It's hard for me to pick my favorite shows of the year because truly, I loved almost everything - just some more than others. These are some of the songs, choreography, scenes and characters that amazed me, made me laugh or cry or simply made me think a little bit harder about the world this year. There were probably another dozen I could have picked, too.
One of the things that struck me as I looked over the list of plays and musicals I saw in 2008 was how many of them dealt with adolescents struggling to find their place in a world that's not always very accepting.
Some have done things that their parents simply can't understand. Others dream of a life that their parents simply can't imagine. They want desperately to fit in with their classmates, to live up to the expectations that their families have of them. But they also want to be true to themselves. While they're not all on this list, to some extent all of their stories resonated with me. Maybe it has something to do with the power of theatre, but I felt for them all.
1.) For thrilling spectacle, it's hard to beat the opening minutes of Disney's musical The Lion King. Once a pair of giraffes ambled across the stage followed by a parade of animals up the aisles of the theatre in the opening number, "Circle of Life," I was hooked. My jaw dropped in amazement and my inner child was activated. Director (and designer) Julie Taymor uses elaborate costumes, masks, puppets and video projection to create a show that's so visually rich and vivid. I'm not a big fan of comic book stories but knowing that Taymor (and Bono!) are two of the creative forces behind the new Spider-Man musical definitely makes me interested.
2.) Black Watch brought home the experiences of a Scottish regiment in Iraq in such an imaginative, visceral way. Soldiers silently act out reading letters from home; one member of the unit relates the history of the Black Watch as he's being dressed, undressed and turned every which way with military precision. At one point near the end of the play I closed my eyes and winced in anticipation of a bone being broken. It was a moment of potential violence that was unexpected and it seemed so real.
3.) I had the pleasure of seeing Harvey Fierstein on stage twice this year - in A Catered Affair and last month, reprising his Tony-winning role as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. When Harvey sings "Coney Island" at the end of A Catered Affair, suitcase in hand, ready to start a new phase in his life, it was so touching. And in Hairspray, I had a chance to see Harvey's wonderful comic timing. I just have to smile whenever I think of him jumping on the hot dog cart in "Welcome to the Sixties" or the hilarious duet with Wilbur Turnblad in "You're Timeless to Me." They were priceless moments.
4.) Brooks Ashmanskas is an adorable, teddy bear of a man. I loved him and Kate Baldwin as feuding coworkers who don't realize they're pen pals in She Loves Me at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. What a sweet, wonderful little musical. Baldwin has a great comic touch in "Vanilla Ice Cream" and I got choked up when she sang "Dear Friend," while waiting in a cafe to meet her pen pal. But I think my favorite moment was watching Ashmanskas, a truly expressive, physical actor, dance his way across a bare stage bathed in blue light while performing the title song.
5.) I remember as a kid watching Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals when they came on television - Oklahoma! and The King and I and above all, Cinderella with Lesley Ann Warren. But until I saw the revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center this spring, I had never seen a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical on stage. From the opening strains of the overture, when the stage slid back to reveal a 30-piece orchestra, I was captivated by this production. There were many great moments with Kelli O'Hara, Paulo Szot and Matthew Morrison as the leads. I especially loved the lively staging of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair." But really, it was all great.
6.) Seeing Patti LuPone as Mamma Rose in Gypsy was on my list of top theatrical moments of 2007. When the musical moved from the City Center Encores! series to Broadway, I saw Gypsy again. And once again, it makes my list of top theatre moments. This time, I want to mention Laura Benanti's performance. The moment when we first see Benanti transformed from gawky, plain-Jane adolescent Louise to glamorous, confident stripper Gypsy Rose Lee was stunning. Her hair is different, her clothes are obviously different, even her personality seems different. I could hardly believe she was the same person. Really, the brilliance of her Tony-winning performance just blew me away.
7.) I've written numerous times about my admiration for Daniel Breaker's performance in Passing Strange, especially the moment when he leaps across the stage in imitation of a big Broadway dance number. There's another scene that's stayed with me, too. When Breaker's character, Youth, is living in Berlin, he's made friends with a group of left-wing artists and activists. He fully expects that one of them will invite him home for Christmas. But they're not too keen about bringing a young black man to their small towns to meet the family. It's a painful moment when Youth realizes that there are limits to acceptance and friendship.
8.) I really enjoyed In the Heights, winner of the 2008 Tony for Best Musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda was great as bodega owner Usnavi, rapping his way through the opening number, featuring Andy Blankenbuehler's awesome choreography. But Mandy Gonzalez really won my heart as college student Nina, whose story is at the center of In the Heights. She returns to her Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City from Stanford feeling like a failure. I think her voice is beautiful and she's heartbreaking in "Breathe," when she sings about her guilt at having let down her family and her community.
9.) I though Laurence Fishburne was mesmerizing in Thurgood, as he took us through the life of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court. This was my first time seeing a one-person show on stage. Fishburne is a great storyteller as he goes through the details of Marshall's life and the fight to end school segregation in this county, culminating in the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. For me, he was such a commanding presence. I was in the third row, on the aisle, so when he sat down in a chair on stage at one point, he was literally right in front of me. I didn't dare take my eyes off of him - he was looking right at me, or at least that's what it felt like.
10.) The more I think about it, the more I like 13, Jason Robert Brown's musical about Evan Goldman, a Jewish kid who moves from New York City to Indiana after his parents get divorced. He's trying frantically to get the cool kids in his new school to come to his bar mitzvah. I loved the energetic young cast and the choreography and the rock 'n' roll score. At the end of the musical, in a very nice scene, we see Evan, played by Graham Phillips, during his bar mitzvah, a yarmulke on his head and a prayer shawl draped around his shoulders, chanting in Hebrew. The show could have left that moment out, soft-pedaled the religious angle, but it didn't - to its credit.
11.) Just about any moment that involves dancing in the musical Billy Elliot is memorable. I loved the dream ballet between Billy, played by Trent Kowalik at the performance I saw, and an adult dancer, played by Stephen Hanna. I loved seeing Billy in the middle of all those tutu-clad little girls in "Shine" and the big scrum of kids, miners and police in "Solidarity." I loved a very tender and bittersweet embrace between Billy and his father, played by Gregory Jbara. And any moment with Haydn Gwynne, who plays Billy's dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, is wonderful. But the scene where Billy reads a letter from his dead mother is heartbreaking. Listening to it on the cast recording, I'm in tears.
12.) I can still picture Brian J. Smith as Brandon Hardy, a high school senior in the 1980s in Roberto Aguirre Sacasa's play Good Boys and True. At one point, Brandon angrily denies to his friend Justin (Christopher Abbott) that he's gay. He hurls vile, homophobic insults, taunting Justin that he'll have a better life, he'll make more money, be more successful, be happier, because he's not going to be gay. To me, it was a powerful moment not solely because of what Brandon does to Justin - although that's bad enough - but because it shows, in a very stark way, what Brandon is doing to himself out of fear.