Tuesday, January 13, 2015

More best of Boston, 2014

What makes a production one of the best of the year?  I imagine there are as many answers to that as there are theatre-goers.

But what makes a production one of the next best of the year is perhaps even a more vexing question. What about each of the worthy productions listed below led me to rate it an "Honorable Mention" rather than a win?  Read on as I ponder both what tempted me to count several shows among the best of the best - and what in the end held me back . . .

Sweeney Todd, New Rep
Sweeney Todd - Lyric Stage, Director Spiro Veloudos almost pulled off a triple hat trick this year, with this gripping version of Sondheim's most operatic effort (which immediately followed his dazzling productions of Into the Woods and Death of a Salesman). The show was studded with strong turns from Christopher Chew, Phil Tayler, Paul C. Soper, Sam Simahk, and Davron S. Monroe (among others); but in the end I just couldn't wrap my head around Veloudos' revision of the pivotal role of Mrs. Lovett.  Still, the production haunts, and I might change my mind about it tomorrow. 

Fences, Gloucester Stage
Fences - Gloucester Stage. Director Eric C. Engel did honorable battle with August Wilson's magnum opus, and drew a charismatic performance from lead Daver Morrison (at left) - although Morrison never quite tapped into the secret, self-destructive forces driving the tragic figure of Troy Maxson. Still, the supporting cast featured compelling character work from Jacqui Parker, Jared Michael Brown, and Warren Jackson, as well as a truly heartbreaking turn from Jermel Nakia as Troy's damaged brother Gabriel.

Translations - Bad Habit Productions. Once again Bad Habit brought off an ensemble drama with subtle skill, and local light M. Bevin O'Gara proved herself one of our most sensitive directors of actors. But she also reminded us that she's too timid to risk audience sympathy in the way most truly challenging texts often demand. Not that Translations is quite Marat/Sade - still, it should have something of an edge; yet O'Gara drained all the threat out of Brian Friel's popular (and poignant) romance - which straddles the treacherous gap between the Irish and the British on the verge of the Great Famine. Nevertheless, at the same time O'Gara coaxed several rising local actors - Greg Maraio, Patrick Varner, Gabriel Graetz, and Gillian Mackay-Smith among them - into their strongest performances yet.

Trip to Bountiful - Arts Emerson.  An almost perfect production of rather a minor play. Star Cicely Tyson proved luminous, but was nevertheless almost outshone by co-stars Blair Underwood and Vanessa Williams in this beautifully mounted rendition of Horton Foote's delicately sentimental television script. An attempt to add weight to the original by re-setting it across the color bar did add another dimension of poignancy - yet ultimately this proved tangential to the plot's trajectory. So in the end, Bountiful proved the kind of production that makes you wish there was a public willing to pay to see actors like these in plays of genuine depth.

Assassins, New Rep

Assassins - New Rep. This time the director wasn't at fault; the author was. The New Rep's Jim Petosa clearly knew his way around this Sondheim oddity - which, to be fair, seems more "relevant" than ever now that the nation has accustomed itself to almost weekly massacres, hostage-takings and stand-offs.  And Petosa pulled together a remarkable cast to put over the master's bleakly comic riffs on the inverted "American dream" of assassination. So many critics were willing to overlook the flaws in the jumbled concept to embrace the show. And I'll say this much - if this production (which included memorable performances from Evan Gambardella, Paula Langton, McCaela Donovan, and Brad Daniel Peloquin) couldn't convince me of the value of this Sondheim opus, I doubt any production could.

Still to come - my overdue edition of the Winter Hubbies.  

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