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Best of Philly theater, 2017: Our critics weigh in

John Timpane, Staff Writer

Updated: Thursday, December 21, 2017, 7:51 AM

Things we liked in 2017 (Clockwise from upper left): “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” at the Philadelphia Theatre Company; “HIR” at Simpatico Theatre; “Blood Wedding” at the Wilma Theater; “We Shall Not Be Moved” at Opera Philadelphia.

Time for a big look back at a various, glittering year of theater in and around Philadelphia. Below is a list of the best shows I and our reviewers saw in 2017. Productions are ordered by their run dates.

St. Joan (McCarter Theatre, Jan. 13-Feb. 12). The four-person Bedlam company alternated between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Shaw’s St. Joan. I agreed with reviewer Toby Zinman that they didn’t quite nail the former – but the latter was a flat-out masterpiece.

Coriolanus (Lantern Theater Company, March 9-April 16). Reviewer Tirdad Derakhshani called it “a shattering and chillingly resonant dissection of the ease with which leaders can manipulate the governed by manufacturing scapegoats and phantom enemies.”

The King and I (Academy of Music, March 22-April 2). Reviewer David Patrick Stearns said that although modern productions were often cut, “this elegant, smart touring version of the Lincoln Center Theater production restored the often-cut song ‘Western People Funny’ – which gives needed equal time to the Siamese court.” A tip of the clairvoyant’s hat to David, who, reviewing Oslo on Broadway in April, called it (correctly) “a play that, in my humble opinion, has Tony written all over it.”

Anna (EgoPo Classic Theater, March 29-April 16). “Astonishingly, they did it,” Toby wrote in her review. She called Anna a triumphant adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel.

The White Devil (Broad Street Ministry/Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, May 3-20). The kinetic PAC tamed John Webster‘s unruly play and gave us a biting, bloody, ironic masterwork.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (Philadelphia Theatre Company, May 17-June 4). Reviewer Julia M. Klein said, “James Lecesne’s one-man, many-character piece . . . was an acting tour de force, but also an affirmation of how powerfully a single, seemingly ordinary life can affect those it touches.”

Gypsy (Arden Theatre Company, May 18-June 25). Our reviewers disagreed. Jim Rutter found Gypsy surprisingly “provincial” and lifeless; Julia was impressed and thought Mary Martello‘s performance was on a Patti LuPone/Tyne Daly level.

Taylor Mac’s HIR (Simpatico Theatre Company, May 31-June 25). Toby called it “a sensational comedy, a wild surreal family drama, a passionate indictment of normative masculinity, a blindingly articulate embrace of the possible future.”

Dogs of Rwanda (InterAct Theatre, June 3-18). Toby called it a very well done, “exhausting” return to the scene of horrors.

School Play (Tribe of Fools, June 9-25). This is among the most often mentioned in reader emails. Ginnie Wilson-Williams of Chestnut Hill took three of her grandchildren, and they “belly-laughed, giggled, guffawed, hooted, or howled from the first bell to the end of detention.”

Project Dawn (People’s Light, June 7-July 9). Karen Hartman‘s world premiere, based on the “problem-solving” Dawn Court in Philadelphia, was one of the very best plays of the season.

Evita (Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, June 14-July 2). Jim called it “a musically superb staging that – coupled with lush costume designs and exhilarating choreography – evokes a romantic era.” Hugh Hunter said it was overwhelmingly good, his favorite show of the year.

As You Like It (Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, July 20-Aug. 6). Julia called this production dark and “unexpectedly moving.”

Aesop’s Fables at Quintessence (Quintessence Theatre Company, Sept. 6-17). Hugh said this production “mixed inventive, childlike fantasy with moral truth.”

Red Velvet (Lantern Theater, Sept. 7-Oct. 15). Toby called it a “provocative and entertaining drama about race and theater.”

Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins (Walnut Street Theater, Sept. 12-Oct. 15). With its “bravura performance by Rebecca Robbins,” Hugh Hunter found this play moving, more than a match for the Meryl Streep movie.

We Shall Not Be Moved (Philadelphia Opera/Philadelphia Fringe, Sept. 16-24). This massive show, based on the MOVE bombings, was for Julia “one of the most powerful theatrical experiences of the season.”

Next to Normal (Residents Theatre Company in West Chester, Sept. 29-Oct. 15). This genre-busting musical is, Julia wrote, “among the greatest of contemporary musicals,” and RTC gave a very moving, empathetic account of it.

Long Day’s Journey into Night (Quintessence, Oct. 4-29). This intimate version of Eugene O’Neill’s tortured classic benefited from the Quintessence touch. E. Ashley Izard as materfamilias Mary Tyrone gave perhaps the best single acting performance I saw all year.

Lights Out: The Nat “King” Cole Story (People’s Light, Oct. 11-Dec. 3). With Dulé Hill outstanding as Cole and Daniel J. Watts burning it up as Sammy Davis Jr., this looks at a man’s battle to stay outwardly suave and cool while racist pushback threatens his TV career.

Ideation (Theatre Exile, Oct. 12-Nov. 5). This play about a roomful of consultants planning a Doomsday was, Toby wrote, “both terrifying and amusing … this is Springtime for Hitler for the digital age.”

TouchTones (Arden Theatre Company, Oct. 19-Dec. 3). This Michael Hollinger musical at the Arden was, Julia said, “racy, quirky, and engaging.”

Blood Wedding (Wilma Theatre, Oct. 25-Nov. 19). If you twisted my arm very lightly, I’d say this was the best theatrical performance I saw all year, a thrilling, brutalizing Federico García Lorca classic with astonishing staging by Csaba Ökrös and the Wilma Hothouse incubator.

My Fair Lady. (Quintessence, Nov. 15-Dec. 30). This was the second of a knockout one-two punch at Quintessence, which really swung from the heels this season. My Fair Lady, its first attempt at a classic musical, was the biggest success in the company’s history: With fine turns by Gregory Isaac, Leigha Kato (I really liked her as Eliza), and Doug Hara, it was extended not once, but twice.

The Miser (Stagecrafters, Chestnut Hill, Nov. 24-Dec. 5). Hugh liked the energy and wit of this production of the tart Molière comedy.

Quite a list. The riches of 2017 remind us of the growth of Philadelphia as a theater town. May that continue in 2018.

John Timpane, Staff Writer

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