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To get an idea of just how good Bay Area theater was in 2007, consider that the first three picks here will likely end up on my lifetime Top 10 list; or that 2007's best-of list could easily have included at least 10 more entries.
This was also a good year for new works -- Bay Area audiences, particularly those consisting of middle-school-aged girls, were the first to fall in love with the musical version of "Legally Blonde," which launched here, then became a hit on Broadway. San Francisco's Magic Theatre launched a number of shows, including "Rust," "Pleasure and Pain" and "The Crowd You're In With."
It was also a season of new and exciting looks at older works, with American Conservatory Theater's presentation of "Sweeney Todd," Berkeley Rep's production of "Oliver Twist," and the Willows Theatre's innovative take on "Cats."
The Top 10
1. "Man and Superman," California Shakespeare Theater -- A three-hour production of a century-old work is risky, even if the playwright is George Bernard Shaw. That's particularly so when it is performed outdoors on often-chilly summer nights in the Orinda hills. But the gamble paid off big for Jonathan Moscone and his Shakespeare Theater. The production, which included the often-omitted "Don Juan in Hell" portion, was a flawless masterpiece of theater.
2. "Argonautika," Berkeley Repertory Theatre -- This piece of very contemporary theater gives an exciting new look at the old myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Thewildly innovative play offered a breathtaking blend of technical theater with sharp writing and memorable acting to be one of the season's best.
3. "Sweeney Todd," American Conservatory Theater -- The minimal retelling of Stephen Sondheim's astonishing musical about a revenge-seeking barber who slashes the throats of his customers so they can be made into meat pies offered a fresh and exciting look at the musical. It played in San Francisco at the start of its national tour.
4. "Defiance," Playhouse West -- The words from that old Buffalo Springfield song, "Nobody's right if everybody's wrong," echo through your mind during this short, troubling play about social and political ills bubbling just below the surface at a military training camp. The disturbing show unfolded in Playhouse West's tiny Walnut Creek theater and was an excellent reminder why this intimate theater company must stay alive.
5. "Oliver Twist," Berkeley Repertory Theatre -- The classic Dickens story of the plight of an orphan boy in 19th century London became a horrifying vaudeville show from the 1800s in this memorable retelling of the Oliver Twist story.
6. "Death of a Salesman," A Traveling Jewish Theatre -- Arthur Miller's signature play about the American Dream got a clear-eyed new look from the San Francisco theater group, which sought to explore the story's Jewish roots and hit the stage with a sparkling revival.
7. "Mousetrap" Center Repertory Company -- This Agatha Christie mystery, which has been playing London since Queen Elizabeth was young, is the play everyone knows, but nobody's seen. It got a rousing, attractive and wonderfully wrought production from Center Rep, who signed on an all-star cast to join in the whodunit fun.
8. "Cats," Willows Theatre Company -- This is not a play that normally makes Top 10 lists, but the Willows Theatre version is the exception. The production moves the cat tale from a junkyard to a schoolhouse to become a tribute to a teacher cat, and a show that makes much more sense and is considerably more entertaining then the overstuffed Broadway tabby. It plays through Dec. 30.
9. "Driving Miss Daisy," CTA Crossroads Theatre -- This is a touching tale of an older Southern Jewish woman and her relationship with her black driver. It was a wildly entertaining story, simply presented by the small Walnut Creek theater company by a hugely talented cast.
10. "Sex," Aurora Theatre Company -- Mae West wasn't just another come-hither face. The '20s prototype sex-bomb was also a playwright and an expert at highlighting and exploiting her particular charms. She wrote this show in 1923, the vice squad closed it on Broadway, and Berkeley's Aurora Theatre revived it hilariously.
These are the shows that were, for one reason or another, disappointments -- they weren't necessarily bad or poorly done, just presentations that didn't quite work.
1. "My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish, & I'm in Therapy" -- This was a nice, gently funny show that played as if it had been written in the late '50s or early '60s. It was well done, but just didn't deliver the anticipated laughs.
2. "Moscow Cat Circus" -- Cats, onstage, doing tricks. There, that's everything you need to know about this. Now, find something better to do with the rest of the 90 minutes of your life.
3. "Romeo and Julian," Butterfield 8 Theatre Company -- This bold, gender-bending retelling of the Shakespeare play was a gutsy experiment, particularly for a suburban company, but it just needed a bit more work on adapting the script.
4. "Blackbird" -- This ACT show came with a hard-edged reputation, as it candidly explored the aftermath of a man's relationship with an under-age girl. It did, but the intimate story got lost in the enormous American Conservatory Theater.
5. "Expedition 6" -- This production at the Magic Theatre, about astronauts in danger of losing their lives in outer space as the Iraq war unfolds on Earth, had some promise, including actors dangling like puppets above the stage to simulate weightlessness. But the show opened too soon, and might have worked with some tinkering and editing.