It's the time of year when critics and commentators routinely draw up their best of the year lists, and I'm no exception. In the bumper Christmas edition of The Stage, you can find my critical round-up of the West End year, but in today's column I want to highlight my 10 favourite musical theatre events of 2014.
The Lion – St James Theatre
Back in August, I declared the Lion "one of the smallest shows in town, featuring just a man and six guitars on an otherwise bare stage. It runs for just 70 minutes. And yet it is, for me, absolutely the best original musical of the year so far, on either side of the Atlantic." I ended up seeing it a third time, too, and now that the year has drawn to a close, it simply hasn't been bettered in content or execution. Benjamin Scheuer's deeply affecting and personal journey, set to his own thrilling songs, through his childhood battles with his late father and his later struggles with his former girlfriend and his now banished cancer. Scheuer will bring it back to Off-Broadway's Lynn Redgrave Theatre at Culture Project from February 3. Book your flight now.
Dogfight – Southwark Playhouse
The Lion wasn't the only show I saw at least three times this year. I was also a serial return visitor to the UK premiere of Dogfight, Pasek and Paul's brutal but eventually beautiful 2012 Off-Broadway musical. Its portrait of misogyny brought charge from some critics that it was itself guilty of misogyny, but portraying something is different to endorsing it. Besides, Laura Jane Matthewson's astonishing performance of female empowerment – after being used as pawn in a man's game – silenced all doubts about who held all the cards here. She was tenderly supported by the growing emotional awakening of Jamie Muscato to make this one of the most heartfelt shows of the year.
In the Heights – Southwark Playhouse
Also at Southwark Playhouse — now one of the most enterprising theatres in London — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2007 Off-Broadway musical In the Heights also received its UK premiere. I loved this rawer, rougher production in London even more than I did when I saw the more polished version in New York. It had a much sweatier vigour, particularly thanks to the choreography of fast-rising star Drew McOnie. There are hopes to get this production to the West End – I only hope they're able to hold onto the atmosphere they created in Southwark.
The Howard Goodall season – Union Theatre
Okay, I'm cheating a bit here – this should actually be three separate entries, since each of the three shows presented in the Union Theatre's celebration of the person I personally consider to be Britain's foremost theatrical compose was a real gem.
The Dreaming, originally written for the National Youth Music Theatre, was given its first professional outing, and revised Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to a yearningly romantic score.
Love Story reprised Goodall's musical 2010 musical – first seen at Chichester and then at the West End's Duchess – in a captivatingly sincere production that featured performances of quiet, wounding intensity by David Albury and Victoria Serra as the two protagonists, two more of the best performances I saw all year in musicals alongside the two leads in Dogfight (see above).
Finally, Girlfriends – Goodall's 1987 musical that was a fast West End flop – was sensationally reclaimed, with its haunting score of surging choral anthems providing a tapestry of emotion in music. I can't wait for the West End premiere of Goodall's latest, Bend It Like Beckham, in 2015 at the Phoenix.