28 November 2013


I've never done a year-end wrap-up, but we all love them, right? We're hopelessly addicted to rankings and lists and that's why Buzzfeed exists. As we come to the Thanksgiving holiday and the beginning of the end of the year, what better way to express gratitude for 2013 than to review some of its best moments? 

I'm incredibly lucky to see a lot of theater. Much of it is good or very good, but some productions rise to the top and are still stuck in my brain weeks or months later. In chronological order, here are some of the shows that took my breath away this year.

The Motherfucker with the Hat, Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

Photo by Michael Brosilow
"Dark" is my single favorite keyword for a show; if I use it, it's usually a huge compliment. If something is "dark" and "gritty" AND "smart," it's a winner. So it was with January's The Motherfucker with the Hat. Let's get this out of the way first: if you've never seen Jimmy Smits on stage, I can't describe it to you. You just have to witness that combination of utter calm and fierce spirit for yourself. Combine him with an exceptional cast, a script that is intelligent and daring and real, and one of the most imaginative stagings I've ever seen in a space that size, and you have an exceptional production. It's not an easy show and it doesn't tie any bows at the end. It questions the nature of the human spirit uncomfortably and profoundly. This was my first trip to Steppenwolf. I'll definitely be back.

In the Heights in Concert, United Palace of Cultural Arts, New York

The expectations were SO HIGH. It's my favorite musical of all time. I flew to New York for less than 48 hours just for this show. I paid more than I ever spend on tickets to sit third row center. While standing in the longest will call line of all time, we thought it might not happen at all. And then in the quickest succession we were warm inside the theater, the lights went down, the cast came out, the music went up, and the euphoria began. The best way I've found to describe it is to say that the cast wanted to give everything they had to the crowd, the crowd wanted to give every ounce of affection in their hearts to the cast, performers and audience alike had more passion for the show then they knew what to do with, and it all came out in an absolutely electric lovefest unlike any other experience I've ever had. It was pure magic. I can barely press play on videos of that night for the intensity of the chills I get mere seconds in. I'll never, ever forget it.

American Songbook: The Songs of Tom Kitt & Brian Yorkey, Lincoln Center, New York

© Kevin Yatarola
It HAD to be a wonderful night: Brian D'Arcy James, Alice Ripley, Idina Menzel, the music of Next to Normal and more, all in the gorgeous Allen Room. The moments that most moved me, though, were unexpected. Idina premiered a new song from If/Then that was simple and poignant and perfect. The original Broadway cast of Next to Normal joined the Buenos Aires cast of N2N's Spanish adaptation, Casi Normales, for "Light"/"Luz" and proved that this incredible musical translates to any language or culture. One beautiful night made me even more excited for If/Then and whatever Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey take on in the future. 

Talley's Folley, Roundabout Theater, New York

Photo by Joan Marcus
This is a small show that stole my heart. Danny Burstein is always a revelation and Sarah Paulson was a perfect foil for his energy and charms. Talley's Folley taught me that two-handers absolutely work. It revealed the simple power of a single set - no hydraulics here - dressed with only the gorgeous lighting of a setting sun and the reflecting ripples of the (non-existent) river. The production took a rather dated script with a reveal that was significantly more shocking and mournful in 1979 than it is today and gave it immediacy and relevance. It proved a small show can capture and transport and enchant its audience to a degree I never imagined. I left the theater spilling over with ideas and inspiration. Isn't that one of the greatest compliments you can give?

The Nance, Lincoln Center Theater, New York

Photo by Joan Marcus
Oh, the tears. Certainly the specialness of this particular production was enhanced by the fact that I saw its closing performance, where from the front row I witnessed Nathan Lane's curtain speech and the love everyone in the cast and crew had for the show and each other. But it's also a spectacular show. There isn't a role better suited to all of Nathan Lane's talents - not just his over-the-top hamminess and flair, but also his gift for the subtle, breaking your heart with a wary/weary glance. Douglas Carter Beane's script felt timeless despite the fact that it's firmly planted in vaudeville. The hard reality of it being, as the production notes put it, "easy to play gay and dangerous to be gay" maintains its relevance and urgency. The masterful way in which a very serious personal and social story was interwoven with caustically tongue-in-cheek vaudevillian interludes continues to haunt me in the best possible way. (The Nance gets a PBS broadcast in 2014 and I'm counting down the days.)

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, American Players Theater, Spring Green

Carissa Dixon
Discussions of "chemistry" are often overblown, mostly because chemistry is often tossed up as something left to chance rather than something that can be created or controlled. I've seen great actors manufacture amazing chemistry. But I was schooled in how fantastic the energy between two people could be when I saw Jim DeVita and Tracy Michelle Arnold in Liaisons. Pity the person who accidentally finds himself standing between them when their eyes meet. Their characters use sex as a weapon against so many and ultimately against each other, with alternately horrifying and devastating consequences. I've never loved two characters who so disgusted me more. And I've never seen a sexier show. I was hopeless at keeping track of the aggressively French names, an issue that usually drives me nuts during a show, but these two powerhouses made sure I didn't mind one bit.

As I reflect on the list as a whole, I'm surprised to see so many plays! I definitely tend toward musicals, so this just goes to show that I have to keep pushing my theatrical boundaries. What were your favorite shows of the year?

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