Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Top 10 Plays and Musicals

10. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Jefferson Mays gets the flashy roles — eight of them, in fact, playing the snooty heirs to an English title who are getting bumped off one by one by a disinherited relative. Bryce Pinkham gets only one role, as the family member doing the murdering, but he’s the charming linchpin of this polished, frivolous but enjoyable musical version of the 1949 Alec Guinness movie Kind Hearts and Coronets. The score by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak is likable in its old-fashioned, faux-operetta way, and Darko Tresnjak’s clever, fast-moving production shows that movies sometimes can be turned into decent musicals.

9. Macbeth

Shakespeare is having a banner year on Broadway: no fewer than four of the Bard’s plays have opened this fall,  but none as gripping as last spring’s one-man version of Macbeth, performed by Alan Cumming. The National Theatre of Scotland production is set in a mental institution, with Cumming as an inmate who performs all the roles himself, with some assistance from a bank of video screens and two hospital attendants watching over him. Cumming is furiously engaged and altogether extraordinary, and the oddball deconstruction seems perfectly suited to a tragic hero who reduces life to a “tale told by an idiot.”

8. Saint Joan

The plays of George Bernard Shaw don’t get revived much these days: too long, too talky, too dense with ideas and political arguments. But the downtown Bedlam theater company has brought his great 1923 drama about the 14th-century saint alive in a boldly stripped-down, amped up production. Just four actors (among them director Eric Tucker and Andrus Nichols as the strapping warrior maid) play every role, and the audience is required to get up and change seats several times to follow the action. Far from gimmickry, the intimate staging serves to focus the mind: Shaw’s epic clash of faith, the church and politics has never seemed so powerful or relevant.

Theater Review Natasha, Pierre the Great Comet of 1812
Chad Batka / The Harman Group / AP

7. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

Every audience member has a front-row seat (and some vodka and blinis for good measure) in this immersive musical based on, of all things, War and Peace. As the spectators dine and drink in a faux-Russian supper club, the actors weave through the tables to reenact the story of Natasha’s entry into Russian society, with a few stabs at Tolstoy’s more cosmic themes. The show tackles the vast narrative with appealing cheekiness, Dave Malloy’s pop-rock score is easy to listen to, and the whole experience leaves you feeling drunk on more than just the vodka.

6. Domesticated

What happens after the sex scandal? That’s the ripped-from-the-headlines topic of Bruce Norris’s sharp, funny and invigorating new play. Jeff Goldblum is the politician who has to resign office after being caught with a hooker; Laurie Metcalf is the wife who has to live with him afterwards. The play moves relentlessly forward, like a shark toward its prey, as it exposes the impossible divide between men and women — as mean as Mamet and twice as funny. Anna D. Shapiro’s excellent off-Broadway production would be a perfect candidate for Broadway, but a strangely sour review from the New York Times will probably kill that idea. Talk about a scandal.

5. The Flick

Three geeky employees at a faded movie revival house spend their days cleaning up the seats, gossiping about old films, arguing over who’s going to run the projector and wallowing in their own aimless lives. Annie Baker’s long (more than three hours), nearly plotless slice-of-life comedy (it’s like a cleaned-up version of Kevin Smith’s Clerks) tests an audience’s patience, but ultimately rewards it with a funny, touching and (in Sam Gold’s excellent production) oddly absorbing group portrait

4. Belleville

They seem like a typical young American couple living in Paris, dealing with the usual relationship problems and neurotic hang-ups. But as Amy Herzog’s disturbing play unfolds, the fabric of their lives come unraveled, piece by painful piece. Herzog, the author of Before the Revolution and 4000 Miles, has no peer at creating real, instantly recognizable characters and then turning their comfortable, ordered lives upside down. The play’s startling, almost melodramatic climax threw off some critics, but Herzog’s extraordinary craft and tragic vision are rare among contemporary playwrights.

3. The Model Apartment

Who knew that Donald Margulies, author of popular, easy-to-take comedy-dramas like Dinner with Friends and Collected Stories, had this dark, almost horrifying family play in his trunk? An elderly Jewish couple, just arrived in Florida, have to spend a night in the “model” apartment of their new condo complex. When an unwanted visitor shows up — the abusive, psychologically damaged daughter they’ve been trying to run away from — the night turns into a nightmare. After a brief off-Broadway run in 1995, the play has been remounted superbly by director Evan Cabnet, and features a shocking and brilliant performance by Diane Davis as the daughter.
Here Lies Love
Joan Marcus / The Public Theater / AP

2. Here Lies Love

In a year when “immersive theater” became the rage, this sung-through musical about the rise and fall of Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos forced its audience to stand for 90 minutes on a disco floor, as the stages and actors moved around and between them. I didn’t hear anybody complaining — we were all too entranced by David Byrne’s melodic song cycle, with its catchy mix of Latin, African and disco beats; and Alex Timbers’ inventive staging, which utilizes newsreel footage, video projections, pop backup singers and a disco deejay to tell the story. The show had an all too brief run at New York’s Public Theater, but it will surely be back — probably for a long time.
Matilda the Musical
Joan Marcus / Bryan-Brown / Boneau / AP

1. Matilda

Eight months after it opened on Broadway, and five months after it was passed over for Best Musical at the Tony awards (in favor of the more conventional crowd-pleaser Kinky Boots), this great show from London is still a marvel. The musical version of Roald Dahl’s story about a super-smart little girl who is misunderstood by almost everyone, including her appalling parents, is a children’s show for everyone: full of invention and high spirits, but edgy, unsentimental and never patronizing. Even better, the show is a box-office hit — proof you don’t have be a Kinky Boots to make Broadway audiences happy. Bertie Carvel got deserved raves for his cross-dressing turn as the slimy headmistress Miss Trunchbull. But every single performance and production detail, from the whimsical sets to Tim Minchin’s one-of-a-kind score, is lovingly crafted and right.

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