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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The BWYinCLE Series is Announced!

IMG_5408Last night the KeyBank Broadway Series was announced is a surprisingly fun and informative evening. I attended with my chorus buddy Patrick and our excitment in this picture was both genuine and shared by the rest of the capacity crowd in the Connor Palace (which seats 2,800). The announcement of each show was accompanied by some enthusiastic discussion between series producer Gina Vernaci and local newscaster Natalie Herbick. This patter was often joined by a special guest star and/or live musical performance. My thoughts on each announced show – as well as notes on the presentation specials guests and performances – is below.

For the record, I correctly predicted 5 out 7 shows (and one more was a prediction until I changed my mind on February 21st). Correctly predicted shows will be GREEN. Incorrectly predicted shows will be in RED.

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What will come to #BWAYinCLE in 2016/2017

logo-bigOn March 22, I will attend the Key Bank Broadway Series launch event, at which the shows for next season will be announced. This will be the first season to run each show for 3 weeks (a fact Playhouse Square is REALLY driving home). It doesn’t seem like we’ve had an issue getting first-tier tours to stop here before adding a third week, so I’m curious what effect this will have on the line-up. Does it make us more or less likely to get a show like The Bridges of Madison County to stop here? Would Idina have added Cleveland to her list of If/Then cities it we had or 3rd week? I know literally nothing about how these decisions are made, so this kind of speculating is pointless. That being said, I have been looking into what OTHER cities have planned for 2016/2017 (though most have not announced their season’s yet either) and have created the following list of possible shows. This is probably 50% prediction and 50% wish list.

The list is broken up into 3 categories.

God I Hope I Get It” represents the tours launching in 2016/2017 I most want to come to Cleveland.

I Ain’t Down Yet” lists shows that I wanted to come last year and didn’t, but appear to be making bookings in other cities next season.

Possible…Very, very possible” lists shows that could possibly (or even very likely) come to Cleveland next season…and I’m not particularly excited about it. These are also shows that could come to Cleveland even if they are not included in the Broadway series.

The shows in RED are my best (if random and totally uninformed) guesses and to what will be announced on March 22.
GOD I HOPE I GET IT
  • Aladdin (This is more likely to happen in 2017/2018 as it launches in Chicago in April 2017…but it could definitely hit Cleveland next summer.)
  • An American in Paris
  • Curious Incident…
  • Fun Home
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch (**added to list 2/5/2016, made a prediction on 2/21/2016)
  • The King and I
I AIN’T DOWN YET
  • Cabaret
  • The Sound of Music (Jack O’Brien)
POSSIBLE…VERY VERY POSSIBLE
  • An Act of God (** added 2/15/2016 per Denver’s announced season)
  • Amazing Grace (**added 2/11/2016 per this article)
  • The Bodyguard
  • A Christmas Story
  • Finding Neverland
  • The Illusionists
  • The Lion King
  • The Little Mermaid
  • A Night with Janice Joplin (***removed on 2/21/2016 because it’s playing in Cleveland this March)
  • Rent 20th Anniversary
  • Riverdance
  • Something Rotten! (***removed from prediction 2/21/2016)
I may update this list periodically as more cities announce shows. I will try to make revisions clear

The King and me2ism: Anna and the King of Siam (1946 Film)

The mythology surrounding where Rodgers and Hammerstein’s impetus to musicalize Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam is a bit fuzzy. Gertrude Lawrence had her lawyer acquire the stage rights and asked Rodgers and Hammerstein to musicalize the property (after previously approaching Cole Porter). The respective wives of R&H, unaware of Lawrence’s intentions, also suggested the material. The fuzziness in lore lies in the sequence of those two requests/recommendations particularly with respect to the 1946 film (the rights for which were purchased before the biographical novel even hit shelves). Some sources say Lawrence was inspired by the movie and the wives seem to be generally regarded as having based their recommendation on the book. Legend also states that Hammerstein was unsure of his ability to reign in the novel’s episodic sprawl to a conventional theatrical arch, but was convinced by the film’s treatment to do his own adaptation. On its own merits, the film is elegant and engaging, if a bit overlong and dated. Its screenplay (by Sally Benson and Talbot Jennings) and Bernard Herrmann score were nominated for Oscars, as was Gale Sondergaard’s stately portrayal of Lady Thiang. The film won Oscars for it’s cinematography and art direction.

anna-and-the-king-of-siam-149400 poster

Of all the adaptations of Margaret Landon’s novel, this movie is probably the least culturally sensitive. Before any actors appear on screen the 1946 movie is clearly states its viewpoint of Anna as a saintly educator of the otherwise barbaric Siamese, as stated in the conclusion of its written prologue: anna king prologue

It should also be noted that almost none of the actors playing Siamese characters are of Asian decent with bronzer seemingly accounting for the bulk of it’s production budget.

Sexy-Rexy

Sexy-Rexy

Rex Harrison is an impish King with a frequently childlike sense of wonder and amusement and gives a winning performance, though he occasionally adopts certain physical and vocal mannerisms that can evoke unpleasant “yellowface” stereotypes. Those issues aside, Harrison brings warmth, dignity and humor to the role and one sees why he was an early choice for the musical.

miss annaIrene Dunne makes a wonderful Anna and would surely been a wonder in the musical if given the chance. She has a particularly strong moment when she realizes the rooms provided for her at the palace have her situated in the middle of a harem: she initially reacts with incredulous, almost crazed laughter that soon segues into disbelief and ultimately despair. The film dramatizes the novel’s scenario involving Anna being told she has a house only to be led to a decrepit residence in a fish market, and Dunne’s reaction is as satisfying as it is in the harem scene.

burning tuptim

A most unfortunate ending for Tuptim

The ’46 film’s portrayal of Tuptim (played by Linda Darnell) follows the book with respect to her demise (complete with her disguise as a priest and the false accusal–and execution–of the man suspected of being her accomplice and lover), but takes liberties elsewhere, inserting her into scenes that were about other palace women in the novel and setting her up as a rival to Anna. Anna and Tuptim first cross words when, to Anna’s dismay, Tuptim arrives in class with a monkey on her shoulders–a gift from the King and a sign that Tuptim is the current favorite. Later Anna discovers a slave chained to a post with a baby. She learns this slave has a husband who wishes to pay for her freedom but that the sale is stopped by the slaves owner, Tuptim. Anna appeals to the King on behalf of the slave and the slave is released. When Tuptim realizes it was Anna who convinced the King to rule in the slave’s favor she runs off proclaiming, “If I am not first, there is nothing here for me.” This is the incident that prompts Tuptim to disguise herself and hide in the monastery.

As in the musical, Anna’s anger at the King over this treatment of Tuptim (here he refuses to halt her execution or hear evidence of her innocence) leads Anna to declare that she is leaving Siam. But in the 1946 film she is stopped not by news of the King’s ill health, but by the untimely death of Louis in a horse-riding accident. The King writes Anna a letter of apology for his previous behavior (similar to that in the musical) and tells her that Louis will be honored with a royal burial.

Gale Sondergaard's Lady Thiang was the only Oscar-nominated performance in the film

Gale Sondergaard received her second Oscar-nomination for Anna and the King of Siam. She was the first ever winning of the “Best Supporting Actress” category for her film debut a decade earlier 

But Anna’s decision to forgive the King and stay in Siam is ultimately inspired by a touching conversation with Lady Thiang. Thiang expresses regret and frustration at her inability to provide the education and guidance Chulalongkorn needs to become an effective leader and implores Anna to stay for his sake. Anna stays on, even after the King’s eventual death, with the express mission of educating the prince and the film ends with her looking radiantly on as Chulalongkorn takes the throne and issues his first proclamations of reform.

The films strongest performance is delivered by Lee J. Cobb as the Kralahome. He has one stirring scene with Harrison in which they described the annexation of Cambodia by France and it’s implication of threat to Siam as an independent county. In the movie’s best scene, the Kralahome explains to Anna the central dichotomy of the King’s persona:

Cobb overcomes his unfortunate bottle-tan and offers an insightful take on the Kralahome

Cobb overcomes his unfortunate bottle-tan and offers an insightful take on the Kralahome

He is an old world King raised in the manner and traditions of his father and charged with maintaining the customs and spirit of Siam while who must also try and modernize the country so it can remain strong in the face of foreign influences seek to colonize the country. Though Siam’s political situation is mentioned in the book, the discussion is typically in the form of dry history and is not integrated into the emotional framework of the Anna/King relationship. The fear of becoming a protectorate of a foreign crown factors into the musical as the reason for the dinner party of Edward Ramsey, but the ’46 film gives this fear greater weight, and the result is revelatory.

The King and me2ism: Anna and the King (1972 TV Series)

As newspapers, magazines and countless websites spend a lot of time this month discussing the high and low points of this Fall TV season, I wonder if there was this much speculative criticism forty years ago. I’m particularly curious as to the nature of the buzz surrounding Anna and the King, a curiosity of a series that ran for 13 episodes in the fall of 1972. The pilot episode, with an optional commentary from its Anna, Samantha Eggars, is included as a bonus feature on the blu ray of The King and I.

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The King and me2ism: Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam

annakingofsiamI recently finished listening to the audiobook edition of Margaret Langdon’s Anna and the King of Siam, the source material for The King and I. To separate fact from legend, I also watched an episode of A&E’s Biography (which is include as a bonus feature on the dvd of the 1946 film Anna and the King of Siam which is on my watchlist for the weekend). Continue reading

The King and me2ism: The Film’s Recordings

The King and I (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

kandisoundtrackI recently discussed the faithful and visually opulent 1956 film version of The King and I, with it’s unforgettable (and Oscar-winning) performance from Yul Brynner and equally memorable (and similarly Academy Award-winning) sets and costumes. But the film boasted two other equally lauded and awarded assets:Carlton W. Faulkner’s sound recording and Alfred Newman’s adaptation of the score. With it’s lush cinematic orchestrations, more assessable (i.e. lower) keys and smooth vocals (most of which were dubbed), the original motion picture soundtrack was always a worthy (if incomplete) alternative to those who found Gertrude Lawrence’s vocals on the OBCR an acquired taste. Continue reading

The King and me2ism: 1956 Movie

Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_The_King_and_II had initially thought I would save watching the acclaimed 1956 movie version of The King and I for the end of my trip through this wormhole devoted to the R&H classic, but with no other activities planned last night, a bf as willing as he’d ever be to sit through it, and the blu ray tantalizingly sitting on the shelf, we hunkered down for a technicolor trip to Siam. Continue reading

The King and me2ism: The King and I (2000 London Cast Recording)

Many musical theater cognoscenti maintain that The King and I is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s overall strongest show (though Carousel is frequently regarded as leader on score and “feels” fronts). I will admit that for years its charms eluded me. Partially because my mom was never particularly fond of it (or Deborah Kerr), so the movie didn’t play a part in my childhood. The only live production I ever saw was a semi-professional affair that some friends were in that I mostly remember for its ugly unit set and length. The only cast recording at my disposal growing up was the Original Broadway Cast, and that disk vanished from my collection a decade ago (and didn’t get much play while I had it because of my distaste for Gertrude Lawrence’s singing).

kingandi_paigeA few weeks ago I was alerted to a promotion on amazon that offered a digital download of the 2000 London Cast Recording (starring Elaine Paige) for $5, and have since been bitten by a The King and I bug. Continue reading