Tuesday, June 02, 2009

SOB's Best Of 2008-09: Best New Musicals

SOB's Best Of 2008-09: Best New Musicals

Over the past year, I've had the good fortune of taking in over 70 performances of a wide range of musicals, plays and "special theatrical events." Twelve of those performances were productions of new musicals not only on Broadway, but also significant ones elsewhere as well.

Unfortunately, for the second year in a row, I have to admit it's not been a particularly good time for new musicals to enjoy critical success. (Please note that the full list for consideration does not include Billy Elliot - The Musical, since it was on my Best of 2005-06 list.) Yet there were those that challenged, entertained and/or scored with me personally -- certainly enough to land on my personal "5 Best" list for the past twelve months.

Drumroll, please:

5 - Shrek The Musical (Broadway Theatre, New York, New York)

Surprise: Shrek The Musical is actually pretty funny and quite often borderline brilliant. The show deserves a larger audience. I was surprised by how often I found myself laughing early and often at this fairy tale satire.

Not only does it completely engage with its sly skewering of Disney and Broadway fare alike, but it becomes a ginormous gutbuster when Christopher Sieber's hilarious Lord Farquaad lampoons both Dreamgirls and Wicked in less than six deliriously delicious seconds.

If you're looking for an escape from all of today's headlines that only an ogre could relish -- and let's face it, who isn't?! -- as well as a musical where you can see all your money up on the stage, Shrek The Musical is just the ticket.

4 - 13 (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York, New York)

High School Musical it ain't. But thank goodness for that. Think of Jason Robert Brown's exuberant new musical 13 as a positive, latter-day answer to "All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten."

13 heralded Brown's long-awaited return to Broadway, and his tuneful, rich score did not disappoint. Neither did the breathtaking display of teen talent, as all 13 cast members, along with orchestra, are age appropriate. Sure the book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn at times went from earnest to hokey in record time during this 90-minute show.

Yet thanks to Jeremy Sams' pacing, Christopher Gattelli's unrestrained choreography, and Brown's beautiful score, I found myself transfixed, charmed and downright moved.

3 - 9 To 5 (Marquis Theatre, New York, New York)

Not since taking in another underappreciated tuner, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, have I laughed so heavily from my gut. 9 To 5 is not rocket science or deeply penetrating. But it wins by being thoroughly highly and consistently entertaining.

This musical is exceedingly fun and funny, as well as very loyal to the 1980 film. More significantly, Dolly Parton has delivered one of this season's most melodic scores, with plenty of tunes to keep you humming long after departing the theatre. 9 To 5 also rates as a fabulous star vehicle for its tremendous trio of leading ladies: Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block and Megan Hilty. Each has her moment to shine, and each does so splendidly.

You'd be hard pressed not to revel in 9 To 5's frivolity.

2 - next to normal (Booth Theatre, New York, New York)

With a fierce, electrifying direction from Michael Greif, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s next to normal is nothing if not atypical for Great White Way musical fare. But in tackling mental illness and its continued social stigma head-on, the tuner ranks as the best new musical I've seen on Broadway this year.

In a bravura performance deserving of a Tony, Alice Ripley portrays Diana, who on first blush seems like the quintessential housewife and mother of two. But not everything is as it seems. It’s not long before Yorkey’s book descends into the personal hell Diana must endure and the scorching reverberations her deepening depression has on the rest of the family.

With an exceptional cast, next to normal marks a welcome if downright shocking departure for Broadway. If you’re like me, it just may melt down into your heart.

1 - The Visit (Max Theatre, Signature, Arlington, Virginia)

Unlike guests who overstay their welcome, Chita Rivera and George Hearn are two exceptional actors who aren't around nearly enough. Together for John Kander and the late Fred Ebb's spellbinding "new" musical The Visit last year, their stellar performances underscored what musical theatre is all about.

The lofty creative team for this Kander & Ebb tuner read like a who's who of the stage, including Terrence McNally with his shrewdly clever book and Ann Reinking for her captivating choreography. Due props must also be paid to Frank Galati for helming such an exquisite production.

In addition to Rivera and Hearn's excellent performances, Kander & Ebb's score was every bit as much a star of The Visit. They worked their magic once again. Despite its quirky and ultimately somber tone, this was one Visit worth making.

Since it was by far the best new musical I saw over the past year, I can only hope a Visit is one day in the cards for New York.

So what were the best new musicals you saw over the past year? I invite you to join the conversation by sharing your theatre experiences with me.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 02 June, 2009, Blogger Esther said...

I really enjoyed "13" and I'm disappointed it got completely overlooked in the Tony nominations.

I loved Christopher Gattelli's choreography, especially in the opening number. I thought the story was sweet and told with a lot of humor.

I think it's a situation that resonates for a lot of teens or anyone who was a teen - feeling out of place and the lengths that you'll go to in order to fit in. But it never felt preachy, just fun and energetic.

At 02 June, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, I agree completely about its losing out on Tony nods. Perhaps it's one of the hazards of opening so early in the season. Too bad, isn't it?

At 02 June, 2009, Blogger Vance said...

Add my love for 13. Of all the new musicals, I think I would have to place Giant first, then 13, [title of show], The Visit, then 9 to 5 (Minsky's and N2N would be next). (Shrek, ACE, Saved were the others I saw)

At 02 June, 2009, Blogger Vance said...

Oh, and I saw Rock of Ages too. I guess that counts too. Already forgot (and i JUST posted about it too... haha). Hmm.. that means I saw 12 new musicals too! What were the others that didn't make your list?

At 02 June, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Vance, I didn't count [title of show], which I saw a couple years ago at the Vineyard Theatre.

Others I saw that didn't make my list include:
Road Show (Public Theater, New York), Liza's At The Palace...! (Palace Theater, New York), Passage Of Dreams (Southern Theatre, Minneapolis), Little House On The Prairie (Guthrie, Minneapolis), Rock Of Ages (Brooks Atkinson, New York), The Story Of My Life (Booth Theatre, New York) and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (Bailiwick Repertory, New York).

At 03 June, 2009, Blogger Vance said...

Oh, I saw Road Show too. Wow. Totally forgot about that. Even though I kinda liked some of it. Oops! Maybe I didn't like it that much!


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