Monday, December 29, 2014

The Best Shows of 2014: Part I

As 2014 draws to a close and the internet is inundated with "Best of the Year" lists, its time to add my humble voice to the cacophony with my annual "Best Shows of the Year" list. For those of you not familiar with how this list works, know that it is not meant to be a comprehensive or definitive list. It is limited to productions I have actually seen, so certain popular shows will be omitted. I have yet to see Beautiful, for instance, although all of the promotional performances make me think it wouldn't make my personal list anyway.

2014 was an interesting year for New York theatre. There were a lot of show I liked, but less I unabashedly loved than in 2013. There was still plenty of commendable work throughout the year, and part of the reason fewer shows felt like unqualified successes is because they tackled less conventional subject matter and storytelling methods (which I'll take over a safe, traditional production any day of the week). Below is the first half of my annual Top 10, with the remainder of the list to follow soon. 

Honorable Mention: Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill

Audra McDonald truly disappeared into the role of jazz singer Billie Holiday, winning the acclaimed actress a well deserved and record breaking sixth Tony Award.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, Lanie Robertson's exploration of famed jazz singer Billie Holiday's life and career, is not a great play. The show is interesting because Holiday's life was interesting, but nothing about the play's writing contributes to more than a cursory understanding of the troubled vocalist's final days, performing in obscurity at rundown clubs. That said, Audra McDonald was a revelation in the work's recent Broadway revival, an utterly transformative performance that deservedly won the acclaimed actress her record breaking 6th Tony Award. As usual, McDonald somehow managed to exceed overwhelmingly high expectations to deliver a performance for the ages, one of the single best of I have ever seen. While the show's pedestrian writing keeps it from being Top Ten material, McDonald's performance was one of the most nuanced and entrancing of the year, and deserving of mention.

10) Pageant

The beautiful contestants of the Miss Galmouresse pageant at the center of Pageant.

In the pursuit of high art and a better understanding of the human condition, it can sometimes be easy to forget that theatre is primarily a form of entertainment. The Off-Broadway review Pageant, about a fictional beauty contest where all of the contestants are men dressed in drag, may not have been the most intellectual of evenings, but it was one of the most enjoyable 90 minutes I spent in a theatre last year. The extremely talented and versatile performers milked every bit of campy humor possible out of the premise, somehow making a spoof of beauty pageants feel relevant even when the format is long past its prime. The loose structure allowed the contestants plenty of chances to ham it up, but beneath all the shtick and broad caricatures they remained recognizably human, which only added to the show's appeal. Definitely an underrated gem of the summer/fall months.

9) If/Then

While there were plenty of strong performances in If/Then, let's be honest: Idina Menzel is the reason people are interested in this show, and the Tony winner delivers with what may be the performance of her career.

I can't understand why If/Then has gotten so much flack from the theatrical community. While the show is by no means perfect, it is one of the increasingly rare musicals not based on any pre-existing property that furthermore dares to ask big questions about life (as opposed to most of the successful musicals of the past few seasons, which are primarily meant to entertain). Perhaps the show suffered in comparison to Next to Normal, the groundbreaking Pulitzer Prize winner by the same creative team. And while If/Then doesn't match that show's emotional wallop, the concurrent narratives of Liz and Beth raise a lot of interesting questions about choice versus fate. Idina Menzel has never been better, easily topping her Tony-winning work in the megamusical Wicked 10 years ago and proving that she is one of the most formidable singing-actresses of her generation. The show's sagging box office numbers and Menzel's impending departure probably mean this show is on its last legs, so everyone who claims to support originality in the theatre really owes it to themselves to see this thought provoking new work before its gone. It may be flawed, but its heart is 110% in the right place, and I will take an ambitiously flawed show over a safely conventional one any day of the week.

8) Heathers

Off Broadway's New World Stages is generally where older shows go to extend their runs, but occasional the complex will birth exciting new works like the hilarious and inventive Heathers the Musial.

A darkly comic coming of age tale set in perhaps the worst high school of all time, Heathers proved to be a highlight of the crowded spring theatre season. Featuring a top notch score by Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy ("Candy Store" is one of the catchiest musical numbers of the year), Heathers' endlessly inventive writing was brought to life by an excellent cast of mostly unknowns. A vast improvement upon the film that inspired it, the musical managed to resolve most of the tonal issues that plague the source material without losing the story's edge, and somehow uncovered an emotional core underneath all the 80s slang and teen melodrama. Although the Off-Broadway production has long since shuttered, the show is already well on its way to achieving the kind of cult status shows like Rocky Horror and Reefer Madness enjoy.

7) Aladdin

Courtney Reed and Adam Jacobs appear to have literally leapt off the screen in Disney's Aladdin, one of the most sumptuous spectacles to grace Broadway this year.

20 years after Beauty and the Beast, Disney Theatricals finally got around to tackling the last major film from the company's early 90s animation renaissance, the Oscar winning 1992 comedy Aladdin. Recovering nicely from their last animated adaptation (the less than successful Little Mermaid), the company brought their trademark high production values and slick presentation to this story of a street rat who dreams of something more. Featuring a game cast (lead by James Monroe Inglehart's Tony-winning Genie) and fantastic direction/choreography by Casey Nicholaw, Aladdin is one of the most magically entertaining shows currently running on Broadway. Genuine showstopper "Friend Like Me" is one of the most elaborate, thrilling production numbers around, and the famed magic carpet ride is every bit as magical onstage as it was on film. An excellent option for families and the young at heart, tickets have been hard to come by, but are definitely worth the effort.
6) Much Ado About Nothing

Recovering from an uneven couple of years, the Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park presented a top notch (and free!) production of Much Ado About Nothing this past summer.

After a couple of less than stellar seasons (2012's Into the Woods was divisive to say the least, and 2013's Comedy of Errors and Love's Labors Lost were less than memorable), the Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park returned in top form with a fantastic production of one of the Bard's best comedies, Much Ado About Nothing. The always excellent Lily Rabe was perfectly cast as the tart-tongued Beatrice, and Hamish Linklater's Benedict made for a perfect comic foil. But while Rabe and Linklater were definitely the star attractions, the entire supporting cast was filled with excellent actors under superb direction by Tony winner Jack O'Brien. A truly magical evening that successfully ran the full gamut of human emotion in just two and a half hours, this production was an unadulterated delight from beginning to end. The lack of a marquee star or available theatre precluded a Broadway transfer, but this mounting of Shakespeare's comedy was as deserving of that honor as anything Shakespeare in the Park has produced.

And that's Part I of my list. Keep an eye out for Part II in the coming days, where I'll list my Top 5 favorite theatrical experiences of the year.

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