Monday, December 16, 2019

My Picks: Best Theater of 2019

Andrew Scott and Sophie Thompson as Garry Essendine and
Monica Reed in The Old Vic's Present Laughter.
Photo by Elliott Franks.

I had an easier time making my list this year than I normally do, but the tragic cause of that is my viewing numbers were down again, with a projected 109 unique shows, and 122 shows overall  for 2019 (one show to go on Dec 28th; also, I am fully aware of just how awful I sound, complaining about seeing only 122 shows this year. Please believe that I do not take my life here for granted, or my ability to see as much theater as I do). I definitely suffered from some activity fatigue this year, partly due to the exhaustion of moving into a new apartment and all its attendant stress; this resulted in some neglect of my Off- and Off-Off- options. In any case, the list wasn't as hard to whittle down, a small mercy for a weary Zelda. But I will say this: the shows that made my top ten list? Astoundingly good theater, every one of them. And while I'm attempting to rank them this year, it's tight as anything for the top five (except Octet, which I knew would top the list when I saw it; basically the top four after Octet are all second, but in an apples and oranges and bananas and mangoes situation).

This year gave us extraordinary new takes on older works, like Erica Schmidt's schoolgirl Mac Beth, the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof, and the Old Vic's hilarious new spin on Coward's Present Laughter. It also gave us astonishing new work that defiantly challenged expectations of what can be done in the theater, like Dave Malloy's a cappella brain explosion Octet, Michael R. Jackson's breathtaking not-autobiographical A Strange Loop, and Jeremy O. Harris's uncomfortable and gutting Slave Play.  We had actual magic onstage, from Harry Potter to Derren Brown to Slava and his Snowshow (I know some of the shows I just mentioned weren't new in 2019, but Slava excepting, they were new to me in 2019, and as the old refrain goes, this is my blog, dammit).

(also, I hear people are making their Best of the Decade lists as well. That's cool, though as my friend Tyler pointed out, we technically have one more year in the decade, but also I think it would hurt my heart too much to boil a decade down to ten shows. Think of all the gems that wouldn't make the cut!)

Anyway, we had so many good shows in 2019. Here were some of the best:

10. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two (Lyric). The writing is uneven and the character assassination of Cedric Diggory is reprehensible (as is the attempted he's-nice-see treatment of Snape), but what a truly magical theatrical experience. Even more astonishing, they manage to make every seat of that mammoth three-tiered theater a good seat.

The cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

9. Choir Boy (MTC/Friedman). While the musical transitions were sometimes more compelling than some of the scenes themselves, they reflected a beautifully voiced ensemble. And oof, the "that's what you get" scene. Destroyed me. Also: Jeremy Pope, you guys. What a star.

Jeremy Pope, center, as Pharus Jonathan Young, and the cast of Choir Boy.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.

8. Mac Beth (Red Bull/Lucille Lortel). Perhaps the most loving Macbeth couple I've ever seen. This was terrific, in part because the concept didn't get in the way of the text, but yielded instead a crystal clear and engaging narrative.

AnnaSophia Robb and Sophie Kelly-Hedrick as the two Murderers in
Mac Beth. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

7. A Strange Loop (Playwrights Horizons). When I see shows like this or like Octet (see below), I don't worry as much for the future of musical theater. The new voices are here, they're exciting and challenging and not backing down. The best new musicals this year were Off-Broadway. It'd be nice if some of them could land on Broadway.

Larry Owens, center, and the cast as Usher and his Thoughts in
A Strange Loop. Photo by Joan Marcus.

6. What the Constitution Means to Me (Second Stage: Helen Hayes). Astonishing. Infuriating. Inspiring. I love her so much.

Heidi Schreck and Mike Iveson as herself and the moderator in What the
Constitution Means to Me
. Photo by Joan Marcus.

5. Fiddler on the Roof (Stage 42). The best, most honest production of Fiddler I have ever seen. When I say I heard lines and lyrics like I'd never heard them before, it's not just because they were in Yiddish. It's because they were delivered with such simple sincerity--not trying to make it a Big Broadway Moment, but the very real story of a small shtetl, of a milkman and his wife and five daughters, whom he loves and tries to understand, all while the very real and frightening threat of hatred and violence hangs overhead like mosquito netting. And the ending, which fills one with the very sure despair that most of the individual characters we see will not survive the upcoming horrors, it also instills the determination that this will not be the end, that the Jewish people, their traditions and their being, will continue on.

Steve Skybell, center, as Tevye and the cast of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by
Victor Nechay/ProperPix.

4. Present Laughter (The Old Vic). Simultaneously the funniest and most bittersweet Noel Coward production I've seen. I even went back to see it again in December, when it was broadcast by NTLive. Andrew Scott is absolute perfection and we're lucky to have him (likewise for Indira Varma and Sophie Thompson).

Enzo Cilenti, Kitty Archer, Joshua Hill, Andrew Scott, Liza Sadovy, Luke
Thallon, Indira Varma, and Sophie Thompson as Joe Lyppiatt, Daphne
Stillington, Fred, Garry Essendine, Lady Saltburn, Roland Maule, Liz
Essendine, and Monica Reed in Present Laughter. Photo source.

3. The Lehman Trilogy (National Theatre/Piccadilly). Heart-stopping. Epic. Three amazing performers in a glass box.

Ben Miles, Simon Russell Beale, and Adam Godley in The Lehman Triology.
Photo by Stephanie Berger.

2. The Inheritance, Parts One and Two (Barrymore). Beautifully sculpted theater, top to bottom. Lovely writing, heartbreakingly honest performances, and a cast of actors so in tune and in sync under Stephen Daldry's direction. I feel so lucky to have been here for this, to have cried my way through it.

Samuel H. Levine, Kyle Soller, Kyle Harris, Arturo Luis Soria, Jordan Barbour,
and Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr. in The Inheritance. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

1. Octet (Signature). In my initial write up, I said if they didn't record me a cast album, I would cry. Spoiler: they recorded me a cast album and I cried anyway. This show, astonishing in its musical composition and vocals, was equal parts gutting and hilarious in turn. A show for us, for here, for now. Thank god for Dave Malloy.

The cast of Octet. Photo by Joan Marcus.

And for the shows that were also excellent in various ways but didn't quite make it into my top ten, we have (in the order in which I saw them, not in rank): BeetlejuiceHadestownInkMoulin Rouge!Witness for the ProsecutionWivesSlave PlayThe Height of the StormThe Sound Inside.

Bonus Honorable Mentions
(aka things I couldn't include because I'd seen the productions before): 

Laura Freaking Benanti as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. To see someone play a role she was born to play, knowing it's her dream role, and having her knock it out of the stratosphere, was a gift I'll not soon forget.

Laura Benanti as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Slava's Snowshow is a magical wintry dreamscape delight and I love love love it. But I also saw it the last time it was in New York, so I'm not allowed to put it on my 2019 list. But just know that I loved it a lot, okay?

The cast of Slava's Snowshow. Photo by Pamela Lajeunesse.

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