17 Best Broadway Shows This Season

2:17 PM 4/29/2016

by THR Staff

THR's chief theater critic shares his top picks from a season packed with invigorating revivals, fresh movie adaptations and audacious new works.

Broadway Still Split - H 2016
Courtesy of Jan Versweyveld, Joan Marcus, Bridgette Lacombe

Clockwise from left: Mark Strong in 'A View From the Bridge,' Audra McDonald in 'Shuffle Along,' Saoirse Ronan in 'The Crucible,' Jeff Daniels in 'Blackbird,' Leslie Odom Jr. in 'Hamilton,' Lupita Nyong'o and Saycon Sengbloh in 'Eclipsed'

  • 'Hamilton'

    This is one of those shows that sends you out exhilarated and breathless, not just humming the tunes — and there are 34 finely chiseled jewels to choose from — but awed by the momentous weight of history being simultaneously recounted and made. Within the Broadway spectrum, Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop historical musical has less in common with recent smashes than with shows that radically expanded audiences' perceptions of the kind of stories musicals could tell, and the language and form they could use to tell them. It's arguably been more than 35 years since a new American musical came along that could legitimately be called revolutionary, and Hamilton waves that flag with the same fervor and intelligence as its fiery protagonist.

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  • 'The Humans'

    A few years ago, The Humans would probably have been slapped with the reductive tag of "post-9/11 drama." But Stephen Karam's beautiful, funny-sad and ultimately wrenching portrait of a troubled lower-middle-class Pennsylvania family is so much more than that. Under Joe Mantello's impeccable direction, and in the hands of an exemplary six-member ensemble, the play builds on the ample promise of Karam's earlier works, confirming him as a uniquely probing investigator of the contemporary American psyche. Audiences who see only the sorrow in Karam's grainy family snapshot are missing the grace and light and the extraordinary intimacy that pierce the shadows.

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  • 'A View From the Bridge'

    High-rotation classic texts sometimes resurface on Broadway for inadequate reasons — often to provide a vehicle for a major star, whether or not the creative team has found valid new ways to illuminate the work. That's most definitely not the case with Belgian avant-garde director Ivo van Hove's riveting take on Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. The production ties the audience's stomachs in knots almost from the outset, and then inexorably tightens those knots with a ferocious sense of purpose and control over its unbroken two-hour duration. Performed by a sizzling ensemble led by Mark Strong, this is powerhouse theater that leaves you breathless.

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  • 'The Crucible'

    Almost operatic in their intensity, Ivo van Hove's productions are designed to leave audiences agitated and uncomfortable, which is notably the case with this distressing 1953 Arthur Miller drama, with its steadily amplified sense of horror and indignation. The mesmerizingly acted new production (featuring Saoirse Ronan in her Broadway debut) trades the play's specific period and milieu — the witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 — for a pared-down look and non-naturalistic, indeterminate setting. Instead, the production presents a chilling account of the institutional arrogance and ignorance that are a threat to civil liberties in any age, particularly when the dividing lines separating politics, religion and the judiciary become blurred.

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  • 'She Loves Me'

    Designed as a pastel-colored, art nouveau jewel box, the 1963 show has been directed by Scott Ellis with effortless buoyancy and sophistication. It's also ideally cast, with an ensemble led by Laura Benanti, whose silvery soprano was born to sing this role. Add in Zachary Levi, projecting throwback charm with winning confidence, and Jane Krakowski in top form and you have a revival that will delight admirers of this musical favorite while providing a perfect introduction to those encountering it for the first time.

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  • 'Eclipsed'

    Eclipsed is immediately noteworthy as a work written by a Zimbabwean-American woman; featuring a cast of five women with African roots, playing distinctly drawn characters yet working as a single, powerful unit; and directed by a South African-born woman. But Liesl Tommy's fine production also signals Danai Gurira as a playwright of uncommon ambition, and marks an impressive Broadway debut for Lupita Nyong'o. The play pulls us into and holds us captive in the vivid world of the Second Liberian Civil War, its stark horrors rendered with unflinching honesty and delicate poignancy — all the more so because they are treated as an everyday reality, often viewed with surprising humor.

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  • 'King Charles III'

    Mike Bartlett's ingenious "future history play," a fantasy set in the immediate wake of Queen Elizabeth's death, is an endorsement of the constancy of the British sovereign, at the same time offering a fiendishly clever and yet serious questioning of the role of royalty in the 21st century. The play makes savvy points about the supreme power of column inches and the value placed on the rule of popularity above all else. The majestically human central performance without which the conceit would crumble is Tim Pigott-Smith's as Charles, wisely sidestepping impersonation for more nuanced character study. 

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  • 'The Color Purple'

    When the musical adaptation of Alice Walker's searing story of abuse and deliverance premiered on Broadway in 2005, its rewards were compromised by the overblown production. Ten years later, director John Doyle and an electric cast assembled around transcendent British newcomer Cynthia Erivo as Celie have given the show a deep — and deeply satisfying — rethink. This revelatory overhaul is characterized by its grace, restraint and soaring spirituality, peeling back the excess to expose the life-affirming material's molten emotional core. Starring alongside Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks, Erivo's finely calibrated performance supplies the production's direct hit to the heart, mind and gut.

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  • 'Fiddler on the Roof'

    Bartlett Sher's beautiful revival is led by a performance of aching humanity from Danny Burstein as the dairyman Tevye. The 1964 musical's rousing prologue stresses the value of "Tradition," and this staging honors that imperative while at the same time providing a robust connective thread between the story and our world a century later. The unforced warmth of Burstein's big-hearted performance could heat the whole theater through winter. The other key factor fueling this production's galvanizing life force and vivid sense of Jewish identity is also its most radical departure from the original: the explosive, loose-limbed movement of Israeli modern dance choreographer Hofesh Schecter.

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

    It's almost impossible to stay still in your seat when the internally motorized ensemble of Shuffle Along explodes into one of choreographer Savion Glover's seismic tap routines, or when the thoroughbred leads wrap their velvet pipes around those syncopated jazz sounds. Scene after scene dazzles in one of the most electrifying entertainments on Broadway. The uncommon ambition behind writer-director George C. Wolfe's project starring Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter is baked into the show's hefty subtitle: Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. And if the resulting historical reappraisal is more successful at charting the creative high than the deflating hangover that came after, the performances alone make it unmissable.

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  • 'Long Day’s Journey Into Night'

    Eugene O'Neill's intimate epic lasers in on the gloomy insularity of characters representing the playwright's own unhappy family. But Jonathan Kent's starry production, led by a transfixing Jessica Lange, also invites us to see reflections of our own closest relationships in the haunted Tyrones — bound by love and hatred, need and rejection, co-dependence and isolation in an agonizing present tormented by the long reach of the past. Much of the acrid humor that keeps bubbling up comes from Michael Shannon's dangerously unpredictable Jamie Tyrone, but the heat-seeking center of the production is Lange's morphine-addicted Mary, a role she played previously in London 16 years ago.

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  • 'School of Rock - The Musical'

    It's funny, but you don't realize just how badly you needed to see a 12-year-old boy powering through a face-melting guitar solo, or his pint-size female counterpart on bass, pouting like the coolest of rocker chicks, until you witness them onstage in this disarming musical adaptation. Led by the hilarious Alex Brightman in a star-making performance that genuflects to Jack Black in the movie while putting his own anarchic stamp on the role of Dewey Finn, the Andrew Lloyd Webber show knows full well that its prime asset is the cast of ridiculously talented kids, ranging in age from nine to 13. They supply a joyous blast of defiant analog vitality in a manufactured digital world.

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  • 'Waitress'

    Tony winner Jessie Mueller returns to Broadway with an even more transcendent performance in Waitress, the thoroughly charming musical theater debut of composer-lyricist Sara Bareilles. "Sugar" is the first word in the show, and this adaptation -- from an all-female creative team -- of the 2007 indie film about a Deep South diner server who dreams of baking herself a better life doesn't stint on sweetness. But that's all to the good in a deep dish of feel-good feminist comfort food. The material is anchored at every step by Bareilles' melodious pop score and Mueller's supremely natural performance. 

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  • 'Blackbird'

    It was nine years ago when Jeff Daniels first appeared off-Broadway in Joe Mantello's taut production of Scottish playwright David Harrower's volatile two-hander, Blackbird. Revisiting the play with the same director on Broadway opposite a sensational Michelle Williams, the actor now brings a noticeably deepened middle-aged gravitas that adds fascinating layers to his character — of bitter defensiveness, corrosive dishonesty, subjugated desire and, ultimately, ice-cold fear. Unyielding in its needling focus, this riveting drama is a stark examination of love, pain and loss that's both compassionate and unforgiving, all of which helps it navigate the move to a bigger stage with a corresponding amplification of its emotional power.

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  • 'On Your Feet!'

    OK, so there's nothing quite like a conga line to conjure visions of tacky wedding receptions and drunken office holiday parties. But just try keeping the grin off your face when two massive human chains — of cast and audience members — flood the aisles of the Marquis Theatre right before intermission in On Your Feet! Charting the rise to international superstardom of Gloria Estefan, and her triumphant re-emergence after near-tragedy struck, this biographical musical is an infectious account of the lives and careers of the Latin music crossover sensation and her producer-musician husband Emilio Estefan. The show features a star-making lead performance from radiant newcomer Ana Villafane.

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  • 'American Psycho'

    Tired of all those idiotic millennials with their sappy nostalgia, trying to pass off the 1980s as something more than a spasm of shame and revulsion? Then American Psycho is the show for you, bringing the ruthlessness of a serial killer in an orgiastic bloodbath to its depiction of the decade that annihilated taste, restraint and feeling. Director Rupert Goold, composer Duncan Sheik and book writer Roberta Aguirre-Sacasa crank up the satirical volume on Bret Easton Ellis' cult novel in a musical with design to die for and a cool, period-appropriate electro-pop score. And as Patrick Bateman, the chiseled Benjamin Walker takes us on a riveting journey of existential ennui that bleeds into violence before bottoming out in anguish.

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  • 'Noises Off'

    The stiff walk and posture that Megan Hilty has created for her clueless character is the gift that keeps on giving in Roundabout's delicious Broadway revival of Noises Off. She's well matched in director Jeremy Herrin's production by a first-rate troupe of New York theater pros like Andrea Martin and Rob McClure. The characters are all distinctly drawn, from the affected theater luvvies to the mousy assistant stage manager. Farces in general, and this one in particular, need to barrel forward in an accelerating spiral of pandemonium that allows the audience no time to get distracted by irrelevant questions of believability, or — in the case of Frederick Fellowes (Jeremy Shamos), the neediest of the play's actors — motivation. But erratic pacing here makes the hysteria feel at times more manufactured than spontaneous. That said, the strength of both the material and the cast keeps it entertaining.

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