Monday, December 27, 2010

My favorite theatre of 2010

Listing my favorite shows of the year is tough because even if I don't totally love a play or musical there's always something I want to mention, like a strong performance or a moment that really moved me.

But out of the 27 plays and musicals I saw in 2010, these stood out:

Brief Encounter - Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54

Brief Encounter was the most captivating theatre I saw all year. It was whimsical, magical, romantic.

Britain's Kneehigh Theatre Company adapted the 1945 film Brief Encounter, based on a Noel Coward play about a married man and woman who begin an affair after a chance meeting in a train station.

Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock were enchanting as the couple, reminding me how sexy those old movies could be without the actors taking off all their clothes and jumping into bed.

I felt like I was watching an old black-and-white movie onstage - visually heightened by some imaginative effects and with all the boring parts left out. And those effects, along with Coward's music used throughout, enhanced the story. They never threatened to overwhelm it.

Brief Encounter runs through Jan. 2.

The Scottsboro Boys, Lyceum Theatre

Stunning would have to be the word I'd use to describe this final musical from John Kander and the late Fred Ebb. It was the most compelling theatre I saw all year and I thought the score was haunting.

The story of nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape in 1930s Alabama is told through a minstrel show, illuminating the era's racism in a way I found chillingly effective. Here, the white characters were lampooned while the African-Americans were treated with respect.

The Scottsboro Boys was musical theatre that made me think. With a superb ensemble led by Joshua Henry, I thought it was profoundly moving and immensely entertaining in the best sense of the word. It deserved a longer run on Broadway.

La Cage aux Folles, Longacre Theatre

My favorite new score of the year - well new to me anyway - was La Cage aux Folles. Hearing Jerry Herman's gorgeous songs for the first time - stirring, heartfelt, playful and utterly romantic - was unforgettable.

Based on the French film, it's about two men, partners in a nightclub and in life, who have raised a son. They now face a dilemma with his impending marriage to the daughter of a right-wing politician.

I saw Chris Hoch, Kelsey Grammer's understudy, as nightclub owner Georges and he was wonderful. He had great chemistry with the equally wonderful Tony-winner Douglas Hodge as the drag performer Albin. I was moved to tears watching them.

With warmth and wit, this musical goes to true meaning of family values: the love we show each other, the sacrifices we make.

La Cage aux Folles is an open-ended run.

La Bete, Music Box Theatre

I was nervous going into La Bete. I was afraid the play, written in rhyme and taking place in 17th-century France, would be musty and hard to comprehend. Well, this was the most pleasant surprise of the year for me. I was enthralled.

Mark Rylance as Valere, a bufoonish street performer, and David Hyde Pierce as Elomire, a principled playwright, were terrific, which I figured they would be. What surprised me is how much I truly enjoyed David Hirson's play. It was hilarious, thoughtful and entirely accessible.

As Valere and Elomire competed for the patronage of Joanna Lumley's princess, La Bete raised questions about artistic integrity and the debasement of popular culture that struck a chord. While I was laughing so hard, it gave me so much to think about.

La Bete runs through Jan. 9.

Mistakes Were Made, Barrow Street Theatre

As a would-be Broadway producer, Michael Shannon is giving a virtuoso performance in Mistakes Were Made. I've never seen anything quite like it.

Craig Wright's frenzied satire comes to New York from Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre. In 95 minutes, it takes us through a day in the life of Felix Artifex, a producer who's desperately trying to mount a play on Broadway about the French Revolution.

Shannon's Felix is on the phone almost nonstop. He must talk to nearly a dozen different people, including a movie star he's wooing, the playwright, a potential investor and several people associated with the movement of sheep through a Middle Eastern country.

What's remarkable is how adeptly Shannon handles all of this. Every caller gets a different approach, a different tone of voice. I swear he had me believing there was someone else on the other end of the phone every time.

Mistakes Were Made runs through Feb. 27.

Fela!, Eugene O'Neill Theatre

Thanks to an amazing performance from Kevin Mambo, this musical turned out to be one of the most exhilarating experiences I had all year.

Mambo was incredible as the late Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He was mesmerizing, making Fela a terrific storyteller and showman and truly evoking the charismatic part of his personality. Ok, maybe it doesn't tell his entire story but I did get some insight into his life and influences, what made him such a revered figure.

I loved the way Fela! meshed politics, history and personal narrative with the pulsating sound of Afrobeat. It was original and unique. The music and dancing was pretty much nonstop for 2 1/2 hours and I was into it the whole time.

Fela! runs through Jan. 2.

A Bronx Tale, Providence Performing Arts Center

Even though Chazz Palminteri has been performing the autobiographical A Bronx Tale for 20 years, and the events belong to his childhood, he makes them seem as fresh as if they had just happened yesterday.

Palminteri paints a vivid portrait of growing up in New York City in the 1960s. He portrays 18 people in this solo show, including an assortment of mobsters, his bus driver father and two versions of himself - an impressionable 9-year-old and a streetwise 17-year-old.

It's a masterful performance, the way he depicts these characters and their various idiosyncrasies with a change in his tone of voice, an expression, the way he moves around onstage. He makes them all distinct and memorable.

The Glass Menagerie, Gamm Theatre

I'm so glad I had a chance to see this classic play onstage for the first time.

I knew the shorthand for The Glass Menagerie: domineering mother, artistic son, unstable daughter, gentleman caller. But watching Tennessee Williams' play about a troubled family made me realize how little I really knew about it.

Diana Buirski brought out Laura's frailty; Marc Dante Mancini made me understand how trapped Tom felt; and Wendy Overly as their mother, Amanda, truly was a fading Southern beauty living in the past.

Williams crafted his characters with such care that I felt for what each one was going thorough in this intimate, absorbing production.

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, at Trinity Rep

I wasn't sure what It's a Wonderful Life would be without Jimmy Stewart and the rest of the cast from the movie. Well onstage, it's pretty wonderful, too.

Joe Landry's adaptation is presented as a Christmas Eve 1949 radio broadcast. There's a minimal set and cast - five actors play multiple roles - but the story retains its charm and pull.

Fred Sullivan Jr. was so endearing as George Bailey, a man who's always put the needs of his friends, family and community over his own.

It's a Wonderful Life is a moving portrait of small-town American life. Maybe it's because I was sitting so close - in the front row, in a small theatre, but I was struck by how much the story resonated and how emotional it was to watch. In the end, there were tears in my eyes.

It's a Wonderful Life runs through Jan. 2.

No comments: