10 Sensational Theater Performances of 2016

Here are the performances NBC New York theater writers Robert Kahn and Dave Quinn will remember most from 2016, listed in alphabetical order.

Laura Benanti, "She Loves Me"
It was a part she called her dream role, but watching Laura Benanti's Tony-nominated turn in the Roundabout Theatre Company's celebrated revival of "She Loves Me" felt more like a dream for audiences. The soaring soprano brought the perfect balance of humor and sincerity to the role of Amalia Balash — the strong-willed 1930s perfume-counter clerk who is unaware that her anonymous romantic pen pal is actually her quarreling coworker. Benanti's take on the show's signature stream-of-consciousness tune, "Vanilla Ice Cream," brought down the house — and reminded us all that her lush voice and impeccable instincts are Broadway's sweetest treat. —DQ

Corbin Bleu, "Holiday Inn"
He was known to many as Zac Efron's BFF in the Disney Channel's megahit "High School Musical" franchise. And though he's had stage credits before ("In the Heights," "Hairspray"), Corbin Bleu cemented his place as a Broadway bigwig this year with his toe-tapping turn in "Holiday Inn." As crooner Ted Hanover, the 27-year-old actor was able to show off his triple-threat talent — with his effortless and electric energy breathing new life into the show-stopping number "Let's Say It With Firecrackers," made famous by Fred Astaire in the 1942 film. Time for a "42nd Street" revival? —DQ

Stephanie J. Block, "Falsettos"
You'd be have a meltdown, too, if your husband left you for a guy, and the son you share was reneging on his promise to have a Bar Mitzvah. Block helped contemporize the James Lapine-William Finn classic, giving us a modern Trina holding to the ground as the ground keeps shifting. Realizing she won't have the life she thought she was signing up for, Trina adapts ... but not before a show-stopping turn with "I'm Breaking Down," using as her props a knife, two bananas and a couple of limp carrots. Marvin and Whizzer were wise to leave the room; the rest of us were lucky we stayed. —RK

Amber Gray, "Hadestown" and "Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812"
This is what they call a "one-two punch." Amber Gray delivered back to back blows this year — first in the New York Theater Workshop's sensation "Hadestown" and then in her acclaimed Broadway debut in "Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812." Gray brought an alluring sense of danger and vulnerability to each character (Persephone, loyal wife of Hades, and Hélène, scheming wife of Pierre, respectively) while still never forgetting their strength. And her sharp and sultry voice put her center stage — even if director Rachel Chavkin often had her singing from the sidelines in both immersive productions. When actors can often be so black and white, this year showed us there's beauty in the gray. —DQ

Heather Headley, "The Color Purple"
If there was a Tony Award given for replacing casting, Heather Headley would be the clear winner this year. The stunning soprano returned to Broadway in her first role in 15 years, playing the sultry blues singer Shug Avery in the Tony-winning revival of "The Color Purple." The part's been played by many an actress before (including Jennifer Hudson when the revival first opened, and Margaret Avery in the 1985 film), but Headley's time up at bat felt like the first time anyone truly saw Shug. A gripping performance textured with anger and wit confronted audiences with Shug's inner demons and outer charm — showing an overconfident woman fighting to silence the scared little girl within. Plus, Headley's powerhouse voice allowed those who failed to see her all those years ago in "Aida" to remember just what Broadway's been missing. Don't wait another 15, Heather. —DQ

Jefferson Mays, "Oslo"
You could be forgiven for questioning the dramatic potential in a play about the backstage machinations involved in bringing together an Israeli prime minister and a Palestinian leader. But playwright J.T. Rogers grasped onto the cynicism that crept over the Middle East in the wake of the multinational Oslo Accords of the 1990s, and crafted a taut, thrilling narrative arguing that the storied agreement set events on a better course, even if not the one bargained for. Jefferson Mays, as a wonk at a Norwegian think tank, shined as a well-intentioned, occasionally fumbling policymaker with a will of steel. He brought something into "Oslo" I wasn't expecting: laughter. —RK

Janet McTeer, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and "Taming of the Shrew"
How's this for versatile? This year, McTeer managed to command a stage once lying provocatively on a plush couch in the 18th century Paris of the French epistolary novel, and then again standing up against a tree, unzipping her fly and peeing, as she did in The Public's vibrant, all-female take on "Shrew." In "Dangereuses," the Tony winner was a conniving La Marquise de Merteuil, crafting dangerous plots that eventually returned to haunt her. And for Shakespeare in the Park, she donned a butch leather jacket to woo Cush Jumbo's tantrum-throwing Katherina. Lloyd's interpretation offered numerous updates, including the thundering appearance on stage of a camper driven by McTeer to steal away with "his" near-hostage bride. Her redneck license plate? "PISA ASS." —RK

David Hyde Pierce, "A Life"
If one performance left me off-balance this year, it was Pierce, as an everyman gay New Yorker in "A Life," by author Adam Bock, which had its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons. Pierce played Nate, a proofreader with a relatable circle of friends. Just as we're discovering the parallels between his life and our own, Nate collapses. The drama's second half depicts the banal mechanics of a distinctly urban death: a medical examiner interrupts the process of body removal for a casual cell phone chat, and so on. Even as a lifeless corpse, Pierce managed to leave audiences dwelling on what's arguably every New Yorker's greatest fear: dying alone. —RK

Ben Platt, "Dear Evan Hansen"
Years from now, Ben Platt's pitch-perfect performance in "Dear Evan Hansen" will be discussed with the same "you had to see it to believe it" rhetoric often associated with Broadway legends. In the hands of another actor, the show's title character could easily play as a self-absorbed, annoyingly neurotic geek. But Platt finds levels to Evan not seen on the page — so supremely embodying his anxieties and complexities that you can't help but relate. It's a raw, full, and frighteningly realistic performance that will bring you to tears multiple times throughout the show and surely propel Platt to stardom. Did I mention he's just 23 years old? Start prepping that Tony speech now, Ben. You'll no doubt need it. —DQ

Daniel Radcliffe, "Privacy"
The Public's "Privacy" was a disquieting comic thriller about the degree to which ordinary consumers have unwittingly released private details of their lives into the world. Who better to guide us on that tour than innocent and trustworthy Daniel Radcliffe? "Privacy" was a participatory project, with audiences encouraged to keep cellphones on, logged into a dedicated WiFi network. Turned out, that network was scanning our Facebook profiles and learning the private networks we'd previously signed onto ... and soon displaying them on a digital screen above Radcliffe's head. One effective sequence had the British actor speed-dating with audience "matches," and being forced to admit he lied on a dating profile about his height. I went home and changed every password I had. —RK

Honorable Mentions:

Carmen Cusack, as a woman telling her unbelievable story in "Bright Star" ... Johanna Day, as an uncompromising factory worker in "Sweat" ... Chris Fitzgerald, as a scene-stealing persistent romantic in "Waitress" ... John Gallagher Jr., as fragile son Edmund in Roundabout's "Long Day's Journey" ... Megan Hilty, as a ditzy blonde actress going through the motions in "Noises Off" ... Nick Kroll and John Mulaney, as the hilarious Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland in "Oh, Hello!" ... Kecia Lewis, for both CSC's "Mother Courage" and the Atlantic's "Marie & Rosetta" ... Amy Ryan, as a selfish boomer in "Love, Love, Love" ... Michelle Williams, as a sexual-abuse victim in "Blackbird."

Contact Us