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The Globe and Mail

The top 11 of 2011: Toronto, Stratford and Shaw

Julian Richings in "I Send You this Cadmium Red"

John Lauener

This year, I visited Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Barrie, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City and Charlottetown as the Globe and Mail's theatre critic. But, ultimately, Southern Ontario is my stomping grounds. So, while I wouldn't pretend to be able to make a list of the best shows in Alberta this year, I do feel comfortable naming the top 11 productions in Toronto, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Stratford, Ont.

In alphabetical order:

Billy Elliot Mirvish Productions

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This touring production felt pretty Canadian with Kate Hennig as daunting dance instructor Mrs. Wilkinson and all those local Billys. Peter Darling's choreography is what makes this sweet-and-saucy show – and made the audience stand up between numbers the night I saw it.

The Homecoming Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Jennifer Tarver did a fabulous job balancing the comedy and menace in Stratford's first production of a play by Harold Pinter. Heavy hitters like Brian Dennehy and Stephen Ouimette were the draws, but Aaron Krohn and Cara Ricketts emerged as stars – and have been rewarded with Henry V and Imogen next season.

I Send You This Cadmium Red The Art of Time Ensemble and Canadian Stage

Who knew an exchange of letters about colour between critic John Berger and artist John Christie could be so mind-expanding and moving? Director Daniel Brooks and designer Bruce Alcock put together a gorgeous show that changed the way I looked at the world – for a few days at least. It was a strong fall for Canadian Stage and a great year for Andrew Burashko's interdisciplinary Art of Time ensemble – I nearly put their presentation of War of the Worlds on this list, as well.

Jesus Christ Superstar Stratford Shakespeare Festival

A massive, Broadway-bound hit for a reason. Director Des McAnuff has riddled out how to make this rock opera work, while the young, sexy stars Stratford has been grooming – Chilina Kennedy, Paul Nolan and Josh Young – rose to the task vocally and dramatically.

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The Normal Heart Studio 180 Theatre, in association with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

I went in thinking this was a dated AIDS play. Shame on me – Larry Kramer's drama is as shattering as ever. At least it was in Joel Greenberg's fine ensemble production, with particularly superb performances from Jonathan Wilson and Ryan Kelly.

Oleanna Soulpepper Theatre Company

No one agrees with me on this, but I don't care: I thought Lazlo Marton's production was right on, critiquing the male paranoia in David Mamet's script even as it milked the PC nightmare for all its melodramatic juice.

Ride the Cyclone Atomic Vaudeville, Theatre Passe Muraille, Acting Up Stage Company

I've raved enough about Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell's musical. Here's hoping it's back on stage somewhere soon.

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The Ugly One Theatre Smash

A curious German parable smoothly and cleverly staged by Ashlie Corcoran. It's great to see a talented young director take that next step, and that's what we saw here – at least, what I saw, when I caught up with it in its final performance.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Topdog/Underdog Shaw Festival/Shaw Festival in association with Obsidian Theatre

Two productions at Niagara-on-the-Lake with animals in the title and filled with ferocious performances. Yes, I'm cheating by lumping them together – but how can you choose between the intergenerational rumbles of Jim Mezon vs. Gray Powell in Cat and Nigel Shawn Williams vs. Kevin Hanchard in Dog? This country is blessed with some fine acting talent.

When the Rain Stops Falling Shaw Festival

It only played for a few weeks in the Niagara-on-the-Lake festival's smallest theatre, but this fantastic family epic still haunts those who saw it. Australian playwright Andrew Bovell's drama was exquisitely directed by Peter Hinton – and three generations of acting talent in the Shaw ensemble rose to the challenge.

Honorable mentions

If I was being less arbitrary with my number of picks or criteria I might add Ruined (Obsidian Theatre Company in association with Nightwood Theatre), Another Africa (Volcano/Canadian Stage), The Middle Place (Project: Humanity/Theatre Passe Muraille/Canadian Stage/GCTC), ONE (SummerWorks), Fela! (presented by Mirvish), Eternal Hydra (Crow's Theatre), The Glass Menagerie (Soulpepper), Our Class (Studio 180 and Canadian Stage) and Brothel #9 (Factory Theatre).

A few highlights of my journeys elsewhere in Canada

Fiona Reid was awesome in August: Osage County at the Citadel Theatre; Robert Lepage's production of The Tempest in Wendake stands as my favourite of recent years; Come-All-Ye at the Charlottetown Festival should be a part of everyone's visit to the Island; and Blanche-Neige & La Belle au Bois Dormant (Snow White and Sleeping Beauty) at Montreal's Espace Go was a variety of words I can't print in the newspaper.

Apologies to those I missed. Happy New Year.

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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