15 Outstanding Philly Arts Moments in 2015

Ticket arts writers weigh in on what they think are the most important local arts moments of 2015. 

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Lisette Oropesa’s in Opera Philly’s “Traviata”

Brava, Diva!

It’s been a banner year generally for Opera Philadelphia, but Lisette Oropesa’s Violetta in Traviata (her first performance of the role) was special. The beautiful young soprano met every vocal demand — fiendishly difficult as they may have been – and acted it superbly. Opera lovers around the world pay attention to debuting Violettas – the great ones are so rare. Here in Philly, we found one. —David Fox

Philadelphia Film Society Saves the Prince

The gorgeous Prince Theater seemed to be in quite a bit of limbo: The resident production company had vacated a number of years ago, and their presentations were random at best. With PFS purchasing the building, the theater has becoming a bustling hub not only for movies (it’s now the only mainstream movie theater in Center City) but performing arts, and their Razz Room is hosting some of the hottest NYC cabaret acts around. —Bryan Buttler

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Obie-Winning Actress Nilaja Sun on the Dangers of “Restricting the Arts Flow”

Sun in "No Child."

Sun in “No Child.”

“Oh, honey, you got an actor out of bed before noon!”

Nilaja Sun and I both chuckle pretty loudly.

“You were an actor too, weren’t you?” she asks.

I was sort of stunned. I told her I was for about three years right after high school.

“Oh, I could tell,” she says. “That prolonged laugh and that voice of yours gave that away!”

That’s how we start our 9 am phone conversation about Sun’s work as a teaching artist and actress. Sun has a host of television credits to her name, everything from The Good Wife to Nurse Jackie to Madam Secretary, but in the theatre world, she’s best known for her award-winning solo show No Child, which took New York by storm in 2006. In some ways, that work—about a teaching artist in a Bronx school—is reflective of Sun’s own passion for helping others unlock their inner stories. She’s been teaching since 1997, when, to use her words, she was a “wee little thing.” Read more »

CAPA Drops Musical After Complaints of Racism

Mrs. Meers, the controversial character, as seen in the 1967 movie version of "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Mrs. Meers, the controversial character, as seen in the 1967 movie version of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” | Universal Pictures

The Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts has dropped a planned staging of the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie after students complained about racist portrayals of Asians in the play.

Two students — Jasmine Luca and Tai Joselyn — described the controversy in a Tuesday essay for The Notebook, saying the play should be re-named Thoroughly Racist Millie.

Millie depends on disturbing stereotypes toward Asians,” the duo wrote. “The lead character, Mrs. Meers, appears in yellow face and is directed to speak in a fake Chinese accent. But since Mrs. Meers is not Asian, what do you think happens when someone mimics a Chinese accent to almost a completely non-Chinese audience? Just look at any of the YouTube videos of this character purposefully mangling Chinese.” Read more »

Two Plays to See in NYC Over New Year’s

If you’re ringing in the New Year in New York, why not add some theater to your celebrations? Two comedies — one gay, one transgender — might be just the ticket. Both can be found off-Broadway, within a block of each other on 42nd Street, and both are in charmingly intimate venues that will make you feel almost part of the action. Best of all, they’re superbly performed, and will leave you with a smile (and, in the case of Hir, a lot to think about!).

Steve

Malcolm Gets, Jerry Dixon, Mario Cantone and Matt McGrath in "Steve" | Photo by Monique Carboni

Malcolm Gets, Jerry Dixon, Mario Cantone and Matt McGrath in “Steve” | Photo by Monique Carboni

Mark Gerrard’s play – a mostly humorous study of how quickly the comfortable lives of middle-aged adults can be disrupted – works hard to please the audience, and it does. The show is laced with funny one-liners, brightly paced by director Cynthia Nixon, and expertly performed by six fine comic actors, especially Matt McGrath and Mario Cantone. Ultimately, I found its affluent world too insular, but there’s plenty of humor and pathos. If you go, by all means get there early. There’s a captivating preshow concert of musical theater songs, lustily delivered by the cast. And make sure you stay for the deliciously sly curtain call, a mini-show in itself – it’s beguiling from start to finish, and you’ll want to sing along. (Full review here.)

Through January 3rd, New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, thenewgroup.org.

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Review: The Three Maries at Prince Theater is Steeped in Philadelphia Charm

Deirdre Finnegan, Franklin Anthony, Mary Martello and Josh Totora in 'The Three Maries'

Deirdre Finnegan, Franklin Anthony, Mary Martello and Josh Totora in ‘The Three Maries’ | Photo by Christoper Sapienza, Wiseman Productions

What a sense of nostalgia I felt, entering the Prince Theater for the first time in years! I haven’t been in the main auditorium since the days when it was our leading venue for developing musical theater.

So I was especially joyful to be there to see a new musical: The Three Maries, by Michael Ogborn. At this point, the show looks like a work in progress – but even now, its tuneful, good-natured, boosterish Philadelphia charm is pretty irresistible.

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Interview: Hamilton Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler

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I couldn’t have an interview with Andy Blankenbuehler without asking about Hamilton, the mega Broadway musical which he choreographed that has equivocally become a cultural phenomenon. Sure, I was chatting with him about his new production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat —which is coming to Philly at the end of December — but his creative juice behind both productions is quite similar.

“It’s hard to talk about it because it is so big,” he says of Hamilton. “The process mirrored my life. My daughter was going through chemo while I was working on the show, so we were literally fighting for life, which is what the show is about. It’s a rite of passage. It tested everything that created my emotional life for the last 45 years, and it is all the things I’ve ever wanted to do.” Read more »

My 30 Minutes With Tom Stoppard

I go into my interview with Oscar and Tony-winning British playwright Tom Stoppard with a laundry list of questions, but I quickly forget all about them once I sit down across from  him. He’s in town for a Q&A with world-renowned cognitive scientist David Chalmers at Wilma Theater — a venue that has become something of Stoppard’s East Coast home — about his newest work, The Hard Problem, which opens soon at the Wilma. 

“Are you going to stick around for this, this thing tonight?” he asks.

“Yes. I’m pretty excited about it.”

“You’re excited about it?” he responds sarcastically. “Well, that makes one of us. Honestly, I’m a little nervous about the entire thing. I’ve never met any of the other panelists. ‘In Conversation’ it’s called? Well, I’m hoping everyone else does the talking.”

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Review: Pig Iron Theatre Restages Gentlemen Volunteers, and It’s Fantastic

TK and TK in Pig Iron Theatre's "Gentlemen Volunteers."

Bryant Martin and Scott Sheppard in Pig Iron Theatre’s “Gentlemen Volunteers.” | Photo by Lindsay Browning Photography

Who says you can’t go home again?

Pig Iron Theatre is now 20 years old. In that time, the locally based company has moved from home-team status (they established a cult in Philadelphia almost instantly) to national and international prominence. They’ve done many shows, experimenting with a variety of styles, forms and configurations. Some of their work involves adaptation; other pieces are entirely original. They’ve worked with conventional theater configurations – a seated audience watching the action on stage – while at other times, that relationship is up-ended. (Gentlemen Volunteers is performed in promenade – the audience physically moves with the action.)

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Review: Hedda Gabler at Physick House

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Cast of Laurel Tree Theatre’s ‘Hedda Gabler’ | Photo by Kyle Cassidy

Scholars of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler will continue to debate why the protagonist (that’s Hedda, of course) is so profoundly unhappy. But there’s no doubt she’s miserable, pacing like a caged animal in the elegant home she claims she wanted.

I’ve never seen that sense of containment more vividly depicted than in Laurel Tree’s production, rather daringly performed not in a theater, but in Society Hill’s Physick House. The home could almost have been built for Hedda (the character and the play) – despite its grandeur, we quickly understand how limited her days must seem.

There are, of course, drawbacks to staging a play in a house. Sight lines aren’t optimal; there’s no theatrical lighting, which so often helps establish mood. In fact, the audience is as brightly lit as the “stage.”  And, candidly, it’s not the most comfortable seating.

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