Anna Deavere Smith has virtually created a genre of her own with her solo stage works drawn from her reporting on events like the Los Angeles race riots. Her focus here is a bit more diffuse — America’s failing educational system and its impact on black America — but once she again proves a master of turning committed journalism into dynamic stage pieces.
Tensions rise among four employees at a Detroit auto plant facing the prospect of layoffs in Dominique Morisseau’s incisive glimpse of working class anxieties in Donald Trump’s America. Along with Lynn Nottage’s Sweat (about Pennsylvania steel workers whose jobs are about to be outsourced to Mexico), off-Broadway theater this year seemed more in touch with the political winds than most journalists.
One-man bio-plays can be tedious things. But not Hershey Felder’s tribute to the life and work of composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein. Felder, refreshingly, bypasses the usual “and-then-I-wrote” chronology and offers a more impressionistic, affectionate but even-handed portrait, embellished with a bounty of Bernstein’s music, performed with flair by Felder at the piano.
The 1963 Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joe Masteroff musical about a love-letter romance in 1930s Budapest is one of Broadway’s little gems, and it got a near-perfect revival last spring, directed with uncommon delicacy by Scott Ellis and starring the delightful Laura Benanti as the stubborn shopgirl who gets won over by ice cream.
William Finn’s pioneering gay-themed musical — a combination of two one-acts written a decade apart, before and after the AIDS crisis — might seem a relic of the bygone ’80s. But it looks as fresh and winning as ever in James Lapine’s brisk new Broadway production, starring Christian Borle as the sexually confused husband and father, Andrew Rannells as his gay lover, and Stephanie J. Block as his suffering wife, who freaks out wonderfully in the showstopping number “I’m Breaking Down.”
A swimming pool takes center stage — and not just for show — in this deftly turned drama about the ethical choices faced by an Olympic swimmer and his entourage when drug charges surface. Playwright Lucas Hnath (The Christians) builds the stakes in punchy, stylized scenes that lift the play beyond mere issue drama, to something more subtle and resonant.
4. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Dave Malloy’s pop-rock musical, based (sort of) on War and Peace, doesn’t have quite the immersive fizz it did in two earlier incarnations as a downtown cabaret-style show. Still, it has come to Broadway with its bold theatricality and infectious score intact — plus a new star, pop singer Josh Groban, who has the pipes that a big Broadway house needs.
A misfit teenager becomes an unwitting high school hero after the suicide of a classmate. A small musical with big ideas — about parenting, about the Internet, and about our desperate need for connection — and a big new star in Ben Platt, who plays Evan. The score, by hot songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is serviceable, but few musicals are as psychologically acute or strike as powerful an emotional chord as this one.
2. Love, Love, Love
A couple hook up in the free-spirited, drug-fueled ’60s, then (in two successive acts, spaced 20 years apart) see their marriage, kids and lives unravel. This piercing new play from Mike Bartlett (King Charles III), imported from London’s Royal Court Theater, is admirably lean and mean, a portrait both of two severely mixed up characters, and of an entire generation’s ambiguous legacy.
It was submerged by the Hamilton tidal wave, but in any other season George C. Wolfe’s splashy re-creation of a landmark black musical of the 1920s (and the story behind it) might have been the toast of Broadway. Part revival, part theater history, part backstage drama, the show was not only a tribute to the African-American contribution to the Broadway musical, but also (with an all-star team of performers like Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter) a showcase for the contemporary fruits of that grand tradition.