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From a super 'How to Succeed' to an awful 'Book of Mormon': a look at 2014 in local theater

Onstage and off, 2014 was a pretty good year for the local theater community.

InterAct Theatre Company’s production of "Down Past Passyunk," with William Zielinski and Brian Cowden. (Photo: Kathryn Raines)
InterAct Theatre Company’s production of "Down Past Passyunk," with William Zielinski and Brian Cowden. (Photo: Kathryn Raines)Read more

TODAY'S COLUMN is a twofer. First, it marks the end of our second year chronicling the always-fascinating regional theater scene. And, because this is the final column of 2014, it's a look back on the highs (and lowest of the low) on local stages during the past 12 months:

In the news

The news this year was mostly good; the regional theater community appears to not just be surviving, but generally thriving.

Perhaps the grayest cloud was the one that earlier in the year settled over the 40-year-old Philadelphia Theatre Company. At the time, financial issues (read: the mortgage on the Suzanne Roberts Theatre) seemed to be threatening the group's existence. But Michael Kaiser, former president of Washington D.C.'s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, helped set things right.

Under his aegis, PTC renegotiated a month-to-month lease with landlord TD Bank. In addition, Comcast owners (and major PTC benefactors) Ralph and Suzanne Roberts pledged an additional $2.5 million, which was added to some $400,000 in other donations collected in the past few months. This has given the company breathing room and bought it time.

On the brighter side, September saw FringeArts' Fringe Festival debut at the company's ultra-cool space at Columbus Boulevard and Race Street (the building was a water-pumping station opened in the early 1900s).

Not only does the envelope-pushing festival now have its own rehearsal and production facilities, it also claims one of Philly's hottest new eateries, La Peg, a French-style bistro, opened in the fall, that occupies the complex's ground floor.

Also cheer-worthy was the revival, after a three-year hiatus, of the Barrymore Awards, Our Town's version of the Tonys.

The October soiree at the Merriam Theater was a grand affair, capped by the gracious, inspirational and moving acceptance speech by Lifetime Achievement honoree, actress/Philadelphia Theatre Company co-founder Carla Belver. Her words should be heard/read by anyone aspiring to a career as a performer.

KO'd on Broadway

Although it occurred 90 miles to the north, in some ways the biggest Theaterdelphia story of the year was the opening - and surprisingly quick closing - of the musical version of "Rocky."

Despite a boxing-match finale that rivaled any of the Great White Way's most iconic spectacles, it seemed that the world didn't want or need a singing-and-dancing Rocky Balboa: "Rocky The Musical" opened in mid-March and closed just five months later (look for the national tour in 2016).

The reasons for its quick demise need not be rehashed here. But it certainly didn't help that South Philly was constantly referred to as "The Southside," and the principals all talked as if the closest they ever got to Philadelphia was the popular brand of cream cheese.

That said, "Rocky" does stand as arguably one of the most Philly-centric Broadway productions ever.

Musically speaking

As for locally staged programs, we can't proclaim any presentations as "the best" of the year; with more than 50 professional companies in the region, it's impossible for one person to see everything that is mounted. So, instead, here is a rundown of the shows we saw that left lasting impressions.

On the musical front, it didn't get any better than "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" at the Walnut Street Theatre. This was a wonderful example of what musical comedy is meant to be, filled with hummable Frank Loesser songs, snappy (if somewhat dated) dialogue and a top-shelf cast led by localite Jeremy Morse in the role of corporate ladder-climber J. Pierrepont Finch.

More au courant is the 'Nut's "Mary Poppins" (through Jan. 4). It hits all the right notes and is perfect holiday fare.

Out at the Media Theatre, "Les Miserables" (through Jan. 18) may be modestly staged, but there is nothing modest about the fine vocal work of its cast.

Hammonton, N.J.'s Eagle Theatre hit the jackpot with the sophisticated and somewhat experimental "The Civil War." Despite its sparse staging, contemporary score and rather grim subject (the effect the war had on soldiers, their loved ones and slaves), the highly nuanced show was beautifully performed and quite riveting.

We also enjoyed the national tour of "Porgy and Bess"; and, though we personally can't stand the musical, we were impressed both by the technical achievements of the road-show version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" and by its female lead, Voorhees, N.J.'s Julia Udine.

And Long Beach Island's Surflight Theatre had us hooting and hollering with its summertime presentation of "Monty Python's Spamalot."

The play's the thing

As for nonmusicals, we have to start with InterAct Theatre Company's searing "Down Past Passyunk," a rumination on the law of unintended consequences that is based on the "order in English" brouhaha ignited by Joey Vento, the late founder-owner of Geno's steaketeria. It's no wonder the world premiere of A. Zell Williams' piece copped the Barrymore for Outstanding Overall Production of a Play. Months later, it still resonates and challenges.

Philadelphia Theatre Company's "Tribes," which questioned the definition of "family," was likewise provocative and well-acted.

And speaking of awesome acting, Ambler's Act II Playhouse scored with Tennessee Williams' classic "The Glass Menagerie," in which Barrymore winner Belver and Amanda Schoonover were both magnificent.

Just for laughs

We were particularly blessed in the realm of comedy this year:

The two editions of 1812 Production's satirical revue, "This Is the Week That Is," continually assaulted the funny bone while eviscerating the more absurd aspects of politics and pop culture.

Bristol Riverside Theatre kept the chuckles and guffaws coming at a breakneck pace with its strong reading of "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," Neil Simon's memoir of his days writing for TV legend Sid Caesar.

Philadelphia Theatre Company served up two comic treats: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" was a hoot, thanks to a strong cast, while stand-up comedian Colin Quinn's "Unconstitutional" was, as we wrote, "everything popular entertainment usually isn't these days: smart, literate, thought-provoking and, most of all, consistently funny."

The book on 'Mormon'

We couldn't let the year pass without one more shot at "The Book of Mormon," the inexplicable Broadway smash that spent a couple of months at the Forrest Theatre.

Yes, we were offended by the musical "comedy" from "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Not by the play's relentlessly politically incorrect "humor," but because we've undergone colonoscopies that had more laughs.

And one more thing . . .

From me and mine to you and yours, here's to a happy, healthy, prosperous and entertaining 2015.

See you at the theater!