Herein, a few of my favorite people, places and things in the theater of 2017.
The Broadway song of the year in the Broadway musical of the year is by David Yazbek, and it is sung to enthralling effect by Katrina Lenk, as an Israeli woman whose chances for happiness are passing her by, in “The Band’s Visit.” “And we dance with them on a jasmine-scented wind,” Lenk sings in this sultry memory song, about the romance of movies. And darned if we don’t all want to get up and dance forever with her.
In a venerable summer theater festival in the West Virginia panhandle, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, I encountered Eleanor Burgess’s barnburner of a play, which exposes the racial and generational fissures on an Ivy League campus. A white politically liberal professor and a student of color face off over the student’s paper about slavery and the Revolutionary War, in one of the best plays I’ve seen about who gets to tell the story of America, and how.
It has been a banner year for this actress of galvanizing impact and uncompromising talent. Now being rightly celebrated for her role as a difficult mother in “Lady Bird,” director Greta Gerwig’s breakout debut film, Metcalf made an indelible mark on Broadway this year as an unbowed middle-aged Nora, the Ibsen heroine, in Lucas Hnath’s brilliant Ibsen riff, “A Doll’s House, Part Two.”
Studio Theatre gave us a bracing taste of the talent of playwright Dominique Morisseau in director Patricia McGregor’s expert staging of this blue-collar play, set among black workers in a dying Detroit auto plant. Around a superb central performance by Caroline Stefanie Clay, as a factory veteran struggling to keep her life together, McGregor assembles a team — Shannon Dorsey, Tyee Tilghman and Jason Bowen — that shows why Washington continues to be a magnet for top-flight actors.
It’s a stark setup, wonderful in its lack of affectation. An actor retrieves a vinyl record, lovingly places it on a turntable and, on an all-but-bare stage, he and two other actors sing along to the album’s 14 tracks. What made this Wooster Group production so remarkable is the LP itself: “Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons,” a 1964 recording of the music of black inmates on Texas prison farms. The live vocal accompaniment by Eric Berryman, Philip Moore and Jason Magruder lifts the spirit in a profound, unalloyed way.
If you saw “Fun Home” in the spring at the National Theatre, lucky you. (Even James B. Comey took it in, shortly after President Trump fired him.) One of the special pleasures in this well-cast touring version of the Tony Award-winning musical was observing the actress cast in the role of Medium Alison — the lead part of Alison having been divided among three performers of various ages. It is Medium Alison who sings Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s song of sexual awakening, “Changing My Major,” and Corrigan’s delivery spread such resounding joy, you’d remember the moment all the way to Christmas.
The calamity that sets in motion the farcical events of “Twelfth Night” has been conjured in too many ways to count. Is it possible to find a theatrical conveyance for it that contains any element of surprise? Wouldn’t you know, director Ethan McSweeny cleverly achieves this daunting goal in his aeronautical take on the great tragicomedy for Shakespeare Theatre Company. It’s the most startling interlude of classical staging I saw all year, and you still have time to see it. The production runs at Washington’s Sidney Harman Hall through Dec. 20.
Wha-a-a-a-t? “Hello, Dolly!” a megahit in 2017? The magic of Midler, Bette Midler, made it so. Box-office-driving star power is one thing. Having that star in absolutely the right vehicle, the one in which she was destined to appear, is another. “Dolly” is the Broadway musical as savvy escapism, a trip to the land of pack up your troubles, come on, get happy. You simply cannot not get happy in the presence of this entertainer, singing Jerry Herman’s surefire heart-thumper, “Before the Parade Passes By.”
Then there’s the unlikeliest star of Broadway in 2017, the Boss. Because “Springsteen on Broadway” is not a mere concert, no matter what some people might say. It’s a true theatrical event, modest in its stylings, spectacular in its emotionality, outrageously costly in its pricing. And yes, one of the best solo shows, ever.
Amy Herzog’s heartbreaking play, about a mother and a chronically disabled child and the degree to which love kicks in and pushes everything else to one side, absolutely has to be on the shortlist for top drama prizes this year. Staged by Anne Kauffman in a tonally perfect production in the fall at New York Theatre Workshop, the play rang particularly true in the performances of Carrie Coon as the mom, Liza Colon-Zayas as an emotionally involved nurse, and Susan Pourfar as another mother, absorbed in the suffering of her child. The material was tough, but the play isn’t a downer. A splendid one never is.
Read more of our picks for the best of 2017: