Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 in Review: 12 Best Theatre Experiences of the Year

What a year of theatre it has been!  And how fun it has been to share it with you.  I've had the great opportunity to travel around the East Coast to see some great shows in some of America's most historic venues.  I've gotten to witness the full process of putting a show up: a tech in for a National Tour, the final performance of a favorite Broadway show, a rough preview period leading to a rocky and successful Opening Night.  I've gained a new respect and love for two shows I used to really dislike.  I've expanded my horizons beyond Times Square.  I wanted to make it a nice, even 10 events, but I just couldn't narrow it down any more.

Who knows what delights await all of us in 2012?  But for now, I'll celebrate the year that was.  Here is a list of my 12 favorite/best theatre experiences in 2011:

12.  Walnut Street Theatre's Aspects of Love: Maybe it was partly the experience of seeing a show at America's oldest continuously running theatres, but mostly, I am pretty sure it was the excellence of the production itself.  I went in thinking I would hate it, just as I always had since I saw the original Broadway production.  I left loving it.

11.  Broadway's The Book of Mormon: It is all the rage, making national headlines and drawing crowds rarely seen on Broadway these days.  And I was lucky to see it when it was brand-spanking new (and at a discount that won't happen again for years).  I had a great time, and it so great to see veterans and "newbies" (Casey Nicholaw, Robert Lopez, Trey Parker and Matt Stone) come together, take chances and create the most conventional unconventional musical I've ever seen.  For me it isn't the best musical ever - it wasn't even the best musical of the season, that was Catch Me If You Can - but there is no denying that being there at the beginning is a theatre experience of a lifetime.

10.  Off Broadway's The Submission/Wild Animals You Should Know:  It may surprise you that these two plays that I was so iffy on rate higher on my list than one of  Broadway's biggest hits of all time.  But, while the works are far from the best plays ever, the risks taken by MCC Theatre on new plays by new playwrights is the real event here.  And, truth be told, I'd rather see something that isn't perfect and still makes me think and feel.  These two plays have provoked heated arguments, lengthy discussions, and not too small doses of soul searching.  To me, that is some powerful theatre.

9.  Broadway's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark:  It isn't the best musical by far; it isn't the worst musical, either.  But the chance to see it evolve from the initial mess of those first previews, then at a final preview before the big shut down and overhaul, and finally to see the end result has been a rare treat in a long history of theatre-going.  It is amazing to watch theatre professionals "rise above" and create stage magic under some extreme conditions.  The end result may not be perfect, but the journey was the real experience for me.

8.  Off-Broadway's Lysistrata Jones/Queen of the Mist:  One show, a laugh riot of epic proportions, has moved on to Broadway; the other was a world premiere of a new musical by one of contemporary theatre's most prolific and risk-taking writers.  Both excellently staged, and both so unlike each other it is hard to believe.  But it is that range, that risk and the vision of one group to bring both to life that makes Transport Group one of the best discoveries of the year.

7.  Off-Broadway's Death Takes a Holiday:  Who needs Broadway when the best talent in the theatre world can come together in a smaller venue and connect with its audience like everyone involved in this gem of a show did last summer?  Some of the best music of the season by Maury Yeston and a superb cast made this small, moving show a highlight of the summer and of the year.

6.  Broadway's Bonnie and Clyde:  Its critical reception isn't the shock here.  The shock here is that this musical is so damned good, and everyone seems to know it.  Shame on the producers for not making the most of a very vocal online community, and giving this exciting musical a chance to finds its audience.  Thank goodness there will be a recording.  And thank goodness I got the chance to see two of Broadway's biggest rising stars, Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes, hear a terrific score, and thrill to history unfolding in front of me.  I am a lucky one.

5.  The "Tech-in" for the 1st National Tour of  American Idiot:  My last theatrical experience of the year was also one of the best.  Watching a young cast begin the journey of a lifetime - full of raw energy and a healthy dose of awe - is that rarest of opportunity.  A chance to watch the birth of the latest chapter in the life of a show is something every theatre lover should have.  And that it made me appreciate the piece itself is icing on the cake.

4.  Lincoln Center Theater/National Theatre of Great Britain's  War Horse:  This wonderfully emotional play about a boy and his horse is the very reason why I prefer live theatre to film.  Taking what, on the page, would seem impossible to create on the stage 8 times a week, comes to life because of the ingenuity of extremely creative people.  Thanks, in part, to two fantastic women, Marianne Elliott (co-director) and Rae Smith (designer), along with those amazing puppets, the impossible comes to life, igniting the imagination and transporting us to a time long ago and to a timeless place of unconditional love and personal sacrifice.

3.  Broadway's Follies:  One of the most exhilarating evenings of theatre I have ever had, and I walked in thinking I hated the show.  Instead, I was moved to tears and forced to contemplate my own hopes and dreams as I also face middle age and beyond.  The star power of the cast and the triumphant masterpiece of a score are a rare combination, and I feel so lucky to have had the experience.  The ghosts of the showgirls continue to haunt my fond memories...

2. Broadway's The Normal Heart:  Every once in a rare while, you see a show that sends you to an emotional high.  Rarer still, is the show that changes you emotionally and intellectually.  But most rare of all is that show whose blend of purpose, theatricality and the mind-blowing talent of all involved that transforms you into a different person from the one who entered the theatre.  The Normal Heart is that rarest of rare - an experience I will never ever forget.

1.  The final performance of next to normal on Broadway:  If you've never had the thrill of attending the closing performance of a popular show, I highly recommend it!  The energy at the Booth Theatre on January 16, 2011 is unlike anything I've ever felt in a theater.  Sure, the closing speech by the producer and the introduction of the director and writers was a great opportunity to give these people thanks, but the best thing, by far, was the love shared between the cast (for each other) and the audience and the show itself.

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