Top Ten Things I Saw in a Theater and Can’t Stop Thinking About
I will never forget seeing Alvin Ailey’s dance troupe make a stage come completely alive in a celebration of life and struggle. The traditional music that punctuates this piece is haunting in its simplicity and emotional depth. And those glorious white costumes painted the strongest picture without calling garish attention. I was even more happy that when I finally saw the company perform it again over a decade later, the piece completely held up, that same thrill washing over me.
9. A Little Night Music
I first saw this Sondheim musical at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago starring Patti LuPone about the time I was finishing high school. I mention it here, not because it was such a singular production (far from it actually) but because it was the first time I fully understood, or really began to understand, the amazing power of a Sondheim show. Even with minimal staging, the story and music were evocative and resonant, an intelligence pervaded the evening that I’m not sure I had ever seen on stage before. And thus a life-long passion was born… to see every single thing Sondheim ever touched performed in every possible venue, revival and iteration.
8. The Phantom of the Opera
I can’t remember when I first saw it, or count the number of times I’ve seen it since, but this show will always mark the beginning of my love of musicals. The combination of big theatrics, melodrama and horror filled my child-self with endless amounts of glee (it’d be a little while before Sweeney Todd would fill me with more bloody glee). I know many people think the stage show hasn’t held up well (and I’m waiting for them to end the Broadway run so I can take a crack at reviving it) but I was happily surprised how much it still enchanted me just a year ago on Broadway. That sweeping score is iconic, right down to the ‘80s organ blasts.
7. Dr. Atomic
I’ve already written about this Metropolitan Opera production way too many times, so I’ll keep it brief. It’s a phenomenal piece of stagecraft, a wonderful distillation of an event too big for any particular venue or medium, a score that challenges and delights and a thoroughly satisfying evening that got me closer to understanding the atrocities of a bomb than any book or documentary ever has. And I even realized more how incredible it was as a stage piece when a symphonic recording constructed by Adams himself failed to bring me back into the moment when I sat in the theater entranced.
A little bit of love for this piece has to do with being a freshman in college and being ecstatic just at the thought of living in the same city as this amazing theater is being performed. Beyond that this play pushed deep into my bones a sense of dread and excitement at horrible atrocities, a nightmare coming to life on stage. Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum anchored this show so beautifully. I’m sorry that I only managed to get there the week before it closed because I would have loved to see it again, but I truly only needed to see it once to make an everlasting impression.
5. Audra McDonald at Carnegie Hall
Or really any time Audra takes the stage. I don’t know a performer more captivating in every format. In a fully staged show she is luminous. On a recording her voice transcends the medium and delivers a complete character study, even when singing in Portuguese. In a staged reading she performs as if she’s lived with the material her whole life. On TV… well, let’s leave that out. But it was when I saw her at Carnegie Hall, in a concert devoted to songs about things that “freaked the hell out of her,” that I completely fell in love. She was effortless and human, emotionally resonant with a sense of joy for life that I wish could be bottled. There are two moments from that show that I will never forget. One was her final encore, singing “Edelweiss” at the front of the stage without any amplification… you’ve never heard a New York City audience so quiet. And her take on “The Glamorous Life” from the film version of A Little Night Music. She introduced it as her greatest fear of what her daughter would grow up thinking of her mother. It was such a naked moment, no artifice and immediately reminded me of the first time I ever saw her perform at Ravinia and she apologized at the possibility she might quickly flee the stage at any given moment because she was pregnant and her morning sickness came at night. Her daughter is now 11.
4. Floyd Collins
I saw an early rendition of this musical at The Goodman Theater in Chicago and could only think, what an odd gem. Mountain music mixed with a freaky true story of a man caught in a cave in Kentucky… yeah, that just screams make me into a musical. But it works. The stage was mostly bare and yet you absolutely felt like you were trapped with that man under a rock, claustrophobic and horrifying. Then there was the yodeling, repeated around the entire theater to create the echoes of a cavern. It was a wonderful combination of stagecraft, music and storytelling, an attention to detail and beauty that is all too rare in the modern musical.
This might be standing in for the larger entity of Cirque du Soleil, which is pretty much the only organization that has captivated my imagination ceaselessly since I unsuccessfully fought falling asleep at a way too young age during Saltimbanco. It was easy for me to say that they turned their own artistry into a cliche, but then I saw LOVE in Vegas and was reminded of the sheer delight and mastery of production, there was no cliche to mock. Quidam however has always stood out as the darkest entry in the Cirque catalog with its fantastic cribbing from Magritte. The music from that show has always been my favorite, and in many ways, it seemed to be one of their simplest productions, focused on a very human fantasy, smaller and more emotionally true.
There was no question I was going to be thrilled seeing this opera, it’s Philip Glass! But I had no clue what I was really in for. Not only was the score everything I could have hoped for, but the ingenuity of this production was unreal. The puppets, the tape, the hangers… these are not things you plan on seeing on stage at The Metropolitan Opera, but there is all was, a performance art piece in place of the usual gilded lavish set pieces. A transcendent night at the opera.
1. Sleep No More
Ok, technically not in a theater, but it’s a theater piece, so that works, right? I seriously can’t think of anything else that has so hugely stuck in my head, my body, my soul. It’s such a complete vision that even minor quibbles I might have with it are completely lost to the fact that the minute I walked through that darkened tunnel and into that bar, I had left my life behind and was completely immersed in an interactive world more real than any computer generated flashy bit of stage craft that has been whipped up to try to overwhelm an audience into submission. Maybe it’s just a product of taking down the divide between actor and audience, but I think there’s a whole lot more going on in this piece to draw you deep into another world.