Thursday, January 03, 2008

Top Ten Theatrical Experiences of 2007

It was a big year. In 2007, I estimate I took in some 60-70 live theatrical events: musicals, plays, concerts, cabaret acts. Some was brilliant, some was beastly. Here, in alphabetical order, were the 10 best:

• AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (Imperial Theater, New York)
Funny, tragic, multivalent -- and rich with incredible lines. A new classic for the American theatre.

• BLACKBIRD (Manhattan Theater Club, New York)
Wonderful performances from Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill, on another amazing set from MTC, plus a compelling, complex story by David Harrower.

• THE COAST OF UTOPIA (Lincoln Center, New York)
Stretching this a bit, since I saw the first two installments of Stoppard's troika in December of 2006, but since I finished the series in 2007, I'm counting it anyway. Although I can see how some might be disappointed in this last installment (it's a bit clunkier than the first two), taken as a whole, the production of "The Coast of Utopia" trilogy is one of the most stunning works of theater I've ever seen.

• FROST/NIXON (Bernard Jacobs Theater, New York)
If it weren't for the fact that the names are so familiar as politicians, the title of Peter Morgan's play could have been mistaken for a boxing match-up: Frazier/Ali. Mayweather/De La Hoya. It wouldn't be far off target, either, for the conflict at the heart of "Frost/Nixon" felt very much like a face-off between two heavyweights. And it was an enthralling battle.

• GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD (New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco)
There are theatrical experiences one has where the time you invest is repaid with interest: they persist in memory, and you recall them with pleasure, reliving the wonder or the laughter or the insight the performers gave you while you sat in the dark.

Connie Champagne’s 2007 effort, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” in which she appeared as Judy Garland, was just such an experience, transporting you into a world where Judy Garland is alive, well and still completely in love with music and performing. This is Garland as if aging had been suspended, but time continued to roll on, and she discovered new songs she could make her own. One might not think of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Aerosmith’s “Dream On” fitting within the Garland oeuvre, they sound exactly like the sort of thing she ought to have done had she lived.

This may have been the most brilliant bit of theater I’d seen since “I Am My Own Wife.” For the entire evening, I felt as if Garland herself, still hungry for the stage, had managed to project her essence into Connie Champagne in order to get just another hour or two in the spotlight.

Of course in one sense, the truth of Garland lies in artifice: she gave the public all she had, but ultimately her stage persona was still a work of art, and it is this tension between genuineness and artifice that made “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” so compelling to me. Champagne gave us a rare treat – a visit from a Judy Garland who would look at modern life and music in the way she might have had she been able to catch some real magic and stay 44 for ever.

• TIM HOCKENBERRY (The Plush Room, San Francisco)
His voice a cross between Joe Cocker and Randy Newman with a soup├žon of Tom Waits, Tim Hockenberry has real presence. It is a voice that has gravitas -- without seeming to be overpowering. He doesn't load his performances up with aural fireworks, but he always seems to be singing the truth. And that, I think, is very tough to come by.

• JACK GOES BOATING (The Public Theatre, New York)
The dramatic version of a piece of Sourpatch Kids candy -- on your first bite you say "wow, what is this?," but as you chew you discover the sweetness at the core. The big draw was Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I was surprised by the excellence of the entire cast.

• LOS ANGELES (Flea Theater, New York)
Katherine Waterston (Sam's daughter) was a revelation in the role of Audrey, a young woman lost in the shark tank of LA. As portrayed by Ms. Waterston, Audrey was gentle, fierce, intelligent, foolish, needy, bossy, impetuous and passionate -- all delivered with tremendous skill and feeling.

• PETER AND JERRY (Second Stage Theatre, New York)
For two reasons: Dallas Roberts's staggeringly brilliant performance, and Edward Albee's intricate re-imagining of his first produced play, "The Zoo Story," by revealing new levels of detail via another one-act play, "Homelife." Closed much too soon.

• SWEENEY TODD (American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco)
The production that finally turned me into a Stephen Sondheim fan. In John Doyle's brilliant pared-down staging (in which the nine-member cast is also the orchestra), I was transported into the grand guignol world of the penny-dreadful story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Looking forward to a great 2008!

1 comment:

Esther said...

I definitely agree with you about "August: Osage County."

I liked "Frost/Nixon" but I didn't love it. I actually liked Peter Morgan's writing in "The Queen" better. And you're right about comparing it to a boxing match. I especially loved Michael Sheen's great body language as Frost, especially when he's sitting in the chair doing the interviews, the way he leans forward and slouches.

I had a chance to see the "Sweeney Todd" tour in Boston. I really enjoyed. It was my first time seeing Sondheim on stage, and I love the score. But I've seen the DVD of Angela Lansbury's performance, and no one holds a candle to her. She has such great comic timing.