The theater feels as if it has been perpetually in the state of coming back over the past year, an ecosystem shifting after a wildfire but never quite looking as it did before. The pandemic and the afterburning spikes of new, more infective variants loom large over the whole industry. Big tourist draws like Phantom are closing, and it’s hard to know what exactly will grow back where the redwoods fell, whether inventive fresh work or just a bunch of invasive-species jukebox bio-musicals. We’ll never return to whatever normal was, for better and worse, but there’s been lots to root for amid the flux: new work getting a chance on larger stages, revivals breathing life into overfamiliar or and underheralded classics, and the regrowth of some of the festivals and events that knot everything together. (We actually had the Tonys on their usual June schedule this year, which is some sort of a win, I guess.) These ten bits of growth and regrowth stand out best in my memory, examples of what most thrilled, fascinated, and moved me this year.
Funny Girl (Lea’s Version)
It feels both wrong to put Funny Girl on a top 10 list and wrong to leave it off. The show’s first-ever Broadway revival was, I assumed, cursed from the get-go by trying to differentiate itself from Barbra’s, and it stumbled out this spring with chintzy production and a lead, Beanie Feldstein, who could not sing the songs. In bringing on Lea Michele as a replacement Fanny, after a summer of old-fashioned backstage drama, Funny Girl became suddenly enthralling. Michele’s very meta, everything-on-the-line performance doesn’t fix the production as much as it metabolizes the whole thing, discourse and all, into a spectacle about public celebrity and star power. She did, in fact, do what she was hired to do: save the show.
A Case for the Existence of God
Death, taxes, and finely wrought dramas by Samuel D. Hunter set in Idaho—all things upon which you can rely. Considered alongside the rest of Hunter’s work, a special delicacy reveals itself in A Case for the Existence of God, a story about two men, played by Kyle Beltran and Will Brill, slowly growing into a business-tinted friendship as one helps the other try to secure an iffy real-estate loan. A two-hander that leads you step-by-step into the depths, it had a final image (conjured by director David Cromer) that embraced you in devastation.
The Skin of Our Teeth
More directors should get to run wild on as large a scale as Lileana Blain-Cruz did here. Reimagining Thornton Wilder’s already bonkers play a with a Black family, Blain-Cruz filled up the Vivian Beaumont with Adam Rigg’s massive sets (including a slide), massive props (including a puppet dinosaur), and massive performances (including Gabby Beans channeling, by turns, Tallulah Bankhead and a vaping 2022 20-something). Not every big swing worked, but the third act, set in a flowering post-apocalypse, conjured a tableau I won’t soon forget.
Brought back into the muggy heat of a New York summer, Alice Childress’s drama resurfaced with a prophetic chill. The play, set in 1918 and first produced in 1972, concerns a Black woman (Brittany Bradford) and her white lover (Thomas Sadoski). Like the other Childress plays that are being brought into the canon, it is unflinching in its depiction of the way racism worms into people’s mind, and in Awoye Timpo’s staging, which brought the swamps of Charleston onstage, the threats of hatred and violence lingered in the air.
I’ve been delighted, terrified, and infuriated (grrr, A Little Life) by BAM’s Next Wave Festival this year, but I’m really just so happy to have it back. The series brought in a slew of avant work from around the world, including FC Bergman’s 300 el x 50 el x 30 el, a Biblical Flood–inflected wordless piece that did have dancing and a dead sheep, and Ong Keng Sen’s Trojan Women, which incorporated elements of traditional Korean pansori and K-pop and made me understand Helen of Troy better than I ever have. Foremost among them, however, was the German director Thomas Ostermeier’s somehow hilarious Hamlet, starring a buckwild Lars Eidinger and a lot of mud, which Eidinger kept shoving in his face. I’m still laughing about his return from exile in England wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
A Strange Loop
I’d seen A Strange Loop Off Broadway in 2019, where it felt like a great, self-referential show for and about theater diehards (it even contained a Scott Rudin joke before the fall!). Michael R. Jackson’s musical’s ability to succeed in a larger venue felt like an open question, especially with a different star. But the production struck gold with newcomer Jaquel Spivey, who found a recessive and yet magnetic take on the lead role of Usher, and the musical scaled up to the Lyceum as if it had always been destined to be there. It is, after all, a big, Black, queer-ass American Broadway show.
Another Off Broadway–to–Broadway transfer (I saw both versions of Kimberly in 2022), Kimberly Akimbo works its magic on you in subtle ways, its quirky comedy flecked with thick veins of emotion. It’s about a high school teenager who ages at several times the normal rate (Victoria Clark, hauntingly precise) and the absurdity of the semi-normal, semi-troubled family life in New Jersey that surrounds her. Virtually every show would be improved with the addition of this high school’s geeky teen chorus of kids each in love with the wrong person.
Oratorio for Living Things
Sit in a dark room and think about the universe—the thing you do on a tiny scale every time you see a piece of theater, but rarely on the scale that Oratorio for Living Things aims to convey. Heather Christian’s work had eighteen singers bring you on a journey from the beginning of time through to the future (with lots of text in Latin along the way). It felt like a cosmic chiropractic session, making you leave with the feeling of standing straighter, realigned to the rest of the world and beyond.
At the start of Aya Ogawa’s play about her relationship with her dead father, you were handed a piece of paper and a pencil, which, I understand, made some people clench up in fear of audience participation. All the more so when, later on, Ogawa asked you to write down questions for your own father that you want to ask—or would want to have asked—before his own death. But in Ogawa’s nimble play, which features five other actors playing a variety of Ayas as well as reenactments of scenes from The Bachelorette, those pieces of paper were treated gently and reverently. They’re gathered by those actors and transformed into something else through a bit of theatrical funerary ritual. Your parents, the point felt, are the sum of so many questions you don’t ask. Then Aya’s father participated in some karaoke with Princess Diana. I wept.
Into the Woods
What I’ve learned is that I’m a sucker: Cast some of the most talented musical theater actors you can find, bring in a large orchestra, and let them weave their magic upon me. Lear deBessonet’s production of Into the Woods, first put on at Encores! and then brought to Broadway this summer, treats Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical as basically a concert, which is fine because this is an all-hits-no-skips score. The light-gauge staging reveals the structural strength of the show itself, and allowed the cast members to present each of their solos like a jewel to the audience. Among innumerable standouts, special props to Heather Headley’s “I’m the witch?” to Julia Lester’s “I’ll be your mother now” to Kennedy Kanagawa’s emotive puppeteering of Milky White, and especially to Sara Bareilles’s Baker’s Wife, sung with piercing clarity. In its bareness, Into the Woods became about the enchantment of performance, what can be spun by telling a tale simply and well.