Two things distinguish my best-of list for 2015 Twin Cities theater. First, it was a good year for musicals. Second, whatever criticisms we might have leveled through the years at Joe Dowling’s work at the Guthrie, he concluded his 20-year tenure with three of his finest productions.
1. “Sweeney Todd” (Theater Latte Da): Director Peter Rothstein had talked of how this was a career dream of his. His production showed how well he understood the stakes. Mark Benninghofen, in his first musical since high school, slashed his way through the title role. Sally Wingert was spot on as the grasping Mrs. Lovett, and the entire dark production felt perfectly suited to the Ritz Theater in northeast Minneapolis.
2. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Guthrie): Dowling might have simply rewarmed his previous work (he’d done it twice previously), but he ambitiously went back and wrought a new, stylish and focused production. He got great performances, slimmed down some folderol and let Shakespeare tell his story.
3. “Glensheen” (History Theatre): When Ron Peluso announced a musical based on the infamous Congdon murders, he raised eyebrows all over town. Writer Jeffrey Hatcher and composer Chan Poling, however, pulled off a spectacular feat with a shamelessly witty script and score. Peluso staged the complexities well; a fine cast rose to the occasion, and “Glensheen” sold at 98 percent capacity, a History Theatre record.
4. “The Manchurian Candidate” (Minnesota Opera): Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell returned to the company where Puts won a Pulitzer for “Silent Night.” This score was even more sophisticated and melodic. Campbell’s conclusion didn’t quite land, but he and Puts again demonstrated that they could be an operatic force for years to come.
5. “The Crucible” (Guthrie): Dowling’s final production of Arthur Miller was bluntly muscular and ruthlessly true to the idea that a combination of hysteria and government seizure of that fear is always a concern. Stephen Yoakam made the prosecuting governor the center — no mean feat in a play normally focused on the Proctors. Yoakam’s performance underlined Dowling’s intentions.
6. “The Consolation” (Minnesota Fringe Festival): Never has a Fringe Festival show made this list, but Ari Hoptman wrote such a compelling little piece on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann that it deserves mention. Actor David Mann, under Jean Wolff’s direction, portrayed the Nazi war criminal as a bland functionary who was just doing his job. It was the best show in the festival.
7. “My Children, My Africa” (Park Square Theatre): James A. Williams and Jamil Jude directed this old Athol Fugard play about the tension between old-school caution and youthful rebellion in apartheid-era South Africa. Warren Bowles, in particular, was terribly affecting as the schoolteacher who preaches not only education but also a hope that takes spark in his prize student. Dense with conversation and ideas, a long sit, but very worthwhile.
8. “Dancing at Lughnasa” (Yellow Tree Theatre): This play made the year-end list when Torch produced it in 2010, and Yellow Tree’s warmly credible staging allowed the beauty of Brian Friel’s autobiographical masterwork to blossom again. Jon Cranney directed a strong cast with standouts Jessica Lind Peterson, Melanie Wehrmacher, Patrick O’Brien and Michael Lee.
9. “Sister Act” (Chanhassen Dinner Theatre): This production was a textbook example of how heart and commitment can elevate a so-so musical. Regina Marie Williams, Norah Long and Britta Ollmann stood out in Michael Brindisi’s staging. Sometimes you fall in love with strong, genuine performances, and this was the case.
10. “Juno and the Paycock” (Guthrie): Dowling completes the trifecta with a show near and dear to him. In his final show for the Guthrie, he commanded big performances from his cast in a story about dissolution, disappointment and disaffection in revolutionary Ireland. Stephen Brennan and Anita Reeves played the title roles with robust honesty, and Mark Benninghofen was meticulously mannered as Joxer Daly.