Women dominated New York stages this year, giving the majority of the most memorable performances.
My ten favorite individual performers are listed alphabetically, but let’s begin with two noteworthy ensembles:
While there were certainly stand-out performers in the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening, what distinguished the cast is how beautifully it worked together as an ensemble, deaf and hearing interacting in myriad unusual and wonderful ways — interpreting for one another, serving as each other’s double, dancing together (with American Sign Language becoming part of the choreography.)
Kudos go to the cast of the far more obscure Empire Travel Agency, a theatrical spy adventure performed by more than two dozen members of the Woodshed Collective theater company in some dozen locations throughout the city (including two speeding cars) — all for an audience of just four theatergoers per performance. At times funny, at times scary, the performers seemed fully committed to the convoluted script, while also uniformly adept in interacting improvisation ally with each individual theatergoer.
A Tony-winner last year for her hilarious turn as what she called “the worst dancing that ever happened on Broadway” in You Can’t Take It With You, Annaleigh Ashford outdoes herself as the titular pooch in Sylvia. Her consistently funny, sometimes touching, always spot-on canine impersonation was better than Lassie or Toto or even Uggie; she certainly beat out any animal trained by William Berloni. Her only competition may be Snoopy.
Other performers have served ably as puppeteers before – Avenue Q comes immediately to mind – but before Steven Boyer in Hand to God, I can’t recall one actor so fully and insanely embodying two complex characters before – both gawky teenager Jason and Satanic sock puppet Tyrone.
Cynthia Erivo is making an extraordinary Broadway debut as Celie in The Color Purple, a character who is beaten down from childhood. It’s a role easy to overdo, but Erivo gives a credible performance of exquisite nuance, as well as shattering power. There is a light here that’s indescribable but undeniable, and a voice that is pure and clear.
Jackie Hoffman, the star of Once Upon A Mattress, has been an increasingly visible character actor, singer and comedienne in New York over the past 15 years – most recently playing four different parts in On The Town – and now has finally gotten a leading role she’s long deserved. It is one that seems custom made for her to chew up and spit out: Indeed, when we first see her, she is striking a heroic pose in wet clothes until she suddenly spits out a mouthful of water. “I swam the moat,” she explains. This woman can just stand still and stare up at the towering Queen, and it’s hilarious. Her rendition of “I’m Shy,” belted out with nuclear force, is a highlight of the season.
Jayne Houdyshell, as the (belittled) wife and (overly attentive) mother at Thanksgiving in The Humans (which will transfer to Broadway in 2016), is the first among equals in a cast of Off-Broadway royalty. In truth, the whole cast deserves recognition, but I single out Houdyshell because of the 15 years of exquisite performances she has given on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway, even when the show is a dog (like the previous three shows on Broadway), and especially when the show deserves her — such as Horton Foote’s Harrison, Texas, and Follies, and now The Humans.
Sydney Lucas‘s performance as “Small Allison” awakening to her sexuality in Fun Home was so emotionally honest and naked that it was overwhelming moving and maybe a bit embarrassing.: You wondered whether this 12-year-old understood what she was singing about in “Ring of Keys,” when she spots a butch lesbian in a diner (“Do you feel my heart saying hi?”), and almost hoped she didn’t.
Kristine Nielsen is the crazy-seeming, vengeful matriarch in Hir, but as she did as Sonia in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, she manages to reveal the touching human being beneath the caricature, a master of both comic and dramatic acting that I haven’t seen since Jack Lemmon.
Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr in Hamilton, has been getting less attention that Lin-Manuel Miranda, but (thanks in part to Miranda’s generosity as the playwright and the composer) Odom is every bit as much the backbone of the musical — in some ways more so: He provides the bulk of the exposition and narration, and he gets some of the most memorable lines (“Talk less. Smile more.”) His show-stopping number, “In The Room Where It Happens,” has been hard to keep out of my head, but Odom’s most impressive achievement is less showy: Burr is cynical, he’s vain, he’s envious, he’s an opportunist, but he’s also a credible and nearly sympathetic (or at least understandable) human being in Odom’s relatively low-key portrayal of a man who has become one of the best-known villains in American history.
(Read my interview with him, An Aaron Burr Who’s Not The Villain)
Lois Smith, who portrays both an old lady of the future and the her “prime” (or robotic clone) in Marjorie Prime, made her Broadway debut in 1952, her television debut in 1953, and her Hollywood debut alongside James Dean and Julie Harris in 1955. She has been performing Off Broadway since Off Broadway began. At the age of 85, she has given precise, believable and very different performances in two Off-Broadway plays this year; the other was Annie Baker’s John.
Mark Strong is all id in A View From the Bridge, in a production of Arthur Miller’s tragedy directed by Ivo Van Hove that didn’t wow me as much as it did many others. But there is no denying the force of Strong’s portrayal of Eddie Carbone, an inarticulate but well-meaning man whose inability to understand his own feelings makes him do evil things in the name of benevolence.
It’s impossible to cap an appreciation of New York stage performances in 2015 at only ten. There were many, many good ones. So nods to Alex Brightman in School of Rock, Daveed Diggs in Hamilton, Ann Dowd in Night Is A Room, Telly Leung in Allegiance, Kelli O’Hara in The King and I, the ensemble portraying inmates and other roles in Whorl Inside A Loop, Chris Perfetti who took on two roles (and genders) a century apart in Cloud 9, Daphne Rubin-Vega in Empanada Loca. I could go on; I won’t go on.