It's hard to think back on the most memorable theatrical productions of 2012 without considering the timing.
In the midst of a heated election, certain plays and musicals seemed to amplify or comment on the many issues that divided the country. They stand out in memory not just because of the acting or the direction, but because they made us think a bit more about who we are and what we stand for.
No producer plans a season with the aim of editorializing. Alienating half of a theater's donor base wouldn't be good for the box office.
But good art makes a statement regardless.
As both presidential candidates touted their bona fides to represent the "common man," theaters gave viewers many different glimpses of that mythical creature.
In his play "Good People" at Circuit Playhouse, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire asked us to consider how much compassion we should have for people who made bad life choices at a young age. A single mother, struggling to provide for her disabled daughter, needs financial help. But who should help her? The government?
Theatre Memphis' gem of a show, "Talley's Folly," (Lanford Wilson's 1979 play directed by Marler Stone) might have been written this year. Two characters with liberal political views find themselves at odds with their families and communities. Interfering with their blooming romance are their views on unionization, politics, religion and war.
Perhaps the year's most relevant — and dramatically imposing — production was "Hurt Village" at Hattiloo Theatre. Written by native Memphian Katori Hall, it takes place in a former housing project where the residents are caught in the downward spiral of poverty, violence and lack of jobs and education.
Their circumstances raise questions that could frustrate both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Ekundayo Bandele's direction was brutally honest. The characters never played to our liberal sympathies, making it harder to lay blame or come up with solutions.
While some shows were showing us people in dire straits, other shows were telling us to follow our dreams — to forge ahead through darkness with skill, talent and resources. With a little creativity and magic, anything is possible.
If the antidote to an economic crisis is an entrepreneurial spirit, then that spirit was high in shows such as Hattiloo's scrappy "Dreamgirls," or even the hilarious "Altar Boyz" at Theatre Memphis, in which five Christian pop singers overcome their own flaws to save souls.
A couple of touring productions at the Orpheum also painted positive pictures of people whose success was based on talent and drive. "Million Dollar Quartet," about Sun Studio's famous stars, and "Billy Elliot the Musical" about a boy from a working-class neighborhood escaping poverty through ballet, might inspire anyone to follow their dreams.
By the time the hokey musical "Xanadu" came along at Playhouse on the Square, it was time for lighthearted fun. It, too, is about a struggling artist who has a dream. It, too, is about getting a little help from the powers that be, in this case a divine power from ancient Greek myth.
What this B-musical teaches us, besides the fact that in difficult times mindless entertainment can be a real necessity, is that turning America into a place like Xanadu will take beautiful dreams, hard work and maybe even divine intervention.
Variety was byword on suburban stages
The past year saw some changes in suburban theater and a few notable productions.
Germantown Community Theatre's variety of offerings included "The Boys Next Door" in January, which resulted in an Ostrander award for James Dale Green for Featured Role.
And November's staging of "Twilight of the Gods" was a great success, especially considering that it was only the second production of the play since it premiered in Nashville in 2010. But a fascinating storyline and stellar cast made it a hit.
Meanwhile, GCT treated itself to a makeover, with upgrades to seating, carpets, the green room and other areas. It's a small theater, but it's been maintained with care and vision by executive director Brent Davis.
DeSoto Family Theatre continued to mount sizable productions of favorites, including "1776," "Pride and Prejudice" and "Annie." But there was grieving at the loss of Cindy Lipscomb, one of its founders and angels, who died of brain cancer.
The Harrell Theatre, operated by the Collierville Arts Council, has cut back on the number of theatrical productions from past years. In September, it mounted "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Bartlett Community Theatre got veteran actor and director Anthony Isbell to helm a notable production of "Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap" in March.
Yo-Yo Ma concert, grant highlight symphony's year
It was a strong year for classical music in Memphis, with several notable performances and various local performing organizations further establishing themselves and showing innovation.
There were grand moments for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, the performing highlight of which was the packed concert by cellist Yo-Yo Ma in October. His rendition of Dvorak's "Cello Concerto" was utterly gorgeous, and the audience told him so.
The highpoint of the MSO's community outreach effort was its receipt of the lion's share of a grant to revitalize the Soulsville neighborhood.
The $678,000 grant awarded in June is from Chicago-based ArtPlace and aims to invigorate the area where the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Soulsville Charter School and the Stax Music Academy are based. The one-year grant includes bringing the MSO to perform frequent free concerts in the neighborhood and encouraging young people's musical creativity with spaces and programs.
There was more good news as Music Director Mei-Ann Chen extended her contract to run through the 2015-2016 season. Even as her reputation grows worldwide, she wants to make sure her vision with the MSO is realized.
But the organization lost key personnel who are moving up in the classical world. CEO Ryan Fleur took a job with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and a search committee is still looking for his replacement. Concertmaster Susanna Perry Gilmore moved to Omaha, and a long audition process is under way to replace her. Finally, Stilian Kirov, the No. 2 at the podium, moved to Seattle and has been replaced by Conner Gray Covington as assistant conductor.
The IRIS Orchestra put forth its usual mix of fresh programming, with Maestro Michael Stern blending the old and new in fascinating ways. The organization hosted distinguished guest performers, including Andre Watts, and IRIS premiered a double violin concerto by Anna Clyne, performed by renowned guest artists Jennifer Koh and Jaime Laredo.
The economy took a toll, however, in that the 2012-2013 season consists of a record-low four concerts.
The Luna Nova New Music Ensemble continued performing free concerts of almost entirely contemporary music at Grace-St. Luke's Episcopal Church. It's a labor of love and exploration, and it gives some young composers a chance to have their works performed.
One such was 14-year-old composer Max Friedman, a White Station High School ninth-grader. His work, titled "Mnemiopsis," was a witty and intriguing work for bass clarinet, French horn and violin.
Other classical organizations continued to perform, including the Eroica Ensemble and the new Memphis Repertory Orchestra.