Best Of 2023

In the two decades since American Stage began presenting springtime shows at Demens Landing Park, musicals have been the genre of choice, mostly on the lighter side like “Mamma Mia!” and “Footloose.” This year the company took a chance with “Ragtime,” a sweeping musical panorama of early 20th century history that comments powerfully on issues of race and class, requiring the largest Park cast yet. And go figure: Thanks to strong acting and expert direction by Erica Sutherlin, it was a big hit—and refreshing proof that outdoors doesn’t always have to mean lightweight.
The Dalí’s new 360-degree, immersive attraction is a new way for the museum to tell the story of the famed surrealist, and while the 40-minute, 39-foot-tall experience is a feast for the eyes, it’s also a special treat for the ears of tea chasers. While certainly not intentional, the dome’s design lets you hear even the faintest whispers of those standing next to you during the show. Dalí’s life, influences and secrets come to life at 360, but you might want to keep your secrets to yourself while being blown away by this show.
Not that she ever went away. The intrepid Jen Ring was posting updates from her hospital bed last year just days after a double lung transplant, an operation that ushered in a new chapter for a young journalist whose constant companion had been her trusty oxygen tank. Not long after her 77-day hospital stay she was out and about again, covering the arts for Creative Loafing Tampa Bay with stories like her recent survey of Tampa Bay murals. You can also find her wry, perceptive voice in Creative Pinellas’ Arts Coast Magazine and in her own JenRingWrites blog.
Not so long ago the Times had writers with individual beats in theater, museums and galleries, and classical music. Now one reporter, Maggie Duffy, covers all that, plus she writes about restaurants. We could sigh for the good ol’ days (where there were writers on the movie and media beats as well), but we can also thank Maggie, who deservedly won the St. Pete Arts Alliance’s MUSE award earlier this year for doing such a good job covering the region’s arts scene.
How does he do it? Senior writer and editor at the must-read online newsletter St. Pete Catalyst, veteran journalist Bill DeYoung has carved out a niche as the most prolific and reliable source of arts news in Tampa Bay. He writes about what’s happening and who’s who on a near-daily basis, interviewing, forecasting, reporting, podcasting—and has proven to be invaluable to an arts scene that needs and deserves the attention he provides.
Arts coverage across the Bay area, even at Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, has taken a hit, but one person who’s still joyfully driving A&E news is JoEllen Schilke, host of “Art In Your Ear,” which airs every Friday on community radio station WMNF Tampa 88.5-FM. Week in and week out, Schilke brings in movers and shakers from every corner of the local arts scene and invites them to talk about not just what they’ve been up to, but what’s troubling them, too. And when other Bay area newsrooms can’t step up (like during this recent calamity in Hillsborough County where some commissioners can’t seem to understand the function of arts funding), Schilke invites members of the WMNF news team to break down what’s happening. If CL could turn the show into a print page, our paper would be better for it. @AiYEWMNF on Facebook
Most performers are drawn to the stage as kids when a teacher or relative sees some talent and they realize that it’s fun to be the center of attention and get applause. As they grow older and understand the discipline required to excel and the ridiculous odds to make a living, sane folks quit. Those still compelled to continue often take a long time to realize that great performances should amaze by seeming effortless. Think Fred Astaire, who rehearsed till he dropped to make it appear simple. Actors want to emote and it’s all too easy to “chew the scenery.” Annie in “Misery” (remember Kathy Bates) is such a trap. But Summer Bohnencamp doesn’t take the bait; she never allows her character’s psychopathic emotions to outstrip her technique. She’s perfectly calibrated for the intimate Shimberg Playhouse and chills your soul.
In the hands of freeFall’s breathtaking five-member ensemble portraying 40-plus characters, the collision of cerebral murder mystery and delicious farce made “Baskerville” a must see. The excitement here drew the audience in with scenic fragments, lightning fast costume changes, a staggering array of spot-on accents, and—wink, wink—actors running offstage and re-emerging seconds later with a different hat, posture, prop, mustache, hunchback or ridiculous fake beard held on with visible elastic. Half the uproarious fun was that the audience was in on the joke. With so many choices and few stylistic restraints, they rose to the occasion with riveting results. All told, it was a complete triumph from concept to execution on par with freeFall’s best. Simply elementary, dear reader. Elementary. 
This gallery is usually limited to Florida artists, but curators Elizabeth Brincklow and Mary Childs put out a national call and invited artists from New York, California and Massachusetts to join Florida craft makers in wood, fiber, ceramics, metal and glass. The question: can a special alchemy be created through integrating the arc of reaction between the maker, the medium and the audience? With artists of international stature, carefully curated, the show eschewed clichés and created a visual conversation across the gallery space. It confirmed that the best art demands that we stretch.,
What’s better for an actor than a juicy role? How about three—two of which are clones of the first? Actor Anthony Gervais met this challenge beautifully in Off-Central Players’ production of Caryl Churchill’s chilling drama “A Number,” making such specific choices in physicality and attitude that we always knew which clone was which—especially the scarily amoral “original” who was abandoned by his father (subtly portrayed by Ward Smith).