UPDATED The 2014 Houston Theater Awards: A Year Filled With Sound, Fury and Laughter

Categories: Stage

Oh, the places we've been! The people we've met!

We've gone to Hell with Satan in Doctor Faustus (Classical Theatre Company); suffered with the Frank family in their Amsterdam garret in The Diary of Anne Frank (A.D. Players); time-traveled backward and forward with ex-wives and new wives in Communicating Doors (Alley Theatre); romped through the deconstruction of fairy tales in Into the Woods (Main Street Theater); had our hearts trampled and seared in an African brothel in Ruined (Obsidian Art Space); wept in sympathy with a puppet horse more alive than the human actors in War Horse (Gexa Energy Broadway); prowled the waterfront with Anna Christie (Theatre Southwest); brawled and got drunk with Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I (Houston Shakespeare Festival); stormed the Parisian barricades with Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (Houston Family Arts Center); learned that size does matter in Cock (Theater LaB Houston); reeled under too much eggnog in A Very Tamarie Christmas (Catastrophic Theatre); fooled the Irish yokels and suffered the consequences in Faith Healer (Stark Naked Theatre Company); laughed as two proper English wives succumb to a former French lover in Fallen Angels (Main Street Theater); disbelieved a petulant prophetess in Cassandra (Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company); and more and more and more. Plus we had the privilege of attending multiple regional premieres and ten world premieres! What an incredible year of theater, full of sound and fury and laughter, too. So many riches.

For our third annual Houston Theater Awards sponsored by the Houston Press, we give you the best of the best. We debated long and loud; the choices difficult because there was so much good stuff to ponder. Theater smacks us awake by showing us the world in all its diversity, a crazy quilt of emotion and enlightenment. The 2013-14 Houston theater season was extremely alive and kicking. We sincerely thank all the following nominees for enriching our lives with their sublime work. Please, sir, kick me again. D.L. Groover

This story was written by Olivia Flores Alvarez, Margaret Downing, D.L. Groover and Jim J. Tommaney.

Best Play/Production:
The Whipping Man
(Stages Repertory Theatre)

Matthew Lopez's thrillingly theatrical The Whipping Man smoldered inside Stages Repertory Theatre before it burst into scalding flame. Replete with resignation, acceptance and forgiveness, raucous then enigmatically quiet before the storm, three disparate men -- desperate, too -- survive as best they can in their ruined Atlanta house in the waning days of the Civil War. Two are former slaves; the third is the gravely wounded son of the master. Lopez's finely-etched period drama crackles and spits with exceptional fragrance and acidity. Under Seth Gordon's tightly-paced direction, the past haunts the present. Freedom, so much desired and killed for, can become another set of chains if one doesn't know which path to take. Matthew Lopez thrillingly lays open the road, the festering wounds, the giddy rush of liberation toward that beacon now within reach. You can almost smell the smoke and mold of the once-fine house laid bare in Jodi Bobrovsky's nuanced set design; Claremarie Verheyen's masterwork costumes composed of threadbare fabric, blood and soil; and Renee Brode's ex-quisitely detailed lighting that echoed dim -candlelight and rainy dusk. As stalwart house-steward, Shawn Hamilton anchored the production with a magnificent performance that was wise, stoic and seething beneath the surface with a prophet's righteous anger. He was matched by Ross Bautsch's guilt-wracked son and Joseph Palmore's scallywag former slave terrified of freedom. The young men have more in common than they think, as Lopez's dramatic revelations fall with shattering effect, like Sherman's bombardment of Atlanta. Perhaps the most surprising twist of all is that the family and their former slaves are Jewish. Deep faith drives the characters, whose celebration of Passover ironically occurs when victory is declared at Appomattox but tempered by the news that Lincoln has been assassinated. The drama ends on a quiet gesture that sums up the great themes Lopez has intertwined -- freedom, liberation, personal choice, religious belief, and, most important, scars from the past, both psychic and graphically physical. The healing has just begun. Stages sang Lopez's impassioned siren song in triumph.

Finalists: clean/through (Catastrophic Theatre), Doctor Faustus (Classical Theatre), Freud's Last Session (Alley Theatre), Rome (Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company), Ruined (Obsidian Art Space), The Good Thief (Stark Naked Theatre Company) and Venus in Fur (Alley Theatre).

Best Musical
Into the Woods
(Main Street Theater)

Contemporary musical master Stephen Sondheim is justly celebrated, but none of his works is as beloved as his and James Lapine's deconstruction of classic fairy tales, Into the Woods (1987). This flavorsome musical takes us back to our childhood in Act I, where we meet Jack of beanstalk fame, Rapunzel in her tower, woeful Cinderella, feisty Little Red Riding Hood and a witch who has enchanted her neighbors The Baker and His Wife. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White make cameo appearances, too. They all have dreams for the future. Then, in Act II, the musical slaps us into adulthood when the characters get exactly what they wished for. Haunting, thought provoking, and very pleasing, this grownup musical about childhood received a magical four-star production at Main Street Theater. Director Andrew Ruthven worked his own magic as he enlarged Main Street's intimate stage space into a WW II fairytale world of the mind, filled with atmosphere amply supplied by set designer Ryan McGettigan, lighting designer John Smetak and tuneful musical direction from Claudia Dyle. Featuring a panoply of exceptional Houston musical talent (Christina Stroup, David Wald, Amanda Passanante, Crystal O'Brien, Kregg Dailey, Scott Gibbs, Marco Camacho, Rutherford Cravens, Lauren Dolk, Amy Garner Buchanan, Kasi Hollowell, Katie Porterfield, in multiple roles), the impeccable cast delightfully insinuated themselves right into our innocent, not-yet-broken heart.

Finalists: Godspell (A.D. Players), The Little Mermaid (Theatre Under the Stars) , Murder Ballad (TUTS Underground) and The Pajama Game (Bayou City Concert Musicals).

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