Virtually all of the non-profit theaters in the Boston area have opened new productions in the new year. WBUR critic-at-large Ed Siegel offers his take on some of the highlights.
Now at the Boston Opera House, "In the Heights" shares at least one thing in common with most of the great musicals of the golden age. They were written by outsiders: children of Jewish immigrants, for example, or gay men like Cole Porter — people on the outside of society looking in.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the show, is looking at a Latino neighborhood in Washington Heights, where the people are all wondering whether they should stay or set out for greener pastures.
Usnavi, played by the talented Kyle Beltran, is the likable hip-hoppish narrator, a love-starved young man who runs a local bodega. The other main character, Nina, has dropped out of Stanford, but she’s afraid to tell her parents. It’s summertime, so you know you can depend on sexy clothes and even sexier dancing in the streets.
And as long as the tempo is upbeat, “In the Heights” is a delight. The stories themselves are typical of Broadway musicals, but Miranda too often settles for sentimentality. The ballads are unexceptional and the rhyming –- well, no one is going to confuse him with Stephen Sondheim.
Still, those uptempo numbers make criticism of the show seem curmudgeonly. A show like this could get even Dr. Strangelove out of his chair and swiveling his hips.
"In the Heights" is running Jan. 12 through Jan. 24 at the Boston Opera House in Boston.
“In the Heights” is about making it, financially and professionally. The same is true about the best shows at the area’s nonprofit theaters, which are all back in action following the holiday layoff. Take “Gatz,” the complete reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” by Elevator Repair Service in two parts at the American Repertory Theatre.
Actually, it’s much more than a reading. The play is set in a 1990s soul-killing office where one of the drones finds that his computer has crashed. He picks up a copy of the book and starts reading aloud. He becomes the narrator, Nick, while the other workers start playing the other major characters.
Scott Shepherd is phenomenal in the part, but Gatsby, alas, is not great, as director John Collins and actor Jim Fletcher get too jokey in the portrayal, undercutting the tragedy of Gatsby’s pursuit of the American dream.
"Gatz" is running Jan. 7 through Feb. 7 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.
Arthur Miller had a clearer target in his sights in “All My Sons,” his post-war drama about a middle-class American family who finds that its comfortable existence might have come at a very high price. This is one of Miller’s most compelling plays and no matter how many times you see it, a good production is still a wrenching experience.
The Huntington production is not a great one. Director David Esbjornson makes Miller clunkier than he should be, turning him into an American Ibsen. And the set design, dominated by a big, empty, grayish sky, might be the worst in the theater’s history.
But the production boasts some of Boston’s best actors, so anytime you have people like Will Lyman, Karen MacDonald and Dee Nelson in the cast, you know sparks are going to fly — and fly they do.
"All My Sons" is running Jan. 8 through Feb. 7 at The Huntington in Boston.
Miller has a soulmate in South Africa’s Ian Bruce, whose “Groundswell” is at the Lyric Stage. It’s set at a hotel in a sleepy post-apartheid South African port town with three characters from totally different walks of life talking, sometimes at each other’s throats, about how apartheid affected their lives. If that sounds like a lecture it isn’t.
Richard McElvain is Smith, a retired widower, self-satisfied about his opposition to apartheid. When he’s confronted about how the investments that now let him lead a comfortable life also helped to sustain apartheid, the debate becomes both disturbing and potentially violent. It’s not a perfect play – it takes forever to get going -– but it certainly hits home in terms of personal responsibility, and the acting is terrific.
"Groundswell" is running Jan. 1 through Jan. 30 at The Lyric Stage Company in Boston.
Tracey Scott Wilson’s play takes a slightly different perspective on segregation, focusing on a Martin Luther King-like preacher battling the forces of American apartheid while also battling his own personal demons. It sometimes seems as if Wilson is juggling too many balls; the FBI’s shameful actions in the drive toward segregation, the Klan’s activities, the personal and political actions of James Lawrence.
But the Company One production is stellar, and if “The Good Negro” doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know, it beautifully captures the time and place of the civil rights struggle, thanks in large part to Jonathan L. Dent and an exceptional cast.
"A Good Negro" is running Jan. 15 through Feb. 6 at the Boston Center for the Arts in Boston.
If, after “The Donkey Show” and the other A.R.T. Shakespeare adaptations you have a hankering for the real thing, try “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Actors’ Shakespeare Project.
Ironically, though, the ART’s disco Shakespeare comes closer to the spirit of the original than the ASP production with the Fairies represented by a hip-hoppish biker gang. Even though the ASP version is cleverly directed by Benjamin Evett and spritely acted (with some glaring exceptions), it is not nearly as transformative as “The Donkey Show.”
And “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is all about transformation –- the transformation of the characters into more loving, caring people, the transformation of the audience into being more open to possibilities. So go to both –- it’s fun to compare the two -– but “The Donkey Show” is really more of a dream.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is running Dec. 30 through Jan. 24 at Midway Studios in Boston.
Evett does double duty around town, as he also stars in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of Chris Craddock’s dreary “Indulgences,” a fractured fairy tale in which half the characters speak in contemporary jargon and the others in Elizabethan language, with matching clothes. The two are mashed together, which is all fine, but the comedic twists and turns and the musings about free will are dull and derivative.
"Indulgences" is running Jan. 17 through Feb. 6 at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown.
This musical by two writers, Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, composing a musical about two writers composing a musical is clever enough, but it still left me with the feeling that my time would have been better spent at the movies. The process is about as interesting as watching a track star run in place and the music rarely rises above the mediocre. At least the writing is cute and the SpeakEasy Stage Company production sharp.
"[title of show]" is running Jan. 15 through Feb. 13 at the Boston Center for the Arts in Boston.
This program aired on January 22, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.