Banner Image: Julieta Cervantes

by Slade Sohmer

2017 served us the immersive behind-the-scenes importation of KPOP, the erotically confusing biceps of SpongeBob Squarepants, the slick rhymes and hip-hop history of Syncing Ink, the nostalgic goodness of Cruel Intentions and the stage-shifting surprise heart attack of Napoli, Brooklyn. 2018 upped its already-superb game, so let’s see what the theater gods had for us this year.

The unicorn staging of Yerma

Billie Piper proved she is one of the great stage actresses of our time, breathing life into Simon Stone’s radically modern take on Lorca’s 1934 descent into infertility-obsessed madness. Lizzie Clachan’s set design, however, stole the show. It’s impossible not to be mesmerized and bamboozled by the quick scenic changes within the glass rectangle that encases the actors. One minute you’re in an apartment, the next you’re in a back garden, then you’re at a festival ground, all furniture and trees and other elements appearing from seemingly nowhere following a brief deep blackout. These set changes make rational sense if you’re in an edit bay -- on the Park Avenue Armory’s stage, they felt more like being inside a fever dream.

Photos: Stephanie Berger

The complete immersion of The Jungle

Crossing the threshold at St. Ann’s Warehouse, you’re instantly transported to a refugee camp in Calais, France (the posh toilets, in fact, are the frankest reminder you’re still in gentrified DUMBO). No piece of journalistic media -- no photo, no video, no article -- brings you closer to the thousands of human stories than what the actors, playwrights and set designers were able to pull off here. It would probably be decidedly un-woke to say you feel as if you’re actually sitting in the camp’s Afghan restaurant, but there are the briefest of moments when you truly don’t remember you’re going home to sleep in your own comfortable bed.

Photos: Teddy Wolff

The unique theatrical symmetry of Lewiston/Clarkston

Two plays for the price of one, can’t beat that deal. Samuel D. Hunter’s double feature, separated by an intermission communal meal, showcases two uniquely American works that tell wholly different stories but share characteristics: Both have three terrific actors, both follow a lost soul descendant of Lewis and Clark, both force a reckoning with prior transgressions, both ponder the costs of rural modernization, and both offer a type of non-city family drama often unseen in many coastal theaters. Clarkston also gave us a tour de force performance from Edmund Donovan, who you’ll surely be hearing more from in the coming years.

Photos: Jeremy Daniel

The unapologetic blackness of Fairview, Slave Play and What to Send Up When It Goes Down

In a banner year for Broadway plays, three of 2018’s best new works ran on Walker Street, 10th Avenue and E. 4th St. The subject matter and themes differ in all three, so it’s almost unfair to group together Aleshea Harris' What to Send Up When It Goes Down, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview and Jeremy O. Harris' Slave Play. But there is so much power and beauty and vision in what they share: a defiant, resplendent, for-us-by-us message that doesn’t exist for the pleasure of white critics and white audiences. In asking us to examine who is taking up space, these three shows make you stop, actually stop, and look around more than any others on offer.

Photos: Julieta Cervantes (Fairview), Ahron R. Foster (Send Up), and Joan Marcus (Slave Play)

The once-in-a-lifetime brilliance of Bryan Cranston in Network

Howard Beale doesn’t just get mad; he goes mad. Visionary director Ivo van Hove does a remarkable job of showcasing this newsman’s break with reality. But we are lucky, truly lucky, to be alive in the Era of Cranston. Perhaps the finest actor of his generation, Bryan Cranston says as much without words as he does with his voice, silently sitting in his anchor chair and stumbling around the stage for literal minutes before delivering the “We're as mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore” monologue, which alone is worth the hefty price of admission. As a stage adaptation, Network isn’t perfect, but Cranston sure is.

Photos: Jan Versweyveld

The intensity of the final moments of The Ferryman

Jez Butterworth manages to pull off the impossible: His nearly four-hour play about a bunch of cis, straight, white, Irish people doesn’t feel at all like a chore, and at times, you never want it to end. But when it finally concludes, it does so with a jaw-dropping moment so stunning, so unexpected, the collective gasp of the audience can be heard outside the theater. The full play is terrific, right down to the live goose, but that ending, oh that ending, it slices you wide open and burrows inside you.  

Photos: Joan Marcus

The Whitney number in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play

On the other end of the length spectrum, Jocelyn Bioh’s refreshing 75-minute dramatic comedy returned off-Broadway in 2018 and delighted MCC audiences with its hierarchical tale of popularity and racial hue at a boarding school in Ghana. Bioh didn’t set out to write another sad African story, and that’s highlighted by a masterful scene in which the girls sing “Greatest Love of All” during a tryout for the Global Universe Pageant. The show as a whole, and this scene specifically, is one of the finest pieces of direction (thank you, Rebecca Taichman) and acting in all of New York. Special shoutout to Mirirai Sithole, who between this and The Homecoming Queen, had a master class 2018 and is a star among stars.

Photos: Craig Schwartz

The young, enthusiastic crowds at Be More Chill

How this musical got from Red Bank, New Jersey, to the Signature off-Broadway, to the Lyceum on Broadway in 2019 is the stuff of literal legends. Missing were the stuffy old theater crowds, replaced by young, energetic superfans from all over the country and world who know every word and treat the dazzling cast members like rock stars. BMC audiences are as vital and fun to watch as Tony-worthy George Salazar singing the all-star showtune “Michael in the Bathroom.” Some say composer/lyricist Joe Iconis is the “future of musical theater,” but that’s not entirely correct: Joe and his extended family and his fans are the present, and they’re here to stay. Meet some of the fans here.

Photos: Maria Baranova

The everpresent genius of Michael Urie in Torch Song

Be More Chill gave us “Michael in the Bathroom,” and Torch Song gave us “Michael in the Backroom,” with Mr. Urie miming a debaucherous, out-of-comfort-zone anonymous bar hookup that in any non-Cranston year might alone win him the Tony. Harvey Fierstein’s wonderful suite of plays felt as relevant now as nearly four decades earlier, and passing the, um, torch to a comedic mastermind like Urie breathed fresh life into it.  

Photos: Matthew Murphy

The not-that-tall women of Three Tall Women

Glenda Jackson. Laurie Metcalf. Alison Pill. Bravo to all the folks involved with casting this show. Every night with this crew felt like an event, a happening, a treat, a pleasure to watch these women get up there and actually act the way the theater gods intended. This show also gave us the wonderful moment of Glenda absentmindedly calling her director Joe Mantello “John” at the 2018 Tonys, which in itself was worth the whole project.

Photos: Brigitte Lacombe

The queer-centered narrative of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

The one’s about drag, so it’s easy to compare this to Kinky Boots. But Jamie isn’t about a struggling factory or straight man in crisis -- this is, finally, a queer story of an unashamed femme baby queen whose coming-out story goes way beyond usual theater fare. John McCrea as Jamie is pure magic, Lucie Shorthouse as his Muslim bestie Pritti and Josie Walker as his dear, devoted, supportive mom all won Oliviers in my heart. Special thanks to a freak London snowstorm for getting me last-second great seats to this sold-out feel-good musical.

Photos: Johan Persson

The adult sleepover feel of a one-day Angels in America

Nearly eight consecutive hours of theater on a single weekday feels almost criminal, a bigger ask than a destination wedding. But Tony Kushner’s still-fresh Pulitzer Prize-winning play, in the capable hands of the illustrious Marianne Elliott, felt easier and breezier than binge-watching a new streaming series on the home couch. The cast, the crew, the sets, the words, the tears, the humor, and the pain, oh the pain, this revival was a perfect way to spend a day with your fellow man and woman. Making brief, knowing eye contact with audience members after the curtain came down suggested you’d all been through something supernatural together.

Photos: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

The daring new take on Oklahoma!

Another St. Ann’s success story, this is not your father’s or grandmother’s surrey with the fringe on top. Daniel Fish’s radical alterations to the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is what musical theater should be right now. Take chances! Be bold! Fuck it up! Rebecca Naomi Jones shines as Laurey, Damon Daunno dazzles as Curly, and Mary Testa needs to be presented with all kinds of jewels and spices and special awards for what she brought to Aunt Eller on that stage. Also, the free chili and cornbread for everyone at intermission hit the spot.

Photos: Teddy Wolff

The eye-opening intensity of What the Constitution Means to Me

This show is what Resistance Twitter wishes it could be. Arriving at New York Theatre Workshop in time for the Kavanaugh hearings and continued presidential sullying of the nation, Heidi Schreck’s well-crafted one-woman, pro-woman show is one of the best pieces of storytelling you can see on a stage. Schreck seamlessly blends flashbacks to her days as a teen Constitutional scholar with present-day feminism in a way that provides humor, light, education, family history, vulnerability, inspiration and hope.

Photos: Joan Marcus

The freshness of old songs in the Jonathan Larson Project

The RENT mastermind’s tragic death at 35 robbed the world of future greatness. But Broadway force majeure Jennifer Ashley Tepper spent hundreds if not thousands of painstaking hours unearthing hidden musical gems from Larson’s past and produced it all together in a beautiful, soulful showcase you had to actually see to believe. The superb cast -- Nick Blaemire, Lauren Marcus, Andy Mientus, Krysta Rodriguez and George Salazar -- could not have done more justice to this man, his music and his spirit.  

Photos: Philip Romano

The dad-to-twink realness oFThis Ain’t No Disco

Finally, we come to the end. Yet another ode to Studio 54, this off-Broadway show was critically polarizing, but heaven must have sent the moment when Theo Stockman’s Steve Rubell gathers Peter Laprade’s go-go Chad on his lap and sings to him in what may have been the creepiest but most genuine musical number on a stage in 2018. Justice for Disco.

Photos: Ben Arons

Already so much to look forward to in 2019: Here’s to a year that ups its game again.