I've avoided making best-of lists the past couple of years because it's just too difficult. For me, going to the theatre, especially in New York City, is such a treat. Even if I didn't absolutely love the play or musical, there's almost always some saving grace.
So I usually settle for taking note of my favorite performances, which allows me to mention just about everything. But this year, there were a half-dozen shows that moved me so deeply, I wanted to recognize them. After careful study and much thought, these are my picks for the best of 2009. I saw five on Broadway and one off-Broadway. Two were transfers from Chicago and one came from London.
Next to Normal
Composer Tom Kitt and lyricist and book writer Brian Yorkey have accomplished something so rare for Broadway - an original musical about a complex subject. Alice Ripley as Diana, a woman in the throes of mental illness, J. Robert Spencer as her husband, Dan, and Jennifer Damiano as their daughter Natalie were heart-wrenching. The vibrant rock 'n' roll score conveys so well what each character is going through - how they feel, their fears and frustrations. As an outsider looking in, I gained a greater understanding of the devastating impact mental illness has on a family and how difficult it is to treat. Next to Normal was tough to watch at times, but I found it utterly compelling.
I've always loved Hair and I've always been interested in the 1960s. The current Broadway revival evokes the spirit of the decade without glossing over its tumultuous events. Will Swenson and Gavin Creel are terrific as the charismatic leader of a tribe of hippies and a conflicted draftee, respectively. Under the direction of Diane Paulus, the musical is exhilarating to watch. But Paulus also reminds us of the cost when we send young Americans into harm's way. And fittingly for a time in which inhibitions were cast aside, Hair ends with an invitation to become part of the tribe. As a result, I set foot on a Broadway stage for the very first time. I got to sing and dance (in my off-key, uncoordinated way) and see how things look from the other side. It was the most thrilling moment I've ever had at the theatre and one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Our Town and Brighton Beach Memoirs
What director David Cromer did so brilliantly in Our Town off-Broadway and Brighton Beach Memoirs in its too-short Broadway run was strip them to their essence: absorbing stories of the daily lives and loves of American families.
As Our Town's high school sweethearts Emily and George, Jennifer Grace and James McMenamin embody the awkwardness of teenagers. And Cromer, as the stage manager, was incredible - so unaffected and genuine, I didn't even realize the play had begun when he started speaking. For the first time, I felt like this play about early 20th century life in small-town New Hampshire could be taking place today. Our Town runs through Jan. 31 at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. Cromer, who helmed the play in its premiere at Chicago's The Hypocrites, is returning to the play as the stage manager tonight through Jan. 3, so this is a perfect time to see it.
And in Brighton Beach Memoirs, Cromer served up a warm portrait of a family scraping to get by during the Great Depression. They're absolutely Jewish but you didn't have to be to appreciate their struggles, their humor and their hopes and fears. As Kate Jerome, Laurie Metcalf was simply awesome, getting to the strength behind the Jewish mother stereotype. And newcomer Noah Robbins was remarkable as the teenage Eugene, so appealing and making Neil Simon's quips sound so natural.
Superior Donuts, a transfer from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, has Tracy Letts' razor-sharp dialogue and memorable characters, along with a great deal of tenderness and wit. And for me, it was filled with emotion. Jon Michael Hill is amazing as Franco Wicks, an engaging young black man who comes to work in the downscale Chicago donut shop run by Michael McKean's Polish-American Arthur Przbyszewski. I was laughing, hard, at their banter but when Franco pulls out of his knapsack his Great American Novel, my eyes got moist. Stories about aspiring writers always get to me. Of all the shows on Broadway this fall that dealt with race, Superior Donuts was my favorite for the way it explores how we relate to each other as a community, as individuals, as Americans. Sadly, Superior Donuts is closing Jan. 3 at Broadway's Music Box Theatre but you've still got a couple of weeks to catch it.
The Norman Conquests
At the beginning of 2009, this trilogy by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, which started at London's Old Vic Theatre, was nowhere on my radar. But then the reviews started coming in and they were so enthusiastic I thought well, it'll be an experience - a theatre marathon from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., with breaks for lunch and dinner. The Norman Conquests turned out to be one of the best and most unique theatergoing experiences I've had. The six-member cast was superb. Even after three plays totaling about 7 hours I never got tired of watching such vivid, distinct characters interact in ways that were touching and hilarious. I loved them all but Stephen Mangan as Norman was my favorite. He played a character I was prepared to dislike but Mangan made him so sympathetic - even if he was an unscrupulous cad at times. It's a performance that I'll never forget.