15 Breakout Performances of the Broadway Season

Special Features   15 Breakout Performances of the Broadway Season
 
The 2015-16 Broadway season has come to a close, and the 70th Annual Tony Awards are on the horizon. Before nominations are announced, we look back at this season’s breakout stars.
Daveed Diggs and the company of <i>Hamilton </i>
Daveed Diggs and the company of Hamilton Joan Marcus

From Broadway newcomers to familiar faces in monumental moments, here are performers who stole the spotlight this season.

Daveed Diggs in Hamilton
Daveed Diggs found his breakout double role in Hamilton as the suave Act I Marquis de Lafayette and the scheming Act II Thomas Jefferson, but the Oakland, CA, native came to Broadway with a small but dedicated following already in tow from his career as a rapper for the groups clipping [CQ] and Freestyle Love Supreme. An unusual ingredient in his hip-hop performances was his training in other kinds of spoken poetry: Shakespeare productions around the U.S. and the national tour of Word Becomes Flesh. Among his many acting assignments, he brought his lithe frame and signature mane-like hair to the role of semi-imaginary stuffed tiger Hobbes in a video series “Hobbes and Me” inspired by the comic “Calvin and Hobbes.” Diggs brings Act II of Hamilton a jolt of electricity when he leaps onto the stage in the song “What’d I Miss?” “Daveed” means “beloved” in Hebrew, and he’s certainly been living up to the name for Broadway in this breakout performance. Read more about how he got his shot in Hamilton.

Leslie Odom, Jr and the company of<i> Hamilton</i>
Leslie Odom, Jr and the company of Hamilton Joan Marcus

Leslie Odom, Jr. in Hamilton
He may have been recognizable because he played Sam to Christian Borle’s Tom on Smash, but not until Hamilton was Leslie Odom, Jr. given the room to prove what he can do. As the show’s narrator and villain, Aaron Burr, Odom, Jr. brings a sly gentleness to the role of the man who always falls short of Alexander Hamilton. Burr bides his time to make a big move; likewise, Odom, Jr. patiently builds his performance. People might think that big move is “Wait For It,” Odom Jr.’s solo. With incredible vocals and a true showcase of storytelling through song, they wouldn’t be wrong, but the moment Odom, Jr. elevates to real-deal status is when Hamilton endorses his arch nemesis, Jefferson, for president instead of Burr. The crushing blow is etched on Odom, Jr.’s face—cracked like a windshield on impact. If Odom, Jr. hadn’t done his job up until that point—building the rivalry, creating a sympathetic antagonist—the show doesn’t work. He may not be the title character, but Odom, Jr.’s done enough to make his case for a run at the trophy this year. Read about how he shares the stage (and shared a dressing room at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater) with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Austin P. McKenzie and the company of <i>Spring Awakening</i>
Austin P. McKenzie and the company of Spring Awakening Joan Marcus

Austin P. McKenzie in Spring Awakening
In his theatrical debut, Austin P. McKenzie proved he has a natural affinity for the stage. His deeply emotional portrayal of Melchior Gabor in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening this past fall had us wondering how he’d never acted before this. McKenzie had big shoes to fill as this revival came quickly after the original production closed—not to mention his predecessor, Jonathan Groff, earned a Tony nomination for his performance and was a huge breakout star himself. But just as director Michael Arden imbued new meaning in this production, McKenzie was able to reimagine his role. He brought beauty and a wonderment to the “awakening” at the heart of the show—and a lyrical quality through his beautiful movement and American Sign Language. McKenzie’s performance as Melchior was nuanced and sensitive, and his voice enraptured us from the downbeat of “All That’s Known” until his final sign in “Purple Summer.” Read about how the cast gave each other name signs.

Daniel N. Durant and the company of <i>Spring Awakening</i>
Daniel N. Durant and the company of Spring Awakening Kevin Parry

Daniel N. Durant in Spring Awakening
Daniel N. Durant recurred on the television show Switched at Birth, but he was given the ability to truly shine as the sleepy-headed Moritz in the Broadway revival of Spring Awakening. He classifies himself as Deaf with a capital “D,” identifying as part of the Deaf community—he’s never heard a sound before in his life, therefore he does not speak. Though he can’t vocalize his feelings, he certainly is heard. Durant is extremely expressive in his signing, and he won audiences over as Moritz—delivering a heartbreaking exchange with Russell Harvard (all done in American Sign Language and complete silence) before taking his own life in the musical. “It is the most challenging experience of my life,” he explained before the show transferred to Broadway.

Sandra Mae Frank and Austin P. McKenzie in <i>Spring Awakening</i>
Sandra Mae Frank and Austin P. McKenzie in Spring Awakening Joan Marcus

Sandra Mae Frank in Spring Awakening
Like her co-star, Sandra Mae Frank is also profoundly Deaf. She was born hearing, but premature. At about the age of three, her father noticed that she was experiencing hearing loss, and she was soon diagnosed profoundly Deaf. Frank was the perfect fit for Wendla Bergmann, the naïve girl in the process of becoming a young woman. She played both the innocent childlike girl at the top of the show and the newly awakened young adult who finds herself pregnant at the end of the show with grace. Though it was clear from the moment she handed over the guitar to Katie Boeck at the top of the musical that she had a vocal counterpart, theatregoers were immersed in her deeply expressive performance. After all, she said, “I felt like this is meant for me.”

Ana Villafañe and the cast of <i>On Your Feet!</i>
Ana Villafañe and the cast of On Your Feet! Matthew Murphy

Ana Villafañe in On Your Feet!
The new musical On Your Feet! lives up to its title—the Marquis crowd is on its collective feet eight times a week—thanks in large part to the performance of Ana Villafañe, who is making her Broadway debut in the role of internationally acclaimed vocalist Gloria Estefan. Villafañe handles the musical’s dramatic and comedic moments with ease, displays real chemistry with leading man Josh Segarra (as Emilio), and her thrilling vocals rival those of the pop icon she portrays. Read about how she landed the role and bonded with the Estefans.

Alex Brightman and the kid band from <i>School of Rock—the Musical </i> (2015).
Alex Brightman and the kid band from School of Rock—the Musical (2015). Matthew Murphy

Alex Brightman in School of Rock—The Musical
Though Alex Brightman had been on Broadway before (quite a few times, making his debut in 2003 as Boq in Wicked and going onto Glory Days, Matilda and Big Fish), his performance in School of Rock—The Musical has elevated him to star status. Brightman is Broadway's badass school teacher, Dewey Finn, and he not only honed his guitar skills for the part, but he also gained weight to fit (so to speak) the role made famous on film by Jack Black. In School of Rock, Brightman barely leaves the stage—he’s busy belting out Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest rock score, jamming out on the guitar and getting rowdy with a bunch of the show’s young stars. His energy is infectious, making audiences leave the theatre wanting to… rock. Read more about how Brightman booked the role of a lifetime,

Cynthia Erivo in <i>The Color Purple</i>
Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple Matthew Murphy

Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple
After winning over London audiences in John Doyle’s pared-down staging of the 2005 musical based on Alice Walker’s novel, Cynthia Erivo’s earthy and soulful portrayal of Celie stands out as one of the most remarkable Broadway debuts of the past several seasons. Her arresting acting performance is deepened by her ability to fill the entire Jacobs Theatre with the richness of her voice each time she sings, even in her lower register. She stops the show nightly with her 11 o’clock number, “I’m Here,” which has audiences on their feet. “It’s more than the applause, it's more than ovations, it's more than anything—it means that you're genuinely helping people,” she told Playbill.com.

Danielle Brooks and Kyle Scatliffe in <i>The Color Purple</i>
Danielle Brooks and Kyle Scatliffe in The Color Purple Matthew Murphy

Danielle Brooks in The Color Purple
Best-known for her performance as “Taystee” on the hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, Danielle Brooks also made her Broadway debut this season as the impenetrable Sofia in the return of The Color Purple. The Juilliard-trained actress, who has audiences cheering along during “Hell No,” also proves to be a gifted singer. She revealed that it’s also a full-circle moment. “This is the show that made me want to be an actress—a serious actress—an artist and make this a career,” she said. “This was my first Broadway show that I ever saw at 15 years old, so I get really excited about it! To play Sofia, such an iconic character, and to be in such a show that is a legendary piece. It will never die.”

Lupita Nyong’o and Pascale Armand in <i>Eclipsed</i>
Lupita Nyong’o and Pascale Armand in Eclipsed Photo by Joan Marcus

Pascale Armand in Eclipsed
It’s no easy feat making audiences laugh out loud during Eclipsed, a play about women being held captive in war-torn Liberia. While Danai Gurira’s script is expertly injected with clever wit and humor, it’s Pascale Armand’s performance as Wife No. 3 that has audiences in non-stop stitches. While the other wives question whether or not to join the rebel fighters, pregnant Wife No. 3 spends her days scouring for the most flattering clothes and trying to do her hair. Armand’s performance is nuanced with hope, tenderness and an unmistakable fear.

Jennifer Simard in <i>Disaster! </i>
Jennifer Simard in Disaster! Jeremy Daniel

Jennifer Simard in Disaster!
Jennifer Simard, a long-time Off-Broadway favorite, whose Broadway credits also include Sister Act, Shrek the Musical and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is a standout among standouts in the new Broadway musical comedy Disaster! Whether she’s almost-inaudibly singing “The Lord’s Prayer,” demonstrating why she’s “Torn Between Two Lovers,” belting “Never Can Say Goodbye” or strumming her guitar with abandon, Simard finds every possible comedic moment and some you wouldn’t even have thought possible as Sister Mary Downy, a nun with a bad habit. It is a scene-stealing performance—even if it is opposite a slot machine. Read about her most memorable nights onstage.

Carmen Cusack
Carmen Cusack

Carmen Cusack in Bright Star
The leading lady of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star has paid her dues and then some. Born in Colorado and raised in the South and West, Carmen Cusack seems a natural fit for the role of Alice Murphy, who plays the same character at two points in her life: a sexy devil-may-care Southern teen and a hard-bitten middle-aged magazine editor—someone who sings the country-flavored score as easy as pie. But Cusack, with her big eyes, high cheekbones and a wide vocal range, didn’t emerge from Branson or Nashville. She cut her teeth on some of the toughest leading roles in musical theatre. She played Fantine in a London Les Misérables, Christine in a national tour of The Phantom of the Opera, Elphaba in Wicked in Chicago and on national tour, Nellie Forbush in Lincoln Center Theater’s South Pacific on tour and Dot/Marie in a regional production of Sunday in the Park With George. Small wonder she made her Broadway debut in a leading role, with her own great ballad, “Sun Is Gonna Shine Again,” to originate. “At Long Last” is the title of her 11 o’clock number, and could serve as an apt comment on her Broadway breakthrough. Take a look at the many faces of Cusack.

Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw in a scene from Arthur Miller’s <i>The Crucible</i>
Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw in a scene from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible Jan Versweyveld

Ben Whishaw in The Crucible
An English import, Ben Whishaw proved himself in his Broadway debut as he took on the role of John Proctor in the American classic The Crucible. Some were surprised that the lanky fellow would be cast in the role of the labored farmer traditionally played by more hulking men, but what Whishaw lacks in broadness of frame he bares in muscular performance. The dichotomy of sweet and remorseful and desperate and aggressive lives within him equally. Spitting and sweating and dripping snot at the climax—at least when we were there—Whishaw commits. Nothing takes him out of a moment and by the end of the three-hour slog, his exhaustion bubbles off of him; he’s left it all on the stage.

Kimiko Glenn and Keala Settle
Kimiko Glenn and Keala Settle Joan Marcus

Kimiko Glenn in Waitress
In Waitress, the new musical filled with superb performances, Kimiko Glenn manages to stop the show with the comedic tour de force “When He Sees Me.” Glenn, who is making her Broadway debut in the Sara Bareilles musical, is cast as the lovelorn waitress Dawn, who falls for stalker/soul mate Ogie (the equally stellar Christopher Fitzgerald). A gifted singing actress, Glenn manages to wring laugh after laugh in her first act solo and throughout the entire evening, whether she’s belting Bareilles or dressed as her idol, flag maker Betsy Ross.

Shuffle Along HR09.jpg
Adrienne Warren and company Julieta Cervantes

Adrienne Warren in Shuffle Along
While Shuffle Along’s principal cast is made up of some of Broadway’s most prestigious black actors of our time, it’s Adrienne Warren—delivering a virtuosic performance in the dual roles of Gertrude Saunders and Florence Mills—who has audiences asking, “Who is she?”

In her second Broadway outing, Warren proves herself to be a full-fledged star on the rise. The role feels tailor-made for her talents, showing off her nearly instantaneous vocal transition between characters mid-song, an eye-catching style in the show’s dance numbers and a coolly confident ability to put over a song as she steps out from Audra McDonald’s shadow in the show’s second act. The Shuffle Along star opens up about her morning rituals, backstage must-haves and why she loves being in the show.

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