All said, it was only an OK year for New York City’s theater scene. The highs were mostly mid-range high and the lows were mid-range low. There wasn’t even anything terribly flawed to enjoy eviscerating (well, unless we want to beat a dead goose and continue to bemoan the overblown “Snow Geese”).
But there was always at least one item playing that we would happily recommend to our theater-savvy friends and family — as well as something for those who weren’t looking for theatrical gold and just wanted directions toward an over-the-top, family-friendly, expensive slice of the Great White Way (“Matilda”).
And there were some saving graces, singular high spikes on an otherwise even-keel readout. Here’s our Top 10 (in no special order):
This show is more than its content, a tragic love story torn from the pages of “War and Peace.” The fun of it is in the experience, which takes place in a pop-up tent that serves as Kazino Dinner Club. You dine, you drink (vodka, of course), you play musical instruments and you may even gab with the characters in this immersive musical that grabs and wrenches your heartstrings from its opening act. But, oh, you’ll laugh, too.
2. “Fun Home”
A new musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name, this off-Broadway Public Theater play may have been the best work, in terms of its consistency and solidity, of the entire year. Both lyrical and brusque, it tells the story of a young girl’s coming-of-age, her sexual awakening and her quest to uncover family secrets after the abrupt suicide of her achingly beloved father.
The story of Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos was never told like this — with the audience literally getting on its feet for every show and dancing along with the music pouring out of a crazy-talented ensemble, not to mention the show-stopping Ruthie Ann Miles. Our reviewer even asked of the work done by creator David Byrne and director Alex Timbers: Is this the future of theater? Based on the fanatical reception and numerous extensions this Public Theater show received, we might have to hope that the answer’s yes.
This revival managed to take a dated story of a purposeless prince and his quest for meaning, and turn it into an extravagant affair. The big thrills came from circus performances incorporated into every number, and of course Leading Player Patina Miller pulled all the stops, from insane vocal chops to acrobatic stunts. Special and commercial at the same time, it felt like we were finally seeing it the way “Pippin” was always meant to be staged.
5. “After Midnight”
This relative late-comer broke up a slight lull that occurs when the stage world starts to slow down for winter. Starring Dule Hill and Fantasia, this 90-minute compilation of sketches is held together by the poetry of Langston Hughes and celebrates the Jazz Age in Harlem. The dancing is peak, the songs reminisce of a bygone era, and the production altogether celebrates a purely American heritage of music and movement from our very own New York City.
6. “The Laramie Project Cycle”
Commemorating 15 years since the slaying of gay youth Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, BAM revived Moises Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project” (1999) and its companion piece “Ten Years Later” (2009), staging them in repertory for an almost dauntingly emotional and profound juxtaposition. With all of the dialogue coming from true-to-life interviews and testimonies, this cycle allowed for of-the-moment rawness to hit home with the framing of distance and perspective. Audiences who’d seen either work before probably came away with something entirely new in 2013.
7. “Kinky Boots”
Billy Porter essentially took over Broadway in 6-inch heels this year as a drag queen with plenty of lessons to learn and teach about acceptance, courage and triumph over adversity. The catchy music, by Cyndi Lauper, intrigued many — some numbers were booming anthems and some quieter ballads, quite capturing the singer’s celebrated repertoire and, though with a musical theater spin, sounding indubitably Lauperesque. Perhaps more importantly, this show opened a conversation about sexuality, gender identity and human rights, even as recently as the controversy sparked by the show’s performance during Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which some conservatives believed was not appropriate family material.
8. “Big Fish”
Although based on a novel and movie of the same name, this musical managed to seem like a breath of fresh air next to stale family fare like “Annie.” Norbert Leo Butz seems like he was born to play a middle-aged father whose tall tales create detachment from his real-life relationships, especially his ultra-conservative son who strives to bridge the connection before it’s too late. The fantasies — witches, mermaids, werewolves, et al — come to life via an ornate set, gorgeous costumes and big, splashy musical numbers.
9. “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”
This one is what we’d like to call a “popcorn musical” — much like a “popcorn movie” where you just kick back and enjoy for entertainment’s sake. Bryce Pinkham plays a murderous gentleman who was raised poor and realizes that the only way to transcend his humble beginnings is to kill every heir to the family fortune until it becomes his. All eight of his victims are played by the amazing Jefferson Mays, whose physical comedy is worth the price of the ticket alone. Oh, and there’s a love triangle, too, that resolves in a way you might not see coming.
10. “No Man’s Land” / “Waiting for Godot”
There was no way that this repertory engagement wouldn’t be amazing. It starred Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Patrick Stewart in absurdist plays where they’re alternately best friends and bitter rivals! Just like in real life! (OK, not the bitter rivalry part — that only happened in “X-Men.” In real life they are just two unbelievably adorable buddies that we wish we could adopt as our grandfathers, no offense to our grandfathers.) We saw both in one day, and though the former was our favorite, the latter was also really good.
BONUS: Although not a play in the traditional sense, Matthew Bourne’s “Sleeping Beauty” was probably the best thing that happened to us in a theater this year. This ballet was gorgeous, riveting, technically challenging and utterly fresh. The sets, sound, costumes, lighting — and especially the cheeky storyline — all pulled together to create something truly original and utterly magical.