Moby-Dick tops our list of 2010's best on DFW stages

Funny how the little moments in some plays stay with you. An actor wiping a tear from his cheek in a quiet scene in Our Town. That same actor, Joey Folsom, angrily tearing through a package of Oreos in subUrbia. Estelle Parsons reeling down the stairs in August: Osage County. The audience giggling with delight on opening night as the Man of Steel (played by Matt Cavenaugh) soared onto the stage in Dallas Theater Center's It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman!

And there were big moments this year, too, some on large stages, some in the small venues that keep Dallas-Fort Worth actors busy from season to season. There was the spectacular sinking of the Pequod and the drowning of its crew (save one) in the lavish opera Moby-Dick at the Winspear. And just as thrilling, Alice, played by Danielle Pickard, tumbling headfirst down the rabbit hole into Wonderland in the no-budget, found-object version of the Lewis Carroll story by the group called White Rock Pollution at the Bath House Cultural Center.

This was a year when the familiar sold better than the experimental, when tried-and-true trumped the out-of-town tryout. So a full-orchestra My Fair Lady in Irving was a sell-out success, while a sexed-up, empty-headed new musical adaptation of Lysistrata called Give It Up! at the Wyly Theatre couldn't give its tickets away.

Theatergoers want to be surprised, but only by the things they expect, a French playwright once observed. So DTC's Superman had to wear a red cape and red boots (he did). And while there was a glimpse of the whale in the opera, they didn't make him sing.

Here then are my picks for the top 10 stage productions in Dallas and Fort Worth for 2010:

10. subUrbia. Upstart Productions and Project X put together a hot young ensemble for this Eric Bogosian drama about dystopian youth hanging out on a corner of Anywhere, USA. As jaded losers, Joey Folsom and Andrews W. Cope were disturbingly twitchy. Justin Locklear, as the rock star back in town to visit his old pals from high school, captured the "there but for the grace of God" attitude with the right blend of humility and maturity.

9. Laughter on the 23rd Floor. For an evening of nonstop laughs, WaterTower Theatre's production of the Neil Simon comedy was the top ticket. Based on Simon's years writing for Sid Caesar, the play needs actors who can hit big, broad jokes and finesse small, funny moves. Director Terry Martin found the right mix of energies in actors Brian Gonzales (as Max, the Caesar figure), Brian Hathaway, Ted Wold, Erik Archilla, Regan Adair, John Daniel Pszyk, Brandy McClendon, Ginger Goldman and Daniel Frederick.

8. Volume of Smoke. Actress Rhianna Mack was part of the excellent six-actor ensemble in Audacity Theatre Lab's production of playwright Clay McLeod Chapman's one-act based on the true story of a tragic Virginia theater fire in the 1800s. Using only a few chairs, some boxes and a ladder, the cast, playing multiple roles, re-enacted the terrifying event from multiple points of view. Simply one of the most moving evenings of theater of the year.

7. No Child. Rhianna Mack was also a marvel portraying all 16 roles with wide-ranging ages and accents in both genders—in this play by Nilaja Sun about a young drama teacher trying to reach "at-risk" high schoolers in the Bronx. Directing for Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth, René Moreno made the characters in the slender, funny script come vividly alive through Mack's tour de force performance.

6. Opus. Circle Theatre in Fort Worth opened its 29th season with the Southwestern premiere of this terrific play by Michael Hollinger about five classical musicians battling for first-chair dominance in a world-renowned quartet. Elias Taylorson, David H.M. Lambert, Jakie Cabe, Mark Shum and Meg Bauman, all local actors, made beautiful music together acting-wise in a bare-bones setting that put all the emphasis on performance.

5. August: Osage County. The national tour of the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Tracy Letts drama starred the phenomenal Estelle Parsons as the pill-pounding matriarch. The Winspear wasn't the best physical fit for the show, but the brilliant play about an unhinged Oklahoma family brought together by tragedy still crackled in the elegant surroundings. Parsons, by the way, used her off time to hold informal seminars with drama students at Booker T. Washington High School, another benefit of having a world-class arts facility next door to a public performing arts school.

4. It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman! Dallas Theater Center's remake and remount of the nearly forgotten 1966 Charles Strouse/Lee Adams musical benefited from a spiffy book rewrite by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and high-flying performances by Broadway import Matt Cavenaugh in the title role and Cavenaugh's real-life wife, Jenny Powers, as the seductress who got to sing the show's best-known tune, "You've Got Possibilities." Patrick Cassidy snarled sexily as villain Max Menken. Locals Cara Statham Serber, Bob Hess, Paul Taylor, Cedric Neal, Sean Hennigan and Julie Johnson were standouts in supporting roles. As wholesome as milk and cookies, this show's got possibilities for regional theater success, if, that is, some issues with DC Comics can be untangled.

3. Our Town. Borrowing the severe, no-frills aesthetic of director David Cromer's 2009 New York City production, WaterTower Theatre in Addison brought subdued grace and fine-tuned acting to its staging of the Thornton Wilder play. By staying unsentimental and natural in performance as George and Emily, actors Joey Folsom and Maxey Whitehead, two of Dallas' best young talents, made the characters feel modern and truthful—and profoundly real.

2. My Fair Lady. We could have danced all night with Lyric Stage's lovely revival of the Lerner and Loewe classic, staged by director Len Pfluger with a 38-piece orchestra and a bang-up 31-person cast led by Kim Whalen as Eliza Doolittle and J. Brent Alford as Professor Higgins. Sonny Franks' joyous gallop as Eliza's dad, Alfred P. Doolittle, in "Get Me to the Church on Time" was the happiest song-and-dance bit of the year.

1. Moby-Dick. Operas like this are why Dallas needed the Winspear Opera House. In its world premiere here in May, the massive adaptation of Herman Melville's great American novel was a visual and musical stunner. Jake Heggie's score offered a thrilling mix of Wagner's pomposity and Verdi's romanticism; librettist Gene Scheer pared the mythic saga of man vs. whale to the bone, saving the famous first line—"Call me Ishmael"—for just the right moment for a powerfully emotional wallop. Tenor Stephen Costello, as Ishmael, and Wagnerian tenor Ben Heppner, as Captain Ahab, were spectacular singers and actors, ably supported by dozens of local male chorus members and supernumeraries from area climbing clubs hired to scale the towering masts of the Pequod. The dazzling design of the opera—combining enormous set pieces, cinematic projections and computerized lighting effects—made grand use of every whizbang technical trick the Winspear has to offer.

And slow claps for: An Evening With Al Pacino at the Winspear, The Beauty Plays at Dallas Theater Center (particularly performances by Regan Adair and Lee Trull), Adam Carolla redefining standup comedy at the Addison Improv, Alice in Wonderland at the Festival of Independent Theatres, Something Intangible at Circle Theatre, the reading of Preston Jones' long-lost teleplay Bradleyville by a cast that included actors from the original productions of The Texas Trilogy in the 1970s at Kalita Humphreys Theater, Xanadu at Dallas Summer Musicals, Spring Awakening at the Lexus Broadway Series, Mike Daisey performing his monologue How Theatre Failed America at the Out of the Loop Fringe Fest at WaterTower Theatre and Miss Nelson Is Missing at Dallas Children's Theater.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner