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Hunter Foster named Director of the Year by The Wall Street Journal

Wednesday, December 19, 2018


Sparks on and Off Broadway

While major musicals faltered, other stageworthy offerings were plentiful all over the U.S. map.


The Broadway musical continued its demoralizing slump in 2018, with only one new show, “The Prom,” of any merit.

Otherwise, it was the usual string of lackluster-to-awful screen-to-stage adaptations (“King Kong”, “Mean Girls”) and jukebox shows (“The Cher Show,” “Escape From Margaritaville”). Even more disheartening, though, was “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” a mega-budget musical-without-songs that was noteworthy only for its special effects. Its box-office triumph bodes ill for the future of big-ticket Broadway theater.

Not so off Broadway and elsewhere in America, where imaginative new small-scale musicals abound. Two of the very best, “Be More Chill” and “The Girl From the North Country,” the Bob Dylan-Conor McPherson jukebox musical, are now headed for Broadway, while “The Royal Family of Broadway,” written by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn and produced by Massachusetts’ Barrington Stage Company, merits a similar fate. So does the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park version of “Twelfth Night,” co-directed by Kwame-Armah and Oskar Eustis and featuring delectable songs by Shaina Taub.

To keep the money coming in, Broadway’s producers put on more straight plays than usual. Among them were two sensational revivals, Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” directed by Joe Mantello, and Patrick Marber’s Roundabout Theatre Company production of Tom Stopipard’s “Travesties,” plus an interesting new play from England, Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman.” Several distinguished new plays also ran off Broadway, including Jonathan Leaf’s “Pushkin: A Life Played Out,” Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen” and Lynn Nottage’s “Mima’s Tale,” along with such fine revivals as A.R. Gurney’s “Later Life,” directed by Jonathan Silverstein for the Keen Company, and J.R. Sullivan’s Mint Theater Company production of “Days to Come,” a Lillian Hellman rarity.

Out of town, I saw numerous revivals of high distinction, including Mary Hall Surface’s small-scale Constellation Theatre Company version of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” in Washington, D.C., and Paul Mullin’s Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey revival of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.” In addition, top-flight classical productions were thick on the ground, foremost among them Davis McCallum’s gender-bending Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival version of “Richard II.”

World-class acting can usually be taken for granted on Broadway, where I cheered Lauren Ambrose in Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of “My Fair Lady,” Tom Hollander in “Travesties,” Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf in “Three Tall Women,” Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn in “Angels in America,” Eugene Lee in “American Son” and Elaine May in “The Waverly Gallery.”

Now, the best of the best:

Best performances in a play

Off Broadway, Jay O. Sanders gave a career-capping performance in Richard Nelson’s Hunter Theater Project revival of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” while Zazanna Szadkowski commanded the stage in Eric Tucker’s Bedlam premiere of “Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet.”

Best performances in a musical

Brooks Ashmansakas was touching in “The Prom,” and Anika Noni Rose came on like a wild blowtorch in John Doyle’s Classic Stage Company off-Broadway revival of “Carmen Jones.”

Best ensemble cast

The palm goes to People’s Light of Malvern, PA., for Paul Osborn’s “Morning’s at Seven,” a Broadway-worthy revival featuring a nonpareil cast mainly consisting of veteran company members.

Best revival of a modern play

“The Petrified Forest,” Robert Sherwood’s 1935 stage thriller, isn’t exactly new, but David Auburn’s no-nonsense revival for Massachusetts’ Berkshire Theatre Group proved it to be excitingly immediate.

Best classical production 

David Staller’s conceptual staging of George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” produced off Broadway by the Gingold Theatrical Group, was the bet thing Mr. Staller has given us to date, which is saying something.

Best new play

Lincoln Center Theater’s off-Broadway premiere of Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem” proved its 81-year-old author to be the Shaw of our time.

Best new musical

“Miss You Like Hell,” in which Quiara Alegra Hudes and Erin McKeown tell the tale of an undocumented immigrant and her long-estranged daughter, had its premiere by the Public Theater to powerfully moving effect.

Directors of the year

Lila Neugebauer, who staged “At Home at the Zoo” and “Mary Page Marlowe” off Broadway and “The Waverly Gallery” on Broadway, is an erstwhile up-and-comer who now ranks among our top stage directors. As for Hunter Foster, who directed “The Drowsy Chaperone” for Goodspeed Musicals (about which more below) and “42nd Street” for Pennsylvania’s Bucks County Playhouse, he’s a wonder-worker who belongs on Broadway.

Company of the year

No company in America mounts more satisfying musical-comedy revivals than Goodspeed Musicals of East Haddam, Conn., which gave us superb stagings of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Oliver!” and “The Will Rogers Follies” by, respectively, Mr. Foster, Rob Ruggiero and Don Stephenson.

Playwright of the year 

After going two decades without a Broadway production, Kenneth Lonergan hit the bull’s-eye twice in a row with unforgettable revivals of “Lobby Hero” and “The Waverly Gallery.” May “The Starry Messenger,” his best play to date, follow them there soon!

Mr. Teachout is the Journal’s drama critic.