Breaking Big in 2014: DFW Theater Artists Went Bold, Took Risks This Year

This was the year DFW's favorite theater kids grew up. No longer newcomers on local stages — as actors, playwrights or companies — they did big things in big ways in 2014. Here's a look back (and a glance ahead). Please hold your applause till the end.

If you watched cable TV's Fargo last spring, you saw Allison Tolman playing lead character Molly Solverson, a small-town Minnesota cop slogging to solve a series of murders. Tolman made her debut on Dallas stages a decade ago, as a recent Baylor grad and co-founder of Second Thought Theatre. After whipping through Second City's Conservatory in Chicago, she landed the TV role via video audition. She was nominated for an Emmy and Golden Globe for her performance on the show, and was also picked by Entertainment Weekly as one of a dozen breakout stars in 2014. The mag called her the "heart and brains" of Fargo, and she'll surely be that in whatever projects she takes on next, too.

Brian J. Smith made all of the major theater awards lists this year. He's an Allen native and graduate of Collin College (and Juilliard) whose journeyman years included roles at WaterTower and Dallas Theater Center. Smith earned Tony and Drama Desk nominations, and won the Outer Critics Circle award in 2014 for his oomphy performance as The Gentleman Caller in the acclaimed Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie. Watch for him next as the star of new sci-fi drama series Sense8, created by The Matrix filmmakers Andy and Lana Wachowski. All 10 episodes of the series — shot on locations in San Francisco, Seoul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Berlin and Mexico City — will be released in 2015.

Oak Cliff's Cedric Neal achieved local stardom at Uptown Players, Dallas Children's Theater, Theatre Three and DTC, where he was a member of the resident acting company. Over the past three years Neal has appeared on Broadway in The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess and the revue After Midnight. This summer, critics raved about his star turn as Sportin' Life in a London production of Porgy & Bess and that led to meetings with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. Although he's now living in London, Neal will be at the Wyly Theatre January 21-February 15 as a co-star in DTC's world premiere of Will Power's musical, Stagger Lee.

This fall, Ochre House — Matthew Posey's storefront playhouse by Fair Park — exported Perro y Sangre, Posey's original drama told with flamenco dancers Delilah Muse and Antonio Arrebola, to New York City for a short, successful run. It's a sign that Posey's thinking beyond his own tiny stage, though the work he manages to fit onto it is expansive and mind-blowing. He had a strong season, with a surge of original stuff. Best was Christhelmet, a visit to a murky dive bar where customers drifted out from "behind the vodka curtain" to sing and dance like ghosts in a fever dream. Acting-wise, Posey, Kevin Grammer, Bryce Jensen, Marti Etheridge Schweitzer, Dante Martinez, Mitchell Parrack, Cassie Bann and Carla Parker made you believe every word. Coming up next is Soft Noodle Map (January 24-February 14), another world premiere written and directed by Posey, starring him and his regular crew. It's a musical set in Memphis in 1974.

It was a fine year for musicals done in unusual ways. DTC had a wild time remaking warhorse Les Misérables; director Liesl Tommy gave it an Occupy Wall Street spin and spread hot guys in tight trousers all over the Wyly. There was some mighty good singing by Edward Watts as Javert, John Campione as Enjolras and Nehal Joshi as Jean Valjean. Steven Walters provided comic relief as the innkeeper.

This year Lyric Stage did what no other American theater has done in six decades: Give a full-out staging to the 1954 musical The Golden Apple, a tuneful retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey. It was glorious. Director Stefan Novinski, choreographer John de los Santos and musical director Jay Dias (working with a 36-piece orchestra) created stunning moments with a large cast led by Christopher J. Deaton as Ulysses and Kristen Lassiter as Penelope. Next at Lyric: Annie Get Your Gun (in concert), January 22-25.

There was no glitzier night of singing and hoofing on a Dallas stage than The Boy From Oz at Uptown, the first theater to do the bio-show about late Aussie singer-composer Peter Allen since it closed on Broadway in 2004. Director Cheryl Denson found her ideal star in Alex Ross, who sang, danced, played piano and butt-wiggled better than Hugh Jackman. Janelle Lutz and Sarah Elizabeth Smith brought down the house as Judy and Liza.

Among the best straight plays of the year was Uptown's pitch-perfect staging of Christopher Durang's Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike by director B.J. Cleveland. It allowed veteran actors Bob Hess, Wendy Welch and Diana Sheehan their best roles in ages. At Second Thought, company member Drew Wall played his most mature character yet with a searing performance as a grieving writer in the solo piece Nocturne. Fun House star Kennedy Waterman wrote and performed her own solo, Allergic Me, at the Margo Jones and acted a ton in Fun House founder Jeff Swearingen's plays, including Yes, Virginia Woolf, There Is a Santa Claus (a send-up of the Albee with a Christmas twist). See the 14-year-old next as the nurse in Fun House's Romeo & Juliet.

DTC's taut, terrifying Oedipus el Rey put the Greek tragedy in a prison and staged it in a tiny arena on the sixth floor of the Wyly. It was Kevin Moriarty's finest directing work to date, with riveting performances by Daniel Duque-Estrada, Phillippe Bowgen, David Lugo and Sabina Zuniga Varela. With similarly breathtaking ensemble work and physicality was The Brothers Size at Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth.

And welcome back, playwright Matt Lyle. He returned from Chicago (where he also went through the Second City writing program) just after Kitchen Dog premiered his scorchingly funny two-act farce Barbecue Apocalypse. Martha Harms, Michael Federico, Leah Spillman, Max Hartman and Jeff Swearingen turned this look at couples living in a gadget-free dystopian suburbia into an evening of explosive comedy. Of all the shows reviewed this year, this is the one I wish I had a replay button for.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner