, more expensive to produce—and therefore far rarer in Philadelphia than small-cast plays—but two of the most successful were big-cast shows from very different companies. The Walnut Street Theatre, which is known as the city’s primary producer of large-scale musicals, concluded the year with a spectacularly entertaining production of the 1956 musical The Music Man. Starring a rejuvenated Jeff Coon (who also starred as a weed-selling storyteller in Arden Theatre Company’s ambitious but disjointed Tulipomania), The Music Man was escapist theater at its best, a superb production that brought some joy in an otherwise gloomy December.
Other noteworthy musicals included Philadelphia Theatre Company’s The Scottsboro Boys, which featured marvelous local actor Forrest McClendon reprising his Tony Award-nominated performance; the Arden Theatre Company’s Next to Normal, a memorable exploration of mental illness, and 11th Hour Theatre Company’s sassy jukebox musical The Marvelous Wonderettes. The year’s most surprising hit came via tiny newcomer Mazzepa Productions, which produced a thrilling summer production of the rock musical Spring Awakening, featuring a cast of promising young actors. But as good as the aforementioned musicals were, no 2012 production generated the emotional power of 11th Hour’s Ordinary Days, which, because it concluded on Dec. 18, 2011, just missed being eligible for our best-of-the-year list. Nevertheless, composer/lyricist Adam Gwon’s imaginatively directed tale of four New Yorkers taking their first independent steps as adults was a reminder of just how affecting theater can be.
One of 2012’s most heartening trends was the increased focus on gay and lesbian characters, led by the Wilma Theater, which mounted both parts of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America. The company also staged a marvelous production of playwright Annie Baker’s Body Awareness, which examines a lesbian couple and their disturbed son. If it is rare to see gay male characters on Philly stages, lesbians are almost an endangered species. Two of Philadelphia’s finest veteran actresses, Grace Gonglewski and Mary Martello, played the couple, and their convincing and touching depiction of the rewards and challenges of raising a son in a two-mother household were the primary reason for the production’s tremendous success. Body Awareness deservedly won four Barrymore Awards, including one for Outstanding Production of a Play.
Other excellent stagings included the Arden Theatre Company’s penetrating Clybourne Park, which went on to garner a Tony Award for Best New Play; Flashpoint Theater Company’s world premiere of local playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger’s breathtaking drama about racism, Slip/Shot (which won the Barrymore Award for Best New Play), and Lantern Theater Company’s flamboyant staging of The Liar, starring Aubie Merrylees—who, in 2012, emerged as the most talented young actor in Philadelphia since Tobias Segal and Maggie Siff.
J. COOPER ROBB’S TOP 10 PRODUCTIONS OF 2012
1. Body Awareness (Wilma Theater)
2. Spring Awakening (Mazzepa Productions)
3. The Music Man (Walnut Street Theatre)
4. Clybourne Park (Arden Theatre Company)
5. The Liar (Lantern Theater Company)
6. Slip/Shot (Flashpoint Theatre Company)
7. The Marvelous Wonderettes (11th Hour Theater Company)
8. Next to Normal (Arden Theatre Company)
9. A Behanding in Spokane (Theatre Exile)
10. The Scottsboro Boys (Philadelphia Theatre Company)