Well, it took a global health pandemic for me to carve out enough time to put together my Best of 2019 List. This weekend, I actually had a string of shows (Endlings and Sanctuary City) lined up to see at New York Theatre Workshop, but with COVID-19 causing both Broadway and off-Broadway houses to shut down, and with the Massachusetts state governor putting a ban on public gatherings in my home state, I thought I would use this time to relive some of 2019’s most treasured theater memories.
1. Is This a Room: Conceived and directed by Tina Satter, the Vineyard Theatre’s Is This a Room is an unforgettable 70 minute thrill ride. In 2017, a young Air Force vet named Reality Winner (yes - that is her real name) was in the news briefly when she was accused of leaking evidence about Russian interference in the U.S. voting system to the media. In a rare instance, the FBI transcript of her interrogation became publicly available. Is This a Room stages, word-for-word, this transcript in a way that combines moments of uber naturalism with elements of surrealism, creating a mind-reeling, downright frightening theatrical experience. When the play begins, the quartet of actors including Emily Davis, giving a knockout performance as Reality, and her interrogators, Pete Simpson (as Agent Garrick), TL Thompson (as Agent Taylor), and understudy Joe Lanza (as Unknown Man) give such credible, understated line-readings of the transcript that you begin to wonder if you are watching actors lip sync to an actual recording of the event - interestingly enough, this is a device the Vineyard would utilize later in its season in Lucas Hnath’s play Dana H. With the production’s stellar ensemble, amplified sound design, and stylistic staging and spacing, every word (and noise) counts - making the banal unsettling and the casual claustrophobic. This is a play about power and pressure; but not in the usual sense. It is a work that illuminates just how words and the manner in which they are said, may not always be congruous to the reactions they elicit from us. Satter makes sure the interrogation lives in our heads and as Reality begins to unravel - so do we.
2. The Lehman Trilogy: As I write this recap, the current stock market is plummeting much in a way that is reminiscent (at least for my generation) of 2008’s Great Recession - a year that marks the beginning of The Lehman Trilogy and one that saw government backed bailouts and the demise of such juggernauts, like Lehman Brothers, once deemed ‘too big to fail’. Staged with ingenuity and grace by Sam Mendes and performed flawlessly by a miraculously versatile cast (Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley), this three and a half hour historic epic follows the rise and fall of Lehman Brothers from its founding as an Alabama store in the 1840s by three immigrant Jewish brothers from Bavaria into the financial powerhouse of contemporary times. Ben Power adapted Italian playwright Stefano Massini’s script for this English language production. Massini’s work was originally conceived as a five hour radio play. Perhaps my only criticism of the piece (which is really more of a compliment) was that I felt somewhat short-changed, leaving the theater curious about what was left out. I would have happily spent an additional hour and a half with these masterful actors and Massini’s completely compelling and poetic storytelling While aiming to explore 150+ years of Western Capitalism sounds a bit ambitious, Massini strategically tells this story through the lens of a single family and one shrewdly evolving business. This National Theatre production was restaged in The Park Avenue Armory. Filling this grandiose space, set designer Es Devlin provides this epic tale with a cyclorama in which landscapes and cityscapes are projected behind a revolving glass box. Perhaps most moving was a black and white projection of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty in the distance as Henry Lehman arrived in America on September 11, 1844. In Henry, we see a man of humble beginnings, full of dreams, but grounded by a deep faith. We see elements of ourselves and our family history in him. And perhaps most sobering is the way we also see ourselves and America, as a whole, when community (as realized when the business trades Montgomery for New York) and faith (fully illustrated in the three minute observance for Philip Lehman’s passing compared to the week-long shiva for Henry) gives way to capitalism and modernism. Moments where Massini and Power make the historic feel personal earn this great play its number two spot.
3. Betrayal: As I sat in the Jacobs Theatre waiting for Betrayal to begin, I overheard multiple parties around me mention that they had seen the original production (it was a matinee, after all), but they no longer remembered the plot. I doubt anyone will soon forget Jamie Lloyd’s slick, minimalist revival. With just a turntable, a couple chairs, and two pairs of shoes amongst the sexy trio, Lloyd keeps the focus on the superb acting and each Pinter pause. Originally part of London’s “Pinter at the Pinter” season, this British transplant starred Zawe Ashton as Emma, Charlie Cox as Jerry, and Tom Hiddleston as Robert. This accomplished group of actors mines Pinter’s subtext, creating characters deeply at odds with each other and themselves. And honestly, I enjoyed this triangle so much, I would have considered returning a second time if this production offered performances where Cox and Hiddleston swapped roles. Donned in timeless costuming, Ashton, Cox, and Hiddleston bring a contemporary urgency and complexity to their characters - none of whom are blameless and all liable for their own wounds. Cleverly, Lloyd keeps all three characters onstage throughout; the third player observing without affect; a conscious obstruction in the minds of the lovers and a haunting, searing visualization of the psychology of infidelity for the audience.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird: Page to stage adaptations can be tricky, especially when adapting a work like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that has earned such reverence from readers across generations. Fortunately for theater audiences, celebrated playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and acclaimed director Bartlett Sher have teamed up for this adaptation. And the majority of the modest liberties they have taken with their adaptation pay off handsomely - most notably their decisions to split the narrative voice between Scout Finch (Celia Keenan-Bolger), her brother Jem (Will Pullen), and their friend Dill (Gideon Glick). With the new narrative structure, Sorkin creates a beautiful memory play that effortlessly bounces between courtroom and domestic scenes. Sher also hits a home run with his even bigger gamble (a choice that even left me questioning my favorite American director’s instincts) of having the story’s children played by adult actors. Fortunately, these fine actors deliver - bringing warmth, charm, curiosity, uncertainty, confusion, concern, humor, wit, and perhaps a depth that only an adult could as they recollect these transformative events. At the center of this story is Jeff Daniels’ Atticus Finch, the small town lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Daniels’ subtle, layered performance is one of the night’s highlights. At the time of this recap, Ed Harris has slipped into the role - another fantastic casting choice. Daniels’ Atticus is purposeful, rational, patient, optimistic, but with an occasional ferocity. He, like us, is left questioning the limits of tolerance and forgiveness. And he, like us, wants to believe in a world where the goodness of our neighbors will shine through, in spite of the bigotry before us. But ultimately, we see the world through Scout’s eyes, coming-of-age and fully realizing the injustice around us, but admiring those willing to stand up to it. So much of the ugliness that Scout and her gang witness this summer is unfortunately still visible today. As such, some of Sorkin’s missteps become unnecessary, including giving Calpurnia, the Finch’s black housekeeper, the playwright’s 21st century voice, and further villifying Bob Ewell as not only a racist, but also an anti-Semitic, anti-intellectual, alt-Right redneck. Even amidst these shortcomings, Sorkin and Sher’s impeccably staged and performed adaptation is delivered theatrically and dramatically (a true feat for any novel adaptation) with respect and relevance. This production deserves its blockbuster status and will undoubtedly become a new classic in the years to come
5. Score of We Live in Cairo: Inspired by a New York Times photograph of Egyptian youths gathered around a laptop during the Arab Spring, We Live in Cairo follows the stories of young activists who took part in the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the overthrowing of President Hosni Mubarak, and the political and psychological aftermath of this momentous act. One of the biggest obstacles contemporary musical theater writers face is finding source material that sings. Full of artists, poets, musicians, and revolutionaries - composer and lyricist Daniel and Patrick Lazour face no such trouble. From satirical protest songs (“Sharm El Sheikh”) to rousing anthems (“Tahrir is Now”) to the folksy, delicate ‘what if’ love ballad (“Movement”), this sibling songwriting team produced this season’s most original and sophisticated score; one stacked with lyrics that stimulate the brain, melodies that pierce the heart, and orchestrations that remind us that there is nothing comparable to experiencing music live and together. Orchestrated by Daniel Lazour and Michael Starobin, Cairo layers Western chord progressions on top of traditional Arabic rhythms creating a sound that is unique to musical theater, but authentic to the infusion found within Arabic protest music. “Dreaming Words” is perhaps the song that stays with you the longest. In this fantasy sequence, Hany duets with his brother Amir as they sing about the hopeful future they envisioned for themselves in 2011. In the end, Hany is left facing reality and disillusionment alone. The heart of the story rests in the relationship between these siblings - not surprising given that Cairo is the product of close collaboration between two brothers. With Daniel and Patrick Lazour, I am confident to say that the future of musical theater looks bright.
6. Sing Street: God knows I’m a sucker for good (and even some not so good) pastiche coming-of-age musicals. Set that coming-of-age story in a Christian Brothers all-male high school; throw in an awkward boy meets cool girl romance; add a catchy 80s pop score; and I’m sold. Based on John Carney’s modest movie musical, Sing Street could not be given a stronger opening than with protagonist Conor (Brenock O’Connor) hitting play and losing himself in Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”. From there we see Conor and his band of misfits using their infectious music to woo the girl, rebel against their draconian Headmaster Brother Baxter, slip away from the pressures of their home lives, and form their identities amid Ireland’s dismal economic state. With a young and multitalented (all the band members play their own instruments) cast, Sing Street has charm and energy to spare. Carney and Gary Clarks score nails the period and perfectly captures adolescence with its beautifully simple (“Going up, / She lights me up, / She breaks me up, / She lifts me up.”), refreshingly rough (“All the complicated boys boys / Know that the girls are so complicated / Try to open up your mind let go / Can you feel your heart liberated /By the complicated boys boys boys boys / And the complicated girls girls girls girls”) and delightfully direct (“Freedom / I’m takin’ it back / I’m outta here, no turnin’ back / In a baby blue Cadillac”) lyrics. The three leads including O’Connor, Zara Devlin (as the “happy sad” girl next door Raphina), and Gus Halper (as Conor’s agoraphobic, stoner brother, Brendan) all give top-notch, grounded performances. Devlin possesses an “it” quality that makes her irresistible to Brendan and the audience. Halper brings such conflicted pathos to his relationship with Conor that you think you are watching an O’Neill play. And Director Rebecca Taichman guides this cast with a sensitivity primed to explore themes of complicated first love, marital discontent, financial pressures, and ultimately escape. While the boys have been using their music as an effective temporary escape, Conor’s coming-of-age allows him the courage and ambition to envision a life beyond designer Bob Crowley’s projected Irish Sea. This is the ultimate escape - one that, with earned melancholy, is not afforded to every character in this family play. Book writer Enda Walsh graciously awards the moving finale “Go Now” to Halper and company, leaving my heart with an uplift I have not felt from a musical since The Band’s Visit.
7. Tracy Letts, Annette Bening, and Benjamin Walker in All My Sons: All My Sons is Arthur Miller’s best play. While some might disagree, I’m holding strong to this opinion. It’s a well-made play that when done well nearly always destroys. The play’s antagonist is Joe Keller, played with precision by the dependable Tracy Letts. Joe is a complex character; warm, gregarious, a steadfast capitalist, building a business as a loyal family man. When Joe makes the call to sell defective cylinder heads for wartime bombers, he pins the crime on his partner and neighbor as an act of self-preservation and protecting his business, specifically for his family, more specifically for his sons. Maybe it’s because I have just finished season one of The Sopranos, but I can see how the themes of Miller and the characterization of Joe Keller can be viewed somewhat as a prototype for the contradictions that make contemporary film and television characters like the conflicting Tony Soprano so compelling. Upon discovering the truth behind his father’s crime his eldest son, Larry, commits suicide (out of shame for his father’s actions) by crashing his bomber. This brings us to the action of All My Sons, years later when Joe’s younger son, Chris (Benjamin Walker), learns the truth about Larry’s death from his brother’s fiance Ann. Chris, who idolizes his father and, above all, believes in his innocence becomes a defeated man and shatters the bond between father and son: “I never saw you as a man. I saw you as my father. I can’t look at you this way, I can’t look at myself.” Realizing his responsibility in one’s son’s death and without the love of the other, a man has nothing. And with this Joe slips into the house to take his own life. Joe’s wife, Kate (Annette Bening) consoles her son, “Don’t dear. Don’t take it on yourself,” - but at this point, we know that is impossible and our tears shed for Chris. Letts gives a commanding performance as Joe - his charming, but slightly gruff and undeniably stubborn portrayal depicts a self-made mid-twentieth century man; the type that even without formal education can use grit, determination, gregariousness to build a business and a life for him and his family. Walker’s Chris, on the other hand, is of the next generation; softer, more sensitive, contemplative, and discerning - a most interesting portrayal of post-war masculinity, yet still possessing an unabashed idealism as we’ve come to expect from traditional Greatest Generation depictions. Bening’s Kate is a broken, guilt-ridden woman. She is desperate to believe that Larry is alive, out of fear that her husband’s action could have played a role in his death. But perhaps most surprising about her portrayal was the arsenal of manipulation (maternal warmth, nostalgia, hospitality) she unleashes on Ann’s brother George when she fears he will revive the case against her husband after he had talked with his wrongfully accused father in jail. In this scene, we believe this woman had the strength and the will-power to have lived this horrific lie out of loyalty to her husband and protection of family. We see Joe and Kate as a team. To watch Letts and Bening work this scene together was simply exhilarating. Upon George’s exit, I sat there and thought to myself: Bening would have made one hell of a Lady Macbeth in her day.
8. Small Mouth Sounds: Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds is one of my favorite plays of recent years and it received a stellar production directed by M. Bevin O’Gara at Boston’s SpeakEasy Theater last year. While few words are actually spoken in this play, it is a story that speaks loud and clear to this generation. In an age where the mainstream and social media have never been louder; where the noise around us creates tensions, frustrations, and insecurities; and our lives racing along at a mile a minute on empty - Wohl presents us a scenario of six individuals seeking respite at a secular, silent, spiritual retreat. While these six characters carry with them their share of stress and sorrow (Cancer, loss, relationship problems, etc.), Wohl’s narrative forces us to be astute observers - piecing together and inferring backstories based on characters’ expressions, gestures, reactions, sighs, cries, and laughs. O’Gara shapes each retreat episode with such clarity, empathy and humor leaving the audience rooting for each character to find exactly what he or she needs on this retreat. SpeakEasy’s cast is comprised of some of Boston’s finest actors including Barlow Adamson, Sam Simahk, Nael Nacer, Kerry A. Dowling, Celeste Olivia, Gigi Watson, and Mirianna Basshan as the unseen, androgynous overhead voice of The Teacher. Each of the fine actors create well-defined, unique characters evident in the ways they interpret The Teacher’s instructions, unpack their bags, undress for bed, etc. Hardly ever have I seen an ensemble as ‘in the moment’ as this one. While it may be unfair to call out the talent of a single actor in this piece, special mention should be made of Nael Nacer’s performance as Ned. Nacer delivers one of the funniest monologues onstage (perhaps short of Nathan Lane’s rant as Walter Burns in The Front Page) that I have ever seen. Not to give too much away, but Ned’s bad luck begins with a skull fracture in eight places and only gets worse from there. Nacer continued with his laundry list of misfortunes until my sides ached with pain from laughing so hard; and just as I thought he was done; he made a masterful shift into the existential. And in many ways, Wohl’s play as a whole is just like this monologue - a rare work that’s extremely funny and entertaining with moments of beauty and poignancy that reminds us of our very own struggle for peace and enlightenment.
9. Greater Good: I honestly debated including Company One’s production (in association with the American Repertory Theater) of Greater Good on this Best of List, but ultimately the sheer ambition of this project landed it a spot. When playwrights and directors attempt to tackle immersive theater, one of two things usually happen: the dramatic work plays second fiddle to the immersive and what you get is an experience, but not much narrative/drama; or the play itself remains paramount and the concept of immersion is used in the loosest sense of the word. To its credit, Greater Good manages balance between delivering a full-length play and giving audiences a full sensory site-specific voyeuristic experience. Playwright Kristin Greenidge and Director Steven Bogart boldly stage this cautionary tale at Boston’s Commonwealth School. This production uses various rooms (classrooms, library, boardroom, stairwells, administrative offices) to play out scenes in this magnificent brownstone educational building, a stand-in for the fictitious Gleason Street School, an alternative private school for students preschool through eighth grade. With the audience taking on the role of potential buyers for the property, and small groups, led by “real-estate agents”, moving room to room for each scene, the play adopts a non-linear structure until the audience reunites for the climactic final scene in the school’s board room where the cause of this school’s turmoil is finally revealed. Along the way, each scene reveals clues and exposes us to the political agendas, alliances, and rivalries that exist among the administration and parents council. Greenidge is a playwright who is not short for ideas. Her play examines themes of race, class, gender, and pedagogy through the politics of a once thriving, now struggling private school. Unfortunately, these themes are met with an equal number of tones and styles not so successfully blending elements of realism, satire, and surrealism. I can’t imagine how complicated the planning for this production must have been. At times, this nearly three hour experience felt far from finalized, as our guides were left delivering over-written filler to accommodate for the proper timing of moving audiences between rooms. While scripted, it felt more like awkward vamping on the part of these green, non-professional actors. Though far from a perfect play, I applaud these creatives for their courageous attempt. In an era where entertainment is so easily accessible right in our own homes (e.g. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc.), it is essential for theater makers to envision ways to encourage potential audience members to engage in a more active consumption of storytelling and art. As playwrights, directors, designers, and producers navigate this new frontier, I’m always thrilled to be part of the experiment as is evident in my respect for the efforts put forth in mounting Greater Good.
10. Once Upon a Mattress: A non-professional production has never made one of my Best of Lists...until now. Last June, in support of some friends, I attended Stepping Stone Community Theater’s production of Once Upon a Mattress. Stepping Stone is an inclusive theater company where individuals with varying physical, emotional, and learning abilities have the experience of performing in a full-scale theatrical production, while partnered alongside actors from the local theater community. By the end of “Opening for a Princess”, I was smiling from ear to ear with tears streaming down my cheeks. Never before have I witnessed actors displaying such an uninhibited joy of performing, met equally by an audience sharing, in return, such pride and support for those onstage. This infectious joy shared by the performers triggered the memory within me of the precise moment when I first fell in love with the theater. May these performers carry this love with them to each and every future production. I can’t wait to see what this group does next!
Like a wedding gift that arrives nearly a year after the ceremony, friends have agreed, my Best of Theater List is a treat that is still received better late than never. It has been a busy year - starting a new job, directing two shows and one reading, performing in another, investing in an additional two, and supporting as much commercial and regional theater as possible - and I have finally carved out enough time to reflect properly on those productions that I attended* between January 1, 2018 and December 31, 2018. I’ve made you wait long enough, so I won’t bore you with a long introduction. Without further explanation or excuses(!), here is my Best of 2018 List.
*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.
1. SpongeBob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical
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.
2. The Jungle
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.
3. Springsteen on Broadway:
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.
4. The Girl From the North Country:
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.
6. Revival Replacements - Hello, Dolly! and My Fair Lady
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.
7. Skeleton Crew:
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.
8. Kenneth Lonergan: Lobby Hero and The Waverly Gallery:
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.
9. Murder on the Orient Express
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.
10. Kyle Vincent Terry and John Douglas Thompson in Man in the Ring:
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.
In a year chock full of political controversy, sexual abuse allegations, and horrific acts of violence, it should come as little or no surprise that those topping my 'best of list' this year are in the realm of pure escapism. While during the Depression, RKO gave our grandparents Fred and Ginger to tap their troubles away to; in 2017, Scott Rudin paired Bette Midler with Jerry Herman to help us avoid (at least for a few hours) the latest Twitter rant to go viral. Comedy, song, and dance has never felt as essential.
In spite of the divisiveness that defines our country at this very moment, the theater provides us with an opportunity to cherish something that is becoming unfortunately rarer and rarer these days – a pure, communal experience. From the enthusiastic ovations of a star’s entrance to the tense, collective breaths held during a dramatic monologue, I am grateful to have had those moments this year that reminded me of our shared humanity. This is what has kept the theater alive since ancient times and this is what makes it as necessary as ever today. And while it feels like each day we are inching closer and closer to our own apocalypse, leave it to a Golden Age musical comedy from over a half century ago to remind us that “the world is full of wonderful things.” Here’s this year’s list, mentioning just a few of those wonderful things.
It should be noted that both The Band’s Visit and Olso appeared on my Best of 2016 List in recognition of their off-Broadway runs last year. They certainly would be on the top of this year's list if not previously recognized.
1. Crazy For You: Theater is, by its very nature, an ephemeral art form. As such, there is something extra special about being in the audience for a one-night only presentation, particularly if it's a star-studded affair directed and choreographed by one of musical comedy's funniest and most inventive talents, Susan Stroman. In honor of its 25th anniversary, Manhattan Concert Presentations staged this classic Gershwin/Ludwig confection (adapted from the Gershwins' 1930 Girl Crazy) complete with original Stroman choreography. Produced with a cast to make comedy and musical theater fans drool: Tony Yazbek (Bobby Child), Laura Osnes (Polly Baker), Harry "the original Bobby Child" Groener (Bela Zangler), Rachel Bloom (Irene Roth), Jerry O'Connell (Lank Hawkins), Mark Linn-Baker (Everett Baker), Nancy Opel (Lottie Child), and NBC favorites Jack McBrayer (Eugene Fodor) and Rachel Dratch (Patricia Fodor) - this charming show had its audience in the palm of its hand from its overture through its choreographed curtain call. Having grown up watching and loving the Paper Mill Playhouse's production on Great Performances, it was a wonderful treat to finally see a professional production of this delightful musical mounted with its Tony-Award winning choreographer at the helm. With limited rehearsal time and only one shot to 'bring it', the cast delivered performances full of passion, professionalism, and the occasional (and certainly understandable) opening night nerves - all translating into an electrifying, unforgettable night of theater. Yazbek's Bobby Child once again proves why he is currently Broadway's greatest hoofer (he came to my attention as an impressive Tulsa in the 2008 revival of Gypsy) and Osnes continues to justify why she is one of musical theater's most sought after ingenues with a Polly full of spunk and a grounded emotional center. Theater veterans Linn-Baker, Opel, and Groener add a dash of old-Broadway class to the affair while Dratch, McBrayer, Bloom, and O'Connell provided the appropriate levels of contemporary zaniness to make the material feel fresh. While each of the principals appeared to be having the time of their lives, Bloom, in particular, brought the infectious giddiness of a high school freshman on opening night to her bow. Given the applause Bloom received, it was clear this Golden Globe Award winning actress and acclaimed comic writer was fulfilling the dreams of every theater nerd in the audience.
2. Hello, Dolly!: Bette Midler, last seen in a book musical on Broadway as a replacement for Tzeitel in the 1967 cast of Fiddler on the Roof, returned to her roots starring as Dolly Levi in this year's revival of Hello, Dolly! While not the perfect musical revival I had hoped for, this 1963 classic easily became the musical theater event of the year. Even at a Saturday matinee, you could feel a collective energy amidst the audience as the overture began - an energy commonly felt at rock concerts, yet rarely at Broadway musicals these days. What was perfect about this Dolly was its star (Rudin couldn't have nabbed a bigger and brassier one) and nearly all of its principal casting, While there were moments when the 71-year old Midler's voice sounded slightly strained (most notably during Before the Parade Passes By). there is no arguing that the vaudevillian antics of Dolly Levi and the oversized comic chops of Midler were a perfect match. And those who love musical theater, couldn't help but cherish the experience as Midler descended the Harmonia Gardens' staircase (decked out in Dolly's signature elegant, red sequined gown with feathered headdress) to the opening bars of the title song in what might be the most flawless musical theater moment of 2017. David Hyde Pierce, as one can imagine, made a wonderful sparring partner for Midler. While Horace must play second banana (and understandably so) to Dolly anytime they share the stage, Director Jerry Zaks more than made it up to David Hyde Pierce and his many fans by re-installing the humorous, once-cut "Penny in My Pocket" as the second act opening. His introduction song, the cleverly choreographed "It Takes a Woman", is also one of the show's musical highlights. And in addition to Midler and Hyde Pierce, Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin give memorable performances as Cornelius Hackl and Irene Malloy, respectively. Creel infuses Hackl with undeniable charm while Baldwin (one of Broadway's most consistently terrific actresses) finds unexpected humor and tenderness in Malloy. Next up, Bernadette Peters and Victor Garber will be taking over for Midler and Hyde Pierce, giving Broadway aficionados another chance to see a new pair of fan favorites in these roles. David Merrick had a parade of stars coming in and out for a solid six years during Dolly's original run - let's see how many Rudin will be able squeeze out of this revival!
3. The Play That Goes Wrong: There is always plenty of great theater to see in London...except on Sundays. Wanting to see a show each night I was in town, I decided to catch the long-running comedy smash The Play That Goes Wrong - ironically, just months before it opened in New York. In a nod to Murphy's law, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong in this backstage farce as a group of amateur players attempt to make it through a Mousetrap-like murder mystery. Missed cues, mixed-up props, malfunctioning sets, injured actors, and more ensue. While the comedy might be sophomoric, the hardest working cast of the season delivers comic performances of unmatched commitment, discipline, and precision. As the complexity of the slapstick grew and the absurdity of the comedy escalated, I could not think of a time when I have laughed harder in the theater. As I think back to my own childhood, I remember watching Home Alone on VHS with my father and grandfather (whose first, second, and third languages were not English!) during the 1991 Christmas holiday. Say what you want about the dramatic achievements of Home Alone, but there is something quite special and impressive about a movie whose physical comedy can leave three separate generations (ages 7 to 80) laughing uncontrollably. Grinning ear to ear as I walked out London's Duchess Theatre, I thought back to that Christmas in 1991. Though The Play That Goes Wrong may not be primed to win the Pulitzer, it is great fun - entertainment that I know would leave three generations rolling in the aisles today.
4. The Wolves: Sarah DeLappe's first play is a winner. Developed through the Breaking Ground Festival at the Huntington Theatre Company in 2016, The Wolves has enjoyed full New York productions at The Duke and most recently Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Set around a series of pre-game exercises and practices, nine female high school soccer players tackle the complexities of adolescence. The physical precision of their soccer drills are matched by the rapid-fire volley of DeLappe's smart dialogue. From Harry Potter to the Khmer Rouge, there is no subject matter too juvenile or cerebral for these girls. The drama that DeLappe explores is all character driven and completely authentic - eating disorders, social anxiety, athletic and academic pressures, and even death. Whether dishing on boys, gossiping about each other, talking smack about their coaches, or discussing their menstrual cycles, each conversation adds to the creation of nine very distinct characters - several of whom transcend our very own basic assumptions and biases as the play unfolds. Director Lila Neugebauer assembles a superb (for lack of a better word to describe this type of tight ensemble acting) team. While each girl has wonderful individual moments, Neugebauer shapes DeLappe's work in way that we, as audience members, never forget how instrumental relationships can be in shaping personal identity. The emotional impact of this work sneaks up on you. In the course of 90 minutes, DeLappe has you fully invested in and caring for each of these young women. While we never have the opportunity to be fans in the stands for an actual game, if we did, we'd know exactly which team we'd be cheering for.
5. Brigadoon: New York City Center presented a simply gorgeous revival of the 1947 classic that left audiences' imaginations and hearts full. Coming straight off An American in Paris (with National Tour, West End, and an upcoming Japanese productions running), Director and Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon mounts a sensitive production packed full of magic and love, primarily achieved through the score's beautiful ballads, Wheeldon's spirited dances, and the casts' earnest performances. With musical theater treasure, Kelli O'Hara as Fiona MacLaren, Loewe's melodies have never sounded more beautiful. O'Hara and Patrick Wilson's shared duets, 'The Heather on the Hill', 'Almost Like Being in Love' and 'From This Day On,' leave you wondering if finer songs have ever been written or if finer voices have every been heard on the stage. When O'Hara appears as a near memory to reprise these numbers in a New York bar room, she leaves you ready to pack your bags and return to the cursed (or is it blessed?) town of Brigadoon with Tommy Albright. For supporting roles, Wheeldon recruited two of An American in Paris' best: Robert Fairchild (originated Jerry on Broadway and in the West End) as Harry Beaton and Sara Esty (National Tour's Lise) as Jean MacLaren. While Stephanie J. Block (playing Meg Brockie) is always game for a comic number (her 'I'm Breaking Down' was the highlight of last season's Falsettos), Daily Show veteran Aasif Mandvi gave the 1940s book a fresh, yet nostalgic vibe by playing Jeff Douglas with Dean Martin-gusto. Like some of the best Shakespearean plays, this Brigadoon, gives us a fairy tale full of all different shades of love: young, pure, lustful, and melancholic.
6. Merrily We Roll Along: A friend of mine once said about Merrily We Roll Along (and I'm paraphrasing): "It can't be turned into a good musical, but it can be performed brilliantly," This is the case with the Huntington's production. The major hurdle this and any production must overcome is inherent in its structure (and the structure of the Kaufman & Hart play its adapted from): Audiences must watch and believe that these horrible, miserable, embittered adults we are introduced to in the first scene were once the young, nice, hopeful artists-in-the-making in the finale. When the Huntington Theatre Company announced it would be remounting Maria Friedman's West End revival of Merrily We Roll Along, I have to admit, I was a bit nervous. I had seen the London revival cast when it was transmitted to movie theaters and I wasn't a fan. I remember the cast of the filmed production exacerbating the problems of the musical - each of the performances overstated, abrasive, and unbelievable. Either something magical happened as this production transferred over the Atlantic or Lonny Price's terrific documentary Best Worst Thing That Could Ever Happen softened my attitudes toward the material. Perhaps most instrumental in Friedman's success is her decision to re-cast all the of the principal females with American actresses. Broadway veteran Eden Espinosa now takes on the role of Mary Flynn, the alcoholic author/critic and Boston locals Jennifer Ellis and Aimee Doherty play Beth and Gussie Carnegie, Frank's first and second wives, respectively. Even West End originals Damian Humbley and Mark Umbers as Charles and Frank have upped their games diving deeper into the text and finding subtle beats to create cohesive characterizations across time. Friedman smartly makes Frank our central (almost tragic) character. Perhaps more clearly than in the London production, we understand how he 'got to be here.' It wasn't one mistake that caused Frank's life to spiral out of control. It was many small mistakes, while sometimes misguided, always seemed right in the moment. And with Friedman making the narrative work for Frank, perhaps, she was able to make Merrily as good as it can get. While Merrily will never lose the challenges it faces with its backwards arc, there was no shortage of wonderful individual moments in the Huntington's production, most notably: the undeniable chemistry of its three central friends (most apparent in 'Old Friends'), Ellis' heart-wrenching rendition of 'Not a Day Goes By' (it's given to her character before you even really know her and yet Ellis still makes your heart ache for Beth), Doherty's deliciously vampy show-stopping finale to Musical Husbands, and the delightfully silly "Bobby and Jackie and Jack." Perhaps my favorite moment in this revival occurs in the second act when Frank and Charley showcase their soon-to-be hit song, "Good Thing Going", at Gussie's party. In this production, time metaphorically stops for Frank, Charley, and all those who are listening to these young writers on the rise. We are enchanted by their talent. We are hopeful for their futures (even though we know the outcomes). And when these writers are persuaded to perform their song one-more-time (against Charley's better judgement), our stomachs sink for them as they've outstayed their welcome and the tide has turned as the guests' attention has drifted. Surprising to me, all these fully realized individual moments paid off - for the first time, 'Our Time', the show's finale, left me feeling wistful. I tip my hat to you, Maria Friedman and the Huntington.
7. Amanda Plummer and James Earl Jones in The Night of the Iguana: This past winter, director Michael Wilson and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge offered Boston audiences a star-studded, though uneven, revival of Tennessee William's The Night of the Iguana. I was first introduced to this play as a freshman at the College of the Holy Cross where I had the opportunity to assistant direct a production for the Department of Theatre. Over the course of four years, I would go on to study, many of the greats: Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Williams, etc. ultimately settling in on O'Neill as my favorite playwright. I explored O'Neill deeper as part of a senior honors thesis that examined parallel Freudian themes in the playwright's life and work, most prominently those displayed in his masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night. Upon, revisiting Iguana, I was surprised by just how much the second act of the play has in common with some of O'Neill's greatest fourth acts. In Iguana's second act, Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, a defrocked Episcopalian minister taking refuge (in the midst of leading a vacation tour) at an old friend's Mexican motel, shares a cathartic confession with Hannah Jelkes, a spinster artist played exquisitely by Amanda Plummer. Much like Josie Hogan's offering of forgiveness and peace to a tortured James Tyrone in A Moon for the Misbegotten, Hannah's charity to Shannon is boundless while her judgement is non-existent. Plummer's performance is defined by its calmness and saintly grace. With a strong command over some of William's most poetic language, Plummer's reading of Hannah is full of kindness, humor, quirk, resilience, and redemption. And speaking of a command of William's poetry, the venerable film and stage actor James Earl Jones gives a commanding performance as Hannah's nearly 100 year old poet grandfather, Nonno, The wisdom, experience, and gravitas, he brings to Nonno's final poem reminds us we are in the presence of theater royalty - if only all WIlliam's interpretations could be as good as the ones Plummer and Jones rendered.
8. A Doll's House: Part 2: Lucas Hnath, one of our most talented contemporary playwrights, is enamored by debate. While his last play, The Christians (unfortunately I never saw it performed, but read it afterward), was a terrific dissection of faith, A Doll's House: Part 2 picks up 15 years after A Doll's House left off and examines and disputes the conventions surrounding marriage, motherhood, gender, and law. A tightly constructed parlay, A Doll's House: Part 2 is a 90 minute joyride. While the characters are familiar to us, Hnath uses his sequel as a clever springboard for contemporary discourse full of hilarious one-liners and surprising, but logical twists and turns. While Nora was the hero of Ibsen's original, Hnath makes sure he gives everyone an equal voice in the sequel including Anne Marie, the Helmer's servant/nanny who had to sacrifice her life to pick-up the responsibilities that Nora left behind, Torvald, the emotionally devastated husband, and Emmy, the daughter made in her mother's pre-enlightened' likeness. Still, with nearly 140 years between the original and this sequel, enough time has passed to poke some fun at these consequences through deconstruction. Laurie Metcalf dazzles at the center of a strong Broadway ensemble giving one of the season's most memorable performances as the funny, self-aware, and often absurdist Nora Helmer. With four actors, a recognizable property, a single set, and an audience pleasing script, A Doll's House: Part 2 will surely be one of the most produced plays of next season.
9. The Hairy Ape: While Eugene O'Neill's 1922 expressionistic play The Hairy Ape is best known for its indictment of industrialism, its themes of class conflicts, disillusionment, and the disharmony between the self and society were particularly pertinent in 2017. Originally staged at the Old Vic in London, this re-conceived production by Director Richard Jones was mounted in Manhattan's huge Park Avenue Armory. Set (and costume designer) Stewart Laing brought Ape's theme of the mechanization of society to life through a giant circular conveyor belt used to help set each of the play's eight episodes. Bobby Cannavale plays Robert "Yank" Smith, a stoker, who after being humiliated by Mildred, the daughter of a rich steel corporation executive, goes on an unsuccessful search to find his sense of humanity/belonging among 5th Avenue aristocrats, the Wobblies, and eventually a gorilla in the zoo. Cannavale is perfectly cast in this role - he imbues strength, machismo, and athleticism. In the early scenes, he possesses a coarse pride that matches the fire he's fueling in the boiler. And as he journeys as a 'forgotten man' through a new 20th century world, we see Cannavale's desperation, frustration, and despair grow in a quite moving way. Giving one of the most visceral performances this year, he's one of our most gifted stage actors - the type Directors like Harold Clurman or Lee Strasberg would have killed to work with at the Group Theater. Other standouts in the cast also include David Constabile as Paddy, a terrific foil for Yank as he bemoans the loss of the sea's romanticism to the age of coal, and Becky Ann Baker as Mildred's reticent Aunt. While Jones gives his all to use the expansive Armory to the show's advantage, much of the claustrophobia that sets in on Yank and his "caged" comrades is lost on the audience in this unique theater setting. The Old Vic provides a first-class memorable production in an unforgettable venue, but one can't help long for the heat O'Neill's original audience must have felt in Greenwich Village's tiny Provincetown Playhouse
10. Kevin Kline and Kate Burton in Present Laughter: Since Present Laughter first opened on Broadway in 1946, stars have lined up regularly to step into the role of Garry Essendine, a part Noel Coward originally wrote for himself. Academy Award winner Kevin Kline follows in the footsteps of Victor Garber, Frank Langella, George C. Scott (which also featured Kate Burton as Daphne Stillington), Coward, and Clifton Webb on the Great White Way; in addition to the dozens of other well-respected actors who have tackled the part in the regional market and abroad. The best way to describe Kline's comic performances is effortless. From his witty deliveries to a seductive lean or a double take in the mirror, Kline is in full control of his elegant performance; with every gesture so deliberate (yet smooth) you know Essendine blocked it himself. With Kline comes the athleticism of a former matinee idol and with the oral polish of a classically-trained actor. Kate Burton provides equal sophistication as Garry's wife, Liz. Filling Liz with equal parts dignity and warmth, she serves as the perfect partner to challenge, calm, and bring order into the life of the man whose number she knows so well. Kline and Burton's scenes are some of the very best in this revival, reminding audiences how good high comedy can be when performed with style. This winter, I took a group of high school students to see the play. While I was expecting them to enjoy the big showbiz egos and farcical twists the most, I was taken a bit off guard to hear what themes they were talking about afterward. Surprisingly, this group of fourteen to eighteen year old boys were most fascinated by the blurred lines between one's public/stage persona and one's self. Clearly - if this was the topic of conversation during our post-show dinner, it must be chalked up to Kline's carefully etched portrayal of Broadway's most popular narcissist.
11. The Stage Management of Burn All Night: Whether you like it or not, immersive theater is here to stay. With a catchy, pop score by Van Hughes, Nicholas LaGrasta, and Brett Moses (members of Teen Commandments), Burn All Night is a coming-of-age story set in and around the night life of New York City as the end of the world approaches. While the score, genres, and stakes all make the dramaturgy of this piece a bit incongruous, the stage management of this production deserves special commendation. In an effort to attract young, spirited theater-goers, drinks are sold from the bar throughout the performance, with many of the scenes being staged around a shifting audience to bring viewers directly into the heart of the action. Given the major physical obstacles of this production, it's not surprising that at least two glasses broke in the middle of the performance. Responding to the spilled booze and shattered glass, the crew members of Burn All Night were barely seen or heard as they swiftly cleaned up the mess before the audience was required to make its next shift. The show must go on and it did, indeed, thanks to the skill and professionalism of Burn's backstage team.
It is with great delight that I reflect on some of the Best Theater of 2016. From exciting new works to star-studded revivals, my year-end wrap up looks to recognize those exceptional productions and performances on and off Broadway. While the hype surrounding Hamilton still saturates the theatrical zeitgeist, hopefully this list will inspire a few readers to revisit a classic, take a chance on a new play, or support a local regional theater.
1. The Band’s Visit at the Atlantic Theatre Company: On November 12, days after the Presidential election, I attended the first preview performance of The Atlantic Theatre Company’s premiere of The Band’s Visit. I knew very little about this new musical except that it had been adapted from a relatively unknown, but critically acclaimed Israeli film. Always interested in seeing new work, I was especially curious about this project being a fan of nearly everyone involved including composer David Yazbek, director David Cromer (Hal Prince had once been attached), and featured actor Tony Shalhoub (giving an understated performance of infinite depth). The months leading up to the election had been ones defined by mudslinging, hatred, cynicism, and tension. Following election night, you could detect in the air (regardless of which candidate you supported) a genuine sense of depression, uncertainty, and fear - particularly strong among New Yorkers. Though after the 90 blissful minutes of The Band’s Visit, a show about love, connection, and commonality, I emerged from the theater with a renewed faith in humanity, compassion and goodness. Not bad for a modest Off-Broadway musical? Now if Washington could take a note out of Yazbek, Cromer, and Itamar Moses’ figurative and literal book!
The Band’s Visit finds members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, ready to perform at the inaugural ceremony of an Arab cultural center, stranded overnight in the wrong Israeli town. The Egyptian musicians are taken in by local Bet Hatikvans: Dina (a mesmerizing Katrina Lenk), a cafe owner; and Itzik (John Cariani giving a very touching performance), the unhappily married new dad living with his baby, wife, and father-in-law. While nationalistic tensions are certainly not ignored, they are not explicitly explored either. Instead, the creatives focus on the generosity of the human spirit, instinctual, mutual curiosity of the other, and the universal need to find connection and love in one’s life - the last theme emphasized in the beautiful and powerful full-company ballad “Answer Me”. Not suprisingly, Cromer directs one of best acted musicals I have ever seen. Every moment is full of truth. and when appropriate, he trusts silence to speak louder than words. Additionally, Yazbek writes an evocative score reminiscent of his best pieces in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. While the show is wrapping up its limited (though twice extended) run at the Atlantic next week - fingers are crossed a larger audience will have an opportunity to see this piece during a future commercial run.
Following a joyous encore featuring the band (doing double duty) of The Band’s Visit, I hopped in an Uber heading to Grand Central to catch the Metro North home. Wouldn’t you know, my driver was a first-generation Egyptian American. During the 15 minute ride, we discussed everything from the musical I had just seen to Egyptian popular culture and music, the current political state of Egypt, the immigrant experience in America, and the most recent election. Perhaps, if I had not seen this musical, I would have sat quietly in the back seat of the car Tweeting and responding to email on my iPhone until I arrived at my destination. But after the evening’s performance, I couldn’t help but want to get to know the man behind the wheel. It is unlikely that The Band's Visit will change the world - but it certainly left a lasting impression on mine - Uber and onward.
2. The Front Page: Hecht and MacArthur’s classic and still hilarious hard-boiled comedy, The Front Page, received a first-rate revival with a collective star-powered cast that surely won’t be topped this season or possibly any season soon. The Front Page, set in a press room as reporters wait to cover the hanging of a convicted murderer, is full of vulgar characters, off-color one-liners, and astute cynicism. While the way news was obtained, reported, and consumed in 1928 differs greatly in contemporary times, the competition, corruption, and dark-humor inherent in this material’s portrayal of the press and politics feels as fresh and as timely today. Producer Scott Rudin and Director Jack O’Brien were smart enough to stack the deck with more than a couple of aces including headliners Nathan Lane (as loudmouthed editor Walter Burns), John Slatterly (as prized press Hildy Johnson), and John Goodman (as the few eggs short of a dozen sheriff, Hartman), Additionally, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott, Micah Stock, and Robert Morse all take on memorable supporting roles. This type of A-list casting may be necessary for commercial audiences sitting down to a three-act-er, but it is also ingeniously inspired because The Front Page is built in a way that allows audiences to await and rejoice at each star entrance leading up to the most anticipated by Nathan Lane. Lane might be Broadway’s funniest funny man and his turn in The Front Page does not disappoint. He has the rare ability to deliver a performance that feels both disciplined (pitch perfect line delivery - e.g. “The son of a bitch stole my watch") and spontaneous (physical schtick - e.g. nearly having a coronary has he attempts to move the desk hiding Earl Williams). Though Lane’s performance alone might be worth the price of admission - what makes The Front Page ‘can’t miss’ is the exceptional ensemble work from some of the best character actors on Broadway. As I walked out of the Broadhurst Theatre on cloud nine, I stopped by the Drama Book Shop with the greatest urge to read even more Hecht and MacArthur. Perhaps leaving New York with a newly purchased copy of Hecht and MacArthur’s Twentieth Century is the greatest honor I can bestow on these classic comic playwrights and the highest praise I can give to this sublime production. Lane, Slattery and company left me wanting more.
3. Oslo: Following the critical success of their first collaboration, Blood and Gifts, playwright J.T. Rogers and director Bartlett Sher have teamed up to bring Olso, a gripping three hour, secret-history, political drama chronicling the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, to the stage. Rogers frames his work with Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), an official in the Norwegian foreign ministry, as our narrator along with husband Terje Rød Larsen (Jefferson Mays), the Director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences, as her co-host and co-facilitator for these intimate diplomatic conversations that occurred between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Rogers has created a brisk, high stakes, entertaining and accessible drama out of very complex subject matter. And Sher has once again assembled a tight-knit ensemble of fourteen terrific actors playing twenty-one roles with accomplished designer Michael Yeargan transporting us across geography and time with an attractive, minimalist set. Most notably among Sher’s stellar ensemble are Oslo’s protagonists played by Michael Aronov as Uri Savir, the Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and Anthony Azzizi as Ahmed Querie (known as Abu Ala), Finance Minsiter for the PLO. Aronov and Azzizi’s scenes are simply electric. Oslo achieves something somewhat miraculous: Though we are aware of the history that follows (from our own knowledge and through a sobering coda succeeding an ebullient climax) both specifically (Rabin’s assassination) and in general (the seemingly endless upheaval between the Israelis and the Palestinians), we, like our optimistic hosts, Larsen and Juul, still want to hold on to the belief that the diplomatic humanistic framework established at Olso can create friends out of enemies - if not on an international scale then certainly on an interpersonal one. Any step toward peace is a good one. Good news for those who missed Olso off-Broadway, Lincoln Center Theater plans to move the production to the Vivian Beaumont Theater, hopefully making this excellent new play a now eligible front-runner at this year's Tony Awards.
4. Jessica Lange in Long Day’s Journey Into Night: Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is easily the greatest American family drama, if not arguably (and I’d be the first to defend it) the greatest American play. This year, the Roundabout Theatre (also represented on this list with Jane Krakowski in She Loves Me) gave this heart-wrenching work a most worthy revival. While the whole cast is terrific, this remounting belongs to its Mary Tyrone, the exquisite Jessica Lange, a favorite and frequent collaborator of the show’s producer, TV mogul Ryan Murphy. Lange’s performance is lovingly shaped by English director Jonathan Kent. And I use the term ‘lovingly’ as much for the way he stages this production (the audience becomes fully engulfed by the vulnerability of Lange’s character by placing her on a downstage left bench during some of her character’s most intimate, unprotected, and personal moments) and the way he brackets and highlights her two-person scene with the maid Cathleen giving her an opportunity to make Mary’s isolation and loneliness even more pronounced. Kent is smart to try to preserve these deeply sympathetic moments for his Mary because Lange is a truly visceral and spontaneous (though extremely disciplined) actress who has now been given the freedom to deliver an unforgettable performance layered with hurt, malice, regret, anger, blame, and paranoia. The most welcome surprise Lange brings to the role is her undeniable sex appeal. Playing opposite an extremely charismatic and distinguished Gabriel Byrne as James Tyrone, one can imagine this couple in their youth at the height of their physical beauty embarking on a relationship defined by passion and the promise of a hopeful future. Lange and Gabriel make it easy for the audience to believe in the good years and know there is love and sorrow beneath their rancorous present. And in the last scene, Kent has Mary enter in a morphine-induced haze to the downstage bench, fading out on her paralyzed family and spotlighting Lange for her final observation: “Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone...and was so happy for a time.” As the remaining lights descend on its luminous star, the audience tries to savor every last moment of her breathtaking and heartbreaking performance.
5. Sutton Foster in Sweet Charity: Sutton Foster, possibly more so than any other Broadway star that has tackled the role before her, finds the delicate balance between the whimsy and the wistful in Charity Hope Valentine - a quality that made Guilietta Massina’s title role performance in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece Il Notti di Cabiria unforgettable. Like Massina, Foster has the rare ability to clown around in one scene (Foster’s shtick in Vittorio Vidal’s penthouse leaves us in stitches) and break our hearts in the next. Director Leigh Silverman calls some well-conceived creative shots to re-focus her star’s character arc from the show’s beginning (using the full male ensemble to show the cyclical nature of Charity’s misbegotten relationships in ‘You Should See Yourself’) to its finale (re-structuring the musical numbers to end with ‘Where Am I Going?’). This new ending packs an emotional punch not achieved through the Good Fairy’s ‘hopefully ever after’ finale in the original and rewards the audience with a closing, self-reflective number with its star. While the pared-down production doesn’t always have a pay off (‘I’m Brass Band’ without any brass performed by an ensemble grounded in their Fan Dango costumes ready for the next scene, for instance), Sutton Foster knock-out performance in one of the most intimate spaces in New York makes this production can't miss.
6. Walter Bobbie’s Direction of Bright Star: Having worked on the short-lived musical High Fidelity with Walter Bobbie in 2006, I know he is the type of upbeat, dedicated director who doesn’t merely develop musicals with his creative team, but he builds family amongst his cast and production staff. In his visually stunning production of Bright Star where principals, ensemble, and band are all fully integrated into the storytelling. Bobbie was the perfect person to be at the helm of this project. Set in two time periods (1920s and 1940s), Bright Star begins with the post-WWII return of soldier, Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), who is mentored by Asheville Literary Journal editor Alice Murphy (a sensational star-turn by Carmen Cusack), a once backwoods spitfire. And through classic melodramatic plotting devices we learn, without much surprise, how these characters and their stories are connected. The shortcomings of the story are certainly elevated by a lively and often lovely score by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, outstanding performances, and Bobbie’s dynamic staging, seamlessly conceived with Josh Rhodes choreography. Bobbie coaxes grounded, first-class performances out of Cusack and Shively as well as Hannah Elless (delivering the show’s most beautiful ballad “Asheville”) and Paul Alexander Nolan as Billy and Alice’s love interests, respectively. Supporting actors Emily Padgett and Jeff Blumenkrantz deliver pitch-perfect charming, comic performances as Journal co-workers. Perhaps what made Bright Star most enjoyable, though, are the theatrical devices Bobbie employs to keep the narrative flowing between multiple locations and periods. Highlights include: utilizing the entire ensemble in the title song to mark Billy’s journey to Asheville in what may be Broadway’s most successful “montage number”; Cusack’s simple, Brechtian, yet still somewhat magical onstage transformation from polished professional to plucky teen in “Way Back in the Day”, the convergence of two eras in the ebullient act two opener “Sun is Gonna Shine”; and the synthesis of song, story, character, and movement through an always present and frequently gliding, stellar bluegrass band.
7. Savion Glover’s Choreography in Shuffle Along: Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed, the longest titled musical on Broadway this season, is George C. Wolfe’s historic re-telling of the birth of this all-black book musical as obstacles are overcome and tensions arise between the creative team and company behind the scenes. With an all-star cast including Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Joshua Henry, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Billy Porter and a backstage story filled creative egos and racial tensions, there is certainly more than enough drama to sustain a compelling 21st century musical. Unfortunately, Wolfe with his edifying book full of dense narration never fully commits to dramatizing the story. But when this sensational cast breaks into song and dance - the results are electric. Savion Glover, one of the most talented dancers and choreographers working today, delivers some of the most expressive and memorable tap numbers Broadway audiences have seen in years. Full of innovation, syncopation, and athleticism, Glover derives multiple showstoppers from this Sissle-Blake score starting with the opening number “Broadway Blues”. And with first-rate designs by Santo Loquasto (sets), Ann Roth (costumes), and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (Lighting), Glover’s numbers range from dazzling (“I’m Just Wild About Harry”) to elegant (“Everybody’s Struttin’ Now”). While the original creators of Shuffle Along were threatened they would not be remembered, Glover’s re-inventions of these 1920s tunes, will surely not soon be forgotten.
8. I Was Most Alive With You at The Huntington Theatre Company: In 2013, I fell in love with Nina Raine’s Tribes, a play featuring a deaf actor (Russell Harvard in the American premiere) that put a unique spin on the coming-of-age and family genres through its dissection of language, communication, and identity. I was not alone in my admiration of this play. After seeing David Cromer’s production of Tribes at the Barrow Street Theater in New York, playwright Craig Lucas was inspired to write this new work for Harvard, a play that would receive its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, MA. The plot of I Was Most Alive With You, inspired by The Book of Job, follows Knox, a Deaf, gay, recovering addict, whose life and luck spirals downward when tragedy strikes. Through the use of Deaf/deaf actors, surtitles, and shadow interpreters, this incredibly ambitious production was purposefully written and staged in a way that would be completely accessible to Deaf audiences at every performance. The sensory results (flat/linear staging, slowed down tempo, etc.) certainly took some getting used to for hearing audience members, but certainly paid off with a visually stimulating, multi-layered interpretation of the text. Just as ambitious are Lucas’ themes: faith (several represented on stage), the role of choice, and the concepts of disabilities and gifts. I Was Most Alive With You is the perfect example of a regional non-profit taking an artistic risk to develop new works that serve, engage, incorporate, and challenge diverse talent and audiences.
9. Dogfight at SpeakEasy Stage Company: Pasek and Paul are the toast of Broadway with their current hit Dear Evan Hansen (featuring a knockout performance from star Ben Platt) and with their lyrics represented on the big screen in the critically acclaimed musical La La Land. While Dear Evan Hansen will be the show that launches this young writing duo's careers to official stardom, their modest, but moving musical Dogfight may be (at least in my humble opinion) their best work to-date. Having become a favorite of mine through listening to its Off-Broadway cast recording, I regret not seeing Dogfight's New York premiere at Second Stage in the summer of 2012. In times like these, I am grateful for companies like Boston's SpeakEasy Stage Company, whose mission it is to give popular New York plays and musicals their regional premieres shortly after they bow in the Big Apple. Dogfight, a coming-of-age musical set against the early days of the Vietnam War, follows a young marine (Eddie played by Jordan J. Ford) as he begins an unlikely 24 hour romance with a plain waitress (Rose played by Alejandra M. Perrilla) after inviting her to cruel and humiliating party. Knowing exactly how to make a "movie to musical adaptation" sing, this young writing team has peppered their story with a male bonding song (“Some Kinda Time”; a song genre they really excel at, see “Sincerely, Me” from Dear Evan Hansen), an ‘I Want’ song (Nothing Short of Wonderful), an internal monologue number (“First Date/Last Night” rivaling South Pacific’s “Twin Soliloquies”), an unconventional love ballad (“Give Way”), among others. Director Paul Daigneault has fine control over the superb material and his generally talented cast (also including yet another stand-out performance from local favorite McCaela Donovan as Peggy, the hilarious, hard-boiled hooker who sings the biting title song) to balance the story’s dark exploration of pre- and post-war masculinity with its quite touching love story (the tender beat where Rose shares her dinner with Eddie when she realizes he is not eating because he can only afford one meal always gets me). I am thrilled this fairly new musical is finally getting seen by the wider audience it deserves through regional theaters like Speakeasy.
10. Jane Krakowski in She Loves Me: She Loves Me’s Illona is a product of an era when musical theater writers were giving birth to soubrettes who were both sexy and funny. When reviving such a gem, there is no better actress to fulfill a role like this one than Jane Krakowski whose comic sensibility is so sharp audiences know there can only be substantial brain behind the endearing ‘dumb blondes’ she embodies on stage and screen. What makes her Ilona special is also her ability to balance innocence with licentiousness resulting in harmonious comic perfection. Each one of Krakowski’s numbers (“I Don’t Know His Name”, “Ilona”, “I Resolve” and “A Trip to the Library”) is a highlight. The Roundabout must have taken special note of Krakowski's crowd-pleasing performance during early previews (when I saw the production) because before long she was literally being dragged in front of television audiences in full-split position by Gavin Creel (Kodaly) during every talk show promotional appearance the show made. While Jane Krakowski has had a celebrated career in memorable supporting roles on network television (and now Netflix), she is one of those magnetic actresses who would have had writing teams lining up around the corner with the hope she would headline their latest musical comedy in the 50s and 60s. Though we can’t turn back time, hopefully this triumphant homecoming to Broadway will afford Ms. Krakowski the opportunity to return to the boards on many more occasions moving forward.
2016 Honorable Mentions:
Jack Viertel, senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters and the artistic director of New York City Center's Encores! series, has written a gift for anyone who considers themselves a writer, student of the theater, or simply a lover of the American musical. The thesis behind Viertel's The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built springs from a course he offers at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts - how lucky these BobCats are! Through countless examples from Golden-Aged classics (Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, etc.) to contemporary blockbuster hits (The Producers, Hairspray, etc.), this book embraces the importance of structure in the American musicals. To Viertel's credit, even when he cites shows you may dislike, you can't help but admire the iron-clad architecture that helped make them successes with popular audiences. And for those shows you adore, Viertel's insights will make you fall in love with them even more. For example, Viertel maps out the dependence and ultimate convergence of Guys and Dolls' brilliant double plot. He also highlights how the last thirteen minutes of Sweeney Todd's narrative re-explores no fewer than sixteen songs to create an unforgettable finale. After reading this book, I know I will never look at musicals the same way again. For better or worse; for musicals good and bad; I will view all future productions with a greater appreciation for their construction. From opulent opening numbers to classic conditional love songs to toe-tapping 'tent poles', to simple but effective dialogue that can help untie the "Gordian knot' of the play, each of these strategically placed moments are integral parts of the journey.
The Secret Life of the American Musical is available on Amazon.
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.
It's one of my favorite times of the year: Spring. Warmer weather. Blooming flowers. Red Sox Opening Day. And a new batch of TONY Award hopefuls hitting The Great White Way.
After seeing several of Broadway's latest offerings over this past month, I've come to the conclusion that I'd hate to be...a musical revival this year. This season, there are five musicals eligible in the Best Revival category: GIGI, THE KING AND I, ON THE TOWN, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, and SIDE SHOW (closed). To date, I have been lucky enough to see three of these revivals and it is safe to say competition will be stiff. If you happen to be in New York this spring, definitely carve out some time for one of these three knock-out musicals.
1. On the Town: On the Town topped my Best of 2014 List from January and it should remain a priority on your must-see list. This pitch-perfect production is stacked with all-around terrific performances, boasts one of the biggest orchestras on Broadway, and features some of Broadway's best choreography. Performing in the 1,900 seat Lyric Theatre - there's no excuse for you to not be able to secure a ticket and see one of this season's best offerings. For more on On the Town, check out my Best of 2014 List.
2. The King and I: Anyone who knows me well, knows that I'm not a big Rodgers and Hammerstein fan. Unorthodox, I know, but I prefer my Rodgers with Hart and my Hammerstein with Kern. That being said, no one tackles R&H like Bart Sher and his dream-team of collaborators from Lincoln Center. In 2008's South Pacific, theater-goers were left breathless as Sher began with a dramatic reveal of one of the fullest orchestras Broadway had seen in years. His The King and I launches with even greater gusto when an equally large pit is covered as a docking ship (built to scale!) heads toward the audience and Siam in the opening beats of this lavish musical revival. The elements that make this production work should come as no surprise to those who have long-admired Sher's approach. No director more than Sher shows greater affection and respect for the text at hand. He works hard to achieve authenticity in terms of: performances (O'Hara delivers a beautifully strong, though surprisingly, and perhaps refreshingly, understated Anna) aethestics, and context (historic, socio-political, and cultural - as these relate to both the plays' settings and the times in which they were written and were originally and are currently performed). Sher and his actors dig deeper than any other production previously to explore and highlight themes of modernity, Westernization, and gender ensuring the material remains relevant for 21st century audiences. It is highly unlikely that we will ever see a more exquisitely staged, designed, and performed production of The King and I. I might be as bold to say that the sensitivity and intelligence that Sher brings with his direction probably helps LCT's production transcend its original 1951 mounting. And for those of you who grew up watching Brynner and Kerr (voiced by Marni Nixon) in the 1956 film adaptation, you can rest assure that the iconic "Shall We Dance" remains intact and has never looked better thanks to the Vivian Beaumont's beautiful, expansive stage.
Stay tuned for Final Bow's next blog entry: Part 2: I'd hate to be... featuring some of this season's Best Actress performances.
It is that time of year where everyone from The New York Times to Elphaba1432 on Broadway's message boards is creating a "Best of..." List. Final Bow decided to get in on the fun with its own Best of 2014 Theater List.
This past weekend brought me out to The Williamstown Theatre Festival to see Kander and Ebb's THE VISIT starring Roger Rees and the legendary Chita Rivera. These types of festivals are truly cultural jewels as they give artists the opportunity to both develop exciting new works and revisit the classics. While I was at Williamstown yesterday afternoon, I had to look no further than the program and the stage to be reminded just why I love theater folk.
Theater actors, to put it simply and crudely, work like dogs. Ms. Rivera is a national treasure in the eyes of generations of American theater-goers. At the age of 81 years young and with over sixty years in the business, she is working just as hard as those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed chorus girls and boys who just got off the train from Allentown, PA or any other proverbial American burg you want to name. Anyone who gets to the see THE VISIT will witness an octogenarian who wants to perform, loves to perform, and needs to perform. While her contemporaries in other more 'conventional' industries have retired to Boca, our beloved Chita is performing an eleventh hour pas de deux with a dancer nearly a quarter her age. Chita has been developing this specific work with John Kander, the late Fred Ebb, and book writer Terrence McNally since 2001. While the show has taken 13 years to reach New England, she has embraced the process every step of the way. She recently told The Boston Globe: "Going and working in that room everyday is really what you sign up to do when you say 'I want to be in the theater.' It's art at work, it's exciting in that way." And Ms. Rivera is not alone in her perseverance, discipline, and dedication to the craft. Other stage greats like John Cullum, John McMartin, Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, and the late Elaine Stritch have all tread the boards through their goldenest of years.
Unlike other professions, age and experience is revered. As I mentioned earlier, Ms. Rivera is joined on this production by John Kander (at 87 years old), Terrence McNally (at 75), and Graciela Daniele (the baby at 74). Together, this team and their star have over 170 years of professional experience behind them. Ebb, McNally, and Daniele are joined by John Doyle as director. I don't know how old Doyle is - but he assuredly is no spring chicken either. While it would be perfectly acceptable for the eldest statesman, Mr. Kander, to be a good sport and just show up ceremoniously at opening night, the composer has been readily attending rehearsals - only taking a break to accept the National Medal of Arts from President Obama last week. Doyle recently described the composer's work ethic: "He's standing at that piano and watching what's going on and rewriting chords and bits of music in relation to what we're doing in that moment in time. That's beyond privilege. Roger [Rees] used the word the other day: That's historic." That's historic, indeed. When I attended yesterday's matinee, Mr. Kander was greeting friends in the theater's lobby. I have seen and met my fair share of celebrities, but I have yet to become more starstruck than when I realized I was standing just a couple feet away from Mr. Kander. I first heard his vamps as a freshman in high school and I haven't been able to get them out of my head since. Over the years, there have been countless road trips, rehearsals, and theatrical viewings filled with his music - and always, falling in love, time after time, with those catchy tunes and beautiful melodies.
While the lights shine bright on the marquee, the theater is not always a glamorous profession. Sure - there are opening night parties and glitzy award ceremonies, but even when you make it to the top, your dressing room may bear a closer resemblance to a monastery cell than a suite at the Ritz. Possibly more than any other profession, there are the highest of the highs followed by the lowest of the lows. One day you're originating a role on Broadway with your face plastered on a billboard in Time Square and a few short months later you are opening a summer production in Pittsfield...literally. At the end of the day, each member of this collaborative sport called theater does it the love of performing, writing, designing, and storytelling. It's the work that's important and it ultimately becomes one's life (whole life's in many cases) work.
Check out THE VISIT this month in Williamstown. You won't want to miss these theater legends doing what they do best.
Contemporary audiences are flocking to theatrical experiences that think outside the box. Some of the most popular shows in recent years have put audiences in the middle of such unconventional settings as discotheques (The Donkey Show and Here Lies Love) macabre, deserted hotels (Sleep No More), and Russian Supper Clubs (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812). Whether these site specific productions are deconstructing Shakespeare or Tolstoy or telling biographical stories through pop opera, they aim to give audiences unique and unforgettable experiences.
This past weekend, The Boston Globe ran an article about a new production called "Trapped in a Room with a Zombie" that is currently running in several cities simultaneously. The title really does say it all. Audiences are trapped in a room with a zombie where they are tasked with solving a puzzle-like game before the undead reaches them. As times ticks, the zombie is allowed to get closer and closer to participants. One part entertainment; one part team building/group bonding (office retreat, anyone?) experience. Only 30% escape alive, err, I mean solve the puzzle.
What does this all mean?
Modern audiences are craving these theatrical experiences where fourth wall is demolished and they are able to bond with their fellow theater-goers through dance, thrills, and chills while actually taking part in the action.
But does that mean the traditional theatrical experience is dead?
Not necessarily. If anything, the success of these shows demonstrate that audiences go to the theater seeking a communal experience. Nothing brings a group of strangers together like share laughter or tears. If producers continue to bring great pieces of work to the stage (whether under a proscenium arch or not) that can elicit shared emotional responses by audiences, there will certainly be room for both kinds of theatrical presentations for many more years to come!
Both forms of theater will continue to allow writers, directors, and performers to think creatively and find engaging and interesting ways to share stories whether through new styles, structures, or settings.