The Tampa Bay theater scene is still growing, particularly in Tampa. Theaters are making do with less amid a drastic drop-off in public funds. Both statements are true.
A new company, Fluid Expressions, debuted in November, just as Innovocative Theater opened in 2017, also in Tampa. The Tampa International Fringe Festival entered its second year, and the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival just celebrated five years. Last month, hundreds packed the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts for a shot at Hamilton tickets, opening Feb. 12.
Meanwhile, the greater Tampa Bay area continues to support three opera houses, a thriving orchestra and an evolving dance culture. Here are my performing arts highlights for 2018.
TOP SIX IN THEATER
6. A View From the Bridge, Tampa Repertory Theatre. Had the show been able to distribute acting strength evenly throughout the cast, this Arthur Miller gem would be ranked higher. As it is, Tampa Rep produced dramatic heat where larger companies had not. Ned Averill-Snell and Emilia Sargent starred as a bitter longshoreman with issues and his all-too-contained wife. Their chemistry spoke volumes on the set, whether either actor had lines or not.
5. The Play That Goes Wrong, the Straz Center. It’s not just the collapsing sets (although those are fun). The funniest aspects of this British parody-within-a-play are not sight gags. It’s the earnestness and courage with which the traumatized ensemble soldiers on, culminating in a dialogue loop that lasts several minutes.
4. The Producers, American Stage. The park production was brassy and loud, attacking the senses with a glut of light, color and sound. So distracting, it might have been designed by a con man, or two. The production directed by Rye Mullis didn’t shrink from its own Nazi imagery, without which crucial shock value would be lost. They also delivered the strongest musical ensemble in a while.
3. Daddy Long Legs, Freefall Theatre. Cleverly staged, beautifully accompanied and superbly performed, this musical hit all the right notes. Britta Ollmann and Nick Lerew played an orphan and her mysterious benefactor.
2. A Raisin in the Sun, American Stage. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun examines a black family that wants to enter a neighborhood predominantly occupied by whites. L. Peter Callender, the artistic director of San Francisco’s African-American Shakespeare Company, directed this tour de force, in which themes of slavery and reconstruction, Northern racism and the meaning of family collide. A deep cast revolved around Fanni Green as a widowed matriarch and Enoch King as her ambitious son. With this show, the theater’s new American Legacy series got off to a promising start.
1. Between Riverside and Crazy, American Stage. Benjamin T. Ismail directed a sterling cast in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ brilliant mix of comedy and a deeply human drama, my clear No. 1 for the season. L. Peter Callender returned, this time with a brilliant performance of retired New York City police officer, Walter “Pops” Washington, who is suing the NYPD even as he risks eviction from his rent-controlled apartment. Enoch King is back as a wayward son; Vickie Daignault as O’Conner and Ricky Wayne played former police colleagues cranking up the pressure on Pops to drop his lawsuit. Vanesa Rendon and Sara Oliva took the play in unexpected directions.
BEST IN OPERA, ORCHESTRA AND DANCE
Don Giovanni, St. Petersburg Opera: Big arias, quartets and sextets fill the Mozart masterpiece. Gustavo Feulien made for a dapper villain in the title role, Chelsea Lehnea shone as Donna Anna, and Kelly Curtin and Adam Cioffari gave standout performances as Zerlina and Masetto.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Florida Orchestra: The season opened with perhaps music’s greatest composer in one of the most iconic symphonies ever written. The orchestra stayed on top each dynamic shift in a work that simultaneously overflows with the joy of life and vents the most furious kind of frustration. The same concert featured Jeffrey Stephenson with an English horn solo in Ottorino Respighi’s tone poem, Pines of Rome and — last but far from least — Valentina Lisitsa, a perfectionist who comes pretty darned close, playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
Giselle, Ballet Nacional de Cuba: So much perfection, such execution and grace. Getting this troupe back here was worth the 15-year wait. Let’s hope they can return sooner next time.