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The Best and Worst of 2011 by Matthew Murray

  • BestOf20111250.jpgAnother year, another 200-plus shows! Compared to recent calendar years, 2011 was unusually strong all the way around, with thoroughly original and well-executed plays and musicals popping up in many heretofore unfamiliar places. So compiling lists of the best and worst of what I saw wasn't easy—in part because there was so much that was excellent and so (relatively) little that was terrible that choosing a reasonable number of both for presentation here seemed unfair. Though my opinions about the highs and lows of the year seemed to change by the minute, I settled on one list of 10 bests and another of five worsts: You'll find them below (in alphabetical order), along with links to my original reviews on www.talkinbroadway.com and some honorable mentions that just missed out. It's difficult to say for sure what 2012 will bring in terms of theatregoing, but if it's even half as strong as 2011, we'll still be marveling 366 days from now.

    The Best Shows of 2011
    Godspell (Broadway, Circle in the Square, still playing): Yes, spirituality can still be spirited. The first-ever revival Broadway revival of the 1971 Stephen Schwartz–John-Michael Tebelak retelling of the Gospel of Saint Matthew refused to be constrained by typical notions of what this oft-performed show should or must be. With a youthful and exuberant cast, and no shortage of new ideas and surprises from director Daniel Goldstein and choreographer Christopher Gattelli, this 40-year-old show was the hippest, freshest, and most invigorating musical Broadway saw all year.

    Blood and Gifts (Off-Broadway, Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, still playing): Even if you're politically astute, you may not expect a chronicle of America's involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s to be engrossing theatre. But J.T. Rogers created just that with this sweeping political panorama, which took no prisoners as it viewed the situation from all sides and all nationalities. Even some eye-rolling directorial choices from Bartlett Sher couldn't prevent this play from being a deeply satisfying look at good intentions gone violently awry.

    Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway (Broadway, Broadhurst Theatre, closing January 1): Anyone doubting the existence of miracles need look no further than one of our greatest living showmen, who with his musical return to Broadway made everyone else on the Great White Way look like a slacker. Singing and dancing with consummate authority, cradling the audience in his hands as though the tiniest of babies in need of his full support, and making what must be an impossible burden look effortless eight times a week, Jackman proved himself one of the last remaining True Stars, even doing historic amounts of fundraising along the way. This gloriously talented creature of the theatre can never—never—return to live performing often enough.

    The Importance of Being Earnest (Broadway, American Airlines Theatre, closed June 26): Okay, Oscar Wilde's classic gut-buster is pretty hard to screw up. But it's also pretty hard to get almost entirely right, which Brian Bedford's sumptuous revival managed with aplomb. Buoyed by, but not relying, on Bedford's extravagant (but never self-indulgent) performance as Lady Bracknell, this Earnest offered myriad fizzy comic pleasures with only one or two missteps. If comedy really is as hard as they say, Bedford and his largely excellent company made it look as easy as misplacing a handbag—and even more rewarding.

    Kin (Off-Broadway, Playwrights Horizons, closed April 17): How on Earth can you spin a vivid, passionate romance in which the two central lovers never share the stage until the show's final moments? Bathsheba Doran managed this unthinkable task with her ceaselessly charming and shockingly moving look at the way two disparate circles of family and friends merged from the outside in. A near-perfect ensemble cast and emotionally flawless direction from rising superstar Sam Gold helped a lot, but Doran's unique method of storytelling and uncompromising sense of character were even more responsible for carrying the day.

    The Other Place (Off-Broadway, Lucille Lortel Theater, closed May 1): Hands down, the performance of the year was Laurie Metcalf as Juliana Smithton, an accomplished scientist who led us on a guided tour of her own encroaching dementia. Simultaneously heartbreaking, humorous, insightful, and yet somehow detached, Metcalf embodied both the towering height of a great figure and the calamitous fall that ultimately defined her. But she had an outstanding foundation to build on in Sharr White's pungent drama of self-discovery and -rediscovery, which Joe Mantello directed with a sensitivity he had never previously demonstrated capable of unlocking. The most raw and openly affecting show of 2011, The Other Place is notable for the wrenching places it took you, but it's Metcalf's magisterial inside-out rendition of a confident woman's decline that is rightfully destined to be the stuff of modern theatrical legend.

    Queen of the Mist (Off-Broadway, The Gym at Judson, closed December 4): Michael John LaChiusa has been experiencing an Off-Broadway renaissance in recent seasons thanks to Jack Cummings III and his Transport Group Theatre Company, and their latest collaboration showed why that's so vital for the theatre. A deceptively simple yet richly layered examination of the fortunes and foibles of Anna Edson Taylor, the first woman to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel, Queen of the Mist explored the ins and outs of the wealth and poverty of fame and infamy like few musicals since Gypsy have successfully managed. LaChiusa's score was lush and lilting, populist yet unmistakably his own, and Cummings's production was straightforward and cutting. But it was Mary Testa who defined the show, giving the most uncompromising musical performance of the year as Anna, and unlocking volumes in her mind and heart. Her glare and voice may have been icy, but they melted you, doubly proving that the greatest stars—and the greatest people—are seldom found where you expect.

    Sons of the Prophet (Off-Broadway, Laura Pels Theatre, closes January 1): Those lucky enough to see Stephen Karam's big Off-Broadway splash, Speech and Debate, as the inaugural production of Roundabout Underground four years ago knew they were witnessing the inception of a major new playwriting voice. But nothing in that deadly serious teenage comedy-drama hinted at the power or complexity to come in Sons of the Prophet, an intricate, haunting, and gorgeous look at one man's life disintegrating under the weight of forces he can't understand. Starring Santino Fontana, giving a tour-de-force performance as a descendant of Khalil Gibran who lives in the shadow of his writings, and with impressive support from costar Joanna Gleason and director Peter DuBois, the show broke every rule of storytelling, forcing you to work to fully understand and appreciate its depth and uniqueness. But no other theatrical puzzle this year was more fulfilling, and no other new play staked a firmer claim to true greatness than this one.

    Suicide, Incorporated (Off-Broadway, Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, closed December 23): Anything goes at Roundabout Underground, and no other show yet produced from the program for emerging artists has been weirder than this one. So intertwining comedy and tragedy (its central setting is a business that helps men craft the perfect suicide note) that most of the time it was impossible to tell them apart, Andrew Hinderaker's multitone poem of a play was hardly for everyone. But in examining the many ways we can be unwittingly crippled, and finally saved, by grief, it was powerful and unpredictable, a reminder that our most important salvation—and insight—can frequently be found anywhere if you look and feel hard enough.

    War Horse (Broadway, Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, still playing): Maybe there were better "plays" this year than War Horse, but there was no more spectacular production than this collaboration of the National Theatre of Great Britain and the Handspring Puppet Company. Both an epic look at World War I and a captivating love story about a boy and his best equine pal, it didn't use every theatrical trick in the book: It invented dozens anew, capturing your imagination and emotions as it depicted places and events that seemed beyond the capacity of the theatre to contain. Though an intense and immense celebration of the possibilities of live performance, War Horse was, in the end, all about its story, and no other show this year, in any New York venue, told one better than this.

    Honorable mentions: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (Off-Broadway, Public Theater), Death Takes a Holiday (musical, Off-Broadway, Laura Pels Theatre), Hello Again (musical revival, Off-Broadway), Outlaws: The Ballad of Billy the Kid (New York Musical Theatre Festival, developmental production), Traces (circus-type performance, Off-Broadway, Union Square Theatre).

    The Worst Shows of 2011
    Blood from a Stone (Off-Broadway, Acorn Theatre, closed February 19): Tommy Nohilly's playwriting bow was an attempt to recall the searing works of Eugene O'Neill and William Inge, but it was so laden with clichés and hollow writing that it played as nothing more than a colossal, dissatisfied joke. This ugly play about ugly people saying and doing ugly things just to be ugly was bereft of hope and humanity, but succeeded (unintentionally) at demonstrating why cohesive, affecting stage storytelling is much harder than true geniuses may make it appear.

    Lysistrata Jones (Off-Broadway and Broadway, first at the Gym at Judson, now at the Walter Kerr Theatre, still playing): If Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn's corruption of Aristophanes's classic stage comedy is not the flimsiest and most pointless musical in history, it's close. Why transform a searing antiwar satire into a blobby, overloud, underjustified musical ramble about horny college basketball players who can't win a game? The writers never came close to answering that question, and despite a peppy (and ridiculously attractive) cast, the show couldn't withstand the utter lack of substance at its center.

    Other Desert Cities (Off-Broadway and Broadway, first at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, now at the Booth Theatre, still playing): Jon Robin Baitz's political hit piece was beautiful-looking nonsense, with one-dimensional conservative parents battling their put-upon liberal daughter for the rights to destroy their life through her latest book. Its shameless attempts to paint those on the right as flaming hypocrites prevented it from telling its story in a useful or engaging way; its only saving graces was its performances (by Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths, and Judith Light on Broadway), who found occasional moments of clarity amid the script's stinking, pointlessly partisan mud.

    Peter and the Starcatcher (Off-Broadway, New York Theatre Workshop, currently closed but reopening on Broadway in the spring): Pandering and pathetic in courting theatregoing's lowest common denominator, this horrific adaptation of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's not-too-bad children's book was 2011's most smug and self-satisfied show, oozing everything at its helpless audiences except thoughtful, intelligent entertainment. This "let's show people how much fun it is to create theatre!!" non-extravaganza made its thematic progenitor The 39 Steps look like Long Day's Journey Into Night.

    Yeast Nation (the triumph of life) (Off-Off-Broadway, New York International Fringe Festival at the Ellen Stewart Theatre at LaMaMa, Etc., closed in August): I wanted to give a pass to developmental productions on these lists, as anything can still happen with them, but this worthless non-musical non-comedy from Urinetown's Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis truly earned its place here. Barely watchable and even less listenable, this millionth-hearted regurgitation of Urinetown's marginally original ideas was set billions of years in the past and felt just that stale from start to finish. Despite good names (Harriet Harris, Manu Narayan, and many others) in lead roles as unicellular organisms striving to create a sustainable society, this show reeked of ferment that tested the patience of even the most ardent beer lovers. Spend every day of 2012 praying to whatever higher power you believe in that this musical monstrosity never gets its second rise.

    Dishonorable mentions: Dracula (play revival, Off-Broadway, Little Shubert Theatre), Measure for Measure (Shakespeare revival, Off-Broadway, Delacorte Theater), A Minister's Wife (musical, Off-Broadway, Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center), On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (musical revisal, Broadway, St. James Theatre), Wild Animals You Should Know (play, Off-Broadway, Lucille Lortel Theatre)

    Photos (top to bottom): The cast of Godspell (Jeremy Daniel), Hugh Jackman in Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway (Joan Marcus), Laurie Metcalf in The Other Place (Joan Marcus), Santino Fontana and Joanna Gleason in Sons of the Prophet (Joan Marcus), War Horse (Paul Kolnik).

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