Best of 2012: Top 10 Musical Revivals

New York saw a bevy of musical revivals this year, including a large pack of shows from the Eighties. There were also two prominent “revivals” of shows from the past five years, both presented at the Hirschfeld – though “remount” may be the more appropriate word, so I’ve not considered them for my final year-end list. The first was Fela!, the 2008 bio-musical about Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. While its physical elements had been scaled down, the production still featured show-stopping performance numbers. The second was Elf, the 2010 holiday film adaptation, which was reworked (and improved) from its original outing, proving still to be fine family entertainment. Now, on to the list.

1. Closer Than Ever. By far, the best revival of the year was the York Theatre Company’s Off-Broadway production of the 1989 Maltby and Shire revue, which opened June 21 and extended several times, finally closing Nov. 4. The writers seamlessly added a pair of new numbers (strengthening an already vital score) and judiciously updated some lyrics (proving that their underlying theme is timeless). Though it’s a revue, not a book musical, Closer Than Ever may be the best story Maltby and Shire have written for the stage. Jenn Colella was a standout among the quartet of strong performers, and James Morgan’s door-based set was evocative and effective.

2. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The Roundabout Theatre Company opened its opulent Broadway production of the Rupert Holmes musical on Nov. 13 with an outstanding cast of veteran performers. Set designer Anna Louizos and costume designer William Ivey Long deserved particular notice for recreating a dazzling Victorian London, and the smoky-voiced Chita Rivera was as mesmerizing an actress as ever. If the book and score don’t sparkle as much as they did in 1985, they have acquired a nice patina and still well serve this infectiously rousing musical.

3. Porgy and Bess. One of the most talked about productions of the year was the Diane Paulus helmed Broadway revival of the Gershwin classic. Though many feared how Paulus and book writer Suzan-Lori Parks would “radically reinvent” the 1935 musical, the story was largely unchanged and unharmed. The limited engagement, which ran at the Rodgers from Jan. 12 to Sep. 23, deservedly won the Tony for Best Revival. Audra McDonald earned her fifth Tony for her beautifully sung and heartrending portrayal of Bess, which was met with an equally persuasive Porgy from the woefully under-honored Norm Lewis.

4. Into the Woods. The Public Theater brought the 1987 Sondheim and Lapine musical literally into the woods with its limited-run summer Off-Broadway production, which ran from Aug. 9 to Sep.1 at the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park. If director Timothy Sheader’s ambitious modernist vision was not fully realized, the cast did include several performers who delivered indelible performances in supporting roles, including the seemingly infallible Donna Murphy as The Witch, Sarah Stiles as Little Red Ridinghood and Jessie Mueller as Cinderella.

5. New Girl in Town. Irish Repertory Theatre offered a rare glimpse at the solid adaptation of O’Neill’s Anna Christie, written by George Abbott and Bob Merrill, with a limited engagement from July 26 to Sep. 14. In the original 1957 Broadway production, Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter shared the Tony for Best Actress; in this Off-Broadway production, Margaret Loesser Robinson and Danielle Ferland proved to be just as worthy, with Patrick Cummings earning particular notice for his sonorous portrayal of the sailor Mat.

6. Annie. Those with a sweet tooth may quibble, but director James Lapine has found the humanity by emphasizing the bittersweet and sepia tones in a show usually produced as a garish carnival of saccharin strawberry-blond fluff. This Broadway revival of the 1977 cartoon-inspired musical, written by Thomas Meehan and scored by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, opened Nov. 8 at the Palace, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of our current economic times. The anchor that moors this production is Anthony Warlow, whose performance as Daddy Warbucks illuminates the depths of the paternal relationship with the title waif, portrayed by newcomer Lilla Crawford.

7. Evita. Latin singers Elena Rogers and Ricky Martin, the leads in the revival of this 1978 Webber and Rice bio-musical that opened Apr. 5 at the Marquis and is closing prematurely on Jan. 26, may lack the wattage to dispel the shadows of their original counterparts, but Broadway veteran Michael Cerveris shines as the often overlooked Juan Peron. The production’s other primary assets are Rob Ashford’s visually arresting choreography and, of course, the score, which is arguably the finest Webber has composed.

8. Jesus Christ Superstar. While the vocals in the Webber-Rice musical listed above weren’t consistently up to snuff, the score of this Webber-Rice show was beautifully served by its cast, led by the standout performances of Josh Young and Jeremy Kishnier, who alternated in the vocally demanding role of Judas. The one wrinkle in this Broadway revival of the 1971 bio-musical, which opened Mar. 22 and closed July 1 at the Simon, were the inconsistent production elements.

9. Marry Me a Little. The second revue on my list, this Off-Broadway revival of the 1980 show, which was devised by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene from trunk songs in the Sondheim canon, was not as well served by its updated elements. Still the limited engagement, presented by the Keen Company from Oct. 2 to Oct. 27 at the Clurman on Theatre Row, was beautifully rendered by actors Lauren Molina and Jason Tam.

10. Nice Work If You Can Get It. You may argue that this show doesn’t belong on a list of revivals, but this “new” Broadway musical, which opened Apr. 24 at the Imperial, is book writer Joe DiPietro’s revision of his 2001 musical They All Laughed, which itself is a revision of the 1926 Gershwin musical Oh, Kay! How “new” can a show be when it’s been repurposed two times? Despite its dual parentage, the show is pure escapist fun, with silver-voiced Kelli O’Hara and comic gems Michael McGrath and Judy Kaye.

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