December 23, 2023

Not the Best Shows in 2023 But Those That Put A Smile on My Face When I Needed One

It’s that time of year when people like me draw up Top 10 lists ranking the cultural experiences they’ve had over the past 12 months but, as some of you know, 2023 hasn’t been a great year for me. Still even in the worst of times, maybe particularly in the worst of times, theater can be a saving grace.    So this year I’m not going to try to single out the best shows or performances I saw, instead I’m going to acknowledge with great gratitude 10 shows that managed to reach out in the dark and give me small sparks of hope for better times to come.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show: Theatergoing is a tradition in my family that’s been passed baton-like from one generation to the next so it gave me great joy to be able to share this delightful children’s show with my seven-year-old grandniece Joi, whose name is pronounced “joy.” Inspired by Eric Carle’s beloved series of picture books, the show is a kid-friendly 60-minute production that will tour around the country starting next month. Seeing it when it played at the DR2 Theatre here in New York was the first time that Joi and I went to a show alone together and I’m now looking forward to sharing many more with her in the years to come.

Life of Pi: My sister Joanne loved both the book and movie versions of this metaphysical tale about a young shipwreck survivor who claims he spent 227 days in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. But Lolita Chakrabarti’s theatrical adaptation was my first encounter with the story and I was dazzled by British director Max Weber’s truly imaginative staging that included life-sized puppets, immersive projections and a bravura performance by the actor Hiran Abeysekera. And now that she's no longer here, getting to share all of it with my sister is a memory I will cherish forever. 

Parade: Even though many critics were lukewarm about the original 1998 production of this challenging musical, both my mother and I were moved by Alfred Uhry’s retelling of the case of Leo Frank, a Jew who was lynched in Georgia in 1913, and by the gorgeous score that Jason Robert Brown wrote for it. So I was totally gratified by the nearly unanimous raves this revival drew both when it played at Encores! and then when it quickly moved to Broadway. Michael Arden’s staging was simple but elegant and the cast was uniformly excellent, particularly Ben Platt as Leo and Micaela Diamond as his loyal wife Lucille; I couldn’t get their duet “This is Not Over Yet” out of my head and I didn’t want to.

Sweeney Todd: I guess I have a thing for dark musicals because Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork about a deranged barber seeking revenge against the men who unjustly imprisoned him and destroyed his family is my all-time favorite musical. I saw the original 1979 production with Len Cariou as Sweeney and Angela Lansbury as his accomplice Mrs. Lovett and I’ve also seen several terrific revivals (one with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski and another in a simulated pie shop). So I was a little nervous about this new production starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford. I needn’t have worried. Groban and Ashford put different spins on their characters but their interpretations work and the score, brilliantly orchestrated by my friend Jonathan Tunick, remains glorious, especially as played by a 26-piece orchestra. 

Jaja’s African Hair Braiding: Set in a Harlem hair salon and aided by Whitney White’s smart direction, playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s latest dramedy deftly balanced laugh-out-loud comedy—performed by a crackerjack and almost entirely-female ensemble—with some of the very serious issues that confront immigrant women, particularly those from African countries, as they try to grab hold of some tiny piece of the American dream. So I was grateful to Manhattan Theatre Club for offering such an engaging slice of contemporary life that too seldom gets shown on major stages.

Here Lies Love: Although I pranced around on the dance floor when this immersive musical about the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda played at the Public Theater in 2014, the now older me sat up in the mezzanine when it moved to the Broadway Theatre earlier this year. But I still had a good time, caught up by the head-bopping music of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, the kinetic staging by Alex Timbers and the spirited performances of Broadway’s first all-Filipino cast. It was a unique experience and I wish more people had seen it before its too-short run ended.

Primary Trust: Whimsey isn’t usually my thing but Eboni Booth’s lovely fable about a lonely misfit and his journey of overcoming a truly traumatic past by taking the risk of connecting with the people in his community won me over. And that was in large part because of a thoroughly charming performance by William Jackson Harper that made me root for the character’s success and even feel a little hopeful about the world outside the theater too.

Uncle Vanya: I'll confess that a large part of the pleasure of seeing this production of Anton Chekhov’s classic was the fact that each performance played to just 40 people in a loft space so intimate that you could almost smell the scent of the actors—who included Will Brill, Bill Irwin and director David Cromer in the title role—as they passed by. But even in a larger space, Marin Ireland’s performance as the lovelorn Sonya would have stood out. It was so heartbreakingly honest that I felt both protective of the character and privileged to see such a master actor at work. 

The Phantom of the Opera: For 35 years I avoided seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s retelling of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel about a mysterious figure who lives in the bowels of the Paris Opera House and becomes obsessed with a young singer there. But when I heard that this landmark show was closing, I knew I had to finally see it. And I’m so glad I did. It may have been fraying a bit around the edges but I still got a sense of what all the fuss had been about and I’m not sure if we’ll ever see a production as grand and lavish as this one the late great Hal Prince put together. I already miss seeing the iconic white mask that sat on the Majestic Theater’s marquee and reigned over 44th Street for all those decades. 

Shucked: No one was more surprised than I was when this intentionally corny musical turned out to be one of my favorite shows of the year. Here’s the set-up: when the corn crop that is the main livelihood of a secluded community begins to wither and die, a young woman named Maizy (get it?) tries to save her hometown by seeking outside help. A few lessons about tolerance and acceptance are embedded in this tale but for the most part its joke-filled book by Robert Horn and toe-tapping score by country music stars Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally simply aim to entertain, and I left the theater with a big grin on my face. 


October 7, 2023

Reflections on "Melissa Etheridge: My Window"

To truly appreciate Melissa Etheridge: My Window, you may need to be a hardcore fan of the singer-songwriter or a member of Generation X, who was born between 1965 and 1980, grew up with Etheridge’s music on the radio and are now nostalgic for the vanishing youth her playlist evokes. I, alas, am neither.

Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t like some of Etheridge’s songs or don’t find her to be an engaging performer but while I read at least two reviews that compare her musical memoir to listening to a quirky but beloved aunt at a Thanksgiving dinner, I felt like the outsider at the table who doesn’t know enough of—or care enough about—family lore to get all the inside jokes and rebukes. 

However there were plenty of people who clearly loved every minute of the performance I attended at Circle in the Square, where the show is currently scheduled to run through Nov. 19, 

The show starts with Etheridge’s birth 62 years ago in Leavenworth, Kansas and tracks her career from her childhood fascination with music through playing gigs in local bars during her teens, her aborted time at the Berklee College of Music and the years she spent playing in lesbian bars before getting a record deal and becoming a rock star who now has two Grammys and an Oscar. 

She gets into her personal life too, including the discovery of her interest in girls, the ups and downs of her various love relationships, her bout with cancer and the opioid overdose of her 21-year-old son in 2020.  

Etheridge has always traded on her regular-gal vibe but she’s been a star for three decades now and so bits of her privilege peek through as she recalls her tours and name drops celebrity friends, from Rosie O’Donnell to Al Gore.

Her storytelling is very subjective (as the title of the show says it is her window) but this creates a fuzziness that can make it difficult to follow the narrative if you don’t already know the details. For example, in one sentence she’s agreeing to have children because it’s something her then partner wants and in the next, she’s a single mother raising two kids without an explanation of how she ended up with custody instead of the other mom.

But basically, this is a concert filled with greatest hits and extended patter written by Etheridge and her now wife, the TV producer and writer Linda Wallem Etheridge. Changing jackets (leather, denim, sequins) and instruments (piano, drums, the clarinet and various acoustic and electric guitars) Etheridge runs through 19 songs, most of them hers, although she includes the tune “On Broadway” to express her delight in having moved the show there after a two-week off-Broadway tryout at New World Stages last fall.

An experienced and energetic performer, she frequently leaves the stage and makes her way through the audience, stopping to flirt with both women and men. Although I did feel sorry for the folks who paid $200 for upfront floor seats, only to have to spend a good part of the time craning their necks as she moved past them to a smaller stage set up at the back of that section.

Her only backup are the comedian Kate Owens, who, under the direction of Amy Tinkham, silently, but still amusingly, plays an onstage roadie, and video projections by Olivia Sebesky that run the gamut from homey family photos to psychedelic cat videos.

I’ve read that Etheridge was inspired to do this show after Bruce Springsteen did his. That makes me wonder if these concert confessionals are going to replace bio-musicals. They’re certainly cheaper to put on than full-fledged musical productions and fans get the added thrill of seeing their real idols up close and kind of personal. Who knows maybe come 2024, Beyoncé will be looking back at her life in a show on Broadway.




September 23, 2023

Thoughts on a New Era in New York Theater

The news came this week that two titans of New York theater will be stepping down from the powerful perches on which they’ve long roosted. André Bishop who has lead Lincoln Center Theater since 1992 said he would end his reign there when his current contract runs out after the 2024-2025 season. And Carole Rothman, who co-founded Second Stage Theater in 1979, said she will wrap up her 45-year tenure with that company this coming spring.  

Both Lincoln Center and Second Stage produce both on Broadway and off-Broadway and have small black box theaters that serve as incubators for up-and-coming playwrights. And each has won a slew of awards for the shows they’ve put on over the decades. Their influence has been great, and cherished by us theater lovers.

So these announced moves would be momentous enough on their own. But they follow the deaths within the past year of Todd Haimes, who ran the Roundabout Theatre Company for 40 years; Robert LuPone, the co-founder of MCC Theater who served as its co-artistic director for 36 years, and Andrew Leynse who lead Primary Stages for 21 years. 

When you factor in the recent departures of James Nicola from New York Theatre Workshop after heading it for 34 years; Sarah Benson who lead Soho Repertory Theatre for 16 years and John Doyle, who served a comparatively short six-year term as the head of Classic Stage Company, it’s clear that the times, as Bob Dylan used to say, are a-changin.

Such long tenures might suggest that the moves should have come sooner. There’s no question that these folks helped shape contemporary American theater with the playwrights and directors they’ve supported and the actors they’ve boosted over the years. But most of them are now Medicare-eligible and they’re no longer the Young Turks who helped the off-Broadway and regional theater movements to make a mark.

So it will be exciting to get some new butts in those chairs. But it’s going to be scary too. The people who take on those jobs are going to have to navigate a rockier theatrical landscape than we've seen in a long time. And those of us who love theater are going to have to be patient as they attempt to do it.

For starters, audiences are still skittish about returning to the theater after the pandemic and are rejecting the old subscription model that gave nonprofit theaters a financial cushion as they planned their seasons. They also seem to want what I call comfort-food shows: familiar titles, big name stars, happy endings. 

Meanwhile, theater makers are calling for more inclusive, more diverse and more challenging productions. And they want more comfortable working conditions and better pay too. 

The new leaders are going to have to balance those sometimes competing demands at the same time that costs are rising and financial support—be it government funds that helped them through the pandemic or the foundation dollars that got them started—is shrinking. And, of course, they’ll be endlessly compared to their predecessors whose own faults and failings will fade in the glare of nostalgia for the “good old days.”

And yet I’m not discouraged. Things weren’t all that great back in the ‘70s when most of the now old-timers were starting out. New York City was a mess. Rising crime had many people scared to go out at night. Several of the theaters almost went under. 

But the courageous and creative young visionaries who stepped up to run those places found the money and, more importantly, the talent and the voices to create the theater we have today. 

I suspect that a new generation will find its way to do the same for future theater lovers. And maybe they'll not only act differently but, if the people choosing them do their jobs well, some of them will look different too.


September 2, 2023

A Labor Day Salute to Working-Class Actors

Somehow the weeks in July and August always seem to fly by more quickly than those during the rest of the year. And so here we are again at the end of the summer and, as I do every Labor Day weekend, I’m taking time out to celebrate some of the people who work in the theater. 

Over the past 16 years, I’ve singled out playwrights, drama teachers, stage managers, composers, casting directors, labor union leaders and, of course, actors. But as the strikes by screen writers and actors move into their fourth month I couldn’t resist saluting actors again this year. 

Now I know that whenever someone says actors, most of us automatically think of the stars whose names appear on the marquee or in big print in the Playbill but most of the people who perform for us aren’t headliners. They’re working-class actors, who’ve trained just as hard and work just as hard but earn far less than the more celebrated names who get the limelight.  

The minimum salary for Broadway actors is currently about $2,500 a week. That sounds like a lot of money. At least it does until you consider that agents get part of that. So do the acting teachers, vocal coaches and physical therapists who help those performers stay in shape to deliver the kind of performances we audience members crave. And that’s all before you consider that the average rent for a studio apartment here in the city is now $3,200.

Off-Broadway actors earn even less, with minimums for those working for League of Resident Theaters (or LORT companies) ranging from $800 to $1,800 a week.  And since shows come and go, there’s no guarantee that actors on Broadway, off Broadway, in regional theaters or in touring companies will work the entire year. 

So I’m also cheering on the strikers. And it’s not just because so many playwrights and stage actors also find work on movies and TV shows. It’s because those of us who truly love theater want it to be as diverse as possible and if all kinds of people can’t make a living in theater (or in TV and movies) then we might find that we won't get the kind of theater so many of us truly want. 

August 12, 2023

"The Shark is Broken" Makes a Soft Splash

Listening to the waves of laughter that greeted the new comedy The Shark is Broken made me wonder if we might be entering the era of jukebox plays that pander to the folks who love particular movies in the way that so many jukebox musicals now do. 

For The Shark is Broken, which opened at the Golden Theatre this week, tells the behind-the-scenes story of the making of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster “Jaws.”

The movie famously chronicles the efforts of a local police chief, a marine biologist and a professional shark hunter to track down a great white shark that has begun attacking beachgoers at a summer resort town on Cape Cod. The play was conceived and co-written by Ian Shaw, the actor son of Robert Shaw who played the Ahab-like shark hunter (click here to read more about that). 

The younger Shaw was only four years old when the movie came out and his dad would die of a heart attack four years later at the age of just 51. But Ian Shaw and his co-writer playwright Joseph Nixon have clearly poured over the many books, articles and recorded interviews (click here to see one) that over the years have recounted that famously troubled shoot. Plus as a family member, Ian also had access to a recently discovered drinking journal that Robert Shaw kept during his time filming the movie.

“Jaws” was originally budgeted at $3.5 million for a 55-day shooting schedule but ended up costing $7 million and shooting for 159 days. That was partly due to unpredictable weather but mainly because the mechanical sharks so central to the movie kept breaking down. 

Spielberg, then just 27 years old, feared the movie would sink his still fledgling career. Instead it became a sensation, grossing $475 million, kickstarting the trend of action-oriented blockbusters that still define success in the movie business and creating a fandom that renews itself with each new generation of movie lovers.  

During its 90-minute running time, The Shark is Broken imagines what happened as the movie’s three lead actors sat around waiting for the shark to be fixed and the filming to resume. Poetic license has clearly been taken. It’s unlikely that the three stars would have been marooned between takes in the claustrophobically small cabin of the boat that provides the play’s sole set. 

Still kudos must go to set designer Duncan Henderson for recreating the exact look and feel of the boat in the movie and to lighting designer Jon Clark and video designer Nina Dunn for the stunning background visuals.

However too much of the show’s humor derives from having the characters make references to future events. For example, the play’s Shaw scoffs when he hears that Spielberg’s next movie is going to be about aliens and asks ”Whatever next? Dinosaurs?” 

Of course most audience members know that the alien movie (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) and the dinosaur movie (“Jurassic Park”) are going to be equally huge hits for Spielberg, which allows them to get the same self-congratulatory dopamine rush that they get when they hear familiar pop tunes in Moulin Rouge or the Neil Diamond musical A Beautiful Noise. 

In fact, there’s a kind of “Behind The Music” vibe rippling through the entire play as it checks off the boxes of the best known stories about “Jaws.” Robert Shaw could be a blustery alcoholic. Check. Richard Dreyfuss, who played the self-assured scientist onscreen, was often annoyingly insecure off-screen. Check. Roy Scheider, who played the police chief, spent lots of time in the sun, burnishing his tan. Check. 

And talk about fan service, there's even a scene in which the very fit Colin Donnell strips down to his skivvies so that his Scheider can sunbathe onstage and show off six-pack abbs that draw ooohs.

If there’s anything more than backstage gossip to this episodic show, which director Guy Masterson prosaically stages with repeated blackouts, it’s probably the theme of the connection, or misconnection, between fathers and sons. 

Each of the three characters gets a scene in which he confides his regrets about his relationship with his father. Dreyfuss’ dad had too high expectations for his son. Scheider’s father was violent. Shaw’s drank heavily and committed suicide. The disclosures hint at depth but then skip right over it to the next joke.

With the help of some clever hair, makeup and costumes, the three stage actors look just like the film actors they’re playing. Donnell isn’t given much to do as Scheider but he still manages to convey the unforced confidence of the actor who died in 2008.  

Meanwhile, Alex Brightman brings the manic energy that has become his trademark to the role of the equally manic Dreyfuss; his antics actually had his co-stars struggling not to break character and laugh during the performance my husband K and I attended.  

Ironically, it is Ian Shaw’s portrayal of his father that is the show’s weakest link. He bears an almost uncanny resemblance to his dad and there are lovely moments when he recites the Shakespeare they both apparently loved. But Shaw too often veers into a caricature of the macho personae his father exhibited in the film and he leans so heavily into the elder Shaw’s native Lancastrian accent that it’s sometimes hard to understand what he’s saying.

Yet writing the previous paragraph made me feel like a grinch because this play is so clearly a love letter from a son to a father he primarily got to know through the movies. And you’d have to have a harder heart than mine not to applaud that. 

August 5, 2023

The Dog Emerges as Best in Show in "Toros"

Why is Frank Wood, not just a stalwart of New York theater but a Tony winner, lying on the floor and playing a dying dog? That’s the question I kept asking myself as I sat watching Toros, the new play that opened this week for a brief run through Aug. 13 in Second Stage’s uptown space at the McGinn/Cazale Theater. 

And unlike the pooch in A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, Wood’s dog isn’t even the title character. That honor goes to a twentysomething named Alex who has returned to his native Madrid after a failing attempt to make it in New York. His friends—frenemies really—ironically call him Toro, Spanish for bull, because he’s so meek.

Toro’s supposed bestie is Juan, an obnoxious rich kid who works for his realtor father, lives with his parents and spends most of his time in their cluttered basement. drinking, getting high and putting together lame rap beats that he believes will make him a star d.j.

The two other regulars who hang out in the basement are Andrea, who went to high school with Alex and Juan and isn’t sure which of them she’s now drawn too; and Tica, Juan’s family dog who is on her last legs and dragging herself around the room whenever she can muster up the strength to move at all. 

Playwright Danny Tejera clearly wants to say something about the ennui of millennials in his native Spain but he’s better at indicating the fecklessness of his characters (there are repeated episodes of Juan just standing around and bopping to his beats) than he is at digging into what’s caused their stagnation or explaining what brings about the eventual changes in their behavior.

But Tejera does have a flair for natural-sounding dialog, especially the put-downs, repeat phrases and awkward silences that can pass for conversation among people who spend too much time together.

He's also studied with Annie Baker and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and his play exhibits some of the mischievously surreal elements that mark their works. The prime example being Tica, who, at least in Wood’s totally committed performance, comes off as the show's most sympathetic character.  

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch seems on shakier ground. So some of what she and Tejera do together works (an imaginatively mimed sex scene) but some of it doesn’t (the reveal and laborious disassembly of the family car).

On the plus side, Abubakr Ali, Juan Castano and the actor who goes by the single lower-cased letter b are all convincing as Toros' anchorless trio. Their characters may remind some theatergoers of the similar threesome in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth.  Lonergan’s play may be better, but it doesn’t have Tica.  

July 29, 2023

"Flex" Is One of The Summer Season's MVPs

It’s 1998 and the five starting players for the Lady Train, the all-black girls basketball team in a small Arkansas town, aren’t dirt poor or bougie rich. The problems they’re dealing with aren’t extraordinary either but the kinds of things familiar to teen girls everywhere. And those facts alone make Flex, currently running at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse theater, a standout because its playwright Candrice Jones isn’t leaning into the predictable tropes of black trauma or white guilt that seem to have become almost mandatory these days when plays center around black characters. 

This doesn’t mean that Jones and her director Lileana Blain-Cruz are sidestepping the challenging realities of contemporary life. One of the players is pregnant and considering an abortion. Two are secretly in love and trying to navigate their relationship in a church-going community where homosexuality is considered a sin. And each sees her athletic prowess as a way to get a scholarship to a good college or to escape the provincialism of their hometown or to help define the woman she hopes to become.

The pleasure for theatergoers is that Jones, Blain-Cruz and the engaging cast and clever design team they’ve recruited have figured out how to turn all of this into a thought-provoking but often laugh-out-loud funny and thoroughly entertaining time.  

The title is based on a basketball strategy in which no player showboats but each one works to support the greater good of the team as a whole. And that same approach works beautifully in this production too. Although a special shout-out has to go to set designer Matt Saunders for not only designing authentic-looking basketball courts but creating a full-size car that, with the assistance of Adam Honoré’s spot-on lighting and a crackerjack stage crew, draws a mid-show ovation.

Like many sports narratives, Flex follows its team’s efforts to win a championship. There are, of course, bumps along that journey. For starters, the Lady Train’s coach (Christiana Clark) forbids anyone who gets pregnant from playing, which means that valuable team member April (Brittany Bellizeare) will be benched, which means that the team's prospects will be put at risk. 

There’s also the dangerously acrimonious rivalry between a swaggering newcomer named Sidney (Tamera Tomakili) who has just moved to town from Oakland where she was such a hot shot that college scouts have now followed her to the Lady Train’s games; and the team’s longtime star player, the perhaps too-aptly named Starra (Erica Matthews) who is desperate to catch the eyes of those scouts. 

Jones is still a young playwright (the production of Flex that would have marked her professional debut was scheduled to be done in 2020 at the Humana Festival in Louisville but was canceled when the pandemic shut down theaters everywhere; click here to read more about that) and she does occasionally venture into melodrama or fall back on coincidence to move her plot along. 

But Blain-Cruz, who, like Jones, played basketball in high school, keeps the action moving so that the jokes land and the basketball choreography looks convincing (extra kudos to Matthews who manages to sink basket after basket) without sacrificing the show’s underlying message about the importance of team work on and off the court.

There have been some gripes from the critics but this show is a crowd-pleaser. And I saw far more young people than usual at the performance I attended, including groups of men who I suppose were drawn by the basketball theme. Flex clearly seemed to score for them. And it did for me too.

July 8, 2023

It's His Niece Sonya Who Stands Out in this Very Intimate Production of "Uncle Vanya"

Like most theater obsessives, I take pride in my collection of experiences that give me bragging rights—I saw Hamilton at the Public before it was a hit! I saw Glory Days, which opened and closed on Broadway the same night! I was at the Lincoln Center performance when Patti LuPone reached out and grabbed an audience member’s cell phone!—and I’m always on the lookout for more. Which
 is why my theatergoing buddy Bill and I ended up in a second-floor loft in the Flatiron District along with just 38 other audience members watching a very intimate production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

It was the cast that drew us there. Actors love Chekhov plays because they teeter on the line between comedy and tragedy and even those in the smaller roles get some moments to show off how they can navigate both. This time out, the director David Cromer steps into the title role of the poor relation who has devoted his life to maintaining the family property so that his brother-in-law, a vain professor, can afford to high-life it in Moscow. But also in the cast are the heavy hitters Marin Ireland as Vanya’s niece Sonya, Bill Irwin as the professor Serebryakov and Will Brill as Astrov, the despairing doctor who drinks too much and visits often.

This is the fifth major production of Uncle Vanya I’ve seen and each has used a different translation of the play, often adapted by a contemporary playwright (Annie Baker, Richard Nelson, Jean-Claude van Itallie) but this one uses the translation done back in the ‘90s by the playwright and Russian language scholar Paul Schmidt. I’m no Chekhov expert but it seemed to me to be different from the others I’ve seen in that the focus is less on Vanya and his disappointments and more on the romantic triangle involving Astrov, Sonya and the professor’s much younger second wife Yelena.

But that changing dynamic could also reflect the performances and the modern-clothes staging by director Jack Serio (click here to read more about him). Cromer has acted on both stage and screen and it seems that playing Vanya has been a longtime dream of his but he’s made his name—and won a slew of honors—as a director and it can’t have been easy for a 27-year-old newcomer like Serio to direct one of the best stage directors working today. The result is that, at least for me, Cromer’s portrayal of Vanya lacks the animating layers of resentment, ridiculousness and, finally, resignation that I've seen others bring to the role. 

Instead, Cromer’s Vanya comes across as just a supporting player in his own story. I suppose that's a valid choice since the others in his family see Vanya that way. But both the comedy and the tragedy here is that the character no longer wants to be a supporting player and is struggling to break out of that role by denouncing the professor as a selfish fraud and declaring his own futile love for Yelena. Cromer evokes that desperation but not vividly enough for me to ache for him as I’ve done for other Vanyas.  

Sonya’s story arc is similar to his. But in Ireland’s hands the emotional payoff is different. Sonya too has been left in the country to toil alongside her uncle while her widowed father is off in the city and finding a new wife. The only hope Sonya has for her own happiness is that Astrov might return a bit of the unabashed love she has for him. But Astrov also loves Yelena, who is beautifully played by Julia Chan, a newcomer to me who totally captures the elusive quality that makes everyone so enchanted with Yelena. 

Ireland digs deep into Sonya’s disappointment and her awareness that she will never be able to compete with someone like Yelena. And she makes that all so poignantly resonant that you’d be excused for thinking that the play should have been called “Sonya.” I’d urge you to see her marvelous work in this production, whose brief run ends July 16, but tickets sold out within 24-hours of going on sale. So yep, I’m bragging again.

July 1, 2023

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2023

Happy Fourth of July Weekend!  Time has been so slippery over these past three pandemic years and global warming is now playing such havoc with the weather that on some days just breathing the air is risky. But even so, I’m still able to appreciate when summer arrives. It’s the time when I slow down and worry less, when my beloved husband K sets up my seasonal happy place on our terrace and mixes up cocktails for me to sip out there (old-fashion Vodka Collins this year) and it’s when I get to share my annual summer reading list with those of you who love theater as much as I do. There were so many great choices this year that I really had a hard time whittling the list down but below are 16 of my favorites. two for each of the weeks before Labor Day.


I’m starting off with novels because I love escaping into other worlds, especially the world of the theater.

Cyclorama by Adam Langer  If you read and liked Susan Choi’s “Trust Exercise” (which I recommended back in 2019) then you’ll probably like this new novel about a group of high school kids in the Chicago suburbs and the dangerously charismatic drama teacher they had in the 1980s. But this isn’t just a rip-off of Choi’s National Book Award winner, Langer has a lot to say about current politics, the environment and most especially about how teachers can affect the lives of their students for years after they graduate.  

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad  A company working on a play is a familiar subject for theater-themed novels and this one offers the usual rivalries between actors and the stressful events that threaten to jeopardize the production. But what sets this version apart is that the play, Hamlet, is being readied for a performance in the Israeli-controlled West Bank by an all-Palestinian cast. It’s told through the experience of a British-Palestinian actress who, fleeing London after a bad love affair, tries to reconnect to the homeland she left years before and to the art that defines her true identity.

Someday, Somewhere, Maybe by Lauren Graham  Although she’s now probably best known for starring in the cult TV show “Gilmore Girls,” Graham remembers what it was like trying to break into show business—working low-paying day jobs, sharing cheap apartments, going on endless auditions—and she’s turned all of that into this charming romcom about a young actress who is making one final run at her dreams (including a possible relationship with the hunky movie star in her acting class) before giving up, returning home and settling for marriage to the longtime boyfriend she rarely sees and hardly knows any more. The outcome isn’t really in doubt for attentive readers but Graham makes it fun getting there.

A Tender Thing by Emily Neuberger   Set in 1959, this novel is another pastiche of familiar tropes: the young heroine’s passion for Broadway and for a talented theater maker is reminiscent of the classic novel “Marjorie Morningstar;” (which I recommended in 2020); the everyone-hates-him-but-he’s-brilliant director is a nod to Jerome Robbins and their musical about an interracial love affair borrows heavily from West Side Story. Even so, I still couldn’t put this one down. But do avoid the audiobook version because Neuberger, who narrates it herself, takes every opportunity she can to sing numbers from her faux musical, which is fine at first but really annoying by the sixth, seventh and eighth time she does it. 

The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz   This delightful murder mystery is set in London’s Theaterland. And it has great fun blurring the line between fiction and fact with Horowitz inserting a same-named version of himself into the narrative as the prime suspect when a mean-spirited theater critic is murdered after publishing a savage review of the play he’s just opened. The only hope the fictional Horowitz has of clearing his name is if he can persuade the detective who is supposed to have co-authored his previous books to track down the actual culprit.

Up With the Sun by Thomas Mallon  The actor Dick Kallman won a Theater World Award for his performance in the 1951 musical Seventeen and he starred in the short-lived TV sitcom “Hank” a decade later but Kallman’s career never really took off, in part because of his abrasive personality. In 1980, he achieved the kind of fame no one wants when he became the victim of a gruesome  murder. All of that is compellingly recounted in Mallon’s fictional version of Kallman’s life's story but the best part of the book may be its vivid portrayal of how young Broadway actors came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s. 



I love first-hand accounts of theater history because reading them—or at least the best of them—is like sitting over cool drinks on a hot day while sharing juicy gossip with a good friend.

The Algonquin Kid: Adventures Growing Up at New York’s Legendary Hotel by Michael Elihu Colby  Who wouldn’t have wanted to be little Mikey Colby? During the Golden Age of Broadway, from 1947 to 1986, his grandparents owned and operated the Algonquin Hotel. Everyone who was anyone in the theater world during those days stayed at the Algonquin, ate at the Algonquin, drank at the Algonquin. And, in some cases, performed at the Algonquin and Colby, the apple of his grandparents’ eyes, had a front-row seat to all of it: meeting celebrities, going to the openings of their shows and eventually, writing some of his own. I’ve been putting this list together for years now and it's hard to think of a better summer read. 

Chita by Chita Rivera with Patrick Pacheco  To say that Rivera, now 90, is a living legend is an understatement.  She originated the roles of Anita in West Side Story, Velma Kelly in Chicago and the title character in Kiss of the Spider Woman. She’s also a ten-time Tony nominee who has won three of them, including one for Lifetime Achievement; was the first Latina to receive a Kennedy Center Honor and is the namesake of the Chita Rivera Awards that celebrate excellence in dance and choreography on Broadway, off-Broadway and on film. Rivera looks back at all of that in this kind-hearted memoir (she even has nice things to say about the notoriously difficult Jerome Robbins) and although she’s always been a private person, her co-writer, our mutual friend Patrick Pacheco, gets her to talk a bit about some of her past relationships, which include affairs with the legendary Broadway restaurateur Joe Allen and the even more legendary entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.

Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green I suppose this is a semi-memoir since all of the text was actually written by Green, the chief theater critic for The New York Times, and most of it was written after the 2014 death of Mary Rodgers, the daughter of Richard Rodgers, the mother of Adam Guettel, the intimate of Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim and an accomplished composer (Once Upon a Mattress) and author (“Freaky Friday”) in her own right. But drawing from taped interviews he conducted with Rodgers before her death, Green has worked hard to capture her gleefully acerbic—and yet often self-deprecating—voice. And, of course it’s hard to beat the story of someone who knew everyone in show business. I know Jesse slightly but even if I didn’t, I’d be recommending this one just as enthusiastically as I am now.

Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent by Anthony Rapp.  There may not be as much behind-the-scenes gossip about Rent as fans might want in this memoir by the actor who originated the role of Mark in the workshop production of Jonathan Larson’s landmark musical and then went on to play it during the show’s legendary run at New York Theatre Workshop, on Broadway, in the national tour, in the London revival and in the ill-conceived movie. But there’s enough. Rapp has also turned his memories into a one-man show that recently closed in New York but that will soon be touring to other parts of the country. But his book goes even deeper, bravely revealing some of the not-so-pleasant parts of himself as a young man learning to deal with fame and grief, particularly after the death of his beloved mother. 


And then there are the theater books that fall into a category all their own.

Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams's Greatest Creation by Nancy Schoenberger Few characters in any genre are as memorable—or can be evoked by the utterance of just one name—as Blanche DuBois, the tragic heroine of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  Schoenberger had the very smart idea of chronicling how playing this iconic role affected six actors, ranging from Jessica Tandy, who created the part in the original 1947 production, to the 2018 staging at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre in San Francisco that gave Jemier Jenkins the chance to be one of the few black actresses to tackle the role in a major production. The book reveals how each woman stepped into the role and how difficult it was for her to leave it behind. It’s a must-read for serious theater lovers.

Gays on Broadway by Ethan Mordden  In one way or another, Broadway has provided a home and a haven for gay artists and their stories. In his latest book, Mordden, the dean of theater historians, chronicles how those actors and the shows in which they performed both reflected and shaped America’s changing attitude toward gay people, from the days in which queer artists had to maneuver around the Wales Padlock Act, which made it illegal to depict “sex degeneracy, or sex perversion” onstage; to the ways in which plays like As Is, the Normal Heart and Angels in America helped to make the AIDS crisis a part of the national conversation.

Designing Broadway: How Derek McLane and Other Acclaimed Set Designers Create the Visual World of Theatre by Derek McLane and Eila Mell AND Transforming Space Over Time: Set Design and Visual Storytelling with Broadway’s Legendary Directors by Beowulf Boritt Two of the very best set designers working today—two-time Tony winner McLane and two-time Tony winner Boritt—have turned out terrific books on how they and their peers create the physical worlds in which plays and musical take place.  Each tells in-the-room-where-it-happened stories about how they devised such sets as the colorful phantasmagoria McLane designed for Moulin Rouge and the erector-set marvel Boritt created for Act One and they share conversations detailing how they’ve worked with collaborators ranging from Hal Prince to Kenny Leon. Both books offer master classes in scenic design.  But if you’re feeling summer-time lazy, the pictures and illustrations alone are worth the price of these books.

Fifty Key Stage Musicals, edited by Robert W. Schneider and Shannon Agnew  This invaluable collection of essays not only makes the case for the importance of each of the 50 shows it covers but for the book itself as one of the very best of the attempts to rank the shows that have shaped the musical theater canon. It starts with The Black Crook, which opened in 1866, and so delighted theatergoers with its scantily dressed (for the times) chorus girls that it was revived 15 times over the next 20 years and it moves right up to the contemporary phenomenon of Hamilton. Each show gets its own chapter, written by an expert who provides historical context and defends its right to be on the list. I tried to restrict myself to one chapter a day but failed at that and ended up tearing through the whole thing in just a few sittings.

Musicals for Dummies by Seth Rudetsky  Everything anyone could possibly want to know about musical theater (what an orchestrator does, which stars broke out in which Broadway shows, how to get tickets for a hot show, why people should pay attention to community theater) is packed into this book. But even though all of it is told in Rudetsky’s inimitable chatty style, I hadn’t planned to include the book on this list because most people reading this post already know a lot of that stuff. However, the Kindle version of the book includes wonderful links that Rudetsky—and who knows more about musicals than him—has curated to illustrate many of the points he makes and although I don’t much care for watching videos online, I was transported by his selections. This isn’t just a summer read, it’s an all-around-the-year read.

Finally, as always, if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to my now over 150 suggestions from previous years:









June 10, 2023

How "The Comeuppance" Let Me Down

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and I go back a long way. I saw his first New York show down at P.S. 122 right after its director quit during previews and one of the actors published a piece in The Village Voice calling the play “a piece of crap.” Jacobs-Jenkins had to rally the remaining cast and direct the show himself, which didn’t go so well (click here to read more about that). 

But four years later in 2014, An Octoroon, that same riff on an old Dion Boucicault melodrama, got a second chance at Soho Rep, where it was brilliantly staged and helped put the playwright on the theatrical map for his bodacious use of conventional tropes to explore uncomfortable truths about race, gender and class (click here to read my review of that one). 

I've been eagerly following Jacobs-Jenkins ever since and cheering most of the work (Appropriate, Everybody, Gloria) that he's done. Until now. The Comeuppance, his rumination on the mid-life disappointments of the Millennial Generation that opened this week at Signature Theatre, disappointed me.

The play is centered around the 20th reunion of a group of high school friends. They’re a multi-racial bunch (back in the day, they called themselves “Merge,” a homonym acronym for “Multi-Ethnic Reject Group”) and they dated one another and took pride in being the smartest kids at their Catholic school. But, of course, over the years their lives have gone down different paths. 

Emilio is an expat artist whose work has been selected for the Whitney Biennial but who’s a bit mysterious about his family back in Berlin. His former girlfriend Kristina is now a doctor and a mother of five but a not-so-secret alcoholic. Their friend Ursula is barely scraping by and dealing with an aggressive form of diabetes that has blinded her in one eye. 

Meanwhile Caitlin, once the smartest of the crew, is now a stay-at-home wife married to an ex-cop and Trump supporter; and her old beau Paco is a vet struggling with severe PTSD after multiple tours in the Middle East.  A sixth member who calls in to say he can’t make it to the gathering seems to be a finance bro.

Himself 38, Jacobs-Jenkins clearly wants to say something profound about how living through such ordeals as the Columbine High School massacre, the 9/11 attacks, the interminable wars that followed, the Great Recession, the rise of Trumpism and the Covid pandemic have affected his generation. But he doesn't seem to know what more to say about those calamities than that they happened. And that they messed people up. That seems to have been enough for some critics (The Comeuppance is a New York Times Critics Pick).  But I was left wanting something more.

Jacobs-Jenkins seems aware of the shortfall and he tries to draw some conclusions in wordy but vague speeches at the end of the play. There's also been online chatter about his revising the script substantially during previews. I can't confirm that but I find it believable because actors stumbled repeatedly over lines at the performance I saw a few days before the show opened. 

 And these aren’t the kind of actors who flub lines. In fact, the cast is stacked with such talented performers—Caleb Eberhardt, Brittany Bradford, Susannah Flood, Shannon Tyo, and Bobby Moreno—that it’s almost as though the casting notice read “Only the most excellent young actors working in New York need apply.”

They are funny and touching and, Moreno in particular is called on to give an intensely physical performance. So it’s easy at first to hang out with them. But the show runs for nearly two-and-a-half hours without intermission and since none of their characters really change, they eventually wore out their welcome with me. 

In an apparent effort to give some gravitas to the play, Death has been added as an additional player and speaks directly to the audience in the voices of each of the five onstage characters. We’re clued in that Death has taken over one of them when the lights flicker and that actor's voice is filtered through a synthesizer that often makes it difficult to understand what's being said. 

All of the action takes place on the front porch of Ursula’s modest home where the group has gathered for a pre-party before heading off for the larger class reunion, even though some dialog indicates that it’s chilly outside. 

Director Eric Ting does what he can to move the actors around the small space as their characters reminisce, get high and try to settle old disputes or rekindle old romances. But I couldn’t figure out why Jacobs-Jenkins had placed them out there in the first place. 

Maybe the setting is supposed to be some kind of metaphor for the characters—and all of us—being on Death’s doorstep. I've come too far with Jacobs-Jenkins and he's too gifted a playwright for me to abandon him but I can't help thinking that The Comeuppance owes us more than that.

May 27, 2023

Delicious Diversity with "Monsoon Wedding," "Bernarda's Daughters" and "Bees & Honey"

Diversity is sometimes thought of as the vegetable of theatrical offerings: something that we theater lovers should include in the diet of things we consume because it’s "good" for us. But maybe we should be thinking of it as the spice that can bring some zest to the theatrical mix. At least that’s what I’ve been thinking after seeing three recent shows that have found new flavors in familiar tropes by unabashedly rooting themselves in the customs and language of cultures whose stories we’re only now beginning to see onstage.  

Monsoon Wedding. This musical adaptation of Mira Nair’s 2001 film that is now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse through June 25 puts Indian culture in the spotlight. Its book by Arpita Mukherjee and Sabrina Dhawan sticks close to Nair’s original story about the complications surrounding an arranged marriage between a wealthy New Delhi girl and the American-reared son of an Indian family who live in the U.S. Maybe too close (click here to read more about the adaptation). 

It might have worked better if Mukherjee and Dhawan had gotten rid of some of the film’s ancillary relatives and their storylines and instead, focused on the main couple, who are here charmingly played by Salena Qureshi and Deven Kolluri. And the score, with music by Vishal Bhardwaj and lyrics by Masi Asare and Susan Birkenhead, is only so-so, a motley mix of show tunes and Bollywood-style bangers that, with the exception of a ballad or two, drift in one ear and out the other.

But Nair, who conceived and directed the show, understands that at its heart Monsoon Wedding is a riff on a Shakespearean comedy, complete with high and low humor and multiple marriages at its end. She makes it her own by leaning into the details that make up modern Indian life, be it the lingering respect for familial ties, the colloquial Hindi that's sprinkled throughout the script or the splashy production numbers reminiscent of those in Bollywood films. 

In the end, it’s fun to see a cast of some two dozen Indian actors filling the stage and having such a good time doing so. And it was just as gratifying to see so many South Asian people in the audience with big smiles on their faces.

Bernarda’s Daughters. Five Haitian-American sisters in contemporary Flatbush anchor Diane Exavier’s retelling of Spanish playwright Federico Garcia-Lorca’s classic drama The House of Bernarda Alba that is being given a joint production by National Black Theatre and The New Group at the Signature Center through June 4. 

Exavier peppers her version of this story of frustrated women held back by societal restraints with bits of French and Creole and with references to Brooklyn landmarks and lore. All of it clearly hit home with many members of the audience the night I saw the show. But I have to confess that it didn’t work as well for me. 

The show’s set is basically empty, save for some boxes and floor pillows, and so oddly constructed that at times important scenes can only be seen by some portions of the audience. Dominique Rider’s direction was just as poorly focused and the actors came across as though they were performing in different plays, although Pascale Armand and Tamara Tunie do manage to bring some gravitas to the roles of the eldest sister and the girls’ grandmother. 

But again, the people sitting around me seemed to delight in the show’s insider jokes, its politics (anti-gentrification) and just in the fact that so many black women were sharing a stage together. It wasn’t just the larger than usual number of black people in the audience enjoying it either. The young white guy sitting in front of me was one of the first to jump up at the end to show his appreciation with a standing ovation.

Bees & Honey. It’s usually a put-down when you say that a show resembles a romcom but Guadalís Del Carmen’s two-hander about the relationship between a Dominican couple in Washington Heights playing at MCC through June 11 is an endearing delight. 

That’s partly because guided by Melissa Crespo’s deft direction, there’s such terrific chemistry between the actors Maribel Martinez and Xavier Pacheco. But the show also works because, Del Carmen has her couple Jahaira and Manuel sidestep the usual stereotypes by making them specific and relatable people. 

There's no gangbanging. Or immigration angst. Jahaira is a lawyer rising through the ranks at the D.A.’s office; Manuel owns an auto-repair shop and is successful enough that he’s planning to expand to other boroughs. She reads bell hooks; he relaxes with videogames. They both love eating sancocho and dancing bachata. Each lapses into Spanish when feeling agitated or amorous. 

This time, the larger than usual number of audience members at my performance were Latino and they clearly identified with the characters, laughing heartily at jokes the rest of us knew to be funny, even if we weren’t entirely sure why. 

But none of these shows made me feel shut out, even when the characters spoke a few words in languages I don’t know. Rather, I felt as though I were being given a chance to share in an experience I hadn’t seen onstage before. 

These aren’t perfect shows. I particularly disliked the serious issues—child sexual abuse in Monsoon Wedding, police shootings of young black men in Bernarda’s Daughters, the legal system’s inadequate response to rape victims in Bees & Honey—that seemed shoehorned into each show, perhaps in misguided attempts to make them relevant to wider audiences. 

We don’t need that kind of pandering. We just need more chances like these to see new stories, or even old ones, reflected through a refreshingly new gaze.

May 20, 2023

Celebrating The 50th Anniversary of TOFT

No review posting today but I’m thrilled to be able to share the news that Patrick Hoffman, the director and curator of The Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at New York's Library for the Performing Arts (TOFT), has invited me to interview him about the archive’s 50th anniversary and the wonderful exhibit that Patrick and his colleagues have put together to celebrate it.  This free event will take place on June 1 at 6 p.m. in the library’s Bruno Walter Auditorium. You can register to join us by clicking here.

May 16, 2023

"The Cotillion" Looks at the Very Complex Demands Put on Middle-Class Black Women

Regular readers will know that I usually post my reviews on Saturdays but I’m changing things up this week because the show I want to talk about has a short run and the performance I recently saw wasn’t as well-attended as I think it should have been so I want to get the word out about it. That show is The Cotillion, which New Georges and the Movement Theater Company are jointly presenting at A.R.T./New York only through May 27.

The show, whose full official title is The Harriet Holland Social Club Presents the 84th Annual Star-Burst Cotillion in the Grand Ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel, first drew my attention when I learned that it was centered around the seldom-discussed debutante balls in which young African-American women are introduced into society. 

Such ceremonies are usually associated with wealthy, white women in Regency-era novels, which makes sense because the first-ever debutante ball is believed to have been thrown in 1780 by King George III in honor of his wife Charlotte’s birthday (fans of the Netflix series “Bridgerton” can make of that what you will). But black folks here in the U.S. have been conducting similar events since 1895 (click here to read more about that).  

For their champions, these lavish affairs are demonstrations that prove young black women can be as poised and polished as any other girls. For their detractors, these events are a shameful display of class, caste and colorism within the black community. 

Now, here’s where I have to admit that I was a debutante—albeit a reluctant one—in my teens and I still have ambivalent feelings about cotillions. But they offer the kind of story about the black community that still rarely gets told onstage and so I was curious to see what this play would do with the subject.  

I’m happy to report that Colette Robert, who both wrote and directed The Cotillion, not only deals fairly with both sides of the debate but has come up with a simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking way to present it. 

The 100-minute play unfolds in 14 scenes that are supposed to represent the sequence of events in a cotillion hosted by the fictional Harriet Holland Social Club, whose members are drawn from the most affluent and successful black people in the local community of a major metropolitan city. 

We in the audience, arrayed around three-quarters of the playing area, have been assigned the role of stand-ins for the family, friends and other supporters attending the affair. As we enter the theater, a terrific female quartet, accompanied by a swinging three-piece combo, is singing Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” a taxonomy of the different kinds of stereotypes to which black women have been subjected over the centuries (click here for more on that).

A few more upbeat tunes follow and then there are welcome speeches from two of the social club’s officers. It’s clear from the start that these women, deliciously played by Jehan O. Young and Akyiaa Wilson, don’t see eye to eye but that both are dedicated to the mission of celebrating the accomplishments of the debutantes, giving them that rare moment to feel special and crowning the one who best represents the image they want the rest of the world to appreciate about black women.

The six contestants are introduced and, as one might expect, each represents some aspect of the black middle and upper class. Among them are the legacy who’s afraid she can’t live up to the standards set by her high-achieving family, the daughter of strivers who's determined to succeed but doesn’t have as much financial or social currency as the others and the young lesbian who is trying to honor the traditions of the evening without compromising herself. 

There isn't enough time to dig into any of their stories but it's fun to watch as the girls go through the rituals of fixing their hair and stuffing themselves into flouncy white dresses (kudos to hair & wig wrangler Nikiya Mathis and costume designer Mika Eubanks) and as they perform elaborate curtseys, stumble through the steps of antiquated quadrilles and join their dads in the requisite father-daughter dance (none of the men are shown; instead the actresses mime partnering with them). 

But as the evening proceeds, Robert broadens her canvas and deepens her sense of purpose to consider how such rituals echo the ways that black women were treated on the auction block during slavery, by the 19th  century quadroon balls in which wealthy white men selected mixed-race women to be their concubines or in the modern-day settings in which black women are required to look and behave in a prescribed way in order to be deemed acceptable (the Crown Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of hairstyle and hair texture such as braids and afros, has only been adapted by 18 of the 50 states).  

Robert doesn’t issue a final verdict on cotillions. Or on the broader issue of respectability politics. But, as she says on the play’s website, The Cotillion reflects “the messy, beautiful, ugly complications of living in this country.” (Click here to read more of what she had to say.)  

I still don’t know how I feel about cotillions but in the final moment of this play I found myself sighing in deep and uncomfortable recognition of the conundrum they raise. 



May 6, 2023

Reveling in the 2022-23 Awards Season

And so it’s begun. The last show of Broadway’s 2022-23 season—a revival of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,Lorraine Hansberry’s 1964 meditation on white allyship—opened on April 27. And that's set off a flood of awards nominations, including the ones this week for the Tonys.

The Drama League got things going with its nominations for both on and off-Broadway productions (click here to see its choices) and will announce its winners on May 19.  

The Outer Critics Circle, for whom I serve as a nominator, announced our slate of on and off-Broadway nominees a couple of days later (click here to read them); we’ll announce our winners on May 15 and celebrate them in an awards ceremony at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on May 25. 

Then the Drama Desk (I’m a voting member of that one) announced its candidates for the season’s best productions on Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway (click here for those) and it will hand out its prizes on June 6.

The rules and even the eligibility dates vary from group to group but a consensus does seem to have formed around which were the best Broadway shows. Each of the groups put Tom Stoppard’s Holocaust drama Leopoldstadt on their lists and all three nominated the musicals & Juliet, a jukebox musical riff on Shakespeare set to pop songs by Max Martin; Shucked, a comedy about corn with a joke-stoked book by Robert Horn and music by country songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally; and Some Like It Hot, Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin’s updating of that classic movie comedy with a score by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. 

In the revival categories, the awards groups agreed on Ohio State Murders, Adrienne Kennedy’s seldom seen meditation on toxic racism, for best play; and Parade, Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s rendering of an antisemitic lynching, as the best musical.  And now the Tonys have confirmed those choices, while adding others—including a few surprises.

Joining the already Olivier-honored Leopoldstadt for the Tony honor of best play are three Pulitzer Prize winners that have only now made it to Broadway: Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy, Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living and James Ijames’ Fat Ham, each of which also snagged nominations for actors in their casts. 

Rounding out the best play category is Ain’t No Mo’, a satire about a government program that addresses the race problem by giving every black person in the U.S. a one-way ticket to Africa. 

Ain’t No Mo's spot on the list is a bit of a surprise since the show ran for just 23 performances in December but it’s racked up six nominations, including one for its director and a featured acting nod for its 26-year-old playwright Jordan E. Cooper who also appeared in the play as a no-nonsense flight attendant named Peaches.

For best musical, Some Like It Hot, Shucked and & Juliet were joined by New York, New York, a paean to the city built around numbers from the songbook of 96-year-old John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, with additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; and Kimberly Akimbo, the musical that Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire adapted from his play about a 16-year-old girl with a rare genetic condition that prematurely ages her. 

That same production of Kimberly Akimbo won the top prize from all the other critics’ groups (including the New York Drama Critics Circle) when it played off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater in the 2021-22 season and it’s been a frontrunner for the Tony since it opened on Broadway last November. But it now looks as though it may have to beat back competition from Some Like It Hot, which earned 13 Tony nominations, more than any other show this year.

But the hottest races may be in the revival categories. Ohio State Murders didn’t make the cut for the Tonys (although its star Audra McDonald did get a nomination—her 10th—for her performance). Instead, the best play revival contest is between August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog (both Pulitzer winners; are you detecting a trend?) and playwright Amy Herzog's new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic feminist drama A Doll’s House

And the showdown is even more intense in the revived musicals category with Parade facing off against two beloved Stephen Sondheim shows, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd: The Demond Barber of Fleet Street; and a new version of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Camelot, updated by Aaron Sorkin (you can check out all the Tony nominations here). 

As you might imagine, I’ve spent the last few days doing almost nothing but thinking and talking about these awards. I’m delighted to be able to say that I tied for second place on the Gold Derby awards site’s list of theater “experts” who predicted which shows, actors and other creatives would get Tony nominations (click here to see more about that). 

I also spent an hour on Tuesday afternoon talking about the Tony choices with a panel of folks convened by the Theatre Development Fund (you can listen to that by clicking here). And two days after that, I again joined Adam Feldman of Time Out New York and Helen Shaw of The New Yorker to record an episode on the Tonys for my pal Patrick Pacheco’s show “THEATER: All the Moving Parts,” which will air later this month.  

I’m a little talked out right now. But that won’t last long. The one big takeaway I’ve had this week is that the 2022-23 season was a damn good one and I don’t think I’m done with it yet, especially since this year’s Pulitzer awards are scheduled to be announced next week. Plus, believe it or not, I’ve already begun lining up shows to see for the 2023-24 season. So I hope you’ll come back here and join me for all of it.