Apocalyptic Vision and Frolicking Fun in Wellesley. Black Lives Considered at BCA.

boom, Wellesley Repertory Theatre (Through February 9. 781-283-2000 or wellesleyrep.org)

Pass Over, SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective (Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through February 2. bostontheatrescene.com)

By Jules Becker

Apocalyptic images are nothing new on screen — with some of the most striking going back to the Nevil Shute-based film “On the Beach.” If Stanley Kramer’s movie was a still-timely cautionary tale about a world in which all life is dying from the effects of radiation, a more hopeful if potentially claustrophobic tableau takes stage in the 2008 Off-Broadway hit Peter Sinn Nachtrieb play “boom.”

Here two young people — a marine biologist named Jules and a visiting journalist named Jo — cope with being enclosed in the former’s underground university lab space along with a fish aquarium — all the while hearing what may be explosions outside. By turns quirky, humorous and affecting, “boom” — notably in Wellesley Repertory Theatre’s disarmingly charming staging — proves satisfyingly loud about the needs and desires of these very different characters.

Nicholas Yenson, Stephanie Clayman (center) and Chloe Nosan in ‘boom.’ (photo: Micah Fong)

While Jules puts up an ad promising “sex to change the course of the world,” the actual rendezvous looks to be a flirtation with disaster. Jules, by his own admission, believes he is gay, and Jo claims to be opposed to having babies. Still, the eccentric biologist is prepared to give intercourse a try to repopulate the world a la Adam and Eve should the explosions be killing off the rest of humanity. As for sex-driven Jo, she is already ordering Jules to strip down to his underwear and socks. Nachtrieb’s dialogue as they get to know each other sparkles with sardonic wit and irony. Rounding out the play’s appealingly singular mix is curator-like Barbara, who may be maintaining the pair as a kind of future Artificial Intelligence exhibit — complete with occasional percussive accompaniment.

A play like “boom” needs actors that can smoothly balance madcap movement, crack timing and an unaffected style, and director Marta Rainer’s seamless production delivers on all three. Lanky Nicholas Yenson displays natural physical comedy as his jaunty Jules embraces the possibility of a relationship with Jo. Chloe Nosan brings good attitude and acerbic tone to Jo. Stephanie Clayman aces the tricky role of Barbara with an ample amount of spunk and panache. Her narrative moments are vivid.

Look for frolicking fun in Wellesley Rep’s buoyant “boom.”

*   *   *

Think of the streetlamp in “Pass Over” as the modern counterpart of the lonely tree in “Waiting for Godot.” Antoinette Nwandu may not be directly influenced by Samuel Beckett, but her 2019 Lortel Award play does focus on an African-American outdoor pair as tied to each other as the former’s Vladimir and Estragon. Moses has the force and vision of his namesake, while Kitsch demonstrates a flashiness and vulnerability that might call to mind Estragon. Exodus from fear of being shot and a Promised Land of tranquility and dreams are priorities which they await at all times.

Lewis D. Wheeler, Kadahj Bennett and Hubens ‘Bobby’ Cius in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of ‘Pass Over.’ (Photo courtesy Nile Scott Studios)

This SpeakEasy Stage Company-Front Porch Arts Collective collaboration forcefully examines day-to-day life for African-Americans from their own perspective rather than that of whites who either demonstrate disinterest or deadly opposition. Under Monica White Ndounou’s taut direction, Kadahj Bennett as Moses and Bobby Clue as Kitsch have strong authenticity as the brother-like friends. Bennett possesses Moses’ thoughtfulness and vocal fire. Clue has the right grace and ease as Kitsch. Lewis Wheeler captures Mister’s enigmatic geniality and Ossifer’s arresting volatility. Kathy A. Perkins’ nuanced lighting reflects the ups and downs of their fortunes as they deal with domineering police and whites.

Ignore “Pass Over” at your own peril. This is a play that rightly asks audience members to open their minds and hearts to the challenges that stress out African-Americans regardless of their individual situations.

At the conclusion of the play, white theatergoers are asked to leave to allow black and brown audience members to consider Nwandu’s insights and their own. White counterparts will do well to do the same.

This Cats Has Nine Lives

Cats, Citizen Bank Opera House, Boston, through January 19. (BroadwayinBoston.com)

By Jules Becker

Freud and Cocteau may have highly lauded actual felines, but the on-going popularity of “Cats” remains a mystery. After all, thoughtful theatergoers know that this overrated Tony Award-winning musical – even with 18 years on Broadway – has virtually no story; T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” notwithstanding.

At the same time, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score — save for “Memory” and perhaps “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” — remains as relatively unappealing as the clutter-busy alleyway — kudos to john Napier — that greets audiences at the Citizen Bank Opera House.

Ensemble in ‘Cats’ (Photo: Courtesy of Broadway in Boston)

If this musical endures and returns umpteen times, perhaps child audience members are major reasons why. Young theaters are likely to always be fascinated by the John Napier costume design that turns performers into a wide variety of felines. At the same time, Andy Blankenbueler’s crisp choreography does full justice to predecessor Gillian Lynne’s original in moving individual performers and the well-timed ensemble groupings that ultimately compensate in good part for the thinness of the plotting – basically the new annual choice of a cat to go “Up, up up to the Heavyside Layer.”

Children always enjoy the ascent of former glamor cat Grizabella (by now almost no one need worry about a spoiler alert here) with Natasha Katz’s brilliant lighting and Mick Potter’s rich sound design. That radiant lighting also figures prominently in the visually arresting “Magical Mister Mistoffelees.” PJ DiGaetano — with bling as this standout tuxedo cat — electrifies in turns and pirouettes. Keri Rene Fuller builds the emotion of “Memory” well and satisfying captures the high range of the score’s one great song. Brandon Michael Nase brings impressive resonance and strong phrasing to wise Deuteronomy’s “The Ad-dressing of Cats.” Another performer who brings singular phrasing to his work is Timothy Gulan, who has the right combination of fragility and majesty as Asparagus (Gus) the Theater Cat.

This critic should make sure to disclose that I am a pet parent of two cats — one charcoal gray and the other admittedly a tuxedo. In that light, I really wish that this world success musical — which was greeted opening night with virtually a total standing ovation as usual — had more of the artistry that theater cat Gus laments is largely missing in his day. Is a new work — a stage Puss and Boots musical, for example — in the works? In all due respect to the composer of “Evita” and “Phantom of the Opera” one hopes so.

Best Theater of 2019

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.

Large Stages

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.

Honorable Mention
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)

Honorable Mention
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

Visiting 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)

Away: An Unsentimental Musical Strikes the Right Note

A high-stepping tribute to random acts of kindness

Come From Away, Tour presented by Broadway in Boston at Opera House, Boston

By Jules Becker

Gander has a heart as big as the world. After 9-11, 38 flights were diverted to that Newfoundland city as an immediate precaution. The 7000 people on board even had to wait 28 hours before leaving the landed planes. Quite soon they discovered that the wait was more than worth it. Not only were the passengers welcomed with proverbially open arms, but the Newfoundlander city and its mayor, Claude Elliot, opened their resources, homes and hearts to an ‘away’ that stretched to 95 countries.

This is the amazing true story of the singular and strikingly unsentimental musical “Come From Away” – the story of a decency that transcended differences of color, creed, sexual orientation and origin to reach a simple yet profound world of understanding. The high-stepping tour of this affecting musical has landed at the Opera House with a pounding rhythm as big as its heart.

(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Under Christopher Ashley’s strong direction, an energetic ensemble gives full voice to Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s rousing score and spirited expression to their moving book. Marika Aubrey is very convincing as pilot Beverley, especially on the inspiring number “Me and the Sky.” Kevin Carolan captures the wit and geniality of Gander mayor Claude. “Prayer,” a number embracing Jews and Christians as well as other passengers, proves a high point of acceptance.

At a time when some Americans are making polarizing and politics much more of a priority than simple compassion, “Come from Away” – in an infectiously appealing tour – sings and dances out a timely reminder that random acts of kindness can transcend division and truly unite us all.

Uncorked’s Talented Cast Brings Wit, Humor to Revival of ‘Ruthless’

Ruthless! The Musical, Theater Uncorked (Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through November 24. 617-933-8600 or theateruncorked.com)

To be talented or not to be talented. That is the question that Sylvia St. Croix poses to seemingly un-extraordinary housewife Judy Denmark and her daughter (would-be Hollywood actress Tina), at the beginning of “Ruthless! The Musical,” the somewhat amusing 1992 Off-Broadway hit now in a pleasant Theater Uncorked revival at the Calderwood Pavilion.

Shana Dirik as Sylvia St. Croix (photos: Robert Mattson)

Calling to mind the bloodthirsty young villainess of the film, “The Bad Seed,” Tina is ready to do anything to achieve her goal – even kill a girl rival for the lead role in a school production of “Pippi Longstocking.” The second act of this 90-minute Marvin Laird (music)-Joel Paley (book and lyrics) spoof finds Judy herself emerging with a talent only dreamed and sung about by Mama Rose in “Gypsy” and Mame in the musical of the same name. Other revelations follow almost as quickly as allusions to “Phantom,” “Les Miz,” “Follies,” “Annie” and “Fiddler on the Roof” and even a stretch sending up “All About Eve.”

If killings become as frequent as at the end of “Hamlet,” they seem more of a rush than the madcap fare they should be.

Still, director Russell R. Greene makes the show’s sometimes witty silliness generally engaging thanks to the talented leads of the musical’s all-female cast. Ekin Cakim (Fiona Simeqi alternates) captures all of Tina’s spunk and fully convinces on her signature solo “Born to Entertain.” Rene Bergeron makes a persuasive transformation as Judy from frustrated housewife to breakout talent in her own right – especially on the show’s best song, “It Will Never Be That Way Again.” Company artistic director Shana Dirik catches Sylvia’s attitude as well as her tenacity.

Ekin Cakim as the ruthless and talented Tina, with her mom, Judy (actress Rene Bergeron).

“Ruthless! The Musical” could do with the unrestrained riotousness of “Forbidden Broadway,” but Greene and company make the Theater Uncorked revival worth a shot of champagne.

‘Fellow Travelers’ Tackles Lavender Scare of 1950s

Fellow Travelers, Boston Lyric Opera (Paramount Center, Boston, closed November 17).

The early 1950’s “Red Scare” – during which Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted a veritable witch hunt to find Communists government workers and labeled many Jews and others guilty by association – is fairly well known. Less so is the “Lavender Scare” that called gays “sexual subversives” and led to the firing of 5000 men and banning lesbians and gays through an executive order from then President Eisenhower (April 27, 1953).

Jesse Blumberg as Fuller and Jesse Darden as Laughlin in the Gregory Spears opera ‘Fellow Travelers’ with libretto by Greg Pierce.

That time of fear and intimidation governs 1953 Washington, D.C. in the earnest and moving if musically uneven 2016 opera “Fellow Travelers,” in a well sung and acted Hub premiere at the Arts Emerson Paramount Center – especially by Jesse Blumberg and Jesse Darden respectively as emotionally and sexually involved lead characters Hawkins Fuller and Timothy Laughlin.

Based on the 2007 Thomas Mallon novel of the same name, “Fellow Travelers” centers on the ups and downs of their intense relationship. The Greg Pierce libretto is remarkably candid abut their feelings, and stage director Peter Rothstein unflinchingly moves their involvement from initial flirtation on a Dupont Circle Park Bench to fairly erotic bedroom scenes.

Jesse Darden and Jesse Blumberg (photo: Liza Voll).

Blumberg and Darden carry the opera with their commanding efforts as a study in contrast. Blumberg has all of Fuller’s early confidence and drive but never loses sight of his intention to keep his orientation closeted. Darden captures Laughlin’s tentativeness and Jesuit need to pray for understanding yet also finds his impassioned honesty about being gay. Spear’s music and Pierce’s libretto do provide each singer with a strong solo – with both high points in this production. There are moments when Bizet and Philip Glass come to mind, but Spear’s melodies often prove repetitive. Pierce’s libretto fares better with clever moments of humor and irony that contrast with the climate of fear and suspicion. Still, moments of interrogation could do with more. Chelsea Basler displays rich coloring and fine nuance as Fuller’s confidante Mary Johnson, and Michelle Trainor is also a standout as savvy government worker Miss Lightfoot.

The Eisenhower order was not officially repealed until 1995, and workplace discrimination still remains an ugly reality in many locations. “Fellow Travelers” needs a stronger score, but the BLO deserves considerable praise for embarking on its important odyssey.

Splashy Crowd-Pleasing ‘Six’

More substance and context would lift this high-stepping musical about the wives of Henry VIII even higher.

Six, American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Mass. 617-547-8300.

Call the six wives of England’s Henry VIII a kind of on-going 16th century royal Me,too! movement – at least in the visiting “Six:The Musical.” This splashy crowd-pleasing musical followed Edinburgh Fringe Festival and West End London runs with a stretch at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Much of the world probably knows the emotionally volatile monarch most for these very different spouses. There ought to be an epic musical centering on his long and turbulent reign and its impact on all six. Regrettably, the show high-stepping at the Loeb Drama Center and heading for Broadway (previews beginning February 13 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre) fails to reach that high bar.

Adrianna Hicks (at center) and the company of ‘Six.’ (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Quite frankly, the 80 minute show needs more substance about the six and more insightful context. Energy and individual effort may be enough to satisfy some theatergoers – and they certainly satisfied the largely standing ovation audience that included this critic. The often high pitched score lacks the kind of attention to history and ideas that enrich Lin Manuel Miranda’s musically varied and thematically strong musical “Hamilton.” The ‘competition’ to crown the queen that suffered the most may be initially interesting but ultimately not fully enlightening. In fact, if creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss – the latter also a skillful director here – had only focused in part on the irony and powerful historical aftermath that saw Elizabeth I become a powerful queen and a true ancestor of the #me too movement, this could have been a landmark herstory phenomenon.

Still, Carrie Anne Ingrouille’s lively choreography keeps the musical’s talented sextet – clad in Gabriella Slade’s sharp and blingy outfits – eye-catching and well-timed. Anne Uzele is a standout as strong-willed Catherine Parr. Abby Mueller as Jane Seymour – familiar to Hub audiences from her fine tour in “Beautiful” – delivers the notably reflective “Heart of Stone” with great feeling. Look for equally convincing work from Adrianna Hicks as Catherineb of Aragon, Andrea Macasaet as Anne Boleyn, Courtney Mack as Katherine Howard and Nicole Kyoung-Mi Lambert(stepping in for Brittney Mack) as Anne of Cleves.

Will “Six” do well in New York? Advance sales may be the key, buy this flashy show needs a lot more soul and substance.