Thursday, December 28, 2017

My Favorite Theater of 2017

Paul Hilton and Anna Francolini as Peter
Pan and Captain Hook in Peter Pan.
Photo by Steve Tanner.
It's been an odd year (in many, many, many ways). On the theater scene, one of those many oddnesses was the top-heaviness of it - the 2016-2017 season was so jam packed, I can't quite hold it all in my head. And then here at the tail end of the first half of the 2017-2018 season, we've had instead a rather spare (and unfortunately largely uninspiring) autumn. I still managed to find plenty to love, however: my initial attempt at building a Top list started at 35 which I then whittled to 26, then 21 (the task becoming more challenging with each culling), before landing at the current list. Some shows culled from the list made a strong impression on first viewing, but perhaps haven't etched themselves in my memory enough to warrant place here.

Part of why, even with a sparse autumn, the whittling was so difficult, lies in the fact that I hit a personal record this past year: 151 shows total (ho-ly merde), with 16 repeats, leaving 135 unique shows, besting last year by 24 unique shows and besting my highest year (2013) by 13.

So we should probably get started. I've had such a difficult time cutting the list down, and at this point, I don't even know how to rank them, so instead for a change of pace, I'm presenting them in chronological order of when I saw them.

(except for:) Honorable Mention: Spongebob Squarepants (Palace). Okay, so. I do not watch the TV show Spongebob Squarepants, nor do I ever intend to. Something about everything about it makes me cringe, like I'm listening to someone twisting a balloon animal. However, the musical currently running on Broadway is way better than it has any right to be. It sports a score written by everyone (seriously, just about every song is by someone else) that somehow manages to achieve cohesive eclecticism rather than dissociative identity disorder. The cast is great, especially Ethan Slater as Spongebob, whose bones are made of rubber, I swear; and Tina Landau and Christopher Gattelli have staged this so kinetically across David Zinn's design - they even have a live Foley guy underneath one of the boxes, providing sound effects throughout the show. This isn't making my actual-actual list because I never really invested in the story or characters, but for anyone who loves Spongebob and decides to see the musical, this is going to be way higher quality than they could have expected, and a good time will be had.

Lilli Cooper, Ethan Slater, and Danny Skinner as Sandy the Squirrel,
Spongebob Squarepants, and Patrick Star, with the cast of Spongebob
. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jitney (MTC/Friedman). Stunning and moving work, start to finish, with a perfect cast, especially John Douglas Thompson, Michael Potts, and Andre Holland. Really reinforced my need to read/see August Wilson's entire canon.

Michael Potts, John Douglas Thompson, Anthony Chisholm, Keith Randolph
Smith, and Andre Holland as Turnbo, Becker, Fielding, Doub, and Youngblood.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Everybody (Signature). Branden Jacobs-Jenkins gave us truly an extraordinary reinvention of the old morality play Everyman, with the familiar (if you know the source material) scenes of Everybody going to family, friends, etc., to ask for companionship on the road to death, cut with pre-recorded monologues and conversations offering surprising commentary on the whole affair. The added bonus - that the cast's roles changed every night, based on a lottery draw done in front of us - reinforced how flexible our roles are in each other's lives, as well as the true Everybody-ness of the protagonist. Flipping fantastic.

Louis Cancelmi, David Patrick Kelly, Michael Braun, Lakish Michelle May,
Brooke Bloom, and Marylouise Burke. Photo by Monique Carboni.

Come From Away (Schoenfeld). This one was a bit of a sleeper hit for me. The first time I saw it, I was resisting getting pulled in for what I assumed would be a bit of a saccharine ride, but I was won over by the half hour mark, and the show has only grown on me on repeat visits (I took my family when they visited, one by one). The gusto with which the ensemble attacks the piece, the specific personalities portrayed, the earnestness, and the basic thesis that when given the choice, most people will do good in the world, were powerful enough assets to make this a standout in a crowded Broadway season. The engaging and lively score didn't hurt things either. I play this album a lot, cry at the same moments each time, and remember vividly the dynamic and creative staging using only chairs, a few tables, and bodies in space on a spinning stage.

The cast of Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Hansbury and Slack (The PIT). Beth Slack and Brian Hansbury are two insanely talented musical improvisers. I've gotten to see a few of their shows this year, and their storytelling abilities are astonishing. Accompanied by Jody Shelton on piano, and taking a story suggestion from the audience, Hansbury and Slack really dig into the meat of important or pivotal moments - they don't just go for the laugh, they go for the #feels too. And their improvised songs are so good, I keep wishing they'd release an album (no, Zelda, that's not how improv works).

Brian Hansbury and Beth Slack. Photo by Dubbs Weinblatt.

The Skin of Our Teeth (TFANA/Polonsky Shakespeare Center). My first time getting to see Thornton Wilder's sprawling Pulitzer Prize-winner (well, one of them - the man won several), though it's a title I've heard bandied around for years. I absolutely adored this examination of humanity. I remember at intermission, my friend asking me to explain what it was about, and all I could come up with was "it's about all of us, about everything, about whether we deserve to survive." Each of the three acts deal with one kind of world-ender or another - an ice age, a flood, a war that's driven everyone underground - and we follow a sort of first family (nods to Genesis, nods to politicians, etc etc) through the literal ages of humankind. The massive cast was top-notch and I'm so grateful to have seen such a stellar rendering of this fascinating text.

The cast of The Skin of Our Teeth. Photo by Richard Termine.

Groundhog Day (Wilson). This show, like The Great Comet, died a premature death on Broadway, in part because I think they never quite figured out how to market it. Maybe they hoped it would sell itself. I thought the show was terrific (even with all the slant rhymes and occasional rhythmic confusions that  came in part from a mismarriage of British and American inflection). It moved well and efficiently, the score was varied and engaging, and Andy Karl was phenomenal as Phil. It was wonderful to see him finally take on a leading role that let him show all his colors - his comedy, his physical skill, his vocal range, and the heavy stuff, too. I do want to make special note here of why this would have been on my list even had I found the show subpar - I won lottery tickets to the first preview, and about fifteen minutes into the show, everything suddenly stopped. The complicated turntables on the set had broken, and they spent an hour trying to get them working again, to no avail. At last, they came out and apologized, promising each us of free return to another preview, and that if we wanted to stay, they'd give us a concert staging of Act One, and an abbreviated look at Act Two. And friends, that concert staging was magical. We got to watch the company of actors play, enjoy each other, cheer each other on, and improvise their way to simulating bits of staging. It was a wonderful reminder of what a communal and collaborative space theater is, of how cohesive a company must be to tell a story together, and how beautiful it is to witness that. As we left, we were given tote bags with pins which said, ironically, "Broadway First Previews Only Happen Once."

Andy Karl, center, as Phil Connors, with the cast of Groundhog Day.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sweeney Todd (Barrow Street). After walking into the Barrow Street Theatre, which had been transformed into a somewhat seedy pie shop, I remarked that this was like Disneyland for serial killers. The full immersion in the space, the tasty pie and mash before the show, and the booming talent in the postage stamp-sized cast made this an unforgettable theatrical experience. Couple that with the fact that it's Sweeney Todd, a classic which I've had memorized since the fifth grade (in case there was any doubt about what kind of nerd I am), and there's no way this wasn't making my list. This production gave us a truly scary Sweeney, one who actively terrorized the audience (including holding a razor to Jessica Lange's throat), while also drawing us seductively into his madness. I bought my first ticket to see this (I saw it more than once) as a birthday present to myself, and I guess that means I'm really good at presents. (You're welcome, past me)

The cast of Sweeney Todd. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Play That Goes Wrong (Lyceum). Flat out hilarity. I've seen the show three times, and I still gasp in shock as things go, well, increasingly wrong in this play-within-a-play of an amateur theater troupe trying desperately to survive a murder mystery with a breaking set and unconscious actors. Yes, Noises Off! may be the pinnacle of the form, but damned if this wasn't a fantastic ride.

Henry Shields, Henry Lewis, Nancy Zamit, Dave Hearn, and Jonathan Sayer
as Chris, Robert, Annie, Max, and Dennis. Photo by Richard Termine.

Indecent (Cort). God, I adored this play. I adored it so much, I wrote about it in a chapter with my dad this year (I'll let you know when the book comes out). I've always found Paula Vogel's writing exquisite - there's a deceptive simplicity in the language that leads to absolutely piercing emotional intensity. Couple her beautifully rendered study of Sholem Asch's controversial God of Vengeance with Rebecca Taichman's fluid and haunting staging, and it's easy to see why everyone who saw this production immediately told everyone else to see it. I'm so glad this show had a Cinderella moment: they posted their closing notice, and ticket sales spiked in a way they hadn't its entire run. And, miraculously, not only did the show extend through the summer, but it was also filmed for PBS and Broadway HD. This gem of a play, heartbreaking and uplifting, was preserved forever, and I can never stop being grateful for that fact.

The cast of Indecent. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The Antipodes (Signature). Annie Baker is such a cool writer, you guys. I know she's not to everyone's taste, and she requires patience, but it's so rewarding to see new work from her. I hadn't loved Flick, which is when I first heard of her, but god I loved John (it made my Best Of list for 2015). It's hard to explain what's so compelling about Annie Baker's work - the complaint that it's full of pauses isn't fair and isn't necessarily true. It's full, perhaps, of dialogue-less moments, but none of them are empty. Every moment, verbal or otherwise, is fully lived by the characters. The Antipodes, which features a team of writers sitting round a table and brainstorming - for what, I was never fully clear - draws us in to their various neuroses, and as they sit, snowed in overnight, we become as hypnotized by that elusive perfect original idea just as much as they do. For a show I almost didn't get to see (I missed the performance for which I had a ticket, stranded by the MTA in Astoria, but managed to get a premium ticket for one of the final performances of the extension), I was so damn glad I came.

The cast of The Antipodes. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In & Of Itself (Daryl Roth). I'd seen Derek Delgaudio's other magic (show? play? thing?) presented by Neil Patrick Harris (that one, Nothing to Hide, a two-man show with Helder Guimaraes), and having seen that show, knew I couldn't miss this one. But while Nothing to Hide had been a fun and extraordinary display of card tricks and one-upmanship, In & Of Itself was an entirely different type of exploration. This one was about the stories we tell each other and ourselves, and where the truth lies. This one was startlingly moving in ways I don't want to spoil here (since it keeps getting extended, you too can see this wonder!), but in ways that made us feel, not like an anonymous audience there to hear his stories, but like marked individuals, seen and recognized, all together in this moment.

Derek Delgaudio. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Peter Pan (NTLive - National Theatre/Bristol Old Vic). A crocodile shouldn't make me cry, but it did. That's how stunningly staged this production was. I'm realizing, more and more, that one of the most affecting components for me in live theater is witnessing the joy of storytelling in an ensemble. To see a group of artists join together - to build a crocodile from sheet metal, or to leap from scaffolding on a harness to help each other fly - is to see magic made tangible. There's even an added joy for me when they don't try to hide the strings. This company built such an imaginative retelling of Peter Pan, complete with a bold and beaming Wendy, a highly animated detached Pan shadow, a rowdy troupe of lost boys, an unquenchable Peter, and the bamf-est lady Captain Hook I've ever seen. Keep an eye out for this one, in case there's an encore showing (and let me know - I'd love the chance to see it again). Additional note: I attended this with the biggest Peter Pan nerd scholar I know, and she said it was her favorite theatrical adaptation of the story she'd seen.

Anna Francolini as Captain Hook with Toby Olie's puppetry design.
Photo by Steve Tanner.

A Comedy of Heirors (Turn to Flesh Reading Series). While this may have only been a reading and not a fully staged production, it was so freaking polished, bursting with talent, and utterly hilarious - I was crying from laughter at one point. Playwright Emily C. A. Snyder presented a sister play to Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, one with two pairs of unbeknownst sister twins running around parallel to the shenanigans of Shakespeare's comedy, and pursued by a disgraced Malvolio who's now turned detective after his last spate with twins. This was a delightful romp that absolutely deserves a fully staged rendering (please keep Abby Wilde and Erin Keskeny in the cast).

Fahim Hamid and Abby Wilde. Photo by Ryan Smith.

Once On This Island (Circle in the Square). While I still have some issues with the story (Ti Moune is a treasure, but she's in love with a boy who is in no way worthy of her), I ADORED every choice made in this beautiful revival. Circle in the Square is my favorite Broadway house because it's an unconventional space, and this production made full use of that - keeping arena staging, they had the cast wandering the disaster-wrecked shore of the island during the pre-show, complete with live chicken and goat. The cast was extraordinarily gifted (Lea. Freaking. Salonga.), the staging had me repeated gasping with surprise and delight, and that score, you guys. It's a good score.

Alex Newell and Hailey Kilgore as Asaka and Ti Moune, with the cast of
Once On This Island. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Follies (NTLive - National Theatre). I've seen several productions of Follies at this point, and I read Ted Chapin's book about the original production this year (great read for all you theater nerds, for the record). It's a hard show to get right, and every production fails in some way, so the hope is at least that they can fail beautifully. This production came the closest to not failing, for me. When Imelda Staunton's (Sally) first monologue ended and I found myself crying, I realized this time I was in for it. This one was gonna be good. The book scenes, which are almost interstitials between the memorable and masterful pastiche numbers in the score, were immaculately directed and performed, driving home the truth that these are all people, not merely the personas they've retained from their glory days. While there were a few tactical errors (the older women ceding stage during the Mirror number; or the ghosts continuing to comment during the Folly sequence, even though the text was already doing that work and didn't need an additional arched eyebrow), overall this was a consummate production with four impeccably strong leads, and then that fifth one - Carlotta, she who sings "I'm Still Here" - as played by the fearless Tracie Bennett, damn near walked away with the whole show.

Tracie Bennett and Emily Langham as Carlotta and her shadow self.
Photo by Johan Persson.

(Plays which almost made the list include: Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, Titus, People Places & Things, The Band's Visit, The Fountainhead, The Children)

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