If a single image had to sum up St. Louis theater in 2014, how about a scene from New Line Theatre’s production of “Rent,” when the young artists of Alphabet City crowded around a tilted circular table to celebrate “La Vie Boheme”?
That spirit — big, generous, willing to test limits — seemed to run through theaters large and small. Some highlights:
From the revivals at Mustard Seed (where “Falling” and “All Is Calm” returned to enthusiastic audiences that embraced them to begin with) and “Always . . . Patsy Cline” at Stages St. Louis to modern classics like “For Colored Girls ...” at the Black Rep and “Death of a Salesman” at Insight, it was a strong year for solid theatrical material, shows we know we want to see.
But it was a good year for new shows, too. HotCity is closing, but it went out with just the kind of play that made it a valuable artistic asset, the sharp-edged world premiere comedy “Reality.” The St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s Neil LaBute Festival and Ignite! at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis — which nurtured the timely union drama “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976” to its world premiere at the Loretto-Hilton – reaffirmed their commitment to new work.
The Blue Rose Stage Collective gave us a new style of drama, campfire theater (with s’mores), when it produced “The K of D” in a backyard in the antiques district. And we can’t overlook “Prayer for the Gun Bug,” a new Carter Lewis play that dressed up the appealing young actor Peter Winfrey as a praying mantis, from (enormous) head to toe.
The Peabody Opera House came into its own with bright, imaginative tour productions of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “My One and Only” and the circus-styled “Pippin.” The Fox, maintaining its long dominance in tours, showed a flair for family shows with “The Wizard of Oz” and “Annie.” Even the Muny, which has mounted all its own shows for decades, brought in a tour, a haunting production of “Porgy and Bess” directed by Diane Paulus. (She directed “Pippin,” too.)
The Muny is the biggest theater in town, home to formative theatrical experiences for many generations of St. Louisans. The summer of 2014 was an odd one at the Muny, with nothing by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe. But it unloosed a fresh young spirit with “Seussical” and “The Addams Family.” Their male leads — John Tartaglia and Rob McClure, respectively — are the kinds of performers who can fill the enormous outdoor theater all by themselves.
Those of us who fill theaters on the other side of the lights had a lot to savor. With that in mind, here are the 2014 Judy Awards — my way of saying thanks for all the terrific work that I was lucky enough to see this year.
Best ensemble • “The Liar,” St. Louis Shakespeare
Best couple • Emily Baker and Shaun Sheley, “All in the Timing,” St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Best solo performance • Joe Hanrahan, “Solemn Mockeries,” the Midnight Company
Best villain • David Wassilak, “Quills,” Max & Louie Productions
Best supporting actress • Nancy Lewis, “Blithe Spirit,” St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Best supporting actor • Michael James Reed, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Best actress • Teresa Doggett, “Shirley Valentine,” Dramatic License Productions
Best actor • Raymond McAnally, “One Man, Two Guvnors,” Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Best production of a comedy by Shakespeare (because they are in a class by themselves) • “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Paul Mason Barnes, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Best production of a comedy by anybody else • “The Liar,” directed by Suki Peters, St. Louis Shakespeare
Best ensemble • “The Diary of Anne Frank,” New Jewish Theatre
Best couple • John Flack and Eric Dean White, “The Normal Heart,” HotCity Theatre
Best solo performance • Em Piro, “The K of D,” Blue Rose Stage Collective
Best villain • Peter Mayer, “The Homecoming,” St. Louis Actors’ Studio.
Best portrayal of a person with a mental illness • John Contini, in “Rembrandt’s Gift” at Dramatic License Productions and “Death of a Salesman” at Insight Theatre
Best supporting actress • Katie Donnelly, “Eat Your Heart Out,” R-S Theatrics
Best supporting actor • Andrew Michael Neiman, “Antigone,” Upstream Theatre
Best actress • Kate Levy, “The Other Place,” Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Best actor • Jim Butz, “Henry IV” and “Henry V,” Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
Best production of a drama by Shakespeare (see above) • “Henry IV,” directed by Tim Ocel, and “Henry V,” directed by Bruce Longworth, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. Was this one play? Strictly speaking, it was three. But it truly was one story, one production, and one festival.
Best production of a drama by anybody else • “A Raisin in the Sun,” directed by Ed Smith, the Black Rep
Best choreographer • Kathleen Marshall, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” Peabody Opera House
Best music director • James Moore, “Hello, Dolly!,” the Muny
Best ensemble • “Hands on a Hardbody,” New Line Theatre
Best couple • Lucy Werner and Garrett Deagon, “Annie,” Fox Theatre
Best villain • Joseph Medeiros, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Stages St. Louis
Best supporting actress • Kirsten Wyatt, “Seussical,” the Muny
Best supporting actor • J. Samuel Davis, “Purlie,” the Black Rep
Best actress • Lavonne Byers, “Cabaret,” Stray Dog Theatre
Best actor • Rob McClure, “The Addams Family,” The Muny
Best musical, down and dirty • “Cabaret,” directed by Justin Been, Stray Dog Theatre
Best musical, big and bold • “Pippin,” directed by Diane Paulus, Peabody Opera House
Best musical for all • “Seussical,” directed by Dan Knechtges, the Muny
Best sets • Marcel Meyer, “Stairs to the Roof,” Sudden View Productions
Best costumes • JC Krajacek, “The Liar,” St. Louis Shakespeare
Best lighting • John Wylie, “Henry V,” Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
Best sound • Barry G. Funderburg, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Best sets • Beowulf Boritt, “Annie,” Fox Theatre
Best costumes • Leon Dobkowski, “Tarzan,” the Muny
Best lighting • Michael McCarthy, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Stages St. Louis
Most ambitious production • This is my favorite award, one that I can’t give every year. But this time it’s easy. “Stairs To The Roof,” an early play by Tennessee Williams, received its first production in many years — and its first ever in St. Louis — thanks to Carrie Houk and her new company, Sudden View Productions. Directed by Fred Abrahamse and designed by Marcel Meyer, this surrealistic play seemed to flow onto the stage like a magical blue elixir.
It would have been interesting just to hear a reading of this play — which reveals a very young Williams, unsure of dramaturgy but already invested in the “dreamer” who struggles against a harsh world. This eloquent production gave much more than that — and points the way to the possibility of a Williams festival in St. Louis, where he grew up.
St. Louis Theater Artist of the Year • Alas, the artist in question is no longer a St. Louisan. Rick Dildine, artistic and executive director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis from 2009 through last summer, has moved to Lenox, Mass., to take a new position, executive director of Shakespeare & Co. Bruce Longworth is interim artistic director at the festival.
Small wonder Shakespeare & Co. wanted Dildine. During his tenure here, he took the festival to new heights. He invented Shake38, an annual whirlwind of Shakespeare performances — traditional and offbeat, professional and otherwise — in which versions of all 38 plays are presented all over town. He introduced Shakespeare in the Streets, adaptations of Shakespeare plays with modern settings in St. Louis neighborhoods.
Last summer, he gave a lot more heft to the festival’s best-known event, free productions in Forest Park. Instead of one show, there were two — “Henry IV” and “Henry V” — that told a complicated, yet lucid, story of kingship through many years. Members of the large cast — including Jim Butz, who shone as the reckless prince evolving into a noble king — worked hard, no doubt. But they made it look effortless. Under Dildine — who directed 2013’s sparkling production of “Twelfth Night” — attendance at the Forest Park shows went up about 30 percent.
St. Louis has long been a good place for Shakespeare. That speaks in part to audiences here, who have embraced such intriguing productions as the gorgeous “Midsummer” that the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staged recently and the gender-bending “Hamlet” that came from St. Louis Shakespeare. (Donna Northcott, founder and longtime artistic director of St. Louis Shakespeare, is stepping down, and Suki Peters will take over there.)
But audiences need artists who try new things to whet our appetites, artists who have confidence in their own vision and in their audiences’ brains and nerve. That’s the kind of artist Dildine is. Now he has left — but his aspirations remain part of the texture of theater here.