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That Was the Year That Was

TheaterMania's editors survey the peaks and valleys of the 2003 theatrical season in New York. logo
The cast of Avenue Q
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The theatrical disasters that struck New Yorkers during the latter part of 2003 should not blind us to the fact that, on the whole, the year was by no means a washout. On the contrary, lots of great shows opened between January 1 and December 31; it's just that, the way things fell out, only a small percentage of them turned up during the past few months. There were few "legends of the fall" in 2003 -- unless, of course, you count such debacles as Bobbi Boland and Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All, which have already become legendary in a negative sense.

Here's my personal list of favorite shows for 2003; I hesitate to label it a "10 Best" list because I missed quite a few shows, especially in the Off-Off-Broadway arena. Also, since it's rather ridiculous to compare a revival of a sweet old musical about two young women who move from Ohio to New York with a new play about a real-life German transvestite who prevailed through the oppressions of Nazism and Communism, please note that my faves are listed in alphabetical order rather than order of preference.

Avenue Q
One of the wittiest, cleverest shows in recent memory (music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff Whitty), this Sesame Street-for-adults musical is brought to hilarious life by a terrifically talented cast led by singer-actor-puppeteers Stephanie D'Abruzzo, John Tartaglia, Rick Lyon, and Jennifer Barnhart.

Big River
The Roundabout Theatre Company had a very good year overall. (We won't talk about The Look of Love!) Special thanks to the organization for allowing New Yorkers to see this underrated Roger Miller musical in a soulful production by the Deaf West Theater Company of Los Angeles that seamlessly combined the talents of deaf and hearing performers. As Huck, both Tyrone Giordano and Daniel Jenkins were truly wonderful.

Virtually lost in the shuffle of fall openings was the Women's Project and Productions staging of Naomi Wallace's adaptation of William Wharton's heart-rending novel about a military man trying to help his childhood friend regain his sanity in the aftermath of World War II. Under the stellar direction of Lisa Peterson, magnificent performances were turned in by Ted Schneider and Adam Rothenberg as the adult Birdy and Al (respectively) and by Peter Stadlen and Zachary Knighton as their younger counterparts.

Caroline, or Change
Lots of people have opinions as to whether or not this Public Theater show should transfer to Broadway, but it sure is a sensation downtown. Jeanine Tesori, who crafted a largely disappointing score for Thoroughly Modern Millie, triumphs here; and book writer Tony Kushner (Angels in America, etc.) touches the heart and stimulates the mind with this tale of a black maid serving a Louisiana family in the socially turbulent 1960s. In the title role, Tonya Pinkins is a force of nature.

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
Among the darkest of black comedies, Joe Egg is revived with some frequency, and one of the reasons for that is the opportunities it offers to talented, committed, sensitive actors. In the Roundabout production, Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton shone as the parents of a severely brain damaged child as director Laurence Boswell nimbly handled this hot potato of a play.

I Am My Own Wife
Jefferson Mays gives an astounding performance in Doug Wright's play about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite who led a fascinating life in Berlin under the Nazis and then under the Communists. Originally seen at Playwrights Horizons but now running on Broadway at the Lyceum, the production is skillfully directed by Moisés Kaufman (Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, The Laramie Project), who obviously has an affinity for docudramas.

Some of David Leveaux's directorial choices for this revisionist Roundabout production of the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit musical based on the Federico Fellini film were questionable, but the show certainly had a strong sense of style. It also had knockout performances by Chita Rivera, Mary Stuart Masterson, Jane Krakowski, Laura Benanti, and -- in a Broadway debut that will be talked about for years to come -- leading man Antonio Banderas.

Of Mice and Men
This choice allows me to cheat a little because I actually saw two outstanding Off-Off-Broadway stagings of the John Steinbeck classic in 2003 -- one in February, courtesy of the Oberon Theatre Ensemble, and the other in April, courtesy of Mid West Side Productions. Both offered clear evidence that an untold number of superb but relatively unknown actors are constantly toiling away in off-the-radar shows all over the city. You may not have heard of John Topping, K. Winston Osgood, Paul Barry, Jefferson Slinkard, Jason Edwards, Ed Jewitt, Jarel Davidow, David Sitler, Scot Carlisle, Patrick Melville, or Bill Fairbairn yet, but if there's any justice, you will someday.

Our Lady of 121st Street
To the long list of great plays that have no real plot but work beautifully as character studies, add this entertaining piece by Stephen Adly Guirgis. It's ostensibly about the disappearance of the body of a nun from the funeral home where she was supposed to be laid out, but it's really about the vibrant, colorful, quirky characters who gather to pay their last respects to the woman.

Wonderful Town
I was among those who balked at the news that Barry and Fran Weissler would be bringing another stripped-down Encores! production of a classic musical to Broadway, but I'm thrilled to report that any misgivings were unfounded. The lack of representational sets in this revival helps the light-as-air 1953 tuner to move along at the swift comic pace it requires. Wisely, the main focus here is on the delightful score (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and the late Adolph Green) as played by a full orchestra situated on stage. Kathleen Marshall's direction of the show is far more adept than one might have expected from her previous efforts, and Donna Murphy's side-splitting performance as Ruth Sherwood is just as great as you've heard.

But that ain't the half of it. All over the city, from Broadway to the Bowery, one could see scores of other commendable shows. Among these were the excellent Henry IV, Long Day's Journey Into Night , Golda's Balcony, Fifth of July, Trumbo, As You Like It, Kimberly Akimbo, Talking Heads, The Long Christmas Ride Home, and Matt & Ben, not to mention the flawed but still worthwhile Never Gonna Dance, Taboo, The Retreat from Moscow, Radiant Baby, and The Last Sunday in June. Hugh Jackman's performance in The Boy From Oz is fabulous even if the show itself is hokey and clunky. I also loved the low-profile, high-quality productions of three extraordinary plays by the late Alan Bowne: Forty-Deuce, Beirut, and Sharon and Billy.

Addtionally, the year just ending was marked by a number of special events that really lived up to that designation. It wouldn't be cricket to consider them for any sort of 10 best list because each was presented for one performance only or for a very limited run, but here's a salute to such all-star charity benefit shows as Chess (The Actors' Fund of America), Mack and Mabel (Gay Men's Health Crisis), and Auntie Mame (Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS). Although the City Center Encores! versions of House of Flowers and No Strings were lackluster, the series scored with a terrific production of The New Moon and with the 2003 edition of its annual Encores! Bash, this year devoted to numbers from Broadway musicals that were seen at City Center during the theater's heyday as a revival venue. And the York Theater's "Musicals in Mufti" series included a first-rate presentation of the early Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens musical Lucky Stiff, an underappreciated jewel of a show.

Finally, let me join the chorus of voices opining that one of the most breathtaking theatrical events of the year took place not on a stage but on television: Mike Nichols's HBO film adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America is a masterpiece. I can't help feeling that HBO missed a golden opportunity in not giving Angels a limited theatrical release before its telecast in order to make it eligible for Oscar consideration; had this occurred, the movie(s) would almost certainly have earned a truckload of nominations and awards come spring.

-- Michael Portantiere


A scene from The Blacks
(Photo © Richard Termine)
It was the year of the puppet. The first show I attended in 2003 was the Toy Theater Festival at HERE Arts Center and the last was the Bread and Puppet double bill at Theater for the New City. Puppets appeared in a number of the other productions that I saw over the course of the year: Tiny Ninja Theater's MACBETH and Romeo & Juliet, Mabou Mines's offbeat Dollhouse, and Paula Vogel's intriguing but flawed The Long Christmas Ride Home, to name but a few. But my hands-down favorite performance utilizing puppets is the one that leads off my Top 10 list.

Of course, 2003 also brought us some truly awful productions. On Broadway, there was the abysmal comedy Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks; Off-Broadway, Ronnie Larson's Sleeping With Straight Men was probably the worst play of the year. And though there were several great FringeNYC shows, the Off-Off-Broadway festival also produced a few bombs, among them Daddy Kathryn and The David Dance. But, for the moment, let's celebrate the best of the best:

1) Avenue Q
I absolutely adore this musical. It's not just a puppet show -- not that there's anything wrong with that! With a fun-filled book by Jeff Whitty, a bouncy and energetic score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx that embraces some of the most hilarious lyrics in musical theater history, and a terrific ensemble cast, this is one of my favorite Broadway shows of all time.

2) Iron
Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Rona Munro's play is absolutely riveting; during intermission, I was surprised to find myself tense from leaning forward as I watched the action unfold. The show's success owes much to a gripping and unpredictable performance by Lisa Emery as a prison inmate who's locked away for killing her husband.

3) The Blacks: A Clown Show
The Classical Theater of Harlem presented one of the most visceral theater pieces I've ever encountered. Director Christopher McElroen breathed new life into Jean Genet's rarely produced play and brought audience interaction to a whole new level.

4) Long Day's Journey Into Night
This star-studded revival of Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece packed an emotional wallop. Vanessa Redgrave's Mary Tyrone was pitch-perfect and Robert Sean Leonard's Edmund was a revelation. I can't imagine a finer production of this play.

5) I Am My Own Wife
Jefferson Mays delivers a tour de force performance as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf -- a German transvestite who survived the Nazi regime, who may have been a spy for the Communists, and who had a passionate love for antique furniture. Doug Wright's play is equally brilliant, wrestling with issues of truth and representation in a complex yet highly theatrical manner.

6) Cho: Revolution
Margaret Cho only played New York for two nights at the Beacon Theatre, but I'm hoping that she'll return for a sit-down run of her latest solo performance. (You can still catch her on her national tour.) As the title indicates, this is Cho's most political show to date; her blend of physical comedy, impeccable timing, and raunchy storytelling is peppered with baldly polemical statements and incisive political and social commentary.

7) Where We're Born
Lucy Thurber's sharply drawn characters lead lives of quiet desperation, to borrow a phrase from Thoreau. While the plot of Where We're Born centers around sexual and emotional betrayals among a group of friends in a small New England town, it's the loneliness, boredom, and frustration motivating the characters' actions that gives the piece its weight. Director Will Frears's beautifully understated production mined the subtext of Thurber's play, which was brought to life by a fine acting ensemble.

8) Elegies
William Finn's passionate song cycle paid tribute to a range of people in Finn's life who have passed on, from his mother to theater producer Joe Papp -- not to mention a couple of beloved pet dogs. Yet the show was far from maudlin; Finn's lyrics for these Elegies crackle with wit and the music is some of the finest of his career.

9) Cupid and Psyche
This small-scale musical gem featured a terrific ensemble cast and a catchy score by Sean Hartley and Jihwan Kim. The romantic love story, adapted from Greco-Roman mythology, had a contemporary feel while retaining a classical setting.

10) Say You Love Satan
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's comedy, produced at the New York International Fringe Festival, was one of the funniest shows of 2003. Although the play specifically concerns gay romance, I would think that anyone who's ever gone on a date could relate to this tale of The Boyfriend from Hell.

I also enjoyed several shows that were villified, or at least found wanting, by others. Although the Boy George musical Taboo is not perfect, it features a terrific score and fabulous performances. For that matter, there was something about director Richard Maxwell's take on Henry IV, Part I at BAM (not to be confused with the Lincoln Center production!) that I found perversely enjoyable -- or maybe it was just the mass exodus of people leaving the theater that kept me entertained.

-- Dan Bacalzo


Jennifer Laura Thompson and company
in Little Fish
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
With so many shows having opened during 2003, why limit the accolades to just 10? This was a year of dizzying highs and terrifying lows, and they all deserve to be acknowledged in (roughly) equal measure. So here's my brief look at the productions that shaped the New York theatrical landscape during 2003, listed in alphabetical order within each category:

Most Impressive Non-Musical Productions:
Aunt Dan and Lemon (Off-Broadway)
Golda's Balcony (Off-Broadway and Broadway)
The Harlequin Studies (Off-Broadway)
Henry IV (Broadway)
Life (x) 3 (Broadway)
The Long Christmas Ride Home (Off-Broadway)
Long Day's Journey Into Night (Broadway)
The Regard Evening (Off-Broadway)

Most Impressive Musical Productions:
A Year With Frog and Toad (Broadway)
Cupid and Psyche (Off-Broadway)
Gypsy (Broadway revival)
Little Fish (Off-Broadway)
Slut (Fringe Festival)
The Thing About Men (Off-Broadway)
Violet (Off-Broadway reunion concert)
Wonderful Town (Broadway revival)

Least Impressive Non-Musical Productions:
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (Broadway revival)
Humble Boy (Off-Broadway)
Rose's Dilemma (Off-Broadway)
Salome: The Reading (Broadway revival)
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (Broadway)

Least Impressive Musical Productions:
Nine (Broadway revival)
The Boy From Oz (Broadway)
The Look of Love (Broadway)
Urban Cowboy (Broadway)
Wicked (Broadway)
Wilder (Off-Broadway)

Shows You Should Have Seen But Probably Didn't:
Radiant Baby (Off-Broadway)
Waiting for the Glaciers to Melt (Midtown International Theatre Festival)
Thrill Me (Midtown International Theatre Festival)
Indian Ink (Off-Off-Broadway)

-- Matthew Murray


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