Despite economic uncertainty and a slight diminution in live theatre overall, so much high quality work was done around Boston in 2003 that a single summary is sure to leave out some worthy contenders. Here are shows and performances worth remembering from the past year.
Musical theatre was especially strong. Speakeasy's continued success with "BatBoy" was no fluke, as their first rate productions of "A Class Act" featuring Kerry Dowling, Leigh Barrett, and Jon Blackstone and "Ruthless" featuring Kathy St. George and Will McGarrahan proved last spring. These were followed in the fall by their successful New England premiere of "A Man of No Importance"; Sean McGuirk in the title role, with Nancy E Carroll as his sister and Miguel Cervantes as the object of his unspoken affections. The surprise hit of the summer was Gloucester Stage's revival of "Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris" rearranged by director Scott Edmiston, with Leigh Barrett preeminent in a strong cast. The show was revived again briefly to start Gloucester's fall season and transferred in November to downtown Boston, where it's just been extended to Feb.1. Barrett also got to shine in November in "Follies(In Concert)" along with a host of other local luminaries, including Maryann Zschau, Frank Gayton, Mary Callanan, Kathy St. George, and Bobbi Steinbach.
Out-of-downtown venues kept up their good work, with the Vokes Theatre managing to put "On the 20th Century", locomotive and all, on their tiny stage. The Stoneham Theatre did a creditable "Man of La Mancha" last spring, but this fall opened much smaller with Kathy St, George and Christopher Chew as "Pete'n'Keeley" followed by a very interesting musical-in-progress, "The Girl in the Frame" with Julie Jirousek as the title character, Chris Chew as her fantasy counterpart with Josef Hansen and Ceit McCaleb as a troubled young couple. But the coup of the season early on was North Shore Music Theatre's joint production of Sondheim's "Pacific Overtures" with a powerful cast, authentic costuming, effective sets and effects, and an ironically relevant theme. NSMT also kept their first-rate "Christmas Carol" going for its fifteenth year, while Stoneham again did an endearing job on theirs. Trinity Rep's new version by Oskar Eustis and Amanda Dehnert starred Stacy Keach as Scrooge at Emerson's refurbished Cutler Majestic was interesting. They've been working on their Adrian Hall adaptation for thirty years, so this script and score will probably get the work it needs as well.
The legit scene started out strong with New Rep's "Waiting for Godot" featuring Austin Pendelton, who'd done the show with Sam Waterston in NYC decades ago, and our own John Kuntz. Peter Sellars made it back to the Harvard Yard with his international production of Euripedes "Children of Herakles" featuring Czech actor Jan Tiska as Ioalus and diminutive Julyana Soelistyo as both daughter and mother of the title character. Christopher Lydon did live interviews with refugees before the performance and functioned as the Choreagus. The New Rep also did an amazing one night only reading of Pendelton's comedy "Orson's Shadow " about Welles directing Olivier in "Rhinoceros". Jerry Kissell played Orson, Tom Derrah did Sir Larry, Paula Plum channeled Vivian Leigh, John Kuntz played Kenneth Tynan who'd instigated the situation and Brigit Huppuch was Joan Plowright, the soon to be second Mrs. Olivier. And in February, Nora Hussey's Wellesley Summer Theatre showed a concise and powerful version of "Anna Karenina" featuring Alicia Kahn in the title role with Bern Budd and Derek Stone Nelson anchoring her story.
Two of the strongest smaller productions last spring were Sugan's "Howie the Rookie" with Billy Meleady as the Rookie and Industrial's "Fool for Love" with Ken Flott in Sam Shepherd's favorite role with Jennifer Young as his near fatal attraction. Stoneham's "Of Mice and Men" was powerful with a strong ensemble headed by Thomas Kee and Peter Robinson. Laura Latreille, who's sadly gone back to Canada, was luminous as the cause of the tragedy. The best show of the summer was Publick's "Twelfth Night", with Susan Nitter as a heart-wrenching Viola, Diego Arciniegas as Malvolio, and Steven Barkheimer as Sir Toby. Stacy Fisher grew into her role as Olivia, since Publick ran this production in repertory all summer with a more experimental "Midsummers...".
Fall 2003 started with Nora Theatre's sterling presentation of "The Dublin Carol" with Richard McElvain again an Irishman aging none too gracefully on a compact set by Eric Levenson, whose work for "A Man of No Importance" was also impressive The quality of local playwrighting was demonstrated once again in the New Rep's premiere of Joyce Van Dyke's "A Girl's War" with Bobbi Steinbach reprising her powerful role from the workshop at Boston Playwright's. Gloucester and Stoneham joined forces to redeem Marie Jones "Stones in his Pockets". Ciaran Crawford and Derry Woodhouse, two Sugan regulars, wiped away the bad impression created by the perfunctory touring version which limped through the Shubert last season. Of the three politically inspired new plays in Boston Playwrights' fall series, Zayd Dorn's "Haymarket" with Jacqui Parker and Wesley Savick as the Parsons was the most complete and compelling, done with elegant simplicity by Adam Zahler on a Richard Chamber's set.
There are always some special shows with their own particular vision. Lilia Levitina's Basement on the Hill Theatre descended into the Leland Center with very physical production featuring Maria Monakhova down from Montreal. I Sebastiani aka "the greatest commedia troupe in the whole world" did several public performances and is now fund-raising to go international, as the only US troupe invited to the 2004 Commedia Festival in Italy. Rough and Tumble put on "Bits and Pieces" in the Spring and revived "The Silent Movie Play" in the fall. The Tonda Traditional Puppet Troupe from western Japan performed at UMass and Wellesley, bringing homegrown bunraku from their hometown to ours. Pulitizer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel premiered "The Long Christmas Ride Home" at Trinity last spring under Oskar Eustis' direction, a production which used bunraku techniques in a very modern Western show. The play opened in NYC this fall, and Eustis will do another production for Long Wharf in the next few months. Finally, as part of the opening season for the Cutler Majestic, Emerson staged an updated version of Kaufmann and Hart's "The Fabulous Invalid" with two professional actors as the ghostly leads, Alice Ripley and Steven Henderson, plus an energetic cast of students. Jeffrey Thatcher's rewrite was not better or worse than his newly opened pastiche musical "Never Gonna Dance", but was probably more appreciated.
And there was more. An annual show by American Classics (R&H's "Peggy Ann"), a number of operas large and small, and various new scripts often interesting if not entirely successful from icons like Arthur Laurents' ("2 Lives" or another octogenarian, Shirley Timmreck from Alaska's "Circles of Time", or Jack Neary's "Beyond Belief" (which he's still working on) added to the mix. Theatre in Boston and environs may just have reached a critical mass where enough performers can find enough interesting work in shows varied enough to keep audiences coming back. A pool of varied and recognizable talent in all aspects of theatre should allow for future projects limited only by imagination, Even a slight restoration in state funding would of course be a big help, not to mention a bit more corporate generosity. Sponsorship of individual productions seems to be catching on. Increased cooperation between producing groups may also be helping. Let's hope 2004 will be as satisfying as 2003, no matter what happens next November.