Most memorable moments on New York stages in 2016

Among the worthwhile moments I saw on stage in 2016, a surprising number became more memorable because of off-stage events.

It’s impossible now to remember the Radio City Rockettes performing to Singin In The Rain (in the video below), without thinking of Debbie Reynolds, who became a star at age 19 because of the movie that introduced that song, and who died at the end of 2016 at age 84, one day after the death of her daughter Carrie Fisher.

Many memorable stage moments of 2016 that were connected to the outside world had to do with the politics of this surreal year. (Look at Hadestown and The Last Black Man.)

There were also moments of spectacle and spectacular tricks of stagecraft that I’m not likely to forget, and quieter moments that roped me in emotionally.

New York Spectacular, a new summer show at Radio City Music Hall that features the Rockettes, who memorably performed Singin in the Rain…in the rain.

We’ve been warned throughout Act I about the coming flood in “Head of Passes.” When it arrives, G.W. Mercier’s set design gives a new meaning to “creative destruction.” The collapse of the matriarch’s house before our eyes is an awesome moment that prepares us for the Job-like monologue by Phylicia Rashad that ends Tyrell Alvin McCraney’s play.

Sure, Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour is a ludicrous pairing of spectacular acrobatics with a traditional Broadway musical that could not be more of a cliche. But there was something special, if unintentionally hilarious, when the actors involved in a silly Hollywood love triangle are mirrored by a trio of identically costumed trapeze artists who translate the sappy dialogue into an impressive balancing act.

One of the most moving moments on stage in 2016 occurs in “Tiny Beautiful Things,” based on a real-life advice columnist. “Living Dead Dad” tells her his son was killed by a drunk driver. “Your son hasn’t yet taught you everything he has to teach you. He taught you how to love like you’ve never loved before. He taught you how to suffer like you’ve never suffered before. Perhaps the next thing he has to teach you is acceptance. And the thing after that, forgiveness.

This exchange in Sweat: Johanna Day as Tracey: “I’m not prejudice…I’m cool with everyone. But, I mean… C’mon… you guys coming over here, you can get a job faster than…” Carlo Alban as Oscar, interrupting: “I was born here” Tracey: “Still, you wasn’t born here, Berks” – the county where Reading is located. Oscar: “Yeah, I was.”

In “Indecent,” Paula Vogel’s play that tells the story of the hundred-year-old Yiddish play that featured the first Lesbian kiss on Broadway, the actors playing the troupe keep on referring to the kiss as “the rain scene.” When we finally see the rain scene, it’s not so much the kiss as the rain that overwhelms us.

What Andrew Schneider achieves on stage in YOUARENOWHERE literally using smoke and mirrors leaves theatergoers as astonished as 19th century audiences must have felt watching Lumière’s “Arrival of the Train,” that first movie of a locomotive magically appearing on a screen. Those audience members supposedly fled in terror and panic. The audiences at 3LD Art and Technology Center gather in clusters after the show. (One of the problems of trickster theater such as this one is that I can’t tell you what happens without spoiling the show in what will surely be future productions.)

Daniel Watts portrays a character named Black Man with Watermelon in the Signature’s revival Suzan-Lori Parks’ 1990 play “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, AKA The Negro Book of the Dead.” In one alarming moment, wearing a noose around his neck and close to a hanging tree, he says “Can’t breathe!”

In “A Life,” David Hyde Pierce as Nate has been sitting in his New York apartment assessing his life when suddenly that life changes for good — and the walls of Nate’s apartment slowly turn from vertical to horizontal, set designer Laura Jellinek’s inspired transition from Nate’s apartment to the city morgue.

Although it was written years ago, a song in “Hadestown” took on extra weight. As Hades, Patrick Page sings “Why We Build The Wall,” in a kind of call-and-response with the three actresses who make up The Fates: “Why do we build the wall? My children, my children why do we build the wall?” Hades sings. …We build the wall to keep us free. How does the wall keep us free?…. …The wall keeps out the enemy.

In A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, when Taylor Mac first strips off his fabulously over-the-top costume to change (eventually) into another one, signaling a transition to the next decade, he looks like an android, simultaneously vulnerable and invulnerable, not quite human. And surely it took something of a superhuman to perform for 24 continuous hours.

While Josh Groban is front and center in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, the most memorable of several memorable moments in the show for me was an (almost) private one. A member of the ensemble, dressed like a punk rock, 19th century aristocratic slut, handed me a plastic Russian egg with pellets inside so that I could use it as a castanet in the next song.

I got to keep the egg.

For the fourth year in a row, as part of what the Public Theater calls its Public Works project, some 200 New Yorkers of all different talents and theatrical experiences (some of them none) performed a classic play – this year, a version of Twelfth Night. The entire unwieldy cast gathered together under neon signs and dozens of purple umbrellas for a last thrilling moment on stage, a combination of curtain call and celebration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the last moment of “The Last Walk,” the very last performance art Walk of the disbanding six-year-old art project Elastic City, Niegel Smith, the associate director of Elastic City, led the participants to a hill in Prospect Park, handed out a sheet with the lyrics, and led us in singing ‘Tomorrow” from Annie; Elastic City thus proved at the end that the line between theater and avant-garde performance art is not that big after all.

 

 

 

Jonathan Mandell About Jonathan Mandell

Jonathan Mandell is a third-generation New York City journalist and a digital native, who has written about the theater for a range of publications, including Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, the New York Times, Newsday, Backstage, NPR.com and CNN.com. He holds a BA from Yale and an MA from Columbia University, and has taught at the Columbia School of Journalism and New York University. He blogs at http://www.NewYorkTheater.me and Tweets as @NewYorkTheater.

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