10 best theater experiences of 2012

Brigit Saint Brigit's production of "Big Maggie"

There’s no business like show business, and once a year my weekly movie column is given over to remembering the best on local live stages from the past year.

I love the movies. But there’s nothing quite as electric as the magic that takes place between a live audience and a live cast. Here are 10 of my most electric experiences of 2012. They’re in alphabetical order, because good is good and best is what most entertains or touches you personally.

“August, Osage County.” Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning drama sailed on the unforgettable performances of Susan Baer Collins as the pill-addicted matriarch of a wildly dysfunctional family and Moira Mangiameli as her combative daughter. A star-studded supporting cast and Amy Lane’s direction were the icing on this bittersweet treat at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

“Avenue Q.” Director Daena Schweiger’s string of excellence extends to this R-rated musical send-up of “Sesame Street,” in which human and puppet twentysomethings struggle with post-college life. Great singing, acting and puppetry earned gales of laughter and applause for SNAP Productions. Standouts included Matt Uehling, Homero Vila and Rusheaa Smith-Turner.

“Big Maggie.” Irish plays are often what the Brigit St. Brigit Theatre does best, and John Keane’s drama about the Emerald Isle’s inheritance traditions was no exception. It was a treat to see Delaney Driscoll in a lead role again. Tough-as-nails Maggie goes toe-to-toe with her kids when widowhood grants her freedoms she’s unwilling to part with. Cathy Kurz directed.

“The Fantasticks.” An inspired steampunk theme brought new life to this time-worn 1960 small-stage classic at the Playhouse. Director Carl Beck harnessed Lynne Hazuka Ridge’s puppetry, Georgiann Regan’s costumes, Amy Reiner’s props and Jim Othuse’s set design, and a lovely little love story emerged, led by Seth Fox as El Gallo and Jennifer Tritz as the Girl.

“Legally Blonde.” This was no dumb blonde, as director Carl Beck and choreographer Melanie Walters amped up this light, bright musical confection with strong staging. Powered by Leanne Hill Carlson’s performance as law student Elle Woods, the show was a pink-tinged laughfest — and often a Playhouse sellout.

“Lend Me a Tenor.” Farce and director Carl Beck are a happy pairing, never more so than with Ken Ludwig’s classic 1980s comedy about an egotistical tenor, his jealous wife, a high-strung impresario and a last-minute understudy. Joe Dignotti, Laura Leininger, Dennis Collins and Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek delighted Playhouse audiences, as did Steve Wheeldon’s art deco set.

“On Golden Pond.” Stage veterans Dennis Collins and Lois Nemec make the roles of Norman and Ethel Thayer their own, to homespun and hilarious heights, in this story of aging and reconciliation. Honoring the 1981 screen version without copying it, director Judith Hart and company made familiar material fresh. Collins’ masterful line delivery and timing made the show.

“Red.” Sure to rank among the season’s finest, the Blue Barn’s fall opener about modern expressionist painter Mark Rothko was superb in just about every way. The best-play Tony winner featured stellar performances by Jerry Longe and Brendan Reilly, sensitive direction by Susan Clement-Toberer, standout scenic design by Martin Scott Marchitto and paintings by Craig Lee.

“Spring Awakening.” The Blue Barn’s powerhouse production of this dark best-musical Tony winner soared on the wings of its remarkable cast, many in their teens. Fumbling their way through adolescent hell, Kate Johnson and Sam Swerczek broke hearts with superb singing and acting. Kudos to director Susan Clement-Toberer, music director Mitch Fuller and choreographer Roxanne Nielsen.

“In the Next Room (or, The Vibrator Play).” Amy Lane’s ensemble cast shone in this Victorian-era drawing-room piece about sexual repression and longing for intimacy. Teri Fender, Matthew Pyle, Gage Wallace and Mary Kelly were particularly memorable, as was Martin Scott Marchitto’s detailed scenic design. Jennifer Pool’s costumes and Darin Kuehler’s props were a cut above.

An extra tip of the hat to SNAP Productions’ gay-themed drama “The Paris Letter,” the exuberant boy-band cast of the Playhouse’s “Altar Boyz,” apocalyptic comedy in the Playhouse’s “boom,” and great solo acting for the Brigit St. Brigit’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” (Thomas Becker) and “The Great Goddess Bazaar” (Tamara Meneghini). Best children’s production: an exuberant “Seussical” at the Rose.

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