The Best Theater Of 2019: Broadway And Beyond – Forbes

Posted in Tattoo Nightmares on Jan 03, 2020

Larry Owens and company in 'A Strange Loop'

Its been a weird, watery year on the Rialto. Broadways hit-or-miss output over the last twelve months seemed to reflect the distorted nature of our national discourse. If the stage is meant to hold a mirror up to reality, attending the theater in 2019 indeed felt like playing Russian Roulette in a busted-up funhouse.

Marquee shows, in development for a decade, set premature closing dates and hemorrhaged money - unless they were Moulin Rouge! or To Kill a Mockingbird. Meanwhile, uncompromising underdogs broke box office records - that is, when they didnt crash and burn. Some producers even managed to have a foot in both worlds; the Beetlejuice team brought necromancy back in a big way, rescuing their D.O.A. show and turning it into one of the falls biggest hits...until they ran afoul of Broadways own grim reaper.

The industry at large is undergoing a long, slow market correction. Since 2015, Broadway has broken its own box office record each year. Then came 2019: depressed grosses, an unusually large number of premature closures, and investor losses tallying well over $100 million. According to numbers provided by the Broadway League, box office receipts shrank by about 4% in 2019, a difference of $67 million.

What do we make of that? Honestly, not much. (At least not in the way of ominous trends and portent; $67 million is still a tidy sum to leave on the table). While mavens do love reading tea leaves, Broadway is reliant on fresh content as much as old hits, and this years crop just didnt wow buyers. It also came on the heels of a historic parade of megahits like Hamilton, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Hello, Dolly! and Bruce Springsteens residency, which amped sales past reasonable expectations.

With its liberal patina, high cost barrier, and the sheer amount of flawed content up for consumption, Broadways most direct national corollary may be the Democratic primary field. Just as Democratic voters seem unable to rally behind a single candidate, so too did creative teams struggle to produce coherent visions in 2019. For every satisfying whole, there appeared half a dozen others with stand-out elements but no binding spine. Other critics have noted this disparity, and found more consummate satisfaction, as I did, in the wilder world of Off-Broadway theater.

(This may be where the metaphor falls apart - I dont know where Off Broadway fits into the Democratic debate. One wants to suggest the unregulated fringe of Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson, but the best of Off Broadway is, you know worthwhile.)

2019 was also a weird one for me as a journalist, at least when it comes to a year-end roundup. Turns out pursuing a Masters on nights and weekends cuts into ones time at the theater, so I missed several of the years most ballyhooed productions, which occupy spots on many other Best Of lists. And as always, I omit from mine any production in which I have a financial stake. (Sorry, The Inheritance you know I love you, boo).

Also of note: two of my favorite 2019 Broadway productions were on my list last year, when I saw them downtown, so I wont include them here but that doesnt mean they arent stellar. Slave Play and What The Constitution Means to Me managed to transmute radical passion into mainstream cred (not to mention box office gold).

If they are any indication, perhaps theres still hope for those voters, er, audience members looking for the full package. With that in mind, and in no particular order, here are my thoughts on the bestbang for your theatrical buck.

Karen Kandel, Ismenia Mendes, Quincy Tyler Bernstine in 'Marys Seacole'

Fairview and Marys Seacole

A double whammy from one of the best writers in the biz. Jackie Sibblies Drury won the Pulitzer for Fairview, an extraordinary, subversive exploration of race and appropriation in America. But Marys Seacole is, if anything, even more moving: a phantasmagoric look at domestic and emotional labor through the centuries, and the women especially those of color responsible for it all. One of few playwrights to whose shows I will buy tickets sight unseen.

Derren Brown: Secret

Maybe the sole Broadway show here that defies description, if only to keep the mind-blowing surprises unspoiled. You really do have to be there. Catch it before it closes this weekend.

A Strange Loop

Where does one even begin? At once impossibly solipsistic and wonderfully accessible, this musical about one lone black gay boy who chose to turn his back on the Lord (written by said boy, about his experience writing said musical) is unlike anything that graced New York this year. The scores intricacy and lyricism call to mind Sondheims best, but Michael R. Jackson is in a league of his own when it comes to challenging power structures, whether they be Broadway producers or Tyler Perry.

Jeb Kreager, John Zdrojeski, and Zo Winters in 'Heroes of the Fourth Turning'

Heroes of the Fourth Turning

If the theater industry is the Democratic Primary, Will Arberys Heroes of the Fourth Turning is the candidate many feel is missing: one that grapples, uncompromising, with the most virulent elements of the far-right and shows that humanizing your demons doesnt mean ceding victory to them. Bracing, terrifying, satisfying.

Douglas

Hannah Gadsby has autism. We know this because she tells us over and over during Douglas, a fab follow-up to her sensational Nanette. The show is omni-faceted: a dizzying deconstruction of boundaries, categories, and expectations, fueled by anger at those who maintain them. A favorite target is the anti-vaxx movement, and its claim that vaccines cause autism. I happened to be seated beside a person who, it became clear, was an anti-vaxxer, and did not realize what shed signed up for. The tension in the room as Gadsby took the movement to task was the most delicious sensation I experienced all year.

Danny Burstein in 'Moulin Rouge!' on Broadway

Moulin Rouge!

I love me a titular exclamation point, even if it creates a nightmare for copy editors. I also love me a show that delivers on Broadways glitziest promise: consummate, dazzling spectacle. The 10-minute opening number alone is worth the price of admission. Also, Tam Mutu, who plays the villainous Duke, is so damn good that youll likely find yourself rooting against the heroes - and loving it.

Oklahoma!

Another exclamation point! And in service of an entirely different brand of enthusiasm. While Moulin Rouge! delivers big mainstream pizzazz, Oklahoma! offers the equally necessarily evisceration thereof. Director Daniel Fish took a classic piece of Americana and, without altering a single lyric, used it to expose the dark underbelly of our nations history. At once a celebration of community and an excoriation of tribalism, it set a new standard for revivals.

Alfie Fuller and Antoinette Crowe-Legacy in MCC Theater's BLKS

BLKS

Aziza Barness playwriting debut is funny, humane, sexy, and unapologetic in its love for its characters. To paraphrase one of them, it's queer, black as f**k, and magically surreal. With its productions of BLKS, The Light, School Girls, and others, MCC Theater is doing real work to change what New York theater is "supposed" to be, and for whom.

Individual Standouts

Much of the excitement this season came in bursts: standout performances, great scores, beautiful lyrics not always at the same time. Adrienne Warren is the reason to see the Tina Turner bio-musical. Adam Driver and Marisa Tomei both towered over solid revivals of Burn This and The Rose Tattoo. Julie White was immaculate as a traumatized clown in the divisive Gary, upstaged only by a fabulous kickline of undead penises. (Yes, really). The Wrong Man had one of the decades best scores in search of a book to match it. And Jagged Little Pill is great fun, but Lauren Pattens You Oughta Know is such an ecstatic high point that the rest of the show feels like a launch pad designed to spring her right into her first Tony.

Amber Gray in Best Musical winner 'Hadestown'

Also Excellent

A quick rundown of some other shows that moved me throughout the year, and are surely featured in the top spots of other 'Best Of' lists:

Hadestown: Sumptuous and poignant, with some of the best performances on a Broadway stage. (And that very much includes the Tall Chorus Guy.)

True West: A terrific revival of a claustrophobic fraternal duel. Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke balanced Sam Shepards innate menace with deep, necessary humor.

Freestyle Love Supreme: By nature difficult to pin down, as its improvised fully each night. But the talent involved especially standout Utkarsh Ambudkar is unimpeachable.

Choir Boy: Never have I been more upset that a show did not make a cast recording. The play is great, but the score by Jason Michael Webb is truly astonishing.

In addition to his work as a journalist, Lee Seymour is also a co-producer of The Inheritance on Broadway.

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The Best Theater Of 2019: Broadway And Beyond - Forbes

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