10. Murder Ballad, Studio Theatre
Recent explorations of “immersive theatre” received a boost with this rock musical about a scorching love triangle headed for trouble. The four performers careened through the realistic bar setting (featuring full service drinks for patrons before and after the show), making special use of the pool table for the some sizzling choreography. Murder Ballad represents the fine cutting-edge theatre that Studio Theatre now presents under the “Studio X” banner to complement its mainstage offerings.
9. Bad Dog, Olney Theatre Center
When an alcoholic falls off the wagon after ten years sober and has a car wreck, a mess of relatives descend upon the home she shares with her girlfriend. Holly Twyford gave a masterful performance as Molly, a writer who uses humor to deflect concerns about her physical and psychological health. Bad Dog cleverly mines family conflicts for comedic dialogue that ranges from merely sharp to devastatingly piercing in a show that makes the audience both root for and fear for Molly. The Olney Theatre Centre production of Bad Dog, screenwriter Jennifer Hoppe-House’s first play, was part of a rolling world premiere and the local Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
8. Antigone, Kennedy Center
Opinions were divided about avant-garde director Ivo van Hove’s contemporary take on the classic Greek tragedy Antigone starring film actress Juliette Binoche, but isn’t that often the case with great theatre? The staging and the acting of Antigone were intensely powerful. The production was simultaneously both classic and modern. It offered a relevant take in the ongoing debate over the appropriate power of the state in the face of rebellion.
7. Dear Evan Hansen, Arena Stage
This new musical involves a young man who gains a surrogate family, a longed-for girlfriend, and fame through a misunderstanding about his friendship with a tragic victim. While some new works incorporating technology and social media feel gimmicky, Dear Evan Hansen felt naturally modern while telling a sweet and involving story about a lonely teen trying to work out a better life. Kudos to Arena Stage for producing the world premiere of Dear Evan Hansen, which is scheduled to have an off-Broadway production this spring.
6. Ironbound, Round House Theatre
The hardships of a person living on the edge of poverty like Polish immigrant Darja often make for great drama. Her battles over real-life compromises involving financial difficulties, a cheating boyfriend, and a family relationship are painfully enthralling. Yet playwright Martyna Majok and lead actress Alexandra Henrikson made Darja a clear-eyed survivor who refuses to accept the role of victim. Round House Theatre’s powerful production of Ironbound was the highlight of the admirable Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
5. Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, National Theatre
The CBS television production of Cinderella was broadcast nine times from 1965 – 1974 and was an annual childhood treat for me. Those timeless Rodgers & Hammerstein songs were seamlessly incorporated with a cleverly updated book in a revival that recently played on Broadway before hitting the road. The touring production of Rodgers +Hammerstein’s Cinderella featured a comically gifted cast and beautiful costumes and sets that made this old theatre-lover feel young again.
4. Old Wicked Songs, 1st Stage Theatre
Old Wicked Songs is a skillfully written two-hander about an arrogant young pianist suffering from burnout who travels to Austria to study and try to regain his performing passion. When forced to study accompaniment with a seemingly anti-Semitic professor before he can take the master classes, the two engage in a series of conflicts about the role of emotion in music, post-war revisionism, and more personal life lessons. The Jon Marans play beautifully melds politics with the personal and explores the teacher-student dynamic with loving affection. 1st Stage gave the moving Old Wicked Songs the top-notch revival it deserved.
3. West Side Story, Signature Theatre
What else needs to be said about a nearly flawless production of one of America’s greatest musicals? Bless Signature Theatre for ignoring financial considerations to produce West Side Story in an intimate space with 28 talented actors and an 17-member orchestra playing Leonard Bernstein’s classic music. Parker Esse adapts the original choreography of Jerome Robbins for its iconic dance numbers and director Matthew Gardiner gets the balance just right between the sweet romance and the tragic ethnic conflict. While the production is still playing until the end of January, with tickets are going so fast, Signature is conducting a weekly lottery.
2. Man of La Mancha, Shakespeare Theatre
Given the room for various artistic interpretations I normally cringe when hearing a theatrical performance described as “definitive.” Yet Australian actor Anthony Warlow’s incredible performance as Cervantes/Don Quixote may come as close to that term as I have ever seen in musical theatre. At times his portrayal embodied the realistic confusion of a mentally impaired older man, yet he also achieved a dreamy romanticism that powerfully elevated the poignancy of the show. This Man of La Mancha sets a high bar for future classically-inspired musical productions at the Shakespeare Theatre.
1. Bad Jews, Studio Theatre
This theatre year was bookended with two outstanding productions of Bad Jews at Studio Theatre. Joshua Harmon’s savage comedy features a mostly verbal brawl between cousins over who should inherit a religious family heirloom once smuggled through a Holocaust camp, the undevout “Bad Jew” Liam or the hyper “Super Jew” Daphna. Caught in between are Liam’s brother Jonah and Liam’s sweet but simple shiksa girlfriend Melody. The humor is brilliantly clever and cutting in one of the funniest contemporary plays around.