The musicOMH New York Theatre Top Ten

As the new year blooms, our man in New York, Richard Patterson, looks back over 2008 and picks his top ten theatrical highlights of the year, on and off-Broadway.

As was to be expected, 2008 was a roller coaster year for theatre in New York. Things seemed to be rolling along just fine on Broadway until the unexpected financial crisis hit early this fall. Still, a good number of shows managed to make an impression this year on Broadway and off.
1. Passing Strange

In the single most electric theatrical offering of the season, the Broadway transfer of rocker Stew’s autobiographical musical was the must-see show that too few people saw (the show closed in July after 185 performances). Luckily, the production was filmed by filmmaker Spike Lee for future release.

Our verdict: “The band rocks out hard, and the sounds produced are unlike any heard before on Broadway. Though shows like Rent and Spring Awakening have postured rock ‘n’ roll aesthetics, Passing Strange has achieved it; this show is more a narrative gig in a proscenium than a traditional musical, and it’s just as well. It suits the story and its star.”

Read the full review of Passing Stange

2. Farragut North

There was a certain election-year thrill in seeing Beau Willimon‘s political tragedy at the Atlantic Theatre Company this fall. Willimon, though he’s got a number of theatrical credits under his belt, is still an up-and-comer, but this outing showed he’s a knock-out voice to be reckoned with.

Our verdict: “Atlantic Theater Company’s Farragut North is the latest in a recent bunch (which includes David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Peter Morgan’s historical Frost/Nixon, among others) to capture expertly the essence of the political machine and glean from this neverending crooked-minded jumble an element of real drama.”

Read the full review of Farragut North

3. Blasted

Finally, after a 13-year wait, Sarah Kane’s Blasted was seen in New York this fall. Premiering at the Royal Court in London in 1995, the play caused a huge stir then, spurring the In-Yer-Face movement that continued with Mark Ravenhill, Jez Butterworth, Joe Penhall, and others.

Our verdict: “Sarah Kane’s harrowing journey is one that’s difficult to stage, not least because of its complex, almost cinematic violent imagery. Soho Rep, however, has managed to stage this play with dutiful adherence to Kane’s stage directions, and, aided by its masterful cast, it’s a wonder to behold. Just remember to fasten your seatbelts.”

Read the full review of Blasted

4. Wig Out!

Recent Yale grad Tarell Alvin McCraney has been making a splash lately last season with his play The Brothers Size at the Public and this season with Wig Out! at the Vineyard Theatre, for which the auditorium was converted into a runway-style space, complete with disco balls, mirrors, and plenty of glitter and glam. Set in the competitive underground world of New York drag balls, the play managed to meld street-smart urban glam with Greek tragic elements.

Our verdict: “McCraney’s achievement here is his masterful mixture of pathos and patent leather. In shedding light on the ritual and music of extraordinary characters in extraordinary situations, he’s brought to the forefront a variety of issues rarely addressed in theatre today.”

Read the full review of Wig Out!

5. Equus

Hyped because of Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe’s on-stage wand-baring, the current production of Equus, a transfer from London’s West End, turned out to be gripping and well-designed, worth a visit for its bravura performances, particularly Radcliffe’s and Harry Potter costar Richard Griffiths’s.

Our verdict: “Besides for the ten-minute nude scene, sure to whet the appetites of the voyeurs in the audience, there is much else to admire about Thea Sharrock’s sharp production of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 Tony Award-winning playIn choosing to take on the volatile role of Alan Strang, Radcliffe defies expectations, proving himself a worthy young actor. Not only is he literally physically naked on-stage, but he’s emotionally so as well.”

Read the full review of Equus

6. Dividing the Estate

It seems the large-scale family drama is back. Last season there was August: Osage County; now there’s Horton Foote’s latest, Dividing the Estate, a more subdued and more solid effort that maintains the human drama of its characters without getting in over its head as August does in attempting to bite off national themes.

Our verdict: “Dividing the Estate, considerably shorter on histrionics than the aforementioned Pulitzer-winner August: Osage County, is arguably an even better play because of its clear, clever plotting. Here we get a plot that’s more sure-handed and less soap opera.”

Read the full review of Dividing The Estate

7. [title of show]

Four chairs, four actors, and a keyboard. And also a whole lot of madcap musical theatre glee. That’s what [title of show] brought to Broadway this season in a brief but ballsy run at the Lyceum Theatre. If the musical was sometimes a bit too “insider” for tourists and casual theatergoers, its go-get-’em spirit prevailed.

Our verdict: “Even if this small show may not seem a natural fit for Broadway, its presence on the main stem is of some significance. It’s a show that, in its very nature, questions what Broadway musicals should be. Do they need a big cast, bigger sets, and even bigger names – or will big hearts and big laughs suffice?”

Read the full review of [title of show]

8. The Seagull

Ian Rickson, who’ll also be directing the Roundabout production of Hedda Gabler later this season, helmed this impeccably-acted London transfer, most of the cast of which were retained for the Broadway run. Though The Seagull‘s been off-Broadway in two other productions in very recent memory (a Royal Shakespeare Company production at BAM with Ian McKellen as Sorin and a Classic Stage Company production with Dianne Wiest and Alan Cumming), this one garnered the most acclaim.

Our verdict: “This production, a transfer from the Royal Court Theatre in London, where it ran in early 2007 with a slightly different cast, manages to capture Chekhov’s moody, malicious tone brilliantly, in part thanks to Christopher Hampton’s crisp new translation. As resurrected here on Broadway, it’s vigorously affecting, with a winning star turn from Olivier-winner Kristin Scott Thomas.”

Read the full review of The Seagull

9. Top Girls

Caryl Churchill is always a worthy examiner of British culture, but it was fitting that U.K.-set Top Girls made a splash this summer on Broadway because of its cross-cultural relevance to our own primary election season, which now seems a distant memory.

Our verdict: “Manhattan Theatre Club’s timely revival of Churchill’s play comes – coincidentally – just as former first lady Hillary Clinton winds down her epic attempt at becoming the first top girl in U.S. history, and it provides a complex and intelligent companion to the debate over the lingering sexism in society today. How much is it important that the leaders of tomorrow be women, the play asks, if those in question don’t have women’s best interests at heart?”

Read the full review of Top Girls

10. In the Heights

This year’s Best Musical Tony-winner may not have been our favorite musical of the year, but it sure shook things up on the main stem. Furthering the notion of Broadway as a place that’s not just meant for stories about rich white folks, In the Heights brought Washington Heights to midtown, complete with crackling Latin dance and musical elements.

Our verdict: “Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, keep the cast constantly in motion and gives the show a distinctive rhythm. No one just walks in this neighborhood when they can swagger, strut or dance their way across the stage. There is an admirable naturalness to the production; it never feels forced or over the top.”

Read the full review of In The Heights

For the most part, this season was dominated by revivals of plays (three of which made the Top 10 list). Those three are also joined by an all-star All My Sons and Roundabout’s formidable revival of A Man For All Seasons, both of which are worthy of honorable mentions. This trend of reviving plays, a way of forging through hard times without breaking the bank, looks to be continuing through the spring, when several planned musical productions have been scrapped and several star-studded play revivals (Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Ionesco’s Exit the King) have cropped up.

Of course, this season was also notable for containing the premiere of the latest New York premiere of a Sondheim musical, the oft-retitled Road Show, which has also been called Wise Guys, Gold!, and Bounce along the way. Though its artistic merits were debated by critics, we still found Road Show worthy of a visit for its bouncy score, jet-black comedy, and winning performances.

For diva-worshipers, there were two pinnacle theatrical events this year Patti LuPone’s ferocious Momma Rose in Gypsy and Liza Minnelli’s triumphant New York comeback in Liza’s at the Palace…, a reminiscence of her signature hits and a tribute to her godmother, MGM arranger-composer Kay Thompson.

In terms of musicals, no one could have predicted the financial crisis that found Broadway’s economic support in ruins. Of the musicals that opened thus far this season, [title of show] and A Tale of Two Cities quickly shuttered, with 13 set to close in early January. Movie adaptations Billy Elliot and Shrek look to be the best poised to weather economic downturn, on the heels of rave reviews and family appeal respectively. The outdoor Hair produced by Shakespeare in the Park will soon transfer to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, banking on its optimistic antiwar message to sell tickets.

The biggest surprise of the fall was clunker Rock of Ages, which seems to have found its stride in spite of its insurmountable tackiness. Film rights for the show have been optioned (its bookwriter, Chris D’Arienzo, is primarily a screenwriter). The show also plans to move its cornucopia of tastelessness to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway this spring, complete with more affordable ticket prices (the top ticket will be $89 on weekdays and $99 on weekends) and what they’re calling “in-seat cocktail service.”

Just after the new year, a good number of big-name shows will be closing, including Spring Awakening, Hairspray, Spamalot, Young Frankenstein, 13, and Boeing Boeing. It’s up to new, intriguing offerings to take their place. Armed with smaller budgets, shows in Broadway’s near future will have to focus less on flashy sets and more on talent. Look for a spring preview in the coming weeks to see what promising new productions look poised to take up residence in the Big Apple.

Read the musicOMH London Theatre Top Ten of 2008

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