Theatrical Highlights of the Year

1. Reasons to Be Pretty. May 13, 2009 @ the Lyceum Theatre. Never make an unfavorable comparison between your girlfriend and the new hottie at work. That was Greg’s, the hero of Neil LaBute’s play, big mistake. After the news gets back to his girlfriend, it opens up a maelstrom of life-changing and affirming moments for his character, who ultimately learns to man up. The four-hander was well cast, with Tom Sadoski standing out above the rest but overshadowed by the more mature four-hander down the street that seemed to show what how these characters would end up in about 15-20 years (God of Carnage).

2. Mary Stuart. May 19, 2009 @ the Broadhurst Theatre. There’s nothing like watching two of the most fascinating figures in British history duking it out live onstage. Imported from the Donmar in London, Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter dominated in a spare, riveting staging of the Schiller play (in a new adaptation by Peter Oswald) directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Yeah, there were men onstage (namely John Benjamin Hickey and Nicholas Woodeson) but this revival belonged to both leading ladies in superlative performances. The play also sparked six months of bliss as Sarah, Kari, Roxie and other bloggers participated in “The Summer of Harriet Walter.”

3. Hair. May 24, 2009 @ the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Well, I guess we all have dreams of making our Broadway debuts. I never actually thought I’d get to sing and dance onstage but lo and behold the revival of Hair captured me in ways I never thought possible. I’ve never really been a fan of the show – until I took in this performance where I was overwhelmed by Diane Paulus’ exceptionally organic staging. It’s a special experience, and one of a lifetime. If you see this revival, it’s imperative you make your way to the stage for the curtain call. You may never be the same.

4. The Royal Family. September 18, 2009 @ the Samuel Friedman. I have a soft spot for older comedies, particularly those set in NYC in the early half of the 20th century. Jan Maxwell led the cast with a superlative comic performance for the ages as the put-upon Julie Cavendish, a diva at wit’s end. Rosemary Harris supplied moments of hilarity and haunting poise as the family matriarch. The comic exploits of an eccentric, loving and larger-than-life theatrical dynasty were explored by Kaufman and Ferber in their 1927 comedy (a take-off on the Barrymore family) The revival was lovingly directed by Doug Hughes (and oh, what a set! And those costumes!) I’ve rarely wanted to become part of a fictional family onstage.

5. Superior Donuts. October 1, 2009 @ the Music Box Theatre. It’s not easy following up a Tony and Puliter Prize winning juggernaut, but Tracy Letts’ second Broadway outing was another import from Steppenwolf. This time, Tina Landau directed a tight ensemble in a much gentler comedy about the unlikely father-son relationship between disconnected former hippie Michael McKean and energetic, idealistic Jon Michael Hill. The story, which presents a more optimistic vision of America than August: Osage County is less ambitious and wholly different, offering an unexpectedly moving and often quite funny new play.

6. Finian’s Rainbow. October 8, 2009 @ the St. James Theatre. I thought the show was charming at Encores, but didn’t think it warranted a transfer to Broadway. Those thoughts were dashed when the show started previews in October. The cast was augmented by stellar replacements, including Christopher Fitzgerald’s winning turn as leprechaun Og. Warren Carlyle directed one a valentine to old-fashioned, Golden Age musicals. The production took on its reputation as a badly dated show and emerged one of the freshest and best reviewed experiences of the season. It also provided the luminescent Kate Baldwin her first leading lady turn on the Rialto.

7. Ragtime. October 23, 2009 @ the Neil Simon Theatre. I’ve waited ten years for the chance to see this musical, and in the first-ever Broadway revival I found myself inordinately moved by the staging, scenography and performances. Stripping away some of the excesses that are attached to the original lavish production, this import from the Kennedy Center (directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge) was actor-driven and a most memorable experience. Quentin Earl Darrington makes an auspicious debut as Coalhouse Walker Jr and Christiane Noll is a revelation as Mother.

8. The Norman Conquests. May 16, 2009 @ the Circle in the Square Theatre. I tend to make this list chronological, so as not to play favorites. But I can’t help but saving this best production for last. Of all the theatre I saw in the calendar year, this exceptional revival of the Alan Ayckbourn classic was the best. In fact, it may very well be the best I’ve seen in my life, but only time will tell. I took in two marathons of the show, and if time had permitted would have done it more. It was seven hours of hilariously heartbreaking theatre, and found myself sad that it was over by the end of the evening. The show was imported from the Old Vic and featured the brilliant six person ensemble, one of the best on stage this year. This production, directed by Matthew Warchus (and which trumps his Tony-winning work in God of Carnage), reminded me why I loved theatre in the first place and has inspired me to make certain changes in my life over the past six months. I only hope you were as lucky as I was to see such a magnanimous theatrical event.

Shows I want to see next year: The Addams Family, A View from the Bridge, La Cage Aux Folles, Promises Promises, Memphis, Race, Lend Me a Tenor, When the Rain Stops Falling, Sondheim on Sondheim, Enron, A Behanding in Spokane, The Miracle Worker, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Next Fall, Present Laughter, Time Stands Still, Collected Stories, Fences, and Wishful Drinking.

West Coast "Hair" – 1968

Here is an appearance of the original Los Angeles company of Hair, recreating the Broadway staging of ‘Aquarius,” “Hair,” and “The Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine In” on the “Smothers Brothers” in 1968. Gerome Ragni and James Rado lead the company, which includes future Tony winner Delores Hall as Dionne.

Quote of the Day: Audience Behavior Edition

Well, I think there are different kinds of theater. Historically, theater hasn’t always been this quiet, sit-down affair. It certainly wasn’t in Shakespeare’s day. Theater is like sports, you have golf and tennis over here, and the whole audience gets quiet, and you don’t make a sound. At the other end, you have ice hockey and everybody’s screaming. But we never mix up golf and hockey. I honestly believe there’s a spectrum, even in theater. Are you going to talk at a Peter Brook production of Hamlet? Or The Seagull? Of course not. You have certain types of behavior that work for different kinds of theater. But my gripe is that people tend to say, “Well, that’s the way theater is. You have to be quiet.” Everything doesn’t necessarily have to be like The Seagull. You can have Hair or The Donkey Show. [Paulus’s first production at the A.R.T. is a re-staging of her New York hit, The Donkey Show, a raucous retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a 1970s disco club.] I think we have the possibility of letting other sorts of behavior be released, and enlivening what we think theater is and what it can do.

-Diane Paulus, the brilliant director of Hair on audience behavior. From an interview with our very own Chris Caggiano. You can check out the full article at Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals.

The Aficionado at 500: History Repeats Itself

Still experiencing the high from last night’s performance of Hair. Here is the new Broadway cast appearing on the “Late Show with David Letterman”. Coincidentally, the original cast performed the same numbers on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the very same theatre over forty years ago, inundating Ed with flowers and dancing through the audience.

You know I’m reaching musical theatre zen when I want to repeat an experience as often as possible.

After a year and a half, I can hardly believe that I’ve reached my 500th post. Hope you all stick around for the 1000th!

The Aficionado Makes His Broadway Debut

I ventured into the Big City today to see a play reading with the added possibility of taking in an evening performance of Next to Normal. I waited in the rush line for a long time and didn’t go anywhere – I was the 69th or 70th person there, so when my good friend Chris Lavin arrived, we decided to ditch that and go venturing about the city.

There aren’t too many Broadway shows that have a Sunday night performance. However, I recalled that one of the shows that was open for business was the smash hit revival of Hair at the Al Hirschfeld. So we left Theatre Row, where we saw the reading, and moved upward just in time for the rush lottery.

Time was on our side. We arrived just in time to be handed an entry slip, drop it in the hippie-ish bucket and go for a brief walk up 8th Avenue. We arrived back just as they commenced the drawing, and lo and behold on my first time ever participating in a show lottery, I was the third name drawn.

Things only got better as we settled into our box seats (I’d never sat there before – another in a series of firsts) drinking in the ’60s ambience, hearing the actors backstage in their final warm-up and the occasional sight and sound from onstage where the band is located, as the show curtain nonchalantly billowed. The energy from the audience was already amped, as the house was divided between children of my generation, and those children of the original production’s generation (many showing up proudly in their tie-dye t-shirts).

From the roar of the crowd at the dimming of the houselights to the curtain call, everything about this revival of Hair is spot-on. The cast, most of whom were involved in the previous incarnations in Central Park, is superb. Gavin Creel joins the crew for the Broadway engagement making for an ideal hero in Claude. Will Swenson is Berger, the unwielding, pleasure bound leader of the tribe who is something akin to a strung-out bunny rabbit. The two actors anchor the production with the roles originated by the shows creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado. The entire company works as a fluid, organic ensemble with so much of how they move and dance and interact with the audience appearing as though they were coming up with it on the spot. Bryce Ryness scores as Woof, who sings “Sodomy” and lusts for Mick Jagger. Megan Lawrence is a riot as Claude’s mother. Sassy beltress Saycon Sengbloh was on for Sasha Allen as Dionne tonight, and to give you an idea of just how good she was: the others didn’t realize she was the understudy until I told them after the fact, outside the theatre. A standout in the ensemble was the hilarious Andrew Kober as Claude’s conservative father and giving us his best Dame Edna meets Hyacinth Bucket as Margaret Mead.

The musical itself holds up remarkably well, in spite of a flimsy book. The score, one of the last musical theatre scores to really hold mainstream popularity, is as vibrant and rich as ever. Galt McDermott’s music and Rado & Ragni’s lyrics shock, titillate, unnerve and impact us in ways that seems surprising for a show that has been a staple for decades. However, even forty-two years removed from its initial off-Broadway incarnation, the show maintains uncompromising relevancy with the world in which we live. The hippie movement may have died out, but the underlying messages still hit the same chords. There are still cases of social injustice and unrest, unpopular wars, dissension at the establishment, etc. Kudos to director Diane Paulus and choreographer Karole Armitage for breathing such exuberant life into a well-worn piece. They adapted their environmental staging for the proscenium and immediately shut up the naysayers who felt this production wouldn’t work inside. The actors climbed all over the audience and up into the mezzanine, there’s something electric seeing the cast bounding around the house engaging the entire audience. This production works, and how.

Many subsequent musicals have tried to follow the same formula, but there is none that quite reaches the heights of this particular show. Hair today is more relevant than Spring Awakening could ever hope to be.

This production of Hair also offers one of the rarest of opportunities for avid theatregoers: after the curtain call, the audience is invited to join the cast onstage to sing and dance the reprises of “Hair” and “Let the Sunshine In” in a glorious 5-10 minute dance party. It must be said here, that I am not the type to actively participate, and usually slink around like a wallflower. In fact, I usually need to be drunk in order to work up the nerve to do something like this. However, sitting up in my box seat and completely in the moment, I saw our friend and fellow blogger Esther onstage (Chris Caggiano was also in the house tonight!) and immediately seized the opportunity to grab my friend and head down and up onto the stage at the Al Hirschfeld, where we completely rocked out.

There we are, a hundred or so of us audience members and the entire cast. The three of us are dancing up a frenetic, intoxicating storm surrounded by total strangers and one of the brightest ensembles in NY. The stage is searing under the oppressive heat of the lighting. The rock band (so marvelously led by Nadia Digiallonardo) was pulsating through us as we moved. We came together as a community of one, but each one of us in that moment was the center of the universe. Such life-affirming vibrancy comes only so often in a person’s life.

All in all, this revival is exhilarating. Invigorating. Rousing. Infectious. Transcendent. Cathartic. And fill in any other superlative you can think of. Hair is back on Broadway and better than ever. I want to go back as soon as I’m able (I think I know how I want to spend my birthday this year…)

I’ll always remember tonight as one of the best of my entire life. I hope your experience at the show is the same.