In Review: Favorite Theater Experiences of 2011

Though it's been a wild, wonderful year of theatergoing, and the very best shows were better than ever, I found it unusually easy to narrow the best down to fewer than 20. For what that's worth.

Also, let's acknowledge that we're talking about live, ephemeral art here. Unfortunately, if you missed any of these productions while they were running, you can't use our glowing reviews to guide you to enjoy them now.

I hope you got to see some fabulous stuff that I'm sorry to have missed. And that you'll spread the word when you come across a gem in the months to come -- word of mouth is the best, srsly, and our artists need it.

10. The Borrowers
Childsplay's faithful but innovative version of the classic children's books was anchored by a super cast, especially longtime co-stars Jon Gentry and Debra K. Stevens as heroine Arrietty's tiny little parents.

9. Ten Chimneys
Exceptional production values across the board transported Arizona Theatre Company audiences to a rarefied atmosphere of creativity, dignity, and love. This partial imagining of the lives and careers of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, a couple of the last of the old school of bona fide stage stars, was as fascinating for the outsider as it was for the rabid fan.

8. This
Actors Theatre presented this deceptively superficial urban drama, with tasty direction from Stray Cat Theatre's Ron May, that turned out to be about what it takes for us to go on -- and how amazing it can be that we do.

7. Head: The Musical
It was a big year for young actor Eric Boudreau, and playing the grotesque Frankenstein-style monster in this adorable locally grown musical version of the dreadful old horror film The Brain That Wouldn't Die was a big step on his journey. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast just about shook Soul Invictus to the ground with their joy and energy.

6. The Unhappiness Plays
Space 55 scored big-time coolness points for Phoenix when they premièred Greg Kotis' group of short plays here and then took them to the New York International Fringe Festival, but the watchability came from Bob Fisher's direction of the spittingly funny vignettes.

5. Matt & Ben
Class 6 Theatre gave us the Arizona première of this humorous alternative history that was oddly plausible, largely due to Kristina Rogers' and Mallory Adams' committed performances as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck on the verge of fame.

4. Munched
Kim Porter was amazing, starring in her own fascinating script that is as gripping as a well-executed cheesy crime drama and as funny and true as real life.

3. Billy Elliot
Not every huge new hit musical that tours to Gammage Auditorium is a winner, but this Elton John-scored expansion of the film is empowering, moving, and breathtaking -- it should, as the saying goes, have legs.

2. Lyle the Crocodile
All I wanted for Christmas was Lyle. Thank you, Childsplay.

1. Mr. Marmalade
If you went to a mysterious, creepy carnival when you were high, and the sideshow freaks took you on the Tilt-a-Whirl and you all made out while getting spun around and nauseated, and you had nothing but beautiful memories of the whole experience, it would be like this play at now-defunct Venue 104. Here's hoping none of the people involved stops doing theater.

Honorable mentions: Three very different productions that were all super-good as well were Porter's short In the Wake of the Bounty at PHX:fringe Festival, Space 55's long-awaited, gritty, disturbing The Bakers of Lakewood, and Broadway Palm's solid mounting of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

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