Saturday, December 30, 2017

OFF BROADWAY - Top Ten Shows of 2017

Another year, another 111 Off Broadway shows. That's how many I saw in 2017, from the 50th anniversary revival  of SWEET CHARITY early in January to HUNDRED DAYS two days ago.  

From these, I have selected the best of the best, my Top Ten list, in alphabetical order:

CHARM:  It has been fascinating watching how playwrights and theater companies have been striving to tell the stories of transgender individuals. Not surprisingly, the earliest efforts in recent years were clumsy and overly pedantic, and even efforts at casting transgender actors to play
transgender characters have been hit-and-miss. This play, written by Philip Dawkins, marked a leap forward. It told an engaging story about a 67-year-old transgender woman who
volunteers at an LGBTQ center, teaching a mix of etiquette and self-esteem to a group of disorderly street teens. It incorporated the kinds of still-necessary explanations for the audience, but within the context of the play rather than making us feel we are sitting at a lecture. (Great line: "Have pity on the straight people; they get confused so easily.") And it starred a transgender actress, Sandra Caldwell, in the lead role.  

DOLPHINS AND SHARKS:  Stellar writing, directing, and acting combined to tell the gripping story of a group of African American and Latino workers at a copy shop in Harlem, dealing with low pay, constant demands by an absentee
boss, and "what you gotta do" in order to survive. This fiercely comic, provocative, and at times harrowing play marked the professional debut of writer James Anthony Tyler, whose voice is just the kind we need to hear more of off and on Broadway.     

IN THE BLOOD: Suzan-Lori Parks' play grabbed you by throat and never let go as it related the story of Hester, a single mother of five children between the ages of 5 and 13, all of them living together under a bridge in an unnamed and indifferent urban environment. Some of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's works are densely abstract and difficult to stage convincingly, but this one was nothing short of breathtaking in capturing the lives of people who cannot win for losing.  

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM:  A joyful night under the stars at the Public Theater's Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Lear deBessonet directed, and Annaleigh Ashford
headed a cast that brought pure magic and a touch of Mardi Gras to Shakespeare's enduring comedy. In every way, it was a a treat for the eyes and ears.   

OF HUMAN BONDAGE:  A presentation by the Canadian company Soulpepper during its summer sojourn at the Pershing Square Signature Center. This production of W. Somerset Maugham's sprawling coming-of-age novel
(adapted by Vern Thiessen) was a perfect piece of ensemble acting, reminiscent of the kinds of plays the Royal Shakespeare Company used to bring to New York back in the day.  Hope they'll come back with more like this!

PIPELINE: Dominique Morisseau's brilliant play about an African American family all but torn asunder following an altercation between a high school student and a teacher at a private boarding school that was supposed to provide a safe and nurturing haven for a teenage boy. Namir Smallwood
gave a superb performance as the boy's mother, a teacher herself, but at the kind of urban high school she wants to keep him away from. The playwright showed a real determination to avoid painting anyone purely as either villain or victim. This was a stunner from the start to its intentionally uncertain ending. 

SCHOOL GIRLS: OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY: Jocyln Bioh's funny, viciously biting comedy takes the familiar story of snotty high school cliques and plunks it down into a private girls' school in Ghana, where it takes on a life of its own. The writing and the performances were as sharp as tacks as the girls participated in the well-established pecking order that
controlled their lives together. Things took a turn when a new student showed up, rivalries exploded, and the girls got ready to participate in a beauty pageant they all hope will lead one of them to being named Miss Ghana. A glorious production by all concerned.    

TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET: Another rising playwright, JirĂ©h Breon Holder, gave us a play that dive-bombed onto the stage of the Roundabout's Black Box Theatre, an incubator for exciting new works like this one.  The play recounted the experiences of two young black
couples in the early days of the Freedom Riders, the busing protest from the early 1960s.  It centered on the character of Bowzie (a mesmerizing performance by Brandon Gill), who has been offered the rare opportunity of a scholarship to attend the prestigious Fisk University but who is uncertain where his future lay as he gets caught up in the emerging Civil Rights movement.  The playwright managed in the course of the evening to explore issues of race, gender, power, faith, and politics in the black community without once losing sight of his characters.  A masterful achievement!

THE WOLVES: Sarah DeLappe's thrilling "girl power" play about a high school girls' soccer team. Wonderfully acted by a tight-knit ensemble, it is about the things we miss when we fail to pay attention to the seemingly random conversations
among girls. The playwright and the production perfectly captured the voices of these young women as they talk during their pre-game warmups in the course of a season.   

20th CENTURY BLUES: At the other end of the age spectrum, this play by Susan Miller captures the story of a group of women in their mid-60s as they gather at the home
of one of their number, a professional photographer named Danny (Polly Draper) who has taken portraits of the other three each year without fail ever since they met in the 1970s. The dialog and the splendid acting perfectly embodied the spirit of the women of the baby boomer cohort,  with all of their shared memories, trials, and successes. 


Link here for my list of the best of the year's Broadway plays: (Top Ten Broadway Plays - 2017) 


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.

Friday, December 29, 2017


Culled from the list of the 34 plays and musicals I saw on Broadway in 2017,  the following stood out as representing the top ten - the best of the best.  

Strictly by coincidence, my list includes five straight plays and five musicals. Here they are, in alphabetical order, and with my rationale for their inclusion.  

Straight Plays

1984.  Big Brother is watching you! This was a smart, literary, and disturbingly-staged version of George Orwell's dystopian novel with unfortunate parallels to the state of the world today. Not for the squeamish, but powerfully acted by a cast that included Tony winner and New York theater stalwart Reed Birney as the sympathetic-seeming O'Brien. I'll confess that I had to see this twice in order to get past the all-too-realistic torture scenes, yet nothing seemed gratuitous or inappropriate.       

THE CHILDREN. OK.  Another dystopian tale. It relocates the 2011 nuclear power plant meltdown from Fukushima,
Japan to the English coast. More significantly, it serves as a sly indictment of the baby boomer generation for the messes the aging population is leaving behind. The production benefits greatly from maintaining the original London cast and director, and from Lucy Kirkwood's smart and gallows humor-infused script.  Note:  This is still running until February 4 in case you want to catch it.  

INDECENT. Paula Vogel's examination of Sholem Asch's 1907 Yiddish-language melodrama GOD OF VENGEANCE, which featured prostitutes and a lesbian kiss. Asch's play was widely produced and well-received in Europe but ran afoul of censorship and the law when it journeyed to New
York. Ms. Vogel considered the play's themes and its history, and told the story through the eyes of the company of actors who toured with it. This was one of the best all-around productions of any play I've seen in a very long time, with brilliant and Tony-garnering directing by Rebecca Taichman and an exceptional cast that included Katrina Lenk, now wowing everyone in the Broadway musical THE BAND'S VISIT. 

JITNEY. August Wilson's 1982 play, a rich examination of a group of drivers for a pre-Uber car service, has been produced Off Broadway before, but this full-scale Broadway production more than made the case for recognizing it as a top-drawer entry in
Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle. This was another stellar ensemble production, one that picked up a Best Revival Tony along with well-deserved nominations for its director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and actor John Douglas Thompson.  

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. In a word: hilarious. If you like old-fashioned slapstick comedy, this play about a third-rate acting company that runs into every problem imaginable will leave you richly satisfied. I may be splitting hairs, but this
kind of romp is a far cry from classical farce where everything seems, at least to my taste, to be too obviously clever. Here, it all seems to gloriously fall apart of its own accord.  Note: This is still running, with tickets available into March, in case you want to catch it.  


BANDSTAND.  An original musical with a heart and a brain, a great score, amazing dancing, and a super cast. It's about a group of talented jazz/swing musicians who are psychologically lost after their experiences of serving in World War II. They all suffer from varying degrees of PTSD and are thwarted by the fact
that life at home passed them by while they were away; their only support is one another. Corey Cott and Laura Osnes sublimely led the cast, and Andy Blankenbueller, who choreographed HAMILTON, served in that capacity here, and also directed. The show has unfortunately closed, but the original cast recording does a good job of capturing the score (Richard Oberacker wrote the music and he and Robert Taylor are responsible for the lyrics). This was far and above the best musical I saw in 2017.  

THE BAND'S VISIT.  An adaption by playwright Itamar Moses of the movie of the same title. It tells the story of the members of a small group of Egyptian musicians who have been invited to participate in a performance in Israel but wind up in the wrong town, where they are obliged to spend the night. If you are expecting ethnic conflict, you'd be wrong.  
Instead, it is a quietly sweet and touching tale, brought lovingly to life by a perfect cast, including the aforementioned Katrina Lenk and Tony Shahoub, a skillful actor who has become a regular on the New York theater scene. What holds it all together is the lovely, lovely score by David Yazbek, and David Cromer's gentle direction.  Currently running.

HELLO, DOLLY!  Actually, it wasn't the presence of Bette Midler that sold me on this production of Jerry Herman's 1964 musical, a show that I had never before seen on 
stage. Yes, the Divine Miss M, has the audience eating out of her hand, but the surprise to me was the show itself.  There is so much joy emanating from the stage, I defy you to resist. Kudos to all involved in this sublime revival! Ms. Midler leaves the show in a couple of weeks, but her replacement will be Bernadette Peters. Not so shabby.   

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. This delightfully staged and performed revival of the Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical has the feel of a Caribbean folk tale that has been passed down and reshaped from generation to generation. It boasts joyful singing, clever staging, and charm by the bucketful as it relates the story of Ti Moune (an auspicious Broadway debut by 18-year-old Hailey Kilgore) who enlists the aid of the gods as she dares to defy the social strictures of her community. There is a dark side to the story, along the lines of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," but that does not diminish the many pleasures to be found here. Currently running.

SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. It is probably best to be familiar with Nickelodeon's popular cartoon character, who
lives in a pineapple under the sea. For fans, this is a super-duper treat, brilliantly staged and performed and filled with music that was written for the show by 14 songwriters and teams, including Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, and They Might Be Giants. Nautical nonsense abounds, and it is more fun than a day of jelly fishing and a platter of Krabby Patties.  Currently running.


Link here for my list of the best of the year's Off Broadway plays: (Top Ten Off Broadway Shows - 2017)


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.