By the end of 2017, I will have seen 97 works of theatre. This includes traditionally staged plays, immersive musicals, stripped-down readings, black box workshops, and more. Part of the reason I could see so many productions is because of my incredible internships at the American Repertory Theater and the Williamstown Theatre Festival. But really, I just make seeing theatre one of my top priorities and take advantage of all those sweet student discounts. Some of the shows I saw completely blew me away, others were merely entertaining enough for two hours–but that’s just how it works, isn’t it? But here are, in the order I saw them, my top ten favorite shows of 2017.
Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
Fiasco Theater tour at the Kennedy Center
It only seems fitting that I started my year off with an imaginative production of a Sondheim classic. From the sly yet seamless opening, I was utterly swept away to the whimsical world that Fiasco Theater created. The production had the air of make believe that you just happily go along with, as if you were in your grandmother’s attic putting on an improvised play for your stuffed animals with the dusty old hats and dresses you found. The ensemble was incredible, and took you on a journey that felt fresh and new, even though the source material is over 30 years old. Its stripped-down aesthetic allowed the story to shine and be examined in new ways. This production was my first of the year, and the perfect anecdote to a blisteringly cold January day.
If I Forget by Steven Levenson
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
The Laura Pels Theatre at Roundabout Theatre Company
Steven Levenson’s writing never fails to blow me away. He has a certain je ne sais quoi that captures the exact feelings, that replicates those exact moments, which make up your life. I must admit, I still do not know how to explain just how this play hit me. The story offers a glimpse at the lives of a Jewish American family in the early 2000s. I’m not Jewish, and I was barely in kindergarten in the early 2000s. So, why was I so struck by this play? I think the reason is found at the root of the play: its writer. Simply put, Steven Levenson is a genius. He exhibits the mark of truly great playwrights in his uncanny ability to reveal the truth of the human experience in a subtle and universal way, even if the story being told is (at face-value) a very specific one.
Violet by Jeannine Tesori and Brian Crawley
Directed by Sammi Cannold
OBERON at the American Repertory Theater
I remember applying for an internship at the A.R.T. and noticing that they were putting on a production of the 1997 musical Violet on a bus–a moving bus!–and knowing that I had to see it. As chance would have it, I landed the internship and scored a free ticket to the sold-out run. The musical is about a girl, Violet, who has a scarred face and travels across the country on a bus to meet a televangelist who she believes will heal her–which lends itself to being a perfect site-specific musical. When the characters were on a bus, the bus was actually driving through Harvard Square. When the characters got off a bus to visit a club and spend the night at a hotel, or went to the church for the televangelist, the audience got off the bus and went to a club or a church. It was completely immersive, because the audience members could very well have been other bus riders, or club goers, or church patrons. I was literally in Violet’s world. I remember getting chills at the end of the opening number “On My Way,” as actors stood up throughout the bus, engulfing the audience in harmonies, and knowing that I was part of something special
Significant Other by Joshua Harmon
Directed by Trip Cullman
The Booth Theatre on Broadway
I think it’s safe to say that if you weren’t already in love with Gideon Glick before seeing Significant Other, you were definitely in love with him after seeing it. While I’m younger than the lead character Jordan Berman and his friends, the play’s themes about friendship, relationships, and love (or lack thereof) resonated with me. I was lucky enough to catch the play the day before its early closure (which was really just a bit of lucky timing, as I bought my ticket months beforehand). It’s as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking. The entire ensemble (can you tell I love a good ensemble?) had amazing chemistry and made you laugh just about as hard as they made you cry.
Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow by Halley Feiffer
Directed by Trip Cullman
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage
Yes, that’s the title. It’s a modern adaptation of Chekov’s Three Sisters, which I still have never seen or read. I’ll admit, I read the Moscow(x6) script before I saw the production, and was a bit perplexed. There were so many characters with Russian names and the dialogue was too fast-paced to get a proper feel for it. But seeing it on stage made everything fall into place. The cast was full of pinch-me-I’m-dreaming actors who I never thought I would get a chance to work with, even on the periphery, and whose performances gave me chills. I’m told it’s a very faithful adaptation, and I loved it so much I saw it twice (and would see it again and again if given the opportunity). The transition from Act I to Act II is jarring and sobering in all the best ways, and the ending forces you to reexamine your own life and relationships.
Actually by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage
Two actors. Two chairs. One set. Ninety minutes that will make you question everything. Well, maybe not everything, but it will leave you with questions that will start a conversation about rape culture, the truth, and the various sides to every story. Joshua Boone and Alexandra Socha played two first-semester freshmen at Princeton who spend a night together, and remember it completely differently. It’s set up as though the two are retelling their versions of the night in question to a school’s justice committee, interwoven with flashbacks to that night and stories from their own pasts that slowly shade in context for these characters, who they are and where they came from. It may be cliché, but the last moment literally made my jaw drop. The ending isn’t wrapped up with a bow, but neither is life.
Company by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth
Directed by Julianne Boyd
Barrington Stage Company, Main Stage
I’ve always been vaguely familiar with Company. My first exposure to it was in high school on my first big musical theatre kick, but I was too young to have even have a marginal understanding of it (and I’ll admit, I’m still too young to fully appreciate it). But this unabashed Aaron Tveit fan was not about to miss the chance to see him as Bobby, so I got a third-row student ticket and spent two-and-a-half hours captivated. The entire ensemble was stellar, each with their own stand-out moments. There’s only so much you can grasp about a show from cast recordings and fuzzy YouTube videos, and seeing Company live affected me in a whole new way.
Merrily We Roll Along by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth
Directed by Maria Friedman
Huntington Theatre Company
Merrily We Roll Along is one of the only shows I’ve seen where I knew the cast recording by heart before ever seeing it live. Not only that, but I knew the show’s lore very well, from having watched the Lonny Price documentary about the show’s Broadway run, The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, twice. But from the second the overture began (have I mentioned how much I adore overtures?), my perception of the show changed drastically. Now, seeing the actors live and hearing the parts of the script that happen between the songs, I learned that the stakes were so much higher than I previously understood based on the cast recording, and I got to know the characters so much more intimately. And with that, the same familiar lines touched me in new ways.
(These last three shows I all saw in one weekend, and were featured heavily in a previous post, so I won’t go into as much detail here.)
People, Places & Things by Duncan MacMillan
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
National Theatre production at St. Ann’s Warehouse
Seeing as much theatre as I do, sometimes I forget exactly why I have such a passion for the art form. I went into this weekend a bit stressed about finals coming up, worried that I was making a mistake by spending two whole days in New York and not in the library. But the excitement I felt upon entering the bustling St. Ann’s Warehouse assuaged all of those fears. There’s no sound quite like the sound a ticket scanner makes when entering a theatre, and when I heard it, I felt like I was home again, even though this was my first trip to St. Ann’s. The play transported me not just to another world, but into the lead character’s mind, thrusting me and the rest of the audience into the heart of her experiences and taking the theatrical power of empathy to a whole new level.
The Band’s Visit By David Yazbeck and Itamar Moses
Directed by David Cromer
Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway
Very rarely do I see a show without knowing much about it. I research nearly everything I do extensively before I do it, but it was refreshing to sit back and let myself be surprised by The Band’s Visit. I remember hearing buzz about the show’s Off-Broadway run during the previous awards season, but missed my chance to see it. When it came to Broadway, and my friends told me they were seeing it the same day I would be in town, I knew I had to go. I decided to keep myself in the dark, which was definitely the right decision. It’s the kind of musical that you just need to experience, as its pure magic can’t quite be captured with mere words.
Tiny Beautiful Things Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos
Directed by Tommy Kail
The Public Theater, Newman Theatre
Now that I think about it, I knew very little about all three of the shows I saw that weekend. I chose all of them based solely on recommendations from friends or theatre people I admire. And from now on, I will definitely do that more often. Tiny Beautiful Things was like an unexpected 90-minute hug that lifts your spirits even though you have tears rolling down your face. It’s exactly the push I needed to get through the rest of the semester in one piece. (Okay, Dear Evan Hansen Fan Day gave me that push too, but both shows did is so well.)
I’ve never seen as much theatre as I did this year, and I don’t think I ever will again. (Still a bit bummed I was so close to 100 shows but didn’t make it.) It was hard to pick favorites. The plays, musicals, readings and workshops all touched me and shaped me in different ways. And even though I see a lot of theatre, I do not consider myself an expert. I find it difficult to write about shows that matter to me. I feel like my words fail to do them justice and that they don’t quite capture the fleeting magic that happens in a theatre. But still I try, in hopes that one day I’ll say the right thing.
I believe the impact of a show has just as much to do with the show itself as it does with the people you share it with, and the memories attached to the experience of seeing it. I’m lucky that I have such dear friends who love seeing shows as much as I do, and I’m just as lucky to have met so many of them because of that shared love.
I didn’t include any of the workshops or readings I saw this year on this list, but I will say that I have high hopes for the future of theatre, and can’t wait to watch these pieces grow and blossom.
P.S. In case you were wondering, the question isn’t, “Did she really put 3 Sondheim musicals on her top ten favorite shows of 2017 list?” the question is, “Is anyone surprised?”
What are some of your favorite shows of 2017? Let me know in the comments below!
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