Performing Arts

Best of 2015: Cue the applause for Tarrant County theater

Mr. Burns
Mr. Burns

Area theater companies and presenting organizations delivered an impressive number of outstanding shows that ran the gamut from hard-hitting dramas to old-fashioned musicals in 2015. Because there were so many productions to cover, the two critics the Star-Telegram calls on the most to review Dallas and Fort Worth theater and musicals split the critiquing duties all year and came up with individual lists of their five favorite performances.

Mark Lowry’s list

2015 was the year in which — more than ever before — I preferred works for the theater that don’t abide by traditional storytelling tropes or linear constructions. In fact, many of the well-made plays or titles that we’ve seen way too often seemed downright snooze-worthy and well past their expiration date.

Taking a nontraditional approach is the appeal of a musical like Once, which was the highlight of the Broadway season at Bass Hall, followed by the terrific revival of Pippin and the outrageously funny (if overrated) The Book of Mormon. But my best-of list stays with shows performed by local groups in Tarrant County. Who would’ve guessed that two of my favorites would be holiday-themed works?

Here are my top 5, followed by some honorable mentions:

1. ‘Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play’

Stage West, August

Stage West’s production of this play by Anne Washburn was my favorite in 2015, not just for Tarrant County but in all of North Texas (and I saw 130 plays and musicals this year, so there). It’s a quirky and surprisingly lyrical commentary on how storytelling and art change over time, as it begins with a group of post-apocalyptic survivors retelling their favorite episode of The Simpsons. Then we see the same scenario seven years, and then 75 years, later. The cast, music and overall design was, as Mr. B. would say, ex-cellent. Directed by Garret Storms.

2. ‘Tree Pop’

Hip Pocket Theatre, July

Every year in Hip Pocket’s season there’s a show from Lake Simons, daughter of HPT co-founders Johnny and Diane Simons, who has honed her physical theater skills from a young age at HPT and then with the famed Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and, for the past 15 years, as a New York puppetry and mime artist. And her work only becomes more sophisticated. Case in point: This introspective, whimsical and wordless piece about memory and loss — and so much more. Written by Lake Simons with original music by John Dyer.

3. ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’

Trinity Shakespeare Festival, June

A witty production of one of Shakespeare’s most underappreciated works, which, like all of Trinity Shakes’ shows, looked fantastic. Plenty of great performances here, too, including by Montgomery Sutton and a hysterical Blake Hackler, who was also a standout in TSF’s King Lear, which was performed in rep with LLL. Directed by Joel Ferrell.

4. ‘The Color Purple’

Jubilee Theatre, July

It was a rough year for Jubilee, but it hung in there with several acclaimed productions. This staging of the musical based on Alice Walker’s novel was a marvel in that it fit a large cast and sprawling story onto Jubilee’s tiny stage without looking crowded. It featured a first-rate turn by Ebony Marshall Oliver as Celie and the best choreography I’ve seen at Jubilee, by Shaté Edwards. Directed by Akin Babatundé with music direction by Geno Young.

5. ‘The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote’

Amphibian Stage Productions, July

The world premiere of Brenda Withers’ freewheeling take on Don Quixote was one of the better-looking shows of the year, and its presentational style — songs were sung with microphones and mike stands, as if at a rock concert — offered many opportunities for laughter. The design of Don Q’s horse was genius, as was the punny name of Sancho Panza’s donkey. Directed by Matthew Earnest.

Honorable mentions (in no particular order): Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, Amphibian Stage Productions (December); I and You, Circle Theatre (May); Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, Stage West (November); Jerry Springer the Opera, Ohlook Performing Arts (July); King Lear, Trinity Shakespeare Festival (June).

Punch Shaw’s list

Just when you thought they could not get any better, area theaters raised the bar this year. There was a nice variety of new and unexpected shows that added spice to a year filled with amazing treatments of well-known stage works.

There is only one complaint that might be leveled against our past 12 months of theater: Our local troupes have made it extremely hard to single out a handful of top shows. But here is an attempt to honor some of the most memorable presentations of 2015.

Here are my top 5, followed by some honorable mentions:

1. ‘Other Desert Cities’

Circle Theatre, October

A stellar cast, led by Stage West co-producing director Dana Schultes, added real heft to this intense drama by Jon Robin Baitz. This production, directed by Steven Pounders, was a powerhouse union of great writing, superior acting and insightful direction.

2. ‘Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play’

Stage West, August

Stage West ventured outside its comfort zone to present this highly unusual, futuristic musical, directed by Garret Storms. The results were nothing short of stunning.

3. ‘Oklahoma!’

Stolen Shakespeare Guild, July

This company, much better known for doing works by the playwright who gave it its name, has been doing some big-box musicals in recent seasons, with mixed results. But this production, directed by company founders Jason and Lauren Morgan, absolutely knocked this beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein classic out of the park, thanks largely to a beautifully sung effort by Chris Ramirez in the lead role of Curly.

4. ‘Les Misérables’

Casa Mañana, June

Thanks to the inspired direction and choreography of Tim Bennett, this old war horse was given new vitality in a production that sparkled on every front. It was the sort of presentation that reminded many of Casa Mañana’s glory days as the center of our local musical universe.

5. ‘The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence’

Stage West, February

This complex dramedy about life and communication in a digital world soared on the strength of the outstanding acting of a cast led by Garret Storms and Allison Pistorius, and superior direction by Emily Scott Banks. The players’ delight in performing such a dense and wonderful script by Madeleine George was almost palpable.

Honorable mentions (in no particular order): The House of Blue Leaves, Onstage in Bedford (August); The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote, Amphibian Stage Productions (July); In Real Life, Jubilee Theatre (February); King Lear, Trinity Shakespeare Festival (June); Mass Appeal, Circle Theatre (June).

2015 A&E year in review

Dec. 25: Movies, pop music and concerts

Dec. 26: Visual art

Sunday: Dance and books

Monday: Classical music and opera

Tuesday: Theater

Friday: Dining