The 10 Best Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Virtual Theater Productions of 2020
Live theater did exist this year. Here are my favorites.
Despite theaters closing in March, live performances did take place at the start of 2020, and these shows were eventually joined by a plethora of virtual offerings available across the country. Here are my picks for the best Broadway, off-Broadway, and digital theater from the whole year.
1. A Soldier's Play — Roundabout Theatre Company
Blair Underwood's pecs were known for getting their own entrance applause, but the first-ever Broadway production of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer-winning classic was incredible in its own right. The success of this thrilling revival is a testament to a timely story, a visceral production staged by Kenny Leon and a series of truly excellent performances by Underwood, David Alan Grier, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Billy Eugene Jones, and the whole ensemble.
2. West Side Story
Perhaps the most divisive production to open in this abbreviated theatergoing year, Ivo van Hove's revisionist take on this musical-theater classic shaved a three-hour show down to 105 taut, edge-of-your-seat minutes. I understand all the criticisms and I don't disagree with a lot of them (particularly the casting of Amar Ramasar), but this was the first time I ever really got the show. I felt an immediacy I'd never felt before. Hearing the legendary score sung by the divine Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel, and performed by a massive orchestra under the jaunty baton of Alexander Gemignani, wasn't so bad, either.
3. How to Load a Musket — Less Than Rent Theatre
The more I think about Talene Monahon's investigative docu-play about Civil and Revolutionary War reenactors, the more I wish that it was able to be performed during the recent election cycle. How to Load a Musket spoke to the zeitgeist back in January when it premiered at 59E59, but it's ultra-relevant now, especially as the tone shifts from quirky, Christopher Guest-style comedy to prescient social commentary about class and racial warfare in contemporary America.
4. Dana H. — Vineyard Theatre
Perhaps the most truly disturbing drama of 2020, Dana H. is a true-crime story about the kidnapping of playwright Lucas Hnath's mother at the hands of a mentally ill ex-con. As if Les Waters's production at the Vineyard Theatre wasn't tense enough, the gripping piece featured the titular Dana's own voice speaking her own words, as lip-synced by the precise, surreal, and enthralling Deirdre O'Connell. It was a great, terrifying show, with even better sound design by Mikhail Fiksel.
5. Paris — Atlantic Theatre Company
Eboni Booth's fabulous debut drama is set in the break room of a big-box store circa 1995. It's a play about the inherent cruelty of the retail industry and the caste system called "employment," with magnificently quiet and miraculously powerful writing. More than anything else, it was the introduction to a stirring new playwright, and I can't wait to see what Eboni Booth does next.
6. Blues for an Alabama Sky — Keen Company
Off-Broadway's Keen Company gave Pearl Cleage's 25-year-old, Harlem Renaissance-set drama its long-awaited New York premiere, and it was worth the wait. Boasting a slew of fine performances, particularly from leading players Alfie Fuller and John-Andrew Morrison, this beautiful production, directed by L.A. Williams, was enthralling from start to finish, and a real heartbreaker by the final curtain.
7. Cambodian Rock Band — Signature Theatre Company
Part concert, part Khmer Rouge genocide drama, Lauren Yee's Cambodian Rock Band was a great play that not many people got to see because of the Covid-19 shutdown. In short, this stealthy, genre-exploding Signature Theatre production deserved a much wider audience; not just for the importance of the story, but so more people could see the incredible leading performance by actor Joe Ngo, who transforms himself from young to old and back again with a subtlety that I didn't even know existed.
8. The Present — Geffen Playhouse
Illusionist Helder Guimarães opened the Geffen Playhouse's Geffen Stayhouse streaming platform with one of the best magic shows I've ever seen. Created in response to the pandemic and the forced isolation that comes with it, The Present is a personal story drawn from Guimarães's childhood, with some really great card tricks, as well as one confounding illusion that I was asked to participate in, the events of which I still think about. As someone who likes to figure out how magic works, I still haven't been able to comprehend what happened in my home that night seven months ago, and it still gives me goosebumps. You've won this round, Helder...
9. Talley's Folly — Syracuse Stage
Married actors Jason O'Connell and Kate Hamill starred in a lush and romantic revival of this Lanford Wilson classic, filmed with full sets, costumes, and lighting in Syracuse Stage's auditorium. Robert Hupp's production was beautiful to experience, and even though I watched it from my bedroom, it really did feel like coming home again after many long months of not being in a theater. They're doing an entire season on screen this way, and I can't wait for the next one.
10. Meet Me in St. Louis — Irish Repertory Theatre
Perhaps the most ambitious virtual theater offering I've experienced this year, the Irish Rep's Christmastime revival of this American classic boasted thrilling vocals from a cast led by Shereen Ahmed, as well as a very cozy atmosphere. The Irish Rep is one of the few New York City theaters that has been consistently presenting virtual productions, and this one was a big step forward in a year already filled with leaps. Onward to 2021.