Tuesday, January 2, 2024

2023 #TCTheater Favorites - Almost Back to Normal

Here we are friends, at the close of another year of theater, and the beginning of a new one. It's hard to believe that it's been almost four years since a global pandemic halted all live indoor performances for almost 18 months. I went from seeing over 200 live performances in 2019 (and for several years before that), to 49 in 2020, to 86 in 2021 (the year that live theater began to return), to over 150 in 2022 (when theater was back but not out of the woods). But now, finally, 2023 felt almost like a normal year of theater. From the incredible touring production of King Gilgamesh and the Man of the Wild at the Jungle in snowy early January, to my second viewing of Christmas at the Local on New Year's Eve, I saw 226 live performances (including 41 Fringe shows, 10 concerts at the best little folk festival in Minnesota - Storyhill Fest, and a half dozen shows in NYC). The virus is still around, and performers still miss shows due to illness, and some shows are still cancelled because of it, but we know better how to deal with it now, with vaccines, masks, and understudies keeping theater going. This is definitely the hardest favorites list I've had to write since 2019, since there was so much good theater to choose from this year. It's a welcome problem to have. So without further ado, here are some of my favorite shows of 2023 (in alphabetical order, click on show title for full review). I know this list is too long, but don't blame me, blame the incredible artists of #TCTheater for making it impossible to narrow down my list of favorites to anything less than 50!


  • I love a two-hander, and Gremlin's Bakersfield Mist was a great one. #TCTheater vets Jen Maren and John Middleton played a trailer park dwelling bartender who thinks she stumbled upon a Pollack and an uptight art expert from NYC in "a really funny and entertaining dramedy that also explores themes of art, legitimacy, grief, and humanity."
  • Another two-hander I loved this year was Born with Teeth at the Guthrie, a remount of the 2022 production at Alley Theatre in Houston. This deliciously wordy play about Shakespeare and his contemporary Marlowe featured tour de force performances by both Dylan Godwin and Matthew Amendt (a U of M/Guthrie BFA grad returning home after a ten-year absence). I loved it so much I bought the script. (Honorable mention for late entry 'Art', another very smart, funny, talky play, this one with a brilliant three-person cast - playing now through January 28.)
  • 2023 was the year of Katie Bradley; she had no less than five excellent and very different performances, none better than in the title role of Open Eye Theatre's The Chinese Lady. In this fictionalized account of the first Chinese woman in America, she transformed from a girlish doll on display to a real and complex person as the play explored the history of Chinese immigrants in America.
  • Perhaps the most delightful hour of theater this year was Dinner for One at the Jungle. Created and directed by Christina Baldwin and starring #TCTheater favorites Sun Mee Chomet and Jim Lichtscheidl (a master of physical comedy), this new take on a beloved old comedy sketch was pure theater magic and joy.
  • It's not a year-end favorites list without Ten Thousand Things, and my favorite of theirs this year was Emilia, another Shakespearean story, this time about a female contemporary who may have inspired (or even wrote) some of his plays. An all-female cast (including three taking turns with the title role) in TTT's usual clear, playful, and sincere style told this story that was really "about women's voices, women's stories, and why they have been systematically silenced throughout history."
  • I had a hard time choosing a favorite amongst Theatre in the Round's year (the very smart and funny Book Club Play, the dark comedy of Sam Shepard's True West) but I settled on Eurydice because of the magical quality of the design and performance, and the use of physical theater in Sarah Ruhl's retelling of this sad old story.
  • One of my most memorable nights at the theater this year was experiencing Isabel Nelson's solo performance in Feast by Walking Shadow at the Black Forest Inn (during an actual feast). Her years of training and experience in physical theater (much of it with Transatlantic Love Affair, the company she co-founded) came to bear in this transformative performance as the mother of the monster killed by Beowulf from that ancient story, making it feel fresh and modern and oh so real. (If you missed it, you're in luck - they're bringing it back in March!)
  • Frank Theatre returned from their long pandemic hiatus just when we needed them most. Their production of the new play Fetal, performed in their small studio space with a fantastic cast, put a very human face (or faces) on the abortion debate and reminded us what's really at stake. (You'll have a second chance to see this one too - they're remounting it for three weekends in February/March.)
  • Another great entry in the two or three people sitting in a room talking about big ideas category was Bucket Brigade's awkwardly titled The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord. These three historical figures meet in the afterlife and discuss issues of faith and philosophy, as well as their own humanity. A funny and entertaining 90 minutes, well-acted and staged in the intimate space of Art House North.
  • Rough Magic Performance Company's Hurricane Diane was as hilariously absurd as it was deathly terrifying. Taj Ruler as the ancient god Dionysus (Bacchus) posing as a lesbian landscaper and seducing four suburban New Jersey women to become acolytes and help save the planet from eventual destruction, brought on by humans' poor choices - need I say more? 
  • We're used to waiting two years for Girl Friday Productions (they typically produce a show every other year), but thanks to the pandemic we had to wait four years this time. Life Sucks (a co-production with Open Eye Theatre resulting in a smaller stage and cast that they've ever performed with) was worth the wait. A modern and comic retelling of Uncle Vanya with a brilliant cast and charming set (designed by director Joel Sass), it was unique and clever and a joy.
  • As a big fan of The Office, I've long heard about Mindy Kaling's play Matt & Ben that she wrote and performed in (with her friend Brenda Withers) before her Office days. But my first opportunity to see it was just this year, thanks to Nocturnal Giraffe Theatre. Elizabeth Efteland and Katie Consamus were just delightful as, yes, that Matt and Ben in "the perfect 80-minute comedy about celebrity, show business, and friendship."
  • Yellow Tree Theatre's production of Stephen King's classic novel Misery was about as thrilling and chilling a story as I saw on stage this year. With taut direction by John Catron and brilliant performances by #TCTheater favorites Bill McCallum and George Keller, this show was a "terrifying (but also fun) journey."
  • 13 years into this theater blogger thing, it's rare that I see something entirely unlike anything I've seen before. But seeing Naive. Super in the basement of Norway House was just that. #TCTheater artist Kurt Engh's adaptation of the 1996 Norwegian novel featured a different actor in each performance, often reading the lines off of note cards or projections or an overhead projector, a unique and fascinating experiment in form that was a fitting way to adapt this trippy and thought-provoking story. 
  • I love a sweet, quiet, quirky play, such as Pavilion by Minnesota author Craig Wright, produced by Lyric Arts this fall. The story of two ex-lovers reuniting at their high school reunion was funny and bittersweet, with "no happy endings, no clear resolutions, just a rumination on this thing called life," an understated gem with a wonderful three-person (plus one musician) cast.
  • The last show at Park Square Theatre this year was Lauren Gunderson's The Revolutionists back in April, before they canceled the remainder of their season (reminder to support your favorite local theater companies during this still difficult time!). They plan to re-open this fall, so that they can continue to produce excellent work like this co-production with Prime Productions, that was both historical (featuring real women active in the French Revolution) and modern, featuring a fantastic four-woman cast.
  • Another excellent co-production this year was Say All the Truth from Jungle Theater and The Moving Company. The latter are experts at adapting Moliere, but this was their first time doing The Misanthrope. They pared the story down to its essentials and made it feel modern. With a wonderful cast and interesting and thoughtful design, it was "mesmerizing, thoughtful, elemental, creative, and quite lovely."
  • Penumbra Theatre's Sugar in Our Wounds, about two enslaved men who fall in love, was as beautiful as it was brutal. A story "of love in the face of great danger, that reminds us of our ugly past, and also of the beauty that those who found themselves trapped in the ugliness were able to make for themselves."
  • Shortly after it appeared Off-Broadway, Six Points Theatre produced the new play The Wanderers featuring a talented local cast and intriguing design elements, telling a story of two connected couples separated by time. "The thought-provoking and relatable play explores themes of marriage, the parent/child relationship, identity, and legacy."
  • Pillsbury House + Theatre's production of What / Washed Ashore / Astray was visually stunning (a realistic lived-in beach-side cottage) and emotionally devastating, in the best way. A brilliant three-person cast and a gorgeously written script depicted the most human of experiences - death - "with raw honesty and simple beauty."

  • When talking about musicals, I have to start with Theater Latte Da, who consistently produces works of music-theater of the highest quality. This year they concluded their 25th season and began their 26th, and saw the departure of founding Artistic Director Peter Rothstein (his farewell celebration concert, that I was lucky enough to attend, was one of the most memorable evenings of the year), beginning a new chapter under new Artistic Director Justin Lucero (who has yet to make his directing debut with the company). But through all of this change, they still managed to produce five outstanding musicals, of which I could not possibly choose a favorite. A gorgeously small cast Hello Dolly! starring the divine Regina Marie Williams, the beautiful "musical monologues" of the new piece We Shall Someday, Peter's swan song directing the phenomenal Pulitzer Prize winning Next to Normal, the rarely done sung-through family dramedy Falsettos, and a return to the cozy pub of Christmas at the Local. This year was highlight after highlight for TLD.
  • After closing down due to financial difficulties last year, Artistry made a triumphant return in 2023 with four excellent musicals, highlighted by the rarely done classic The Pajama Game ("this cast is dynamite, the dancing is lively, and it had me grinning under my mask for the whole show") and the sweetly hilarious The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee ("featuring a fantastic cast, so playful and fun, gives you the warm fuzzies about this group of loveably oddball kids").
  • One of the saddest moments of 2023 was the closure of DalekoArts, the scrappy little theater company "far away" in New Prague. After 11 seasons, co-founders Amanda White and Ben Thietje decided to close up shop and move on. Daleko produced many of my favorites over the last seven years. Their final show this spring was one of my favorite musicals of the year, and one of my favorite shows at Daleko - the bittersweet love story of the bluegrass musical Bright Star, with a wonderful cast, charmingly rustic set, and all of the "heart, humor, inventiveness, thoughtfulness, and joy" we were fortunate to see at Daleko every time.
  • In a suburb on the other side of town, Lyric Arts brough us a fabulous production of the quintessential musical about musicals - A Chorus Line. I'd only ever seen it on big stages, so to see this story of a group of dancers giving their all for the art in Lyric's intimate space, with a huge cast of impressive local dancers/singers/actors, was absolutely thrilling.
  • Theatre Elision is another company that consistently lands on my favorites list for their rarely done, small cast, one act, female driven musicals. In their first full year of shows since the pandemic, my favorite of their four pieces was the one that was supposed to premiere in March 2020, and finally debuted this spring - John Michael LaChiusa's First Lady Suite. This "gorgeously sung and performed fantastical flight through history, giving voice and humanity to the women who supported the presidents" was worth the wait (honorable mention to the song cycle Well Behaved Women, about more inspiring historical women).
  • For the first time since their stunning production of Sunday in the Park with George in 2017, the Guthrie returned to Sondheim with a fun, playful, and all around gorgeous production of perhaps his most frequently produced musical, Into the Woods. With a dreamy mostly local cast, a luscious 12-piece onstage orchestra led by Denise Prosek, and whimsical design, I was happy to see it twice.
  • Othello: The Remix was another "rare musical, well done" from Minneapolis Musical Theatre. A rap and hip-hop retelling of the Shakespearean tragedy by the Q Brothers, it was clever, fast, well-cast, thoroughly entertaining, and wholly unique.
  • I often think of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres as the comfort food of #TCTheater, typically producing high quality productions of crowd-pleasing classics. But they took a risk this spring with their regional premiere of the new musical The Prom, about a teenage girl who's forbidden to attend the prom with her girlfriend, and the Broadway stars who swoop in to her small Indiana town to save the day (only to realize she's the one saving them all). Featuring a brilliant cast led by a breakout performance by Monty Hays, it felt like those old-fashioned musical comedies we love, but with a modern, and necessary, message of love and inclusion.
  • Lakeshore Players Theatre's production of the charming classic musical She Loves Me, directed and choreographed by one-to-watch #TCTheater newcomer Kyle Weiler, was a delectable treat. A strong all-around cast (including the understudy I saw in one of the lead roles), beautiful design, and wonderful dancing combined for a really lovely production of this gem.
  • Technically I guess Three Decembers would be considered an opera, but it's on the music-theater spectrum, and Skylark Opera Theatre's production of this gorgeous modern opera is definitely one of my favorites of the year. The incomparable Norah Long played a mother who has a complicated relationship with her two adult children, who sometimes took second place to her Broadway career. In addition to looking and sounding gorgeous, it conveyed some big and relatable emotions.
  • No theater in town consistently develops and produces more new work than History Theatre, and they had one of their best years yet in 2023, with two new plays and three new musicals, all of them among my favorites of the year: The Root Beer Lady, an inspiring true story told through a solo performance by playwright Kim Schultz; Diesel Heart, a history of America through the history of Melvin Carter, Jr., one of St. Paul's first Black police officers (and father of the current mayor); The Defeat of Jesse James, the Hatcher/Poling rock concert retelling of a familiar legend that made us see it a little differently; The Boy Wonder, a Keith Hovis musical about Minnesota's youngest governor Harold Stassen that made history feel alive and exciting (like Minnesota's Hamilton); and finally, I Am Betty, a history of real women in 20th Century America as told through the fictional creation that is Betty Crocker.
  • In yet another fab co-pro, Trademark Theater (a company that also focuses on new work) collaborated with Jungle Theater to bring us the new play 5, written by and starring #TCTheater artist JuCoby Johnson. It was a very real and grounded story of friendship in the face of gentrification, that also had some jaw-dropping fantastical elements.
  • Somehow, the beloved 1986 animated film An American Tail hadn't yet been adapted into a stage musical, until Children's Theatre Company commissioned playwright Itamar Moses (The Band's Visit) and composing team Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) to adapt it, premiering this spring. And even though I didn't really know the movie, I found the musical to be so joyous and inspiring, telling a story of how American could be, how it should be, at a time when we really need to hear it. We could learn a lot from these mice about working together and making the world better for everyone.
  • The Guthrie's proscenium theater premiered a couple of great new plays that gave voice to those normally not heard from in theater. Karen Zacarías adapted the classic Western novel Shane in a way that made it feel fresh and modern, adding back in the stories of people who are often cut out of historical narratives - Black cowboys and the Native people who have lived on this land for millennia. Speaking of Indigenous people, the world premiere new play For the People was created by Native artists and featured an almost entirely Native cast, something we've never seen on the Guthrie stage before. And it was a really smart, funny, relevant comedy.
  • As if TV/film/theater veteran Linda Kelsey playing the poet Emily Dickenson in a solo play isn't enough, this limited engagement of The Belle of Amherst was performed in the perfect location - the elegant lounge in the almost 100-year old Woman's Club of Minneapolis. You're forgiven if you missed it since it only played a handful of performances on one weekend in January, but I'm glad I was able to see this thoroughly engaging and perfectly staged little gem of a play.
  • The Buddha Prince was maybe not exactly site-specific since it wasn't performed in Tibet, but it was in the fact that this story of the life of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was an ambulatory play performed outdoors in nature, reinforcing the themes of a life's journey and a respect for nature. TigerLion Arts created one of my favorite theater experiences of all time - Nature - and it was a treat to go back to their original foray into this very specific type of theater, learn about the inspiring life and work of HHDL, and experience authentic Tibetan music and dancing performed by our local Tibetan-American community.
  • This summer we had two very unique and very site-specific plays on Hamline University's beautiful St. Paul campus. Jungle Theater performed The Courtroom: A Reenactment of One Woman's Deportation Proceedings in an actual courtroom, with an actual judge as a guest speaker at the end of the play. Which technically wasn't a play, it was a compilation of actual court transcripts from an actual case in which an immigrant was facing deportation because she accidentally registered to vote. But it was no dry and boring civics lesson; the excellent cast brought this story to life and put a real human face on the complicated immigration laws in this country.
  • Just across the street at Hamline, Walking Shadow Theatre Company performed the Lucas Hnath play Red Speedo, about a competitive swimmer who admits to his brother that he's been doping, next to an actual competitive swimming pool. It really doesn't get much more site-specific than that, and to paraphrase Chekhov's law, when you perform next to a pool, someone is going to end up in that pool. It's a smart, well-written, thought-provoking play, with a terrific four-person cast performing just a few feet in front of you, and excellent use of the space.
  • Orchard Theater Collective's perfectly charming production of the Shaw two-hander Village Wooing could not have been staged in a better location than the German-American Institute on Summit Avenue. We began outdoors in the pretty garden, then moved to the basement (or rathskeller), following Anna Leverett and Ben Shaw in this witty early 20th Century rom-com. It was practically perfect in every way (with snacks!).
  • On a hot late summer weekend, #TCTheater artist Andrew Erskine Wheeler remounted his hit 2022 Fringe show WHOOSH!, which is about the origin and importance of St. Anthony Falls throughout history, next to the falls themselves - in the Ruins Courtyard at the Mill City Museum. He added to and expanded the show a bit, adding in ghostly elements and music, but what remained the same was a fully committed performance as multiple characters, and a thorough examination of the intersecting stories of this land, made even more magical experiencing it within earshot of the falls.
Another highlight of the year was creating the podcast "Twin Cities Theater Chat" with my friends and colleagues from the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (listen here or on your favorite podcast ap). I'm more of a writer than a talker, so this was and continues to be a stretch for me, but in a good way. It's so much fun to chat about theater with the bloggers in our "Recommends" episode, and I've learned so much interviewing theater artists (and listening to my colleagues interview artists) in our "Mainstage" episodes. We started with a 12-episode season over the summer, then launched our second season in the fall, with 13 episodes so far and more fun episodes to come (including announcing our 9th annual TCTB Awards). We've also ventured back into doing some TCTB events, including a moving talkback at the Chanhassen after a performance of The Prom, a pajama party at Artistry in conjunction with their production of The Pajama Game (I'll take any excuse to wear pajamas!), and some of us traveled to lovely Winona for the Great River Shakespeare Festival. We have more exciting events planned, so stay tuned! And please let us know if you'd like to partner with TCTB on audience engagement events.

Here's to a theater-filled happy and healthy 2024 for us all!