Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Worst Shows of 2013

Every year, I like to do a snarkier, far less goodnatured companion to my Best Shows of the Year lists (which you can see here and here).  Because as much as I wish it wasn't so, some shows are just bad, and there's no excuse for that in a city with such a wealth of talented, knowledgeable theatre professionals.

So here, for your reading enjoyment, is my Worst Shows of 2013 list.  Just like my Best Shows list, for a production to be eligible it must have: 1) opened during the 2013 calendar year; and 2) been seen by yours truly.  The good news is that this year, I couldn't even come up with my standard list of 5, which means either the shows were generally better this year or I was better at avoiding the real stinkers.  The shows with the "honor" of making this list were not just bad, but so bad that I found them to be an insult to the art form and those of us who love it.  I know there's at least one choice that's going to cause some controversy, but I fully stand behind my naming these shows the four least enjoyable things I've seen this year.

4) The Glass Menagerie

Cherry Jones and Celia Keenan-Bolger; two superbly cast, horribly directed actresses in Broadway's latest Glass Menagerie.

I'm sure many will disagree with this choice, as the current Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie has ended up on many critics' Best Of lists, with several going so far as proclaiming it the best production of the play they've ever seen.  I don't know what production those critics saw, but the show I witnessed was a prime example of good material ruined by bad direction.  Menagerie may be a "memory play" with a certain dreamlike quality to it, but that doesn't give director John Tiffany permission to hopscotch from abstract concept to abstract concept mid-performance.  Celia Keenan-Bolger's first entrance from inside the couch is a striking visual, but it sets up a convention that is never again revisited and therefore seems extraneous in hindsight (no other characters makes an entrance or exit nearly as interesting).  The choreographed interstitials, seemingly left over from Tiffany's Tony-winning musical Once, are the definition of random, and provide no useful service to either character development or narrative structure.  The four actors are well cast, but then poorly directed to the point where none of the roles land the way they need to for the piece to truly sing.  While I appreciate Tiffany's choice to emphasize the play's comedy as a way to free it from the baggage of being a Great American Drama, he has defanged the play (and the character of Amanda in particular) to the point where the final scenes have none of the poignancy or resonance they were clearly meant to.  I know I'm in the minority with this opinion, but I truly don't understand what all the fuss is about, which is doubly disappointing as this was one of the fall shows I was most excited to see.

3) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

At least Scarlett Johansson and Benjamin Walker are easy on the eyes.

On paper, reviving Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Tony-winner Scarlett Johansson sounds like a surefire recipe for success (and you haters can shut your mouths, because she was outstanding in A View from the Bridge).  But the first of many poor decisions made by the producers was booking the cavernous Richard Rodgers Theatre, which is simply too big for the scale of this play.  The actors were practically swallowed by the gargantuan set and playing space, and compensated for it by screaming most of their lines in a desperate attempt to fill the space.  This need by the entire cast to push, perhaps at director Rob Ashford's encouragement, robbed the play of all subtly and variance in emotional intensity, resulting in a very long evening of deeply unhappy people yelling at each other.  And not in a good way, as in other Pulitzer Prize winners like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or August: Osage County.  Here's hoping the critical and commercial failure of this production doesn't scare the supremely talented Johansson away from Broadway forever.

2) Little Miss Sunshine

"I can't answer the question, 'Are we there yet?' No one knows what direction this show is headed in!"

The best word I can think of to describe the film version of Little Miss Sunshine is "quirky," which is one of the hardest traits to convey onstage.  But if anyone was capable of pulling it off, it should have been James Lapine and William Finn, whose collaboration on The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was the definition of "quirky" and a surprise critical and commercial success.  Unfortunately, lightning failed to strike twice, and the Off-Broadway premiere of Little Miss Sunshine was a borderline painful experience.  Lapine and Finn seemed unable to decide if they wanted to emphasize the comedy or the drama, and splitting the difference resulted in neither one being particularly successful.  Structurally the show was a nightmare, with most of Finn's songs serving little to no purpose and in several cases making character motivations and feelings more obscure rather than clearer.  The supremely talented cast - including Tony-nominees Stephanie J. Block, Rory O'Malley, and Will Swenson - all struggled mightily to overcome the frankly terrible material, and unfortunately none of them emerged entirely unscathed from the debacle.  Heavily rewritten after its original premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, perhaps it's time the creators declare this show unsalvageable and move on to other ventures.

1) Cinderella

You're right, Laura.  It's NOT fair that you two have to act in this debacle.

I really struggled with whether to crown Little Miss Sunshine or Cinderella the year's worst show, but ultimately the complete debacle occurring nightly at the Broadway Theatre is the more egregious waste of money and talent.  Although officially titled Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella, this completely reworked version of the 1957 telemovie bears such little resemblance to that work it might as well be a new show.  For reasons I will never understand, Douglas Carter Beane was contracted to rewrite the show's book, despite his work on Lysistrata Jones and Sister Act proving that he wouldn't know proper story structure or quality character writing if it bit him in the ass.  Beane's postmodern sensibility is at complete odds with the earnestness of Rodgers and Hammerstein's score, and he burdens the show with a kindergarten-level lecture on the merits of democracy that is so simplistic it is actively insulting.

Forcing Laura Osnes to act in such drivel is almost criminal, especially considering how ideally suited she is for the Cinderella Rodgers and Hammerstein originally wrote.  Harriet Harris is saddled with the brunt a bad jokes and a character "arc" that makes even less sense than the translated menu at a Chinese take-out restaurant, and watching Ann Harada struggle to act out both sides of the Evil Stepsister dynamic (since Beane has decided to make the other stepsister more sympathetic) is just sad.  To borrow a phrase overused by pretty much every character in the show:  "Seriously?"  The Broadway Theatre has hosted some truly awful productions over the past few years, and unfortunately Cinderella is right up there with Promises, Promises in it's ability to insult and torture anyone unfortunate enough to wind up in the audience.

And there you have it; the worst shows of 2013.  I recommend avoiding these works at all costs, and spending your hard-earned cash on something that actually advances the theatre.  Hopefully this list will be even shorter next year.  Happy New Year!


  1. They've just confirmed that there will be yet another revival of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway next year starring Sally Field and Joe Mantello. Maybe you'll like that version better.

    1. We'll see. I will say that regardless of whether the revival was good or bad (and I was in the minority about the last "Glass Menagerie," which generally got great reviews), I think 4 years is too soon to remount a show on Broadway. And while I really enjoy Sally Field and Joe Mantello as actors, they both seem too old for their roles; I can buy Field as Amanda, but Mantello seems about 15 years too old for Tom.

  2. Hopefully after you saw this stage version of Cinderella, you eventually saw the live-action film version directed by Kenneth Branagh that came out last year. Sure, that version wasn't a musical, but it certainly fared well with both critics and audiences, and even got an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design.