Monday, December 29, 2008
The Top 10 - or 20! - of 2008
It would be nice to look back on it and say something like, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," only this time that old saw hits close to home, if you give it one small tweak: this year in the Boston theatre world, the best of times artistically were also the worst of times financially; three of the 10 producers in this list have either disappeared or are on the verge of bankruptcy. And in general, the performing arts struggled under the general economic downturn, just like everybody else - but the local scene was also bedeviled by major turnovers at the ART and the Huntington, both of which seem to falter during the transition, and the announced departure of Rick Lombardo from the New Rep. Perhaps partly due to this artistic vacuum, most of the best news in town was technically out of town: the "Top 10" includes two national tours, two productions from Lowell's Merrimack Rep (which got another honorable mention), and one from the North Shore (which got three more honorable mentions). And what was probably the most accomplished show of the year (She Loves Me) was a co-production with the Williamstown Theatre Festival; indeed, barely half of the best shows in Boston were actually home-grown. What can I say? Thank God for the suburbs!
Only thanking God may not be enough. One of the producers in the Top 10 - Boston Theatre Works - went out of business immediately after producing what would be seen as its best show ever, and two more companies are in serious trouble. At the performance of Skylight I attended, Merrimack artistic director Charles Towers came out before the curtain to detail the theatre's desperate straits. And a press release came over the wire today revealing that the North Shore Music Theatre is on the verge of bankruptcy (lay-offs have been announced). It doesn't seem likely they'll get much help from Boston's foundations, either - not with Boston Foundation head Paul Grogan (at left) taking home over $500,000 of his foundation's cash last year, all while advising nonprofits to close because the foundation had so little money! (Although Grogan's no slouch next to - wait for it - Josiah Spaulding, who bagged $1.7 million this year, apparently for - well, I don't know, maybe keeping the D.A. at bay?)
And there you have it - a year in which the best theatre companies folded or nearly folded and the philanthropists lined their own pockets with cash, while the print media girls kept quiet about the whole thing (or, to be honest, couldn't tell, or didn't care, that it was happening!). Probably the only good thing we can really say about 2008 is that 2009 is going to be even worse.
And on that happy note -
The Top 10
1. She Loves Me (Huntington Theatre) - Nicholas Martin's swan song, and his valentine to the city, this production (at left) was practically perfect in every way: performances, music direction, design - everything cohered beautifully. Indeed, perhaps it wasn't merely the best production of the year, but also of the decade; my friends and I spent one evening trying to think of something better, and found ourselves reaching back well into the 90's, or earlier! I still get emails from people thanking me for directing them to it. Mr. Martin went on to a brilliant premiere season in Williamstown, but then suffered a minor stroke in the fall; word is he's on the road to recovery and will be returning to Boston for the re-mounting of his Williamstown production of The Corn is Green.
2. My Fair Lady (National Theatre of Great Britain US Tour) - Director Trevor Nunn and choreographer Matthew Bourne tinkered a bit with this classic, but seemed to understand the real reason for its revival was the central performance of Lisa O'Hare (at right), who combined Julie Andrews's voice with Audrey Hepburn's looks. The results were loverly.
3. The Drowsy Chaperone (Broadway Over Boston) - Nostalgia distilled to its charming essence. Trapped in his apartment on a rainy day, a flighty theatre queen conjures for us his favorite 20's musical, the mythical Drowsy Chaperone, and soon tap-dancing chorines and even entire airplanes (below) are coming out of his closet, too.
4. A Delicate Balance - Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Albee done better than Broadway did Woolf a few years back, thanks to a sterling cast and beautifully modulated direction from artistic director Charles Towers.
5. Skylight (Merrimack Repertory Theatre) - Another challenging play (by David Hare), another sterling cast, and another confident turn by director Towers. By year's end, the Merrimack had begun to look like the kind of theatre the Huntington and the ART should be: the place to go for the work of our best playwrights.
6. In the Continuum (Up You Mighty Race) - Easily the most powerful production of the year. Sensitively directed by Akiba Abaka, Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter's script was nevertheless essentially a showcase for its two stars, Lindsey McWhorter and Ramona Lisa Alexander, who provided the most emotionally committed acting on any Boston stage this year.
7. Angels in America (Boston Theatre Works) - Not so much a revival as a reprise of the original, Jason Southerland and Nancy Curran Willis's production was nevertheless quick on its feet and thoughtfully directed, and featured breakout performances from Bree Elrod, Tyler Reilly and Maurice Parent.
8. Some Men (SpeakEasy Stage) - The print girls didn't "get" it, but Paul Daigneault's perceptive and visually stylish production of Terrence McNally's underrated play (above) was probably the best of the season from SpeakEasy, which was its usual reliable self this year (I gave it two more honorable mentions). After She Loves Me, Some Men probably featured the best local acting ensemble, too.
9. November (Lyric Stage) - Again, the dim politics of certain fatuous liberal writers (who shall go unnamed!) resulted in less than sparkling reviews for this brilliant production of David Mamet's hilarious (if hardly politically incorrect) farce. The tightest direction of the season (from Daniel Gidron) and a crack comic cast made this a bitterly witty delight.
10. Bye Bye Birdie (North Shore Music Theatre) - Today's shocking news is that the North Shore is on the verge of closing, despite a year that included Michael Lichtefeld's brilliantly conceived Bye Bye Birdie (above) along with 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Show Boat, and 42nd Street (all of which made the Top 20 below). In short, with four solid hits, the North Shore's record was stronger than that of any other company in town - and yet it's on the verge of disappearing (much as Boston Theatre Works did after Angels in America). Apparently ticket sales for High School Musical 2 didn't match expectations - and it should be noted that Louise Kennedy's dopey "I just don't like it" pan probably finished off any hopes the theatre had of ending the year in the black. Lovers of musical theatre are advised to take their medicine forthwith and go see High School Musical 2. And then give to the theatre here.
Honorable Mentions (or the next Top 10):
11. Travesties (Publick Theatre) - Director Diego Arciniegas did better by Tom Stoppard than the Huntington ever did in this knockabout takedown of modernism by way of Oscar Wilde. Slightly ragged around the edges, but always energetic, the production was one of the most successful pieces of intellectual theatre in town all year.
12. The Light in the Piazza, 13. The History Boys (SpeakEasy Stage) - Director Scott Edmiston worked his crowd-pleasing magic twice at SpeakEasy, both times by sanding down the difficult edges on two pieces with pretensions to being more than just fluff. Of course their success I suppose only argues that Edmiston was right: they were just fluff, albeit fluff for middlebrow college graduates. Piazza was all the more memorable for a truly stunning array of costume designs from Charles Schoonmaker.
14. 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, 15. Show Boat, 16. 42nd Street (North Shore Music Theatre) - After two or three disasters last spring, the North Shore suddenly began pulling hits out of its hat like so many rabbits; Putnam was a tongue-in-cheek hoot, Show Boat (left) was the most beautifully sung show in town, and 42nd Street was the best danced (choreographed, btw, by Michael Lichtefeld, who also directed Birdie). I'll say it again: with these productions, the North Shore had the best record in 2008 of any local theatre.
17. Let Me Down Easy (American Repertory Theatre) - Anna Deavere Smith's latest should really have been subtitled, "A Decade's Worth of Grant Proposals Loosely Tied Together," but individual pieces of this performance patchwork proved quite moving, so people expecting the power and cogency of, say, Fires in the Mirror were, yes, let down easy.
18. The Tempest (Actors' Shakespeare Project) - Despite its stated emphasis on the actor, this troupe's best productions always derive from their designs, and The Tempest was no exception. The play's paradoxes regarding freedom and forgiveness seemed to go missing, and star Alvin Epstein meandered as Prospero. But the design work and the magic tricks were often genuinely magical.
19. The Four of Us (Merrimack Repertory Theatre) - If you, like me, have a certain disdain for the success of Jonathan Safran Foer, then this scénario à clef probably tasted a good deal sweeter than it really had a right to. Still, the Merrimack served up the coldly calculated dish with understated skill.
20. Blithe Spirit (Trinity Rep) - Curt Columbus's elegant production of Noel Coward's classic featured solid, but not perhaps sparkling, performances; what made this show a must-see was its set - realized with delightful exactitude by James Schuette, and cleverly engineered to manifest all manner of ghostly goings-on. Yet another local show made most memorable by its design.