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The 19 Best Plays And Musicals Of The Year

Nothing heals the soul like live theater.

1. American Psycho

American Psycho was always going to be a tough sell: a musical about a charismatic serial killer slashing his way through Wall Street in the ’80s doesn't offer the kind of broad, family-friendly appeal that generally turns Broadway shows into long-running hits. Even to the theoretically more open-minded critical community, the musical — with a Duncan Sheik techno score and a darkly funny book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa — was instantly divisive, ravaged by some and gushed over by others. Given that the source material is Bret Easton Ellis's perennially controversial novel, that's to be expected. But what detractors missed was the musical's keen sense of irony and biting social commentary. It stood out as a thoroughly original vision on Broadway, and the fact that so many people missed the point is a mark in its favor and a sign that its future cult status is inevitable.

2. The Band's Visit

Sweet, unassuming, and unexpectedly poignant, The Band's Visit is a gem of a show. Based on the 2007 film, it follows the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, who have traveled from Egypt to perform in Israel and arrived in the wrong place. Stranded for the night in the quiet desert town of Beit Hatikva — not Petah Tikva, where the Arab cultural center is expecting them — the men meet the locals, each earning a glimpse of the others' lives. In many ways, The Band's Visit is a small show, and not just because it's at the cozy Atlantic Theater off-Broadway. Its aims are minimal, and the slice-of-life stories it contains are subtle and open-ended. But David Yazbek's lush score (one of his best) and a pitch-perfect book by Itamar Moses — along with an exceptional cast — turn The Band's Visit into a uniquely satisfying theatrical experience.

3. Bright Colors and Bold Patterns

Drew Droege is the only actor onstage in Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, which he also wrote, but he's more than enough. As Gerry, he is — by his own admission — too much, and he wouldn't have it any other way. Arriving in Palm Springs for a wedding, Gerry launches into a mostly unbroken (and largely unprovoked) rant about everything from the garish decor (which he loves for its astounding tastelessness) to a younger generation that doesn't appreciate his hyper-specific references (imagine not knowing who Olympia Dukakis is). One of Gerry's biggest complaints is the same-sex wedding invitation's prohibition of "bright colors and bold patterns," which he sees as an attack on loud, unapologetic gay men. Droege's play is relentlessly funny, but it's also a searing indictment of assimilation and the queer community's push toward normalcy.

4. Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen will make you cry. Accept it, lean into it, remove the tissues from your pocket at intermission so you're not one of those people loudly ruffling for them in Act 2. What's impressive about the emotional impact of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's score and Steven Levenson's book is that Dear Evan Hansen isn't a tragedy: Its tearjerker status is cemented by the raw honesty with which it delves into its characters. Evan Hansen himself could, in lesser hands, be something of a villain, a young man who lies about a close friendship with a classmate who killed himself, earning an invitation into the dead kid's family. But in the show's unflinching exploration of Evan's crippling social anxiety — and a stunning performance by Ben Platt — the character emerges as a flawed hero. His mistakes are not excused but understandable — and heartbreaking.

5. Eclipsed

Eclipsed burst onto Broadway with built-in buzz thanks to its impressive pedigree and a well-received off-Broadway run at the Public Theater: It was written by Danai Gurira, who also wrote the warm, funny Familiar, and who plays Michonne on The Walking Dead; it starred Oscar-winning actor Lupita Nyong'o in her Broadway debut; and it was the first Broadway show with an all-black and all-female cast and creative team, an impressive achievement and a major step forward in representation in theater. While all of this contributes to what made Eclipsed special, it's also just a great play, a story of women forming bonds for survival during the Second Liberian Civil War. Despite the heavy subject matter, Gurira's work has a strong sense of humor and an emphasis on the power of female friendship.

6. Falsettos

Who would have thought that a revival of a musical from the early ’90s that combined two shows from the ’80s would end up being one of the timeliest shows of the Broadway season? Falsettos is a gorgeous, extraordinarily moving show, and the Lincoln Center revival at the Walter Kerr Theater feels as innovative now as the show did in 1992. The impeccable casting helps — Stephanie J. Block brings down the house every night with her performance of "I'm Breaking Down," and Brandon Uranowitz is a wonder as nebbishy psychiatrist Mendel — but Falsettos also arrived at the right moment in history. It's a musical with progressive ideals about gay identity and family at a time when those notions feel under attack.

7. Freaky Friday

As of now, there are no plans for Freaky Friday — which premiered at DC's Signature Theatre and is making its West Coast debut at La Jolla Playhouse in January — to transfer to Broadway. That's a pity, because this charming show deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Inspired by the classic Mary Rodgers novel (and sharing little with the hit Disney films beyond its premise), Freaky Friday has workaholic mom Katherine switching places with her sullen teenage daughter Ellie. Bridget Carpenter's book does an admirable job of making Freaky Friday family-friendly without alienating older audience members. It captures the best of great Disney musicals in the way it blends youthful exuberance with adult nostalgia. And the catchy, surprisingly deep score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey is, believe it or not, their best work since Next to Normal.

8. The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family

I didn't see Women of a Certain Age, the third play in Richard Nelson's trilogy at the Public Theater. It takes place on election night 2016, and I decided that seeing it mere days after the actual election was too much to endure. That having been said, the first two plays — Hungry and What Did You Expect? — were such wonderful, intimate explorations of a complicated family that it felt unfair to not include the series as a whole. While Nelson's trilogy is underscored by the tense political climate of 2016 and the questions it raised, there are no loud political debates around the kitchen table where these plays take place. Instead, Nelson focuses on the ever-evolving relationships of the Gabriel family. His language is so grounded and the actors so natural that the resulting work feels like an honest, true-to-life time capsule of the year.

9. A Life

Everything you read about A Life will mention and then skirt around the incredibly jarring twist that occurs halfway through. The big moment completely shifts the narrative and turns A Life into one of the most surprising plays in recent memory. Before that happens, though, Adam Bock's play, which ran at Playwrights Horizons in the fall, is a thoughtful exploration of middle-aged gay identity and the challenges of forming a lasting relationship. His lead, Nate Martin, played with gorgeous authenticity by David Hyde Pierce, is reeling from his most recent breakup when he turns to astrology for answers about his seemingly doomed romantic life. Nate doesn't really figure things out, but as A Life eventually reveals, it's about so much more than Nate. Despite the shift in focus, the play remains fixated on its theme: the power and fallibility of the connections we make.

10. Love, Love, Love

Throughout the three acts of Mike Bartlett's scathing comedy, the characters grow increasingly unlikable. If you are easily turned off by detestable people, Love, Love, Love may not be the play for you. But for those who appreciate watching a family scar each other with impressive selfishness and jaw-dropping cruelty, it's a total delight. The play, which ran at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre through Dec. 18, tracks Sandra and Kenneth — and eventually their children — across the decades. Amy Ryan and Richard Armitage were well-matched as lovers and adversaries, convincingly playing both idealistic youths in late-’60s England and the rich, awful adults they grow into. And Zoe Kazan and Ben Rosenfield turned in equally strong performances as their spiteful kids Rose and Jamie, the living results of decades of damage.

11. Men on Boats

Following a run at Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks Festival in 2015, Men on Boats returned this year, this time at Playwrights Horizons in a co-production with Clubbed Thumb. And it was sorely needed. The subject matter may only sound interesting to those with a specific interest in 19th-century American history: It's based on the true story of John Wesley Powell's expedition into what we now know as the Grand Canyon. The twist in Jaclyn Backhaus's play about dead white men is that the dead white men are all played by women, many of them women of color. At times, Men on Boats is silly — when you've got actors holding up small boats and traversing rapids, some comedy is inevitable — but perhaps what's most impressive is how much sincerity shines through. It's all as funny as it is deeply affecting.

12. Notes From the Field

With only one performer onstage and two acts of near-constant speaking, Notes From the Field — which ran through Dec. 18 at Second Stage Theatre — could easily be boring. Instead, it's an engaging and invigorating piece of theater in which Anna Deavere Smith speaks as 19 different real people, all in their own words. In letting them be heard — or in letting them speak through her — Smith creates a sweeping picture that illuminates the big ideas she wants to address: the failures of schools and the prison system, and the harsh realities of systemic prejudice and violence facing black people nationwide. It's a reminder of both Smith's confident stage presence and the power of listening to real Americans talk about the real problems they're facing. And while it's not always hopeful, it's clear-headed about the path forward.

13. Oh, Hello on Broadway

It's something of a miracle that Oh, Hello actually made it to Broadway. Not because it isn't funny — Nick Kroll and John Mulaney's act, which originated on Kroll Show, is fucking hilarious — but because it's weird and abrasive and honestly nothing that needs to be seen on a big Broadway stage. And yet, there stand Gil Faizon (Kroll) and George St. Geegland (Mulaney) every night, putting on a play-within-a-play that presents a fictionalized version of their already fictional lives. (There's also a moment for Too Much Tuna, the prank show where the prank is in the title: Each performance of Oh, Hello on Broadway has a different celebrity guest coming face-to-face with an imposing sandwich.) You have to appreciate what Gil and George — and Kroll and Mulaney — are doing to get it, but if you do, you're thrilled by every moment that it's happening.

14. Othello

There have been countless great productions of Othello over the past, well, 400 years. The key, as with any modern Shakespeare production, is to find a way to make the material feel as fresh and relevant now as it did in its time. Few succeed the way that New York Theatre Workshop's Othello does. That's a credit to Sam Gold's innovative direction and staging, and to the incredible actors breathing new life into the material. One of the strengths of this production is its ability to express sympathy for the reprehensible actions of its characters — David Oyelowo's Othello and Daniel Craig's Iago do terrible, unforgivable things, but in the complexity of these men's performances is a path to comprehension. This Othello does not excuse anything, but in its gorgeous exploration of all-consuming jealousy, it gives the audience a new approach to engaging with the play.

15. She Loves Me

Roundabout's She Loves Me, which made its home at Studio 54 for a regrettably limited run through July 10, is a reminder of how much joy there is to be found in a classic musical with an impeccable cast. She Loves Me has always been a lovely show, but it found a new audience with the revival, and that's a beautiful thing. It's hard to imagine a better collection of actors for these roles: Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, Jane Krakowski, Gavin Creel, and the rest of the cast were so well-suited to their parts that the gorgeous Bock and Harnick score has scarcely sounded better. She Loves Me is not a show with a strong message for our times — aside from the evergreen notion to follow your heart — but that's OK. Sometimes it's nice to have a musical that entertains thoroughly. If only it were still running: We could use its laughter and warmth.

16. Small Mouth Sounds

There is talking in Small Mouth Sounds, but not much — this is, after all, a play about a group of mostly strangers who go on a silent retreat. The joy of Bess Wohl's play is in discovering these characters through what they don't say, and, more rarely, through the few things they do choose to articulate out loud. Small Mouth Sounds is a fascinating, meditative work. It's thoughtful and compulsively engaging, which probably explains why it enjoyed an encore run at the Pershing Square Signature Center after its 2015 debut. The characters are remarkably well-drawn, and that's essential for a play that reflects on how people process their pain, overcome their struggles, and connect with one another. It's no surprise that these people can't quite find inner peace in their silence, but watching them try makes for great art.

17. A Streetcar Named Desire

A transfer from London's Young Vic, the production of A Streetcar Named Desire at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn was a far better opportunity to showcase the skills and range of Gillian Anderson than the X-Files revival was. Anderson's Blanche DuBois is, as always, fragile, broken, and maintaining a tenuous grasp on reality. But it's remarkable watching the actor plumb the depths of this character and take Blanche to new extremes. The unique production — the stage spins, mostly at a steady pace but with increasing intensity — works as a metaphor for Blanche's psyche, but is also just an exciting new way for audiences to engage with a piece of theater, getting to see everything, quite literally, from all angles. Anderson has expressed no interest in the show transferring to Broadway — here's hoping she changes her mind.

18. Sweet Charity

For audience members who know Sweet Charity solely as the musical with "Big Spender," the New Group's revival at the Signature Center must catch them off guard. This is a dark production of an already dark musical, one in which Charity's relentless optimism is no match for the cruelty of the world around her. She doesn't get the guy, and she ends things roughly as she started. That's not to say Sweet Charity doesn't have moments of levity — in fact, there are plenty — but part of what makes this production so wonderful is the way it refuses to shy away from the underbelly of Charity's story. In her undying hope for a better life, she is both open-hearted and woefully naive. Sutton Foster explores this divide well, capitalizing on her natural charm while exposing a more realistic melancholy. It adds up to the perfect blend of pizzazz and pathos.

19. Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare's more challenging plays, and it's particularly difficult to get right. The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park production over the summer did an exceptional job of figuring out how to make it work. Credit is largely due to director Daniel Sullivan and the show's Cressida, Ismenia Mendes: Together, they provide a very human and comprehensible context to Cressida and the choices she makes. Suddenly a character whose betrayal never quite gels becomes a tragic and relatable figure — it's an impressive feat that doesn't require changing the text at all. Another of the Shakespeare in the Park offerings this summer, The Taming of the Shrew, tried similarly to work through the bard's more problematic notions. The attempt is noble on its face, but Troilus and Cressida is a particularly notable success.

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This post has been updated to reflect that Men on Boats was a co-production with Clubbed Thumb.