God, it felt good to be back in a room with people sharing the vibration of other humans on a stage, the feedback loop of energy and – dangerous as it sometimes felt – sharing breath. Starting literally two weeks after my second shot, I was lucky to see 30 shows and miracle of miracles, none of them were bad.
Every company that’s returned, making work, is bringing it right now – playing to their core strengths and stretching their muscles. Beyond what made this list? I saw crisp, vibrant shows from Evolution and Gallery. Otterbein and Short North Stage’s sister/adjunct company Columbus Immersive crafted productions that fully turned me around on shows I actively didn’t like previously. All four of the Actors’ shows and all four Red Herring productions left me talking about them into the night if not for weeks. MadLab and CATCO revealed the fruits of the energy and enthusiasm of new artistic directors (in the latter case after a year’s preview of fascinating streaming work). Imagine returned with a brand new, original musical with 19 cast members.
This town rang with the echoes of gauntlets dropping and examples of exactly what keeps me going out night after night. I enjoyed every minute of that energy and enthusiasm being back, even when the finished piece didn’t work for me. But the 10 here would have blown me away in any circumstances and it was a hard call whittling down to them.
Back to NYC for Under the Radar and sundry in January, great stuff on the books for the Wexner Center in Spring, fingers crossed we get closer to “back” with every month.
That NYC trip in January includes the reopened revival of Company we originally had tickets to for my 40th birthday in 2020 – there will be more in my year end music playlists, but I can’t imagine my cultural life without the shining influence of Stephen Sondheim who passed away the day before I started assembling this. I grew up steeped in musicals – the heavy influence of my mom and my grandmother – including some of his, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, West Side Story and Gypsy. But when I discovered his mature work – starting with my massive love of Sweeney Todd and Assassins, it felt like I found musical theater pitched directly at me – this also gives me a chance to acknowledge and publicly express gratitude for the friends who opened that door: Doug Smith, Sean Klein (who we also lost this year, barely a week after we texted about getting the old gang together), Matt Porreca, and Robin Seabaugh; nothing would have fallen into place without each of you.
That said, I want to acknowledge the stellar online work that helped get me through the months beforehand, that gave me a taste, a little hint of the electricity that kept me going. Everything here is in chronological order and everything in person is in Columbus (except otherwise noted doesn’t apply this time, but I’m thirsty for when it does).
- Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran by Javaad Alipoor (The Javaad Alipoor Company, presented by Public Theatre’s Under the Radar)
- The Motown Project by Alicia Hall Moran (Presented by Public Theatre’s Under the Radar)
- Fragments, Lists, and Lacunae by Alexandra Chasin and Zishan Ugurlu (Presented by New York Live Arts)
- Blue Ridge by Abby Rosebrock (Presented by Play Per View)
- Revenge Porn by Carla Ching (Presented by Play Per View)
- Hymn by Lolita Chakrabati (Presented by Almeida Theatre)
- A Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terrence Blanchard, libretto by Kasi Lemmons (Met LiveinHD)
- Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte (Opera Columbus), directed by Eve Summer – I’m not sure I could have picked a better return to live theater than this super-charged, intense reading of one of the very first operas I loved by a revitalized Opera Columbus. The safety measures had a fascinating thematic thrust and the performances, especially Jorell Williams in the title role and Amber Monroe’s Donna Elvira, singed my eyebrows off. I said “They amplify the deep loneliness of the libertine and his victims and the teeth-gnashing frustration of attempts at revenge and forgiveness… Having been 14 months since I’d been inside a theater, the longest stretch since I was 16, it was probably not unlikely I’d cry anyway. But it’s hard for me to imagine a better return to live performance than this dazzling Don Giovanni,” in my review for Columbus Underground.
- Carrie, book by Lawrence D. Cohen, music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, after the novel by Stephen King, directed by Edward Carignan (Columbus Immersive Theater/Short North Stage) – Growing up in awe of Stephen King’s debut novel, setting the tone for his character-focused horror novels to come, and simultaneously steeped in the lore of this musical adaptation, this came with the deck stacked against it. But Carignan and company not only hit every mark, they crushed those expectations. I took my mom as my plus-one, the reason I read Stephen King in the first place, and she was as dazzled as I was. In my Columbus Underground review, I said, “Carignan, Williams, and the cast never lose sight of the deep sadness at the heart of Carrie and the lesson that we can all be monsters with less of a nudge than we want to admit. And they make that uncomfortable identification into a riotous, quick-witted, wild carnival ride of an entertainment. It’s an alternately sticky-hot and brilliantly cold look at humanity perfect for the depths of summer.”
- Various Artists, Columbus Black Theater Festival (Mine4God Productions, presented by Abbey Theatre of Dublin) – One of my favorite events of the Columbus calendar returned in a slightly streamlined version, and resulted in one of my favorite conversations, with artistic director Julie Whitney Scott (I didn’t capture it as well as I would have liked in the article, a reminder to keep trying harder). After writing a preview, I paid to see this on my own dime. And while I didn’t see it all – I didn’t quite allow myself enough time for the rich marathon – the two hours I was in the Abbey sent me back into the night reeling and bending the ear of Anne and whoever else would listen.
- Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Beth Josephsen (Actors Theatre of Columbus) – The classic Orpheus and Eurydice story was heavy in the zeitgeist this year and Sarah Ruhl has long been one of my favorite playwrights (her memoir Smile is on the bedstand as I write this). In the strongest Actors’ Theatre season in recent memory – I was also blown away by a Much Ado About Nothing, The African Company Presents Richard III, and a childhood favorite of mine The Secret Garden – this lovely, incisive meditation on memory kept rippling in my mind for weeks. For Columbus Underground, I commented, “The modifications to the climax land with the thud of inevitability and surprised the audience enough at the performance I attended I heard gasps spring up around me. Josephsen and her cast balance the abstract and accessible elements of this modern take on one of the western world’s classic tragic love stories in a way that feels fresh, exciting, and powerful.”
- The Children by Lucy Kirkwood, directed by Michael Herring (Red Herring) – This locked-room drama, balancing intimate, personal apocalypses with a shadow growing over the world, featured blistering performances by Harold Yarborough, Nancy Skaggs, and Josie Merkel, and stood out in a season where I didn’t see anything weak from Red Herring. I said, “At every level, the characters face snowballing consequences of thoughtless choices, wounds never disinfected, from the contaminated water flowing in the power plant to old slights among each other, and have to deal with what they owe the next generation up to and including their use as sacrificial lambs,” for Columbus Underground.
- Let’s Hope You Feel Better by Samantha Oty (MadLab), directed by Sarah Vargo – MadLab came out on fire this year, taking some interesting chances. And this bitterly funny, whiplash-inducing sex farce was one of the best things I saw all year. Boasting killer – *rimshot* – performances by McLane Nagy and Tom Murdock at the center of a stellar cast, this crackled with reminders of the crucial energy MadLab brings to our theater scene. I commented in Columbus Underground: “The serious themes here – does a person have a right to die with dignity, what are the limits on the Hippocratic Oath’s “do no harm,” what do we owe the people in our lives – get a strong, thoughtful workout in Let’s Hope You Feel Better but nothing gets in the way of the play as a sharp, molten-hot, and sub-zero cold, often at the same time, entertainment.”
- Life Alert by Chris Sherman, directed by Michelle Batt (eMBer Womens Theater) – eMBer Womens Theater returned with a lovely series of shorts, Muses, and then this dazzling, delayed world premiere boasting a stellar cast with particularly strong performances by Melissa Bair and Josie Merkel. I said in Columbus Underground, “Sherman’s play is deeply concerned with who society considers disposable, whose work matters and whose doesn’t, and how demoralizing that gets. How deeply baked into so many of our consciouses those biases are, how they feel like pollution in the air we breathe and how a woman saying ‘Am I expected to sacrifice my life’ for others’ needs, putting it in the world out loud, is still a radical and necessary act. The ending gets a little more obvious and underlined than anything else but it’s a minor blip after two hours – with one intermission – that rang so true.”
- Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn with music by Michael Friedman, directed by Leda Hoffmann (CATCO) – More than anything else this year, this was the experience I missed so badly. A play I’ve wanted to see since the Off-Broadway run but never made happen, and the first in-person taste of new CATCO artistic director Hoffmann’s work, this slapped me around in all the best ways. Crystallizing thoughts I’d had about storytelling, the strange era of the 20th century where we build art upon allusion on top of allusion, exploding the metaphor at the heart of all history and language. A tribute to the community of our actors, with standout performances by Scott Douglas Wilson, Jonathan Putnam, Acacia Duncan, and Shauna Davis leading a terrific cast. The production’s also – using the three spaces effectively – a reminder of the symbiosis of audience and performers. Anne and I spent the next two hours, right up until an excellent Chuck Prophet show you’ll be hearing about on my live music list, going over this in delighted detail. For Columbus Underground, I commented: “Like the best Simpsons episodes, Mr. Burns bulges with references and easter eggs but in the best sense: I felt a frisson of delight whenever I caught one – as I write this, the example jumping to my mind is Wilson delivering the play’s Sweeney Todd nod “Life has been kind to you” – but it didn’t bog me down looking for them. More, nothing felt tacked on or inessential. Everything adds to a piece I wish I could find the time to see again.”
- The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa Fasthorse, directed by Mark Mann (Red Herring) – Red Herring closed 2021 with a wild, ribald farce that reminded my how good their ear is for plays that have achieved some acclaim but might never have made it to Columbus otherwise. Fasthorse’s play made me laugh until my sides hurt, with a cast full of wild energy, especially Todd Covert and Elizabeth Harelik Falter. As I said in Columbus Underground, “Fasthorse’s play finds the perfect tenor for it, without getting too meta or cerebral, grounding the comedy in the ambitions and insecurities of a classic group of misfits, and it’s hard to imagine this getting a better production than Mann and Red Herring provide.”
- Hadestown by Anais Mitchell, directed by Rachel Chavkin (Broadway in Columbus) – I’ve been a fan of Anais Mitchell for many years, her song “Cosmic American” lighting the fire, and I loved the original Hadestown concept album when it came out. I hadn’t managed to catch this expansion on Broadway but my return to Broadway in Columbus with the touring production – featuring Audrey Ochoa who you’ll see on my playlists – reminded me how great, and how specific, that kind of big stage theater can be. How marvelous it is to see something in a packed house. So beautiful Anne and I had conversations about it with different people in different bars for the next two weeks, the only other play I kept wanting to dig into to that extent was Mr. Burns. For Columbus Underground: “Chavkin’s expansion of Mitchell’s song cycle takes one of the quintessential stories of both the transformative power of art and its limitations, its ability to change – and not change – the world and the hearts of both audience and creator, and imbues what could be a heavy slog, with all the fun of a carnival ride or a night at a wild party. As Marable sings while leading the cast in the curtain call, ‘We raise our cups to them.’”
As always, thank you – to everyone who helped make these shows happen, who joined me for them, who talked with me about them after, and who reads this. Thank you so much.