While the World famous, jolly, full-framed man in the big red suit composes his list of who has been naughty and nice, this incredibly obscure, mildly jolly, big-boned critic clad in wrinkled khakis, a hoodie and hobo shoes, has decided to compile his own list of the year’s best theater offerings. In 2013, Creative teams from both Broadway and off-Broadway presented us with vastly different scenarios and characters: a sexually obsessed doctor (Becoming Dr. Ruth) children defying authority (Matilda), power hungry leaders abusing privilege (Here Lies Love), closeted homosexuals (The Nance), decadent drag queens (Kinky Boots), and well-intended dreamers weaving tales of empty promises (Big Fish). At second glance, this reads like the guest list for a Paul Ryan fundraiser. Moving on….
It should be noted that I began writing for Manhattan Digest in July, so obviously I have not seen everything inspired by the masked men of tragedy and comedy over these last 12 months. But I have seen a lot. Some offerings have refreshed and restored my faith in live theatrical performance. Others refreshed and restored my faith in the ability to quietly, calmly, and repeatedly recite the serenity prayer to myself before I was tempted to whittle the armrest of my chair into a small spearhead to thrust myself upon (Not to name names, but First Date and Let It Be, I’m referring to you).While these are in no particular order, I will save my favorite pick for last.
10. Becoming Dr. Ruth (Play)
For a piece about such a small statured dynamo, this one woman off Broadway story about the notable Dr. Ruth Westheimer stands tall. Debra Jo Rupp’s (That 70s Show) moving performance exudes humanity and humor, which will leave you smiling one moment and dabbing your eyes the next. Author Mark St. Germaine’s well-conceived show about a life well lived is worth a trip to the Westside Theater, where it is still enjoying an open ended run.
9. I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers (Play)
Bette Midler chewed the scenery and served up some dishy tales about the Hollywood elite in playwright John Logan’s delicious show about Mengers, one of the most feared and revered casting agents of the seventies and eighties. How could you possibly resist a gossipy heavy-hitter who could simultaneously hold a Marlboro in one hand and a marijuana joint in the other; all while spilling the dirt on Gene Hackman, Faye Dunaway, and Barbara Streisand? Maybe not the type you’d want to bring home to mama, but definitely the kind you’d want to cozy up to for a few hours. The Divine Miss M’s show closed on Broadway in June, but is currently running at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles through December 22nd
8. Hands on a Hardbody (Musical)
Contestants stood in the heat of the Texas Sun, each vying to win a Nissan truck by keeping at least one hand on it. I know what you’re thinking: They turned that into a musical?!!? You’re not alone. No one stood in line at the box office either and this surprisingly engaging show folded in April after a mere 28 performances. Since then, Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green’s musical has achieved a cult following. Doug Wright’s book portrayed genuine characters in a current, financially strapped America whose people cling fiercefully to optimism and hope. The heartfelt performances in this poignant show left the few fortunate audiences who saw it leaping to their feet. Even being raised as a good ‘ole country boy, It took a Broadway musical for me to get excited over a pick-up truck. Of course, if you add singing and dancing to nearly any topic, my curiosity can be piqued.
7. Matilda (Musical)
Aside from my adorable six and eight year old nephews, I am not a huge fan of children. Matilda has children–A lot of children. But from start to finish, I loved it! So much so that I saw it twice. This import from across the Atlantic is chockablock with fun performances, dazzling spectacle, inventive choreography, pure Broadway magic, and the most talented and winning cast of children you could ever ask for. While Tony voters lauded praise and awards over the mediocre and underwhelming Kinky Boots, Matilda continues packing houses with an irresistible story that will make you feel as young as the leading lady herself.
6. Here Lies Love (Musical)
David Byrne and D.J. Fat boy Slim’s musical “experience” about Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ rise to power in the Philippines was not just one of the best shows of 2013, but among my all-time favorite shows in New York City Theater. With an insanely catchy score and hypnotic club-like staging at the Public Theater, this off Broadway gem sparkled like no other. Here Lies Love, after being extending numerous times, finally closed in July. Rumor has it a second life will emerge in another venue, but no official announcement has been made. Perhaps my plea to St. Nicholas will help:
If you’re reading this, I have but one Christmas wish: Please find a home for Here Lies Love in 2014. I realize that I am a critic of theater and therefore, by default, a repugnant and odious man, but I firmly believe that this will help spread joy, knowledge, and cheer to the masses. So if you won’t do it for me, do it for the rest of New York City. I mean–really, Santa. That ghastly revival of Jekyll and Hyde found a home. I rest my case.
5. Ann (Play)
In 2013, fascinating female figures stormed our stages and Texas Governor Ann Richards was one of the best “pickings’”. Holland Taylor brought this strong willed, larger than life politician to life in a memorable performance at Lincoln Center which ran through June. Taylor, who also wrote the show, painted a fine portrait of a political powerhouse who repeatedly defied the odds. Defeating alcoholism, cancer, and chauvinism, Richards’ smart, tart tongue catapulted her to the national scene. Taylor earned a Tony nomination for her role and left us with some sage bits of wisdom from Gov. Richards including: “I have very strong feelings about how you lead your life. You always look ahead. You never look back.” Mostly true -unless of course, we are reflecting on the year in the theater– In that case, please take another bow, Ms. Taylor.
4. Big Fish (Musical)
Director Susan Stroman helmed this splashy musical, based on the movie of the same name, but it failed to woo the majority of critics. This one found it to be endearing story about family and sacrifice. Leading man Norbert Leo Butz is sure to earn a Tony nomination for his triple-threat portrayal of a man facing his own mortality with quixotic dreams and simple truths. Big Fish runs through December 29th at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theater.
3. The Trip To Bountiful (Play)
Aside from the fact that the legendary and elegant Cicely Tyson’s Tony awards dress looked more like something draped on the Purple People Eater, she was more than deserving of the win for leading actress in a play. Horton Foote’s 1953 revival offered a pleasantly stark contrast to the razzle dazzle of Broadway with its straightforward and quiet nature. Tyson’s stirring performance as Ms. Carrie Watts, a woman longing to return to her childhood home, made this an indelible trip to remember. Ticket buyers took note and the play was extended twice before closing in October. If you missed it, you’ll have another chance to visit this tiny Texas town on the small screen. Lifetime television is currently filming a version including original cast members Ms. Tyson, Vanessa Williams, and newcomer Blair Underwood (Cuba Gooding, Jr. starred in the Broadway revival). It is slated to air in 2014.
2. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Play)
This outrageously unpredictable and hilarious show from the zany mind of playwright Christopher Durang managed to be showered in love with Tony Nominations. It walked away winning best play. With winks to both Chekhov and Snow White (huh?), its’ message of prophesy was timely : “Beware of hootie-pie!” Not really, but collectively, this black comedy was freakin’ hilarious.
1. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Musical)
Hands down the most brilliant show of the year! One cunning, charming, handsome, yet poor single man, Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham), discovers that he is eighth heir apparent to the wealthy D’Ysquith clan. One by one he sets out to dispose of the lineage in eager anticipation of claiming his status and riches. Eight of the D’Ysquiths are played with miraculous transition by an abundantly talented Jefferson Mays. The creative team of Darko Tresnjak (Director), Robert L. Freedman (Book/Lyrics), and Steven Lutvak have given us a murderously, jolly good time of fun and frenzy set in Victorian era London. Lucky for us, we only have to travel to Broadway’s Walter Kerr theatre where eight times a week, the D’Ysquiths continue to drop like flies.
Some Final Thoughts:
I hope that you’ve enjoyed my critiques since joining this publication mid-year. I am truly grateful to Ryan Shea at Manhattan Digest for allowing me to contribute about a medium which I find increasingly vital in our breakneck digital era. There is something both exciting and sacred about observing fascinating performances and stories which give us the chance to reflect and learn more about ourselves and our fellows. Without the distraction from email, voicemail, text messaging, social media and other stimuli, we can sit in beautiful, old theaters and be whisked away to days gone by, present day, or days yet to be seen. Whatever the setting, I simply inhale deeply and hope for the following: that what I’m about to see won’t suck, that the lady behind me who giggled at the announcement about unwrapping candy at the start of the show won’t be the same one who, twenty minutes into the show decides she needs a Werther’s original–and will take twenty more minutes to annoyingly unwrap the confection, that no child will confuse the back of my seat for a soccer ball, that the couple in front of me won’t delude themselves into believing that no one can hear their conversation, and that people who think that texting is appropriate will be met by ushers and taken into the alley where they will meet the same fate as some of the characters who were “wiped ” from the script of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. I’m serious here. Sit back. Relax. Turn off your phone and shut your pie-holes. We’ll have much to discuss in 2014–after the curtain closes. Your crotchety critic, Mr. Snooty Crankypants, thanks you for your consideration.