Theatre and Dance Highlights from NYC in 2016

Last year offered so many options of new works and old favorites that I missed quite a few performances that I wanted to see, such as Othello, The Front Page, Heisenberg, Michael C. Hall in David Bowie’s Lazarus, and more. I also missed Alvin Ailey’s annual dance season as well. Last year my work schedule was hectic and I spent a bit of time in Africa, which made seeing short runs of Broadway and off Broadway performances difficult. Most of what I managed to attend was fantastic.
Alan Cumming is one of my favorite actors, so when it was announced that he was taking his cabaret show on the road, I had to buy a ticket for his Carnegie Hall show. Whether acting or singing, he is ever the entertainer. Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs was a charming evening of musical theater with a few contemporary songs thrown in, witty banter and surprise guests: Kristin Chenoweth, Darren Criss and Ricki Lake. The set had a little something for everyone and was long enough to make me feel content but also desiring a little more.
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Eclipsed – this performance would make a good short or behind the scenes PBS performance. The play centered on life in Liberia, Africa in 2003. It depicted the difficulties that women faced during that time, specifically the reality of life in a region under rebel control. Eclipsed was poignant, sad and funny. The acting was fantastic and the ensemble was balanced and well cast. The female cast included Pascale Armand, Akosua Busia, Zainab Jah, Lupita Nyong’o, and Saycon Sengbloh. The men were also good, but not standouts. Perhaps it resonated so strongly with me because I work in peacebuilding and spent time in Liberia last year, but honestly, I think it had more to do with the storytelling by Danai Gurira and acting from a superb ensemble.
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The newest incarnation of Arthur Miller’s the Crucible felt like a dark and eerie film noir. The play featured a star-studded cast familiar to theater, film and television audiences including Ciarán Hinds, Sophie Okonedo, Ben Winshaw, Saoirse Ronan and a large ensemble. Though many reviewers complained of Ivo van Hove’s staging, noting that it didn’t offer enough context, I didn’t need a roadmap of period associations to understand exactly what was happening. The young actors brought the play to life with their scary and at times vulnerable portrayals of young girls accused being witches, while the rest of the cast embodied a community stirring up fear and looking for answers that didn’t exist.
Most people are aware of the hilarious musical The Book of Mormon; it’s irreverent storyline and potty mouth dialogue. I first experienced this show during its first national tour and couldn’t get some of lyrics out of my head for months. Typically, I don’t see productions more than once, aside from dance performances that often rotate the pieces performed, but one of my Uncles came to NY for a visit and I couldn’t find reasonably priced tickets to Hamilton…He hadn’t seen The Book of Mormon, which I figured he would like as he is a little cheeky himself, so that was that. Now, it’s been a few years but the lines were just as funny as the first go around and the writers have updated a few cultural references, which provided unexpected laughs as well.
The last play of the bunch – Blackbird by David Harrower, featured Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams. I really wanted to like this play, but I just didn’t. It is about a pedophile and his victim, she was 12 and he was 40 at the time. In the present — Williams character 27 years old, confronts Daniels character at his workplace to relive the past. I didn’t see the original casting of this play when it was off-Broadway, perhaps I would have enjoyed that version more. The monologues were too frenzied and for most of the play I found the acting unbelievable. They can’t all be winners…
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One of my favorite performances of the year was Swan Lake by the American Ballet Theatre. I know, I know – most ballet companies perform Swan Lake, and yes, I’ve seen it before. Though I won’t divulge how many times. But…I was determined to see Misty Copeland dance. Copeland is the first African American female principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre in NY and that’s a huge deal. When I was young, I practiced ballet, tap and modern dance. Let’s just say there wasn’t much diversity in my ballet world. I could watch Copeland solo for hours, her amazing lines, fluidity and graceful movement on stage is stunning. When I read that she would dance the role of Odile/Odette l in Swan Lake last season, I had to go because I didn’t want to run the risk of her never dancing that role again, and missing it. She was spectacular. It was a little emotional to look around and see so many beautifully dressed young girls watching an older image of themselves onstage in one of the most famous ballet roles in history. Copeland is an example that hard work and perseverance leads to dreams coming true.
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Final Thoughts on 2015 New York Theatre and Dance Performances

This has been one of my favorite Theatre seasons in New York, though it’s possible that I say those words every year. Let’s face it – there are winners, losers and those where the cast is great but the writing is so-so, and vice versa. Nothing was a loser but there was some in between.

 

Many of the plays on the top of my list were Round About Theatre productions.

 

Lost Girls was my favorite off-Broadway play of the season. Piper Perabo known for her turn as a spy in the TV show Covert Affairs drew me to the play but the well-rounded cast held my attention. The story revolves around a struggling mom and three generations of women who haven’t always made the best choices – and there’s a whole lot of potty mouth.

 

The Roundabout Theatre Company produced Ugly Lies the Bone in their black box theatre. Though not my favorite play of the season, the performance by Mamie Gummer as the wounded war veteran suffering from intense chronic pain and emotional distress was a standout performance. Gummer’s fiery portrayal of this resolute young woman struggling to piece her life together after war was captivating.

 

The play Old Times, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company made me want to read the entire Harold Pinter catalog of plays. The performances by Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly and Eve Best are fantastic. Riley and Best are former roommates who haven’t seen each other in 20 years. There is a tension and an underlying sense of discomfort that the characters exude while telling different versions of past experiences. Owen finally reveals that he had his own past with Best’s character. The reminiscing captivated the audience but at times the changes in the set were a distraction.

 

Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge is a must see classic. It has a fantastic cast — Nicola Walker and Mark Strong lead a strong ensemble. This reimagined version has a stark set and relies solely on the actors to tell the story of a Brooklyn longshoreman trying to keep his inner demons at bay while housing illegal Italian immigrants related to his wife. It’s an intense two-hour play but the time passed quickly.

 

Thérèse Raquin is a gothic melodrama about a woman who is resigned to her fate. She is quiet and faraway for the first half of the play until she enters into an affair. She is only happy momentarily though, because the man she has an affair with murders her husband. When they try to build a life after her husband’s death, he haunts them and she plunges into misery again. Keira Knightley, Matt Ryan, Gabriel Ebert, Judith Light and more make up this fantastic ensemble.

 

My guilty pleasure of 2015 – Chicago – featured Amra-faye Wright and Rumer Willis. Ever since watching Willis dance on DWTS, I’ve wanted to see her in something else – she didn’t disappoint. Along with being a dancer, she also has a fantastic voice. Chicago is a classic, which I’ve seen before but it’s a fun show — fairly long though, so prepare to settle in if you want to see it.

 

Closing out 2015, is one of my top three dance companies – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Normally, I attend three different nights so that I can catch all of the premieres and also watch other pieces that I’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend one night this season but the line up was all work I had never seen before. I’m so happy I finally saw Polish Pieces (1996). No Longer Silent (Ailey premiere 2015) was fantastic, but Untitled America: First Movement (2015) and Exodus (2015) were just stunning.

Colonial, contemporary and futuristic themes

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The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard was one of the best plays that I attended in 2014. Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon and Josh Hamilton were a stellar cast. McGregor was electrifying on stage. The story revolves around a playwright, and affair and his two wives. Nice revival of a contemporary classic play.

 

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Indian Ink, another Tom Stoppard gem, centers on the life of Romola Garai’s character Flora Crewe, an English woman living in 1930s India. Jump ahead to 1980s England — the son of an Indian painter whom Flora befriended in India comes searching for answers about his fathers past and meets with a relative of Flora’s. The play is full of lessons about class, caste systems and forbidden friendships.

 

 

 

Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal tell a story about an evolving relationship in Constellations by Nick Payne. The two replay several scenes of meeting one another, living together, breaking up and potentially dying. The possibilities seem endless. Though not my favorite play, it was well acted, slightly odd and completely watchable.

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FullSizeRender-7When it comes to dance it’s always a tough choice for me. Most companies spread out their new and classic pieces over many nights. It encourages dance enthusiasts to purchase tickets for multiple nights, which I often do. Unfortunately this year, Alvin Ailey’s season happened during my crazy busy fall finals and holiday travel. I only made it to one night this season but it was worth it. The night I attended the company performed repertory work — Lift, Revelations, Four Corners, as well as the premiere of Awassa Astrige/Ostrich. I wish I could have attended more shows but I’m happy that I made it to one. There’s always next season.

So much to see and never enough time or disposable cash…

A King, Sparkly Boots and Disgrace

As a grad student I often feel that my life is not my own — as in — I do not have much time to allocate toward much beyond studying. This past semester was my final full-time semester of classes and I started an internship at GNWP (Global Network of Women Peacebuilders. Needless to say, it was quite busy, which also accounts for my lack of blogging.

In order to break up the reading, research and writing I attended a few theatre shows, well as it turns out, more than a few…leading to a two-part blog.

FullSizeRender-2 It had been a while since I had seen Shakespeare on stage, so I was excited when my university (NYU) – announced that the Globe Theatre would perform King Lear at NYU Skirball. I will say…that I had forgotten how long Shakespeare’s plays are but it had a solid cast. The only actor I was familiar with was Joseph Marcell as King Lear; he played the butler in the television show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He was a great, crazy King Lear.

FullSizeRender-3Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar was on the top of my list of plays to see and it didn’t disappoint. The well-balanced cast included Gretchen Mol, Hari Dhillon and Josh Radnor. The Pulizer Prize-Winning Disgraced is a provocative story about identity that culminates in a dinner party that goes horribly wrong. The play culminates with an alcohol-fueled discussion that turns argumentative, actions and reactions that make audience members uncomfortable, and a subsequent divorce.

 

 

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I also went to see a few musicals in 2014, which were all fantastic in their own way.

When it was announced that Alan Cumming would return to Broadway and reprise his role as Emcee in Cabaret, I knew I had to go. A group of us went and we sat on the floor at a table, pricey but definitely worth it. We went early in the run, when Michelle Williams was playing Sally Bowles. She was okay as Bowles but at times a little awkward. Cumming and the rest of the cast were fantastic.

FullSizeRender-1The second musical I attended was with my sister when she came to New York for a visit — we ventured out to see Kinky Boots. Harvey Fierstein wrote the book, with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper. Billy Porter plays Lola and is the shining star of the show. The show is over the top — fabulous entertainment. The story is heartfelt, sad and hopeful. There is one particular moment when Porter stands on a pitch-black stage, alone, spot lit, in a white gown singing “Hold Me in Your Heart.” It’s a moving, gorgeous, spellbinding scene.

It seems like another lifetime, but I worked in music for a good part of my career, before my back-to-school adventure. During that time the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch came out. My friends and I loved the film and soundtrack, so much in fact, that the music could often be heard at my shows. Fast forward to 2014 – Hedwig comes to Broadway. It brought me back to a carefree time with friends during my youth. Michael C. Hall was amazing in drag and crazy heels jumping off a car and other props on stage, singing his heart out — he was brilliant, funny and tragic — fantastic!

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Buyer & Cellar ~ An Upscale Basement Adventure

First, I must show my appreciation for the Barrow Street Theatre, a fabulous theatre in the West Village. I had a ticket last week on a very, very snowy night and I was unable to make it in to the city because of train cancellations. I called the next day and explained why I didn’t show up and asked if there were options other than purchasing another ticket. The staff was very kind and offered me a ticket for that evening. I happily accepted. It had stopped snowing, but there was about 12 inches of snow, I believe. It was freezing outside and snow was piled up everywhere. Needless to say it was an interesting trek for this California girl tromping through the snow and ice trying to find a theatre I had never been to on my own. Luckily I didn’t have any spills on the icy streets and thank goodness for phones with gps.

Broadway shows are amazing. However, I cannot say enough about the importance of being open to attending shows, in my case off Broadway, but basically…local community theatre. You might see a rising star or support struggling artists, but in my experience it is usually worth more than the price of admission.

The comedy Buyer & Cellar features Michael Urie of Ugly Betty fame. The show is well written and Urie is hilarious. The unlikely premise is that an unemployed actor, recently fired from the mouse house takes a job in Barbra Streisand’s basement storage mall and she visits, shops and haggles. When the show begins, Urie walks out clutching a Streisand book and sits on the side of the stage and gives a small introduction, which helps draw in the audience.

The show is about an hour and a half without intermission and the time flew by. I found Urie charming and quite funny. Even though the storyline is farfetched, I found myself pondering the possibilities. She is a little eccentric, she probably cannot just pop out to the mall, and people do have basements full of stuff, so…But the show is fiction, hysterical and absolutely worth seeing.

This was my first visit to the Barrow Street Theatre and it was a great experience — what a great intimate space to see shows. I’ll definitely return.