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2013 Year in Review: Stage 

Will Coviello on a dramatic year for New Orleans theater

click to enlarge The Book of Mormon kicked off the return of Broadway touring shows at the Saenger Theatre.

The Book of Mormon kicked off the return of Broadway touring shows at the Saenger Theatre.

The reopening of downtown theaters was good news for local theater patrons in 2013, but it was a great year for original works across town and many companies presented shows outdoors. There were remarkable shows staged everywhere from the lavishly renovated Saenger Theatre to the barest of New Orleans Fringe Festival spaces.

  One of the biggest headline grabbers was Jim Fitzmorris' A Truckload of Ink, about changes at a major New Orleans newspaper — one not at all unlike The Times-Picayune. The NOLA Project commissioned the drama about a daily paper's newsroom struggling with drastic changes. The ensemble work featured more than a dozen reporters, editors and executives in well-orchestrated. controlled chaos.

  Many of the year's premieres focused on local subjects, and John Biguenet's impressive Mold was a refreshingly vivid and visceral return to the days of post-Hurricane Katrina grief in the final installment of his trilogy about the storm (preceded by Rising Water and Shotgun). Southern Rep presented the drama at the Contemporary Arts Center, but its 2013-2014 season is a sort of odyssey, featuring no two major shows at the same venue.

  A couple of ambitious debuts grappled with difficult formats for their enganging subjects. ArtSpot Productions and Mondo Bizarro's Cry You One was a theatrical journey along the levee in St. Bernard, and while there were many intriguing concepts and contributions to the unique piece, its execution bogged down considerably. Wayne Self's Upstairs, about the fire at the Upstairs Lounge, debuted on the 40th anniversary of the deadly French Quarter fire in a gay bar. It shed light on some of the patrons and heroes of the event, but ultimately it struggled to manage the weight of the tragedy in a musical.

  Other original works included NOLA Project Artistic Director A.J. Allegra's boisterous and fun comedy Oregon Trail, based on the computer adventure game, in which a family barely survives a 19th-century frontier quest. Cripple Creek Theater's Andrew Vaught's Possum Kingdom, staged outdoors at the Truck Farm, was an absurd allegory about swamp dwellers whose economic livelihoods are at the mercy of distant economic forces. Gabrielle Riesman's Catch the Wall explored a New Orleans charter school and the role of local music in students' lives.

  On the heels of its 2012 semifinalist finish on America's Got Talent, Lightwire Theater began work on two new shows. The holiday production Lightwire: A Very Electric Christmas, presented at the Joy Theater, mixed elements of The Nutcracker and a story about a family of birds to create a charming family show. Lightwire launches its first full-length touring show in Dallas in February.

  Spaces that locals were happy to see return included Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre and the Saenger Theatre. After nearly three years shuttered, Le Petit completed a renovation and reopened with Love, Loss, and What I Wore, followed by Lombardi and the musical Hair. The Saenger reopened with three shows by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and a two-week run of the raucous musical The Book of Mormon was a triumphant return of touring Broadway shows to the historic theater.

  Notable shows and performances included Cripple Creek's Clybourne Park at Shadowbox Theatre, Anthony Bean taking the stage at his namesake theater as Martin Luther King Jr. in The Mountaintop, and a production of Killer Joe, about a Texas family and a hitman, at the AllWays Lounge & Theatre. The NOLA Project had another successful spring in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, giving Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing a Southern drawl and a lively production.

  The New Orleans Fringe Festival continued to grow and presented many good shows by local and visiting companies. Fringiness also spread beyond the festival. The 2012 festival favorite Trash Rabbit returned to the Marigny Opera House for a second run and workshop. And Elm Theatre presented two runs of the entertaining Edinburgh Fringe Festival-premiered The Adventures of Butt Boy and Tigger.

  With the return of theatrical productions to Canal Street and the expansion of productions to small and alternative venues, theatergoers had plenty to choose from and much to look forward to as the theater community grows in every direction.

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