Wednesday, May 16, 2012

51 Shows in 50 Weeks: A Look Back

No matter how many shows I have seen, that moment of anticipation as the lights dim is always a thrill. 

Since we are now in the midst of the theater award season, this is a good time to reflect on the past year’s experience as a member of the audience.

I’ve been to  51 shows since last year’s Tony Awards.  Since I don’t differentiate between Broadway and Off-Broadway, I offer my own short takes on the lot. 

I’ve listed them in alphabetical order, and have given each a letter grade.  There are 16 shows with a grade in the A range (A+, A, A-), 20 in the B range, 13 in the C range, and 2 with grades of D. 

For the shows that I have previously reviewed, I have also included the dates when those reviews appeared.

The List:

And God Created Great Whales.  Revival of Rinde Eckert’s moving play/chamber opera dealing with the intricacies of mind and memory.  Well-performed by its creator and smartly directed by David Schweizer.  Grade:  A-

Assistance (Reviewed on Feb. 11, 2012).  Despite its lack of a straight-through plot, this New York premiere Leslye Headland play was exceptionally well-acted by a cast featuring, among others, Michael Esper and Bobby Steggert, under the razor sharp direction of Trip Cullman.   Grade:  A

A Strange and Separate People (Reviewed on Aug. 5, 2011).  Playwright Jan Marans, who gave us the wonderful The Temperamentals a couple of years back, needs to rework this effort, about homosexuality within the Orthodox Jewish community.  A play filled with ideas without much of interest going on.  Grade:  C-

A Streetcar Named Desire (Reviewed on Apr. 7, 2012).  Intriguing production of the Tennessee Williams classic, viewed through a feminist lens, starring Nicole Ari Parker as a strong-willed and resilient Blanche DuBois and Blair Underwood as her brute of a brother-in-law Stanley.  Grade:  B+

Balls:  The Musical.  A harmless bit of fratboy silliness performed with good humor by a game cast.  Best thing about it, I won a bottle of vodka in a pre-show “tweeting” competition.  Grade:  B

Blood and Gifts (Reviewed on Dec. 10, 2011).  How we became mired in Afghanistan.  A rare piece that turns a history lesson into real drama.  Written by J. T. Rogers, and featuring a great ensemble cast (a special ”thumbs up” to Jefferson Mays), under the steady hand of director Bartlett Sher.  Grade:  A+

Blood Knot  Taut, powerful, and moving revival of Athol Fugard’s tale of mixed-race half-brothers (one light skinned, the other dark) in Apartheid South Africa.  Superbly acted by Scott Shepherd and Colman Domingo, under the playwright’s savvy direction.  Grade: A+

Burning (Reviewed on Nov. 10, 2011).  Naked folks acting.  A real head-scratcher by Thomas Bradshaw, with in-your-face directing by Scott Elliott.  Grade:  D.

Chinglish.  Jennifer Lim was the standout in this thoroughly enjoyable (if lightweight) comedy about international miscommunication, written by David Henry Hwang and directed by Leigh Silverman.  Grade:  B+

Completeness (Aug. 30, 2011).  Itamar Moses’s play about the convergence of science and love owes a lot to Tom Stoppard, but cleverness can take you just so far, and Moses ain’t Stoppard.  Grade:  C

Death of a Salesman.  Despite the high praise Mike Nichols’ production of this classic Arthur Miller play has garnered, I couldn’t get past mere appreciation to fully engage with it the way I did with the absolutely brilliant revival of Miller's A View From The Bridge from a couple of years back.  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Willy Loman is less a victim of disillusion than he is of dementia, which throws everything off balance.  Grade:  B

Death Takes A Holiday (Reviewed on July 25, 2011).  A soaring and romantic score by Maury Yeston could not overcome the composer’s mundane lyrics and a muddy reworking of the early 20th century Italian play.  Grade:  C

Don’t Dress for Dinner (Reviewed on Apr. 29, 2012).  Clashing comedic styles bring this ultra-lightweight farce to a halt.  Only Spencer Kayden stands out in the cast. She gets an A, but the play itself, C-

End of the Rainbow (Reviewed on March 22, 2012).  Only Tracie Bennett makes this play about a drug-addled Judy Garland worth seeing, but that is more than enough.  I don’t know when I’ve seen a performer throw herself into a role to this extent.  A+ for the star, but the play itself, C-

Follies (Reviewed on Sept. 5 and Dec. 30, 2012).  Your enjoyment of this amazing work would depend on which day you caught it and the extent to which Bernadette Peters—at that particular performance—was able to find her way into a role for which she was miscast. I saw it three times; the middle time was perfection.  Grade:  A-

How the World BeganCatherine Trieschmann’s drama about the clash between the theory of evolution and religious faith did not quite move beyond debate mode, but its central idea and characters (a high school science teacher and a troubled student) were definitely interesting.  Grade:  B

Hurt Village. Katori Hall’s gut-punch of a show piled on too many of the clich├ęs of life in the inner city, not to mention the language.  Hard to watch at times, but a strong ensemble cast, which included Tonya Pinkins as a prematurely aging grandmother nearly brought to her knees, made this a significant contribution to the theatrical season.  Grade:  A

In Masks Outrageous and Austere (Reviewed on Apr. 22, 2012).  What may or may not have been Tennessee Williams’ final fully-realized play had its world premiere, under the direction of David Schweizer.  Many critics dismissed it as a confusing mess, but I found it utterly fascinating and often quite funny in a druggy sort of way.  Grade:  A

Jesus Christ Superstar.  Only Tom Hewitt as Pontius Pilate seems to be making an effort at actually acting, and the direction by Des McAnuff is uninspired.  Grade:  C-

Johnny Johnson.  The glorious Estelle Parsons directed a two-performance staged reading of this rarely seen Kurt Weill musical for the ReGroup Theatre Company, and a splendid event it was.  Grade:  A+

Leap of Faith (Reviewed on Apr. 27, 2012).  The musical lost faith in itself somewhere along the line and became snarky and bloated where it should have been straightforward and modest.  Grade:  D

Lemon Sky (Reviewed on Oct. 3, 2011).  This early rambling work by Lanford Wilson was given a confusing production and failed to rise above its basic weaknesses.  Grade:  C-

Look Back in Anger (Reviewed on Jan. 17, 2012).  Sam Gold, the directing wunderkind, fumbled with this revival of John Osborne’s famous “angry young man” play.  The potential is there for a compelling evening of theater, but this production was strictly one-note:  unrelenting and unmitigated rage.  Grade:  C-

Lost in Yonkers (Reviewed on March 18, 2012).  Splendid revival of Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning family play.  Cast was uniformly strong, as was the direction of Jenn Thompson for TACT/The Actors Company Theater.  
Grade:  A

Lysistrata Jones (Reviewed on Jan. 4, 2012).  A fluffy bit of cotton candy inspired by Aristophanes. Charming and fun, but probably had no business moving from downtown’s Judson Gym to the Walter Kerr (at  Broadway prices, yet!).
Grade:  B.

Man and Boy (Reviewed on Sept. 10, 2011).  Mesmerizing performance by Frank Langella, but the play itself and the overall production directed by Maria Aitken were ho-hum.  And would someone stop finding parts for Adam Driver that call on him to use British accents.  An A+ for Langella, but overall C

Maple and Vine (Reviewed on Nov. 27, 2012).  Potential for satire was lost in this unfocused work about a couple who try to simplify their lives by joining a community of 1950s re-enactors.  Grade:  C

Master Class (Reviewed on June 26, 2011).  The theater season got off to a terrific start with this revival of Terrence McNally’s play about opera diva Maria Callas, featuring a top-notch performance by Tyne Daly at its center.  Grade:  A+

Merrily We Roll Along (Reviewed on Feb. 15, 2012).  Despite the best efforts of a talented cast, this Encores! production did little to dispel the view that this Sondheim musical is deeply flawed.  Grade:  C

Milk Like Sugar (Reviewed on Oct. 21, 2012).  Gritty and engrossing play by Kirsten Greenidge offered a cautionary tale about the lives of inner city teenage girls who make all the wrong choices.  Tonya Pinkins gave a powerful performance as the worn-out and bitter mother of one of the girls.  Grade:  A

On A Clear Day You Can See Forever.  An oddball revival of the Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner musical about reincarnation and psychotherapy that, among other things, switched out a gay man for the woman at the center.  It had its moments, thanks to the heroic efforts of the cast (headed up by Harry Connick Jr.), but still…  Grade:  B-

Once.  Can’t fault the production or the two charming actors (Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti) at its heart, but the show does tend to be one long romantic sigh.  Grade:  B+

Painting Churches.  The pleasures of this revival of Tina Howe’s play came from watching veteran actors Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham as an aging couple dealing with a lifetime of love and loss.  Grade:  B+

Psycho Therapy.  Great idea for a play:  couples therapy for three.  Directed by Michael Bush as if it were a farce, but it just doesn’t work.  Grade:  C-

Seminar.  Admit it.  The coolest thing about the play was seeing Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) appearing on stage just down the block from where Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) was performing in How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.   Actually, I liked Jeff Goldblum (Rickman’s replacement) better.  Grade:  A-

Sons of the Prophet.  No doubt about it, playwright Stephen Karam creates wonderful characters, but the plot, not so much.  Well acted though. Grade:  B+

Stick Fly (Reviewed on Dec. 31, 2011).  Lydia Diamond’s comedy-drama was a real crowd pleaser, and Condola Rashad’s performance lingers in the mind many months later.  Grade:  A

Suicide, Inc. The premise is brilliant—a business catering to those who want to write the perfect suicide note.  The satire segues into something more serious, and the mix of tones doesn’t always work, but like Stephen Karam (Sons of the Prophet), Andrew Hinderaker is a playwright to watch.  Grade:  B+

The Blue Flower (Reviewed on Nov. 10, 2011).  Oddball musical about art, love, and war.  I found it intriguing, however, and Marc Kudisch and the rest of the cast were excellent.  Grade:  B+

The Caretaker.  Pinter but not Pinteresque enough to my way of thinking.  Where are the significant silences and the thrum of anxiety and threat that underscore Pinter's best work?  Grade:  B

The Columnist.  Well acted, with a powerhouse performance by John Lithgow, but—with all due respect—who cares all that much any more about Joseph Alsop, the subject of David Auburn’s bio-play?  Grade:  B-

The Lady from Dubuque.  A stunning and surprisingly moving revival of what has generally been considered to be a second class Edward Albee play.  Bravo!  Grade:  A+

The Lyons.  Linda Lavin is a first-rate actress, and her presence in this dysfunctional family comedy is the play’s biggest draw.  But, as funny as many of the lines are, there’s not much of substance here.  Grade:  B

The Mad Show.  This was one of the York Theater Company’s Musicals in Mufti, and what a romp it was.  The cast seemed to be having the time of their lives with this Mary Rodgers’ revue (with a fun contribution by Stephen Sondheim), and so did the audience.  Grade:  A

The Pretty Trap.  An early version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, starring Katherine Houghton.  Not the stuff of great drama, but intriguing and well done.  Grade:  B+

The Road to Mecca. Wonderful to see veterans Jim Dale and the glorious Rosemary Harris in this Athol Fugard work about an elderly South African woman trying to hang on to her independence. The play does border on tedium, especially in the first act, however, and is unlike the more vibrant Fugard plays that are being showcased by the Signature Theatre Company.  Grade:  B

The Silver Tassie.  Sean O’Casey’s anti-war play, mixing comedy and drama in a not altogether successful brew, was given a heartfelt revival by Ireland’s Druid Theater Company.  Worth seeing as a piece of dramatic history, but it doesn’t hold up theatrically.  Grade:  B-

The Visit (Reviewed on Dec. 3, 2011).  This was a one-shot deal, a fund raiser for the Actors Fund and the Vineyard Theater.  Chita Rivera was magnificent in this seldom-seen Kander and Ebb musical.  It’s on my wish list for a longer run in New York.  Grade:  A

Tryst (Reviewed on July 25, 2011).  A melodrama with Shavian overtones, but not nearly enough to keep it interesting.  Grade:  C

Unnatural Acts (Reviewed on Aug. 5, 2011).  Intriguing play about a group of gay students who were run out of Harvard back in 1920.  Fine addition to the growing list of plays looking at the history of gays in America.  Grade:  B

Wit (Reviewed on Jan. 22, 2012).  Cynthia Nixon starred in this revival and first Broadway run of the Pulitzer Prize winning play about a tough, independent scholar facing the pain and indignities of cancer.  The play holds up just fine, but I would have preferred an actress who could show that toughness better; Ms. Nixon is just too likeable.  Grade:  B

And there you have it--51 shows in 50 weeks.   And how was your year?

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