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Another year has come to pass, and with it, another outstanding year on the stage. From A Little Life to Merrily We Roll Along, these were the best plays and musicals of 2023.
A Doll's House
There's always that nagging question when a classic is revised: Do I need to see this again? When it came to director Jamie Lloyd's revival of A Doll's House, starring Jessica Chastain and Arian Moayed, the answer was a resounding yes. Here, Henrik Ibsen's story of a woman who struggles in her seemingly perfect life, was given a sparse and modern makeover, underscoring the timelessness of its story and proving that at nearly 150 years old, this classic can still pack a punch.
A Little Life
One of the year’s most sought after tickets and an epic almost four hours of pain, friendship, and love. A standout cast—especially James Norton as Jude—carried rapt audiences along. Now fans await news of a stateside production.
A Streetcar Named Desire
It was really the year of Paul Mescal, and his electric and hot Stanley Kowalski in Rebecca Frecknell’s stripped-down production at the Almeida (and later in an immediately-sold-out limited run on the West End), only solidified the 27-year-old dreamboat as the best import from Ireland since Lucky Charms. Mescal got butts in seats, sure, but Frecknell and her Blanche (the ever-disarming Patsy Ferrin) scored a home run, giving gave us a take on Streetcar that felt refreshingly new, as if seeing it for the first time.
There's something to be said for theater that isn't necessarily easy. Bruce Norris's Downstate falls into that category. The Pam MacKinnon-directed Off-Broadway production of the play, about a man who confronts his childhood abuser, who's living in a home with others convicted of similar crimes, grapples with issues of forgiveness, revenge, compassion, and the half-life of anger. Thanks to sharp writing and marvelous performances from a cast including Francis Guinan, Tim Hopper, K. Todd Freeman, and more, it uses a difficult situation to reveal important truths about who we are as people.
Guys & Dolls
Earlier this, Peter Marks wrote in T&C that "Guys & Dolls is the Best Bet in Musical Theater" and he wasn't wrong. The over-the-top immersive production at the Bridge Theatre in London proved once again that the musical—which first premiered on Broadway in 1950—remains important, exciting, and very, very enjoyable. Our advice is to book standing tickets on the floor, putting you smack in the middle of the action and providing an up-close look at the unforgettable performances, including Marisha Wallace's mesmerizing Adelaide.
Here Lies Love
There's no doubt that the story of Imelda Marcos and the ups and downs faced by the Philippines during the 20th century have just the kind of drama to fuel a Broadway show. Add to the mix music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, costumes by Clint Ramos, and an ingenious moving set by David Korins that turned the ho-hum Broadway Theatre into a true destination for one of the year's most inventive and exciting productions.
Here We Are
It's been nearly two years since Stephen Sondheim, that towering titan of American culture, died, yet he stills seems to be everywhere—on Broadway, on the West End, in concerts, and most recently, at the Shed. That's where Here We Are, a new, almost-finished musical with music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by David Ives, is running in an exhilarating production starring a just-pinch-us cast including Bobby Cannavale, Micaela Diamond, Amber Gray, Jin Ha, Rachel Bay Jones, Denis O’Hare, Steven Pasquale, David Hyde Pierce, and Jeremy Shamos, among others. Is it a perfectly polished piece? Absolutely not. But it's a thrilling, strange, thought-provoking lightning bolt for theatergoers—and perhaps the last of its kind to ever be seen again.
Just For Us
When Alex Edelman began performing Just For Us at small theaters downtown, he became a word-of-mouth phenomenon. The one-man show, which tells the story of Edelman himself deciding to combat his bigoted internet trolls by (no joke) infiltrating a meeting of white nationalists, was timely, smart, and very, very funny. It's no surprise Edelman quickly outgrew those theaters and found himself with a hit on Broadway—and perhaps it should be equally unsurprising that his story, which uses his sharp humor to address the trench warfare that being online entails, remained timely and perhaps more illuminating than any other comedy around. We can't wait to see what he'll do next.
Merrily We Roll Along
Merrily We Roll Along has long been thought of as a problem. The songs by Stephen Sondheim are, of course, marvelous but the story—about three friends, told backwards over the course of the decades that bring them together and tear them apart—has never been known to work perfectly. Until, perhaps, now. Director Maria Friedman's production, which stars Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff, and Daniel Radcliffe, is cool and charming, giving the unforgettable music a solid story to play against, and proving once and for all that a near-perfect Merrily is not only doable, but is being done right now.
The City Center Encores series continued its winning streak—see: Into the Woods and Parade—with an excellent young and energetic cast alongside veteran performers like Mary Testa and Raul Esparza. Barba as Fabian? Yes! More please.
When the Michael Arden-directed revival of Parade—Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's 1998 musical about the alleged crimes and untimely death of Leo Frank, a Jewish-American man in early 20th-century Georgia—first landed at New York City Center, the general consensus was get this thing to Broadway! And to Broadway it went, earning six Tony Award nominations (and two wins, thank you very much), becoming one of the most engrossing and important shows of the year, and giving Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond the chance to give two of the season's most spellbinding performances.
Many people will go see Janet McTeer in anything—and they certainly did to see the brilliant actress in Simon Stone’s take on Euripides at the National Theatre. She, as always, did not disappoint. And there is something happening with glass boxes in theater. Stay tuned.
“Even though I wanted this to happen much earlier,” Leslie Odom Jr. told T&C earlier this year, “I now think this is the perfect time to take the play off the shelf—before someone in the country decides to try to ban it.” He's correct that the timing for Purlie Victorious, the Kenny Leon-directed revival of the Ossie Davis-written play, feels right. But that could be because a bad time to see a smart, sharp, insightful, and brilliantly entertaining comedy like this—starring the impossibly charismatic pairing of Odom and Kara Young—just doesn't exist.
Despite a production with some of the catchiest songs on stage this season, it's important to note that Stereophonic is not a musical. Instead, it's a play (written by David Adjmi and directed by Daniel Aukin) with songs (by Arcade Fire's Will Butler)—an important distinction. Less tricky is the charm of the piece, which follows a 1970s rock band on the brink of superstardom as they record their sophomore album and attempt to grapple with success, fame, and the troubles that come with each. It's a remarkable production in how thoroughly it explores its characters and allows them to develop, foregoing a forced plot for the slow-burn drama of everyday life; decidedly music to our ears.
Who’d have thunk that a one-time Pussycat Doll would end up giving one of the most dynamic and exciting performances of the year—as Norma Desmod, no less, in a revival of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical. But everything about Jamie Lloyd’s reenvisioning of the show is dynamite, including the multiple somersaults said Pussycat Doll, a.k.a. Nicole Scherzinger, does in the second act. Give her all the awards, and see this hilarious and clever production before it closes January 6, even if you have to do your own somersaults to get tickets.
It's difficult to believe that this blockbuster revival of everyone's favorite musical about a murderous barber is only the third to ever hit Broadway. Maybe that's because the story has become part of pop culture, or maybe it's just because this Tommy Kail-directed production—currently starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, a marvelous pair; Aaron Tveit and Sutton Foster will replace them in January—is so big, bold, and (sorry) bloody enjoyable that it seems to set a new standard for telling the tale.
The Park Avenue Armory is reliably one of the most exciting cultural institutions around—lending its massive square footage to unexpected artistic endeavors from around the world. And while bringing over a play from the West End might not sound so daring, the New York production of The Doctor—adapted and directed by Robert Icke—was indeed just that. Starring Juliet Stevenson, the play tells the story of an emergency-room decision that changes the life of the woman who made it and that of countless people around her. It was a big, brainy show that asked questions about faith, family, and who's really looking out for us, and was a reminder that theater can truly help us see parts of the world to which we might otherwise be blind.
Written by Succession scribe Lucy Prebble, this drama at London's National Theatre follows two young subjects in a drug trial (Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell) as they experience what's either true love or some very strong side effects. As directed by Jamie Lloyd, it's a sharp, insightful look at modern medicine and the way we deal with our emotions, and a thrilling showcase for an exceedingly strong cast.
Uncle Vanya is having a moment. Lincoln Center will be producing a Lila Neugebauer-directed version starring Steve Carell and Alison Pill in the New Year, and a floating revival presented in New York City apartments was recently the toast of the town. Across the pond, Andrew Scott recently performed a stunning one-man version of the Chekhov play that not only brought new meaning to the work, but showcased the actor's humor, versatility, and stamina.
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