Exeunt New York’s Most Memorable Shows of 2016

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[I am one voice among many in this piece that asked NYC based Exeunt contributors to nominate one (or in some cases two) productions that haunted us, rather than our top 10 or 15 or more. Originally published by “Exeunt Staff” in Exeunt Magazine, December 31, 2016.]


Rather than a Top 10 list, the critics in New York decided to write about their most memorable shows of 2016.  When a show lingers in your mind for months afterward, there is usually a good reason. These works challenged, excited, surprised, touched, and changed us.  These ten shows were the ones we could not personally shake:

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Falsettos:  I was lucky enough to be invited to the final dress rehearsal of Falsettos. It wasn’t my favorite show of the year by any means (Taylor Mac takes the cake there, but I’ve already written 5000 words on judy’s show for this magazine). But what’s stuck with me is that it immediately created a community out of its audience, much like Taylor’s work did. At intermission, the 200 or so of us in the audience were introducing ourselves to each other, and after the show’s shattering conclusion, strangers were hugging and crying and holding each other up. I had seen the show at the end of a really stressful few days, and desperately needed to cry in a room of strangers who would, at least for one night, become a tight-knit family. (Kev Berry)

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Head of Passes:  Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes at the Public Theater was stunning. Simply stunning. Pay no attention to the naysayers: this is a play unafraid to engage grief and tragedy on a cosmic level. We’ve seen McCraney recall August Wilson throughout his career, and here he invites Sophocles and Shakespeare into his dramaturgy. Phylicia Rashad dazzled with a performance full of raw, guttural passion. (Patrick Maley)

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Men on Boats:  I have to give an end-of-year shout-out to Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus, which I saw when Clubbed Thumb remounted it at Playwrights Horizons. Telling the story of the 1869 expedition that John Wesley Powell led through the Grand Canyon with a cast of all women, this play achieved so much of what I’ve always hoped for from an original production boasting an all-female cast. Shakespeare done entirely with women has hit the mainstream, but it’s rare to see a production that (yes, like Hamilton, which it was inevitably compared to) has diversity baked in as its original premise, an artistically essential aspect of the story. Plus zany and delightful direction by Will Davis, plus a tremendously talented cast, this play has been on my mind ever since I saw it. (Hailey Bachrach)

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Shuffle Along/A Life:  I have complicated feelings about musicals, generally, and it’s rare that I’ll prefer a musical over a straight play. But George Wolfe’s Shuffle Along so embraced the messy weirdness of musical theater, and was such an unabashed geekfest over the joys and struggles and pains of making theater, of succeeding in the theater and of failing in the theater, that I thrilled to it even as I also thought it completely fell apart in Act 2. And then the more I thought about it, the more I thought that spiraling disintegration of Act 2 was an entirely intentional mirror of what happened to the characters after their great moment of triumph—the messiness of the show is the tragedy of their lives, and somehow it made the whole thing come together. (And then there’s seeing a seven-months-pregnant Audra McDonald tap-dance with the best of them).  The other show I had to mention was Adam Bock’s A Life at Playwrights Horizons. I can’t remember a better coup de théâtre than the moment when it dawns on the audience that A Life is not at all the acerbic, witty conventional realist drawing-room comedy you’d been led to expect—and then the environment tops that emotional realization by literally inverting Laura Jellinek’s entire living-room set (and continuing to surprise with the possibilities in that visual move as the play goes on). It was beautifully written, beautifully directed by Anne Kauffman, beautifully acted by David Hyde Pierce and the rest of the ensemble, and beautifully, cleverly, sneakily produced and marketed by Playwrights Horizons. A terrific match of artists and venue as well as a wonderful, thought-provoking, moving play. (Loren Noveck)

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Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812: Although it started out at Ars Nova in 2012 and moved on to an Off-Broadway commercial run, I missed every iteration of Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 before it made it to Broadway.  But from what I finally saw, this new musical scaled up perfectly for a showy Broadway run.  With music and lyrics by Dave Malloy, it is director Rachel Chavkin and designer Mimi Lien that found the way to make this unusual musical (based on a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace) sing.  From the moment you step inside the lobby of the theater, Lien’s architectural, environmental design takes over.  The lobby is decked out in 21st century Russian paraphernalia—remnants of Soviet brutalist architecture, Pussy Riot posters, and overwhelming sense of gray.  Then you enter the theater and it is all Russian Imperial sumptuousness.  You’ve made a journey of a century within a few steps.  And it’s not just the anachronistic, swirling, immersive extravaganza that makes this show notable. For me, the production pushes hard at our understanding of what a Broadway musical can be in smart and aggressive ways.  The multi-ethnic color-conscious casting was meaningful.  Our romantic heroine is a ravishing black girl. We rise and fall with her.  Also, in a ballroom scene when men are dancing with men and women are dancing with women, it’s done with the casualness that should accord such behavior in 2016.  Yet that kind of nonchalance is rare on Broadway.  Characters aren’t usually queer without explanation in Broadway musicals.  Even new Broadway musicals can often feel like an homage to the past but this show with its contemporary attitude felt like a call to the future. (Nicole Serratore)

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead BY SUZAN-LORI PARKS DIRECTED BY LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World: Suzan-Lori Parks’ The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead, at Signature Center in December, was a show we needed to see at the close of another year of shooting deaths of African American men by police in the US. Parks’ preoccupations in this work that dates from 1990, seem eerily prescient in the light of current events, and Lileana Blain-Cruz’s remount is fully conscious of that dynamic. Parks gives us little to grasp in a traditional narrative sense; the playwright imagines a parade of easily recognizable Black character types in American history—a pickaninny, a zip coon, a minstrel, a hambone, a sharecropper, an urban youth in a hoodie—and mostly lets us connect the dots. Yet these symbolically loaded figures speak volumes just standing on stage together, where they engage in a ritualistic polyphony that evokes the storytelling that accompanies the deceased to the afterlife in oral societies. The text is elliptical, lyrical; with its refrains, the wake of sorts to which we are invited could be an a cappella jazz funeral. I attended a matinee that began at the same time as a performance of The New Group’s Sweet Charity, also at Signature Center, where the crowd in the lobby split off along predictably racial lines at curtain time. Sorrow and empathy hung in the theater as heavily as the lynching noose that dangled over the stage. There was a feeling of complicity, as well; these were all-too familiar tropes for the majority of the audience. But not for everyone; some of the white members of Parks’ audience whom I overheard leaving the theater expressed only mystification. With this new production, Parks shines a light into our collective soul in 2016. Not all of us may recognize what it illuminates there, but if we try at least to look and listen, we’ll be reckoning with it for some time to come. (Molly Grogan)

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Marie and Rosetta/The Band’s Visit: The Atlantic Theater Company produced two plays with music, or musicals with a quiet dramatic sensibility, that haunt me in equal measure. Marie and Rosetta, a two-hander by George Brant with music tells an inspiring gospel ghost story based on the intergenerational professional work of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “race record” legacy encountering in dialogue and song, protégée Marie Knight. The music, theatrical frame, and aching truth of the story of these two African-American women stayed with me.  Also, the quietly entrancing new musical The Band’s Visit captures disruptions in a small Israeli town when an Egyptian military band ends up there briefly by mistake (music & lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Itamar Moses). Directed by David Cromer to a delicate fare thee well, in a set by designer and architect Scott Pask that revolves and folds transitions into multiple spaces with choreographed ease, it boasts a star-making performance by Katrina Lenk as a local woman with her eyes on larger possibilities. (Martha Wade Steketee)

1776 City Center

1776:  In a year so dominated by Hamilton, one of the productions that stood out the most to me was Encores’ revival of its major precursor: 1776. Though the musicalized tale of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is now largely considered to be a benign, lighthearted take on a distant history (my first introduction to it was in 4th grade history class), the 1969 musical, born out of the civil rights struggle and Vietnam War, is subtly more revolutionary and distinctly liberal than it often receives credit for. The City Center production directed by Garry Hynes removed the nostalgic trappings of colonial dress and took a cue from Hamilton with its diverse casting.  It made a bold case for the classic musical’s enduring relevancy. Even as it reflected the revolutionary era of its setting and 1960’s origins, the production’s lamentation of an ineffectual Congress and subtle nods to race and Black Lives Matter built a bridge between past and present to show how this decades-old musical is worth reviving in 2016. While the concert presentation may not be the best production on a New York stage this year, this production of 1776 stood out for demonstrating what a musical theatre revival can be: not just a paean to nostalgia and celebration of a bygone era, but a living cultural product that draws on theatre’s liveness and history to simultaneously depict past and present as only theatre can. (Alison Durkee)

 

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