(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
The Highlights -- and Lowlights -- of the 2010 Theater Season
By Lauren Yarger
It’s time to say goodbye to 2010 and in doing so, revisit some of the most wonderful moments from theater during the year.
Thumbing through notes starting in January 2010, it wasn’t so easy to come up with a list of the top 10. Some moments found their way quickly onto the list, but others took some more thought.
This has been a hard year for Broadway. The economy isn’t making it easy for shows to find investors or for theatergoers to be able to afford to see them if they do get produced. As a result, some shows that aren’t the best productions have done well at the box office (mostly due to the draw of star names on the marquis, though even this weapon isn’t a guarantee – Brendan Fraser, Julia Stiles and even Patti LuPone heading casts couldn’t prevent early closings of their shows).
Other critically acclaimed works close early because they don’t have star names to drive the box office or they are deemed “too intelligent” for the average ticket buyer who is looking for pure entertainment value. In addition, 2010 saw a lot of eagerly anticipated shows fizzle into big disappointments, so the pickings for this year’s best moments in the theater were slimmer than usual.
That said, here are the moments that stand out for me between Jan. 1, 2010 and Jan. 1, 2011. May next year’s list be so abundant that I have a hard time choosing.
Top 10 moments of theater in 2010:
10.) Manhattan Theatre Club’s quiet, but terrific production of Bill Cain’s Equivocation, a play within a play using William Shakespeare, the Gunpowder Plot and some terrific acting to bring Shakespeare to life in an interesting, contemporary way. This was one of the most satisfying plays I saw all year. John Pankow was terrific as Shakespeare.
9.) Katie Finneran as Marge MacDougall, a drunken bar pick up whose 15 minutes on stage were the best part of the revival of Promises Promises. Her masterful, comedic performance immediately charged the set and within seconds I was thinking, “There’s the Tony award for Best Supporting Actress in a musical.” I was right – she walked away with the award hands down.
8.) Jim Brochu’s Zero Hour, a play giving a glimpse into the life of legendary Zero Mostel. This performance was so good, you’d swear that was Zero up there on the stage. Deservingly, it won the Drama Desk Award for Best Solo Performance.
7.) Viola Davis’ moving performance as Rose, a wife and mother trying to keep her family together in August Wilson’s Fences. The depth and strength of her performance were palpable (she swept the Tony, Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards). The play also starred Denzel Washington who took the Tony and Outer Critics awards too. An excellent time at the theater.
6.) Memphis. Yes, I’ve heard all the complaints that this musical shouldn’t have won the 2010 Tony because it’s just too much fluff, but honestly, this tale of an inter-racial romance at the birth of rock and roll in Memphis was the most exciting, fun musical I saw last season. I loved Chad Kimball and Montego Glover in the leads and the book by Joe Pietro. Books make all the difference in musicals, and this one is well written, giving a platform for David Bryan (formerly of Bon Jovi) to write some really catchy tunes that show off Glover’s fabulous voice. It deserved all the awards and still is one of the best sees on Broadway.
5.) Some excellent shows incorporating religious themes. Standing out were:
• Geoffrey Nauffts’ play Next Fall, which was touted as a play that was supposed to be about everything from relationships to gay marriage rights, but which in reality was a study of faith and how having God, or not having God in our lives drives relationships and everything else.
• Kia Corthron’s A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick (at Playwrights Horizons) with its delightful and honestly depicted pastor in training/evangelist Abebe.
• Max McLean’s The Screwtape Letters based on the C.S. Lewis classic book in which demons look for ways to interrupt, deceive and ultimately devour their human assignees. The play gives us humans a lot to chew on too with regards to just how much we allow Satan to influence us. (Note: McLean and Corthron were honored as the 2010 recipients of Masterwork Productions’ “The Lights are Bright on Broadway” awards for these productions.)
• MCC Theater’s production of Neil LaBute’s The Break of Noon recently completing a limited run starring an excellent David Duchovny as a man who suddenly finds God in the midst of a tragedy and the disbelief of those who know him (including himself) about whether his conversion is real and whether he really can change into a better person.
4.) Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce in David Hirson’s delightful rhyming couplet play La Bête. Rylance tears up the stage during an opening monologue that is one of those moments where you know you are witnessing a piece of theater history. It’s outrageous, disgusting, funny and totally over-the-top and probably will bring a Tony Award nomination for the actor in 2011. Making his tour-de-force performance possible is the understated, controlled, skillful performance by David Hyde Pierce, who reacts with facial expressions and gestures that spark and fuel a perfect foil for Rylance’s zaniness.
3.) The Scottsboro Boys. This was one of the best books (David Thompson) with one of the best scores (the last collaboration of John Kander and Fred Ebb), with some of the best direction and choreography (Susan Stroman) with one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever seen on Broadway (the cast was headed by Joshua Henry, Colman Domingo, Forrest McClendon and John Cullum, but every single performer in the show was excellent). Unfortunately the story of the unjust imprisonment of nine black men accused of raping two white women in 1931 Alabama told in the form of a minstrel show didn’t go over well with theater goers. Some folks, offended by the minstrel theme, protested outside the theater, though if they actually had gone inside and seen this fabulous show, they might have discovered that instead of shining a positive light on the racist entertainment form, The Scottsboro Boys, instead, exposed the minstrel, along with its two end men, the interlocutor, the cake walk, black face, and the prejudice that condemned these men to death for a crime they didn’t commit as a sad page in the nation’s history. It was the most savvy, slick musical to come along in a long time and I am sorry that it closed so soon. there is some talk about bringing it back. You can make a pledge to go see it for just $99 if it does at http://scottsboromusical.com/.
2.) The spontaneous, standing ovation given to composer John Kander as he took his seat during the final performance of The Scottsboro Boys. The ovation was heartfelt and one of those moments you’re grateful to have been in the theater that night. The warm regards for the show were continued throughout the performance when prolonged, screaming applause met each musical number. Director Susan Stroman led a toast at the final curtain for the late Fred Ebb and for the original Scottsboro Boys. Theater doesn’t get much better than this.
1.) And finally, the top theater experience I had during 2010 was nine hours long and I’d go back and see it again. It was Horton Foote’s The Orphans’ Home Cycle, a condensing of nine of the playwright’s works into three plays following the life of Horace Robedaux (Bill Heck). The work was commissioned by Michael Wilson, Artistic Director at Hartford Stage, where the saga ran last fall before moving to the Signature Theater Company in New York. The fabulous cast, which included Foote’s daughter Hallie, played multiple roles in the three plays which ran in rep at both venues. (You could see the plays individually, or in a marathon). The amazing performance by Heck, the meticulous direction by Wilson, the astonishing sets (designed by Jeff Cowie and David Barber) and the wonderful story itself combined to transport the audience out of the theater and into the lives of these people. It was like a visit with old friends, sad, fun, satisfying and over too quickly, despite the nine-hour run time. (Keep your eye on Heck, by the way. He also has delighted in New York last summer in the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park productions and most recently in a riveting performance as Joe in Signature’s revival of Tony Kushner’s Angel’s in America. He’s quickly establishing himself as one of the best actors on stage.)
Biggest surprises of 2010:
• Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. I wouldn’t have thought a farce portraying the seventh president of the United States as a tight-pants-wearing, rock star singing emo/punk type music would be to my taste, but Alex Timbers’ tongue-in-cheek story delighted me from the moment I entered the cleverly decorated theater. It was smart, funny and surprisingly contemporary. Alas, another smart one bites the dust. It closes Jan. 2.
• American Idiot – another one I didn’t think I was going to like. Punk music (with one of the songs titles Jesus of Suburbia?) and an anti-war story involving drugs? But, I’ll be darned if it isn’t terrific with a redeeming message to boot. On top of being surprised by how much I enjoyed this musical, the night I attended, Green Day, on whose music and album 'American Idiot" the show is based, made a surprise appearance and rocked out the house at the encore. In fact, Green Day’s lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong will be performing the role of St. Jimmy January 1-9, January 18-30 and February 10-27. Definitely worth it if you haven’t seen it yet.
Biggest disappointments of 2010:
• Driving Miss Daisy. Alfred Uhry’s study of racial relations and the friendship between a Jewish woman and her African-American chauffeur during the civil rights era is one of my favorite plays. The casting of Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones along with Boyd Gaines seemed a guarantee of a terrific production, even if Broadway seems a little big for the intimate setting (it played to acclaim Off-Broadway and the film version of the play won the Academy Award). The play at the Golden Theater has been doing good box office, but for me, it drives in an unsatisfying direction and misses most of the depth. One of my most-anticipated shows quickly became one of my biggest disappointments.
• A Little Night Music. The original of this Stephen Sondheim musical, back in the late 1970s, was one of the best theater experiences I ever have enjoyed. The first revival starring Angela Lansbury (perfect casting) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (really?) was high on my list of must sees. Quickly, it was apparent that this rendition wasn’t even trying to recreate the magic of the original. Very disappointing on so many levels (minimal sets, weak performances). The handing of the Tony award to Zeta-Jones, especially following her terrible performance of “Send in the Clowns” on the Tony broadcast was an added disappointment. I haven’t seen the show since Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters took over the roles, but both are theater gems, so it might be worth seeing just because they are on stage. Hurry, though. It closes Jan. 9.
• Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown. Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti, Sherry Rene Scott, Brian Stokes Mitchell and excellent director Bartlett Sher – sounds like the recipe for a fabulous musical, doesn’t it? Guess again. This poorly written story with an explosion of sets and lackluster music closes early on Jan. 2 – and that’s a good thing in the opinion of someone who almost never likes to see a show close ealrly. The best part of this show was getting to see the newly refurbished Belasco Theatre.
• The Addams Family. Well-known characters, a fun story idea and Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth (perfect casting). Unfortunately, a mess of a book, totally unmemorable songs and lackluster performances combined to make this highly anticipated musical a disappointment. The star power of Lane and Neuwirth, as well as the Addams Family brand, continue to translate into big box office, though.
• Banana Shpeel, a different kind of show from Cirque du Soleil at the newly restored Beacon Theatre. It didn’t work. It wasn’t funny, well written or even special effect or tumbling heavy – nothing like any of the other Cirque shows we’ve enjoyed. Let’s hope the eagerly anticipated Zarkana, moving the Tony awards out of Radio City Music Hall to set up shop this summer, won’t end up on this list next year.
• All About Me – Dame Edna and Michael Feinstein. Alone they’re great. Together they didn’t work.
• The Miracle Worker at Circle in the Square – Distracting, flying set pieces, so-so performances and a Helen Keller (Abigail Breslin) who was too connected with the outside world caused a misfire with this Circle in the Square revival. A production, just a few weeks prior to this one at Connecticut’s Ivoryton Playhouse directed by Jacqueline Hubbard with Helen played by Jenilee Lea Simons Marques, who in real life is deaf, was far superior and is one of the highlights of last year’s Connecticut season.
• The postponement of Love Never Dies, the sequel to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera, the postponement of the revival of You Can’t Take it With You (one of my personal favorites) and the multi-times postponement of the opening of Spiderman Turn Off the Dark, not to mention all of the trouble this musical has experienced with safety issues, injured actors and bad press. Here’s hoping that these three shows find their way to a future “top 10” list.
Most confusing show of the year
• Hands down, this goes to Lincoln Center Theatre’s production of Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling. When they put a family tree in the program, you’re probably going to need it. It didn’t help. Even stars Victoria Clark, Marybeth Hurt and fabulous director David Cromer couldn’t help me figure out who anyone in this play was or what was going on. I wasn’t alone. At a restaurant for lunch after the show, everyone was sitting around questioning each other about who was who and what had just happened. No one knew.