Bill T. Jones’s Afrobeat musical begins as a concert: a re-creation of an evening in Fela Kuti’s Lagos club in 1977. But by show’s end, it’s become much more: a phantasmagorical mix of séance, political protest, and dance party. The groove, the projections and costumes, the dancing all add up to theater as sensory overload—the fullest, most compelling show of the year.
2. South Pacific
If Fela! offered a neon-lit vision of where musical theater might be headed, Lincoln Center’s impeccable revival showed where it’s been, to rapturous effect. No other show in recent memory has so perfectly captured the exuberance and the dizzying romance of the classic Broadway musicals. Yes, South Pacific is a museum piece, but this production belongs in the Louvre.
Even apart from Patti LuPone’s role-of-a-lifetime turn as Momma Rose, this revival hit the heights. Laura Benanti’s development from wallflower Louise to Miss Gypsy Rose Lee was a knockout. And Boyd Gaines made Herbie understandable—a guy who really could fall for Rose’s aggressive charm. It was no surprise that they went three for three at the Tonys.
4. The Seagull
Though Kristin Scott Thomas is the draw as a wonderfully irritating Arkadina, it’s the supporting cast—including Mackenzie Crook, Zoe Kazan, and Art Malik—whose performances make Ian Rickson’s stately transfer from the Royal Court the most coherent and enjoyable of the flock of Seagulls to swoop through New York in the past few years.
5. Top Girls
The first act of Caryl Churchill’s drama is invigorating; Top Girls’ fantastical feminist dinner party is bravura playwriting, briskly directed by James Macdonald in MTC’s revival. More surprising, though, is how moving the play’s tricky conclusion became in the hands of Elizabeth Marvel (as the rising businesswoman Marlene), Marisa Tomei (her beaten-down sister), and Martha Plimpton (a teenager caught between them).
Soho Rep’s production of the late Sarah Kane’s Molotov cocktail of a play is brutal, harrowing, and difficult to endure. In its stripped-down view of inhuman atrocity stemming from human appetites, though, it’s also an indelible theatrical experience.
Forty years on, it’s still less a musical than a Happening, which is one reason why Hair was perfect for Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre. Audiences at this summer’s Public Theater revival felt like they were part of the production, enduring rainstorms and participating in a joyous full-house dance party at the curtain call. The transfer to Broadway (in March) will be tricky. One hopes the show can hang on to some of that alfresco magic.
8. Hunting and Gathering
Brooke Berman’s social comedy of futon-crashing thirtysomethings didn’t break new ground, but it smartly dramatized the encroachment of Generation Y—with its solid credit rating and fancy Facebook widgets—upon a Generation X still stuck working on that dissertation.
9. Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Among the best reasons to see the virtuoso revival of Christopher Hampton’s soufflé of sex and revenge this spring: newcomer Ben Daniels, rakish as Valmont, and the beloved Laura Linney, whose wholesome charm suggested that the Marquise is as much victim as villainess.
10. On the Town
The Comden-and-Green classic, back for a week in a minimal Encores! staging, enjoyed perfect timing. The exuberant antidote to an imminent recession included that impeccably spirited Bernstein score, those New York–loving lyrics, and an ensemble that could sing the daylights out of both. Like Gypsy and South Pacific, it was also a reminder of how a full-size orchestra (here, 30 musicians) is worth every penny it costs.