A red-hot rocking musical as well as a heart-felt one. Two ensemble dramas that looked at the way we live with humor and rue. A pair of outstanding shows from the state’s smaller theaters. A Shakespearean horror story and an over-the-top political farce. (No, not the one in Washington.) A show that reminded us what it was like to hear a Broadway score in all its glory, and an unexpected event that sadly shouldn’t have had to happen at all.
These 2013 shows make up my annual Top 10 list of outstanding shows on Connecticut stages.
1. My favorite theater experience of the year — though that phrase is odd to use in the traditional context of “best-of-year” lists — is “From Broadway with Love: A Benefit Concert for Sandy Hook” that took place in late January at Waterbury’s Palace Theater just six weeks after the tragic shooting in Newtown. Connecticut residents Van Dean and Brett Boles assembled a first-class line-up of Broadway entertainers, crew and musicians who volunteered their talents and presented a moving, inspiring, bittersweet show.
2. “The Most Happy Fella,” at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. The highlight of the 50th anniversary season was a return to a beloved musical, beautifully staged by Rob Ruggiero, and wonderfully acted by Bill Nolte, Mamie Parris and a cast whose voices made the Frank Loesser near-operatic score soar.
3. “The Dining Room” at Westport Country Playhouse. Mark Lamos directed a haunting production of this early A.R. Gurney work and made high theatrical cuisine. Another excellent ensemble brought to life this theatrical anthology that took a look over 50 years of a particular culture of people: the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in America from the 1930s to late in the 20th Century.
4. “American Idiot” at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford. This was a dynamic theatrical experience based on Green Day’s 2004 pop-punk classic with a young, sexy cast, electrifying staging and angst-filled choreography that spoke to the post-9/11 generation. But some older folks may have been reminded — and related to — the rage, ennui and chaos from their own youth, too, and joining in the rebel yell.
5. Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still” at Hartford’s TheaterWorks. There were lots of political and moral issues to consider in this beautifully-acted, nuanced-filled work, ranging from journalistic ethics to how violent images affect our culture. But at the heart of this story was a human relationship that unravels in tiny degrees, examining in daily detail what happens when a couple is no longer in the same frame of focus.
6. The musical “Kiss Me Kate” at University Theater in New Haven. This concert version of Cole Porter’s classic was presented as a radio presentation, as the kick-off to Yale’s celebratory centennial of the composer’s graduation from the university. The event featured great singers and actors and a 40-plus orchestra directed by David Charles Abell playing the newly restored score with original orchestrations that haven't been heard since the Tony Award-winning show first ran on Broadway in 1952. This special event was “Wunderbar.”
7. “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” by Dario Fo at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. This political farce was radical fun, with seasoned artists who knew how to shape Italian commedia dell'arte for contemporary times. It was wild, hysterical and pointed and offered another vehicle for director Christopher Bayes and his band of merry players, led by the extraordinary Steven Epp.
8. “Cabaret” at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. Greatly influenced by the na-na-nasty ‘90s revival at the Roundabout Theatre Company, the low-tech, high-quality production was brimming with talent, nerve and pizazz and showed that great things can indeed come in modest packages.
9. “Freewheelers” by Broken Umbrella Theatre Company at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven. The above sentiments also could be applied to this little Elm City theater group that also took an environmental approach to theater, taking over a deserted building in downtown New Haven and putting on an original show with music, movement and imagination. Sometimes community-themed shows are do-good/done-bad works. This show was an extraordinary exception.
10. William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” at Hartford Stage. If this show doesn’t give you the heebie jeebies it’s not doing its job and Dark Tresnjak’s “breaking Bard” take was sufficiently dark and disturbing, led by Matthew Rauch and Kate Forbes as the killer couple that left audiences spellbound.
Other shows I liked during the year included John Cariani’s “Almost, Maine” at “TheaterWorks; “Clybourne Park” at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre; “Twelfth Night” at Hartford Stage (in no small part to Alexander Dodge’s marvelous maze of hedges) and “Ride the Tiger,” propelled by a mesmerizing mobster performance by Jordan Lage. I also liked — even when I didn’t love — the bold and challenging work in such shows as “Man in a Case” starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Yale Rep‘s “In a Year with 13 Moons” starring the astonishing Bill Camp.
The premiere of the holiday trifle “Christmas on the Rocks’’ at TheaterWorks also offered some alternative holiday cheer. It was good, too, to see the former American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford come alive again, albeit outdoors on the lawn, with a delightful “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It was also great to get another production of the very funny “I’m Connecticut” by Mike Reis at the Ivoryton Playhouse.
And there were a few extraordinary shows a Connecticut theater-lover had to travel a bit to see — but was well worth the trip. The new musical “The Bridges of Madison County” at Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Massachusetts Berkshires was surprisingly splendid, smart and romantic with a wondrous score by Jason Robert Brown; and “All the Way” at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater starred “Breaking Bad”’s Bryan Cranstron giving a dynamic performance as Lyndon Baines Johnson. You could have been the first to see these shows; now both are opening on Broadway in a matter of months.
Then there were shows that premiered or were further developed here and then moved on in 2013, some more successfully than others. They included Hartford Stage’s “Breath and Imagination” at other regional theaters. Off Broadway saw TheaterWorks’ “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” Yale Rep’s “Marie Antoinette” by David Adjmi and Amy Herzog’s “Belleville,” Long Wharf Theatre’s “My Name Is Asher Lev” and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful” which was commissioned, developed and premiered at Hartford Stage.
The biggest source of hometown pride was “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” that premiered at Hartford Stage last year, won top awards from the Connecticut Critics Circle in June and last month went to Broadway where it received mostly rave reviews.