Choosing the cream of the crop from this year's theatrical offerings is a heady task, given that TheaterMania's team of editors has collectively seen approximately 200 shows in the past 12 months. But, after a period of careful deliberation, we came to a consensus on the Top 10 Shows of 2006. They are listed below in alphabetical order.
Because such a list cannot be comprehensive, and because our individual tastes differ, please click onto page 2 for our personal views on some other top shows and performances of this very memorable year.
THEATERMANIA'S BEST OF 2006
Awake and Sing!
Lincoln Center Theater's riveting Broadway revival of Clifford Odets' 1935 play boasted a starry ensemble cast -- including Lauren Ambrose, Ben Gazzara, Mark Ruffalo, Pablo Schreiber, and Zoe Wanamaker -- who brought to vivid life the pain and frustration of the Depression-era Jewish family that the play depicts. Director Bartlett Sher's staging was flawlessly paced, and the otherwise naturalistic production took a daring turn in the second act when the walls of designer Michael Yeargan's set began to slowly lift off the ground and disappear. This unsettling concept mirrored the fact that the characters' lies and illusions were being similarly exposed.
Okay, for the record: We're all agreed that director John Doyle's method of staging musicals with singer-actors doubling as the orchestra has its limitations and that we don't want to see an unending procession of shows given this treatment (even if it makes producers very happy because it saves lots of money on salaries). But Doyle's actors-as-musicians approach worked like gangbusters in last season's Sweeney Todd, and it works just as well if not better in this season's Company. The entire cast is aces, and Raúl Esparza's incisive performance in the central role of the ambivalent bachelor Robert is Tony Award-worthy. Long live Esparza, Doyle, and Stephen Sondheim!
The History Boys
These days, when an intelligent, non-musical play becomes a hit on Broadway even though its cast includes not a single major movie or TV star, you know it's got to be really good. Leave it to the Brits to pull off that trick! Alan Bennett's comedic drama about a group of English schoolboys and their teachers connected with audiences in a big way. The dialogue sparkled, and the production featured extraordinary acting -- particularly from Richard Griffiths as the eccentric Hector, Stephen Campbell Moore as his ambitious rival, Frances de la Tour as Mrs. Lintott, the sole female member of the faculty, and Samuel Barnett and Dominic Cooper as, respectively, the most sensitive and the most seductive of the students.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore
Playwright Martin McDonagh once again demonstrated his capacity to find humor in the darkest of subject matter with his tale of a ruthless IRA terrorist named Padraic, who has a soft spot for his cat. This biting and intelligent satire had to be the bloodiest ever to grace a Broadway stage, as well as one of the funniest; and there were a number of outstanding performances, particularly from David Wilmot as the violent, unstable Padraic and Domhnall Gleeson as the poor sod who may have killed the cat.
Measure for Pleasure
Despite its title, David Grimm's newly minted "Restoration romp" owes more to the plot of William Wycherley's 1675 satire The Country Wife than to Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. With plenty of wit and moments of comic brilliance, the play shows Grimm's keen intelligence and his willingness to push boundaries -- and the gay love story at its center is a welcome change from the heterosexual unions that are by far the norm in comedies of this nature. As the young lovers, Euan Morton and Michael Stuhlbarg were both excellent, endowing their roles with humor and charm.
The Pain and The Itch
Bruce Norris' scabrous comedy about a family of liberals who turn out not to be as enlightened as they seem made plenty of audience members uncomfortable, a welcome rarity in today's politically correct times. Anna D. Shapiro's fast-paced production boasted a bevy of fine performances, most notably Jayne Houdyshell as the clan's clueless, PBS-loving mother, Christopher Evan Welch as the super-stressed husband, Reg Rogers as his pretentious plastic surgeon brother, and newcomer Aya Cash as Rogers' slightly slutty Russian émigré girlfriend. The show also discomfited some theatergoers in another way: Dan Ostling's set made many a space-starved New Yorker envious.
Among the many sad reflections on August Wilson's untimely death last year was that he didn't live to see the brilliant work that the Signature Theater Company is doing with his plays. As good as the theater's current revival of Two Trains Running is -- and it's damn good -- the Signature revival of Seven Guitars was pure perfection. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who earned a Tony Award for his portrayal of Canewell in the show's 1996 Broadway production, conducted his flawless seven-member cast like a symphony orchestra, bringing out the beautiful points and counterpoints of Wilson's tragic tale of life in Pittsburgh's Hill District to heartbreaking effect. Special kudos to Roslyn Ruff for her wonderful performance as Vera.
Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's decidedly 21st-century musical version of Frank Wedekind's 19th-century play about teens discovering the joy and pain of sex is an innovative, frequently brilliant piece of theater that will not only speak to many young theatergoers but will thrill anyone who's willing to meet this unusual work on its own terms. Michael Mayer's dynamic staging, Bill T. Jones' idiosyncratic choreography, Kevin Adams' magnificent lighting, and a pitch-perfect ensemble cast led by Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, and John Gallagher, Jr. combine to create one of the most exciting pieces of musical theater in many years. May it stay around for many, many springs!
David Hare's blazing indictment of the events that led up to the invasion of Iraq proves once again that truth is stranger than fiction; and it may be his best play ever, since it concentrates purely on the political and eschews the personal. Daniel Sullivan's brilliantly minimalist production allowed a clear focus on Hare's words, too many of which were actually uttered by our government's highest official. Sullivan deserves extra credit for encouraging his superb 16-member ensemble to capture the essence of their real-life counterparts rather than indulge in mimicry -- although Gloria Reuben's Condoleezza Rice was truly uncanny. Highest praise to The Public Theater for having the courage to put on this right Stuff.
[title of show]
Just when the currently popular self-referential style of musical theater was starting to get old and tiresome, [title of show] came along and demonstrated that said style can still yield happy results if the practitioners have major talent. Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell's musical about writing, rehearsing, and performing a musical so delighted audiences at the Vineyard Theatre that its run was extended several times. Credit not only the bracingly clever writing but also the terrific four-member cast, featuring Bowen and Bell (of course!) plus the marvelous Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff. [title of show] was directed and choreographed with just the right touch by Michael Berresse, heretofore known as a top-flight Broadway performer and now hopefully kicking off an exciting new career.