Best of 2019
By Jules Becker
Diversity dominated local and area theater this year. Both large and small stages embraced plays and musicals that focused on African-American, Hispanic, Jewish, LGBTQ and physically challenged characters and their goals and priorities. At the same time, 2019 saw the regrettable demise of two rightly acclaimed Boston companies, namely Zeitgeist Stage Company and Israeli Stage. Attention should be paid to their very talented respective artistic directors David J. Miller and Guy Ben-Aharon. At the same time, the beloved Emerson Colonial Theatre continues to expand its lineup. The following is this critic’s best of 2019 list of area theater — as always divided into large, small-midsize and visiting picks.
Birdy (Commonwealth Shakespeare Company) — Friendship, caring and deep love flew very high in CSC’s wonderfully intense staging. Will Taylor was extraordinary as the adult Birdy.
Cabaret (Ogunquit Playhouse) — This fresh revival brought welcome riffs to Kander and Ebb’s landmark look at anti-Semitism and hate in pre-Holocaust Germany. John Rubinstein proved especially heart-wrenching as Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz.
Cymbeline (Commonwealth Shakespeare Company) — CSC regular Fred Sullivan, Jr. directed this rarely staged but intriguing play with great flair.
Indecent (Huntington Theatre Company and Center Theatre Group) — Rebecca Taichman reprised her Tony-winning direction of Paula Vogel’s play-within-a-play probing of intrepid Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s daring — especially about lesbian love — in his drama “God of Vengeance.”
Moby Dick (American Repertory Theater) —Dave Molloy has made his world premiere musical reckoning as ambitious, wide-ranging and evocative in its own way as Melville’s truly great American novel. (Running through January 12 at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Huntington Theatre Company) — Company artistic director Peter DuBois smartly developed the relationship of the two title characters — deep friendship and even love — in this savvy revival.
Sunset Boulevard (North Shore Music Theatre) — NSMT made an artistic coup landing Alice Ripley (a well-deserved Tony for “Next to Normal”) as Norma Desmond. At the same time, the big standouts here were Nicholas Rodriguez as ill-fated Joe Gillis and William Michals as Max von Mayerling.
The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley (Merrimack Repertory Theatre) — Merrimack Rep strongly followed up its previous “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation “Miss Bennet.”
Waverly Gallery (Shakespeare & Company) — Annette Miller was hauntingly strong as an aging matriarch struggling with dementia.
We Live in Cairo (American Repertory Theater) — Brothers Daniel and Patrick Lazour’s world premiere musical combines solid feeling and rich visuals —particularly David Bengali’s projection and video design — in its exploration of post-Tahrir Square Egypt.
La Cage Aux Folles — Reagle Music Theatre
Cry It Out — Merrimack Repertory
Quixote Nuevo — Huntington
Spencer Hamp (top) as Birdy and Maxim Chumov as Al in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company ‘Birdy’ (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)
Small and Midsize Stages
Becoming Dr. Ruth (New Repertory Theatre) — Anne O’Sullivan sharply portrayed the now-91 Jewish Renaissance woman — strong-willed matriarch, psychologist and sex maven, lover and defender of Israel — in Mark St. Germain’s vivid one-person play. Jeffrey Petersen’s Westheimer New York City set was a kind of character itself.
Caroline, or Change (Moonbox Productions) — Company artistic director Paul Daigneault brought new clarity to this thoughtful Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical about an undaunted African-American heroine and her both warm and complicated relationship with the Jewish family for whom she works.
Parade (Moonbox Productions) — In an age of spiking anti-Semitism, the Jason Robert Brown musical resonated more than ever in this powerfully disturbing revival — arguably the best Hub show of the year — with Phil Tayler viscerally touching as scapegoated Jewish factory manager Leo Frank.
Photo 51 (Nora Theatre) — Scientific exploration and biophysicist Rosalind Franklin’s struggle against male exploitation of her achievements clicked beautifully in this soaring revival.
The Little Foxes (Lyric Stage Company of Boston) — Returning guest director Scott Edmiston tautly captured the volatile family dynamics of this Lillian Hellman classic.
Ragtime (Wheelock Family Theatre) — Library and liberty harmonized in a cleverly designed edition of this E.L. Doctorow masterwork-based musical.
The Return (Israeli Stage) — In the last and certainly not the least effort in a near decade of provocative stagings, founding artistic director and adaptor extraordinaire Guy Ben Aharon once again embraced controversy in a strikingly designed Israeli-Palestinian encounter.
School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play. Choir Boy (both by SpeakEasy Stage) — SpeakEasy Stage trenchantly caught the very different insights — by turns humorous, rousing and painful — in the respective plays of Jocelyn Bioh and Tarell Alvin McCraney.
The Smuggler (Boston Playwrights Theatre) — A new Ronan Noone play is always a special occasion — particularly (as here) with a tour de force one-person performance by gifted Billy Meleady.
The Stone. The Seagull (both by Arlekin Players Theatre) — Arlekin Players has established itself as not only a showplace for Russian stage gems but also a singular venue for envelope-pushing fare. The company demonstrated these strengths in these stellar productions.
L to R: Phil Tayler (Leo Frank) and Haley K. Clay (Lucille Frank) in Moonbox Productions’ Parade. (Photo: Sharman Altshuler)
All’s Well That Ends Well — Actors’ Shakespeare Project
Ben Butler — Gloucester Stage Company
I Hate Hamlet — Titanic Theatre Company
My Fascination with Creepy Ladies — Anthem Theatre Company
Trayf — New Repertory Theatre
Come From Away (Broadway in Boston)
Dear Evan Hansen (Broadway in Boston)
Hello, Dolly! (Broadway in Boston)
Passengers (Les Sept Doigts de la Main, Arts Emerson)
The Lion King (Broadway in Boston)