Boston's Best of 1997

By G.L. Horton

I'll begin my list of "Bests" for 1997 with the usual disclaimer: there were many excellent shows in Boston last year that I didn't see, among them five or six that topped other Boston critics' "Best" lists. For some of these I make no apology. When the national companies of "Cats" or "Miss Saigon" or "Chicago" (all currently running downtown) play Boston, I am as eager to see them as any other theatre-lover. But I don't need to review them for AisleSay readers, who have already had the benefit of David Spencer's perceptive comments. Nor do I feel the need to consider these big-budget road shows when I am summing up Boston's year. On the other hand, when our flagship LORT Theatre, the Huntington, does a very successful adaptation by Stephen Wadsworth of Marivaux's "The Game of Love and Chance" and I don't manage to attend and write about it for AisleSay, I'm ashamed of myself. The same goes for the Huntington's "Caberet Verboten", the American Repertory Theatre's "Man and Superman", and Nora's "Bed and Sofa" -- the press and word of mouth declared these first rate. I also missed SpeakEasy's "Balm in Gilead", directed by Paul Deagault. Bill Marx in the Boston Globe was bored by "Gilead", and declared Lanford Wilson's script hopelessly dated, but many of the critics from less influential papers disagreed. They seemed to feel that Wilson's play summed up the sensibility of an era. All the theatre people I know who saw it called the show an absolute must-see, a stunning demonstration of Dagneault's miraculous ability to elicit pitch-perfect acting from a huge non-Equity cast. As an admirer of Dagneault's work-- and of Wilson's, too-- I really regret that I missed "Gilead"'s press opening. The rest of SpeakEasy's short run at the Boston Center for the Arts was sold out.

Enough hearsay: on to my eyewitness testimony. At the top of my "Bests" are a couple of shows that I saw but, for one reason or another, didn't review. First is the Reagle Players' "Will Rogers Follies". As much as I have come to appreciate the spirit and professionalism of Bob Eagle's community theatre productions, I went to the Waltham "Will Rogers" reluctantly. I'd really disliked the song-and-dance number from the show that I'd seen on TV during the Tony Awards. A nostalgia show with scantily clad chorus girls combining precision drill, patriotism, and titillation in a manner designed to offend any right-thinking feminist? The star part a celebrity hick? Corny lyrics, banal tunes? -- I was shocked when the musical won an armful of Tonys. Friends who saw the national tour warned me off, too-- don't waste the time and money, it's not "our" cup of tea. Sitting through the thing at the Reagle threatened to be two hours of acute discomfort. I took along my seven year old escort in the hope that the kid's unsophisticated enjoyment of cowboy costumes and rope tricks would give me the opportunity to say SOMETHING positive. Well, shut my mouth and call me dumb -- after the show I had plenty that was positive to say, but once the computer ate my first draft there wasn't time to write another before I left town for the rest of the month. So I'm taking this opportunity to admit that the Reagle Players proved the show worthy of all the honors. Book writer Peter Stone, the brilliant emotional architect who some how made a moving and suspenseful musical out of the Declaration of Independence, set out to tell the life story of an astonishingly successful entertainer who was also an ordinary decent man, and make that story a moral tale about democratic values. Lyricists Comden and Green were Rogers' personal friends, and their genuine affection for him permeates the work. Stone has framed the Rogers biography with elaborate theatrical devices that point up the contrast between the simple home-truths of Rogers "act", and the excess and celebrity that were both its target and its reward. This turns out to be close enough to what Eagle's Reagle does when it borrows the trappings of the Great White Way to put on a hometown show to make the whole experience one huge metaphor. The inspired silliness of Tommy Tune's choreography went beyond camp and came out the other side. Eileen Grace's dance re-creations, including the stage full of high school girls and homemakers dressed -- well, barely--as heifers, hoofing like polished pros and swishing ker-slap their tails in joyous unison, was a sight that yoked together in celebration so many wild contradictions that I laughed till the tears came rolling down my cheeks. All the choreography was executed with such innocent delight and honest self-satisfaction that even in the most perverse of peekaboo costumes the dancers seemed like angels at play.

For the female lead Eagle brought to the Waltham High School stage Danette Cuming, who has played Betty Blake Rogers in various national tours. Cuming's Betty was wholesome and supportive and independent and feisty, both successively and all at once, and she also sings a dynamite blues number seated atop a piano--so Cuming may be assumed to be simply the best possible actress to play what is, after all, the role of an old fashioned wife. The Brackneys and their Mad Cap Mutts reprised their adorable Broadway performances. The Reagle's shows and classes have trained a whole generation of Waltham's boys and girls in musical theatre, so the company had on hand child actors who were perfect as the Rogers kids. Waltham High's US History teacher, Harold Walker, added Clem Rogers as one more gem in his string of brilliant character cameos. But Bob Eagle's choice of Scott Wakefield for the title role was the casting made in heaven. If this young man isn't shortly a headliner, the theatre really is dead.

Wakefield plays guitar and sings much better than Cy Coleman's score deserves, and has tons of charisma without an ounce of pretension. His Will was generosity personified: Rogers may be the show's star, but all his concern and attention is for the people around him. It really is possible to believe this Will never met a man -- or a woman-- he didn't like. (If only he didn't have to sing that line so often, and always rhyme it with "down the pike"!) In the topical ad libs that stud his Rogers monologues, Wakefield establishes the same intimate rapport with the Waltham audience he has with his supporting cast, and maintains the book's all-important duel reality. The performer is both a long-dead humorist joking about politics with a 1920's audience, and a young actor trying to inject contemporary Boston references into his scripted routine, using the audience response to illustrate what must have been Rogers own improvisatory style. Show biz wisdom says villainy is more interesting than virtue: Wakefield's Will makes a case that it ain't so -- good nature rules. At the "Follies" final curtain, Will's spirit advises from the Great Beyond: Live so that if somebody like Zeigfield wants to make a show out of your life, it won't be embarrassing. As philosophy this advice isn't quite on the level of the Sermon on the Mount, but I can't help thinking that the Republic would be in better shape right now if more of us heeded it.

With this production and his heart-stoppingly beautiful revival of Brigadoon featuring the Boston Ballet, Bob Eagle and his music directors Jeffrey Leonard and Julia Liu have reached once more their improbable goal: to mix the best Broadway performers (not the most famous ones) with the talents of enthusiastic hard working amateurs and produce Broadway shows with craft and integrity. Three cheers.

Another splendid "nostalgia" show I saw but neglected to praise was the Lyric Stage production of The Heiress. I saw the show very late in the run, and immediately after got caught up in comparing various movie and stage versions with the 1880 source novel, Henry James' "Washington Square". I marveled at how much detail from the novel could be included, even as the central action and its significance is utterly changed. By the time I had made up my mind about what I wanted to say about the Lyric production, not only was the show closed, but my computer was once again declining to cooperate ---and shortly after that, AisleSay went on holiday hiatus. However, I'm taking this year-end occasion to award it a "best", and announce that Polly Hogan directed an "Heiress" that savored every drop of juice in Ruth and Augustus Goetz's melodramatic adaptation, circa 1957. The Lyric has had twenty-some years of practice by now, and knows how to do such things with style and grace. The theatre not only fielded a first rate acting team, but Janie Fliegel's set and Andrew Polezak's costumes were way out of the minor league. "The Heiress" looked like serious money. Old Money. Money to lie or die for.

Michael Bradshaw as Dr. Sloper and Paula Plum as his unfortunate daughter Catherine were excellent in "The Heiress", but their excellence in these parts was only a portion of the bravura display the pair treated Boston audiences to in 1997. "Best Actor" goes to Bradshaw in addition for his spooky patriarch in Coyote's "Fool for Love"; and for his gymnastic old Cockney geezer in the Lyric's other "best show", Entertaining Mr. Sloan, directed by Bob Bouffier, and featuring another astounding piece of acting besides those of the Prize Pair, Michael Balcanoff as Ed. "Best Actress" to Plum also for her second portrayal of a Bradshaw daughter--Kath, the lustful landlady in "Mr.Sloan"; --and for a trio of persona in her one-woman show Plum Pudding, where she proved that she can perform Alan Bennet's "Bed Among the Lentils" better than Maggi Smith on PBS, even while preceding that performance with a turn as a comic society matron and topping it with a wrenching portrait of courage in the form of a pathetic freak, the crippled surviving half of a pair of (male) Siamese twins.

Julianne Boyd's revival of Cabaret , which originated at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires last summer, settled in Harvard Square, under the aegis of the Cambridge Theatre Company. Boyd's was a stripped-down and gritty version of Kander and Ebb's1967 hit, sparing of glitz and glamour but well-supplied with talent, intelligence, and feeling.

The Publick Theatre had a summer season to be proud of in 1997. Spiro Veloudos' version of Guys and Dolls is right near the top of my lifetime list, due as much to the versatility and commitment of the chorus as to the talent and charm of leads Maryann Zschau, Robert Saoud, Christopher Swan, Alisun Armstrong and Dared Wright. Veloudos' Love's Labors Lost, in a dreamy Fliegel set, was way above average, too. While the G&S offering, "Patience", directed by Bob Jolly, didn't quite reach the same high level, Jolly's own performance of Bunthorne was about as good as G&S gets.(Which is very good indeed)

I raved about the SpeakEasy production of Eric Bogosian's "SubUrbia" when I reviewed it. I'm still not really convinced by the play's sentimental nihilism, but director Steve Maler and his young actors made a very good case for it at the Boston Center for the Arts, aided by a supurb set, sound and lighting design.

Maureen Shea directed a visually stunning and emotionally spot-on production of Claire Chafee's expressionistic Why We Have a Body for Coyote Theatre, also at the BCA. Beautifully balanced and integrated performances from Stephanie Clayman, Karen White, Laura Lee Shink, and Barbara Blossom.

Rick Lombardo at The New Rep directed a fine revival of "American Buffalo" with beautifully modulated performances by Ken Baltin as Donny and Michael Cecchi as Teach; in another of Janie Fliegel's perfect sets. Lombardo's Moon for the Misbegotten was also an indelible experience, though the exquisite acting of the central pair by Anne-Marie Cusson and John FitzGibbonwasn't quite matched by those in supporting roles.

The other "Bests" aren't quite Boston, but the Berkshires: at Shakespeare and Company, Tina Packer's overwhelming but crystal clear Henry IV Part I, and Tony Simotes A Midsummer Night's Dream with the student actors of the Company's Summer Performance Institute. Set in Greece in the 1950's, the MND production was extravagantly physical yet realistically motivated; achieved a bonded ensemble, and yet had a supernaturally superb Titania in strange young white-haired Christine Calfas.