In an effort to return to some sort of normalcy or tradition, I decided that 2021 was worthy of retrospection, however limited my theatrical experiences have been. I am so very grateful for every experience I've been fortunate to have attended, even - especially - those that happened far from a New York theater. 2021 found me seeing shows from home, at the movies, and on a cruise ship! And each experience was a rich, satisfying one. How often can you say that?
THE BEST OF
THEATER EVERYWHERE BUT NEW YORK
BEST OF CRUISE SHIP ENTERTAINMENT - Alaskan Cruise on Norwegian's Encore
This charming show has elements of Once, Riverdance, and Smokey Joe's Cafe. A group of British lads meet at their favorite local pub for beer, friendship and hard core harmonizing. They break the fourth wall and the entire audience becomes their friends, too. The numbers cover a wide variety of genre - from Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" to Man of La Mancha's "The Impossible Dream." From Adele's "Hello" to Sia's "Chandelier," every song is presented in a whole new arrangement, and each is gloriously sung. And all but a couple of the tunes appear in Broadway shows! This definitely counts as theater!
Also aboard Encore, is the Tony-winning musical, Kinky Boots, here presented an a 90 minute, intermission-less format. The cuts to the show, outside of excising the children sequences, are pretty unnoticeable. The story feels complete, and out of necessity more sharply in focus. Directed by Jerry Mitchell himself, and designed by the original team, you definitely get a Broadway caliber show. Led by Broadway's Alan Mingo, Jr. as Lola, the entire cast was aces. I must admit, I enjoyed this as much, if not more, than the Broadway version.
BEST OF STREAMING* AND THEATRICAL RELEASE FILMS
* FOR THIS LIST, I AM CONSIDERING ONLY tick...tick...BOOM! DIANA WILL BE CONSIDERED WITH STAGE PRODUCTIONS
BEST STREAMING: ...tick...tick...BOOM! (Netflix)
In a banner year for movie musicals, Lin-Manuel Miranda has crafted the best of them, deftly balancing surreal fantasy sequences with more typical musical moments, but always with the skill to make breaking out into song not only logical, but necessary. And the "Easter eggs" for us theater fans are simply delicious. My favorites include Pippa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry in their signature Hamilton colors, Beth Malone in full Fun Home mode, and, naturally the ultimate "Sunday" nod, the great Bernadette Peters in a Dot hat. From top to bottom, the film is cast impeccably. Leading the cast in what surely must be an Oscar-nominated role is Andrew Garfield, who continues to prove that there is nothing he can't do. Also deserving of kudos are Alexandra Shipp, Vanessa Hudgens, Robin de Jesus, Joshua Henry and Bradley Whitford as a spot-on Stephen Sondheim. The film is further proof that Jonathan Larson will live on forever, but also that the world missed out on what surely would have been an amazing career.
It's no secret that West Side Story is one of my all-time favorites, so I was measurably excited for Steven Spielberg's new film version. I was not disappointed. In fact, I loved it so much I've seen it twice in the theater! What is particularly wonderful about this version is that it respects and gives loving nods throughout to the original film. But it also, thanks in large part to Tony Kushner's searing screenplay, brings an important 21st century sensibility to the whole affair. The characters are deeper, their plights sad and inevitable, their lives desperate and violent. And yet, for all of that and the tragic outcomes that result, there is a sense of hope. The film itself is visually stunning, the musical sequences jaw-dropping - thank you, Justin Peck. (I really wanted to applaud after "America.") Cast with many Broadway favorites, the singing, dancing and acting are top-notch. While I firmly believe this adaptation is superior to the original, the property is rich enough to say both versions are now favorites, and I'll love and appreciate both for what they are.
BEST MUSICAL FILM SEQUENCE: "Sunday" from ...tick...tick...BOOM!
Sure, the filming is superb - some of the best ever. Bravo, LMM! Sure, the cavalcade of cameos is inspiring and inspired. And, sure, Andrew Garfield is astonishing. But the entire reason for its existence is what makes this number so spectacular. The late Jonathan Larson's tribute to his personal mentor, the now late Stephen Sondheim, is itself an inspirational tribute to the craft of writing for musical theater. The new gold standard.
HONORABLE MENTION: "Paciencia Y Fe" from In the Heights
In a film full of spectacular musical sequences, this number sticks out for me due largely to its emotional impact. Led by the exceptional Olga Merediz, this voyage to the next world is not only visually stunning, but the journey through a life lived with grace and dignity is as joyful as it is heartbreaking. Tears were shed. Many tears.
HONORABLE MENTION: "America" and "Cool" from West Side Story
Both numbers are my absolute favorites in any version of this work, and as such, it takes A LOT for me to be impressed. The technicolor dream that is this version of "America" is further enhanced by the sharp social commentary that is visually presented, and the dancing is just...beyond. In this version, "Cool" is less about calming down before (Broadway) or after (the original film) the deadly rumble, and more about the thawing of a friendship and the vital warning Tony offers Riff about not escalating things with a gun. What starts as an almost playful game of keep away, ends up being a violent game of cat and mouse. A perfect parallel of the events to come, Spielberg's direction and Peck's athletic choreography give us a startling several minutes.
BEST PERFORMANCES: PRINCIPAL CAST: West Side Story
Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Arians DeBose, David Alvarez
Mike Faist, Rita Moreno
BEST PERFORMANCES: LEADING ROLE
Andrew Garfield as Jonathan (...tick...tick...BOOM!)
Anthony Ramos as Usnavi (In the Heights)
Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria (West Side Story)
BEST PERFORMANCES: SUPPORTING ROLE
Robin de Jesus as Michael (...tick...tick...BOOM!)
Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia (In the Heights)
Rita Moreno as Valentina (West Side Story)