January 2, 2008

The Best Shows of 2007

The title on this blog entry isn't totally honest. I mean who can really say what's the best? Who even had a chance to see all of the hundreds of productions that played on Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off Broadway last year? Over the last week or so, theater critics for the major New York papers and magazines listed at least 39 different shows as the Top 10 of 2007. As you might expect, the much-celebrated August: Osage County made almost everyone's list. But even the lackluster Grease limped into one lineup. As my mother used to say, "One man's meat is another man's poison." So I'm not going to pretend to tell you what was best last year. Instead, here are a few words about the 10 shows that most amused or moved me, the ones, in other words, that I loved best:

1. Journey's End
Because R.C. Sherriff’s drama, first produced in 1929, about a group of soldiers in a frontline trench during WWI, devastated me and because its terrific cast, lead by the inestimable Boyd Gaines, performed valiantly even when playing to undeservedly half-full houses. The show won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play but closed on the very same day. But you can catch Gaines giving another standout performance as the sad sack Herbie who loves Patti LuPone's Mama Rose when the Encores! production of Gypsy that played an acclaimed three-week run at City Center last summer reopens on Broadway in March.

2. The Coast of Utopia trilogy
Because this three-part epic
— written by Tom Stoppard, brilliantly directed by Jack O’Brien, beautifully designed by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask and superbly acted by an all-star ensemble — on the 19th century Russian intellectuals who set the scene for their country's 1917 Revolution was, as I wrote when I saw it, one of the most thrillingly theatrical experiences I've ever seen, engaging to the mind, the eye, and the imagination. It's just a memory now for those of us fortunate enough to have seen it but Stoppard is already back on Broadway with Rock 'n' Roll and O'Brien is working on a musical adaptation of the movie Catch Me if You Can, with a book by Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, that is planning to open later this year.

3. Frost/Nixon
Because Frank Langella's mesmerizing portrayal of Richard Nixon evaded caricature but captured the agonized soul, and surprising wit, of the man in Peter Morgan's docudrama about the landmark interviews between the disgraced former president and the British interviewer David Frost. Luckily for those of us who love great acting, producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard have had the good sense to cast Langella (and his equally terrific co-star Michael Sheen as Frost) in the movie version that is currently in production.

4. The Piano Teacher
Because the most amazing performance I saw all year was Elizabeth Franz's searing portrayal of a lonely woman struggling to hold on to the genteel world she's worked hard to create for herself in Julia Cho's delicate drama.

5. Yellow Face
Because after nearly a decade of writing books for Disney musicals, David Henry Hwang returned to his artistic roots and once again dealt with issues of race and identity, this time in a semi-autobiographical play that was simultaneously thought provoking and side-splittingly funny. Its run has been extended through Jan. 13.

6. August: Osage County
Because there's a reason this dysfunctional family drama is on so many lists; the show is smart, wickedly funny and showcases an ensemble from Chicago's rightly famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The actors are not only all pitch-perfect but also a reminder of that special alchemy that makes repertory companies so invaluable. Its limited run has been extended through March 9.

7. Passing Strange
Because this innovative show—part rock concert, part memory play — about a young black man coming of age in the 1970s is blazingly original and a welcomed sign that, like the Tony-winning Spring Awakening, talented young people are finding ways to incorporate their experiences and their sound into musical theater. It’s scheduled to open on Broadway on Feb. 28.

8. Blackbird
Because Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill stripped themselves emotionally naked in this harrowing drama about the reunion between a man and the young woman he molested when she was a girl, and showed that you don't need big scenery, a big cast or even big names to make a big show.

9. Rock 'n' Roll
Because although it seems silly to have two Tom Stoppard plays on one list, I left the theater feeling as though I had seen a work that could serve as an emblem for the art, culture, and politics of my generation that came of age in the tumultuous and still controversial 1960s.

10. The Encores! productions of Follies and Stairway to Heaven
Because this series proved yet again that it can bring new luster even to classics like Follies whose stellar cast, lead by Victoria Clark and Donna Murphy, had musical lovers panting for an extended run, and because for the first time the Encores! team showed that it can produce an equally sensational original work as it did with Stairway to Paradise, an homage to the grand revues made most famous by the Ziegfeld Follies. Stairway allowed such distinctive talents as Kevin Chamberlin (who was in The Ritz, which closed on Dec. 9) Christopher Fitzgerald (now in the disappointing Young Frankenstein) and Kristin Chenoweth (alas, on TV’s “Pushing Daisies”) to do what they do best.

1 comment:

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Great list. My biggest regret from last year is not seeing Journey's End, and your list just cemented how I feel about missing it.

Happy New Year!