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Top 15 NJ Theater productions of ’23: ‘A Midwinter Night’s Dream,’ ‘The Pianist,’ ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ more

Jessica Ires Morris, center, as Queen Titania, with eight Fairies in The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production of “A Midwinter Night’s Dream.”

This year in New Jersey theater ended strong. My No. 1 and No. 3 picks for the best productions of the year, in fact, are still running (“A Midwinter Night’s Dream” through Dec. 31 and “Fiddler on the Roof” through Jan. 7), so I highly recommend you catch them if you can. And two of my other choices, “Odyssey” and “Trich,” are fairly recent, as well.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say anything general about my list. There are some new works on it but some older ones, too; some are heavy and some are light; some took big risks while others were more straightforward but too well done to ignore.

I wrote in last year’s Top 15 post that “New Jersey’s theaters got back to normal” that year, after the pandemic — i.e., all the cancellations and postponements and social-distancing modifications of the previous two years. This year, I found myself not even thinking about the pandemic much anymore, though I know many theater presenters say that attendance has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels, so that is still a concern, and a reason to support live theater as much as possible.

Of course, I can’t say that this is a definitive list of the best that New Jersey theaters had to offer in 2023. There were a lot of productions that I just couldn’t get to, and I’m sure I missed a lot of great ones. But I did see a lot, and this is the best of what I saw.

Here are my 15 picks. For each one, you can click on the title if you want to read my entire review.

1. “A Midwinter Night’s Dream,” Shakespeare Theatre at Drew University, Madison. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” transferred to a wintertime setting, with some daring and well-executed physical humor and a fresh, frosty look. This inspired production serves as a fitting finale for Bonnie J. Monte, who is stepping down from her position of artistic director after more than three decades (she co-wrote this adaptation). But it also augurs well for the institution’s future, as it was directed by Brian B. Crowe, who will take over as artistic director next year.

Daniel Donskoy, shown with Tina Benko, starred as the title character of “The Pianist.”

2. “The Pianist,” presented by George Street Playhouse at New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Emily Mann directed her own new adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s World War II memoir “Death of a City” (later re-published with the title “The Pianist”; Adrien Brody starred in the Oscar-winning 2002 movie that was also based on this book). And if I had a New Jersey Actor of the Year award, I’d give it to Daniel Donskoy, as the title character, a sophisticated artist forced to scratch and claw to survive.

3. “Fiddler on the Roof,” Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn. Not groundbreaking, but close to flawlessly executed, this production dependably delivers the big emotional payoff we’ve come to expect from this classic musical.

4. “A Man for All Seasons,” Shakespeare Theatre at Drew University, Madison. A historical, political drama that seems very relevant to modern times, buoyed by strong performances by Thomas Michael Hammond as the staunchly moral Sir Thomas More and Roger Clark as the charismatic, mercurial King Henry VIII, with Kevin Isola adding earthy comic relief as the play’s working-class narrator.

5. “Odyssey,” presented by Peak Performances at Montclair State University. Presented by Peak Performances as part of a national tour by the New York-based Acting Company, this play takes a look at Homer’s “Odyssey” through the eyes of four modern, female refugees — hailing from different countries, and thrown together by chance — with revelatory and highly entertaining results.

Christopher M. Ramirez, left, and Carlos Ibarra in “Living & Breathing.”

6. “Living & Breathing,” Two River Theater, Red Bank. A thought-provoking new play reminiscent of Yasmina Reza’s “Art.” Playwright Mando Alvarado depicts three friends with differing views on a piece of avant-garde art purchased by one of them — an actor in a glass case, portraying various Latin American stereotypes — and the havoc that wreaks on their relationships with each other.

7. “Bulrusher,”McCarter Theater Center, Princeton. Playwright Eisa Davis ranges from purposely coarse to ambitiously poetic in this quirky, modern but also somewhat mythical tale, set in 1955 in Boonville, California, where the residents speak in a colorful dialect of their own.

8. “Selling Kabul,” presented by Premiere Stages at Kean University, Union. A masterfully suspenseful and nerve-racking play, set in Afghanistan in 2013 and showing a family trying to protect the central character, an interpreter who has worked for the United States military, and is being hunted by the Taliban for doing so.

9. “Passing Strange,” Vanguard Theater, Montclair. A coming-of-age story in the form of a frantic rock musical, with great performances by Jason Tyler Smith as the relatable central character and Dwayne Clark as the story’s electrifying narrator, and Lawrence Dandridge stealing the show as an intense and possibly insane German performance artist.

10. “Popcorn Falls,” New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch. James Hindman and Tom Souhrada masterfully played about 20 characters in Hindman’s whirlwind-like comedy, in which a bunch of amateur actors band together to put on a play in order to save their small Upstate New York town.

11. “Trich,” Luna Stage, West Orange. Becca Schneider’s one-woman, autobiographical show is sometimes delivered like an informative lecture but ultimately turns Schneider’s struggle with the obsessive disorder known as trichotillomania into a dramatic tale with an engaging flow of its own.

12. “Tales From the Guttenberg Bible,” presented by George Street Playhouse at New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Movie star Steve Guttenberg (“Police Academy,” “Three Men and a Baby,” “Cocoon,” “Diner”) starred in this play about his own life, with three actors playing a variety of relatives, managers, other actors and so on. It’s not the most dramatic show-biz story, but it’s cleverly staged, and Guttenberg’s self-deprecating, low-key approach was ultimately quite charming.

Eric R. Williams in “Raisin.”

13. “Raisin,” Axelrod Performing Arts Center, Deal. This musical, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama “A Raisin in the Sun,” won the Best Musical Tony when it ran on Broadway in 1973, but has rarely been revived since then. This production made you wonder why. Hansberry’s story retains much of its power, and the songs (composed by Judd Woldin, with lyrics by Robert Brittan) touch on blues, gospel and jazz, with a touch of Burt Bacharach-like complexity that has aged well.

14. “The Unseen Hand,” “Action” and “Little Ocean,” Black Box Performing Arts Center, Englewood. “Little Ocean,” from this evening of Sam Shepard one-acts, had never been produced in the United States before. But it was the two other works that came closer to representing Shepard at his best — wild, unpredictable and outlandishly funny.

15. “The Shot,” New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch. Sharon Lawrence offered a compelling portrait of a remarkable woman in Robin Gerber’s one-woman play about the professional highs and personal lows of longtime Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.

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