I’ve never much taken to the term “best,” especially as it pertains to the arts. It’s silly, right? Can you imagine citing a Best Painting of the Year? Yet, “best” is still the thing you see at year’s end in endless entries for film, television and theatre. Critics seem hell-bent on constructing these “Ten Best Lists” before December 31st, though when you come right down to it, these aren’t “bests,” but “favorites.” I’ve never in my life put one together before, but I felt compelled to do so now since I’ve been reporting a good deal on what I’ve been seeing this past year. It all seems up for grabs, and as the Great Durante used to say, “Everybody wants to get into the act!”
Here then, in alphabetical order, are my “Ten Favorites” of 2017::
THE BAND'S VISIT
An achingly beautiful, new musical, The Band’s Visit is a sublime achievement on all fronts. With a book that works its magic in deft and subtle ways, and a score by David Yazbeck that is sure to win this composer a long overdue Tony Award, I have already seen it twice and look forward to the next time I will experience its treasures. David Cromer, in what is his first Broadway musical staging, has pulled together an acting company that is led by Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk that can not be bettered. This is a story for our times that radiates goodness; an antidote for whatever ails you about the current state of world affairs, offering a glimmer of hope for our future on this planet together—perhaps.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Even though it opened Off-Broadway in 2016, where I first saw at the Second Stage, it is worthy of inclusion here, as it won most of the awards for Best Musical in 2017, including the Tony. Speaking to a generation of young people, Dear Evan Hansen’s timely tale of social media gone awry, wrings emotion out of (among other things) a mother-son relationship, something you don’t see often enough on stage. In director Michael Greif’s capable hands, it was a musical that transcended its milieu and took on a life of its own, mainly due to the performance by twenty-three year-old Ben Platt as Evan, owning a role in a way that makes for theatre history (and if that’s hyperbole, sue me, though the punishment fits the crime). I saw it three times total, astonished at Platt’s wondrous way with the brutal physical demands of the role, delivering with pitch-perfect intensity every note of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s excellent score. And mention should also be made of Steven Levenson’s book, original in concept, as well as execution.
A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2
Another show I saw three times, A Doll’s Life, Part 2 is Lucas Hnath’s smart take on what might have happened after the curtain fell on A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen landmark 1879 play — one of the most influential on all of world theatre since it first premiered. Sam Gold’s direction allowed each of its four characters to shine, no one more so than the audacious Laurie Metcalf, who was worthy of every bit of critical praise and awards she received for her Nora. There was also excellent work from Chris Cooper as Torvald, a moving depiction of a man adrift; Jayne Houdyshell as the family’s loyal maid, who unabashedly speaks her mind (hilariously at times), and Condola Rashad as the willful and proud Emmy, the daughter Nora abandoned fifteen years earlier. If you missed it on Broadway, be sure to catch A Doll’s House, Part 2 at any number of the regional theatres where it will undoubtedly be produced over the next few seasons.
THE HAIRY APE
One of the most visually arresting productions I have ever seen, The Hairy Ape, Eugene O’Neill’s ninety-five year-old play, was made electrifyingly current by Richard Jones’s inventing staging, miraculously designed by Stewart Laing. As enacted by Bobby Cannavale, in one of the season’s standout performances, the drama had a wickedly chilling effect. Surely it was meant to, as O’Neill first concocted its story of man’s inhumanity to man just four years after the finish of the “war to end all wars” in 1918. I have never seen the color yellow used to such great effect in the design of a play, and its images are ones I will remember forever. Its setting at the Park Avenue Armory left me with my mouth agape for most of its very short running time, as scene after scene dazzled in ways I never thought possible. Yeah … it was that good.
Both Bette Midler and Donna Murphy were slices of heaven in a revival that with slavish recreation, returned me (as if by time-machine) to my childhood theatregoing years. In intimate detail, Hello, Dolly’s! original 1964 production was brought spectacularly back, not only in living technicolor, but splendidly putting the “comedy” back into musical comedy as well. It rose to inspiring heights and made for not one, but two, thrilling evenings in the theatre, with equally sensational takes on Dolly Gallagher Levi from Midler and Murphy. A cliche isn’t a cliche when it’s the truth … which makes Jerry Herman’s lyric “It’s so nice to have you back where you belong” as positive and as loving a statement we have heard on Broadway in some time. As it proved when first produced, with the right stars, Dolly! can run for years. Bernadette Peters takes over in a month. Here’s to steady employment for its entire company.
My favorite ensemble of the season, Jitney, August’s Wilson’s first play (which was the only one of his ten masterworks that until this one had never played Broadway), was given a first-rate production by the Manhattan Theatre Club (it won the seasons’s Tony Award for Outstanding Revival). Ruben Santiago-Hudson once again proves himself a director who has a way with actors that makes me yearn to see him tackle the plays of Anton Chekhov. In a company of treasured talent, led by John Douglas Thompson, Brandon J. Dirden and Michael Potts, August Wilson was surely someplace smiling. If I had my way, there would be a revolving door of this playwright’s works in constant repertory on Broadway, so there would always be the opportunity for theatregoers to experience the poetry and grace of an artist of his rare gifts.
I don’t think there is an actress who captivates me more than Carrie Coon right now. I find everything she touches in film and TV turns to gold (Gone Girl, The Leftovers, Fargo), and in Mary Jane, she dug deep to the depths of her soul in the title role of a mother who chooses her child’s special needs over that of her own, without ever once resorting to self-pity. Not. Once. Amy Herzog’s play cut to the bone, Anne Kauffman’s direction was simple and unadorned, and its cast (consisting of only women), was a wonder. It came and went too quickly in its limited engagement, but as long as Carrie Coon continues to return to play on the New York stage, I sincerely believe all will be right with the world.
THE NEW YORKERS
This one-weekend revival at City Center of Cole Porter’s eighty-six year-old musical The New Yorkers was the reason Encores! was invented: concert productions dedicated to performing sometimes nearly-unknown shows, hopefully (if available) with their original orchestrations. This previously hidden gem, lovingly crafted together out of the only bits and pieces that could be found, gave us some idea of how this may have looked in its 1931 incarnation and how an anarchic talent like Jimmy Durante might have inspired his co-conspirators to a night of enormous fun with limitless possibilities. Boy did it deliver! From Rob Berman’s expansive orchestra, to the clever staging of John Rando, to the outstanding performances by Kevin Chamberlin, finding a way to discover his own inner and outer Durante, and a delicious character turn from Arnie Burton, straight out of a 1930s Astaire-Rogers musical. It was top-notch from start to finish, ridiculous and glorious at the same time. You left the theatre floating on air. In the words of Porter’s contemporary Ira Gershwin, “Who could ask for anything more?”
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
I saw the original 1984 Broadway production with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters three times, so a new relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford, in the leading roles of Georges and Dot, was not taken lightly, and one I entered into with trepidation. So how much did I love this new Sunday in the Park With George? Let me count the ways: I saw it twice. Unless Sunday moves you to tears, then any production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize winner must be deemed a failure. This one had me at “hello,” with a stripped-down, but heart-filled production that boasted some of the biggest talent in the smallest roles possible — everyone on the same page, wanting to be part of something special. So attention must be paid to the insanely good performances from Gyllenhaal and Ashford, as well as the contributions of Penny Fuller, Ruthie Ann Miles, Ashley Park … hell, the whole ensemble, as well as its director, Sarna Lapine and musical director, Chris Fenwick. And a special shout out to those responsible for the resurrection (finally) of the Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street, which had lay dormant as a Broadway theatre since 1968. Hallelujah!
This inventive new work by the twenty-six year-old Sarah DeLappe, with its overlapping dialogue (not only funny, but sometimes frightening), brings together a brilliant one-of-a-kind ensemble of young actresses. In its uninterrupted 90-minute running time, The Wolves is set during multiple practice sessions of a high school soccer team, where the mundane is made exceptional. With three to four conversations often overlapping at once, the delicate precision of its direction by Lila Neugebauer burst with energy, which was no surprise, considering she was also responsible for two other standouts this season — Annie Bakers’s The Antipodes and Zoe Kazan’s After the Blast. DeLappe was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize for The Wolves, which bodes well for a first play from someone who appears to be on the cusp of a sensational career.With that in mind, I look forward to what we will be hit with as we enter 2018, by way of all New York’s various stages across the city. Onward and upward.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.