There is no certainty that attending musicals and plays will

effectively change an individual, society, or the world-at-large for

the better. But the one thing I am certain, as the year 2005 comes to

a close on Broadway and Off Broadway, is that "stuff happens." It

happens that this was one of the best theater years in memory.

As is my prerogative, my list of 10 best will take into consideration

both Broadway and Off Broadway productions – specifically 37 on

Broadway and 63 off-Broadway, the total of 100 I attended during the

year. I find it obligatory to have an honorable mention list, as there

are just too many fine shows that need to be acknowledged and that

have contributed to one of the best theater years in memory. And there

was no way I could resist the impulse to include a list of

dishonorable mentions, not to gloat but to remind myself – using the

words of Cornelius Melody in Eugene O’Neill’s play, "A Touch of the

Poet," in response to the news that Andrew Jackson is running for

president – "Everywhere the scum is rising to the top."

It is pertinent to note that seven of my 10 best of 2005 were produced

by non-profit theater organizations and that four of the 10 best were

produced at Off Broadway theaters. Were it not for the Manhattan

Theater Club, Roundabout Theater, and Lincoln Center Theater, six of

the ten best would most likely not have been produced at all.

Broadway will undoubtedly be remembered for the impressive number of

new musicals. For a change it wasn’t a year dominated by musical

revivals as only two – the mediocre "Sweet Charity" and the

magnificent "Sweeney Todd" – braved the big street. Of the 14 new

musicals that opened, only two made my top 10 cut. I made a difficult

decision to eliminate the plethora of so-called jukebox musicals that

utilized the canon of such popular songsmiths as Bob Gaudio, Frankie

Valli and the Four Seasons ("Jersey Boys"), Elvis Presley ("All Shook

Up"), the Beach Boys ("Good Vibrations"), and John Lennon ("Lennon")

from any sort of consideration for the top 10.

It is my conviction that it is the composing not the compiling of

music that shall remain a major factor in my choices, despite the

excellence of a production. For this reason, some of these musicals

that were superior in their own ways made the honorable mention list.

There is apparently no end in sight as Broadway prepares in the new

year for the songs of Johnny Cash ("Ring of Fire") and Bob Dylan ("The

Times They Are a-Changin’"). Even the John Denver song-book ("Almost

Heaven") managed a short spin off-Broadway.

While a few of the seven new plays, such as Richard Greenberg’s

strained comedy, "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way"; Steven Temperley’s

loopy homage to legendary tone-deaf diva Florence Foster Jenkins,

"Souvenir"; Elaine May’s forgettable "After the Night and the Music";

and Donald Margulies’ sincere "Brooklyn Boy" were seriously flawed,

there were two British imports that deserved the acclaim they

received: Martin McDonagh’s "The Pillowman" and "Primo," as adapted by

and starring the great Antony Sher from the book "If This Is a Man" by

Italian-Jewish chemist Primo Levi.

There were a number of lackluster revivals. None were more

disappointing than the two classics by Tennessee Williams: "The Glass

Menagerie" (despite a first-rate Jessica Lange) and "A Streetcar Named

Desire" (with a second-rate Stanley). The ho-hum who-cared revivals of

"On Golden Pond," "Steel Magnolias," and "Mark Twain Tonight," and

even Albee’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize winner, "Seascape." never became

must-sees. In total, there were 37 Broadway entries.

Unfortunately there are many shows that were destined to fall between

the cracks being neither good enough nor bad enough to make it on a

list, but for one reason or another deserve recognition. The strangest

case scenario surrounds "In My Life," a bizarre musical about a

romance between a man with Tourette’s Syndrome and a woman with an

obsessive compulsive disorder. Despite an otherwise melodic score by

Joseph Brooks ("You Light Up My Life"), it garnered the worst reviews

since the infamous "Carrie," but also earned the devotion of a Wall

Street tycoon who poured millions into promoting it (to no avail).

Other commendable shows that landed in no-man’s land included two

well-intentioned tuners, "The Color Purple" and "Little Women," the

well-designed "The Constant Wife," and "A Dancer’s Life," about and

starring the amazing at 72-year-old Chita Rivera. A good case could be

made for the popularity of "Julius Caesar," a much maligned production

that starred Denzel Washington, but nevertheless induced thousands of

inner city school children to attend theater, some for the first time

in their lives. So here are the winners and losers in alphabetical

order and with a few observations along the way.

The 10 Best of the Year

(Includes Broadway, Off Broadway, Plays and Musicals. Note: For shows

that are still running theater information is given.)

A Touch of the Poet. Gabriel Byrne gives a towering performance in a

terrific production of one O’Neill’s least known and surprisingly

funny dramas. See review page 28. Roundabout at Studio 54, 254 West

54th Street.

Dessa Rose. Lincoln Center produced this thrilling musical about the

relationship of a black slave (La Chanze) and a white woman (Rachel

York) during the Civil War years. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty

(Ragtime) delivered another great score with a book based on Shirley

Williams’s novel. La Chanze is currently sensational in "The Color

Purple."

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. This musical comedy with an unstoppably funny

book by Jeffrey Lane and a witty score by David Yazbek (The Full

Monty) should have won the Tony over Spamalot. Imperial Theater, 249

West 45th Street.

Doubt. John Patrick Shanley’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner about a

nun who has it. I have no doubt about the excellence of this play.

Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street.

Private Fears in Public Places. Alan Ayckbourn’s clever and smart

comedy about the lives of six ordinary people was produced for a

limited time Off-Broadway as part of the British Festival and got rave

notices. It will return this year for an open-ended run. Watch for it

and don’t miss it.

Sweeney Todd. This chilling new multi-tasking (all performers play

their own instruments) version of Stephen Sondheim’s gory opera comes

courtesy of Britain’s Watermill Theater and its artistic director John

Doyle. Patti Lupone at her peak. Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49th

Street.

The Light in the Piazza. Craig Lucas (book) and Adam Guettel (score)

have created a sublime and beautiful-to-look-at musical theater

experience based on Elizabeth Spencer’s novel. Vivian Beaumont at

Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street.

The Trip to Bountiful. This Off-Broadway revival of Horton Foote’s

forever lovely and touching play stars a sublime Lois Smith and almost

obligatory Foote interpreter Hallie Foote in this Signature Theater

production, which is offering all seats for $15. Signature Theater

Company, 555 West 42nd Street.

Third. Wendy Wasserstein’s best play in years focuses on a conflict

between a middle-aged progressive university professor and a wealthy,

smart, but conservative male student.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. A dynamite revival of Albee’s best play about a dysfunctional marriage paired the explosive Kathleen

Turner and the astonishing Bill Irwin.

Honorable Mention: All Shook Up. This fun and situation-filled romantic musical amusingly blended Presley hits into a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

A Soldier’s Story. A tension-packed Off-Broadway revival of Charles

Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winner about a murder in an army barrack.

Counselor at Law. Off-Broadway’s Peccadillo Theater Company staged

Elmer Rice’s 1931 melodrama with brio and 20 fine actors including a

terrific John Rubinstein in the title role. What a rare treat.

Jersey Boys. This highly entertaining musical bio of Frankie Valli and

the Four Seasons features a solid book, hit tunes, and a great cast

that highlights the amazingly high voice of John Lloyd Young as Valli.

August Wilson Theater, 245 West 52nd Street.

Miss Witherspoon. Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons presented

Christopher Durang’s funniest, nuttiest, and most irreverent comedy in

years, which followed a successful premiere at McCarter Theater this

fall.

Romance. Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company brought us David

Mamet’s farcical burlesque that skews the American judicial syste. A

howl from start to finish.

Spamalot. Even if you are not a fan of the 1975 film Monty Python and

the Holy Grail, you will get a bellyfull of laughs in this silly

musical circus of Arthurian tomfoolery. Shubert Theater, 225 West 44th

Street.

The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. The Atlantic Theater Company

gave us another winner with Rollin Jones’ surreal and poignant play

about a brilliant obsessive compulsive young woman with a severe case

of agoraphobia, who creates an android to be her alter ego.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Junior High spelling

geniuses compete to William Finn’s bright score. Circle in the Square,

1633 Broadway.

The Woman in White. Andrew Lloyd Webber just sneaked into the running

with his ultra-melodic telling of Wilkie Collins’ Victorian melodrama

in an extraordinary production designed to make you think you are

watching a movie. Marquis Theater, 1535 Broadway.

Top Of PageDishonorable Mention

After the Night and the Music. Another of Elaine May’s mistakes.

A Mother, A Daughter, and a Gun. And a critic who had to sit through

it.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Just change the first letter to S.

Fran’s Bed. Mia Farrow died in it not quickly enough.

Good Vibrations. Only in the Beach Boys’ dreams.

Hot n’ Throbbing. Only in playwright Paula Vogel’s wet dreams.

Jackie Mason’s Freshly Squeezed. Oy vey.

Miracle Brothers. An all-wet musical about people who turn into

dolphins.

Mr. Marmalade. Mr. Sicko.

Waiting for Godot. Don’t hold your breath.

The Public Theater recently announced it is going to produce "Stuff

Happens," David Hare’s brilliantly-informed play about the Iraq war. I

was fortunate enough to see it in L.A. this summer. It should be on

your must-see list. Like I said (or was it Rumsfeld?), "stuff

happens."

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