The best of 2012: stage
1 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
What hath Edward Albee wrought? Fifty years ago, his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? made domestic blood sport between a long-married college-town couple both hyperliterate and squirm-inducingly fun. The booze-fueled shouting matches, the spiteful rejoinders, and the oversharing of personal details with relative strangers (soon drawn into the fray themselves) would sustain at least a couple of seasons of Real Housewives. But George and Martha, Albee’s avatars of marital dysfunction, are more authentically human than any Kardashian, particularly in director Pam MacKinnon’s revelatory revival, which roared into New York City following a 2010 run at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Actor-playwright Tracy Letts finds fresh undercurrents of hostility in George, too often depicted as a meek, professorial lapdog. And Amy Morton, who memorably played the eldest daughter in Letts’ own award-winning drama August: Osage County, builds surprising sympathy for Martha — an aggressive verbal gladiator who never sinks into a shrill harridan. Together, they offer a bracing and visceral portrait of American family values at their most toxic.
In an ambitious reworking of Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel (made famous by George Stevens’ 1956 film), composer Michael John LaChiusa rolls out one hummable melody after another in a rich score that draws on classic Broadway, Mexican folk, jazz, Copland-like orchestral works, and Native American percussion. Sybille Pearson ingeniously condenses Ferber’s hefty plot about a Texas rancher (Brian d’Arcy James) and his well-read East Coast wife (Kate Baldwin). Exquisitely sung and deeply moving, this epic three-hour production deserves a shot on Broadway — where the stage could match the sweep of a broad Texas horizon.
3. One Man, Two Guvnors
Eighteenth-century commedia dell’arte is crossbred with the English music hall in this laugh-out-loud hit, goosed by Tony-winning British actor James Corden as a gluttonous and sex-starved Everyman who tries to shuttle between two equally demanding bosses.
4. Death of a Salesman
Mike Nichols’ thoughtful revival was like a shot-for-shot remake of Elia Kazan’s original 1949 production, down to Alex North’s jazzy incidental music and Jo Mielziner’s spare set design. And Philip Seymour Hoffman carried the burden of the mighty Willy Loman with hunched-over gravity.
What we have, in Nina Raine’s riveting drama, is a failure to communicate. Billy is a deaf man in his 20s who’s grown up in a hearing (and verbally combative) family. But when he learns sign language, he belatedly finds his voice — and forces his loved ones (and us) to reexamine what it is that connects us to one another.
Ghost, Leap of Faith, Bring It On, A Christmas Story. Just about every new musical on Broadway seems to be based on a movie. With Newsies, Disney took a 1992 flop (albeit one that built a rabid home-video cult) and smartly tweaked the plot to create an old-fashioned hit with youthful high spirits, winning songs, and some seriously energetic dancing. 7. Rapture, Blister, Burn
Gina Gionfriddo’s drama is more than an homage to Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles. It’s a provocative and often funny exploration of 21st-century feminism focused on an academic/ TV pundit (played with intelligent restraint by Amy Brenneman) who begins to question her status as a single, childless, and deeply unhappy woman in her 40s.
8. The Gershwin’s Porgy and Besss
Audra McDonald, she of the golden voice and radiant stage presence, earned her fifth Tony as the scarred heroine of George and Ira Gershwin’s famed operetta, pared down to a two-and-a-half-hour musical with spoken dialogue but the bulk of its sterling score very much intact. And all of its soul.
9. The Heiress
It’s rare to have a classic American tragedy centered on a woman. Plus, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 drama, based on the Henry James novel Washington Square, offers an irresistibly juicy role for Jessica Chastain as the plain-Jane daughter of an affluent physician in 1850s Manhattan who catches the eye of a penniless charmer (Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens).
Another movie adaptation, but this one aptly sticks to the lo-fi, busker-on-the-street vibe of the original 2007 indie. The actors, led by the soulful Steve Kazee, double as the band. The set, an Irish bar that serves audience members during intermission, is suitably simple. And John Tiffany’s direction is elegantly restrained. You may love this production so, you wouldn’t trade it for gold.
Best Impersonation of a Legend: Tracie Bennett (below) as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, Rob McClure in Chaplin
Best Impersonation of a Ham:Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross
Sauciest Title: Cock
Gassiest Title:Chimichangas and Zoloft
Most Earsplitting Broadway Debut:Gleeks squealing for Darren Criss in How to Succeed…
Most Ear-Chomping Broadway Debut: Mike Tyson in Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth
Death of a Salesman