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by Michael Portantiere

The Best (and Worst) of Theater in 2011

  • Content dictates form, which is why this year-end look back at New York theater in 2011 is somewhat different from my previous surveys. Usually I provide a fairly lengthy list of what I consider to be the highlights of the year and completely avoid the negative. But while there certainly were highlights in 2011, it was not a good calendar year for theater overall. The fall season on Broadway was especially disappointing, and the most deplorable of this year's shows -- both on and off Broadway -- were so shockingly awful that I think they really need to be singled out for censure. So, rather than providing a long, comprehensive, enumerated list, I decided to focus on a relatively small number of shows that represent(ed) the best of the best or the worst of the worst.



    I'm placing The Book of Mormon at the top of this section even though I have some reservations about the show, which is a monster hit. (A colleague of mine who works at the box office told me that the regular-priced seats are basically sold out for a year, and even premium tix are hard to come by). There are a few moments in Mormon that made me a little queasy, including the AIDS-related material and the way the onstage murder of one of the minor characters is handled. But when all is said and done, this show is remarkably successful at achieving its goals. Plus, it's an almost completely original book musical -- not a "jukebox" show, not a revival or "revisal," and wonder of wonders, not based on a popular movie. These days, that counts for a lot.

    As it happened, the largely dispiriting fall of 2011 brought us at least one other excellent, original musical-- but this one had a limited run Off-Broadway, so a lot of people weren't aware of it. Michael John LaChiusa's Queen of the Mist, based on the true story of the first woman ever to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel (!), was one of the most moving theatrical experiences I've ever had, and it would have stood out as a very special show even in a stronger year. It's a sad sign of our times that this production of The Transport Group had a short life in the gym at Judson Memorial Church while the company's far inferior Lysistrata Jones, which had been previously staged in the same venue, received a Broadway transfer -- presumably because it was thought to be more "commercial." (How'd that work out for you guys?) On a happier note, Queen of the Mist is going to have a cast recording that will make its glorious score available to the public at large and will hopefully prompt many future productions.

    Hugh Jackman has probably done more to make musical theater seem "cool" again than any one other individual. That's what can happen when a hot-hot-hot movie star best known as an action hero returns to his stage roots in a concert show built around his talents as a song-and-dance man. Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway was one of the year's biggest hits, and deservedly so. The greatest testament I can give to the show is that I've sung its praises in writing (and in person to everyone I know) even though I found myself in the rare position of having to buy my ticket; because the production was considered a "theatrical concert" and therefore somehow ineligible for Tony, Drama Desk and other awards, only a limited number of critics and other theater journalists received press comps. So my rave is that of a paying customer who almost never has to pay for theater.

    Of course, there were dozens of top-drawer performances by exceptionally talented actors in shows that opened in 2011, including Tony winners (Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, Frances McDormand in Good People, Bobby Cannavale in The Motherfucker With the Hat) and non-Tony winners (Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad in The Book of Mormon, Tony Sheldon in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the entire cast of The Normal Heart). A flawed but still fabulous revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies was sparked by the work of leading players Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, and Ron Raines, as well as thrilling turns by Elaine Paige, Terri White, Jayne Houdyshell, and opera veteran Rosalind Elias. The year also brought us several fine performances in less than worthy vehicles; a complete list would be miles long, but some of the most prominent examples were Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan in Bonnie & Clyde (God, I hate that ampersand!), Tyne Daly in Master Class, Donna Murphy in The People in the Picture, and Beth Leavel in the execrable Baby, It's You!.

    As always, some of the best shows of the year were seen Off-Broadway. Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet, a beautiful play in and of itself, was further beautified in the Roundabout's production at the Laura Pels by an exquisite performance from Santino Fontana, who has come into his own as one of New York's finest actors after surviving an extremely unfair and unfortunate incident that caused him to leave the company of the 2010 revival of A View From the Bridge during rehearsals. (Don't ask.)

    Nothing is more powerful than a well-done piece of agitprop theater, and Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was very well done, indeed. This exposé of the dark side of the Apple, specifically the horrific working conditions at the company's huge factory in China, was so disturbing that I did as instructed by a sheet of paper in the program and wrote to Apple to urge that steps be taken to ameliorate the situation a.s.a.p. (Yes, I received a boilerplate response, and yes, I wrote back to say that a boilerplate response was useless and especially shameful given the seriousness of the situation.)

    Audience response to Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays was rapturous. Most of the brief playlets in this collection were hilarious, yet still managed to make cogent points about marriage equality. Truly side-splitting were the two entries written by Paul Rudnick and featuring the comic force of nature that goes by the name of Harriet Harris; another gem was a piece that Doug Wright adapted largely verbatim from an actual thread on Facebook. The two more serious playlets, by Neil LaBute and Moisés Kaufman, brought some gravitas to a program that was, for the most part, wonderfully light and very, very funny.

    There were lots of other delights to be found Off-Broadway, and even Off-Off-Broadway. One of the most delightful could almost be viewed as a Christmas present, since it opened on December 4: The Peccadillo Theater Company's production of the classic Kaufman and Hart comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner, praiseworthy for the stellar work of Jim Brochu and a strong cast as well as for Broadway-caliber set design, costumes, and lighting -- all of this for an extremely low ticket price. I don't know how they did it.



    In theater -- as in every other facet of life -- there's bad, and then there's BAD. Worst of all in my opinion are plays and musicals that treat a deadly serious subject so ineptly, with so little talent evident on the part of the creators, that the results are deeply offensive. Don't get me wrong: The jukebox musical Baby, It's You! was a worthless enterprise that should never have been produced on Broadway or, for that matter, in a community theater in West Podunk. But that show is about the rise and fall of the '60s girl group The Shirelles, not exactly a subject of tremendous import. So I didn't hate it with the white-hot passion that characterized my hatred for Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, a sophomoric sit-com about the last night in the life of Martin Luther King. The silly script does take a serious turn in its final half hour or so, but it's too little, too late, and it has the effect of making what came before seem even sillier in retrospect.

    The three "comedies" that make up the program of one-acts titled Relatively Speaking variously concern a man who's in prison for killing his parents; a long-married woman who turns out to be useless and unbearably needy in the wake of her husband's death; and a middle-aged loser who runs away with his son's bride at the wedding. The problem is not that such subjects can't be treated comedically to great effect, but it takes something of a genius to pull off this sort of thing; and while Ethan Coen, Elaine May, and/or Woody Allen may be placed in that category based on any number of their past achievements, the plays they came up with for Relatively Speaking are not works of genius, to put it kindly. This show is from hunger.

    Sometimes, bad shows have a longer life than they deserve, and sometimes they close in a flash, the victims of deservedly terrible reviews and poisonous word of mouth. Relatively Speaking opened on October 20 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and is still running. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark should have gone dark months ago, but it's still darkening the Foxwoods Theater. (God, I hate that name!) On the other hand, Matthew Lombardo's High -- all about a foul-mouthed, ex-drug-addict nun (Kathleen Turner) charged with counseling a young druggie who at one point strips off all of his clothes for no other reason than to sell tickets -- only managed to stagger through 29 previews and seven performances at the Booth in April. And the noisy, enervating disaster that was Frank Wildhorn's Wonderland had a blink-and-you-missed-it run at the Marquis before yielding that theater to Follies. Talk about going from the ridiculous to the sublime!

    Beyond Broadway, I saw at least three plays that made me angry. Wild Animals You Should Know, by Thomas Higgins, is partly about a scout master facing sexual abuse allegations by one of the scouts; but the fact that the aggressively seductive "boy" in question was played by an actor who looked to be in his mid 20s, rather than the young teenager specified by the script, muddled whatever point Higgins was trying to make and lent an extra-creepy air to the proceedings. The New Group presented Burning, a literally outrageous play by Thomas Bradshaw, and I still haven't decided which parts of this awful thing were most disgusting: The neo-Nazi finger-fucking his disabled sister to orgasm? The 15-year-old boy being "adopted" by two middle-aged gay men who then proceed to have sexual threesomes with him? So many possibilities! And I'm sorry that I saw a staged reading of Consent, by Frank J. Avella. I attended because I was led to believe that the play concerned the tragedy of anti-gay bullying among teenagers, but it actually has almost nothing to do with that. Instead, it's about a bunch of adults taking sexual advantage of a minor -- another deadly serious issue, but here handled in such a smutty way that I wanted to take a shower after the performance.

    Finally, I must note what I perceive to be an alarming decline in critical standards. Several pieces of theatrical trash received some positive reviews this year, and that's pretty damned scary, if you ask me. So I was glad that Entertainment Weekly's review of "The Worst Theater of 2011" included not only shows that were almost universally savaged by the critics but also Relatively Speaking, Burning, and a few other horrors that garnered good notices from people who should know better. Thanks, EW!

    Published on Saturday, December 31, 2011

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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