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The ups and downs, ins and outs of local theater in 2015

There was plenty to remember-onstage and off-in local theater the past year

AS MUCH as I don't want to accept that time goes this fast, we are already in December, which means another year (give or take) has come and gone in the local theater universe. So, it's time for a look back at what has occurred since the Mummers last strutted up (oops, I mean


) Broad Street:

New Life for Roberts Theatre

In 2014, things looked as bleak as a

Samuel Beckett

play for the

Suzanne Roberts

Theatre - home to Philadelphia Theatre Company - when news broke that the then-seven-year-old venue, at Broad and Lombard streets, was in foreclosure.

But the outlook brightened exponentially this past September when PTC bought the 370-seat space for $5 million from TD Bank, which had taken possession of it after PTC stopped paying the mortgage, in 2012.

Sixty percent of the purchase price was provided by a consortium of deep-pocketed, arts-loving philanthropists, with the other $2 mil covered by a loan from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.

Drake delay

In April, five local companies announced that they were planning to move into and share a new theater planned for The Drake apartment building, on the 1500 block of Spruce Street.

But the InterAct Theatre, Simpatico Theatre Project, Azuka Theatre, Inis Nua Theatre and PlayPenn, a new-play incubator, didn't get to christen the space this fall as hoped. Construction delays have postponed the opening until Jan. 22, when InterAct, the venue's lead tenant, presents "#therevolution," by Kristoffer Diaz.

Dark night for Sondheim

For a couple of hours, the only power to be found at the Arden Theatre's Old City complex was star power, as an electrical outage kept a tribute to uber-composer

Stephen Sondheim

in the dark.

Sondheim, the 85-year-old Broadway luminary, was at the Arden to be feted with the theater's inaugural Master Storyteller Award when, around 7 p.m., the lights went out.

As the pre-show reception was extended some two hours, Arden principals worked diligently to rig an appropriate space at the company's Hamilton Family Center, a half-block or so north on 2nd Street.

A considerably truncated program began about 9 p.m. in the emergency area.

Back on the boards

Tragedy-to-triumph is a theme as old as theater itself. But it played out in real life this year, thanks to acclaimed local actor,

Michael Toner


In June, Toner was crossing 11th Street at Market when he was hit by a car whose driver kept going. Toner, 68, lost his right leg in the accident, and assumed his career would likewise disappear. But giving flesh-and-blood to the adage, "The show must go on!" Toner has recovered enough to keep his role as Irish tenant-farmer Phil Hogan in Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten," which is set to run Jan. 12-Feb. 7 at the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio on 3.

An 'Amazing' story

There is no Tony Award given for Most Unlikely Broadway Composer, but if there was one,

Christopher Smith,

of Warwick, Bucks County, would be a lock.

Smith is a former cop who, without any training in the reading or writing of music, somehow managed to create "Amazing Grace," the story of how the beloved 19th century hymn was composed.

Despite Smith's total lack of experience and Broadway connections (pretty much as important as a script or score) stars aligned, dots were connected and the $16 million musical opened on the Great White Way in July.

Reviewers (including the New York Times' Charles Isherwood) didn't think much of the musical, but, hey, how many have they written for the Broadway stage?

My favorite things

As for the year on local stages, 2015 was typical. There were more productions than even the most dedicated playgoer could possibly see (as, in the hundreds), and many were superb. As in the past, what follows is not a "best" list (an impossibility without seeing every single production), but a roster of shows that have stayed with me:

Musically speaking: If I had to pick a "best" indigenously produced musical, I'd certainly give Bristol Riverside Theatre's rendition of "Ragtime" a long, hard look. A superb score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, a book by Terrence McNally that made concise sense of E.L. Doctorow's sprawling historical-fiction novel and a top-shelf cast made "Ragtime" truly memorable.

However, it would be tough to not bestow upon the Walnut Street Theatre's "High Society" the accolade of ultimate. Its delights were many; suffice it to say, this is what musical theater is meant to be.

"Kinky Boots" at the Forrest Theatre was likely the biggest surprise of the year for me. I was especially impressed by Broadway novice Cyndi Lauper's eclectic score and the cast who brought to life this based-on-reality tale of a struggling British shoe manufacturer that reinvents itself as boot-maker to the drag-queen crowd.

It wasn't a book musical, but Ambler's Act II Playhouse's "Forbidden Broadway" still has me chuckling over the brilliant satirical revue's dead on skewering of many musical-theater sacred cows.

Comedy/drama: When it came to laughs, I thoroughly enjoyed two hilarious farces, Act II's "Unnecessary Farce" and "A Comedy of Tenors" at Princeton's McCarter Theatre. Other chuckle-fests included Bruce Graham's "According to Goldman" (Act II), "To the Moon!" (1812 Productions) and Neil Simon's "Biloxi Blues" (People's Light).

On a more serious note, there was "The Whale" and "Rizzo" - although there were laughs aplenty in the latter, it wasn't meant as a comedy (both staged by Theatre Exile), "Doubt" (Lantern Theatre) and "Mothers and Sons," starring TV's Michael Learned (Philadelphia Theatre Company).

MVP: I would be remiss if I didn't single out Scott Greer for the astounding year he had. In the winter, he killed it as the 600-pound man with a death wish in the intense drama, "The Whale." Six weeks later, he was nothing short of amazing in "To the Moon!" the wonderful tribute to Jackie Gleason and "The Honeymooners." And in the fall, he knocked it out of the park as the "Big Bambino" in "Rizzo."

I refuse to believe there is a better, more versatile actor on any stage anywhere, including New York.

Seasons greetings!

From me and mine to you and yours, best wishes for a festive, meaningful holiday of your choice and a healthy, happy and peaceful 2016!