Be warned: this is not a top ten Broadway Theatre list for 2013, though a few Broadway shows made the list. The reader, it is hoped, will find the cross-section of theatre works listed here as a refreshing read from the other more obvious lists dotting the periodicals and websites this week. This is a New York Theatre Scene list, which includes everything from the Fringe to Broadway. Although it is a bit incorrect to make a top ten list for the year 2013 when a theatre season typically straddles New Year’s Eve the way a school year does, I will at least abide by the concept of the annual end of year round up. The titles may be numbered, but the number has nothing to do with the worth of these pieces. I chose them simply because each brought me the greatest satisfaction as a theatre goer other than most of the rest of what I experienced this year. I left a few things off the list and sadly so, but that’s always the problem with a top ten list when it might be a top twelve list just as well.
1. GERTRUDE STEIN SAINTS
This piece came from Theatre Plastique, a program of Carnegie Mellon University and was entered in the NYC Fringe Festival. The piece was made up of two texts by Gertrude Stein and the cast all contributed to musicalizing the material in various styles. With only scant accompaniment and mostly performing acapella, the cast sang and danced and acted Gertrude Stein’s words in an entertainment that was truly exhilarating. Credit MFA Directing student Michelle Sutherland for pulling it all together to make one of the greatest theatrical experiences I have witnessed in a decade.
2. VERY BAD WORDS
Another Fringe selection that resonated was a play about bullying––quite the hot topic of late with not nearly enough response from the arts when you consider how often the arts can be credited for saving the lives of young people who found a home in their high school drama or music classes while the rest of the world was making their lives a living Hell. This very good one-act by Jacob Presson started out with a muddy opening scene, but jelled to become a fantastic exploration of the perpetrator’s point of view rather than the victim’s. The play was both funny and horrifying and made one of the better calls for reform I have seen. The likelihood of this play finding its way into a path that would lead it to be seen by the many who really should see it is unfortunate, but I hope this young author can find a way, or to write something else commercially viable that will do a similar job.
3. FROM WHITE PLAINS
A small company known as The Fault Line Theatre, also took on the topic of bullying with a play by Michael Perlman and an excellent cast to tell the story of the residual effects of bullying long after the original incidents took place. The bullied kid, in this case, has grown up and made an autobiographical movie about his experience that wins him an Oscar and national attention. The attention informs the bully himself who must now come to terms with his regretful past. This small but passionate play delved into the topic in a way that no CNN news report has been able to do and so again, here is the important issue of bullying emerging into the forum of the theater, but in such a small way as to make little impact. The theatre can be a powerful tool as we all know. I just hope that plays of this kind can find a broader audience.
4. THE NANCE
On Broadway there was the unlikely occurrence of a big new play of the kind that usually isn’t financially viable any more. These kinds of plays were all over Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s and it just so happens that The Nance is set in that period of the 1930s to explore the demise of Burlesque as it was known and the struggle of being gay at that particular time. Within a circle of friends it was possible to be open, but the outside world was so unforgiving that the fear for the loss of one’s job and even arrest caused otherwise brave and vibrant people to be imprisoned by fear. Surviving meant hiding. Within this world, Douglas Carter Beane not only depicts history, but shows an older gay comedian (Nathan Lane) unable to traverse a healthy relationship with a younger man who adores him (Jonny Orsini). The younger man represents a future positive attitude that might belong to the 1970s gay culture rather than the 1930s, but the contrast was important to showing the effects of the comedian’s struggle with his society. The play included original songs written in the Burlesque style, had an imaginative set design and a superb cast. The play was at times criminally hysterical and horribly sad. The blend of all the elements of the theatre came together perfectly.
5. ON YOUR TOES
Several productions of Encores! at the New York City Center were a delight this year, but I have a special affection for the Rodgers and Hart gem, On Your Toes. Even though the production was a “concert” and the orchestra was on stage, the show was practically produced in full––or so, by magic, it seemed. This is the musical that contains that wonderful second act ballet, “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” and it was recreated with the original George Balanchine choreography. Shonn Wiley was a revelation in the role of Junior, originated by Ray Bolger in 1936. Shonn Wiley was marvelous and it is a wonder that he hasn’t been pegged for a good role in a new Broadway show. I hope that some smart casting director took notice.
A sentimental favorite, I’ll admit, for I too did the show in school, a kind of venue where this intriguing musical has mostly lived for decades. Professional companies and even community theaters rarely touch it, but I can’t imagine why. Perhaps now, with this colorful Broadway revival winning good reviews and awards left and right, the dollar conscience producers of the regional theater world with give Pippin a second chance. Directed by Diane Paulus with an emphasis on the circus element inherent in the show, the band of players that puts on the story of Pippin made for a theatrical stunner.
7. KINKY BOOTS
Based on the film of the same name, Cyndi Lauper, of all people, came up with a winning score that was perfectly suited to the material. Harvey Fierstein did a good job at adapting the screenplay to work on a stage and Jerry Mitchell pulled all the elements together for a well paced, fun production with a lot of heart. This is good old fashioned musical comedy with a contemporary stamp on it. Stark Sands and Billy Porter in the lead roles made a terrific team and Porter stopped the show several times. This is the kind of Broadway musical that one thinks they will see on a trip to New York, but is actually becoming a rare animal. A new musical comedy with an original score is a thing to be celebrated.
8. BUYER AND CELLAR
Off Broadway, Jonathan Tolins had a play he didn’t imagine he would ever see produced, actually get produced and with terrific results. This was a one man show starring the delightful Michael Urie as an out of work actor who takes a job managing Barbra Streisand’s cellar of collectables. The piece was heaped with laughs, but told a rather poignant story about the actor’s life and also made a rather nice tribute to the super star. The original limited run was extended to an open run, so it is wonderful to know that word of mouth can still play a powerful role and give a little show big success.
9. THE LARAMIE PROJECT: TEN YEARS LATER
It was the Techtonic Theatre Project again, back together to explore the state of Wyoming ten years after the Matthew Shepard murder. Told in a series of interviews with the people of Laramie, we find that although there has been some change, the ignorant views about homosexuality still exist and injustice continues in new ways. We all hoped that at the very least, Matthew Shepard’s death would spawn change, but the changes that have come have come very slowly and it is frustrating to realize that it took a third President since Mathew’s death to finally pass the federal hate crimes bill in his name. Perhaps this particular piece will not be produced as often as the first “Laramie Project,” for it requires having seen the first piece to completely follow the interviews of “Ten Years Later,” but when both pieces are seen the second is thought provoking, deeply moving and inspiring as an example of the great power of the theatre.
J. Stephen Brantly is the author and Ari Laura Kreith was the director of this little play about big ideas concerning unlikely romances between people who might not normally connect if it weren’t for an accident of circumstances. This story about a clash of cultures asks us to talk, argue and educate; it asks for minds of opposition to find common ground. Also, this little play tackled the issue of AIDS in a new way. That topic has fallen away from the theater in the past 15 years and since the disease is still with us, it is important to keep the conversation alive. This play did that, while telling a story about human beings finding a way through the struggles of a turbulent world and anyone can connect with that.