The 5 Best Special Theatrical Events of 2019
Dave Chappelle, Regina Spektor, and more prove that theater can't be put in a box.
As a theater journalist, I see upwards of 200 shows on, off-, and off-off-Broadway each year. Interspersed throughout are shows and concerts that can't necessarily be defined with the standard "play" or "musical" moniker. Here's my list of the best "special theatrical events" I saw this year, from cabarets to magic shows.
1. Dave Chappelle at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
Comedian Dave Chappelle made his Broadway debut this summer with a show that would eventually become known as Sticks and Stones upon its release as a Netflix special. In the set, Chappelle explores his disdain for cancel culture, touching on a wide range of controversial subjects like school shootings and Michael Jackson's sexual abuse allegations. Critics were mixed-to-negative; Chappelle got called on the carpet for reasons including homophobia, transphobia, racism, victim blaming, and a general lack of empathy for just about everyone breathing. Others thought the jokes were lazy.
I thought it was one of the funniest comedy shows I'd ever seen, an obvious example of boundary-pushing to prove how people get riled up about everything. Not all the jokes landed, but seeing Chappelle interact with the audience at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre was like watching a master class in holding attention. The evening was made even grander by the appearance of comedian Jon Stewart, who served as Chappelle's opening act. The pair then did a hilarious joint Q&A to end this nearly three-hour evening, which was one of those great nights that could only happen in the theater.
2. Regina Spektor at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
Regina Spektor loves the theater, and you could see her respect and reverence for the medium during her July concerts on Broadway. She seemed so happy to be there — so awestruck by the circumstances — that it made her wholly enjoyable concert even more incandescent. For more than two hours, Spektor sang her greatest hits — of course, "Fidelity," "Samson," and "You've Got Time" were on fine display — but she sang several deep cuts too, which really pleased her fans. (I got misty at the beginning of a Friday-night show, where she welcomed the Jewish Sabbath by performing a very moving "Shalom Aleichem.") To top it all off, her special guest the night I was there was Lin-Manuel Miranda, and their duet of "Dear Theodosia" was truly unforgettable.
3. David Byrne's American Utopia
I was only a fair-weather Talking Heads fan before I saw David Byrne's American Utopia at the Hudson Theatre. I knew the classics like "Psycho Killer," "Burning Down the House," and "Once in a Lifetime," but that's about it. However, I loved American Utopia, a concert of Byrne's hits performed by the legendary singer and an extraordinary marching band, determined to send good vibes into a universe that could really use it. When you see it, you'll not only realize why it's a "once in a lifetime" experience, but also why I haven't stopped listening to the Talking Heads ever since.
4. Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott: Twohander
In Twohander, Scott and Butz explore their two-decade relationship on- and offstage and how the forced intimacy of falling in love eight times a week across multiple years in shows like The Last Five Years and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels almost ruined both their lives. It was more than just a cabaret show — it was a full-on drama with as many fireworks and pathos as some of the best plays in the canon.
5. Derren Brown: Secret
Derren Brown: Secret landed on Broadway this fall after a sold-out run downtown in 2017. And even upon second viewing, after having spent two years thinking about how all the tricks were done, it made my head explode. I will adhere to the production's plea and not discuss any of the tricks, but Brown is such a masterful performer that you won't believe your eyes even as he tells you that he's playing a trick on you. He's that good, and so is the show.