PLAYBILL PICKS: Breakout Performances of the 2013-14 Broadway Season

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26 Apr 2014

Zachary Levi
Zachary Levi
Photo by Joan Marcus

The 2013-14 Broadway season has come to a close, and the 68th annual Tony Awards are on the horizon. Before Tony nominations are announced April 29, the staff at Playbill.com took a look back at the season and chose a handful of Broadway breakout performances.

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

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"Chuck" star Zachary Levi earned critical acclaim when making his Broadway debut in the new musical comedy First Date. Co-starring with "Smash" and The Addams Family star Krysta Rodriguez, Levi played Aaron, a man recovering from recent heartbreak set up on a blind date with Casey (Rodriguez), a hip and artsy New Yorker with her defenses up. "Aaron's a good man with a good heart," Levi told Playbill.com. "He's been wounded in life and is just trying to make it. He has a specific character arc and grows a pair at the end." Levi, who had shown off his singing skills in the movie "Tangled," charmed audiences in the musical story of opposites attracting with his endearing awkwardness and strong voice.

Eric Anderson and Amber Iman
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Amber Iman made her Broadway debut as legendary jazz singer Nina Simone in Soul Doctor, the musical inspired by the life and music of controversial Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Iman immediately won the heart of audiences when she appeared in Soul Doctor's smoky piano bar singing "I Put a Spell on You" and "You Know How I Feel." Iman embodied Simone with her limitless range, sultry lower register and captivating stage presence. Shortly before it was announced that Iman would make her Main Stem debut in Soul Doctor, she was singing in 54 Below's late-night competition "The Callback." Check out her performances of "Miss Byrd" and the Miley Cyrus hit "Party in the USA."

Zachary Quinto
Photo by Michael J. Lutch
In Zachary Quinto's Broadway debut, the star of "American Horror Story" and the "Star Trek" films displayed an amazing ease onstage, investing the role of Tom with great emotional depth. In fact, Quinto brought new dimension to the narrator of the memory play, a trapped young man unable to live the life for which he desperately yearns. And, when his mother — the equally stellar Cherry Jones — accused him of purposefully bringing an engaged "Gentleman Caller" to the Wingfield home, Quinto's dumbfounded astonishment and pain were palpable.

Mary Bridget Davies
Photo by Joan Marcus
In her Broadway debut, Mary Bridget Davies stormed the New York theatre scene this fall playing one of rock 'n' roll's most enduring icons in A Night with Janis Joplin. Equipped with an uncanny ability to conjure Joplin's wild inflections and signature vocal rasp, critics praised Davies' performance in which she rocked more than a dozen hits including "Me and Bobby McGee," "Down on Me," "Stay With Me" and "Mercedes Benz." "When I first started singing, I realized I could capture some of her essence, and I thought, 'Well, that’s weird. Let's see if I can do that, let's see if I can repeat that," Davies told Playbill.com. "That's really what that is about - it's the longevity… People joke, if Janis was around, what do you think she'd say [about my interpretation of her work], and my dresser says, "She'd probably ask Mary how she does it six nights a week."

Alessandro Nivola
Photo by Joan Marcus
Alessandro Nivola was a standout in a terrific company that brought the little-produced Terrence Rattigan play The Winslow Boy, which managed to deliver all the excitement and suspense of a great courtroom drama without a single courtroom scene, to full life. The dashing actor was never less than compelling as Sir Robert Morton, the self-assured, egotistical lawyer, who leads the defense of The Winslow Boy, but is unable to completely let down his own defenses. And, in an excitingly gripping scene that concludes the first act, Nivola interrogates the young Ronnie so forcefully, making the audience believe he may be guilty, only to then shockingly declare his innocence.

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
In the jazz-age musical revue After Midnight, dancer Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards shines in the musical numbers "The Skrontch" and "Raisin' the Rent"/"Get Yourself a New Broom," where she demonstrates her tap-dancing skills with precision and expertise — nailing the fast-paced choreography by Warren Carlyle. The dancer has also been seen on Broadway in Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk and Black and Blue. Check out her tapping talents here, where she performs at the Stockholm Tap Festival 2013.

Stephen Fry
Photo by Joan Marcus
Stephen Fry raised eyebrows and inspired laughter as he confidently strutted onstage in cross-gartered yellow stockings while playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare's comedy about mistaken identities and misguided attractions. Making his Broadway debut, Fry depicted Malvolio, a man deluded by his own self-importance, in a performance that was hilarious and also thoughtful, delving into his character's insecurities as well as his ambitions. Malvolio is the target of an embarrassing trick plotted by his peers, and Fry's portrayal of him inspired sympathy from the audience and communicated to them why he was such an easy victim. Upon reading a forged love letter, Malvolio states, "I will be proud," and Fry should say the same of his performance.

Lisa O'Hare and Bryce Pinkham
Photo by Joan Marcus
Seemingly born to wear the high-fashion Edwardian hats and bodices of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, the regally blonde Lisa O'Hare stops the show nightly as spoiled, upper-class beauty Sibella Hallward in the door-slammingly farcical Act II song, "I've Decided To Marry You." Though trained as a ballerina and now playing a supporting role in Gentleman's Guide, O'Hare is no stranger to the center-stage spotlight. In her native U.K. she flew through the title role of Mary Poppins and could have danced all night as Eliza Doolittle in a revival of My Fair Lady, a role she also played in a U.S. tour. American TV roles have included spots on "The Closer," "Castle" and "Undercovers." See a clip of her interview with Playbill.com here and read about her inspirations, her favorites and the role she is dying to play in Playbill.com's Cue and A.

Though playing the comedic role of Phoebe D'Ysquith in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Lauren Worsham wows audiences and critics with her pure and glistening soprano, reflecting her training in both opera and theatre. Born in Austin, TX, she started performing at age eight, inspired by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Beverly Sills and Laura Benanti. After studying at Yale, she came to New York where, she told Playbill.com's Diva Talk column, her first showbiz job was as a line wrangler for Spamalot. Moving up from there, she has sung with the New York City Opera (Cunegonde in Candide), Goodspeed Opera House (Lili in Carnival!), City Center's Encores! series (Amy in Where's Charley?) and Carnegie Hall (Pitti-Sing in The Mikado). Worsham is also co-artistic director of The Coterie, a Manhattan opera company, and she somehow finds time to front the downtown indie-pop band Sky-Pony.

Anne-Marie Duff
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Anne-Marie Duff made her Broadway debut playing Lady Macbeth in the Jack O'Brien-helmed production of Macbeth. Duff, an Olivier Award nominee who took on the iconic roles of Queen Elizabeth, Joan of Arc and Nora in A Doll's House in England prior to coming to the Great White Way, found humanity and sympathy in the often-reviled wife of the ambitious Thane of Cawdor, who was played by Tony nominee Ethan Hawke. "That's the quest for the kingdom — for me to play her as a woman that exists, not some excuse for his bad behavior," Duff told Playbill.com. "I think it's very easy to go down that path. You don't want that sort of reactionary opinion." Read Playbill.com's interview with Duff here.

Rebecca Hall
Photo by Joan Marcus
Rebecca Hall's first time on Broadway was also the first Broadway revival of Machinal, Sophie Treadwell's Expressionist play based on the real-life murder trial of Ruth Snyder. Playing the Young Woman, a nondescript person trapped in a passionless marriage with an unwanted child, Hall portrayed her character's deeply rooted panic and claustrophobia inspired by the machinery of modern life through impressively delivered stream of consciousness monologues. "In the play, she's described as a young woman who's like any woman. I think Treadwell is trying to say there is nothing particularly extraordinary about her. She's an Everywoman, and the story's about how an ordinary woman, in not extraordinary circumstances, is driven to murder. Nothing makes her mad or crazy. She's normal," Hall told Playbill.com. Read Playbill.com's interview with Hall here.

Kelli O'Hara and Stephen Pasquale
Photo by Joan Marcus
In 2002 a relatively-unknown Steven Pasquale stopped the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens-Terrence McNally musical A Man of No Importance — which was staged Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse — with his full-voiced delivery of "The Streets of Dublin." Many at the time expected the singing actor to become one of Broadway's great leading men, yet TV intervened. Thankfully, Pasquale has returned to the stage and is currently making his Broadway musical debut in the new Jason Robert Brown-Marsha Norman musical The Bridges of Madison County. The "Rescue Me" star is every bit as impressive as he was over a decade ago, his powerful, rangy tenor soaring on Tony winner Brown's latest score. He also invests the role of National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid with great passion and generates much heat with his co-star, four-time Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara.

Bryan Cranston
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva
After bidding farewell to "Walter White" on the AMC drama series "Breaking Bad," three-time Emmy Award-winning actor Bryan Cranston made his Broadway debut as President Lyndon B. Johnson in Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan's epic political drama All The Way, which opened to critical acclaim. Without crossing the boundary into impersonation, Cranston — who rarely leaves the stage during the three-hour production — captures the various facets of the towering American leader's personality, from the engaging confidant to the political bulldozer. Part of the excitement is watching Cranston, who appears to be having the time his life. "He was bigger than life," Cranston told Playbill. "Sometimes he was friendly, sometimes he was vicious. He would cajole, he would threaten, he would pressure, he would hug. He swung so wide on the spectrum of human emotions in order to accomplish what he felt needed to be done. It doesn't take much time for an actor to look at that and go wow, how wonderful and frightening to step in those shoes."

Andy Karl and Margo Seibert
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Margo Seibert made her Broadway debut as Adrian in the anticipated stage adaptation of "Rocky," about a boxer who rises to the top of his career and falls in love with a shy sales clerk. Seibert, who appeared in the Prospect Theatre Company production of Tamar of the River and regional productions of Candide at the Goodman Theatre, In This House, Orestes: A Tragic Romp at Two River Theatre Co. and Pregnancy Pact at the Weston Playhouse, was tender in her first-act numbers "Raining" and "The Flip Side" and commanded the stage in the second-act ballad "I'm Done." "It's that underdog story of the two of them," she said on opening night. "Can they overcome what holds them back and will they really succeed? You just don't know. Can Adrian overcome it? You want her to, of course. I don't think she knows how not to be honest, and I love that about her. You can see her struggle, how much she cares about Rocky but how scared she is to let that out and jump off that cliff and live a little, but they have that slow burn together and you get to see more and more of her true colors."

James Monroe Iglehart
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Where has James Monroe Iglehart been hiding? In Disney's Aladdin, the actor — who has been seen on Broadway in Memphis and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee — emerged from his magic lamp and stole the show as the Genie. The energetic number "Friend Like Me," where Iglehart demonstrated his talents as a triple-threat performer — singing, dancing, disappearing, performing a medley of classic Disney hits and more — received standing ovations during press nights of Aladdin. He also shines as he opens the show with "Arabian Nights" and the second act with "Prince Ali." Click here to learn more about Iglehart, whose niece recorded the moment he received the news that he would star as the Genie, in Disney's Artist Spotlight video series.

Ramin Karimloo
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Ramin Karimloo made his long-overdue Broadway debut in the 2014 re-imagined and re-envisioned revival of Les Misérables. The actor, noted for his West End turns in The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miz, was in pristine voice during press performances of Les Miz on Broadway. The performer, who became the youngest actor to take on the role of the Phantom, was inspired to pursue theatre after seeing Colm Wilkinson (the original Jean Valjean on Broadway) in the title role of The Phantom of the Opera. Before Karimloo headed to Broadway as Valjean, he and Wilkinson performed "Bring Him Home" — a performance that is not to be missed this season on Broadway — at a special charity performance of Les Miz in Toronto. He said, "I had waited for his autograph when I was [a boy] and now, I sat in my dressing room and there was Colm jamming on the guitar and there I was on the banjo, and I thought, 'How has my life turned out like this?' Everything I could have asked for as a kid, I've got." Read the whole Playbill feature on Karimloo here.


Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
U.K. actress, Sophie Okonedo, an Academy Award nominee for "Hotel Rowanda," made her Broadway debut as the dutiful Ruth Younger in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. While the production may get its above-the-title star wattage from Oscar and Tony winner Denzel Washington, but it was Okonedo's layered performance – anchored in longing, heartache and hope – that brought the struggle of the Younger family to life. "I like the way she copes," Okonedo told Playbill at the opening night performance of Raisin. "She copes in many different situations and tries to make the best of things. She has enormous heart."

Nick Cordero
Photo by Paul Kolnik
Perhaps not since Sweeney Todd have Broadway audiences had a killer they could root for as much as Nick Cordero's Cheech – a gangster hit man with a flair for the dramatic – in the Woody Allen musical Bullets Over Broadway. The tall tough guy, who proves to be the real talent behind Bullets' play within a play, knows his way around a machine gun and a tap routine. In a cast of Broadway heavyweights, it's Cordero and his knockout performance of the Susan Stroman-choreographed "Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do" that kills it - as the kids say.

Chris O'Dowd and Leighton Meester
Photo by Richard Phibbs
Another familiar face from Hollywood to make their Broadway debut was Chris O'Dowd, who co-stars with James Franco in the Broadway revival of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. O'Dowd takes on the physically imposing character of Lennie, the mentally challenged migrant worker, with a childlike wonder that magnified the tragedy of the drama's inevitable conclusion. "To be honest, it was hard to know exactly what was wrong with Lennie because it wasn't specified," the actor told Playbill following the opening night performance. "Also, it was such a long time ago they didn't know how to diagnose things like that, but I decided there was a guy I knew in my life I could use. I felt like if I was specific to what was wrong with him, it would work — and that was all I really worried about. I wanted to make it exactly specific to this guy I knew who had a cognizant disability, and I thought I'd do exactly as he was, so I just went with that."

Emerson Steele and Ben Davis
Photo by Joan Marcus
Young actress Emerson Steele made her Broadway debut as Sutton Foster's childhood counterpart, Young Violet, in Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's Violet. The 14-year-old actress wrote in her Playbill bio that she is "elated and grateful" to share the stage alongside her "idol" and told Playbill.com on opening night, "It was so exciting. I was really, really nervous a few hours before we started, but as soon as I stepped on stage, it was just the most exciting thing. To get to do this at 14 years old is just so incredible." The actress played Young Violet in the one-night-only staging as part of Encores! Off-Center series. Steele brought light to the role of Violet, who — due to a childhood accident — deals with self-esteem issues from her disfigured face.

Sarah Greene
Photo by Johan Persson
After a meteoric career in her native Ireland, Sarah Greene blazed into movies, the West End and now Broadway as the supremely cruel and beautiful Helen McCormick, the flame-haired object of Daniel Radcliffe's not-so-secret desire in The Cripple of Inishmaan. A 2006 graduate of the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin, Greene made a splash in the title role of Abbey Theatre's hit, Alice in Funderland, in Little Gem at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and several productions — including Playboy of the Western World — for Druid Theatre Company. Her filmography boasts "The Guard," "Love & Savagery" and "Noble," in which she played a Irish woman who left her homeland to care for street children in Mongolia and Vietnam. She told Playbill.com that she’s “shocked” at how the play propelled her into an Oliver nomination in London and now a place in the limelight of Times Square.

Michelle Williams
Photo by Joan Marcus
Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams made her Broadway debut this season in the well-worn heels of Sally Bowles, the character first created by Christopher Isherwood in "The Berlin Stories," who was brought to musical life by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Joined by Tony-winning Cabaret veteran Alan Cumming, Williams' riveting portrayal of Bowles is that of a woman who is never sure of what it is she is running from or toward. "I couldn't put Sally down," Williams told Playbill. "It was in the shower with me, it was in the car with me... Something about it really had its hooks in me from the get-go, and thinking about it, and working on it, and thinking about the songs and playing with them gave me joy. That's what I followed. It wasn't a conscientious move about doing Broadway. I just followed the joy, and it landed me here... I never waivered from it. I wanted to do it immediately."