This year’s best-in-theater list is overstuffed: There are revolting children, classic plays and circus acrobats. There are two knights playing two clowns and a guy in a one-man show, which somehow also features Barbra Streisand. Even a production that never actually made it onstage gets some applause. What? Our Top 10 list of the best in theater in 2013:
1. “The Glass Menagerie”: There’s magic from start to finish in this new production of Tennessee William’s great play about regret starring a superb Cherry Jones and a revelatory Zachary Quinto. It’s evocative, sometimes surreal and sublimely organic – the perfect package for a play about faded and frayed memories.
2. “Pippin”: The revival of the Stephen Schwartz musical led by director Diane Paulus packs plenty of bang, lots of flips and real value for your money: A ticket buys you not just a musical but also a trip to the circus. There are fire jugglers, teeterboards, knife throwing and contortionists, as well as Bob Fosse-style dancing and great performances.
3. “Matilda”: Great sets, choreography and songs make this British import hard to resist. Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin stick with you – especially “Miracle,” “Telly,” “When I Grow Up” and “The Smell of Rebellion” – and the whole show thrillingly reminds you of the darkness of being a kid.
4. “Kinky Boots”: The new Tony Award musical winner with infectious songs by Cyndi Lauper and a sloppy kiss of a story by Harvey Fierstein is unabashedly sentimental, with a classic message of acceptance. Billy Porter, as the drag queen at its heart, can make tears fall down your cheeks and he’s sticking with the show into 2014.
5. “The Sound of Music”: This Carrie Underwood-led show was on TV, of course, but Broadway was in its DNA, from the supporting cast – Christian Borle, Laura Benanti and Audra McDonald – to co-director Rob Ashford. It was the first full-scale musical staged live for television in more than a half-century and drew an impressive 18.6 million viewers. (By way of comparison, total attendances for all of Broadway last season was 11.6 million). It was simply a brilliant advertisement for live theater.
6. “The Last Five Years:” A revival of Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle about a troubled marriage was a highlight of Second Stage Theatre’s last season. But if you missed it, look out for a movie version soon with “Smash” star Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick from “Up in the Air.” It’s good to see this fabulous show get another bout of attention.
7. Mark Rylance as the white-faced and trembling noblewoman Olivia in “Twelfth Night.” Rylance, sharing his Shakespearian skills on Broadway for the first time, is also playing the evil title monarch in “Richard III” in repertory, but seeing his Olivia get unglued in the presence of a young man, who is, in fact, a young woman in disguise, is a pure delight.
8. Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” may not be your double cup of existential tea, but watching Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart at the top of their game make these the definite versions to see, despite the obtuseness and angst. You’ll be applauding loudly even while scratching your head.
9. “Buyer & Cellar:” Michael Urie plays a struggling actor who goes to work for Barbra Streisand as a clerk in her underground mall of quaint shops, which no one but Streisand goes to. Over 100 minutes, Urie plays out more than 30 scenes in which his character has a fraught tango with the fictional Babs. It’s moving and sweet and funny. Urie also helped the off-Broadway one-man show do something few can boast: recoup.
10. The look of “Macbeth:” The acting led by Ethan Hawke may be uneven, the addition of creatures that look like rejects from “Cats” is unfortunate and the use of three scenery chewing men to play the Three Witches breaks the spell, but there’s no denying this is the most handsome show on Broadway. Scott Pask’s sets include giant moveable slabs, a vase of flowers that suddenly loses its petals and a bright, airy, leaf-covered canopy. Japhy Weideman’s stunning lighting turns everyone into rock gods. And Catherine Zuber’s timeless, ultra-sexy costumes make everyone gorgeous.
Honorable Mention: “Fun Home”: A rich, clever and moving musical adapted by the playwright Lisa Kron and the composer Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about growing up with a gay dad. This show at the Public Theater is refreshing and intimate and satisfying.