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amBroadway: The best and worst of live entertainment in 2020

"To Kill a Mockingbird"
Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Best Live Shows of 2020:

Traditionally, this is the time when I name the ten best shows and (if the mood strikes me) the five worst shows of the past year. Well, considering how Broadway and the rest of the New York theater industry shut down on March 12, 2020, there really is not much to choose from. 

However, among the shows I was able to catch, the best included “Girl from the North Country” (bleak Conor McPherson drama with songs by Bob Dylan), “Mack and Mabel” (terrific City Center Encores! revival of rare Jerry Herman musical), “Cambodian Rock Band” (Lauren Yee’s exciting historical drama with rock music), “A Soldier’s Play” (strong revival of Charles Fuller’s military drama) and the history-making performance of Broadway’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Madison Square Garden for a packed crowd comprised entirely of local high school students. 

The Lost Best Shows of 2020:

No one really knows how the shows that did not get to open before the shutdown began would have ultimately fared, but I can still guess. Had the shutdown not occurred, I am willing to bet that the best shows of the year would have included the Broadway revivals of “Company” (in which the protagonist is reconceived as female), “The Music Man” (starring Hugh Jackman as Harold Hill) and “Caroline, Or Change” (Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner’s challenging 2003 musical), “The Lehman Trilogy” (an epic drama about the history of Lehman Brothers). Here’s hoping that these shows finally open in 2021 or even 2022.

Worst Live Shows of 2020:

Some of the worst shows I saw before the shutdown included Classic Stage Company’s minimalist and listless take on “Frankenstein,” Ivo van Hove’s experimental and overblown Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” a pointless revisal of the dusty 1960 musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and the amateurish and gimmicky new musical “Emojiland.”

Best Digital Shows of 2020:

While the lack of live professional theater in New York has been and continues to be depressing as hell, the best digitally conceived theatrical presentations deserve recognition, including “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration,” Richard Nelson’s “The Apple Family: Life on Zoom,” Wilma Theater’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” Irish Rep’s “A Touch of the Poet” and Sarah Gancher’s “Russian Troll Farm.” Among New York theaters, the Public Theater and Irish Repertory Theatre must be recognized for presenting free streaming productions in a smart, ambitious and consistent manner. 

In a separate category are the recent Broadway shows that were filmed prior to the pandemic and made available on major streaming platforms including “Hamilton,” “American Utopia” and “What the Constitution Means to Me,” plus the faithful adaptations of “The Boys in the Band” and “The Prom.”

This week’s streaming recommendations…

“Rigoletto” (the Metropolitan Opera’s Pavarotti Week includes this 1981 performance of the Verdi opera), Weds. At 7:30 p.m., metopera.org… Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” (unlikely social media phenomenon becomes an  actual organized streaming event), Fri. at 7 p.m., ratatousical.com. 

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