The Twin Cities is growing by leaps and bounds, as evidenced by construction cranes dotting the landscape. That kinetic vitality was reflected onstage in 2016 in ambitious, well-crafted works that grappled with essential and elemental issues, including what it means to be human, to have grace, to walk in another’s shoes. It all made for a thrilling year in the footlights.
1. “Disgraced,” Guthrie Theater. Director Marcela Lorca’s revelatory production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning drama was the must-see event of the summer. The show managed to remain personal even as it reached for expansive themes, including terrorism and immigration, that animated the national elections. Lorca’s fine cast was led by Bhavesh Patel as a South Asian immigrant whose dreams get shattered.
2. “Jitney,” Penumbra Theatre. Penumbra is rightly seen as the gold standard for August Wilson, and Lou Bellamy proved it again in this masterful staging with a veteran cast. Terry Bellamy, James Craven, Abdul Salaam El Razzac, T. Mychael Rambo and Kevin D. West, alongside relative newcomers Jasmine Hughes, Marcus Naylor and Darrick Mosley, brought Wilson’s aching poetry to lyrical life.
3. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” Children’s Theatre Company. The stage adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s graphic novel series got a buzzy premiere under director Rachel Rockwell. Pocket-size star Ricky Falbo brought winning charisma to the title character in a nonstop production with music and lyrics by Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler. The production had the energy of a live film.
4. “The Oldest Boy,” Jungle Theater. Sarah Ruhl’s play about a reincarnated lama was also about parental loss and divine duty. Director Sarah Rasmussen got gorgeous performances from lead actors Randy Reyes and Christina Baldwin — and a moving turn from puppeteer Masanari Kawahara.
5. “Ragtime,” Theatre Latté Da. Casting may not be everything, but it counts for a lot. That was clear as newcomer David Murray joined Britta Ollmann, Traci Allen Shannon and Sasha Andreev in Peter Rothstein’s deft production of this Stephen Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens musical about families pursuing the American dream. The show was deeply felt and painfully resonant.
6. “Nina Simone: Four Women,” Park Square. Director Faye Price teamed with a sterling quartet of singer-actors — Regina Marie Williams, Traci Allen Shannon, Aimee K. Bryant and Thomasina Petrus — in the premiere of Christina Ham’s play about the music and civil rights icon. The singers, led by Williams, delivered with truth and supple emotion as their characters struggled for dignity and citizenship.
7. “The Last Firefly,” Children’s Theatre. Naomi Iizuka’s epic retelling of some Japanese fables was tightly directed by Peter Brosius and featured taut, larger-than-life performances by Sun Mee Chomet, Luverne Seifert, Joy Dolo, Stephanie Bertumen and Ricardo Vasquez, as a boy who goes on a quest to find his never-met father, Thunder.
8. “Sunset Baby,” Penumbra. Jasmine Hughes won a richly deserved Ivey Award for her feverishly magnetic performance in Dominique Morisseau’s drama about dreams that have turned rancid. Hughes played Nina, a hardened daughter of 1960s revolutionaries who now sells drugs. The production asked big questions and the cast, including James Craven and Ronnel Taylor, vividly embodied them.
9. “The Lion in Winter,” Guthrie. Actor Laila Robins digs deep and finds the gusto and glory of Queen Eleanor in this revival of James Goldman’s classic about a couple in the Middle Ages parrying for power. Savoring the language, Robins, opposite Kevyn Morrow as Henry II, carries the show, ending Dec. 31.
10. “Camelot,” Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. Speaking of the Middle Ages, Michael Brindisi has sprinkled a bit of fairy dust on this Lerner and Loewe musical, getting some magical performances from his love-triangle cast: Keith Rice as idealistic Arthur, Helen Anker as love-torn Guenevere and Aleks Knezevich as muscle-bound Lancelot. Ends Feb. 25.