Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Best Shows of 2013: Part 1

Greetings, internet!  It's been a while.  I'm sorry I haven't been around (working a full-time job and taking a much needed vacation have kept me occupied for the past month), but I certainly wouldn't forget to post my annual list of the Best Shows of 2013!

For those who haven't seen one of my Best Of lists before, there are two very simple criteria for a show to make the list:  1) It must have opened and been seen by yours truly during the 2013 calendar year (so any show I haven't personally seen is automatically disqualified); and 2)  Said show must have been good.  I am happy to say that I saw much more good theatre than bad, and looking back I'm glad I've been taking baby steps towards seeing more Off-Broadway shows, as some of my most interesting nights at the theatre were spent in the tinier venues away from the hustle and bustle of the Great White Way.  This year, I am only writing a brief paragraph about each show rather than giving every entry it's own post, so without further ado here is the first half of my Best Shows of 2013 list!

10) Kinky Boots

The sex is in the heel:  Billy Porter is Broadway's reigning diva as Lola in Kinky Boots

From the moment it was announced, Kinky Boots always sounded like a fun night in the theatre.  Focusing on a struggling shoe factory that decides the road to financial stability lies in manufacturing women's shoes for men, this Cyndi Lauper-Harvey Fierstein-Jerry Mitchell collaboration is a perfectly lovely concoction.  The show is by no means groundbreaking (many of the same themes were addressed equally well in Fierstein's other drag musical, La Cage aux Folles), but there are some charming tunes, a stunning star turn by this year's Tony winner Billy Porter, and more glitter and sequins than you can shake a six-inch heel at.  I never would have predicted Kinky Boots' incredible box office performance, but there are certainly less deserving shows that have run much longer (*cough*Cats*cough*).

9) Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Surely it's obvious who Sigourney Weaver's self-absorbed Masha has dressed as (and David Hyde Pierce makes an adorably droll dwarf).

Christopher Durang finally won his first Tony Award for this farcical riff on unfulfilled desires and our youth obsessed culture.  Durang's comedy aims both high and low, equally at home with insider references to Anton Chekov and politically incorrect Hellen Keller jokes.  While Durang's script is good, the play's powerhouse cast is what pushed Vanya and Sonia into must-see territory.  Kristine Neilson and David Hyde Pierce both gave tour de force performances, each gifted with the kind of stand-out moments actors often dream about (Neilson's bittersweet second act phone call, Pierce's explosive rant against the younger generation).  The supporting cast was just as accomplished, and the show was one of the better examples of ensemble acting on the boards during the spring and summer.  Vanya and Sonia was the definition of laugh-out loud funny, and certainly earned its place among the year's best comedies.

8) Far From Heaven

It's autumn in Connecticut, but Kelli O'Hara's career as one of New York's best singing actresses is far from over.

Following the surprise success of Grey Gardens, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie once again tackled source material that seemed to defy musicalization.  This story of a 1950's suburban Connecticut housewife watching her picture-perfect life crumble around her and the small solace she finds in her relationship with her black gardener lives in the small moments, and musicals typically thrive on the big and flashy.  But Frankel and Korie once again proved what deft observers of the human condition they are, mining the story for all of its thematic richness and making it sing with some of the most beautiful music to grace the New York stage this season.  The pair also received a gift from the musical theatre gods in leading lady Kelli O'Hara, doing some of her most nuanced work to date.  I really hope this show finds its way to Broadway, as there is a distinct lack of serious musical theatre being written these days.  Until then we'll have to "make do" with O'Hara's next project, the Jason Robert Brown-scored Bridges of Madison County.

7) Big Fish

Norbert Leo Butz is certainly the "hero" of the fall musical season, giving an electric performance in the lead role of the unfairly underrated Big Fish

The critics were rather lukewarm to this Susan Stroman-directed tuner, and the box office has unfortunately followed suit, prompting the show to post a December 29th closing date.  It really is a shame, because Big Fish is one of the more interesting and complex projects to make it to Broadway in the past few seasons, and it's inherently theatrical premise (a travelling salesman prone to telling tall tales) has produced some of the fall's most stunning visuals.  Stroman is in top form with her inventive staging, which finds room for dancing elephants, a USO-inspired production number, and one of the few effective uses of slow motion in a live theatrical production.  The preternaturally talented Norbert Leo Butz is makes a strong case for Tony Award #3, with his decades-spanning characterization providing the show it's heart and soul.  He is ably matched by Kate Baldwin as his ever-faithful wife and Bobby Steggert as his estranged son.  If you haven't seen it yet, run out to catch Big Fish before it disappears forever at the end of the month.

6) A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Why are all the D'Ysquith's dying?  From laughter, I'd wager.

This stunning debut by unknowns Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak is the fall's best reviewed new musical, and rightly so.  Smartly written and beautifully sung, there is enough wit and invention in Gentleman's Guide's two-and-a-half hours to fill several lesser musicals.  Although the ghoulish-sounding plot involves Monty Navarro systematically bumping off eight members of the wealthy D'Ysquith clan in order to inherit an earldom, this musical farce is one of the funniest, most entertaining shows of the new season.  Jefferson Mays strikes comedic goal as all eight of the doomed D'Ysquiths, and Bryce Pinkham is adorably understated as the well-meaning but murderous Monty.  But the cast's real finds are Lisa O'Hare and Lauren Worsham, the two golden voiced women making their Broadway debuts.  Watching the pair fight for Monty's affections is positively thrilling, and the trio's Act II showstopper "I've Decided to Marry You" is as close to musical comedy heaven as you're likely to find this season.

That's the first half of my list.  Come back soon for my Top 5 of 2013, and also keep an eye out for my companion (and much snarkier) piece, the Worst Shows of 2013.

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