Thursday, April 19, 2018

Top Ten Things I've Seen On Stage

I have been fascinated with the theater since a young age.  I can still remember my first role on stage, where I did not appreciate the audience laughing over my lines (jokes they may be).  I can remember seeing my first professional production with the Cats tour in Houston.  We wore the soundtrack out after the show, listening to it on repeat.

One of the great perks of marrying a theater teacher is that I have a partner who is more than willing to see a wide variety of productions, from large-scale musicals to intimate character-driven productions.  We can often go just for research into shows that Jamie would like to stage at some point in the future.  We've seen some true stinkers (The 101 Dalmatians musical), some surprisingly charming shows (the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang musical, which still baffles me in how they made the car apparently fly), and some wonderfully inventive productions that were definitely added to the future productions column (The 39 Steps).  I've had the fortunate pleasure of seeing performances in the major Texas cities (Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio) as well as New York City, Chicago, and London.

Below I've assembled a list of the top ten things I've seen on the stage, along with a couple of honorable mentions.  There are several shows included on this list because of a particularly memorable performance by an actor or ensemble.  Others are included due simply because it is an excellent show that was performed well. The rest can be summed up as "shows that made me cry."  If the performance is done well enough to pull me into the show and have me emotionally invested enough to cry, it is an impressive piece of art.

Ragtime (March 1998, New York City) - "Everything is Ragtime."
For my graduation present, I got to take my first trip to New York City with my dad and sister.  We saw three shows (one choice for each of us) that trip in addition to the many sights and tours we got in during that time. Ragtime was not my choice for the trip, it was Brooke's.  My choice was Phantom of the Opera.  And while I did love that production of Phantom and still have the one sheet signed by the entire cast that they were selling for Broadway Cares, Ragtime is the show that stuck with me.  A grand musical about three cultures in America colliding at the turn of the century.  And while there is a bit of a product placement to the show (looking at you Wheels of a Dream), it is an exceptional show and this was an exceptional production.  It was my first introduction to many theatrical voices that still inspire me. Brian Stokes Mitchell.  Audra McDonald.  Even a very young Lea Michelle.  And the music continues to stick with me; I can still play from memory the intro to the overture.  This was the music I spent months trying to learn on piano.

Jersey Boys (August 2008, Dallas) - "Who loves you pretty baby."
Unless my memory is flawed (which is entirely possible), this was the first show Jamie and I saw together while we were dating.  And this show is just one of the cases where everything worked.  The Four Seasons music has always been incredible.   The story used to tie the songs together was told in a unique and inventive manner.   The use of cameras in particular and the narrative structure using each of the four members to narrate a literal season stand out as touchstones of the show.  And most importantly, the four guys here could just flat out sing.  It remains one of the best vocal performances I have ever heard.

Fiddler on the Roof (May 2009, Dallas) - "To Life!"
This marks the first of the great performances that I have been blessed to see.  This production of Fiddler marked Chaim Topol's farewell tour in the role of Tevye.  He was 73 at the time we saw him in Dallas.  And you would never have known it.  He looked as if he had just stepped off the screen from the movie filmed 38 years prior and continued right on the stage.  He played the role with such vitality and power, it was an exceedingly great tour-de-force.  This show created a life goal to be that passionate, to be doing what I love with such energy when I am that age and beyond.

The Sunshine Boys (September 2011, Fort Worth) -
Al Lewis: "You know what your trouble is, Willy?  You always took the jokes too seriously.  It was just jokes.  We did comedy on the stage for 43 years.  I don't think you enjoyed it once."
Willy Clark: "If I was there to enjoy it, I would buy a ticket."
This production contained two great performances.  Dick and Jerry Van Dyke as Al Lewis and Willy Clark, respectively.  Two vaudeville comedians that cannot stand each other now.  It was the first time the Van Dyke brothers had appeared on stage together.  And it was magical.  The script by Neil Simon is side-splittingly funny in and of itself.  But these two brothers made it sing.  They were both in top form and we had the blessing of being just a few rows back from the stage, so we had an incredibly close view to these masters at work.  My only regret is that if I had known about the post-show meeting opportunity, I would have paid almost whatever it took to be apart.

Les Misérables (December 2011, Dallas) - "To love another person is to see the face of God."
And now we start the shows that made me cry.  While I had listened to the soundtrack and seen bits of the recorded version, I had never seen a production of Les Misérables before this show.  We saw this on Christmas Eve, after coming home from working in Los Angeles and before traveling to Colorado to spend the holiday with my family.  I'll always remember this particular performance being special for two reasons.  First, the actors playing Jean Valjean and young Cosette were father and daughter and you could feel that connection.  Secondly, you knew the actor playing Jean Valjean truly believed what he was singing.  Singers of similar talent can always technically sing the song with near perfect precision.  You can though tell the difference between someone who knows not what they sing and someone who believes in it wholeheartedly.  By the time the show got to Bring Me Home, you could feel the character and the actor's desire to find rest with his Maker.  There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Anything Goes (March 2012, New York City) - "I get a  kick out of you."
I have incorrectly stated in the past that this was the first showstopper that I had ever witnessed.  That moment where the audience responds to a song or moment with such applause and force in the middle of the show, that the show grinds to a halt until the audience dies down and it can resume.  In truth this was the second.  I'll discuss the first below as an honorable mention, but I feel that one has an asterisk.  That particular moment that became a showstopper was specifically designed to do so.  It was a specific carve out for a particular actor to showcase his skills that would nearly always lead to the applause delaying the show for a few minutes.  With Anything Goes, the showstopper was completely unplanned and in response to the unique circumstances of the particular performance.  We had planned to see Anything Goes for two of its stars: Sutton Foster and the legendary Joel Grey.  Sutton Foster had already won the Tony for the role and the show itself had won Best Revival of a musical.  As we got closer to the show, we discovered it would be Sutton Foster's last performance in the role.  This performance was naturally packed and the audience was already electrified.  Raucous applause to the closing of the first act.  And then the opening number for the second act came, "Blow, Gabriel, Blow".  A gospel-esque Cole Porter Number with an incredible tap section.  The kind of dance section that musicals used to have.  And the audience blew the top off the theater when the number finished.  Standing ovation, applause for minutes following.  A true showstopper.   The show was amazing and very sweet.  At the close of the show Joel Grey gave Sutton Foster the nicest blessing as she went on to her new production.  The show was a wonderful reminder of the family theater creates for both those watching and participating in it.

War Horse (September 2012, Dallas) - "Only remembered for what we have done."
This show still amazes me to this day.  On paper it does not sound like it should work.  A play with music about a horse set in World War I using puppets.  But that description so undersells what the creative people involved with this show were able to achieve.  The sheer attention to detail and technicality involved would be impressive enough.  They made the puppets breathe! The puppeteers continually remember to make the puppet look alive even if it is not moving.  The Handspring Puppet Company deserves all the accolades they have received for their designs.  And all the technical achievements in the world would not be enough if the actors and the story did not reach their audience.  But they both delivered.  This was another instance where there was not a dry eye in the AT&T Performing Arts Center.  If you have only seen the movie and ever find yourself able to see it on stage, do yourself a favor and check it out.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (January 2016, New York City) - "The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance observes."
Truthfully, we made the trip to New York City specifically to see this play on Broadway.  We braved Snowpocalypse 2016 for this play (and Aladdin).  And it was absolutely worth it.  Jamie has been wanting to stage this play since reading it.  And she has come very close, securing the rights from the British publishers before being denied by the American ones since it was going to be starting its Broadway run.  Now, it seems every school has wanted to stage this show, so she can be a little more judicious on when to put it up.  It's popular for good reason. The show contains some of the most inventive and innovative staging that I have ever seen, particularly in how it relates the main characters disorder (autism or Aspergers) to the audience.  It was a revelation in the way stories can be told, and again, it works because of the dedication and work of the actors in conveying this story to the audience.  At its heart, it's a story about a father trying to connect with his son.  Beautifully done. Again, if you can and are so interested, it is well worth seeing.

The Fiasco Theater Production of Into the Woods (May 2017, Dallas) - "No one is alone."
I have a confession.  I'm not the biggest Sondheim fan.  I know that is a heresy in the musical theater community, but I can often find myself more impressed with the technical proficiency of the show or the level of difficulty in the music than I am with the show as a whole.  Into the Woods is an exception.  Professionally, I have seen two different versions.  The first in 2002 on Broadway with a lavish star studded cast that included Vanessa Williams.  The second, the Fiasco tour with 11 artists playing all roles and instruments and very minimalistic staging.  It's this second version that truly touched me.  Part of it can be attributed to how art speaks to us at different times in our lives.  Into the Woods is a show about growing up and parenthood in particular.  Having our second child only a couple of months before this production, the story of the Baker, his wife and the witch resonated in  way this time that they could not before.  But this production also revealed something about the magic of theater.  At its core, it is just story telling.   It does not require all the flourishes we add to it.  All it needs, all it truly requires is talented storytellers fully committed to the message of their story.  And with that, a group of 11 artists, seemingly pulling props out of their trunk to add to their story can be so much more impactful than an extravagant, expensive version.  It can strike more to the core of the story and the audience to convey its heart.

Hamilton (August 2017, Chicago) - "One last time."
Second confession.  I came late to the Hamilton bandwagon; I thought it would never work. We had missed an opportunity to see In the Heights and had not discovered Lin-Manuel Miranda there.  And I had avoided the music and the publicity about the show as it was starting.  On paper, again, this show should not work.  A sung-through hip hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, with color-blind casting - sure.  Then I listened to the album.  It's not too early to call Lin-Manuel Miranda a genius.  The amount of history that he packs into this musical is astounding (though there are a couple of things that are reordered for the flow of the show).  The musical genres that are covered are impressive.  Lyrically the show is beautiful.  And it conveys the history of our nation in a way that is resonating with a broad spectrum of people.  We went to Chicago specifically to see this show.  And the audience was one of the most diverse audiences I have ever seen.  Packed house, young, old, black, white, season ticket holder, theater box patron, and never seen a musical before in their lifetime.  And it delivered.  There are three moments in the show that can make me near ugly cry.  Washington's Farewell Address in "One Last Time," "Forgiveness" in "It's Quiet Uptown," and "the orphanage" in "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story."  I cannot wait for this to come through Dallas next year.

Honorable Mentions: 
Damn Yankees (~1995, Houston) - "Those Were the Good Old Days."
This was the show with the first show stopper.  Jerry Lewis as Mr. Applegate, the devil with an interest in baseball.  In Applegate's main song "Those Were the Good Old Days," they had built in an extensive comedy routine for Jerry to riff through.  And riff he did.  He brought down the house, getting more laughs from dropping or missing a cane thrown from offstage than from catching one.  A bit more restrained than we would typically imagine of Jerry Lewis, but nonetheless a master at his craft.

The Tuna Shows with Joe Sears and Jaston Williams (various)
I've had the fortunate pleasure of seeing three of the Tuna shows with the original actors Joe Sears and Jaston Williams.  Greater Tuna, A Tuna Christmas, and Red, White, & Tuna.  It's a shame they no longer perform these shows, though I can understand wanting to explore other things.  These shows are all hilariously funny looks into exaggerated small-town Texas life, and there are no two better actors in the roles than Mrs. Sears and Williams.  I've seen other actors and it is just not the same.  I'm still convinced that they had to have come through Buna for inspiration at some point (particularly with the cougar/puma mascot in Red, White & Tuna).

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