Monday, December 29, 2014

14 for '14! My Top Theater Picks

As I did last year, I've made a list of all the theater I saw in the past year. My numbers, while arguably impressive, are down a lot from last year: last year I saw 122 distinct shows (not counting repeats); this year, not counting repeats, was the tragically small number of 97. NINETY-SEVEN. Why was it so much lower? The easiest scapegoat could be the fact that in 2013 I visited London with my family and caught a bunch of theater, a trip I did not take this year. But it could just be there was less to see, or at least less to get excited about this year. I don't know. I know I spent close to the same amount of money on tickets, so as far as my budget's concerned, I'm on an even keel.

Firdous Bamji, Romola Garai, and Brenda Meaney in Indian Ink.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
When I was making my list for this year, some contenders were easy includes, but at the first culling, a lot made the initial list of 30 or so, merely by not being that bad. I think it was a weaker year, all told, at least in quantity. In quality, mind you, there were some truly stellar theatrical pieces (for those who see the list and decry my not including The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I did include the West End production last year, and didn't feel right listing it two years running. That being said, the Broadway transfer was equally stellar and would have made this list otherwise, in the top five).

So without further ado, here are my Top 14 for '14!

14. Saturday Night & My Favorite Year (York/Musicals in Mufti series). This was my first year attending The York's Mufti series, though I've caught some of their other offerings in years past. The Mufti shows have three or four days' rehearsal, actors in street clothes with scripts in hand, and a pianist with an optional second musician (percussion or bass, etc.) crammed in the corner. They're not fully staged, but there's something rather charming about these ventures, which employ a range of Broadway veterans and lesser-knowns as they revive lesser-known musicals. I'm highlighting SN and MFY in particular, for really attaining a charming sense of their respective shows, even sans set and staging. SN gave us young Brooklyn hopefuls bantering and whiling away their evenings, and MFY gave us (with a revised score and book) the frantic behind-the-scenes view of a weekly live comedy show - featuring star turns by Douglas Sills (can we please get this man back on Broadway?) and Leslie Kritzer.

Barrett Wilbert Weed, Evan Todd, Charissa
Hogeland, and Jon Eidson in Heathers the Musical.
Photo by Chad Batka.
13. Heathers the Musical & FOUND (New World Stages & Atlantic Theater Company). Okay, this one's a bit of a cheat. I'm coupling these two together, different as they were, in part because I'd rank them equally - surprisingly funny, some great songs, coupled with some clunky moments that I was willing to forgive - but mostly because they both featured the enormous talents of Barrett Wilbert Weed. As both Veronica and Denise she found the perfect balance of disarming humor and natural awkwardness, with a powerful belt and simple honesty. She was fantastic in both these shows, and I look forward to seeing more of her work.

12. The River (Circle in the Square). Everyone's seeing this show because Hugh Jackman is in it. Everyone should be seeing it because it's a fascinating puzzle of a script by Jez Butterworth (of Jerusalem fame), haunting and smoothly directed by Ian Rickson, with Jackman's performance well-balanced by his two costars, Laura Donnelly and Cush Jumbo. I dug it.

11. Red-Eye to Havre de Grace (NYTW). This was a strange little show, and it knew it. It opened with a park ranger giving the audience information about Edgar Allan Poe and the show's history before launching into a rather operatic song as the show started properly. It followed Poe through his last days in about as bizarre and nightmarish and poetic a way as one would hope for in an exploration of the author (complete with a slightly bitter sense of humor, as Poe was repeatedly asked to recite "The Raven," rather than any of his other, more complex works). The music was jarring, the performance style somewhat Brechtian (though Ean Sheehy played it straight as Poe), but the staging, even on its self-proclaimed low budget, was revelatory. The table was also a door with many smaller doors inside. The door that was already a door was a table. The bed floated in midair. And the ghost of Poe's dead wife haunted him at every turn, disappearing inside this door or even into the grass at his feet, before he could ever quite catch her.

Alessandra L. Larson as Virginia in Red Eye to ...
Photo by Johanna Austin.

10. Machinal (Roundabout/American Airlines). I loved everything about this production - the staccato and unrelenting rhythm of the dialogue and the way the Young Woman never quite managed to match anyone else's pace, to break through and be heard. The sterile dun-colored set, the rotation of which seemed to further the inescapable monotony rather than provide invigorating contrast and movement. And the cast - Rebecca Hall was wonderful in the lead role, trapped and haunted, trying to be strong, stymied by her weakness, broken and out of rhythm, out of breath, and never understanding just what kept her off-kilter. The rest of the ensemble served as a wonderful soundscape, and also featured a solid performance by Michael Cumpsty as the Husband.

9. Hand to God (Lucille Lortel). The good news, for those of you who missed this show in its Off-Broadway run, is that it's transferring to Broadway! This is fantastic, particularly for Steven Boyer, finally graduating from supporting roles, who give a true star turn in the lead roles of Jason and Tyrone. This was a show that was constantly checking my expectations, raising the stakes, and going darker and deeper as things went on. The increasingly feral puppet felt like a truly sentient and malevolent force, and to see him spitting vitriol into the astonished faceof a sweet-tempered boy (who was also manipulating and speaking for him) was equal parts hilarious and terrifying. Can't wait to see it again.

Steven Boyer as Jason and Tyrone in Hand to God. Photo by Joan Marcus.

8. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Belasco). I entered Hedwig feeling oddly protective of it. I hadn't seen the original production, but I've seen the movie countless times, read the original script, seen a regional production, etc etc. I went in wanting to like it and worried that I wouldn't. But I thought it was wonderful. The opening set tableau was an artistic spectacle of frozen exploding car parts against a beautiful blue sky (a gag set, for the recently-scuttled Hurt Locker the Musical, so we were told). NPH was, unsurprisingly, wonderful. I had gone in worried about his power on the high notes, but he sounded absolutely fine. And, ever the technical actor, he made his Hedwig truly an athletic one, leaping from this scaffold to that set piece in platform heels with ease. He brought a similar dainty prettiness to Hedwig that her creator, John Cameron Mitchell brought (incidentally, holy shit I'm so excited to see JCM in the show!), though lacking some of the biting meanness of his predecessor. I missed Andrew Rannells's run in the show, but I did catch Michael C. Hall after that, and appreciated the fact that, like the replacement casts in the show's original Off-Broadway run, he was able to make the role his own, finding new vulnerabilities, and tailoring moments to his more robust build. Lena Hall, by the way, well deserved her Tony win for this - holding her own against any of these men is a challenge, particularly with a taciturn role like Yitzak, but she maintained a glowering, yet wistful presence.

7. The Realistic Joneses (Lyceum). I was surprised this play didn't get more traction than it did. I loved it. All four actors - Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Toni Collette, and Marisa Tomei - were strong and made interesting choices, and while the script was bizarre, it was also endlessly fascinating to watch unfold. I remember immediately buying the script after seeing it, so I could check to see which choices were the playwright's and which the actors' and director's (including the strange but compelling moment of Hall's character, desperate to avoid a conversation but determined to seem blithe about it, walked off, yelled "Hi!" to no one, and flopped facedown onto the grass. Seriously, that's weird but awesome). And the concept for the set design was compelling - an ordinary enough looking backyard patio with a sliding glass door (a space which doubled, with absolutely no change, as a grocery aisle, a kitchen, and a few other locales), surrounded by a large impenetrable black vacuum of a space. The patio floated, seemingly secure and commonplace, but all too fleetingly fragile against the larger uncaring world. So too were these two couples floating precariously near the edge of another doom.

James Parenti and Gweneve Sisco as
Hamlet and Ophelia in May Violets
. Photo credit.
6. May Violets Spring (Dare Lab/The Bridge). This show, which I reviewed here, was a poetic delight and a beautiful surprise. Playwright and actor James Parenti deconstructed (and then reconstructed) Hamlet, refiguring the narrative to put Ophelia front and center. In doing so, he borrowed liberally from other Shakespeare texts (and added some of his own) to further flesh out Ophelia and Horatio and their relationships to Hamlet, as well as provided a sort of RosencrantzundGuildensternian (if we were German, this would totally be a word) behind-the-scenes look at the narrative we all know so well. It was simply directed by Reesa Graham and beautifully acted by Gwenevere Sisco, James Parenti, and Monique St. Cyr.

5. The Bridges of Madison County (Schoenfeld). Do you guys know how many blog posts I almost wrote about this show? Well, it was a lot. This show drove me to such distraction, and I could never adequately find a way to express my love and frustration with it. It had a phenomenal, overpowering score, one which made me weep, and which was performed exquisitely by Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale. It featured a searing chemistry between its two leads, a breathtaking lighting design, and a very strong sense of the community surrounding its main characters, one that was vitally necessary to understand their choices. And then ... the story just drove me so damn nuts. This is either a little fling that meant something but not everything, or it's the most important thing that happened to either of them - and the score demanded that we acknowledge this is the most important thing that has happened to either of them - a love so unexpected and overwhelming, it lifted them out of the ordinary in a way from which they could never recover. And yet (spoilers) they both walked away. And were okay with that. And the compromise infuriated me, because it feels like ... if it's true, that "it all fades away" but those four days, it's invalidating everything that comes after (I got similarly pissed at the final moments of Titanic, now I think on it). And if it's not true ... fuck you, why am I watching this show? Seriously, ask anyone who talked to me the week after I saw it the first time, I would start crying with rage. The show deserved a longer life than it got, and it deserved a Tony nom for best musical. Alas, alas. The good news is, JRB shows always get cast albums.

4. Tristan & Yseult (Kneehigh/St. Ann's Warehouse). I've been anguishing over just how to describe this show, and Kneehigh's aesthetic in general. If anyone saw their production of Brief Encounter, hosted by Roundabout four years ago, that task is easy. Elsewise ... they seem to specialize in adaptations which allow them to dilate particular moments into song, dance, multimedia, and a touch of poetic acrobatics. Here they took on the old story of Tristan and Yseult, with a touch of contemporary commentary, a framework of the Club of the Unloved, with a simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and respectful exploration of the tragedy of the story of Tristan, Yseult, Mark, and (spoilers) the other Yseult. From a group dance-along to "Get Lucky," to the title characters' first meeting on a hammock, to Yseult's joyous sprint in circles around the stage at the end, this production found humor even in tragedy, and the aching hopeful pain at the center of even the most cold-hearted cynic.

Dominic Marsh and Hannah Vassallo as the title characters in
Tristan & Yseult. Photo by Sara Krulwich.

3. The Fortress of Solitude (The Public). Hot damn, this show was cool. Though I started off rather bewildered - there was a lot of ensemble character introduction that happened rather quickly, a la In the Heights - I soon caught to the rhythm and was completely hooked. I think it's rare to encounter a musical that addresses this many complex issues - including coming of age of two boys from different backgrounds, the disappointed dregs of an already-peaked music career, racial tensions, and also the ability to fly - without glossing superficially over the lot or barely having a plot to speak of. This show covered a lot of ground and it did it without banging the audience over the head or letting its characters off the hook for their compromises and bad choices. The cast, led by Adam Chanler-Berat and Kyle Beltran, was a strong ensemble, and the design had a most particular harmony I don't often see - the marriage of set and lights, in particular, was powerful and memorable. And while I know Mr. Brantley took it to task for not being as complex or deep as its source material, I was thrilled, moved, and eager to see the show again (and again). I know they're recording a cast album; I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a Broadway transfer.

2. Indian Ink (Roundabout/Laura Pels). I didn't realize until I attended this production that I in fact held the honor of being one of the few to have seen both New York productions of this play (as a college freshman, I attended - at my mother's urging - an Off-Off-Broadway production in 2003, starring the then-unknown Sendhil Ramamurthy). My initial impression from this production was that the play was all right, if not as impressive an outing as Stoppard's similarly-structured Arcadia. This most recent revival certainly bumped the play up many notches in my chart of his works. In the hands of director Carey Perloff, the characters and story were treated gently and honestly, as the audience followed both Flora Crewe on her last days in India, as well as her sister, decades later, remembering. This production was quietly moving, and well-carried in the capable hands of its four leads - Rosemary Harris, Romola Garai, Firdous Bamji, and Bhavesh Patel. I was lucky enough to see this one twice. I'll carry the memories of it forever.

1. Sense and Sensibility (Bedlam/Sheen Center). It should be no surprise that Bedlam once again made my list. Bedlam is one of the most exciting young theater companies in recent years, with their recent double-header of Saint Joan and Hamlet, and S&S took what was wonderful about that production and improved upon it. Andrus Nichols once again led the ensemble as Elinor Dashwood, with Eric Tucker returning to direct (and making a delightful scenery-chewing turn as Mrs. Jennings). The Saint Joan and Hamlet productions were known not only for their nakedly honest performances and bare-boned but clear designs, but also for the whirligig stagings with constant on-stage role switching and a generally frenetic energy, particularly in "crowd" scenes. S&S managed to retain all the good elements of those traits while abandoning their less successful features; it whirled when it needed to, but allowed also for sedate and simple moments, highlighting the contrasts in both. The cast was larger, allowing for a less pronounced sense of panic for both cast and audience regarding whom anyone was playing at any given time. Additionally, this production sported a dynamically sparkling  - and faithful - script by Kate Hamill (who also played a spirited Marianne), proving that Andrew Davies and Emma Thompson are not the only ones capable of effectively adapting Jane Austen for performance. I hope Bedlam brings this back; I'd love to get to see it again.

Vaishnavi Sharma, Andrus Nichols, and Laura Baranik as Margaret, Elinor,
and Lucy in Sense and Sensibility. Photo credit.

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