Some bright moments from the Bradenton-area arts season

May 18, 2014 

If you're the kind of person who sets his internal clock according to performing arts seasons, you feel like this is the end of the year. The seasons are winding down -- they've already ended for some companies -- and you start to think back on what you saw and what you missed, what you loved and what you didn't.

The season that's just ending was my first full one in Bradenton. I'd been writing about theater in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area for about 30 years before. I probably made it down to shows in the Bradenton-Sarasota area (mostly Sarasota) two or three times a year on average. So I had a passing familiarity with the scene here.

In my inaugural year here, I found at least one huge surprise.

I had cringed a little when I heard that Manatee Players would stage "Miss Saigon" as its first show in the new Manatee Performing Arts Center in March 2013, and would start its 2014-15 season with "Les Miserables." They're difficult shows to do in all sorts of ways, and I just didn't see how a community theater, even an excellent one, could pull them off.

"Miss Saigon" turned out to be stunning. "Les Miz" was even better.

Those two shows set a tough standard for the Manatee Players that they haven't quite equaled since. Not that they've missed the mark too often in their Stone Hall musicals. But there's no way "Grease" will ever be as effective as a great staging of "Les Miz." (Manatee Players came closest with a lively staging of "Peter Pan" that featured some impressive flying effects.)

When a friend asked me the other night what the best play I had seen this season in Sarasota was, I thought a while and then picked "School for Lies" from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training. It was a hilarious production of David Ives' reworking of "The Misanthrope" that's written entirely in verse. A tough play to perform, but performed impeccably by the student cast, with gorgeous design work.

Asolo Repertory Theatre's work is almost always reliable. Its production of "Show Boat" last November was both gritty and ethereal, highlighted by a chilling rendition of "Ol' Man River" by Michael James Leslie.

Some of my favorite

shows of the past season were smaller ones at Florida Studio Theatre, especially the unexpectedly effective romance "Daddy Long Legs" and the very funny current show, Mark Brown's pared-down adaptation of Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones."

Everything I was able to catch at Sarasota Opera was an absolute delight, especially its beautiful and hilarious staging of "Die Fledermaus."

I missed much more than I wanted to, thanks in large part to having to watch Bradenton's Sam Woolf "American Idol" two nights each week for several months.

I missed Asolo Rep's "The Grapes of Wrath," which I hear (from a friend who's very tough to please) was wonderful.

There were many other memorable moments, including Banyan Theater's "Painting Churches" and the Florida State Thespians Festival, which was packed with thrilling performances and productions from high school students.

But I'll remember the season most for finally offering me the chance to see "The Book of Mormon" at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, a show so close to musical theater perfection that I'm already literally counting the days (229, in case you're wondering) until I can see it again in January.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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