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As end-of-winter anticipation builds, WBUR’s critic-at-large reviews local theater offerings, from a family-oriented Disney adaptation to a classic-meets-modern production.
“Mary Poppins” is arriving with less fanfare than “The Lion King,” but it follows the same Disney formula. Take a successful movie from the company’s vaults — this one from 1964 — and hire top theatrical talent to bring it to life onstage.
In this case, the creative team comes from the highest echelons of the British stage: director Richard Eyre, the former head of the National Theatre; Matthew Bourne, the acclaimed choreographer of “Swan Lake” and the revised “My Fair Lady;" and set and costume designer Bob Crowley, who won Tony Awards for everything from “Arcadia” to, well, "Mary Poppins."
But what’s a “Poppins” without a memorable Mary? Stephanie Leigh does a fine job in the Julie Andrews role. She’s a real triple threat as actor, singer and, in Bourne’s carefully understated way, as a dancer, too. There’s a “Riverdance” sensibility in the way that Leigh and the rest of the cast keep their upper bodies relatively stiff while kicking up a storm from the waist down.
The values behind “Mary Poppins’’ are equally admirable as the flying nanny replaces the strict old Victorian code of the father with a more creative, Dr. Spock-like attitude toward raising children and letting loose their imaginations.
We are, though, talking Disney, so fun, not philosophy, is the operative word.
If you’re looking for something heavier, it is not only a stellar production, but one that makes the Greek myths relevant to today’s world. You can’t do much better than this one.
It would be a good idea to get there early and read Laura Henry’s excellent background notes but, long story short, Ajax is something of a pure warrior in the Greek army whose enemy is Odysseus. Even though they’re on the same side, Odysseus is more of a negotiator, or, if you don’t like him, a Machiavellian. Ajax is driven mad by Athena and so within that framework, director Sarah Benson and translator Charles Connaghan evoke fascinating parallels with modern warfare planning, post traumatic stress disorder, domestic abuse in military families, you name it.
Among the excellent cast is Linda Powell, daughter of Colin Powell, as Ajax’s wife, but at the heart of the play is Brent Harris’ riveting performance in the title role, capturing the soldier’s honor and humiliation, the anger at his leaders and at his god.
David Zinn’s strong set design is bolstered, if not dominated, by Greg Emetaz’s video monitors of a Greek chorus. Or a Cambridge chorus, as it’s represented by members of the community — some soldiers and their loved ones, some theater folks, including ART founder Robert Brustein, who are all commenting on aspects of leadership and man’s relation to the the fates, if not to God.
It’s a thoughtful, provocative production, though it needs more of an emotional jolt behind it. But “Ajax” is kind of old-school ART, putting a classic in modern dress to bring out the timelessness of the tragedy. And to that extent it succeeds brilliantly.
'Ti-Jean & His Brothers'
Both “Ti-Jean & His Brothers” and “My Name Is Asher Lev” could use some of the bigger-budget theatrics in evidence at the Opera House and the Loeb Drama Center. Sometimes the intimate spaces at the smaller theaters and the local talent are their own rewards, but not with these two.
There’s a lot to like about the co-production of Derek Walcott’s “Ti-Jean” by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and Underground Railway Theater in the latter’s Central Square abode, namely the performances by Hampton Sterling Fluker and Ramona Lisa Alexander, as well as the musicianship of Kera Washington.
The story of the three brothers trying to confront evil as they meet up with the Devil himself is magical realism in search of more theatrical magic. The space is nicely utilized by director Megan Sandberg-Zakian, but the production still feels undercooked and features a few too many bland performances, particularly Kervin George Germain in the title role.
'My Name Is Asher Lev'
But blandness, thy name is Asher Lev, that is “My Name Is Asher Lev,’’ a dull theatrical adaptation of the novel by Chaim Potok. Even Boston’s best freelance director, Scott Edmiston, and one of the best local actresses, Anne Gottlieb, can’t breathe any life into Potok’s moving tale of Jewish assimilation.
This program aired on February 25, 2011.
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