Friday, December 31, 2021

Best Productions of 2021

New York City theatre isn't completely back yet, especially with omicron scares cancelling shows right and left, but at least things are better than last year, when I had to write a list of the top 10 shows I did NOT get to see.

So now I'm back to my annual tradition of coming up with a list of the top shows I saw that opened this year in New York City. Obviously, my own adaptation of A Christmas Carol doesn't count, since it was in Trenton, and neither do virtual performances, though some of them were quite fun.

Here are my picks, in reverse order:

10. The Alcestiad - Magis Theatre Company lived up to its name with this magical outdoor production on Roosevelt Island this summer. Thornton Wilder's take on a Greek myth involving death and plague came alive with the ruins of a smallpox hospital providing the backdrop. It was a joy to behold.

9. King Lear - New York Classical Theatre decided to do William Shakespeare's most depressing tragedy this year, but with the happy ending rewritten by Nahum Tate. Once again, the outdoor setting added to the experience, though it also meant that my first two attempts to see the show were cancelled due to rain. The third time was a charm, and this show was nothing if not charming.

8. The Book of Moron - Robert Dubac's one-man show was closer to a stand-up comedy routine than your typical Off-Broadway fare, but it rose beyond simple jokes to become an engaging and thought-provoking piece of theatre. This was in part due to flawless direction by comedy legend Garry Shandling and a surprisingly innovative set designed by Melissa Burkhardt Moore. I'm glad I saw it.

7. Trouble in Mind - Alice Childress at last made it (posthumously) to Broadway with Roundabout's production of her most famous play, a backstage drama about actors rehearsing a dreadful script by a conveniently absent playwright. During intermission, I overheard one audience member say, "Chuck Cooper makes everything he's in even better." How true! Cooper's performance in the play is not to be missed, so if you haven't seen it yet, get your tickets. It's still playing, but only through January 9th!

6. Merry Wives - Jocelyn Bioh's adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor was the Public Theater's sole offering at the Delacorte this summer, but it was worth seeing, if for no reason other than Jacob Ming-Trent, who played the larger-than-life character of Falstaff. Bioh appropriately adjusted the text to make Shakespeare's comedy of rural life in England work when reset among African immigrants in contemporary Harlem. The sight of Ming-Trent as an overgrown man-child playing video games was not only a witty sight gag--it was amazingly appropriate for the character of Sir John Falstaff.

5. Flying Over Sunset - When James Lapine has a new play, it's usually worth seeing, and when it's got music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Michael Korie, you definitely want to be there. This imagined meeting of Aldous Huxley, Clare Boothe Luce, and Carey Grant at a rented Malibu beach house where they go on LSD trips together delivers both soaring melodies and beautiful stage pictures. It also features innovative choreography by tap master Michelle Dorrance. Harry Hadden-Paton, Carmen Cusack, and Tony Yazbeck all provide stellar performances that go beyond mere impressions of celebrities. This show is still playing at Lincoln Center, so get your tickets while you can!

4. Mrs. Warren's Profession - Gingold Theatrical Group scored again with their production of Bernard Shaw's devastating comedy about capitalism and prostitution, which turn out to be pretty much the same thing in this play. Karen Ziemba was able to shine in the title role, even when sharing the stage with other acting stalwarts like Raphael Nash Thompson and Robert Cuccioli. The more challenging roles in the play, however, go to the younger performers playing Vivie and Frank. Nicole King made her Off-Broadway debut as Vivie Warren, a "New Woman" whose enigmatic intelligence Shaw explored but thankfully never tried to solve. She was complimented by David Lee Huynh as Vivie's caddish love interest, Frank. Director David Staller made certain this production was just as charming as GTG's 2019 offering, Caesar and Cleopatra.

3. The Disciple - Thirdwing is a relative newcomer to NYC theatre. Their productions--which are sometimes live, sometimes virtual, and sometimes both--can be hit or miss. The Female Genius, a series of filmed shorts by Rachel Carey, provided the basis for this full-length play about author and philosopher Ayn Rand and her devoted much younger lover, Nathaniel Branden. Unlike some other plays about sexual exploitation by the famous and powerful, The Disciple finds nuance, in part by flipping traditional gender politics on their head, and showing a woman who is willing to be just as selfish and brutal as any man. Maja Wampuszyc is perfect as Rand, and Cameron Darwin Bossert plays Branden with both humanity and humor. Alas, the in-person show came and went without much fanfare, but fortunately, you can still see a filmed scene from it streamed through Thirdwing's website.

2. The Alchemist - The funniest new play of 2021 was Ben Jonson's old Jacobean comedy The Alchemist, made new again in a brilliant adaptation by contemporary dramatist Jeffrey Hatcher. Red Bull Theater Company, which has been remarkably active online during the pandemic, thankfully returned to the live stage with this side-splitting production directed by Jesse Berger. The cast featured Jacob Ming-Trent--who was so hilarious as Falstaff in this summer's Merry Wives--as well as Manoel Feliciano, Reg Rogers, Teresa Avia Lim, Nathan Christopher, Carson Elrod, Allen Tedder, Louis Mustillo, and Jennifer Sanchez (who literally shimmered in a costume designed by Tilly Grimes). Jonson's play is hysterical, but its cast of 12 (plus assorted extras) makes it difficult to produce for a professional company. Hatcher did a great job getting to the core of the humor while also reducing the cast size and making the play feel topical for those of us living through the plague of the 21st century.

1. The Streets of New York - Of all the New York companies that took their work to the virtual world to keep theatre alive during the pandemic, none were more prolific and innovative than Irish Repertory Theatre, which experimented boldly with the online format, and frequently with great success. I intensely looked forward to their return to the live stage, though, and was greatly pleased when they announced that they would be performing Dion Boucicault's The Streets of New York, especially after they had done such a magnificent revival of the same author's comedy London Assurance. What I was not expecting was for the show to be a musical! Director Charlotte Moore provided a number of delightful songs to transform Boucicault's classic melodrama into a holiday treat. She couldn't have done it, however, without a delightful cast that includes Ben Jacoby, David Hess, Justin Keyes, Jordan Tyson, Ryan Vona, Delaney Westfall, and (most winningly) Amanda Jane Cooper. It's still playing until January 30th, so be sure to grab tickets.

That's my list! Honorable mentions go to Blackbird, Radium Girls, and The Overcoat. Let's hope the virus recedes soon, and we can have a more robust season in 2022!