The Best New York Theater to See This Summer

And the shows that aren't even worth your Megabus fare, no matter what the Tonys tell you.

This Sunday, Neil Patrick Harris will host the Tony Awards for the forth time. The entire night will really be the battle between two musicals: Matilda, the British, technically impressive show that won seven Olivier awards, and Kinky Boots, the wholly American musical from icons Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein. But when only 12 of the 26 nominated shows are still open, there is only so much Harris can do to make the telecast interesting.

So, instead, here are my picks for which shows you should see this summer when visiting NYC, and those you might want to skip. Sorry, Tom Hanks.

(open run):  12 Tony Nominations

There have been many (mostly cinematic) attempts to adapt Roald Dahl novels, yet none have been able to capture the darker, Dahlian tone. That is until Matilda the Musical, one of the greatest theater-going experience I’ve had in years. Matilda—played by one of four talented young actresses who rotate throughout the performance week—is the standard Dahl heroine: brilliant, kind, and clever, but tormented by her family and her school’s headmistress for being too smart. With imaginative direction by Matthew Warchus (God of Carnage), choreography by Peter Darling (Billy Elliott the Musical), and music and lyrics by first-time composer Tim Minchin, the show is creepy, heartfelt, funny, and slightly terrifying, which is mostly due to the incredible Bertie Carvell. As the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull, her (his) claw-like hand, pinched high voice, and sneer is wonderfully scary. Carvell nor this production (which already won the most Olivier awards in history) should not be missed.

Murder Ballad (Off Broadway, closing September 29)

Though this four-character, all-music show seems like common Off-Broadway material, it boasts powerfully effective melodies and an impressive cast, Caisie Levy (Ghost The Musical), Will Swenson (Hair), John Ellison Conlee (The Fully Monty), and Rebecca Naomi Jones (American Idiot).

The Trip to Bountiful (closing September 1): 4 Tony Nominations
Cicely Tyson is receiving some of the best reviews of her nearly 60-year career playing a woman who returns to her childhood hometown. And she’ll probably walk home with the Tony Award for it.

Pippin (open run): 10 Tony Nominations

Diane Paulus (Hair) finally brings Pippin back to the Broadway stage after a 36-year absence … this time in a circus tent. With tight, controlled choreography (a la the original director/choreographer Bob Fosse), there is also a troupe of acrobats jumping, climbing, and flying. Often the Fosse and the circus feel at odds, but when Andrea Martin hits the stage for “No Time At All,” it is a perfect fit.

Here Lies Love (Off Broadway, closing July 28)

Get tickets while you can to the musical version of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s dance-club album about the controversial Imelda Marcos. And make sure to wear comfortable shoes.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (closing July 28): 6 Tony Nominations

The reason to see this uneven Christopher Durang play is to experience the tour-de-force performance by Tony-nominated Kristine Nielsen. As Sonia, the manic, vulnerable, adopted sister of Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and Masha (Sigourney Weaver), she is captivating. And hilarious. Especially when she decides to go to a costume party as the Evil Queen from Snow White… as played by Maggie Smith. Ridiculously brilliant.

The Assembled Parties (closing July 7): 3 Tony Nominations

Jessica Hecht and Judith Light shine in this newest play from Pulitzer Prize finalist Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out).

I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers (closing June 30): 0 Tony Nominations

It shouldn’t work: a single-act, single-character play where Bette Middler portrays a little known talent agent. And sits in the same spot on the couch the entire 90 minutes. But with Middler’s charm, not to mention the juicy ’60-’70’s Hollywood gossip, it feels like a dishy night with a friend.

Far From Heaven (Off Broadway, closing July 7)
Michael Korie and Scott Frankel’s musical adaptation of Todd Haynes’ 2002 film is imperfect: unfocused songs, some miscasting, and too-modern scenery. But the dazzling Kelli O’Hara is well worth the price of a ticket.

Motown (open run): 4 Tony Nominations

Those expecting the next Jersey Boys or a deeper look into the rise and fall of Motown will be disappointed. Broadway’s newest jukebox musical features astonishing musical performances that are hindered by generic dialogue. But if you want to relive Diana Ross or the Jackson Five or the Temptations performing their greatest hits, there is no other show to see.

Kinky Boots (open run): 13 Tony Nominations

The latest movie adaptation (this one based on a 2005 British indie of the same name) features music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper and a book by Harvey Fierstein. The story—son tries to save the family men’s shoe factory by beginning to make shoes for drag queens—is a true cotton candy confection: sweet, enjoyable, but ultimately dissolving away once you leave the theater. Much of the show feels familiar: Many moments recall La Cage aux Folles, whose book was also written by Fierstein. But with fun songs and high-spirited choreography, it is an enjoyable night at the theater.



Rogers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella (open run): 9 Tony Nominations

R&H music is still beautiful (and beautiful sung by lead actress Laura Osnes) but its new script is borderline excruciating. Why? Well this new version of the classic fairy tale features an election for a Prime Minister. Yep, an election. Oh, and the Fairy Godmother costume looks like it’s hiding two beach balls. So there’s that.

Lucky Guy (closing July 3): 6 Tony Nominations

Though Tom Hanks gives an effective performance, this drama—written by the late Nora Ephron—is just too busy for the stage.