Tuesday, December 10, 2019

2019 in Review: The Unforgettables: The Movers & Shapers & Newcomers

In the next of our 2019 in Review series, we take a look at 40 - yes, 40! - individuals who made an indelible mark on the year in theater. Some are acclaimed award winners, others are fantastic replacements. Some are long-term Broadway mainstays, other made their debuts. One thing they all have in common is that they made an impression that we won't soon forget. Trust me, it was DIFFICULT to narrow this list down to the 30 "movers and shapers" and 10 "newcomers" we came up with. We could double it, and still not get everyone in.

2019 in Review:
The Unforgettables:
The Movers & Shapers

Deneé Benton (Eliza in Hamilton): Loved her in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet, and she was fabulous in Hamilton. Equal parts ferocity and warmth, her Eliza was a graceful counter point to Michael Luwoye's AHam. She continues to be a performer we look forward to seeing each time her name is announced in a cast.

Alex Brightman (Beetlejuice in Beetlejuice): This guy is funny and a good singer. Lots of Broadway guys are. But what makes him unforgettable is a charming charisma that simply pours out of him. And he's a master of walking that fine line between high comedy and wanton scenery chewing, an increasingly rare talent.

Stephanie J. Block (Star in The Cher Show): It's not the much-deserved Tony Award that earned her a spot on our list this year. No, it's the good nature and humility she displayed throughout her time in the (sometimes) harsh spotlight. Let's also not forget that she did all of that while being a mother to a young child. Still, her elevator entrance is one won't soon forget, either!

Lisa Brescia (Heidi Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen): To be honest, she's an actress I enjoy every time I see her in something, but not one I've actively kept track of. Well, that has definitely changed after her raw, emotional turn as struggling single parent to a very troubled young man. Whatever she's up to next, I'll be there, ready to be swept away.

Danny Burstein (Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge!): I don't think I've ever seen a show with this guy in it that I didn't love his part in it. Is there anything this man can't do? In his latest triumph, he outshines every light, costume and piece of scenery that surrounds him. That is one Hell of an accomplishment. He has joined the ranks of the great Joel Grey, Ben Vereen and Alan Cumming as a sinister scene-stealing master of ceremonies. Bravo!

Kerry Butler (Barbara Maitland in Beetlejuice): One of our favorite Broadway actresses of all time, what is remarkable about her this time around is how she provides her trademark zany physical comedy skills and booming vocal stylings, and still manages to be a strong grounding force in thr midst of all the chaos around her. In less adept hands, her role could easily be boring and one note. As usual, hers is a performance not to be missed.

Ben Crawford (The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera): His fresh take on an iconic role in a decades old show brings a sensual vitality and urgency to a decades old classic. He is, in large part, why the musical feels showroom new. And, man is he sexy. And dangerous. And thrilling.

Damon Daunno (Curly McLain in Oklahoma!): Speaking of sexy, this guy's turn in this classic is so sexually charged and dangerous it is almost scary. Has anyone strolled the stage, guitar in hand, and exuded that much raw charisma? And exchange with Patrick Vaill may just be the most homoerotic, breathtaking scene ever. So what if we couldn't see it? He's that good.

André De Shields (Hermes in Hadestown): What could we possibly add to what has already been said about this career-defining, award-winning turn by a true Broadway legend and gentleman? Nothing except "thank you." So, thank you very much for the privilege of witnessing theater magic.

Gideon Glick (Dill Harris in To Kill a Mockingbird): He's always done shy and quirky very well. But here he displayed a heartbreaking depth in that quirkiness. It was wonderful that the Tony nominators recognized the brilliance of his performance. We were riveted.

Amber Gray (Persephone in Hadestown): Hers was one of those performances people will be talking about for years. To say she owned that stage is a gross understatement. Boozy, strong and raucous yet vulnerable, this was the birth of a new Broadway diva.

Timothy Hughes (Worker in Hadestown): Normally, an ensemble member shouldn't pull your focus, but in his case, we couldn't keep our eyes off of "the tall guy." It wasn't even his size that drew our attention. No, it is much more than that. Simply put, his every move is mesmerizing. We'd love to see him as Hades - he'd be one hell of a villain!

Robyn Hurder (Nini in Moulin Rouge!): Here's another ensemblist who had our eye every minute she was onstage. Often, her role called for her to be front and center, but no matter where she was, she was fabulous. The perfect combination of skill and character, she sizzled in an already smoking hot spectacle.

Celia Keenan-Bolger (Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird): Like her co-star above, we've long been a fan of her work, but this time around, she was utter perfection. There was a spark of wonder at people's resiliance and a righteous indignation people's cruelty that was achingly present. Only the coldest and cruelest among us could be unaffected by her brilliant performance.

Dawnn Lewis (Zelma in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical): The best stage villains show us levels of their villainy. The truly exceptional stage villains make is feel for them despite their villainy. She was mean, vicious and sad. And every time she was onstage she upped the emotional intensity. No small feat in this huge concert-sized musical.

Michael Luwoye (Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton): Sorry Lin-Manuel, this guy was a superior Alexander Hamilton. He demanded our attention with a loud, arrogant turn, equal parts charisma and fighter. He found depth where there wasn't before, and made us long for a time when ideas and passion ruled the day.

Chris McCarrell (Percy Jackson in The Lightning Thief): Sometimes you just know an actor has a huge future. Such is the case with this guy who made me believe he was an unwitting child-hero. He elevated the material he was given every time he opened his mouth. and I was so impressed with his commitment and obvious love for the piece.

Sahr Ngaujah (Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge!): Considering all of the larger than life characters and enormous spectacle surrounding him, it speaks volumes for this supporting player that he made such an impression. Funny, passionate and righteous, he gave weight to what could have easily been all fluff and no substance. He made us believe in Bohemian ideals.

Karen Olivo (Satine in Moulin Rouge!): From her breathtaking swing entrance to her fierce "Single Ladies" and empowering "Firework," her Broadway return is nothing short of spectacular spectacular! In such a meaty role she gets to do it all - sing, dance, comedy, drama - and she is amazing.

Q. Smith (Hannah and Others in Come From Away): This was our second time seeing her in this show, and impossibly, she was even deeper and more touching than before. A heartbreaking role played with such grace and dignity. Looking forward to our paths crossing again, and soon...

Jarrod Spector (Sonny Bono in The Cher Show): When you can make a big impression when you share the stage with three forces of nature (in a fur vest, no less), you must be doing something right! Best of all, he showed us a man worthy of being both loved and despised, both villain and hero. Not bad for a bio-jukebox musical!

Ali Stroker (Ado Annie in Oklahoma!): Yes, it was amazing and wonderful to see a differently abled person in a featured role. But for me, the best part of her performance was that you didn't see the wheelchair, but rather just a passionate young woman with a lust for life, lookin' for love. She wasn't a great Ado Annie for "someone in a wheelchair." She was a great Ado Annie period.

Jason Tam (The Squip in Be More Chill): A true bright spot in an otherwise ugly, chaotic mess, he brought his usual flair and professionalism to the stage without incessant mugging and overacting. More proof that when you see his name on the cast list, you know you'll be getting a quality performance.

Myra Lucretia Taylor (Gran Georgeanna in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical): I couldn't take my eyes off of her every time she took the stage. (That's really saying something given that she's in Tina!) Exuding warmth, strength and such dignity, she made me think of my own wonderful grandmother. I wonder if she gives reassuring hugs at the stage door?

Mary Testa (Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!): Our love affair with this remarkable actress continues. Yes, she gave us her fire and comedic chops. But the box social auction was frightening and so tense I dug my fingernails into my hands - she was thrilling and awesome. I'll never be able to see that scene in the way I used to. Thank you.

Patrick Vaill (Jud Fry in Oklahoma!): Perhaps my biggest "discovery" of the year, I find this man to be mesmerizing in his naturalness and nuance. Sexually charged and menacing, with just the right amount of pitiable sadness, it was brilliant to see this character as more than just a mustache-twirling style villain. As with the other three honorees on this list from this show, he has made seeing future productions more difficult. How do you beat perfection?

Ryan Vasquez (George Washington Understudy in Hamilton): God, is this guy amazing! He gave an absolutely thrilling performance that made me not only wish his part was bigger, but wish that I could come back and see him as Hamilton! Let this be a lesson to anyone who dismisses an understudy. They are all terrific, and sometimes you get to see a star in the making.

Frederick Weller (Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird): It was recently revealed that playwright Aaron Sorkin used Breitbart comments to form the dialogue for this character. It makes me respect this actor even more. One has to wonder what it takes to go to that very dark place. He made it so real it was scary. I'm getting chills just remembering his work.

Erin Wilhelmi (Mayella Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird): The same can be said of this fine young actress. How does she go there and come out on the other side? What a chilling yet sad performance. Can't wait to see more of her in future shows!

Ruth Wilson (Cordelia/Fool in King Lear): Wow. My other personal "discovery," she was the one I watched in King Lear. Sorry, Ms. Jackson. I loved every second of both roles she played - the quiet grace of Cordelia, the smart-assery of the Fool. I may never see a carrot the same way ever again. While it is a great pleasure to watch her in His Dark Materials, I am already saving up for a ticket to see her next Broadway appearance.

2019 in Review:
The Unforgettables:
The Newcomers

Gbenga Akinnagbe (Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird): I remember thinking, "this man has the weight of history on his shoulders." What a way to make your debut! More shows soon, please, sir!

Anthony Boyle (Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child): Considering all of the enormity surrounding him, it is miraculous how his mere presence filled the cavernous Lyric Theatre. I found him to be completely captivating. His was an emotional roller coaster

Sean Carvajal (Edgar in King Lear): He spent a good deal of time wearing little more than newspaper in his debut performance. But that's not why his debut was so memorable. The guy has charisma pouring out of him, and just watching him move about the stage was a thrill.

Micaela Diamond (Babe in The Cher Show): The voice! The attitude! The bell bottoms! And my favorite production number of the year - "The Beat Goes On." I'm sure this won't be the last we see of this new diva-in-the-making.

Andrew Barth Feldman (Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen): I cannot believe how much his performance affected me. I sobbed. Hard. He also completely changed my opinion of Dear Evan Hansen. Go to Disney on vacation, go to college, then come back to Broadway!!

Jeremy O. Harris (Playwright of Slave Play): From Rhianna-gate to Talkback Tammy, this guy has gotten Broadway in the news for interesting reasons. But the biggest, best story is that he is a new, brave voice in the theater. Challenging theater needs to not only exist, but thrive. He is making that happen.

Anaïs Mitchell (Writer/Composer of Hadestown): One of the most exciting new voices in the musical theatre, she created one of the best musicals of the decade. Unafraid to edit, rearrange, delete or add, she took her time and a work of art was born. Would that more writers took that much care. She has said she may never write another musical. That would be a shame.

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe (Tina Turner Alternate in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical): Alternates rule! Catch her if you can, she is a STAR! She was simply the best.

Kristin Stokes (Annabeth in The Lightning Thief): You can tell that this exciting ball of energy takes her role as a confident young woman/role model seriously. And she sets a great example with her intensity and commitment. We are betting that big things are coming her way.

Sonya Tayeh (Choreographer of Moulin Rouge!): Brilliance personified. The variety in her dances and the exciting stage pictures she creates make Moulin Rouge! a fantastic series of visual thrills. She hones in on each dancer's skill set in a way not seen on Broadway since Bob Fosse and Twyla Tharp. More, please.


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