Thursday, December 22, 2016


From the list of 163 plays and musicals I've seen this year on and off Broadway, I'd like to highlight 15 performances I found to be standouts.

Some on the list are seasoned veterans, while others seemingly popped out of nowhere to grab hold of the stage and shake it to its core.  

Those I have identified are, of course, representative of my personal viewpoint and tastes. They appear below in alphabetical order.  

Annaleigh Ashford is always a delight, but she really stood out in the roles of Dot and Marie in the brief fund-raising run of Sunday In The Park With George at City Center in October. Much of the publicity centered on Jake Gyllenhaal as George, but it is Ashford who knocked it out of the ballpark and should only get better as the Sondheim musical moves to Broadway for a 10-week run starting in February.  Go for Jake if that's the draw for you (he's very good in the role), but stay for what is likely to be a Tony nominated-performance by Annaleigh.  

Ato Blankson-Wood (along with Vondie Curtis Hall, featured below) blew the roof off the Public Theater during the production of Heidi Rodewald and Stew's latest show, The Total Bent. Blankson-Wood and Hall appeared as a son and father, and represented the shift in the black music scene from church-style gospel to the world of mainstream funk.  Terrific show.  Terrific performances.

Stephanie J. Block will surely be nominated for a Tony for her performance as Trina is the revival of William Finn's resplendent musical, Falsettos. Her show-stopping "breakdown" song alone is worth the price of admission.  

Alex Brightman in School of Rock. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical cleaved too closely to the movie to provide anything new or surprising, but it sure rang up a winner when it tapped Brightman, a dynamo of energy, for the lead role as Dewey Finn, the rock ‘n’ roll slacker who becomes a long-term substitute teacher at an upscale private school  and bumbles his way into becoming an inspiration to his students.  

Timothée Chalamet exuded charisma and self-assurence by the bucketful as the troubled and troublesome title character in John Patrick Shanley's memory play The Prodigal Son.    

Carmen Cusack gave one of those sit-up-and-take-notice performances as the lead character of Alice Murphy in the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell bluegrass-inspired musical Bright Star.  The original cast recording of the show is up for a Grammy.  Got my thumbs up! 

Vondie Curtis Hall, as mentioned above, shared the spotlight with Ato Blankson-Wood in The Total Bent at the Public Theater and gave an unforgettable performance as a preacher and gospel singer, very unhappy with his gay son's embracing of a personal and musical lifestyle that is totally alien to him.   

Katrina Lenk is Broadway-bound in Paula Vogel's Indecent, which I missed during its acclaimed off-Broadway run. Instead, her appearance on this list is for her performance in the little gem of a musical, The Band's Visit.  She was dazzling as the owner of cafe in an isolated Israeli town that is unexpectedly visited by the members of an Egyptian band,  lost while on their way to another venue. I hope she and the musical, with its lovely score by David Yazbek, get another production (after Indecent, of course).  

Kecia Lewis, like Ms. Lenk, caught my attention at the Atlantic Theater Company.  She wowed in Marie and Rosetta as the gospel and R&B singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her powerhouse performance, including some mighty fine singing, lifted the show far above its bio-play roots.  

Judith Light is an actress who continues to show an undying
love of and commitment to live theater despite her successful career in the television world. Never one to take on easy, lightweight fare, this year we got to see her in Neil LaBute's one-character play All The Ways To Say I Love You, a disconcerting confessional by a school teacher who is a ruiner of lives, including her own. Another splendid performance from the two-time Tony winner.     

Janet McTeer is currently starring on Broadway alongside another terrific actor, Liev Schreiber, in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Her place on this list, however, reflects her glorious performance as Petruchio in the all-female Shakespeare In The Park production of Taming of the Shrew in June. Her turn as the raunchy swaggering misogynist was the awesome highlight.

Patrick Page is an imposing presence in any show that
allows him to use his barreling baritone in service of his craft. He has made this list for two performances:  one in the non-singing role of the patrician Menenius in the Red Bull Theater's fiery production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, and the other as the sinister character of Hades in the musical version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Hadestown, so wonderfully performed in its Off Broadway production under Rachel Chavkin's pitch perfect direction.  

Ben Platt has been rightly identified as the top contender for a 2017 Tony for his bundle-of-twitchy-nerves performance as a troubled teen in Dear Evan Hansen. The show has made a smooth and easy transition from Off Broadway to Broadway and is consistently drawing sell-out crowds to the Music Box Theatre. Best comparison to Platt's performance is with Alex Sharp's 2015 Tony-winning turn in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  

Jennifer Simard in Disaster. Simard was a comic standout as a nun with a gambling addiction in this spoof of the genre of disaster movies that were all the rage in the 1970s. The show incorporated songs from that era, and Simard knocked it out of the ball park with her rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed and Delivered" as a passionate ode to a slot machine.  

Bobby Steggert always gives 110% in the plays and musicals in which he appears (Ragtime, Yank!, Big Fish, Mothers and Sons, among others). His place on this list is for his performance in a small Off Broadway show, based on a true story, called Boy. In it, he gave a richly layered performance as a young man whose parents attempted to raise him as a girl on the advice of physicians and a renowned psychologist after a botched medical circumcision left him without a penis. This forced transgender role ruined his life even more than the accident. Steggert suffused his performance with warmth, gentle humor, and without an ounce of pathos. This was his best work since Yank!

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

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