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Twelve to Glow On: 2012's Best St. Louis Stage Performances

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Year's end portends lists. Ten best. Ten worst. Runners-up. This page doesn't deal in "best," but we certainly had some favorites — and more than ten. Here are a dozen favorite theater productions staged in 2012, recapped in the order in which the shows opened.

Sunday in the Park with George (January) The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis got the year off to a splendid start with its gorgeous production of the compassionate Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine meditation on the creative process. Sondheim's aching melodies ricocheted off the Loretto-Hilton walls and plunged into our hearts. (DB)

No Child... (March) Petite Patrese D. McClain was a whirling dervish in Nilaja Sun's one-person play about an inexperienced teacher's travails while staging a theater production with a cast of student misfits. The Black Rep delivered an indelible evening of theater alchemy under the watchful eye of director Joe Hanrahan. (DB)

Angels in America Parts 1 and 2 (April) Stray Dog Theatre artistic director Gary F. Bell constructed an Angels that was a monument to humanity in all our flawed splendor. A rock-solid cast carried with grace and skill what can be a portentous and plodding evening, but Ben Watts and Rachel Hanks deserve special commendation for their work in transforming the darkest moments into something luminous. (PF)

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (April) August Wilson's penetrating 1984 drama about the black man's inability to change in a white world played out like a musical composition, with riffs and crescendos. The acting ensemble in this absorbing Black Rep production seemed to be living the roles; the effect was so natural, it was as if we viewers were flies on the wall of an old Chicago recording studio. (DB)

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (May) More memorable Sondheim. At Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the 1979 musical thriller from Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler had the feel of a production that was years in the planning. Every component worked in tandem to keep the viewer surprised and enthralled. The commanding title-role performance by Rod Gilfry was everything one could hope for; Gilfry was both frightening and beautiful. (DB)

Thoroughly Modern Millie (June) Which Muny musical to single out? Chicago delivered on its razzle-dazzle; Pirates! provided unexpected fun; in Kevin Gray and Laura Michelle Kelly, The King and I was sustained by two effective star performances. But the crisply professional season opener was the most striking of 2012's seven shows, because it proclaimed without hesitation that a new regime is in place at the Muny, one that no longer will tolerate the commonplace. It didn't take long for new executive producer Mike Isaacson to figure out how to make the Muny stage a place of magic: He got it right with the very first show. (DB)

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (August) A relentlessly silly journey into the guts of Shakespeare's oeuvre, punctuated by outbursts of feigned puking. Jamie Kurth, Joshua Nash Payne and Ben Ritchie did yeoman's work savaging, parodying and demonstrating why Shakespeare matters in this high-concept, lowbrow piece for St. Louis Shakespeare, directed with flair by Suki Peters. (PF)

The Children's Hour (September) Under the microscopic direction of Tim Ocel, Lillian Hellman's once-scandalous 1934 play was elevated from skillful melodrama to operatic grandeur. A student cast at the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts imbued a potentially dusty period piece with tragic dimensions and left viewers exhausted and exhilarated. A knockdown, drag-out evening of breathless theater. (DB)

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (September) American politics was exposed as a combination of petty grudges, blind hatred and honest ignorance in Scott Miller's incendiary staging of the musical bio of Andrew Jackson (played with macho gusto by John Sparger) for New Line Theatre. It was thoughtful, thought-provoking and at times terrifying — how do you reconcile the whole "land of the free" thing with a president who tells his best friend, a Native American, "Yeah, you were totally here first, but we don't fucking care." And it always — always — rocked. (PF)

Eleemosynary (November) Lee Blessing's drama about motherhood and daughterhood was given a sparkling run-out by Ellie Schwetye and Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Margeau Baue Steinau played the family matriarch Dorothea with power and conviction. "We all try to be what the next one needs, and we never come close," Dorothea said of motherhood, and it was lament and indictment, exoneration and explanation, all in one. (PF)

This Wide Night (November) Chloë Moss' tough, two-character play about women just out of jail and trying to remake their lives was bleak and bruising and ultimately hopeful under Sean Belt's direction for West End Players Guild. Jane Abling and Rachel Hanks were stellar, putting themselves through the wringer with a verisimilitude that was often painful. It wasn't easy, but it was rewarding to experience. (PF)

The Foreigner (December) Larry Shue's popular comedy is mostly foolishness, but the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' staging evoked a true sense of affection for the material. The smiling production reminded us that not every evening has to be "important." In the title role, John Scherer gave the most deft comic performance I have seen at the Rep in at least a decade. (DB)

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