Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Best Shows of 2014: Part II

2014 is about to draw to close, and to celebrate the year that was I'm offering up my picks for the Best Shows of 2014. I've already listed shows 10 thru 5, and now its time to reveal my choices for the absolute best New York theatre had to offer. As always, this list is limited to productions I have actually seen, which means that certain popular and/or acclaimed productions are automatically ineligible. That also means the list skews towards Broadway musicals, as those are what I see the most of. So what are my Top 5 shows of the year? Read on to find out!

5) Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig and the Angry Inch managed the rare feat of winning Tonys for all of its principal actors. Granted, there were only two of them, but still.

When Neil Patrick Harris was announced to star in the first Broadway production of the cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I was skeptical. While I was reasonably sure the production would do well financially, I wasn't at all convinced Harris' polished, mainstream persona would work in a show known for being grungy and decidedly alternative. I am beyond thrilled Harris proved me and any doubters wrong, giving an utterly fearless, Tony-winning, tour de force performance as the titular transgendered rocker. With a breakout performance by Lena Hall and fantastic direction by Michael Mayer, Hedwig is the perfect example of how to properly scale up a small show so it fills a Broadway house without losing its essence or spirit. Although Harris departed at the end of the summer, the hit revival continues to run with a string of high profile replacements, and will see author and original Off-Broadway star John Cameron Mitchell don Hedwig's high heels in mid-January. Definitely worth a return visit.

4) Cabaret

Alan Cumming returns to the Kit Kat Klub in Roundabout's second revival of Cabaret, a show that continues to be one of the most rewarding, well crafted book musicals of all time.

Another show many were cynical about, the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of their Tony-winning Cabaret is the exact same production that played Broadway for 6 years in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and probably exists primarily to make money. Yet whatever the reason for its return, Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall's perfectly marvellous production is one of the few musicals from this past year to actually challenge its audience rather than pander to them, and further establishes that this dark gem of the show is one of the all time great pieces of musical theatre. Contracting Alan Cumming to reprise his Tony-winning turn as the Emcee was a stroke of genius, with Cumming delivering a stellar performance that feels entirely fresh despite the 16 years that have passed since he first tackled the part. The entire production feels authentic, dangerous, and startlingly relevant, and if it were not for a miscast Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles this show would no doubt rank even higher on the list. Williams has since been replaced by Hollywood starlet Emma Stone (reportedly the producers' original choice for the part), who by all accounts is fantastic and offers those who've already been an excellent reason to return to the Kit Kat Klub.
3) On the Town

Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck, and Clyde Alves lead the absolutely stellar cast of the 70th anniversary production of On the Town, one of the fall's biggest treats.

Who would have thought a revival of a 70 year old musical comedy would end up being one of the freshest productions of the year? Everything about John Rando's dazzling On the Town is a pure delight, a big hearted love letter to both New York City and the Broadway of yesteryear. In an era where wicked witches defy gravity and magic carpets show audiences a whole new world, one of the most thrilling sights currently on Broadway is 30 superb dancers high kicking to Joshua Bergasse's sensational choreography, accompanied by one of the largest orchestras on Broadway brilliantly playing Leonard Bernstein's original orchestrations. The pitch perfect cast is anchored by Tony Yazbeck's superb Gabey and features a breakout (Tony-worthy) performance by Alysha Umphress as the sassy Hildy, not to mention two full scale ballet sequences specifically designed to highlight NY City Ballet's Megan Fairchild in her Broadway debut. Anyone with even the slightest inclination should run to the Lyric Theatre and buy a ticket immediately.
2) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Newcomer Alex Sharp is making one of the most impressive Broadway debuts in years in the fantastic The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

You have to hand it to those Brits; they certainly know how to put on an eye-popping show. However, unlike the overhyped War Horse a few seasons back, the Broadway transfer of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has an excellent script to support all the visual splendor. The play is one of the most arresting, honest portrayals of autism to ever hit the New York stage, and fully succeeds in placing the audience inside the head of 15 year old protagonist Christopher Boone (played by Julliard graduate Alex Sharp in an absolutely stunning, sure to be Tony-nominated Broadway debut). All of the design elements work in tandem with Marianne Elliott's excellent direction to propel this deceptively simple mystery/thriller into "must see" territory, making Curious Incident the most exciting new play I had the privilege of seeing this year.
1) The Bridges of Madison County

Kelli O'Hara should have won the Tony this year. Period. The end.

Jason Robert Brown's transcendent The Bridges of Madison County is both 2014's best show and its biggest tragedy, with the musical's Broadway run cut unfairly short by weak ticket sales and a bizarrely apathetic theatrical community. Perhaps the show was hurt by its association with the widely known but not widely respected book which inspired it, or maybe the musical was a victim of bad timing that forced it to close before Tony season was completed. Whatever the reason for the show's failure, it's hard to fault the soaring score or richly detailed relationship between the lead characters. And the absolutely stunning performances by Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale certainly deserved to reach a wider audience, as both achieved depths of feeling most actors can only dream about. O'Hara in particular has never been more radiant, simultaneously gut wrenching and inspiring in a career-best performance sung with a nearly unequaled level of vocal mastery. Bridges was something special, and easily the most satisfying evening I spent in a theatre this year. Here's hoping the excellent original cast recording helps this show to have a long and successful afterlife.

And there you have it. Those are, in my opinion, the Best Shows of 2014. Here's hoping 2015 brings us something just as good, if not better.

Happy New Year!

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