Charles McNulty’s best theater of 2019: ‘Almost Famous,’ ‘Jitney’ and ‘Ragtime’

The best theater of 2019
(Peter and Maria Hoey / For The Times)

No reason to conceal the obvious: Composing a top 10 list, that annual exercise in critical subjectivity, is more art than science.

The shows below, arranged alphabetically, made 2019 brighter than it otherwise would have been for this inveterate theatergoer. My gratitude, however, extends beyond these works to include other offerings that my conscience will not let me pass over.

The Geffen Playhouse production of “Key Largo,” boosted by the bad guy swagger of Andy Garcia as the mob boss played in the film by Edward G. Robinson, stunned me with its theatrical vigor. I had expected a clunky copy of the John Huston’s film but was greeted instead by a production by Doug Hughes that pulsated with suspenseful stage life. Mj Rodriguez and George Salazar (whose rendition of “Suddenly, Seymour” I never wanted to end) brought an aching vulnerability to Mike Donahue’s revival of “Little Shop of Horrors” at Pasadena Playhouse.


Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside,” starring Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman at Studio 54, is not only the best two-hander of the year; it’s also one of the most intriguing plays, a story about the loneliness of writers and the freedom and vicarious connection of narration. David Byrne’s “American Utopia” at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre, exponentially enhanced by a diversely gifted music ensemble, is hands down the most theatrically entrancing concert I’ve ever seen.

Among its many other virtues, Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play” at the Golden Theatre is paving the way for a Broadway future worth hanging around for. Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre proved that the right cast (Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox) can get a critic to admit he was wrong to complain about yet another Broadway revival of this play.

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Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Marys Seacole” at Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow had me once again marveling at the fearless imagination of this Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist. And “History of Violence” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, an import from Berlin’s Schaubühne directed by Thomas Ostermeier, made me both envious of the German company’s sharp stagecraft and appreciative of the opportunity to experience such an inspiring level of theatrical precision.


‘Almost Famous,’ Old Globe Theatre


It’s rare for a popular movie to achieve independent life as a musical. But this show by the film’s director and screenwriter, Cameron Crowe, and composer and lyricist Tom Kitt pulled it off in a production by Jeremy Herrin that channeled the freewheeling spirit of 1970s rock. Review


‘Dana H.,’ Kirk Douglas Theatre

Playwright Lucas Hnath created out of his mother’s harrowing story a trenchant drama about the way trauma can hold memory hostage. Deirdre O’Connell, in a performance that raised lip-syncing to an Eleonora Duse-level of realism, mouthed along to a recording of Hnath’s mother’s voice and through the felt truth of great acting transformed documentary into memorable art. Review


‘Daniel’s Husband,’ Fountain Theatre

Michael McKeever’s gay marriage drama may not have broken artistic ground, but it was such a satisfying outing of theater, a small play beautifully realized at a small venue, that the result was a work that enlightened us by making us care about the characters after first entertaining us with their crackling comedy. Review


‘Fefu and Her Friends,’ Odyssey Theatre

Two productions of this groundbreaking work of feminist theater by María Irene Fornés allowed me to encounter a play I haven’t seen in more than 20 years. Directed by Denise Blasor, the L.A. revival, though not as sumptuously appointed as the one at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience, made the more lasting impression, thanks in large part to the hauntingly vivacious performance of Tiffany Cole in the title role. The Fornés canon is ripe for rediscovery, and anyone needing a push should check out Michelle Memran’s stirring documentary about the playwright, “The Rest I Make Up.” Review


‘Hadestown,’ Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre

Winner of the Tony Award for best new musical, this modern retelling of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth combines the hypnotic talent of composer-librettist Anaïs Mitchell with the theatrical poetry of director Rachel Chavkin in a folk opera that made full use of actor André De Shields’ leonine jazz style. Column


‘Into the Woods,’ Hollywood Bowl

Gaten Matarazzo, onstage with a faux calf, is Jack in the Hollywood Bowl production of "Into the Woods" in July. In the background: Rebecca Spencer as Jack's mother.
Gaten Matarazzo is Jack in the Hollywood Bowl production of “Into the Woods” in July. In the background: Rebecca Spencer as Jack’s mother.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)


The stars magnificently aligned for this summer night dream of a production, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical deconstruction of classic fairy tales. Directed by Robert Longbottom, the beautifully sung revival was so lushly animated with color and feeling that it left us too blissed out to grieve the bitter truths that are exposed about those happily-ever-after endings. Review


‘Jitney,’ Mark Taper Forum

Amari Cheatom, left, and Ray Anthony Thomas in August Wilson’s “Jitney” at the Taper.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Tony-winning revival of this early August Wilson play reminded us why actors and audiences keep returning to Wilson’s historically expansive, emotionally explosive and spiritually nourishing American century cycle. The production, communally nurtured by a topnotch cast, infuses every moment with gritty, granular life. Review


‘Ragtime,’ Pasadena Playhouse

This sweeping, ambitious musical, spun from E.L. Doctorow’s grand novel chronicling America’s democratic promise at the turn of the 20th century, isn’t easy to corral. But director David Lee demonstrated that it can be done without the lavish resources of Broadway. The radiant singing and sharply focused, actor-centered staging made the longstanding problems with Terrence McNally’s book and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ score seem inconsequential for a revival deserving only of our gratitude. Review


‘What the Constitution Means to Me,’ Broadway’s Hayes Theater

Heidi Schreck’s drama, the timeliest and yet most surprising success of Broadway’s spring season, is headed to the Mark Taper Forum in January without Schreck reprising her portrayal of herself as a teenage champion orator who grew up to confront firsthand the constitutional challenges facing women she once held forth on so confidently. Her deeply inhabited performance made this one of the most unforgettable theatrical experiences of 2019. Maria Dizzia, a luminous talent herself, assumes the role in L.A. Review


‘The Wolves,’ Echo Theater Company

Through the overlapping dialogue of a high school girls’ soccer team, playwright Sarah DeLappe glimpses into the souls of her characters and, by extension, into the soul of the nation. Teamwork was the key to the Echo Theater Company production, which featured an unerringly naturalistic ensemble (under the direction of Alana Dietze) maneuvering with agility between the quotidian and the tragic. Review

A stocking-stuffer to artistic directors, producers and theater-makers everywhere: “A Moment on the Clock of the World” (Haymarket Books): This beautiful volume, celebrating the uncompromising vision of New York’s Foundry Theatre, reminds us that the impossible is possible through creative courage and the conviction of one’s deepest principles.