David Rooney: The Best New York Theater of 2016

6:00 AM 12/19/2016

by David Rooney

A 19th century electro-popera, a real-time reflection on a turbuluent election cycle, a Shakespeare tragedy electrified by star wattage and an emotionally raw musical about adolescent isolation were among the year's highlights on Broadway and off for THR's chief theater critic.

From left, Daniel Craig in 'Othello', Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw in 'The Crucible', Josh Groban in 'Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812' and Ben Platt in 'Dear Evan Hansen'
From left, Daniel Craig in 'Othello', Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw in 'The Crucible', Josh Groban in 'Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812' and Ben Platt in 'Dear Evan Hansen'
Courtesy of Chad Batka (2); Jan Versweyveld; Matthew Murphy

Now in the second year of its blockbuster run, Hamilton continued to dominate Broadway news in 2016, not least after President-elect Donald Trump ripped into the cast for daring to voice concerns about the incoming government directly to Vice President-elect Mike Pence when he attended the show Nov. 18.

"The theater must always be a safe and special place," fumed Trump on Twitter, calling the respectful curtain-call speech made by actor Brandon Victor Dixon harassment and demanding an apology.

But "safe" in the theater generally means unchallenging, and the best of this year's Broadway and off-Broadway shows were anything but passive entertainment. Even the 19th-century Russian romp that tops my list is audacious in the way it shakes up conventional musical theater form and language, pulling the audience into its giddily immersive storytelling.

Race, politics, wealth inequality, downward mobility, sexuality, cultural collisions, intolerance, fear mongering, detente and death were among subjects that found eloquent, non-didactic theatrical expression on New York stages, achieving startling resonance at times through their restraint and elsewhere through their scorching power.

Some favorite theatergoing experiences from early in the year inevitably got nudged out of my final ten.

The current Fiddler on the Roof revival is a powerful rethink of a classic show, its poignancy magnified by a frame connecting the story of persecution and forced emigration to the refugee crisis of today. And another cherished musical by the composing team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, She Loves Me, returned in a production that was sheer romantic rapture — performed, designed and directed with consummate artistry.

Sixty years after it was first staged (and 75 years after it was written), Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night demonstrated once again why it remains the towering mother of all American dysfunctional family dramas in a searing revival led with haunted intensity by Jessica Lange. And there arguably was no more nail-biting faceoff than the harrowing confrontation that took place onstage every night between Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in Blackbird.

Not all the New York critics were convinced by Richard Greenberg's The Babylon Line. But after the dramatist had disappointed earlier in the year with the arid and unsatisfying Our Mother's Brief Affair, I found his latest ruminative memory play intoxicating in its language, its rich character detail and its transporting evocation of a time and place.

Top of the list of shows I regret missing this year is Paula Vogel's Indecent, which explores the history of a scandalous Yiddish drama, shut down in 1923 after a single New York performance. So I look forward to catching the production when it transfers in the spring, marking the long-overdue Broadway debut of one of the country's most esteemed playwrights.

  1. 1
    10

    'Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812'

    Courtesy of Chad Batka

    Pass the vodka. In terms of the explosive energy and inventiveness of its storytelling, nothing this year could touch writer-composer Dave Malloy's operatic riff on a 70-page tranche of War and Peace, its toe-tapping score drawing with exhilarating abandon from '80s electro-pop, modern classical and East European folk, among other styles. Rachel Chavkin's production mesmerizes like a beautiful antique spinning top, and design genius Mimi Lien pushes the concept of environmental staging to unprecedented heights for Broadway. Reclaiming the theater aspirations he put on hold when his recording career took off, Josh Groban delivers a richly expressive performance with lustrous vocals, while no less than five women among the principal cast make Broadway debuts worth celebrating. My personal favorites: Brittain Ashford, whose second-act solo will shatter your heart; and Gelsey Bell, an extraordinary vocalist who sings a descending chromatic scale in one number and then soars in another into the outer reaches of demented avant-garde opera. Amazing.

  2. 2
    10

    'The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family'

    Joan Marcus

    After his Apple Family Plays, which premiered between 2010 and 2013, there was a danger that writer-director Richard Nelson might be repeating himself by structuring another real-time cycle of hushed conversational works around another clan of liberals from upstate New York as they weathered personal vicissitudes and echoed the collective hope, disillusionment and loss of America in this most turbulent of political years. But this Chekhovian trilogy represents fine-grained, ultra-naturalistic portraiture alive with warmth and humor, hurt and compassion, performed by an astonishing ensemble seemingly incapable of a false moment. In the first of them, Hungry, one character quotes the fundamental questions a playwright must answer: "Why did you write it?" and 'Why should we watch it?" Nelson provides resounding responses to both, going on to pose even trickier questions like, "Who are we?" and "What have we become?" and "Why do I feel like a stranger in my own country?" Experiencing these immensely affecting plays in a post-election marathon at the Public Theater this month was a cathartic reminder that life, for better or worse, goes on. Usually with a simple meal.

  3. 3
    10

    'Dear Evan Hansen'

    Matthew Murphy

    Ben Platt's bone-deep immersion in the title role of this tremendously moving musical is one of those performances so raw in its emotional exposure that you leave the theater wondering how he can go there eight times a week without major medication, or at the very least, post-show therapy. Composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (who also penned the wistful lyrics for the songs in La La Land) and writer Steven Levenson tap directly into a well of teenage-outsider isolation, and Michael Greif's superbly cast production hits every sonorous note. This story of an unintentional lie that spirals out of control laces its moods of sorrow, confusion and regret with delicate humor. It's also one of the most persuasive depictions I can recall of the terrifying roar of social media when it turns ugly and judgmental. Be warned though: see this show and you'll have the song "Waving Through a Window" in your head for days.

  4. 4
    10

    'The Band’s Visit'

    Ahron R. Foster

    Composer-lyricist David Yazbek often raids the movie vaults for source material, having previously musicalized The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. But this ravishing minor-key chamber musical based on the 2007 Israeli film is arguably his finest work. With an elegant book by Itamar Moses and direction by David Cromer defined by its subtlety, the show is suffused with romantic melancholy and a palpable sense of yearning, its unerring focus on human connection stripping away all politics. Set in a lonely place stuck in time, the story follows an Egyptian police band who land in the wrong town for the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Israel. Blowing in on a desert wind, the strangers bring a magical breath of reprieve to a place of deadening inertia. Headed by Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, respectively, as the key figures on the Egyptian and Israeli sides, the cast couldn't be better, and the Middle Eastern-flavored music is simply gorgeous. A Broadway transfer is rumored — yes, please.

  5. 5
    10

    'The Crucible'

    Jan Versweyveld

    Director Ivo van Hove's radical reinterpretations of classic texts are the opposite of theatrical comfort food, designed to leave audiences wrung out and unsettled. He followed the thunderous opera of his A View From the Bridge the previous year with another potent Arthur Miller drama, delivering a chilling indictment of the dangers of mob-mentality rule on an impressionable populace. The 17th century Salem witch trials, originally read as an allegory for 1950s McCarthyism, proved imminently relatable, perhaps even prescient, in this timely horror story about institutional arrogance and defiled civil liberties, in which the boundaries separating politics, religion and the judiciary are trashed. The first-rate cast included Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Saoirse Ronan, Ciaran Hinds and Bill Camp, all at the top of their game.

  6. 6
    10

    'Oslo'

    Courtesy of T. Charles Erickson

    It's hard to think of more dry-sounding dramatic fodder than the nine months of secret back-channel talks in Norway that led to the historic 1993 accord between Israel and Palestine, symbolized by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn while President Bill Clinton looked on. But playwright J.T. Rogers, director Bartlett Sher and a brilliant ensemble led by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle transformed that material into a suspenseful political play of uncommon wit and perspicacity, about culturally diverse people discovering shared goals and unexpected personal affinities. The best play of its kind since Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, which also takes its title from a Scandinavian capital where momentous talks took place, Oslo transfers to Broadway in the spring.

  7. 7
    10

    'Othello'

    Chad Batka

    The powerhouse pairing of David Oyelowo as the Moorish Venetian general and Daniel Craig as his rancorous third-in-command, passed over for promotion, is the reason this austere modern-dress production was an instant sellout. But director Sam Gold and a knockout ensemble that also includes Rachel Brosnahan, Finn Wittrock, Marsha Stephanie Blake and Matthew Maher make it much more than a star showcase. Set in a plywood-encased army barracks somewhere in the Middle East, the production conveys an almost overwhelming sense of macho toxicity as a living, breathing monster, unencumbered by mercy or morality. Even potential distractions like soldiers singing Drake's "Hotline Bling" become an organic part of an intensely visceral, often frighteningly physical contemporary microcosm that nonetheless remains true to Shakespeare's tragedy.

  8. 8
    10

    'Falsettos'

    Joan Marcus

    The return of this wonderfully idiosyncratic 1992 musical confirmed that composer William Finn had been absent from Broadway for too long. Ideally cast and staged with enormous heart by original director and co-writer James Lapine, the show studies boys of all ages as they struggle to figure out how to be men. Breakthroughs in LGBT rights in the intervening 20-plus years have done nothing to trivialize the rollercoaster relationship journey of neurotic Marvin, played by Christian Borle, and seemingly shallow pretty boy Whizzer, a terrific Andrew Rannells. Full of howling laughs and wrenching tears, the musical also brings back the nightmarish early years of the AIDS crisis with a pathos that's never mawkish. As the nice-Jewish-girl wife dumped by Marvin and navigating a new relationship with his shrink, Stephanie J. Block nails what might be the most hilarious musical performance on Broadway right now with the song "I'm Breaking Down," in which her struggle to keep up with ever-changing rules gets the better of her.

  9. 9
    10

    'A Life'

    Joan Marcus

    Adam Bock's most surprising and layered play since The Receptionist, this strange, utterly transfixing reflection on mortality is so centered around one major dramatic event that I'm reluctant to say much about it for fear of compromising anyone's discovery of its existential mysteries in future productions. Playing a middle-aged gay New Yorker with intimacy issues, David Hyde Pierce has never been better. He opens the play with a half-hour monologue that's as compelling as it is banal — a chatty account of failed relationships, astrology, self-help avenues and to-do lists. Soon after that intro, Bock, director Anne Kauffman and set designer Laura Jellinek upend our expectations, plunging us from the quotidian into an entirely different, destabilizing reality that confronts our darkest fears with humor, spirituality and profound sensitivity. This play was reverberating in my head for days afterwards.

  10. 10
    10

    'Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed'

    Julieta Cervantes

    Visionary writer-director George C. Wolfe is one of American theater's boldest cultural archeologists, sifting through the past to shed light on the present, particularly in terms of black history and its marginalized place in the national landscape. His latest show was commercially short-lived and unable to fully contain its outsize thematic ambitions within its syncopated chronicle of the first all-black jazz musical comedy to reach Broadway. But even if it came up short in assessing that show's legacy or shaping drama out of its fractious creative team's triumph and tumble, the production delivered almost non-stop electrifying thrills, with a dream cast led by Audra McDonald, and some of the most insanely explosive tap numbers that ever punished the floorboards — courtesy of choreographer Savion Glover.

comments powered by Disqus