When you see a lot of theater, there are going to be some missteps and disasters, and 2008 was certainly no exception. There was plenty of dreck in evidence on Broadway, Off Broadway, and in the provinces. My choices below certainly won't contain many surprises for regular readers: I have made no secret of my contempt for the shows listed. (Click on the show titles to read my original reviews.)
In compiling this list, I've tried to steer clear from shows that were simply disappointing (The Story of My Life, Shrek) or IMHO overrated (Billy Elliot, In the Heights). I've also omitted some shows that received generally bad reviews, but which I actually sorta kinda enjoyed, at least on some level (Cry-Baby, Romantic Poetry). But, as I'm fond of saying, for me there's no such thing as a wasted night in the theater. As a student of the form, I always learn something, even if it's what not to do. And, frankly, the more disastrous a show, the more fun it is to blog and bitch about. (cf. Lestat, The Pirate Queen, etc.) Also, I didn't include Glory Days here, because I didn't get to see it (and with only one regular performance and 17 previews, it's no wonder), and that really wouldn't be fair.
Feel free to disagree with my selections. I know some of them will be controversial, or at least vexing to some. But these are the shows and/or productions that I personally enjoyed the least in 2008.
10. South Pacific. I know, I know. It's a huge hit, and a classic show, and it won the Pulitzer, and yadda yadda yadda. Well, I gave it a chance, and I still don't like it. And I remain quizzical as to the praise for this production. Admittedly, I saw it early in previews, but the pacing to me seemed glacial. The show features songs with questionable integration and plodding exposition. I genuinely enjoyed Kelli O'Hara's perfromance as Nellie Forbush, but most of the other performances left me cold. I'm glad that the Lincoln Center Theater seems to have found a new cash cow, but I've never liked this show, and probably never will. By all accounts, this is about as good a production of South Pacific as one might expect, and it still left me cold. For me, that more than justifies the show's place on this list.
9. She Loves Me. This one's another controversial choice, but I was deeply disappointed in the recent production of the otherwise delightful She Loves Me at Boston's Huntington Theatre. Let me make on thing clear: I adore this show. But that's probably why I was nonplussed by this production, particularly by the actors who played the central couple, the admittedly talented Kate Baldwin and Brooks Ashmanskas. But Baldwin was simply misdirected, Ashmanskas miscast. The show received some pretty rapturous reviews, so I'm probably in the minority here. But overall director Nicholas Martin's production had me wishing I was back watching the lovely 1993 Roundabout Theater revival.
8. Road Show. Another disappointment, but at least here I was in line with most of the critics. (Not that that matters much to me: I'm more than happy to be the cheese that stands alone.) This latest effort from our greatest living composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, was a long time aborning, and frankly not worth the wait. Something about the story of the brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner never quite sang for me. John Doyle's production was dull and dreary, and the show itself an unfocused mess. Here was yet another Sondheim collaboration with book writer John Weidman that played more like a master's thesis than a genuine flesh-and-blood musical. The cast of pros, led by Alexander Gemignani and Michael Cerveris, tried gamely to inject some life into the proceedings, but alas in vain. Let us all hope that Stephen Sondheim can soon redeem himself with another show that even comes close to the brilliance of his earlier work.
7. Fela. Here's another critics' darling that, for me, fell flat. So much of what I read about this show seemed to focus on its worthy subject matter, and not on the fact that the show itself was one, long, inert monologue. Admittedly, the life of Nigerian recording artist and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti was rife with incident, and his music brimming with anger and celebration. But director and co-librettist Bill T. Jones and his writing partner Jim Lewis undermine the import and gravity of their subject matter at every turn and with every choice. There was much talk of bringing the show to Broadway, but that seems to have died down. No doubt there are financial considerations here, but it's also possible that the creators began to question the crossover appeal of the show, and whether there would be any audience for it beyond its limited Off-Broadway run.
6. Saved. This is easily the most forgettable show on my list. It was only when I was rummaging through my archives that I was reminded that I had taken in a performance of Saved at Playwrights Horizons during its limited run last spring. Based on the 2004 movie of the same name, Saved never quite figured out what it wanted to be when it grew up. The show was neither fish nor foul, neither drama nor comedy, neither satire nor homage. The score by composer Michael Friedman and lyricists Friedman, John Dempsey, and Rinne Groff was only memorable when it was painfully bad. And some of Broadway's best performers, including Celia Keenan-Bolger, Julia Murney, Curtis Holbrook, and John Dossett, were left floundering in a show that wasn't worthy of their collective talents.
5. Happy Days. This was easily the worst show qua show on my list, but I list it as number five because the shows below were more egregious in other respects. Happy Days had no business being on a professional stage of any kind. It played more like a talent show that a bunch of college kids threw together, or the vanity production of some would-be impresario. Happy Days relied mostly on the name-recognition of the 1970s/80s television show upon which it was based. Garry Marshall's script was flat and lifeless, and the score by Paul Williams was forgettable at best and painful at worst. The show is apparently making its way across the country in a national tour. Give it a wide, wide berth, my friend, unless you're looking for a masochistic thrill.
4. Young Frankenstein. It's really impossible for me to separate my disdain for the show Young Frankenstein from my contempt for the actions of the production staff. But, you know what? I don't have to. Young Frankenstein was, from start to finish, a cynical, lazy, and insulting enterprise. It seemed as though Mel Brooks didn't even try to create something of quality, but instead said to himself, "Well, they loved The Producers, so they're gonna love this." It certainly didn't help that Mel and his co-producers on YF made a number of now-famous PR blunders, including setting a ridiculously high top ticket price of $450.00. And Mel and company can try to blame the show's failure on the negative press all they want, but what really killed Young Frankenstein was that the show just plain sucked. It wasn't funny, and the songs were terrible. Case closed.
3. Next to Normal. This was the show that made me the most angry in 2008, but not really because it was a bad show. In fact, the show itself has a lot to recommend it, although it certainly has its flaws. Next to Normal has a very inconsistent tone, and there are some songs and plot devices that simply didn't work. But the real reason the show made me furious was the apparent message that librettist Brian Yorkey seemed to be espousing. Next to Normal is essentially about a mother with bipolar disorder, and shows her undergoing various treatment modalities, including talk therapy, psychotropic drugs, and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). But in the end she rejects them all and tries to make it on her own. I took great issue with this apparent dismissal of medicine and reason, and wrote a review excoriating Yorkey for what I considered a dangerous point of view. Yorkey sent me an angry email, but at no point in that long screed did he contradict my take on his apparent views. So my pan stands, unless I see a new version of the show that moves me to reconsider. Which I'm certainly open to. It's a worthy subject, and there was much in the show that suggested it could have been much better than it was.
2. Bash'd. Here's another show that baffled me with its apparent message. Bash'd is a self-described "gay rap opera" about the star-crossed romance of two gay Canadian guys. The idea behind the show was to use the often-homophobic medium of rap to tell the story of two lovers who become involved in a gay-bashing incident. Again, worthy intent. But the inscrutable message at the end of the show left me scratching my head. There was a real "Thelma and Louise" vibe to the show, and I was and still am hard-pressed to figure out what I was supposed to make of the tragedy. Hey, I'm all for serious musicals, but throw me a bone here, guys. Along the way, there was a lot to enjoy in the show, written and performed by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow. I get the feeling they were trying to make me think, but they ended up making me cranky.
1. A Tale of Two Cities. There really was no contest here. Just as Adding Machine was far and away the best musical that I saw in 2008, A Tale of Two Cities was by miles the worst. (Again, I didn't see Glory Days, so I can't say Tale is the absolute worst of the year, just the worst that I saw.) A Tale of Two Cities was completely without merit in its music, book, and lyrics, which were all by one Jill Santoriello. Something tells me we're not going to be seeing her name again on the Rialto any time soon. The Broadway pros in the cast, including Greg Edelman, Aaron Lazar, and James Barbour, did their best to render the show playable, but to no avail. The only cultural impact of this wretched show was in giving critics and bloggers the chance to craft lame puns on the book's opening line ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.") and closing line ("It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.") Hardly a legacy of which to be proud.