Looking back on a year that offered an extraordinary range of shows, from intimate (Heisenberg, Blackbird) to spectacular (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812), it’s the performances by some of our most dazzling artists that stand out in the memory: Maryann Plunkett anchoring the Gabriel family, as she did the Apples, in Richard Nelson’s second Hudson Valley trilogy. Leon Addison Brown quietly compelling a schoolboy to confront his own demons in “Master Harold”…and The Boys. Frank Langella defying dementia in The Father. Joe Morton channeling Dick Gregory in Turn Me Loose. Michelle Williams ferociously battling Jeff Daniels in Blackbird. Nathan Lane devouring the scenery in The Front Page. Jessie Mueller breaking our hearts with Sara Bareilles’ beautiful ballad “She Used To Be Mine” in Waitress. Here are the best of the best for 2016:
NEW MUSICALS AND PLAYS
The Band’s Visit. The best show of the year. David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’ intimate musical, exquisitely staged by David Cromer, is based on Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film about an Egyptian army band stranded overnight in an Israeli desert village. A gorgeous score, smart book and shimmering performances led by Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk combined in perfect balance. Look for it to move from the nonprofit Atlantic Theatre Company to Broadway in the new year.
- The Gabriels: Election Year In The Life Of One Family: Hungry (March), What Did You Expect? (September) and Women Of A Certain Age (November). Playwright-director Richard Nelson and an incomparable ensemble at the Public Theater took audiences on a three-part journey with a Hudson Valley family confronting diminished expectations, changes of fortune and an unanticipated presidential race. With this and the previous Apple family quartet, Nelson captured with surgical precision and sensitivity an American decade that began in Bush-era despair, blossomed in the promise of the Obama years and stumbled darkly into the November election and beyond.
Dear Evan Hansen. Arriving on Broadway after its off-Broadway New York premiere at Second Stage, this timely, haunting show about a shy high school boy swept up in a social-media whirlwind has made a star of Ben Platt (Pitch Perfect) in the title role.
- Sweat. Set in a Pennsylvania industrial town whose working-class denizens are being downsized into oblivion, Lynn Nottage’s drama offers a powerful crash course for anyone trying to understand the appeal of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Kate Whoriskey’s superb Public Theater production is moving to Broadway, with performances beginning March 4 at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54.
- Waitress. Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles made her Broadway debut with the gorgeous score for this deceptively delicious musical about a young woman, played by the irresistible Jessie Mueller, with more than pies in her dreams.
Heisenberg. Speaking of dreamy, Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt played Georgie and Alex, the year’s most romantic couple, in this intricate one-act from Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time), which moved from the Manhattan Theatre Club’s off-Broadway digs at City Center to its Broadway home.
- Oslo. J.T. Rogers’ riveting dramatization, as much choreographed as directed by Bartlett Sher, of the socio-political quadrille that led to the September 1993 photo-op seen ’round the world, when Bill Clinton presided at a Rose Garden ceremony in which Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands after signing a historic peace accord. The Lincoln Center Theater production resumes March 23 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
- Indecent. Playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman revisit a great scandal, when in 1923 Sholom Asch’s play Indecent had its Broadway debut and featured an illicit lesbian kiss — the least of its blasphemies. Much more than a revival, the superb Vineyard Theatre production imagined the events leading up to — and, most hauntingly, following — that culture-rattling event. Also Broadway bound, Indecent begins performances April 4 at the Cort Theatre.
- Ride The Cyclone. Cats Meets A Chorus Line. This late-season entry from the ever-adventurous MCC Theatre was one of the year’s weirdest yet most rewarding musicals. Set in a warehouse that’s home to an amusement park fortune-teller, the show concerns six teens who have just died in a roller-coaster accident. Urged along by the none-too-consistent Amazing Karnak, they sing and dance for the grand prize: One will get to return to the mortal coil. Not nearly as grim as it sounds, the score by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond is a charmer with moments of great feeling in a debut that reminded me of the early work of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. And that’s saying something.
- Nice Fish. And speaking of weird, Mark Rylance (Bridge Of Spies, Wolf Hall) and his favorite writer, Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins, brought to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn this fish tale of two friends camped out on a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere at the end of ice-fishing season. Occurrences more wondrous and strange than the Northern Lights unfold.
Southern Comfort. Dan Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis adapted this touching charmer of a musical from the 2001 Sundance Festival prize-winning documentary about a rural Georgia outpost that is the unlikely safe haven for a community of transgender folks. Elsewhere they may suffer as social outcasts, but here their suffering is the more universal sort that happens among people who love one another intensely. Led by the astonishing Annette O’T0ole, the show was a dreams-haunter and another highlight of the Public Theater’s latest unmatched season bringing provocative new works to the fore.
- “Master Harold” … and The Boys (Signature Theatre Center)
- Blackbird (Broadway)
- Sweet Charity (The New Group)
- Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Roundabout Theatre Company/American Airlines Theatre)
- Sunday In The Park With George (New York City Center, reopening on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre)
- She Loves Me (Roundabout Theatre Company/Studio 54)
- The Robber Bridegroom (Roundabout Theatre Company/Laura Pels Theatre)
- The Front Page (Broadhurst)
- The Father (for Frank Langella’s performance in the title role)
- Turn Me Loose (for Joe Morton’s performance as comedian-activist Dick Gregory)
- The Encounter (for Simon McBurney’s performance as everyone)
- Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812 (for set designer Mimi Lien’s transformation of the Imperial Theatre into Imperial Moscow)
- The Crucible (for Ivo van Hove’s extraordinary vision of Arthur Miller’s play)
- Smart People (for playwright Lydia Diamond’s insistence that African-Americans not be ghettoized any more on stage than off, through plays populated by gifted, complicated, ambitious characters)