Monday, December 23, 2013

The Best Theater of 2013 (in my own humble whatever)

Well, the year is winding down, which means retrospections are in order. As a self-proclaimed theater junkie, I try to see as much theater as I can manage, time- and funds-wise. And this year I've been extraordinarily lucky. I went through my calendar and programs, and - not counting any repeats, like the fact that I saw Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 three times, by the end of 2013 I will have seen 122 different plays/musicals/theatrical whatnots. 122. That means that, on average, every three days I saw a new show. You guys.

So I'm pretty pleased with myself, I'm not gonna lie to you. And I saw a lot of good theater. A LOT. Some thrilling, some heartbreaking, some hilarious, some huge spectacles, and some small intimate affairs. Boiling down the list to my favorites was very, very hard. First I took out any production that had premiered prior to 2013. That helped ... eliminate 10 shows. All right, then I really got to work. I couldn't include every amazing show, or good-enough shows that had amazing moments in them. But these listed below were the top shows that really blew me away, in one way or another.

And, in honor of its being 2013 (and my inability to narrow my list down to 10), here are my top 13 theatrical adventures of 2013:

13. Honeymoon in Vegas (Paper Mill). I got invited by a friend to attend opening night. It was my first Paper Mill production, and a bunch of us piled into a van for the drive. No one in the van was too optimistic - yet another 90s movie adapted into a mediocre musical - big whoop. But when I sat down to look at the program, my hopes rose - the original screenwriter, Andrew Bergman, also known for Blazing Saddles and The In-Laws, teamed up with Jason Robert Brown, one of the best musical theater songwriters currently working - and with a stellar enthusiastic cast led by Rob McClure and Tony Danza, a bombastic band onstage, and a troupe of dancing Elvises to serenade us into the finale, this show was a surprising delight to everyone - tuneful, funny (both witty and slapstick), and ultimately sweet. It was such a hit that a Broadway transfer is planned, and I look forward to seeing it again.

12. Nothing to Hide (Signature). Two guys doing card tricks sounds more like a birthday party than a night at the theater, but these two masters - Helder Guimaraes and Derek Delgaudio - as directed by Renaissance man Neil Patrick Harris (a magician himself), make for a compelling evening. The real wonder of it comes from their presentation, as it must - you know how the trick has to end. They have to reveal the card. They're not going to not pick the correct card. And yet each time you are amazed and applauding - they've done it again! Presented with self-aware wit and just a bit of healthy competition, Guimaraes and Delgaudio's magic show is a unique little wonder.
Helder Guimaraes and Derek Delgauido. Photo by Michael Lamont.

11. Love's Labour's Lost (The Public's Shakespeare in the Park). This is probably one of my least favorite Shakespeares, if I'm being honest, but I was beyond impressed by what Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers (the team from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) brought to their musical adaptation of this somewhat overcrowded story. From Colin Donnell's rousing "Are You a Man," to Justin Levine's love song to a cat (although whether he wants to date a cat or eat it remains unclear), this production was irreverent, hilarious, and occasionally thoughtful, and the skill in the songwriting only shows how the team has grown since its Bloody Bloody days. There's been no talk of transfer or a cast album, unfortunately, but if you follow the link, there are at least some demo tracks.

10. Buyer and Cellar (Rattlestick & Barrow Street). This clever one-man show explores the fantasy of Barbra Streisand's very real basement full of old-timey shops, as featured in her book, My Passion for Design. Michael Urie is a tour de force as  actor-turned-shop-runner Alex More, Alex More's boyfriend, Barbra's assistant, Barbra's husband, and of course the lady herself. A mix of ridiculous comedy (including Alex bargaining with Barbra over the cost of a doll in a shop she wants to "buy") and some surprising vulnerability, this play was pure pleasure in only 90 minutes. My review.

9. Pippin (Music Box). This is another show I wasn't originally a fan of - some of the songs are excellent, but a number of them aren't, and the story is kind of stupid (and the conclusion - well, you can re-read my review if you want to talk about that). But this production, with direction by Diane Paulus, choreography by Chet Walker, and circus creation by Gypsy Snider, is a revelation. There truly is magic up on that stage, gasp-worthy stunts (without the stress of watching Spiderman), and a solidly talented cast lending wonderful vocals to a score that seems somehow better by reflection of the talent around it. Absolutely deserving of the awards it won. My review.

8. A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (Walter Kerr). In the midst of revues, jukebox musicals, and "concerts as shows" (I'm looking at you, Janis Joplin), a good old-fashioned Broadway musical feels a bit rare, at least in the fall season. A Gentleman's Guide is fast-paced, funny, and tuneful (one could argue that there are a few too many combination songs, but then one would be stymied as to which one to cut), and features a stellar ensemble, led by Jefferson Mays (who won a Tony for I Am My Own Wife) in yet another showy performance, as he plays each and every murder victim of Bryce Pinkham's would-be heir to the D'Ysquith earldom. I'm seeing it again tonight and I can't wait!
Jefferson Mays and company in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

7. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (Kazino). It's no surprise this show is one of the big hits this year - as presented in the lushly decorated "Kazino" restaurant, Comet is a thrilling adaptation of (a section of) War and Peace, and it throws the audience right into the thick of the action, as the cast weaves in and around the various tables where the audience sits, passing letters across the room, dueling, dancing, dreaming. To call it dinner theater would be missing the point, but there is food and drink provided. Comet falls in the happy medium between pop opera and immersive theater. My review.

6. Then She Fell (Kingsland Ward @ St. John's). Speaking of immersive, Then She Fell is an interactive exploration of Lewis Carroll's Alice stories, as well as his relationship with the real-life Alice Liddell. As set in the fictional Kingsland Ward, the 15 audience members per performance are guided from room to room, often on their own, to visit with (or covertly witness) the various inmates and doctors of the ward. Sometimes they take dictation from Mr. Dodgson to his beloved Alice, sometimes they help brush Alice's hair in a room full of dolls, sometimes they paint white roses red with the White Rabbit, and sometimes, yes, they go to a frenetic tea party featuring the White Queen, the Red Queen, the White Rabbit, and a particularly mad Mad Hatter. Though similar in notion to Punchdrunk's Sleep No More, Then She Fell is a more intimate - and slightly more controlled - affair. My review.

Mike Noble and company in The Curious Incident
of the Dog in the Night-time. Photo by
5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Apollo/West End). The novel by Mark Haddon on which the play is based quickly became one of my favorites when I stole my stepmother's copy to read it one Christmas vacation. As told from the perspective of a teenage boy with (implied) Asperger's, the story follows him as he tries to solve the mystery of the murder of a neighbor's dog, and uncovers even more secrets in his own family. The play makes a truly imaginative adaptation, bringing us inside Christopher's mind with the grid-like set, lit up with projections of the various puzzles, math problems, and lists he keeps to organize his life. And when a young man who can't stand to be touched, is literally carried by the rest of the cast as he imagines what it would be like to be in space, it is a moment of quiet poetry. This show is unfortunately currently shut down due to the ceiling collapse at the Apollo Theatre.

4. Saint Joan (Bedlam). This tremendous production, directed by Eric Tucker, features a cast of only four players - Andrus Nichols in the title role, and Tom O'Keefe, Edmund Lewis, and the director himself rotating through the entire rest of the body of characters. Though the constant switching of roles starts off as frenetic, it soon settles into the more compelling drama at hand: the story of the rise and fall of the girl soldier who heard voices - her angels - that guided her to military victory, and led to her being martyred at the stake for heresy. The production is fairly minimalistic and requires the periodic shifting of the audience - out to the lobby, back inside but on the floor, flipped and facing the empty chairs they formerly inhabited - such that we are thrown into the action, and thrown into Joan's experience. We feel her ecstatic joy, her drive for militaristic victory, and her confusion and loss when she finds herself betrayed. With a weaker cast, this production could be an inarticulate flail, but with Andrus Nichols's devout passion and earnestness anchoring it, and the three men as various satellites around her, sympathetic or antagonistic, it is heartbreaking and one of the most stunning nights I have had in the theater.

3. Fun Home (The Public). This non-linear musical, based on the equally non-linear graphic memoir of Alison Bechdel, follows the now-40 artist as she tries to grapple with the intersections of her own homosexuality, her father's closeted homosexuality, and his suicide when the two collided when she was in college. It's hard to describe just what makes this show so special - some magical chemistry forming between the story being told, the music telling it, the constantly shifting backwards and forwards in time among the three Alisons (Alison as a child, Alison as a college student, and contemporary Alison who watches the action and tries to figure through it), the fluid floating set of her father's collection of restored antique furniture, and the brilliant performances throughout the show. A truly thrilling and heartbreaking and somehow indescribable chamber musical.

2. Twelfth Night (Belasco). There is a lot of Shakespeare running in New York this season (well, there always is, so maybe we should clarify that there's a lot of equity Shakespeare running), but none better than the team playing at the Belasco in both Twelfth Night and Richard III. These two, presented in rep, are done in the style of original productions at the Globe - all male cast, Elizabethan costume, bare wooden stage, and hey, no microphones! What's thrilling, really, is just how thoroughly every single performer up there understands and is able to interpret every scrap of text to perfection. Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's best comedies, but never before have I seen every joke - even the ones I thought hadn't been funny for centuries - milked to hilarious effect. The entire cast is offensively talented, but I would be remiss if I did not mention Paul Chahidi as Maria, Peter Hamilton Dyer as Feste, Angus Wright as Sir Andrew, Samuel Barnett as Viola, and of course Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance as Malvolio and Olivia. Good Godfrey Cambridge, is this cast perfection.
Samuel Barnett and Mark Rylance in Twelfth Night. Photo by Joan Marcus.

1. The Winslow Boy (The Old Vic). This has long been a favorite play of mine and my family's, but it's so rarely done; when my mom and sister and I went to London, we knew we had to have it on our docket. We were expecting to see the play we loved, but we weren't expecting to be as blown away by it as we were. Led by the wonderfully warm Henry Goodman as Arthur Winslow (opposite the wonderfully cold Peter Sullivan as Sir Robert Morton), the entire cast was directed to perfection by Lindsay Posner. One of Rattigan's skills is examining people who might seem ordinary, rising to extraordinary heights of strength when confronted with troubles. The play, though staged in just one room, spans young Ronnie's expulsion from school and the subsequent trials to clear him of his accused crime. The scene where Sir Robert interrogates Ronnie as to the day in question left me breathless and crying. This production transferred (with a different cast) to Roundabout's American Airlines Theater this fall as well.

(honorable mention goes to Matilda, which I saw on the West End, not on Broadway. It wasn't flawless - the children's articulation left something to be desired, and the lyrics didn't always sit properly on the melody - but it was a damn good story, well told. It wasn't cute and saccharine, and it had a great message about changing your life if you're unhappy with it. It was spunky and funny and clever, and I really enjoyed it.)

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