The Year's Best: Playbill Contributors Choose Unforgettable Theatre Experiences of 2013

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21 Dec 2013

Hugh Panaro and Sierra Boggess
Hugh Panaro and Sierra Boggess
Joan Marcus

Playbill staffers and contributors share favorite theatregoing memories from the year 2013. Broadway, Off-Broadway, London, cabaret, plays, musicals and more find a place on our subjective list.

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MATT BLANK, Playbill.com Photo Editor

The Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary performance at the Majestic Theatre. To say that I've had my fill of the show is perhaps an understatement. It was one of my first-ever full-scale musicals as a child. We used to get the $15 partial view tickets for the long-running San Francisco production (Franc d'Ambrosio!) and go see it over and over and over again when I was growing up. Aside from the extreme far right side of the stage (the obstructed bit), I'd pretty much committed every note and movement to muscle memory. I still enjoy and appreciate the musical, but I was pretty sure I could no longer be completely wowed by something I've spent so much time with. This gala event in January proved me very wrong. The energy that night both onstage and off was magical. Everyone was performing it with a joy and enthusiasm as though it were the first time. The leading performances, especially the virtuoso turn by Sierra Boggess, were absolutely breathtaking. At intermission the lobby was littered with former Phantom stars and friends, sipping champagne and reminiscing. The roaring ovation, the inspired encore performance, the opulent show-themed after-party at the massive New York Public Library, one of the great overall theatre experiences of my life.

Barry Manilow in Manilow on Broadway. What? I love Barry Manilow. And so do you. Within two verses, I had turned into a giggling, fawning fan-boy. With the exception of Streisand last year, that's never happened to me as a grown man. And it never will again, unless "Mr. Show" comes to Broadway, or if the funding for my Metta World Peace musical comes through.

During my February trip to London I happened upon a production of Chess at the smaller-than-intimate Union Theatre. The venue holds maybe 50 people, and if you're sitting in the front row (as we were) you're literally on the stage. It was a total rock star experience to hear one of my all-time favorite scores performed just inches away from me without need for microphones. I could have easily reached out and moved a chess piece from my seat. Excellent small cast of West End regulars, and a wonderful American performer who nailed the lead role of Florence.

I adore both of this year's leading Broadway musicals, Kinky Boots and Matilda. So different in tone, style, narrative and focus, but both such fun shows with a great amount of heart and sentiment. I was truly stumped as to which would take home the big awards and felt they were equally deserving. I've been back to see both of them a few times, but most memorable was seeing Kinky Boots from the fifth row a week after it won all the Tony Awards. The energy that night was electric, and I've rarely seen an audience react with such love and appreciation. The ovation seemed to go on forever, and there were some visible tears in the eyes of both audience and cast members.

I've rarely been so surprised and blown away by a new work than I was with Fun Home. I was fully unfamiliar with the book and the subject matter. To be honest, I wasn't really in the mood for a show that particular day. About 20 minutes in, I had a sudden moment of realization: "This is fantastic!" Everything about it just fell into place to create a rather peerless theatrical experience. Jeanine Tesori's unpredictable, gorgeous, elegant score. Michael Cerveris' haunting, pained performance. The pitch-perfect, very real, subtly hilarious depictions of Alison Bechdel at three distinct stages of her life. The emotional depth that is achieved out of such a simple narrative and stream of memory is remarkable. I really hope this isn't the last we see of this gem.

This turned into the autumn of Miss Saigon, as I traveled to catch two top-notch regional productions and cross fingers for a Broadway revival. First was an immersive staging at the intimate Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA. A few weeks later I went to Hartford to see the fall mini-tour that famously sparked a completely ludicrous protest from St. Paul audiences. Both were fantastic and very different from one another. A nice reminder after more than a decade what a gorgeous and powerful piece it remains.

After several postponements due to rehab, American Idiot creators Green Day finally played their big concert at the Barclays Center. They did all of the big hits and a good amount of new stuff. Mainly, it was great to see that a post-treatment Billie Joe Armstrong was still capable of rocking HARD for nearly four hours. You could easily spot the theatre folks in the crowd. They were the ones re-creating the "Know Your Enemy" choreography in the middle of the mosh pit.

Though I missed it during its initial limited run, I absolutely fell in love with Murder Ballad during the summer return engagement in Union Square. That rockin' score was perfectly suited to the story, gritty setting and ridiculously powerful voices of the four-person ensemble. It's become one of my most-listened-to albums of the year.

Violet at City Center. This has been one of my very favorite shows since I saw the Northern California premiere at Theatreworks more than a decade ago, and I literally wore out more than one copy of the CD... back when we used CDs. Remember CDs? To see it up on the New York stage with that brilliant cast was a nearly overwhelming experience. I'm even more excited for its return, in a full production, this spring.

The intimate cabaret venue 54 Below continues to host an incredible array of concerts and other events directly and tangentially related to theatre. It's become my favorite spot to kick back, have a drink and enjoy some of the best talent in the business. Some standout concerts for me this year have included Christiane Noll, Laura Benanti, Alexandra Silber, Frances Ruffelle, Sherie Rene Scott, Norbert Leo Butz and several shows from the wonderful Skivvies.



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