2017 was another banner year on Broadway, poised to beat last year's record-breaking attendance numbers. Of course, "Hamilton" continues to dominate, but a few blockbuster openings this year are giving "Hamilton" a run for its money. And I'm happy to report that among the 41 new productions that opened this year, a significant number found critical, if not commercial, success. In alphabetical order, here are my Top 10 new shows on Broadway in 2017.
"A Doll's House, Part 2"
It's a small play, but "A Doll's House, Part 2" felt right at home on the big Broadway stage. It's an off-beat sequel of sorts based on the Henrik Ibsen classic turned into a crowd pleaser, earning Laurie Metcalf this year's Tony Award for Best Actress. It takes Ibsen's 19th Century masterwork, slathers a modern veneer over its central conceit — the subjugation of women — and picks up after Nora famously slams the door. Playwright Lucas Hnath's compact four-character drama offers no easy answers in a superb production that asks a lot of provocative questions.
"Come From Away"
Another surprise hit came from Canada: "Come From Away," set during the nightmare of 9/11, continues to transport audiences on a wave of hope for humanity.
Bette Midler's star power isn't the only force propelling "Hello, Dolly!" to unimagined success; the production helmed by the great Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks is just that good. As the cherished Dolly, Midler exudes great warmth and an inescapable zest for life that's contagious, and it clearly infects all around her, as the cast members seem to be having the time of their lives. Under Zaks's masterful direction, this screwball of a show bounces from scene to scene with joyful abandon. What could so easily turn into parody or shtick is a refreshing diversion that enthralls for the nearly three-hour running time.
"Indecent," an unusual work based on a true story concerning a controversial play at the turn of the century, defied the odds to become an artfully poignant collaboration. In 1907, a young Polish Jewish man named Sholem Asch wrote a play in Yiddish called "The God of Vengeance." It told the story of a devout Jewish man who ran a brothel in the basement of his house. Upstairs, he claimed respectability with his wife and virtuous daughter. But when that daughter falls in love with one of his prostitutes, that upright existence is shattered. The play was a celebrated hit throughout Europe at the time, and then it came to America and featured Broadway's first kiss between two women. The Vice Squad swooped in, closed down the show, and the cast and producer were convicted of obscenity. But this inspired production is interested in far more than theatre history, delving ever so artfully into matters of culture, religion, truth, and the transcendent force of art itself. "Indecent" melds fact and fiction with the kind of insight and emotional depth that comes from theatre at its most poetic.
The late, great August Wilson was a posthumous winner once again when his play "Jitney" took the Tony for Best Revival. Ruben Santiago-Hudson directed the bravura ensemble with inspired eloquence. "Jitney" is set in 1977, but like all of the other Wilson works, it speaks with an eloquence that transcends time and place, as we watch a motley group of cab drivers come and go with each call for a ride. Opportunities are few while hardships are many, and no matter what they do, these struggling men just can't get a break. But they do survive, and despite the seeming monotony of their downbeat lives, there's something almost musical in the way that Wilson merges prose and poetry in their interactions. As portrayed by an excellent ensemble, the characters come to vivid life. And as performed by the phenomenal John Douglas Thompson and Brandon J. Dirden, the first act finale ranks among the most memorably riveting scenes I've ever witnessed in a theatre.
"Once On This Island"
Once may not be enough to sample the tremendous pleasures of "Once On This Island." The revival, staged by Michael Arden, is a buoyantly spirited fable. Arden's vision weaves together island culture, the have-nots and the haves, with remarkably inventive artistry. From the set — complete with a body of water — to the phenomenal ensemble, every piece of this production pulses with an organic exuberance that's impossible to resist. If the story-telling gets a bit muddled, just let the wonderful score carry you away with its mix of gentle rhythms and pulsing beats. Hailey Kilgore is in a category all to herself; with a voice gifted by the gods and a glorious stage presence, Broadway has its newest star!
"Oslo" proved that a well-told story, no matter how dense and historically accurate, can be riveting. That was the case when this three-hour long drama opened to rave reviews and ended up with the year's Best Play Tony. J. T. Roger's densely packed, fact-based drama gives us a fascinating fly-on-the-wall view of the painstakingly delicate talks that were the Oslo Accords. Under Bartlett Sher's taut direction, the wise and witty three-hour drama unfolds like a political thriller. Complex, yes, but Sher's superlative production immerses us in the suspenseful twists and turns that yielded the unimaginable: Mortal enemies become friends.
"Springsteen On Broadway"
Springsteen on Broadway — nuff said!
"Sunday in the Park With George"
One of the year's most curious decisions was withdrawing the Sondheim and Lapine classic "Sunday in the Park With George" from Tony contention. Stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford were magnificent in a revival that rivaled the year's best work. The musical is a beautiful, if somewhat abstract, riff on creativity. Gyllenhaal paints a vivid portrait of the intensely dedicated and uncompromising Seurat, willing to sacrifice all for his art; and that includes his muse Dot, a complex role impeccably shaded by Ashford. With her incomparable gifts, she can be playfully romantic, sardonically funny, and a wounded puppy all at the same time without ever sounding a false note. Director Sarna Lapine, employing state-of-the-art projections, delivers an immaculate production combining art, science and poetry in perfect harmony.
"The Band's Visit"
"The Band's Visit," a sweetly subdued story set in an Israeli desert outpost, connects with audiences in a uniquely human way. The production, helmed by composer David Yazbek, book writer Itamar Moses, and director David Cromer, is charmingly offbeat and haunting. Yazbeck's eclectic songs illuminate the characters' dusty lives with subtle humor and bittersweet longing. While the tempo is slow and there's little action, the characters, as written and portrayed, are engagingly real. John Cariani is always fun to watch as a goofball with a heart, and Katrina Lenk is incandescent, coolly disengaged on the outside, while inside a cauldron of seductive heat.
Look for a whole new crop of hits in 2018. "Frozen" and "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," to name just two, are likely to work their own brand of magic on the Great White Way!