Theatrical Highlights of the Year

1. Lend Me a Tenor. April 13, @ the Music Box Theatre. Don’t you love farce? I do. But it’s a genre that is very difficult to pull off successfully. Ken Ludwig’s 80s comedy isn’t particularly funny on the page, but first-time Broadway director Stanley Tucci did a marvelous job bringing out the laughs. The ensemble was mostly terrific: Anthony LaPaglia as the opera singer, Tony Shalhoub as the harried producer, Mary Catherine Garrison as the virginal but hormonal ingenue and Jennifer Laura Thompson as the resident diva were all quite fun. Justin Bartha made an amusing Broadway debut as the sad-sack mistaken for the great divo (even if his vocal prowess brought Ohio’s taste into question). But it was Jan Maxwell as the fiery wife of the opera singer who walked away with the evening, in a hilarious performance.

2. Anyone Can Whistle. April 11 @ the City Center. One of the biggest flop musicals in Broadway history was given a rare NYC revival courtesy of Encores for Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday. I doubt it could be any better than this production. The book is a hot box of crazy, with ideas and satire swirling around a wonderful score. It was superlatively cast with Sutton Foster and Raul Esparza, but it was Donna Murphy in an inspired performance who put the show in her pocket and took it home. Casey Nicholaw directed and choreographed with great ease. Original cast member Harvey Evans helped Nicholaw to reconstruct the Cookie Chase and the lunacy was inspired.

3. A Little Night Music. July 31 @ the Walter Kerr Theatre. While I love the musical itself, this production didn’t do very much for me when it opened a year ago and didn’t make the cut for ’09. I don’t generally put revisits on the list, but this is one exception that I’m more than willing to make. Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch joined the cast during the summer and the maudlin evening was transformed into something far more pleasant. I’ll never love the production with its drab sets and costumes, anemic orchestrations and glacial pacing, but Bernadette is a sparkplug that the production needed from the very beginning.

4. I Do! I Do! August 21 @ the Westport Country Playhouse. This pleasant production was so charming and so polished, I was hoping someone would bring it to NY for a nice off-Broadway run. Kate Baldwin and Lewis Cleale starred as Agnes and Michael, a couple whose marriage is explored during the musical’s two hour running time. The show was an unusual Broadway property in the 60s: a two-hander musical with full orchestra. Gower Champion created a wonderful period piece (based on de Hartog’s The Four Poster) which holds up surprisingly well. Elements may have dated, but marriage – and the good, bad and ugly that go with it – remain the same. Baldwin was enchanting and Cleale was delightful.

5. Our Town. August 27 @ the Barrow Street Theatre. I was a bit late to this party, but I greatly admired David Cromer’s spare, bare bones production of the Thornton Wilder classic. I have to confess that until I saw this, I had never read nor seen the play before. Sitting in the front row, I was privileged almost immediately to Cromer’s performance as the Stage Manager (which was a brilliant, non actory showing). He opened up the audience’s imagination, making us work to get into the world of Grover’s Corners. What he was preparing us for was the startling and unbelievably moving display of theatrical realism in the third act. It was a coup de théâtre of the highest order.

6. Brief Encounter. September 25 @ Studio 54. Imaginative, witty and ever-so-British, this import from the Kneehigh in UK made a stop in Brooklyn and the Guthrie before finding its Broadway berth via Roundabout – and with much of its original cast intact. Better late than never. This charming adaptation of the David Lean film of the same name, based on Noel Coward’s Still Life uses theatrical imagery, imagination and Coward’s music to tell the story of an unrequited affair between a British housewife and doctor. A swell cast, esp. Annette McLaughlin in a choice supporting role as Beryl and one of the best bands on Broadway made this one a real treasure. Wish they had recorded a cast album.

7. The Scottsboro Boys. October 7 @ the Lyceum Theatre. One of the best musicals I’ve seen in the last five years. A horrible chapter in our nation’s history is given life through an archaic and racist form of entertainment. Kander and Ebb’s score – their final collaboration – is as rich and fulfilling as their classics of the 60s and 70s. The musical pushed envelopes in storytelling and was not without controversy over its use of minstrelsy to tell the story, but it was a story of empowerment and abandonment. Director/choreographer Susan Stroman returned to top form with some of the best work of her career. The brilliant ensemble was led by John Cullum as the Interlocutor and Joshua Henry as Haywood Patterson, in what should be a break out role for the young actor.

“Brief Encounter” on Broadway

England. 1938. A railway station. A gust of wind. A speck of grit flies into a woman’s eye. These are the chain of events which instigate a genuine connection between two people, who happen to be married to others. This love is unexpected and they embark on a passionate, if intensely guarded affair, meeting every Thursday in the cafe where they met. This comes from the pen of Noel Coward, first as the one act play Still Life, part of the ten play cycle Life at 8:30 and later as the Oscar nominated classic Brief Encounter directed by David Lean. It’s an overwhelming exercise in restraint, no matter the incarnation.

This new stage incarnation of Brief Encounter now onstage at Studio 54 is, in short, an Anglophile’s dream. English vernacular, customs, emotional repression, the confines of station and class are all displayed onstage in ways both sublime and surreal. The heart of the story is this pained affair between the couple. Still waters run deep, and director Emma Rice has dipped into a bag of theatrical tricks to bring this story of restraint to unexpected and fanciful heights, finding ways of expressing the passion deep beneath the surface. The production, conceived and written by Rice (combining elements from both Still Life and Brief Encounter) originated at Kneehigh Theatre in Leeds, England and enjoyed success in the West End, St Ann’s Warehouse and the Guthrie before arriving on Broadway, with much of its cast intact.

One of the most impressive elements of Rice’s direction is the absolute sincerity given to the central relationship. Melodramatic material, especially from this bygone era, can easily be seen and played as camp or arch, but the characters are given great humanity by Tristan Sturrock and Hannah Yelland. Instead of just putting Brief Encounter onstage, this work expands much of story with amusing meta-theatrics, clever projections and some other surprises which I won’t spoil here. In essence, it becomes part musical, part 39 Steps and part devastating. Contrasting comic relief is supplied by the stellar supporting cast, who play various roles as well as instruments in the onstage band. Annette McLaughlin is a production highlight as Myrtle, the cafe proprietress. Tall, lithe and funny, the production gives her the opportunity to show that there is practically nothing she can’t do. Dorothy Atkinson scores big laughs as her assistant Myrtle. Props also to ensemble member Damon Daunno, who sings much of the show’s music before, during and after the show.

One of the most important elements, aside from the projections, is the use of Noel Coward’s songs to underscore and heighten particular moments throughout. I was jarred by a couple of anachronistic moments; the song sung in 50s rock and roll style and a reference to Marlon Brando don’t sit well with something set in 1938. But overall, the result adds to the show’s charm. The stage show wisely reprises Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2, used to popular effect in the 1945 film. While we’re on the subject, will someone please record a cast album? This is one play with music I would love to listen to.

I have one considerable reservation regarding the venue: the show should be in a smaller house. If you’re in the orchestra yes, I can see how one can get easily immersed. However, up in the mezzanine there was no audience interaction, no decor, no cucumber sandwiches; absolutely nothing to bring us into the atmosphere of the play. We couldn’t hear the band singing in the aisles pre-show, which seems to be a big part of the experience if you’re seated below. We saw them going from section to section, but no matter how hard we strained we couldn’t hear them until the show was about to start. (And I would just shave about five minutes from the running time, but that’s another minor quibble).

However, once the show gets started, it’s hard not to get swept away. And if you’re an old Anglophile like myself, you’ll find yourself quite taken. One last thing – when the play is over, head to the orchestra section bar. The cast heads to the back of the house for a post-show performance and I think you’ll want to stick around. (And the leggy McLaughlin is also on hand to serve sandwiches). The show is presented by Roundabout as a limited engagement, currently scheduled to close December 5.