This year New York City had a wonderful and diverse set of new shows. There were no 'dogs' or disappointments among what we saw. Like last year, it is actually difficult to rank order, but we will give it a shot. I will separate the productions that are presently 'open-runs' (i.e, should be showing for the foreseeable future), those closing before summer's end, and those that closed soon after we saw them (but which maybe you can catch locally at some point).
The "Open-Run" Shows We Saw, In Our Agreed Order of Preference:
1. "Once" (musical)
There are musicals that occasionally occur that take this great American genre to a new and different level for others to model and expand ("Oklahoma," "Cabaret," "Rent," "Avenue Q," "Spring Awakening"). Tony's Best Musical 2012 "Once" is such a show. Sitting front-row center, I both smiled ear-to-ear and had tears dripping off my chin as I sat mesmerized by this lovely, moving show of all-instrument-playing cast. The musical so expands the wonderful movie of the same name by keeping the beautiful story intact of "Guy" & "Girl" but by also filling out the secondary characters to tell their stories, too. The change in setting to a coffeehouse brings a sense of community and family missing from the movie. For anyone loving musical theatre, "Once" is worth a special trip to New York (and I suggest getting as close as you can to experience fully the music, expressions & scene). “Once” is a stage adaptation of the 2006 Irish film of the same name.
2. "Nice Work If You Can Get It" (musical)
With a bang, we began our marathon of shows with this new book and compilation of familiar classics. "Nice Work If You Can Get It" (book by Joe DiPietro of "Memphis" fame, music/lyrics by Gershwins) is absolutely side-splittingly funny, heart-inspiringly beautiful, and a musical in the grand tradition of the American Musical Comedy. Tony-winners Michael McGrath & Judy Kaye along with Matthew Broderick & Kelli O'Hara are all perfectly cast and are perfect on stage. (Judy Kaye has "I Love Lucy" moments never to be forgotten.) A familiar, predictable story (loosely based on the 1926 bootlegger musical “Oh Kay!”) in no way diminishes the absolute fun and good-feelings of this show.
3. "End of the Rainbow" (play with music)
British actress, Tracie Bennett, provides one of this year's knock-out, singular-type performances as she so deftly portrays Judy Garland in Judy's final London concerts in "End of the Rainbow." I am not a fan of actors impersonating past icons; and hundreds of men & women do Judy everyday, so I particularly was wary of this show. But I must say, I forgot time & again that this was live and not a film/documentary of the real Judy. Watching Judy decompose in front of us from the years of drug & alcohol abuse and at the same time seeing her with all her humor, capacity to love, and power of performance (& she could still sing until the end!), the audience is adoring & in angst. I left both exhilarated and exhausted, thrilled and sad, silenced in awe and compelled to jabber all at the same time. The supporting actors (her 5th and last husband-to-be and her friend/pianist) also give electric performances. A great afternoon I will remember a lifetime.
4. "Peter and the Starcatcher" (play with music)
Imagine adults acting as kids to tell a story, using whatever they can find in the kitchen, the backyard, and the attic as props. As now-kids, these grown-up story tellers have all the imagination and belief in the unimaginable that we all once had as kids. 5-Tony-winner "Peter and the Starcatcher" is told in this way by a talented cast who hold the audience enthralled. Oh, and along the way the cast lets out 1000+ puns and one-liners, the kind that sometimes are directed at all ages (this is truly a family show) but many that only adults will get (and that usually have bawdy, political &/or current reference). This prequel to "Peter Pan" is a great adventure and totally a must-see. The play is based on the 2006 young-adult novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. It provides a backstory for the character Peter Pan and serves as a prequel to J. M. Barrie's “Peter and Wendy.”
5. "Newsies" (musical)
I can't imagine any better show to take a kid as the first foray onto Broadway than the current Disney offering, "Newsies." (I totally enjoyed watching a 6-year-old boy's wide eyes and total rapture as he watched his first show.) The musical is loosely based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899, a youth-led campaign to force change in the way that Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst's newspapers compensated their child labor force. The musical is loyal to the popularly-rented DVD; the enthusiasm & talent of the (mostly really hot) cast, over-the-top; and the dancing/choreography, as good as it gets (think "Anything Goes"). Losing to "Once" for Best Musical must have felt to "Newsies" like "Wicked" felt losing to "Avenue Q." This musical is totally enjoyable and fun. The songs are a whole range from average/unmemorable to the type you leave humming and remember the next day. If there is a kid involved (physically or in your psyche), then I say go, go, go.
6. "Cock" (Off-Broadway play)
Sitting on plywood seats in a round arena, we tonight were literally watching a 3-way cockfight in the new play "Cock" by Mike Bartlett. For much of the play, we the audience howled in laughter at the one-liner jabs the love triangle 'fighters' (he loves him loves her) spear at each other. Progressively, the dilemma of who wins and loses begins to get more serious as we are all drawn into the arena close at hand. What makes the experience especially interesting and powerful is that the lights never go down, and we all watch not only the actors but our fellow audience members and their changing reactions throughout the production. I left unsettled and questioning how I sometimes react and respond to those I love. Ed and I talked much of the way home about our experiences. This is also what live theater is all about.
7. "One Man, Two Guvnors" (play)
The British import "One Man, Two Guvnors" is an update of the commedia dell'arte classic "The Servant & Two Masters,' which we recently saw on a Bay Area stage. Like all well-done members of this genre, it is a mixture of slap-stick gone wild, some unusual music-of-the-period interludes, hilarious audience involvement, stock characters & story, and unexpected (yet anticipated) moments of spontaneous action and story break-down. Like most such productions, each evening is somewhat different (given audience, actor inclinations, etc.). We certainly laughed much and even guffawed on occasion. At the same time, I must say this is not our favorite nor near-the-top-of-the-list this year. Maybe it is because we have seen a number of such productions in the past (& I in particular am tired a bit of this Italian genre); or maybe our particular night did not soar to the comedic stratosphere that other audiences' evenings had. Maybe I also just could not justify the very funny, very talented James Coburn's winning the 2012 Best Actor in a Play award as compared to the performances we saw of John Lithgow, James Earl Jones, etc. In any case, the evening was fun. It just was not, for me (as I know it was for friends who have also seen the production) a peak experience.
The "Soon-to-Close" Shows We Saw, In Our Agreed Order of Preference:
1. "Porgy and Bess" (musical, closing Sept. 30, 2012)
Having seen & immensely enjoyed "Porgy and Bess" on the opera stage three times in the past, we were both skeptical & excited to see the current Gershwins' classic on B'Way, drawn mostly to see once again our favorite Audra McDonald. Seeing a production on a smaller-than-opera scale, with a B'Way band rather than full orchestra, and at much closer range than in a grand opera hall resulted in an entirely different experience and a new perspective on the story -- both entirely positive. This is a wonderful, exhilarating, moving telling of the Catfish Row story; and the cast to a person is fabulous. Even without opera stars of the world (although Audra herself can claim that stage), the opera-now-musical soars to such great heights, musically and theatrically. Thank you, Audra, for convincing me & Ed to come; thank you, B'Way for reviving this 2012 Tony winner.
2. "The Best Man" (play, closing Sept. 9, 2012)
What better way to spend July 4th in an election year than with friends like James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormick, Kerry Butler & Angela Lansbury. Wow! From Row B, too!! Gore Vidal's award-winning 1960's "The Best Man" is still as relevant to today's politics as it was 40 years ago, and in the day of self-righteous yet morally questionable politicians, the play may even speak with louder voice. But the real delight of this evening is to see this star-studded cast all on the stage together, giving the story their best and interacting in a way this is often jaw-dropping. I particularly loved John Larroquette and Candice Bergen in their roles as presidential candidate and wife. Just extended (again) until Sept. 9, this is one worth going out of the way to see.
3. "Tribes" (Off-Broadway play, closing Sept. 2, 2012)
Venturing into the Off-B'Way scene often reaps the richest rewards as happened when we re-visited Barrow Street Theatre in the West Village (where we saw 3 years ago the best "Our Town" I have ever seen). The new play "Tribes" (by Nina Raine, whom I do not know yet but want to see more of her works) is so absorbing, complex, and unsettling that both Ed & I feel compelled to see it again as soon as some company produces it in the Bay Area. A dysfunctional family drama placed around the dining room table (think "August, Osage County" type of family), the members of the 'Tribes' clan (parents, 3 adult kids, 1 fiancé) each have dreams he/she is pursuing and secrets/demons, desperately trying to escape. Each vies to gain the attention (and love) of the others, usually failing in the former and never quite sure about the latter. This play keeps getting extended. Anyone in NYC or coming soon who wants to be challenged by an outstanding cast and director, consider a ticket and evening in the Village. (Tribes follows Billy, a deaf man raised inside the fiercely idiosyncratic and unrepentantly politically incorrect cocoon of his home of his parents' house. He has adapted brilliantly to his hearing family’s unconventional ways, but they’ve never bothered to return the favor. It’s not until he meets Sylvia, a young woman on the brink of deafness, that he finally understands what it means to be understood.)
4. "Harvey" (play)
How difficult it must be to put on stage a play like "Harvey" that moved decades ago from stage to the large screen in a movie starring one of the world's most-loved actors we all now associate with Elwood P. Dowd? I went with images in my head of how each part should be played and what each person should look & sound like. But Jim Parsons and an excellent cast soon lured me into their Elwood, Vera, Myrtle Mae, Judge Guffney, etc. (and even Harvey himself proved he can be convincing both on stage and in the movies). While many lines from the movie that we all can literally quote in our sleep of the play are lifted directly from the play, there are interesting differences here and there between the two. A fun, light-hearted production, is this. Endearing, I guess is the word.
5. "The Sensational Josephine Baker" (Off-Broadway play with music, closing Sept. 9. 2012)
Written and performed by veteran actor Cheryl Howard, "The Sensational Josephine Baker" (an off-B'Way offering) provides wonderful insight into the famed performer's early life and career. Howard is particularly strong in this one-woman show as she introduces us to herself as an early teen as well as to folks in her life's journey like her grandmother, her first manager, one of her French lovers, etc. The most compelling portrayal is one of her early stage rivals in the woman's late years reflecting on the now-famous, but still-disliked Baker. While a very talented actor, Howard seems past her prime as a singer (her voice did not convince me this is Josephine and too often warbled and went flat); and her writing barely alludes to some of the more important pieces of this 'sensational' woman's life (e.g., her role as French resistance fighter, her adopting 12 children & going broke trying to bring them up in a French chateau). But, for a hot July 4th afternoon, this journey through Baker's life was overall worthwhile and educational.
The Now-Closed (unfortunately) Show (and One of the Very Best, Overall)
--> "The Columnist" (play, closed)
On some special occasions, I know I have seen a theatrical performance that is so masterful, so powerful that I will never relive that experience again. John Lithgow in David Auburn's "The Columnist" provides such an experience, especially when sitting 2nd-row and watching his every smirk, twitch, and tear. Portraying Joseph Alsop -- the extremely outspoken anti-Communist and very (well, maybe not so) closeted journalist and political power-broker of the '30s-'70s, Lithgow delivers a man whom I once loathed for his views but whom on this stage I got to know as a passionate, eccentric, tortured patriot in his own right as well as an often insecure and sometimes cruel human being. When he cried (8 feet away from me), I cried, too. When he screamed and spayed his venom (literally), I feared him like even Presidents of his day did. In the end, I was totally reminded once again that history is complex, that no one is black or white bad or good, which we are all humans wanting admiration and love from those around us, and that we may make both very brilliant and very hurtful decisions to achieve what we need and want. This kind of experience only comes from great, live theater.
Other Shows, Not Seen
There were shows this year that closed before we got to New York that we wanted to see and would have, had they still been running: "Godspell," "Venus in Furs," "Other Desert Cities," "Death of a Salesman," and "The Lyons." (although clearly we could not have seen all of these and all the ones we did see).
There are several shows appearing on Broadway we chose not to see:
--> "Clybourne Park": We saw this in a pre-Broadway run at ACT in San Francisco. Outstanding show and won the Tony for Best Play. Highly recommended if you have not seen it.
--> Revivals of "Evita," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "A Streetcar Named Desire": We have each seen all three many times; the new productions did not sound worth the money.
--> "Ghost: The Musical": The reviews were not that good. We bought the CD prior to the trip and were extremely underwhelmed.
--> And finally, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark": Once again this year, we avoided this still-best-seller. It is an all-round panned show that everyone has loves to hate but keeps drawing in the big audiences who come for the special effects and flying but who seem not to care that the story and music are extremely weak.
What Else Did We Do in Our Seven Days?
Our schedule (with 6 of 7 seven days having two plays a day) did not leave much time for any site-seeing or our normal walking tours. Our post-show activities, however, kept us busy. They included singing showtunes at Marie’s Crisis piano bar; playing drag queen bingo at The Stonewall Inn; enjoying a pint with a roomful of dudes while dance tunes blaring over “Sports Center” video screens at the gay sports bar Boxers; sipping frozen apple-martinis and watching an amateur go-go boy contest at G Lounge; and finally chatting with eccentric locals and dancing with foreign tourists at The Monster Bar.
And we hope that all of you on this list get to New York this year and that you, too, will share your reviews and views with us.