Culled from the list of the 34 plays and musicals I saw on Broadway in 2017, the following stood out as representing the top ten - the best of the best.
Strictly by coincidence, my list includes five straight plays and five musicals. Here they are, in alphabetical order, and with my rationale for their inclusion.
1984. Big Brother is watching you! This was a smart, literary, and disturbingly-staged version of George Orwell's dystopian novel with unfortunate parallels to the state of the world today. Not for the squeamish, but powerfully acted by a cast that included Tony winner and New York theater stalwart Reed Birney as the sympathetic-seeming O'Brien. I'll confess that I had to see this twice in order to get past the all-too-realistic torture scenes, yet nothing seemed gratuitous or inappropriate.
THE CHILDREN. OK. Another dystopian tale. It relocates the 2011 nuclear power plant meltdown from Fukushima,
Japan to the English coast. More significantly, it serves as a sly indictment of the baby boomer generation for the messes the aging population is leaving behind. The production benefits greatly from maintaining the original London cast and director, and from Lucy Kirkwood's smart and gallows humor-infused script. Note: This is still running until February 4 in case you want to catch it.
INDECENT. Paula Vogel's examination of Sholem Asch's 1907 Yiddish-language melodrama GOD OF VENGEANCE, which featured prostitutes and a lesbian kiss. Asch's play was widely produced and well-received in Europe but ran afoul of censorship and the law when it journeyed to New
York. Ms. Vogel considered the play's themes and its history, and told the story through the eyes of the company of actors who toured with it. This was one of the best all-around productions of any play I've seen in a very long time, with brilliant and Tony-garnering directing by Rebecca Taichman and an exceptional cast that included Katrina Lenk, now wowing everyone in the Broadway musical THE BAND'S VISIT.
JITNEY. August Wilson's 1982 play, a rich examination of a group of drivers for a pre-Uber car service, has been produced Off Broadway before, but this full-scale Broadway production more than made the case for recognizing it as a top-drawer entry in
Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle. This was another stellar ensemble production, one that picked up a Best Revival Tony along with well-deserved nominations for its director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and actor John Douglas Thompson.
THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. In a word: hilarious. If you like old-fashioned slapstick comedy, this play about a third-rate acting company that runs into every problem imaginable will leave you richly satisfied. I may be splitting hairs, but this
kind of romp is a far cry from classical farce where everything seems, at least to my taste, to be too obviously clever. Here, it all seems to gloriously fall apart of its own accord. Note: This is still running, with tickets available into March, in case you want to catch it.
BANDSTAND. An original musical with a heart and a brain, a great score, amazing dancing, and a super cast. It's about a group of talented jazz/swing musicians who are psychologically lost after their experiences of serving in World War II. They all suffer from varying degrees of PTSD and are thwarted by the fact
that life at home passed them by while they were away; their only support is one another. Corey Cott and Laura Osnes sublimely led the cast, and Andy Blankenbueller, who choreographed HAMILTON, served in that capacity here, and also directed. The show has unfortunately closed, but the original cast recording does a good job of capturing the score (Richard Oberacker wrote the music and he and Robert Taylor are responsible for the lyrics). This was far and above the best musical I saw in 2017.
THE BAND'S VISIT. An adaption by playwright Itamar Moses of the movie of the same title. It tells the story of the members of a small group of Egyptian musicians who have been invited to participate in a performance in Israel but wind up in the wrong town, where they are obliged to spend the night. If you are expecting ethnic conflict, you'd be wrong.
Instead, it is a quietly sweet and touching tale, brought lovingly to life by a perfect cast, including the aforementioned Katrina Lenk and Tony Shahoub, a skillful actor who has become a regular on the New York theater scene. What holds it all together is the lovely, lovely score by David Yazbek, and David Cromer's gentle direction. Currently running.
HELLO, DOLLY! Actually, it wasn't the presence of Bette Midler that sold me on this production of Jerry Herman's 1964 musical, a show that I had never before seen on
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. This delightfully staged and performed revival of the Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical has the feel of a Caribbean folk tale that has been passed down and reshaped from generation to generation. It boasts joyful singing, clever staging, and charm by the bucketful as it relates the story of Ti Moune (an auspicious Broadway debut by 18-year-old Hailey Kilgore) who enlists the aid of the gods as she dares to defy the social strictures of her community. There is a dark side to the story, along the lines of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," but that does not diminish the many pleasures to be found here. Currently running.
SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. It is probably best to be familiar with Nickelodeon's popular cartoon character, who
lives in a pineapple under the sea. For fans, this is a super-duper treat, brilliantly staged and performed and filled with music that was written for the show by 14 songwriters and teams, including Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, and They Might Be Giants. Nautical nonsense abounds, and it is more fun than a day of jelly fishing and a platter of Krabby Patties. Currently running.
Link here for my list of the best of the year's Off Broadway plays: (Top Ten Off Broadway Shows - 2017)
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