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The Top 10 Plays and Musicals of 2006

by Matthew Murray

Anyone who closely watches New York theatre has to have a forgiving and interpretive eye, but skewed perspectives have seldom dominated New York theatre in recent years as fully as they did in 2006. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the most notable plays of the year either were big or just thought big while the most affecting musicals were almost invariably unassuming, wrapping their big ideas in tiny packages.

The year's titles ran the gamut from the enchanting to the execrable, and true, with the exception of a small handful of landmark titles (mostly from authors like Alan Bennett and Tom Stoppard), 2006 was not a year that will make much history. But amid the shows we can't wait to scrub from our memories are more than a few that will stick with us for a lifetime, something not every year can reasonably offer.

Best Plays

1. The Coast of Utopia: Only the first two thirds of Tom Stoppard's remarkable trilogy opened in 2006, but they were outstanding enough to earn the top spot even without their concluding chapter. With over three dozen excellent actors, an unflappable design team, and one of New York's best directors (Jack O'Brien), The Coast of Utopia's story about 19th century Russian writers, philosophers, and revolutionaries was 2006's most improbably gripping theatrical page turner.

2. The History Boys: Under other circumstances, Alan Bennett's mini-epic about the lives and loves of a gang of English history students and their warring teachers might have been little more than this season's snob hit. But the mixture of pathos, philosophy, and wit in The History Boys - as well as absorbing performances from Richard Griffiths and the rest of the play's original English cast - made The History Boys one of the year's sharpest plays, and one of its few must-see events.

3. The Lieutenant of Inishmore: The laughs flowed almost as freely as the blood in Martin McDonagh's brutal political comedy, but as downright hilarious as The Lieutenant of Inishmore was, it was its explosive satire of the terrorist mindset that set it apart from most other "relevant" plays of the year. Those who saw it will likely never forget the outrageous carnage of the second act or its gasp-worthy climax, but its message about the dangers of violent obsession were even more haunting.

4. No Child...: Nilaja Sun didn't receive all the press Sarah Jones did for Bridge & Tunnel, but her tour-de-force about teaching in the New York school system surpassed it in almost every way. Sun's dynamic performances as herself and her emotionally abandoned charges attempting a class production of Our Country's Good was as much an education in how to make a difficult, one-woman show seem effortless as it was an indictment - and an embracing - about the educational system itself.

5. columbinus: Using a mixture of fact and supposition, P.J. Paparelli and Stephen Karam crafted columbinus as a powerful look at the adolescent psyche with respect to concerns general (school, friends, dating, etc.) and specific (the 1999 Columbine High School massacre). This show's mixture of reality and fiction, of comedy and drama, and of performance art and documentary theatre made it equally heady and terrifying; the commitment of everyone involved made it unforgettable.

Honorable Mention: Awake and Sing!: Bartlett Sher's overeager direction and some shaky performances kept Lincoln Center's revival of Clifford Odets's 1935 family drama from being flawless, but it's still one of the best-realized productions of it most of us will ever see. Despite some dated political themes, its depiction of hope and despair colliding around (and dividing) a Jewish family remains timeless; Mark Ruffalo's supporting performance as a racketeering boarder was one of the year's most surprising successes.

Best Musicals

1. Bernarda Alba: The year's most groundbreaking musical didn't ignore its songs or require its cast to sing with handheld microphones, but instead strove for (and achieved) a complete fusion of theatrical elements. Michael John LaChiusa's brilliant adaptation of Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba uncompromisingly explored the minds and passions of five grieving daughters and their domineering mother, and director-choreographer Graciela Daniele arrestingly realized them with no end of inventive touches, stomps, and stabs. The bleak, heart-stopping ending is one of musical theatre's finest; the rest of Bernarda Alba is right up there, as well.

2. The Apple Tree: Kristin Chenoweth, Brian d'Arcy James, and Marc Kudisch might have been the juicy stars of this preternaturally charming Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical triple-bill, but Gary Griffin's production for Roundabout felt like the Genesis and the Revelations of musical comedy. Following the rocky history of male-female romance from the beginning of time through the mid 1960s, The Apple Tree was unquestionably old-school, but what an irreplaceable education in musical craftsmanship it gave.

3. I Love You Because: Ryan Cunningham and Joshua Salzman's sparkling Off-Broadway riff on Pride and Prejudice got overlooked in the glut of spring openings, but towered over most in terms of art and heart alike. A fizzy, uplifting New York romantic comedy à la On the Town and Wonderful Town, with Frank Loesser-like lyrics by Cunningham that stood among the year's most agile and innovative, I Love You Because was thoroughly young, thoroughly hip, and thoroughly delightful.

4. The Fantasticks: The new production of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's The Fantasticks was more a resuscitation than a revival, replicating almost all of the record-shattering original's look and feel. But with a conquering supporting performance by Jones and those ageless songs ("Try to Remember" chief among them), this show made a better case for its return than most this year did for their inaugural outings. Fresher, more life-affirming musicals than this one were in short supply this year.

5. Gutenberg! The Musical!: Sorry, The Drowsy Chaperone, but the real valentine to the Broadway of legend and reality alike was this captivating, uproarious comedy by Scott Brown and Anthony King. Though ostensibly about two energetic losers (the wonderful Christopher Fitzgerald and Jeremy Shamos) presenting their home-grown musical for prospective producers, Gutenberg! saluted and skewered the excesses, trends, and conventions of musical theatre more viciously - and more lovingly - than most musicals dare.

Honorable Mentions: Kingdom and White Noise: Two entries from the 2006 New York Musical Theatre Festival, though not quite ready for prime time, displayed more latent promise than many musicals that opened commercially this year. The invigorating, near-Shakespearean rap drama Kingdom and White Noise, which used bubble-gum pop to ruthlessly ravage white supremacy, might be hard sells, but no musicals this year used contemporary song styles more excitingly - or more theatrically - than these. Keep an eye out for these deserving hits of tomorrow.

Worst Plays and Musicals

1. Pig Farm: Greg Kotis is lucky he didn't have to surrender his 2002 Tony for Urinetown in the wake of this blisteringly unamusing Sam Shepard takeoff. His endless repetition of the phrase "fecal sludge" typified the quality of the script and everything else about this best-forgotten fiasco.

2. Burleigh Grime$: There's no law stating a play can't be about hedge funds, but in writing one in Burleigh Grime$, Roger Kirby failed to realize he'd also need a comprehensible plot and decently sketched characters. David Warren's slick, sleek production wasn't enough to save this show, though the Dow's record highs this year were almost consolation for sitting through this bizarre bomb.

3. Heartbreak House: Robin Lefevre's production of this George Bernard Shaw play for Roundabout divided the critics, but I still think it ranks as one of the year's most stultifying and stupefying evenings. Philip Bosco provided isolated moments of interest as the play's Shavian conscience, but his ripe way with a one-liner couldn't keep this foundering tale about the disinterested British upper crust afloat.

4. Tarzan and Mary Poppins: Nothing can stop Disney's attempts to dominate family theatre on Broadway, but is it too much to ask that the shows be good? Tarzan surpassed Aida as Disney's dumbest offering, and Mary Poppins was a muddled mish-mash of one of Disney's best films. With charisma-free casts, forgettable scores, and awful books, nothing could bring these shows to life - or, thanks to Disney's marketing muscle, prevent audiences from storming the doors to get in.

5. Hot Feet: Though the admired film The Red Shoes had already led to one Broadway catastrophe, that didn't stop conceiver Maurice Hines from creating a second with this hopeless hip-hop variant. An enthusiastic dancing corps and talented, light-stepping leads couldn't escape a brainless book and an Earth, Wind & Fire score that almost made Mamma Mia! look like a model of musical-theatre integration.

Dishonorable Mention: Reduced and Revised Orchestrations in Les Misérables and A Chorus Line: Members of the original creative teams of two of Broadway's all-time long-run champs were on-hand to recreate, as closely as possible, these shows for 2006. Direction, sets, costumes, and basic ideas were identical, but musically the shows had undergone radical revision: Les Miz's orchestra had been noticeably downsized, eliminating much of the majesty from the once-sweeping score; Jonathan Tunick's subtle, detailed original charts for A Chorus Line had been altered for the louder and more blatant, and featured certain key instruments replaced with synthesizers. In both cases, the shows' musical feasts had been transformed into aurally anemic TV dinners: If these shows are worth reviving exactly as they once looked, why can't they also be revived exactly as they once sounded? That ranks as the most head-scratching - and saddest - unanswered question of New York theatre in 2006.

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