The year in theatre was marked by daring artists who took big risks and stuck the landing.* For every jukebox recycling bin, there was a dark chamber musical set at the mouth of hell, or another gleefully circling the mind of its own maker.
New York also welcomed back artists decades ahead of their time, from foremothers of the downtown avant garde who finally received landmark revivals to pop musicians whose distinct voices once dominated radio, back when radio was a thing.
They made us laugh to keep from crying, and showed us worlds beyond and beneath our own. Here are Towleroad’s top 10 shows of 2019.
[*If you’re looking for Slave Play, which moved to Broadway this fall, it was on this list last year.]
10. David Byrne’s American Utopia
Despite his signature shock of grey hair, the Talking Heads singer doesn’t seem to have aged since the 1970s, when his voice became one of the 20th century’s most wildly original. Barefoot and clad in a sharp gray suit, he leads a journey through his music that’s part interior exploration, part political incitement, and wholly rapturous. He’s joined on stage by a dexterous 11-person band whose expert musicianship is transfixing.
9. Jagged Little Pill
Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album serves as inspiration and score for this new musical about darkness lurking behind the sheen of American suburbia. The too-muchness of Morissette’s songs perfectly suits the genre, and book writer Diablo Cody deftly weaves together a family drama that touches on a litany of current woes — opioid addiction and rape culture chief among them — while drawing distinct, believable characters. Don’t check emotional baggage at the door, rifling through it is strongly encouraged.
8. A Strange Loop
Michael R. Jackson’s semi-autobiographical meta musical about a playwright struggling to write a “big, Black, and queer-ass American Broadway show” is as layered with pleasures as provocations. Larry Owens gave an exuberant, full-body performance as an artist trying to claim space for his vision while sorting out what’s going on in his head. Raw, revelatory and filled with personal and political insights set to irresistible song, A Strange Loop is everything its protagonist is trying to write and more.
7. Ain’t No Mo
Another thrilling new voice to emerge in 2019 — which also happened to be big, Black, and queer — was Jordan E. Cooper, who wrote and performed in Ain’t No Mo. Cooper took as his premise an African American exodus from the U.S. to craft a series of riotous scenes traversing questions of Black identity, racism, belonging, and most impressively, why living in a post-Obama America isn’t what some may have hoped or dared to imagine. Stevie Walker-Webb’s production for the Public was a vibrant testament to theatre’s ability to electrify.
6. Heroes of the Fourth Turning
Will Arbery’s journey into the heart of darkness (i.e. the minds and souls of the Catholic far-right) approaches its subjects with a ruthless sensitivity. Director Danya Taymor’s production for Playwrights Horizons resembled a painting by Caravaggio in more than just the weight of its shadows. Casting harsh light on souls grappling in the dark with their best intentions is the stuff of visceral art. In the end, whose side you happen to be on is beside the point.
There’s a reason myths are so often timeless. But this modern musical retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice speaks so directly to the present moment, it makes the hairs on your neck stand at attention. Birthed from a concept album by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and ingeniously imagined for the stage by director Rachel Chavin, Hadestown is a story about greed and despair and lost love — and hope despite it all. The Best Musical winner also features two of the year’s most magnetic performances, from André De Shields (who won a Tony for his) and Amber Gray.
In the midst of her ascent to Hollywood royalty (which now includes a jaw-dropping stop on the cover of Vogue), Phoebe Waller-Bridge reprised the one-woman show that became her hit Amazon series. We already knew she was a brilliant, dirty, and mordantly funny actor and writer, but performing the play in New York for the first time, Waller-Bridge also proved herself a master of intimacy and character. Assuming every role in the story that became season one of Fleabag, her elastic face became a canvas with which it seemed she could paint the whole world.
3. Fefu and Her Friends
It’s hard to believe that this Theatre for a New Audience production was the first New York revival since the 1977 premiere María Irene Fornés’ astonishing masterwork. Its promenade format, in which the audience rotates through a series of scenes in different rooms, makes staging a challenge, but director Lileana Blain-Cruz pulled it off exquisitely. The women whose fears, desires, and undoings spin the plot were brought to life in vivid detail by one of the best ensembles of the season. Hopefully, Fefu won’t wait another 40 years to return.
2. Marys Seacole
Reclaimed history, inherited trauma, and the phantom limb of imperialism combine and combust in this pressure cooker of a play from Pulitzer-winner Jackie Sibblies Drury. The fluid and beautifully executed production, also directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, bent and eventually broke conventions of time and space to reveal deeper truths that surpass both. A searing performance from Quincy Tyler Bernstine, playing both Mary Seacole the historical figure and a present-day incarnation of her legacy, was among the most memorable of the year.
1. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf
Ntozake Shange’s enchanting paean to Black womanhood, which the late playwright classified a ‘choreopoem,’ made a triumphant return to the Public Theater, where it was first performed in 1976. A collection of evocations that crack open like precious stones, Shange’s play deals in luminous insights, both joyous and devastating. Direction by Leah C. Gardiner and choreography from Camille A. Brown combined to create a kind of seance for the beauty and pain of lived history. It was the best of anything one can hope to experience in a theatre.
Recent theatre features…
‘Jagged Little Pill’ Is a Raw and Explosive Portrait of Suburbia on the Brink: REVIEW
On Broadway, ‘The Inheritance’ Sprawls but Rarely Cracks the Surface: REVIEW
Male Mediocrity Goes to Seed in ‘Linda Vista’: REVIEW
Beyond the Breaking Point in ‘Slave Play’ and ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning’: REVIEW
Broadway’s ‘Moulin Rouge!’ Is a Dystopian Glitter Bomb of Empty Excess: REVIEW
At First I Didn’t Think ‘Fairview’ Was for Me: REVIEW
Broadway’s Sensational ‘Hadestown’ Wrenches Myth into Modern Times: REVIEW
Temptations Musical ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ Makes a Play for Soul on Broadway: REVIEW
Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar
Photos by Matthew Murphy, Joan Marcus and Gerry Goodstein.