As we welcome 2016 and bid farewell to the tumult that was 2015 –– which for me and, I’m guessing, a lot of you out there comprised both the best and the worst of times –– it’s time for a cultural review of what’s just concluded with our annual Agnes Moorehead Awards (the “Aggies”). One of that great actress’ Oscar-nominated roles was for “Mrs. Parkington,” a lavish 1944 Greer Garson vehicle, in which Aggie essayed a courtesan who could have stepped out of the pages of Colette, except that, being Aggie, she had to make her “Baroness Aspasia Conti” more vairy Franch than French. Less is more, of course, but Moorehead always subscribed to “more is more,” and weren’t we lucky for that… usually?
Trans characters played by trans actors, a Colette heroine on top, vampires at the door
Ten Best Live Performances of 2015 (in no particular order):
“Cloud 9”: This Atlantic Theater revival of Caryl Churchill’s brilliant, prescient, and eternally relevant 1979 play did it more than full justice, with a cast that delivered as good ensemble work as the best of what one sees in London, the highest acting praise I can give.
“On Your Feet!”: Not the hugest fan of Gloria Estefan’s music, I was nonetheless completely blown away by the sheer exuberance and savvy stylishness of Jerry Mitchell’s direction and Sergio Trujillo‘s uber-sexy choreography in this total party of a show. Not one, but three stars were born here: Ana Villafañe, a killer gorgeous triple threat as Gloria; ravishing vet Andrea Burns, as her feisty mother, whose solo number, set in 1950s Cuba, was the most vibrantly glamorous musical moment of the year; and, especially, Josh Segarra, as Emilio Estefan, who redefined “matinee idol” with his electrifying charisma and warmth.
“Gigi”: I rarely see any show twice, let alone three times, but this criminally dismissed musical was a huge improvement over the pretty but shallow 1958 Minnelli film, investing Colette’s story with a new emotional depth and true romance. Stuffy purists decried the gender reassignment of songs, especially the baselessly notorious “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” which worked beautifully and resonantly in the masterful hands of the perfectly cast Victoria Clark and Dee Hoty. Corey Cott’s spectacular rendition of the lilting title song was, for me, the single most exciting number of the year. Its failure in a season that gave all of its laurels to the inferior, overpraised, pretentious, and arid “An American in Paris” truly makes me fear for the future of anything with real elegance or sophistication on Broadway.
“Lazarus”: The most artistically arresting of “jukebox musicals,” this David Bowie-scored adaptation of his cult film, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” finally made me succumb to the visionary direction of Ivo van Hove, whom I actively loathed for what he did to “A View from the Bridge” and “The Little Foxes.” His busy, baroque shtick worked perfectly here, and, added to a terrific, committed cast and all that superlatively arranged and performed real music, made this undoubtedly the hippest show of 2015. Michael C. Hall was jaw-droppingly good, hauntingly Bowie-esque, and very moving, even if you weren’t sure what the fuck what was going on. Fourteen-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso was the year’s big discovery, both physically and vocally a literal angel.
“Hamilton”: What more can be said, except gigantic credit should be given to Andy Blankenbuehler’s soulful choreography, which added untold richness to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feast of words and surprising melody. And, oh yeah, Miranda’s a genius, all right.
“Let the Right One In”: The horror genre may be the most difficult to actually pull off in live theater, but the National Theater of Scotland’s translation of Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish bloodsucker film, written by Jack Thorne, worked on every level, including scaring the bejesus out of me. More importantly, through the absolutely searing performances of Rebecca Benson and Cristian Ortega and John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett’s uncannily original staging, it also managed to be one of the most compelling and poignant –– if obviously doomed –– romances I’ve ever seen in any medium.
“The New Morality”: The estimable Mint Theater said farewell to its 43rd Street location triumphantly with one of its best, a wonderfully droll and sharply observant 1911 comedy of manners, written by the gifted, obscure American playwright Harold Chapin, a true feminist by nature who perished at 29 in World War I. Deftly directed by company director Jonathan Bank, it boasted an ingenious houseboat-on-the-Thames set and sparkling overall performances, especially by patrician Brenda Meaney in the lead as well as an irresistibly waggish Ned Noyes.
“Icebound”: Sequestered on East Fourth Street is the Metropolitan Playhouse, which, like the Mint, specializes in treasures from the past and not enough people know about. I never miss a show there, and “Icebound,” written by Owen Davis in 1923, won the Pulitzer Prize, thoroughly deserved it, and was given an excellent revival. My mother passed away this year and the play’s theme of a dour New England family gathered around their dying matriarch, avidly waiting on the will, spoke loudly and clearly to me, after a near-century.
“Hand to God”: You don’t really expect to see anything edgy on Broadway, so Robert Askins’ unbridled, ferociously funny contemplation on sex, religion, and puppets was beyond welcome. Steven Boyer achieved true greatness in a how-the-hell-does-he-do-that way, best male performance of the season (or any other), and it was just great to see a talented, dues-paying actress like Geneva Carr get a real moment in the sun, Tony nom and all.
“Into the Woods”: Despite a really thrilling original cast assemblage of this Sondheim show held at BAM this year, which was like a true musical queen orgy, and that big old film version, this has never been a favorite show of mine, too message-y and aware of its own cleverness. However, Fiasco Theater’s minimal take on it worked like a charm and won me over as no other production –– and I’ve seen them all –– ever has. Less was truly more here.
Ten Best Films (in no particular order):
“Tangerine,” directed by Sean S. Baker: Undoubtedly best of the year, miraculously shot on an iPhone.
“The Kindergarten Teacher,” directed by Nadav Lapid.
“Suffragette,” directed by Sarah Gavron.
“Boy and the World,” directed by Alê Abreu.
“Ode to My Father,” directed by Yoon Je-kyoon.
“Beloved Sisters,” directed by Dominik Graf.
“Gerontophilia,” directed by Bruce LaBruce.
“Clouds of Sils Maria,” directed by Olivier Assayas.
“The Second Mother,” by Anna Muylaert.
“Boy Meets Girl,” directed by Eric Schaeffer.
I am just now reading a Christmas gift of a book I somehow missed, that came out in 2014, “Nothing Like a Dame,” by Eddie Shapiro (Oxford). It’s a marvelous collection of in-depth interviews with Broadway leading ladies, from Elaine and Angela to Sutton and Audra, and highly recommended. Here’s an excerpt from Donna Murphy, who describes Sondheim approaching her offstage one night as she is working in “Passion”:
“‘Are you having a good time?,’ and I said, ‘Oh, God, Steve it’s so meaningful, and it’s so –– the challenges each night just give me a chance to find things I never expected.’ And he said, ‘Are you having a good time? Because you have to. You really must find the joy in this. Because what’s happening right now, you and this part, it happens maybe once for certain actors, Maybe it never happens. You’ve got to enjoy it. You have to allow yourself to enjoy it.’”
I wish this same kind of joy to all of you in 2016.