When assessing 2015’s best productions in Broward and Palm Beach counties, it has to start with Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s Les Miserables. After the debacle of Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation, director Mark Martino restored the epic musical to its glorious perch near the top of the international musical canon, from the emotionally explosive acting to the seamless choreography to the perfectly balanced sound mix, heavenly lighting, and grandiose sets. It was the kind of show that required new superlatives to emphasize its splendiferousness, because all the familiar ones seemed insufficiently effusive. In short, there was Maltz’s Les Miserables, and then there was everything else.
That said, the “everything else” constituted the best slate of plays and musicals these two counties have produced in a single year since I started writing about theater in 2006. This is especially bright news for Broward County’s now-vibrant theater scene. It was only three years ago that Broward companies earned just 13 Carbonell nominations for 365 days of work, compared with Palm Beach’s 45 and Miami-Dade’s 42. This kind of disparity surely won’t be the case this year, as a clutch of companies in eastern Fort Lauderdale has elevated the county to an equal artistic footing with its neighbors to the north and south.
For instance, no company had a better year in 2015 than Island City Stage. From the first month to the last, this bold and courageous platform for LGBTQ voices presented works that challenged, skewered, and provoked. It’s impossible to imagine any other South Florida company opening its year with a show as audacious as Steve Yockey’s Octopus, which begins with an orgy among four nude actors and ends in fisticuffs and a flooded stage. Director Andy Rogow deftly balanced this mixture of naturalistic STD cautionary tale and stylized Theater of the Absurd, from the balletic intercourse to the breakout performance of Kristian Bikic as an anachronistic, ferociously determined telegram carrier.
Island City’s “hot hand” continued with a string of unimpeachable successes: the Hollywood satire The Little Dog Laughed, which featured an extraordinary Mia Matthews as a cutthroat agent; Daniel’s Husband, a Michael McKeever world premiere that offered a shattering argument for the necessity of wedlock, post-marriage equality; and Shorts Gone Wild 3, an annual collection of pointed and comic ten-minute plays that has improved with each year. Only with the overwritten and mishandled Angry Fags, this past November, did the company’s Midas touch wear off.
This year also saw the re-ascendance of Thinking Cap Theatre, whose six diverse selections constitute its most prolific season in years — succeeding the most with projects that seemed dubious on paper. I’m not one for hokey, song-filled musical biographies, but Thinking Cap’s Always… Patsy Cline upended expectations thanks to its live proto-country band, imaginative parade of costumes, and especially the breathtaking title performance by Ann Marie Olson, the year’s finest example of an actor slipping so completely into a part as to render her past performances on local stages invisible.
Vita and Virginia was an even tougher sell: It’s an epistolary play compiled from letters mailed between Virginia Woolf and her clandestine mistress, Vita Sackville-West, which doesn’t sound at all like riveting theater: There’s a reason I wasn’t first in line to see the fossilized Parker Playhouse tour of Love Letters. Yet this too was an extraordinary surprise, with precise lighting, blocking, and sound designs ensuring that it was very much a theater piece and not filmed mail. It didn’t hurt that Barbara Sloan turned in a career-best performance as the literary lioness.
Infinite Abyss, which has sold its Wilton Manors strip-mall space to Island City for most of the year, scored an unnerving hit with its lone full production of 2015, a brave rendition of Tracy Letts’ paranoid classic Bug in which even the venue’s mercurial air-conditioning sounds were integrated beautifully into the grubby atmosphere.
Up north, Maltz’s glittering year extended beyond Les Miz. Glengarry Glen Ross polarized its core audience but left David Mamet fans shaken and stirred. Its phenomenal ensemble staggered effortlessly through the playwright’s verbal minefield of tics, cusses, sputters, and half-thoughts. For The Wiz, director Andrew Kato threw every special effect he could — including puppet theater and aerial acrobatics — into the effervescent final product, creating a world of unfettered imagination.
The Wick Theatre continued to bring Broadway-level talent to Boca for productions of tenured theatrical warhorses, reimagining the pastoral Oklahoma! with the kind of urbane choreography more associated with shows like An American in Paris. And the Theatre at Arts Garage, which changed leadership midyear, produced memorable two-handers from outgoing director Lou Tyrrell (I & You, a metaphysical study of high-school angst) and new co-artistic director Genie Croft (Sex With Strangers, a smoldering study of lust and power ebbing on literary tides).
Finally, Palm Beach Dramaworks scored its most resonant production of the year with Sam Shepherd’s dysfunctional (that’s putting it mildly) family drama Buried Child, whose performances, particularly from leads Rob Donahoe and Paul Tei, haunt me to this day.
One company is curiously absent from this breakdown: Slow Burn Theatre, which split the year between its old home in West Boca and its new digs at the Broward Center. After a banner 2014, the company’s standard of quality wavered a little this year, with productions of Bonnie & Clyde, Rent, and Big Fish that overflowed with talent and drive but somehow lacked heart. But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise resurgent 2015.
Best shows in Broward and Palm Beach
10. A Map of Virtue, Thinking Cap Theatre
9. Picnic, Palm Beach Dramaworks
8. The Wiz, Maltz Jupiter Theatre
7. Vita and Virginia, Thinking Cap Theatre
6. Oklahoma!, The Wick
5. Octopus, Island City Stage
4. Glengarry Glen Ross, Maltz Jupiter Theatre
3. Buried Child, Palm Beach Dramaworks
2. Daniel’s Husband, Island City Stage
1. Les Miserables, Maltz Jupiter Theatre
Honorable mentions: I & You, Theatre at Arts Garage; The Little Dog Laughed, Island City Stage; Bug, Infinite Abyss; Side by Side by Sondheim, MNM Productions