NWTheatre Awards: Best-Loved Shows of 2022
All around the Sound, theatre and dance companies treated viewers to a lot of great performances in 2022, far more than could ever land on a single list. Here’s what stuck with NWTheatre’s editor as the most powerful, most memorable, most spectacular of the year.
These “best of”-style lists always feel indulgent, because few things are more subjective than art, and what does the “best” art mean, anyway? At the same time, daring, memorable work deserves to be recognized. And our region had some real standouts.
Depending on what you count and how, I saw around 140 shows in 2022, a triumphant return to the show-going world but still a bit lower than some pre-pandemic times. Comprising those visits: 60 plays and plays with music, three readings, 38 musicals and revues, 26 dance shows, and 13 in the cabaret-variety-uncharacterizable realm, plus a variety of (uncounted) concerts, stand-up comedy, author talks, and more. Of those, I saw five shows twice (for varying reasons, including choosing to see an understudy lead, comparing a sensory friendly performance, or wanting a friend to see), and one show thrice. In theatre and dance, I saw 48 local companies, three local multi-company festivals, and 25 touring shows. Those were performed at 51 different venues, in 16 Western Washington cities (from Port Townsend to Marysville to North Bend to Olympia).
As I hope you’ve gleaned from browsing NWTheatre already, variety is valued here. Small companies are as apt to produce memorable work as big stages. Sometimes, much comes down to how well the mood of the show jives with the mood of the audience, all of which is subjective and varies night to night. Rest assured, you’ll hate some picks on this list, love some others, and probably didn’t see most of them, but will still wonder why your favorite show didn’t make the cut. Which is why you should make your own list.
Oh, and one more thing that will ruffle some feathers: From “Shows of the Year” contention, I exclude touring shows, which get their own later category anyway, and the holiday season, when traditions and annual rehashes tend to dominate the slate.
With that in mind and without further ado, here’s my best-loved stuff this year.
Shows of the Year
Red Curtain Foundation for the Arts: She Kills Monsters
Valley Center Stage: Tiny Beautiful Things
Valley Center Stage: The Tempest
Dacha Theatre Company: Dice – Romeo and Juliet
Behold the mighty theatre magic of the small, scrappy stage. All four of these picked up stories I’ve seen before and reinvented them, getting to the heart and soul of the thing (in the case of the first three) or creating a whole new vibe entirely (the fourth).
There are no conventional heroes in the compilation of stories that make up reluctant columnist Cheryl Strayed’s orbit, under the greeting Dear Sugar. These writers are people in their living rooms, often alone, with writer’s block, a shitty love life, and laundry piled everywhere. They don’t want the spotlight, their meals aren’t Instagram-worthy, and their best source of advice is a faceless column writer who’s not much different than they are. These are the elements that conspire to make Tiny Beautiful Things such a sweet story of connectivity through pain. And Valley’s simple staging and compelling portrayals captured that perfectly.
The heart of She Kills Monsters, meanwhile, is a tension between realms: the confining world of a small town not ready for a particular sort of dreamer, and a boundless horizon of fantasy and escape. With some seriously impressive monsters, inventive staging, convincing portrayals, and a killer soundtrack, Marysville’s Red Curtain grabbed hold of ’90s nostalgia and showed us what it’s like when worlds collide.
I wasn’t going to go see The Tempest. I fucking hate The Tempest. But Valley had some goodwill banked from my two previous visits this year, and a well-timed invitation from the marketing manager was enough to drag me off the couch and another 32 miles out to North Bend. The tale began with a surge of lightning and an earth-shaking, wholly disorienting storm, then proceeded to reveal conflicts and facets of these characters with a depth I’ve never seen before — or in most portrayals of Shakespeare work, period.
And it’s not like Romeo and Juliet usually fares much better. If I’ve found Shakespeare eye-rolling (almost always), it surely began with this one. But not Dacha’s. In a park in Port Townsend, the water a stone’s throw away, and with a live band, comical props, and a command of the material, Dacha showed why its takes on the classics are worth paying attention: they’re a ton of fun.
She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen, directed by Scott B. Randall; see review here. Tiny Beautiful Things adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, directed by Wanda Boe; see review here. The Tempest by William Shakespeare, co-directed by Wynter Elwood, Melissa Carter, Brenden Elwood, and Mike Murdock; see review here. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, directed by Nansi Dwendi, co-presented with Key City Public Theatre.
ACT Theatre & The 5th Avenue Theatre: Choir Boy
I saw this show three times, and I could have seen it more. As the lead, Nicholas Japaul Bernard’s youthful energy, depth of sass, and solo-ready voice combined to form a complex character who’s scarred, manipulative, hopeful, and oh-so-talented. Above any others, this show crackled with electricity: in the youthful portrayals by a stellar cast; in the addictive harmonies of their wide-ranging song, from joyous to dirge; and in the continuous dance of narrative flow staged by director Jamil Jude and associate director Shermona Mitchell. By Tarell Alvin McCraney; see review here.
Pacific Northwest Ballet: The Seasons’ Canon
I saw this triple-bill twice, and I still don’t know what to say about it — not because it didn’t have plenty to say, but because it left me speechless. Crystal Pite’s stage-filling, mind-bending, illusion-inducing title work is astonishing. Pairing it with the moody, enthralling Dwight Rhoden world premiere (Catching Feelings) and a playful, stripped-down Balanchine/Tchaikovsky work (Duo Concertant), where each served to bolster the others as contrasts and complements, was a genius move.
The 5th Avenue Theatre: Beauty and the Beast
Honestly, I wasn’t excited to see this one. Disney stories usually aren’t my happy place, and I tend to skip the fairy tales anyway, but director Jay Woods and the casting announcements made it too intriguing to resist. That hunch was correct; and befitting the stellar cast, the choreography and design of Belle’s world were among the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a long time. Music directed by R.J. Tancioco, choreographed by Kathryn Van Meter, associate directed by Shermona Mitchell; music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, book by Linda Woolverton, adapted from the 1991 Disney film based on the classic fairy tale.
Seattle Opera: Blue
This one was another pleasant surprise. The plot, of a Black family losing their son to police violence and grappling with the aftermath, sounded both depressing and all too familiar; but this telling selects mutual care, vitality, and the vigor of love as its points of focus. Blue bucks the typical narrative arc in that we know where we’re going but not how we got there, and, unlike the usual opera, this tale isn’t full of one-dimensional archetypes. Opera needs current stories to keep the form alive and interesting, and this beautiful telling sets a high bar. A West Coast premiere, written and directed by Tazewell Thompson, composed by Jeanine Tesori; see review here.
Harlequin Productions: Hedwig and the Angry Inch
The concept appealed from the start. Drawing on Olympia’s vibrant rock history, invite local bands in to warm up the crowd before headliners Hedwig and the Angry Inch take the stage and the story begins. In a decrepit ’90s club fashioned on the theatre’s stage, to a sparse and icy matinee audience, Adam Rennie and Mandy Rose Nichøls delivered an emotion-packed performance for the ages. Directed by Aaron Lamb, book by John Cameron Mitchell, music and lyrics by Stephen Trask; see review here.
Macha Theatre Works: La Tofana’s Poison Emporium
Local playwright Joy McCullough has a knack for taking another look at notable women who’ve been pathologized in the history books, if they were taught at all. The cheekily titled La Tofana’s Poison Emporium imagines the everyday life and business operations of apothecary Giulia Tofana, best known for creating a hard-to-detect concoction for poisoning abusive husbands. Was she a twisted serial murderer for enabling numerous deaths, or a saint to the women who lived because of her interventions? McCullough’s plays have found a home at Macha Theatre with director Amy Poisson, and it works: La Tofana’s is thought-provoking, “fearless female theatre.” See review here.
Showtunes: 9 to 5 – The Musical
To make what’s essentially a reading of a musical stand out, the performers really have to be on point. There’s no staging spectacle to dress it up. And stand out they did, led by the trio of Be Russell, Sarah Russell, and Naomi Morgan, and backed by a big supporting cast and orchestra. Making standout work behind music stands is something of a Showtunes specialty, and 9 to 5 is among their very best. Directed by Kelly Kitchens, music directed by Nathan Young; music and lyrics by Dolly Parton, book by Patricia Resnick, based on the 1980 film; see review here.
ACT Theatre: Sweat
The 5th Avenue Theatre: Afterwords
The one-two punch of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat at ACT and The 5th’s world premiere of the musical Afterwords, running at the same time just a couple of blocks apart, was a storytelling triumph of the year.
Sweat looked at far-reaching topics around the economy, labor relations, and power structures, told through their effects on a close-knit group of regulars at a bar long frequented by union factory workers. It’s a tough play to watch, and sometimes gut-wrenching. But the incredible cast, led by Tracy Michelle Hughes and Anne Allgood, made for an outstanding staging of a tight, well-crafted, straight-from-the-headlines story.
Meanwhile, Afterwords, a world-premiere musical, contended with some story lines that still felt unfocused. What made it remarkable was its central story and the actor-singer force that is Mari Nelson at its helm. With some echoes of the musical Fun Home, here is a family run by the unpredictability of mental illness and addiction, and their confinement with it is palpable. The claustrophobia-triggering set design and great cast combined for a powerful, memorable staging.
Sweat by Lynn Nottage, directed by John Langs. Afterwords by Emily Kaczmarek (book) and Zoe Sarnak (music and lyrics), directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, scenic design by Carey Wong. See reviews of both shows here.
What’s next? Tell people about your own favorite shows! Social media is a powerful tool for you to help theatre and dance companies, along with other artists, get the word out. Pipe up in your networks and your own pages if you want to recognize their work from 2022 or are excited about things happening in 2023.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.