Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best and Worst Shows of 2011

In retrospect, 2011 was marked by some pretty extraordinary shows, including the biggest hit musical to play Broadway in 10 years, a return visit from a really hot matinee idol and a stunning revival of a Sondheim classic. Of course, it also had its fair share of disasters.

The Best:

1. The Book of Mormon – Just try to getting tickets to this thoroughly hilarious send-up of religion. In spite of the curse words, this is anupbeat, even sentimental musical that combines Rodgers & Hammerstein, powerhouse ballads and tap dancing.

2. Follies –Eric Schaeffer’s lavish revival of Sondheim’s masterful 1971 musical, about former showgirls and their husbands reuniting at their old theater on the eve of its destruction, is truly an embarrassment of riches and exceptional performances.

3. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying – By turning himself into a genuine musical comedy star, Daniel Radcliffe performed a feat of magic greater than anything he ever did at Hogwarts. Look for Darren Criss to take over for him, followed by Nick Jonas.

4. Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway – Simply put, he’s the ultimate entertainer. Backed by a large orchestra and some back-up girls, Jackman paid tribute to Broadway and Hollywood musicals, Peter Allen, the Australian Aborigines and auctioned off his sweaty undershirt for big bucks.

5. Sleep No More – It’s “Macbeth,” sort of. This immense, nonlinear and sensory-based theatrical experience combines narrative elements of Shakespeare with Hitchcockian noir, modern dance, masquerade and the theatricality of a haunted house. Wear comfortable shoes.

6. War Horse – The new Spielberg film is nowhere near as moving as the stage version, which depicts Joey and other horses through life-size puppets. This is tug-at-your-heart storytelling at its best.

7. The Normal Heart - Larry Kramer’s seminal AIDS drama hits you like a jackhammer. Twenty-five years since it premiered, its Broadway revival was political theater at its most passionate and urgent.

8. Once – This stage adaptation of the 2006 Irish film musical about a depressed singer-songwriter whose life is changed by an upbeat girl retains the film’s low-key style and romantic sentimentality while fleshing out its story. It will move to Broadway in the spring.

9. Other Desert Cities – As directed by Joe Mantello, an exceptional five-member cast (Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Thomas Sadoski, Rachel Griffiths and Judith Light) turns Jon Robin Baitz’ family drama into a portrait of regret and denial that is as entertaining as it is emotionally cathartic.

10. Sons of the Prophet – Stephen Karam’s truly moving new play is a heartfelt, topical and really funny look at a 29-year-old, gay, Lebanese-American male dealing with overwhelming family trauma and mysterious medical problems.

The Worst

1. Relatively Speaking – This truly dreadful triple-bill of comedy sketches by Woody Allen, Ethan Coen and Elaine May sports a pretty strange cast including Marlo Thomas and Steve Guttenberg. Stay far away.

2. Happy Hour – Three more awful one-acts by Ethan Coen staged Off-Broadway. Again, stay far away.

3. Dracula – The famous Gothic drama received a cheesy, horribly staged Off-Broadway revival. Take pity of Broadway veteran George Hearn, who played Val Helsing.

4. Zarkana – Sad but true, the Tony Awards got kicked out of Radio City Music Hall for this nonsensical Cirque du Soleil spectacle featuring a Wheel of Death and a baby with six arms inside a jar. Unfortunately, it’s coming back this summer.

5. Baby, It’s You – This jukebox musical based on the pop songs of The Shirelles was one of the least satisfying of the genre thanks to the poor construction of its book and undeveloped characters. At least it made “Mamma Mia!” look good by comparison.