Connecticut's Best 10 Theater Productions For 2014

Theater critic Frank Rizzo offers his list of Connecticut's best theater productions in 2014

What brings joy in the night and then disappears in a blink of an eye?

No, not Santa Claus but live theater and in 2014 stages throughout the state were filled with productions that were wondrous presents for Connecticut audiences, with shows that delighted, shocked, provoked, mesmerized and tickled.

So what kind of shows made up the Top 10 List of the Best of 2014 in the state?

Well, there were two world premieres (with the top spot going to one of them), two touring shows and one Shakespearean production (well, two if you count one very liberal adaptation).

Also on the list were one musical revival, one recent Broadway title and fresh looks on older plays by Tom Stoppard and Steve Martin. There was also one terrific show by a new local company, too.

So here's my list of the Top 10 shows of 2014, in order of preference:

"These Paper Bullets" at Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven. Rolin Jones' witty, puckish mash-up of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," was set in London in the 1960s and centered on a wildly popular rock band (think Beatles). It may sound like an audacious idea and, well, it was. But it somehow, improbably, delightfully worked in what was the most playful, exuberant show of the season. Jackson Gay's giddy direction, Green Day rocker Billie Joe Armstrong's terrific musical homage (new songs written for the show — and where do I get the record?), and the ever-buoyant cast of mods and rockers resulted in a show brimming with sass, heart and joy. (This production took a top spot by the Connecticut Critics Circle at June's awards ceremony.)

"Hamlet" at Hartford Stage. Though set in Elizabethan England, Darko Tresnjak's production — his fourth Bard work at Hartford Stage — had a sleek, paranoid, pulse-pounding feel that made it the right fit for modern times, too. Zach Appelman made for a clear, moving and thrilling Hamlet in a career-propelling performance that at times took your breath away. And the show's stunning end image is one for the books.

"The Book of Mormon" at the Bushnell, Hartford. They had me at "Hello!"

"War Horse" at Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Hartford. Bravura theatricality of grand and yes, sentimental storytelling, thanks to the magnificent steeds from Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. The entire production beautifully integrated lighting, sound, underscoring, staging, song and projections as it took us from the innocence of rural England to the horrors of World War I. But the stars of the show were the extraordinary and seemingly invisible teams of puppeteers who manipulated the horses, birds and one scene-stealing goose.

"The House That Will Not Stand" at Yale Repertory Theatre. It took a bit to get into the rhythms, language and music of this stylized production set in steamy 1836 New Orleans. But once you got in the show's groove, this tasty gumbo of a play got you good. Everything was heightened in this bigger-than-life production, from the riveting ensemble acting, to the bold staging of Patricia McGregor, to writer Marcus Gardley's plot and theme-heavy desire-under-the fronds narrative that echoed Federico Garcia Lorca's "The House of Bernarda Alba" while making the story uniquely his own.

"Endurance," Split Knuckle Theatre at Long Wharf Theatre. Combine TV's "The Office" with a harrowing real-life adventure from The Discovery Channel, and mix it with some very creative theater artists and you might get an inkling of what "Endurance" is all about. This young, inventive now-New Haven-based troupe embraced vivid, physical theatrics and — using everyday objects in its fast-paced storytelling — conjured a tale of two centuries of leaders facing insurmountable challenges, and made the show a theatrical adventure of its own.

"Fiddler on the Roof" at Goodspeed Opera House. The oys didn't have it. In one of Goodspeed's finest and most intimate productions, director Rob Ruggiero treated the show not as an institutionalized classic but, miracle of miracles, as a vital and human story of family, faith and a simple man's struggle with a fast-changing world. The well-integrated production had grace, warmth and surety — and a funny, endearing and masterful performance by Adam Heller as Tevye.

"Arcadia" at Yale Repertory Theater. Tom Stoppard's intellectual, existential and theatrical ride of a lifetime — in fact, many lifetimes — received a splendid production under director James Bundy's savvy balance of chaos and control. Theories of math, physics and philosophy flew at the speed of light in a production that didn't forget the human, touch, too.

"The Other Place" at TheaterWorks, Hartford. Kate Levy gave an emotionally intense performance as the hard-to-like and harder-to-take woman who is experiencing a mysterious illness of some kind at the same time her marriage appears to be in turmoil. It was a long, hard journey of discovery for all — including the audience — in this tough, tender and enthralling play,

"Picasso at the Lapin Agile" at Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven. I was on vacation when Steve Martin's very silly, very smart comedy opened. And while I was not a fan of Martin's "The Underpants" last year, I loved this play and this youthful and inventive production. Gordon Edelstein staged the intellectual farce with a deft hand and a terrific cast of actors who knew comedy well. (A side note: There were three extraordinary shows this fall in New Haven that all dealt with cosmic issues: "Our Town," "Arcadia" and "Picasso at Lapin Agile." It must have felt like a non-stop Christmas for existentialists.)

If I were to list the 11 runners-up works, they would include, in no particular order: a very local and personal "Our Town" at Long Wharf Theatre, an exuberant "Newsies" at Palace Theater in Waterbury; "Woody Sez" at TheaterWorks that made the homespun captivating; the swoonable "Once" at Shubert Theater in New Haven; the hysterically funny "The 25th Annual Putnum Country Spelling Bee" and the ambitious:"Angels in America" at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, the world premiere of "Gilbert the Great" at A Broken Umbrella Theater in New Haven; the world premiere of the fanciful "Fairy Tale Lives of Russian Girls" at Yale Repertory Theatre," the playful "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" at Hartford Stage; Seth Rudetsky's dazzling "Deconstructing Broadway" at Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford.

Copyright © 2018, CT Now