Monday, December 28, 2015

The Best Shows of 2015: Part I

Despite the unseasonably warm weather New York City has been experiencing, it is in fact the end of December. With the new year just around the corner, it is time for me to look back and select my 10 favorite shows of 2015. The qualifications for making this list are simple: the production must have had its official opening night during the 2015 calendar year, and it must have been seen by yours truly. That means that certain praised productions are automatically ineligible, and therefore this should by no means be viewed as a comprehensive/final judgment on the quality of all theatre that happened this year.

With those caveats in place, here are 5 of the productions I enjoyed the most this year, with my Top 5 selections to follow in the next post:

10) Dames at Sea

Eloise Kropp and Cary Tedder dancing up a storm in Dames at Sea.

Given the lukewarm reviews and positively abysmal box office, I am clearly in the minority when it comes to my enjoyment of the first Broadway mounting of the 40-year-old Dames at Sea. And to be fair, I understand where a lot of the most common critiques of the show are coming from. It is unfailing earnest, often to the point of ridiculousness, but that's kind of the point. I think the problem with Dames is that it's spoofing a genre (1930s movie musicals) that isn't really in the public consciousness anymore, which automatically makes it feel dated and irrelevant to many. But that perception does nothing to take away from the polish and professionalism with which the cast delivers the delightfully daffy material, or the gee whiz excitement of seeing director/choreographer Randy Skinner creates some of Broadway's most thrilling tap routines with just 6 superbly dancers. And it certainly doesn't undermine the sheer comic brilliance of Lesli Margherita's performance as Mona Kent, whose work as a demanding diva is one of the most consistently hilarious performances of the year. Anyone with the slightest inclination to see the show should really make the effort to get out to the Helen Hayes Theatre before the final curtain falls this Sunday; you won't be disappointed.

9) Spring Awakening

Daniel N. Duran and Krysta Rodriguez in Deaf West's revival of Spring Awakening.

Unlike many people of my generation, I am not particularly enamored with Spring Awakening as a show. While the music has an undeniable if slightly repetitive beauty, once you get past the fact that such frank exploration of teenage sexuality is unusual in a musical the show really isn't saying anything all that insightful. And yet the current Deaf West revival of the 2007 Tony-winner is so viscerally impactful and unerringly gorgeous that a lot of the show's flaws fall away, leaving what may be the best possible version of the work. The addition of American Sign Language to the story creates an extra layer of purposeful abstraction that frees Spring Awakening from of the burden of being a book musical and turns it firmly into an expressionistic mood piece, a tonal shift that supports the script and music much better. You no longer have to intellectually understand what a "Mirror-Blue Night" is, because the accompanying visuals are so impactful they convey the feeling of that night for you. And when the cast of hearing and deaf actors comes together to sing/sign about how they're "Totally Fucked," even the most curmudgeonly of audience members will be right there with them, reliving the awkward frustration of their youth.

8) Fun Home

The cast of Fun Home on Broadway.

For me, Fun Home is actually a somewhat problematic production. All of the individual elements are stellar, from Jeanine Tesori's adventurous score to Lisa Kron's nuanced book to Sam Gold's first-rate direction. Then there are the first rate performances, which saw practically the entire cast nominated for Tony Awards and Michael Cerveris taking home Best Actor in a Musical for his revelatory, transformative performance as the protagonist's closeted gay father. And yet at the end of the evening, I wasn't nearly as moved as it seemed I should be. All of that said, I would be a fool to deny the artistic excellence of the production, to say nothing of its significance in the contemporary theatrical landscape. The show pushes the boundaries of what a commercial Broadway musical can be, tackling issues of sexuality and identity when they are at the top of the national consciousness while also providing a much needed, highly visible platform of the work of female writers. My heart of stone aside, the show certainly deserves all of the success it has found, and is definitely something any and all interested parties should check out.

7) The Iceman Cometh

Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane in the BAM production of The Iceman Cometh.

Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh represents theatre at its most epic. This 4 act, nearly 5 hour long American tragedy is not for the faint of heart, requiring an extremely compelling and talented cast to maintain the audience's interest for the duration of its marathon runtime. This year's revival of the piece at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, remained endlessly compelling right up to the bitter end thanks to the skill of the performers and the unwavering hand of director Robert Falls. While the entire ensemble was excellent, Lane and Dennehy were the standouts, with both actors at the top of their game and Lane in particular proving why he is one of the industry's most invaluable character actors. Lane's deeply felt portrayal of tragic jokester Hickey was an expertly handled balancing act between easygoing charm and frightening pathos, and should the briefly rumored Broadway transfer ever materialize it would almost certainly net the actor his 3rd Tony Award.

6) The Visit

The Visit on Broadway was every bit as bizarre as this picture suggests, and all the better for it.

By all rights, The Visit shouldn't exist. This problem-plagued musical, originally conceived as a vehicle for Angela Lansbury back in 2000 before being retooled for perpetual Kander and Ebb muse Chita Rivera, was revised multiple times following multiple out of town tryouts and false starts that continually delayed plans for a Broadway premiere. Add to the behind the scenes drama the seemingly off-putting subject matter (the world's richest woman returns to her hometown with two eunuchs in tow, offering to solve all the town's financial troubles in exchange for the execution of her former lover), and only a very brave group of producers would have even considered backing the eventual Broadway mounting. Thank goodness they did, for while the show failed to find any commercial success, it was so gloriously strange and surreal that it will certainly to stick with those lucky enough to see it for many years to come. Kander and Ebb's final score is not as instantly memorable as their work on Cabaret or Chicago but is their most artistically mature, and John Doyle's sparse production only sharpened and clarified the narrative's otherworldly feeling. Like Kander and Ebb's best work, The Visit refused to pander to its audience, instead consistently challenging its viewers while at the same time remaining decadently entertaining and thrillingly unpredictable.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part II of my list!

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