Looking back over all the plays this reviewer has covered is an annual task that began 35 years ago when I first started writing for the Times. Sifting through the dozens of these stage experiences every year is a labor of love. Deciding on which productions were the best brings back memories I won't soon forget. We never fail to find a gem or two along the way.

In 2009, take "Almost Maine," a gem of a play and my favorite of the year. Staged at Chagrin Valley Little Theatre's River Street Playhouse, John Cariani's little play warms the heart. Ten short plays performed by four actors: Natalie Dolezal, Jon Gellort, Maggie Leach and Chuck Matthews play all 18 parts. The play is set in the tiny mill town of Almost, where each of the 10 tiny plays is nothing short of wonderful.

Coming in a close second in the 2009 theater derby is "Blackbird," a gripping two-character drama staged by Dobama Theater. David Harrower delivers an in-your-face fast-paced killer of a play that would wear down the most sophisticated theatergoer. He was 40. She was 12. He serves three years in prison and moves on to a new life. Ten years later, she finds him and confronts him. Your eyes are glued to the stage in this 75-minute one act.

Coming in third is "Evil Dead: The Musical" at Beck Center. Canadian comedy writer George Reinblatt thought it a good idea to take one of those cult horror movies from the 1980s and turn it into a musical comedy. The results are two acts of bloody hilarity. The plot, the songs and the dances are intentionally terrible. And the play, well, we laughed ourselves silly.

Coming in fourth, the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre staged still another production of the 1972 Broadway hit "Grease." With a cast willing to go over the top and slick directing by Pamela La Force, this was one revival worth remembering.

In fifth place was Aurora Community Theater's presentation of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." This, the very first of Andrew Lloyd Webber's string of hits, is always good fun. The Aurora production was outstanding and stood head and shoulders above any effort to revive this play that this reviewer has ever witnessed.

Convergence-Continuum, that near-west-side Tremont district theater, had a full slate of avant-garde weird productions. The best of these was "Finn in the Underworld," a grizzly play that moves back and forth between generations. The common thread is murder. It's not often you see a character strangled on stage, yet this theater performs daring work. "Finn," coming in sixth place, is one of those rare plays that gets better each time you see it.

The Porthouse Theater's production of Bert Shevlove and Larry Gelbart's nutty take-off of ancient Rome, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," was just plain terrific. With songs by Stephen Sondheim and a remarkable cast, the production directed by Terri Kent gave us a revival that couldn't be beat.

Those were the top seven shows of 2009. But there were a couple more worth mentioning. Take "Wicked." On Broadway at the enormous Gershwin Theater, the show was a monumental hit. When the touring company came to Playhouse Square in Cleveland, "Wicked" was cut down, leaving it cold and humorless.

Two others I liked were "Lady Day," featuring the songs of Billie Holiday at Karamu, and "Freakshow" at Convergence-Continuum.

That is 2009 at the theater. Some were good, and many were disappointing. All in all, it was a fairly weak year for theater, the first in many years. It's a good bet that 2010 will be better.

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