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Here’s the best theater to light up local stages in 2017

By Eric Marchese

Musical Theatre West gave Carpenter Center audiences a chance to see an exuberant, heartfelt staging of “In the Heights,” the hit show Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote before “Hamilton.” (Photo by Caught in the Moment Photography)

End-of-the-year “best theater” lists can be exercises in subjectivity that expose the list-maker’s pet themes, predilections or concerns. Be that as it may, all of the major genres were well represented in the best productions of 2017: the classics, contemporary drama, comedy, historical drama and musicals.

Here are the year’s Top Ten, listed alphabetically by title: The first touring production of “An American in Paris” played at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa in late April and early May. 

“An American in Paris”: At Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the touring version of the 2015 Broadway musical offered dance numbers that inventively rivaled the classic movie’s, eye-popping sets and costumes, and dazzling, imaginative projection design, graphics and high-tech visuals.

Gem of the Ocean,” August Wilson’s sobering yet bracing look at blacks in 1904 Pittsburgh, was a shining tour-de-force for South Coast Repertory. 

“Gem of the Ocean”: Shining as a beacon of humanity, August Wilson’s sobering yet bracing look at blacks in 1904 Pittsburgh was a tour-de-force for South Coast Repertory, with an utterly memorable staging and sterling performances to match. 

Musical Theatre West gave Carpenter Center audiences a chance to see an exuberant, heartfelt staging of “In the Heights,” the hit show Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote before “Hamilton.” 

“In the Heights”: Musical Theatre West infused Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first huge hit (before “Hamilton”) with exuberance and heart, deftly scaling the 2007 musical’s high aspirations.

Director Brian Newell created an original stage adaptation of the 1974 historical novel “The Killer Angels” to bring the Battle of Gettysburg to Orange County.

“The Killer Angels”: Maverick Theater delivered a stunning, intimately revealing portrait of courage under fire in its original script and staging of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, with the same levels of humanity and period accuracy as any of Shakespeare historical dramas

Jesse Johnson’s portrayal of pop and country singer-songwriter Roger Miller helped make the Laguna Playhouse world premiere “King of the Road” one of the year’s most enjoyable, and informative, dramas with live musical performance. 

“King of the Road”: The world premiere life story of pop-country singer-songwriter Roger Miller not only delivered great live music at Laguna Playhouse; it gave us fascinating, incredible details about his little-known personality – and an unvarnished look at the random nature of celebrity, wealth and talent.

Danny Sheie as Gregor, on floor, feigns death from a heart attack in a scene from “The Monster Builder,” staged at South Coast Repertory in May.

“The Monster Builder”: Fueled by epic concepts, Amy Freed’s boisterously brainy comedy was cutting and darkly funny, proving once again that the witty, brilliant playwright and South Coast Repertory are made for each other.

“Once”: South Coast Repertory’s nonpareil revival of the Tony Award-winning 2012 musical was an affecting modern-day love story-cum-fairy tale about the power of music, with an incredible cast of supremely talented singers and musicians equally adept at acting.

With its self-reflexive take on musical theater, “Something Rotten!” took Broadway by storm in 2015, its touring version at Segerstrom Center for the Arts filled with giddy comic invention. 

“Something Rotten!”: Segerstrom Center for the Arts hosted the first tour of one of the best new (2015) Broadway musicals, with giddy comedic invention fueling a top-notch book and songs – a hilariously self-reflexive take on musical theater and a wire-to-wire delight comedically, musically and theatrically.

The comical aspects of a dysfunctional British family weren’t incongruous with the subjects of hearing impairment and communication in Chance Theater’s Orange County premiere of the 2010 drama “Tribes.” 

“Tribes”: Chance Theater’s superlative Orange County premiere of Nina Raine’s 2010 play potently depicted, within the singular setting of a comically dysfunctional British family, the distinctive challenges facing those who live in the audible void of deafness.

Sizzling song-and-dance scenes and gripping performances helped La Mirada Theatre and McCoy Rigby Productions forge a definitive production of the landmark Broadway musical “West Side Story.” 

“West Side Story”: La Mirada Theatre and McCoy Rigby Productions forged a definitive production of the landmark show examining the dynamic of who is considered native or insider, who the newcomer or outsider, with sizzling song-and-dance scenes and gripping performances.

As deserving of mention are these fine 2017 productions:

“Ain’t Misbehavin’”: La Mirada-McCoy Rigby’s superb revival of the 1978 Fats Waller revue had the sass, mischief and flair of the iconic Harlem composer himself.

“End of the Rainbow”: At La Mirada Theatre, Angela Ingersoll gave an astonishingly accurate portrayal of Judy Garland, as Peter Quilter’s intelligent script showed her in the final months of her life.

“Henry IV, Part 1”: Shakespeare Orange County’s exciting outdoor staging came to full and glorious life through vivid performances and judicious editing of the text.

“Man of La Mancha”: La Mirada Theatre’s strong revival of the Tony-winning 1965 Broadway musical got a huge boost from Davis Gaines’ star turn.

“A Night with Janis Joplin”: Laguna Playhouse revived the 2013 Broadway rock ’n’ roll musical that’s part theater bio, part full-on rock concert, with a remarkable performance by Kelly McIntyre as the iconic singer.

“Our Great Tchaikovsky”: One of Hershey Felder’s most dazzling solo shows at Laguna Playhouse depicted the great Russian composer’s private life and featured some of Felder’s most sensational pianistic pyrotechnics ever.

“Parade”: Chance Theater’s intimate staging proved you don’t need huge sets or a bloated budget to deliver the hard-hitting, Tony-winning 1998 historical drama’s full impact.

“Taming of the Shrew”: New Swan Theater pitted the rebel ’70s against the conformist ’80s in a mirthful mélange of matrimonial mayhem, the perfect screwball comedy for modern times.

“The Tempest”: New Swan Theater artfully meshed reality and humor with the play’s fantasy elements, with purposely primitive visual and aural effects underscoring themes of magic and superstition.

“Twelve Angry Men”: A first-rate, expertly cast, acted and directed staging at Laguna Playhouse forged a combustible version of Reginald Rose’s timeless 1954 teleplay, a perceptive testament to the glories of the American jury system.

“White Christmas”: In reviving the 2008 Broadway musicalization of the 1954 movie, Musical Theatre West scored a bullseye, with a socko cast, masterful handling of the Irving Berlin score and sparkling period costumes.