Wednesday, December 21, 2016

My 16: 2016's Top Theatrical Experiences

James Ortiz and Eliza Martin Simpson in The Woodsman.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.
This year's post has been very hard to write. In a year that looks increasingly like the prologue to a dystopian franchise, it's difficult to look back with my usual optimism and joy. It feels frivolous, like I'm one of Panem's Capitol residents, merrily engaging in trivialities. I don't always know how to reconcile the feeling of uselessness against my passion for, and celebration of, live theater. As Richard II and I try to hammer it out, with Chrismakkuh looming this weekend, we'll review what didn't suck about this past year, and appreciate the small good things hiding in the garbage.

My overall play-going count is a bit lower than it's been since I started these posts - 122 plays total, with 11 repeats, which leaves us with 111 unique shows for the year. I'm not enough of a statistician and too lazy a researcher to look at the volume of how many shows were produced this year to comment further, but I'll try to comfort all of us by saying that the list I've made of shows to see for the spring season of 2017 is terrifyingly dense. As usual, for the purposes of this list, I am not including any shows I saw in earlier years (so while yes, I did see both Hamilton and Bedlam's Sense and Sensibility in 2016 and adored them to pieces, they topped my 2015 and 2014 lists respectively, and don't get to be included again).

One further note before I begin: I'm writing this list without having yet seen the final two shows on my 2016 docket - the pre-Broadway run of Amélie in Los Angeles and NYGASP's The Mikado. If it turns out I've made a huge mistake in omitting either, I'm making a note now to include them next year.

Let's go!

16. The Encounter (Golden). I wrestled with putting this show on the list (I also wrestled with Ivo Van Hove's The Crucible - you may notice that one lost the match and did not make this list), but this show fits the definition of unique - unlike anything else - and so had to be included, even with some caveats. Simon McBurney's one man show, which he also co-conceived and directed, is an aural immersion (the audience is wearing headphones and the stage is littered with different microphones and soundmaking devices, both electronic and practical) not only in McBurney's internal monologue, but in his subject's - National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre - as well. My caveat for the show's inclusion lies in the fact that I spent the first three quarters in utter fascination, with the full conviction that this show was guaranteed a spot on this list - and then quite suddenly the show lost me. As the character took a hallucinogenic, as the story and the storytelling and the storyteller all began an ecstasy of destruction and chaos, I abruptly checked out, and never quite returned. It's still an experience well worth viewing (and hearing) but the narrative was not as ultimately satisfying as I initially expected.

Simon McBurney in The Encounter. Photo by Tristram Kenton.

15. Dear Evan Hansen (Second Stage/Music Box). This show, like The Encounter, is one I struggled with placing on my list. On the one hand, the score is beautiful and the cast - particularly the phenomenal Ben Platt in the title role - are giving heartfelt and rounded performances. On the other hand, there are some unsolved story problems which bothered me both when I saw the show at Second Stage and again on Broadway a few months later. It's not just that the main character lies, and keeps lying - it's the nature of the lies he tells, and the fact that they are doing much more harm than good to the people he thinks he's helping. And the show never quite reconciles that contradiction, or the eventual fallout when things, as they must, reveal themselves. On the other other hand (Tevye is getting frustrated with me), aspects of the show speak strongly to today's audience - the isolation so many teens feel, the unobserved suffering, and the double-edged sword of viral fame on social media. There are a lot of good messages within this show, but they're still framed by some messy stuff.

14. The Royale (Lincoln Center - Newhouse). This is one of two Rachel Chavkin-helmed pieces to make my list, and I think it speaks volumes about her versatility to compare the two. One is an opulent Russian novel-inspired technopop-opera, and the other (pssst, it's this one) is an intimate, rhythmically constructed exploration of a black boxer where - though bouts are depicted - not a single punch is thrown onstage. Inspired by the real life first black heavyweight world champion, Jack Johnson, The Royale - if you'll pardon the expression - packs one hell of a wallop.

McKinley Belcher III, John Lavelle, Clarke Peters, and Khris Davis in
The Royale. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

13. The Woodsman (New World Stages). What a strange, beautiful show. There are almost no spoken words in this piece, save a prologue and a recurring song, but the narrative is clear and heartbreaking. James Ortiz, creator, director, puppet designer, and star, explores the origin story of Oz's Tin Man and how he lost his heart, in a powerful ensemble piece that uses breath, ritual, puppets, practical sound effects, and bodies in space to create a legend. Luckily for everyone who missed it, Broadway HD recorded a video of the production so it won't be soon forgotten.

12. The Color Purple (Jacobs). Cynthia Erivo. I'm not sure I need to say anything (I mean, I will, but that's the price of reading Zelda's blog). One of only two winners to break Hamilton's streak at the Tony Awards, Cynthia Erivo is an extraordinary talent - a massive voice (which she saves for her character's coming into her strength) and a subtle and understated performance of a woman repressed all her life who eventually learns to love and celebrate herself. The whole cast is strong, and the story - though upsetting along the way - is uplifting, but honestly we can't say enough about Cynthia Erivo and her talent.

Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

11. Puffs (Elektra). Talk about unexpected delights. I went to this with some friends, expecting a small silly evening of Harry Potter fandom run mad. What I got was equal parts hilarity and touching affection. Puffs follows "seven increasingly eventful years at a certain school of magic and magic," focusing specifically on the least-noticed school in the castle - the Puffs (as opposed to the Braves, the Smarts, and - yes - the Snakes). Puffs, though probably enjoyable to a casual fan of the world of Harry Potter, aims its cleverest jokes at the truly knowledgeable fans in attendance (barbs for both the books and film series), but tempers everything with true affection for the world built and for the protagonist Puffs. We laughed aplenty but we also needed - as both we and the show itself joked - Puffs brand tissues to survive the evening.

10. Merchant of Venice (Hamlet Isn't Dead - Westbeth Artist Community). One of the greatest gifts to receive from live theater is to see a story you think you know told to you in such a way that it becomes fresh and freshly enjoyable. I went into Merchant prepared to steam like I always do at that play (indeed, I had steamed my way through an earlier production in July this year), and was surprised to find myself laughing and delightfully engaged. This production was a much needed lift at the end of this heavy year. Full review here.

The Improvised Shakespeare Troupe.
Photo copyright The Improvised Shakespeare.

9. Improvised Shakespeare - The Silence of the Iambs (Improvised Shakespeare - Theatre 80 St. Marks). Admittedly, I don't go to a lot of improv shows, and this was definitely my first long-form improv, but MY GOD the brilliance onstage with this group. Based on a prompt from the audience, they put together an entire show - in iambic pentameter - with as many of the Shakespeare trappings as they could throw in - girls going in disguise as boys, love poems, masked balls, mistaken identities. The sophistication within the construct was truly astonishing, and seeing a story inspired by Hannibal Lecter himself? That was just the bloody gravy. And then there was the running gag about self portraits ...

8. Falsettos (Walter Kerr). I think it took me a while to realize what's so special about Falsettos. I've known the score for years, thanks to the original cast album, but knew little of the history. It's certainly not the first play about the gay experience, but it is one of the first plays to deal with the AIDS crisis, and (I'm pretty sure) the first musical to do so as well. And if you couple it with Larry Kramer's extraordinary howl of pain, The Normal HeartFalsettos's gift becomes clear - even in the face of heartbreak and possible extinction, these characters will find what love and joy they can from life, while they can. On the cast album, the quartet "Unlikely Lovers" seems blandly sentimental. On stage, it's four people defiantly ignoring impending death while celebrating the fact that they are there with each other. It's heartbreaking and lovely, and a useful antidote to recent events.

The cast of Men on Boats. Photo by Elke Young.

7. Men on Boats (Playwrights Horizons - Peter Jay Sharp). I attended Men on Boats because I knew it had been written by fellow PHTS alum Jaclyn Backhaus, but had no idea what a delightful romp this show would be. Although the story (or at least the nature of the story) is familiar enough - an old fashioned boy's adventure story of men exploring literally uncharted territory - the storytelling, which included having the cast of all men be played by a mixed-race troupe of crazy-talented women, was robust and action packed, despite its minimalist staging and intimate space. There was such a thrilling rhythm to the whole thing, the shouted commands as their boats encountered treacherous waters, the petty arguments about rations when they made camp, and the cast carried the whole thing with gusto.

6. Noises Off! (Roundabout - American Airlines). What a pure example of amazing ensemble work. This is a play that, quite simply, does not work if the entire cast is not on the same page (ironic considering that's the point of the plot - the show within a show features a cast so out of sync that the production falls apart). It's such a perfect farce script, and performed with such adept skill, it's almost impossible to single out individual performances - but I'm going to do it anyway. From Megan Hilty's stage direction-reciting Brooke, to Rob McClure's unassumingly clumsy Tim, to David Furr's blustering set-breaking Gary, to Andrea Martin's basso-voiced Dotty, to Campbell Scott's caustic Lloyd (and literally everyone else), this was a pitch perfect evening of hilarity.

Ramin Karimlooo and Sierra Boggess in The Secret Garden.
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia.

5. The Secret Garden in concert (Lincoln Center - David Geffen Hall). Tangent time! The Secret Garden (with some help from the film of Noises Off!) is what taught me about the transience of live theater. I saw the non-eq tour when it came to my hometown and fell completely in love with score and with the haunting story of redemption and rebirth. Later, I remember watching Noises Off! and seeing a poster for The Secret Garden behind a drunk Michael Caine rambling away about the disastrous tour of his show. I asked my mom if we could go to New York and see Secret Garden again and she had to explain to me that it was no longer running, that this film was shot a while ago. I learned then the value of getting to see a show before it disappears, of treasuring it while I see it. So when they announced this all-star concert staging, complete with Tony winner Daisy Eagan in the cast, I knew better than to hesitate about grabbing a ticket. It was such a gift to hear that score performed with a full orchestra, and by such talents as Ramin Karimloo, Sierra Boggess, Cheyenne Jackson, Ben Platt, Jere Shea, and Sydney Lucas, and I savored every moment of it.

4. Oslo (Lincoln Center - Newhouse). I'm glad to see this production is transferring to Broadway this spring. Running at nearly three hours, it's a bit daunting at the outset, but not one moment is wasted or inflated to fill the time. Sporting a strong ensemble led by the incomparable Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays, Oslo tells the story of the behind-the-scenes Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine effected by two unassuming Norwegian diplomats. I know, it sounds stuffy. It also sounds ready to offend people on both sides of this issue. It is neither. It is, in fact, as diplomatic as its two protagonists, and as spry as the table-leaping Michael Aronov. Catch this one if you can - you won't regret it.

The full company of The Front Page. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

3. The Front Page (Broadhurst). Although this production has received mixed notices - both professional and from the teeming masses - I found it a sparkling gem of the fall season. Topped with a cast of A-list heavy hitters - Tony winners Nathan Lane, Robert Morse, and Jefferson Mays, and silver screen stars John Slattery, Holland Taylor, and John Goodman - the ensemble of the show was equally weighted with strong, if (slightly) less famous performers, like Dylan Baker, Christopher McDonald, and David Pittu, to name but a smattering. What this meant was that, top to bottom, every role was performed with extraordinary talent and confidence, recreating the whipcrack sharp wit of a 1920s newsroom. Parts of the play may creak with their age, but for the most part, the story jolts along, appealing and abrasive.

2. She Loves Me (Roundabout - Studio 54). This production was very nearly a completely perfect confection. It's a show I've loved since I was a child, and I felt so privileged to get to see a production of it again, especially led by such a talent as Laura Benanti. In fact, the whole cast was a delight, hilarious and touching and transportive. It had one sour note - the bizarre staging of "Romantic Atmosphere" - but beyond that I had zero complaints. And as an extra special bonus, this show was also preserved by Broadway HD for the ages - so if you missed it on stage, you can see it now!

1. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (Imperial). For those calling foul because this show made my list in 2013, I will reply that it has transformed enough - while still maintaining the exuberance of its earlier incarnations - to warrant its place here. There are some additions to the score (including a marvelous new number for Pierre to showcase Josh Groban's beautiful voice), and while the set has the same tone and style as the previous tent stagings, it has expanded to take over the Imperial theater, with the stage dotted with cabaret tables and banquettes, more runways than open stage areas for the players, and staircases, runways, and platforms that allow the cast to run as freely through the mezzanine and orchestra as they do on the stage. The show is such an extraordinary piece of theater, and not only did it survive its translation to proscenium(esque) staging, it's matured by it. Director Rachel Chavkin and choreographer Sam Pinkleton deserve so many awards.

Josh Groban and the cast of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.
Photo by Chad Batka.

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