My list of ten favorite shows on New York stages in 2016 reflect two unmistakable trends – the use of the stage to present important current issues facing the country, and shows that innovate in artistic form.
If these seem like very different trends, an argument can be made that they are both in reaction to this surreal election year.
Some shows that fit the bill of socially conscious or artistically innovative, or both, aren’t on this list, simply because they weren’t my favorite. The most obvious example is Richard Nelson’s trilogy “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” which was admirable in many ways, but which didn’t hold me the way his earlier, similar trilogy about the Apple family had.
It’s worth noting that most of the shows on this list were Off-Broadway or Off-Off Broadway, although two of them are scheduled to transfer to Broadway in the Spring of 2017, marking the long-delayed Broadway debuts of their authors.
1. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
This sung-through musical adapted from a “scandalous slice” of “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy was on my list of top 10 in 2013, when it had moved from the Off-Broadway theater Ars Nova to a circus tent in the Meatpacking District. I was struck from the get-go by its catchy songs and by its cutting-edge stagecraft.
I list it as my favorite now that it’s on Broadway starring Josh Groban, because of how little it’s changed. Its staging comes very close to the kind of immersive theater that’s lately been intriguing theatergoers all over the world – everywhere but Broadway, until now.
The musical is a collaboration among three emerging theater artists who have now fully emerged – composer Dave Malloy, director Rachel Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien. All of them have an already impressive track record – Chavkin was also the director and collaborator this year on the terrific Hadestown — and promise groundbreaking work to come.
Like Grapes of Wrath, Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat offers a devastating look at social and economic breakdown, told not with rants or statistics, but through a riveting tale about good people in a bad situation. The characters in Sweat hang out in a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, which 2010 U.S. Census data identified as the poorest city in America.
Everything clicked for me in the Public Theater production of this play, which is transferring to Broadway in Spring 2017. Playwright Lynn Nottage, who spent much time doing research in Reading, deserves additional kudos for continuing her presence in that city, developing a site-specific installation in the abandoned Reading Railroad Station, entitled “Out/Let,” to engage the diverse and divided communities of the city in dialogue, and create a cohesive and collective portrait of the city.
3. Dear Evan Hansen
This musical is about an awkward teenager whose life is turned upside down because of a well-meaning lie he tells in the wake of a suicide of a classmate, which is amplified by social media. Ben Platt’s heartbreaking performance, Pasek and Paul’s tuneful score and the sensitive book by Steven Levenson make this show both affecting and entertaining. But “Dear Evan Hansen” is also insightful into all matter of basic human conditions, from grief to altruism, and it has only gained in relevance and impact just in the short time it has journeyed from regional theater to Off-Broadway to Broadway, where it opened this month.
4. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music
Taylor Mac’s 24-decade history of popular music was also a 24-hour history – a marathon culminating presentation of American songs from 1776 to the present that was outrageous, outlandish, offensive, embarrassing, raunchy, insightful, inspired, clever, sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving, sometimes thrilling — and once-in-a-lifetime. Mac has singlehandedly invented his own genre. The term “concert” feels inadequate – just as calling Mac a drag act doesn’t get anywhere close to describing the artist’s extraordinary talent and breadth of theatrical ambition . The Mac voice is a flexible instrument that serves all genres, the body a canvas for fabulousness, the mind a weapon against mainstream complacency.
5. Notes From The Field
It’s been nearly a quarter century since Anna Deavere Smith more or less invented her own art form, a theatrical genre that combines activism, extensive research, a deep talent for mimicry, and a journalist’s devotion to accuracy and balance with an artist’s masterful command of stagecraft. She applies her approach once again, albeit a bit diffusely, to explore the interconnection between a neglectful public education system, a overly funded prison system, and the killing of black people by police.
6. Caught (and YOUARENOWHERE and A Life)
“Caught” messed with your head in the most exquisite of ways. In part a send-up of the art scene – the conceptual artist as con artist — it was itself a form of conceptual art, and a series of cons, presenting a Chinese dissident artist who turned out to be very different from what he initially seemed. It is a prime example of an emerging trend that I call trickster theater. Other terrific examples of trickster theater this year were ” YOUARENOWHERE” by Andrew Schneider, which I’m not going to attempt to explain (except to say that its title is both “You are Now Here” and “You Are Nowhere”), and A Life by Adam Bock, which has a coup de theatre halfway through that I really shouldn’t reveal. (That’s the problem with trickster theater – it’s hard to write about.) Either one of these could be in my top 10 as well. I single out Caught because in its provocative way it had things to say about truth and lies and perception, about the pitfalls of cultural exchange – and even, what I suspect will be a big news story, the relationship between China and the West.
Qui Nguyen and director May Adrales find such richly inventive and entertaining ways to tell the love story of two Vietnamese refugees in America that the play feels wiped clean of the clichés of both the ‘immigrant experience’ and ‘the hell of war’…For all the pop-culture silliness, the playfulness with language, and the clever stagecraft, ‘Vietgone’ paints complex and credible portraits of the two main characters.
While Broadway reacquainted audiences with Shuffle Along, Off-Broadway was opening our eyes to another landmark Broadway show from the 1920s – this one an all-Jewish, lesbian-themed drama that led to a criminal prosecution. Indecent is both a fascinating history lesson written by Pulitzer-winning Paul Vogel, and a cleverly staged entertainment directed by Rebecca Taichman. It is scheduled to transfer to Broadway in 2017, making – incredibly – Vogel’s Broadway debut.
9. She Loves Me
I’ll concede this revival of a 1963 slightly dated, somewhat flawed musical is an outlier on the list, but I have a soft spot for “She Loves Me,”,in which I played the lead in a student production when I was in ninth grade (She Loves Me, the Broadway Musical That Changed Our Lives.) Still, even somebody who has never heard of this romantic musical comedy could easily fall in love with this year’s Broadway production, thanks to the gorgeously melodic score, David Rockwell’s jewel box of a set, and the stand-out performances by Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski as two lovelorn shopgirls in an elegant European parfumerie.
10. Black Magic, The Radicalization of Rolfe, Rent Control
These three shows were among my favorite at the 20th New York International Fringe Festival, a festival I’ve attended every year since it began.
Black Magic is a choreopoem written by undergraduates about a series of anonymous black men, who died violently.
The Radicalization of Rolfe tells a back story of The Sound of Music, but unlike such shows for equally cherished stories like Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz, it’s not a musical, and it’s subversive – Rolfe, the minor character who was 16 going on 17, is depicted as a gay Nazi. But the play is not campy.
Rent Control is Evan Zes’s solo show, which he says is based on his personal experience, that is as much about the life of a struggling actor as it is about his adventures as a housing hustler doing battle (or taking advantage) of the behavioral sink that is New York City’s housing market.
The Fringe organizers announced that they are going on hiatus next year, which makes my singling out shows from this anniversary year all the more necessary. Who knows what will happen in the future?