Special Reports

Best of 2012: The Year’s Top Ten Breakthrough Stage Performances

From Elena Roger’s Broadway debut to Russell Harvard’s downtown bow, the performances that made our year.

Carrie Coon (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

“Bro on Broadway” Colin Weatherby notes in his review of Virginia Woolf that Coon should win “a Tony Award for Excellent Drunk Acting.” He isn’t wrong. In the hands of Chicago-import Coon, playwright Edward Albee’s “Honey” went from a sad dishrag of a wife to an outright scene-stealer—and when you’re stealing from Tony Award-winning costars Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, that’s serious business. Coon’s portrayal of an inebriated, anxiety-ridden rich girl married to a manipulative academic goes beyond stereotypical slurs and giggles, mining deep into the kind of painfully real blackouts and emotional breakdowns that turn a stage caricature into a person you care about. Cheers, Carrie.

Annie Funke (If There Is I Haven’t Found it Yet)

Imagine having to tap into your most crippling high school insecurities nightly for a live audience. Soaking wet. In your underwear. Next to Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal. That was Funke’s gig all fall in off-Broadway’s British import If There Is I Haven’t Found it Yet, and she did it with a fearlessness rarely found in people of any age, let alone young performers. Funke’s Anna, an obese 15-year-old flattened by bullies and oblivious parents, was so believably awkward and lonely it seemed impossible the actress could be a grounded 28-year-old with Wicked on her resume.[But she is.] Her performance both matched and enhanced that of costar Gyllenhaal, and her wise restraint resulted in [SPOILER ALERT] the most gut-wrenching, cliché-free suicide scene we’ve seen in years, if not ever.

Russell Harvard (Tribes)

A veteran of films like There Will Be Blood and The Hammer, Harvard made his off-Broadway debut as the star of Nina Raines’ family drama Tribes. Harvard’s Billy, a deaf twenty-something struggling to communicate to his parents and sister how his disability is shaping his adulthood, isn’t just a disabled son. He’s a son, period. One whose frustrating confrontations with his parents and search for validation are recognizable to any kid or parent, hearing or otherwise. Harvard is deaf himself, but his abilities as deaf performer aren’t what landed him on this list—his ability to play the frequently silent Billy with humor, subtly, and empathy did. Tribes hit run ends in January, so if you haven’t seen it yet, get it together.

Yvonne Strahovski (Golden Boy)

Australia’s Yvonne Strahovski had never even seen a Broadway show when she made her American stage debut in Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Clifford Odets’ period drama. Yet the blonde bombshell, a fan favorite on the TV series Chuck and Dexter, gave a knockout stage performance as Lorna Moon, the “Tramp from Newark” love interest to costar Seth Numrich’s boxer, Joe Bonaparte. Strahovski infused Lorna’s chilly exterior with humanity, and delivered zingers like a champ with an impressive 1930’s Noo Yawk accent. Lorna Moon might be a stereotypical moll on the page, but Strahovski turned her into a living, breathing, and deeply damaged human.

Rob McClure (Chaplin)

Rob McClure had a near-impossible assignment: Recreate the moves, mannerisms, and expressions of one of the most recognizable performers in cinematic history—and then make him sing, dance and speak, too. McClure pulled it off so convincingly that Charlie Chaplin’s own grandchildren couldn’t tell whether film footage projected at the close of Broadway’s Chaplin featured title star McClure or their own grandfather. (It was McClure, for the record.) Strip away the signature physical acrobatics (tightrope walking, mimicry, backwards pratfalls…you know, leading man basics) that fueled Chaplin and McClure’s portrayal is still one of the strongest showings from a leading man on stage this year—a moment where his Charlie stood completely still, taking in applause from an audience of his peers, pulled us apart inside.

Katie Thompson (Giant)

Thompson tied us down with her voice faster than a cowboy roping a steer, making her spot on our Top Ten the most quickly won. In the Public Theater’s Giant, Thompson’s Vashti Hake, a local girl (unofficially) intended to be wed to Brian D’Arcy James’ Bick, had roughly two seconds to establish her character before launching into the giant (too much?) ballad “He Wanted a Girl”, comparing her Texas tomboy against the rich, educated, society girl named Leslie (Kate Baldwin) Bick married instead. Thompson’s stunning voice and passionate portrayal of a spurned ranch woman turned a supporting role into a “who is that and when is she coming back on stage again?” moment. Luckily, Thompson returned in Act II, a little older and wiser, with a richness of soul that made her duet with Baldwin’s Leslie the high point of the second act. What composer/lyricist LaChiusa found in Thompson was liquid gold. Or, in the words of a Texan, he struck oil.

Barrett Wilbert Weed (Bare)

A big-belt powerhouse, this relative unknown stole our hearts and left us tripping our musical theater faces off as Nadia, the awkward outcast/drug dealer in the new off-Broadway production of Bare at New World Stages. Weed made her Broadway debut understudying in Lysistrata Jones–just after graduating college, which led us to wonder when we got so OLD–but it’s the currently-running off-Broadway turn that makes her a star to watch. With her deadpan line deliveries and show-stopping pop solos, Weed proved she can bring emotional depth (and adult vocal chops) to a role which would be much easier to play like your typical whiny teenager in an after-school special. A prolific Tweeter, Weed is both funny and kiiiiiind of adorable, so we’ve got our girl-crush on. Here’s hoping she doesn’t get permanently typecast as a riff-tastic drug pusher.

Gabriel Ebert (4000 Miles)

Eat your heart out, Lena Dunham (creator of HBO’s millennial-angst drama Girls, frequently referred to as what her character on the show claims to be: the “voice of” her “generation”). 4000 Miles playwright Amy Herzog penned a character that made every human born in the 1980s’ say, “I know that guy,” or, “I am that guy,” and found the perfect guy to play him at Lincoln Center Theater. As Leo, Ebert starred as a lost 21-year-old soul who returns from a cross-country biking trip to what parents call “a transitional phase,” one with emotional scars and no home. Leo crashes on the couch of his Communist grandmother’s (Mary Lousie Wilson) Manhattan apartment to try and figure out his life—an activity which does not always lend itself to bearable theater. (It does lend itself easily to bad poetry on LiveJournal.) Fortunately, Ebert poured himself into the role with such sincerity, sensitivity and nuanced understanding we forgot he was not actually that guy. His earnest delivery of Herzog’s dialogue resonated with our younger staffers more than an entire season of Girls ever could, or will.

Cory Michael Smith (Cock; The Whale)

Cory Michael Smith made a splash off-Broadway twice this year, turning in two highly regarded performances that couldn’t have been more different. In Cock, Smith played a young man torn between a male and female lover (and took part in one of the hottest, clothes-on, no-touching sex scenes imaginable). In The Whale, he appeared as a secretive and befuddled Mormon missionary struggling to convert a dying, 600-pound man. The young actor proved his versatility with these striking performances opposite stage greats like Obie Award winner Jason Butler Harner (in Cock) and Tony-winner Shuler Hensley (in The Whale), and either appearance could have landed him on the list solo. We’re looking forward to watching Smith ascend in 2013, when he makes his Broadway debut as the sexually ambiguous young writer Fred in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Elena Roger (Evita)

Elena Roger polarized Broadway when she debuted her much-anticipated Evita in April. Speculation about whether the Olivier Award winner was starry enough, or Patti (LuPone) enough, to carry the iconic musical tainted the production’s word-of-mouth early on, diluting Roger’s shot at good first impressions. Subsequent mixed reviews questioned if the triple-threat—whose fiery vocals are closer to that of an authentic tango singer than an Andrew Lloyd Webber diva—belonged on Broadway. The chatter prompted Evita producers to essentially muzzle their own title star by showcasing headliner Ricky Martin at the 2012 Tony Awards (while Roger literally watched), a vote of no confidence so offensively public, it’s remarkable Roger hasn’t spent every performance since flipping naysayers the bird from her Casa Rosada balcony.

The question of Roger belonging on Broadway is egregious to the point of silliness. Her crowing, fearless Edith Piaf in Piaf earned her that Olivier Award, while a critically acclaimed turn as Fosca in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion showcased dexterity both as a subtle vocalist and actress. (Even current Evita critics acknowledged Roger’s moving character work and fierce strength as a dancer, both displayed in coulda-been-Tony-Performances numbers like “High Flying Adored” and “Waltz for Eva and Che”.)

The question should be whether Roger was done a disservice by a contractual obligation to make her Broadway debut in this Evita, which took seven years to cross the pond after its London debut. Had Roger’s debut been in Piaf and championed unfalteringly by producers, she’d be on this list—and many others—without needing defense. There was no missing Roger’s prowess on Broadway in 2012. We’re just hoping someone brings her back and spotlights that prowess the right way in years to come.