It remains to be seen whether the New Year on Broadway and Off Broadway will be as dismal as has been predicted by the pundits based on the economic forecast. Perhaps the National Endowment for Arts should apply for a bail-out to help all the theater, dance, and music organizations for which funding and survival is in jeopardy. If the additional four percent tax on tickets proposed by New York governor David Paterson is approved, it could drive even more people away from the box office. Nothing, however, can drive some people away from the theater even if it means scouting out discounted tickets, going to the TKTS booth in Duffy Square, hunting for free on-street parking, and brown-bagging the dinner. As a professional critic, the tickets I get are complimentary, but I am also quite resourceful with the last two options.

It was relatively easy to pick and choose the best and worst from the 158 shows I saw last year. The pity is that four of the 10 best will have already closed by the time this article appears. On the optimistic side, Neil LaBute’s terrific new play “reasons to be pretty” will open on Broadway in March, but was seen earlier in the year Off-Broadway. Limiting the list to 10 forces the exclusion of some laudable revivals each made more so by dynamite performances: Raul Esparza in David Mamet’s “Speed the Plow,” Frank Langella in Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons”; Patti LuPone in the greatest musical of them all, “Gypsy” and the entire cast of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” Also terrific and coming to Broadway in March following their hugely successful runs Off Broadway are the revivals “Hair” and “Irena’s Vow,” a new play with a wonderful performance by Tovah Feldshuh.

Perhaps the biggest disappointments of the year were the Royal Court’s bleak and dull staging of “The Seagull” and the pretentious psycho-babble that propelled “Equus.” For all the love showered on Liza Minnelli by her fans at the Palace, it was heartbreaking to listen to her seriously damaged voice.

The Best

“Adding Machine” — This hauntingly surreal chamber opera by Joshua Schmidt (music) and Jason Loewith (lyrics) was based on Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionistic social protest play and beautifully acted and sung by a small ensemble and directed with a stylized integrity for its source by David Croner. (Closed.)

“Billy Elliot” — A boy’s desire to dance is reflected against the grim reality of his life in a strike-committed coal-mining town in this emotionally affecting and thrillingly danced musical under the direction of Stephen Daldry. This long-awaited hit from the West End is a cause for celebration thanks to the splendid score by Elton John, the exuberant choreography by Peter Darling, and the three equally sensational Billy’s who alternate in the title role. Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street. 212-239-6200.

“Dividing the Estate” — Times are tough for a discontented and contentious Texas family in Horton Foote’s wonderful and often hilarious play starring the playwright’s invaluable daughter Hallie Foote under the direction of Michael Wilson. Sadly this Lincoln Center production was on Broadway for only a limited run. One of its stars, Elizabeth Ashley, will soon be taking over the role of the drug-addicted mother in the Tony Award winner for Best Play “August: Osage County.” (Closed.)

“Enter Laughing” — That was the title of Carl Reiner’s 1958 hilarious show-biz novel, which in turn was adapted in 1965 into a hit play by Joseph Stein and subsequently a film. In 1976, it was adapted by Stein and composer Stan Daniels into a flop musical “So Long 174th Street” (16 performances), which to everyone’s delight was revived (with the original title) last year with a great cast under the invigorating direction of Stuart Ross. If there is any justice, this production should move to Broadway. (Closed.)

“In The Heights”— The poetry of rap and hip-hop, and the pulsating dancing of meringue and salsa ignite star and creator Lin-Maneul Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical set among the Latino community in Washington Heights. Richard Rodgers Theater, 236 West 46th Street. 212- 239-6200.

“Next To Normal” — Watching a mother have a nervous breakdown in a dysfunctional family may not sound like the most appealing subject for a musical. But the extraordinary pop-rock score by composer Tom Kitt and riveting book by Brian Yorkey contributed to making this one of the most dramatically compelling and musically exciting shows in years. (Closed.)

“Pal Joey” — Richard Greenberg has done a terrific job of revitalizing John O’Hara’s original book for the most sophisticated musical in the Rodgers and Hart canon. The cast, headed by Stockard Channing, Martha Plimpton and Matthew Risch (as Joey) has been smartly directed by Joe Mantello. Through March 1, Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. 212-719-1300.

“reasons to be pretty” — Despite the lower case affectation of the title, playwright Neil LaBute is no lower case playwright and this play (produced last year by the Manhattan Class Company) like his previous plays, “Fat Pig” and “The Shape of Things,” digs deeply into the psychological motivation for men’s actions and the empowerment of defensive women. This is the Broadway breakthrough for a unique and gifted playwright and could be the Tony winner come spring. Begins previews March 6, opens April 2, Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street.

“Shrek” — It is a minor miracle that this Dreamworks Theatrical production, under the direction of Jason Moore, doesn’t either condescend to minors or compromise the show’s adult perspective. The versatile Brian d’Arcy James is terrific as the loveably fearsome green ogre, originally created by author William Steig in his popular children’s book and subsequently the subject of a hugely successful animated film (and two sequels). All is near perfection in this spectacular, funny, and touching musical (score by Jeanine Tesori) that also features the wonderful Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona. The Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street. 212-239-6200.

“South Pacific” — A must-see since it appeared last spring and won multiple awards, this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical has been gloriously cast and wondrously staged by Bartlett Sher for the Lincoln Center Theater. Chances are that this first Broadway revival may run as long or maybe longer than the original show that opened in 1949. LCT at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th Street. 212-239-6200.

Honorable Mention

“Betrayed” — The Iraqis who worked as translators for the U.S. government in Baghdad and were promised protection, asylum, and eventual citizenship are the subject of George Packer’s well-written and shocking play (based on his New Yorker article). The title may explain what happened, but only hints at the shameful deceptions given unforgettable dramatic life. (Closed.)

“The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower” — Ben Katchor, whom readers of Metropolis Magazine and other notable publications recognize and revere as a picture-story cartoonist of originality and wit, was responsible for the astonishing scenic delights that lifted this quirkily conceived seriously odd-ball musical into the must-see category. Aside from the awesome graphic comic-strip styled designs that framed the show, Katchor also contributed its wry libretto. (Closed.)

“Fela!” — There was enough visceral energy and musical excitement offered in this new musical bio to sustain three musicals. The politically active life and musical legacy of Nigerian-born musician-composer Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938 – 1997) are the catalysts in a show that is part concert, part dance, and part dramatic narrative. The various parts were imaginatively connected by the renowned Tony-Award winning choreographer Bill T. Jones. (Closed.) There is talk of a future Broadway production.

“Hair” — For many who were able to see this landmark musical in Central Park last summer, the explosive MacDermot/Ragni/Rado score evoked a time (1968) when the peace and love movement effectively became a collective force to help end an era of reckless war perpetrated by unprincipled lies. Forty years later, only the date and the imprint of the hippies have changed. The time is ripe for another look at this exhilarating, inspiring, and emotionally wrenching musical as directed by Diane Paulus and choreographed by Karole Armitage. Previews begin February 10; opens March 5, Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45th Street.

“Irena’s Vow” — The true story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic, who was responsible for saving the life of a dozen Jews during the Nazi occupation of World War II has been impressively dramatized by Dan Gordon with Tovah Feldshuh (“Golda’s Balcony”) giving another unforgettable performance. Previews begin March 10; opens March 29. Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street.

“The 39 Steps” — Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 film of romantic suspense has been cleverly adapted by Patrick Barlow and assigned to four multi-tasking actors who play dozens of characters under the direction of Maria Aitkin. This comic-spoof delivers more laughs per minute than any other show on Broadway. Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street. 212-719-1300.

The Worst

“Almost an Evening” — I almost croaked watching these three stultifying one-act plays by the otherwise notable filmmaker Ethan Coen. Audiences, however, flocked to the Atlantic Theater Company to see F. Murray Abraham, Mark Lin-Baker, and Elizabeth Marvel try their best to make something out of nothing.

“Glory Days” — A group of former high school friends reunite for the purpose of playing a prank on a former jock on the eve a charity football game. Up and down the stadium’s bleachers, they sing, plot, and cavort. The audience meanwhile is kept busy plotting the quickest route to the exit.

“To Be or Not to Be” — To stay or not to say was the only question people asked themselves during this pathetic, humorless adaptation of the Ernst Lubitsch 1942 film comedy. (Credit Mel Brooks for actually finding the heart and the humor in this satire in his 1983 film.)

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