My ten favorite individual performances in New York stage shows that opened in 2019 are listed alphabetically, with explanations for my choices largely excerpted from my reviews.
Ian Barford‘s role as Wheeler, a recently divorced middle aged man in “Linda Vista,” was remarkably demanding: Tracy Letts’ play lasted nearly three hours, and Barford never left the stage, often delivering long complicated monologues. He was also required to be cruel, to be rejected, to beg abjectly and to engage in simulated sex in the nude. But above all, the actor had to accept that many of the audience would hate him.
Always a wonderful actress, Quincy Tyler Bernstine portrayed both the pioneering real-life 19th century nurse at the center of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Marys Seacole,” and several 21st century caretakers, with shades of differences but always keeping a core for all of them that lets us know not just how complicated and heroic Mary Seacole was, but how much she shares with every Mary who has followed.
As Beatrice in the Public Theater’s all-black production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” Danielle Brooks proved herself a Shakespearean actress of a high order – and at the same time redefined what it means to be one.
Best known for portraying Taystee in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” and for her 2016 Tony-nominated Broadway debut as Sofia in a revival of “The Color Purple,” Brooks is a Juilliard-trained actress. She took complete command of Shakespeare’s language, especially in the feisty character’s “merry war” and “skirmish of wit” with Benedick. But Brooks also created her own language – a body language, whose every expression and gesture brings us clarity and joy….and takes us to the state of Georgia in the year 2020.
Andre De Shields commands the stage of “Hadestown” from the get-go. The show begins in complete silence as the rest of the cast watches Hermes, in his elegant, grey silk suit, slide across the stage, pause, and open a button to show a loud and splendid vest, before trombone player Briane Drye lets out a blast from jazz heaven and De Shields launches into the get-down “Road to Hell.”
Raûl Esparza either had a day job that we didn’t know about, or he spent a lot of time training with a real chef for his role as the hilariously persnickety chef in Theresa Rebeck’s culinary comedy “Seared.”. It is a surprisingly mesmerizing experience to witness the long wordless scene in which Esparza meticulously prepares and cooks a wild salmon dish.
Santino Fontana is a charmer and a great talent – and in “Tootsie” he acted! he danced! he sang in different octaves! After an initial bumpy ride, Fontana seems clearly on his way to major stardom.
Samuel H. Levine makes a breathtaking Broadway debut in Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance” as both Adam, the naive adopted son of a rich family, and Leo, a teenage hustler who’s had a hard life. The two characters actually have a scene together!
I normally hate child actors, just on principle, but I cannot deny the extraordinary performance by 12-year-old Aran Murphy in the title role of “Hamnet,” a play that conjures up William Shakespeare’s only son, who died at the age of 11. Murphy seemed unfazed by all the elaborate avant-garde theatrics (video experimenting and the like), maintaining a professional self-assurance without being bratty or losing the sense of natural innocence.
Every single line Lois Smith utters in “The Inheritance” is more than persuasive; it’s an astonishment. You’re likely to cry just remembering her performance as a mother who rejected her son because he was gay, and has been making up for it since his premature death. The 20 minutes Lois Smith is on stage would be rewarding even for people who didn’t care for the remaining six plus hours of the show. This is an actress who made her Broadway debut 67 years ago!
“Tina” belongs to the show’s Tina Turner, a star-making performance of extraordinary stamina. At the end, dressed in trademark tight red leather mini-dress, highest of heels and tallest of wigs, ascending a staircase of flashing lights backed by a raucous band each in his own Hollywood Square, Adrienne Warner delivers Tina Turner’s greatest hits –and we all rise as one, ecstatic, and swoon..
It’s impossible to cap an appreciation of New York stage performances in 2019 at only ten. There were enough good ones for another top ten, and here they are: Amber Gray in Hadestown, Joshua Henry in The Wrong Man, Paul Hilton in “The Inheritance,” Marin Ireland in Blue Ridge, Joaquina Kalukango in “Slave Play,”April Mathis in “Toni Stone,” Lauren Patten in “Jagged Little Rock,” Sarah Stiles in “Tootsie,” Ephraim Sykes in “Ain’t Too Proud”, Michael Benjamin Washington in “Fires in the Mirror.”
Also: the entire casts of Generation NYZ, Halfway Bitches Go Straight To Heaven, and Octet.