Lists such as these are as much a holiday staple as gingerbread, mistletoe and cable marathons of "It's a Wonderful Life."
The problem with them is that it's virtually impossible to see (or listen) to everything. Even full-time critics don't see every play produced, every movie made or (especially) every album released. So even though I see anywhere from 40-50 plays and musicals and cabaret shows every year, this is bound to be as incomplete as any other list out there. But it is fun to go back through my calendar and relive the highlights of the past 12 months.
One caveat: this list includes productions both in the Bay Area and New York. Arguably, some of what I saw in New York that is not on this list might be "better" than some of the Bay Area shows that are on the list, in part because of the budgets and talent available to Manhattan producers. But I firmly believe that when a company does something terrific despite the limitations they face, those barriers deserve to be taken into account.
Following then, in roughly ascending order, are the ten best things I saw on stage in 2014. (Grey text indicates a link to my full review.)
"Hedwig & the Angry Inch"
One could argue that a big Broadway venue like the Belasco is a poor fit with the living-out-of-a-van milieu in which Hedwig and her band find themselves in this Tony Award winner, but the explanation (that "Hurt Locker: The Musical" had closed after only one night, leaving the theater and its apocalyptic set available for rent at a deep discount) is hysterical, and Neil Patrick Harris had a ball with the role. The atmosphere in the theater was truly electric.
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
Mostly because of a tour-de-force performance by Christian Phillips as Big Daddy. Best acting I've seen on a Bay Area stage in years, maybe ever.
Beautifully-staged by the North Bay's best theater company, Cinnabar Arts, with a wonderfully rustic and ramshackle set, and terrific performances by Samson Hood and Keith Baker.
"A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder"
A musical farce in the style of an Edwardian music hall that was an absolute romp, made oh-so-pleasurable by stars Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham.
Berkeley Rep did a brilliant job with this play about belonging and otherness - if someone brings you in to their circle, are you still an outsider? Can we choose our tribes, or are they determined by forces larger than ourselves?
One of my favorite shows, brilliantly-staged at Studio 54. Alan Cumming goes at the role of the Emcee like a cat to a saucer of cream.
No matter how surrounded we are by our fellow travelers, no one else ever drives the exact same road. No one else can ever know - completely - what anyone else's journey is like, as this three-hander about the travails of long-haul truckers lays so powerfully bare.
"Fiddler on the Roof"
Another winner from Cinnabar Arts. Incredibly well-directed, and found its way right to the heart of this lovely story of longing and accepting.
"The Realistic Joneses"
Playwright Will Eno's Broadway debut was both brilliantly absurdist and strictly common-sensical. Completely original and totally compelling.
"Red-Eye to Havre de Grace"
A tale of Edgar Allen Poe's last days on Earth that is thrilling and imaginative and heart-breaking and funny. Not to mention honest and beautiful and strange. It was an experience that happened on so many different levels – emotional, intellectual, artistic, conceptual – that it’s one of the rare shows I’d see again immediately