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10 best stage productions of '11

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1. The Book of Mormon
Broadway
Lately it seems that every new Broadway musical is based on a familiar movie or TV show or comic book (duck!) and boasts a cast of refugees from Hollywood — or at least TV Land. It would have been easy for Matt Stone and Trey Parker to invade the New York theater world with South Park: The Musical, featuring Cartman & Co. in all their singing, tap-dancing glory (and Kenny dying eight times a week). Instead they teamed up with Broadway vet Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) to create a show that’s as original and tuneful as it is hilarious. Plus, it boasts star-making turns from a cast of unknowns, led by Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells as mismatched Mormon missionaries shipped off to an African village that’s more in the spirit of Team America than The Lion King. It’s a familiar fish-out-of-water story, but this fish is sushi-grade. And the waters of Broadway may never be the same.

2. Sleep No More
Off Broadway
This innovative, immersive riff on Macbeth (which recently had a cameo on Gossip Girl) invites the audience to don masks and romp through a six-story warehouse space decked out like a Hitchcockian haunted house. Once inside, you explore the site’s nooks and crannies, open drawers, riffle through files. You also follow the lithe, mostly silent performers as they climb walls, toss one another from pool tables, or strip naked to try to wash out, out those damned spots of blood. Kudos to the U.K.’s Punchdrunk troupe for a unique choose-your-own-adventure event that may make you reconsider what theater can be.

3. Other Desert Cities
Broadway
Who says you can’t have fireworks at Christmastime? In Jon Robin Baitz’s explosive drama, a self-absorbed writer (Rachel Griffiths) heads home for the holidays with her latest manuscript, a tell-all about her politically connected family. Dad (Stacy Keach) is a former actor-turned-ambassador; Mom (a memorably brittle Stockard Channing) is a Texas Jew-turned-GOP grande dame. Together, they struggle to present a united front against the barbarity of the age — and, more challenging still, of their own progeny.

4. Anything Goes
Broadway
Tony winner Sutton Foster is a one-woman dynamo in director Kathleen Marshall’s effervescent revival of the Cole Porter classic. Sure, the shipboard rom-com plot is silly, but the score is divine. And when Foster lets loose in the tap-tastic title number, holding her final note after an exhausting dance interlude, it’s hard not to think: Baby, you’re the top.

5. Blood and Gifts
Off Broadway
American playwright J.T. Rogers crafts an intelligent, provocative, and just plain entertaining spy thriller set in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Our nominal hero: a CIA operative (the sensational Jeremy Davidson) who must balance the interests of the British, the Russians, the Pakistanis, U.S. pols, and Pashtun rebels (both secularists and Islamic radicals). It’s a cat-and-mouse game that underscores our muddled past — and present — in the region.

6. Three Sisters (Off Broadway) & Uncle Vanya (Washington, D.C.)
Two great Chekhov plays, goosed by two star turns from Hollywood actresses. First, Maggie Gyllenhaal brought a searing intensity to the unhappily wed Masha in Three Sisters. Added frisson: Masha pined for a lieutenant colonel played by the actress’ real-life hubby, Peter Sarsgaard. Then, last summer, Cate Blanchett took her Sydney Theatre Company to the nation’s capital with a surprisingly funny, 1950s-set version of Uncle Vanya that featured Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) as pratfalling, hog-riding physician Astrov and Blanchett as Yelena, a restless trophy wife with a touch of Marilyn Monroe.

7. Follies
Broadway
Like Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim has his problem plays. And few are more problematic than Follies, his 1971 paean to classic musicals and marital dysfunction. Heck, it’s a happy-ending-less show about aging ex-showgirls reuniting in a soon-to-be-razed theater! But director Eric Schaeffer imbues his revival with heart, soul, and some old-fashioned razzle-dazzle — assisted by certified Broadway babies (and Sondheim pros) like Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, and Danny Burstein.

8. War Horse
Broadway
Steven Spielberg is a cheater. To tell the story of Joey, a British steed who gets caught up in the horrors of World War I, the famed director could rely on actual horses. Not so for the creators of the stage drama that inspired his new film. So the Handspring Puppet Company stepped in with full-size figures of wood, wire, and mesh — and made the show’s equine characters as memorably alive as its very human cast.

9. Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway
Broadway
He’s got moves like Jagger — and Gene Kelly. The big-screen vet proves he’s an all-around entertainer in his enchanting one-man song-and-dance show.

10. The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures
Off Broadway
You expect hyperintellectual debates from Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner (the husband of EW columnist Mark Harris). What you may not expect is a domestic drama as charged as anything by Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, as a suicidal 72-year-old lapsed Marxist (Michael Cristofer) summons his family to ”vote” on whether he should end his life. —Thom Geier

2011 Breakout Stage Stars
Nina Arianda
Two great Broadway performances this year — first as a wisecracking moll in Born Yesterday (which earned her a Tony nod) and then as a seductive actress in Venus in Fur — launched this 27-year-old into the big time.

Santino Fontana
The shape-shifting Fontana, 29, gleefully dropped Oscar Wilde’s bons mots in The Importance of Being Earnest on Broadway. But he was equally adept at tearful revelations as a tragedy-prone Lebanese-American in Sons of the Prophet.

Katori Hall
The 30-year-old playwright daringly reimagines Martin Luther King Jr.’s final night in The Mountaintop, challenging audiences with her depiction of the icon and luring A-listers Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson back to the New York stage.

Patina Miller
Tony nominee Miller, 27, makes a nun’s habit seem like suitable disco attire. She even rocks one decked in gold sequins to play diva-in-hiding Deloris Van Cartier in the screen-to-stage hit Sister Act. And her singing voice: heavenly. —Aubry D’Arminio

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