Best Theater of 2017

theater 2017

Awards and “Best of Lists” may be reductive and creating competition where it just doesn’t need to exist…but they are also a lot of fun. 2017 was a great year of theater attending for me, with subscriptions to Cleveland’s Broadway Series and the Cleveland Playhouse, and several theater-centered road-trips.

I’ve tried to distill the year into an award/best-of list hybrid. The only real guidelines I set for myself were that I couldn’t have more than 10 categories, no category could mention more than 3 shows, and any given show could only be mentioned once.

The category titles in “quotes” are intended to be read in a very Matinee-Lady-Talking-to-her-Friend-Marge voice.

“Imagine being that talented at such a young age.”

Amaris Sanchez as Little Gloria, On Your Feet: the Story of Emlio and Gloria Estefan (National Tour, Cleveland)

Amaris Sanchez didn’t have much stage time as Little Gloria, but her powerful and distinctive voice in early scenes won me over and put in the right frame of mind to enjoy the rest of the evening.

“I saw the original in New York, but I think this was better.”

The King and I (National Tour, Cleveland)

Something Rotten (National Tour, Cleveland)

I saw and greatly enjoyed the original Broadway Cast of Something Rotten, as well as the original cast of the recent Lincoln Center revival of The King and I. I was skeptical that I would find Something Rotten funny a second time, or that a touring cast could live up to my memories of Kelli O’Hara in her Tony-winning performance.

Something Rotten  really won me over all over again, thanks in large part Josh Grisetti’s immensely likable (and gorgeously sung) performance as Nigel Bottom.

Laura Michelle Kelly was a wonderful Anna in The King and I. She basically belted and backphrased the entire score and I was HERE for that. Jose Llana’s King of Siam was impish, forceful, and relentlessly charming, and he had great chemistry with Kelly. I also think, aside from the boat at the beginning, the production played much better on a proscenium stage than it did on the Vivian Beaumont’s thrust. (And believe me, I loves me a thrust.)

“I’m not just saying this because I’m her mother–I truly think that is the best thing I have ever seen.”

Legendale, music by Andrea Daly | book and lyrics by Jeff Bienstock (The Human Race Theater, Dayton, Ohio)

Jeff Bienstock was my last roommate when I lived in New York. We met when I was the SM on a show he wrote that was produced as part of FringeNYC. Right around the time I started getting ready to move back to Cleveland, he told me about this idea he had for a musical that involved a video game lover, his avatar, and his relationships with people in and out of the game world. Though I always knew Jeff to be a composer, as well as a writer smartly crafted lyrics and intricately plotted librettos, he mentioned that he met a composer named Andrea that he was really interested in collaborating with.

Cut to 5 years later when that musical, now fully formed and called Legendale, gets a full (and very impressive) production at The Human Race theater in Dayton, Ohio. Seeing a packed theater enjoy my friend’s show was certainly the most emotional evening in the theater. It also helped that the show was very good–well written, good score, slick staging, excellent design, and good performances including an impressive leading turn by Max “You’re the One that We Want” Crumm.

“I have wanted to see that my entire life.”

Carolee Carmello in Sweeney Todd (Barrow Street Theater, New York City)

The Golden Apple (Encores!, New York City Center)

Like all people who have ears and the original cast recording of Parade, seeing Carolee Carmello perform live has long been on my bucket list. To see her perform in a role that was deserving of her considerable talents was more than I could have hoped for. She was funny, terrifying, and sympathetic. And she belted the whole damn score because she does not play.

I have been fascinated by The Golden Apple ever since i first read about it in Not Since Carrie. The fragments that were preserved on the original cast recording contain some of the most beautiful and exciting music ever composed for the musical stage. When Encores! (finally) announced it as part of their season I immediately began figuring out how (not if) I would make it to NYC to see it. If the whole piece doesn’t quite work for me (the story felt more like an intellectual exercise in adapting Homerian epics, rather than an organic narrative), the score was beautifully delivered by an incredible cast led by Ryan Silverman and newcomer Mikaela Bennet. Lindsay Mendez, Ashley Brown, and Jason Kravits were also particularly wonderful.

Outstanding Supporting Performances

The Women of Great Comet: Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, Amber Gray, and Grace McLean (Imperial Theater, New York City)

Not to diminish the performances of the leads–or the men–in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, but Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, Amber Gray, and Grace McLean gave some of the most memorable and original performances I’ve ever seen. Though it’s really a damn shame the show isn’t still running, it’s hard to imagine a Great Comet without this fabulous quartet.

Unforgettable Leading Performances

Mason Alexander Park, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (National Tour, Fisher Theater, Detroit, Michigan)

My partner and I drove to Detroit because the Hedwig tour didn’t come to Cleveland. We bought tickets before we knew who would even be in the cast, but I was excited when Euon Morton (who I loved in Sondheim on Sondheim) was announced. So we were somewhat bummed when we saw an “At this performance” slip in our programs announcing that Morton’s understudy would be on. We were also pretty skeptical about seeing a 20-something take on the role.  He was born after the fall of the Berlin Wall for Chrissake! But reader, let me assure you that he was incredible. Concerns about his age turned out to be a non-issue, and he delivered a fully realized, lived-in, and captivating performance. I later found out it was only his second time EVER going on, which somehow made the whole thing even more impressive.

Heidi Blickenstaff, Freaky Friday (Cleveland Playhouse, Allen Theater, Cleveland, Ohio)

I have seen Heidi Blickstaff perform live more than any other actress that didn’t know personally or work with. And she is always hilarious, deeply moving, and can sing the shit out of anything and everything. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey have proven themselves to be masters of writing accessibly contemporary vehicles for women on a certain age, and in Freaky Friday they–along with librettist Bridget Carpenter–wrote Heidi a bespoke role that took full advantage of her abilities. She nailed every joke while also breaking my heart TWICE with ballads in each act that are among the best things Kitt and Yorkey have written. (Check out this video of her recording “After All of this and Everything.”) In a surprising, and admirable, move, Disney has decided to use Blickenstaff for their upcoming TV adaptation of the musical. I hope the movie comes out well, because this was Tony-worthy work that was only seen in the 5 cities where the production was mounted.

I also need to give a shout out to Emma Hunton. In a “swapping bodies” show, it’s hard to even distinguish where one performance leaves off and the next begins.

Production of the Year

Caroline, or Change (Tantrum Theater, Dublin, Ohio)

This production really encapsulates most of the previous categories. It’s a show I’ve wanted to see in production ever since I first heard the cast recording. The performances across the board, including (especially!) the kids. And I will admit to having a slight personal bias since a few of the cast members were friends and colleagues from my days in New York. But most of all, it was just a pitch perfect production. Well conceived and perfectly executed, with every performance, design choice, and movement working together to tell an increasingly timely and relevant story. The fact that a production this ambitious and “non-commercial” could sell out its entire run in a theater company’s sophomore season in central Ohio is astounding and offers a glimmer of hope for the future of the American theater and the American people.

Special shout-out to director Robert Barry Fleming, who also directed a perfectly calibrated production of Between Riverside and Crazy for the Cleveland Playhouse, which was the best production of a play I saw in 2017.

Honorable Mention

  • Michael Brusaco as Peck, How I Learned to Drive (Cleveland Playhouse)
  • The Cast of The Flick (Dobama Theater, Cleveland, Ohio)

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