Best theater in 2020: In a year to forget, virtuoso performances to remember
Live performance virtually stopped in March but 2020 still managed to sneak in some inspired theater. In a year we’d all like to put behind us, there were a few productions too good to forget.
Theater onscreen technically isn’t theater, but a few filmed plays and musicals conveyed that heightened theatrical vitality so many of us have been missing. Digital drama has been a mixed bag, but amid the Zoom madness there have been occasions when our laptops have turned into rabbit holes for curious adventure.
While we’re waiting for the sustained crackle of applause to return in 2021, let’s raise a glass to those artists who have lifted our sprits with their talents and made us feel momentarily more connected in a time of separation.
Movie theaters closed. Broadway went dark. Concert venues fell silent.
Randy Rainbow on YouTube. Keeping theater people sane with his music videos in this annus horribilis, Randy Rainbow led the YouTube comedy resistance with clever show-tune parody numbers that plumbed the depths of Donald Trump’s madness. Favorites include “A Spoonful of Clorox,” Gee, Anthony Fauci!” and “If Donald Got Fired,” a duet with Patti LuPone that helped many of us over the election finishing line.
“What the Constitution Means to Me,” Mark Taper Forum and Amazon Prime Video. Heidi Schreck’s play, a deeply felt examination of the constitutional struggles for gender equality and reproductive freedom, has made the list for two reasons. The first is the production that came to the Mark Taper Forum in January without Schreck (who was busy having twins). Maria Dizzia took on the role of Heidi looking back on her days as a former champion teenage orator while reflecting as an adult on how the law has affected her most private decisions. The Schreck-less production wasn’t quite as personal, but this politically urgent play powerfully came through. The second reason is Marielle Heller’s sensational film for Amazon Prime that preserves Schreck’s magnificent Broadway performance in all its pathos, vigor and moral conviction. Watching at home, I felt as though my couch were in the front row of the Helen Hayes Theater, with the filmed audience sharing my intense gratitude.
“West Side Story,” the Broadway Theatre. Ivo van Hove’s revival wasn’t for purists, but for those willing to go on a wild multimedia ride, this 21st century update was a dizzying, cathartic thrill. The alignment of hyperkinetic video with storytelling fluidity and heart allowed Tony and Maria’s tragic romance to be reborn for a new era. It’s the one Broadway show from 2020 that I’m desperate to see again.
“My Name Is Lucy Barton,” Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Enigmatic storytelling met superlative acting in this solo play adapted by Rona Munro from Elizabeth Strout’s novel. The story centers on a woman in the throes of a mysterious illness, whose stony mother arrives by her hospital bedside, awakening the daughter’s brutally harsh past. Laura Linney was a teeming marvel. Her voice shifting as subtly as her pallor, she conjured to the stage both sides of a sorrowfully confounding mother-daughter relationship. Audible has a recording of the production, but what I can’t forget is the raw pathos emanating from Linney’s red-tinged eyes.
“Tina — The Tina Turner Musical,” Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. A jukebox musical of the garden variety, the show transcended its predictability thanks to a star-making performance by Adrienne Warren, who has the legs, the moves and even the gorgeous dusky pipes of Tina Turner. Warren’s rendition of “Proud Mary,” an Olympian display of soulful athletic majesty, should earn the actress both a Tony Award and a gold medal.
“Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration,” Broadway.com’s YouTube channel. This birthday bash for Broadway’s greatest living songwriter had some technical glitches. But nothing could stand in the way of the cavalcade of Broadway stars (Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Melissa Erico, Mandy Patinkin and Linda Lavin among them) who virtually turned out to honor the composer and lyricist who forever changed the American musical. In paying homage to a watershed genius, the show, produced by Raúl Esparza, simultaneously honored Broadway’s indomitable spirit.
“What Do We Need to Talk About?” the Public Theater online. The first offering in Richard Nelson’s pandemic trilogy of Zoom plays invited us to eavesdrop on the members of the Apple family as they checked in with one another during quarantine. What began in banality ended in sublimity as the subject everyone was skirting — death — was finally approached via Bach’s Mass in B Minor and the deep listening of Maryann Plunkett’s performance.
“The Present,” Geffen Playhouse online. Zoom rarely seems magical to those stuck in meetings on the platform all day. But Helder Guimarães, as charming a raconteur as he is a magician, brought his astonishing legerdemain into the virtual realm. In perhaps his most uncanny feat, he made us feel by the end of the show that we had all been inhabiting the same theatrical space.
“Hamilton,” Disney +. Who said the vibrancy of a Broadway musical can’t be captured on camera? The original Broadway cast came to the rescue during our pandemic summer in a film by the show’s director, Thomas Kail, that translated the ensemble energy and revolutionary inclusiveness of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical to a new medium.
“Three Kings,” Old Vic: In Camera. A streaming production filmed on the Old Vic’s stage truly felt theatrical, thanks to Andrew Scott’s insinuating solo turn. Stephen Beresford’s play — a tale about a shady, absentee father and the son who longs to know him better — was directed by Matthew Warchus with complete trust in his actor to transmute narrative language into psychological gold. (Playback tickets for some of the In Camera offerings, including Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs,” with Claire Foy and Matt Smith, are available via the Old Vic’s website.)
“The Great Work Begins: Scenes From ‘Angels in America,’” Broadway.com’s YouTube channel. A streaming benefit to support the Fund to Fight COVID-19 set up by amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, this collage of scenes from Tony Kushner’s masterwork invited one plague era to share wisdom with another. Filming themselves at home, Glenn Close, Brian Tyree Henry, Laura Linney, Paul Dano, Andrew Rannells and Patti LuPone, among other luminaries, delivered novel spins on indelible characters in an artfully edited production that provided invaluable research and development for a future “Angels,” a play that continues to resonate across national crises.
Bonus: Ayad Akhtar’s “Homeland Elegies,” Little, Brown and Co. A novel isn’t a play, but Akhtar, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Disgraced,” has written a book that enfolds a semifictionalized memoir of a Pakistani-American playwright into a sweeping sociopolitical synthesis of America. It’s hands down the smartest contemporary fiction I’ve read this year. But the dramatic collision of ideas and the theatrical pulse of the writing reveal the sensibility of a great dramatist unbounded by form.
This year’s list is devoted to pandemic doers: Dudamel, Salonen, Sharon. Gehry, Borda, Kopatchinskaja, Sorey, Gupta, Grazinyte-Tyla and Edmunds.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.