The Best of 2022 Theatre Edition: Toronto, NYC, and London, UK.
Oh, what a year it was. Running back and forth with a vengeance from Toronto to NYC, with stops in London, England, and London, Canada. Mostly for the sake of theatre. It was quite the adventure, but there were so many theatrical moments that made it so very worth it all. And I wouldn’t change a thing. Except maybe not having to wait to see NYTW’s Merrily We Roll Along. (You can click on each and every title for a link to my frontmezzjunkies review, if you so desire.)
At the top of the heap is Into the Woods, which began in May as another star-filled Encores production at NYCC. And I owe that all to the amazingly warm and wonderful Sara Bareilles as The Baker’s Wife, who filled the role with such tenderness and humor that I couldn’t wait to see it once again when it transferred to Broadway, to even more acclaim. “This fairytale adventure is and continues to be a forever joy, delivering a connected, clever piece of magical storytelling, that takes smart off-the-path twists and turns with several well-known children’s bedtime stories, and one brand new one; The Baker and his Wife. Sondheim expertly weaves them together into a compelling musical about wishing and wanting, and if you stay for Act II, you learn that actions have consequences and that one must lead by example. We get the answer to what happens when you actually get what you wish for, and what one can learn from what they lost. All played out in and amongst the white birch woods on the stage of the St. James Theatre, surrounded by the wonderful Encores! orchestra, led by the musical director, Robert Berman (Broadway’s Bright Star).” And because of popular demand and a long list of stars happy to step into roles as replacements, the show is still playing, even though it started out as a short-term investment.
Back when I wrote the review, I stated: “Directed with a joyful acknowledgment of the fine cast assembled and the impeccable piece of writing at her disposal, DeBessonet executes the task most effectively and efficiently, finding all of the humor and care inside Sondheim’s smart words and melodies. The overlaying is magnificent, and although I thought, as I did with the Encores! production, that the piece could use a bit more intrepid introspection into the darkness and sensuality of the lyrics, the production steadfastly unearths a straightforward jokie innocence that lives beautifully deep in the entangled darkness. All and all, this bypass doesn’t come even close to hurting this production, mainly because it is full of wildly wonderful performances having a fun comedic playtime with every scene and scenario, unpacking and delivering with gusto, intelligence, and bravado.”
Other musical adventures that spiked my senses during the year 2022 included Some Like It Hot on Broadway. A musical film-to-stage remake that both did the original justice and took the story into our modern sensibilities without missing one tap dancing step. The question, “What are you thirsty for?” rings true in regards to this newly crafted dynamically funny production, “delivered by the unstoppable Sweet Sue, embodied by the impossibly strong, vocally-gifted Natasha Yvette Williams (Broadway’s Chicken and Biscuits) in the first moments of Broadway’s newest film-to-stage musical. Williams’ voice surges forth, demanding us to sit up to the Depression and be amazed.” It will truly be the one to knock on the Tony Award door, right after the incomparable Kimberly Akimbo, my all-time favorite new musical of the 2022/23 season so far. “It’s warm and impossibly touching, yet many of the characters are not”.
“Even on my second viewing, this time at the Booth Theatre on Broadway, this fantastic new musical, maybe the best of the season, finds its way into our collective heart so beautifully but from paths unexpected. It drives itself forward, down such a winding road, finding a golden and unique place to call home, where the music and the songs find a way of elevating the story with glee while keeping its sense of self-honest and truthful.” The truth and wonder in the show, and in the cast presentation, particularly the incredibly convincing Victoria Clark (Broadway’s Gigi; The Light in the Piazza), alongside all her costars, make this a must-see in my books, and hopefully will take home a slew of awards in the spring.
There is also the surprisingly good and fun & Juliet that jumped over the pond, via Toronto, and took over the Stephen Sondheim Theatre with a gusto that is infectious, and I mean that in all the best fun ways possible. “Marvelously fun and enthusiastically appealing, this show delivers with a smart smirk inside a ridiculously fun pretense. And it couldn’t be any better if you tried.” On Broadway, it’s joyously clever, and I say that even though I wasn’t as struck by it when I saw it years ago in the West End of London. Now, I must admit “It’s super dope!”
But let’s not forget, nor ignore A Strange Loop, the musical that “Leaps High Across the Divide” transferring onto Broadway from Playwrights Horizons and breaking barriers left, right, and center. “This isn’t Broadway’s typical musical looking through the looking glass into some part of her soul thinking “white girls can do anything, can’t they?“ This is playwright Michael R. Jackson (Amazon’s “I’m a Virgo.“) finding his own on Broadway, whirling around intersectionality in the most detailed and delightfully dark loop, probably throwing not just a few patrons off their comfy little Broadway seats.” And remember, it took home a heaping bunch of Tonys.
And what about Broadway’s Ain’t No Mo’? ““Say yes, bitch!” “Especially once the sound ministry gets it together and wakes up the mournful spectacularly in white… the roof is raised high by that ministry, with all of that wailing and carrying on by a gaggle of mourners flinging forth with such enthusiasm in the first and foremost vignette from the satirical and devilishly funny” Ain’t No Mo’ that played out a much too short run on Broadway at the magnificent Belasco Theatre. “This piece of surprising power that debuted back in 2019 at The Public Theater is stuffed solidly inside a laugh-out-loud flight of fancy written by an impressive Jordan E. Cooper (“The Ms. Pat Show“) that consistently shows its smart deep roots with every unveiling.” It should still be playing to packed houses. But sadly it is not.
Off-Broadway the Classic Stage Company production of A Man of No Importance surprised and touched my heart, starring an engaging Jim Parsons (Broadway/Netflix’s Boys in the Band), the always excellent Mare Winningham (Broadway’s The Girl from the North Country), and the electric and sexy A.J. Shively (Broadway’s Paradise Square; Bright Star). “We’re Irish. We’re drunk. We sing here.” Enough said.
There was also Suffs at the Public, which “Majestically Climbs Those Hard Earned Stairs Beautifully” shaking some things up with its politics and power. “Watch Out for the Suffragettes,” they haughtily implore, and we can’t help but be intrigued as they usher us most wonderfully into Shaina Taub’s miraculously engaging new musical. As well as Atlantic Theater’s devastatingly good, The Bedwetter which I was lucky to get in to see just before it closed. Sadly I missed the chance to witness both Bebe Neuwirth and Caissie Levy in the production, but “Sarah, as portrayed most deliciously by the very talented Zoe Glick, (Broadway’s Frozen), had me at hello, basically…., it’s completely captivating, and Glick finds her spotlight as… the fresh, fictionalized young pre-teen version of Silverman, walking out boldly into the spotlight to introduce herself to her new classmates, and in turn, to us. And we know immediately, we can’t get enough. Swear words, and all.”
I sadly missed the Encores! production of Parade starring Ben Platt at NY City Center (but I hear I’ll get my chance next season when it transfers to Broadway. Woo Hoo!), as well as Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at New York Theatre Workshop, although I have a ticket waiting for me at the box office for early January long before it transfers to Broadway in the fall. So no tears for me, I guess as I’ll get to see that classic show twice. And it will most likely make it onto my next year’s list. Probably, from what I’ve heard, right next to Parade. Fingers crossed.
Luckily, I was able to sneak my way in for a second round of the Broadway revival of Funny Girl solely to catch Lea Michele (Broadway’s Spring Awakening) dominating the stage in a role she seemed destined for her to devour. The show itself is fairly well designed and directed (although not perfectly), and when it starred the terribly miscast Beanie Feldstein, it never really rose above second hand, but with Michele in the part, it really does elevate this Funny Girl to grand new heights, making it her very own while vocally honoring the icon Streisand. “It still has some intrinsic flaws, but now, in this rejuvenated production, the show spins and swirls with so much more assurance, saving it from the stormy waters that were crashing up against its sides before the recasting. The musical easily pulls in the already excited audience, with Lea elevating the production into the enthusiastic fine space it belongs. Finally, the ship has been saved from going under. Thank goodness.”
The best plays of the year (not the new season) are a fascinatingly eclectic bunch, with most of them being connected to London, England in one way or another. By far, the best thing I saw was The Doctor spinning spectacularly smart in the West End. “It stands strong and stoically upfront, unpacking complexities such as medical ethics, identity politics, racism, antisemitism, and a whole bunch of other compelling conflicts that are boiling through our society currently, with a brilliance that is astonishing. One of the main vantage points that it forces a confrontation with is the ideas that swirl around unconscious bias and projected constructs. The play sneaks in loudly, filling the space with a focused intensity from the moment the music and the lights pinpoint the actors intently walking in”. It originated at the Almeida Theatre, toured the UK, and landed in the West End at the Duke of York’s Theatre, where I saw it over Thanksgiving. Starring the magnificent Juliet Stevenson (Robert Icke’s West End adaptation of Mary Stuart), it is the most excitingly crafted play I’ve seen in a long time, maybe since The Lehman Trilogy, tackling issue upon issue with a brilliance that is almost deafening. Written and directed by the amazing Robert Icke, The Doctor shouldn’t be missed, especially when it makes its way over to NYC – not on Broadway, surprisingly, but at the Park Avenue Armory in the early summer. Go.
Second on my list is Tom Stoppard’s semi-autobiographical play, Leopoldstadt, which dramatizes events and complications around Jewish identity, cultural assimilation, and anti-Semitism around the Second World War in Europe. Clocking in around two hours, this National Theatre, London production “Digs Deep into History and the Heart” steadily galvanizing our senses while never giving us the chance to back away from the crushing emotional dynamics at its core. “Holding it all in, close to the heartstrings, Stoppard’s intense play dives deep into the generational trauma and descent of an affluent Jewish family living and intellectualizing their existence with an understandable false sense of security. And ultimately, we are living that delusional nightmare right now, as Fascism tries to grab hold in the early 21st Century.”
Other great plays that made their way onto the stage include the Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The West End transfer revival “shines a misty light on the memories and arguments that hover in the past, forcing themselves down and forward into the present. The production wisely uncovers all from a new vantage point, that of the Black Man’s experience inside that twisted American Dream that hangs above our collective heads around prosperity and success. The revival shifts this view, elevating and expanding Miller’s vision exponentially, thanks to the inventive craftpersonship of director Miranda Cromwell (Almeida Theatre’s and breathe…) who unpacks an idea that few knew was so essential to the play and our present.” It’s a play that at first I wasn’t exactly interested in seeing one more time. But boy, am I glad I did.
The West End revival of Mike Bartlett’s Cock that I saw in London also filled my mind with exciting wonder. With a starry glee, even with the replacement of its big-named draw, the dashing and talented Taron Egerton, the production “stands up tall and strong for the whole world to see, thanks to the combative stance of playwright Bartlett (King Charles III). He has formulated a ring where the men stand at odds, all of a sudden, out of the blue, all because of an accident followed by a run-in meet/cute with a fellow commuter.”
“Director Marianne Elliott (West End/Broadway’s Angels in America) guides us convincingly through Bartlett’s battleground of sexuality, gender expression, and identity giving the whole engagement a precise edge. She lets them hang out in confusion, within their own limited constructs, contorting them in and around one another with expert ease.” Egerton’s replacement, the phenomenally talented and impressive Joel Harper-Jackson (UK Tour of Kinky Boots) was a dream, probably for both of us, but it really was all about the Olivier Award winner Jonathan Bailey (West End’s Company) who elevated it all, as only a “Bridgerton” could.
Martyna Majok’s captivatingly strong Cost of Living “Spins a Fascinating and Compelling Net of Complicated Care and Sorrow.” The MTC show takes us in deep, determinately revolving us around the complications and struggles of living with some pretty serious physical disabilities. Also asking us to sit up and take notice is Bruce Norris’s Downstate at Playwrights Horizons, a show I also saw first at the National Theatre in London. It does us something similar, but this time it swings us around the concepts of punishment when it comes to sex offenders. “The play, as directed strongly by Pam MacKinnon (PH’s Log Cabin), ventures strongly up and into our collective faces, digging deep inside this controversial and dynamically real argument about punishment and survival in a morally ambiguous dimension. Authentically moving and utterly disturbing, the play begins with a victim coming forward to confront his past and the perpetrator of sexual abuse he experienced from his piano teacher when he was a young child, and from there, it spins its web inside and out of this complicated group home structure.”
There was Mary-Louise Parker (Broadway’s The Sound Inside; HBO’s “Angels in America“) who took over that Broadway MTC stage with an emotionally captivating remounting of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, which “is as rich and dense on the inside as it is on the outside, folded in and around a difficult subject matter with an artful wonder.” On the opposite side of the spectrum, we can’t forget about Broadway’s funniest comedy of the 2021/22 season, POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive. That team of artists involved “definitely know how to keep this ruckus play going strong and rocking, delivering line after line of hilarity for us all to savor. It’s pure deliciousness, this farce about all the female staff that works together to keep the country out of trouble. They do this with aplomb, all the while babysitting the idiot that holds the highest office in the land. If only all these women who brought forth this comedy actually could run the country. We might be better off.”
Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen also delivered once again some brilliance from over there across the pond after this devastatingly good black comedy from off-Broadway transferred to the Broadway stage. “Roping us in tightly to what is at the core of Martin McDonagh’s 1963 England” the play, unfortunately, got a bit knocked off its chair because of the lockdown and never found its audience and footing once it returned. There was the beautiful and elegant A Prayer for the French Republic at MTC’s New York City Center Stage 1. “Clocking in at an impressively brave three-plus hours, this multi-generational tale of a persecuted Jewish family living in Paris is, in general, a captivating triumph, one worthy of your attention and patience.” Truly.
And let’s not forget Sanaz Toossi’s mesmerizingly impressive and thoughtful play English at Atlantic Theater. Toossi “has crafted a brilliantly complex tale that maps out our frustrations and the deep humanistic consequences that come when trying to ingest a new language into our souls. Resonating deeply, the stories told here, thanks to the superb direction of Knud Adams (ATC’s Paris), dig deep into the ideas of acceptance, belonging, and connection, finding humor and honor in the difficult framework of a new complex language.” As well as Ana Nogueira’s hilariously good Which Way to the Stage at MCC Theater that elevates the over-the-top fandom of musical theatre legends to a whole new exciting level. “Theatrical references are thrown around like beautiful fun confetti in MCC Theater‘s hilarious and surprisingly meaningful new play, Which Way to the Stage. They fly in and out with a smart force, zinging to the heart of the matter, before ricocheting around to hit another theatrical target dead center with aplomb. It’s epic and zazzy dialogue, written with a clever insider spark, shot out with such wild and insightful abandonment that we are left speechless.”
In a one-person theatrical realm all to its own, a number of shows masterfully engaged us without a lot of help from other actors. The wonderfully funny storyteller, Mike Birbiglia, did it again with his honest and hilarious The Old Man & The Pool, which took over the large Lincoln Center Theater Main Stage most swimmingly breathing depth and insight into his hilarity. “The most straight-up comedy of the season”…delivers “personal stories intended to fill us with love, tenderness, laughter, and insight as he wrestles most bloodily with his unhealthy lifestyle choices and attitudes.” There was the riveting The Human Voice in the West End that “Connects Even When Disconnection is at its Core” starring the one and only Ruth Wilson (Broadway’s Constellations; King Lear) all alone on stage behind a plate of glass. “With Wilson, the two-time Olivier and Golden Globe Award winner, playing the lost soul in the center with an intense singularity, she, the actress, somehow manages to pull us in, even as we experience and register the tense triggering separation that exists somewhere between ‘She’ and him, and her and us.”
An amusing and brilliant triumph, equal to two smaller shows in Toronto that I also couldn’t get out of my mind easily, not that I wanted to. There was the wonderfully creative Haley McGee hitting the Right Formula in The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale at Soulpepper Theatre, “who uses her frame and her functionings to boldly take center stage to contemplate her value. But it is that cost of loving and coupling, in a time of desperation, that is at the core of this frenzied and smartly orchestrated examination. And we happily run alongside her, as she delivers forth an intimate portrait and examination of love and dismissal that can send a soul spinning in wildly hysterical circles of calculations and adulations, wrapping oneself up in formulas and ideas that could ultimately tie one up for a lifetime.” There was also the intimately moving and upsetting Civilized at the Red Sandcastle Theatre that floored me emotionally. This play is “a must-see, for everyone who wants to truly understand the hatred and white supremacy that was at the core of these [Residental] schools and our country’s creation. It was not a pleasant evening of theatre, as there were many moments I could not look up from the ground at the actor on stage. But these words matter, and this is an important piece for us all to hear and take in.”
Speaking of Toronto, I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am to have the opportunity to see such great theatre here in Canada. A few productions stood out, captivating and enthralling me with their precision and artistic sensibilities. There was Factory Theatre’s absolutely genius production of Trojan Girls & The Outhouse of Atreus. It “Throws Grease on the Fire for a Greek Tragedy Swing Romp“, and the two-staged production completely blew me away. “This two-part/two-play simultaneous immersive production flies forth with confidence and skill, almost defying description. It transcends both time and the indoor/outdoor spaces where this two-party play melts together Greek mythology and modern vernacular with aplomb. Unfolding inside and out, at the same time, with the same cast in multiple connective parts, this epically exciting exploration of personal and global inheritance, citing the impending climate change emergency hanging dangerously over our worlds, jumps as high as Evil Knievel over our heads, forcing us all to grapple with deep seeded themes of parent/child attachment and personal tragedy, stitched inside love, lust, Greek tragedy, and immortal demands.”
And let’s not forget their intimate, engagingly brilliant Wildfire that Toronto’s Factory Theatre “Magnificently Ignites … Most Strong, Bright, and Deliciously Weird“. “Exquisitely translated by Leanna Brodie (For Home and Country) from [David] Paquet’s play, Le brasier, the three orphaned souls, each living in different apartments slowly weaves and are bound together by the subtle and instinctual writing. We discover their intimate emotional connections, inch by inch, step by step, call by call, all within the same familial and physical structure that binds them forever together, and as each layer of that fire is built and burnt, the love and the hate of the flames dance before us with an ease and an intensity that is studiously astounding.”
Soulpepper Theatre also delivered strongly their lined-up productions of King Lear, a classic by Shakespeare, and Queen Goneril, a new play by Erin Shields (If We Were Birds), that “unearths all the magic required to turn this on its head and expand our understanding.” As well as the tender and emotional Where The Blood Mixes, a play that “Swims Strong in the Rough Muddy Currents of our Trauma.” “This was one of those ‘hard to take in’ and ‘difficult to let go’ experiences that happen sometimes when you see something so smart, dynamic, and meaningful in theatre. The number of metaphoric layers that are formed inside the first play written by Kevin Loring (Battle of the Birds) is utterly astounding. [The play] feels ever so effortless, especially as it slowly dips its toes in the current.”
“It Took Three (Companies) For These Two (Sisters) to Act So Powerfully for (She) the One” in the Intense Is God Is that brought fire and revenge to the Canadian Stage Theatre. “The 2018 play by the brilliant American writer Aleshea Harris (On Sugerland) is one wild ride, reminiscent of a dark American ‘Oedipus Rex‘ reformulated into a modern-day violent road trip, raising itself up like a Greek chorus in the Wild West. The action within Sophocles’s play concerns Oedipus’s search for the murderer of Laius in order to end a plague ravaging Thebes, unaware that the killer he is looking for is none other than himself. The journey is the core, with the play unleashing horrific acts of patricide and incest, leaving the central character so overwhelmed with guilt that he proceeds to gouge out his own eyes in despair. This is not exactly the framework within Harris’s Is God Is, but some of the frameworks fit, and many of the horrors remain disturbingly in full view after the truth finally comes to light.”
I didn’t get a chance to see Talk is Free Theatre‘s Sweeney Todd, but I sure would have loved to. The same could be said about Coal Mine Theatre‘s The Antipodes, Studio 180/Off-Mirvish‘s Indecent, as well as Crow’s Theatre‘s Red Velvet, but you can’t see everything, I am (sadly) told. But I was able to get myself over to the wonderful Tarragon Theatre to see their production of Cockroach that “Powerfully and Intensely Flourishes Against All the Racist Odds of the World.” The play “transforms our perception of the ‘where’ and the ‘what’ we are collectively experiencing, thanks to the exceptional writing by playwright Ho (Iphigenia and the Furies (On Taurian Land); Antigone: 方; trace). It scratches and demands, wrapping our heads up in and around parallels and symbols that deepen and twist our consciousness into knots so complicated and distinct that we can sometimes get snarled up and trapped within. But hopefully, find our way out.” It, and every production listed here, continue to scamper around my brain and heart for days and days beyond their viewing. Like a cockroach, I guess. In the best of possible ways.