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Commentary: The Best and Worst Musicals of 2016

Josh Groban and the cast of NATASHA copy

The year 2016 brought us a number of indelible musical productions. But it brought us some real doozies as well.

By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, December 30, 2016

It’s the end of the year, and we all know what that means: lists. Like many other critics, I like to take some time at year’s end and look back on all the theater that I’ve seen over the previous 12 months.

As usual, it’s been a sort of mixed bag. Some of it has been exquisite, some of it excruciating. That’s par for the course, of course. However, this year I’m happy to report that the good far outweighed the bad, if not in number, then in overall craft and sheer emotional impact.

(Oh, and before you start complaining about the absence of Hamilton, the show bowed on Broadway in 2015, and rest assured it placed prominently on my list for that year.)

The Best Musicals of 2016:

  1. The Golden BrideProbably the most pleasant surprise of the season was The Golden Bride, a charming and energetic revival of a mostly forgotten 1923 Yiddish operetta presented at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. (In the original Yiddish, yet, with English supertitles.) Dated, to be sure, but lovingly presented, and brimming with talented performers.
Golden Bride

National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of ‘The Golden Bride;’ photo: Justin Scholar

  1. HadestownAn edgy, folk rock update on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, this New York Theatre Workshop presentation transformed the NYTW’s East Village home into an immersive arena. Anaïs Mitchell’s rousing songs and Rachel Chavkin’s innovative staging were matched by a terrific ensemble of performers.
Hadestown New York Theatre Workshop By Anaïs Mitchell Developed with and directed by Rachel Chavkin 2015/16 SEASON May 6, 2016—July 3, 2016 With Hadestown, celebrated singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and inventive two-time Obie award-winning director Rachel Chavkin (Three Pianos; Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) transform Mitchell's "phenomenal concept album" (Rolling Stone) into a bold new work for the stage. This folk opera follows Orpheus' mythical quest to overcome Hades and regain the favor of his one true love, Eurydice. Together we travel from wide open plains where love and music are not enough nourishment to survive the winter, down to Hadestown, an industrialized world of mindless labor and full stomachs. Inspired by traditions of classic American folk music and vintage New Orleans jazz, Mitchell'../wp-content/uploads/2016/12/HADESTOWNatNYTWPhotobyJoanMarcus-990x660.jpg 990w

Cast of ‘Hadestown;’ photo: Joan Marcus

  1. God Bless You, Mr. RosewaterAs part of its summer Off-Center series, Encores! mounted a production of this quirky, moving, yet forgotten musical by the creators of Little Shop of Horrors. Santino Fontana was appealing and authentic as always as the title character, and the production is reportedly yielding the show’s first cast recording.
Santino Fontana and cast of 'God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater;'../wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Rosewater0002-copy.jpg 800w

Santino Fontana and cast of ‘God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater;’ photo: Joan Marcus

  1. The Band’s Visit – A quiet, simple delight of a show, presented by the Atlantic Theater Company, with powerful performances (particularly from breakout star Katrina Lenk) and an idiomatic score from David Yazbek. There’s talk of a Broadway transfer next season, in which case I would strongly suggest a visit of your own.
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Cast of ‘The Band’s Visit;’ photo: Ahron R. Foster

  1. Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed – No, it wasn’t perfect, particularly during its scattered second act. But, like the show whose origin it depicts, this Shuffle Along was infectious and tuneful, and Savion Glover’s choreography was both rousing and true to the times. Plus, the cast featured not only some of the greatest performers of our time (Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra, Brandon Victor Dixon, Audra, Joshua Henry, Audra…) but also a breakout performance from the dynamic Adrienne Warren.
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Adrienne Warren and the cast of ‘Shuffle Along;’ photo: Julieta Cervantes

  1. WaitressSomewhat lost amid the Hamilton juggernaut has been Waitress, an intensely moving show, with yet another sensational performance from the wondrous Jessie Mueller, plus a complex and appealing score from musical theater newbie Sara Bareilles. The piece is strong on its own, but you’d be well advised to catch the show before Mueller leaves at the end of March. Well advised.
Waitress

Kimbo Glenn, Jessie Mueller, Keala Settle, in ‘Waitress;’ photo: Joan Marcus

  1. FalsettosThis revival of William Finn’s masterwork took a while to find its groove, but once it did, the show became quietly intimate and emotionally shattering. The cast of Broadway regulars — including Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells, and Stephanie J. Block — gave their richest and most satisfying performances to date. And the production yielded the show’s first complete cast recording, and a terrific recording it is, too.
Falsettos

Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells in ‘Falsettos;’ photo: Joan Marcus.

  1. Dear Evan HansenIt’s gratifying to see Broadway audiences embrace serious shows (Fun Home, Next to Normal), and Dear Evan Hansen is a welcome addition to this trend. The show represents genuine Broadway success for Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and features one of the best ensemble casts in many a season, including Ben Platt and Laura Dreyfuss as the young folk at the center of this serious story of unintended deception, desperate loneliness, and ultimate acceptance.
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Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones in ‘Dear Evan Hansen;’ photo: Matthew Murphy

  1. She Loves Me – A sparkling, lively revival of one of the best musicals ever written. The cast was near perfection, and Scott Ellis’ comic direction was almost without flaw. Plus, the production yielded a TV broadcast that effectively captured the spirit of the production, and will serve as a cherished record of this delightful show for years to come.
She Loves Me Studio 54 Cast List: Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, Jane Krakowski, René Auberjonois, Gavin Creel, Nicholas Barasch, Peter Bartlett, Michael McGrath, Cameron Adams, Alison Cimmet, Justin Bowen, Preston Truman Boyd, Benjamin Eakeley, Sara Edwards, Michael Fatica, Gina Ferrall, Jenifer Foote, Andrew Kober, Laura Shoop, Jim Walton Production Credits: Scott Ellis (director) David Rockwell (scenic design) Jeff Mahshie (costume design) Donald Holder (lighting design) Jon Weston (sound design) Larry Hochman (orchestrations) David Krane (dance arrangements and incidental music) Other Credits: Lyrics by: Sheldon Harnick Music by: Jerry Bock Book by Joe Masteroff -

Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti in ‘She Loves Me;’ photo: Joan Marcus

  1. Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 – I’ve become so obsessed with The Great Comet that I just recently finished reading War and Peace, upon which the show is based. It’s not the staging, which is admittedly innovative. It’s certainly not the presence of Josh Groban. Groban has a terrific voice (duh), but his acting is stiff and he shuffles nervously and distractingly. No, the great appeal of The Great Comet is Dave Malloy’s piece itself, rich in both character and melody, and Malloy’s judicious adaptation of Tolstoy. Simply stunning.
Denée Benton and Brittain Ashford in 'The Great Comet;'../wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Denée-Benton-and-Brittain-Ashford-in-NATASHA-copy-2.jpg 620w

Denée Benton and Brittain Ashford in ‘The Great Comet;’ photo: Chad Batka

The Worst Musicals of 2016:

  1. Beowulf – Since I’m such a big fan of The Great Comet, I’ve naturally sought out Dave Malloy’s other work. Unfortunately, everything else has been fairly disappointing, particularly Beowulf at Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence. What a mess. Now, Malloy only contributed the music here, but I found nothing of merit anywhere on that stage. This ham-fisted attempt at updating the Beowulf legend was poorly crafted and artistically bereft.
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Cast of ‘Beowulf;’ photo: Ryan Jensen

  1. Bright StarBright Star was everyone’s favorite 2016 flop. Everyone except me. The supposed charms of this southern gothic smarm-fest were totally lost on me. Not even Carmen Cusack’s admittedly impressive Broadway bow could lift this snoozer out of the doldrums. And the show featured what may be the single most horrifying act one tag in musical-theater history. Sure, the music sounded great, but the characters were thin, the dialogue was jokey, and the plot strained credulity to the breaking point.
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Cast of ‘Bright Star:’ photo: Joan Marcus

  1. In TransitIn Transit is not so much bad as terminally bland. Once the novelty of the show being Broadway’s “first a cappella musical” wears off, we’re left with two-dimensional characters, an uninspired score, and a by-the-numbers story that goes nowhere fast.
In Transit Circle in the Square Produced by Janet B. Rosen and Six Train Productions Book by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth; Music by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth; Lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth; Vocal arrangements by Deke Sharon Directed by Kathleen Marshall; Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall; Associate Director: David Eggers; Associate Choreographer: David Eggers Scenic Design by Donyale Werle; Costume Design by Clint Ramos; Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Ken Travis; Hair and Wig Design by Cookie Jordan; Production Design by Caite Hevner Executive Producer: Scott Landis; General Manager: Alchemy Production Group Production Manager: Juniper Street Productions; Production Stage Manager: Kim Vernace; Stage Manager: Megan Schneid Musical Supervisor: Rick Hip-Flores Casting: Binder Casting; Press Representative: Polk & Co.; Advertising: AKA Cast David Abeles Dave Moya Angela Momma Mrs. Williams Althea Steven "HeaveN" Cantor Broadway debutBoxman Justin Guarini Trent Telly Leung Steven Erin Mackey Ali Gerianne Pérez Broadway debut Kathy Margo Seibert Jane Chesney Snow Broadway debut Boxman Alternate James Snyder Nate Mariand Torres Broadway debut Nina Nicholas Ward Chris Standby: Adam Bashian (Chris, Dave), Laurel Harris (Ali, Jane, Kathy), Arbender Robinson (Steven, Trent) and Aurelia Williams (Althea, Momma, Mrs. Williams)

Cast of ‘In Transit;’ photo: Joan Marcus

  1. Ride the CycloneRide the Cyclone starts with a painfully grim premise — a small group of high school students are killed in a theme-park accident, and are each then forced to make their case for being the one person to get a second chance at living. What follows is a dull slog through each character’s uninteresting backstory, accompanied by forgettable songs, and self-conscious, would-be comic dialogue that isn’t nearly as funny as the creators seem to think.
Ride the Cyclone MCC - Lortel Theater Book, music and lyrics by Brooke Maxwell & Jacob Richmond Directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell Scenic design by Scott Davis Costume design by Theresa Ham Lighting design by Greg Hofmann Sound design by Garth Helm Projection design by Mike Tutaj Musical supervision by Doug Peck Musical direction by Remy Kurs Lillian Castillo (Constance) is based out of Chicago and is excited to make her New York debut with MCC. She is even more thrilled to be here with this crazy beautiful piece. Credits include: Ride the Cyclone, Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits and Seussical (Chicago Shakespeare Theater); Sister Act and Man of La Mancha (The Marriott Theater); Wonderland: Alice’s Rock and Roll Adventure (Chicago Children’s Theater); Hairspray, Sleeping Beauty and West Side Story (Drury Lane Theater); Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Emerald City); In The Heights (Paramount Theater). Other Regional Credits: Why Do Fools Fall in Love (Milwaukee Rep); Hairspray and Glorious! (Arkansas Rep); Hairspray (Phoenix Theater); Macbeth, Fiddler on the Roof, Great Expectations a New Musical, HMS Pinafore, The Merchant of Venice, Comedy of Errors, Lend Me A Tenor: The Musical, The Matchmaker and School for Wives (The Utah Shakespeare Festival). Gus Halper (Misha) stars alongside Nick Jonas and Ben Schnetzer in David Gordon Green’s upcoming film GOAT that premiered at Sundance this year. He can currently be seen in a recurring role on the Starz hit show POWER, produced by 50 Cent. Additional TV credits include the lead role in the ABC pilot KINGMAKERS, a recurring role in TNT’s PUBLIC MORALS and an upcoming guest spot on PBS’ MERCY STREET. Gus is a graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Karl Hamilton (Karnak) reprises his role from the remarkably successful run at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. His Regional credits include: All the Way and Living on Love (Asolo Rep - Sarasota, FL) and Mamma Mia! (Tropicana - Las Vegas, NV). While his Chicago credits include: The Most Happy Fella (Ravinia Festival), The Jungle Book and By the Music of the Spheres (Goodman), The Three Musketeers, The Merry Wives of Windsor and As You Like It (Chicago Shakespeare Theater) A Christmas Carol, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Mame (Drury Lane Oakbrook), For the Boys, The Full Monty and Shenandoah (Marriott), The Christmas Schooner and The Addams Family (Mercury) which earned him a Jeff Nomination for his portrayal of Gomez. Taylor Louderman (Ocean) is thrilled to be making her MCC Theater debut! Taylor recently starred opposite Christopher Walken and Allison Williams on NBC’s Peter Pan Live as Wendy Darling. She originated the role of Campbell Davis (Fred Astaire Award nomination) in the Tony®- nominated Broadway production and national tour of Bring It On: The Musical. TV Credits: Sunny Days (Nick Jr.), High Maintenance (HBO), Night Cap (PopTv). Off-Broadway: GIGANTIC (Ashley Penrod). Regional: The Muny’s AIDA (Amneris), GREASE (Sandy), HAIRSPRAY (Amber); Grease (Sandy) at Paper Mill Playhouse; Footloose (Ariel) at Kansas City Starlight. Special thanks Brantley & CGF. Go Blue! @taylizlou Johnny Newcomb (Male Understudy) made his Broadway debut in The Last Ship (Music by Sting, Dir. by Joe Mantello) with which he also performed on Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and The 37th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. He appeared in the Broadway National Tour of Green Day's American Idiot, The Public Theater's production of Into The Woods, and recently starred as Roger in RENT at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe under Creative Guidance of Original Broadway Cast member Anthony Rapp. Regional favorites include Spring Awakening (Melchior) and Next to Normal (Henry) at ZACH Theatre in Austin, TX, and RENT (Roger) at Ivoryton Playhouse in CT. All my love and thanks to Mom & Dad, my beautiful sisters, Telsey + Company, MCC Theater and Gotham Talent Agency. www.johnnynewcomb.com Instagram: johnnynewcomb Emily Rohm (Jane Doe) is based in Chicago, where her recent credits include Jane Doe in the US premiere of Ride the Cyclone (Chicago Shakespeare Theater), Arminy in Carousel (Lyric Opera), and the title role in Mary Poppins (Paramount Theatre). Other favorite roles include Marian Paroo in The Music Man (Paramount Theatre), Jane Ashton in Brigadoon (Goodman Theatre), Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Chicago Shakespeare Theater), Cosette in Les Miserables, and Johanna in Sweeney Todd (Drury Lane Oakbrook). Emily appeared in the off-Broadway production of Creature, the Rock Opera and as Baby Blue in the world premiere and cast album of the opera Dreaming Blue. She earned her B.A. in Music Theatre from Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Emily is also the owner of Röhm, a clothing design label that specializes in handmade bridal garments. Emily Walton (Female Understudy) is very happy to be making her MCC debut with Ride the Cyclone. Broadway: Peter and the Starcatcher, August: Osage County. Off-Broadway: Drama Desk-nominated revival of Women Without Men (Mint Theater Company), Eager to Lose: A Burlesque Farce in Rhyming Verse (Ars Nova), The Shaggs and Saved (both at Playwrights Horizons), Cactus Flower (West Side Theatre), and The Deepest Play Ever (New Ohio Theatre). Favorite regional credits include A Little More Alive (Barrington Stage Co.), The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls (Yale Rep), Third (Two River Theater), and The Wizard of Oz (Sacramento Music Circus). Film/TV: 5 Doctors, Blue Angel (starring Stanley Tucci), and TBS'../wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Emily-Rohm-and-the-cast-of-RIDE-THE-CYCLONE-Photo-by-Joan-Marcus-2-copy.jpg 800w

Emily Rohm and cast in ‘Ride the Cyclone;’ photo: Joan Marcus

  1. Southern Comfort – This show certainly meant well, attempting to bring to life the struggles of a small group of transgender people in the south. But noble intensions mean nothing unless the show itself is well-crafted, which Southern Comfort decidedly wasn’t. The characters became mouthpieces spouting platitudes rather than real people. I thought it was the least distinguished musical I had ever seen at the Public Theater. That is, until I saw The Total Bent
SouthernComfort

Cast of ‘Southern Comfort;’ photo: Carol Rosegg

  1. The Total Bent – I’m a huge fan of Stew’s Passing Strange, a raw and personal exploration of Stew’s own coming of age. But Stew’s follow-up show, The Total Bent, was a major letdown. The Total Bent is another coming-of-age story, this one about a young gay man and his complicated relationship with his father, a famous blues artist. But the same convention-breaking, fourth wall-shattering techniques Stew used in Passing Strange here become enervating and irritating. The show reeks of self-satisfaction, and eventually becomes buried under the weight of its own pretensions.
Cast of 'The Total Bent;'../wp-content/uploads/2016/12/The-Total-Bent.jpg 600w

Cast of ‘The Total Bent;’ photo: Joan Marcus

  1. Tuck Everlasting – One of the fastest-closing Broadway flops of the year was Tuck Everlasting, a show that was clearly aimed at capturing the family market, but that represented a major misfire. The songs were bland and unmemorable, the book was plodding and twee, and the production bordered on saccharine. Tuck Everlasting was almost worth seeing for Casey Nicholaw’s final ballet, a deft condensation of the entire adult life of the central character, Winnie Foster. Too bad about the bland, unmemorable show leading up to it.
Cast of 'Tuck Everlasting;'../wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Tuck-Everlasting-990x641.jpg 990w

Cast of ‘Tuck Everlasting;’ photo: Joan Marcus

  1. American Psycho – This one could have been good. In the right hands, an American Psycho musical might have been a darkly funny exploration of the Reagan era and the mindless, empty people therein. Unfortunately, those hands were not songwriter Duncan Sheik and librettist Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Under their ministrations, the story of Patrick Bateman became jaw-droppingly tasteless and unremittingly grim.
Benjamin Walker and cast of 'American Psycho;'../wp-content/uploads/2016/12/American-Psycho.jpg 750w

Benjamin Walker and cast of ‘American Psycho;’ photo: Jeremy Daniel

  1. Himself and Nora – Speaking of grim, few musicals this season were as bleak and uninviting as Himself and Nora, a coarse and superficial exploration of the life and career of James Joyce. Composer and librettist Jonathan Brielle seems to have thought it was a good idea to portray one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century as a randy, vulgar schoolboy. It wasn’t.
Matt Bogart and Jessica Burrows in “Himself and Nora;” photo: Christina L. Wilson

Jessica Burrows and Matt Bogart in “Himself and Nora;” photo: Christina L. Wilson

  1. Paramour – Yeah, sure, the Cirque du Soleil circus acts are cool, but the show surrounding those acts is a disaster. The songs are generic and weak, the libretto is an embarrassment, and nobody seems to have given much thought to how to make all of the circus acts relevant to the story. Paramour may be taking in $1 million-plus a week, but the utter lack of craft in the show’s construction is appalling.
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Cast of ‘Paramour;’ photo: Richard Termine

 

Cover: Josh Groban and the cast of ‘Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812;’ photo: Chad Batka.


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