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GTFO, 2012: The Best Theater Things of the Year

Here it is, guys. The whole year in a giant nutshell. Here are the shows and performances and scandals we loved with all our theater-obsessed hearts. As we wait with bated breath for Stark Sands in drag, Cinderella, and the inevitable announcement of a Miss Saigon movie, let’s take a minute to celebrate the last 12 months of theater. Because every once in a while, Times Square has more balls than just that one giant one…

Christian Borle in Peter and the Starcatcher
Christian Borle — hot, or not? This is a question we’ve heard echoed around the theater community quite a bit this year. (We both fall on the side of “hot like fire,” FYI.) The perfection of Borle’s performance as Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher, however, has never been up for debate. His bendy, fey, completely madcap villian-on-the-hunt-for-a-foe was an absolute joy to behold. Not many actors can bring the house down with one simple phrase — “Oh. My. God.” — but Borle was more than up to the task, and it made for the most memorable comedic performances of the season.

Rebecca Naomi Jones in Murder Ballad
Murder Ballad, the off-Broadway rock musical that plays like a fanfic Rent sequel, wouldn’t be nearly as delicious without its sardonic narrator. Rebecca Naomi Jones, with her killer voice and manic tresses, injects the proceedings with some good old fashioned irony and sarcasm – a welcome addition after Will Swenson and Karen Olivo’s semi-tortured boo-hooing over their characters’ not-that-terrible lives. When Rebecca’s character gets the last grisly laugh, you’ll chortle right along.

Golden Boy
Clifford Odets on Broadway – This is a magic combination for those of us who love New York, words, and beautiful, tortured young men. And Bartlett Sher’s revival of Golden Boy is a stunner on all accounts, a feat of slang-y, homegrown poetry presented with the rhythmic one-two punch of a boxing match. Even the costumes are awesome. Plus, we love shows we can confidently recommend to both our grandmothers and our hipster friends.

Not like it needs accolades from us, God knows, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Once in our annual best-of list, if only because this show isn’t a full-on embarrassment if you’re a thinking member of the modern world who might occasionally find herself at the theater. Real, non-theater-obsessed people can like this sweet, sad little show about Ireland, love, and music. Plus, Steve Kazee and his myriad of nuanced feelings are pretty sexy.

The Tonys Get It Right
If we’re all very honest right now, we can admit that the Tony Awards fuck shit up all the time. With an eye toward crowd-pleasing tour potential and a voting body dominated by the very producers who profit from a show’s success, they’re not always doling out the accolades based on quality alone. But this year, it seems, quality won out. Or at least, it met in the middle with more commercial interests. Either way, between Once and Porgy & Bess and Christian Borle and Steve Kazee and Audra McDonald and Clybourne Park… and, and, and… it really felt like the Tony Awards got things quite right this year — a feat totally worth celebrating.

This Public Theater show, presented early in the year as part of the Under the Radar Festival, stuck in our teeth like a toffee-studded candy bar and would not get out. A bananas rock opera about a mild-mannered woman who enjoys the after-dark company of insanely dangerous men blew our minds with its strobe-lit, blood-and-guts visuals, and its unapologetic, enunciation-be-damned rock score. Finally, someone figured out how to make a rock opera that actually rocked, instead of just pantomiming it. Bonus points for the show’s high gross-out factor and a video cameo from Ira Glass.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Yeah, but Tracy Letts is awesome, though. In a piece that’s known for giving its lead actress career-making props, it’s the dude who wins the day here. If you can call it winning when a character is totally screwed up and unhappy. In Edward Albee’s tale of the most dysfunctional marriage ever, Letts bellows, skulks, and threatens his way through a nightmarish confrontation with his wife and his demons — and several bottles of bourbon. Yes, normally we’d politely ask Edward Albee and his ideas about how modern woman has ruined EVERYTHING to kindly shut his face, but this show is really well done and really affecting. And you’ll walk out of the theater with the satisfying, Jerry Springer-ish sense that your life will never be that demented.

Anthony Warlow Comes to America
Ok, so James Lapine’s paint-by-numbers revival of Annie is kind of an unoffensive dud. But Anthony Warlow as Daddy Warbucks is a gem forever with his powerful voice and forceful onstage presence. No kidding, said the entire Australian continent and a small but fervent worldwide fandom that still thinks of him as The World’s Greatest Enjolras, No Offense to Aaron Tveit. We hope Broadway finds twenty more reasons — and musicals — to keep him here, and that the people who issue the visas agree.

Lin-Manuel Miranda in Merrily We Roll Along
Everything about this Encores! production was so, so good, but nothing blew our minds quite so hard as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s take on neurotic lyricist Charlie Kringas. Nearly unrecognizable in epic nerd gear — polyester, glasses, Justin Bieber’s haircut — his Charlie was a hand-wringing knot of grasp-y emotion. And his “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” was what it should be — basically the best song that Sondheim’s ever written. The composer himself, we suspect, was proud in fifteen million ways.

Aaron Tveit in Les Miserables
It was the casting announcement that made us fully fall off our chairs. Totally obvious and yet totally… not… the choice of Aaron Tveit for Les Miserables’s goldest golden boy was too perfect for words. So we just screamed our faces off. Sometimes we get bitter and jealous when Broadway stars leave us and ascend the echelons of mainstream entertainment. And sometimes we get like proud moms. Count this development among the latter. No one was happier to see Gabe Goodman turn in his New Balances for the tricolor cockade than we were.

Jeremy Jordan and Andy Mientus, We Hardly Knew ‘Ye
About this time last year we — along with all of Broadway– were losing our damn minds over Jeremy Jordan, and rightly so. It’s hard to imagine what we would have done with ourselves this past 12 months without having JJ to swoon over. But almost as soon as we held him in our hands, Jeremy slipped away, taking that Tony nomination and running right into the cast of Smash. Who followed hot on his heels? Only Andy Mientus, the cutest of the cute, and a theater actor with not a Broadway credit to his name. In one fell swoop, Broadway lost its hottest current star, and the one it hadn’t even had yet. We ain’t mad, really. Mostly we’re kind of thrilled we’ll get to see them on our TVs once a week, and brag to all our friends that we knew them first. But. We are a little terrified we’ll lose them forever. They’re far too cute to let go of so soon.

Rebecca Dies… in Epic Fashion
It’s likely that the show itself wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining as its total, catastrophic implosion. There were arrests and angry letters from the cast. Patrick Healy went on NPR. People got sued. When Rebecca went down, she sure as hell went down in flames, and we’re not talking about the pyrotechnics that were supposed to end the actual show. No musical in recent history — except maybe Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark — held our undivided attention so keenly without ever playing a single performance. For the theater of theater, we were never so grateful.

Ryan Steele in Newsies
Sure, we loved Newsies for its straight-to-the veins hit of nostalgia and cute boys — things we never deny or argue with. But nothing prepared us to go quite so gaga over the show’s most heavily featured dancer. Ryan Steele was veritable unicorn of grace and precision, and he was pretty damn easy on the eyes, too. We sat next to a 14-year-old girl at one performance who summed things up pretty accurately: She gasped audibly when he first appeared on the stage.

Lindsay Mendez in Dogfight
After several years of supporting roles on Broadway — from Grease to Godspell — and near constant performances in the concert circuit, wherein she belted her damn face off, Lindsay Mendez finally got her crack at a starring spot this summer. As Rose in Second Stage’s production of Pasek and Paul’s Dogfight, Mendez blew our expectations out of the water. Her sensitive, nuanced, utterly belt-free performance perfectly captured Rose and all her awkward, smart, righteous angles. We hope to see a lot more of Lindsay — and Rose, too — in the future.

Glengarry Glen Ross
If you’ve worked with salesmen, even for a minute, you know the characters in David Mamet’s Glengarry, Glen Ross — they’re so real it’s painful. That felt especially true during Daniel Sullivan’s thoughtful, understated revival, which highlighted the humanity of Mamet’s characters, and not just their f-bomb laced linguistic fireworks. We sat in rapt attention as Bobby Cannavale slithered across the stage in Ricky Roma’s slick skin while Al Pacino’s aging Shelley Levine staggered through his career’s tragic last gasp. After the show we talked for ages about every perfect performance — the show felt universally well-acted — and nuances to the material we’d never noticed before. After a fall of disappointing shows that just never lived up to the hype, this quieter Glengarry was a shock to our systems in the best way possible.

Ramin Karimloo at B.B. King’s
Iranian/Canadian star of epic hotness, Ramin Karimloo, has been burning up the West End for years now — as both an uncomfortably hot Phantom, and an uncomfortably hot Jean Valjean — but New York City couldn’t seem to get his ass on the stage. That is, until this fall, when we managed to steal a few nights of his beautiful, precious time for concerts at B.B. King’s. By the time we heard his rock rendition of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” we were so drunk on his panty-melting hotness and molten vocal stylings, that we felt high. And what a beautiful high that was. Please, universe, bring Ramin back to NYC soon. We’d like another hit. Or a million.

Sometimes, smaller is better. That’s usually not the case with cocks, though. Unless, of course, the Cock in question is a play by Brit Mike Bartlett, which made its stateside debut at The Duke this past spring. And what a debut it was. Smartly styled like a cockfight and staged in a tiny, bare amphitheater with no sets to separate the audience from the actors, or the actors from each other, Cock blew the doors off the traditional love-triangle story. Perfectly performed by stars Jason Butler Harner, Cory Michael Smith and Amanda Quaid, this moving exploration of relationships in the modern world made a huge impression.

Will Chase in Drood
Sometimes it takes the perfect role for you to truly see an actor for all he’s worth and not just, say, his really handsome face and bangin’ bod. In the case of Will Chase, that was definitely the case. Sure, we’d seen him around. And we knew he was beautiful. But it wasn’t until we caught his performance as John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood this fall that we really got him. Chase tears into the role with abandon/sings his face off, and his handsome, dastardly John Jasper was so delicious we fell hard. Finally. And now we never, ever want to look back.

New musical theater can be a terrifying place, full of hinky lyrics, pat, saccharine plotlines, and scores that bore you half to death. That’s why it’s so damn exciting to find good new musical theater. One of our favorite finds this year? Ryan Scott Oliver’s 35MM: A Musical Exhibition, which made its New York debut this past spring. Each song in Oliver’s piece tells the story of one of photographer Matthew Murphy’s snaps, and performed in Galapagos Art Space in Dumbo, while Murphy’s photos were projected on the stage—and strewn about the space with abandon—it totally wrecked our heads in the best way possible.  We expect a lot from Mr. Oliver in the future. And from the show’s stars: Alex Brightman, Ben Crawford, Jay Johnson, Lindsay Mendez and Betsy Wolfe. But this smart, eclectic, entertaining piece will always hold a special place in our hearts.

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