Friday, January 25, 2013

Mark’s 10 Best (and 2 Worst) Theatre Moments of 2012

By Mark A. Newman

Another year has passed into posterity and since everyone else has been making “Best of” lists, I thought I would get into the act. Thankfully, 2012 saw more hits than misses, more cheers than jeers, more praise than…well you get the idea.

The following is a list of my favorite theatre moments from the last year, as well as a couple of my resounding duds. You will undoubtedly have your own thoughts on what you loved and loathed in 2012 and you should share those in the comments section. Also, feel free to call me stupid, crazy, or simply uninformed; you won’t be the first, or the last!

And here’s what I liked and loathed:

10. Forbidden Broadway: Alive & Kicking

Even though this is a brand new production of the multi-decade, Off-Broadway standby, there’s something about Forbidden Broadway that always takes me back to the first time I saw it in a little theater on the Upper East Side in 1990. This production takes on the usual suspects: Newsies, Ricky Martin in Evita, Follies, and all the other shows that make for ripe parodies. However, this version contains the first spot-on Matthew Broderick impression I have ever seen. Scott Richard Foster deftly skewers Nice Work if You Can Get It with the number “Nice Song If I Could Sing It.” This is one of those shows I could definitely see myself seeing more than once due to the abundance of belly laughs and an impressive cast.

9. Working: The Musical

Speaking of seeing a show more than once, I saw this “revisal” at the tiny Keegan Theatre in Washington D.C. twice. This musicalized mishmash of Studs Terkel’s oral history of everyday working folks should strike a knowing chord with everyone. Theatre enthusiasts know the show’s tortured history despite the stellar talent (Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, etc.). The Keegan’s game cast was not particularly “Broadway-caliber” per se but they were affable, talented, and a pleasure to watch. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s two newer contributions were highlights and helped bring the framework and the feel of the show out of the late 1970s. I hate I missed the production in New York at the 59E59 Theatres in December, but when a show has a limited run, you need to act fast. 

8. Now. Here. This. 

To say I was eager to see the gang from [title of show] up to their old tricks again would be an understatement. This crazily charming show at The Vineyard Theatre in New York was just as engaging as the team’s earlier work and felt more like a reunion tour or an unofficial sequel to [title of show], since we’ve already been on one journey with this motley crew. The gist of the show was about living in the moment and appreciating what you have. The fact that the songs were sung and the stories were told by Jeff Bowen, Hunter Bell, Heidi Blickenstaff, and the insanely hilarious Susan Blackwell made Now. Here. This. a must-see for any true theatre fan. I would be remiss if I did not give special props to Bowen who recounted his high school years of being a closeted gay man who hid behind impressions to fit in. While his Martin Short was awesome, I guffawed to the annoyance of people around me at his Madeline Kahn impression from “Clue,” of all things. The show is no longer with us but the cast recording is. Get. It. Now.

7. The Addams Family Tour

Despite the star power of Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, and Terrence Mann on Broadway, the show landed with a dull thud for me. The tour, however, was fun since this version had an altered book from the mess on Broadway (that whole bit about the love song to the giant octopus is axed, thankfully) and the cast was a hoot to watch. Douglas Sills –whom I had not seen since his star turn in The Scarlet Pimpernel – was a riot as Gomez and Sarah Gettlefinger was purely charming as Morticia. Admittedly, I only saw the tour at the Kennedy Center thanks to a discount via, but it was more enjoyable than what was full-price in New York, despite the absence of the aforementioned actors as well as Jackie Hoffman and Kevin Chamberlain. If the tour comes to your hometown, don’t miss it. My biggest complaint with the tour is the same as it was with the Broadway production: why was the classic Addams Family TV theme not featured in its entirety? Seems like an opportunity missed.

6. John Lithgow in The Columnist

To see John Lithgow in the title role in David Auburn’s The Columnist was easily one of the biggest treats I had this past year. I’ve always been a fan of Lithgow and haven’t seen him in anything on stage since his tour de force role as Lawrence in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. As famed columnist for The Washington Post Joseph Alsop, Lithgow played the arrogant gadabout with a perfect mix of ego and pathos. Yes, Alsop was a piece of work but he was a lonely man who suffered for his “art,” that of being a newspaper columnist during the Cold War era. While Lithgow fully inhabited the role, there were still the explosions of typical “Lithgowisms” that made this a truly memorable theatrical experience.

5. Prison Dancer: The Musical 

Who would’ve thought that a scrappy little show about a YouTube video would be one of the most entertaining shows I saw all year? Prison Dancer: The Musical’s run at the New York Musical Theatre Festival was sold out through its entire run so I was lucky to snag a single ticket to this hot show. My original review [] goes into greater detail about this off, off, off-Broadway gem, but I am amazed and disappointed I haven’t heard anything further about this show, which was clearly a hit at the festival. Luckily the concept album is available and after a recent listen I was reminded as to just how catchy these tunes were. Honestly, it’s the best prison-set musical I’ve ever seen (Sorry, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman!)

4. Evita Revival on Broadway

While there were certainly a number of things to dislike about this production – namely Elena Roger’s caterwauling portrayal of the title character – I found that there was much more to enjoy, especially since I ended up seeing it three times. First, I found Lloyd-Webber’s score performed live utterly entrancing. The only other versions of the show I had seen before were regional tours. In Alabama (“Don’t Y’all Cry for me now Argentina, ya hear?”). So to hear a newly re-orchestrated version performed by a real live orchestra was in itself a treat. Secondly, I loved the sets, lighting, and costumes; I thought they fit the production ideally. Thirdly, I am a Ricky Martin fan, period. So, yeah, that happened. Yes, I know that Ricky Martin is no Mandy Patinkin and personally I’m thankful for that. A little Patinkin goes a long way in my book. The Tony-nominated Michael Cerveris was definitely another highlight of this production as he found the vulnerability in Peron that I hadn’t seen – or heard – in other productions. Plus, it’s a legendary musical that hasn’t been on Broadway in over three decades. It was pure joy to see it live.   

3. Dogfight, the Musical

Based on a little-seen River Phoenix movie from the 1990s, Dogfight: The Musical was one of the most lovely and touching productions of 2012. The show played a limited engagement at the SecondStage Theatre off-Broadway and was truly a revelation, both for leading lady Lindsay Mendez as well as for the composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and book writer Peter Duchan. Mendez plays the role of Rose, a less-than-gorgeous waitress in San Francisco in the early 1960s. Picked by soldier Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena) in a game of who can get the ugliest girl, Rose rises above and she and Eddie actually end up spending a tender night together. The pop/rock-flavored score kept the action moving along with Christopher Gatelli’s choreography. Dogfight was one of those many overlooked off-Broadway treasures that ended up being one of the year’s theatrical highlights. 

2. Les Miserables: The 25th Anniversary Tour

While much has been written of late about the movie version of Les Miserables, lest we forget the show is still very much alive on the stage…just not on Broadway. I actually caught a performance of the 25th Anniversary Tour at the National Theatre in Washington D.C. the night after I saw the movie for the second time. As much as I enjoy the movie, I have to admit that nothing will EVER replace seeing this show performed live on stage by actors WHO CAN SING AND ACT AT THE SAME TIME! Be warned: this is not the Les Miserables of your childhood; the show has been restaged, re-designed, re-orchestrated, and essentially reborn in a faster-paced production that sometimes seems like the original cast album LP has been sped up to 45 rpm! And to that I say, thank you very much, directors James Powell Laurence Connor! From the opening scene where Jean Valjean (the amazing Peter Lockyer) is in the bowels of a slave ship, you know that this is going to be a very different experience than what you saw in the 1980s or 1990s. Andrew Varela’s Javert is a breath of fresh air and he has the stoic, driving, baritone that we’re used to and that is more suitable for the role than poor Russell Crowe’s warbling. Devin Ilaw as Marius was a champion at playing the young star-crossed revolutionary with equal parts heroism and innocence and Jason Forbach’s Enjolarus soared mightily. It was easy to see why the students would rally around this charismatic leader. Every singer in the 25th Anniversary Tour is better than those on the silver screen and that should come as no surprise. Not that all of the movie actors were bad, just that all of the tour actors were better, every last one of them. The tour has engagements in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and a variety of other U.S. cities and if you’re in the neighborhood, do yourself a favor and re-acquaint yourself with this show LIVE! 

1. Bring it On: The Musical

First off, let me just stay that In the Heights by Lin-Manual Miranda was the closest to a religious experience I have ever had in the theatre. So the fact that he is one of the major components of Bring it On – along with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green -- had me chomping at the bit to see it. I even considered a seven-hour road trip to Charlotte or a flight to Toronto to take it in. Thankfully the musical planted itself on Broadway for a limited run where I got to see it a couple of times last year. This is one of those rare musicals where I have absolutely nothing negative to say about it. The direction, choreography, acting, dancing, singing, and – most importantly – the score, were all dazzling. Granted, it was hard to be bored by such an energetic cast who spent the majority of the show bouncing all over the stage. But the score works just as well on your iPod – unlike the equally energetic Lysistrata Jones from last season – as it did on the stage. The cast was filled with throngs of young actors – and they were ALL young – making their Broadway debuts, some of them from the professional cheerleading world. I have a feeling we will be seeing a lot more of these kids, especially Taylor Louderman, Adrienne Warren, Ryann Redmond, Jason Gotay, Gregory Haney, and Nicolas Womack. Let’s hope the Tony Committee remembers some of these actors, as well as the show itself, when awards season rolls around. 

…and the 2 Worst of 2012, if not of all time!

2. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at the Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia

As I said in my original review [], this show is just bad. Despite the talent ensconced at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, there was no way to save this dreck. Whorehouse should never, ever be revived. It is easily the worst musical I have ever seen. Well, except for…

1. Leap of Faith: The Musical

Awful, dreadful, and horrid cannot begin to describe this inept production that stunk up the St. James Theatre worse than a train full of vomiting hobos. In fact, recalling this musical actually makes me angry. The only good thing I can say about this debacle was that at least it didn’t take up too much valuable theatre space for too long. I don’t know what I disliked more, the lackluster score by the usually solid Alan Menken or the collecting-a-paycheck-but-would-rather-be-in-ANY-other-show performance by Raul Esparza. Esparza, who is easily one of the brightest lights currently shining in the world of theatre, was woefully miscast as the con artist preacher stuck in the middle of nowhere with his band of cohorts. Seriously, was Esparza blackmailed into the role or did he lose a bet? He had neither the charisma nor the passion to portray the damaged soul the story needed. This would’ve been a role made in heaven for Norbert Leo Butz…that is, had the score had any redeeming tunes (Paging David Yazbek!). Leap of Faith is the absolute worst show I have ever seen on or off Broadway…and I saw Shogun: the Musical, Good Vibrations, Pirate Queen, and Dracula!

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