When the nice folks at Desert Stages remounted their rip-snorting production of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret last December, it was a holiday gift to all of us who couldn't get tickets to the show's original sold-out run the summer before. The glory of this particular production is that this perennial musical is usually mauled by college theater troupes and small, earnest companies like Desert Stages -- the familiar score is best served by big voices, and Joe Masteroff's wicked translation of Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories needs a wider acting talent than is usually found among amateur thespians. Which is what made Desert Stages' superb staging all the more impressive. Songs like "Money" and "Don't Tell Mama" benefited from exactly the kind of rough talent that director/choreographers Gerry and Laurie Cullit cast here -- the very sort of talent one would have found at the Kit Kat Klub. The excellent, stripped-down staging crammed the show onto catwalks and into stairwells, transforming the troupe's smallish black box (they've since moved to bigger, tonier digs) into a seamy nightclub where musical numbers began in the flies and slithered onto a cramped, dirty stage. We're still crowing about this one, which made us want to "come to the cabaret, old chum" again and again.

With its debut in January, TheatreScape whetted our appetite for more and better community theater productions. The tiny company bowed with Lee Blessing's Eleemosynary, a story of three women -- a mother, her daughter, and her granddaughter the spelling bee champ -- for whom love and resentment are indistinguishable. Blessing's nonlinear tale is a tough one to tell; it's a stylish, witty play as challenging as a good word game. Its lighthearted narrative is crammed with sadness and loss; it asks us to root for some pretty pitiless people; its main storytelling technique is avoidance. Yet Patrick Du Laney's skillful, intuitive direction and pitch-perfect cast made sense of these complicated women and their less-than-perfect lives. And when tiny Michelle Chin, her eyes filled with tears, crossed the stage during her curtain call to retrieve the paper wings that are her character's prized possession, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

It was tiny details like this -- the wide purple wing sketched onto the set's cubist triptych; the tears welling in Lauren Bahlman's eyes when she confronted her daughter; the wonderful musical bit enacted by Barbara McGrath -- that made this Eleemosynary so gratifying. The result was a sad story told with a generosity of spirit, and an impressive debut from a troupe whose new season we look forward to.

Until recently, the Urban Styles Dance Studio at Tempe's Mill Towne Center was the place to see and be schooled in popping and locking, breaking and capoeira from the Valley's best-known b-boys and girls. Regrettably, the studio closed over the summer because of a lack of support. "Break-dancing's not a studio thing here," laments former manager Hutton Peck. "It's more underground."

To find break-dancing in Phoenix now, Peck suggests hooking up with one of the Valley's premier crews, whose members teach the skills in order to fund their own. Furious Stylez Crew, led by b-boy community leader House, holds break-dancing classes at different studios, like Destiny Dance and Plum, several nights a week -- but locations change regularly. On the west side, Footklan conducts break-dancing lessons Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at Khalid's Martial Arts studio. Call House at Furious Stylez or Derrick at Footklan for information on where the Valley's hottest crews are throwing down any given week.

Much has been said about downtown Phoenix's growing art scene, and film isn't always included in the discussion. But lots of galleries are finding the wall space for screenings, and the granddaddy of them all is No Festival Required. It's become an important presence in the past few years, morphing from an occasional showcase of independent film and video shorts to a regular monthly happening at Modified Arts. Here, both local and national filmmakers show comedy, drama, documentary and experimental works -- everything from the weird to the sublime, with no worries over commercial viability. That's quite a feat in this world of megaplexes. Even folks at the Phoenix Art Museum were impressed -- this past year, they welcomed No Festival Required into Whiteman Hall for special showings, exposing it to a whole new audience.
Letter writing is all but dead, thanks to e-mail, and we worry about the fate of Hallmark. Don't tell that to Cyndi Coon, who is on the verge of a smashing success with laboratory5, her line of greeting cards and note cards. The Phoenix artist is truly inspired; her cards are whimsical, funny and absolutely frameable. She has a way with felt and, oh, what this woman can do with rickrack. We are particularly fond of Coon's birthday cake cards, and you have to see her rendition of the tooth fairy. Dailycandy.com -- the NYC-based arbiter of all things cool -- recently anointed laboratory5.com, so get 'em now. Coon's cards are surely going fast. She might just single-handedly save the art of the letter.

They don't carry the ectoplasm-seeking nutrona wands and proton packs of Aykroyd, Murray and company, but Joe and Mikki Shelton of Arizona Trips n Tours and their ever-shifting team of investigators, aspiring parapsychologists, acceleration physicists and just plain ghost nuts are "who you gonna call" once you've heard a few too many spooky bumps in the night.

Eschewing a flashy Ectomobile in favor of a caravan of compacts and beat-up pickups, the members of Arizona Paranormal Investigations crew set out on monthly expeditions to the state's most notorious ghost towns, like Tombstone and Jerome, as well as a few not-so-obvious spots around the Valley -- one forum member is convinced the old Spaghetti Factory building on Central Avenue in Phoenix is haunted by the ghost of a little girl in the attic. The best excursions, though, are the ones the API crew must conduct undercover. Founder Gary Westerlund, who turned the organization over to the Sheltons in July, insists there's an old hotel in Glendale that's now haunted by the ghosts of dead prostitutes and johns from the days when the hotel was a wild Western brothel. Current management, however, would rather the hotel be noted in Fodor's for its air-cooled suites and kitchenettes. When the API crew shows up with its infrared cameras, low-frequency sound recording equipment and electromagnetic field detectors, the "no vacancy" sign goes up -- and true ghostbusting adventure ensues.

No one wants to go to the hospital, least of all a hospital devoted to kids. But the kind folks at Phoenix Children's Hospital have made their digs a little more bearable with a wonderful, whimsical collection of art created by local artists, often in collaboration with children.

The art turns up in unexpected places, like a pre-surgery waiting room, where we were recently greeted with a Rose Johnson print of a young girl holding a heart, just minutes before our baby went in for open-heart surgery.

Not every art encounter can be planned (or not planned -- that one was lucky) so perfectly, but we do know that a lot of hearts have been lifted by the bright work on the walls. Grown-up hospitals should take the prescription as well.

Many things come to mind when we think of The Rogue, a beloved Scottsdale dive, but "fine art" just isn't one of them. Yet the bar is home to our pick for the Valley's best mural. The painting, by local artist Joseph Oursland, embodies the bar so perfectly, you could almost mistake it for a mirror on a crowded night, 'til you notice the rock stars lurking within. In the foreground, a brooding, dark-haired young man sits surrounded by rowdy bargoers, drinking his whiskey straight, oblivious to the debauchery going on around him. Several famous rockers make cameos throughout the painting -- David Bowie snarls from one corner, Debbie Harry appears in the middle of the crowd. We're delighted that the Valley is home to a muralist like Oursland -- someone who refuses to paint cheesy Southwestern scenery on freeway walls. We raise our 50-cent PBRs in salute.

It takes a lot of character to get the same "Best Of" two years in a row. And while we still love the Paper Heart for all the same reasons we did last year -- especially its eclectic variety of free or cheap under-the-radar entertainment, like performance art, poetry slams, comedy shows and indie film screenings -- we love it for a whole new reason: its spacious, cool-looking new digs on Grand Avenue. The former used-car dealership faces the street at an angle, making a statement about the beauty of being off-kilter in this urban grid. More gallery space has made for bigger, livelier First Friday receptions, too -- or is it the addition of a bar that now serves beer and wine? Either way, this is a welcome addition to a stretch of downtown we'd like to see flourish.
We're not sure if the body parts here are any less plastic than what you'd find at the typical Scottsdale nightclub, but it's safe to say that the attitudes aren't as fake. After all, this eclectic party at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art is being thrown in the name of art, not action, and the stylish young crowd it draws is more suited to downtown Phoenix than Drinkwater Boulevard. No matter what the night's theme ("Wicked," "Tart," "Spice" -- use your imagination), there's always DJ music and live bands, a runway fashion show, plentiful art on exhibit, and, of course, cocktails. We wouldn't change a thing, except we wish this was a party they threw more often.

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