NY Theatre

Broadway show billboards at the corner of 7th ...

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So you’re coming to NY for the weekend.  Are you going to spend it looking at chocolate at the M&M Store?  Waiting on line for the ridiculously expensive and intolerably slow ferris wheel at Toys R Us?  Or are you going to see something unique to NY?  LIVE fabulous theatre.

I bet you know which one I’m gonna suggest.

But here’s the thing: NY Theatre doesn’t only mean Broadway.  Sure, I appreciate the visual creativity of The Lion King.  Sure, I like singing along with the score of Mary Poppins.  But 1. Those shows cost a fortune. 2. They usually have tour versions you can see wherever it is you’re from and 3. They’re in ENORMOUS venues that seldom allow you to experience the intimacy an off-broadway theatre allows.

Instead of spending $150 + a ticket for some Disney re-hash on stage (don’t they do that at Disney World?), why not see some  NY Theatre that’s unique to NY?

Here are some companies to try. (Some are on Broadway, some not.  And there are about a gazillion more to check out, too.)

For Kids:

The New Victory Technically, I suppose this is a Broadway Theatre, geographically speaking (it’s on 42nd and Braodway), but in spirit and experience, it is an off-Broadway gem.

The New Victory Theater is new York City’s first and only full-time performing arts theater for kids and their families.  And they do kids theatre that parents can actually enjoy, too. Each year, The New Vic presents a 10-month season of unique, visually arresting, expertly produced and performed works from around the world and close to home. We’re talking puppet shows unlike any you’ve ever seen, interpretations of children’s books, heart stopping acrobatics, and spectacular dance.

I especially like that every year, they have a line-up of shows, classified by age-group – with shows appropriate for little ones, all the way to teenagers and adults…and ones for just about everyone, too.

Plus, New Vic tickets are super-affordable, averaging only $18 a ticket (take that, Disney on Broadway), with some seats available for as little as $9.

Manhattan Children’s Theatre  MCT is produces affordable, high quality shows for both children and families. Mostly, they take works of Classic Literature (along with some new work) and  create  “live theatrical experience that encourage reading, critical thinking, curiosity of the world today and the world of tomorrow, as well as communication between children, their families and their educators.”

Like the New Victory, tickets are super-affordable, $15 for adults, $10 for children on average.

TheatreWorks USA  From their website: “Every year, over four million people, many of whom have no other access to the performing arts, see our shows in venues as varied as local elementary school gymnasiums, regional fine arts centers, and major Broadway-sized theaters. Every year, TheatreworksUSA tours approximately 16 shows from our ever-growing repertoire of 117 plays and musicals. In addition, we also have an extensive multi-cultural guest artist roster, including storytellers, puppeteers, poets, and magicians.”

I LOVE these shows.  Clever, funny, exceptionally well-written. They are one of the few places left that actively support young, up and coming Musical theater composers/lyricists.  So even though TheatreWorks is not really a NYC theater – and more of a touring one, I’ve included it here.  If they’re not in NY while you are, check their website to see if they are performing somewhere near you. After all, they are in up to 44 states a year!

Vital Theater Company - Truth be told, the children’s productions of this company are a bit uneven.  And sometimes, they are not particularly enjoyable for adults.  But despite that, younger kids seem to love ‘em all, and sometimes, they are truly wonderful.  Plus, get a load of their mission:

If one adult is inspired,

if one child’s imagination is awakened,
if one student is empowered,
Our theatre is important and vital.

Kind of hard not to support that.

Located on the Upper West Side, this theatre is in family friendly territory.  The shows are usually quick – about an hour – and perfect for small ones kids with proportionate attention spans.  Often, they include some audience participation.

Like the other children’s theatre companies I mentioned, tickets are affordable, at $15.

For Grown-Ups

I know, I know, you want to see Brooke Shields/John Stamos/Whatever big star in whatever big show.  But why not experience something uniquely New York: the intimacy of a small off-broadway theatre, with the acting and producing caliber of the best of Broadway? There are TONS of companies to choose from,  and this is by no means a comprehensive list.  Just some of my personal favorites. I’ll update this list from time to time depending on the show they’re producing and what I like.  But here goes for now:

1. Signature Theatre Company – Each year, the Signature picks one American playwright and produces an entire season of his or her plays.  This year, it was Tony Kushner, with a revival of Angels in America as well as his new re-interpretation of a classic,  The Illusionist.   Next year, they move into their new, gorgeous, Frank Gehry designed space.  And I imagine the season will be just as fabulous as the theatre itself.

For the past four years, the Signature has offered $20 tickets, subsidized by Time Warner.  This was supposed to be the last year of the initiative — but here’s hoping.

LAByrinth Theater Company – This is not theater for the “I want to hum along” crowd.  Unusual, unexpected…sometimes downright odd – but always thought provoking and super intelligent, LAByrinth develops each of their new plays through a unique creative process.

Here’s how they describe it: “Each play LAByrinth produces is first presented at the Company’s annual Summer Intensive – a concentrated two-week retreat where Company Members and invited guest artists create brand new material and develop current works in progress. By surrounding the playwright with talented and passionate artists, this supportive environment allows freedom of expression and nurtures creativity.”

This is not your garden variety production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  But hey, you’re in NY, why not try something different?

Manhattan Theatre Club – MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow is a NY Theatre legend, having directed some 450 plays in her nearly three decades on the theare scene. These productions – mostly on Broadway – give you the star power you want (Cynthia Nixon, Tyne Daly and Kevin Spacey are just a few of the big names that have appeared in recent productions) along with the high-quality, not at all gimicky, pure theatre experience I’m trying to get you to try on for size.

New York Theatre Workshop I have seen some truly visionary – if also truly odd – productions here. To me, NYTW is a place I go not to be entertained – but to be challenged to think about theater itself in a different way.  To be amazed by ingenuity, and impressed by visual creativity.  Heady stuff, I know.

Here’s what they say about themselves:
“NYTW is committed to the development of innovative theatre by supporting theatre artists at all stages of their careers, providing an environment where work can be created free from the artistic compromise and forbidding financial demands often associated with commercial ventures. Over the past two decades, NYTW has evolved to become a significant force in New York City’s vibrant cultural landscape and is now recognized as one of the leading producing theatres of original work in the United States.”

Next season, they will be working with the acclaimed Elevator Repair Service to produce The Sun Also Rises, based on the Hemingway novel.  And my guess is, that like Gatz, the super long, weird and strangely captivating stage interpretation of The Great Gatsby they did last year, it’s going to be something to remember.

Playwrights Horizons – Is a “writer’s theatre,” dedicated to supporting writers through every stage of the creation of New American Works.  This season, they’ll be producing six new American works. These guys are the real deal, with big-name playwrights and top-notch production values. A more traditional company for those wary of the more challenging stuff I describe above.  Plus, they often have the movie and tv stars people seem to crave. (and if that will entice you to see one of their plays, I guess I’m all for it.)

The Public Theater – Here’s pretty much all you need to know: The Public Theater has won 42 Tony Awards, 149 Obies, 40 Drama Desk Awards, 24 Lucille Lortel Awards and 4 Pulitzer Prizes. Seriously.  What else can I possibly say to convince you that this is worth the schlepp to the East Village. Best known for their Shakespeare in the Park free summer series, The Public produces both Shakespear and American plays throughout the year in their huge building downtown.

This season, they’ll be presenting everything from a world premiere musical about a boarding house in 1940′s Brooklyn, to a new play called Chinglish, by the inimitable David Henry Hwang, to King Lear, starring Law and Order’s own Sam Waterston.

The Transport Group Holds a special place in my heart.  I can’t exactly explain why. Maybe it’s because every production I’ve seen has had an exuberance and innovation that can only come from a team that just plain LOVES what they are doing.  Transport produces both new work, and “re-imagined” versions of older plays.  This year, they did a musical interpretation of the Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata. Only instead of setting it during the Peloponnesian wars, it was set — and performed – in a High School gym. Genius.  It’s headed to Broadway soon.

This year they also did a one-man show version of The Patsy, a little known late 19th century drama that – in the original – lasted three hours and had eight actors.  But this production had only one incredibly talented actor – David Greenspan – in a tour-de-force performance – and lasted just over an hour. It was hysterical, impressive, and fun. Can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.