Here’s my own personal list of 10 theatrical things to be thankful for at this festive time of the year:
1. Nina Arianda: How often does anyone or anything truly live up to tremendous hype? This is one of those rare cases. Last season, the virtually unknown Arianda garnered rave reviews and award nominations for her electrifying Off-Broadway turn in Venus in Fur, in which she shone as a ditzy actress auditioning for a sexy role in a play. (As it turns out, there’s much more to the character than we first assume!) Before you could say “Garson Kanin,” Arianda was playing Billy Dawn in a Broadway revival of Born Yesterday. Now, Manhattan Theatre Club has remounted Venus on Broadway, largely on the basis of her performance. The play itself, by David Ives, isn’t very well written, but it’s good enough to serve as a vehicle for a rapidly rising star.
2. Hugh Jackman: Anybody who says “old time showmanship is dead” should see this guy in action. A theater veteran as well as a huge film star, Jackman sings, dances, and flirts his way into the hearts of sold-out audiences in his concert show at the Broadhurst Theatre. His mega-watt charisma and his connection with the audience are so strong that, even though my seat was in the second-to-last row of the theater, I felt like I was front-row center. If there’s any way you can still score a ticket without having to pay a small fortune, don’t hesitate.
3. Stephen Karam: This brilliantly talented young playwright gained lots of attention a few seasons back for Speech and Debate, a whip-smart play that made a big impression on critics and audiences even though it had a brief, limited run at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s tiny, Off-Broadway black-box space. The success of that project led the company to produce Karam’s latest, Sons of the Prophet, in the much larger, higher profile Laura Pels Theater. It’s an alternately hilarious and heartbreaking piece about human perseverance in the face of Job-like adversity, and it’s one of the few not-to-be missed entries of the season so far.
4. Broadway Unplugged: Of all the concerts presented by theater journalist/impresario Scott Siegel at The Town Hall as part of The Broadway Series there, this annual event is one of my favorites. In an age when almost every stage musical is tremendously over-amplified, it’s a precious gift to hear major talents singing in this acoustically excellent hall with no help whatsoever from microphones and sound boards. The most recent edition, on Monday evening, November 14 featured such singers as Max von Essen, Alexander Gemignani, Sarah Uriarte Berry, Nancy Anderson, Terri White, Ron Bohmer, and William Michals in unforgettable, unplugged renditions of choice items from the Broadway songbook.
5. Christopher Gattelli: Even when a show is problematic, as with the Broadway-bound Newsies, you can count on Gattelli’s choreography to be spot-on in terms of theatrical verve, boundless energy, and clear storytelling. In addition to the Disney musical, which is set to open on Broadway in the spring after a hit run at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Gattelli is currently represented by the revival of Godspell at Circle in the Square — another case where his work is one of the best things about the show.
6. Kim Cattrall: World-famous as Samantha in the Sex and the City TV and film series, Cattrall also has impressive stage chops, as she’s proving in the latest Broadway revival of Noël Coward’s most popular comedy. Playing opposite the dashing Paul Gross as Elyot, she’s marvelously sexy and funny as Amanda, offering an earthier conception of the role than such previous exponents as Tammy Grimes, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joan Collins. Private Lives has never been absent from Broadway for very long, but this new production is entirely welcome.
7. Sam Waterston: You know and love him as Jack McCoy on Law & Order, but Waterston has trod the boards throughout his career. I’ve been lucky enough to see him on stage several times, most recently in King Lear in a Public Theater production that also starred Michael McKean (as Gloucester) and Kelli O’Hara (as Regan). Waterston might not sound like perfect casting for the title role, but he offered an intensely moving portrayal that stands up to fresh memories of such other excellent Lears as Christopher Plummer and Ian McKellen.
8. John Kander: One of the greatest Broadway composers who ever lived is still out there doing it, having survived the loss of his longtime writing partner, the equally great lyricist Fred Ebb. Kander is involved in at least one major new project — and, happily, several shows that he wrote in the final years of his partnership with Ebb have been produced over the past several years. Mark your calendar for Wednesday, November 30, when Chita Rivera and John Cullum will headline a one-night-only benefit concert of The Visit, an as-yet-underappreciated show that I had the pleasure of seeing in a full production at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia (also starring Rivera).
9. New York City Center: This venue has been a high-profile home for dance, opera, and musical theater for nearly 70 years despite poor sight lines, inadequate audience comfort facilities, and other major drawbacks. Now, all of those problems have been eliminated or greatly ameliorated thanks to a gorgeous, multi-million dollar renovation. Bravo to the City Center board and to Ennead Architects, LLP (formerly Polshek Partnership) for the magnificent transformation.
10. The New York Pops: Under its newish musical director, Steven Reineke, the Pops has been presenting more musical-theater-themed concerts with Broadway talent than ever before — and that’s just fine with me. The season opener, on October 14, was a tribute to Irving Berlin with guest performers including Ashley Brown and Hugh Panaro, also known as Broadway’s Mary Poppins and the Phantom of the Opera. Last weekend, November 18, matinee idol Cheyenne Jackson was the Pops’ special guest for what essentially turned out to be a full-length solo concert with orchestra. And on December 16 and 17, the orchestra’s Swingin’ Christmas celebration will be headlined by the unbeatable husband-and-wife team of John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey. A cornucopia of holiday cheer is assured.