Special Reports

The 8 Best Off-Broadway Shows of 2023

These plays and musicals topped our list of shows from theaters around New York City.

Off-Broadway theaters offered some outstanding shows this year, with several strong musicals (and plays with music) that ranked at the top. It was also a good year for innovative plays and memorable ensembles, one of which performed at INTAR…

VAMONOS l. Cesar J. Rosado Pablo c. Yohanna Florentino Anna r. Cindy Peralta Juana
Cesar J. Rosado, Yohanna Florentino, and (in the back) Cindy Peralta in Julissa Contreras’s Vámonos, directed by Tatyana-Marie Carlo, at INTAR.
(© Carol Rosegg)

8. Vámonos, INTAR
An excellent reminder that some of the absolute best productions in New York can be found in smaller off-Broadway theaters, Julissa Contreras’s electrifying drama Vámonos had its world premiere at INTAR. It told the story of the subtle, and not-so-subtle, effects of trauma on a Dominican family living in the Bronx in the wake of 9/11. Tatyana-Marie Carlo directed a phenomenally talented ensemble in a bilingual production that captured the family’s everyday life with uncanny realism on a set that was precisely detailed, right down to the green can of Keebler “Export Sodas” on the counter. The production delivered a dramatic wallop through top-notch performances and brilliant direction that showed how you can make big theater on a small stage.

<i>Life & Times of Michael K</i> poster image
Life & Times of Michael K poster image
(image provided by the production)

7. Life & Times of Michael K, St. Ann’s Warehouse
Based on Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee’s novel of the same name, Life & Times of Michael K told its story in an unusual way: with a puppet as its protagonist. Adrian Kohler and Handspring Puppet Company designed the figure that portrayed a young Black man who makes a perilous journey on foot with his mother (also portrayed by a puppet) from Cape Town through the cities and countryside of South Africa during apartheid. An incredible cast brought these puppets to life with startling realism as Michael K’s odyssey exposed the reality of living under a brutal regime and the resilience of the human spirit necessary to survive it. The show was critically acclaimed at this past summer’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe and won the Scotsman Fringe First Award. For sheer storytelling creativity, it also wins a spot as one of off-Broadway’s best this year.

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Patrick Page summons a host of Shakespearean villains in his solo show All the Devils Are Here, directed by Simon Godwin, at the DR2 Theatre.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

6. All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain, DR2 Theatre
It’s always a treat to see a great Broadway actor perform in the cozy space of an off-Broadway theater. Patrick Page gave audiences one such treat this year with his captivating and edifying solo show All the Devils Are Here, which offers a master class in how Shakespeare invented the classic stage villain. Using well-chosen speeches from several plays including Macbeth, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice, Page takes his vast experience with Shakespeare and examines the Bard’s baddest baddies to show us how literary villains as we know them did not exist before Richard III and how the traits of Shakespeare’s most pathologically predisposed characters can be found in movies and TV series today (think Succession). The show proved such a hit that it was extended through February, so there’s still time to see Page conjure Shakespeare’s wickedest creations off the page and onto the stage.

Sharvari Deshpande and Gagan Dev Riar (foreground) and the cast of Monsoon Wedding, directed by Mira Nair, at St. Ann’s Warehouse.
(© Matthew Murphy)

5. Monsoon Wedding, St. Ann’s Warehouse
St. Ann’s Warehouse had another winner on its hands with the musical Monsoon Wedding, which director Mira Nair adapted from her 2001 film. The show looks at the dynamics of an arranged marriage whose bride (Salena Qureshi) and groom (Deven Kolluri) have previous-relationship issues that threaten to upend everything mere days before their nuptials are to take place. The show also boasted outstanding performances from a second couple (Namit Das and Anisha Nagarajan), who added a memorable touch of comedy. Nair, however, couched this story of cultural expectations and personal fulfillment in a production that exploded with a fantastic score, gorgeous costumes, and eye-popping choreography that made you feel as though you were actually taking part in a Punjabi wedding. For sheer spectacle, there was nothing like it off-Broadway this year.

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Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti in Rajiv Joseph’s King James. Set design by Todd Rosenthal, and costume design by Samantha C. Jones
(© Craig Schwartz Photography)

4. King James, Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center
You don’t have to be a basketball fan to enjoy Rajiv Joseph’s King James, a buddy comedy that made that sport’s GOAT one of its crucial plot points. The story revolves around the friendship of two men (played by Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti) brought together by their love of b-ball and their fanatical admiration for LeBron James. The play examines the evolution of their relationship in parallel with the career of James as he moved from Cleveland to Miami and back again, and exposes cultural and racial divides between the friends that nearly tear them apart. Joseph and director Kenny Leon masterfully made this unique friendship into something that felt universal and symbolic of our country’s own struggle with the hidden biases that lurk in all of us. The play wowed me when I saw its premiere in Chicago last year at Steppenwolf, and it blew me away again here in New York. Its one of Joseph’s best.

HELL’S KITCHEN Music & Lyrics by Alicia Keys Book by Kristoffer Diaz Choreography by Camille A. Brown Directed by Michael Greif
Shoshana Bean and Brandon Victor Dixon in Hell’s Kitchen at the Public Theater
(© Joan Marcus)

3. Hell’s Kitchen, Public Theater
Our chief critic called Hell’s Kitcheneasily the best new musical at the Public since Hamilton,” and I completely agree. This firecracker of a show boasts a host of Alicia Keys songs that are woven into a story loosely based on Keys’s teenage years growing up in the New York neighborhood of the title. With terrific performances from a cast that includes Shoshana Bean and Brandon Victor Dixon, and sensitive direction from Michael Greif, the story of Ali (played by Maleah Joi Moon) takes us back to all the angst and frustration of adolescence. Plus, Camille A. Brown has hands down created the freshest and most exciting choreography that I saw on any stage this year. Hell’s Kitchen quickly sold out its run at the Public, but if you missed it off-Broadway, you can see it when it moves into the Shubert Theatre, where it will open in April.

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Andrew R. Butler, Sarah Pidgeon, Chris Stack, and Juliana Canfield in David Adjmi’s new play Stereophonic
(© Chelcie Parry)

2. Stereophonic, Playwrights Horizons
When I learned that the running time of David Adjmi’s new play with music, Stereophonic, was three hours and 15 minutes, I prepared myself for a long sit. But I wasn’t prepared to be so enthralled by the story of a rock group (which bears a striking similarity to Fleetwood Mac) as they laboriously hash and thrash out the songs for one album over the course of a year. Adjmi’s brilliant character study erupts with real-time conflicts among band members when creative juices, sexual tensions, and power plays start to tug and pull at the often fragile bonds between them. Daniel Aukin directed a phenomenal ensemble who not only acted and sang but played the instruments for Will Bulter’s radio-ready songs. I left the theater invigorated and feeling like I had been on an epic journey with people whom I had gotten to know on a deep level. Chances are good that future audiences will get to know them too.

New York Music Photographer
Jared Machado, Kenya Browne, and Olly Sholotan in Buena Vista Social Club, directed by Saheem Ali, at Atlantic Theater Company
(© Ahron R. Foster)

1. Buena Vista Social Club, Atlantic Theater Company
I haven’t stopped singing the praises of Buena Vista Social Club since it opened three weeks ago at Atlantic Theater Company, and it tops my list of off-Broadway’s best in 2023. With songs from the repertoire of the legendary Cuban ensemble of the same name and a book by Marco Ramirez, this musical (which sometimes feels more like a concert with a story line) blows the lid off the theater and makes you want to stand up and dance. It takes us back to the heyday of classic Cuban standards made popular in the 1940s and ’50s and offers a fanciful re-creation of how the group came together to record a single album that would quickly become known around the world. Marco Paguia leads a brassy band that kicks up syncopated beats to match the swirls and twirls of Patrica Delgado and Justin Peck’s dazzling choreography. It’s a spectacle for the eye and a party for the ear. Even if the plot feels a little slim at times, the show quickly transports us out of this world for two hours and gets pulses racing with its addictive music and energy. Buena Vista Social Club was the most soul-satisfying show I saw all year, and it deserves to find a new home after it ends its sold-out run in January.

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Hell’s Kitchen

Closed: January 14, 2024