1. The Bridges of Madison County
I was lucky enough to see The Bridges of Madison County on Broadway, where it starred Kelli O’Hara, who was nominated for a Tony for her performance, and Steven Pasquale, who should have been. Based on the book by Robert James Waller and with a stunning score by Jason Robert Brown, the musical never quite connected with audiences and closed early. That might account for why it was largely forgotten by the time the Tony Awards rolled around, failing to be recognized as a contender for Best Musical. The touring production, which opened Dec. 10 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, is a stunning reminder of how special this show is — and how tragic it is that Bridges never got the attention it deserved. While I’ll admit that I was worried about how the new leads would live up to the originals, Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky are fantastic as ill-fated lovers Francesca and Robert, a lonely homemaker and the traveling photographer who sweeps her off her feet. Conducted by Brown himself, The Bridges of Madison County is as lush and bittersweet as ever. And if the sniffles in the audience are any indication, it remains a rich and devastating emotional experience.
2. Dames at Sea
Dames at Sea, which was first performed in 1966 at Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village, was an odd choice for Broadway. The show satirizes big, flashy ’30s musicals with a cast of only six (there are seven characters, so one actor does double duty). To the credit of this year’s revival, the first production of Dames at Sea on Broadway, it manages to maintain that off-off-Broadway feel. It helps that it’s running at the Helen Hayes Theatre, one of Broadway’s more intimate venues, and that the cast is still just six actors — though part of the thrill of the show is that they so often give the impression of being many more than that. I saw Dames at Sea twice, utterly charmed by an aesthetic that’s paradoxically sharp and old-fashioned. The book is laugh-out-loud funny, and the score is full of memorable melodies, ironically or not. I understand why Dames at Sea didn’t quite land with audiences — it’s closing Jan. 3 — as it’s parodying a genre many younger theater fans probably aren’t familiar with. But it’s an excellent showcase for exceptional tap dancers (Eloise Kropp has to be seen to be believed) and pitch-perfect comic actors (Lesli Margherita’s timing can’t be beat) — not to mention an overall delight.
3. Fiddler on the Roof
There have been many revivals of Fiddler on the Roof — the most recent, in 2004, starred Alfred Molina as Tevye. And while it might seem too soon for another (see also: Spring Awakening), the current production of Fiddler on the Roof, now running at the Broadway Theatre, is exceptional and well worth another trip to Anatevka. Danny Burstein offers a slightly more restrained Tevye: It’s a more grounded performance than what you might be used to, but he’s so perfect for the role that it’s surprising he’s never played it before. This Fiddler, as a whole, feels more contemporary than the show often does, which is a credit to director Bartlett Sher. As with his productions of South Pacific and, more recently, The King & I (also on this list), Sher is adept at translating classic musicals for a modern audience in subtle ways that make their transition to the 21st century seamless. Like Sher’s other shows, Fiddler on the Roof doesn’t look markedly different than it has in the past, and yet, it feels undeniably current. There’s a pervasive sense of relevance: It’s hard to watch the residents of Anatevka wandering aimlessly after being evicted from their homes and not think of the current refugee crisis. Fiddler on the Roof will never not be poignant, but what a pleasure that it also feels brand-new.
4. First Daughter Suite
The cast of First Daughter Suite, which closed Nov. 22 at the Public Theater, was an embarrassment of riches: Alison Fraser, Rachel Bay Jones, Caissie Levy, Betsy Morgan, Mary Testa, and Barbara Walsh, among others. With performers like these, it’s hard not to be blown away, but First Daughter Suite also happened to be a project worthy of their talents. With a book and score by the brilliant Michael John LaChiusa, it was a complex, often challenging look at the interior lives of the daughters of American presidents and their mothers. But for all the pathos on display — this is LaChiusa, after all — First Daughter Suite was also deeply funny. (Fraser was the standout, playing a boozy Betty Ford in one sequence and a chilly Nancy Reagan in another.) The musical’s four segments, each of which focused on a different presidential era, varied wildly in terms of tone, which might lead some to criticize the show as unfocused. I didn’t mind the dramatic shifts — after all, there’s a huge chasm between the experiences of Tricia Nixon and Laura Bush. (The latter, of course, was a First Wife, but LaChiusa delved into her relationship with her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, in the musical’s most powerful sequence.) It was weird, heady, and high-concept — all in the best way.
5. The Flick
I have to confess, I’ve gotten to the point where the sweetest words I know are “80 minutes, no intermission.” My attention span is not what it used to be. And yet, The Flick managed to enthrall me over the course of its three hours and 10 minutes (including an intermission). The play is so long that it has prompted walkouts, not only during intermission but also midway through the hour-and-40-minute first act. The people sitting behind me were convinced that the play was over when the lights went up at intermission, even after I assured them that it wasn’t. But the brilliance of The Flick, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, is that each of its long silences feels earned. You watch ushers clean a movie theater, often not saying anything at all, and you’re mesmerized. When they do offer tidbits that, over the course of three-plus hours, reveal their interior lives, it’s some of the most realistic dialogue I’ve ever heard in a theater. This is how humans talk, frustrating though it may be, and that radical sparseness makes The Flick feel, ironically, avant-garde. I saw the replacement cast at off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre, and they were excellent, imbuing their characters with a painful (if not always spoken) humanity.
6. Fun Home
I won’t tell you how many times Fun Home has made me cry, because a) you might judge me, and b) I’ve lost count. The musical — which began off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2013 and opened on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre this April — is a tremendously powerful emotional experience. Based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel — which I read in college, and yes, cried then, too — the show follows Alison at different stages of her life. As an adult (Beth Malone), she looks back on her childhood (Sydney Lucas) and her college years (Emily Skeggs), particularly the discovery of her lesbian identity and her relationship with her father, Bruce (Michael Cerveris), a closeted gay man. All of the aforementioned actors were nominated for Tony Awards; Cerveris won. The musical itself won a well-deserved Tony for Best Musical, as well as for Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s gorgeous score. (It was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist, but lost to The Flick.) Fun Home is one of those rare shows that has been a big hit with audiences but functions as an intensely personal experience for everyone who sees it. And yes, it resonates a little more strongly for anyone who has ever been young and queer and on the verge of self-discovery. Ask me about my “Ring of Keys” moment: After I’m done crying, I’ll tell you.
What can I say about Hamilton that hasn’t already been said? (And said. And said. No show has ever been talked about this much, by theater fans and newbies alike. There has never been anything like it.) Like Fun Home, Hamilton began at the Public Theater, where it earned raves. It opened on Broadway on Aug. 6 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and the hype has only grown, with no signs of abating. Hamilton is an unprecedented phenomenon, and if you don’t believe me, try buying tickets. I went into Hamilton thrilled that I was finally seeing it after falling in love with the cast recording — a record-breaker in its own right — but I was secretly anxious that it couldn’t possibly live up to the adulation that’s been heaped upon it. As it turns out, Hamilton can’t be overhyped: No matter how good you’ve heard it is, it’s somehow even better. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is thrillingly original, the kind of show that will change theater for good. There will be lesser copycats trying to capitalize on Hamilton’s unbelievable success, of course, but better shows will merely be inspired and motivated by what makes Hamilton so genius: the potency and unmatched lyricism of a largely hip-hop score, the talented cast of actors of color, and a willingness to embrace classic Broadway tradition while creating a new one.
8. Hand to God
It’s a dark comedy with puppets, but Hand to God is a far cry from Avenue Q, and not just because there’s no singing. Tyrone, the sock puppet who has affixed himself to the hand of his creator Jason (Steven Boyer), is a brash, sometimes sadistic force of nature. (Boyer alternates between innocent Jason and demonic Tyrone with impressive ease.) And while a sock puppet as the devil on a young man’s shoulder might sound like a silly conceit, Hand to God has surprising depth, with an impressively dramatic conclusion that is more thought-provoking than funny. I went into the play, which is running at the Booth Theatre through Jan. 3, not knowing what to expect, and I think that’s the best way to experience it. Taking place largely at a church club in a devout Texas town, Hand to God is about the urges Jason is repressing and the emotional pain he’s masking — but it’s also about the doubts and flaws of his mother, Margery (Geneva Carr), and their pastor, Greg (Marc Kudisch). The play tackles the limits of a religious education, particularly when it comes to a black-and-white conception of good and evil. And if that sounds too heavy, remember that there’s a shit-talking puppet who exposes long-hidden secrets and has one of the most memorable sex scenes I’ve ever seen on Broadway.
9. The Humans
Having seen too many plays about dysfunctional families arguing around the dinner table, I worried The Humans might be a watered-down August: Osage County. But it’s not really even in the same genre. As conventional as it might sound, there’s nothing familiar about The Humans at all. Stephen Karam’s play — which is running at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre through Jan. 3, but will be transferring to Broadway later that month — is a remarkable achievement. It’s a fairly subdued family comedy-drama, and yet it manages to be consistently surprising throughout its 90-minute run. The entire cast is wonderful — particularly Reed Birney as Blake family patriarch Erik and Jayne Houdyshell as his put-upon wife, Deirdre — and they help Karam tell a straightforward story, with few bells and whistles, that still manages to catch the audience off guard. It’s difficult to articulate what exactly makes The Humans such a unique play, because, again, a family coming together for Thanksgiving isn’t reinventing the wheel. I will say that the last 10 minutes are absolutely terrifying, which is especially impressive given that the play remains fully grounded in the real world. As Karam’s work reminds us, the best naturalism reflects real life, which is funny one moment and frightening the next.
10. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
I first saw The Hunchback of Notre Dame more than a year ago at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. I loved the show, which used the gorgeous score from the Disney film but drew from Victor Hugo’s much darker novel. The adult themes that are only hinted at in the movie were on full display, and songs like “Hellfire” finally felt thematically appropriate. Hunchback transferred to New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse where it ran from March 4 to April 5. Luckily, the cast stayed the same: Michael Arden (Quasimodo), Ciara Renée (Esmeralda), and Patrick Page (Frollo) were perfectly cast. The score, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, had never sounded better. The performers, the lush melodies, and the stirring lyrics had finally found the right context. And the ending was reconceived and made even more devastating; at the risk of sounding like a monster, the bleak coda was a notable improvement. This Hunchback felt closer to Les Misérables, also based on a Hugo novel, than to Disney. The story of Quasimodo and his ill-fated love for the gypsy Esmeralda is complex enough to merit such a grand theatrical representation, particularly one as emotionally resonant as this production was.
11. Invisible Thread
A lot of critics have dismissed Invisible Thread, but that’s what I love most about it: the thrill of a show that inspires such varied reactions. Much of the best new theater is divisive and sometimes a pan is an exciting reflection of the way a piece of art breaks the mold. Now off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre, Invisible Thread has echoes of past hits — the struggling artists in New York City recalls Rent, while the story of well-intentioned Americans not knowing how to effect change in Uganda is essentially the plot of Book of Mormon. (To be fair, Invisible Thread, which is based on the real-life experiences of co-author and star Griffin Matthews, is a much more realistic and measured depiction of Uganda and its people.) This is Griffin’s story — a point some critics have struggled with — and while his individual experiences of coming out to his church and sponsoring young people in Uganda aren’t exactly universal, they are powerfully told and thematically resonant. The music is stunning, a blend of pop, African beats, and gospel: There are so many standouts, but attention must be paid to Melody Betts, an ensemble member whose solo during a church number in Act 2 inspired a well-deserved standing ovation.
12. The King & I
I’ve seen this production of The King & I at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater twice, and both times I marveled at how gripped I was by a show I knew well and had honestly never much cared for. I gushed about Bartlett Sher’s directorial skill when talking about Fiddler on the Roof, but his King & I is another example of what he does so well. Here, a musical that seems, at best, old-fashioned and, at worst, archaic and offensive is subtly reshaped to work for a modern audience. Both Anna (Kelli O’Hara) and the king (originally Ken Watanabe, now Hoon Lee) imbue their characters with tremendous sympathy under Sher’s direction — they are more complex and well-rounded than they’ve ever been before, with no change to the book. The staging is lush and expansive, from the moment the ship carrying Anna and her son, Louis (Jake Lucas), to Siam pushes out into the audience. For those who have grown up on Rodgers and Hammerstein, it’s always a comfort to hear these familiar scores — but it’s a rarer gift to see them performed so expertly and in a context that makes them feel as necessary today as they were 60 years ago. There are plenty of us who have long insisted on the modern-day importance of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but it’s always nice to have a reminder like this.
13. King Charles III
King Charles III is ambitious: It’s an imagined glimpse at the not-too-distant future when Queen Elizabeth II dies and her son Charles ascends to the throne, written in the style of a Shakespearean history. So much could go wrong, and yet, nothing does — the play, which is running through January at the Music Box Theatre, is a pitch-perfect pastiche, emulating Shakespeare’s sound while seamlessly transferring it to a modern context. While Tim Pigott-Smith is an exceptional Charles, I found myself — as usual — more intrigued by the younger members of the royal family. Lydia Wilson is particularly powerful as Duchess Kate (by way of Lady Macbeth), giving us the kind of unapologetic feminist monologue that makes you forget about all the men on the stage. But really, everyone is at the top of their game, aided by a script that fleshes out all of the characters, regardless of their station or the size of their part. They each have moments to make their marks onstage as they sound off on everything from the state of the monarchy to tabloid culture and the media. King Charles III is high-reaching in every respect, and perhaps what’s most impressive about the play is how consistently entertaining it is — sharp, deeply funny, and endlessly imaginative.
14. A New Brain
A New Brain didn’t get anything resembling a full run: Instead, this concert version put on by Encores! Off-Center ran for four days, June 24 to June 27, at the New York City Center. And yet, it made a serious impression. The musical, an autobiographical piece by composer William Finn with a book by James Lapine, was first produced off-Broadway in 1998. Finn and Lapine did some serious rewrites for this new production, which Lapine directed, and the result was a tighter, more cohesive show. It’s still totally bizarre — this is a musical about a songwriter who needs brain surgery to correct an arteriovenous malformation — but it somehow works, anchored by Finn’s songs, which like most of his songs, are alternately hilarious and unbearably poignant. Encores! also cobbled together a truly exceptional cast, led by Jonathan Groff, who was neurotic enough to pull off Gordon’s anxiety but charming enough to make you like him anyway. The performer everyone was talking about, however, was Ana Gasteyer — and with good reason. Those who didn’t know the Saturday Night Live alum had such incredible musical theater chops were granted the best surprise. Gasteyer blew the audience away as Gordon’s overbearing mother, Mimi. The only negative about this production is that so few people got to see it.
15. Shows for Days
Unfortunately, at this point Shows for Days is probably best remembered as the play during which Patti LuPone snatched an audience member’s cell phone from her texting hand. (What got lost in most of these stories is that LuPone didn’t “stop the show”; the scene in which she grabbed the phone involved audience interaction, and LuPone casually picked up the offending device as she was making her exit.) That’s a pity, because Shows for Days was actually a charming and odd coming-of-age story, in which Car (Michael Urie) looks back on his days at the fictional Prometheus Theatre in Pennsylvania, where he fell in love with theater and a young man, Damien (Jordan Dean). Douglas Carter Beane’s play, which ran at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is semi-autobiographical, which allows him to tell a very personal story with the flair of theatricality. LuPone was perfectly suited to the role of Irene. Yes, she is loud and large and, at times, a lot to take in — but that is the character, and LuPone’s skill is in also expressing Irene’s bitterness, her regret, and her loneliness. Irene is not merely a diva with an inflated sense of self, and LuPone — who has often been misunderstood — was adept at bringing those subtler qualities out.
16. Significant Other
Listen, it’s hard for me to approach Significant Other objectively: Joshua Harmon’s play about a young gay Jewish man who can’t find a boyfriend is, uh, relatable. But I’ve talked to many people who saw and loved it too, and who don’t fit into that demographic. We often look for relatability in the plays (and movies and TV shows) we take in, and it’s always comforting to find, but it’s a tribute to Harmon’s writing that Significant Other, which ran at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, had a more widespread appeal. This wasn’t just a play for young gay Jews with romantic problems, because it asked bigger questions about what it means to grow up at a different pace than your friends, what it means to settle for someone less than ideal, and whether some of us are just destined to be alone. It was not always uplifting — in fact, the ending was so bleak that I had to sit with it for a while to recover — but it was incredibly perceptive. Jordan Berman, played with awkward charm by Gideon Glick, was not always likable, and that just made him more endearing. His pain was a pain we understood, whether we were someone just like him or not. And that’s what made Significant Other such a potent experience: It got under your skin, the way good theater should.
17. Spring Awakening
For anyone who saw Spring Awakening back in 2006, the original production is still fresh in our minds. The news of a new Broadway revival caught some off guard — it felt too soon. But before Broadway, the Deaf West Theatre production of Spring Awakening, directed by Michael Arden, began at Inner City Arts in Los Angeles and later moved to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, where I first saw it. (I also saw the Deaf West Spring Awakening on Broadway, where it was slightly more polished but largely the same. It’s running at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre through Jan. 24.) The show employs a cast of deaf and hearing actors, who sing and sign in a production that’s both gorgeous and fully accessible. The actors’ deafness is incorporated into the story, which underlines the musical’s theme of a communication breakdown between generations — these kids and their parents are, oftentimes, literally speaking different languages. Accessibility is a beautiful thing in its own right, but Deaf West’s Spring Awakening takes the concept a step further by making deafness central to the plot and deaf actors essential to the performance. When a revival is such a thrilling and important reimagining of the source material, there’s no such thing as “too soon.”
18. A View From the Bridge
You never know what you’re getting with an Ivo van Hove production — the Belgian director is known for his avant garde, high-concept shows. Even with familiar classic like Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, van Hove keeps audiences on their toes. The source material is a stunning piece of theater and a major asset, of course, but Van Hove’s minimalist take on the play, which is running through Feb. 21 at the Lyceum Theatre, is an experience in its own right. This production is shocking for where it holds back (a key dramatic moment is described instead of performed) and for where it lets loose (the climax is overwhelmingly brutal). It’s not an easy play to sit through, and not just because it’s two hours without an intermission: The intensity is a lot to take in. But the length isn’t a problem, because A View From the Bridge is endlessly compelling. Mark Strong delivers an unbelievable performance, full of rage and desperation. Over the course of the gripping two hours, you can’t look away, but there are times when you wish you could.
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