It's better late than never! With so many wonderful productions hitting Broadway in the last quarter of the calendar year, Final Bow just caught up on seeing shows that opened through calendar year-end. It should be noted that Final Bow has not seen Hamilton yet. While I'm sure it would warrant being ranked among my best theatrical experiences in 2015; unless I see it, I can't list it. Jeffrey Sellers, Sander Jacobs, or Jill Furman - if you want to hook me up - I'll gladly insert an addendum! But for now, here's the Best of 2015.
1. Bartlett Sher: If there is any doubt that Mr. Sher is one of the most gifted directors working in the American theater today, look no further than his revivals of Fiddler on the Roof and The King in I, both currently running on Broadway. What makes Sher one of the best is his consistent approach to exploring and analyzing the naturalism of the text. Never before have Golden Aged songs been delivered as organically within the context of a scene. While respecting the inherently good structure of the pieces he chooses, Sher and his actors’ analysis and exploration of character, context, and stakes, help propel the action forward in a way that feels both honest and relevant to contemporary audiences. Armed frequently with dream team designers Catherine Zuber and Michael Yeargan, Sher's revivals have never looked or sounded better. With an appreciation of theater history, there will always be certain stage images that I hold near and dear to my heart: Lear carrying Cordelia, Josie cradling Jim Tyrone, Mary descending the stairs with her wedding dress, etc. Always a master of the space, this past year, Sher staged two images/moments (one exhilarating; the other devastating) that I am sure will last me a lifetime. The first being Anna Leonowen's (Kelli O'Hara in a star entrance to die for) arrival to Siam. Underscored by a lush 30 piece orchestra, Sher docks Anna's ship in the center orchestra of the Vivian Beaumont and gets your adrenaline rushing as he prepares you for 'something wonderful' to unfold over the next two and a half hours. The second staging triumph is one that leaves your heart aching. As the milkman Tevye (Danny Burstein) reminisces about his now grown daughter Chava's childhood, Sher separates the past and present with a delicate scrim. As Chava pulls back the scrim, Sher shifts fully to the present where his youngest daughter begs her father to understand how her love for Fyedka can transcend religion, the cornerstone of the tradition that Tevye has tried to preserve. Burstein's Tevye, at a psychological and emotional loss, cuts his daughter off from the scene and his life by reinstating the scrim divide. While one coup is defined by its spectacle and the other by its sparseness, both are fully supported by the text they represent and forward the art of Sher's storytelling.
2. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time: I know this National Theatre import opened in 2014 - but I didn't catch this hit until 2015 and it was just too good to not be included this year. While Simon Stephens' play is a faithful adaptation of Mark Haddon's popular book, this production is ignited by the dynamic staging of Marianne Elliott (one of the ingenious co-directors behind War Horse), the inventive designs by Bunny Christie, Peter Constable, and Ian Dickinson, and an unforgettable performance by Tony Award winner Alex Sharp in the central role of Christopher, an autistic teen who comes of age through inadvertently uncovering family secrets as he searches for the murderer of his neighbor's dog. As Christie, Constable, and Dickinson present the perception of Christopher in the form of sensory overload, Elliott forces us to process the world much like Christopher would , often through confusion and obtrusive detail. Though the technical wizardry is extraordinary and effective, the most potent moments are delivered with true sensitivity by Curious' first-rate cast. Particularly, Ian Bardford's performance as Ed, Christopher's father, breaks your heart as he fights his paternal instinct to support, love, and comfort his son through touch during his greatest moment of need: an incapacitated Christopher discovering his mother deserted the family. Though I'm not one to frequently cry in public, I have to say the Mark Haddon played his cards right when he decided to have Ed begin to earn Christopher's trust back by purchasing him a Golden retriever puppy. Ms. Elliott if your Director's book didn't include the note: "Cue: Audience tears" as the puppy was revealed, then shame on you. Well played, indeed.
3. On the Twentieth Century: On the Twentieth Century, adapted from Howard Hawk's hilarous 1934 hard-boiled comedy, Twentieth Century, left me grinning from ear to ear from the overture through the finale. Comden and Green's book and lyrics are still laugh-out-loud funny and director Scott Ellis couldn't have assembled a more perfect cast if he tried. Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher headline this madcap musical comedy as Lily Garland and Oscar Jaffee, respectively. While many film adaptations have had a hard time finding their voices in musical comedy, let it be noted, megalomania lends itself well to the medium of song, especially when it comes in the form of Coleman's varied (from operetta to vaudeville) score. Chenoweth and Gallagher's superb performances are supported by terrific turns by Michael McGrath and Mark Linn-Baker as two-thirds of Jaffee's desperate Three Musketeers, Andy Karl as Garland's brawny beau (showing a real sense of humor sadly hidden from last season's Rocky, even during numbers like 'My Nose Ain't Broke'), and Mary Louise Wilson as a nut on board for the ride. With David Rockwell's beautiful art-deco set, William Ivey Long's stunning period costumes, and Ellis and Warren Carlyle's clever staging and choreography, audiences were treated to one delightful surprise after another. This production is as bubbly as a bottle of Schramsberg and goes down just as smoothly. Mixing sophisticated wit with low-brow punches, this is a musical that is so well written and adapted that it should inspire young writers to go out and do the same. With On the Town (2014's #1 pick) and On the Twentieth Century running side-by-side on 42nd Street in 2015, Comden and Green had a 'helluva' year with two first-rate revivals on Broadway, as did Scott Ellis (represented recently with On The Twentieth Century, The Elephant Man with Bradley Cooper, and You Can't Take it With You). With a musical theater treasure like Chenoweth in the lead, this was a revival you didn't want to miss as a train of this caliber doesn't make a stop on Broadway very often.
4. An American in Paris' Christopher Wheeldon: Not since Christopher Gattelli took Broadway by storm with his exuberant and athletic production numbers in Disney's Newsies have I been so optimistic and excited about the future of choreography in musical theater. With New York City Ballet's Robbie Fairchild (his sister Megan was entertaining audiences down the street in On the Town) and the Royal Ballet's Leanne Cope in the leads, one goes into Paris expecting the ballets to be extraordinary. And the ballets certainly are breathtaking. What comes as a most pleasant surprise is the wit, charm, and energy, Wheeldon brings to the more traditional musical comedy numbers like "I've Got Beginner's Luck," "Liza," "S'wonderful" and "Shall We Dance." A master of mood, emotion, and style, Wheeldon is able to shift effortlessly from sexy to somber; from poetry to pizzazz, Like the best director/choreographers (I'd add Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, and Susan Stroman to my list), Wheeldon leaves his choreographic stamp on each number and every transition. In Paris, the music and the movement become one with the story and the characters (both leads and ensemble). Wheeldon brings romance, elegance, and sophistication back in a way that reminds us that Broadway can still be an escape for us adults looking to treat ourselves to a night out on the town.
5. Kate Baldwin in Bells Are Ringing: Styne, Comden, and Green created a gem of a role for a comic actress in Ella Peterson, the unlikely "Susanaswerphone" heroine in this delightfully '50s musical. And this past summer, Kate Baldwin was more than game for the role. Influenced by the sketch comedy and variety shows of the time, Bells are Ringing offers its female lead the opportunity to create several zany, memorable characters as Ella helps an out-of-work actor and a disenchanted dentist while finding love in Plaza O4433's blocked writer who she first became smitten with over the phone. Baldwin's Ella balances sweet ("Better Than a Dream") with sassy ("It's Perfect Relationship") and loopy ("Mu-Cha-Cha") with lyrical ("The Party's Over"). She lights up a room when she enters and welcomes you to grin ear to ear and chuckle at her charades. But most importantly, Baldwin gives Ella real heart - a definitive characteristic for not only this ingenue but for many that came out of this era. This Bells Are Ringing found a lead worthy of a star-vehicle in Kate Baldwin. These past two seasons, specifically, the Berkshire Theatre Group has spoiled audiences with what one can only hope are annual appearances by Ms. Baldwin. (Baldwin gave an elegant, brittle, comic performance as the Countess in 2014's A Little Night Music).
6. Spring Awakening: Any concern about Spring Awakening receiving a premature revival was put to rest within the first few minutes of Deaf West Theater's innovative and thrillingly staged production at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. As the show opened with a mesmerizing Sandra Mae Frank signing the lyrics of "Mama Who Bore Me" to her reflection (Katie Boeck on guitar as the 'Voice' of Wendla) in the mirror, audiences knew they were in for a presentation that was going to be both beautiful and unique. Nine year's ago, Spring Awakening took Broadway by storm with Steven Sater's faithful, intelligent, and literate book (adapted from Frank Wedekind's scandalous 19th century German play) and Dunkan Sheik's infectious, raw, and often gorgeous pop and rock score. Director Michael Arden further emphasizes the miscommunication and misunderstandings between adolescents and adults through the use of hearing and Deaf actors and spoken word and ASL. This production gives audiences a feast for the senses with projected translations, shadow actors, signed choreography, and actor-musicians. Never before has adolescent desire, angst, and apprehension been brought to the stage with such clarity as it has been with Arden's ingenious staging and the energized and sensitive performances brought forth by his all-around strong cast.
7. The Women of Williamstown: It's always fun to watch the summer theater festivals roll out their seasons in the spring. It is especially exciting to see what stars of stage and screen will head to the Berkshires where they will be given an opportunity to stretch and flex their acting muscles in new works, forgotten gems, or iconic roles of the American dramatic canon. The Williamstown Theatre Festival (or WTF, marketing presumably conceived by a millennial) did not disappoint last year after announcing that 'A List-ers' Kyra Sedgwick, Cynthia Nixon, and Audra McDonald would all be featured during the 2015 summer season. For years, Williamstown, with its demanding but brief rehearsal process, has served as the perfect artistic playground for some of today's top talent to safely test out new or bucket list roles during a schedule friendly limited summer run. Sedgwick, best known these days for her TV work in The Closer, starred in the formerly unproduced William Inge play Off the Main Road as Faye Garritt, a middle aged, emotionally fragile and libidinous, former debutante recently estranged from her abusive ballplayer husband. In Carey Perloff's Kinship, a contemporary Phaedra story (minus the tragedy(?)), Nixon once again proved herself to be a master of portraying vulnerability in strong, sophisticated women. Full of irony, lust, and anger, Nixon's emotional precision hits the bulls-eye in spite of the play's generally implausible premise. And arguably, the most memorable of these three stand-out celebrity performances was Audra McDonald's captivating turn as Josie Hogan in Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten. With such a short time allotted for an actress to inhabit this daunting role, it was simply astonishing to see how well McDonald realized each pivotal dramatic shift as Josie transitioned from earthy, headstrong daughter to flirtatious farmhand, to trepid lover, and ultimately empathetic savior for the repentant James Tyrone. At the end of the night, McDonald's performance brought a touch of grace to the lives of all those who took in this beautiful play of repentance and forgiveness.
8. McCaela Donovan in A Little Night Music and Adrian Krstanksy in Come Back, Little Sheba at the Huntington Theatre Company: The Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, MA delivered two standout performances from local actresses last season. While "The Miller's Son" is one of those rare songs that Sondheim feels came out perfectly, it arrives in A Little Night Music at the most inopportune time for a supporting actress. Well past the two hour mark, Petra, Anne's maid and confidante, delivers one of Sondheim's signature here and now songs right when audiences are most looking forward to reaching resolution for Music's central quartet (Frederik and Desiree and Anne and Henrik) and calling it a night. Donovan manages to steal the show during a number that usually stops the show cold. Full of passion, humor, an unabashed sexuality, Donaovan's breakout turn makes the luck of the 'Miller's Son' (and anyone in between) look not that bad at all. I can't wait to see what Donovan brings to the SpeakEasy Stage Company's upcoming production of Dogfight. While Donovan has sex appeal to spare, Krstanksy delivered a beautifully touching, and ultimately heart-breaking performance as Lola, the schlumpy housewife in William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba. Nobody explores the tension between marital entrapment and nostalgic affection better than Krstansky in this intimately staged production by David Cromer. From protecting herself from her enraged alcoholic husband, Doc, who has just fallen off the wagon (in the most unsettling and frightening scene I've ever experienced in the theater) to discovering her inability to escape the sad reality of her marriage while weighing her options with her disapproving parents, Krstansky brings such admirable emotional realism to the role.
.9. Fish in the Dark: Fish in the Dark marked television legend Larry David’s Broadway debut, both as star and writer. One might say: It wasn’t a Good Play. It wasn’t a Bad Play. But, My God it was a Play. So why does this production make my Best of List? For starters, producers Scott Rudin and Lloyd Braun (yes that Lloyd Braun, but not really that Lloyd Braun), brought spring audiences a true theatrical event. What Mr. David created was a contemporary comic play somewhat reminiscent of the large cast comedies by Kaufman and Hart during in the 1930s – all the while preserving the brand of humor that die-hard fans (myself included) of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm have come to expect from this irreverent comic. Larry David is not ”a real actor”, nor does he proclaim himself to be one. And nor did director Anna Shapiro (who is exceptionally good at working with actors) try to make him one. Larry David wrote a Larry David-like character and delivered a Larry David-like performance surrounded by a huge ensemble comprised of such gifted comic stage actors as Jayne Houdyshell and Jerry Adler. Much to the audiences delight, he even found opportunities to drop in some "pretty, pretty good" catchphrases made popular through his HBO sitcom. What made this production so memorable was the audiences’ general enthusiasm to be in the Cort Theatre where they were to see what would most likely be Larry David’s only Broadway outing as an “actor.” This show embraced theater as an ephemeral art form in the most exciting and commercial sense. There’s always a place on Broadway for event theater. Thank you, Mr. David, for making going to popular, commercial theater feel special again.
10. Grey Gardens at Bay Street Theater: The perfect getaway for me consists of a day lounging on the beach followed by an evening of theater. When I choose to summer (I only use the word summer as a verb when referring to the Hamptons, though I'm not sure it can be applied to only a weekend escape) on Long Island, a stay is not complete without a stop at Artistic Director Scott Schwartz's Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. This past summer season included Frankel and Kories' Grey Gardens based on the 1975 documentary of the same title. Softening the malice of the source material, the first act of the musical begins at a time when Grey Gardens was somewhat of a destination for the social register. And then, act two picks up with the Beales where the documentary begins, in the midst of the Edies' decaying lifestyles. There were two elements that made this production worthwhile. First are the star turns by Betty Buckley and Rachel York. Perhaps delivering the best character work of their careers, one can easily overlook the somewhat unsatisfying structure and unsettling subject matter of this musical when watching two musical theater veterans at the top of their games. And second, as Lord Harold Samuel once said, it's all about "Location, Location, Location." When and where you experience a show can certainly enhance one's viewing experience. And with the musical drama unfolding just miles away from the real Grey Gardens, there really is no substitute for an all-too knowing Sag Harbor audience applauding Little Edie's recognition that "only in East Hampton can they get you for wearing red shoes on a Thursday." Only in the Hamptons.
11. Kelli O'Hara and the Opening of the Robert R. Jay Performing Arts Center: While Saint John's High School and the Robert R. Jay Performing Arts Center are far from the lights of Broadway, the opening of this first-rate performing arts center holds a special place in my heart. Playing a key role in the fundraising efforts for this center, I could not imagine a more appropriate headliner than six-time Tony nominee and reigning Best Leading Actress in a Musical than Kelli O'Hara. Kelli's dedication to arts education is unparalleled and, simply put, there is no better interpreter of the American songbook than Ms. O'Hara. As one might expect, her rendition of "The Light in the Piazza" was astounding; her "O Holy Night" sublime; and her "Getting to Know You" with ten starstruck schoolboys irresistibly charming. Anyone who has read my Best of 2014 List knows that there is no other leading actress on Broadway who I respect more than Ms. O'Hara. The warmth and grace she showed to my home community as part of this monumental opening catapults my admiration of her to a whole new level. This was a special night that I will never forget and I know I'm not alone in this sentiment.
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