Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mr and Ms Broadway 2013


This year's choices for Broadway man and woman of the year are pretty unconventional.  One didn't actually appear on Broadway in 2013; one would be 449 were he alive in 2013.  Unconventional choices, but no less valid.

Mr. Broadway 2013 had a banner year this year.  On Broadway alone, there were two productions of Macbeth, a Romeo and Juliet (the same time it played off-Broadway, no less!), and Twelfth Night and Richard III in rep!  And there were a ton of productions all around New York City, including a Julie Taymor Midsummer Night's Dream, an all-female Julius Caesar, and, of course, The Comedy of Errors and a musical version of Love's Labours Lost in Central Park.  Of course, I'm talking about William Shakespeare.

Ms. Broadway 2013 also had an amazing year.  But the two-time Tony nominee didn't step foot on a  Broadway stage.  That doesn't mean she didn't make an impact of the theatre scene.  In addition to a new album and a stint at 54 Below, she lit up two productions off-Broadway, and both were critically acclaimed and successes with the public.  In Classic Stage Company's revival of Passion, she took the iconic role of Fosca and made it all her own - touching, crazy and even funny!  Most recently, she has been playing the mother of Alison Bechdel in Fun Home, giving a touching, passionate performance.  Of course, I'm talking about Judy Kuhn.

Here is their year in pictures (Click on each image to enlarge):




Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 in Review: Theatre Joys and Disappointments

I've been thinking about this column all year long.  Literally.  From the first show I saw in 2013 - The Non-Equity Tour of American Idiot - to the last - A Night with Janis Joplin - and all 32 other productions in between, I've been thinking about this column.  I've always thought about is calling this a "Best of" and "Worst of" blog.  Why not?  Everyone else does one, right? Sure.  But, if you read my stuff regularly, you know that I am a firm believer that no complete theatre experience is completely bad.  Even the "worst" shows are of value; you can't fully appreciate excellence without the occasional sub-par experience at the very least.

And so... here are my 10 most joyful experiences in the theatre and the 10 most disappointing that occurred between the Jesus of Suburbia and the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll.

Joy #10: Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella (Broadway) - This show was a complete surprise to me.  I am not a huge R+H fan (blasphemy, I know), and I didn't really care for the Brandy version on TV a some years ago.  But then I saw it - loved that the Prince wasn't given short shrift, and that the whole show wasn't too "girly."  Who can resist Harriet Harris, Marla Mindell and Ann Harada?  And I simply adore Laura Osnes and (now) Santino Fontana!

Joy #9: After Midnight (Broadway) - Another big surprise for me.  Not a fan of revues or Fantasia Barrino, I walked in sure I'd hate it.  I came out exhilarated.  The singing!  The dancing!  Dule!  Adriane! And, yes, Fantasia!  Oh, and the real stars of the show... the band!  WOW!

Disappointment #10: Kinky Boots (Broadway) - "Disappointment" is relative here (I gave it a B+, after all...), but, in retrospect, it was a lukewarm rehash of things I've already seen.  It was entertaining, and I liked Cyndi Lauper's score and Stark Sands, but, good as he was, Billy Porter's Lola was hardly ground-breaking or even all that original.

Disappointment #9: Shakespeare's R+J (Regional - Signature Theatre, Virginia) - I was a victim of the "sexual heat" hype and expectation that this take on Romeo and Juliet would be enlightening somehow.  The staging was interesting, and four guys playing all the roles was excellent (well, until I saw Joy #8), but the whole thing left me wanting more.

Joy #8: Twelfe Night, or What You Will (Broadway) - On the other hand, a mostly authentic presentation of a Shakespeare classic can be exhilarating.  From now on, whenever I wonder why it is that I love live theatre, I will look back on this production for proof that less is more, and that superior actors can make something centuries old seem as fresh as today's news.

Joy #7: Passion (Off-Broadway) - I loved the original Broadway production, murky and dark as it was.  But seeing the new revival under John Doyle's spare and brilliant direction opened my eyes to the piece in ways I never thought possible.  The love triangle was erotic, heart-wrenching, and completely relatable.  With Ryan Silverman's sexually charged, yet humble take on Giorgio, Melissa Errico's gorgeous, complicated Clara, and Judy Kuhn's intense and still approachable (and even funny) Fosca, it was like seeing Passion for the very first time.

Disappointment #8: The Last 5 Years (Off-Broadway) - I thought that this show, directed by its author, Jason Robert Brown, and starring two actors I love, Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe, would enlighten me and make me appreciate why so many people obsess over this show.  I thought wrong.

Disappointment #7: Miss Saigon (Regional - Signature Theatre, Virginia) - This regional theatre that I love going to was two for two this year as far as disappointments.  Don't get me wrong, Kim,Chris, and the best Engineer I've yet seen, were great.  So were the production numbers.  But the much touted - it made national news, for Heaven's sake - "environmental production" was much ado about nothing.  A few sound effects and a ceiling covered in strategically ripped parachutes did not make this production interesting, let alone immersive.

Joy #6: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Broadway) - It is rare that a comedy wins the Tony for Best Play.  But it is no wonder that this one did... it is literate and smart, funny and sincere, and exquisitely plotted.  And it provides tour-de-force moments for every character in it.  How many plays have you seen where the actress with the smallest role gets exit applause?

Joy #5: Hands on a Hardbody (Broadway) - I loved it.  Both times I saw it.  One of the most quintessentially American musicals in recent memory, it got us all down pat, warts and all.  Greed, lust, ambition, anger, generosity, love, faith and joy... they were all there, with a Texas-sized heart.  And the score by veteran Amanda Green and newcomer Trey Anastasio had the unmistakable sound of out great nation, and it melded seamlessly with Doug Wright's witty and authentically voiced book.  I wish more people "got" this show.

Joy #4: Matilda (Broadway) - The best new musical of the 2012-2013 season, by far.  It is smart and touching, harsh and hilarious.  It offers a scathing view on parenting and education for the adults in the room, and kid power and over-the-top physical comedy for the little ones, and sentiment and sincerity for anyone in need of a good cry.  How anyone gets through "When I Grow Up" without getting misty, I will never understand.  Plus, it is always fun to be told we need to be a little bit naughty!

Disappointment #6: Big Fish (Broadway) - I would have bet good money that this would have been close to the top of my favorites of the year list.  After all, it had direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, and it starred three of my favorite performers: Norbert Leo Butz, Bobby Steggert, and Kate Baldwin.  And while none of the three actors disappointed me (though Steggert's character took way too long to be likable), Stroman's constantly huge staging, parade of showstoppers and a design that was simultaneously too busy and too mundane combined to make an evening that started out grand and rapidly devolved into a one note blur.

Disappointment #5: Lucky Guy (Broadway) - I do love me some Tom Hanks, but even he couldn't fix the boring mess of Nora Ephron's last play.  Presentational in the worst possible way - teeling us nearly everything, and showing us almost nothing - I couldn't wait for it to be over.  That is never a good thing, no matter who is starring.

Disappointment #4: Merrily We Roll Along (London - via film) - I didn't mind that it was a small production, or that it was a combination of every previous version.  I loved Jenna Russell - she is the best Mary I've seen (I also loved Celia Keenan-Bolger at City Center).  But I found the rest of the cast either over-the-top or dull as dish water.  And I couldn't wait for it to be over, even though my favorite song and scene are the last minutes of the show.  Again, that is never a good thing.  Did it really win the Best Musical award?

Joy #3: Pippin (Broadway) - Long one of my favorite shows, particularly the score, I was excited that it was finally being revived on Broadway.  But my adoration for all things Fosse had me dubious.  From the second Patina Miller's silhouette appeared on the curtain, I was enthralled, and when the curtain dropped and the circus revealed, my jaw dropped and my eyes filled with tears of joy.  Moments like that are the exact reason why I love live theatre.  And this Pippin was full of a ton of those moments, which never got boring.  Add to that an eye-opening turn by the greatly under-appreciated Terrence Mann, and the revelatory performance of Rachel Bay Jones and it was satisfying and thrilling.

Joy #2: The Glass Menagerie (Broadway) - This is my favorite play, and I've seen more than a dozen different productions.  But witnessing this revival was like seeing a new play for the very first time.  The quartet of actors are sublimely perfect.  I'll never forget Cherry Jones' faux shock as she calls clients for new subscriptions, bellowing, "You're a Christian martyr!" or the gasp she caused when she yells that Laura is, indeed, "a cripple."  Brian J. Smith's meticulously rendered Gentleman Caller is the perfect compliment to Celia Keenan-Bolger's equally detailed and yet, marvelously understated Laura.  Their second act scene was like a play all by itself.  And there's the wonder of Zachary Quinto's brooding, explosive, and game-changing performance as a decidedly Williams-inspired Tom.  Brilliance by all involved make this one of the finest productions in several years.

Disappointment #3: Motown: The Musical (Broadway) - Too long, too one-sided in its version of events, and nearly devoid of any dramatic conflict, this show smacks of Vegas.  And not even top-notch Vegas, at that.  Decent dancing and a star turn by Valisia LeKae, in no way make up for the nearly three hours of my life that I'll never get back.  Despite what the producers will have you believe, not everyone in the audience was cheering each number, nor were they dancing in the aisles.  In fact, I can't remember another show on Broadway where so many people got up throughout the show to use the bathroom, buy liquor, or just leave all together.

Disappointment #2: Soul Doctor (Broadway) - Another time-eater (another nearly 3 hours lost forever), this is the new benchmark for asking "why is this even a musical?" This is show where opportunity after opportunity to make a point and/or create real dramatic tension went unused.  As presented, I can't even understand why Shlomo Carlebach's life was considered a worthwhile subject for musical treatment.  And the choreography was so bad and so self-conscious it was literally laughable (I laughed throughout at mostly inappropriate times - it isn't a comedy).  Part Mamma Mia!, part Fiddler on the Roof, and a dash of Hair, the only redeeming thing about it was Amber Imam, who should have been in it much more.  Her 15 minutes on stage were the best 15 minutes of the whole thing.

Disappointment #1: Jekyll and Hyde (Broadway) - I'm ashamed to admit that I feel asleep more than once during this dull, ugly show.  And I'm angry at myself for not leaving at intermission.  Boring staging, three leads who can't act, and one of those leads who doesn't have the skills necessary to pull off two characters separately, let alone at the same time.  When I wasn't sleeping. I found myself laughing inappropriately, and doing the one thing I hate when I hear others doing this - talking back at the stage and constantly commenting under my breath.  This was not only the worst show of 2013, it was the worst in several seasons.

Joy #1: Fun Home (Off-Broadway) - I loved literally everything about this astonishing new musical, from to book and score, to the staging to the creative elements to the cast.  I was riveted from the moment it started to the final bows.  And I was rendered nearly speechless for nearly an hour afterward, which is a big thing for me.  Almost 2 months since it was my privilege to see it, I am still thinking about it.  My only regret is that I didn't get to spend more time with the three Alisons.  It is the best musical I've seen since next to normal.  If you read my blog at all, you know how monumental that statement is.

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