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Looking back at the best productions of the year as the curtain closes on 2017

click to enlarge Arizona Theatre Company’s Man of La Mancha

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Arizona Theatre Company’s Man of La Mancha

The end of the year is bearing down on us like a train. Many of us aren't sad to see it go. It's been a tough one. Some of us will do some soul-searching about what the year has meant for us. Others are happy distracting themselves with all the hoopla of the holiday season.

For me, the year has been chock-full of theater-going and being wowed, modestly impressed, and sometimes just plain left to wonder: huh?

Here, in no particular order, are the productions that, when I look back at the theater year, stand out as pretty damn amazing.

Arizona Theatre Company, now ending the year with a truly magical Man of La Mancha, did a bang-up job in April with Holmes and Watson, a work they had commissioned of Jeffrey Hatcher. Yes, it's a Sherlock story, but the trouble is that Sherlock had been killed off. How do you deal with that? With a story that has your mind bending one way and then another and then another. That's how. The production aspects were dynamite and served the show perfectly, and the whole thing was just mind-blowing, fine entertainment. It was also director David Ira Goldstein's swan song as artistic director of ATC after 26 years of excellent leadership.

The Invisible Theatre produced a 1996 play by Israel Horowitz that felt uncomfortably relevant to 2017. Lebensraum is a three-actor show that poses the question: What would happen if Germany invited six million Jews from around the world to return to present day Germany as reparations for the Holocaust? It's a dense little piece, here well directed by Susan Claassen, that's a reminder of the price of an us-versus- them mentality. David Alexander Johnston, Lucille Petty and Steve Wood took on numerous roles and gave us a thoughtful—and scary—story.

The Rogue Theatre always brings us thoughtful pieces that also entertain. One of this year's best was Penelope, a play by Irish playwright Enda Walsh. A reimagined version of Homer's Odyssey doesn't begin to describe it. Walsh created a strange world that takes place mostly at the bottom of a drained swimming pool, and director Christopher Johnson, with the help of a dynamic cast, gave us an intriguing and teasing piece of theatre. It was outstanding.

Live Theatre Workshop's Below the Belt was one of the funniest things I've ever seen. The script gives us a mad look at the absurdities of Big Business, and three actors—Matthew Copley, Steve Wood and Stephen Frankenfield—embody those absurdities perfectly. The setting is a compound of an unknown business in an unknown country. But what we do know is that new employees threaten the order of things, the river around the compound flows with colors never seen in nature, and that mutant creatures roam the compound. But the corporation is everything and the balance of supervisors' power and the pecking order of the "checkers" (we never find out what they are checking) must be maintained at all costs. Annette Hillman directed this stellar cast and helped them walk a fine line to keep the action fever-pitched without spinning out of control.

As we wander farther down the 2017 theater memory lane, we have to take our hats off to the insanity of Arizona Onstage, a small-ish theater that dreams big, for a really, really good production of Mel Brooks' hit Broadway musical The Producers. This show is so big, so complicated in its production requirements and so demanding of a huge cast, that you had to wonder if they could pull this off. They did. Beautifully. Director Annette Hillman somehow got it all done, and this Really Big Show was a delight, with top-notch performances not only from the leads, but from all the 34 cast members. 

The last couple of years, we've witnessed Borderlands Theater's evolution under new artistic leadership. Artistic director Marc Pinate has brought a sense of adventure and innovative theater that has resulted in some affecting and sometimes disturbing productions. Shooting Columbus was such a show. The Fifth World Collective had developed this presentation over three years, and it posed the question: What might have been had Columbus not opened the door to the ransacking of indigenous peoples and their land in the Americas? The response to the question was a multifaceted, multi-media work, both intriguing and disturbing.

Broadway in Tucson is a presenting group, bringing to town those crowd-pleasing musicals that have been big Broadway blockbusters. One of the shows they sponsored in 2017 was Kinky Boots, the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper. And oh my, was it ever fun. It's the story of the owner of a struggling factory that turns its fortunes around when the owner commits to doing away with sensible shoe-making and, instead, making glitzy boots for drag queens: kinky boots. Timothy Ware played Lola, the leader of a team of "Angels," who sing and dance and pretty much knock our socks off. Ware was the understudy for the Lola on Broadway and it's hard to imagine that guy being any better. Full of high energy, dance numbers that wow and an unexpectedly sweet story, Kinky Boots simply stole our hearts. 

There were numerous impressive productions that space doesn't allow us to revisit. Something Something Theatre gave us a penetrating version of What Every Girl Should Know, a disturbing piece about the treatment of poor young girls in 1914 New York City. The new Scoundrel and Scamp presented an intriguing piece about Walt Disney just weeks ago. The Rogue brought us a powerful MacBeth. IT's Indoor/Outdoor was surprisingly delightful. Live Theatre Workshop's one actor show Buyer and Cellar featured a fine performance by Keith Wick, the manager of the mini-mall on Barbra Streisand's compound in Malibu. (And yes, there actually is one.) And we have to mention Arizona Repertory Theatre, the production arm of the UA theater program. They do seriously wonderful work.

There are smaller theaters that are just finding their footing. Roadrunner Theater is one of those, as is Speak the Speech. Community theaters that have been around for a while, like the Community Players, St. Francis Theatre and Comedy Playhouse, keep on presenting shows to devoted audiences. And Winding Road Theater Ensemble continues its evolving efforts to be a powerful presence.

Dedicated, talented and determined folks, most unpaid or underpaid, put in hundreds of hours of effort to provide truly fine work throughout the year. Tucson is a theater-rich community, and in 2017 those groups delivered shows intriguing, entertaining and diverse in their points of view. No, not every group succeeds with every show. But the output of the groups is delivered with sincere effort and often exceptional talent. 

And for 2018? Make us think. Make us laugh. And, oh yes, surprise us. Bring it on.


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