Our 5 Favorite Theatrical Performances of 2021
Find out who made our list, and why we're happy to remember them.
In a year chockfull of great performances across the boards, it was hard to single out — near impossible — to pick our favorites. After much deliberation (and a lot of residual guilt), we've narrowed our lengthy list down to the following 5.
The Classic Stage Company revival of Assassins is stacked with one of the most impressive casts in New York City. But even among this all-star company, Andy Grotelueschen's performance as Richard Nixon's attempted assassin Samuel Byck stands out. He proved comedy to be his strong suit when he earned a Tony nomination for his performance as the nebbishy Jeff in the musical adaptation of Tootsie in 2019. Now he takes on two of the greatest monologues John Weidman wrote for Assassins, pouring out his heart to Leonard Bernstein in tape recorded diatribes about political dishonesty and socioeconomic hierarchies. Each speech is a master class in weaving drama into comedy and comedy into drama, as Grotelueschen reels in his audience with laughter and then shocks them with rage. He makes it seem effortless but never underestimate the skill it takes to fill that iconic Santa suit. — Hayley Levitt
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992
Anna Deavere Smith's attempt to turn her classic solo documentary play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 into an ensemble piece for the recent Signature Theatre off-Broadway revival was only half-successful at best. There was one standout among its cast of five, however: Francis Jue, who portrayed characters ranging from a white, male, Los Angeles police officer to an Asian female academic with equal aplomb. But it was Jue's channeling of the late, great mezzo-soprano Jessye Norman that astonished the most. Norman's regal yet passionate manner came roaring back to life through Jue for one brief monologue. It was the closest anyone in the ensemble came to matching Smith's own uncanny gift for thrilling, empathetic mimicry. — Kenji Fujishima
After War Paint (and two new hips later), Patti LuPone swore off musicals. Then Marianne Elliott offered her the chance to play Joanne in Company on the West End, which is an offer she couldn't refuse. Now on Broadway with the show, LuPone, typically, blazes just by walking out on stage. But she also proves why she's one of the theater's greatest actors, writing every syllable out of that small-ish role, finding devastating nuance and withering comedy in George Furth's dialogue, and imbuing the Stephen Sondheim classic "The Ladies Who Lunch" with a very stern warning for the now-female protagonist: do not become like me. It's LuPone's best performance since Gypsy, and if this really does become her farewell to musical-theater, what a way to go out. — David Gordon
Ruben Santiago-Hudson premiered his solo play Lackawanna Blues off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2001. Twenty years later, audiences were privileged to see him perform the work on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman — and what a performance. The play tells the story of a young Ruben growing up in Lackawanna, New York, under the care of Nanny, a boarding house owner. Santiago-Hudson takes on not only the character of his caregiver but also that of every other denizen of Lackawanna whom he came into contact with, each one a memorable individual he embodied with distinct voice and mannerisms. On top of his acting prowess, his musical abilities were on full display as he cranked out one number after another on the harmonica with guitar accompaniment by the magnificent Junior Mack. It was an unforgettable, tour-de-force performance from a Tony-winning Broadway legend. — Pete Hempstead
Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord
Kristina Wong is the first person to truly make me laugh about the pandemic — an impressive feat considering how miserable the whole experience has been. Her solo show, Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, is about a circle of aunties who sew masks for those in need. Wong tells their story (which is really her story, since she organized the group) with the superhuman energy of a cartoon character escaped from the TV. She shoots masks into the audience like she's GI Jane. Later, she ruminates on her relationship with her mother while doing a Pilates routine that made me sweat just watching it. Most astoundingly, with her special mixture of frivolity and heart, she took me on a stroll through the last 21 months that I actually enjoyed. One of the most incredible physical performers I've ever encountered, Wong has a special gift for connecting with an audience that makes even the most unpalatable subjects seem delightful. — Zachary Stewart