2013 was an exceptional year of New York theatre-going for us. We can recommend seeing everything we saw (eleven shows), whether in New York or as national tours occur and/or regional companies add some of these plays/musicals to their upcoming seasons. We did see a good balance of on- and off-Broadway productions; and what is rare for us, we saw almost twice as many plays as we saw musicals.
Even though we liked everything, we do have a ranked order of both the musicals and the plays. Since one has already closed and others will close in the next two months, I include the closing dates for each.
OUR 2013 NEW YORK MUSICALS
From the second row, we watched in awe and amazement the 'magic' happened in front, around, and above us. I felt I might bruise my palms trying to clap louder and louder as the show only got better and better. The circus atmosphere with actors who turn acrobats and acrobats who turn actors, the soaring Schwartz songs with lyrics and melodies so familiar yet this time so new, and a new ending that erases the troubled and abrupt finish from the past book and gives this revived musical new and more universal meaning -- all these and more make the experience a must, must see. And of course the actors are incredible, especially the four leading women, two of whom won Tony Awards for their performances (Patina Miller & Andrea Martin). (We actually saw the understudy for Pippin and marveled how flawless his dancing, timing, and acrobatics were as well as swooned to his angelic voice.) When the show opens its national tour in SF, we will be there. This is a "Pippin" to be enjoyed more than once! Open-Ended.
Oh my! This show is the real thing, the quintessential Broadway musical that has it all. First, Harvey's book is a great story (based on a real event and real people), well told. Cyndi Lauper's music and lyrics soar at times, tickle the innards at other points, and always move the story ahead. There are heart-grabbing solos, moving duets, and BIG chorus and full-cast numbers that totally rock. And the choreography may be the best part of all: the numbers are fun, fabulous & just enough short of frantic to be world-class. To top it off, each major and minor cast member is outstanding and memorable, with the two top stars equally deserving of their Tony nominations. Stark Sands has an angelic tenor voice that helps the audience forgive his stubbornness and journey of ups and downs before he finally matures into the boss, friend, and lover we all so much want him to be. Tony-winner Billy Porter commands the stage every time Lola parades onto the scene; he brings the audience heart and bombasticity, an armored hardness and a vulnerable soul, and one of the most likable characters on any stage today. I wanted him/her to be MY best friend by play's end. Yes, this is the show; this is the cast; this is the ticket to get. Open-Ended.
Wonderful is this glorious production of a visually sumptuous, musically rich tale we all know so well. Many of the story's elements we know so well unfold before us; but the story is also now more interesting in a revised book by Douglas Carter Beane. Cinderella helps her Prince become socially conscious as she prepares him to be a just ruler. Magic happens right before our eyes (we were on center Row One and our eyes popped in wonder as costumes instantaneously change, pumpkin becomes carriage, etc.) time and again, and the big numbers with full Chorus in Tony-winning costumes are magnificent. This is a show for old and young alike. It is hard to believe this is the B'Way premiere of this originally written-for-TV musical. I imagine it will now become a periodic mainstay of the New York stage. Open-Ended.
Preceded by much hype, "Matilida" delivers in terms of staging and even story. The set is massive, fun, and impressive. The story (a darker version of "Annie") is engrossing. Bertie Carvel as "Miss Trunchbull" is mean, mean, mean (and funny, funny, funny). The evil Mom and Dad are caricatures along the lines of Les Miz's Thenardiers; and the Dad's elastic body moves are hilarious. But, the music is mostly average with only a couple of standouts. The chorus numbers with all the young and teen kids tend to be too shreaky and non-understandable in voice and too jerky in dance; and several scenes are right out of "Spring Awakening" (but with an overdose of Ritalin). Our Matilda (one of 4 who rotate ... Why??) was excellent (Bailey Ryon) with great voice and proper cuteness and yet a grown-up demeanor. If you can only see 1-2 shows, I'd skip "Matilda" (unless you are bringing a kid who JUST has to see it); but if you are seeing a whole slate of shows, then Carvel's English import is worth the time. Open-Ended.
OUR 2013 NEW YORK PLAYS
I love it when our 1st show is SO good that I could almost have been happy just to call it quits and go home. Seeing Jessica Hecht & Judith Light (who won Tony for her role) in this powerful play about a Jewish, extended family in 1980 & 2000 was worth the trip to NYC. Funny beyond words, the play is written so well that I listened very intently so not to miss one phrase or line between laughs. Yet, in the end, the play is all of a sudden so incredibly moving. This is a show that I believe will stay with its audience a long time as we contemplate the legacies we leave to our families and friends when we do things that we know are wrong. This is a show just waiting for TheatreWorks, SF Playhouse, or Berkeley Rep to produce in the Bay Area. A winner that could easily have won the Tony this year. Closes July 28, 2013.
Nathan Lane. Enough said. One of our favorite Broadway actors. Never disappoints. Every role, a lasting memory. But in this current role as Chauncey, a hilarious nellie comic on the fading burlesque stages of the 1930s (playing a then-standard role as "the nance"), Nathan Lane is particularly and adoringly superb. Joined by a cast who seem to have walked right off those '30s stages to the 2013 stage, Lane et al deliver rip-roaringly, groan-producing corn that dominated those burlesque stages. Added to this fun is a beautiful, turned-sad love story between the middle-aged Chauncey and a gorgeous Ned (Jonny Orsini), a story that unfolds so sweetly at times and then that turns sour and rips out your heart in the end. This new play should have legs across the country; and while other audiences may not have Nathan, I am sure other great actors will line up to play this choice part of "The Nance." Closes August 11, 2013.
Continuing the theme set by "The Assembled Parties" of the sins of the father passing on to the family, Levenson's new play packs a powerful punch through dialogue that often seems less like a script and more like we are watching real-time, unscripted, difficult conversations taking place in front of us as a Madoff-like father returns home from his 5 years in jail to find a family that is trying to move on -- without him. So real, awkward, and strangely intimate are some of the moments that I often felt I should almost turn my head because I seemed to be snooping on a scene not meant for outside observance. As in "The Assembled Parties," many secrets, much self- and to-other lying, and some deep self-discoveries occur as this family stumbles through the return of the white-collar-crime dad. Perfect new play for regional productions. Closes August 25, 2013.
Sometimes, the smaller shows are the ones that just send me for a loop. This just-opened, Off-B'Way, world premiere is just such a show. This was our second play of the week that deals with an over-the-top-talented, somewhat self-centered, effeminate man (or in this case, boy) who faces subtle and not-at-all-subtle hate because of who he is. Inspiring in this play are several 'upstanders' who are willing to buck the prevailing prejudices of the times and instead to love and support this boy and to help him in fact mature and grow. Complimenting and adding to this powerful story set in an all-boys, African American, private high school is a stream of heavenly a cappella, gospel music that the boys so beautifully deliver. The juxtaposition of the boys singing this uplifting, inspiring music in one minute and then one/some of them sending arrows of scorn in the next meant to hurt and even drive out the "Choir Boy" helps to show what 'a decent society' can say and do while seemingly being sincerely pious. I hope this is another play that will soon be performed regionally nationwide; it is one that young and old alike need to see. Closes August 4, 2013.
How can I not salivate over a star-studded, 18-person cast with Tom Hanks in his B'Way debut as the title role of Pulitzer-winning journalist Mike McAlary? For a non-New Yorker who did not read the Daily News, the Post or the upstart Newsday in the 80s/early 90s, some of the play's significance and nuance is a bit lost on me as it jumps from scene to scene of the cursing, drinking, bombastic lives of beat reporters. And, I have an idea that the audience's (and my) adoration for a very likable Tom Hanks makes us like the hard-nosed, extremely ambitious McAlary more than we really should. But, oh my -- Hanks is wonderful in this role. In the end, he has us in tears missing the days when newspapers and reporters did in fact mean something to our knowing about our world. He reminds us of a drive and passion that can define someone's life's work, and we really see Tom Hanks himself, I think, making a statement how much acting and telling a story is important to him as a real person. Seeing the closing performance was very special as tears of the cast flowed, as a special tribute was paid to the rather recently deceased playwright, and as the audience lingered on and on to savor this remarkable cast bowing and grinning and crying in front of them. Closed.
Sometimes, we attend a play not because we want to see the play but because we want to see the players. Having previously seen Foote's 1962 rather sentimen
tal, predictable tale, we did not go to this revival to be inspired by the writing; but we went so we could soar in watching Cuba Gooding, Jr.; Vanessa Williams; and especially octogenarian Cecely Tyson in the three lead roles. And soar we did. Cuba's part does not have a lot to work with as a hen-pecked husband who is caught between his ego-centric, nagging wife and his aging, stubborn, but adoring mother; however, he is fun to watch and milks the role for all there is. Vanessa rips the heck out of her delicious role as the wife/daughter-in-law who just pushes every envelope and presses every hot button she can to keep life always all about her and her alone. And the grand Ms. Tyson is magnificent. She bounces, she falls, she dances, she leads the audience in hymns, she coos, she explodes, and she is on stage the entire time. WOW! How blessed we were as an audience to see her return to B'Way after a 30-year absence. This is why we come to NYC. Closes October 9, 2013.
Set in 1879 London at a Royal-Society-like club for world explorers and 'scientists,'
this new play is a British farce that is bloody funny. Members include the discoverer of the "East Pole," a scientist who proved guinea pigs' high intelligence by their escaping his cage into the walls of the club, a lover of snakes who is out to tell the world they are nice and not slimy, and a botanist who is nursing a poisonous plant that he names after his to-be-love. Enter a young woman (with a blue-skinned native) who has discovered a lost, jungle kingdom armed with only a spoon and who wants to become a member of this all-male, brandy-sipping and cigar-smoking, 'elite' society. (Horrors!) That is the set-up. The laughs hardly stop for the next couple of hours. Closes July 21, 2013.
One more note: We did not see 2013 Tony-winning Best Play "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" only because it will open Berkeley Rep's season in two months; and we anticipate B'Way quality in that production. So, we did use one of precious slots for it in NYC. However, if you are going to NYC before it closes Aug. 25, I would encourage you to put it at the top of your play list (unless you live in the Bay Area).