Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Shows of 2015: Part II

With the impending arrival of 2015, it's time to take a look back at the year that was and assess some of the highlights of the year in theatre. I've already shared 5 of my Best of 2015 picks in my previous post, and today it is time to reveal my picks for the Top 5 shows of the past calendar year. As always, this list is limited to productions which officially opened in 2015 and which I actually saw, so think of it more as a personal favorite list rather than a definitive ranking.

Without further ado, here are my favorite theatrical experiences of 2015!

5) Honeymoon in Vegas

Rob McClure (center) and the cast of Honeymoon in Vegas

Jason Robert Brown just can't seem to catch a break when it comes to his Broadway shows. Just like the criminally ignored Bridges of Madison County (my absolute favorite show of 2014), Honeymoon in Vegas was another stellar musical that just couldn't find an audience. Brown's first attempt at full blown musical comedy, this delightful Vegas-set tale featured a brassy, big band score and the kind of witty, tongue-twisting lyrics the composer is known for. The cast was first rate, especially Rob McClure and Brynn O'Malley as the romantic leads, so I couldn't begin to tell you why the well-reviewed show didn't do better at the box office. Maybe it was the prolonged two-month preview period, which made the show seem like old news by the time it opened in mid-January. Maybe it was the presence of Tony Danza in the cast, which many people seemed to mistake for stunt casting even though the TV star actually turned in a rather appealing performance. Thankfully the show received a cast album, and I suspect that like many of Brown's other works this is a show that will be discovered and cherished by many musical theatre fans for years to come.

4) The Color Purple

Jennifer Hudson leads the cast of The Color Purple in a rousing rendition of "Push Da Button."

There are many reason to praise God for John Doyle's absolutely stunning revival of The Color Purple, but perhaps the biggest blessing of this scaled back version is it has allowed critics to see what I saw while rushing the original Broadway production 10 years ago: The Color Purple is a superbly written emotional sucker punch of a show, a harrowing but ultimately joyous celebration of life and overcoming adversity. This production also finally brought Jennifer Hudson to Broadway, something we've all been waiting for since her Oscar-winning turn as Effie White in the Dreamgirls film. And while Hudson is excellent, the talk of the town is sure to be British newcomer Cynthia Erivo, who blows the roof off the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre as the beleaguered Miss Celie. Erivo inhabits the role with a commanding stage presence that far exceeds her diminutive frame, and her powerhouse voice turns mere songs into soul rattling epiphanies set to music. Even if the rest of the production was garbage, this Color Purple would be worth seeing for Erivo alone. The fact that the rest of the cast often matches her awe-inspiring commitment and intensity makes this easily one of the best shows of the year.

3) The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Michael Arden and Ciara Renee in Paper Mill Playhouse's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The best Disney Theatrical show I've ever seen didn't even make it to New York, instead playing across the river in New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. The long-rumored stage adaptation of Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame took the most problematic film of the studio's Animation Renaissance and de-Disneyfied it, returning to the darker, more melancholy tone of Victor Hugo's original novel. This approach made all the difference, resulting in a decidedly adult show that didn't shy away from the nastier implications of this Parisian-set tragedy. In providing the villainous Claude Frollo with more morally complex, clearly defined motivations, he actually emerged as an even more monstrous and menacing villain than the cartoonishly evil character in the film (a quality augmented by Patrick Page's excellent performance). And let's not forget Michael Arden's wonderfully effective and thrillingly sung take on the title character, nor Ciara Renee's beguiling gypsy Esmeralda. I ultimately understand Disney's decision not to move the show to Broadway (it is not one of the family-friendly spectacles the company has become known for), but that doesn't lessen the sting of the show's all too brief run. I'm just glad I made the trek out to Jersey before it closed.

2) The King and I

Tony-winner Kelli O'Hara and Tony-nominee Ken Watanabe in Lincoln Center's The King and I. I'll say it again: TONY-WINNER KELLI O'HARA!

Simply glorious. That's the best way to describe the absolutely transcendent Lincoln Center Theatre production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, one of the most lavishly produced and lovingly crafter musical revivals I've ever seen. From the second the radiant (now Tony-winner!) Kelli O'Hara makes her entrance on the imposing prow of her ship to the final tableau of Anna and the King of Siam surrounded by the next generation, this expertly handled production remains riveting throughout its three hour runtime. Director Bartlett Sher's genius lies in his ability to radically alter the way a show is performed without appearing to do anything at all, to the point where you leave the theatre convinced his take on the material is what the authors had always intended. This King and I functions as both a family friendly musical entertainment and a highly complex character drama, directly tackles issues such as female empowerment and the nature of rule while providing all the eye-popping visuals audiences have come to expect in a modern musical. Anchoring it all is O'Hara and the supremely talented cast, which also includes the hypnotic Ruthie Ann Miles as the King's primary wife, Lady Thiang. This is as good a production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic as we're ever likely to see, and it will hopefully run for a good long while.

1) Hamilton

You know your show has a devoted following when a minor character like Peggy Schuyler (who has maybe 10 lines total) has her own rabid fanbase.

How could anything but Hamilton top my list of 2015's best shows? Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop magnum opus has dominated Broadway websites for the better part of the year, while also crossing over into pop-culture in a way few musicals ever do. Yet the reason Hamilton tops my personal list is not its record-breaking financial success, nor its near ubiquity in the theatrical conversation. The show earns the title of Best Show of 2015 due to the fact that when you strip away all the hype, you are left with a near-perfect piece of theatrical writing, brazenly adventurous and yet hugely respectful of all that has come before. The score is a compulsively listenable work of genius, instantly captivating and yet so richly nuanced that new surprises reveal themselves with each repeated hearing. The cast is simply astounding, from Miranda's commanding performance in the title role to Leslie Odom, Jr.'s star making turn as Aaron Burr to the scene stealing Daveed Diggs in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. And let's not forget Phillipa Soo's deeply felt performance as Eliza Hamilton or Renee Elise Goldsberry's revelatory (and Tony-worthy) work as Eliza's sister Angelica. Everyone from the top billed stars to the ensemble - one of the hardest working group of dancer/singers on Broadway - give 110% from start to finish, executing Thomas Kail's brilliant staging and Andy Blankenbuehler's hard-hitting choreography flawlessly. Do whatever you have to secure a ticket and witness theatrical history being made, as Hamilton may well prove to be the Best Show of the Decade.


And that wraps up my look back at the Best Shows of 2015. Looking back, the breadth of the type of shows which have been produced, and their artistic daring, gives me great hope for the future of the industry. This is a year where producers took some major risks, and many of them paid off not only artistically but commercially. An intimate musical about a lesbian coming to terms with her closeted father won the Tony and turned a profit, and a hip-hop musical with a multi-ethnic cast has become the most critically and commercially successful musical in years. Here's hoping for a 2016 that is equally varied and artistically ambitious, and be sure to keep checking Broadway Etc. for coverage of all the latest and greatest the New York theatre scene has to offer.

Happy New Year!

6 comments:

  1. Will you be publishing your worst list soon?

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    1. After thinking long and hard about it, I decided to retire my annual Worst Shows list. There are enough people in the theatre industry who focus on the negative and tearing down other people's hard work that I don't see the need to add to it. Plus, it always feels a bit like beating a dead horse since most of the shows have closed by the time the list is published.

      I will continue to review the shows I see fairly, which means calling out subpar work when appropriate (see: my review of "Finding Neverland"). But I will no longer be collecting the worst of the worst in an annual list and mocking them for the world to see.

      Sorry if that is disappointing, but that is the decision I've come to.

      PS - I would like to say a big THANK YOU to you for your support of this blog!

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    2. I understand where you're coming from, but I don't necessarily agree with your reasoning. I think it's perfectly possible to criticize works without tearing people down. In my 10 Worst Films Of 2015 video, as I count down each film, I often criticize the filmmaking aspects like editing, cinematography and story as to why I didn't like those films, not necessarily the actors themselves. I'm never one to say an actor/actress is a bad person for starring in such a movie, and I would only do so if they said in an interview as the film came out "I knew this was bad just by reading the script, but they offered me $10 million, so I couldn't turn it down."

      Sometimes I do think there are instances where people should have known better, such as the ones behind my three worst films of last year: Hot Pursuit, Pixels and The Cobbler, and that's what makes me really angry. I feel if that kind of laziness isn't called out, more of that kind of stuff will continue to be made.

      It doesn't give me any joy to make a worst films list, but by making such a list, it allows me to have even more joy in making my best films list. I need to talk about the worst so that I can then talk about the best. I know that sounds kind of weird, but that's how it works for me. I know theater is more your forte than film, but have you seen any of these films, and if so, which did you like and which did you not like?

      The worst:

      Dishonorable mentions: Our Brand Is Crisis, Chappie, Unfriended, The Perfect Guy, Get Hard

      Top 10 Worst Films Of 2015:
      1. Hot Pursuit
      2. Pixels
      3. The Cobbler
      4. The Last Witch Hunter
      5. Seventh Son
      6. The Boy Next Door
      7. Serena
      8. Jupiter Ascending
      9. The Longest Ride
      10. Ricki And The Flash

      The best:

      Honorable Mentions: Ex Machina, Brooklyn, Carol, Steve Jobs, Dope, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2, Clouds Of Sils Maria, The Gift, The Peanuts Movie, Suffragette, The Danish Girl, Trumbo, 99 Homes, Kingsman: The Secret Service, While We’re Young, Sicario

      Top 10 Best Films Of 2015:
      1. The Martian
      2. Spotlight
      3. Inside Out
      4. Room
      5. Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens
      6. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl
      7. Mad Max: Fury Road
      8. Bridge Of Spies
      9. Love & Mercy
      10. The Big Short

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    3. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with critiquing theatre (obviously), and there is definitely a way to discuss less successful shows without being rude or insulting. But it just didn't make sense to me to spend time writing about the "worst" theatre when most of the shows had already closed. My talking about how bad they were wouldn't influence anyone not to go see them, because they couldn't even if they wanted to.

      I have to say I managed to avoid all of the movies on your worst list, mostly because I don't see that many. Of the few I did see, I *loved* Inside Out and Star Wars, and really enjoyed "The Martian," "The Peanuts Movie," "Mad Max," "Kingsmen," and "The Danish Girl."

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    4. Interestingly enough, I see a lot of stage potential for all of these shows. Since Frozen is officially becoming a Broadway musical, I'd like to see Inside Out become one as well, if only to at least see how they'd recreate the look of the movie on a stage and to see how they change or maintain the character designs.

      Room's subject matter makes it too depressing to be a musical, but as a straight play, it could work. If the lead actress received rave reviews for her performance, she'd be a lock to win a Tony just like how Brie Larson won an Oscar for the film.

      Bridge Of Spies would be interesting as a play as well, and the actor playing Rudolf Abel would have the challenge of trying to be as good as Mark Rylance and his Oscar-winning performance there.

      Spotlight has great potential as a stage play, but like Blackbird, it has a high risk of potential alienation due to its subject matter.

      Mad Max: Fury Road would be interesting to see on stage, but a film like that runs a risk of becoming another Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. The Big Short would be an interesting concept, and since that film frequently breaks the fourth wall, you could incorporate a lot of that into a stage show, especially a musical.

      Love & Mercy on paper would seem like a great jukebox musical (in this case The Beach Boys), and it would provide a great two-timeline story, as the film focuses on Brian Wilson in two points of his life: the recording of the Beach Boys' now-iconic album "Pet Sounds", and the 1980s when he was battling mental illness. The only problem is that the film constantly shifts back and forth between the two timelines, which can work fine on film, but might be too confusing on stage.

      The Martian would need a lot of advanced projection as well as some fancy wire work to work as either a play or a musical, but I'd pay good money to see it. If the actor playing Mark Watney has the same charisma as Matt Damon, a Tony nomination would be inevitable. Plus, the movie was a nice showcase for diversity in terms of both race and gender, and since diversity is important, recreating that on stage would ensure audience turnout of all races, just like the film.

      If any of these movies were to be recreated as stage shows, which would you be most interested to see?

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