Saturday, September 21, 2013

My Top 10 Theatre Experiences: Part 1

Ever since started publishing "Their Favorite Things," in which notable Broadway talent lists the 10 Broadway performances that most affected them as audience members, I have toyed with the notion of doing a similar feature on this blog.  But every time I've gone to write it, I've shied away, since making lists of my "favorite" or "the best" theatre is not something I do lightly.  It takes time to fully process the best theatre, and to ensure that your enjoyment was of the piece as a whole and not just a particularly flashy performance or technical element.  There are many productions I enjoyed immensely at the time that I have trouble remembering now, and while those types of shows are certainly valuable experiences they are not ones I feel belong on a "best of" list.

But after a lot of careful consideration, I have (I think) come up with a list that represents the 10 shows that have had the greatest effect on me as person.  These are the shows that made me feel, that made me laugh out loud, fight back tears, and stare in wonder at the sheer amount of talent on display.  I want to be clear:  this is NOT a list of what I consider the 10 Best Shows of All Time.  There are several shows that I adore as pieces of writing that I've never seen a wholly satisfactory production of, and though my theatrical knowledge is broad I don't consider it broad enough to make such sweeping proclamations.

No, this list was created with a pretty specific list of caveats.  It is confined entirely to productions I have personally experienced, and the specific casts I saw in those productions.  Also, I have borrowed's convention of limiting the list to Broadway productions, as it provides a narrower field to choose from (and has honestly been the home of almost all of the best theatre I've seen).  And in making my picks, I focused on productions that were outstanding as a whole, which has led to the exclusion of some of my favorite individual performances because the vehicles they starred in were flawed in some way.  Perhaps one day I'll make a companion list that is performer-based, but for now, a stellar production overrules a singular star turn.

Oh, and one last note: the shows are in alphabetical order, because attempting to rank them from 1 to 10 simply proved too difficult.  At this level, separating number 1 from number 2 or number 9 from number 10 would be splitting hairs.

Here's the start of the list:

August: Osage County

Perfection personified.  The acting ensemble for August: Osage County was everything!

On my first trip to New York after college, I bought a seat in the back of the balcony to August: Osage County based entirely on the ecstatic word of mouth from my friends.  The following three-and-a-half hours were some of the most thrillingly theatrical I've ever experienced, as playwright Tracy Letts and the astound ensemble of actors hurled the Great American Drama into the 21st century.  A deftly written dark comedy at turns hilarious and chilling, this Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece was riveting, and I left with a renewed sense of excitement about the possibilities of theatre as an artistic medium. 

The cast, all of whom transferred with the play from its world premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, was uniformly astounding, forming a tightly-knit ensemble that truly felt as if they had known each other their entire lives.  They were the Weston clan, and the extended second act dinner scene was one of the greatest master classes in acting that I've ever seen.  And while everyone was phenomenal, I must give special mention to Amy Morton as the eldest Weston daughter, Barbara.  Her slow unraveling under the psychological torture of her monstrous mother was mesmerizing, and her bellowed declaration of "I'm running things now!" at the end of Act II was perhaps the most electrifying curtain line in any play ever.  I would gladly have watched three more hours of such astonishing acting, and to this day August remains one of the finest dramas I've ever experienced.

Avenue Q

Puppets, humans, and Gary Coleman all live in happy harmony down on Avenue Q.

A smartly written, expertly executed examination of the struggles of early twenty-somethings in the new millennium, Avenue Q will forever be remembered as the show that beat megahit Wicked for the 2004 Best Musical Tony.  Having seen both productions just before said award was handed out, I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with the Tony voters' choice.  Avenue Q went far beyond its gimmicky-sounding Sesame-Street-meets-South-Park premise to become the perfect distillation of early-2000s pop culture, and in my opinion had a heart far bigger than the giant set-pieces on display at the Gershwin Theatre.  The show had me *howling* with laughter, even though I knew all of the songs by heart long before I made a trip to the Golden Theatre to actually see the show that contained them.

And while that was in no small part due to the writing, the insanely talented ensemble took the show over the edge as far as quality was concerned.  Most shows have two or three stand-out numbers; in the hands of that original cast, Avenue Q had 8 or 9.  John Tartaglia's and Stephanie D'Abruzzo's dual roles helped show me what true musical theatre acting looks like; when Kate Monster had her confrontation with Lucy the Slut I thought little of it until I realized D'Abruzzo played both characters, at which point my jaw dropped.  And I will never understand how Ann Harada failed to even be nominated for her career-defining work as Christmas Eve; a supremely talented comedienne, Harada had me rolling in the aisles and then blew me away with her powerhouse vocals on "The More You Ruv Someone."  10 years later I can still clearly remember large swaths of this show, and those memories never fail to bring a smile to my face.

That's all for now.  Check back soon for the next 4 shows in my top 10, including the show I'm fairly certain is my favorite theatrical experience of all time.

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