After the best singles and before the best albums (we'll have to wait for the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll for that), here are my favorite theater/opera moments of the year, in alphabetical order.
1. Adding Machine. This Expressionistic Chicago import proved that there is still life in the American musical at the end of the ’00s.
2. All My Sons. Simon McBurney's non-naturalistic approach threw off a few people, but I found it mesmerizing. This is what happens when the powers that be on Broadway entrust a play to a director who's capable of reading the material, then of translating it into a specifically theatrical language.
3. Arias with a Twist. This collaboration between Joey Arias and Basil Twist was permeated by the spirit of downtown—and by that I mean the old East Village, before it turned into New York's answer to the French Quarter. Like Adding Machine, albeit with a completely different aesthetic, this show illustrated how much you can achieve with a small budget and a large imagination.
4. Billy Elliot. The best three seconds of the year: When a miner yells out "We're on strike!" to his companions and they all happily shout back "Yay!!!" No wonder Terry Teachout's review in The Wall Street Journal was titled "Karl Marx in a tutu"—and he didn't mean that in a good way. "Feel-good socialist kitsch," Teachout huffed. Ah yes, and that's exactly what Broadway—and the nation at large, I'd venture—wants right now.
5. Blasted. Frankly, the play itself isn't all that (Sarah Kane's youthful nihilism can be overly self-conscious and deliberate) but Sarah Benson's production was as good as it could be, while I can't even fathom how Marin Ireland and Reed Birney did what they did on the stage every night for weeks on end. Incidentally, Ireland has turned into a downtown treasure over the past few years (Far Away and Beebo Brinker come to mind). The EW reviewer listed the show among the year's worst, blaming its lack of humanity. There was plenty of humanity in Blasted, except it was defiled every step of the way; guess that's not what some want at the theater.
6. Gypsy. Saw that one three times. No need to go on about Patti LuPone's performance again, so I'll just say that Laura Benanti's transformation from ugly vaudeville duckling to glamorous burlesque swan remains an erotic highlight.
7. Hair. Oh, how I hate audience participation! Especially when it involves going onstage and haplessly prancing about with the cast. And yet when that happened at the end of this thrilling production at the Delacorte, it could not have felt more à propos.
8. Opening Night. I found myself thinking about Ivo van Hove's adaptation of the Cassavetes movie a lot after seeing it, wondering in particular about some of the staging choices. With its heavy use of a simultaneous videocast, the production rewards multiple viewings, from as many different angles as possible. Alas, it didn't play BAM long enough to allow for a return visit. I hear van Hove directed a stage adaptation of Cries and Whispers in Europe this year. This is a call to BAM, Lincoln Center and St. Ann's Warehouse: please bring it here!
9. Passing Strange. Stew and Heidi Rodewald's little-musical-that-could adapted surprisingly well to the Broadway stage. A much better translation of the rock idiom to musical theater than Spring Awakening.
10. Die Soldaten. If I had to pick a single event this year, it would be this electroshock of a modernist opera, mounted by Lincoln Center Festival at the Armory. Now that we are engulfed in a recession, this divisive, outlandish production—in which the audience sat on huge moving platforms, flanked on the sides by a ginormous 110-member orchestra imported from Germany—feels like the last gasp of the freespending days. (Someone told me it would have cost the same to fly everybody who saw the show in New York to Germany!)
Boeing-Boeing, for understanding that farce needs to be staged with Swiss-clock precision… Come Back, Little Sheba, for S. Epatha Merkerson's heartwrenching portrayal of a woman stuck not only in a thankless marriage, but in the thankless decade known as the 1950s… Michael Clark Company's OO and O, for their elegant embrace of the punk and classical realms… The Cripple of Inishmaan, for making me get over a longstanding distrust of Irish plays… La Damnation de Faust, for the sight of video trees wilting as the Devil walked in front of them… The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or The Friends of Dr. Rushower, for its enchanting first act and its wonderful projections, which easily bested the ones in the more high-profile Sunday in the Park with George.