10 Unforgettable Theater Performances of 2014

Here are the performances WNBC theater writers Robert Kahn and Dave Quinn will remember most, listed in alphabetical order.

Annaleigh Ashford, “You Can’t Take It With You
No one’s worried about much of anything in Scott Ellis’s sturdy revival of the oft-performed Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman chestnut, but for sheer lunacy you couldn’t beat Ashford, the “Kinky Boots” vet, as Essie Carmichael, the hapless ballet student clumsily pirouetting across the stage in time with the xylophone-music churned out by her husband. James Earl Jones, Rose Byrne and Kristine Nielsen are brilliant as always, but it’s Ashford who made “You Can’t Take It With You” feel like the perfect escapist comedy for tough times. —RK

Tyne Daly, “Mothers & Sons
The formidable Daly first appears on stage in Terrence McNally’s new drama wrapped in a fur coat, but even that luxurious garment couldn’t protect her from the chill inside a Central Park apartment where her late son’s one-time lover lives with his new husband. In a brisk 90 minutes, Daly’s widowed Texan has to confront the memory of the son she lost to AIDS, while grappling with a vision of what his life might had been if he had survived. It was a story that managed to look simultaneously over its shoulder and straight ahead—the waterworks began within minutes and didn’t end until curtain, when Daly broke character and, in good fun, offered to reenact the entire 1989 production of “Gypsy” in the living room of the evening’s largest donor to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. —RK

Bridget Everett, “Rock Bottom”
Downtown cult icon Bridget Everett let it all hang out (and then some) in her emotionally and sexually raw 90-minute solo show, “Rock Bottom.” The big-voiced, big-bodied belter gave a manic and darkly comic performance — the sort of unhinged, bold, fearless performance you rarely see these days. But amidst the excessive drinking and R-rated audience interactions, Everett also pulled back to reveal painful truths, and challenged us all to do the same. If you didn’t get to see it its first time around, The Public Theater will bring back “Rock Bottom,” which features 10 songs co-written by Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, Matt Ray and songwriting team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray”) to Joe’s Pub this January. —DQ

Stephen McKinley Henderson, “Between Riverside and Crazy
The attention-grabbing drama from the still-blasphemous author of “The Motherf***er With the Hat” explores how long it’s reasonable to fester in anger, and how we figure out when the time has come to let go. At its heart is Henderson’s Pops, the troubled ex-policeman embroiled in a long-standing suit with City Hall—he was shot by a white cop in what may have been a racially motivated incident. I’m still thinking about the nuance in August Wilson-vet Henderson’s fantastic performance, not to mention how horrifically relevant the subject matter remained as 2014 wore on. —RK

Joshua Henry, “Violet
The closest thing I had to a religious experience this year was watching Joshua Henry blow the roof off of the American Airlines Theatre in the Roundabout’s stellar revival of “Violet.” The actor’s electric take on Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s gut-wrenching gospel number “Let It Sing” was the sort of powerful performance that made an entire audience rise for one of those rare mid-show standing ovations. By giving his character the strength to be vulnerable in that moment, Henry bared his soul, earned a Tony nomination and reminded us all that the power to overcome any obstacle that lies within. Now if that isn’t a reason to sing, I don’t know what is. —DQ

James Monroe Iglehart, “Aladdin
It’s rare that you get to see an actor playing a character he was born to play, in a career-defining performance. But this year, James Monroe Iglehart treated audiences to just that. As the Genie is Disney’s latest film-to-stage transfer, “Aladdin,” Iglehart used his background in improv to create a comedic and charismatic Genie, who’s equal parts Fats Waller, Luther Vandross and Oprah Winfrey (“You get a wish! You get a wish!) — all while capturing the spirit of the late Robin Williams. Bonus points for having the most enthusiastic, genuine Tony acceptance speech of the year. —DQ

Jan Maxwell, “The City of Conversation
If Jan Maxwell was a senator, Congressional gridlock would be a thing of the past. That was the only conclusion to be drawn from the five-time Tony nominee’s affecting performance as an action-oriented Georgetown hostess in this epic Lincoln Center world premiere by Anthony Giardina. As the doyenne of Washington, D.C., dinner parties, Maxwell operates in a time when politicians sweated out deals over brandy and cigars. Her tactics are effective, until family members force her to contemplate whether achievements in society at large are worth carnage on a more intimate level. Maxwell, who turns everything she touches into gold, was just magnificent in a story that was ultimately almost too painful to contemplate. —RK

Alex Sharp, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
In recent Juilliard grad Alex Sharp, theatergoers got a bolder Christopher Boone than the one in Mark Haddon’s 2003 best-selling novel about a young man somewhere on the autism spectrum who sets out to investigate the murder of his neighbor’s dog. Marianne Elliott’s National Theatre transfer possessed an uncanny ability to let us experience Christopher’s emotional challenges audibly and visually—most terrifically when Christopher descends into London’s daunting Underground. The production design is electric, intricate and icy, but Sharp makes the lead character as warm and relatable as any human can be. —RK

Rachel Tucker, “The Last Ship
Of all the West End transfers that have come to Broadway over the years, the most exciting has to be Rachel Tucker, the Northern Irish singer who made her Broadway debut in Sting’s “The Last Ship” after a West End run as Elphaba in “Wicked.” As Meg, the spitfire mom at the center of a complicated love triangle, Tucker does the nearly impossible: turn a male-dominated show into a female story. Her sultry voice will draw you in (do yourself a favor and get the cast recording, if only to listen to Tucker’s “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor” on repeat forever), and she plays each moment with such honesty, you’ll empathize with her each step of the way. Tucker first rose to fame in the BBC talent competition “I’d Do Anything.” She made it to the semi-finals there, but her performance in “The Last Ship” shows that she’s a winner. —DQ

Tony Yazbeck, “On the Town
Among the trio of sailors at the center of “On the Town” is Gabey, the hopeless romantic searching for true love while on 24-hour shore leave in New York City. It’s a role that never stood out as a leading role from the pack — until Tony Yazbeck came along, that is. In John Rando’s must-see revival, the Broadway veteran gives a charming performance (alongside the energetic Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves), so earnest and genuine, you’ll have a hard time not falling for him yourself. Yazbeck is a “they-don’t-make-them-like-they-used-to” performer — cut from the cloth of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. A superbly eloquent dancer (as seen in “The Imaginary Coney Island” ballet) with a rich voice (as seen with “Lonely Town”), Yazbeck makes “On the Town” a helluva show. —DQ

Honorable mentions:

Jonatha Brooke’s sweet, sad, surprising and soulful homage to her mom,“My Mother Has 4 Noses” ... Jonny Donahoe’s charismatic narrator in “Every Brilliant Thing” ... Jessica Hecht’s comic turn in Sarah Ruhl’s “Stage Kiss” at Playwrights Horizons ... Norm Lewis’s history-making turn as the first African-American Phantom in “The Phantom of the Opera” … Chris O’Dowd’s memorable Broadway debut as Lennie Small in “Of Mice and Men” ... Kelli O’Hara and Stephen Pasquale's dynamic chemistry in “The Bridges of Madison County" ... And Elizabeth Reaser's show-stealing comic turn in Neil LaBute's "The Money Shot."

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