Sunday, February 21, 2016

2015 in Review: See You at the Theatre!

Hi everyone,

I saw some wonderful shows last year, which I meant to recap in December, but life got in the way. Better late than never and before spring hits, indulge me as I revisit 2015 in theatre, dance, and music in my next few blog posts.

2015 started off with a quick trip to New York to see Sting's The Last Ship on January 10th. (I wrote about The Last Ship in last year's theatre round-up.) The Last Ship didn't last long on Broadway, and while Sting was nominated for a Tony for his amazing score, he didn't win it, and I'm still baffled by it all. The Last Ship was my favorite show of 2014, and I felt lucky to have seen it twice, even if the second time was in the middle of a New York winter. Here's a rundown of the other shows I saw in 2015.

Choir Boy, Studio Theatre, Washington, D.C. (February 28, 2015)
I bought a ticket to this play solely based on its writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney. I had seen his trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays: The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water, and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, years before, and they made a lasting impression on me. Now, I can add this one to that list. Choir Boy depicts life in all-Black boys boarding school as seem through some of its choir members. At a year-end ceremony, Pharus (Jelani Alladin) is prepared to be named the lead for the school's popular gospel choir. When publicly humiliated at the event, his lifestyle and confidence are shaken, and the incident ripples through the school, affecting everyone from his friends to the headmaster. Tarell Alvin McCraney's plays are always refreshing and surprising. I love his modern take on age-old issues and how music is always an integral part of the tapestry – making his stories relatable and educational for everyone.

Blithe Spirit, National Theatre, Washington, D.C. (March 29, 2015)
I always see Noel Coward's classic comedy Blithe Spirit, which first premiered in 1941, advertised in the paper. It's always being performed somewhere nearby, no matter how small the company. I wanted to see this version because of Angela Lansbury, who was touring with it nationally on a very limited run. Blithe Spirit is about London socialites, writer Charles Condomine (Charles Edwards) and his second wife Ruth (Charlotte Parry), who hire a medium Mrs. Arcati (Angela Lansbury) to conduct a seance in their home – an experience meant to be research for Charles's next book. Mrs. Arcati's event evokes the ghost of Charles's first wife Elvira (Melissa Woodbridge), who decides to haunt Ruth, the only one of the party who cannot see her. While this story seemed a bit dated to me, it was fun and suitable for the whole family. Some slapstick moments and Mrs. Arcati's eccentricities livened up the story, and I loved whenever the set, possessed by Elvira, took on a life of its own. Everyone in the cast was great, including Angela Lansbury, who was wonderful to watch. You may have missed her in Blithe Spirit this time, but later in the year, I saw her on PBS offering another amazing stage performance alongside James Earle Jones in Driving Miss Daisy. There no excuse to miss that thrilling experience, so get a snack, click here to watch, and enjoy....

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, New York (April 5, 2015)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is based on a novel by Mark Haddon, which I read and loved, even though I didn't remember much from it. (This is the reason why I started writing book reviews.) I wanted to see this play because I couldn't imagine how they would present this story on stage: It's told through the eyes of an autistic boy (Tim Wright) who discovers his neighbor's dead dog and sets off to solve the mystery of what happened. The audience is introduced to the people in his life as he sees them – his parents, his teachers, his neighbor – and how he handles the world to get through his days. This show was spectacular in its creativity and inventiveness. I attended this with two friends, and none of us really knew what to expect. We left the theatre dazzled by the set, impressed by the flow of the story, and eager to read the book. In fact, after I read this book again, I may need to see this play again, which won the 2015 Tony for Best Play. They got that one right. Be sure to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time when it begins touring the United States in October.

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Theater J, Washington, D.C. (June 11, 2015)
When I was invited to see this play, I didn't know anything about it, but I recognized the title. It was a night of surprises, since my friend and I saw it in Theater J, a local theatre that I didn't know existed. The Tale of the Allergist's Wife is a witty play that offers a look at the upper class in the New York's Upper West Side. Marjorie Taub (Susan Rome), a well-off doctor's wife, spends her days attending cultural events in an effort to become a better, more interesting person, but struggles with the idea that she may never become that. After a recent public outburst, Marjorie retreats to her apartment to deal with her midlife crisis, which is interrupted by the reappearance of her childhood friend Lee (Lise Bruneau). Lee, a seemingly sophisticated world traveler, lifts Marjorie's spirits but disrupts her life. The Tale of the Allergist's Wife premiered in 2000, and for this production, playwright Charles Busch updated references in the story to keep it modern. The result was a clever, funny whirlwind of a show about colorful characters vividly portrayed by a great cast.

Once, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., (August 6, 2015)
I remember seeing and liking Once, the 2007 film on which this musical is based. I even had the film's soundtrack on CD. Yet, when I saw commercials on TV for Once at the Kennedy Center, I didn't feel excited about it. The story involves an Irish vacuum cleaner repair man (Stuart Ward) who spends his spare time writing and singing songs on his guitar. After a chance meeting, he is encouraged by a young Czech woman named Ivanka (Dani de Waal) to pursue his music. As his confidence grows, so does their unique love for each other, until they must face a turning point in his budding music career. Once is an intimate, touching story. Since it lacks much excitement, I was surprised that it won eight Tony awards for its Broadway production a few years back. (At the Kennedy Center, my friend and I thought it might be better experienced in a smaller venue or viewed from closer seats than the balcony.) I'm sure that the moving, crowd-pleasing music written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova had something to do with it. Even as we made it to our seats, audience members were joining the cast on stage, where they had begun playing Irish tunes in the bar setting. Once is a lovely production that is faithful to the film and leaves you inspired and humming its songs all the way home. Here's information about Once, the musical, on tour.

Oliver, Arena Stage, Washington, D.C., November 8, 2015
Although I'd seen the 1968 musical film adaptation of Oliver several times growing up, I've never read Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist nor seen the classic on stage. Arena Stage's version follows orphan Oliver's life on London's streets and dreams for a family, though I felt that they rushed through some of the emotional moments and made some odd updates to the story. I assumed this version took place in present day; though the cast seemed dressed with Dickensian flair, they also used cell phones. A part of me wished they had stuck to the original 1800s time period and kept it true to the story, but Arena Stage is a forward-thinking kind of place. I loved the set, which included crisscrossed metal bridges that the cast ran and sang on above the stage. I was also impressed with the young boys in the orphanage who sang "Food, Glorious Food" while tossing dinner plates around without dropping any. The reason to see Oliver is the music, written by Lionel Bart. I didn't realize how many of these songs are etched in my memory until they started singing them. I think they're there for good.

Bright Star, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., December 10, 2015
Bright Stara new musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, premiered in D.C. before heading to Broadway. Set in the South, the story introduces Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), a straight-laced, successful literary editor. When an eager new writer (A.J. Shively) returns home from serving in World War II, he enters Alice's office and awakens in her haunting memories. Longing for a child she lost 20 years earlier, she embarks on a journey to face her past and a life that might have been. This inspiring show has everything you could want in theatre: an inspirational story with universal themes of love, loss, and family with a healthy mix of drama, humor, and great music. I loved the story's strong characters and unexpected turns. The set included a mobile cabin, which doubled as a prop and platform for the musical's bluegrass band. A toy train ran along tracks above the stage, representing trips out of town and taking part in one of the show's most dramatic moments. Among the great cast, Carmen Cusack in the starring role stood out for me with her unique, powerful voice showcasing Edie Brickell's wonderful lyrics and melodies. Catch Bright Star when it hits Broadway this week; previews start February 25th.

With 2016 well underway, you can still catch some of these inspiring shows. Keep an eye out for them and treat yourself to a trip to the theatre.

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