From small, taut dramas to big, happy musicals, the favorites ranged across the board as theater critics picked favorites from 2011.
PICKS FROM GRAYDON ROYCE
Year-end lists always draw fire for the shows you didn't choose -- and for the ones you did. So, after sifting through more than 100 shows from 2011, here are 10 that rise to the top. They are not necessarily the "best," but they are memorable for very particular reasons:
1. "Doubt," Ten Thousand Things
I take it back. This was the best. Perfect acting, directing, shading, everything. Nice going, director Peter Rothstein and actors Kris Nelson, Sally Wingert, Regina Marie Williams and Jane Froiland.
2. "Man of La Mancha," Ten Thousand Things
This makes the list for Steve Epp's indelible portrait as the title character. It's rare when a performance takes on such dimension that you see an old show as completely new.
3. "Little Shop of Horrors," Mu Performing Arts
Heart, charm and humor wrapped up in a dopey musical about a human-eating plant. This show demonstrated how far Mu has come. Jennifer Weir directed and actors Randy Reyes, Sara Ochs and Kurt Kwan led the cast.
4. "Hairspray," Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
Michael Brindisi's production of this campy musical was pitch-perfect. Chanhassen is best when really talented performers get a chance to sing and dance. They got it here. Absolute fun.
5. "God of Carnage," Guthrie Theater
Yasmina Reza's small comic drama peeled away politesse and revealed the lurking brute who lives in our souls. A fine cast; sharp, attentive direction by John Miller-Stephany.
6. "After Miss Julie," Gremlin Theatre
The verisimilitude of staging this play in the servants' kitchen at the James J. Hill house made for crackling intensity. Peter Christian Hansen and Anna Sundberg played cat and mouse while Amanda Whisner poignantly suffered. A rare night in the theater.
7. "Waiting for Godot," Theatre Pro Rata
This was also a small production that benefited from being in the right place. The Hollywood Theater was dusty and hot as Hades on the night the play opened. Looking back, that's just the right aura for this wasteland drama, and director Ryan Ripley used the space wisely.
8. "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," Theater Latté Da
Sweet performances from several young actors and sterling comic work by Tod Petersen and Kim Kivens made Peter Rothstein's production a delight.
9. "The Gospel According to Jerry," Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
Ryan Lindberg and Greta Oglesby enriched a modest story about a rabbi and gospel singer who meet at Overeaters Anonymous and come to appreciate each other's faith. By no means a perfect script, but full of humanity.
10. "Shirley Valentine," Jungle Theater
I can still see Cheryl Willis' worn-out face and sad eyes as she relates the dreariness of her Liverpool housewifery. Willis and director Bain Boehlke got all the details right.
PICKS FROM ROHAN PRESTON
From dark dramas to musical comedies, new works to classics, there was much to celebrate on Twin Cities stages in 2011.
1. "In the Red and Brown Water," a Pillsbury House Theatre and Mount Curve Company production at the Guthrie Theater
The Minnesota debut of Tarell Alvin McCraney's imaginative and magisterial drama about a love-longing track star's thwarted dream justified the hype the playwright's work has received nationally. Director Marion McClinton's exquisite production had lyrical performances by an all-honors cast made up of Ansa Akyea, Nathan Barlow, Aimee K. Bryant, John Catron, Christiana Clark, Celeste Jones, Gavin Lawrence, Greta Oglesby, Sonja Parks and James A. Williams.
2. "The Edge of Our Bodies," Guthrie
Star Ali Rose Dachis was understated and pitch-perfect in Adam Rapp's poetic coming-of-age one-act. She and Steve Sweere made Ben McGovern's tautly wrought staging compelling.
3. "Ajax in Iraq," Frank Theatre
The image of actor Katie Guentzel's face contorted as if pulled by G-forces during a sex assault scene is indelible, thanks to director Wendy Knox's up-close-and-personal staging of Ellen McLaughlin's update of the Greek tragedy about betrayal by a military superior.
4. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," a Penumbra Theatre production at the Guthrie
Director Lou Bellamy tapped a stellar cast that included James T. Alfred as rooster-like Levee and Jevetta Steele as the title diva to make this August Wilson revival sing.
5. "God of Carnage," Guthrie
Fine actors Tracey Maloney, Chris Carlson, Jennifer Blagen and Bill McCallum brought Yasmina Reza's biting comedy to cutting life in John Miller-Stephany's production.
6. "Annie," Children's Theatre
Director Peter Rothstein arrested our imaginations with his Broadway-caliber "Annie," with Lee Mark Nelson as Daddy Warbucks and Megan Fisher as the sweet red-headed orphan.
7. "H.M.S. Pinafore," Guthrie
Director Joe Dowling's and choreographer David Bolger's lavishly entertaining staging of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic was a guilty pleasure, with notable performances by Robert O. Berdahl as the captain and Christina Baldwin as a saucily delightful Buttercup.
8. "Street Scene," Girl Friday Productions
Actors Kirby Bennett, Bob Malos and Anna Sundberg stood out in director Craig Johnson's palpable staging of Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a neighborhood of immigrants.
9. "Les Misérables," Orpheum Theatre
Cameron Mackintosh's retooled "Les Miz" boasted a strong company led by J. Mark McVey as a top-flight Jean Valjean.
10. "I Wish You Love," Penumbra
Actor Dennis Spears totally inhabited Nat King Cole in Dominic Taylor's new tuner about the pioneering entertainer and TV host.