Mark Shenton picks his 10 best musicals of 2019
As we enter that weird phase of the holiday period between Christmas and the New Year (what day is it again?) we reflect on the year gone by, and the great theatre we've witnessed in the capital over the last twelve months. Before he gives us his rundown of the plays of the year, here are our critic Mark Shenton's top ten musicals of 2019.
10. The Boy Friend
A late entry for 2019, the Menier Chocolate Factory's Christmas musical revival of the 1953 musical pastiche The Boy Friend is a true winner: while many previous entries have gone on to West End (and Broadway) transfers, I wrote in my review: "I'm not sure any have been as downright fun and utterly joyous as this."
At long last, William Finn's pair of Off-Broadway musicals March of the Falsettos (originally premiered in 1981) and Falsettoland (1990) were seen under their umbrella title as Falsettos in London at The Other Palace this year, after previous Broadway runs in 1992 and again in 2016. I love these musicals individually and together, and a terrific London cast that included Oliver Savile, Daniel Boys and Laura Pitt-Pulford did them proud.
8. The Bridges of Madison County
Another short-lived Broadway musical, which ran for just 100 performances when it premiered there in 2014, came to London as a shining gem about a short-lived illicit romance between a visiting photographer and a rural housewife when her husband goes to a country fair with their children. With one of Jason Robert Brown's very best musical scores and a stellar performance from Jenna Russell as the wife, I wholeheartedly adored it.
7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
One of the most enchanting and original new British musicals I saw all year was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at Southwark Playhouse's small studio, by British writers Jethro Compton and Darren Clark. Based on a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald, it told a quirky story of a man who lives his life backwards - born into an old body and getting progressively younger as he ages - that was both intensely moving and heartfelt. I hope it gets a further life sometime soon.
The National's revival of Follies was on my 2017 list of shows I'd seen multiple times, and I was thrilled to be able to see it several times more this year when it returned, with substantial cast changes, to the Olivier Theatre in February. These changes included Joanne Riding, who I wrote was both "terrifying and terrific", and Alexander Hanson, who I referred to as "more emotionally muted than Quast". I also singled out Claire Moore for special praise, who I said was "is absolutely miraculous as Hattie Walker. She sings "Broadway Baby", one of the show's most famous songs, as if her life depended on it. It's the distillation of a performer's one-time yearning for the bright lights of Broadway, sung from the reality of what her life has come; and it sums up perfectly the show's overwhelming and powerful contrast between past and present."
Quite a few smaller musicals also crossed the Atlantic belatedly in new productions. My favourite of these was Amour, an infinitely delicate and eccentric musical that played for just 17 performances on Broadway in 2002 with a score by Michel Legrand (who died at the start of the year before seeing this production). As I wrote in my review: "I'm going out on a limb here with my five-star rating for the UK premiere of Michel Legrand and Jeremy Sams's wistful, witty Amour, as I'm certain that for others it will be a show they can't bear. It's likely to be a Marmite show - not a show for all tastes."
Read the full review of Amour.
4. Disney's Newsies
OK, I need to declare an interest: I teach at ArtsEd London, one of the foremost drama schools in the UK for training musical theatre talent. And this year they scored a notable coup in offering the UK stage premiere of Disney's Newsies (originally produced on Broadway in 2012) as one of their showcase productions for their third-year students, offering them an opportunity to shine in roles that not only showcased their singing and dancing skills but were also mostly age-appropriate. Not only was the production a real winner, but it also won Jac Yarrow, the student who played the lead role of Jack Kelly, the newsboy who leads the striking newspapers sellers, the title role in the summer revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium (and which he will be reprising when it returns there next summer).
3. Dear Evan Hansen
Originally opening on Broadway in the same year as Come From Away (from which it won out in most of that year's Tony Awards, including the best musical), its West End premiere at the Noel Coward Theatre. It stars Sam Tutty, a young drama school graduate in his first professional role, who pulls off the rare trick of projecting adolescent angst and insecurity with paradoxically confident ease, and there’s a truthfulness to his acting that makes him feel utterly authentic and intensely moving.
2. Come From Away
This Canadian-born musical based on the true story of those aboard some 38 aeroplanes that were diverted to a small airport in Newfoundland, Canada on 9/11 when US airspace was closed after the terrorist attacks there that fateful day was. At the time of its opening night, I wrote of this poignant and uplifting little show with a big heart: “For once, this is a genuinely original musical, not drawing on a pre-existing film or book, but based on true-life events that give it a powerful resonance." It continues to run at the Phoenix Theatre.
1. The Light in the Piazza
It was a year big on Broadway imports, either in entirely new productions of shows never before seen in London, or in replica versions of their Broadway originals. Easily the best of the former was the London premiere of Adam Guettell and Craig Lucas's 2005 musical based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer (who died last week, aged 98) that was originally published in the New Yorker and subsequently released on book form in 1960. It came to the Royal Festival Hall for a short summer season in June of just 20 performances; but I saw three of them. It was performed to spellbinding perfection by a cast led by international opera superstar Renée Fleming and young Disney star Dove Cameron (though she missed several performances), and the rising young British star Rob Houchen.