Send in the crowns: the best of the 2012-13 theater season

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 17, 2013

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Ben Dibble and Karen Peakes in Arden Theatre Company's "A Little Night Music." (Mark Garvin photo)

The July 10 opening of People’s Light & Theatre Company’s rousing production of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off capped off a wonderfully lively 2012-2013 season of theater in Philadelphia and its surrounding areas. Let’s look back at the top shows, performances and designs from a year that, by almost any measure, was a smashing success.

Due in large part to the nation’s still struggling economy, most of the region’s theaters continue trying to do more with less, resulting in stages dominated by small-scale productions. Any play requiring more than five actors is increasingly being deemed too costly, as are works that need elaborate scenic design or special effects. Even plays with an intermission have become a rarity. This isn’t to suggest that large productions were entirely absent; in fact, when companies did pull out all the stops, the results were often thrilling.

Among the ambitious, large-cast productions that delivered the goods were the aforementioned Noises Off; Wilma Theater’s Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika; Mazeppa Productions’ exuberant presentation of the rock musical Spring Awakening; the Arden Theatre Company’s masterful, moving A Little Night Music, and the Walnut Street Theatre’s gloriously nostalgic take on Meredith Willson’s classic musical The Music Man, which even featured a live horse among its gigantic cast. In addition to the locally produced shows, the Kimmel Center’s hugely popular Broadway Series presented a powerful touring production of Les Miserables and the ingeniously theatrical drama War Horse.

In a theater scene as diverse as Philly’s, it can be difficult to associate any particular themes with a single season. But, if the ‘12-‘13 season had one identifying feature, it was the remarkable number of fine performances by actresses. Although most of the great roles in theater history have been written for men, the past year revealed a welcome number of fascinating female characters that local actresses could sink their teeth into. On that list is the previously unheralded Janice Rowland, who gave a heartbreaking portrayal in the tragically timely The Amish Project, the play that examined the 2006 schoolhouse shootings of Amish children in rural Pennsylvania. Portraying seven diverse characters, Rowland’s affecting performance was notable for its ability to empathize with a wide variety of personalities. In another multi-character offering, Mary Elizabeth Scallen was triumphant playing four roles in the Wilma Theater’s staging of the Tony Kushner masterpiece Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika. Megan Bellwoar and Mary Martello were both sensational in their respective roles as a beleaguered daughter and her cruel mother in Lantern Theater Company’s bravura production of Martin McDonagh’s gruesome dark comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane. At Philadelphia Theatre Company, the supremely talented Jenni Putney was electrifying in David Ives’ terrific two-character drama Venus in Fur. Finally, local legend Madi Distefano returned to form with a wonderfully flamboyant performance as a gun slinging rebel battling for truth, justice and the American way in Theatre Exile’s rambunctious, raunchy The North Plan.

Although the women shone in the spotlight, there was no shortage of excellent performances by their brethren in arms. Scott Greer gave a fearless performance in the Arden Theatre Company’s daring staging of Endgame, and, in one of the season’s most welcome surprises, Peter DeLaurier, Dan Kern and Mal Whyte formed the season’s top male ensemble in Lantern’s irresistible production of Tom Stoppard’s Heroes. The production capped a fabulous season for the company, which, against all odds, will be entering its 20th anniversary season.

Led by the savvy artistic director Charles McMahon, Lantern has become known for nurturing young directors, and the strategy has paid off handsomely. Among the directors who learned their craft are the sensationally gifted Kathryn MacMillan, hotshot freelance director David O’ Connor and young gun M. Craig Getting, who took the solo directorial reigns for the first time with his assured staging of Heroes.

With no Barrymore Awards ceremony to officially recognize excellence from this year—thankfully, Theatre Philadelphia will be reviving the Barrymores for the 2013-2014 season—I’ve put together my own list of the year’s top productions and best individual artistic achievements, culled from the productions we had the privilege to review. Enjoy, and see you at the theater this fall!

Top 10 Theater Productions of 2012-13

Heroes (Lantern Theater Company)

The Music Man (Walnut Street Theatre)

Venus in Fur (Philadelphia Theatre Company)

Angels in America Part II: Perestroika (Wilma Theater)

The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Lantern Theater Company)

Endgame (Arden Theatre Company)

A Little Night Music (Arden Theatre Company)

The Liar (Lantern Theater Company)

Spring Awakening (Mazeppa Productions)

The North Plan (Theatre Exile)

Best Play Production: The Beauty Queen of Leenane

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