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.

Catching up with “Our Town”

When Katharine Hepburn made her one and only appearance at the Academy Awards in 1975 and the standing ovation subsided, she motioned to the audience to sit down and thanked them profusely. But she immediately followed that with, “I’m also very happy that I didn’t hear anyone call out, ‘It’s about time.'”

When I was taking my seat in the Barrow Street Theatre for Friday night’s performance of Our Town, that’s what ran through my mind. The show has been running off-Broadway since last February and for one reason or another I kept putting it off. Truth be told, there were too many visits to Mary Stuart and The Norman Conquests for me to focus on what was going on downtown. Then David Cromer left and, well, I kinda lost interest. I was told I had to see it with him, and his absence sort of made me go “Well…” Now that the show is in its final weeks and Cromer has returned, it was my warden’s reprieve (you wouldn’t believe the looks I got when I said I hadn’t seen it yet).

I went with my friend Russ Dembin, who happens to be a dramaturge and something of an expert on the play. Now this was one of the few dramas that I have never encountered in any form (unless you count that cheap final scene of Next Fall), so I was fortunate to have him with me, feeding me info on the play’s history, various landmark productions (and yes, we talked the Paul Newman TV musical where Sinatra first sang “Love & Marriage” – take a look at the title of the play’s second act). We were seated and I waited, casually checking out the various corners. I just knew where Cromer would be entering and I was not wrong.

However, there were certain things I picked up on – the house lights weren’t lowered. He was in street clothes. This was to say nothing of the “scenery” – two tables and eight chairs, each representing the two major households. During his introduction, which was delivered with the same emotional gravity of a house manager informing the audience of the fire exits, he pointed out various locales in the fictional Grovers Corners. However, I wasn’t prepared when he asked a question. Directly at me, locking eyes with mine. Taking that moment to make me look at the sunrise over the far side of the theatre, I started to see what he was up to as both a director and storyteller – immersing the audience in the world of the play.

The cast was in street clothes, with only rehearsal pieces of costuming like aprons to suggest the time of the play. Everything else was modern – the clothes, the wallets with metrocards in them and the textbooks looked they were picked up from a recently closed NY city school. Questions were given to random audience members, Cromer perched himself around the auditorium to observe the action (that could be intimidating for actors). The play has always been famous for being metatheatrical and Cromer strips away further excesses to get to the point of Wilder’s Pulitzer prize winning play.

His work is especially evident in the cast, who make great use of the performing space. The ensemble is on the whole absolutely terrific. Jennifer Grace is probably twice the age of Emily, but she imbues her with the shy earnestness of a bookish teenager and you buy it. But my personal favorite was Ann Dowd as Mother Gibbs; I just could not take my eyes off of her whenever she was onstage.

The third act was, of course, the apex of the entire production with a stunning flourish of realism in the metatheatrics while Emily relives her 12th birthday. Cromer keeps the proceedings relentlessly unsentimental and that only adds to the poignancy of the moment. Not knowing the play, many folks had told me it had a real downer of an ending. While it’s definitely sad, I felt quite the opposite.  I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the piece.

I’m glad I got to see it before it closed and well… it was about time. And after the play was over, I really wanted some bacon. In fact, I still want some.