Announcing the 2023 Houston Theater Awards [UPDATED]

It was above all, a resilient year for Houston theater.
It was above all, a resilient year for Houston theater. Photo by Max Burkhalter; props courtesy of The Wilde Collection / Photo illustration by Susie Tommaney and Sarah Wood

Houston theater contains multitudes.

Full of marvels and contradictions, our theater can be inspiring or stultifying, magical or mundane, controversial or plain vanilla, fanciful or dull. The 2022-23 season contained all of these. Some big-ticket shows landed with a thud you could hear outside in the street, while little shows thoroughly mesmerized and made us believe anew in theater's magic to transport, give joy, make us think, and even perhaps improve our lives a little.

Theater's arching relevance is its resilience. Pestilence, flood, fire, even death can not still it. The show must go on, albeit delayed or re-scheduled for a future season. We have witnessed all manner of the apocalypse's terror, and yet this last season, for its minor faults, was one of persistence, diligence, continuity, community, and exceptional work from both sides of the footlights. Last season our theater world rebounded and re-focused. It proved why The Theater is so important in our lives.

Death came to Catastrophic with the shocking demise of young actor Zachariah Mustafa, who was to make his debut in Sarah Kane's bleak and harrowing Cleansed. The company was devastated, the show was pulled and will now open March 2024. Fire came to Classical Theatre Company when its warehouse and offices at Winter Street Studios suffered monumental loss. Classical abridged its season and immediately started a fundraising campaign, which continues today.

They were dealt another major blow when Classical's founding board member Ivar Siem passed away July 18. A mentor to Classical's artistic director John Johnston, Siem was a guiding light in elevating that nascent company into the award-winning venue it is today.

In other sad news, Houston musical theater pro Grace Givens died this month. A trouper for many decades, she appeared in numerous shows at Theatre Under the Stars and Country Playhouse, and lately sang in every Paul Hope Cabaret since its inception. Her crystalline soprano, bubbly personality, and distinctive high style were a tribute to the golden age of the Great American Songbook. Her last stage appearance was in Mambo Fever at Ovations this July, singing “Besame Mucho” and “Cry Me a River.” Both were standouts, the only way she knew how to perform. The heavenly choir will be most proud to add her angelic voice.

Another sad passing is the retirement of Kenn McLaughlin, artistic director of Stages. For two decades he has led Stages on a voyage of diversity and inclusion, and obviously his compassionate journey to present theater in all its forms will continue. (See “Hall of Fame,” below.)

By now, the financial and emotional effects from COVID have dissipated, and no company has folded aftertwo years of inaction and dwindling fortunes. As a matter of fact, two startups have joined our impressive theater scene. Formed by game master deluxe Robert Andrew Roblyer (they/he/any), The Octarine Accord  bases its stories on “speculative fiction” combined with “reckless kindness.” The company premiered March 2023 at MATCH with the sci-fi triptych, Mac Roger's Honeycomb Trilogy. May the force be with him, they, and any.

The peripatetic On the Verge Theatre, the child of theater veterans Bruce Lumpkin and Ron Jones, had a fine opening season with Tied and Red Speedo splashing into town. This coming season the company moves into a permanent home at Alta Arts in Bellaire when A. R. Gurney's Far East opens in August

No matter what is thrown at it, theater survives. Even when the Greek city states were invaded by the
empire of Xerxes the Great, its theater thrived with comedies and tragedies that would lay the foundation of everything that came after. Plague, fire, death, flood – remember Harvey? – come and go, but theater remains, stronger than ever. Resilient.

Below are our Houston Press Houston Theater Award-winners for the 2022-23 season. Although there will not be a festive gathering in which to announce and honor you this year, we raise a toast to all winners and nominees. You have enriched us with your unfailing imagination. — D.L. Groover

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Deborah Hope as Violet and Elizabeth Marshall Black as Barbara in August: Osage County at Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.
Photo by Pin Lim
Winner: Deborah Hope as Violet Weston in August: Osage County (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.)

There are roles in theater that are touchstones. Then there are are roles in theater that are milestones. Think Euripides' Medea, Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, O'Neil's Mary Tyrone, Hellman's Regina, Albee's Martha. In more recent theater history there's a new iconic diva: Tracy Letts' Violet Weston in August: Osage County (2007).

Letts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist and Tony Award-winning actor, knows how to write for women, for he has fashioned a creature newly minted from all those most distinctive destructive harpies. Violet Weston is a gorgon, a mother from hell, an abusive wife, an addict and an alcoholic; basically a horror. This sacred monster should shout out to the gods like Lady Macbeth to “unsex me now,” but she seems so far past that. Withering away from cancer of the mouth, she drives every one of her family out of her Oklahoma home which has been hermetically sealed from the world. The windows have been taped shut and she refuses to turn on the air-conditioning in the brutal heat wave.

But there's more intense heat inside the Weston house, searing the family alive. It's Violet, peeling the skin off her husband, daughters, sister, and in-laws. No one stands a chance in her gaze that could turn you to stone. Although addled by booze and barbiturates, Violet, after revealing a horrible family secret that knifes through her daughter, purrs like a debauched putti with a cigarette dangling from her diseased lips, “Nobody slips anything by me.” She’s the ultimate survivor, and it doesn’t matter who stands in her way. Like mothers everywhere, no secrets are hidden from her. She is not the parent you want to raise you.

This is a role of a lifetime for anyone. Hope has been a stalwart of Houston theater for many years and possesses a wry way with a line reading, an ironic view of the world, and a type of graceful fun when playing. She's an outstanding comedian and always a welcomed presence whenever she's listed in the playbill. She's got quality.

But Violet Weston pushes her into the stratosphere. What a revelation. Perhaps even she didn't know what depths she possessed. Directed with a no-holds-barred approach by Ron Jones, she becomes the ultimate Violet: strung out on drugs, boozed to the hilt, and full of spite, piss and vinegar. She blisters the paint and flails alive all who fall into her vortex. Hazy, boozy, or even momentarily clear-headed, Vivian is the blazing white heat of a dying dynasty. Don't cross her or she'll slash you with a thousand cuts from her foul mouth.

Hope is magnificent in this role of roles, clomping down the stairs in a drug-induced blur, tearing apart her daughters and relatives like a sadistic medieval torturer, or holding court at the dinner table like the most despotic tsar. No one stands a chance against her wicked, laser-focused juggernaut. Hope shines like a super nova. She's never been better. She commands attention. And gets it.

Finalists: Malinda L. Beckham as Annie Wilkes in Misery (Dirt Dogs), Tamarie Cooper as Winnie in Happy Days (Catastrophic Theatre) and Raven Justine Troup as G in Sanctuary City (4th Wall Theatre Company).
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Jason E. Carmichael in rehearsal for Tied.
Photo by Christian Brown
Winner: Jason E Carmichael as Daniel in Tied (On the Verge Theatre)

It's no surprise that Jason E Carmichael would show up at our awards. He’s been here before, will most probably be here again, and he’s certainly an actor we’re excited to see on any cast list. But no matter what else he does, it’s difficult to imagine that he’ll top this emotionally devastating one-man tour de force performance as grieving father, Daniel in Crystal Rae’s Tied.

And not just any grieving father – one born out of a historic, horrific, racist, tragedy.

Carmichael’s Daniel is the father of one of the four young girls killed in the September 16, 1963, KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A crime that galvanized the Civil Rights movement and inspired the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But Daniel’s purpose isn’t to talk laws or politics. It’s the personal he’s tasked with. What his life was like before and after the murder.

With an almost biblical gravitas barely holding together his PTSD and grief, Carmichael unfurls Daniel’s story. He tells us of his youth, his marriage, his children, his joy of fatherhood, his faith, his ties to his ancestral home in Africa, his sense of community, his abiding humanity and his constant humiliation and isolation by white people.

The range of emotion required in Daniel’s story is nothing short of multitudes and Carmichael has a muscular hold on all the tools needed to surge and swirl through great arcs of emotion and gentle reminiscences. We listen, rapt, to all of it.

It’s also a master class in vocal prowess as Carmichel changes his voice and cadence to bring us a tempting twangy Satan, a consoling yet chasm-voiced judgmental God, his wife speaking in tongues and his adored chirpy little girl.

Carmichael goes through Hell as Daniel, but we're there with him, urging him onward, praying he'll find his way through the wilderness. All the while knowing he’s giving us the most astonishing and memorable performance of the year.

: Shawn Hamilton as Salter in A Number (Rec Room Arts), Francis Jue as Duch in Cambodian Rock Band (Alley Theatre), Alan Kim as Wolf in Wolf Play (Rec Room Arts) and Frank Mena as Yvan in Art (Company OnStage).

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Michelle Elaine soared as a devil incarnate in Clyde's at The Emsemble Theatre.
Photo by Aesthetic Alkhemy
Winner: Michelle Elaine as Clyde in Clyde's (The Ensemble Theatre)

Who is Clyde?

To her staff of formerly incarcerated individuals she may be the devil, maybe a dominatrix, but there’s no doubt that she is the self-appointed warden in the Pennsylvania purgatory created by Lynn Nottage in Clyde’s, a purgatory that takes the form of a roadside diner for the ex-cons Clyde employs.

A former ex-con herself, Clyde lords (and overlords) over her employees with an iron fist – its fingers tipped with perfectly manicured nails, of course – ensuring that they always know their place, which is firmly under the high heel of Clyde’s stylish boot. She bullies. She demeans. She taunts. She extinguishes every spark of hope she can.

And yet…

In the hands of a stellar Michelle Elaine, we can’t get enough of her. We both eagerly anticipate and anxiously await each appearance. Though Clyde lacks even a lick of compassion for her line cooks, to say the least, Elaine’s outrageous and hilarious portrayal of the character has Clyde falling squarely in the “love to hate” category. Each time she pops in or saunters through a scene, venomous words ready to intimidate and cut on her tongue, we are just as prepared to laugh out loud as to have the hair on the back of our necks stand on end.

Clyde could easily slip into one-note territory, as we get no definitive answers about her backstory or an eye-opening reveal of some past trauma, but Elaine adds a subtle depth and complexity to Clyde that allows her to be more than just a boogeyman about to burst into the kitchen at any moment. It’s a testament to Elaine’s skill that we are just as repelled by her, as we are intrigued and amused by her.

It’s no secret that school’s in session when Elaine is on stage, and though we would never wish Clyde on anyone, we wouldn’t mind stopping by the diner just one more time to revel in the majesty of such a master class.

Finalists: Elizabeth Marshall Black as Barbara Fordham in August: Osage County (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.), Kara Greenberg as Miss Farrow in The Best of Everything (Main Street Theater), Olivia Knight as Ash in Wolf Play (Rec Room Arts), Krystle Liggins as Letitia in Clyde’s (The Ensemble Theatre), Crystal Rae as Pumpkin in Paradise Blue (The Ensemble Theatre), Cat Thomas at Princess Plumeria in Tooth & Tail (Mildred’s Umbrella) and Raven Justine Troup as Sarah in Seascape (Alley Theatre)

Kregg Dailey as Count Almaviva, Calvin Hudson as Figaro in Marriage of Figaro at Classical Theatre Co.
Photo by Pin Lim
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Michael Leonel Sifuentes as Rafael in Clyde’s
Photo by Aesthetic Alkhemy

Kregg Dailey as Count Almaviva in Marriage of Figaro (Classical Theatre Co.) and Michael Leonel Sifuentes as Rafael in Clyde’s (The Ensemble Theatre)

Who could decide between Kregg Dailey’s or Michael Leonel Sifuentes’ singular comedic performances? One as the jealous philandering husband and the other as the sensitive, love-struck ex-convict. Endearing audiences with their indelible charisma and stage presence, they enchanted the stage whenever they appeared.

Farces are relentlessly fast paced. Actors must maintain the energy of the story without sacrificing the comedy and running over the text. Dailey as Count Almaviva excelled. Every joke landed. Any ribald facial expression or exaggerated gesture evoked notable laughter. Though his height is domineering, he gradually loomed smaller as he became pettier and more juvenile. Dailey’s adept ability to balance the polar natures of his characters is what allowed for such an exaggerated character to feel human and authentic. His straddling of the line between exaggeration and reality provided a depth to the philandering Count Almaviva that was both humorous and evocative. He committed to the absurdity of every moment without sacrificing the integrity of his character.

Like Dailey, the thrust of Sifuentes’ performance lied in his balance between his more playful and animated expressions of flirtation and dreaming in contrast to his delicately emotive sensitivity and vulnerability which he intermittently expressed with his work crush, Letitia. He encapsulated what it means to be young, curious and open to failure. The heart of the play, his performance personified the possibilities of personal transformation. The future seemed bright for Rafael despite his previous incarceration because Sifuentes imbued the character with an infectious personality that never let disappointment take root. Sifuentes’ impromptu dancing and smooth physicality were amusing and contributed to the humorous moments in the show.

Both Sifuentes and Dailey played the deeper notes of their characters. They conveyed the grave interiorities of their characters without forgetting that they were in comedies. How they managed to leave audiences amused and fully engaged was a testament to their commitment in their roles.

Finalists: Kyle Clark as Bobby Reyburn in Coyote on a Fence (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.), Zachery Fine in Seascape (Alley Theatre), Philip B. Kershaw as Bernard /Michael Black in A Number (Rec Room Arts), Manning Mpinduzi-Mott as Sheldon in Trouble in Mind (Main Street Theater), Christopher Salazar in Sherlock Holmes and The Case of the Jersey Lily (Alley Theatre), Curtis Von as Corn in Paradise Blue (The Ensemble Theatre) Wesley Whitson as Jason in Clyde’s (The Ensemble Theatre).

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Kim Tobin-Lehl and Christian Tannous in 4th Wall Theatre Company’s production of Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside.
Photo by Gabriella Nissen
Winner: Christian Tannous as Christopher Dunn in The Sound Inside (4th Wall Theatre Co.)

Christopher Dunn is an enigmatic character.

He is a freshman at Yale, but an oddball amongst his classmates. He doesn’t email, detests social media and hipsters, and has an unnatural affinity for Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He can be boorish, arrogant, and prone to outbursts.

And played by a revelatory Christian Tannous, we find ourselves as helplessly intrigued by him as Kim Tobin-Lehl’s Bella Baird in Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside. Tannous plays Christopher with an unapologetic swagger and undeniable loneliness. He emanates an air of danger, gifting the character with an unsettling ambiguity that instead of pushing us away, only makes us want to get closer.

It’s also no small feat holding your own opposite an always adroit Tobin-Lehl either, which he does with remarkable ease in Rapp’s demanding two-hander. You can’t take your eyes (or ears) off of the pair’s serve-and-volley rapport, the level of tension they maintain enough to leave you breathless. Tannous proves to be such a powerful presence within the play that you can feel Christopher haunting every scene, including the ones where he’s not even on stage.

In this role, Tannous beautifully embodies the Dostoevsky epigraph that Christopher Dunn applies to his novella: “We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word is spoken.”

Finalists: Danny Hayes as Charles in The School for Scandal (Classical Theatre Company), Alan Kim as Wolf in Wolf Play (Rec Room Arts), Sarah Sachi as Glory in Thunder Knocking on the Door (Stages), Cat Thomas as Princess Plumeria in Tooth & Tail (Mildred’s Umbrella) and Kaleb Womack as Jaguar, Jr. in Thunder Knocking on the Door (Stages)

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Deme Demore's stylings, as seen here on Krystle Liggins and Michelle Elaine demonstrate what a good wig change can do for a person.
Photo by Aesthetic Alkhemy

Winner: Deme Demore for Clyde’s (The Ensemble Theatre)

If the hair on a character’s head could set the mood for a scene, it would be Deme Demore's hair stylings and wigs seen in Clyde’s. Whether Clyde entered with a magenta auburn pixie cut wig or a mid-length black piece with bangs, whatever she had on top of her head conveyed all that you needed to know about how she was feeling in that moment.

The variety highlighted the capriciousness of the main character. The hair and wigs were well styled, fit appropriately and were expressive for all the characters’ personalities. Each hairstyle complemented the actors’ costumes which highlighted a symbiotic relationship between costumes and hair.

Demore demonstrated a clear degree of technical craftmanship as the wigs were clearly maintained and appropriately managed. Each time Clyde came on stage with a new hairstyle implied an invitation for transformation — whether Clyde accepted it or not.

Not only did Demore excel at using hair to contribute to the underlying story of the production, but she, also, added an unexpected layer of excitement to the viewing experience. Will Clyde enter with a red pixie cut à la Rihanna during her Loud era or maybe a mid-length curly bob à la Whitney Houston in The Preacher’s Wife?

Who knew hair could keep us on the edge of our seats?

Finalist: Kitty Contour for The Legend of Georgia McBride (Stages)

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You could believe they were giant lizards.
Photo by Lynn Lane
Winner: Nicole Wee for Seascape (Alley Theatre)

It couldn't have been any more lizardy. Audience members had to sit in awe, both of costume designer Nicole Wee's rendering of reptile costumes and of the ability of the actors — Zachary Fine (Leslie) and Raven Justine Troup (Sarah) — to both get into those outfits and proceed to wriggle around on the beach in them.

Not as splashy (sorry) but oh-so-appropriate beachcomber clothes adorned the older couple Charlie and Nancy played by Philip Goodwin and Franchelle Stewart Dorn. She's in the brighter clothes (reflective of her desire to go around the world, to do something, anything). He is the drabber ones (not in favor of moving much of anywhere, just glad to sink into the sand.)

As a costume designer, Wee has any number of shows to her credit. She's also an educator who in 2022 was named the new Director of Playwrights Horizons Theater School, the undergraduate program at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she has been a faculty member.

Costuming in plays can range from offhand T-shirts and jeans, to weighty period clothing to in th form-fitting, shimmering and carefully patterned skin coverings. No suspension of disbelief needed here. We were all in. Those were LIZARDS!

Finalists: Andre Harrington for Paradise Blue (The Ensemble Theatre), Danielle Aldea Hodgins for Tooth and Tail (Mildred’s), Krystal Uchem for Clyde’s (The Ensemble Theatre), Paige A. Willson for The Best of Everything (Main Street) and Klara Zieglerova for Lend Me a Soprano (Alley)

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Gerardo Velasquez and Sophia Marcelle in Put Your House In Order at Rec Room Arts.
Photo by Samuel Herrera
Winner: Stefan Azizi for Put Your House in Order, A Number and Wolf Play (Rec Room Arts

Stefan Azizi's designs are continually some of the best in Houston. His ability to turn the smaller-than-small Rec Room Arts stage into something unexpected and magical is part of the thrill of seeing a show in this space.

To say he outdid himself this year would be an understatement. However not because of what he did per se, but what he didn't do. Namely, overcomplicate things. These winning designs go from simple but elegant rustic unease to a simple well-lit frame to a total deconstruction of what a set design can be.

Each one vastly different from the other but all of them surprising, setting a perfect tone and filling us, once again, with appreciation for his talent.

For Put Your House in Order, Ike Holter’s rom/com horror/apocalypse play, Aziz turned out a perfect suburban but in no way fancy front porch/yard that looks like its best days were maybe five minutes ago. Nothing about it is welcoming, not even the somewhat grimy rocking chair on the verandah or the dirt-covered windows. Even the plants look like they could use some weeding and the wooden fences surely won’t last too much longer.

It felt sinister without showing off why. Perfectly fitting for an end of days story.

For A Number, Carol Churchill's play about the perils of cloning, Azizi gave us reason to gasp – an open stage with seating on two sides greeted us. As did an almost bare stage squared in with a darkly handsome framing of wood a mirror and lighting.

It didn’t take long to get the metaphor – the mirrors, the ability to “see through” the play, to witness it from skewed angles – all an homage to the questions about cloning’s authenticity and attempts at replicating perfection or perhaps perfecting perfection. Subtle and brilliant design.

Then came the purposeful design chaos of Lily Allen’s Wolf play, a story about an adopted then abandoned then adopted once again six-year-old Korean boy. As the story is told from the boy’s perspective, the design here mirrors the discombobulation and angst the boy feels being tossed around from one home to another.
Here Azizi does away with a formal stage completely opting instead for a set design that has walls and the barest of furniture set pieces (that are also used as storage) strewn all about the floor of the small space in front of the audience. The chaos feels both expansive and strangling at the same time.

The one grounding design that Aziz allows is a center stage square platform that functions as a kitchen table, boxing ring, and witness stand. A perfect place for the action to feel weighty when need be and a smart accompaniment to the lighting design that highlights the area.

Grandiose sets are always a crowd-pleaser, but it takes real creativity to say so much with imagination and an undemonstrative hand. A trifecta win for Azizi this year.

Finalists: Danielle Aldea Hodgins for Tooth and Tail (Mildred’s Umbrella), Mark Lewis for August Osage County (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.), Torsten Louis for The Play That Goes Wrong (A.D. Players), Joyce Milford for Clyde’s (The Ensemble Theatre) and Larry Wesley for Paradise Blue (The Ensemble Theatre)

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Where the beach meets the sea and light breaks.
Photo by Lynn Lane
Winner: Izmir Ickbal for Seascape (Alley Theatre)

Maybe this was what it was like when dawn first spread across the land at the beginning of time. When creatures began their crawl out of the primordial muck and ventured out on land, adapting to their new environments along the way.

Izmir Ickbal's use of light and shade to direct our attention across the stage in Edward Albee's Seascape was masterful. It was just as important where the light didn't fall, so at first for many of us, the lizards' arrival on land was more of a sneak attack.

The blinding beach sands, the backdrop of red and other colors, all combined to make us feel all the more intensely Albee's fable. And at the end, as the lizards rise on two legs and decide to stay on land rather than return to the sea, the lights dramatically turn them into silhouettes — searing a last and telling image onto our eyes.

Finalists: John Baker for Misery (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.) Roma Flowers for They Do Not Move (The Catastrophic Theatre), Dan Jones for Sanctuary City (4th Wall Theatre Co.), David Lander for Miss Maude (A.D. Players) and Kris Phelps for Paradise Blue (The Ensemble Theatre)

Robin (Callina Anderson) meets Wolf for the first time in Wolf Play at Rec Room Arts.
Photo by Tasha Gorel
Winner: Alan Kim/Stefan Azizi/ Afsaneh Aayani in Wolf Play (Rec Room Arts)

A record number of puppets made their way to Houston stages this season. Wolf Play’s use of a puppet with design by Stefan Azizi and puppet consultation with Afsaneh Aayani stands out as a wholly unique aesthetic choice that exemplified the themes of manipulation and control which the adoption process enables. The puppet wasn’t a stand-in for a child actor. Instead, the puppet was essential to understanding and feeling the impact of the story being told. Dressed in unassuming neutral clothes yet colorful Velcro sneakers, the puppet came alive in the hands of Alan Kim.

Kim, who puppeteered his puppet-counterpart, played the adopted child, Wolf. His playful physicality and nimble use of the puppet demonstrated the mercurial range of emotions a child ripped from their home and made to start anew could experience. Kim’s expressions matched the puppet’s movements so well that the puppet seemed like an extension of Kim’s arm. What a well-integrated performance between man and puppet.

Finalists: Afsaneh Aayani for A Moonlight Princess (City of Houston & Houston Arts Alliance), Afsaneh Aayani for Cinderella, (Main Street), Pin Lim/Afsaneh Aayani for The Oldest Boy (Main Street Theatre) and Jeffrey R Villines/Mara McGhee/Greg Cote for Tooth and Tail (Mildreds Umbrella)

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The group effort of the Clyde's cast wins Best Ensemble.
Photo by Aesthetic Alkhemy
Winner: Michelle Elaine, Timothy Eric, Krystle Liggins, Michael Leonel Sifuentes and Wesley Whitson in Clyde’s (The Ensemble Theatre)

Leave it to The Ensemble Theatre to give us the best ensemble cast this year…Sorry, not sorry; it had to be said.

The talent we encountered on stage during The Ensemble Theatre’s production of Clyde’s is nothing short of a gift to the city of Houston. Michelle Elaine’s Clyde is a powerful presence as well as a common enemy that unites her line cooks, and it’s a performance so good we’re giving it another award. But each member of the cast stands tall next to Elaine in terms of talent, and brings something special to the workplace family found in Clyde’s kitchen.

Timothy Eric’s almost serene Montrellus imbues the kitchen with a comforting, philosophizing presence and provides an inspirational, and much-needed, foil to stand in opposition to everything Clyde represents. Michael Leonel Sifuentes is so full of life as Rafael, sweetly enamored and playful. Krystle Liggins is bold and gutsy as Letitia, a single mom fearless and motivated when it comes to her love and concern for her child. And rough-edged Jason, the new guy with the racist tats, played by Wesley Whitson, weaves his way into the group while coming to terms with his past. Montrellus, Letitia, Rafael and Jason each show off their comedic chops in various ways, and each get a moment to break our hearts, which they do with grace and poignancy.

It’s not hard to see that our core four are people that are ultimately good, but seem to have been born with a bull’s eye on their back. Luckily, the kitchen proves to be transformative space for the characters, as they blossom and bloom in the hands of the talented cast. As they grow, individually and together, and their relationships strengthen before our eyes, we want so much for Montrellus, Letitia, Rafael and Jason. We find ourselves just as hungry as they are – not for the perfect, god-tier sandwich – but for everything it represents to them.

Finalists: Tracy Ahern, Callina Anderson, John Dunn, Dain Geist, Kara Greenberg, Deborah Hope, Seán Patrick Judge, Laura Kaldis, Spencer Plachy and Joel Sandel in Almost Maine (Mighty Acorn Productions), Elizabeth Marshall Black, Brian Broome, Justin Morgan Brown, Elissa Cuellar, Katrina Ellsworth, Jeff Featherston, Bill Giffen, Brad Goertz, Deborah Hope, Melissa J. Marek, John Raley, Elizabeth Byrd hipsey and Elena Vazquez in August: Osage County (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.), Jason E. Carmichael, Brandon J. Morgan, Liz Rachelle, Crystal Rae and Curtis Von in Paradise Blue (The Ensemble Theatre), Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Zachary Fine, Philip Goodwin and Raven Justine Troup in Seascape (Alley Theatre) and Brittny Bush, Dwight Clark, Elissa Cuellar, Kregg Dailey, Calvin Hudson, Christopher Nicanor, David Xavier Ramirez, Rodrick Randall, Carolyn Richards, Jonathan Robinson, Lyndsay Sweeney, Benito Vasquez and Wesley Whitson in The Marriage of Figaro (Classical Theatre Company)

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Gabriel Regojo, Philip Hays, Alyssa Marek and Kevin Dean in The Play That Goes Wrong at A.D. Players
Photo by Miranda Zaebst
Winner: The Play That Goes Wrong (A.D. Players)

Mary Poppins flying over the audience at the Hobby theater was jaw-dropping. A true flight of fancy and theatrical wonder. There's not a closer like it. Clutching her open umbrella, she took off from the stage, glided smoothly across the cavernous theater, and flew up to a perch high out of sight. Breathtaking joy. But then consider a set that deconstructs as you watch the comedy The Play That Goes Wrong. It's a comedy of errors, on and off stage, impressively designed with split-second timing to get the laughs. A.D. Players got the laughs. Boy, did they ever.

In this breathless farce written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields from the English anarchic Mischief Theatre, a hapless troupe of amateur players are performing a convoluted Agatha Christie-type murder mystery, The Murder at Haversham Manor. There is no plot. What we watch is an actual performance of Murder by this group of incompetents. No, that's way too charitable. They are not actors, but a mismatched stew of egotists, puffed-up starlets, absolute boobs, and stoned stagehands.

Under whiplash timing, conducted like Toscanini by director Jayme McGhan, and a cast full of wonderful hams with deadpan seriousness, this comic satire left you breathless in guffaws. When the actress got knocked unconscious by a flung-opened door – one of many such punches – she was replaced without any thought by the closest backstage tech. The show must go on, you know. Doors wouldn't open or fell off their hinges, the grandfather clock remained at 6:30 p.m. although everyone says it's midnight, the raging snowstorm was a pitiful handful of confetti thrown as the window drapes were pulled open, and Winston, the trained dog, had run away so the pitiful actor had to growl for him, pretending the mutt was at the end of the leash.

This was low-brow comedy of the highest caliber with spit takes, unfailing flubbed lines, stage directions that went awry in spectacular fashion, and paintings that inappropriately fell off the wall or props that were misplaced and confused with others. The physical comedy was exceptional, the very essence of this type of silly panto.

But when the handsome manor set decomposed before our eyes, although it started its wayward decay right from the beginning of the play with the mantelpiece that would not stay put, you understood these pros at A.D. Players were at the top of their game. Designer Thorsten Lewis devised a Rube Goldberg geegaw world that fell apart while we watched – a breakaway, collapsing house with a life of its own that knocked us senseless. In a wonderful coup de theatre at the end of the play, the second floor study collapsed onto the stage while actor Gabriel Regojo held on to a wobbly table to prevent him from comically tumbling onto the stage. As a finale, the back wall of the set fell upstage in a cloud of dust. This was silent film comedy slapstick of the highest order.

Special effects aren't limited to CGI projections or fog machines. In old Hollywood, special effects were mechanical, live-action, on-the-set re-creations of reality. The wizards might have used “miniatures” for train wrecks, sea battles, Dorothy's tornado, or the destruction of Tokyo, but those miniatures were anything but miniature. The spinning muslin funnel in the Wizard of Oz was as high as the MGM sound stage. A.D. Players' mechanical effects were just as impressive.

The A.D. Players' stagehands must be lauded for the facility and Broadway quality of theatrical prestidigitation they performed behind the scenes: Hannah E. Smith, Michael Mullins, Malcolm Nichols, Chad Arrington, and anyone else we've failed to mention who made this whirligig spin so effortlessly. They are stars, too.

This is the heart of farce. It's a wondrously silly mix of humiliation, pricking the prig, tweaking the nose, and a little seltzer down the pants. There's no social redemption, no deep meaning, no intellectual pursuit, except to get a laugh. Smith and his troupe of zanies (Scott Cote, Peyton Krim, Brandon J. Ellis, Angela Grovey, Ned Noyes, Jamie Ann Romero, Yaegel T. Welch) leave us in stitches, whether we want to or not. What else can we do in the face of such meticulously plotted inanity? Go, laugh.

Finalist: Mary Poppins (Theatre Under the Stars)  with set design by Timothy R. Mackabee, with Flying by ZFX
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Zachary Fine as Leslie and Raven Justine Troup as Sarah in Alley Theatre's production of Edward Albee's Seascape.
Photo by Lynn Lane
Best Troupers
Zachary Fine and Raven Justine Troup in Seascape (Alley Theatre)

Body language and facial expressions are crucially employed by the best actors. Words alone don't always convey character and fine tuning gestures and movements are essential to strong performances,

Now imagine these actors are required to do all this while encased in a lizard costume? Talk about hard work — slithering about the floor all the while trailing a long heavy reptilian tale in their wake, sometimes cradling that tail in their arms.

Actors Raven Justine Troup and Zachary Fine did Edward Albee's classic Seascape proud for this Alley Theatre production.  It's not often that someone gets to portray a cold-blooded vertebrate who begin by being afraid of these squooshy white creatures they encounter, then are amused by them and finally begin to see there may be something these humans have to offer them.

Troup describes herself as a part-time cosplayer. For his part, Fine, on faculty at NYU, has taught clown school calling on magic and imagination. Prior experiences that came in handy for their roles as lizards. Brava and bravo to the pair of them.

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Timothy Eric and Wesley Whitson in Clyde's.
Photo by Aesthetic Alkhemy
Winner: Shirley Jo Finney for Clyde’s (The Ensemble Theatre)

Let’s face it: Having a good script is only half the battle when it comes to staging a successful production. With Clyde’s, we know we have a good script. In fact, it’s the most produced play of the last season, written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright tied for first in the most produced playwright category. That would be Lynn Nottage.

The other half of the battle is waged by a production’s director and we can assure you, director Shirley Jo Finney not only won the battle, she claimed victory in the war, too. In Joyce Milford’s cramped, gritty kitchen set, Finney showed finesse and dexterity, drawing out every intricacy of Nottage’s writing for every character, balancing each aspect of the superb script in all its sweet, salty, sour, savory and bitter tones.

Deeply perceptive with a profound understanding of the source material, Finney led a mostly female design team and a ridiculously talented cast in creating a beautifully paced and perfectly timed laugh-out-loud, uplifting show. So much so that when the curtain came down on the production, we could hardly believe it was real. But it was, and we can only hope we don’t have to wait long to see a Finney-directed show again.

Finalists: James Black for A Number (Rec Room Arts), Ron Jones for August: Osage County (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.), Bruce Lumpkin for Tied: A One-Man Play (On the Verge Theatre), Eileen J. Morris for Paradise Blue (The Ensemble Theatre) and Nathan Winkelstein for Seascape (Alley Theatre)

Finalists: James Black for A Number (Rec Room Arts), Ron Jones for August: Osage County (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.), Bruce Lumpkin for Tied: A One-Man Play (On the Verge Theatre), Eileen J. Morris for Paradise Blue (The Ensemble Theatre) and Nathan Winkelstein for Seascape (Alley Theatre)

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Ben Fankhauser in The Secret of My Success at Theatre Under the Stars.
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Winner: Dan Knechtges for The Secret of My Success (Theatre Under the Stars)

When Dan Knechtges was hired to be artistic director at Theatre Under the Stars, Houston's musical community dialed up to 11. What an inspired choice. A Tony Award nominee for his perpetual mobile dances for Zanadu and the original choreographer of the original off-Broadway production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Knechtges has klieg lights in his eyes and razzle-dazzle for days. He knows his way around a musical, for sure, and his work is always first-rate. During his tenure at TUTS, his choices for each season have been aimed at his audience with laser focus, and when he directs, his taste is impeccable.

Even when working with less than perfect material as in The Secret of My Success, he elevates the show with class and C.B. DeMille's eagle eye toward detail. You won't see a false step anywhere. Which is why Knechtges receives our award. He opens up the Michael J. Fox movie upon which this show is adapted and propels the throw-away movie onto the Great White Way with glee and gusto. Everything moves as if on casters, including the dance numbers that are fast and furious and funny. Nothing is quite so satisfying as watching a pro at work and knowing he's having as much fun as the audience.

Through coincidences only true in romantic comedies, the schlub on the rise impersonates a missing executive, and the new suit works wonders for his advancement. Naturally, complications ensue, but he nimbly sidesteps each one under Knechtges' equally nimble footwork that has the entire company dancing in tune. Even a static scene on the Brooklyn ferry moves with a river's ebb and flow under Jeffrey D. Kmiac's impressionistic set piece and the seafront lighting from Ryan O'Gara. When our leading couple blend into “A Ferry Ride,” one of Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler's tuneful ballads, the show doesn't stall, it keeps moving through the duet's quiet emotion.

Well-paced and using natural movement for the dances so that they work in character, Knechtges gives more than he's asked for. He high-steps when necessary and soft-shoes when appropriate. The balance, like any fine dancer, is a wonder to behold.

Finalists: Aisha Ussery for A Motown Christmas (The Ensemble Theatre), Eboni Bell Darcy for Thunder Knocking on the Door (Stages), Jessica Hartman for Mary Poppins (Theatre Under the Stars), Carrie-Anne Ingrouille for Six (Broadway at the Hobby), and Stanton Welch and Harrison Guy for Plumshuga: The Rise of Lauren Anderson (Stages).

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Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch and Yaegel T. Welch as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird at Broadway at the Hobby.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Winner: To Kill a Mockingbird (Broadway at the Hobby Center)

To build and expand upon a classic work of literature like Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird is no easy feat; in fact, we’d bet most folks wouldn’t even try. But that’s exactly what Aaron Sorkin set out to do with his 2018 adaptation of the English lit class standard and, as we found out thanks to Broadway at the Hobby Center, that’s exactly what he did.

Sorkin’s success probably shouldn’t come as a surprise; after all, Sorkin is an Oscar and Emmy winner. But while we fully expected the clever dialogue, we didn’t expect for Sorkin to so seamlessly layer new relevance to the old classic, drawing out further complexity and building a greater depth to familiar characters like Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson and Calpurnia – all while honoring the spirt of Lee’s novel.

Nimbly directed by Bartlett Sher and featuring an agile set from Miriam Buether – who along with Jennifer Tipton and Ann Roth brilliantly evoke the South – we glad this production came to town. Especially so when it boasted strong performances from Richard Thomas (Atticus Finch), Yaegel T. Welch (Tom Robinson), Melanie Moore (Scout) and Jacqueline Williams (Calpurnia) too.

Finalists: Hadestown (Broadway at the Hobby Center), Moulin Rouge! The Musical (Broadway at the Hobby Center) and Pretty Woman: The Musical (Broadway at the Hobby Center)

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Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Nancy and Philip Goodwin as Charlie in Seascape.
Photo by Lynn Lane
Winner: Sharath Patel for Seascape (Alley Theatre)

We hear the gulls flying overhead. Crashing waves can be heard offstage, just over the dunes. The modern day intrudes with the sound of airplanes flying overhead.  We see none of this but we are as certain all are there just as we can see the sandy beach in front of us.

Sharath Patel creates a rich sonic atmosphere for Seascape, a tale set in modern times or is it the beginning of time as a vacationing older couple pick at each other in all too recognizable fashion. They're tired of each other, enlisting themselves in the same tired arguments until their world is upended by the arrival of two fairly good-sized lizards, who as it turns out, talk.

While the two-act is whimsical and poignant, the sounds throughout are grounded and well known. Audience members don't have to imagine being on the beach, it's all right there in the sounds that access their memory banks.

Never overwhelming, keyed to the moment, the sound work by Patel is one of the joys of this fable told by Edward Albee as played out on the Alley Theatre stage.  Would that all sound design was that accomplished, that right. 

Finalists: Andrew Archer for They Do Not Move (The Catastrophic Theatre), Mikhail Fiksel and Megumi Katayama for Cambodian Rock Band (Alley), Andrew Harper for Ain't Misbehavin' (TUTS), Jon Harvey for Misery (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.) and Robert Leslie Meek for Sanctuary City (4th Wall).

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Rotem Nachmany in Scrambled at Mildred's Umbrella.
Photo by Avi Goleran
Winner: Scrambled (Mildred’s Umbrella)

Let's be honest, we don't get that many visiting shows in Houston, so when we do, it's exciting. A chance to see work from another part of the country or even from another country altogether. An opportunity to see what other creators are presently working on.

It’s even more exciting when that visiting work turns out to be utterly unique and curiously entertaining while also teaching us about an experience most of us know so little about.

That was the case with Israeli writer/performer Rotem Nachmany’s Scrambled, presented by Mildred’s Umbrella, a multi-disciplinary show about one woman’s struggle to conceive.

A blink and you’ll miss the run production meant that not nearly enough people got the chance to see this one-woman genre-defying show. Was it a play? A performance piece? A spoken word modern dance mash-up? A gymnastic floor routine? A lesson in how difficult fertility treatments are? Funny and tragic?

Yes, to all of it and more. Most of it wonderfully quirky. It's not often a woman doing a handstand in a toilet can be so profound, after all.

A big thank you Mildred's for bringing Scrambled to our city. A big thank you to Nachmany for coming here to perform her work. And a big plea to other companies to consider bringing in work for us to see if they are able. Exposure of this kind is good for us as audience members and for other creatives in the city.

Invite them in, we’ll happily come to watch.

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Jason Carmichael stars in Crystal Rae's Tied.
Photo by Christian Brown
Winner: Tied by Crystal Rae (On the Verge Theatre in collaboration with The Ensemble Theatre)

The notion that writers write and actors act has long been put to rest, but just in case someone didn’t get the message, let us present Crystal Rae. An exemplary actress (a multiple Houston Theater Award winner and finalist in this year’s supporting actress category) and unquestionably one of the most thrilling playwrights we encountered this season, new play or otherwise.

Her play, Tied, tackles what it's like to be a loving Black father in the aftermath of a horrible, historical, racist, murderous attack. Using the framing of a one-man monologue, Rae gives us Daniel, the father of one of the four young girls killed in the September 16, 1963, KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

While the horrific event hangs mournfully over the play, it's not the bombing or the ensuing Civil Rights laws that Rae focuses on, choosing the personal over the politics and the happy times with the sad. With that, she lets Daniel do all the talking. And boy can he talk.

Rae gifts Daniel with a master storyteller's gift for weaving the tale of his life, before and after the tragic murder of his daughter. It's ultra-intelligent writing that's emotionally diverse, revelatory, poetic, stuffed with meaning and so full of astute ideas and lines you want to pinch yourself from the excitement of witnessing it.

If we started listing all the wonderous phrasing and notions, we’d have to include most of the play. Everything ties back to something in this show resulting in a far greater meaning than these terrific bits of dialogue already have on their own.

Finally, Tied is so obviously written by a playwright who loves/respects acting. This is a no-false-note script meant for a tour de force performance, allowing the right actor to shine. Which Jason E Carmichael certainly does in the production as evidenced by his award this year.

Tied got its premiere production in Houston this season and we hope that Rae’s superb work can now work its magic on stages far and wide.

Finalists: A Maroon’s Guide to Time and Space by Candice D’Meza (The Catastrophic Theatre), Miss Maude by Martin Casella (A.D. Players), They Do Not Move by Brian Jucha (The Catastrophic Theatre) and Tooth and Tail by Elizabeth A.M. Keel (Mildred’s Umbrella).

Winner: Mary Poppins (Theatre Under the Stars)

Is there a more family-friendly, magical musical comedy that delights young and, especially, older audiences than Disney's supercalifragilisticexpialidocious triumph, Mary Poppins? Uncle Walt's last film that he personally supervised was the company's greatest success. Following the stage versions of Beauty and the Beast (co-created with our own Theatre Under the Stars) and The Lion King, the mega-corporation was convinced that profitable shows could be crafted out of their beloved film catalog.

Wisely, the producers tapped the unconventional British choreographer Matthew Bourne to co-direct with Richard Eyre. Bourne had previously created the sensation of contemporary ballet, Swan Lake (1995), with its male corps of swans and a same-sex love plot. His unconventional productions, Cinderella and The Car Man, cemented the deal, as Disney realized that something other than a literal translation of the movie would work better on Broadway. And anyway, you can't recreate animated dancing penguins or romping carousel horses, so Bourne's fertile imagination was sorely needed. He worked his magic as if scattering pixie dust.

Adapted by Julian Fellowes (before his ultimate success Downton Abbey), the stage Mary Poppins, while not especially faithful to the movie, morphed into an exceedingly crafty Broadway musical. The movie's astonishing make-believe has been brought down to earth with lots of highly animated dancing and singing, which is live theater's best special effect anyway.

As with many Disney screen-to-stage adaptations, new songs have been added, and you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between the catchy original Sherman Brothers tunes and those penned by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Part English panto, music hall, and pearly king and queen, the music is essential to this musical's endearing quality. It dazzles with inventiveness and ingenuity, perfect for this story of this most magical nanny. The fit is flawless, and the up-tempo “Anything Can Happen” is as good as anything from the film.

This Theatre Under the Stars original production buffed up the sparkle and shine on this musical bauble, which had been to Houston at least twice before. But playing during the holiday season was a delightful present. Using a raft of Broadway talent, numerous local theater vets, and sprightly new choreography and costumes, this old gal radiated showbiz allure and pure unadulterated entertainment. If you and your little ones never had the magical pleasure of her company, this was the production to see.

Look closely and spot a musical Houston Who's Who: Paul Hope, Susan Koozin (all “Treacle and Brimstone” as sadistic Miss Andrew, then warm and nostalgic as the Bird Woman (“Feed the Birds”), Holland Vavra, Raven Justine Troup, Austin Colburn, Aisha Ussery, Miles Marmolejo, Labraska Washington, Sophia Clarke, and those two adorable tykes Daniel Karash and Abbilyse Caudle, Karash a student at TUTS Education and Caudle a student at Tribble School for the Performing Arts, as Michael and Jane. Youngsters Karash and Caudle have a credit list as long as your arm.

And what a charmer Mary became under the purity and creaminess of Olivia Hernandez. She was wonderful as Laurie in TUTS' Oklahoma (2018), and her wonder continued undiminished as Miss Poppins. No nonsense, playful, crisp and starchy, and using that incredible crystalline soprano, she was energetic and bright as a six-pence. Who wouldn't want her as a nanny?

She was matched by pro song-and-dance man Matt Loehr as Bert, chimney sweep extraordinaire. He almost cartwheeled across the stage in the exuberant “Step in Time,” surrounded by a chorus line of grimy dancers twirling and stomping their brushes over the London rooftops. Choreographer Jessica Hartman supplied her own type of magic in the many dance numbers, like “Jolly Holiday,” set in a park with its dancing statue, or the exuberant “Supercalafragilisticexpealidocious,” a spelling bee the likes of which you've never seen. Julie Kramer's direction was storybook, swift and smooth.

Timothy R. Mackabee's set design paid homage to faded lithographs of yore, while Colleen Grady's colorfully extravagant costumes displayed an industrial-sized pallet of Necco wafers. Candy-striped, with plaids on plaids, or fitted out with Edwardian bustles, they were their own show, and they were fabulous.

But what's a Mary Poppins without flying? ZFX supplied the magic with eye-popping wonder. During “Let's Go Fly a Kite,” Mary alights by kite, and her final exit is the showstopper from heaven. Perfect...just like the show. Thank you TUTS and company.

Finalists: Chicago (TUTS), Dream (Stages), Hadestown (Broadway at the Hobby), Six (Broadway at the Hobby), Thunder Knocking on the Door (Stages), and A Motown Christmas (The Ensemble Theatre).

Winner: Clyde’s (The Ensemble Theatre)

Who knew what we needed most this year was to spend about 90 minutes in a little truck-stop kitchen somewhere in Pennsylvania? Lucky for us, Clyde’s by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage was on the menu over at The Ensemble Theatre.

The story is set in that kitchen, somewhere near Reading, Pennsylvania, and the four cooks who staff the kitchen were all formerly imprisoned for various crimes. Though technically out, they find themselves continuing to do time under the volatile Clyde, their dragon boss lady who lets them know every chance she gets that she’s the only game in town willing to hire them, that they certainly don’t deserve better, and that she can get them sent right back to the big house if they cross her.

There are real world problems in Clyde’s; Nottage doesn’t shy away them. Incarceration, drug addiction, poverty, and exploitation to name a few. But Nottage doesn’t shy away from joy and hope either. Harsh reality is tempered by resilience, buoyed by the beauty of dreams, the power of camaraderie, and the grace found within second chances.

Clyde’s is also damn funny.

There may be a lot of room to debate what constitutes the perfect sandwich, but there’s no debate about the perfection of the production, helmed by director Shirley Jo Finney. It’s fully absorbing, tight, and features a cast sharp like well-aged cheddar.

Timothy Eric, Krystle Liggins, Michael Leonel Sifuentes and Wesley Whitson embrace their characters’ hopes and dreams, strengths and flaws, as well as complement each other like peanut butter and jelly. Each was a fully realized reminder that a person’s humanity may be hidden under a rap sheet and obscured by circumstance, but it’s no less present. Each actor brought such heart to their role that it was easy to fantasize right along with them about the perfect sandwich – spicy aioli, roasted garlic, sweet pickles, multigrain breads, etc. – and everything it represented to each.

And then there’s the wickedly larger-than-life Clyde, played by Michelle Elaine in what was one of the most memorable performances of the season, a performance that got a worthy assist from Krystal Uchem’s costumes and Deme Demore's hair and makeup looks.

Put it all together and it was impossible to resist the siren’s call of Clyde’s this season. With insightful social commentary, compelling characters, an amazing ensemble and a marvelous director – dare we say the best – we're left with only one question: Can we get seconds?

Finalists: August: Osage County (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.), Cambodian Rock Band (Alley Theatre), Paradise Blue (The Ensemble Theatre), Sanctuary City (4th Wall Theatre Co.), Seascape (Alley Theatre) and Wolf Play (Rec Room Arts)
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Kenn McLaughlin has had a historic career in Houston theater at Stages.
Photo by Stages
Kenn McLaughlin (Stages)

We were sad to learn that Stages' long-time Artistic Director, Kenn McLaughlin, will be retiring in June 2024, but mostly we’re grateful for everything he’s accomplished with the company and meant to the theater community at large in Houston.

Twenty-five seasons with one company and 18 as a director is no small tenure. In that time, McLaughlin oversaw 100 productions, many of them world and American premieres and directed over 30 shows. In January 2020, McLaughlin ushered in Stages' new home. The Gordy, a $35 million, three-stage complex which immediately became an important stamp on the city's theatrical landscape.

However, it’s his community vision we’ll most remember. From launching Sin Muros: A Latinx Theater Festival to producing local playwrights' work to ensuring that Stages was inclusive and diverse in the stories they tell and in the people who work behind the scenes, McLaughlin was always looking to make Stages a place where everyone felt seen, heard and reflected.

“We sit together in the dark to know how to love each other in the light.” These are the words you see when you first walk into The Gordy. It is in large part thanks to McLaughlin that this beautiful sentiment rings true in all that Stages does.

We look forward to having one more season with him at the helm and we’re excited for whatever passions drive him to happiness in his journey beyond the theater.

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Paradise Blue was directed by The Ensemble Theatre's Artistic Director, Eileen Morris.
Photo by Aesthetic Alkhemy

Winner: Eileen Morris for The Ensemble Theatre

Eileen Morris is a treasure in Houston – this is a universally agreed-upon fact.

As the Artistic Director of one of the largest African American theaters in the world, Morris has spent decades working to ensure that The Ensemble Theatre showcases contemporary and classical works devoted to the portrayal of the African American experience by local and national playwrights. The work she oversees may be specific, but everyone is welcome.

This alone would be reason enough to give Morris the award for Artistic Director, but this year, we're giving it to her for the specific artistic choices she made– namely the programming of some challenging, ambitious, thrilling shows.

Reading through our awards this year, there’s no question we were crazy about Ensemble’s production of both Clyde’s and Paradise Blue (directed by Morris). Although wildly different — one about the hope of redemption through belief and self-worth and the other about the struggle of black ownership in the face of gentrification – both succeeded in making us think, laugh and marvel at the levels to which Ensemble could rise with excellent material.

Morris also asked her audiences to engage with the difficult issue of gun violence with Brother Toad, which explores whether we need guns to keep ourselves safe. Certainly, a timely and important subject to include this season.

The season ended with a coup for Morris, the World Premiere of Angelica Cheri’s Phenomenal Woman, a musical about the life and works of Maya Angelou. An ambitious work about a figure so revered is no small endeavor and we've no doubt Morris was key in ensuring this show got its time in Houston as part of its rolling world premiere with North Carolina Black Repertory Theatre in Winston Salem, North Carolina and the Hattiloo Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee.

Ensemble Theatre impressed this year, which means that Morris impressed us. If possible, more than we were already impressed by her.

Finalists: Malinda L. Beckham for Dirt Dog Theatre Co., Dan Knechtges for Theatre Under the Stars.

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Trevor B. Cone and Malinda L. Beckham in Misery at Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.
Photo by Gary Griffin
The first of Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy, Paradise Blue, was part of an outstanding season at The Ensemble Theatre.
Photo by Aesthetic Alkhemy
Winners: The Ensemble Theatre and Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.

We debated this award for quite a while — give it to the company that stretched itself artistically and had two bravura productions plus the most joyous Christmas show of the season or the company that chose familiar works but turned-out killer productions for two of them and one that got our kudos.

In the end, we decided to give it to them both.

For their 7th season, Dirt Dogs went genre dichotomous.

Their first show, Bruce Graham’s Coyote on a Fence asks if there is redemption for incarcerated people who commit heinous and violent crimes. The artistic team’s passion for this story was palpable and most notable was Director Malinda Beckham’s understanding of the dignity of all human beings. No short order.
But it was their following two productions that really got us excited.

Misery, written by William Goldman and based on the book by Stephen King, is a silly, violent campy thriller that Dirt Dogs elevated beyond nostalgia or kidnap porn into an entertaining joy to watch.

There’s the superb acting by Trevor B. Cone and Malinda L. Beckham as the wounded romance novelist patient and his number one fan turned kidnapper/torturer. Accompanying them was a design team working at the top of their game, most notably John Baker’s moody lighting and Jon Harvey’s evocative sound design.

Without question, however, it was the company's final show that sealed this nomination.

August Osage County (Tracey Letts) is a terrific epic tale of family dysfunction. It’s also a show that’s been done excellently here in Houston in years past. So, if you’re going to produce it, you better do it justice, and boy did Dirt Dogs deliver.

The exemplary large cast, led by the ferociousness of Deborah Hope (our Best Actress winner this year) blaze, bombast and booze throughout Lett’s tale of recrimination, remembrance, and retribution. Nothing good will come to this family, we know. But thanks to the perfectly calibrated combustion lit by this production, we sit edge of our seats for three hours not wanting the mayhem to end.

On the other end of the genre spectrum, Ensemble delivered the holiday season's best entertainment with A Motown Christmas. Minimal story be damned, this show gave us a joyous, rafter-raising, rousing revue with the best singing and dance moves imaginable. It imbues the very essence of why we celebrate this special season.

Transporting us to 1949 and a fictitious jazz club facing the perils of a gentrifying neighborhood, Ensemble Theatre’s Paradise Blue (Dominique Morisseau) was a gorgeously designed production, featuring one of the season’s best ensemble performances. Not a big surprise given the stacked cast list, many of whom are present or past Houston Theater award winners/nominees.

Like a finely attuned jazz band, this shows dips and weaves with musical precision under Eileen Morris’ direction, allowing showcase moments for each immense talent in the cast. Everything is on the brink; we feel the creep. We also can't help but feel the excitement of witnessing a production of this caliber.

Is it enough praise to say the Ensemble’s production of Clyde’s (Lynn Nottage) was as good, if not better than the show's recent premiere on Broadway? How about just lauding this production for its own merits, as we do this year with our Best Play nod.

Another stupendous set/lighting/costume design effort from Ensemble and once again an embarrassment of riches ensemble cast working at the top of their game. As delicious as the sandwiches made on the truck-stop diner kitchen set, this show about redemption and self-worth is mouth-watering no matter what direction you look.

Finalists: 4th Wall Theatre Company, Rec Room Arts, Theatre Under the Stars
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Contributor Ada Alozie was a former contributor for Rescripted, an online Chicago arts blog, for two years before moving to Houston and joining the Houston Press team. The majority of her experience in theater comes from her previous work experience as both playwright and director. She has developed work with the Goodman Theatre and Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. She is, also, a member of the Dramatists Guild.
D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover
Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing
Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman