Thursday, December 22, 2011

My favorite theatre of 2011

This year, it's easy to pick my favorite theatre. Tony Kushner's Angels in America, at the Signature Theatre, and Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, on Broadway, stood far above anything else I saw in 2011.

Each playwright takes a very different approach to writing about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City, and its devastating impact on gay men. But both tell absorbing stories brought to life by superb actors whose performances had me in tears. They are lyrical and angry and infused with humor and humanity and they will live in my heart forever.

The best of the rest:

Clybourne Park
This Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Bruce Norris, which I saw at Trinity Rep, draws its inspiration from A Raisin in the Sun. It examines how we talk about race in America both in the 1950s and today. The similarities and differences are at times subtle, at times in your face but always compelling. Norris's characters - why they behave the way they do - left me with much to think about.

The Mountaintop
Katori Hall's Broadway play imagines the final night of the Rev. Martin Luther King's life, in his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. I was riveted watching Samuel L. Jackson as King and Angela Bassett as a hotel maid he encounters. I thought it was a fascinating look at the civil-rights leader not as an icon but as a man.

This Broadway revival was a great reminder of how great a musical can be when its stories and characters are truly original. Through Stephen Sondehim's songs and James Goldman's book, this is a show that speaks honestly - with humor and pain and poignancy - about what happens as we grow older.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Maybe it had something to do with the rapturous reception for the endearing Daniel Radcliffe as aspiring executive J. Pierrepont Finch, but the crowd just carried me along on this one. It was hilarious and the story of what you have to do to get to the top resonates today. The Broadway revival of Frank Loesser's musical had me grinning from beginning to end.

Porgy and Bess
I saw Porgy and Bess in its pre-Broadway tryout at the American Repertory Theater. It was my first time seeing the show and hearing the Gershwin score and I was captivated. What made this musical so moving for me was the romance at its core. I thought Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis were wonderful together.

I loved Leonard Bernstein's glorious score and the story, adapted from Voltaire by Mary Zimmerman. This production originated in Chicago but I saw it at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. It was an exuberant, inventive and melodic tale about a young man's adventure-filled journey through life. There were so many twists and turns, quirky characters and shifting locations that I was enthralled.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Follies, at Broadway's Marquis Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

Because my opportunities to get to New York City are limited, I almost skipped the Broadway revival of Follies. I'd seen a fine version at Boston's Lyric Stage in 2008 and I rarely revisit a show. I figure been there, done that.

And while I like Follies, it's not my favorite Stephen Sondheim musical. It tells the story of former showgirls who return for a reunion in their old theatre just before it's demolished. While some are happy, others express regrets at how their lives have turned out compared with the dreams they harbored in their youth. That's a subject which hits a little too close to home.

But I'm so glad I gave it another chance. This is a production that speaks honestly - with humor and pain and poignancy - about what happens as we grow older.

While Follies is my fourth Sondheim musical, it's the first one I've seen with a full orchestra. And it really does make a difference. I mean, 28 musicians, that's almost a symphony. (Including 2 chellos. I didn't even know the plural of cello was celli!) They sounded so lush and gorgeous.

The Marquis Theatre is one of Broadway's newest houses but the designers - Derek McLane's set, Gregg Barnes' costumes and Natasha Katz's lighting - combine to give the appearance that Follies is taking place in a crumbling, eerie space. It was moody and ghostly and perfect.

Along with the theatre, these women are also in transition - their marriages are troubled, their children have grown up and left home. They're not as sprightly as they used to be. They're shadowed by younger actors, reminders of their former selves.

One of the things I love about Follies is watching the showgirls perform their routines from 30 years earlier. What endearing women with interesting stories, ones that they don't often get a chance to tell onstage, in movies or on TV. Some of the poignancy comes from knowing their real-life background: opera singer Rosalind Elias making her Broadway debut at 82!

It was so moving to see them parade onstage, just like the old days, in "Beautiful Girls." I loved Terri White's Stella Deems leading the troupe in "Who's that Woman?", Jayne Houdyshell's Hattie Walker belting "Broadway Baby" and Florence Lacey's film star Carlotta Campion proclaiming "I'm Still Here," with all of the witty historic and cultural references.

But the two most memorable performances were Bernadette Peters as Sally Durant Plummer and Jan Maxwell as Phyllis Rogers Stone, roommates as Follies girls who've drifted apart. Sally is married to Danny Burstein's affable salesman Buddy and lives in Phoenix. Phyllis, married to Ron Raines' distinguished-looking Ben, a former politician, lives in New York City.

This was my first time seeing Maxwell in a musical and she is the absolute definition of a triple threat. Watching her sing and dance through "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" was exhilarating. It was only about a week after she was hit by a car crossing a street in Times Square. She's simply remarkable.

I'd only seen Peters on TV and in the movies, so seeing her onstage was thrilling. As a deeply unhappy and mentally unbalanced woman, who feels her life is falling apart, she was heartbreaking. I was riveted by her rendition of "Losing My Mind."

What I've really come to appreciate about Follies is that it's a musical for anyone who loves thoughtful and original work. The themes are timeless and it's the kind of show that reveals new layers every time you see it. This was my final show of 2011 and what a great way to cap a year of theatergoing.