It's nice to take a positive attitude when looking back over what happened during the year that's now drawing to a close. Fortunately, there was so much good stuff on New York stages in 2005 that it's easy to adopt a glass-half-full rather than half-empty view of the past 12 months in theater. For one thing, as has been pointed out by many observers, all four nominees for the 2005 Tony Award for Best Musical are still running and doing very well at the box office. (Believe it or not, this is quite a rare occurrence.)
It was also an excellent year in terms of productions of plays, both new works and revivals; the fact that Donald Margulies' flawed but moving Brooklyn Boy wasn't even Tony-nominated for Best Play indicates the generally high level of product in 2005. Meanwhile, so many fine shows opened Off-Broadway that worthy efforts such as David Mamet's Romance, Itamar Moses' Bach at Leipzig, and Craig Wright's The Pavilion weren't as appreciated as they would have been if the competition had been less fierce.
Yes, it's true that Good Vibrations, In My Life, and Suzanne Somers' The Blonde in the Thunderbird received some of the worst reviews in the history of Western civilization -- and fully deserved them. It's also true that Terrence McNally, Richard Greenberg, and a few other established playwrights were represented by new works that most certainly did not enhance their reputations. But let's put such thoughts out of our minds for now and celebrate the best that New York theater had to offer in 2005. Here are my own personal choices of highlights; be sure to click on pages 2, 3, and 4 below to see what my colleagues Brian Scott Lipton, Dan Bacalzo, and Adam Klasfeld loved the most.
BEST NEW MUSICALS AND PLAYS:
1. The Light in the Piazza
The greatest compliment I can give to Adam Guettel's ravishing score is that, as much as I loved it on first hearing, it sounds even better every time I return to the cast album. This musical is truly one for the ages, and anyone who was lucky enough to see the original performances of Victoria Clark, Kelli O'Hara, and Matthew Morrison will never forget them.
2. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Absolutely freakin' hilarious, with jazzy, sexy, and side-splitting songs by David Yazbek, a composer-lyricist whose brilliance hasn't yet been fully acknowledged. Norbert Leo Butz won a Tony for his kick-ass performance as Freddy Benson, and he was in the excellent company of John Lithgow, Sherie Rene Scott, Gregory Jbara, and Joanna Gleason.
3. Altar Boyz
The fact that this is the only recent Off-Broadway musical to become a hit should tell you something. All about a Christian boy band (!), the show manages the neat trick of being both an adorably funny spoof and an affecting tale of friendship. The songs by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker are so great that I find myself listening to the cast album almost as often as Piazza.
4. Orson's Shadow
"A fictional rendering of actual events," Austin Pendleton's exceptionally well-written play concerns the volatile collaboration of the eccentric genius Orson Welles with Laurence Olivier and his lover Joan Plowright on a London production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros. Vivien Leigh, still married to Olivier, shows up to make the situation even more prickly.
5. Orange Flower Water
The Edge Theater Company production of Craig Wright's devastating look at infidelity and deep-seated unhappiness featured some of the most wonderfully naturalistic stage acting I've ever seen, not to mention a gorgeous set by David Korins.
6. Jersey Boys
At last, a "jukebox musical" that's wildly entertaining rather than an insult to the audience's intelligence! All praise to book authors Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice for making the story of The Four Seasons stageworthy, and to John Lloyd Young, Daniel Reichard, Christian Hoff, and J. Robert Spencer for their spot-on singing and acting as the members of that legendary pop group.
7. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
This musical is thoroughly entertaining even though its score, by William Finn, is no better than serviceable. Credit the show's belly laughs and poignant moments to an exemplary book by Rachel Sheinkin, based on a concept by Rebecca Feldman, and to the adept performances of the ensemble cast.
8. The Pillowman
Against stiff competition, Michael Stuhlbarg won a Drama Desk Award for his performance as the grievously abused, mentally ill brother of a writer who's interrogated by the police when several real-life child murders seem to have been inspired by his writings. This gripping production of Martin McDonagh's disturbing play also boasted excellent character work by Billy Crudup, Zeljko Ivanek, and Jeff Goldblum.
9. Dog Sees God
Bert V. Royal's play is a fiendishly clever fantasy of what Charles Schulz's beloved "Peanuts" characters would be like in their teen years, but it's also incisive and moving as it explores bullying, insecurity, drug use, casual sex, and other hot-button issues among high schoolers. Under Trip Cullman's direction, skillful performances are given by the starry cast, with Logan Marshall-Green especially wonderful as Beethoven (read: Schroeder).
It's the audience's loss that Stephen Temperley's play about Florence Foster Jenkins, a Manhattan socialite whose vocal recitals became legendary because her voice was beyond awful, is closing on January 8 after an all-too-brief Broadway run. Judy Kaye is so good as Jenkins that she may well get a Tony nom despite the production's failure at the box office, and Donald Corren is a perfect foil for her as Cosme McMoon, Jenkins' long-suffering accompanist.
1. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Kathleen Turner, Bill Irwin, Mireille Enos, and David Harbour set off sparks in this brilliant new production of what arguably remains Edward Albee's greatest play. Special thanks to director Anthony Page, whose excellent but underappreciated work happily balanced what so many of his British countrymen have done to other American classics.
2. Glengarry Glen Ross
Liev Schreiber, Alan Alda, and Gordon Clapp were the standouts in this stellar revival of David Mamet's coruscating drama about ruthless real estate agents.
3. Sweeney Todd
Another exception to the "British Directors Should Be Kept Far Away From American Classics" rule. John Doyle thrillingly reimagined this Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler masterpiece as a sort of music- and drama-therapy piece performed by the inmates of an insane asylum, with the actors doubling as the show's orchestra. Though most other musicals would not benefit from such an approach, it sure works with Sweeney -- especially when you have Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone leading a company full of top-shelf talents.
4. The Secret Garden
It's not entirely fair to compare this concert presentation of the gorgeous Lucy Simon-Marsha Norman musical to a show with a regular Broadway or Off-Broadway run, since it's much easier in terms of finances and logistics to enlist an all-star cast, a nearly 40-piece orchestra, and a 60-voice choir when your event is a one-night charity benefit concert. On the other hand, it's far more difficult to do full justice to a show when rehearsal time is so limited and you have only one shot to get it right. Young Jaclyn Niedenthal gave an amazing performance as Mary Lennox, and when Laura Benanti and Steven Pasquale sang "How Could I Ever Know?" at the end of the evening, I honestly felt that I had never heard anything more beautiful in my life.
5. A Soldier's Play
Under the firm but sensitive direction of Jo Bonney, an unusually strong ensemble cast headed by James McDaniel, Taye Diggs, Anthony Mackie, and Steven Pasquale (yes, him again!) did some of the best acting you'll ever be lucky enough to see on a New York stage in this powerful drama by Charles Fuller.
A very L-O-O-O-N-G evening but worth it for Ethan Hawke's scarily accurate performance as a hopeless stoner, plus great work by Bobby Cannavale, Parker Posey, and others in this challenging play by David Rabe.
7. The Apple Tree
It seems that the New York theater is more and more in danger of losing Kristin Chenoweth to films and TV series (and commercials), so it was an extra-special treat to enjoy her impeccable comic timing, gorgeous voice, and glittering star presence in the City Center Encores! production of these three one-act musicals by Bock and Harnick. Chenoweth was ably partnered by Malcolm Gets, especially in "The Diary of Adam and Eve."
8. Sweet Charity
Given the track records of director Walter Bobbie and choreographer Wayne Cilento, this revisal of the 1966 Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields-Neil Simon musical about a sweet but dumb dance hall girl was surprisingly solid. Bravo to star Christina Applegate, who turned out to be a real trouper and seems to have won the respect of the Broadway community.
9. The Trip to Bountiful
Harris Yulin's direction of Horton Foote's play for this Signature Theatre Company production is rather shaky, and some of the supporting performances could have been better; but Lois Smith is luminous as Carrie Watts, an elderly woman who's determined to visit her childhood home once more before she dies.
10. Mark Twain Tonight!
Those of us who had never before seen Hal Holbrook's masterful performance in this perennially popular one-man show were delighted to finally catch up with it.