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12/29/14

A Plethora of Theatre Things I Loved in 2014, Part One!

2014 is almost over y'all! Time to eat as much food as possible before that New Years diet kicks in (or if you're me, screw dieting!), file your Playbills away accordingly and reflect. Reflection, darling readers...reflection. While the outlook for 2015 looks a little dim on the theatre front (more on that later), this year delivered up a lot to take-in and I'm ready to declare it one of my favorite years of theatre-going. Hence, two parts for my annual best-of...congrats 2014, you deserve it. Hit it, memories!
 
The Philharmonic’s Tale of Sweeney Todd
 
While Sweeney Todd is a cherished favorite of mine, it took my pal (Caroline, as you probably guessed) to convince me to accompany her to this Philharmonic production. An expensive, rear-balcony on an angle seat later, and there I was...salivating over everything. I don’t know if the Philharmonic was drunk or trolling the fuck out of us, but the opening number had the CAST FLIPPING OVER A PIANO AND REVEALING A GRAFFITI'D WALL AND SHED SOME COSTUMING LAYERS AND…WHAT EVEN IS THIS? Not gonna lie though, it gave me life and totally distorted my perception of what a Philharmonic production is (I originally envisioned something more snooty and tight-arsed). But no, the production was done-up like a minimalist graphic-novel with the black & white color pallet and accents of red coming from Emma Thompson’s Mrs. Lovett dress and shawl (in addition to her costuming, I also adored her performance). And to no one’s surprise, Sondheim’s score coming out of that orchestra and being sung by that cast was pure, unfiltered amazeballs and I love speaking so fondly about that experience. That certainly taught me a lesson the next time I doubt the Philharmonic’s artistic integrity.
 
Barrett Wilbert Weed For Everything
 
You know, her hasty departure from Heathers: The Musical was shady as hell (seriously, did we ever get resolution of what happened there?). But when it comes to "young talent transcending the ranks,” look no further. Homegirl WERQed, belted and led Heathers to another dimension of awesome on her performance alone, my favorite of the entire year. And then, she followed it up with another good performance in Found: The Musical as Denise, the laid-back chick whom co-captains Found Magazine’s creation. Not bad for an early or mid-twenties actress trying to make a name for herself…hell, this is a banner year for ANY actress. Love me some Queen Barrett.
 
The Hunter/Akhtar Takeover
 
You know how some playwrights are kinda sorta famous for only one stellar play, but like, the rest of their output is average at best? That does not apply to Samuel D. Hunter and Ayad Ahktar, whom left a whole bunch of playwrights questioning their life choices after staging five top-tier shows in New York between the two of them. The former's The Few and Pocatello were offbeat and piled on the nuance in surprising ways. The latter's The Who and the What, the Broadway mounting of Disgraced (loved it then and loved it now) and The Invisible Hand take huge risks in depicting social and religious issues...and not only does he GO. THERE, his writing game nails it, minute-by-minute. Broadway and Off-Broadway can get overstuffed with a lot of playwrights trying to remain in the collective social conscious, but I don't believe these two gems are going anywhere anytime soon.
 
Ramin Karimloo’s Invasion
 
No disrespect to Victor Hugo and Les Miserables, but it never was one of my personal all-time favorite musicals. Definitely one of the better ones out there, that I can say, but I never quite understood why it gets revived every three minutes. This spring’s revival was a job well done as a whole, but it was Ramin Karimloo’s stunning voice - one that can rip open a hole to heaven causing a fuck-ton of angels to come pouring out - that made his portrayal of Jean ValJean one of the best leading man, roof-crashing, show-stopping performances I have seen to date and probably will ever see. His “Bring Him Home?” I nearly fell out of my chair as Ramin reduced me to a pile of tears and moisture and exuberant cheering…because how else do you respond to an, admittedly, beautiful song that has found it’s perfect vocalist? Our man Ramin is probably getting offers on every end of the world - and hell, his furlough from the West End is probably just about expired - but I hope he opts for more work about these parts.
 
The Wonder of Dinner With Friends
 
As a fan of Donald Margulies, a revival of Dinner With Friends, directed by Total Boss Pam Mackinnon, was only gonna yield great things. I’m so glad they didn’t disappoint me; Margulies words and story display a quiet confidence that age well. Mackinnon directed the show impeccably, helping guide the material as naturalistically as possible and not resorting to ostentatious theatre-ey mechanics or melodrama. To top it all off, Jeremy Shamos and Marin Hinkle decided to be the most flawless Gabe and Karen money could buy and helped make this Dinner a delicious (if harrowing and hard-hitting), production about the woes of two different marriages. Totes cool, single-spinsterhood, here I come!
 
In Which the World Finally Notices Alysha Umphress
 
If I ruled the world, I would have declared Ms. Alysha Queen of Everything Everywhere five years ago, right around the time she TOLD some boys OFF and RIFFED the FUCK out of “Too Much, Too Soon” in American Idiot. Like I could ever forget that…she was SLAYING before we found a word for it. After several years of the concert circuit, understudying and replacement roles, our lady diva is in ultra-fine form, pulling focus away from cute-hot dancing sailors, a full-piece orchestra and the not-plot of On the Town. And the fact that she is achieving all of that as Hildy is more credit to her...that character will never not look like she was drawn-up by a baby with a crayon. In an industry that prefers its gals to be of a particular look and size, I find it refreshing that Umphress’ future is looking brighter and will hopefully be capped off with a Tony nomination. Then again, she is so uniquely beautiful (bonus points for her stellar personal style!) and her voice so special that there was no way she was going to remain under the theatre-radar for a prolonged period of time.
 
Off-Broadway, Don’t Ever Change
 
Another year, another slew of Off-Broadway shows, new musicals in particular, so much better then their Broadway counterparts then I am convinced this isn’t a temporary trend, it’s a stable fixture of the industry. Heathers: The Musical was laugh-until-you-cry hilarious, dramatic and had a killer score and performances. Jasper in Deadland was masterfully directed and Ryan Scott Oliver’s music needs to be heard by ears everywhere. Fly by Night, in addition to being “stop-in-your-tracks” beautiful, made me ugly-cry so hard and long, I thought the other patrons were going to slip and fall on my puddles of tears. Found: The Musical was corky and modern and one of the rare instances when the book to a musical was worth keeping (and I do mean ‘rare’). The Fortress of Solitude featured some of the most subtle, yet emotionally impactful sequences to be found on stage anywhere. The upside to having all of these empty theaters on Broadway? Hopefully - not holding my breath, mind you - some of these shows will find their way to the big leagues and knock Broadway audiences dead. For now, we have Fun Home representing Off-Broadway’s finest this spring and these other gems can follow suit concurrently or thereafter. It’s fine; I’ll be patient. Their returns, in whatever capacity, are worth holding out for.
 
Idina Menzel and Idina Menzel in If/Then
 
I liked If/Then more then most other people, despite the producers being utterly confused as to the show’s existence ("Let’s do a Michael Grief musical with a shape-shifting set!" "No, let’s make people fall in love with Idina Menzel and give her 1,437 ballads. Because people don’t love her enough?”). Here’s the thing though…regardless of what you thought about the story (if you ask me, I thought its intentions were noble), I was utterly charmed by the Idina. That’s a lot coming from me considering I was never really a fan (oh stop your judgement, that is not an act of blasphemy). But when Idina is on fire and being a sorta bad-ass, sorta-awkward, sorta every-girl acting in two stories - and then Idina-belting a Tom Kitt score and not fainting from exhaustion (for the record, I get winded singing "I’m Alive" in my shower) - that’s how one earns an above-the-marquee star status. A lot of people knew that before I did and hey, kudos to them and kudos to Ms. Idina for living up to her pedigree of legendary performances (she was in the original casts of Rent and Wicked…maybe you’ve heard of them).
 
Team Tick Tick…Boom! Anyone?
 
Full candor, I don’t really see a large portion of the Encores! series. I’m cool with their existence, but their super short-runs are borderline-annoying and they never look more then a McGyver’ed industry performance designed to test the audience reception waters for a future run. Funny story though...the stars aligned, Tick Tick…Boom! took the NY City Center stage and Jonathan Larsen’s tale of a composer turning thirty and angsting all over the place was every bit as enthralling as I imagine it originally was. I’m a few years off that age and yet, I watched through splayed hands and nodded in agreement with every line and song - talk about getting struck right in the feelz. A doubly amazing feat considering that shit was written over 24 years ago and was originally conceived as a one-man show. In addition to being a love-letter to New York and to struggling artists, it was a blast to watch the cast give it their all. Leslie Odom Jr. and Lin-Manuel Miranda showed up to play and Karen Olivo returned to New York, diva-blasted “Come to your Senses” - which is like the highest level of diva possible - and left everyone clapping and crying and cry-applauding. If you didn’t get teary-eyed during that number or at some point in the show, check your tear-ducts because they are not working and I am concerned for your well-being.
 
 
Photo Credit: Chris Lee

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