By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
If Dallas theater gets much better than it was in 2012, Chicago's going to be jealous. Dallas' theatrical community used to lose a lot of homegrown talent to that city with the wind. (And to New York and L.A.) Not so much anymore, as the number of theater companies, performance spaces and local playwrights turning out solid work in this town continues to grow.
Opportunities breed success, and Dallas theaters, starting with Margo Jones' first important regional theater here in the 1940s, have traditionally offered breaks to up-and-comers who have talent and some moxie. It also helps that theaters here are creatively incestuous. Actors can be members of more than one resident company (there's lots of crossover between Kitchen Dog Theater and Dallas Theater Center, for example). Directors can work everywhere and be paid for their efforts. Good designers stay as busy as they want to be. There are even steady full-time gigs for choreographers, stage combat experts and puppeteers. Playwrights with a hot script can land a staged reading or even a fully produced premiere among the three major new play festivals held in the Dallas area every year.
The longer these creative professionals stick around, making Dallas a true home for theater artists and not just a jumping-off point, the better live theater is for everyone — those who make it, see it and review it. This year was so full of great work on local stages, Theatre Three founder Jac Alder has called it "a golden era," maybe the best he's experienced in his 51 years producing, directing, acting in and watching shows in Dallas.
Three of the top productions of 2012 were at Theatre Three and its underground space, Theatre Too. On the main stage, Aaron Sorkin's fast-talking play The Farnsworth Invention, about the battle to patent TV, featured highly defined performances by Alex Organ, as inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, and Jakie Cabe, as broadcast pioneer David Sarnoff. Director Jeffrey Schmidt surrounded them with a crazy-talented group of versatile supporting players.
Theatre Too staged the local premiere of Tracy Letts' thoughtful 2008 comedy Superior Donuts, about an emotionally numb doughnut shop owner and the ambitious young man who tries to save the business. Actors Van Quattro and Chris Piper reacted off of each other with natural chemistry. Their performances, directed by Bruce Coleman, were punctuated with tiny moves so right for little T2.
In July the Tony-winning, Sesame Street-inspired send-up Avenue Q opened in Theatre Too, directed by Michael Serrecchia, and refused to leave. Puppet-friendly singer-actors played to sold-out houses almost every night. The monster hit was extended to mid-December. It will return to T2 with the same cast in March 2013.
If you caught Mean, Matthew Posey's disturbingly sexy new musical about the imagined first encounter of Charlie Manson, Tex Watson and Squeaky Fromme, you might still be having emotional flashbacks. Posey's 45-seat Ochre House by Fair Park had a hot streak of original work this year, particularly this show, an eerie, dreamlike immersion into one night in the 1960s in a California desert dive. As a friendly cowboy singer (Justin Locklear) emceed open-mic night, members of what would become the "Manson family" met for the first time and took the stage to sing solos. Charlie was played with all the right twitches by a rail-thin Mitchell Parrack. Posey, who also wrote and directed, played Watson; Anastasia Muñoz was Fromme. Helter skelter never felt so close.
Posey, in fact, explored obsessions with a wide range of esoteric subjects throughout 2012, writing and producing new plays about Andy Warhol, Henry Miller and flamenco. The play-with-music Perro y Sangre (Dog and Blood) wove a story about Ernest Hemingway (played by Christian Taylor) into a 60-minute rush of intense dialogue interrupted by flamenco danced by Spaniard Antonio Arrabola and Dallas flamenco artist and actress Delilah Buitrón. As the couple curled around each other in sensuous choreography, the pounding of their heels on the tiny wooden stage could be felt in your bones. With only a four-performance run, this one felt like a wonderful, too-brief visit by a gypsy muse.
Terrific dancers, exciting singers and 40-piece orchestras made for a superb season of major American musicals at Irving's Lyric Stage. Producer Steven Jones sets a high standard for regional musical theater, using original orchestrations, impressive choreography, lavish sets and well-cast talent. Lyric's brilliant concert presentation of Kismet starred New York baritone Christopher Carl, who will return for the rarely staged Frank Loesser musical Pleasures and Palaces, opening January 24. Also back for the Loesser show is Bryant Martin, who made a soaring debut as Curly in a meticulously restored Oklahoma! at Lyric, for which director Cheryl Denson and musical director Jay Dias reclaimed original songs cut from recent London and Broadway revivals. Martin and Kyle Cotton (Jud Fry in Oklahoma!) were together at Lyric this fall in a grand 1776, which starred Brian J. Gonzales as John Adams. Gonzales is working on a couple of Dallas stages this winter after appearing in two Broadway shows (One Man, Two Guvnors and Shrek). He closed the year as a fearsome Ghost of Jacob Marley in Dallas Theater Center's annual A Christmas Carol.