Top Ten Productions of 2014

Welcome to ArtsImpulse.  It’s been quite a year for Boston theatre, from the evolution of the ArtsMatter campaign (and tireless efforts of MASSCreative); to the beloved Factory Theatre closing its doors; to the appointment of Boston’s Arts Czar, Julie Burros.  And despite our struggles, we have new direction, focus, and determination.  I did not attend the formal welcome from Ms. Burros, but I find myself encouraged by her presence and efforts.

In Mayor Walsh and Julie Burros’ opinion in The Boston Globe, they treat the arts not as a luxury or accommodation to please, but as an essential element currently lacking in our great city of Boston.  They listened to hundreds of people speak about what the arts mean to them, and about the opportunities to make the arts more than mere performances.  Most notably, they spoke of the “education, equity, access, and affordability” of the arts.  Mayor Walsh and Burros acknowledged a message that I have long advocated (since my college directing days): the arts are a “means of communication, an expression of identity, and a tool for teaching and healing.”  And it’s time that we start treating them as such.

Together, we can help meet Mayor Walsh and Burros’ goals of developing the arts as a greater role in the lives of Greater Bostonians in “experiencing, learning, and creating.”  For ArtsImpulse, I seek to be part of this driving force to help more people experience, learn from, and create the arts by facilitating and encouraging this dialogue.  To that end, as my first “Op Ed”, I offer the Top Ten Boston Productions of 2014.  This list is in no way exhaustive of the extent of talent, commitment, and artistic aplomb that I experienced this year.  However, it does recognize some of the productions that have stuck with me and that forced me to reflect during, and long after, the particular production. Following the model of the top New York City theatre editors and critics, I offer my own list.  Agree with my selections?  Feel like your favorite production was snubbed?  Comment below, or email me directly.  Even better, find me after a future production and discuss your favorites with me!

Angels in America: Part I - Millennium Approaches (The Umbrella)

Photo Credit: Prior Walter (Peyton Pugmire) finds that mysticism meets reality in Angels in America: Part I - Millennium Approaches. (Meghan Donnelly)

Photo Credit: Prior Walter (Peyton Pugmire) finds that mysticism meets reality in Angels in America: Part I - Millennium Approaches. (Meghan Donnelly)

It’s hard to argue that Tony Kushner’s epic work continues to be relevant today, even in a progressive city like Boston.  The Umbrella staged an impressive production of Millennium Approaches in Spring 2014 (with an equally talented Perestroika in Fall 2014).  Director Nancy Curran Willis brought a powerful touch to presenting the production as a timely discussion of our society and its many socio-political struggles as we approach a new “millennium.”  But the real strength was the dynamic group of actors who slipped into their characters like well-worn gloves.  Their collective talents in creating the community and world in which the characters lived made the play seem more palpable, more relatable, and more stirring than other productions in recent memory.

Baby With The Bathwater (Happy Medium Theatre Company)

Photo Credit: New parents, Helen (Denise Drago) and John (Jeremy Towle), inspect their baby with Nanny (Nicole Howard).  (Josephine Anes)

Photo Credit: New parents, Helen (Denise Drago) and John (Jeremy Towle), inspect their baby with Nanny (Nicole Howard).  (Josephine Anes)

Who could forget the laugh-a-second sleeper hit of the summer at the intimate Factory Theatre?  The cult favorite written by Christopher Durang was perfectly understood and executed by Director Lizette M. Morris and her cast of old and new favorite actors.  The surprise (and delight) came in how effective each actor understood Durang’s quirky and zany style of writing, and how they made each performance seem truthful, all while their characters bordered on the deranged.  And Morris and Deidre Benson designed one of the most successful sets in the Factory Theatre, combining sharp angles and bright color palettes to accent the play’s oddities.  I can only hope that Happy Medium Theatre (and others!) recognized the immense artistic success of this production; this was one production not to throw out with the bathwater!

Bad Jews (SpeakEasy Stage Company)

Photo Credit: Dapha (Alison McCartan) accosts her cousin, Jonah (Victor L. Shopov) and his girlfriend, Melody (Gillian Mariner Gordon). (Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

Photo Credit: Dapha (Alison McCartan) accosts her cousin, Jonah (Victor L. Shopov) and his girlfriend, Melody (Gillian Mariner Gordon). (Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

Bad Jews was a controversial production for many people; some local community groups even actively boycotted the production because of its content.  For the many patrons who saw the production (and I do believe that this production was one of the SpeakEasy’s most highly-sold productions), there is no doubt that the play’s topics and characters lasted beyond the production, and led to countless discussions among theatregoers and theatre artists.  For that, Bad Jews was wildly successful theatre and worthy of numerous accolades.  Additionally, the production brought the wickedly talented (and award-worthy and award-winning) cast together for an intimate and hilarious family affair. Director Rebecca Bradshaw demonstrated her comedic chops and artistic flair with this production, creating a memorable play with lasting impressions of family, faith, love, support, and what it really means to “be good.”  There can be no question that Bad Jews was made of all good.

Columbinus (Boston University College of the Arts)

Photo Credit: Dylan Klebold (Harrison Bryan, CFA ’14) and Eric Harris (Evan Gambardella, CFA ’14) react in surprising and violent ways in Columbinus. (Danny Kim)

Photo Credit: Dylan Klebold (Harrison Bryan, CFA ’14) and Eric Harris (Evan Gambardella, CFA ’14) react in surprising and violent ways in Columbinus. (Danny Kim)

I think that most people missed this intense production, but Boston University College of Fine Arts (CFA) students and faculty demonstrated why they are one of the best theatre programs in the Greater Boston area (and in the country).  With fierce and bold performances, the young cast presented the Columbine tragedy with the delicate balance of respect and introspection.  The truthful portrayals of the fictitious high school students and the nuanced performances of the shooters made for a punch of raw passion and art.  As an example of the stunning talent and dedication, the young cast of Boston University CFA students demonstrated that, while we daily awake from and battle tragedy, we have a bright future ahead of us through the talent and abilities of these bright youths.

Death of a Salesman (The Lyric Stage Company of Boston) 

Photo Credit: Linda Loman (Paula Plum) comforts her husband, Willy Loman (Ken Baltin). (Jonathan Wiggs, The Boston Globe)

Photo Credit: Linda Loman (Paula Plum) comforts her husband, Willy Loman (Ken Baltin). (Jonathan Wiggs, The Boston Globe)

I think that most people missed this intense production, but Boston University College of Fine Arts (CFA) students and faculty demonstrated why they are one of the best theatre programs in the Greater Boston area (and in the country).  With fierce and bold performances, the young cast presented the Columbine tragedy with the delicate balance of respect and introspection.  The truthful portrayals of the fictitious high school students and the nuanced performances of the shooters made for a punch of raw passion and art.  As an example of the stunning talent and dedication, the young cast of Boston University CFA students demonstrated that, while we daily awake from and battle tragedy, we have a bright future ahead of us through the talent and abilities of these bright youths. Director Spiro Veloudos made the fortieth season of The Lyric Stage Company of Boston a treat to remember.  And few productions matched the sophistication or timeliness as the company’s production of Death of a Salesman.  With Ken Baltin taking the lead as down-on-his-luck everyman Willy Loman, the production brought surprising resonance for the twenty-first century audience.  However, the standout talents of Paula Plum as resilient wife, Linda Loman, and of Kelby T. Akin as the tortured son, Biff, bring the production to new heights.  These strengths allowed us to see Miller’s classic play through new lens and thought, illuminating the lives of the people who must endure.  “Attention must be paid,” and few productions deserved more attention.

Finding Neverland (American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.))

Photo Credit: J.M. Barrie (Jeremy Jordan) explains to the young Davies boys that magic is all around. (Evgenia Eliseeva)

Photo Credit: J.M. Barrie (Jeremy Jordan) explains to the young Davies boys that magic is all around. (Evgenia Eliseeva)

The A.R.T. cultivated the pre-Broadway tryout for this stage adaptation of the Miramax movie to some success.  The reviews and opinions are mixed, but there’s no denying that Jeremy Jordan’s flight as famed author J.M. Barrie was stunning and magical.  Director Diane Paulus casts her spell of success over the production, infusing it with buoyant youthfulness, especially with her collaboration with Choreographer Mia Michaels.  The young actors who play the children who inspired the story of Peter Pan lack nothing in talent and wonder, driving much of the production in their boundless spirit.  While the production is imperfect, it certainly warrants a place on a Top Ten list of Boston productions for its notoriety, and, moreover, for bringing national attention to Boston’s ability to cultivate worthy artistic productions.

Florencia En El Amazonas (Boston University School of the Arts)

Photo Credit: The stage is set for the impressionist opera, based on the novels of Gabríel Garcia Márquez. (Oshin Gregorian)

Photo Credit: The stage is set for the impressionist opera, based on the novels of Gabríel Garcia Márquez. (Oshin Gregorian)

Opera is woefully neglected in Boston, despite the city’s ample talent, along with the programs and companies to nourish such talent and skill. I attempted to see more opera in 2014 (and succeeded!), and few productions were as magical as Florencia En El Amazonas.  A rarely-produced treat down the Amazon River following a legendary opera singer leads to a powerful memory play that awakens all of the senses.  Boston University truly outdid itself with its fine cast; the magical production team navigated this voyage with superb success.  If you saw the gorgeous costumes, floating set, and flashes of lights for storms and the lush beauty, you would understand that opera at Boston University is not simply a stand-and-sing production, but an experience to live (and re-live, long after the production).

Into the Woods (The Lyric Stage Company of Boston)

Photo Credit (above): The cast of The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s Into the Woods sings for what they most wish. (Mark S. Howard)

Photo Credit (above): The cast of The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s Into the Woods sings for what they most wish. (Mark S. Howard)

Closing its 40th season, The Lyric Stage Company of Boston assembled some of its notable former performers to return to the stage for this Sondheim classic.  Director Spiro Veloudos outdoes himself with elegance and excellence, drawing on the audience’s knowledge of fairy tales, in order to craft a powerful story of what it means “to wish,” and what happens after you have the thing you most wish.  John D’Ambrosino leads the cast as the Baker, but he is matched along the way by local Boston favorites Eric Spyres as Cinderella, Aimee Doherty as the Witch, and Lisa Yuen as the Baker’s Wife, along with the emerging talents of Maritza Bostic as Little Red Riding Hood and Sam Simahk as Rapunzel’s Prince.  I would gladly return again and again to the Woods for this production.

Rabbit Hole (Hovey Players)

Photo Credit (from left to right): Howie (Alex Thayer) explains to newcomer Jason (Jordan DiGloria) about boundaries, as the rest of the family (Brooke Casanova, Maureen Adduci and Katie Gluck) watch. (Jim Lavenberg)

Photo Credit (from left to right): Howie (Alex Thayer) explains to newcomer Jason (Jordan DiGloria) about boundaries, as the rest of the family (Brooke Casanova, Maureen Adduci and Katie Gluck) watch. (Jim Lavenberg)

In Waltham, Massachusetts, the Hovey Players erected an intimate space for a beautiful and heart-felt story to be told.  Rabbit Hole may not be for everyone; some people may say that it is too dark of story, and such morbid topics do not make good theatre.  Director Michelle Aguillon coached and directed the talented team to critical success by balancing the fine line between life’s humor and tragedy, and Tom Powers’ set was an impressive endeavor to create the functional (and dysfunctional) home onstage. Katie Gluck’s genuine portrayal of the grieving Becca was well worth the cost of admission, and her co-stars made the production memorable in their relationships between (and among) each other as family members struggling to continue after a tragedy.

Singin' In The Rain (Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston)

Photo Credit: Don Lockwood (Sean Quinn) swings on a lamppost and sings of his glorious feelings in Singin' In The Rain. (Herb Philpott)

Photo Credit: Don Lockwood (Sean Quinn) swings on a lamppost and sings of his glorious feelings in Singin' In The Rain. (Herb Philpott)

To close the summer season, Reagle Music Theatre made it rain with talent and success with its Singin' In The Rain.  A much-awaited production, Singin' In The Rain hit all of the right notes with its effortless and impressive dancing, swinging songs, and sharp cinematic-esque production values.  Sean Quinn’s Don Lockwood would be a tour de force, except he was matched by the triple-threat Gillian Mariner Gordon as Kathy Selden and the hilarious Edward Tolve as Cosmo Brown.  Perhaps most impressive was how deep the talent ran in this production with many local favorites providing much-needed supporting roles and cameos for gleeful delight.  I have been dancing on air ever since seeing this dazzling production.

Honorable Mentions:

The Whitmores (Boston University College of Fine Arts)

Astro Boy And The God of Comics (Company 1)

Bent (Zeitgeist Stage Company)

Me and My Girl (Reagle Music Theatre Company of Greater Boston)