Friday, December 30, 2016

The Best Shows of 2016: Part I

As we approach the end of a calendar year which has seen plenty of political upheaval and more than a few untimely celebrity deaths, it feels even more necessary to remember all the good that 2016 had to offer. On this blog, that means looking back on the best shows of 2016, those productions which moved, challenged, and entertained us while also showcasing the abundance of talent in New York City.

In order to be eligible for inclusion, a production must have had its official opening night in 2016, and it must have been seen by yours truly. And since I have neither the means nor the time to see everything which premieres in a given year, there will obviously be some worthy omissions from this list, so don't take a show's exclusion as indication that I didn't like it. (Except Falsettos; while I don't think it's a bad production, I honestly don't understand why this clunkily constructed musical is causing such a fuss among critics.)

Here are the first 5 of my Top 10 Shows of 2016; the rest will follow shortly!

10) Eclipsed

Lupita Nyong'o and Zainab Jab in the Broadway production of Eclipsed.

The 2015-2016 Broadway season was heralded for its diversity, both onstage and off, and there were few more compelling examples of that diversity than Eclipsed. Written, performed, and directed by women of color, Danai Gurira's play brought a fresh and authentic perspective to the story of women struggling to survive during the Liberian Civil War. And while the women's circumstances were often harrowing and deadly serious, Gurira's play was also incisively funny and ultimately hopeful, refusing to allow its characters to become victims of their circumstances. Expertly portrayed by stunningly accomplished group of actresses (including Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o in a thrilling Broadway debut), the wives at Eclipsed's center emerged as powerful and intelligent women who each found their own ways of coping with the horrors which surrounded them. It demonstrated just how much giving underrepresented perspectives a voice can invigorate the American theatre, and one can only hope that Broadway will continue to support this kind of probing work.

9) In Transit

Margo Seibert, Moya Angela, and the company of In Transit.

Every year I seem to have a soft spot for at least one show that is dismissed by critics and the audience at large. And while In Transit is by no means the best show I've ever seen ignored by the theatre community at large, it has a lot more to offer than most reviews would lead you to believe. For one, the a cappella score lends the musical a sound unlike any other, a deceptively complex composition with multi-layered harmonies and carefully crafted vocal lines. The performances are all charming, and the characters show us an underexplored facet of the human experience: the transition from the idealistic, impassioned twenties to the more measured but no less intense thirties. The show's New York specific humor and beast of a score will like hold this show back from having much of a life outside of the city, which is unfortunate but perhaps fitting for a show where the setting is as much a character as any of the people in the narrative.

8) The Woodsman

The Off-Broadway company, both human and puppet, of The Woodsman.

At some point, almost everyone who sees enough theatre will start to decry the lack of originality, bemoaning the abundance of "safe" productions with traditional structures and narratives. Shows like The Woodsman prove there is still plenty of invention to be found for those willing to seek it out, offering one of the most thrillingly theatrical experiences of the year. Using very little dialogue, this one-act prequel to the Wizard of Oz was story theatre at its best, utilizing sound, puppetry, and wildly inventive stagecraft to tell the story of how the Tin Man lost his heart. The seamless ensemble, led by the show's writer and director James Ortiz, transported the audience to a dark yet entrancing corner of the merry old land of Oz while tapping into primal emotions which transcend mere words. Thankfully this delightful production was recorded for posterity, and can be streamed right now from BroadwayHD.

7) American Psycho

Benjamin Walker (center) and the cast of American Psycho.

One of the most divisive productions of the year, those who saw American Psycho either really loved it or really didn't. I happen to fall into the former category, being completely smitten by how brazenly the show flaunted the conventions of Broadway to tell the story of ladder climbing serial killer Patrick Bateman. Benjamin Walker was absolutely sensational as the murderous title character, creating a perfectly controlled facade only to let it crumble piece by piece as Bateman became more and more detached from reality. How this actor failed to score a Tony nomination is beyond me, but it is one of the great oversights of the 2016 awards season. Combine Walker's excellence with stunning set and projection design, pitch perfect satire of 80s consumerism (embodied to perfection by Morgan Weed's delightfully shallow Courtney), and a pulsating electronic score by Duncan Sheik and you have one of the most memorable musicals of the year. A show that deliberately pushed so many buttons was always facing an uphill battle towards commercial success, but this wonderfully inventive show has all the makings of a cult hit that will be discovered and loved by theatre aficionados for years to come.

6) Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Josh Groban and the Broadway cast of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

Honestly, I would have loved to rank this as the best show of the year, as I did the Off-Broadway production in 2013. Unfortunately, the Broadway transfer of Dave Malloy's 19th century Russian fantasia Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 isn't quite as magical in its bigger home, but it remains one of the most jaw-droppingly inventive musicals of the decade. Once again director Rachel Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien have created an immersive world for this sung-through tale of intrigue and seduction to take place in, utilizing every available inch of the heavily renovated Imperial Theatre to further the illusion of being in a different time and place. The score is a dizzying collection of seemingly disparate elements, effortless interwoven by Malloy to create something wholly original and unlike anything to grace the Broadway stage. The performances are all quite good, including recording superstar Josh Groban in his Broadway debut. Perhaps most exciting of all is the fact that such innovation is being rewarded not just with critical praise but packed houses, which will hopefully encourage even more musical experimentation in the future.

Be sure to check back at the end of the week for my Top 5 Shows of 2016!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting list so far. Given that I'm more a movie than theater buff and I live in upstate New York, I don't get to see a lot of theater, but I have seen four productions I really loved.

    First, I saw a production of To Kill A Mockingbird, where professional actors played the adults, and local kids played the children. Whoever was the dialect coach for this production was amazing because these kids nailed their Southern accents. The director of the show chose a unique staging: he had several black and white teens, dressed in jeans and hoodies, come out on stage with copies of the novel and listen to the adult Scout as she tells her story. They also helped move the stage pieces around from scene to scene. I know reading this here it might sound gimmicky, but having seen it myself with my own two eyes, it actually worked really well for the production.

    Then I saw the touring productions of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time as they passed through my city (Rochester, NY). I enjoyed both of them very much.

    Then I saw a production of Don Quixote with puppets put on by my friend Pete who happens to be manager of his own little theater company. Very enjoyable production, and done in a theater that used to be a church.