The 19 Best Plays And Musicals Of 2017

1. The Band’s Visit

1. The Band's Visit

Matthew Murphy

The off-Broadway production of The Band’s Visit made my list of the best theater of 2016 last December, and while I try to avoid repetition, I couldn’t imagine a list of the best theater of 2017 that didn’t include it. The Band’s Visit isn’t just one of my top shows this year — it’s perhaps my favorite musical of the last decade. My love for this stunning, deceptively profound piece of theater has only grown since I first saw it. The show documents the unexpected collision between the residents of a small Israeli town and the members of an Egyptian band who find themselves stranded there overnight. Itamar Moses’ book, based on the 2007 film, is admirably restrained as it delves into the lives of two groups of people whose paths would never cross if not for one serendipitous mistake that brings them together. David Yazbek’s gorgeous score underlines the largely unspoken emotional core of the musical — this is a story about longing, and the constant search for connection. There are moments of humor and pathos throughout, with standout performances led by breakthrough star Katrina Lenk, culminating in a breathtaking final number, “Answer Me,” that catches you off-guard by wringing tears you didn’t even realize were building.

2. Burn All Night

2. Burn All Night

Evgenia Eliseeva

It was hard not to think about the end of the world in 2017. The pleasant surprise of Burn All Night is how fun it makes the apocalypse seem: If everything’s going to end, now is the time to party with abandon. And Burn All Night is a party — American Repertory Theater’s production of the new musical was staged like a club. The score, with lyrics by Andy Mientus and music by Van Hughes, Nicholas LaGrasta, and Brett Moses, fits that vibe. Audience members largely stood on the dance floor, moving around the characters as they performed synth-pop bangers and pondered an uncertain future. There was a sense of dread that underscored the proceedings, with vague doom lurking on the horizon, but the show was firmly committed to a good time. Perhaps that’s what made Burn All Night so resonant in a year where many of us struggled with the quandary of how to have fun when it feels like everything is falling apart. It helps that the production assembled a vibrant cast including Lincoln Clauss, Krystina Alabado, Kenneth Clark, and Perry Sherman — their voices rose above the heavy beats and the rumble of the crowd to let the intensely catchy score shine through. Despite my wallflower intentions, Burn All Night moved me — both figuratively and onto the dance floor — and for someone who fears both dancing and the inevitable end of all things, that’s a powerful feat.

3. Charm

3. Charm

Joan Marcus

Conversations about representation and inclusion have proliferated over the past few years, but trans voices, both onstage and off, have too often been left out of the discussions. That’s part of what made MCC Theater’s production of Charm such a breath of fresh air. This was a show about trans people, with a cast of trans and gender-nonconforming actors, many of them people of color, and a trans director at the helm. Watching Charm was thrilling — it felt like the kind of significant step forward theater should be taking across the board. But the show was also a blast, because it is warm, funny, and thoughtfully crafted. Mama Darleena Andrews (Sandra Caldwell) is a sixtysomething black trans woman who decides to teach etiquette at an LGBTQ community center in Chicago, despite the reservations of nearly everyone around her. This is not a Dangerous Minds–style story about a tough-as-nails teacher struggling to get through to a classroom of students who don’t want to be there, but rather about the generational divides that foster that conflict. What’s exciting about Charm is that it embraces the shades of gray as Mama’s conception of queerness runs afoul of a more modern, progressive understanding of gender identity — while Mama advocates for a gender binary to avoid confusing people, the center where she works celebrates fluidity. The play could easily become moralistic, but instead, it allows for the kind of fruitful, open-ended conversation that more theater should aspire to.

4. A Doll’s House, Part 2

4. A Doll's House, Part 2

Brigitte Lacombe

In May, I found myself at a midnight performance of A Doll’s House, Part 2. Prior to that, I would have been hard-pressed to think of a play I’d want to sit through at that hour — particularly one I’d already seen — but A Doll’s House, Part 2 is such an exciting piece of theater, and Laurie Metcalf’s performance so compelling, that I was riveted from start to finish. It might as well have been Rocky Horror. Lucas Hnath’s play poses a question that countless others have asked since the original A Doll’s House was first performed in 1879: What happened after Nora closed the door on her husband and children to discover a life of her own? The way Hnath sees it, Nora (Metcalf) became a successful writer who translated her experience into works that dangerously posit women might be better off without the shackles of marriage. It would be easy to make that the rallying cry of A Doll’s House, Part 2, but Hnath allows ample complexity in his exploration of Nora’s perspective, and the perspective of those she left behind including her husband (Chris Cooper), her nanny (Jayne Houdyshell), and her daughter (Condola Rashad). All of the actors in the cast earned Tony nominations, which is a testament both to their talent and to Hnath’s script. These characters have been afforded rich emotional lives that brilliantly challenge Nora’s limited point of view — and the audience’s expectations.

5. Ghost Light

5. Ghost Light

Julieta Cervantes

Theaters always seem a little haunted, probably because they are. The immersive production Ghost Light explored that idea by letting audience members step into the spooky backstage space of the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center where spirits abound, putting on a show for no one in particular. Over the course of two hours, you climbed stairs and walked down dark hallways: Part of what made it so exciting was the sense that you were entering a space where you weren’t entirely welcome, seeing something you weren’t supposed to be seeing. Third Rail Projects, the company behind previous productions Then She Fell and The Grand Paradise, created the rare immersive experience that felt truly seamless. It was easy to get lost in the scenes you cycled through — a meeting with an actor in her dressing room, a dance among the empty theater seats — and by the end, I felt as though I’d truly stepped into another world. There was real magic in Ghost Light, a show that I have struggled to describe over the months since I saw it. What I can say is that even if the details are fuzzy, I won’t forget the dreamlike quality of my time wandering through the Claire Tow. Like the best immersive theater, it forced me to give myself over to it completely, abandoning the harsh realities of life — a welcome prospect in 2017 — and embracing the surreal.

6. Hamlet

6. Hamlet

Eric Michael Pearson

The Waterwell production of Hamlet wasn’t the buzziest Hamlet this year; that would be Sam Gold’s production at the Public Theater, which starred Oscar Isaac as the indecisive prince of Denmark. That Hamlet was compelling and beautifully performed, but it’s the Waterwell Hamlet, set in Persia 100 years ago and performed in English and Farsi, that has stuck with me. Modern takes on Shakespeare can be hit or miss: High-concept adaptations are smart ways to distinguish your production from the infinite iterations that came before it, but too many come across as arbitrary. This Hamlet was so thoughtfully conceived that its diversions from the norm felt essential. The use of Farsi (sans subtitles) spoke to Shakespeare’s universality, not to mention the lyricism of the language. At the same time, the new setting amplified themes of Hamlet’s conflicted identity and the changing world around him. Arian Moayed’s subtle take on the prince was a welcome interpretation, grounding a production that allowed itself insight into the world beyond Shakespeare’s original text. Some audience members might resist a production that takes these kinds of liberties with a classic, but it’s in challenging those expectations that productions like the Waterwell Hamlet leave a lasting impression.

7. Hello, Dolly!

7. Hello, Dolly!

Julieta Cervantes

Bette Midler may be the big draw of the splashy Hello, Dolly! revival, but as anyone who has seen Donna Murphy take on the title role can tell you, Midler is not the only draw. Perhaps wisely, this revival hews closely to the original and consequently feels a little like a time capsule. Given the value of escapist entertainment right now, that’s a major point in its favor: Seeing Hello, Dolly! is like stepping into a bright, pastel-colored world where there’s nothing that putting on your Sunday clothes can’t fix. This is the kind of big, loud Broadway musical that dazzles where smaller, subtler shows like The Band’s Visit and Dear Evan Hansen get under your skin. Both are valuable, and while I tend to gravitate toward those more intimate, restrained theatrical experiences, some of my happiest moments this year have been spent in the audience at the Shubert Theatre. Midler is indeed a star, and Murphy showcases the softer side of the larger-than-life character to great effect. But attention must also be paid to the supporting cast: David Hyde Pierce, Gavin Creel, Taylor Trensch, Kate Baldwin, and Beanie Feldstein. Hello, Dolly! may feel a little old-fashioned to some, but what it lacks in innovation it makes up for in pure, unbridled joy.

8. Hundred Days

8. Hundred Days

Joan Marcus

When I saw Hundred Days, the audience seemed a little mystified — was this a musical or a concert? Indeed, the New York Theatre Workshop’s production walks that line, as Shaun and Abigail Bengson (the lead singers of the aptly named band the Bengsons) reflect on their unlikely courtship through song. But once you get past worrying about exactly what to call it, Hundred Days tells a captivating, emotionally potent story about how it feels to fall in love — and how it feels to be consumed with fears of losing it. The Bengsons’ music is as exhilarating as ever, and the wince-inducing honesty of their lyrics pairs well with the deeply personal nature of the story they’re sharing. Even if the specifics of their tale are unique to their experience, Hundred Days remains painfully relatable as it circles the question of how we can ever spend enough time with the people we love. It feels a little inaccurate to call the show experimental, but it does — like so many NYTW productions — broaden our perception of what theater can look like. That’s almost always a good thing. And for every patron who felt somehow put off by what they were watching, there were plenty of others who were excited and inspired by experiencing something new.

9. If I Forget

9. If I Forget

Joan Marcus

To say that Jewish identity is fraught in 2017 is something of an understatement, but Jewish identity is always fraught — it’s kind of our thing. Steven Levenson’s sharp, relentlessly thought-provoking play is about Jewish Americans at a different, still complicated time in our history, the early 2000s. There are a lot of big ideas here, some more compelling than others. They are delivered with passion by characters defined in part by their firmly rooted convictions. In lesser hands, If I Forget could feel like a lecture, but this is an openhearted play that recognizes that there’s some validity to what everyone is saying, even if it’s hard to imagine a compromise. Having strong actors across the board also makes some of the heaviness go down easier, and Jeremy Shamos, Maria Dizzia, Kate Walsh, and the rest of the cast did exceptional work, mining the humor and nuance in Levenson’s script. (It’s been a good year for Shamos, a late addition to the cast of Meteor Shower on Broadway. He’s great in that, too.) I’ve seen a lot of conversation-heavy plays about family drama this year — and, let’s face it, every year — but If I Forget still managed to surprise me.

10. Indecent

10. Indecent

Carol Rosegg

I would say that Katrina Lenk was lucky to appear in two of the best shows on Broadway this year, but really those shows — Indecent and The Band’s Visit — have been lucky to have her. She is the kind of performer you can’t take your eyes off of, and she’s one of the many pieces of Indecent that came together to form a distinctive and invigorating theatrical experience. Indecent tells the true story of the controversy surrounding Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance, which saw its cast members arrested for obscenity when it was performed on Broadway in 1923. The show is sprawling in its scope, covering several decades of plot and incorporating music, fantasy, and scenes from the provocative God of Vengeance. Playwright Paula Vogel wisely avoided a literal retelling of history, and director Rebecca Taichman — who won a well-deserved Tony for her work — emphasized the show’s theatricality at all times. It was lyrical and heightened: You were fully aware you were watching a play. And so while there was so much to fall in love with in Indecent, what stirred me most was that it could only have worked onstage. Here was a show about the unique power of theater that showcased the unique power of theater, a stunning reminder of the importance of showing rather than telling. I wish Indecent had found more of an audience, but mostly, I’m grateful that it happened.

11. {my lingerie play} 2017: THE CONCERT AND CALL TO ARMS!!!!!!!!! The Final Installation

11. {my lingerie play} 2017: THE CONCERT AND CALL TO ARMS!!!!!!!!! The Final Installation

Jeremy Daniel

Let’s get this out of the way first: I went to middle school and high school with Diana Oh, the visionary behind {my lingerie play}, but the show’s presence on this list has nothing to do with favoritism. Honestly, I had only passing familiarity with Oh’s post–high school work and wasn’t sure what to expect from this production at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, so I was completely unprepared for the profound effect it would have on me. Like so many of the best shows I’ve seen this year, {my lingerie play} is easier to talk about in terms of how it made me feel than what exactly took place. I left the show feeling empowered, emboldened, and — in part thanks to the glittery eyeshadow I applied at the theater’s makeup station — sexier than usual. {my lingerie play} is appropriately angry as Oh indicts rape culture and institutional racism, but it’s also filled with love. I have never before felt so connected to an audience of strangers as Oh celebrated self-expression, enthusiastic consent, and queering the world. The show is such a rare and special thing that I feel a kinship with everyone who saw it and a little sorry for those who didn’t. Oh wrote, “I want to create the kind of art that makes people sweat from their soul.” I can’t think of a better articulation for what her work did to me.

12. Oh My Sweet Land

12. Oh My Sweet Land

Pavel Antonov

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