9 Memorable Performances of 2016
This year was an embarrassment of riches when it came to memorable performances. It was filled with beautifully nuanced turns in musicals and plays alike. Here are our picks, in alphabetical order, for the ones that stood out the most.
1. Gillian Anderson
One of the great theatrical moments of 2016 came at the very end of A Streetcar Named Desire at St. Ann's Warehouse. The Young Vic Theatre production concluded with leading lady Blanche DuBois taking a piteous walk around the auditorium as she made her final exit, locking eyes and staring at audience members along the way. In Gillian Anderson's hands, this moment was thoroughly gut-wrenching, an astonishing cap to a vigorous, sexy, and terribly poignant performance that made us wish she did New York theater more often.
2. Michael Aronov
In the Lincoln Center Theater production of Oslo, the new J.T. Rogers play about secret peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Michael Aronov played Israeli diplomat Uri Savir like the kind of guy who would be fun to meet at an all-night party, but not the kind of guy you would want to wake up next to. With a piercing gaze and gyrating hips, Aronov's Savir is a man starring in a spy thriller with a disco soundtrack. His macho swagger and hyperbolic self-regard offered much-needed comic relief in a three-hour play about the complexities of international diplomacy. Aronov is set to reprise his role in the Broadway transfer of Oslo, and we expect his larger-than-life portrayal will only become grander.
3. Johanna Day
Tracey is the character we love to hate, and hate to love in Lynn Nottage's Sweat. The play follows a group of workers at a steel tubing factory in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Tracey is the toughest among them. As played by Day, she is both a stalwart mama bear and a working-class Lady Macbeth, prodding the men around her into bad decisions by questioning their virility. Still, Day brings an element of vulnerability to her character that keeps us from ever truly despising her. Sweat opened to critical acclaim at the Public Theater before announcing a move to Broadway. Assuming the off-Broadway cast moves with the production, audiences will have plenty of chances to see Day's beguiling, infuriating performance at Studio 54.
4. Amber Gray
Amber Gray is currently lighting up the Imperial Theatre stage as Hélène ("a slut, Anatole’s sister, married to Pierre," as the show's musical prologue puts it) in the new Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812''. But before she took on that larger-than-life character, she was wowing audiences as the underworld goddess Persephone in New York Theatre Workshop's Hadestown''. While the role of Persephone, like that of Hélène, offered Gray the opportunity to play up her sensual charm, it also afforded the versatile actress moments of heartbreaking emotional depth that left us breathless.
5. Heather Headley
It took Heather Headley more than a decade to find a role that would bring her back to Broadway, but Shug Avery in The Color Purple proved it. To say that Headley's return was merely "welcome" is an understatement. Her sexy, sultry Shug elevated the excellent production to new heights of magnificence, allowing cast members like Cynthia Erivo and Isaiah Johnson to dig even deeper in their already sterling performances. It's a shame that she didn't open the show — or stay longer.
6. Sarah Jones
If you've never heard Sarah Jones speak in her own voice, there's no way to tell if she's actually a 20-something feminist valley girl or an octogenarian Jewish grandma. Jones earned a Special Tony Award for her chameleonic talents in 2006 with her solo show Bridge & Tunnel but brought back some of her best characters for her latest play Sell/Buy/Date, which made its off-Broadway world premiere with Manhattan Theatre Club this fall. The piece not only offered audiences another tour de force performance, it also painted a truthful picture of the international sex trafficking industry — a timely issue deserving of a stage. For conceiving and constructing a perfect combination of art and public service, Sarah Jones earns a spot among our highlights of 2016.
7. David Hyde Pierce
David Hyde Pierce had a tough assignment when he took on playwright Adam Bock's A Life at Playwrights Horizons. As Nate, an astrology-obsessed proofreader whose existence takes an unexpected turn, Pierce not only opened the play with a stream-of-consciousness monologue that lasted upwards of 20 minutes, but also provided one of the scariest and most realistic physical performances we've ever seen. At turns hilarious and horrifying, it's hard to imagine an actor better suited for a role, and one who was able to make it shine like the stars that Nate regularly pored over.
8. Ben Platt
You may know him best as Benji, the eccentric magician and a cappella aficionado from Pitch Perfect, but Ben Platt brought a different kind of magic to Broadway in 2016 as the title character in Dear Evan Hansen. He works himself into such a vulnerable state as the musical's tortured protagonist that by the time you leave the Music Box Theatre you can hardly believe that that was just one of eight performances he'll have to deliver over the course of a week. If his lacrimal gland can hold out till the spring, we're confident he'll be "waving through" many an award-show press line.
9. Adrienne Warren
Making yourself known when you're on stage with Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell is hard, but in Shuffle Along, Adrienne Warren did just that. In two vastly different roles, Warren seized the spotlight from the seasoned pros she was playing opposite and delivered one of the year's dynamite breakthrough performances. Warren's work netted her her very first Tony nomination, and we expect it to be one of many to come.