Best of 2019 – Connecticut and NYC

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By Karen Isaacs

It’s that time of year for ten best lists, and look backs at the previous year. Here’s my top productions for 2019 in Connecticcut. They aren’t in any specific order.

Quixote Nuevo: The new administration at Hartford Stage got off to a fantastic start with this modern adaptation of the Don Quixote story set in a Texas border town by Octavio Solis.

 The Iliad: This was an amazing retelling of the classic Greek epic by Homer featuring one fine performance by Rachel Christopher. It was enthralling. Bravo to Long Wharf for bringing it to Connecticut.

 Mlima’s Tale: Lynn Nottage’s play, given a terrific production at Westport, was everything theater should be: inventive, imaginative, touching and thought provoking. The play deals with the modern day ivory trade.  I would have gladly seen this production directed by Mark Lamos again.

 The Engagement Party: This compelling play was one of the last things Darko Tresnjak directed as he ended his tenure as artistic director at Hartford Stage. This world premiere play by Samuel Baum was engrossing, well acted (Zach Appleman was a standout), well directed and featured a spectacular set by Alexander Dodge.

Don Juan: David Kennedy directed this world premiere adaptation of Moliere’s play about this infamous seducer to close the Westport Country Playhouse season. He managed to combine the modern with enough elements of the 17th century to keep us both amused and appalled helped by the performance by Nick Westgate as Don Juan.

The Music Man at Goodspeed, was far and away the best musical of the year. Almost everything was perfect (I did have one criticism), including a fine Professor Harold Hill.  Edward Watts combined charm, slickness and musicality. Congratulations to director Jenn Thompson.

 Playhouse on Park took a huge risk this summer producing Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys.  It’s not typical musical theater; it tells the story of a tragic miscarriage of justice when during the 1930s, a group of young black men are accused of raping a white woman. Plus Kander and Ebb audaciously set the show as a variation of a classic minstrel show. It may not have been a perfect production, but it was very good and the show deserves productions.

Goodspeed also took a risk with Billy Elliott, a show that is definitely on the side of labor unions, a coal miners’ strike and utter disdain for former British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher. Director Gabriel Barre and choreographer by Marc Kimelman did not allow the small Goodspeed stage to limit them.

Ragtime is a sprawling musical that intertwines three stories and many characters. I don’t know he did it, but director Kevin Connors brought it to the small stage of MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) and made it work with a fine cast.

 I discovered a new theater this year: Ridgefield’s Thrown Stone Theater. Its production of Birds of North America, about a father-daughter relationship over a decade or more, moved me. The intimate space and the fine acting of the two person cast (J. R. Sullivan and Mélisa Breiner-Sander) contributed to this touching production.

Yale ended 2019 with the premiere of Will Eno’s latest work, The Plot. While it needs work – too many threads are left hanging – it was an excellent production and is fascinating. It was also a touching work of theater. An added bonus was it brought Harris Yulin back to the Yale Rep stage.

Several other productions almost made my list: The Revolutionists at Playhouse on Park and Actually at TheaterWorks. Each was absorbing and entertaining.

A Wish for the New Year:  Please no more productions of Cabaret (there were three this year), Mamma Mia! (two) and A Doll’s House Part 2 (two).

 In New York City, I did not see everything, but here are my favorites.

 On Broadway: I didn’t get to see The Ferryman until January so it makes my list of top productions. The same was true of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Other spring 2019 productions that were excellent include All My Sons with an amazing performance by Annette Benning and Ink about Rupert Murdoch

This fall, I would see Sea Wall/A Lifetwo monologues featuring Jake Gyllenhall and Tom Sturridge again, as I would with Betrayal with Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox.

I hope the new production of A Christmas Carol becomes an annual Broadway event.

It was delightful. Tracy Lett’s play Linda Vista was also a fascinating look at a middle aged man’s falling apart.

My favorite production of the year was at Off-Broadway’s Irish Rep. Kingfisher’s Catch Fire with outstanding performances by Sean Gormley and Haskell King. Their production of Sean O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman also makes my list.

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