The Best of Dallas Theater in 2008—and a New Rule for Getting More Butts in the Seats

In Dallas theater, 2008 was the year Jersey Boys jerked audiences to their feet at Fair Park, an all-drag Facts of Life became the must-see hit of the summer and William Ayers' son, playwright Zayd Dohrn, premiered his 9/11 paranoia comedy, Sick, at Kitchen Dog Theater.

It was the year new artistic director Kevin Moriarty re-baptized Dallas Theater Center as a lively, thriving stage by flooding it with local talent and showers of water in The Who's Tommy. M. Denise Lee let her velvety voice go ragged as a latter-day Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill (Contemporary Theatre of Dallas). And characters had dirty pretend-sex with puppets (The Long Christmas Ride Home, Stage West), pets (The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, KDT) and one extremely scary prisoner (Edmond, Second Thought Theatre).

From a riveting monologue in an Irish brogue (Lee Trull in Rum and Vodka at the Out of the Loop fest) to an all-out classic with full orchestra and dozens of hot young dancers (Lyric Stage's West Side Story), it was a year when theaters mixed it up and took some chances as they tried to draw younger patrons without driving off longtime subscribers. They're going to need to keep appealing to as wide an audience as possible to survive in 2009. Recent months have seen sharp drop-offs in attendance at almost all local playhouses as the free-falling economy takes its toll on the arts.

Looking ahead to early fall, companies set to move into the new Dallas Center for the Performing Arts would be wise to consider stacking their seasons with song-and-dance shows. A recently published survey of 2,000 theaters across the country revealed that the public increasingly prefers musicals over spoken-word shows. Between 1992 and 2005, according to the study (based on data from the IRS and the National Endowment for the Arts), the number of adults attending straight plays dropped from 25 million to 21 million. The audience for musicals, however, grew from 32 million to 37 million.

That's good news/bad news for regional theaters. Musicals may be reliable box-office draws, but they're often prohibitively expensive to produce. DTC spent $400K on Tommy and then late in the fall had to lay off seven staffers to keep the yearly budget in the black. Look for more companies to do less lavish tuners such as last season's cute musical comedy A Dog's Life at Theatre Three, or Contemporary's holiday offering, the romantic four-voice revue Closer Than Ever.

Live theater just keeps getting better in Dallas and Fort Worth as new companies and new talent emerge. But the public is slow to discover and support them. The African-American Repertory Theater's excellent productions of A Soldier's Play and Neat (starring the remarkable Regina Washington) deserved full houses, not rows of empty seats staring back at fine actors. Word-of-mouth and strong reviews helped launch the new Upstart Productions, whose two-man Topdog/Underdog in November was the most successful show yet at The Dallas Hub in Deep Ellum. But by waiting until March for their next one, Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth, they might have to introduce themselves all over again and beat the tambourine even harder for subscribers and publicity.

So go buy a ticket. In this economy, if it becomes a choice between food and theater, skip a meal and see a show once in a while. (If you go on opening night, there's usually free grub!)

And so to the best of 2008, five musicals, five plays. If you saw even one, you enjoyed the best that Dallas theater can offer.

Best Musicals

1. West Side Story, Lyric Stage. Producer Steven Jones brought in original WSS Jet Grover Dale to direct; a Jerome Robbins expert (and Dallas native), Kate Swan, to choreograph; and angel-voiced Kimberly Whalen to sing Maria. On a stage of ladders and scaffolds, young singers and dancers created 1950s gang life in Manhattan, Sondheiming and Bernsteining their hearts out.

2. Jersey Boys, Dallas Summer Musicals. For once Fair Park welcomed a top-notch Broadway tour whose cast was as good or better than the originals. Newcomers Joseph Leo Bwarie, who played Frankie Valli, and Andrew Rennells, who played Bob Gaudio, deserve shots at stardom on the Rialto sooner than later. They were part of a four-part harmonic convergence of everything musical theater should be.

3. Nine, ICT Mainstage. Technically, this was "community theater," but director Michael Serrecchia cast top area professionals—Donald Fowler, Megan Kelly Bates, Patty Breckenridge, Sara Shelby-Martin—in the musical based on Fellini's 8-1/2. Roof-blowing.

4. A Year With Frog and Toad, Dallas Children's Theater. The biggest DCT hit of the season was this kids' book charmer. Full of visual surprises on Randel Wright's scenery, the Cheryl Denson-directed show featured quirky turns by Bob Hess, Brian Hathaway, Arianna Movassagh and Darius-Anthony Robinson.

5. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, CTD. Two hours of M. Denise Lee singing as Billie Holiday. Haunting and heavenly.

Best Plays

1. Sick, KDT. When young playwright Zayd Dohrn was here in June for the world premiere of his dark comedy about germophobes, his dad, Weather Underground founder William Ayers, had not yet been dubbed by Sarah Palin the "terrorist" with whom candidate Barack Obama was supposedly "palling around." If Dohrn's radical clean freaks in the play are political symbols, all the better. He's a young Edward Albee, daring to write humor that hints at danger inside American families.

2. The Good Negro, DTC. Another world premiere, Tracy Scott Wilson's drama explored the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement, with fictional (but recognizable) black minister characters squeezed between FBI wiretappers and Klan members. Powerful stuff made more so by current events of election season.

3. Neat, AART. Actress Regina Washington played everyone important, young and old, male and female, in the life of actress-playwright Charlayne Woodard. An exhaustive, exhilarating tour de force.

4. Edmond, Second Thought Theatre. David Mamet's one-act about one man's fall from normalcy to felony in the course of a day gave actor Regan Adair a chance to go to all the dark places we only want to visit vicariously.

5. The Pillowman, KDT. Lee Trull, Cameron Cobb, Michael Federico and Ian Leson were on a mission in this harrowing Martin McDonagh drama about tyranny and censorship. They showed that Dallas actors can kick the hell out of the toughest script and scare the bejeebers out of jaded theatergoers. Oh, the nightmares this dream cast produced.

And finally, a new rule for theaters for getting more people into seats in 2009:

Produce no play originally written with a feather. No Shakespeare, no Marlowe, no Molière no more. Let dust gather on these musty works and bring us more premieres of new scripts that move, amuse and challenge actors and audience. Enough with the classics; a new class of young playwrights needs the exposure.

Oh, and let us bring our drinks to our seats. That would be nice too.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner