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Tampa Bay’s best stage shows of 2019: More than just ‘Hamilton’

Great theater and orchestral works happened all over town this year. Here are some of our favorites.

How far into this best-of list can we get without bringing up Hamilton?

Oops — we didn’t even make it one sentence. But that’s probably fitting, because 2019 was the year Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history sensation became the theatrical talk of the town across Tampa.

“I’ve been doing this for 40 years. There’s never been a show like Hamilton," Judy Lisi, president and CEO of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, told the Times in August. “As an event, it just went ballistic. I’ve never seen a show do that.”

Hamilton mania didn’t overshadow everything, though. Here are a few of our other favorite local stage and orchestral performances from 2019, presented in rough chronological order.

Opera Tampa’s Lady Swanwhite: A month before his 102nd birthday (!), former Opera Tampa artistic director Anton Coppola debuted a new work, based on a Swedish play from the early 1900s, set in medieval times, all performed in very contemporary fashion. As a living slice of Tampa history, it made for a memorable night, but it was also worth experiencing for its “counterintuitive harmonies and even outright dissonances,” our reviewer wrote, that likely confused some audience members but was also full of “eloquence and wit.” (Read our full review.)

Opera Tampa’s "Lady Swanwhite" starred Thomas Massey as the Prince and Maria Brea as Lady Swanwhite. [ Courtesy of Will Staples ]

Hamilton at the Straz Center: It didn’t disappoint. As our reviewer wrote: “Ideally, Hamilton hype shouldn’t count for or against this show. The questions that raises aren’t about Hamilton at all, but other well done musicals that would benefit if audiences purchased the soundtrack in advance or boned up on history. ... That said, the Broadway show earned every Tony and Pulitzer and Grammy it got, if not more.” (Read our full review.)

Hailey Patellis-Mattison, 15, poses in front of a "Hamilton" mural by Eric Hornsby before the opening night of "Hamilton" at Tampa's Straz Center on Feb. 12. [ Times ]

The Florida Orchestra’s collaborations with Geff Strik: In March, the orchestra collaborated with St. Petersburg painter Geff Strik on a unique multimedia presentation of Arthur Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht: Strik would create a series of images, painted atop one another, with the process filmed and turned into a short film that would play on stage during the music. The pin-drop tension in the performance was gripping, all the more so because of the palpable sense of hand-crafted labor and genuine transfiguration captured in the film. In September, the orchestra named Strik its first visual artist in residence; in October, they collaborated on a performance of Strauss’ Don Quixote. They next time they create something together, don’t miss it.

Artist Geff Strik poses for a painting inspired by Schoenberg's "Verklarte Nacht" on March 8 at his studio in St. Petersburg. [ Times ]

Crumbs From the Table of Joy at Freefall Theatre: This touching memory play made a lasting impression with a sweet ending that had the audience ugly-crying. The story of how a family deals with loss and upheaval is narrated by teenage daughter Ernestine, played by the terrific Alicia Thomas. Set to a jazz soundtrack that punctuates the action, the family navigates themes of race and transition, with the exceptional dialogue of Lynn Nottage’s script. (Read our full review.)

Ernestine (Alicia Thomas) is fascinated by her liberal Aunt Lily (Trenell Mooring) in "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" at Freefall. [ Thee Photo Ninja ]

Chris Crawford in Freefall’s Buyer and Cellar: Freefall’s one-man production about the secret mall in Barbra Streisand’s basement (true story) sounds like a joke on its surface, and it was quite funny. But to call Crawford’s star turn merely hilarious sells it short. It was a breakneck sprint of comedic character work, with the actor portraying no fewer than eight characters, including Babs herself, in a mile-a-minute monologue that constantly built and relieved tension in a really smart way. Quite possibly the local performance of the year. (Read our full review.)

Chris Crawford starred in "Buyer and Cellar" at St. Petersburg theater company Freefall. [ Courtesy of Thee Photo Ninja ]

Come From Away at the Straz Center: Hamilton wasn’t the only Broadway sensation to hit Tampa this year, and it may not even have been the best. This story of travelers from around the world stranded in Newfoundland after planes were grounded on 9/11 was wonderful, a plucky and propulsive miracle of timing and staging, with an impeccably game cast and an absolute mountain of heart. (Read our full review.)

The First North American Tour Company of "Come From Away." [ Courtesy of Matthew Murphy ]

Four Guys Named Jose and Una Mujer Named Maria at Stageworks Theatre: An uncomplicated plot was the perfect vehicle for this showcase of infectious Latin music, performed by a stellar cast and band. Four Latino men, all named Jose, met at Burrito World in Omaha, Neb. A lack of diversity inspires the men to put on a showcase of Latin standards, aiming to shut down stereotypes of Latin culture and to vie for the affections of the beautiful Maria. It was impossible to not dance in your seat. (Read our full review.)

"Four Guys Named Jose and Una Mujer Named Maria" starred, clockwise from left, Kidany Camilo, Pablo Alameda, Michael Pruitt, Vanessa Rodriguez and Richard Cubi. [ Courtesy of Frank Chavez ]

Long Day’s Journey into Night at American Stage: Eugene O’Neill’s semiautobiographical play about a family’s addictions is heavy, and at three hours, was long. But with its compelling plot, poetic dialogue and powerful performances, it didn’t feel interminable. Set in 1912, it was heartbreaking to see the way addictions were misunderstood then. The stage production was extremely successful, set in a dilapidated house with lighting that changed subtly as the day wore on. (Read our full review.)

Meteor Shower at Jobsite Theater: Playwright Steve Martin’s (yes, that Steve Martin) voice is indelible in this absurdist, surreal comedy that had the audience roaring with laughter. Married couple Norm and Corky have the seemingly insidious Gerald and Laura over to watch a meteor shower. Things get weird, sexual innuendos abound and physical comedy lit up the crowd. But watching Jonelle M. Meyer’s Corky turn from meek and insecure to fierce was the most fun. (Read our full review.)

Jordan Foote, Jonelle M. Meyer, Jamie Jones and Amy E. Gray in Jobsite Theatre's production of Steve Martin's aburdist comedy "Meteor Shower." [ Courtesy of Pritchard Photography ]

Dinner With Friends at Tampa Repertory Theatre: Witty, authentic, atmospheric and unforgettable: That was Tampa Rep’s presentation of Donald Margulies’ 2000 get-together from hell. The first-rate cast delivered an “exhilarating emotional roller coaster without screaming in our ear and making us cringe,” our reviewer wrote. “Instead, we enjoy something familiar while leaving with new insights.” (Read our full review.)

Ned Averill-Snell, Ami Sallee, Emilia Sargent and Alan Mohney, Jr. in Tampa Repertory Theatre's "Dinner With Friends." [ Courtesy of KLGold, LLC ]

Vietgone at American Stage: Playwright Qi Gong’s nuanced story about how his refugee parents met after terrible loss was fresh, original and hilarious. The terrific, all-Asian cast also portray white, American characters in a move that flips the script on the long tradition of Asian stereotypes. That was furthered by the Asian characters’ dialogue in the vernacular of a modern day b-boy. The set was a true work of art, with video projections of glowing sunsets and sobering footage of Vietnamese refugees. Its surprisingly touching ending rounded out the overall experience. (Read our full review.)

American Stage's production of "Vietgone" starred Sami Ma and Jeff Kim. [ Courtesy of Joey Clay Studio ]

The Lion in Winter at Freefall: Family dysfunction of medieval proportion came just in time for the holidays. Set in 1138, King Henry has let his wife out of prison for Christmas. But it’s a Game of Thrones situation when they disagree over which son will be heir to the crown. This tour de force production had it all: a fantastic set and costumes, a superb cast and annihilating insults eloquently tossed back and forth. Despite the brutality, it was a lot of fun. (Read our full review.)

The cast of "The Lion in Winter" included, clockwise from left, Eric Brandon Davis, Joseph Michael-Kenneth, Alicia Thomas, Rob Glauz, Robert "Spence" Gabriel, Stephanie Dunnam and Joe Lauck. [ Courtesy of Thee Photo Ninja ]