As 2008 draws to a close, I look back over my schedule and realize that I saw nearly 300 shows during the course of the year (this includes Fringe and other Festival going). There have been some good moments, a few sublime ones, and well, some that…. well, let me not finish that thought.
Anyway, I figured that before the year ended, I'd do a quick "best of list" – just going month by month through 2008.
Last January was filled with shows that rest happily in both my memory and heart. Jordan Harrison's adventurous Amazons and Their Men started off my year and was quickly followed by David Ives' New Jerusalem at Classic Stage Company and Fabrik, Wakka Wakka Productions' inventive puppet-parable about how a German industrialist responded to Hitler's rise to power. A couple of performances stand out from January including Rebecca Wisocky's turn in "Amazons" and also S. Epatha Merkerson's soaring, and sensitive, performance in Come Back, Little Sheba.
A few shows in Chicago during the first few days in February were followed by a largish number of New York productions, of which several stand out. First and foremost, the musical The Adding Machine, which seemed to get even better in a second viewing. Patrick Stewart and Macbeth, seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, linger with me as does the musical The Blue Flower, which like "Machine" brought a German expressionist aesthetic to musical theater.
As we approached spring in March, we got a chance to see one of Britain's most highly discussed troupes, Kneehigh Theatre, when Rapunzel played a brief run at the New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street. At around the same time, the Vampire Cowboys delivered its latest in comic book-come-to-life theater, Fight Girl Battle World, a lark that rests very pleasantly in the memory. So too does John Belluso's The Poor Itch, which, produced posthumously, played briefly at the Public Theater. As March drew to a close, Broadway seemed to shake with Arthur Laurents' galvanizingly exciting revival of Gypsy, featuring a stunning Patti LuPone and the equally impressive Laura Benanti.
At the beginning of April, a little musical that sounded preposterous completely captured me, Hostage Song from Kyle Jarrow and Clay McLeod Chapman. Who could have imagined that a musical about two people being held captive overseas could provoke not only terror, but also bitter laughs? As April hit its midpoint, John Bucchino's A Catered Affair, one of the most sophisticated shows to hit Broadway in a while, opened. Almost simultaneously, The Walworth Farce, a frighteningly hysterical three-person romp played a brief run in Brooklyn at St. Ann's Warehouse.
With the approach of the Tony Award eligibility deadline, a spate of new shows arrived on Broadway. The most successful were two revivals: the hilarious Boeing-Boeing, which demonstrated that 60s sex farce still could (pardon the pun) fly in the 21st century, and Manhattan Theatre Club's vivid Top Girls, featuring a grand central performance from Elizabeth Marvel. Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, the three-person monodrama Port Authority, featured three equally memorable performances from John Gallagher, Jr., Brian D'Arcy James and Jim Norton. The month closed with another odd-ball musical that simply charmed beyond compare, Jollyship, the Whiz Bang. Hopefully, we'll see more of this quirky pirate punk rock tuner in 2009.
Among the highlights in June were Mercedes Ruehl's turn in Edward Albee's The Occupant and a couple of intimate plays seen briefly off-Broadway, Annie Baker's impressive Body Awareness and Philip Ridley's Vincent River. Looking back over the theatergoing for June, another performance that leaps to mind is David Harbour's cunningly nuanced turn as Laertes in the Public's Hamlet, and I must admit to being grateful that the gay hip-hop tuner Bash'd returned for a full-run from an earlier Festival engagement.
July's offerings truly ran the gamut from the interactive Suspicious Package, a grandly clever offering from creator Gyda Arber that used its four-person audience as its cast and sent them, mp3 players in hand, off on an adventure through Williamsburg, to the classically and politically dramatic Scenes From an Execution, which featured a grand central performance from Jan Maxwell. The Midwest was also well-represented during July: from Chicago, The Strangerer, which took President Bush on some terrific flights of fantasy and from Cincinnati, Around the World in 80 Days, a high-speed comic romp. Although both arrived post-Gay Pride, it seems important to note a couple of solo offerings from out artists Taylor Mac and Kenny Mellman. Mac delivered two exceptional shows at HERE Arts Center, and Mellman's musical-in-workshop Say Seaboy, You Sissy Boy? had a brief run at Dixon Place.
Before the Fringe Festival kicked into gear in August, Second Stage Theatre offered up a marvelous bit of comic-drama with Rajiv Joseph's Animals Out of Paper, which not only reaffirmed the playwright's promise, but also featured lovely performances from Jeremy Shamos and Utkarsh Ambudkar. In the middle of the fringe, Signature Theatre Company began its year-long salute to plays developed by the Negro Ensemble Company with a heartfelt revival of The First Breeze of Summer.
One early fall highlight of 2008 certainly was George S. Irving's masterful turn in the equally accomplished production of Enter Laughing at the York Theatre Company. Also in September, what's looking like it will be the final installment of Gerard Alessandrini's long-running Forbidden Broadway opened, proving that there is still plenty to spoof in New York theatre, no matter what Alessandrini might say.
During October, the 2008-2009 Broadway season began in earnest. Dramas abounded. Frank Langella shone in the Roundabout's revival of A Man for All Seasons, and director Simon McBurney delivered a searing revival of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, which featured some exceptional work from its stars, John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest. Off-Broadway, the musical Rock of Ages, soon to be seen on Broadway, proved that a jukebox musical of 80s rock hits could surprise and delight even the most jaded theatergoer, and Sarah Kane's Blasted made its New York debut in an electrifying production at Soho Rep, featuring intense performances from Marin Ireland, Reed Birney and Louis Cancelmi. As the month drew to a close, the first of two David Mamet revivals for the year opened on Broadway. Speed-the-Plow seemed newly minted.
November seems to be overwhelmed by one musical - Billy Elliot - which has brought intelligence, tunefulness, heart and dance together in electrifying ways. Also of note during the month, Mike Birbiglia's charming solo show Sleepwalk with Me and the Lincoln Center Theater and Primary Stages Broadway mounting of Horton Foote's family dramedy, Dividing the Estate. Honorable mention for the month goes to The Language of Trees, a provocative drama from up-and-coming playwright Steven Levenson that played at Roundabout Underground.
Finally, as the year has drawn to a close, we've gotten Shrek the Musical, another big musical on Broadway that, in my opinion improves upon its animated movie source, in addition to Robert Woodruff's taut staging of Edward Bond's provocative Chair. As 2008 has come to a close, two other revivals have leapt to the fore off-Broadway: Jesse Berger's 1950s infused take on the Jacobean tragedy Women Beware Women and Garry Hynes' emotionally rich staging of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, seen at Atlantic Theater Company, a co-production with Hynes' own Druid Theatre Company. Finally, although not a December opening, I caught up with Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Road Show at The Public this, and my emotions about this one (and Liza Minnelli's engagement at the Palace) run high. It's just a treat to find these two veterans back in the theater with new shows.
Now, it's on to 2009 and I would imagine another 300 or so shows.
---- Andy Propst
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