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.