I saw a lot of live theater in 2019. 48 shows to be exact. 23 in Boston and 25 in New York.
It’s fair to say I did not love them all. But at least I liked more of them than I didn’t. So it was a good year for me and theater.
So without further ado, here is another end of the year top ten list that no one asked for. My top ten favorites out of the 48 shows I saw live on stage this past year.
10. Beautiful (Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston, January)
I love Carole King and expected this to be an entertaining night. But I didn’t expect to leave the theater so genuinely happy. People were dancing and singing in the aisles as we were leaving and there wasn’t one person I heard who had a complaint about the show. Carole King’s life is certainly worthy of reflection and the number of songs she wrote and co-wrote that you will recognize immediately is staggering. Sarah Bockel is proof that you don’t only get the best talent on Broadway. She brought the house down with every song and by the end of the night I forgot for a moment that she wasn’t actually Carole King.
9. Waitress (Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York, February and October)
I’ve seen Waitress three times. The first on tour and this year twice in New York. All three Jennas were great but Jordin Sparks lit up the entire theatre (and rocked a version of She Used to Be Mine that will have you sobbing in your seat). The true highlight for me, though, was getting to see Christopher Fitzgerald reprise his Tony-nominated (and Drama Desk Award-winning) role as Ogie. He takes the character who is, let’s face it, written like he’s a stalker and turns him into the sweetest most romantic guy in the entire show. His performance of Never Ever Getting Rid of Me produced one of the longest applause breaks I’ve ever witnessed on Broadway.Â
8. All My Sons (American Airlines Theatre, New York, May)
All My Sons is my favorite straight play ever written. I don’t even know why. It’s depressing and frustrating and has no real message along with possibly one of the most upsetting endings you’ll see on stage. But Arthur’s Miller’s script is tight and detailed. He wastes no time with patter. The most action on stage is people walking across the back yard. Yet any time I have the opportunity to see it performed, I jump at it. This year, getting to see Tracy Letts, Benjamin Walker and especially Annette Bening perform Miller is not an unappreciated gift. And the collective gasp of the audience filled mostly with folks who obviously didn’t know the ending was one of the best shared experiences I’ve had at a theater in ages.
7. Slave Play (Golden Theatre, New York, October)
I’m going to be honest here…I still have no idea how I really feel about this play two months later. Some of it was insanely funny and some was truly intense and some of it went WAY over my head. What I do know that the writing and the acting had me riveted for the two hours (without an intermission) I witnessed it. Jeremy O. Harris is an absolute genius when it comes to not only writing but pushing buttons. There was many the uncomfortable readjusting in chairs throughout the theater and the chatter as we left was peppered with both “that was brilliant” and “what the hell did I just watch?” I don’t know that I could watch it again but I’ve been telling anyone I think would be interested that it’s definitely worth taking in at least once.
Just saw the amazing @SlavePlayBway by @jeremyoharris after which a white audience member jumped up and accused him of being â€œracist against white people.â€ The confrontation proceeded from there. Clips in this thread. #slaveplay pic.twitter.com/KiXbo0rdcCâ€” Adam B. Kushner (@AdamBKushner) November 30, 2019
6. The Prom (Longacre Theatre, New York, March and July)
If not for the fact that I saw a lot of good theater this year, The Prom would be a lot higher on this list. It’s quite possibly the perfect musical. There aren’t enough good things to write about the cast. I love them all. The entire original cast album doesn’t have one weak song on it. Every song is memorable, every performance was entrancing, and the message (which is basically that everyone deserves to love, to be loved, and to dance with the one they love) resonates so incredibly strong, especially right now. After seeing it in March, I went back after they announced it would be closing. I could write thousands of words about how infuriating it is that original productions can’t sustain the audiences to keep them on Broadway while jukebox musicals are taking over but that’s for another day. I left my second trip to The Prom crying, both because of the uplifting way the show ends and because of the unfairness of it being on Broadway for less than a year.Â
As a Prom bonus please enjoy the first same-sex kiss ever shown on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade:
5. Hello Dolly! (Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston, August)
Hello Dolly! is what it is and you’re either going to love it or hate it…I love it and I loved it even more while watching Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi. She might move a little more slowly these days but her voice is still up there as one of the best ever on stage and there was never one moment where she didn’t look like she was having a hell of a time…as were we all.
4. Beetlejuice (Winter Garden Theatre, New York, May, July, August, September, October, November)
Six times. And by the time it gets booted out of the Winter Garden Theatre there is a good chance I’ll have seen it ten times. When I saw it for the first time in May I had two thoughts: The first being, if I had seen Alex Brightman in School of Rock maybe I wouldn’t have walked out on it at intermission. (Which I did when it was in Boston.) The second was, holy cow the rest of the cast has a lot of work to do to keep up with Alex Brightman. I liked it enough but didn’t think I LOVED it (although I loved Brightman’s performance). And then the cast performed on the Tonys. (You aren’t seeing this show on a lot of top ten lists this year but it was nominated for 8 Tony Awards and were it not for the bad luck of an absolutely stacked leading man category this year, Alex Brightman would have probably snagged his first Tony.) And THEN the original cast album was released. And I, along with about a million tweens and teenagers (I’m convinced I’m the show’s oldest fan), fell absolutely in love with Brightman and the rest of this wild and crazily talented cast. While it has it dark moments and a couple of songs that I usually skip over when listening to the album, the music is fun and catchy and I really just enjoy the hell out of it. I’ve had the good fortune to see Brightman each time I’ve returned to the Netherworld and what he brings to this show is almost intangible. (Sure he’s talented and charismatic, so is just about every other actor on Broadway.) There is just SOMETHING about him that draws you in and makes you want to stay. I understand the business behind why it’s happening but as lovely as The Music Man is (the show Beetlejuice is getting evicted for) Broadway will be a little less fun when this show gets pushed out in June.Â
3. Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish (Stage 42, New York, October)
I saw this with a friend who is both an actor and a huge musical theater fan and not one minute into Traditsye (Tradition) we were both bawling. Fiddler is another show where it’s been around so long you pretty much know if you love it or hate it. We were both fans of the original so it was a no-brainer for us to check this out. I’m not sure either of us expected to be as emotionally attacked as we were. We literally laughed and cried through the entire show. There were monitors with the English translation on either side of the stage and, honestly, there were only a few times when I felt it necessary to look at them. Every line, every song was presented with such passion and in many cases such an amazing amount of grace and sensitivity that it was easy to pick up on what was happening. I would not have gone to see this on my own (for no other reason than it wasn’t really on my radar) so I will be eternally grateful to my friend for bringing me along. It’s not an experience I’ll soon forget.
2. Oklahoma! (Circle in the Square, New York, October)
Holy cow, this show. I am not a fan of Oklahoma! in general. I like a couple of the songs and as a kid it helped me spell Oklahoma. That was about all the interest I had. Then last year I read about this show when it was off-Broadway and how it turned the original on its head and I REALLY wanted to see it. But getting tickets was crazy difficult so I put it out of my head, even when it hit Broadway. But the more I read about it (and about how some diehard theater fans hated it because of some changes that were made) the more I was hoping to see it before it closed. And when I got the chance I was so happy that I put aside my initial dislike of the original. The changes that were made are somewhat subtle (every song is there if not presented slightly differently than was originally intended) but make such a huge impact and the size of this particular theater and the way the stage is set make for a much more intimate experience than you’d expect from a Rodgers and Hammerstein show. As the show ended I remarked to my friend that everything the purists hated about it made me love it. Getting beer (water) sprayed on us and a nod at the end of the show, both from Damon Daunno (another actor who in any other year would have run away with the Tony he was nominated for but didn’t win), was the cherry on this dark and slightly disturbing sundae.
(Their performance here at the Tonys really doesn’t do justice to this remarkable cast.)
1. Choir Boy (SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, Boston, September)
When I left this show the first thing I wrote about it was it was the best show I had seen all year. And that still stands.
I will forever kick myself for not going to see it in New York but the incredible cast the SpeakEasy Stage Company presented this show with was just as worthy of my eyes as anything on the Great White Way. The outstanding cast, the marvelous use of music and dance, the heartbreaking story, it was almost overwhelming to watch. I cried, I laughed, I held my breath because I wasn’t sure what to expect next. Even with shows I love I don’t often think “this isn’t long enough” but with Choir Boy I could have just kept watching whatever else they wanted to share. If it returns to Boston, I’m there. I wish I could get as many people as possible to find this show and watch it. And I hope every actor in that production continues to get work because we are a much better society with talent like that on display.
Because there isn’t a good video of the Boston cast, I’m cheating and leaving you with the absolutely, ridiculously wonderful performance of the original Broadway cast on this year’s Tony Awards.