Everybody's Got The Right

The first column I published in this space was a retrospective of a summer’s theatrical experiences. With 2001 now in the books, it seems fitting to undertake another retrospective and look back at the year that was in theater. To wit, I hand out my first annual year-end awards in the field of American theater.

BEST PLAY: The Shape of Things

Neil LaBute, the acid-tongued writer-director of films including Your Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men, has created a fiendishly clever play that breaks out of its familiar (albeit amusing) framework of relationship comedy and achieves a level of provocativeness that is unexpected. The Shape of Things is a stunningly funny, engaging piece of theater—the best new play of the year.

BEST MUSICAL: tick, tick... BOOM!

I have seldom felt as much joy in my theatergoing life as I did sitting in the Jane Street Theater watching the original cast of this production. What could have been a heavy-handed and manipulative retelling of Jonathan Larson’s life with his own work, emerged as an enthralling celebration of life. It is a heart-felt musical that produced a fabulous cast recording and is worth repeated listenings.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: A Class Act, Urinetown and Bat Boy

BEST MUSICAL PERFORMANCE (ACTOR OR ACTRESS): Raúl Esparza.

The leading man of tick, tick... BOOM! is fast on his way to becoming one of the theater world’s brightest stars. In between brilliantly originating the role of Riff Raff in the Rocky Horror revival and reinvigorating Cabaret’s Emcee, Esparza dazzled as BOOM’s Jonathan. It was a performance of such vulnerability, charm and emotional (not to mention vocal) power, that Esparza is assured of a tremendous future.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Deven May (Bat Boy), Nathan Lane (Producers) and Lonny Price (A Class Act).

BEST DRAMATIC PERFORMANCE (ACTOR OR ACTRESS): Helen Mirren

With her trophy case including numerous Emmy’s and Golden Globes, and her resume including a lengthy stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company, that Helen Mirren is an actor of tremendous skill should come as a shock to none. It is nevertheless surprising that she is the true star of the latest Broadway revival of Strindberg’s Dance of Death, somehow managing to outshine her distinguished co-star, Sir Ian McKellen. With a flawless, expressive delivery, Mirren is radiant as a long-suffering wife who is part-demon, part-martyr.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Ian McKellen (Dance of Death) and Paul Rudd (The Shape of Things)

BEST REPLACEMENT PERFORMER: Terrence Mann

Terrence Mann is probably the finest baritone of his generation. Having originated lead roles in shows from Les Miserables to Beauty and the Beast to The Scarlet Pimpernel, his resume almost overqualifies him for the Rocky Horror Show. Though the production is a delight, Mann’s casting was curious, for the silver-maned 50 year-old actor seemed simply too distinguished to play a decadent transvestite. But Mr. Mann not only fills the rather large high-heels left by original lead Tom Hewitt, but exceeds his predecessor. Mann, whose performance is musical in all aspects, created a vocally-overpowering Frank that is more fun than ever.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Raúl Esparza (Cabaret) and Reba McEntire (Annie Get Your Gun)

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Noises Off

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—I don’t believe there has been a funnier play written than Noises Off. For those unacquainted with the show or deprived of a visit to it in recent years, this production may be satisfactory. Yet, that it is merely funny and not hilarious makes it a tremendous let-down. Of all the times I have seen the show, including the inconsistent movie and the current London revival, I have never laughed less than at this production. The play is still funny—there is no way Noises Off cannot be—but this revival seems dull in casting, directing and execution.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Hedda Gabler, 42nd Street and Thou Shalt Not

MOST OVERLOOKED: Follies

The first Broadway revival of one of the greatest musicals ever written was met with mixed-to-negative reviews and a limited run that never extended. Though the production quietly disappeared without winning a Tony or much of a following, it effectively dealt with the difficulties of the problematic book and offered a fascinating view of marriage, personal decisions and lies. Yes, it lacked in glitz and glamor, but in its sparse, decaying production, there was something unspeakably tragic and captivating about this Follies that deserved a greater chance for success and commemoration.

HONORABLE MENTION: A Class Act

MOST INDISPENSABLE RECORDING: The Frogs and Evening Primrose

Of all of Sondheim’s mature works, the only one lacking a recording was The Frogs. Until now. Finally, the musical legendary for its premiere at a Yale Drama swimming pool can be heard in its glory. It is a rich choral production with considerable wit, not to mention the star presence of Nathan Lane and Brian Stokes Mitchell as narrators, with Lane performing the well-known opening number as well. Davis Gaines contributes a lovely rendition of “Fear No More.” Included with the Frogs on the same CD is Evening Primrose, a 35 year-old musical written for TV. Though all of its songs have been previously recorded, Neil Patrick Harris is a special delight in the lead role. The CD is a must-have for musical theater aficionados.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: tick, tick... BOOM!, Infinite Joy, Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim

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