My Favorite Performances, 2014

Bryan Cranston, All the Way – It was staggering to see Cranston transform from the dopey dad on Malcolm in the Middle to the now-legendary Walter White on Breaking Bad. His performance as President Lyndon B. Johnson during the first year of his presidency was another astonishing feat. A tour-de-force, Cranston delivered a towering performance that was thrilling and captivating and occasionally unsettling. While the play itself seemed like it could have used some editing (particularly in act 2), Cranston’s performance was worth top dollar admission.

Jan Maxwell, The City of Conversation – While my feelings on the play are a bit complicated, my admiration for Jan Maxwell’s stunning portrait of a Washington DC doyenne dealing with her complex family knows no bounds. In fact, I’d say that this is the greatest performance I’ve seen Maxwell give, and I was lucky enough to see her in Coram Boy, The Royal Family, Lend Me a Tenor and Follies. It was worth the price of admission just to watch her excoriate her reprehensible daughter-in-law in the second act. This played off-Broadway at the Mitzi Newhouse; I wish Lincoln Center had just opened it on Broadway so Maxwell could win her long-overdue Tony Award.

Susan Mosher, Holiday Inn (Goodspeed Opera House) – I’ve always considered the film of Holiday Inn superior to its semi-remake White Christmas, and I feel the same applies to the respective stage vehicles. I don’t have much love for holiday shows of any kind, but I was taken by total surprise by this screen-to-stage adaptation of the Hollywood classic. I smiled non-stop for two and a half hours, when I wasn’t laughing at the hijinks. One of the show’s greatest gifts was a bold and brassy comic turn by Susan Mosher as the mechanic/handywoman/den mother who is utterly endearing, loving and outrageous. I cried actual tears of joy as she led a tap-happy company in a show-stopping rendition of “Shaking the Blues Away.” I hope the powers-that-be keep her for the inevitable Broadway run. I want an original cast album, and I want Susan Mosher to win the Featured Actress Tony.

Megan Mullally, Guys and Dolls (Carnegie Hall) – When it was announced that Nathan Lane would reprise his acclaimed performance as Nathan Detroit opposite Mullally, I immediately bought tickets without a moment’s hesitation. The one night concert at Carnegie Hall was musical comedy heaven from the first note to the last. Everyone was on point, well-sung and hilarious. However, it was Mullally’s Adelaide that walked away with the evening. Funny, warm and vulnerable, she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand all night. I hope she considers revisiting the role in a longer Broadway run.

Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale, The Bridges of Madison County – I ended up seeing this overlooked gem seven times in six weeks, much to my surprise. O’Hara was given the role of a lifetime as Francesca Johnson, an Italian-born Iowa housewife who finds herself having a brief, yet impassioned romance with a National Geographic photographer. She sang gloriously, and imbued the character with such depth that it was impossible not to care for and about her. Pasquale gave one of the finest male vocal performances I have ever heard in my life. Together, they soared in Jason Robert Brown’s glorious duets, especially the showstopping “One Second and a Million Miles,” which got a mammoth standing ovation and cries of “Bravo!” from the packed house at the show’s closing performance on May 18, 2014 (trip #7). The original cast album is one of the best-recorded in the last five or ten years; a thrilling document of a beautiful, short-lived experience.

Alex Sharp, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Never leaving the stage for a moment in this transcendent adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel about a teenage boy with autism, Alex Sharp gives one of the most astonishing tour-de-force performances I have ever seen. I had mixed feelings on the book, but found myself enthralled from beginning to end by this imaginative adaptation. Sharp, fresh out of drama school, is making his professional debut, and his performance is a must-see. I don’t think I breathed during the last revelatory twenty minutes of the first act, as I was on edge as to what Mr. Sharp was going to do next. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the commanding work he is doing onstage at the Barrymore. I look forward to following what promises to be an astonishing career.

One of the best ensemble experiences I had all year was the Encores! production of The Most Happy Fella at City Center. In a starry cast led by Laura Benanti, Shuler Hensley, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Cheyenne Jackson, the production was a glorious, thrilling success (even more impressive since the entire cast was battling the flu that week). It was a great thrill hearing the original orchestrations played by 35 musicians, and to see a Golden Age musical presented with separate singing and dancing choruses. Of the Encores! shows of this season, this was the one that deserves a second chance and a cast recording.