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Looking at the best and worst of Broadway theater in 2019

Andre De Shields in the Tony Award-winning "Hadestown." (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

In retrospect, 2019 was a pretty great year at the theater – so much so that deciding upon the 10 best shows proved to be unusually challenging, and I felt the need to add an “honorable mentions” section.

I also name the worst shows of the year and the biggest disappointments.  

The Inheritance

Andrew Burnap, John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine and Kyle Soller star in the two-part drama “The Inheritance” at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Matthew Lopez’ two-part, seven-hour drama brings together the 1980s AIDS crisis, gay men in contemporary New York and the 1910 novel “Howard’s End.” By the end, if offered the chance, I would have happily sat through all seven hours again without so much as leaving my seat. 

Hadestown

Based on a 2010 concept album modernizing the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, this year’s Tony Winner for Best Musical has a unique score mixing New Orleans jazz, opera, pop and folk; sharp political undertones; stunning visuals; and poignant romantic tragedy.

Little Shop of Horrors

Gabi Epstein as Audrey and André Morin as Seymour Krelborn in “Little Shop of Horrors.” Photo Credit: Chris Young

Following innumerable professional and amateur productions, the 1982 sci-fi musical satire has returned to its Off-Broadway roots and is as tuneful, hilarious and endlessly fun as ever.

Ink

James Graham’s fast-paced and provocative thriller drama followed Rupert Murdoch’s rise to power 50 years ago in London as a tabloid newspaper publisher. 

The Lehman Trilogy

Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles in The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre (Photo by Mark Douet)

Three and a half hours of American economic history go by pretty quickly in this unlikely epic drama about the rise and fall of Lehman Brothers from the mid-19th century through 2008. It will transfer to Broadway in the spring.

The Secret Life of Bees

Monk Kidd’s 2001 coming-of-age novel about an emotionally-scarred girl in the 1960s South received a captivating and beautiful musical adaptation. Unfortunately, it did not receive the recognition it deserved when it premiered Off-Broadway over the summer.

Choir Boy

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s (“Moonlight”) high school drama combined lyrical language, complex young characters and gloriously harmonized, aggressive choreographed choral sequences. Here’s hoping it returns for a longer run.

American Utopia

Mauro Refosco, David Byrne (center) and
Gustavo Di Dalva performing “American Utopia” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Although it is hard to categorize or even make sense of, David Byrne’s sleek, experimental and vaguely political ensemble concert is pretty damn spectacular. 

Betrayal

I am hard pressed to think of a better revival of a Harold Pinter drama than this sharp and absorbing production of Pinter’s uncharacteristically accessible 1978 relationship drama.

Evita

Solea Pfeiffer and ensemble in Evita (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s divisive 1979 rock opera returned in a stylish, smart and musically outstanding concert-style production at City Center.

Honorable Mentions: “Jagged Little Pill,” “Be More Chill,” Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside,” Bess Wohl’s “Make Believe,” Fiasco Theater’s revival of “Merrily We Roll Along,” “ the Shakespeare in the Park production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” the Off-Broadway remount of “Rock of Ages,” Elevator Repair Service’s remount of “Gatz,” Laura Benanti as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”

Worst Shows of the Year: “The Lightning Thief,” “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy,” “Alice By Heart,” “Beetlejuice,” “High Button Shoes,” Moulin Rouge!”

Most Disappointing Shows of the Year: “King Lear” with Glenda Jackson, “Clueless,” “Sing Street,” “The Wrong Man.”

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