Best of Broadway in 2017: My top 10 begins with Bruce and Bette
By Chris Jones
December 11, 2017
ou could escape the lousy times of 2017 on Broadway, whether that was by descending to Bikini Bottom or rising up on your feet, with everyone around, in praise of all that is Bette Midler.
But there also were many well-timed meditations on strife, selfish behavior and survivorship: The year was marked by an uncommonly intense desire to search for hope, commonality and human understanding. Not hard to see why, really. Here, in ranked order, are the 10 best Broadway shows I saw in 2017.
The Boss had no peer on Broadway in 2017. In a year pockmarked with the puddles of men melted by their own transgressions, Bruce Springsteen offered a deeply personal dissection and explication of the joys and obligations of American manhood. At once assured, erotic, humble and existentially profound, Springsteen’s Broadway show was far more than the concert many expected. Fully aware of the paradoxes and tensions within his own persona, Springsteen preached the virtues of self-awareness to all with the cash to bear witness. Extended through June 30, 2018, at the Walter Kerr Theatre; www.brucespringsteen.net/broadway
If you believe an audience must be an avid participant in any claim of theatrical greatness, then Jerry Zaks’ ebullient revival of “Hello, Dolly!” had an assist that pitched this remarkable experience to the gods of history. Dolly Levi is an archaic mass of contradiction, you’d think, but the beloved Bette Midler insisted otherwise, hitching Dolly to the back of her own celebrity and hosting a love fest of the like Broadway rarely, if ever, has seen. All that Midler needed was to float on a cushion of excellence, and that is exactly what Zaks delivered. What a banquet of life-affirming fun! At the Shubert Theatre, with Bernadette Peters taking over the role Jan. 20; www.hellodollyonbroadway.com
‘The Band’s Visit’
We’re always debating the rules of culture while usually forgetting that most of the people who share our planet inhabit lives where such indulgences are, well, merely indulgences. That was one takeaway from David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’ gorgeous musical, an adaptation of a quiet movie, all about life lived in a dull Israeli town that happens to be visited for the day by Egyptian musicians who live similarly prosaic lives. This potent show helped us come to see that most of our global political divides actually are battles among elites. Director David Cromer’s production was often very funny, and yet suffused with the sadness of human alienation so unnecessary as to be ridiculous. Still, you felt some hope. A band was visiting, after all. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre; www.thebandsvisitmusical.com
The selfless mediators of the Oslo Accord — the anonymous Norwegians who got the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization talking in the same room — were a bizarre and seemingly anachronistic sight on the stage of the Lincoln Center, given the celebrity grandstanding and scorched-earth bickering that made up the year’s political discourse. But here was the point of this wise geopolitical drama by J.T. Rogers: The greatest peacemakers in history usually have sought no glory for themselves. A play in tribute to mediators who want nothing but humanistic good — well, a few brief pangs of selfishness aside — “Oslo” was a reminder of how our present conflicts could be resolved. And director Bartlett Sher’s wonderfully acted production fully understood that, aye, there was the rub.
‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’
Had Henrik Ibsen known about Laurie Metcalf, he would himself have had his Nora come roaring back through the door for another go-round. But that task fell to the shrewd and economical playwright Lucas Hnath, whose sequel to the classic proto-feminist dramamanaged to be as entertaining as it was intellectually stimulating. Not a moment of director Sam Gold’s production of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” felt wasted. Metcalf is in the middle of an extraordinarily productive phase of work, and her relish at settling old scores, and sadness at how hard it is for people to change, was simply breathtaking.
‘Once on This Island’
This ebullient, intimate revival of a show known for the intimacy of its storytelling feels likely to introduce this musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty to a younger generation of theatergoers. The director, Michael Arden, added tricks and theatricality, but he also better rooted the piece in a more authentic island community than had been the case before. Not only was “Once on This Island” beautifully performed, but you immediately intuited the generosity of the ensemble. It was a night of hope and balm, of goats and chickens. At the Circle in the Square Theatre; www.onceonthisisland.com.
A quarter-century after she first essayed the role of Norma Desmond, Glenn Close tapped into an extraordinary reservoir of vulnerability and turned it into what was surely the finest musical performance of 2017. This revival from London with a massive orchestra planted onstage did away with the original John Napier design, and it felt as if Close had decided that she could single-handedly replace all of its gilded glories, tarnished with age and disappointment, merely by the force of her own personality. And she was right. She could.
‘Come From Away’
The populist triumph of 2017 and a counterintuitive but brilliant idea for a musical, “Come From Away” overcame weaknesses in score and the lack of any star performance by celebrating the human spirit and global unity in an era of division, conflict and scorched-earth prognostication. Canadians were giddy at their own success — and thrilled with a show that celebrated their welcoming of refugees grounded in Gander, Newfoundland, en masse by jumbo jet as the world panicked on Sept. 11, 2001. This was a show that updated the Broadway truism that ordinary people can be trusted to do the right thing — its cast looked like all the rest of us, and acted like we all like to think we will act in a crisis, but rarely do. Well. Canadians notwithstanding. At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre; www.comefromaway.com
White working-class Americans have failed either to recognize or react politically against the true cause of their economic and social problems. That was the message of Lynn Nottage’s defiantly socialist play, based on original research, that was about the residents of small-town Pennsylvania struggling in the face of their economic problems. The piece was inarguably schematic in places, and caught between sympathy for its collective protagonists and a desire not to let them off the hook for the way they transfer their problems onto those on an even lower rung. But “Sweat” was still a rare Broadway reckoning with the issues that are upending ordinary Americans.
The perky Nickelodeon sponge gave some people a headache but still made his case for his being the most original and heartfelt show on Broadway, breaking establishment rules and coaxing us all to believe in the Bikini Bottom way of life. The first anarchic Broadway kid’s show in a long while, SpongeBob now looks set to soak up some business from Disney. Director Tina Landau’s production will, for sure, please the true believers, for it takes a deep dive into the altered state of reality that is SpongeBob-dom. And it showcases its most formidable asset — the young actor Ethan Slater, fully game for saving anyone and everyone’s day. At the Palace Theatre; www.spongebobbroadway.com