It’s nearly the end of the year, and I have always wanted to properly write a top shows of the year list for a theatrical news source. Well guess what? I finally get to, and I am properly excited to share my favorites with you. Some are familiar pieces I’ve already gushed about, and some are ones I’ve yet to talk about on the site! Without further ado, here are my top 5 theatre-going experiences of 2018.
5. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Broadway, Lyric Theatre)
Like most kids who grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s, Harry Potter was a major part of my childhood and young adulthood, and I treasure my good memories of JK Rowling’s series like precious jewels. As I’ve grown up and moved on from being obsessed by the Wizarding World to just sort of tolerating the franchise going downhill (yikes, Fantastic Beasts), I’m very pleased to say that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as a stage production is the very best Harry Potter content ever created in any medium. The play’s script, which had actual midnight book parties on release, isn’t the finest-crafted thing I’ve ever read. It reads like fanfiction - which I don’t mind, I wrote tons as a teen! But onstage, the adventures of a grown-up Harry prove absolutely astounding and fresh. It’s been nineteen years since the end of Deathly Hallows, and Harry’s son, Albus Severus Potter (an angsty Sam Clemmett), befriends Draco Malfoy’s geeky son, Scorpius (Anthony Boyle, miraculously dorky). They get involved with some magical shenanigans I shan’t dare spoil in the process. The stagecraft, choreography, lighting, sound, special effects - everything is breathtaking. Even the interior of the Lyric Theatre itself feels drenched in magic. The cast is divine - Jamie Parker quickly cemented himself as my headcanon and real-canon Harry Potter, and Noma Dumezweni’s Hermione is especially luminous. The storytelling is thrillingly devised and the magic conjured onstage both literally and figuratively feels so real; it’s heartbreaking to return to the Muggle world when the lights go up at the end of Part Two. If I could get a Time-Turner and relive my birthday visit to Cursed Child, I would. Do a two-show day of both parts if you can get tickets. It is completely worth it.
4. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (Off-Broadway, St. Ann’s Warehouse)
When I was a kid, I was really picky about my Golden Age musicals. I was obsessed with Peter Pan and watched the Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby versions constantly, and not much else wowed me. I remember listening to the Hugh Jackman Oklahoma! cast album a few times and seeing a touring production at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, but I never really found myself in love with the musical. It took an experimental, immersive, diverse, and stripped-down production in Brooklyn to make me finally love and appreciate the granddaddy of integrated book musicals, and boy howdy, was this production something. St. Ann’s Warehouse is a really excellent theatre venue, and this production (a restaging of the Bard SummerScape production from years earlier) was perfectly at home in this space. The audience is seated on two sides of the performance space, with the show performed in the center third like a runway. The plot’s the same as your usual production of Oklahoma! The execution, however, is something entirely new. Aunt Eller (Mary Testa, a national treasure) makes cornbread on stage. Curly (Damon Daunno, all liquid sensuality) walks around strumming his guitar, warbling “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” like a wandering country rock star. Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones, purring with strength) steels herself against the hopeless longing of the farm’s resident incel, Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill, at turns affecting and creepy in perfect measure), just like an uncomfortable modern girl. Fun-loving Ado Annie (Glee’s Ali Stroker, turning cool tricks in her wheelchair) “cain’t say no” to dopey Will Parker (James Davis) or money-minded Ali Hakim (Michael Nathanson). Act One is traditional with some unorthodox twists, while Act Two begins with a stunningly experimental dream ballet (performed by Gabrielle Hamilton) that I’m still trying to process a month and a half later. From there, it just keeps descending into darker-than-usual territory, with an ending so shockingly unlike the typical Oklahoma! that your jaw may just drop. And none of the dialogue is cut from the original production! I’m so thrilled Broadway is taking another chance on experimental staging and bringing this production to the Circle in the Square this spring. An evening of fun classic musical theatre that turns into something truly unforgettable and thought-provoking, this immersive, “sexy” new twist on Oklahoma! definitely impacted my life this year.
3. All Star: The Best Broadway Musical (staged reading, The Davenport Loft and The Theatre Center)
I’m a playwriting major, and one of my goals in life is to write the book to an original musical. Seeing readings of new work is one of my favorite ways to get inspired. And surprisingly, the most inspirational experience I’ve had at any reading this year was at All Star: The Best Broadway Musical. Book writer Allison Frasca started with one of the internet’s most beloved memes (the ubiquity of the song “All Star” by Smash Mouth from the Shrek soundtrack) and crafted a wickedly clever, heartfelt, and gut-busting story around it. The plot is sweet, funky and American as bourbon apple pie. Sadie Plumcott (Frasca herself) is a gas station attendant in Nash South, USA, and dreams of leaving her small town behind and auditioning for a TV singing competition in Dallas. Local meteorologist Arnold St. James (Tom Althoff) vies with Sadie’s gas station co-worker Eddy (Andrew Block) for her affections. A smooth-talking biker named Odysseus Danger (Brad Mercier) charms Sadie, as well as her stylish and chatty best friend Carlotta (Katelyn Bowman), into leaving town to chase dreams. What ensues is hilarious, heartbreaking, and a whole lot of surprising fun. Allison Frasca has devised a charming and clever book for All Star, but what is even more impressive than the fact a book was created around one song is how the song itself is used in the show. Music director and arranger Paul Rigano has devised quite possibly the most brilliant orchestrations I have ever heard in my lifetime of seeing musical theatre. The only song used in the entire musical is “All Star,” and it is used in millions of different arrangements and styles. One moment it sounds like something out of Wicked, another makes it sound like a tango, and yet another makes it sound like a patter song by Gilbert and Sullivan. Every time the same lyrics come around, they still manage to fit the context of whatever situation the characters are in to hilarious effect. It’s an honest-to-god miracle. I will follow All Star wherever it goes next. It deserves all the hype. I came for the memes, I stayed for the gut-busting, mold-breaking musical comedy. Bow down to Allison Frasca. We are not worthy.
2. (tie) The Prom and Head Over Heels (Broadway, Longacre and Hudson Theatres)
20gayteen blessed us with not one, but two wonderful and important musical comedies where lesbians get the happy endings they deserve. I’ve already written bucketloads about both musicals (here and here), and I urge you to check out both over the holidays (especially Head Over Heels, which closes January 6 and deserves all the love it can get). I’ve put both shows as a tie for my number two show of the year because both give me the same amount of joy and hope. These two shows are the representation I’ve craved forever.
1. Lempicka (regional, Williamstown Theatre Festival)
Can you believe my favorite show of the summer ended up being my favorite show of the year? Me neither. I’ve been thinking nonstop about this score, this book, this staging, and this cast since I saw the show in August. Rachel Chavkin, Matt Gould, Carson Kreitzer, Raja Feather Kelly, and Eden Espinosa are a holy quintet of geniuses at work. A lab for further development for the show is currently going on, and I can only hope that means a New York run is imminent (or, at least, immediately after Eden’s stint as tour Trina in Falsettos concludes). I need to see this show again, and I want everyone to experience what I’ve been gushing about for the past few months. Lempicka is a masterpiece in progress. I can’t wait to see the final product whenever the artists finish making it.
(Image from All Star: The Best Broadway Musical)