My ten favorite individual performances in New York stage shows that opened in 2016 are listed alphabetically, with explanations for my choices largely excerpted from my reviews, but let’s begin with three noteworthy ensembles:
Normally, when one talks of a “great ensemble,” it means that the actors work together well, and, often implicitly, that nobody stands out. The ensemble from “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” certainly works well together, but everybody also stands out – each performer is assigned a mini-stage and a section of auditorium to entertain, part of the effort of translating the show’s immersive theater legacy in a Broadway setting.
All but one of the seven cast members of “Small Mouth Sounds” performed mostly in silence, portraying people attending a silent retreat. The actors in Bess Wohl’s comedy, directed by Rachel Chavkin (who also directed Great Comet and Hadestown this year) slowly – and mostly silently — reveal each individual’s tragedy, the reason why they are seeking relief for their suffering.
“The Wolves” depicts an adolescent girl’s soccer team, and at times the cast feels like one organism, chattering (cross-talking) while engaged in vigorous physical warm-ups. Yet the actresses manage to get across the distinctive personalities of their characters.
With her gift for comedy and her glorious voice, Laura Benanti couldn’t be better as Amalia, the love-struck shop clerk in “She Loves Me,” whose anonymous object of affection, with whom she corresponds through a Lonely Hearts Club, is actually her hated co-worker. If there’s a wink now and then in her manner – we’re all having fun up here — there is persuasive passion when it counts. It was a pleasure to see the Tony-winning actress back on Broadway after an absence of almost six years
Through the alchemy of his barking brilliance, Nathan Lane, portraying a scheming editor for whom no ploy is too low, turns the entire third act of “The Front Page” into more or less a one-man show, everybody else transformed into his supporting players.
As the drug addicted mother in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Jessica Lange was not just a fading ethereal figure, but a robust woman whose entire life unfolds before us — alternatively innocent, skittish, coquettish, sneering, full-out furious, resigned. It’s a memorable performance to put on our collective mental shelf besides her Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire and her Amanda Wingfield in Glass Menagerie – her only two previous forays on Broadway.
Taylor Mac, the creator and star of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, is one of the two performers on this list who are inseparable from the theater piece they are in, a work they created. The breadth of his artistry is matched only by the depth of his stamina.
In “Shuffle Along,“ Audra McDonald portrayed Lottie Gee, “the first black ingénue.” acting with her usual miraculous grace and emotion, and singing with her usual heavenly voice completely reoriented (as usual) to fit the part. But, in a newly revealed talent, she also tap danced effortlessly in a whole catalogue worth of styles.
I first saw Joe Morton playing a mute alien in the indie film Brother from Another Planet. He’s since become best known as Kerry Washington’s father in Scandal, What a delight and a revelation to see him embody a character who could not be more different, stand-up comedian and activist Dick Gregory, in the solo show “Turn Me Loose.” He had the comic timing down pat, but subtly let us see the human being behind the act.
Deirdre O’Connell, who this year portrayed a reckless California mother with a sense of history in “The Way West,” is Off-Broadway royalty, in the same league as Jayne Houdyshell (whom I picked to be one of my top ten last year, and who afterward finally got the attention she deserved, winning a Tony for her role in The Humans) She never fails to impress me with her performance – I will be forever grateful for her part in “Circle Mirror Transformation” — yet is so unheralded that I manage to mangle the spelling of her name.
Ben Platt is heartbreaking as the titular character in “Dear Evan Hansen,” an awkward teenager afraid to talk to anybody for fear of breaking out into a sweat. He is such a demonstrably good actor that when he sings (with a lovely tenor and strong falsetto) such unbearably sad, lonely and lovely songs as “Waving Through A Window” and “Words Fail,” you might momentarily marvel at how he is able to make his face appear as sweaty as Evan Hansen’s would be.
It is a reflection of how completely credible Maryann Plunkett has been in Richard Nelson’s plays about ordinary families living in upstate New York that it came as a surprise to learn that she’s a Tony-winning veteran of nine Broadway shows, including a couple of musicals. In Nelson’s “The Gabriels” trilogy this year, Plunkett portrayed Mary Gabriel, a widow and retired doctor. In Nelson’s “Apple Family” quartet from 2010 to 2013, she played a schoolteacher, one of three Apple family sisters. All seven plays were all “in real time,” opening on the day they were set, meaning that Plunkett and the rest of the cast were forced to learn new lines the very day the plays opened. The entire cast deserves kudos for disappearing into their roles, but paradoxically, Plunkett stands out for disappearing the most.
Anna Deavere Smith’s performances are, like Taylor Mac’s, inseparable from the work she creates. In “Notes from the Field,” as with her previous work, she exhibits her deep talent for mimicry, portraying 17 disparate characters, young and old, from East and West, of different ethnicities. She also demonstrates once again her masterful command of stagecraft.
It’s impossible to cap an appreciation of New York stage performances in 2016 at only ten. There were enough good ones for another top ten, and here they are: Khris Davis for a memorable New York stage debut as Jay “The Sport” Jackson in The Royale, and then in Sweat; Melissa Errico in Finian’s Rainbow; Sutton Foster in Sweet Charity /; Amber Grey for her performances in both “Great Comet” and “Hadestown“; Katrina Lenk in The Band’s Visit; Jessie Mueller in Waitress; David Oyelowo in “Othello“; Phylicia Rashad in “Head of Passes“; Noah Robbins in “Master Harold…and the boys“; Michael Urie and Robin de Jesus in Homos or Everyone in America (I count them as one, since they were persuasive as a…unit.)