*Note that there are some productions that opened prior to 12/31/2018 that I attended in 2019 that will be top contenders for next year's list.
I am just as surprised as you are! I never expected SpongeBob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical to appear anywhere near my Best of List, let alone land on #1. I walked into the Palace clouded by doubt, but exited the theater that evening in a euphoric state walking on top of those very clouds. Everyone knows and understands that theater may be the most collaborative of art forms, and SpongeBob was, unequivocally, the best and most successful demonstration of the power and success of creative collaboration. My generation entered adolescence right at the time that Spongebob found dominance in the Nickelodeon cartoon. While I was well-aware of the popular entertainment franchise’s existence, I was quite unfamiliar with any of the escapades of SpongeBob (Ethan Slater), Patrick Starr (Danny Skinner), Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee), or Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) that had inspired its incarnation for the stage. With a score contributed by the likes of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, David Bowie, and The Might Be Giants, I frequently found myself referring condescendingly to this musical as “SpongeBob Follies” before actually seeing it. With inspired arrangements by Tom Kitt, what these pop artists managed to create was one of the most spirited, infectious, and downright fun scores Broadway has seen in years. SpongeBob is one of those rare Broadway scores that works as well in the musical as it does blaring from your Amazon Music app for a long run or on a summer road trip. Slater, Skinner, Lee, and Cooper, along with SpongeBob’s cast of sea creatures, all delivered winning, larger-than-life character performances, showcasing their impeccable comic timing, propensity for effortless physical schtick, and Broadway meets pop-style vocal skills. Kyle Jarrow contributes a book that renews faith in musical comedy - hilarious, clever, fresh, and timely. Though SpongeBob’s plot and characters are purely fantastic, it’s timeless themes exploring the strength of friendship and community seal its most surprisingly endearing and satisfactory achievements. David Zinn (Set and Costume), Kevin Adams (Lighting), Peter Nigrini (Projection), and Walter Trarbach (Sound) transformed the Palace Theater into one of the most visually stunning and interesting spaces on Broadway, giving audiences the thrill of entering Bikini Bottom without ever leaving Times Square. Perhaps most deserving of the praise is director Tina Landau at the helm of this ambitious production. I would argue that her approach to adapting this material was as visionary as Julie Taymor’s contributions to The Lion King over 20 years ago. As a young child, I remember attending shows; watching the actors on stage with adoration; always being taken by surprise and never knowing what would happen next - in short, entranced by the “magic” of it all. Utilizing her dream team’s colorful, stimulating, and endlessly creative designs to perfection, Landau’s staging, along with Chris Gattelli’s superb choreography, provided me with the same gift (this time as a critical adult) that made me embrace theater all those years ago.
I firmly believe the future of theater will be found in either a fully immersive art-form or one that is an enhanced hybrid combining experiential viewing with the traditional proscenium model. The biggest challenge facing the theater today is how accessible quality content is through streaming services such as Netflix (now even bringing Broadway into homes with Springsteen on Broadway and the upcoming The Boys in the Band, American Son, and The Prom), Hulu, HBO Go, and other cable On Demand services. With single ticket prices averaging more than a month’s cable subscription, producers, creators, and artists need to prove that live theater is worth the investment of the patrons’ time and resources and will provide an experience more engaging than the more passive ones so readily available in their living rooms. The challenges of creating good immersive theater are great. There is often the struggle between style and content as creative teams try to structure an unforgettable, unconventional “experience” yet still provide the emotional fulfillment derived from a well-constructed and developed play. And then there is the added character of the audience - are they fly-on-the-wall observers or participants - or is their role fluid? The Jungle, a Good Chance Theatre Co-Production with the National Theatre & Young Vic at St. Ann’s Warehouse (a mouthful), is as successful as any production has been in embracing and mastering this style of theater. Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin (directors) and Miriam Buether (set designer) place the audience amidst the action by transforming St. Ann’s Warehouse into an Afghan cafe in Calais, France where a diverse, multinational group of refugees living in a migrant camp converge in chaos to create a new societal system for themselves. Placing audience members all around the restaurant in sections indicating the various nations (I was seated on pillows and oriental rugs in the Egypt section) represented in the camps, Daldry and Martin find a clear balance between including the audience within the action (e.g. storming of the French government to evict the refugees) and allowing us to traditionally watch the drama unfold (e.g. interrogations outside the cafe) as we would in a more conventional theater setting. Playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson provide unforgettable faces and voices for each of the refugees we meet in the camp, implicitly reminding us of the heartless and irrational xenophobic rhetoric being heard loud and clear from contemporary political platforms today. For nearly three hours, we hear their stories (from the horrific to the inspirational) and see these refugees' struggles for self-preservation. They persist by fighting; they survive by forming familial relationships; and they even move on through earned joyous song and dance. We may leave somber, feeling as well-intentioned, but as hapless as the British do-gooders represented in this play, but we walk away dreaming and wanting to be part of a solution at home. As the audience left Salar’s restaurant in relative silence, many (myself included) stopped to read the well-curated displays throughout the lobby; now with each of those dates, pictures, and stories feeling a bit more real, almost as if they somehow became part of our own histories through this unforgettable theatrical experience.
Broadway has never been so cool. Springsteen on Broadway is hands down the best one man show on Broadway since Elaine Stritch at Liberty. Now when did you think you’d ever hear Springsteen and Stritch in the same sentence? Bearing the same poetic realism as his autobiography, Born to Run, this tight, unconventional adaptation is can’t miss Springsteen for any of his biggest (myself included) fans. Housed in the Walter Kerr Theater, with a capacity of 975, audience members couldn’t help but feel privileged to see this rock legend and master storyteller in the most intimate of settings. With effortless charm, Springsteen transitions seamlessly from story to music; from guitar to harmonica to piano. Bruce is the working man’s poet. And throughout the night, one is reminded of the best works of American drama and literature. Springsteen introduces his town of Freehold, NJ like the Stage Manager of Our Town; and upon his return many years later he reflects on the old neighborhood’s soul as if delivering narration straight out of Sherwood Anderson’s Sophistication. He describes his trip across country like a modern-day Transcendentalist and reflects on the apology of his father as if it was a monologue out of an O’Neill play. Even when Springsteen gets political, he speaks from the heart, not as a preacher, but as an individual, a “critical voice when the times call for it”, concerned and trying to make the world a better place with his stories and his music. While much of the night is much more melancholic than he would ever dream of getting in a stadium tour, it was wonderful to see the genuine joy he still gets from playing one of his all-time greatest hits like “Dancing in the Dark”. Springsteen ends this tight night with The Lord’s Prayer (and of course, “Born to Run”), reminding us Springsteen fans, we just shared a spiritual evening with The Boss.
When I first heard about Connor McPherson writing a new musical using Bob Dylan’s catalogue, I was instantly intrigued. The pairing of the poeticisms from one of theater's most talented contemporary Gaelic playwrights and one of music’s most prolific American songwriters had an equal chance of being brilliant as it did being an absolute train wreck. After all, Dylan did not fair well during his first Broadway outing, the short-lived Twyla Tharp conceived dance musical, The Times They are A-Changin’. Still, I was ecstatic to learn that New York audiences would have the opportunity to see this piece (with an American cast) during a run at the Public Theater following its premiere at London’s Old Vic and its subsequent move to the West End. This time around, what we receive is a musical as inspiring as the pairing of its creatives. Set in Depression-era Minnesota, McPherson, to haunting effect, packs a boarding house with inhabitants consumed by hardship, disappointment, loneliness, lost love, secrets, and distant dreams, What he delivers gives us a feel of what it would have been like if Eugene O’Neill ever lent his hand at writing the libretto of a musical. In fact, with a roster of characters including an alcoholic writer, a pregnant, unwed adopted daughter, a matriarch with dementia, a girlfriend expecting to come into some money, an ex-convict/ex-boxer, a businessman, his wife, and son with developmental challenges on the run from a mysterious past, a shady Bible-selling Reverend, and a morphine addicted doctor who also serves as an omniscient narrator, McPherson’s story could have been the collaborative brainchild of any number of classic American playwrights. With a top-notch cast of 17 (including Mare Winningham, Marc Kudisch, and David Pittu - all at the top of their game) and nearly as many intersecting character-driven stories, McPherson’s writes a truly American ghost story - and not in the traditional sense, but instead, one filled of desperate, lost lost souls (the types you would expect to find in Harry Hope’s bar). Paired with Dylan’s songs (never sounding better than with Simon Hale’s gorgeous orchestrations), McPherson’s characters come to life, creating an atmosphere full of universality and humanity, and packing an emotional punch that sneaks up on you in the most unexpected, miraculous way.
As a self-proclaimed foodie, I love all things food-related. Cooking shows. Cookbooks. Cooking competitions. The list goes on. When I read that the Williamstown Theater Festival would be mounting Seared, a new Therese Rebeck play set within the restaurant industry, I knew it was time for a summer roadtrip to the Berkshires. Under the direction of Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, Rebeck’s play may be the funniest comedy I have seen in years. In many ways, Seared operates like a classic backstage comedy, except in this case, the artistry and egos are now in the kitchen and the leading man is no longer a matinee idol, but instead, a larger-than-life, egotistical, stubborn, demanding, neurotic chef in contemporary hipster Brooklyn. The central conflict moves to the front burner when business partner Mike (Michael Esper) hires a savvy consultant (Krysta Rodriguez) for their financially unstable restaurant to help improve their operations and optimize their profits. Temperamental Chef Harry (Hoon Lee) feels betrayed and confined by the new, yet successful, direction the restaurant is taking and Mike and waiter Rodney (W. Tre Davis) are left trying to extinguish (and occasionally adding to) all kinds of flames in the kitchen. Exploring themes of creativity, commerce, friendship, loyalty, and change - Rebeck has written the rare uproarious comedy that is actually about something. With knock-out comic performances, especially from Rodriguez and Esper, Seared is a five on the Zagat's scale.
I can be a bit of theater snob when it comes to seeing original casts. But if 2018 has taught me anything, inspired replacements can help strengthen already wonderful productions. Last year, Hello, Dolly! starring Bette Midler made my Best of 2017 List. After all, the Divine Miss M’s return to Broadway made this Jerry Zaks’ helmed revival a must-see and reminded us of why star-vehicle productions became widely popular in the first place. Still, a long-time fan of Bernadette Peters, I decided to revisit this production when she and Victor Garber stepped into the cast. What once could be described as a theatrical event (in the best sense of the word) given Midler’s celebrity-status, now matured into a first-rate Broadway Golden aged-revival with actors bringing surprising depth and genuine emotion to the romantic leads. From Dolly’s first address to the audience, Peter’s made the title character’s objective through-line crystal clear: "Ephraim Levi, I’m going to get married again [...] And I’m tired, Ephraim! Tired of living from hand to mouth so I want that sign.” And through the course of the musical, Peters allows this vulnerable Dolly to manage to “get some life back into my life.” She recognizes that at its heart, Hello, Dolly! is a romantic comedy musical and her decision to raise these stakes pays off royally, thanks, in large part, to casting her opposite the still dashing Victor Garber; giving us a more believable suitable pairing than Midler and David Hyde Pierce (though Pierce was quite delightful in his own unique way). Garber, underneath Horace's gruff exterior, there is a charm; a sensitivity - and, in the end, when Vandergelder reveals his truly generous spirit, we believe it and know Dolly and Horace are meant to be. After this wonderful revival, I think I’ll be hard-pressed to see another production of Hello, Dolly! that achieves such well-earned emotional fulfillment by its finale.
Those of you who who have read past “Best of” posts of mine know there is almost always a spot reserved for a Bart Sher production on the list. While I thought Lauren Ambrose’s portrayal of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady was quite good, Laura Benanti elevates an already solid production even further. From the opening scene with the “Loverly” trio, Benanti brings a warmth, spunk, and sense of humor to the role - a playful Eliza that is easy to imagine as “one of the boys” on the street. When she returns to Covent Garden following her transformation - it only makes it all the more devastating for her when she’s unrecognizable to her friends. Benanti’s Eliza seems to be a bit more calculating, a bit more in control of her destiny as she shows up at his door and decides to take Professor Higgins up on his offer to teach her the proper phonetics to pass her off as a duchess at the ball. When Higgins and Pickering sing “You Did It” at the top of the second act, Benanti has prepped us to respond as indignantly as Eliza. Eliza’s maturity and strength plays well, particularly in developing a real chemistry between Eliza and Higgins. Perhaps more pronounced with Benanti’s interpretation are quick beats/brushes of attraction (e.g. “The Rain in Spain) between the professor and his subject. And if the addition of Benanti to the cast isn’t enough, audiences are being treated to Rosemary Harris stepping in for Diana Rigg. Harris, like Benanti, brings an unforgettable warmth to the role of Mrs. Higgins, but its her grace, eloquence, and pitch perfect line-readings that reaffirm we are in the presence of true theater royalty.
Skeleton Crew is the third, and by far, best play in Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit play cycle. Set in 2008, Morisseau’s play examines the lives and relationships of four Detroit auto factory workers as they face the imminent closure of their plant. I was fortunate enough to see one of the several regional productions mounted last year and Boston’s Huntington Theater’s production under the direction of Megan Sandberg-Zakian was a winner. Like Lynn Nottage’s wonderful play, Sweat, Morisseau gives voice to the working class, their economic struggles, and the anticipated uncertainties that will follow. Morrisseau has a skilled ear for writing understated contemporary dialogue and rhythms. She fares quite better here than with some of the cringe-worthy Motown similes sprinkled throughout Detroit ‘67. Her characters in Skeleton Crew are so carefully sketched, you get the impression that these are individuals that Morisseau knows well; or at least did upon completion of the play. The quartet of actors in this production, Patricia R. Floyd (as Faye), Jonathan Louis Dent (as Dez), Toccarra Cash (as Shanita) and Maurice Emmanuel Parent (as Reggie), all provide deep, grounded, vivid performances using Morisseau’s rich script as the ultimate roadmap.
Coming off a 2017 Academy Award win for Best Original Screenplay for Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan received not one, but two star-studded (Michael Cera having the good fortune of appearing in both!) revivals in 2018. Lobby Hero, directed by Trip Cullman and starring Cera, Chris Evans, Brian Tyree Henry, and Bel Powley, re-opened the Helen Hayes Theater, now a second home to Second Stage. As seen in his last Broadway revival, This is Our Youth, Cera has a gift for Lonergan’s slacker patter and his streak continues as Jeff, the lobby security guard with a moral compass and just enough motivation to want to earn the money he needs to afford his own place. It’s a real treat to watch the master of the Lonergan nervous ramble as he and Powley charm during the most cringe-worthy of male/female interactions. Chris Evans has a strong, confident Broadway debut as the narcissistic, philandering, asshole cop leaving audiences hoping he’ll return to the Great White Way very soon. Lobby Hero was the perfect play to take a group of students to (what adolescent male prep school student wouldn’t want to see a play with George Michael and Captain America?). Exploring what it means to be truthful in a corrupt world and themes of toxic masculinity, Lobby Hero provided some great post-show conversation on our ride home from the city.
The Waverly Gallery, a very different, but equally intriguing character study marked the legendary Elaine May’s return to Broadway. In Lila Neugebauer's production, May plays Gladys Green, the aging owner of a New York art gallery succumbing to a state of dementia. May gives one of the most endearing, carefully rendered, heartbreaking performances of the year. At 86 years old, the specificity she brings to Gladys’ decline is skilled and astonishing. May layers glimmers of that spark and pluck that dominated Gladys’ youth with moments of anger, confusion, and hopelessness. The other reason to see The Waverly Gallery is Joan Allen, playing Glady’s daughter. Fearless in her approach, Allen creates a well-intentioned, but imperfect, character at her wits end from caring for her mother. Finding balance between love and frustration, Allen and May’s scenes are simply electric.
These two revivals are good reminders why I never tire of giving Lonergan plays a try.
Hartford Stage’s mounting of the McCarter Theatre Center’s production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (as adapted by Ken Ludwig) is unadulterated entertainment. Ludwig is smart to keep his adaptation light and comical. When a gangster is stabbed to death on the Orient Express, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot begins an interrogation of the passengers on the train. With a stylish set by Beowolf Borritt, slick lighting by Ken Billington, effective sound design Darron West, and clever staging and direction by Emily Mann - this team keeps the storytelling theatrical, fast-paced, and downright funny; none of which is a particularly easy task given the source-material and other recent attempts to dramatize it. Adding to the fun and opulence are elegant costumes by one of Broadway’s most celebrated designers, WIlliam Ivey Long. With memorable character performances across the board, this murder mystery comedy is a delight thanks to the tight ensemble work from a cast of veteran actors including a charming David Pittu as Poirot, Veanne Cox as the decrepit Princess Dragomiroff, and a hilariously crass Julie Haston as American tourist Helen Hubbard.
From Clifford Odet’s Golden Boy to Creed, the recent continuation of the Rocky franchise, I’ve always been a sucker for good boxing stories on stage and screen. Though dramaturgically, Michael Cristofer’s new play, Man in the Ring, is far from perfect, it still received a first-class production thanks, in large part, to Michael Grief’s stunning staging, and strong performances from Kyle Vincent Terry and John Douglas Thompson, playing young and old versions of bisexual boxer Emile Griffith - Terry and Thompson’s performances are astonishingly in sync. Terry gives a nimble and charismatic performance as young Emile; both sensitive and ferocious. It is as easy to buy this versatile actor as a both a maker of women’s hats and a ferocious prize-fighter. When he beats his opponent, Benny “Kid” Paret, to death after being called a gay slur in the climactic, flashy first act fight scene, we empathize with our protagonist, who, when forced to face the demons of his past, will lose his ability to compete out of fear of hurting another. Thompson, a classically trained actor, received raves for his portrayal of The Emperor Jones a few seasons ago; a performance I am still kicking myself for missing. Thompson brings much gravitas to the role. Now sinking into dementia, Thompson layers his performance with anger, confusion, and resolve. The real cathartic payoff comes in the last few scenes of the play where Cristofer zeroes in on the theme of forgiveness. It is here, Thompson reminds us of the kind of emotional punch a good boxing story can have on a person. We’ve been walloped.
Rodger & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
This Daniel Fish helmed revival of Oklahoma! belongs in a category all of its own. Some friends absolutely loved it. While other friends were all #NotMyOklahoma about it. In fact the divisiveness I saw amongst my own circle, was not very different than the conversation being heard between professional critics. Regardless of what team you ended up on, Oklahoma! (!?) was the most talked about production of the year amongst my theater-going network. I had attended a performance at St. Ann’s Warehouse last fall, and as recently as this past month, it was still coming up in conversations with those who have seen it. I just can’t seem to stop talking about it. Oklahoma! was a bold musical then and the choices being made at Circle in the Square are just as bold. I imagine just as many friends in 1943 were debating whether or not a song like “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” was the proper way to begin a musical as there probably are today discussing Fish’s choice to play the smokehouse scene in complete darkness. I love theater that can be critically analyzed and sparks healthy debate and discussion. And this revival does just that having transformed much of my usual Curb Your Enthusiasm-style New York brunch banter into Three on the Aisle-inspired discussions. While the art form is ephemeral, the theater worth presenting is unforgettable.