10 Best New York Theater Productions of 2017

I call this my Magpie List for 2017, because like the magpie, I love pretty, shiny things that delight the eye — and if they also warm the heart, so much the better. “The Band’s Visit” tops the list because this little show has it all, finding ravishing beauty in a desert and human friendship in a barren political landscape. In some cases, like “The Wolves” and “Pacific Overtures,” flawless form mirrors perfect content. Each in its own theatrical idiom, “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Sunset Boulevard” are triumphs of design, and “Sweeney Todd” and “Once On This Island” work their magic in immersive settings. It all added up to some good news in a year when the rest of the news was unfailingly grim.

1. “The Band’s Visit” 
David Yazbek’s heartbreakingly beautiful musical brings about an accidental cultural exchange when an Egyptian military bands finds itself stranded in an isolated Israeli town in the middle of the desert. The fiery Katrina Lenk welcomes Tony Shalhoub and the band to her little world.

2. “Once On This Island
Director Michael Arden’s inspired revival of this 1990 musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty returns us to the little island in the French Antilles where powerful local gods set in motion a “Romeo & Juliet” love tragedy. The enchanting Hailey Kilgore makes a debut to remember as the doomed heroine who loves too much.

3. “The Wolves”
Director Lila Neugebauer makes inspired use of Lincoln Center’s intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater to draw us into the collective life story of a girls’ soccer team. As they arrange themselves in a circle to perform their pre-game warm-up stretches, the girl-jocks in playwright Sarah DeLappe’s group portrait come vibrantly alive to tell their stories.

4. “Jitney”
This was a pitch-perfect revival of August Wilson’s first play, an ensemble piece about gypsy cab drivers in Pittsburgh trying to make an honest living during the 1970s depression. “Moonlight” star Andre Holland and the powerful John Douglas Thompson squared off in a memorable battle royal.

5. “Pacific Overtures”
John Doyle’s gorgeous staging of this Stephen Sondheim musical unfurled like a Japanese scroll painting. Stylized performances by a superb cast, led by George Takei as the Reciter, created the illusion of a drama unfolding on the pages of an ancient manuscript.

Variety’s Best of 2017

6. “SpongeBob SquarePants
Tina Landau’s psychedelic staging of the whimsical kiddie cartoon gives us all we ask of a Broadway production with unlimited resources: cheery performances (topped by Ethan Slater’s playfully animated SpongeBob), amazing stage effects, and an unironic attitude of good-natured fun for all.

7. “Sweeney Todd”
The congenial staging of this landmark musical by Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim invites audiences to have a seat at family-length tables set up at the Barrow Street Theater, where they’re free to eat, drink, and dodge the knife-wielding actors enthusiastically dancing on the tables.

8. “A Doll’s House, Part 2”
Playwright Lucas Hnath pulled off the dramatic parlor trick of bringing back Ibsen’s iconic heroine, Nora Helmer (in a superb performance by Laurie Metcalfe), 15 years after she slammed the door on her marriage and took the first brave steps toward making her own way in the world.

9. “Sunset Boulevard
You can pick it apart as a musical, but you can’t beat this Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza for va-va-va-voom theatrical stagecraft. And let’s hear it for Glenn Close’s divinely insane performance as Norma Desmond, unleashing the killer power of the silent film star in “With One Look.”

10. “Hello, Dolly!”
The divine Bette Midler delivers the goods in this loving re-creation of Jerry Herman’s 1964 musical theater classic. Director Jerry Zaks has done a terrific restoration job on the old girl, delivering the exuberance of the show tunes and the joy of the story about re-entering the great parade of life.

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