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Jules Becker's Quick Takes 

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Lyric Stage Company of Boston thru 10/11. 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com
Closer Than Ever, New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts thru 9/228. 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org
Two very different musicals-“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Closer Than Ever”- have just opened the Hub’s 2014-2015 theater season. The former –a macabre 1979 Sondheim masterwork – cuts to the bone of ongoing injustice with a tale of inordinate revenge. The latter-an honored 1989 Maltby ,Jr. -Shire collaboration that seems overrated today- stretches together musical situations connected mainly by a shared reflection on human connection and disconnection. Lyric Stage Company of Boston, which has a forte for Sondheim, follows its 2013-2014 season-closing triumphant revival of his jaunty “Into the Woods” with a “Sweeney Todd” that proves largely razor sharp. A very talented New Repertory Theatre quartet does its considerable best with “Closer Than Ever”’ s uneven and overlong repertoire and social commentary that often seems dated today.

Spiro Veloudos has a knack for Sondheim. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston artistic director has captured the brushstroke brilliance of the great out composer’s “Sunday in the Park with George” and the mischievous metaphorical storytelling of “Into the Words.” Now he is giving “Sweeney Todd” a close shave and a striking new look. Designer Janie E. Howland has turned Fleet Street into a menacingly tough-looking two- level set. Here London teems with conflicts that resonant all too powerfully today: unjust prison sentences and innocents deprived of freedom for many years, sexual and physical abuse and the ever-widening gap between the affluent and the poor. These general problems and Sweeney Todd’s crushingly personal one (hiding his identity as convict Benjamin Barker, returning after a long prison term away from his wife and daughter in Australia) come together in Sondheim’s brilliantly sardonic , darkly humorous yet lyrical score and Hugh Wheeler’s uncompromisingly fierce book (adapted from the play by Christopher Bond). While the multiple Tony Award-winning musical gained both fame and notoriety for Todd’s rapier-fast dispatching of customers and partner in crime Mrs. Lovett’s unique meat pies, the Lyric Stage Company revival rightly gives equally rich attention to the developing romance of Todd friend Anthony and the barber’s caged bird-like daughter Johanna and the haunting plight of Tobias Ragg, once the assistant of self-promoting barber Adolfo Pirelli and now the morally conflicted apprentice to Mrs. Lovett. If the expository early going could do with a bit more fire, Veloudos does skillfully raises the heat as Amelia Broome’s resourceful Mrs. Lovett enters and especially as Phil Tayler’s arrestingly definitive Tobias works up potential customers’ interest in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir.” Christopher Chew, believable throughout as the wronged and understandably vindictive Todd, holds his own with Broome, fully convincing as alternately pragmatic and wistful Lovett. “A Little Priest”- their sublime first act closing duo and one of Sondheim’s greatest displays of devilish double entendre- proves as savory as a cordon bleu entrée. Broome makes her “By the Sea” duet with Chew a dance-like rapture. If Chew could do with more of the seething ire that George Hearn brought to the role on tour with Angela Lansbury as Lovett, he does deliver as Todd lovingly caresses his razor and sings a lovely battle of wits duo with deep-voiced Paul C. Soper, persuasively predatory as Judge Turpin. Designer Rafael Jaen wisely dresses Broome’s fashion-conscious Lovett more smartly as her fortunes improve. Phil Tayler’s stunning body language and uncommon pathos as moral anchor Tobias- especially as he realizes the enormity of Lovett and Todd’s deadly collaboration –make his performance and his impassioned delivery of “Not While I’m Around” with Broome-a performance for the ages-much like Greg Balla’s as Jack in Lyric Stage’s “Into the Woods.” Simahk is properly affecting as Anthony, but could do with more passion in the early going. Megan Laflam, a revelation as Johanna , sings with rich tone- most notably on the telling solo “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Remo Airaldi has the right pompousness and insensitivity as The Beadle and sings with contrasting fervor during “Parlor Songs.” Lisa Yuen’s Beggar Woman is sympathetic if not fully mysterious.  Attend the Lyric Stage’s stylish and a cut-above “Sweeney Todd.”

Leave it to Leigh Barrett to give “Closer Than Ever” an impassioned revival. The gifted singer-actress is directing herself and three strong local performers-David Foley, Brian Richard Robinson and especially Kathy St. George- in this Outer Critics Circle Award winner with lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and music by David Shire. The result is a laudable effort that demonstrates the strong chemistry and connection shared by the quartet-along with pianist-music director Jim Rice and bassist John Styklunas=-even when the material suffers from dated insights.  Clearly the collaborators were on to something about the difficulties of human relationships in an age of technological closeness. If only they had created a book for the ups and downs of the largely straight but sometimes gay and curious attempts at connection- many in middle age- that run through “Closer Than Ever.” Instead, this well-intentioned show strings together numerous situations that sometimes click as stories but too often end up as familiar scenarios with overly repetitive lyrics. All four performers have their moments, though comically gifted St. George makes the most of some of the best numbers. Her expressions alone during the sex secretary mischief of “Miss Byrd” and her sassy rendition of “Back on Base” (lyrics by both collaborators) complete with flirtatious rubbing of bassist Styklunas’ head- are alone worth the price of admission. Robinson makes “One of the Good Guys” a moving narrative about resisted infidelity. Barrett sings “Patterns” with such feeling and rich tone that the song’s melody seems to trump its relatively unenlightening lyrics. Foley makes the most of the emotional ambivalence of ‘She Loves Me Not.”  A number in the later going tellingly bears the title “I’ve Been Here Before.” Despite Barrett’s strong direction and the fine talents of actors and musicians alike, seasoned theatergoers are likely to agree.

Fences, Gloucester Stage Company thru 9/7. 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
Great plays invite a variety of approaches .Sometimes a production may suggest a different interpretation or a novel way of looking at characters and their fortunes. So it goes with the distinctive Gloucester Stage Company revival of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson play “Fences.” Out artistic director Eric C. Engel seems to have staged this visceral African-American family drama-set in 1957 Pittsburgh - in such a way that tough-minded matriarch Rose Maxson becomes as much of a protagonist as her professionally challenged and emotionally conflicted husband Troy.  As played by Daver Morrison (2014 IRNE Award for his riveting work in Roxbury Repertory Theatre’s forceful revival of “A Soldier’s Play”), Troy is properly bitter if not as raging as he was portrayed by James Earl Jones on Broadway. Morrison does well with Troy’s moving tirades as a former Negro Baseball League star discriminated against by Major League baseball and fighting for dignity collecting garbage and later driving a sanitation truck in segregation-impacted Pittsburgh. By contrast, gifted Boston-based actress Jacqui Parker (a multiple IRNE Award winner) is so commanding as Rose- a grounded and tenacious lioness as remarkable in her own way as supportive wife Linda in Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman”- that this indomitable wife and mother becomes a formidable anchor for the vulnerable but still very vital Maxsons in the more sharply paced second act.  Jared Michael Brown grows in the part of would be football player younger son Cory as the now stern but caring Marine corporal returns home. Jermel Nakia has his moments but needs more subtlety as Troy’s emotionally and physically wounded brother Gabriel. Rose is described as a woman skilled at getting things back on track. Engel does the same with this majestic play as its dramatic tension accelerates. Thanks to Parker’s virtuoso work, the Gloucester Stage Company edition serves notice that Rose is as much of a towering character as Troy. Such strong insight makes this fresh revival a must-see.

Her Aching Heart, Nora Theatre, Central Square Theater, Cambridge thru 8/10 - 866-811-4111 or www.centralsquaretheater.org
Freud's Last Session, 2nd Story Theatre, Warren, Rhode Island thru 8/3 - 401-247-4200 or www.2ndstorytheatre.com
Plays with small casts can be just as demanding in their own ways as full-scale efforts. Right now a study in contrast illustrates the primacy of a strong text no matter how talented the actors and vivid the design. British writer Bryony Lavery’s lesbian romance “Her Aching Heart,” in its area premiere by Nora Theatre at the Central Square Theatre, benefits considerably from the ample talents of Lynn Guerra and Aimee Rose Rogers, but the American women Harriet and Molly reading the title novel are not nearly as vivid as the women about whom they read. Mark St. Germain’s imagined meeting between Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis really catches fire as they argue about religion and sex in his sharp drama “Freud’s Last Session,” now richly staged at Warren, Rhode Island’s 2nd Story Theatre.

As contemporary characters Harriet and Molly separately and coincidentally read about the growing involvement of their namesakes in the play- within-a-play writing that eventually brings them together, theatergoers can see and hear how attractive the inner narrative is. Clearly influenced by the likes of Daphne du Maurier and earlier romance fiction, this story calls for numerous character and costume changes as aloof Lady Harriet Helstone and unpretentious young villager Molly move from alternately conflicted and heated interaction to emotional interest and passion. Guerra has the right haughtiness and imperiousness as Harriet and Rogers very convincing simplicity as Molly. Guerra proves a vibrant hoot as Molly’s feisty Granny and amusingly clueless as stable boy Joshua. Rogers catches the attitude and resourcefulness of Harriet’s maid Betsy and the self-importance and buffoonish demeanor of Lord Rothmore, who seeks to reign in Harriet unaware of her interest in women. New Nora artistic director Lee Mikesa Gardner as Lady Harriet and Lord Rothmore rushing around the audience in a rollicking and hilarious chase that proves an instant highlight. Another standout segment involves a fox (puppet) that Molly tries to save from the hounds of the Helstone hunt. Both strong actress try to bring as much personality as possible to the roles of the modern women, but their exchanges lack the kind of sharp repartee that Lavery gives Lady Harriet and villager Molly. Guerra sings songs from the affecting Veronica Barron score with stronger tone and phrasing, but both actresses bring good feeling to numbers that make the contemporary women seem more interesting than the playwright makes them.  Strong acting and a fine design- Steven Royal’s inviting set, John R. Malinowski’s poetic lighting and especially Leslie Held’s colorful period costumes for the story’s characters- make up at times for repetitious stretches in the narrative and the relative blandness of the readers. For fans of romance fiction, those compensations may be enough.

Could C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud have met and talked before the latter’s death? At the very least, their respective ideas and beliefs significantly overlapped- with later Christian apologist Lewis (1898-1963) admiring proudly Jewish but non-believing Freud (1856-1939) and basing his own early atheism on the latter’s writings. Theoretically, Oxford don Lewis might have considered the possibility of visiting the Anschluss-fleeing Jewish neurologist and psychoanalyst at his 1938-39 London home. This fictional meeting of two 20th century titans comes to vivid life in Pittsfield playwright Mark St. Germain’s provocative drama “Freud’s Last Session,” suggested by ” The Question of God” by Harvard Medical School psychology professor Dr. Armand M. Nicholi. Under the taut direction of Pat Hegnauer at Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre, Wayne Kneeland’s sharply thoughtful Lewis and company artistic director Ed Shea’s viscerally raging yet vulnerable Freud bring gripping intensity to their battle of ideas. The result is a conversation as passionate as the declaration of war with Germany that Freud and Lewis hear on the former’s furniture-size radio. Theatergoers will immediately experience the you –are-there immediacy of this imagined debate. Designer Karl Pelletier has carefully detailed the play’s setting- Freud’s eye-catching study- with a backdrop wall of books punctuated by carved African heads and miniature gods and goddesses as well as colorful rugs. Empty frames that stretch above the bookshelves could be standing in for unseen historical figures in the play-among them Churchill, King George V , moralist fiction writer G.K. Chesterton and “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R.Tolkien- and friends and family of both Freud and Lewis. The intellectual combatants’ punches and counterpunches are pungent. Freud insists that God cannot be proven historically one moment, and Lewis submits that the Gospels are not artistic enough to be fiction at another. As radio reports grow more alarming, Freud rhetorically asks Lewis whether Poland should turn the Christian proverbial other cheek and advises him bluntly to “grow up. ” Lewis impresses Freud when he concedes the wrongheadedness of the church fathers who opposed Galileo’s findings about the universe. Shea delivers Freud’s contentions with unrelenting ferocity, while Kneeland properly balances directness in expressing his own views with respect for his remarkable host. When their exchanges move to the subjects of love and sex, Lewis seems more defensive. While Lewis was to later marry, at the time of the imagined meeting, he is a single forty-one year old in a friendship relationship with a somewhat older woman. Freud, jabbing with his view that all humans are inherently bi-sexual, wonders aloud whether Lewis has connected with a woman or a man (the latter suggested by the advances of a best friend which Lewis apparently gently brushed off according to indicatings in his own writings) .The counter punch in these exchanges is Lewis’ curiosity about Freud’s unusual insistence that only his daughter Anna touch the prosthesis in his mouth. Both Shea and Kneeland effectively modulate their responses here as questions about love and pleasure occasionally hit their respective nerves. Where a certain strange equality arises involves the reality of war itself. Both men take out their gas masks for what turns out to be a false alarm. At this point Shea perfectly captures Freud’s vulnerability and uncertainty. Freud’s humanity also emerges as he finally embraces the radio music that he has hitherto turned down after news reports. Max Ponticelli’s nuanced lighting enhances this moment of increasing openness to the power of that music. Shea’s evocation of Freud’s closing oasis of serenity in the face of terminal cancer is an example of hauntingly understated beauty. If Freud vs. Lewis turned out to be a real philosophical and theological bout, would it be ruled a split decision? Referees aside, 2nd Story Theatre unquestionably scores a theatrical knockout with its winning “Freud’s Last Session."

City of Angels, F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown thru 7/19. 617-923-8487 or www.arsenalarts.org
F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company has staged fresh and imaginative revivals of demanding Broadway musicals like "Parade" and "Spring Awakening," but ambitious artistic director Joey DeMita has not been able to pull off the tricky parallels of a film noir screenplay and Hollywood compromises at the heart of the Larry Gelbart(book)-David Zippel(Lyrics)-Cy Coleman (music) Tony Award winner "City of Angels." James Petty's revival scenic design makes for smooth transitions, but DeMita needs to accelerate the pace and sharpen the timing here. Jared Troilo has the right Philip Marlowe-like world-weariness as screenplay private eye Jared Stone, and Anne Marie Alvarez impresses as his sharp-tongued girl Friday. Kyle W. Carlson has his moments as compromise-fighting writer Stine, and Lori L'Italien as fictional conflicted lover Bobbi brings wonderful intensity to "With Every Breath I Take." Ben Gold brings great energy to story policeman Lt. Munoz. Dan Goldstone could be even more ruthless as screenplay-'fixing' mogul Buddy Fidler. Steven Bergman, a F.U.D.G.E. regular, conducts the small but talented orchestra with appropriate verve.

An Inspector Calls, Boston Teen Acting Troupe, Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts thru 7/19. 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com

Boston Teen Acting Troupe co-founder and co-artistic director Catherine Spino has been struck by the power of J.B. Priestley's call for real human responsibility in his masterful drama "An Inspector Calls," and theatergoers should be equally struck by the polish and persuasiveness of her tautly directed BTAT staging. In a strong ensemble cast, Jack Serio brings commanding presence to the role of selfish entrepreneur Arthur Birling. Brendan Caulfield - in stage movement and measured delivery of dialogue, captures the atypical demeanor of Inspector Goole. Barbara Woodall wisely understates daughter Sheila's thoughtfulness and conscience-stricken state about the revelations about individual action and inaction that call the tranquility and virtues of the Birling family into serious question. Molly Porter 's well-detailed set catches the affluence and period look of the play's 1912 North Midlands, England dining-room. A terrific Boston Teen Acting Troupe calls, and audiences should embrace this triumphant revival as Priestley surely would.

The Phantom of the Opera, Boston Opera House thru 7/20. 866-323-7469 or boston.broadway.com
When “The Phantom of the Opera” sends out a national tour that producer Cameron Mackintosh bills as a “new production,” theatergoers take notice. After all, the Tony Awarding winning Andrew Lloyd Webber musical-now Broadway’s longest running show- even recently celebrated its 25th anniversary at New York’s Majestic Theatre. With the Boston Opera House playbill reading “The Phantom of the Opera: The Spectacular New Production,” just how wonderful is it? Given a sparklingly fresh design and considerable vocal talent-including out Boston University alumnus Brad Oscar, fans and newcomers alike will be glad that “Phantom” is here again. As always, the title disfigured genius-composer, musician and magician- roams the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera-here wonderfully represented by Boston’s own exquisite Opera House. As the Richard Stilgoe-Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel plays out its on-going face-off between Phantom- aka Opera Ghost- and the managers of the Opera Populaire, Maria Bjornson’s vivid costumes and Paul Brown’s evocative and smoothly transforming sets run the gamut from parody and melodrama during production rehearsals to the elegance of the second act-opening “Masquerade.” Paule Constable’s rich lighting captures haunting as well as mysterious elements throughout the musical-especially at the Phantom’s candelabra-dominated lair and the graveyard where songbird Christine’s violinist father is buried. While all of these strong production values contribute greatly to the appeal and pleasures of the show, the ultimate success of the tour depends on the cast, and the news here is generally satisfying. Cooper Grodin has the right demeanor and combination of rage and vulnerability as the misunderstood, lonely and violent Phantom. He may not find the intensity and vocal build-up of original lead Michael Crawford –especially on the signature number “The Music of the Night,” but his delivery is secure. Grace Morgan stepped in for Julia Udine at the performance this critic saw, and her voice proves as sweet and lyrical as gifted heroine Christine’s itself in the story. Morgan finds haunting pathos as Christine sings “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” at the site of her father’s grave. She proves very convincing struggling to balance her caring for the troubled Phantom -who has inspired her musical development- and her love for Raoul , the dashing patron of Opera Populaire. Ben Jacoby has all of Raoul’s sophistication and fire. His resonant big voice makes the love duet with Morgan on “All I Ask of You” properly romantic. Brad Oscar’s crisp phrasing and acerbic tone as kvetching co-manager Monsieur Firmin of the Opera House provides the right contrast with Merritt Davis Janes (stepping in for Edward Staudenmayer)’s graceful and relatively low-key Monsieur Andre. Jacquelynne Fontaine is properly diva-difficult as prima singer Carlotta Guidicelli, while Frank Viveros is a candy-munching hoot as stubborn tenor Ubaldo Piangi-most notably in ongoing artistic differences with Firmin and Andre. The Opera Ghost may ultimately prove elusive, but the refreshingly accessible new tour should please most music angels.

Amaluna, Marine Industrial Park, Boston thru 7/6 - 800-450-1480; www.cirquedusoleil.com
Call gender-bending “Amaluna” Cirque du Soleil meets Shakespeare-specifically “The Tempest” and ‘’Romeo and Juliet.” Loosely based on the former and staged with panache by American Repertory Theatre artistic director Diane Paulus, this lively feminist spectacular-complete with imperious goddesses, striking Valkyries and muscle-bound Amazon soldier-guardians- celebrates the coming-of-age of Miranda, wistful and winning daughter of island sorceress Prospera (male sorcerer Prospero in Shakespeare’s play). The title love-moon imagery takes over along with Cirque’s trademark superb acrobatics and design as Miranda meets a hunky shipwrecked Romeo (thanks to Prospera’s wizardry-as with shipwrecked Ferdinand at the hands of Prospero’s in the “The Tempest) and their romance blossoms – most dreamily in a kind of water playground area of Scott Pask’s visually stunning set design. Cirque fans in the front rows of the company’s vivid tent should guard their popcorn from half-man, half-lizard Cali (Shakespeare’s Caliban) –unless they wish to give in to his charming mischief-making. Paulus brings off this arresting theatrical hybrid with the kind of Houdini-like magic that made her Tony Award-winning revival of “Pippin” (in an open-ended run at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre) a breath-taking stage odyssey.

Smart People, Huntington Theatre Company, Calderwood Pavilion, BCA thru 7/6. 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org
For nearly two decades, behavioral researchers from the United States (Harvard, U. Washington and U. Virginia) to Israel (Yoav Bar Anan at Ben Gurion U.) have been studying human thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. Social scientists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald have been attempting to gain new insight about the stereotypes and hidden attitudes that reside in those thoughts and feelings with the aid of a procedure they call the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Now former Huntington Playwriting Fellow Lydia P. Diamond has written a witty play entitled “Smart People” in which such research and subconscious biases very much come in to play in 2008-2009 Cambridge. Strongly helmed by Huntington Theatre Company artistic director Peter DuBois, its lively Calderwood Pavilion world premiere proves both lively and timely.  Pivotal to that timeliness are the earnest efforts of fictional neuro- psychiatrist Brian White, whose work on human responses and reactions to photos of black and white people leads him to believe in the existence of ‘racist brains.’ The ironically named researcher not only encounters resistance to his findings but also faces misunderstanding about having excused three (unseen) students-including an African –American named Jones and a Jew named Goldstein- from a session of his Harvard class “for being smart.” Rounding out the play’s Cambridge-based ‘smart people’ are Brian’s Harvard-tenured Chinese-Japanese-American love Ginny Yang, Harvard Medical School surgical intern Jackson Moore and American Repertory Theatre MFA-earning trainee Valerie Johnston, who cleans homes while developing her career as an actress. As Diamond demonstrates the complexities of the characters’ own thoughts and feelings, Alexander Dodge’s two-level and four-area design by turns becomes the diverse settings for their interactions and relationships- among them, the rooms Brian and Ginny share, the lockers of Brian and Jackson’s gym and the emergency center where Jackson treats Valerie for a stage accident. Along the way, there are telling observations. Ginny complains about a stereotypical accusation that Asian women sleep around but praises Brian for not being “infected by yellow fever.” Jackson contends that a black intern cannot obtain a decent mentor in Boston and cautions Valerie that housekeeping sets back African-Americans. Brian – sounding like Lieutenant Cable in the pioneering ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” number in the musical “South Pacific”- maintains that Americans are programmed to hate. At the same time, identity and ethnic pride are key factors in Diamond’s remarkably balanced play. As an Asian-American, Ginny feels marginalized by studies that employ photos of black and white Americans. Mention is also significantly made of the need for more findings about Latinos and the fact that Some Jews (if not many) do not identify as ‘whites’ on forms and include themselves in the ambiguous category ‘other.’ “Smart People” may not propose any easy answers to racism and prejudice, but DuBois’ stellar cast makes the most of Diamond’s entertainingly incisive play. Roderick Hill captures Brian’s professional courage as well as his vulnerability with Ginny, played with convincing confidence by Eunice Wong. Miranda Craigwell catches all of Valerie’s inner struggle as a black woman determined to fulfill her professional as well as personal objectives. McKinley Belcher III finds all of Jackson’s rage at being accused of having ‘attitude’ as a black intern and his clarity in exchanges with Brian and romancing with Valerie. While some observers have seen the inauguration of President Obama-here off-stage if properly historic- as a sign that America is becoming ‘post-racial,’ “Smart People” rightly seems to present Brian’s findings as a provocative challenge for theatergoers in particular and humanity in general. Huntington Theatre’s exhilarating “Smart People” premiere is very smart theater.

The Tempest, American Repertory Theatre in association with Smith Center for the Performing Arts, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge thru 6/15 - 617-543-8700 or www.amrep.org
What a trick Aaron Posner ("My Name Is Asher Lev" Off-Broadway) and Teller (of Penn and Teller) have conjured up in adapting and directing "The Tempest," now in a spell-binding edition at the Loeb Drama Center. American Repertory Theatre and Nevada's Smith Center for the Performing Arts have captured the majesty of great sorcerer Prospero and the redemption he achieves through illusion and manipulation in bringing Naples King Alonso and his usurping brother Antonio to his island with the title storm. The adaptation's cuts may disturbv some purists, but this collaboration freshly captures the spirit and poetry of Shakespeare's last great work. Much credit also goes to the choreography of Matt Kent (Pilobolus). Tom Nelis has all of Prospero's majestic and philosophic depth. Charlotte Graham captures the inner radiance and sweetness of his daughter Miranda, and Joby Earle has the right passion and amusing adoration of loving prince Ferdinand. Dawn Didawick makes a genuine noble Gonzala (a smart female variation on Shakespeare's Gonzalo). Nate Dendy captures Ariel's elusive nature, and Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee are a standout duo as scheming and suffering Caliban-with amazing acrobatic moves around the Loeb Drama Center stage.

Sex Fest II: Safe Word: F#ck You Master and Jesus, Heart and Dagger Productions, Factory Theatre, Boston thru 6/14. 617-888-0728 or www.heartanddaggerboston@gmail.com
Heart and Dagger Productions calls its latest festival "our celebration of sexual desire, fantasy, orientation and identity.” The playbill for their “Sex Fest II”entitle “Safeword: F#ck you,Master” speaks of inviting Boston playwrights to create short pieces focusing on the sexy, the titillating, the scandalous, and the squeamish world of sex.” While the short plays in this diverse anthology span a Kinsey spectrum of sexual practices and orientations and include brief nudity (in one play) few are fully provocative and memorable. “Things to Do with a Watermelon” by Michael Cox (a fellow member of the IRNE critics, it must be mentioned) possesses moments of inspired outrageousness and winning humor. “Bathroom Games” by Lyralen Kaye proves a tender look at encounter between a closeted teacher-powerfully portrayed by David DiRocco- and a lonely young man-evoked with pathos by Adam Lauver. Best of all is “P is for…” by Cassie M. Seinuk –with fine work by Chris Larson and Cassandra Meyer in a smart battle of philosophies about pornography. The best element of Seinuk’s intriguing play is a surprising but real double standard in which a wife claims not being turned on watching female same sex porn but does wonder if her husband is aroused by occasional viewing of men doing the same. See Sex Fest II for these three efforts and a satisfying cross-section of local talent. The Charles Mee play “Jesus “ repertory with Sex Fest II.

Into the Woods, Lyric Stage Company of Boston, thru 6/29. 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com
Carrie the Musical, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts thru 6/8. 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com
Theatergoers may call to mind Lorenz Hart’s sublime “Pal Joey” alliteration ‘’bewitched bothered and bewildered” after seeing two very different current Hub season closers. The great lyricist would probably find the brilliant Lyric Stage Company of Boston edition of “Into the Woods” utterly bewitching. At the same time, Hart would likely be bothered and bewildered by the disappointing “Carrie the Musical” despite the earnest efforts of SpeakEasy Stage Company talents. Robert Frost once described some woods as “lovely, dark and deep”-all qualities richly evoked in the musical “Into the Woods.” Bringing together fairy tale characters as diverse as Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and the Beanstalk Jack, this James Lapine (book) and Stephen Sondheim (score) gem sees the title terrain by turns as a place of wonder and exploration, a springboard for new relationships and human connections and a mysterious and challenging experience- in fact, the alternately bright and dark world that is life itself. Young and grown-up characters alike learn valuable often disturbing lessons about love and living as they strive to brave the challenges, establish meaningful connections and make a real difference. Lyric Stage Company artistic director Spiro Veloudos - who earlier staged the great out composer’s inspired “Sunday in the Park with George” with the care of a modern master- has captured all of the fun and the fear, the pleasure and the pain and the magic and the mayhem of the musical’s iconic woods. Standouts in a crack ensemble are Aimee Doherty as Witch and Gregory Balla as Jack. Doherty, already recognized for her versatility (including strong efforts in Lyric Stage’s “On the Town” and SpeakEasy Stage’s “Nine”) stretches her already impressive range as terrorizing and tenacious Witch. Her expressive work captures her character’s attitude and bossiness even as her powers diminish. Her delivery of Witch’s Lament is arresting, and her singing on “Last Midnight” is properly fiery. Balla has all of Jack’s early naivete and his cockiness as he enters the woods. When he forcefully sings “Giants in the Sky,” audience members will visualize them at once. John Ambrosino catches Baker’s early clueless state and later sad insight, while Lisa Yuen catches the spirit and the resourcefulness of the Baker’s Wife’s. Maritza Bostic punctuates her well-timed quips and capering with amusing eating moments. Maurice Emmanuel Parent-a hoot as Wolf-has the right elegance as Cinderella’s Prince, and Sam Simahk as Rapunzel’s beau sings with rich resonance on the Princes’ winning duet “Agony.” The design team handily enhance the spell of this revival. David Towlun’s woods are inviting, and Scott Clyve lights them vibrantly. Elizabeth Polito’s costumes capture the contrasting grandeur and simplicity of the respective affluent and poor characters. Sound designer Andrew Will conjures the full impact of the giants, and Johnathan Carr’s imaginative projection proves an enhancing complement. Catherine Stornetta’s music direction captures both the fancy and the fire of Sondheim’s score. Lyric Stage Company and Spiro Veloudos are wizards of enchantment. Earlier they charmed with a rollicking “Avenue Q.” Now they are celebrating their company’s 40th anniversary with a delightfully dreamy “Into the Woods.”

“Carrie the Musical” could have been either a riotously campy but still satiric show about bullying, childhood cruelty and revenge. Instead the stage adaptation of the Stephen King novel became a legendary 1988 Broadway flop. SpeakEasy Stage Company must have known it was taking on an arguably impossible task when it decided to tackle the trimmed down 2012 Off Broadway version. Quite simply, there is very little magic here even with the determined efforts of talented frequent SpeakEasy director Paul Melone. Lawrence D. Cohen ,who wrote the screenplay for the Brian De Palma film, somehow did not match his strong effort there. Likewise, the Dean Pitchford (lyrics)- Michael Gore (music) score generally lacks distinction. Conservatory student Elizabeth Erardi catches Carrie’s pain as she is tormented about her period and pressured by her religiously fanatic mother Margaret, but the only song that stands out is her mother’s solo “When There’s No One,” and the main reason may be the exceptional delivery of gifted Hub actress-diva Kerry A. Dowling. Dowling has the right combination of fire and stubbornness as Margaret, but the musical version fails to make Carrie’s revenge chillingly scare and haunting. The shows collaborators have even made villainous student Billy Nolan less frightening-despite Phil Tayler ‘s fine efforts in the role. Design talent is equally wasted-including Eric Levenson’s Western Maine school set and Carrie and Margaret’s austere home as well as Jeff Adelberg’s striking lighting for the pivotal prom. “Carrie the Musical” too often looks like a poor sister to “Spring Awakening the Musical.” Melone and considerable SpeakEasy talent are unable to shake that impression.

Good Television, Zeitgeist Stage, Plaza Black Box Theatre, BCA thru 5/17 - 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com
Zeitgeist Stage Company artistic director David J. Miller questions the authenticity of so-called “Reality Television,” and so does actor turned playwright Rod McLachlan in his debut effort “Good Television.” Both Miller and McLachlan take issue with the camera-propelled ‘spontaneity’ of such shows in the Zeitgeist playbill for the Hub premiere of this incisive and provocative drama. Can such ‘’formatted improvisation’’-as McLachlan describes it-be good television? More importantly, can it be good for the participants, especially those who need serious help? “Good Television” examines the potential damage of a fictional example, and Zeitgeist Stage makes viscerally disturbing theater out of the resulting dynamics in the intimate Plaza Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. Stretching over “several weeks in spring, the present,” McLachlan’s play focuses on a fictional but vividly depicted Aiken, South Carolina family and the alarming entry and exploitive methods of a popular fact-based Los Angeles television series (reputed to have an audience of 3 million viewers) called “Rehabilitation” patterned on the recently long-running A & E television series “Intervention.” The family in question more than meets “Rehabilitation ”’s programming requirements. Unemployed young addict Clemson is hooked on crystal meth. His exhausted divorced sister Brittany struggles to protect him while working, caring for their emphysema-stricken mother and raising young children on her own. Both Brittany and older brother Mackson are prepared to participate in the kind of intervention that will ultimately lead to the valuable treatment that program promises for its subjects. Several complications arise-both with-in the Aiken family and the television producers and co-workers . Mackson , who works in television himself, wants a large say about Clemson and Brittany’s participation, though he has been noticeably absent where his siblings’ welfare has been concerned. Brittany expresses understandable anger about his previous lack of caring. Eventually their long absent father MacAddy appears, claiming that he has found Jesus and turned his life around. Anyone who has ever been abused by a parent or known someone who has will immediately share Brittany’s rage and her cynicism about his penitence.  Head producer Bernice-who will soon be moving to a position at Fox-and her incoming replacement Ethan- right now working on the filming of the Aiken story line- are motivated more by ratings and television than the lives of their subjects. Former addiction counselor and “Rehabilitation” field producer Connie and thoughtful new program co-worker Tara try to counter television executive insensitivity with on-going attention to what happens to Clemson. Connie, who has her own personal back story, even bonds with Brittany and takes remarkable interest in the emotional well- being of this tenacious sister. The television vs. subjects face-off is sharply signaled in the production’s striking design. Miller, who regular doubles as scenic designer, once again makes the most of the dauntingly small Black Box space, Here, the well-detailed if simple South Carolina home is sandwiched between the trendily workmanlike offices, a visual contrast that enhances the drama’s striking observations about the manipulation of the subjects of such reality television offerings. “Good Television” has the ring of authenticity especially as McLachlan’s wife- as Miller notes in the playbill- was a field producer herself on A. & E.’s “Intervention.” While the play’s structure sometimes seems too episodic itself, McLachlan does convincingly make his points about the difference between what is ‘good television’ and what is good for highly vulnerable Clemson and Brittany. Under Miller’s strong direction, Christine Powers-a talented Zeitgeist regular- captures the full emotional odyssey of conflicted Connie as she tries to balance the interests of Clemson and Brittany with the professional demands of “Rehabilitation.” Jenny Reagan is very compelling as over-pressured Jenny. She makes Brittany heated confrontation with her curiously subdued father-played with arresting understated by another strong Zeitgeist regular Bill Salem- a haunting moment of truth. Ben Lewin catches Clemson’s emotional chaos as well as his essential fragility-the latter particularly as he makes a very disturbing disclosure in the later going. Shelley Brown has the right pragmatic posture as Bernice and William Bowry appropriate cockiness and callousness as Ethan. Tasia Jones finds all of Tara’s heart and passion for her work. Olev Aleksander has his moments as demanding if often clueless Mackson. Connie, a kind of intrepid representative for McLachlan himself, often questions the actual treatment benefit of even the best of such ‘reality’ programming. Miller and his prime time ready Zeitgeist Stage cast make” Good Television “intimately good theater.

Lebensraum, Happy Medium Theatre, Factory Theatre, Boston thru 5/24 - www.happymediumtheatre.com
Holocaust scholars know that the Nazis would employ the German word ‘lebensraum’-or ‘space for living’- to speak of territorial expansion under the Third Reich. Israel Horovitz , in his imaginatively provocative play “Lebensraum,” turns Nazi atrocities on their head with an intriguing proposal offered by a fictional German leader as an act of redemption. The well-meaning Chancellor invites six million Jews to Germany (today there are actually about 250,000 Jews there) and promises them full citizenship, housing and jobs. “Lebensraum”-now in a forcefully intimate staging by Happy Medium Theatre at the Factory Theatre- examines the positive and negative aspects of the implementation of this proposal- among them attempts at educating young Germans about the enormity of the Holocaust on the one hand and resurfacing anti-Semitism on the other. Under Brett Marks sharp direction, three actors- R. Nelson Lacey, Audrey Sylvia and Michael Underhill- provide a forty character spectrum of Jewish and non-Jewish reaction and response to this controversial proposal –ranging from a French Jewish gay couple who are the first arrivals and an unemployed Massachusetts Jewish dock worker to a survivor of Auschwitz and a hate-filled unemployed German laborer. Lacey is rivetingly venomous as the laborer and understatedly moving as the survivor. He and Underhill catch the optimism and good will of the gay couple, and Underhill and Sylvia prove affecting as the romancing Jewish laborer’s son and the German laborer’s daughter. “Lebensraum” is a timely call for understanding and acceptance as much as n always necessary reminder of the potency of hatred. Happy Medium gives Horovitz’s resonant play vivid life at the Factory.

Pricked, Boston Ballet, Opera House thru 5/18 - 617-695-6950 or www.bostonballet.org
Boston Ballet has given its latest program the provocative title “Pricked.” Do artistic director Mikko Nissinen and company mean to suggest a sensation caused by a small hole or an arousal to action. The answer quite simply is probably both as the program’s trio- the returning gem “Etudes” and two North American premieres entitled “D.M.J. 1953-1977 “ and “Cacti”- moves respectively from classical elegance to an emotional conflict to parody and satire . Harald Lander’s “Etudes” – rising from basic barre routines to a luminous ensemble finish- demonstrates the very high caliber of the company . Petra Conti (casts alternate throughout the run) dances regally as Ballerina. Sabi Varga has the right expressiveness as the male lead as well as remarkable form in Czech choreographer Petr Zuska’s “D.M.J. 1953-1977”(the initials representing Dvorak, Martinu and Janacek, whose music accompanies the piece). Alexander Ekman’s light-hearted “Cacti” sends up pomposity and grandiose theorizing about dance- often with hilarious effect though the final accompanying banter seems overlong. Dancers position a diversity of cacti on the Boston Opera House stage. Audience members will enjoy speculating about their symbolism and may even decide that their presence is part of the send-up. In the end, though, “Pricked” proves a high-spirited witness to the breath of Boston Ballet’s repertoire and talent.

Heroes - real and fictional - battling low self –esteem, abuse and hatred continue to find moving expression on area stages. Talented performance artists respectively fight domestic abuse in Arts/Emerson’s presentation of “The Wholehearted” at the Paramount Center and homophobia and bullying in “Our Lady” in New Repertory Theatre’s Next Rep Black Box Festival at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. At the same time, a diffident daughter journeys to self-empowerment in the sublimely dance-driven “The Shape She Makes,” presented by American Repertory Theatre at Oberon. The lone local disappointment is Melinda Lopez’ surprisingly unfocused depiction of an island struggling to free itself from abusive Spanish colonialism and wary of American intervention in “Becoming Cuba,” a world premiere by the Huntington Theatre Company ay the Calderwood Pavilion.

The Wholehearted, presented by ArtsEmerson at Paramount Center, Boston thru 4/27 - 617-824-8000 or www.artsemerson.org 
The audience at “The Wholehearted, ” a crisp 60-minute one-woman match of verbal, vocal and visual jabs and punches, are watching fictional flyweight powerhouse Dee Crosby's life battle as much as her quest to dominate her sport. Muscular and agile Suli Holum, feisty yet vulnerable as the indomitable female boxer, spars as strikingly in Dee’s struggle for survival against her violent coach and former husband Charlie Flaxon in the ring of life as in hitting the Everlast punching bag at one corner of Amy Rubin’s slice of life set. Holum also robustly delivers James Suggs play-enhancing songs with the tenacity of a Joplin.Will Dee find real understanding with an unseen intimate named Carmen? Co-creators Holum and co-director Deborah Stein make her story very gripping.

Our Lady, presented by New Repertory Theatre at Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown thru 4/27 - 617-923-8487.
James Fluhr has confronted bullying and homophobia since childhood–most painfully from his own father. Yet as his visually riveting original solo work “Our Lady” demonstrates, the multi-talented out performer (a lighting design IRNE winner for his vivid work on the recent Boston Center for American Performance revival of “The Road to Mecca”)has found both personal and professional fulfillment and haven in the arts. With a risk-taking outrageousness that calls to mind “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Fluhr moves from the fears of childhood and the precariousness of a fragile love to the strength of self-affirmation, complete with a ritualistic transformation that complements his poignant odyssey.

The Shape She Makes, presented by American Repertory Theatre at Oberon, Cambridge thru 4/27 - 617-547-8300 or www.amrep.org
The geometry of life and a disarming dance of self-determination reach a terrific harmony in the stunning 90-minute theatrical hybrid “The Shape She Makes,” presented by A.R.T. at Oberon. In a first-rate 10-person ensemble, Sydney K. Penny is an affecting standout as Quincy, whose thorough homework about her parents-a largely absent by ultimately caring father and a neglectful often bitter mother-and herself proves a life-changing odyssey. Great credit goes to Susan Misner’s expressive choreography and director Jonathan Bernstein’s incisive writing. “The Shape She Makes” is the kind of theater that will have a lasting impact as audience members re-shape their own destinies.

Becoming Cuba, Huntington Theatre Company at Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts thru 5/3 - 617-266-0800; www.huntingtontheatre.org
Melinda Lopez has illuminated family dynamics-Cuban and Jewish –in her”Sonia Flew” and provided timely insight about women and evolution in her “From Orchids to Octopi.” By contrast, “Becoming Cuba” is an overly busy disappointment. Set in 1897-1898 Havana with a sharply detailed set from Cameron Anderson, her earnest drama means to explore the inner conflict of half-Spanish half-Cuban Adela, who runs her late Spanish husband’s pharmacy and distances herself from the impending Spanish-American war until family concerns challenge her ostensible indifference. Despite strong performances by Christina Pumariega as Adela, Juan Javier Cardenas as her intrepid rebel half-brother Manny and Rebecca Soler as her risk-taking sister Martina, director m. Bevin O’Gara cannot conceal the play’s own conflicted identity as it jumps from satiric, often colorful observations from Conquistador –lively speeches from Christopher Burns- to alternating passages about revolution, potential American intervention and even romance. Tellingly,topical references to Marco Rubio and Elian Rodriguez are never explored. The best cure for “Becoming Cuba”s theatrical ailments must come from Lopez’ considerable inner pharmacy of talent.


Lovers' Quarrels, Imaginary Beasts: Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts thru 4/19 - 617-933-8600.
Could love and intimacy be a kind of ongoing circus where couples are like animals one moment and clowns the next? Imaginary Beasts artistic director Matthew Woods has cleverly turned ringmaster of the by turns funny, charming and ultimately enchanting entanglements and couplings that French comic master Moliere depicts in "Lovers Quarrels," now staged with rollicking high energy and panache in the cozy BCA Black Box Theatre. Sport balls of all size-even a gigantic beach ball-become multi-purpose props of love debates and dialogue as the sublime Imaginary Beast ensemble do their first-class best with the athleticism and agilty demanded by Woods' creative take on Moliere's insights about romance and human connection and the vivid clarity of poet Richard Wilbur's masterful translation. Stand-outs include William Schuller as often melancholic Eraste, Lynn R. Guerra as spunky disguised sister Ascagne and especially Cameron M. Cronin as resourceful but amusingly cautious servant Mascarille. Woods and Imaginary Beasts bring such mirth and magic to Moliere that they should schedule one play from his prolific output each season.

Heartbeat of Home: A Dream Voyage, Citi Center Wang Theatre, Boston - 800-982-2787.
“Riverdance” began to bridge differences between cultures in a memorable number that found Irish and black dancers beginning to gain appreciation of their respective dance traditions. “Heatbeat of Home: A Dream Voyage,” the latest import from Riverdance producer Moya Doherty, turns the quest for mutual understanding through dance-strikingly conceived and directed by John McColgan with music by Brian Byrne- into a full-length exploration of Irish, Afro-Cuban and Latin roots and passions. Dancers from Ireland, the USA, Australia, Britian, Canada, Italy ,Mexico and Spain dance out the show’s stirring embrace of diversity in a repertoire that richly ranges from Irish step , Flamenco and Tango to Afro-Cuban and break dance. Right now, the best ambassadors of world understanding are the spectacular dancers in the Citi Center Wang Theatre tour of “Heartbeat of Home.”

Reel to Reel: Krapp's Last Tape and The Archives, Fort Point Theatre Channel, Factory Theatre thru 4/12 - 800-838-3006.
Many of Samuel Beckett’s most memorable characters live in a world of cycle-like repeated actions and unsatisfying quests for fulfillment. The somber title character of “Krapp’s Last Tape” is no exception. Krapp’s repetitions include repeated eating of bananas as well as listening to and recording tapes each year on his birthday. Drawing on autobiographical experiences, this carefully constructed solo piece takes its title character back and forth from youth-at 20- to approaching middle age-at 39-to relative old age-his ‘last’ or most recent tape at age 69. Steven Barkhimer, a veritable Renaissance man himself-actor, musican, composer, playwright – demonstrates his remarkable range in a virtuoso solo performance that captures Krapp’s feelings of foolishness and futility as well as his painful need to remember idealistic early times and disconcerting days of romance with a “girl in a shabby green dress.” Under Fort Point Theatre Channel director Marc S. Miller’s sharp guidance, Barkhimer makes Krapp’s repeated peeling of bananas and his unusual way of eating them-first dangling each one whole in his mouth- a riveting ritual of pathos, humor and sexual subtext. Originally, “Krapp Last Tape” was a curtain raiser for Beckett’s equally worthy “Endgame.” FPTC has paired the 1958 solo work with an original Skylar Fox three-character play called “The Archives” in a double bill entitled “Reel to Reel.” While “The Archives” involves an encounter with the earlier play’s tapes, the mother-daughter dynamic and the insights of a quirky librarian lack real import and insight.

Hello Again, Bridge Rep, Hall A, Calderwood Pavilion, BCA thru 3/29 - 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com
Arthur Schnitzler shook up the theater world in 1897 with a then daring conception of romantic connecting as a circle of relationships. In his often ironic play “La Ronde,” one lover in an encounter paired off with a lover in the next and so on-eventually returning full circle. About a century later, musical talent John LaChiusa (“The Wild Party”), inspired by “La Ronde,” extended the concept to include gay as well as straight connections in a near century-spanning 90-minute show(from 1900 to the 1980’s) entitled “Hello Again. “ Bridge Repertory Theatre of Boston, a high energy young company that already has demonstrated a knack for strong productions of intimate fare- “The Libertine and especially “The Lover”- is giving this very adult look at human coupling (with nudity and simulated sexual acts) an envelope-pushing immediacy. You-are-there blocking in BCA Hall A by sharp director Michael Bello and very nimble movement and character changes by a crack ensemble involve audience members as birds-eye observers of the ups and downs of the encounters. Big-voiced Aubin Wise is a standout as a sensual 1980’s actress who seeks to be as important as a Jackie Kennedy to The Senator, played with good evasiveness by Jared Dixon, who sings with matching resonance. Dixon is equally convincing as a 1910’s sexually husband hooking up with The Young Thing, played with effective vulnerability by Andrew Spatafora. Sean Patrick Gibbons has the rough physicality of a 1900 soldier in the very earthy opening encounter and the tenderness of 1970’s bi-sexual The Writer with The Young Thing. Gibbons and Spatafora harmonize movingly in one of the best numbers of the lively if often Sondheim-lite score, played with verve by music director-pianist Mindi Cimini, percussionist Colin Fleming and reeds musician Thomas Carroll. “Hello Again” connects so well with LaChiusa’s provocative musical that theatergoers are likely to become returning dates for Bridge Repertory Theatre’s alluring repertoire.

The Seagull, Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University Theatre thru 4/6 - 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org.
Anton Chekhov must have felt like Konstantin, the iconoclastic hero of his play ‘The Seagull” when audiences first booed and laughed through the highly original work. Today, the 1896 “Comedy in Four Acts” is a frequently staged and popular modern classic- but one that continues to prove a challenge to even premier directors like Maria Aitken (the strong Huntington Theatre Company revivals of “Private Lives” and “Betrayal”) .Ralph Funicello’s sublime evocation of the tree-adorned Sorin’s Farm setting has all of the charm and vulnerability of the play’s mix of likeable but often frustrated characters. Ksate Burton has the right imperiousness as grand-standing actress Arkadina, though her real-life son Morgan Ritchie could do with more angst in the early going as new forms-expounding young dramatist Konstantin. Best are Nael Nacer’s put-upon teacher Medvenko and Thomas Derrah as Arkadina’s warm brother Pyotr Sorin-the latter especially moving in his desire for a fuller life.

Rabbit Hole, Hovey Players, Waltham thru 3/29 - 781-893-9171 or www.hoveyplayers.com
 David Lindsay-Abaire turned the nightmare scenario of parental grief over the death of a young child into a brave play about understanding and coming to terms with loss. Director Michelle Aguillon has staged the Hovey Players revival with such care and subtlety that the Waltham company’s effort actually captures the sensitivity and insight of Lindsay-Abaire’s fine drama more persuasively that the play’s earnest earlier Huntington Theatre Company premiere. Katie Gluck convincingly captures Becca’s difficult move from inconsolable sadness over young son Danny’s death to confronting reality. Alex Thayer is a standout in the tricky role of supportive husband Howie. Maureen Adduci as Becca’s outspoken mother Nat, Brooke Casanova as Becca’s quirky sister Izzy and Jordan DiGloria as penitent Jason-who struggles with having run over Danny- are all strong in support.

The Whale, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts thru April 5 - 617-931-8600. www.bostontheatrescene.com
Human challenges and the characters who confront them often propel good plays and musicals. In lesser material, the challenge- certainly for talented directors and actors- is making such formidable odysseys more compelling. A case in point is actor John Kuntz, who captures the heart and courage of the dangerously obese protagonist in the very earnest SpeakEasy Stage New England premiere of “The Whale” at the Boston Center for the Arts. Charlie, a 600-pound gay Idahoan, is struggling with emotional as well as physical challenges in the intriguing if ultimately unfocused Samuel Hunter drama “The Whale.” Those challenges are rooted substantially in a back story involving his coming out to wife Mary, his estrangement from bitter daughter Ellie and the later suicide of his fellow gay partner. As the play develops, the people who interact with Charlie often seem to compound his difficulties rather than help deal with them. An eager young Mormon missionary named Elder Thomas shows concern for Charlie’s spiritual health but seems to provide no real outreach for his physical well-being. Charlie appears to negotiate kindness and attention from Ellie, whose interest in the money he is leaving her in his will may be the prime reason she makes return visits and shows him any attention. Even volunteer nurse Liz , who clearly means to help him stay alive and urges that he get medical care at the hospital, brings him meatball subs and other counterintuitive food choices. Samuel D. Hunter can bring sharp focus and remarkable subtlety to his writing, qualities very evident in his 2011 playwriting Obie Award winner “A Bright New Boise,” recently an affecting Zeitgeist Stage Company premiere. Unfortunately, the North Idaho native fails to do full justice to “The Whale”’s allusions to Melville’s Moby Dick” and the Biblical story of Jonah as it connects them to Charlie’s face-offs with friends and antagonists alike. Even what should be a dramatic revelation about his lover’s treatment during a Mormon church service proves to be predictable and unclimactic. The considerable strengths of the SpeakEasy Stage production lie in the strong acting. Under David R. Gammons solid direction, John Kunst brings great feeling to the role of Charlie and elicits genuine sympathy and pathos as the focal brave online student essay-writing coach who means to find reconciliation and understanding with his angry daughter and with himself. Georgia Lyman captures both the spunkiness and the caring of Liz, who does more in expression and emotional fire as her character makes a late play revelation about personal connection to Charlie than Hunter’s writing does. Josephine Elwood has the right combination of coldness and bitterness as Ellie. Maureen Keiller , one of Boston’s premier character actresses, adds dimension and complexity to strong ex-wife Mary. Designer Cristina Todesco captures the sprawling chaos of Charlie’s disorganized and food and wrapper-littered home. David Remedios brings inspired sound design complement to the play’s title metaphor and associations with Charlie himself. If Charlie is as invulnerable in his own way as Melville’s Ishmael, Hunter may unwittingly be a kind of literary Ahab fighting the power and glory of his own subject.

Flashdance, Broadway in Boston, Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre. www.BroadwayinBoston.com; 800-982-2787.
Fans of ‘’Flashdance” have every right to expect a musical stage version of the choreographically distinctive if otherwise un-extraordinary 1983 movie to improve upon the original-especially when the director-choreographer is Sergio Trujillo of “Memphis” and “Jersey Boys” fame. Unfortunately ‘Flashdance the Musical” never fully recreates the excitement and pinpoint technique of the best numbers in its predecessor. Too few of the new Robert Cary-Robbie Roth songs add any real punch to the story or the score, though a reflective number entitled “Enough”- well sung by Corey Mach as conflicted boss Nick Hurley – has its moments. More glaring is the lack of world-class electricity in what should be the second act standout, namely daytime welder and nighttime dancer Alex Owen’s dance academy audition number “What a Feeling,” with its famous Oscar-winning song. Sydney Morton’s dancing regrettably does not match her feeling and likeability as the determined heroine. “Flashdance the Musical” needs the kind of urban tenacity “The Full Monty the Musical” brought to Buffalo and more of the breakdancing that provides most of the show’s few riveting sequences.

Cinderella, Boston Ballet,Opera House - 617-695-6955; www.bostonballet.org
Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen , in the playbill for his company’s production of Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella” ballet, praises the classic narrative ballet’s “technically intricate and irresistibly romantic “ choreography as well as the work’s “witty British humor and endearing characters.” All of these remarkable qualities are beautifully and exuberantly blended in Boston Ballet’s exquisite Opera House premiere. Kathleen Breen Combes (diverse casts alternate) dances out the dreamy sensibility and vulnerability of hardworking, put-upon Cinderella and her understated elegance as the Prince’s soul mate. Her pas de deux with Alejandro Virelles as The Prince combines sharp technique and poetic majesty. Boyko Dossey and Yury Yanowsky are hilarious gender-bending scene stealers as Cinderella’s tyrannical stepsisters. Lawrence Rines excels with mid-air bravura and expressive comic flair as The Jester. Magic dust attends the third act finale of this regal company premiere.

The Cherry Orchard, Actors' Shakespeare Project, Pine Manor College, Chestnut Hill.
Actors' Shakespeare Project has a knack for finding venues that uniquely serve many of their productions-for example, the tough-looking Cambridge space that enhanced their properly menacing staging of "Titus Andronicus." In its own very different way, the spacious Dana Estate at Pine Manor College helps talented scenic designer Cristina Todesco evoke the grandeur of the character-like home which ambitious nouveau riche merchant Lopakhin means to alter when he owns it. Marya Lowry captures both the flair and the fragility of financially strapped though elegant Ranyevskaya, while Richard Snee finds the humor and the sadness of her nostalgia-embracing brother Gaev. Steve Barkhimer is a standout as Lopakhin- alternately grasping in envisioning the dividing of the estate and the chopping down of the title orchard and wistful about his childhood memories there.Sarah Newhouse is a spirited sketch as magic-demonstrating Charlotta. Arthur Waldstein catches the dignity and vulnerability of loyal,trusting Fiers, especially in the play's quietly heart-wrenching last moments.Nancy Leary's costumes add vividly to the contasts between the situations and posturing of various characters. Chekhov's masterworks continue to prove as seminal for Russia as Shakespeare's have for England. Under Melia Bensussen's sharp direction, ASP's enchanting revival of "The Cherry Orchard" bodes well for more exploration of the Russian master's fruitful repertoire.

The Flick, Company One (in collaboration with Suffolk University) at Modern Theatre, Boston. www.companyone.org; 800-440-7654
Shawn LaCount has a remarkable working relationship with acclaimed young playwright Annie Baker. As the 37 year old Company One artistic director recently told the Telegram, “When we were doing ‘The Aliens’ (in 2010 as part of a Boston festival of three Baker plays), she was in town working with us.” At the time, LaCount recalls, “She discovered that I had lived in Worcester”-in fact from 1994 to 1999 when he earned a B.A. in theater (1998) and an M.A. in education (1999), both from Clark University. Their ongoing correspondence- “We would email and chatted about Clark and Worcester theaters” contributed significantly to the development of her Obie Award –winning 2013 play “The Flick,” set in a fictional Worcester County movie house of the same name and with a cast of characters including an employee on break from Clark. Not surprisingly, LaCount and Company One have mounted the play’s New England premiere (through Saturday)-and in the Hub’s Modern Theatre, once a movie house itself. “The Flick” has become a particularly personal effort for LaCount. “She (Annie Baker) promised that I would read it after the agent.” In doing so, LaCount identified in part with Sam, a veteran worker at the play’s North Brookfield movie theater. “I was surprised, “he admitted, “ to find that one of the characters was a mid-thirties Jewish guy (as Shawn is) and wears a cap (as he does). As for Avery, The Flick’s new employee on hiatus from Clark, he noted, “All of Company One’s founders went to Clark. We were all different years there.” Continuing about the affinities between the play and Worcester County factors, La Count compared The Flick to Worcester’s now defunct Paris Cinema. ‘The Flick feels a whole lot like the Paris.” In some ways, in fact, “The Flick” may bring to mind “The Last Picture Show.” While the 1971 Peter Bogdanovich black and white gem is set in Texas, the future of both movie houses is uncertain if much more so in the film. Both clearly embrace an intimate atmosphere and 35 mm films-with digital film not a presence and menacing rival as in the Baker play. Sam and Avery-along with projectionist Rose- share an unusual camaraderie and curious feeling of comfort at The Flick, not dissimilar from the sentiments of the young focal moviegoers in the Bogdanovich film. The focal comrades- a sleeping filmgoer called Dreaming Man and a new recruit named Skylar being the only other characters- reveal their insecurities as well as their hopes and dreams in a series of real time scenes. “I think for her (Baker) it’s not so black and white (the 35mm-digital rivalry and the possible closing of The Flick), “ La Count submitted. “I think she has an emotional connection to things that are there and go away. I think she’s making an argument about progress and nostalgia.“ Reflecting that “all of these characters are pretty lonely, “ he saw the movie house as their haven. “It’s kind of a temple that’s very safe for them.” Annie Baker may be the pre-eminent seer of modern American loneliness coping with the precariousness of apparent progress. While “The Flick” – three hours including intermission to evoke the real time tedium as well as occasional pleasures of the three employees- lacks the tightness of the shorter “The Aliens, Baker does bring the messiness of Sam, Avery and Rose’s interactions to life as vividly as she depicts the regularity and repetitiveness of the cleaning of the theater’s rows and aisles from dropped popcorn, soda, gum and worse. LaCount’s careful direction of the slower scenes as well as the livelier ones-for example, Rose’s attempted seduction of Avery and Sam’s telling late-play tirade- trumps the patience-testing length of the play. Also credit Jen Rock’s nuanced lighting and especially Christina Todesco’s authentic-looking design of rows of seats, the aisles and the upper rear projection booth for capturing the character-like nature of The Flick itself. The Company One cast make the audience’s up close and personal look at the movie house trio more than worth a view. Alex Pollock, memorable as a conflicted young man in Company One’s moving local premiere of “The Aliens,” proves even more remarkable as Sam. Pollock brilliantly captures Sam’s quirky body language and speech patterns as he shows Avery the proverbial ropes as the theater apprentice. He is equally convincing as Sam tries to get closer to Rose though he believes she is a lesbian. Peter Andersen finds all of Avery’s diffidence with both Sam and Rose and his anxiety about relations and family tensions- the latter sharply unfolding in the character’s revealing telephone responses. Pollock and Andersen make the most of Sam and Avery’s amusing Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon games and the latter’s “Avatar “ and digital movies dismissal as well as his declaration that “Pulp Fiction” was the last great American movie (perhaps “Brokeback Mountain”?). Brenna Fitzgerald smartly balances Rose’s attitude with Sam, her growing interest in Avery and her telling moments of vulnerability. Her aisle dance is a particular highlight. Steven Chueka doubles as the sleeping moviegoer and Skylar, bringing amusing cockiness to the fast-working new recruit. “The Flick,” long but always lively, rewards with Annie Baker’s cinema-verite attention to lonely people. LaCount and Company One make the screening of their messy hopes and dreams compelling theater. Avery’s future at Clark may be uncertain in the play and somewhat on hold, but LaCount’s association with the University remains satisfying. “I have a good relationship with many professors, “he maintained. Identifying with the school’s commitment to creative effort, he spoke for all of Company One’s alumni: “We’re proud Clarkies. We shake things up.”

Witness Uganda, American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center thru 3/16. 617-547-8300 or www.amrep.org
Odysseys of the heart and the mind are embarking on local stages in both premiere and revival. “Witness Uganda” testifies to the power of individual action in a rousing New American Repertory Theatre. Boston Playwrights Theatre introduces a disturbing but heartfelt look at the dark side of human aging. Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Theatre illuminates an early effort by Horton Foote. Matt Gould, a composer-conductor and Griffin Matthews, a New York actor, have founded Uganda Project, a non-profit grass roots organization committed to providing free education and housing and effecting global change. In 2008, Gould persuaded Matthews to collaborate on the book and score of a full-scale show inspired by their experiences as volunteers-Gould in Mauritania and Matthews in Uganda- and focused on the latter’s challenging efforts to help 10 Ugandan orphans . The stirring, well- staged if somewhat too rosy result is “Witness Uganda,” now in its world premiere by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center. Based on tenor Matthews’ own odyssey , “Witness Uganda” moves back and forth between his Brooklyn home and Africa as undaunted protagonist Griffin (based directly on Matthews)seeks acceptance and understanding as he tries to find a better life for the teenagers he teaches. Initially the children seem more interested in the sodas they request than the lessons , but they do move to genuine enthusiasm and ultimate pride in their achievements. As with Matthews’actual students, there are clear ‘success’ stories-including an eventual doctor and a nurse. Along the way Griffin encounters the corruption of unseen villainous Pastor Jim, who runs the orphanage in question for his own benefit. He also faces the understandable skepticism of a world-weary villager named Joy. Griffin surprises her by returning and continuing to fund education and housing going forward. Ultimately the musical becomes a kind of coming of age for the African-American volunteer as well as the children . Given Uganda’s anti-gay position, Griffin conceals the fact that he is gay. Ultimately, a perceptive student , who admires Griffin and values his mentoring, does make a kind of separate peace with his teacher about the latter’s sexuality. While “Witness Uganda” champions Griffin’s sexuality as well as the impact of his actions for change, this largely feel-good musical never fully confronts some of the important controversies attending the country’s problematic present. Some students are vocal about their hatred for the Sudanese, but Gould and Matthews’ earnest book merely has Griffin point out how wrong their feelings are. The fact that the South Sudanese government has been paying Ugandan troops to help it fight rebel opposition is never mentioned. On another front, the show does credit religious groups for helping with funding –including a New York Jewish Community Center , but Evangelical church support for anti-gay Uganda policies is never cited. As of now, “Witness Uganda” often seems to lack the topical nerve of the recent Broadway musical “Fela!” –which did pay considerable attention to rights issues in the Nigeria of its late composer-activist subject. Still, under A.R.T. artistic director Diana Paulus skilled guidance (as in her Tony Award –winning revivals of “Hair” and “Pippin”) and with Darrell Grand Moultrie’s high-stepping choreography, it does catch fire. Besides a strong central performance by Griffin Matthews, the entertaining show features solid supporting work and a winning ensemble who sing and dance with the kind of great conviction and energy that one finds in the show’s neighborhood –embracing predecessor “Rent.” Charismatic tenor Matthews sings with both power and tenderness as Griffin’s individual challenges as a man and communal concerns as a humanitarian continue to evolve. Emma Hunton sings with grace and deep conviction as Griffin’s guitarist-songwriter friend and confidant Ryan. Gould and Griffin would do well to sustain Ryan’s early attitude and sharp insight into the later going , where she seems less questioning and assertive. Adeola Role is a standout as Joy- strong in principle even as she reveals a disturbing secret about a sacrifice she has made for her beleaguered brother Jacob. Michael Luwoye has the right blend of vulnerability and volatility as Jacob. Lyrical Nicolette Robinson has uncommon spirit as cocky student Eden. Melody Betts is a gifted belter in the robust ensemble. Keyboard-playing Gould conducts the musical’s engaging mix of African and folk numbers with vigor and fire-particularly on hopeful numbers like “Beautiful” and the finale ‘Njakuangula” (“I Will Rise”).There are also uncommon efforts from the talented design team- Maruti Evans with lighting that often reflects the hopes and fears of villagers and especially Peter Nigrini with projections that bring the village to rich life.  “Witness Uganda” is an exuberant, heartfelt testament to Gould and Matthews’ commitment to progress and understanding. With more risk-taking in its well-intentioned text, it could artistically reach the kind of fulfillment its collaborators seek in life for the children they help.

Absence, Boston Playwrights Theatre thru 3/2. 866-811-4111 or www.bostonplaywrights.org
The struggle to hold on to reality in the face of dementia or Alzheimer’s is the focus of “Absence,” a new play by BU-educated Brighton playwright Peter M. Floyd, now in a solid staging at Boston Playwrights Theatre. If the text seems a bit too straightforward in the early going, it does become poignant and memorable-under Megan Schy Gleeson’s careful direction- as 76 year old matriarch Helen struggles tenaciously to hold on to reality and a genuine presence in her own life as well as the lives of her daughter Barbara and granddaughter Samantha. Joanna Merlin,an acclaimed veteran actress who was the original Tzeitel in “Fiddler on the Roof,” makes domineering and often infuriating Helen’s emotional and intellectual deterioration heart-wrenching and moving. This especially true of a haunting scene with Beverly Diaz, who does well conveying Samantha’s awakening to the enormity of her grandmother’s difficulties. Anne Gottlieb has the right spunkiness as conflicted Barbara –especially as she delivers the author’s clever mix of gibberish and real words as her mother fails to understand her. Bill Mootos brings great energy and attitude to fantasy character Dr. Bright, who proves a lively but alarming escort for Helen on her way to the unsurprising but pathos-eliciting title state of mind. Dale Place has the right anchor-like strength as Barbara husband, Cheryl D. Versatile Cheryl D. Singleton captures the no-nonsense professionalism of Helen’s doctor and the broad geniality of the director of the facility to which Helen moves when her condition becomes more formidable.

The Traveling Lady, Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts thru 3/1. 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com
Horton Foote detailed the human voyage for rooted peace of mind in his 1950’s gem ‘The Trip to Bouintiful” with the fine hand of a gifted theatrical draftsman. In Foote’s 1954 play “The Traveling Lady,” a different heroine-Georgette Thomas- struggles to find her own serenity in Harrison ,Texas , where she and daughter Margaret Rose hope to reunite with brawling husband and father Henry recently released from prison. If “The Traveling Lady” seems less focused, it nevertheless bears its author’s remarkable ability to bring conflicted lost souls to vivid life. Under Sidney Friedman’s careful direction, the Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Theatre revival at the Calderwood Pavilion makes this overlong dramatic trip somewhat affecting. Ellen Tamaki has the right blend of sweetness and strength as Georgette, and Elizabeth Rich has good spirit as Margaret Rose. Matt Dray captures Henry’s vulnerability as well as his volatility. Best is Joey Heyworth , both forceful and feelings-rich as Slim Murray, whose own embrace of life may redeem Georgette’s future. Scenic designer Arianna Knox has brought as much radiance to the sun parlor, side porch and yard of Slim’s sister Clara Breedlove’s house-a kind of character in its own right-as Foote brings to his conflicted characters.

The Color Purple, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts thru 2l8. 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com.
Next Fall, Hovey Players, Waltham thru 2/2. 781-893-9171 or www.hoveyplayers.com

Pride in identity brings empowerment. Heroes in strong local productions of “The Color Purple” and “Next Fall” arrive at that insight in very different but equally moving ways. The former finds initially victimized and submissive African-American Southerner Celie rising to respect and self-realization as she embraces her feelings for singing free spirit Shug Avery. In the latter, New York candle store worker Adam gradually moves from feigning mere friendship for Luke to full embrace of his relationship before his younger lover’s parents during a painful moment of truth. SpeakEasy Stage Company makes Celie’s odyssey vividly soulful, while Hovey Players couches Adam’s validation in powerful understatement.

In the 2005 Broadway musical “The Color Purple,” black spitfire Shug establishes the show’s embrace of life’s beauty. “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it,” the pivotal independent thinker reflects. Gradually, conflicted and often abused Celie notices the purple in herself as well as the world in this spirited adaptation of the 1982 (1983 Pultizer Prize ) novel by out African-American author Alice Walker. Marsha Norman’s book admittedly rushes the plot developments of the second act- as Celie’s relationship with bi-sexual Shug deepens and Celie’s remarkable sister Nettie returns from a complex Africa odyssey as a missionary. Still, the rich, often-tuneful Brenda Russell, Allee Wils and Stephen Bray score-bringing together gospel, jazz, swing and blues- helps to capture the evolving 1930’s lives of the focal Georgia black residents who move from verbal and physical warring to emotional cease-fire and a stirring ultimate understanding. Artistic director Paul Daigneault trumps the shortcomings of the Norman book with a strong ensemble cast and the vivid choreography Christian Bufford-especially in the stunning fast-paced Shug-centered number “Push Da Button.” Here and elsewhere Crystin Gilmore is an eye-catching winner as Shug, whose vitality and verve embolden Celie in confronting abusive husband Mister. Gilmore, capturing Shug’s unbridled zest for life and equally remarkable caring and love for Celie, is a standout talent that SpeakEasy will do well to bring back in future seasons. Maurice Emmanuel Parent is convincingly subdued as Shug-adoring Mister learns to respect Celie and becomes a caring man. Lovely Hoffman as Celie may not sing as powerfully as Tony-winning LaChanze did in the moving Broadway original, but her deliveries- most notably in the character’s manifesto-like second act solo “I’m Here”-are very moving and her portrayal of the heroine’s awakening to her inner beauty and sexual needs is artfully realized. Other strong efforts include Jared Dixon’s smartly evolved Harpo-Mister’s initially weak son- who learns to reject the macho example of his father and become a truly loving husband to his strong-willed wife Sofia. Valerie Houston-another SpeakEasy find- catchesd all of Sofia’s amusing but indomitable spirit in “Hell No!” and her contrasting pain –physical and emotional- after a punishing (unseen) beating by whites. Beautiful Aubin Wise captures the nobility and unflagging sisterhood of Nettie, whose letters help revive Celie’s inner life.The sprawling set tree on the Wimberly–credit premier Hub designer Jenna McFarland Lord- becomes a visually impressive character in its own right as characters embrace it or perch on it as various points in their respective life journeys. SpeakEasy Stage’s lustrous staging of “The Color Purple” should have all area theatergoers taking notice.

At a disarmingly amusing moment in Geoffrey Nauffts’s unflinchingly candid first play “Next Fall,” self-proclaimed free thinker Adam advises his young caterer-waiter and budding actor lover Luke to leave the mezuzah- the traditional Jewish encased parchment- on the doorpost of his new residence. While Adam does not share Luke’s belief in God and the latter’s identification as a Christian, he does respect the talisman-like nature of the mezuzah and the protective values associated with it. As the play repeatedly flashes back to give a full picture of the development of Adam and Luke’s more than four year relationship, dramatist Nauffts cleverly calls into question not only Adam’s actual views about religion-especially Heaven and Hell- but also Luke’s beliefs about sin and the impact of Christianity on their love.  If Adam experiences a crisis of faith of his own, it has all to do with a curious kind of self-loathing wrapped up with his willingness to play Luke’s ‘game’ of concealing their love from his straight now divorced parents Butch and Arlene. The ironic title centers on Luke’s determination to wait until his brother is attending college the following autumn to open up to his family- an intention cut short by an accident that puts Luke in a coma. At the hospital, Adam eventually escapes the game-playing to identify as Luke’s love. What makes Naufft’s play particularly affecting is the author’s ability to move from humorous insights-especially from Adam’s wonderfully supportive boss and friend Holly- to unsentimental but always heartfelt exchanges between all of the characters- most notably a scene of strong understanding between Adam and Arlene.  Director Russell Greene sharply paces the alternating hospital scenes in the present and the artful flashbacks that demonstrate the depth of Luke and Adam’s love. Kevin Hanley catches Luke’s cheery youthfulness and his conflicted emotions about Adam’s uncertain salvation. Kendall Hodder captures Adam’s early diffidence with Luke’s parents and his growing assertiveness about time with his love. In a strong supporting cast, Betsy Cohen smartly understates the eccentric but loveable personality of Arlene and Jacey L. Bokuniewicz is a standout as warm and witty Holly.  In the later going, Holly describes a production of “Our Town”-in which Luke played Stage Manager-as not having much scenery but showing the audience everything. So it goes with Hovey Players’ sparely designed but theatrically deluxe “Next Fall.”

“We Are Proud to Present a Presentation...” (Company One and Arts/Emerson, Paramount Center thru February 1. 617-824-8000 or
www.artsemerson.org)

Can actors improvise a play about a genocidal historical nightmare and not be affected by it? Will the impact be more profound for the three black performers than for their white counterparts? Theatergoers will be questioning their own feelings as well as considering the answers to these and others provocative issues in the Jackie Sibblies Drury play "We Are Proud to Present a Presentation…about the Herero of Namibia formerly known as Southwest Africa from the German Sudwest Afrika between the years 1884-1915, "now in a properly quirky premiere by collaborators Company One and Arts Emerson at the Paramount Center. Drury’s title may seem impossibly long, and her play may give too much time to the opening (scripted) improvisation that reveals not only the annihilation of 80 percent of the Herero tribe by German colonizers but also the biases of the six young characters creating the presentation. Even so, “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation…,” thoughfully directed by Company One talent Summer L. Williams, makes important associations between the focal history,,American slavery and on-going issues of racism in America.

Once (National Tour, Boston Opera House thru 1/19/14. 617-931-2787 or www.BroadwayinBoston.com)
Venus in Fur (Huntington Theatre Company, B.U.Theatre thru 2/2/14. 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.com)

Theatergoers in a funk about January cold can escape to the heat- romantic or psychological- of two winning Hub offerings. "Once” at the Boston Opera House pairs the unassuming Dublin love story of the 2007 affecting film of the same name with inspired musicianship. Passion tangles with masochism in the provocative play “Venus in Fur” at the B.U. Theatre.

At first glance, “Once” might seem an unlikely choice for a hit musical. After all, the film and the 2012 Tony Award-winning musical focus on a somewhat familiar story of friendship, romance and the parting of a home-based street singer-songwriter and a piano-playing visitor charmed by his music and his personality. Here the home base is Dublin, the singer-songwriter is a vacuum cleaner-repairing young man named Guy and the visitor is a Czech immigrant flower-selling young woman named girl. Reflecting the delicate nature of their relationship is a signature song “Falling Slowly”-which won a well-deserved Academy Award. What really sets the show apart is the beauty of its music. The highly personal music of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the leads in the film, movingly captures the evolution of Guy and Girl’s relationship-one that the score creators themselves shared for a time off screen as well. In the music, the cast double as performers and musicians-in this national tour Stuart Ward on guitar and Dani de Waal on piano. Set as the playbill indicates “to celebrate downtown,” the thin plot of the Edna Walsh book takes on a degree of enchantment thanks to the vividness of designer Bob Crowley’s bar (a conception first developed at the American Repertory Theatre) and Natasha Katz’s poetic lighting. While the musical-at over two hours- seems long compared to the considerably short film ,the enlargement of the supporting roles to reflect the community in which the music and romance evolve does much to compensate. Under director John Tiffany’s careful guidance, Ward convinces as a musical soul struggling to find both personal and professional fulfilment, and De Waal proves a sweet standout as an understated muse who champions his music, recognizes the chemistry they share but puts responsibility and caring-especially for her daughter Ivanka-above all else. Particularly memorable among the musician-characters that give texture and resonance to the community evoked by the show are violinist Claire Wellin as Reza, Girl’s friend and a romancer in her own right, Evan Harrington as volatile ukulele- brandishing Billy and cellist Benjamin Magnuson as conflicted Bank Manager, who eventually admits to his interest in men. The ensemble display sharp technique on a wide variety of instruments throughout-with the first act-closing “Gold” a highlight. The talents of these versatile actor-musicians and the charms of its spirited score give “Once” its distinctive luster.

Can sexual attraction and love become a face-off for power. Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch must have thought so when he penned his controversial 1870 novel “Venus in Furs” (“Venus Im Pelz”).Talented dramatist David Ives (“All in the Timing”) , clearly inspired by the master-slave and dominance-submission dynamics of Sacher-Masoch’s book (the term “masochism,’’ of course, deriving from his name), seems to concur in his 2010 (2011 on Broadway) “Venus in Fur.” A fan of ambiguity and shifting perspectives in his own work, Ives took the European play-with-in-a play setup to a fictional New York City rehearsal room-strikingly well-detailed by Matt Saunders for the Huntington Theatre Company premiere of the play. Fictional director Thomas, frustrated and exhausted by a long and unproductive day of auditions for the bewitching and enigmatic character of Wanda von Dunayev in his adaptation of the Sacher-Masoch book, is surprised by the last-minute entrance of a young actress-complete with her own large bag of costumes- who turns out to be as fascinating and mysterious as the role she seeks. Just as Wanda becomes more powerful as the novel proceeds, so too the actress – tellingly named Vanda – rises from initially intimidated auditioner to insightful play reader and eventually a force as compelling in her own way as Thomas himself. Along the way, Ives brilliantly turns the reading and the changing banter between director and auditioner into a visceral game of wits on one level and a no-holes barred examination of the relationships between men and women on another (not surprisingly, Roman Polanski has made a film version with Ives, soon to be in general release in America). At the same time- in dialogue like “You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism. I’m in the theater”- the verbally fierce play (which Edward Albee likely admires) provides an incisive look at the power plays that can often govern the stage. Ives’ very adult play-with high black boots that “Kinky Boots’’s Lola would respect – brings remarkable candor to issues of gender , submission, dominance and passion without nudity. The title goddess of love may be hovering over the proceedings- indeed, is alluring Vanda actually Venus? M.L.Geiger’s lighting and Darron L West’s sound design do a lot to support that possibility. Most of all, under Daniel Goldstein’s seamless direction, the ambiguities and shifting certainties about Thomas and Vanda on the one hand and the essences of men and women on the other-find rich expression in the strong performances of Chris Kipiniak and Andrea Syglowski. Kipiniak captures the God-playing tendencies of some directors and his vulnerability and raw desires as Vanda seems to find the upper hand. Syglowski is a revelation as chameleon-like Vanda- by turns seemingly eccentric, down-to-earth, sophisticated (with a fine European accent to boot) , dangerous and commanding. To some theatergoers, “Venus in Fur” may be a well-written dirty pleasure. Unquestionable is the delicious ambiguity of Ives’ power study and its exuberant area premiere by Huntington Theatre Company.

The Cocktail Hour (Huntington Theatre Company, B.U. Theatre thru 12/15. 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org)
Buffalo native son John- making a 1970’s family visit- looks for understanding for his highly personal new play “The Cocktail Hour” from his parents but anticipates confrontation. His mother Ann wishes that he had written a ‘book’ -meaning a novel- rather than a play, a genre which she sees as much more conducive to controversy and family embarrassment. More judgmental father Bradley greets John’s writing with disapproval and his son with tough love. His somewhat diffident sister Nina, while relatively unsatisfied with her own accomplishments, seems to lack full empathy for her brother’s situation. Had playwright A.R.Gurney fearlessly explored the family’s resentments and misgivings, “The Cocktail Hour” could have been as visceral in its own way as Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance .” Instead it still comes across as a pleasant but too neatly resolved play-with Bradley too abruptly coming to terms with John. Even so, gifted director Maria Aitken (“The 39 Steps” and “Private Lives” for Huntington)has smartly captured the attitude and antagonism that occasionally bring insight to Gurney’s dialogue. Richard Poe has just the right crustiness as Bradley, and Maureen Anderman catches Ann’s world –weariness. Anderman’s second act truth-telling with James Waterston as John is a moving high point. Waterston finds the right blend of whining and directness as John. Pamela J. Gray does her best with Nina’s underwritten frustrations. Allen Moyer’s scenic design turns the family’s tastefully appointed 1970’s Buffalo home into a character in its own right. Gurney’s play needs more than just a splash of its connoisseur quality, but Aitken and company make this revival a hearty offering.

Camelot (New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown thru 12/22. 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org)
If a grand Lerner and Loewe score beckons you, head to the Arsenal Center where the knights of Arthur’s Round Table are well served. Director Russell Garrett has caught Arthur‘s idealism and the musical’s enjoyable evocation of his development from naïve young ruler to wiser but emotionally worn husbands and friend. Benjamin Evett has all of Arthur’s heart and hope as pioneering Arthur.Multi-talented Erica Spyres sings with great spirit as Guenevere and briefly entertains as well on violin (which she plays expertly). Mark Koeck sings lyrically as Lancelot, though there are moments when his charisma ought to be even more pronounced- for example, with the musical boast “C’est moi” (“It’s I”). David McGrory needs work with his orchestra on occasional missed notes. New Repertory Theatre means to capture the dignity of Arthur‘s quest and the civilized fun of “Camelot.” Mostly it succeeds.

Mies Julie (Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town in association with the South African State Theatre, Arts/Emerson,Paramount Center, Boston thru 12/8. 617-824-8000 or www.artsemerson.org)
Sometimes a fresh take on a classic work shakes up its source so well that the new work becomes a must-see original in its own right. A visceral case in point is Yael Farber’s “Mies Julie,” the Strindberg-based powerhouse at the Paramount Center . Uncompromisingly candid and erotic (with graphic but never gratuitous) nudity, this evocative South African collaboration- the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town in association with the South African State Theatre – focuses on servant John’s struggle to rise from serving an unseen manipulative landowner to personal empowerment. Mies Julie, as the landowner’s daughter, represents her father’s interests but also yearns for full sexual and emotional freedom herself. Bongile Mantsai is commanding in both rage and despair as John, while Hilda Cronje catches Mies Julie’s defensive tenacity as well as her vulnerability. Thoko Ntshinga vividly honors ancestral values as John’s loving mother Christine.  “Mies Julie” champions restitutions of body and soil. This hauntingly poetic Arts Emerson tour also proves a timely call for soulful human connection.

The Importance of Being Earnest (Moonbox Productions, Boston Center for the Arts thru 12/14. 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com)
Moonbox Productions has a knack for capturing the soul of diverse modern classics. Their recent staging of “Of Mice and Men” captured the gutsy essence of John Steinbeck’s ode to true friendship. Now talented director Allison Choate has tapped into the sharp-eyed subtleties of “The Importance of Being Earnest and captured the inner buoyancy of its dialogue through the strong performances of an outstanding ensemble. The result is the best local revival of this Oscar Wilde gem in many years. Ed Peed is a sublime hoot as outwardly tough-minded but somewhat soft-hearted Lady Bracknell. His demeanor and movement as the iconic Bracknell are alone worth the price of admission. Andrew Winson is delightfully adventurous as Jack, and Glen Moore wonderfully light-hearted as Algernon. Pormina Kirby has all of Cecily's spunk, and Cat Claus makes a properly strong Gwendolyn. What is being civilized? Moonbox has the effervescent answer.

We Will Rock You (North American Tour, Broadway in Boston, Boston Opera House thru 11/10. 800-982-2787 or www.broadwayinboston.com)
Freddie Mercury (1946-1991) was a gifted out songwriter and performer, one who made a terrific impact with the highly individual sound of his dynamic band Queen and his own vibrant voice. As a prodigious talent, he deserves a much better tribute than the consistently ludicrous rock theatrical “We Will Rock You,” now at the Boston Opera House in its first North American tour. The Broadway in Boston playbill notes that “This smash hit has been running for 11 years and counting in London’s West End, making it the ninth-longest running show in West End history.” Unlike Mercury and Queen’s inspired and enduring music, this generally boring show should have bit the dust a long time ago. Set by story and script writer Ben Elton in a dystopian future where “culture imploded as kids uploaded, “We Will Rock You” purports to lament the transformation of Earth into a Globalsoft world ruled by internet Ga Ga. Rock lovers, now labeled pejoratively as ‘bohemians,’ struggle to return to a long lost pre-American Idol era when icons like Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis and Mercury himself rocked the planet with their soaring repertoires and dazzling musicianship. Hero Galileo Figaro and heroine Scaramouche (yes, the fabled male adventurer) in Elton’s silly script- where theatergoers are supposed to find gender-bending names a clever motif – escape Globalsoft police as their fellow rebels are caught and programmed with a kind of musical lobotomy. Particularly ridiculous is a weak earlier moment when Galileo and Scaramouche-both in custody – are not turned into compliant vegetables. Other weak elements include repeated mispronunciations of words like ‘television’ and ‘video tape’ by good-natured bi-sexual rebel archivist Buddy and an anti-climactic visit to Graceland. Particularly disconcerting is the presence in a seemingly perfect and diverse future of villainous Killer Queen as the only featured black character. Also, as rebels adopt names of rock giants, the bohemian called Aretha is played by a white actress. Worst of all, the delivery of24 of Mercury’s greatest sons is repeatedly plagued by the kind of unsubtle and unrelievedly loud American Idol singing that the rebels despise. Mercury was a master of contrasting tones and musical dynamics. Ruby Lewis as Scaramouche displays some heart on “Somebody to Love” and she and Brian Justin Crum as Galileo have their moments on “Who Wants to Live Forever” and the Queen-David Bowie number “Under Pressure,” but most renditions will have real Queen fans running back to the much better original versions. Jacqueline B. Arnold, tall and striking as Killer Queen, is saddled with forgettable scenes lacking any real impact. Ryan Knowles is likable as amusing and earnest Buddy-even as the Harley Davidson enthusiast speaks of being turned on by both Scaramouche and Galileo as they change places riding in front of him on his motorcycle. Ultimately, “We Will Rock You” proves a theatrical loser. Real rock fans should listen to their Queen music libraries and wait for the return of the truly rocking and genuinely imaginative Broadway hit “American Idiot.”

Splendor (Company One, Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts through November 16. 1-617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com)
Company One is opening its 15th anniversary season with a well-cooked feast that needs a dazzling piece de resistance. “Splendor,” the latest effort by talented African-American playwright Kirsten Greenidge (the company’s playwright in residence since 2004), returns to the fictional town of Bellington she vividly evoked in her IRNE Award-winning earlier play “The Luck of the Irish.” As in the case of that Huntington Theatre Company effort, the presentation at the BCA Plaza Theatre is well-acted and strikingly designed. What’s missing here is her earlier play’s sharper family focus. Spanning 47 years-from 1965-2012 and set on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and ultimately on Thanksgiving Day itself, Greenidge’s world premiere play calls to mind Thornton Wilder’s great ode to everyday life and values “Our Town.” As in Wilder’s insightful gem, younger characters deal with the challenges of education, career and budding romance and older characters compare notes on parenting and shopping(Bellington could be Bellingham-which has a mentioned Market Basket-and Arlington) and reflect on marriage and the stresses of mortality. “Splendor” significantly adds an interracial family-the African-American and Italian Giosa children with black father Clive Cooper. Where Wilder wisely focused on the Gibbs and Webb families, Greenidge’s play tries to tackle too many interwoven subplots. Although Company One artistic director Shawn LaCount smoothly moves from scene to scene and consistently surrounds the audience with characters not in specific scenes-turning theatergoers into Bellington residents (a la Huntington’s recent IRNE Award-winning audience-involving David Cromer “Our Town” revival), the eventual Thanksgiving ensemble seems more of a combination of dishes- despite an impressive-looking Turkey prop- than a breath-taking entrée. Still, LaCount and a solid cast keep Bellington and its evolving town life absorbing. Alexandria King is particularly convincing moving from an exuberant eight year old to an intense 35 year old. James Milord, one of Boston’s premier actors, makes the most of Cooper’s striking reunion with his vulnerable son. Nicole Prefontaine as weary ballet mom Lisa Murphy Vitello brings scene-stealing vivacity to all of her character’s often humorous observations. Greg Maraio is heart-wrenchingly moving in mourning at one moment and wonderfully effervescent at another as Dave Murphy. Particular credit goes to Ashan Gailus for rich sound design and Jen Rock’s poetic lighting. Bellington is not as iconic as Grovers Corners, but Company One’s radiant “Splendor” continues to make Greenidge country worth visiting.

The Power of Duff (Huntington Theatre Company, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts through November 9. 1-617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org)
Stephen Belber may not be mad as hell, and Charlie Duff is certainly no Howard Beal. In fact, the prophetic Paddy Chayevsky screenplay for “Network” still packs the kind of dramatic wallop that Belber's initially provocative play “The Power of Duff” clearly lacks. Some theatergoers may devour the fast-food messages of this well-directed new production- kudos to artistic director Peter DuBois - but ultimately television setup –resembling play. What is particularly disheartening about Belber's effort is the playwright’s apparent failure of nerve. Duff’s ex-wife Lisa-played with good tenacity by Amy Pietz- provides enough criticism of newly prayer-empowered Duff’s hitherto irresponsible lifestyle-complete with serial infidelity and parental absenteeism- to warrant a real dramatic engagement of Charlie’s priorities. Instead, Belber resorts to neat or feel-good developments-even a disturbing subplot involving Duff’s prayers for an AIDS-stricken African-American gay man named Joseph Andango- played with visceral directness by Russell G. Jones. Noah Galvin has the right spunkiness as Duff’s autistic son Ricky, and here,too, Belber fails to make a profound comment on parenting and responsibility. David Wilson Barnes has the right cluelessness as seemingly gifted non-believer Duff, but Belber never gives his sometimes thoughtful character a truly breakout moment. Jennifer Westfeldt has her moments as integrity-concerned newscaster Sue Raspell, and Brendan Griffin is a hoot as disarming sportscaster John Ebbs. A meeting with a Google wiz proves less than enlightening for Duff. So it goes for Belber's ultimately powerless “Duff.”

Water by the Spoonful (Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through November 16. 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com)
Has the Pulitzer Prize lost much of its cred? That question must have been raised by many theater experts and Edward Albee fans alike as early as the 1960’s when the President of Columbia University vetoed the decision of such estimable critics as John Mason Brown to honor his masterwork “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” For this critic, the question resurfaces after seeing the ultimately moving Lyric Stage Company of Boston area premiere of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner “Water by the Spoonful.” The talented half-Puerto-Rican, half-Jewish author has thoughtfully focused in considerable part on Latino characters’ hopes, dreams and challenges as she did in her nominated book for the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights.” Yet her earnest play- despite a strong effort by skilled director Scott Edmiston and a very solid cast- clearly lacks the kind of strong structure possessed by Albee’s great drama and the powerful recent fellow Pulitzer-winning Tracy Letts family play “August.” The structural problem appears to be rooted in the gradual development of the play’s analogy between the Philadelphia-based biological Ortiz family and the internet-based ‘family’ of recovering drug addicts. Elliot Ortiz, an honorably discharged marine, is grappling with wounds from his service in Iraq- a limp and a recurring ghostly vision of an Iraqi- and the difficulties of adjusting to life back home. His caring cousin Yazmin, an adjunct professor of music, tries to help him with that adjustment. The death early on in the play of a very maternal aunt (unseen) –who compensated considerably for the absence of his biological mother- complicates the family dynamics even more. The internet family-which admittedly does eventually link up in significant part with the Puerto Rican Ortiz’s- involves a Narcotics Anonymous group presided over by a site manager who goes by the name Haikumom. The group includes a young Japanese woman called Orangutan, an emotionally conflicted family man named Fountainhead and a son-estranged African-American IRS employee called Chutes and Ladders. Throughout the slowly developing first act, the play moves intriguingly if disjointedly between the contrasting situations of the Ortiz and internet families. “Water by the Spoonful” becomes more moving and theatrically powerful in the strong second act as the currents of connection between the analogous families become more forceful. As Haikumom – revealed as Elliot’s actual mom- connects with her biological family, Hudes’ stagecraft becomes more gripping. At the same time, there are efforts at reconnection by the chat group members-some more moving than others. The Lyric Stage Company cast does contribute greatly to making the stage and internet life of the characters more affecting .Gabriel Rodriguez captures Elliot’s rage and vulnerability. Sasha Castroverde has Yazmin’s sisterly support and clarity as a teacher about both Coltrane jazz and dissonance in life.Maria Lopez-Ponce is a standout as Haikumom, aka Odessa- equally as the disciplined site manager and the emotionally torn mother explaining her absence from Elliot’s life and the Ortiz’s. Theresa Nguyen captures Orangutan’s perkiness and zest for life, and Johnny Lee Davenport smartly balances Chutes and Ladders’ IRS façade of confidence and his uncertainties as a father. Best among the recovering drug users is Gabriel Kuttner’s combination of tentativeness and growing directness as Fountainhead. His profound attentiveness to Haikumom as he washes her is a touching highlight. Credit also goes to Amelia Gossett’s sharp video design and Karen Perlow’s nuanced lighting. Would “Water by the Spoonful” seem more impressive if seen after “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue,” the first play of the trilogy? Perhaps. To Lyric Stage Company’s credit, there will be a November 12 stage reading of the earlier play, directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Even so, Edmiston’s staging does bring much fluidity to Hudes’ poetic if not powerful look at families online and in life itself.

Inventive staging and sharp interpretation are a growth industry area-wide.
Imaginary Beasts, one of the most creative companies in the Hub, is introducing Boston to the poetic radio plays of the late gifted English writer Angela Carter in Halloween-friendly adaptations identified as “Hairy Tales.” Actors’ Shakespeare Company brings gender-bending and clever directorial touches to its somewhat flawed but always heartfelt 10th anniversary opener “Romeo and Juliet.” Next Door Theater Company pays beautiful respect to a disarming three widow- centered play called “The Cemetery Club.” Merrimack Repertory Theatre pumps up the theatrical circulation of the recent Tony Award winner “God of Carnage.” Huntington Theatre Company’s mixes Disney and Kipling in a joyful if not fully juiced up blend of “The Jungle Book.” 

Hairy Tales, Imaginary Beasts (Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through 10/26. 933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.org.) 
Trust underrated but must-see talented Imaginary Beasts to bring as much insight to diverse gems by Carter-relatively unknown in the States but recently ranked 10th in a (London) Times list of “The 50 Greatest British Writers.” After all, this high energy company did the same last season for an area premiere of short pieces by Thornton Wilder called “Little Giants.” Artistic director Matthew Wood evokes the poetry and the pulse of two very different Carter gems in ‘adults-only’ one- act dramatizations of “The Company of Wolves” and “Vampirella (Lady of the House of Love)” (with company regular Michael Underhill directing ‘family-friendly matinees’ of “Puss and Boots”). In the “Little Red Riding Hood”-based former, a spirited ensemble capture the rustic flavor of Kiki Samko’s lively choreography and richly explores the tale’s strong sexual elements. Erin Butcher makes a notably spunky Little Red and William Schuller and Michael Underhill combine bare-chested for a very arresting evocation of four-legged Werewolf. For full creepiness, look to the latter adaptation for an often scary exploration of dangerous sensuality. Poornima Kirby and Amy Meyer do justice to the Countess’ vulnerability, and Schuller is striking as the Count. Joey Pelletier has the right quirkiness as Sawney Beane. Underhill finds the directness and the humor of British tea-drinker Hero. “Vampirella” is a world-class haunt.

Romeo and Juliet (Actors' Shakespeare Project, The Strand Theatre, Boston thru 11/3 - 866-811-4111; www.actorsshakespeareproject.org)
Actors' Shakespeare Project has given the Strand a kind of Globe Theatre ambience with enveloping banners and part of the audience on stage for its thoughtful revival of “Romeo and Juliet.” Company regular Bobbie Steinbach and artistic director Allyn Burrows tap into both the ferocity of the tensions between the Capulets and the Montagues and the undaunted passions of the ill-fated lovers. Susan Dibble brings evocative choreography to the Capulet’s party. While earnest Jason Bowen surprisingly understates Romeo’s emotional adventurousness in the early going, Julie Ann Earls has all of Juliet’s excitement and feeling throughout- especially in a richly expressive sequence around her bed. Paula Langton combines Nurse’s maternal caring for Juliet and her striking earthiness. Best of all are Maurice Emmanuel Parent’s dynamic Mercutio-notably in his vivid Queen Mab speech- and Ken Baltin’s by turns genial and ferocious Capulet. Paige Clarke is a gutsy gender-bending Benvolia strikingly romanced by Mercutio. Look for an imaginative surprise in the tomb-based closing. “Romeo and Juliet” is as perilous as young love, but ASP’s noble attempt deserves attention.

God of Carnage (Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell thru 10/13.)
Huntington Theatre Company seemed to struggle with the offbeat alliances that give distinction to the escalating war of words and attitudes that propel “God of Carnage.” Merrimack Repertory Theatre, under Kyle Fabel’s taut direction, embraces and enriches them. Judith Lightfoot Clarke as political correctness-obsessed Veronica and Laura Lattreille as initially reticent but ultimately intrepid Annette are stand-outs as mothers defending their unseen playground-fighting sons-with Stephen Caffrey as volatile Michael and Joseph Adams as cell-phone compulsive Alan convincing as their respective spouses. Merrimack Rep puts the childishness of the parents in rich relief.

The Cemetery Club
(Next Door Theater Company, Winchester thru 10/12 - 781-729-NEXT.)
If you think a play about the ritual-like monthly meetings of respect-paying Jewish widows is impossibly morbid, think again. Next Door Theatre Company’s director-designer Brian Milauskas has brought as much care to the friendship of the focal trio and the unexpected budding romance of Ida as he has to her smartly-detailed home. Sarah deLima is a revelation capturing Ida’s blooming new love , and Cheryl McMahon’s outspoken Lucille, Lida McGirr’s reserved Doris and Paul D. Farwell’s charming Sam are all winners.

La Cage Aux Folles (North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly thru 10/6/13 - 978-232-7200 or www.nsmt.org)
Charles Shaughnessy and Jonathan Hammond think 2013 is the best of times for ‘La Cage Aux Folles.” Playing reserved Georges to Hammond’s flamboyant Albin in the Tony Award-winning musical’s North Shore Music Theatre revival, the IRNE nominee and “Nanny” favorite recently told Bay Windows,“ In 1983, the love affair of Georges and Albin was the exception. Now most of the country doesn’t find the idea of a gay couple shocking.” During his own interview, two-time IRNE winner Hammond observed, “It’s so gay but there’s something really accessible to everyone in this show. Making it more domestic is working for the show now.” With sharp direction and fast-paced choreography by Charles Repole, this landmark musical now resonates with new timeliness as more states embrace same-sex marriage and gay family life. As always, “La Cage Aux Folles” sings and dances out universal lessons about love and family. St. Tropez gay club owner Georges learns to stand in the truth (to borrow a Suze Orman expression) of his love for unapologetically out headlining male diva Albin in the face of the homophobia of conservative politician Dindon. His liberal but initially uptight son Jean-Michel learns to respect Albin both as a man and the maternal force in his life- helping him with homework and always being there for him unlike his absentee and uncaring biological mother. For his part, Albin realizes that Georges’ love is indomitable and that all three share a family as strong as the best straight ones. The NSMT cast proves just as strong. Charles Shaugnessy has the right style and brings appropriate understatement to Georges’ emotional odyssey. Director Repole could have him singing “Son on the Sand” in a more comfortable slightly lower register, but his characterization is fully expressive. Jonathan Hammond is a revelation as Albin. Delivering the anthem-like “I Am What I Am” with dynamic build-up and catching the humor of “A Little More Mascara,” he makes Albin wonderfully appealing and poignant. Zach Trimmer sings Jean-Michael’s ode to his fiancée “With Anne on My Arm” more sweetly than both Broadway and touring actors in his role. The celebrated gender-bending Cagelles ensemble display impressive over-the-head kicks and line synchronization. Their fiery can-can sequence-complete with rapid drops to the NSMT round- is a true showstopper. Marcia Zammarelli’s sequined and boa-rich outfits smartly complement Albin’s panache and the Cagelle’s cocky charms. Shaugnessy noted, “The love of the family triumphs.” Hammond called Repole “a master of the round.” Both comments are as insightful as Jerry Herman’s lyrical score and Harvey Fierstein’s disarming book. The NSMT “La Cage Aux Folles” is a triumphant marriage of family messages and audience-enveloping fun.

The Jungle Book (Huntington Theatre Company, B.U.Theatre thru 10/20/13 - 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org)
Children- Good Nature or Bad Nurture
Is childhood a time of wonder or a minefield of abuse? Does a great youth reside in the mind of a Kipling and seldom elsewhere? Does America talk a good talk about children but rarely walk the good walk? Two very different productions- The Huntington Theatre Company world premiere of “The Jungle Book” and Arts Emerson’s presentation of American Theater Company’s “Columbinus” at the Paramount Center- are providing local theatergoers with the unusual opportunity to see both ideal and real views of childhood right now. For the Huntington Theatre season-opener, Mary Zimmerman has wisely turned to the 1894 Kipling stories as well as the Disney film for inspiration and insight. The gifted director- who brought breathtaking freshness to the company’s recent landmark revival of “Candide”- has noted the strong contrast between Kipling’s happy first years in Bombay and abuse-ridden early school years in England. At the very least, the frame scenes in her musical adaptation of “The Jungle Book”- in which a young story-reading child makes a round-trip visit to the world of the imagination - suggest escape from an unsatisfying early time in Victorian England and eventual return to everyday reality. Thanks to an exquisite design team, that escape will enchant audiences even when the pacing occasionally lags during man-cub Mowgli’s India-set adventures. Daniel Ostling has created a lush forest backdrop with flowers and birds –even a peacock- that call to mind the vivid detail and hues of Indian art. Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes give all of the actors playing the creatures Mowgli encounters distinct appearances- among them wolves with fur-trimmed coats, vultures in top hats and tuxedoes, floppy – eared elephants in red British uniforms and butterflies (two female and one male) sporting multi-colored wings. T.J. Gerckens evokes the mystery and magnitude of the forest where Mowgli moves from baby to adolescent with nuanced degrees of darkness and light. While Zimmerman’s design team prove as much of a treasure as Sloth Bear Baloo’s honey pot, the production rarely rises to the soaring level she achieved with her recent wonderfully fresh edition of “Candide.” If the initially naïve protagonist of the latter received a musically and dramatically sublime awakening to the challenges and realities of the world in that benchmark Huntington Theatre Company production, no such cathartic epiphany occurs in her ‘Jungle Book” adaptation. Akash Chopra- who alternates with Roni Akurati- displays great energy and cockiness as brave Mowgli, but the man-cub’s rite of passage seems more heart-warming than moving. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli ramps up the emotions at times-most notably in a high-stepping and acrobatics-rich ensemble led by electrifying Andre de Shields as orangutan King Louie and an eye-catching rendition of “Baloo’s Blues” with soulful Kevin Carolan as the honey-intoxicated bear. “Jungle Rhythm” features an engaging tap. Most notably stiff is the elephant march -nowhere near the majesty and excitement of the sweeping procession of “The Lion King.” Conductor Doug Peck and a very talented orchestra-here especially the brass section- compensate significantly for Ed Kross’ lack of manic inspiration as irrepressible Colonel Hathi. Usman Ally has the right authority if not quite the emotional force that protective black panther Bagheera requires in watching over child Mowgli as he grows. Larry Yando needs to be more threatening as Bengal tiger Shere Khan, who means to eat the man cub. Yando could take a lesson from Thomas Derrah, who imbues Indian python Kaa with a terrific combination of oily charm and slithering menace. Most of the audience at the performance I saw gave “The Jungle Book” a standing ovation. Perhaps the crackling curtain ensemble made many theatergoers want to dance themselves. More of the ‘red flower’ or fire that the animals fear would go a long way to giving this entertaining premiere the kind of definitive dynamism that distinguished Zimmerman’s “Candide.”

Columbinus (American Theater Company,Arts/Emerson, Paramount Center,Boston, through September 29. 617-824-8400 or www.artsemerson.org)
The national debate about school violence and how to prevent it continues. The touring American Theater Company staging of “Columbinus,” by the United States Theatre Project, is an important addition to that debate-one that demands the attention of gun control advocates, Second Amendment proponents and the Congress alike. With much of its informative script culled from interviews with Littleton, Colorado residents and teenagers nationwide, the taut three- act work by out playwright Stephen Karam (an I.R.N.E. best new play award winner for his recent Off-Broadway hit “Sons of the Prophet”) and director P.J.Paparelli, who conceived it, brings together many of the theories and views that continue to trouble experts and the public alike. Could guidance counselors, teachers, fellow students and the parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Kleibold done more to deal with their grievances about bullying, issues of low self-esteem and inner rage? ”Columbinus” never ‘pins’ the blame on any one group for failing to treat the two troubled teenagers’ problems early on, but the Karam – Paparelli text does make substantive points about weapons availability, the NRA and concerted efforts by the nation-individually and collectively- going forward. Paparelli has fired up inspired eight-person ensemble-three young women and five young men- that forcefully play a number of Littleton adolescents and adults. There is an arresting choral quality to the first act introduction of students- Freak, Prep, Loner and Jock among them- bonding one moment , fighting another and calling each other such hate epithets such as ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke’ at still others. The second act killing-with pounding on a large blackboard evoking shots- is a chilling high point, with Jesse Klug’s lighting heightening both the enormity and the emotional toll. Matthew Bausone has all of depressed Eric’s explosive bitterness, and Eric Folks convincing moves Dylan from hesitation and uncertainty to full vindictiveness. The other equally persuasive actors- Rob Fenton, Jerry MacKinnon, Kelly O’Sullivan,Leah Raidt , Tyler Ravelson and Sadieh Rifai- capture the combination of hope and despair that inform the third act hindsight and follow-up efforts. Heart-wrenching “Columbinus” may not quite bring tears to theatergoers’ eyes a la “The Laramie Project,” but its powerful comprehensiveness should serve as a catalyst for emotional caring and real action.

My Name Is Asher Lev (Westside Theatre, Off-Broadway thru September 1 - 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)
Many Chaim Potok’s fans may not know that the New York novelist was also a serious painter. In fact, the late Rabbi-author (who passed away at age 73 in 2002) actually recreated “Brooklyn Crucifixion,” the pivotal artwork in his highly autobiographical 1972 novel “My Name Is Asher Lev.” Throughout his life, Potok struggled with the tension between religion and art, as does the book’s title Orthodox artist. Aaron Posner adapted the novel as the dramatic canvas of that conflict, now a touching human tableau at Off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre. As with Potok himself, Asher Lev hails from a religious Brooklyn family and tries to balance his commitment to Jewish tradition and his considerable gifts as an artist. Aryeh Lev, his rabbi father who often travels to Europe on behalf of the Rebbe – the leader of Ladover Hasidic Jews, would love to see Asher Lev become a great Talmudic scholar and fears that the world of art could take his son to the world of the ‘Sitra Achra,’ a Hasidic term for the other side or the world of un-holiness and the Devil. Rivkeh Lev, his supportive mother, proves more sympathetic to his artistic impulses, but even she wonders how far his interests will go. He may paint birds, flowers and pretty things to please his mother, but essentially he hates them. Such subjects, he senses, are not the focus of a great painter. Yet could a religious Jew actually become a great painter? Could Asher Lev be “a little Chagall, “or will his interest pass? After all, for many years, Jews had associated art with paganism and Hellenism. Students of art history know that even the great modern artist Mark Rothko, who had an Orthodox childhood, did not remain religious. At the advice of the Reba, Asher Lev meets secular Jewish painter Jacob Kahn. Kahn, who praises his sense of line, suggests illustrating calendars and greeting cards if Asher Lev is to remain religious. What his new mentor teaches Asher Lev is that an artist is responsible to his art, to his art as he sees it. An art expert named Anna Schaeffer warns Asher Lev that the world of art will destroy him, much as a burlesque show might destroy a nun. Under Kahn’s guidance, the young artist fully explores that world, studying the work of such master painters as Titian, Tintoretto and Goya and realizing that art has its own traditions and rules- very different, of course, from the traditions and rules of Judaism. Still, Asher Lev studies art with the same disciple and dedication that he would have brought to a tractate of the Talmud. Soon he begins to paint nudes and decides that they are commentaries on the human body. Eventually Asher Lev even finds himself beginning to see crucifixions in his dreams. Viewing Michelangelo’s Pieta in Florence, he feels it “like echoing blasts of the Shofar.” As with Potok’s provocative novel, Posner’s play cuts to the core of Asher Lev’s beliefs and those of his parents. Will nudes and representations of Jesus on crucifixes lead him away from his beliefs? While his parents stay away from displays of his nudes, how will they respond to an exhibit of his ‘Brooklyn Crucifix’? As always, such questions prove as intriguing as the answers. Thanks to Gordon Edelstein’s painstaking direction, each scene in “My Name Is Asher Lev” possesses the brushstrokes of a master artist. Jonathan Raviv, standing in for Ari Brand, finds all of Asher Lev’s humanity as well as his boundless curiosity. His carefully modulated performance fully articulates Asher Lev’s struggle to remain a Torah Jew even as the serious painter immerses himself in the demanding realm of art. Posner’s remarkable play calls on Asher Lev to frequently address the audience about his evolution as a Jew and an artist. Raviv vividly demonstrates the anguish that attends the painter’s toughest choices-especially painting nude models and displeasing his parents - as well as the aesthetic soaring of his work. Mark Nelson brings pathos to father Aryeh Lev’s inflexibility about his beliefs in the face of his son’s unequivocal commitment to the demands of art. Nelson captures the father’s impatience with adolescent Asher Lev’s artistic experimentation and his growing anger at the young adult painter’s artistic choices. This amazing actor is equally arresting as mentoring artist Jacob Kahn-whether counseling Asher Lev to always be true to himself as a painter and a man or envying the young artist’s gifts. Naama Potok displays similar versatility as she stands in for Jenny Bacon as Asher Lev’s mother Rivkeh Lev ,art maven Schaeffer and a model. The novelist’s daughter catches Rivkeh’s sensitivity to her son, her frustration trying to mediate between Aryeh and Asher and her profound depression about the loss of her brother in a car accident. Potok is properly insightful and sophisticated as Schaefer. Designer Eugene Lee sharply evokes the contrasting worlds of 1950’s Brooklyn Hassidism and Manhattan art. Ilona Somogyi brings matching clarity to the characters’ outfits. Asher Lev is Hebrew for a happy heart. Call the masterwork at the Westside a true occasion for rejoicing.

Love, Loss and What I Wore (Hub Theatre Company of Boston, First Church in Boston thru 8/3/13 - www.Hubtheatreboston.org)
“My dresses tell a story,” remarks a female Jewish New Yorker named Gingy in “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” and so it goes for a diversity of women in the Delia and Nora Ephron comedy. Based on a 1995 book by Ilene Beckerman, the sisters’ 2008 Off-Broadway hit vividly demonstrates the strong connection -sometimes for good, sometimes for bad- between women and their attire. As the title suggests, women associate their clothes with the full spectrum of life’s experiences. Delia and Nora (who died of breast cancer last year) clearly identified with Beckerman’s book- to the point of conducting interviews about such connections. Hub Theatre Company of Boston is now giving the universal values reflected in the play’s life wardrobe a runway caliber showing in its area premier at the First Church of Boston. Premier Hub actress Paula Plum, directing the play’s collection of experiences and insights with flair, has five local actresses parade through the aisle as a kind of unusual sisterhood and sit on high stools to share their characters’ stories in the intimacy of the Church’s theater space. Four - Theresa Chiasson, Adobuere Ebiama, Lauren Elias and Linda Goetz tackle multiple characters, while one-June Kfoury- plays Beckerman persona Gingy, actually a Hebrew nickname for someone with red or ginger-colored hair. While the text includes monologues for each actress, there are also two-actress exchanges involving characters and their respective relatives. Clothes mentoring mothers receive their due, with Chiasson a standout portraying them. Occasionally, the Ephron’s sharply detailed text teems with proverb-like advice such as not wearing loafers or a red coat. Jewish girls are counseled against wearing velvet before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). Everyone is warned about wearing white before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. Elias proves very appealing here. Later on, Kfoury makes the most of a section in which Elise speaks of overstuffing a purse with sneakers and being able to flee the Cossacks with it. While these points prove briefly entertaining, the best stretches actually connect clothing to character or lack of it. For example, Goetz captures the frustration of a woman who sees a charcoal gray wool dress she prizes end up on the family’s cleaning lady’s daughter. Another evocative stretch finds the quintet individually donning attire recalling diverse Madonna albums. Social mores evolve with the outfits as gay men accompany one woman while another character makes out with a woman. Eventually there is a substantive passage in which homophobia is addressed and Ebiama plays a lesbian dressing in tuxedo pants and a fancy vest as she prepares for her wedding. Some theatergoers may feel that a tough passage dealing with carcinoma and a mastectomy changes the tone of the piece, but Goetz does invest it with singular feeling. “Love, Loss and What I Wore” would fit more snugly if taken in a bit from its 100 minute length. Even so, the great chemistry and interaction of Plum’s talented ensemble make the Ephrons’ insights quite exquisite.

The Wizard of Oz (North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly thru 8/4/13.  Info: 978-232-7200; www.nsmt.org)
Be it weather-weary 1939 Kansas or a magical dream world, there is no place like home in “The Wizard of Oz.” There is also no score that taps into the wonders of Dorothy’s reveries with as much enchantment as the classic movie Harold Arlen- E.Y.Harburg score. The North Shore Music Theatre is robustly recapturing all of the pleasures of the L. Frank Baum story in a revival of the film-based musical that celebrates friendship and family in dance as much as in song. Director-choreographer Joel Ferrell makes Dorothy’s farm hand friends Hunk, Hickory and Zeke convincing bosom buddies both early on and on the way to the Emerald City. Consequently their all-for-one, one-for-all ties as they trek down the Yellow Brick Road respectively as Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion with Dorothy prove very striking. Ferrell even has Scarecrow and Tin Man briefly dance together in an arresting bromantic moment. Danielle Bowen captures Dorothy’s free spirit as well as her innocence and displays sweet tone on “Over the Rainbow.” Paul Sabala is very engaging as Hunk/Scarecrow and Joe Moeller has the right diffidence as Hickory/Tin Man. Lance Roberts catches Zeke’s flair and makes Cowardly Lion’s signature solo “If I Were King of the Forest” a sassy and jazzy show-stopper. Donna English could do with more personality as good witch Glinda, but Laura Jordan nails Wicked Witch’s malevolence. David Coffee is a scene-stealing hoot as Professor Marvel, Wizard of Oz and the Gatekeeper. Paula Peasley-Ninestein’s inspired costume design dresses Munchkinland in a rainbow of Day-Glo color and turns the Emerald City into St. Patrick’s Day in July. North Shore Music Theatre’s brainy and heartfelt revival of “The Wizard of Oz” should not be missed.

Two Gentlemen of Verona (Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Boston Common thru 7/28/13. Free. Info: 617-426-0683)
Can a man love his bro and his woman equally? Rupert Birkin thought so at the end of the D.H. Lawrence novel “Women in Love,” where he tells his love Ursula that he wants “a man friend, as eternal as you and I are eternal.” If Birkin does not identify as bi-sexual or gay, he clearly believes that an emotionally and possibly sexually complex life will complete him as a man. Over three centuries before Lawrence, Shakespeare arguably pushed the envelope of emotional and sexual complexity in one of his earliest plays. Valentine, one of the title friends in his comedy “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” tells his best friend Proteus-the other gentleman- “All that was mine in Silvia (his romantic love) I give to thee.” Was Valentine a precursor to Birkin? Commonwealth Shakespeare Company may not be staging a ‘gay version’ AT Boston Common as New York’s Greenwich Playhouse did in 2004, but certainly CSC artistic director Steve Maler’s exuberant summer production (through July 28)does justice to the rich ambiguity of Valentine’s feelings in an effort that proves more satisfying than the uneven play itself. From the start, there is no ambiguity about the close friendship between Valentine and Proteus, who spar good-naturedly as mates. Even a song-list that underscores diverse relationships throughout the production captures the intensity of their bromance with the perfect signature classic, namely “My Funny Valentine.” Moreover, the former begs the latter to accompany him to Milan and seems sad when he refuses. In light of cues in the dialogue, Valentine could be alluding to his love for Proteus in speaking of giving him “All that was mine in Silvia.” As with all well-staged provocative fare, the CSC take will have theatergoers considering characters with diverse emotional responses among them as much as the relationship between Valentine and Proteus. Look for enterprising and spirited women- Valentine’s Sylvia and Proteus’ Julia- who respect each other. Expect resourceful servants- Valentine’s Speed and Proteus’ Launce- with a lot of attitude and fine senses of irony. Notice the kind of protective father-Rick Park’s tough love Duke with Sylvia- who becomes a staple character in Shakespeare comedies and tragedies alike. Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt and lighting designer Eric Southern have given the Verona- Milan nexus of the play a Las Vegas-Atlantic City ambience in which these characters could be right out of “The Sopranos” and the Duke of Milan could be mob boss Tony Soprano. Music director Colin Thurmond complements the gritty if stylish atmosphere with hits by Rat Pack favorites Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. All of this is very much to the good as Maler’s smart pacing and lively updating-together with Yo-El Cassell’s crisp choreography- compensates for weaknesses in dialogue and structure. The only area where the update seems unsatisfying involves the outlaws who choose Valentine as their leader and eventually receive a kind of amnesty from the Duke. Despite Nancy O’Leary’s vivid costumes, they would be more convincing as former banished gangsters than cowboys. Their post-intermission stretches seem to drag, but most scenes are either rollickingly fresh or atmospherically arresting. Equally arresting are the actors playing the pivotal friends- Andrew Burnap as Valentine and Peter Cambor as Proteus. Burnap makes Valentine’s inner conflict about love and friendship very compelling-especially after he realizes that chameleon-like Proteus has informed the Duke about his plan to run off with Sylvia. His performance has all of the heart one expects from a character with the name Valentine. Cambor, who resembles legendary comedian Phil Silvers but with a head of hair, has that actor’s wit and manic energy. He also has good moments of seriousness considering what is happening to his friendship with Valentine. Jenna Augen is a standout as Julia- particularly when she dresses up as a male page to rescue her romance with Proteus. Her rendition of the Peggy Lee hit “Fever” truly sizzles. Ellen Adair captures Sylvia’s contrasting elegance and unsentimental but ultimately loving demeanor with Valentine. CSC favorites Remo Airaldi as Speed and especially Larry Coen as Launce are scene-stealing hoots. Evan Sanderson nails amusing Thurio, a rich foppish suitor who courts Sylvia one moment and actually dances with a male party goer at another. At one point, music director Thurmond tellingly includes the Sinatra version of”‘What Is This Thing Called Love?” Occasional male and female stage pairings aside, the CSC’s robustly ambiguous “Two Gentleman of Verona” makes the answer to that enduring song question richly resonant.

Desire is finding vibrant voice on stage this July. Blanche Dubois once again commutes between self-delusion and poetic passion in Wax Wings Productions' thoughtful revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire at the Factory Theatre. Adolescent angst rocks out earnest rage in Gloucester Stage Company's blisteringly brilliant staging of "Spring Awakening." Amazing background singers finally receive a well-deserved hearing in the long overdue documentary "Twenty Feet to Stardom."

A Streetcar Named Desire
(Wax Wings Productions, The Factory Theatre, 791 Tremont Street, Boston thru July 7. www.Waxwingproductions.com)
Wax Wings artistic director Micah Greene- noting the decision to make “A Streetcar Named Desire” the company’s second season closer – speaks of “a battle of property, status, power, deception and love within this piece.” In his playbill observations, Greene also invites Factory Theatre audiences “to take this streetcar together.” Director Vicki Schairer serves as a very skillful conductor. She makes the battle and the commute so visceral in the venue’s intimate confines that theatergoers will feel as though they live in the 1947 New Orleans French Quarter setting of Tennessee Williams’ haunting masterwork. Clearly the design team is giving matching attention to the route. Megan Kinneen has transformed the Factory Theatre so that theatergoers become virtual neighbors to fashion-passionate Blanche Dubois’ down-to-earth sister Stella Kowalski and her tough-nosed husband Stanley. There is even a stretch of earth around the set to highlight the working-class ambience. Ian W. King catches the shadow of fire escape in his lighting, and Andrew Paul Jackson evokes the title transportation in his sound design. Melanie Hardy’s period costumes capture the contrast between no-nonsense blue collar attire and more fashionable fare-including fancy small hats- worn by both siblings after Blanche’s arrival. The biggest contrast-as always- takes place in the accelerating conflict between Blanche and Stanley, with Stella as the understanding and personally involved referee. The face-offs between Danielle Kellerman as Blanche and Jesse Wood as Stanley have all of the intensity of a championship bout. Kellerman does well alternating between Blanche’s efforts at propriety and her increasing moments of emotional confusion. She makes Blanche’s revelations about her late gay young husband and his suicide very moving. Wood walks an equally effective tightrope of characterization- vividly volatile in his verbal and physical attacks on Blanche and properly vulnerable and tender with Stella. Jacqui Dupre smartly understates Stella’s early patience with Blanche’s fussiness so that her emotional give and take later with her sister and Stanley becomes all the more moving. Patrick Curran has the right pushback with Wood’s Stanley, and Greene’s fight choreography proves arresting here and throughout the play. Blanche famously depends upon the kindness of strangers, but Wax Wings needs no favors in giving “A Streetcar Named Desire” a ride as luminous as the embattled Southern belle’s pearls.

Spring Awakening (Gloucester Stage Company thru July 14. 978-281-4099 or
www.gloucesterstage.com)
If anyone tells you “Spring Awakening” is a teen age “Rent,” do not believe it. Admittedly, both Tony Award-winning musicals share skepticism about the wisdom of their elders and a spirit of solidarity between peers. Granted, the 1891 Frank Wedekind play-based show-as with ‘Rent”- possesses a Duncan Sheik (music) –Steven Sater (lyrics) score that often rocks-especially in fierce numbers like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked.” Still, ”Spring Awakening” champions the desire of adolescent males and females to freely live their lives and determine their futures with a tuneful bravado all its own. Gloucester Stage artistic director Eric Engel has tapped into the musical’s singular feistiness with an unrelenting tenacity that makes it better than the recent good national tour and as memorable as the original edition that compelling shook up Broadway. The young actors and actresses at Gloucester Stage-individually as well as in combination and total ensemble- are so persuasive that this critic wishes that he could mention all of them. Phil Tayler is very affecting as individualist Melchior-both as he courts Wendla-played with moving vulnerability by Melody Madarasz- and struggles to protect best friend Moritz , who is cruelly bullied by a variety of adults. The first act-closing intimacy between them is as highly sexual as its counterpart on Broadway. Ross Mumford is a standout as Moritz- sublimely moving from pathos to rage and despair in a heart-wrenching performance that –to borrow from the musical-will ’bruise’ you with its power. Under Engel’s sensitive direction, a same sex rendezvous proves as romantically convincing as Melchior and Wendla’s-with sweet vocals from Jordan Ford as gay Hanschen and Chris Reynalds as ostensibly bi-sexual (or possibly closeted) Ernest on a reprise of the poetic number “The Word of Your Body.” Amelia Broome makes the female adults vividly disconcerting-especially Melchior’s criminally politically correct mother Frau Gabor and a seducing piano teacher. Paul Farwell does equally well with both the powerful and powerless males-most notably as Moritz’s father, whose moments of grief will stun you. Jodi Leigh Allen’s crackling choreography captures the ache and the anger of the students- with all of the boys dancing on and around chairs in “The Bitch of Living” and the full company of young people romping out their resentments on “Totally Fucked.” Musical director Catherine Stornetta wisely conducts the rock-folk score with understatement, and the mike-less cast bring remarkable clarity to the artful lyrics- most notably the rich imagery of “The Song of Purple Summer.” Flower-bearing male and female adolescents express a full repertoire of feelings during the arresting closing Coda. Expect that kind of exquisite epiphany from Gloucester Stage Company’s soaring “Spring Awakening.”

On the Town (Lyric Stage Company of Boston thru June 8. 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com)
Thirteen years before “West Side Story,” composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins worked together on a show for the first time- namely the 1944 musical “On the Town.” The gay collaborators captured the spirit of New York in the light-hearted earlier work as much as they caught the urban tensions of the Big Apple in the landmark 1957 effort. Fans of the inspired ballet and other dance material in the 1944 show may not know that the sailor-centered ballet “Fancy Free” that preceded it was inspired by the suggestive 1934 painting “The Fleet’s In” by gay artist Paul Cadmus. Robbins conceived the ballet for three straight navy buddies looking for romance on 24 –hour shore leave, and the musical followed suit. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston is giving buffs and newcomers alike a welcome opportunity to hear Bernstein’s snappy music and see Robbins’ exuberant dances in its earnest if sometimes uneven season-closing revival of the musical. “On the Town,” bringing together Bernstein, Robbins and the great book and lyric writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, possesses a vibrant score, high-stepping choreography, witty dialogue and a fairly madcap narrative. As sailors Ozzie, Chip and Gabey move from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to diverse locations around New York City, their quest for romance also becomes a loving embrace of the Big Apple itself. Gabey pursues Ivy- Miss Turnstiles for the month of June, with Ozzie and Chip trying to help. Clues lead Ozzie to the Museum of Natural History-where he meets anthropologist Claire. Chip, in checking out a lead about Carnegie Hall, is bowled over by extroverted taxi driver Hildy. When audiences are bowled over by “On the Town,” all of the show’s elements really gel. Artistic director Spiro Veloudos is working with two of his favorite colleagues- remarkably talented musical director Jonathan Goldberg and choreographer Ilyse Robbins- and there is clearly solid synchronization between orchestrations and dance sequences. Goldberg and his eight fellow musicians capture all of the urban bustle and energy in Bernstein’s score. Robbins makes the “Lonely Town” pas de deux properly affecting and poetic, while the Times Square Ballet has the right ensemble feel. Pacing and performance, by contrast, need to soar more consistently. The three main actresses do best. Lauren Gemelli’s enchanting Ivy makes Gabey’s untiring efforts to find her perfectly understandable. Aimee Doherty brings ample heart to somewhat reserved Claire. Best is Michele A. DeLuca’s hilariously unstoppable Hildy- particularly when she insists that Chip “Come Up to My Place. ”The results are mixed with their male counterparts. John Ambrosino has his moments when Gabey is most vulnerable. Phil Tayler as Chip could do with more exasperation dealing with Hildy. Most convincing here is Zach Eisenstat, who displays terrific cockiness and savvy as Ozzie. The standout in support is Sarah deLima, who lets loose sublimely as clubbing voice teacher Maude P. Dilly. There ought to be escalating frolicking in the club sequences, which would be tamer without de Lima. Scott Clyve’s inventive lighting evokes streetcars whizzing by in an effect that David Copperfield would appreciate. Seaghan McKay employs a rich combination of projections to help conjure up the architectural robustness of New York. Bernstein,Robbins and Comden and Green meshed their budding young talents in the exuberance of this rollicking musical. To borrow from the telling title of one of the early numbers, the engaging Lyric Stage Company’s “On the Town” needs to be more “Carried Away.”

The Pirates of Penzance (American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through June 2. 617-547-8300 or www.amrep.org.)
Theatergoers who want to be truly transported to a fully realized stage experience should head to the Loeb Drama Center for the American Repertory Theatre’s presentation of the purist-defying brilliance of the Hypocrites' production of “Pirates of Penzance.” Sean Graney-who doubles as director- and co-adaptor Kevin O’Donnell have admittedly trimmed the numbers of the Keystone Cop-like policemen, but the gusto and great heart of this Gilbert and Sullivan gem are in evidence onstage and off as hero Frederic’s identity crisis as a pirate on the threshold of maturity and nobility transforms the entire Loeb Drama Center into the varied terrains of his unusual odyssey. Zeke Sulkes captures Frederic’s alternately touching and humorous emotional battles as he moves from bromantic bonding with his fellow pirates and understated gay feeling for one pirate in particular to strong romantic connection with a fetching maid named Mabel. Christine Stulik demonstrates two-fold brilliance as she convinces artfully as Frederic’s adoring mother figure Ruth and sweet young love Mabel. Matt Kahler has the right effervescence as the famed Major General. Audience members hit beach balls and move in and out of the action on stage in a smartly structured reworking that makes “Pirates of Penzance” as invigorating as a sea voyage. All aboard!

Amadeus (New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown through May 26. 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org)
Is artistic genius God-given? In Peter Shaffer’s largely fictional 1979 play “Amadeus,” frustrated court composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) concludes that the recipient of such a divine gift is none other than Wolfgang Mozart. Where the devout Catholic actually praised the latter’s great opera “The Magic Flute” and even collaborated with Mozart on a cantata for voice and piano, Shaffer’s envious Salieri descends into Machiavellian deceit to ruin his rival personally and professionally. Clearly the Tony Award winner’s striking speculations have inspired New Repertory Theatre artistic director Jim Petosa, who is staging the play with the kind of high style design it deserves. That design includes a handsome large church rose window - credit Cristina Todesco - that serve s as a visual reminder of the importance of belief to Salieri. While the title immediately connects with Mozart himself, the word can mean ‘love of God’ or ‘God’s love.” After all, his operatic masterwork “Don Giovanni “ focuses on Don Juan, a devout lover of women. At the same time, Salieri’s love for God can be as important to the play as the nature of divine love itself. By contrast, Shaffer’s Mozart seems oblivious to such devotion in the early going as an immature but enormously gifted composer. Eventually adversity and diminishing fortunes seem to help transform him into a sympathetic family man trying to provide for his family while continuing to create some of the Western World’s finest music. Shaffer deliberately makes Salieri unsympathetic. Although the play begins and ends with the dementia-ridden composer approaching the end of his life, the bulk of the play centers on the fictional but diabolical calculations of Salieri, which he narrates in vivid detail. Would a truer play - in which Salieri resists malevolent impulses and remains a Mozart supporter - prove a greater one? That may be true. Even so, attention should be paid to a production that makes the most of the drama’s inherent vitality. So it goes with Petosa’s dynamic staging. The strikingly curved center of Todesco’s design enhances both Mozart’s early playfulness and his later slide into misfortune. Frances McSherry’s exquisite costumes have the right period look and perfectly reflect the respective situations of the composers and the people around them. Mary Ellen Stebbins brings the nuanced lighting of an artist to the visual details of Salieri’s narrative. Most of the New Rep cast is strong. Tim Spears artfully moves from the early peevish Mozart to the profoundly vulnerable later one. Ben Evett- who stepped in to replace schedule-challenged Thomas Derrah as Salieri- needs to sound older as the ailing death-nearing narrator. He does best as the mischief-making younger Salieri relishing rendezvous and wrongdoing. Derrah fans can imagine the kind of alternately darkly sinister and hauntingly rueful Salieri the gifted out actor might present. Russell Garrett richly evokes both Emperor Joseph II’s considerable authority and his darkly humorous cultural myopia. McCaela Donovan has the right combination of strength and inner conflict as wife Constanza Mozart. Michael Kaye and especially Paula Langston bring arresting gusto to the Greek Chorus-like observations of the Venticelli. Maybe the best thing one can say about the stylish New Rep revival is that it will send Mozart lovers - and who is not? - back to his protean output with new fervor.

Chicago
(Wang Theatre, Citi Center for the Performing Arts, Boston through November 4)
"Chicago" has always had class. Its snappy and savvy Kander and Ebb score and book and sublime Bob Fosse choreography -as recreated in revival by Ann Reinking- are always an audience's best friend. In an age of umpteen political scandals and news blurring into entertainment , this always timely musical resonates all the more. The surprise at the Wang Theatre,considering all of the show's built-in magic, is a tour that often needs much more razzle dazzle. Director Scott Faris seems to have toned down Amra -Faye Wright's electricity as hard-edged Velma Kelly to keep her in line with Christie Brinkley's fairly tame softer Roxie Hart, Wright kicks high and sings well in solo. By contrast, Brinkley's dancing is relatively unexciting and her singing's breathy style suggests a kind of poor man's Ann Margaret. Consequently, Velma and Roxie's second act duets "Nowadays" and "Hot Honey Rag" are not the showstoppers they have been with the likes of Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon(the original Velma and Roxie respectively) and more recent performers like Bebe Neuwirth(Velma) and Reinking herself (Roxie). Still, even a lesser edition of "Chicago" has its pleasures. Gary Chryst's recreation of Cell Block Tango has the right insinuation and crack timing. The brass rich band has all of the show's signature jazz under music director Eric Barnes. Supporting players really catch fire. John O'Hurley sings vibrantly and finds lawyer Billy Flynn's self-serving slickness. Ron Orbach brings fine phrasing to Amos Hart's 'Mr. Cellophane" anthem. D. Micciche has the right operatic coloring as Mary Sunshine. Best of all is Kecia Lewis-Evans' strikingly high delivery of Matron "Mama" Morton's ironic solo "When You're Good to Mama."

The Chosen (Lyric Stage Company, Boston)
For Luke Murtha, the theater is a window on the world as well as the arts. The Chosen, a stage adaptation by Aaron Posner and Potok himself of the latter's celebrated novel and staged with great warmth and authenticity by Israeli-American director Daniel Gidron,will engage Lyric Stage Company of Boston theatergoers- Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Great care as been taken with the play’s design as much as with the production’s cast. Brynna Bloomfield has created a rich wood backdrop centerpiece that calls to mind both a synagogue ark and Jerusalem’s Western Wall. During intermission, go as close as possible to make out large size Hebrew letters throughout the sides of the piece. Shelving on each side –on the left for the Malter’s Talmudic and other Jewish as well as secular volumes and a radio and on the right for Reb Saunder’s Tallit (prayer shawl) and Talmudic and other Jewish volumes- helps to identify the ideological differences between the non-Hasidic and Hasidic Jewish familes. There is even a traditional shtender-Yiddish for an individual prayer stand-for Reb Saunders. Martin Mendelsberg has provided floor projections of the first Hebrew letter Aleph as well as Hebrew words that recognize the validity of the equally strong if different Jewish customs and positions of the Saunders and the Malters. John Malinowski’s nuanced lighting enhances the projections and the ups and downs of the friendship of Danny Reuven-a friendship that finally transcends those differences. Potok’s title may refer to the well-known concept of ‘The Chosen People’ as well as Danny having been chosen to be the heir apparent to Reb Saunders’ position as Hasidic spiritual leader. Considering these interpretations, Gidron’s staging clearly takes pains to present Saunders’ inner warmth as well as his outer tenacity as a Hasidic leader personally opposed to secular studies but ultimately respectful of Danny’s desire to study psychology and forego becoming the next Hasidic leader. Joel Colodner, very fine as a different father in Potok’s “My Name Is Asher Lev”- also lovingly presented by Lyric Stage, captures Reb Saunders’ remarkable integrity as well as his toughness with his son. Luke Murtha catches Danny’s early tentativeness about determining his own future as well as his passion for psychology as well as Jewish learning. By contrast, Zachary Eisenstat finds all of Reuven’s jaunty demeanor as a principled Jew who also delights in the compatibility of the best of secular wisdom with his beliefs. He also convincingly conveys Reuven’s emotional conflict as Danny struggles to keep reading Freud and authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Will McGarrahan sharply balances David Malter’s fairness about Reb Saunders’ views and his own intensity about Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel. Charles Linshaw effectively understates older Reuven’s hindsight and memories as narrator. He also keeps minor character distinct- a teacher here, a friend of the Malters there-as he portrays them briefly. Posner and Potok may have left out some striking secondary characters-Danny’s brother (referred to) and sister and a hospital patient who shares a room with young Reuven after the latter sustains a serious baseball injury. Evenso, the key themes- differing Jewish philosophies that can coexist, father-son conflicts and understandings and the pricelessness of true friendship- are depicted with great clarity and feeling. The Lyric Stage’s very moving staging of “The Chosen” should be a blue chip choice for even the most demanding audiences.

The Best Man (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, NYC)
Gore Vidal is now gone, but his hit play "The Best Man" is as alive as ever with enduring insights about politics and human nature. It makes no difference that the country posing a potential nuclear threat is Iran rather than Russia, the Cold War adversary at the time of this sharp 1960 Broadway hit. Now in a crack Broadway revival (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 212-239-6200) with an electrifying performance by James Earl Jones as fictional former President Arthur 'Artie' Hockstader, "The Best Man" should be a winner on any theatergoer's ballot. Set in handsomely appointed hotel rooms -credit designer Derek McLane- as a fictional convention is about to ballot for its party's presidential candidate, Vidal's play vividly depicts the world of strategy, rumor , innuendo, half-truths and lies that still dominates American presidential campaigns. Of course, the identity of the 'best man' of the title is the focus of that world. In Vidal's drama, the main contenders appear to be Secretary William Russell and Senator Joseph Cantwell, who both seek Hockstader's pivotal endorsement. A study in contrast, Russell is a reserved thinker while Cantwell is a less insightful doer.  "The Best Man" explores the influence of their very different personalities on their campaigns. Russell tries to campaign without attacking his opponent, but Cantwell thrives on questioning his opponent's competence. Sue- Ellen Gamadge , chair of the Women's division of the party, advises Cantwell that the sexual liaisons of Presidents are not rare and that candidates should be judged on issues and skills and not their personal lives. Cantwell, however, seems determined to make an issue out of Russell's emotional stability. Will Cantwell pressure Russell out of the race with psychiatric evidence about his mental health? Will Russell, for his part, make public information about married Cantwell's World War II relationships that would suggest he might be gay? Could such strategies produce a stalemate , repeated convention ballots or a last-minute victory for a dark horse candidate ? Also,what impact do the candidates wives- reserved and reflective Alice Russell and nubile and naive Mabel Cantwell-have on their chances? Things have changed these days ,of course, so that women like Hilary Clinton are taken seriously as possible nominees. Even so, "The Best Man" 's insights about politics, principle and public image and private life remain provocative. At the same time, Vidal-an astute writer of historical novels whose maternal grandfather was influential Senator Thomas Gore- keeps the play's resolution both sharp and fully credible. Director Michael Wilson keeps the revival's pacing and his stellar cast as sharp as the play. James Earl Jones roars like a lion as the statesman-like former President. This convention may be ailing Hockstader's swan song, but this fiery veteran actor -finding all of his character's humanity and gusto, demonstrates once again that he has many more roles ahead of him. Never resting on his laurels, Jones is riveting and commanding.  The contrasting candidates are equally vivid. John Larroquette has Russell's tentativeness about strategy as well as his remarkable thoughtfulness. John Stamos catches Cantwell's dynamism and his win-at-all-costs relentlessness. Cybill Shepherd convinces as intensely loyal Alice Russell, while Kristin Davis has Mabel Cantwell's engaging earthiness. Elizabeth Ashley captures the easy warmth and the invaluable experience of Sue Ellen Gamadge. What does it mean to be 'the best man' or 'best woman' for that matter? The presidentially strong revival of "Gore Vidal's The Best Man" at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre" provides as much food for thought about the answer as the best convention speeches.

Park (Walter Kerr Theatre, NYC thru September 2).
Has the United States achieved Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of a fully equal society? Birthers,discriminatory police officers and profiling airport TSA's demonstrate that his dream is not yet reality.
Two American playwrights have had a lot to say about the equal housing side of that dream. Black dramatist Lorraine Hansberry championed both black pride and the rights of Chicago black home buyers in her masterful 1959 Broadway hit "A Raisin in the Sun." White playwright Bruce Norris not only returned to 1959 Chicago but also looked at issues of race and housing 50 years later in his 2010 New York hit "Clybourne Park." Hansberry won the New York Drama Critics Circle best play award and Norris both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Honors aside, Hansberry's play seems more fully realized.The second act of Norris play may not deliver the same theatrical punch as the first, but the strongly acted "Clybourne Park" at the Walter Kerr Theatre deserves an end-of-summer visit. Set in the title middle class Chicago neighborhood, "Clybourne Park" opens in 1959 with white couple-Bev and Russ-packing in their living room. Bev and Russ have agreed to sell their home to an unnamed black couple, quite possibly the Younger family of Hansberry's play. What makes that a real possibility is the arrival of bigoted white homeowner Karl, previously seen in "A Raisin in the Sun" trying to bribe the Youngers not to move into his neighborhood. In Norris play, supposed friend Karl is trying to convince Bev and Russ not to sell their home to the black couple in question. Local minister Jim is as shameful in his own way as Karl in resorting to mechanical religious pronouncements and hollow calls to prayer as tensions mount. Jim even repeatedly moves off to a small stage right area of the house-beautifully detailed by designer Daniel Ostling- to avoid taking a stand. By the time Russ has kicked Karl -and his largely clueless deaf and pregnant wife Betsy-out of his house, black maid Francine and her husband Albert (who has come to pick her up) have endured karl's bigotry, Jim's gutlessness and insulting questioning about their own views on issues of race and housing. What makes the 1959-set first act really work is the way Norris develops Russ's initial unrest into a crescendo of righteous indignation at the curtain. A crucial part of his rage involves the back story of Russ and Bev's Korean War veteran son Kenneth , who committed suicide upstairs in their home after years of guilt about the civilians he killed. By the curtain, Russ has fully vented about the neighborhood's lack of empathy with and real caring for the mourning parents. In a less compelling production by Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence, Timothy Crowe-usually a very strong actor-was so bitter in the early going that the power of Russ' growing anger was lost. Frank Wood fine tunes that wrath at the Walter Kerr Theatre so that audience members enter intermission profoundly moved and reflective about both the issues being explored and the raw emotions revealed.
Act two proves equally provocative though less emotionally powerful . Set at the same house in 2009, the scenario is pretty much reversed. Now a white couple is purchasing the same home as black neighbors feel threatened by a process of gentrification. What follows is a combination of reasoned discussion and heated argument about neighborhood concerns regarding the house and the preservation of the ethnic ambience of the neighborhood. Norris provides connections to the first act. Black discussant Lena reminisces about climbing the myrtle tree of the home, which her great aunt bought. White buyer Lindsey does not share her relative Karl's bigotry. There are clever exchanges between competing interests-including defensive comments by the buyer's feminist lawyer Kathy and gay architect Tom, who presides over the heated meeting. Eventually, a letter written by Russ and Bev's son -previously unread and buried- resurfaces, but its revelations do not produce the kind of climactic power reached at the end of the first act. Still, "Clybourne Park" succeeds at calling into question not only clear targets like bigotry, apathy and hypocrisy but also more complicated issues like political correctness and competing notions of the historical and cultural identity of a home and a neighborhood. Totally successful is the first-rate cast. Besides Wood's towering performance as Russ in the first act, there are sharp turns by Crystal A. Dickinson as Francine and Lena and Damon Gupton as Albert and Lena's husband Kevin. In fact, Six actors smoothly switch to their very different roles in the second, with Brendan Griffin a standout in three roles-Jim, Tom and Kenneth in the back story. A brief final coda has 1959 Bev saying "I really believe things are about to change for the better." Current conditions may seem at odds with her prediction, but "Clybourne Park" makes a timely contribution to such change.

My Fair Lady (Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston, Waltham thu August 19)
Call the Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston's season closer "My Fair Ensemble." Eliza Doolitle begins "My Fair Lady" as a Cockney guttersnipe but blossoms into an assuming princess. Her verbal adversary Henry Higgins grows from a peevish , largely egocentric dialect expert to a caring match for his student heroine. Surprisingly, Reagle veteran Sarah Pfisterer ("Carousel" and "The Music Man" among others) proves somewhat genteel as the initial flower girl and does not nail Eliza's accent. Rick Hilsabeck (Pfisterer's husband) needs to be more blisteringly demanding as Eliza's teacher but improves as Higgins becomes more vulnerable in his relationship with Eliza. As always, Pfisterer sings with fine tone and resonance-especially "Show Me" and "Without You." Still, director Larry Sousa succeeds much more with supporting and ensemble cast members.  Ensemble strength shines through in this revival, with choreography smartly recreated by Rachel Bertone. Special kudos go to the cockney quartet-Chris Brindley, David Carney, Christopher A. King and Peter Mill-on "Wouldn't It Be Loverly." A high point is the extended dance sequence of "Get Me to the Church on Time"- with a rich mix of flips,, leaps, lifts and circles. At the center of this number and "With a Little Bit of Luck" is Harold "Jerry" Walker in an inspired and wonderfully spirited performance as dustman turned public speaker Alfred P. Doolitle. His side kicks on "Luck" are both amusing and magical. The other standout is big-voiced Robert St. Laurence as suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill. St. Laurence- exuberantly enamored of Eliza in singing "On the Street Where You Live"- should become as much of a Reagle regular as Pfisterer. His reactions during Eliza's "Show Me" urgings to act rather than talk are as sharp as his singing. If Lerner and Loewe had seen St. Laurence, Freddy rather than Henry might have won Eliza (Shaw,of course, left the ending deliciously ambiguous in his play "Pygmalion," upon which the musical is based). Donna Sorbello makes a very elegant Mrs. Higgins and beautifully understates her weariness with son Henry's manners. Beth Gotha is a solid housekeeping Mrs. Pearce. R. Michael Wresinski is sadly under-whelming much of the time as Colonel Hugo Pickering, Eliza's relative champion as Higgins transforms her. Reagle audiences have grown accustomed to strong work from Pfisterer, but her acting here is not as loverly as her singing. For this edition of "My Fair Lady," I could have listened to St. Laurence sing and Walker dance all night.

Billy Eliot the Musical (Opera House, Boston thru August 19 - 617-931-2787, www.broadwayboston.com;  The Bushnell, Hartford (CT), June 18-23,2013, www.bushnell.org )
For Genai Veal, Billy Elliot is a role model. The 11 year old actress-dancer from Patterson, New Jersey feels that "'Billy Elliot' has expressed dance a lot more for kids." Now a sixth grader playing one of the English ballet girls alongside whom Elliot trains in the musical, Genai had what she called Billy' s "feeling of dance" when she was very young. In fact, Veal began her study at the age of two. Now she speaks so eloquently about her own training and the show- at the Opera House through Sunday(617-931-2787) - that she could be a role model herself.  Veal spoke passionately about her the wide range of her study. "I've studied tap, jazz, musical theater, contemporary , hip-hop, lyrical and modern dance," she detailed. That diversity has served her well in "Billy Elliot." "We(the ballet girls) do a mix of ballet and jazz and tap," she noted. Genai was so proficient at tap that she entered a New Jersey dance competition at the age of nine. "I was chasing a jacket(part of first place like the Masters jacket in golf) and I was doing a tap solo. Veal won, receiving both the jacket and a trophy plaque. In another competition ,she danced a jazz solo and gained the title of Little Miss Showbiz. Later she went on to nationals in Orlando , where she danced another tap solo and came in third. Genai is very proud of her efforts."I've also won a lot of special awards, " she added: fastest feet , highest kicks and overhead kicks, among others. Just as with Billy Elliot, Veal received encouragement from a grandmother. 'My Grandma Letha Veal took me to my first dance class," she noted. Also, her mother was fully supportive. "My Mom Genea was a dancer and a singer too and played piano,' she said. "I play piano." Genea singled out the Billy second act solo number "Electricity" for praise." "I feel that when people see" Electrictity" they can relate to that as good dancing with all the jumps." As for her own ballet girl ensemble demands, she particularly likes the advisory as Billy returns home to "act as though one of your best friends is coming back for vacation and be excited that he's coming back home." Asked about the frequent positioning of the children at center stage with the adults around them, Genai offered," I think the reason they put all the kids in the middle of the adults is because they (the kids) know more about dance. It's an encouragement to the adults." "Billy Elliot The Musical" is a show that celebrates solidarity and understanding between children and adults. As in the film, Billy discovers that dancing is his inner passion and opts for dance lessons instead of sports training. Initially only his grandmother and ballet school teacher Mrs. Wilkinson support and encourage that passion, while his clueless miner Dad and brother Tony discourage him at every turn. Set during the era of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the show directly confronts the poverty and despair of largely marginalized miners. With snappy music by Elton John and strikingly vivid book and lyrics by Lee Hall, "Billy Elliot" brings its unassuming but determined young hero's dream to touching realization. At the same time, Dad's love for Billy grows to embrace his son's passion for dance. Child and adult theatergoers alike will embrace the show with all its riches, especially Peter Darling's soaring choreography and the strong touring cast -kudos to director Stephen Daldry and assistant director Julian Webber. Kylend Hetherington is impassioned and properly vulnerable as Billy. His turns and jumps are exciting, and his reading of his late Mother's "Dear Billy Letter" will rightly break your heart. Rich Hebert is convincingly tenacious as Dad. Janet Dickinson is strikingly undaunted as demanding teacher Mrs. Wilikinson. The ensemble ballet girls and the ensemble miners are equally sharp throughout the show.The "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher" is almost as much of a satiric hoot as on Broadway. Make sure you stay for the entire stirring curtain routine. Genai would like to take her own sharp work with a variety of routines to New York someday. 'I would like to study with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company,"she said. "I would like to dance in film and on TV, " she added.

Deported: A Dream Play (Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, through April 1. www.Bostonplaywrights.org or 617-353-5443)
The Nazis predicted that the world would not be outraged by their planned Final Solution for the Jews. After all, they said, the world had not been outraged by the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. If many countries still do not officially recognize the Armenian genocide-the United States included (though 43 of the 50 states do), the Shoah Foundation Institute (at USC) very much does. Two years ago, it signed an historic agreement with the Armenian Film Foundation-with the result that hundreds of testimonies to the 1915-1923 killings have becoming part of the Institute’s visual history archive. Now Armenian American playwright Joyce Van Dyke is focusing on the collecting of such archives by a Jewish archivist in a fact-based drama called “Deported: A Dream Play,” in a Boston Playwrights’ Theatre world premiere at the Modern Theatre. In “Deported,” an Armenian-American woman named Victoria (based on Van Dyke’s grandmother Elmas Boyajian) had no outlet for such testimony to her own experience before the 1978 arrival of a Jewish archivist named Shoshana Epstein at her Los Angeles home. Epstein , who tells Victoria about her own Holocaust-surviving parents and their accounts, persuades the former Armenian actress to bear witness to Turkish atrocities. At the start of the play, Victoria has nightmares about the Armenian genocide. Her husband Harry has his own terrible memories but keeps them inside. As Victoria agrees to provide testimony for a UCLA archive , open to all people, Epstein tells Harry that Victoria has evidence of the Armenia n genocide. While Victoria wishes to make her memories of family and friend Varter (based on Varter Nazarian Deranian, Boyajian’s own close friend) come alive with such testimony, Harry –bitter about the longstanding Turkish denial of the genocide-opposes such revelations. Harry argues that Shoshana’s people now have Israel but that Armenians-years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the establishment of An Armenian republic- have no country . Eventually Van Dyke reveals that Harry’s bitterness also includes his continuing grief for the loss of a previous wife and children. As a dream play, “Deported” includes not only Victoria’s nightmares about killings and Turkish deportation orders but also dream-like memories of shared happy Armenian experiences. Through the vivid circle and line dances of choreographer Apo Ashjian, “Deported” recalls a rich culture going back thousands of years. Also credit Molly Trainer’s costumes, which complement the Armenians’ ethnic tapestry.There is even a dreamy memory of the wedding celebration of Varter and her adoring bridegroom Nazarian, a ceremony that also keeps Armenian life vital for Victoria as an American citizen. Actually Van Dyke’s play seems to devote less time to the enormity of the genocide than to Victoria’s desire to capture the grace, warmth and goodness of Varter for all time. To the playwright’s credit, “Deported” does devote valuable stage time to ethnic customs and values. At the same, the memories of Turkish atrocities need fuller space. Van Dyke understandably looks to a brighter future where Armenians and Turks can coexist. In that 21st century future, Shoshana’s own daughter Ruby falls in love with an Armenian. Unfortunately, the dream-dominated finale makes that future seem too rosy in the light of the Turkish government’s ongoing denial of the killing of one and a half million Armenians. That overly rosy vision clearly bothered at least one Armenian theatergoer at a post-performance talkback. “Deported,” as worthy as it is as a timely reminder of the Armenian genocide, ought to provide the kind of context and detail that make Arthur Miller “Incident at Vichy” a haunting Holocaust drama. Van Dyke’s play would also be a stronger play if the final vision were more ambivalent about understanding between young Armenians and Turks. What carries the play more than its worthy subject matter is a very compelling cast under Judy Braha’s attentive direction. Bobbie Steinbach moves convincingly from Victoria’s torment about her unresolved past to her satisfaction with pleasant memories about time spent with Varter. She also catches her character’s accent as actress Victoria recalls a vivid speech as eccentric medium Madame Arcati in an Armenian version of the Noel Coward comedy “Blithe Spirit.” Ken Baltin has Harry’s rage and bitterness in the early going and his later profound sadness and pain about the loss of his first wife and family. Jeanine Kane combines Varter’s elegance as a bride and vulnerability as an Armenian in harm’s way. Liz Hayes finds Shoshana’s respect for Victoria and later plays Ruby as she enjoys Armenian culture with the man she loves. Mark Cohen is a standout ranging from a callous Turkish ambassador to a sensitive Turkish soldier and his fair-minded descendant Cem. During the talk back, Jewish Steinbach observed, “What I love about this play is that there’s such a beautiful culture here.” Van Dyke has beautifully evoked the Armenian culture in “Deported.” Perhaps in time she will be able to succeed as fully in depicting the brutality that victimized her ancestry.

BENT -  to be gay and in love in Nazi Germany. (Hovey Players, 9 Spring St., Waltham - www.hoveyplayers.com) Martin Sherman was enraged by Greenwich Village gays wearing Nazi uniforms as avant-garde fashion in the 1970s. That anger served as a catalyst for the gay Jewish writer’s 1978 play “Bent,” a pioneering work about the incarceration and murder of thousands of German gays between 1933 and 1945.  Ultimately Sherman ’s powerful if flawed play did much to bring attention to yet another brutal chapter in the history of the Third Reich. Now Hovey Players is staging the still-potent drama about identity and love with impressive care as part of its 75th anniversary season. Set in Berlin and Dachau during the 1930s, “Bent” focuses on the fortunes of Max, Rudy and Horst, three very different gay men. Hedonist Max lives beyond his means in Berlin and struggles to pay rent to his Jewish landlord Abraham Rosen. Dancer Rudy, a fragile soul, is not likely to survive without boyfriend Max. In fact, once they are arrested and put on a train for Dachau , Rudy becomes the victim of sadistic Nazis. Max meets Horst on the camp-bound train, and their relationship evolves through the second act, which is set in Dachau . Horst, never hiding his identity, wears the pink triangle assigned to gays. Max and Horst move from antagonism to understanding and finally love while moving piles of rocks back and forth at Dachau without any real purpose. What brings purpose to the play is Max’s evolving self-image. Determined to survive the ravages of the Third Reich and avoid the rough treatment accorded to gays, he does something on the train to Dachau to show the Nazis that he is not ‘bent,’ slang for homosexual. Wearing the yellow star, he pretends to be Jewish, assuming he would have less chance to survive Dachau if he were seen as gay. Gradually Max moves away from this kind of selfish pretense and develops a sense of responsibility to others. He makes a conscious effort to save Horst as well as himself. He even gains respect for his old landlord, Rosen, as he sees him in the Jewish barracks at the concentration camp. As the stronger and tighter second act unfolds, Sherman has Max and Horst confront the formidable challenges to their respective identities and their love. Will the two inmates be able to express their feelings in the face of Nazi laws against men kissing and even touching? Will Max continue to hide the fact that he is gay? Will Max and Horst have a real future together? “Bent” moves from early unevenness to a haunting conclusion as Max and Horst face individual moments of truth at Dachau.  Director Mark Usher pays painstaking attention to Sherman ’s themes and insights, bolstered by the strong work of the three leads. Evan Bernstein captures Max’s cavalier attitude toward Berlin and the perils of the Reich in the first act and his growing maturity and self-awareness at Dachau . Ian Schleifer finds all of Horst’s intense feeling as well as his remarkable courage. The two scenes in which their characters imaginatively express their love are standouts. Kevin Morin does well evoking Rudy’s grace and vulnerability. The supporting players are an uneven mix. Ed Siegal is effectively understated as Max’s discreetly gay Uncle Freddie, but Kurt Lusas unimpressive as a Nazi captain. Will Todisco has his moments as cynical drag queen Greta, and so it goes for Ashley Cough and Victoria Taylor as Jewish peasants. Set designer Doug Cooper incorporates scenic artist Heather Daley’s posters and historical items in the backdrop material, including such details as references to the executed gay storm trooper Ernst Rohm and the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The set crew wear brown shirts outfitted with swastikas, reinforcing the mood of the period. “Bent” may take its time conveying its messages about love and the human spirit, but Hovey Player’s posture-perfect presentation should more than reward audience patience.

THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY: (Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through December 19. 617-585-4678 or www.lyricstage.com.) Charles Dickens is the great tailor of literature. Bringing together a multitude of characters and plots-large and small,. he gradually sews them together into a unique tapestry of life. “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” like all of his world-rich novels-, bears the genius and vision of a master designer. The masterful adaptation of “Nickleby” – here newly revised by David Edgar to a six-hour length- would surely intimidate any of the Hub’s best directors, but Lyric Stage Company of Boston artistic director has wisely approached the stage version and the multiple messages of Dicken’s always-timely novel with labor of love care. The result is a luminous achievement and an unforgettable must-see premiere. Director Veloudos keeps all of the themes in sharp relief-the indictment of 1830’s English education that echoes in similar American failings; the limbo life of the poor, the homeless and the underemployed that also resonates today; the embrace of generosity of spirit and human fellowship that ought to be more common today as well. Dickens would be particularly proud of the scenes in which the friendship of Nicholas and Smike proves as rich as Scrooge’s money box in “A Christmas Carol and the wonderfully evoked kindness of the Cheeryble brothers-portrayed with proper dynamism by Larry Coen as Charles and Joseph Marrella as Ned.  Also credit Janie E. Howland’s varied sets, Scott Clyve’s nuanced lighting and especially Rafael Jaen’s amazing costume design, as inspired in its own way as Dickens’ fictional world. Jack Cutmore-Scott catches Nicholas’ rite of passage awakening to the good and the evil that war around him constantly. Will Lyman, smartly understating his Uncle Ralph’s calculation and coldness in the early going, turns in an amazing portrayal that will haunt you. Nigel Gore brilliantly moves between the corrupt, petty villain Squeers to the scary predator Sir Mulberry Hawk. Jason Powers, a true find for the Hub, is heartbreakingly vulnerable and fragile as emotionally and physically challenged young Smike. Other standouts are Peter Carey’s majestic friend par excellence Newman Noggs, Kerry A Dowling as nasty Mrs. Squeers and loving Mrs. Crummles and Elizabeth A. Rimar as Nicholas’ world-weary sister Kate.  If only the ills and misfortunes of everyday people could be resolved as assuredly as they are in a Dickens novel. Until then, make the most of the fine fabric of “Nicholas Nickleby” and the Lyric Stage’s hand-made artistry.

WICKED: (Broadway Across America-Boston,Opera House, Boston thru 10/17. 617-931-2787 or www.broadwayacrossamerica.com/boston.)  "Wicked" may be over-praised as a musical, but its current edition at the Opera is very deserving. Under Joe Mantello's sharp direction and with Wayne Cilento's crisp musical staging, the Winnie Holzman book reaches the right sense of wonder . Jackie Burns brings a remarkable blend of vulnerability, pathos and tenacity to her portrayal of the enigmatic green witch Elphaba and properly belts the flashy first curtain closer “Defying Gravity.” Chandra Lee Schwartz needs to be less likeable in the early going as self –centered ‘good witch’ Glinda, but most of the cast are strong - including winning Richard H. Blake as Elphaba’s seemingly cavalier boyfriend Fiyero. Randy Danson develops Madame Morrible's insensitivity and growing nastiness effectively. Richard Kline has the right world weariness and pathos as the oversold Wizard. The tour rightly catches the sweep and evocative detail of Eugene Lee's inspired settings. Kenneth Posner's radiant lighting and Susan Hilferty's colorful period costumes complete the show's vibrant design. Like Glinda’s signature song, “Wicked” is quite popular. Even so, Stephen Schwartz’s uneven score does not prove anywhere near as inspired as Holzman’s evocative adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s novel or Lee’s magical sets. Still, this tour is so wizard-worthy that it virtually dances through life at the Opera House.

PARADISE LOST:  (American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA) "Paradise Lost" seems as resonant and timely during the current Great Recession as it must have seemed when Clifford Odets wrote it during the Great Depression. On an individual level, handbag designer Leo Gordon struggles to keep his integrity as he debates with partner Sam Katz about how to keep their company successful without compromising their reputation. While Leo’s wife Clara never wavers in her loyalty to her husband, Leo does question whether he has done enough for his workers. For that matter, both wonder whether they have done enough for their sons Ben and Jules and daughter Pearl.  On a national level, the 16 million unemployed in “Paradise Lost” call to mind similar numbers today. The same goes for young people finding it hard to succeed in the play and the present. Throughout, Odets' humanism embraces all of his characters no matter what their shortcomings and ambivalences .  Director Daniel Fish captures the play's complexity and rich humanity in a disarmingly spare American Repertory Theatre production. The spare approach works. Initially ,set designer Andrew Lieberman positions building materials stage right to reflect the aspirations of the Gordons. Soon the materials become a home, but third act changes connect with the looming eviction. Joshua Thorson’s multi-faceted video design includes a hopeful home movie-like sequence about the marriage of Ben and family friend Gus Michael’s daughter Libby. Screen projections also catch the ups and downs of the Gordons, the other people in their lives and America at large. Fish may include a modern item like a treadmill , but the associations between the Depression and the present are kept to a subtle minimum in a production that always steers clear of didactic parallels. Fish’s care extends as well to a strong cast. David Chandler has Leo’s caring as a father and self-doubts as a businessman. Sally Wingert captures wife Clara’s devotion and her attention to her children-most notably as she goes over the bible stories of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Calf in the third act with now wheel chair-bound Jules. Hale Appleman has former runner Ben’s grace and his ambivalence about life. T. Ryder Smith does well catching Jules’ sensitivity as well as his fragility. Thomas Derrah is a standout as good-natured and insightful Gus . Jonathan Epstein has the right fire and tenacity as Sam. The over-ambitious plotting of “Paradise Lost” may sometimes frustrate even a director as imaginative and talented as Fish. Some theatergoers may lose patience with the play’s wide-ranging first act exploration. They would be wise, though, to hold on for the dramatic fireworks of the second act and the telling ambiguity of the third. There is much to bless in A.R.T.’s bountiful “Paradise Lost.”

DREAMGIRLS: (National tour, presented by Broadway Across America. Colonial Theatre, Boston through February 14.  And I am telling you, you are going to the sublime revival of "Dreamgirls" and you are going to love it.  Blessed with a big-voiced ensemble, this tour fulfills the dreams of any fan-and there must be legions of them-of Tom Eyen's snappy lyrics and Henry Krieger's alternately funky and romantic melodies. Director-choreographer Robert Longbottom -with the assistance of co-choreographer Shane Sparks-pay great tribute to the late gifted dance innovator Michael Bennett with sharply danced numbers throughout- with 'Steppin' to the Bad Side' a virtual showstopper enhanced by William Ivey Long's eye-catching costumes and Ken Billington's highly imaginative lighting. It will be hard for excited theatergoers to say goodbye to a revival this entertaining and riveting.  "Dreamgirls" continues to focus on everyday dreams and the challenges- especially as they resonate with greater urgency in our current great recession-that make them so formidable. Moya Angela as Effie does bring a powerhouse of a voice to the first act-closing 'And I AM Telling You I'm Not Going" and generally captures the songbird's great spirit; she could, though, bring more vulnerability to the sometimes harried character in the early going. Syeesha Mercado smartly defines Diana Ross-like Deena's second act odyssey to a future that gives her more empowerment. Chester Gregory is an arresting standout as James "Thunder" Early with moves to the stage floor that recall the amazing agility of James Brown and high notes that bring to mind a charismatic singer like Al Green. Chaz Lamar Shepherd brings pathos to scheming agent Curtis Taylor as well as the right degree of domineering.  All America are family where hopes and aspirations are concerned, and this edition of "Dreamgirls" has the kind of Cadillac quality that will make all audiences care. It is quite simply a dream of a show.

FENCES: (Huntington Theatre Company, Boston). August Wilson, the late bard of 20th century African- American life, often seemed to look to biblical figures for inspiration. In his 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner “Fences,” Troy Maxson repeatedly speaks of wrestling with Death-an image in stark contrast to Jacob’s successful match with a mysterious figure – thought to be either man or angel- for which the Jewish forefather was rewarded with the name Israel. In this blues-orchestrated family drama set in 1957, an embittered Troy also wrestles with prejudice-ridden Pittsburgh (and, by extension, America). His brave wife, Rose, discovering that Troy apparently loces another woman more, may call to mind Jacob’s Leah. Just as Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, Troy finds more song and pleasure in the other (here unseen) woman’s bed than in Rose’s. Troy’s troubled brother Gabriel means to blow a horn of new opportunity , but tough love patriarch Troy puts obstacles in the way of his dream-deferred son Cory. Thanks to Kenny Leon, a sharp veteran director of Wilson’s work, the family fireworks prove explosive and very moving. with Huntington Theatre Company, itself very familiar with the great dramatist’s singular repertoire. John Beasley makes the most of Troy’s fence-creating abusiveness to his family. Crystal Fox, commanding as anchor-like Rose, brings great passion to the selfless wife’s pivotal demand for a fence to hold in her family. Bill Nunn finds all of Gabriel’s sadness and despair . and Warner Miller Cory’s undying reserves of hope Huntington’s searing “Fences” makes Wilson’s insights about work, life, death and love a winning bout.

CHICAGO: (Colonial Theatre, Boston). Chicago has brought its class back to Boston. Another welcome tour of the 1997 best musical revival Tony winner is visiting the Colonial Theatre, this time with Broadway regular Tom Wopat.  Nominated for two Tony Awards-for the male lead in "Annie Get Your Gun" (this critic saw Wopat sing with striking resonance and dance and perform with great presence as sharpshooter Frank Butler opposite the equally fine Bernadette Peters in the title role) and the role of Tom in last season's "A Catered Affair") , Wopat is reprising the role of elegant if slick criminal lawyer Billy Flynn, who transforms murdering housewife and nightclub singer Roxie Hart into a tabloid celebrity as he defends her. As always, Hub fans of the six Tony Award-winning revival-directed by Broadway veteran Walter Bobbie and choreographed by famed Bob Fosse dancer Ann Reinking (who starred in the show herself) -will be treated to the focal competition between Hart and her equally tenacious cellmate Velma Kelly and the tuneful Kander and Ebb score-including such standout numbers as "All That Jazz" and "Mr Cellophane. " Orchestrations are by Ralph Burns, and music direction is by Rob FIsher.  Some shows are like too much sweet candy-best enjoyed at long intervals. "Chicago"-with its story as timely as today's headlines, its stylish design and more crack dance numbers than most shows, is one musical of which this critic (and probably most musical lovers) never has enough.

BOZ SCAGGS: (Wilbur Theatre; standards from new album Speak Low, Boz Scaggs, Decca Label, 2008). Boz Scaggs fans have waited five years for the unique singer-songwriter to release another album featuring standards from the American Song Book, but their patience has been richly rewarded-both with the recording itself and his November Wilbur Theatre concerts (the evening one seen by this critic). The great lowdown is that his voice has kept its wonderful combination of resonance and lush huskiness. In a dense 80- minute set that occasionally returned to hits like "We're All Alone"-cleverly paired with the wistful classic "Some Other Time"- and celebrated perennial gems like Carminchael's "Skylark,"which sported a strong saxopone solo from Bob Sheppard, Scaggs achieved singular intimacy with his audience and a stunning synthesis of feeling and technique.  Arranger -pianist Gil Goldstein displayed equal gifts on the accordion, notably on a bossa nova -breezy rendition of the Jobim chestnut "Dindi. " The eclectic repertoire ranged from a haunting take on the Bronislaw Kaper standout "Invitation" to a sumptuous Scaggs vocal on "Save Your Love for Me." Mixing jazz, R & B, blues and pop stylings with his usual care and craft, the Boz demonstrated that he remains one of the most important voices in contemporary American music.

ROCK N' ROLL: (Huntington Theatre Company in co-production with American Conservatory Theatre., Boston University Theatre, through December 13. 617-266-0800).  What if Tom Stoppard had returned home after World War II?  After all, the Jewish Czech-born playwright fled the 1938 Nazi invasion of his native land as a child (then not even two years old) along with his family. After his widowed mother Martha Straussler ( his doctor father Eugene dying in a Singapore prison camp) remarried, son Tomas adopted both English citizenship and the family name of her British army major second husband, Kenneth Stoppard. All of this background kicks in with Stoppard persona Jan in "Rock 'N' Roll," his recent Broadway hit, now in a vibrantly unplugged New England premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company in co-production with San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre. Leave it to Stoppard-arguably the finest British playwright since the late 20th century- to employ the title music as not only an inspired metaphor but also a frame of reference for his simultaneously heartfelt and cerebral look at culture as politics and brilliant depiction of Jan's personal transformation. Musical groups as diverse as The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd-especially recently passing front man Syd Barrettt- and U-2 enrich this provocative chronicle of more than two decades of Czech history-from the 1968 invasion of then Czechoslovakia by Russian troops under the Warsaw pact to the 1990 withdrawal of Soviet troops and the full establishment of the Czech Republic. World famous American and British groups aside, the pivotal band in "Rock 'N' Roll" is a actually a real Czech one named Plastic People of the Universe.  Plastic People of the Universe-or PPU as they are called in the later going- stand as a symbol of the rebellion that eventually brings the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the rise of man of letters Vaclav Havel to the presidency of the republic. They are also the favorite group of lecturer-journalist Jan, who initially sees more clout in rock 'n' roll than in his Czech dissenter friend Ferdinand's varied petitions. Even so, Jan is no apologist for despots like Stalin, who-he reminds his Communist Cambridge University mentor Max Morrow- killed more of his own people than the Nazis did. Jan never forgets running away from the invading Nazis in 1938- just as Stoppard's own family did, yet early on he does not demonstrate individual heroism and seems to cooperate with interrogators and government officials.  As more and more human rights violations affect the people around him and even Plastic People, Jan has a timely awakening and eventually signs one of Ferdinand's petitions. Finally he recognizes that even his cherished group PPU cannot find a kind of separate peace when government officials consider musical dissidents as dangerous or suspect as strictly political ones. Stoppard's ongoing use of this very real association between the cultural and the political underground in Czechoslovakia gives his highly inventive play a thematic unity that also catches fire in the vivid characterizations of Jan and Morrow's fascinating daughter Esme-who moves from first act pregnancy (in a commune at age 19) and great uncertainty about her future to second act responsible motherhood and the determination to stop trying to please everyone else and ignore those who patronize her for not fulfilling her academic potential. A.C.T. artistic director Carey Perloff, acclaimed for her work with other major Stoppard plays (for example, the recent inspired American premiere of "The Invention of Love," has kept the various contrasts in this panoramic work- the dissent of a free England and the surveillance of a Communist Czechoslovakia, the evolving thought of Jan and the unchanging ideology of Max, the melodic but relatively unreflective music of the Beach Boys and the raucous but freshly iconoclastic material of the Plastic People, to name a few-satisfyingly clear. She also sharply paces the personal odysseys of Jan and Esme, in part with the considerable help of a strong design team. Douglas W. Schmidt's well-detailed sets open up from all sides of the Huntington stage, unfolding with as much variety as the events and relationships of all the characters' lives. Robert Wierzel incisive lighting complements the play's political and personal revolutions.  Perloff does equally well with a strong cast. Manuel Feliciano has the right combination of feeling and intellectual rigor as Jan. His delineation of the vital if vulnerable lecturer's transformation is always convincing. Rene Augesen, heartwrenchingly good as Max's cancer-stricken classics-teaching wife Eleanor, proves just as affecting as the older Esme of the second act. Jack Willis makes a very welcome return to Boston as Max- catching all of his tenacity and uncompromising candor. Stoppard's discursive brilliance often brings to mind George Bernard Shaw (for instance, talk of heresy here recalling the latter's "Joan of Arc") -to some a double edge sword of affinity. Is "Rock 'N' Roll" too much of a play of ideas or-as this critic would argue-an often sublime synthesis of heart and mind? While it may not rise quite as high as Stoppard's "Arcadia" or "The Invention of Love" in its execution, it does play out a fiery epiphany of free exchange. The arrival of the Rolling Stones in Prague brings on a sparkling lightfest in Stoppard's play. The Huntington -A.C,.T. collaboration on 'Rock 'N'' Roll" proves just as electric.

IN THE CONTINUUM: (Up You Mighty Race, Boston Center for the Arts)Up You Might Race is opening its new residency at the Boston Center for the Arts in the best weay possible-with a very gripping play entitled "In the Continuum" ferociously and tautly staged in the venue's highly intimate Black Box Theatre by artistic director Akiba Abaka. Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter's demanding and eye-opening cautionary drama smartly alternates between the different but essentially paralllel odysseys and fortunes of Los Angeles misfit Nia and Zimbabwe television newswoiman and wife Abigail, both living with AIDS. Ramona Lisa Alexander brings singular vitality and vulnerability to the role of Nia yet also captures the toughness and resolve of her mother-in-law as the latter protects her controversial sports-talented son, a kind of cross between Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant. Lindsey McWhorter catches all of the dignity and growing anxiety of Abigail. Abaka makes the most of the unusual space, particularly as the actresses bring the immediacy of the AIDS crisis and their individual ordeals up close and personal between rows and virtually in the face of theatergoers.  "In the Continuum" brilliantly suspends judgment about its exploited and largely abandoned heroines and calls poignantly for understanding and human solidarity. Up You Mighty Race's hard-drivingly compelling production is a must see.

 EURYDICE: (New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Performing Arts, Watertown). So many writers have approached the story of Orpheus from the mythological musician's point of view that Sarah Ruhl's decision to focus on Eurydice herself in this recent Off-Broadway effort is most welcome. Surprisingly, though, she seems to have concentrated more on her father than on her- depicting his inner struggle to bond with her more profoundly even in death and not really doing justice to the love couple's passion and emotional intensity. Many audience members may be touched more by her father's sacrifices in trying to be near her than by the curiously unmemorable dialogue and moments of intimacy between Orpheus and Eurydice. In fact, Orpheus comes across as a fairly conventional and certainly uncharismatic spouse rather than the dynamic and singular character known to avid readers and seasoned theatergoers. Eurydice thankfully fairs better, but only with her father as he protects and cares for her-especially in the underworld. Compounding the problem is the playwright's need to turn the Lord of the Underworld into an immature rascal riding a whimsical takeoff on a tricycle one moment and walking on stilts the next. Rounding out the gimmicky are three talking stones- a nature-bound variation on the Greek chorus- played by competent child actors.  The cast, notwithstanding the painstaking if sometimes slow-paced efforts of artistic director Rick Lombardo, are as mixed as the play. Zillah Glory brings a fair measure of spirit and earnestness to Eurydice, but Brian Bielawski is often as bland as this uneven drama in his expressiion and delivery of dialogue.. The real standout here is Ken Baltin. who artfully captures Father's combination of wistfulness about his closeness to his daughter in life and dissatisfaction with the rules, restrictions and austerity of the Underworld. Brian Quint does his considerable best to make the Underworld lord more of a colorful character than a caricature. Ruhl's lively "Clean House," handsomely appointed at New Rep last season , was a warm and winning indication of a striking young talent. "Eurydice" -even with Jamie E. Howland's poetic scenic design and Deb Sullivan's impressive lighting- suggests that she needs to look back to the real life of her earlier success for guidance.

FALSETTOS: (Turtle Lane Playhouse, Newton thru 19/12.  617/244-0169). Much before "13" (officially opening October 5 at New York's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre) , there was "Falsettos."  Where the new Jason Robert Brown musical will focus in considerable part on fictional former New Yorker Evan Goldman's thoughts, feelings and evolving perceptions of his upcoming bar mitzvah in Appleton ,Indiana, its 1992 predecessor looks at different types of growing up-the maturation of bar mitzvah -to-be Jason and the growth journey of his father Marvin. Natick native William Finn (originally Finstein) and co-author James Lapine smartly looked at the family's difficult odyssey to understanding largely through Jason's eyes, though the former's warm and witty score ( a very deserving Tony Award winner) fittingly gave ample room to the insights of the musical's varied characters. Turtle Lane Playhouse, under the strong direction of Russell Greene, has risen to the challenges of this still-striking show with a spirit not unlike that of the bar mitzvah, and the result is a revival as sharp as the musical's observations about life, love and mortality.  If the 1980's set "Falsettos" refers to the Israelites' liberation from slavery at the Red Sea actually, of course, the Sea of Reeds) -here with red sheets splitting, the allusion clearly sets the tone for an on-going quest for freedom that takes several forms. Marvin, a caring father and hitherto a devoted husband, has realized that he is gay and moves in with his younger yet in many ways more mature lover Whizzer. Trina, for her part, finds emotional fulfillment with therapist Mendel ,who sees Marvin and eventually Jason as well. The wise bar mitzvah gradually bonds more firmly with each of his parents yet also connects with half-Jewish Whizzer, especially in deciding how to celebrate his upcoming rite of passage in the most meaningful way possible. Rounding out the show's eclectic extended family are AIDS-fighting Dr. Charlotte and her nouvelle cuisine caterer life partner Cordelia.  Although Marvin and Trina find true peace of mind apart, they respectively struggle with moments of dissatisfaction and bitterness as each begins a new commitment- Marvin as Trina marries Mendel and Trina as her ex-husband reunites with Whizzer after a rough stretch in their relationship. .Jason early on declares that his father and mother "fail as parents," but time (here about two years between act one and act two) and soul-searching ensure that the love between them with only grow and thrive even in the face of impossible ordeals- in particular Whizzer's discovery that he suffers from AIDS. The three couples and the respective developments of their pairings may seem much neater and clear-cut to contemporary audiences than they did to 1992 ones. As fine as Finn's heartfelt score is, some theatergoers may find the second act numbers even more compelling-particularly Marvin's signature "What More Can I Say," sung with sweetness and intensity by vocally gifted James A. Fitzpatrick III and Whizzer's haunting "You Gotta Die Sometime,' delivered with stunning nobility by Ronald Pompeo ,Jr. Fitzpatrick artfully captures Marvin's early petulance and later understanding. Pompeo has all of Whizzer's vulnerability and feeling.  Jimmy Larkin as Jason evokes the right combination of directness and geeky intelligence in both gesture and vocal inflection. Kate deLima catches Trina's earthiness and remarkable candor-most notably in her powerhouse rendition of her character's dramatic standout "I'm Breaking Down" on top of her kitchen table. Robert Mattson does well with Mendel's passion for Trina and his mix of platitudes and real perception in Finn and Lapine's insights about therapists. Jaime Steinbach is wonderfully undaunted as Dr. Charlotte, and her reflective duet with Jessica Shulman McGettrich-very convincing as Cordelia- proves a virtual showstopper.  Mendel and Jason individually ask God for a miracle to save Whizzer from AIDS. For their part, Greene and an impressive cast have handily pulled off an ambitious and richly successful revival of "Falsettos" that reaffirms Finn and Lapine's enduring testament to love and menschlikheit. 

THE DEVIL'S MUSIC: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith: (Penguin Repertory Company production, Cape Playhouse, Dennis, MA).  Art imitated life with the "Empress of the Blues." A tough chidhood, an abuse-ridden marriage, the loss of an adopted son at the hands of a home-wrecking husband and flamboyant living all found a kind of cathartic release in such Bessie Smith gems as " I Ain't Got Nobody," "Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do" and "St. Louis Blues." Gifted actress-singer Miche Braden captures the diva and brings rich expression to her tragic life in Angelo Parra's informative and fairly dramatic play with music "The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith." With a trio of very talented musicians-Jim Hawkins on Bass, Scott Trent on piano and especially Anthony Nelson on tenor Sex in a Memphis-set 1937 nightspot (shortly before her untimely death-look to Edward Albee's early work that confronted the racism keeping her away from medical treatment after a terrible car accident), Braden captures the highs and the lows of Smith's turbulent life and sings with an intensity and a vrtuosity that truly do honor to the unique voice and excitement of this great musical influence ( on Holiday and Washington, among others) . Joe Brancato seamlessly directs this heart-wrenchingly moving tribute.

THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE: (Co-produced by North Shore Music Theatre with the Barrington Stage Company at Beverly, MA).  William Finn has a singular gift for articulating the p-a-n-d-e-m-o-n-i-u-m of adolescence. The talented Jewish Natick native son wrote and composed an insightful earlier Broadway musical “Falsettos” dealing with the impact of a divorce and the coming out of the father on a bar mitzvah-to-be, winning Tony Awards for the book and the score. More recently he teamed up with sharp author Rachel Sheinkin for another Tony winner (for her ingenious book), “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, “ focused on the challenges and struggles of six contenders in the title event. Spell the freshly inventive North Shore Music Theatre edition of this still-running New York hit- co-produced with Barrington Stage Company-a r-o-l-l-i-c-k-i-n-g triumph.

With additional material by Jay Reiss and the approval of Finn for references to such up-to-date items as the on-going Red Sox-Yankee rivalry and the recent John Edwards scandal, Sheinkin’s savvy book centers on the title competition as a metaphor for life itself and the dreams and disappointments of the very different outsiders in the school gymnasium-set annual contest as a microcosm for all humanity. Rounding out the diverse cast of characters are Douglas Panch, a returning quirky vice principal who provides humorous sentences containing the respective words, Rona Lisa Peretti, a popular previous winner, Mitch Mahoney, a young man fulfilling community service comforting losers and parents and other family members of the six.

For improvisatory fun, four audience members are regularly selected pre-performance to spell easy words like ‘cow’ and ‘Mexicans’ and misspell tougher ones. As with its similarly metaphorical predecessor “A Chorus Line,” there are vivid details about characters’ strengths and weaknesses and considerable sympathy for the earnest and determined competitors. If Finn’s score here does not quite rise to the tuneful power of “Falsettos,” it nevertheless taps into the angst and alienation that often accompany young people through childhood. Most importantly, Sheinkin’s writing and crack NSMT cast members do full justice to the diverse odysseys of the focal spellers. Jeffrey Dobrish, in his directing debut at NSMT, smartly blocks the bee, even moving the officials’ table frequently, an effect that reinforces the changes in the spellers’ fortunes. Broadway choreographer Knechtges, who had the cast cavorting breezily at Circle in the Square, keeps the generous ensemble sequences high-stepping.

Molly Ephraim, who favorably suggests a younger Natalie Portman, captures the heart and the deep vulnerability of Olive Ostrovsky, whose father has yet to arrive at the bee and pay her entrance fee. Eric Petersen, rightly over-confidant one moment and tentative the next as William Barfee (pronounced Barfay), who possesses ‘magic feet’ that write out the letters of his words before he spells them. There is wonderful chemistry between Ephraim and Petersen as contenders on the threshold of romance.

Hannah Delmonte brings impressive energy to gay activist Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre, whether bonding with her father and his partner or extending musical notes in moments of bravery. Emy Baysic effectively conveys the pressure over-achieving six language-speaking Marcy Park experiences. The sentence clue that Panch gives her for the spelling word ‘phylactery’ (tefilin) Clifton Guterman invests home-schooled bicyclist Leaf Coneybear with a striking combination of charm and frustration. Best of all is Miguel Cervantes (riveting as the title character in an earlier staging of “Bat Boy”), richly volatile as Boy Scout uniformed former bee winner Chip Tolentino. His run around the theater throwing goodies to audience members as a rueful loser and confronting his unrestrained attraction to Coneybear’s spectator sister is arguably the most hilarious segment in the musical.

Sally Wilfert sings resonantly about Peretti’s favorite moments in the bee and has all of her . Michael Mastro is appropriately stubborn and quirky as Panch. Demond Green displays a big voice as Mahoney.

GYPSY: (St. James Theatre, New York City. Open-ended run. 800-432-7250). If vaudeville performers had a dream in the early 1900's, it was to join Martin Beck's Orpheum Circuit and play the Palace Theatre.

Ambitious singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats and magicians and their driven agents understood that Beck, who made the circuit (1913-1932) a 36-city powerhouse of 45 theaters and turned the Palace into a vaunted showplace, could change people's lives. Indeed, such vaudeville talents like Milton Berle, Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, Harry Houdini ,the Marx Brothers, Sophie Tucker and Mae West became big stars and the proverbial stuff of legend.. This is the entertainment world of Jewish impresarios and diverse dreamers lovingly rendered by veteran Broadway author Arthur Laurents in a soaring revival of the great Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical "Gypsy" at the St. James Playhouse.

Inexhaustible Laurents, now 90 and readying his other great musical "West Side Story" for a Broadway return next February, has mounted the always wise and wonderful loosely based on real life story of alternately warm and scary stage matriarch Mama Rose and her very different daughters June and Louise with great care. Clearly an actor's director, Laurents has paid fitting attention to these vivid roles as well as that of Rose's boyfriend and atypical agent Herbie with the result that all four portrayals could be considered definitive. At the same- thanks to James Youmans' evocative sets, Martin Pakledinaz's expressive costumes and Howard Binkley's insightful lighting, the contrasts between the theaters to which the characters wander are sharp and telling.

In her own way, tenacious Mama Rose proves as memorable a parent as more sympathetic milkman Tevye in "Fidfdler on the Roof." Of course the latter ultimately does some bending for the sake of daughters Tzeitel and Hudel though not for intermarrying Chava, while June and Louise find it necessary to go around their unrelenting mother to achieve there fortunes. Still, both parents address God during their tumultuous respective odysseys- Tevye especially with the rise of pograms in Russia and Mama Rose as she confronts a variety of formidable challenges to the stardom of her daughters. If Tevye's dream in "If I Were a Rich Man" proves more rollicking, Mama's dramatic final "Rose's Turn" - as incandescent as the bright lights accentuating her drive in this edition- moves far beyond vicarious satisfaction.

Great musical actresses from Ethel Merman to Bernadette Peters have tackled the role of Mama Rose through the decades. This critic fondly remembers the tough portrayal of Tyne Daley, yet Patti Lupone's fiery version at the St. James-by turns bewitching, frightening and briefly vulnerable, may be the one for the ages. With superb phrasing on "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and 'Rose's Turn" and electrifying belting and note extension on the latter, she brilliantly captures all of the complexity and curious charisma that make Mama Rose one musical theater's greatest roles.

Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti are equally inspired in support. Gaine has all of Herbie's grace and tenderness with Lupone-particularly on "Small World' - yet does more than any other actor this critic has seen to demonstrate his fatherly closeness to Louise and determination to protect her. Benanti is heart-wrenchingly affecting as Louise-most notably on the plaintive "Little Lamb"-and stunningly self-affirming when she evolves into Gypsy Rose Lee-particularly in her dressing room at Minsky's (the then controversial. premiere burlesque house). Leigh Ann Larkin combines the right assertiveness and frustration as Dainty June (later to become impressive performer June Havoc ) , and Tony Yazbeck dances budding talent Tulsa's Theatre alley, Buffalo solo with style.

Marilyn Caskey as lit-up Electra is a hoot as a burlesque performer showing her age in a winning version of "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." Laurents artfully choreographs the moves of June, the Boys (her backup ensemble throughout) , Herbie and Lupone in the slapstick rich number "Have an Eggroll, Mr. Goldstone" as they all try to flatter this small-scale impresario into booking their act.

Mama Rose wrong-headedly tried to impose her dreams on June and Louise. By contrast, Laurents' luminous "Gypsy" has found home and fulfillment once again on Broadway.

QED: (Underground Railway Theatre presentation of the Catalyst Collaborative@ MIT production, Central Square Theatre, Cambridge, MA). A new theater is a cause for celebration in and of itself. The Central Square Theatre, actively inviting creative partnerships- here between Underground Railway Theatre and the Catalyst Collaborative @MIT in particular and artists and scientists in general, deserves added encouragement as a cultural springboard (Theatregoers looking for offerings with a singular vision will soon have the opportunity to see stagings by Underground's important sister group, the Nora Theatre Company).

Local playwright-director extraordinaire Jon Lipsky provides the handsome new theater with an auspicious inaugural production, a lively portait of brilliantly eclectic physicist Richard Feynman. If Peter Parnell's nearly one-man play (save for a female student who appears infrequently) seems to wander as much as its subject's curiosity and intellectual odyssey, nevertheless this Off-Broadway hit vividly captures this multi-interest Nobel Prize winner's striking synthesis of all things scientifc and personal. Keith Jochim, who should be familiar to area theatergoers from his stellar work at Merrimack Repertory Theatre and Trinity Repertory Theatre, moves with the kind of animation and panache that Feynman himself surely possessed. He richly catches the spirit and directness of the dynamic teacher explaining scientific principles on a blackboard, dressing and preparing for a small role in a production of "South Pacific and movingly speaks of the ailing and untimely passing of his wife. Danielle Kellerman does well with the small role of student Miriam Field.

"QED" makes quantum electrodynamics and the complexities of Feynman himself accessible to lay theatergoers. Jochim's tour de force performance and Lipsky's sharp direction take Parnell's sometimes conventional bio-drama to a higher plateau, doing honor in the process to the appealing new Central Square Theatre.

MUD: (Factory Theatre, The Piano Factory, Boston).  The Factory Theatre's inaugural production "Mud," unlike much summer fare, is blissfully unsafe and remnarkably riveting. Director Louisa Richards has brought Maria Irene Fornes' powerfully disturbing 1983 drama to the intimate Piano Factory and staged this three-character 70-minute standoff with chilling directness. With the psychological insight of a Joe Orton and the complex austerity of a Sam Shepard, Nine-time Obie winner Fornes uncompromisingly examines the dreams, disappointments , resentments and rages of everyday people. Richards has tautly captured both the poetry and the grim reality of hard-working and hitherto illiterate Mae, her emotionally bruised bedmate Lloyd and educated newcomer Henry, who falls in love with his mind as much as the man.

Janelle Mills finds all of Mae's singular dedication to her studies and her life goals as well as her growing alienation first from Lloyd and later from Henry. Particularly memorable are understated moments during which she captures the determined homemaker's painstaking efforts to pierce together simple words in a book about nature. Bob Mussett moves convincingly from Henry's confidence and judgmental approach to life strugglers like Lloyd to his striking vulnerability and pathos after a fall. Best is George Saulnier III's artfully delineated transformation from an intellectually frustrated and sexually unsatisfied pig raiser to a desperately volatile rival.

Tim Baumgartner's spare yet well-detailed set fully complements the play's unadorned observations.

The Factory Theatre means to be daring in its explorations and supportive of probing local talent. To the latter end, they are opening their inaugural program with a reading of short pieces by Carl Danielson. Ranging from a send-up of the television hit "Law and Order" to a sci-fi effort, these works in progress demonstrate the ample wit of a promising writer. As for the company's own mission, "Mud" brilliantly sloshes its way to pay dirt.

ASSASSINS: (Company One, Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts).  America's presidential assassins and would-be assassins seem as much of a melting pot as the country itself-male and female, native-born and immigrant, capitalist and Communist, gentile and Jewish.

Stephen Sondheim was obviously struck by that diversity and the curious affinities between the dreams and disappointments of that criminal group and law-abiding citizens when he composed the 1990 show "Assassins." Daring in its examination of the culprits themselves, it pushed the envelope of musical subject matter as much as its equally disquieting predecessor "Sweeney Todd." If the earlier effort still comes across as a more polished and tightly written work, "Assassins" nevertheless remains an important and visceral work, as demonstrated by Company One's dead-on revival at the Boston Center for the Arts.Artistic director Shaun LaCount has assembled a largely crack group to play the fascinating if troubled and lethal bunch of malcontents and sharply paced both the framing ensemble opening and closing scenes and the individual segments that by turns introduce each one and their respective situations and establish affinities between those with similar gripes and motives. Running through the busy but informative musical are Proprietor, who supplies both dark humor and ironic insight and Balladeer, who serves as a singular narrator and folkloric commentator. Christopher Ignacio has the right sardonic tone as Proprietor, especially providing guns and rifles to the title characters in the striking carnival booth-like opening number "Everybody's Got the Right." Nik Walker sings vibrantly and displays strong stage presence as Balladeer-most notably delivering "The Ballad of Booth" with David DaCosta both dashing and dastardly as the assassin that started it all.

One by one-and sometimes in pairs and other configurations- the infamous ensemble explain their respective versions of the truth. Booth, of course, speaks of Lincoln as "a bloody tyrant." Polish activist Leon Czolgosz, taking to the extreme Jewish social reformer Emma Goldman's tirades about the cruelty of fellow human beings, assassinates William McKinley as though he were the architect of the suffering which she decried. ( Though no murderer herself, the famous speaker seemed to condone his actions by not denouncing him.) Disgruntled Charles J. Guiteau, at the self-serving end of the rogues' spectrum, shoots James Garfield after being denied political office in his administration yet claims to be guided by God.

Unemployed Jewish tire salesman Samuel Byck , who fails to kill Richard Nixon, sees the President as the director of a conspiracy to oppress the poor. Early on, Byck- ironically dressed as Santa Clause, appears to speak for all of the assassins when he says that all he wants for the holiday are "my Constitutional rights"-not so much the rights involved with bearing arms ,though, but rather the 'rights' pertaining to carrying out their plans. Sondheim smartly provides balance through a Balladeer insight that sounds like a Founding Father dictum: "Angry men don't write the rules, and guns don't write the laws."

Fortunately,John Weidman does write a provocative book suggesting some overlap between the dreams of the murderers and those of down-trodden law-abiding Americans. That curious common ground and the snappy, musically diverse Sondheim score assure this sometimes wandering musical enduring timeliness and value.Jose Delgado's sharp musical direction complements LaCount's careful guidance to produce a sharp-shooting revival.

Besides Walker, Ignacio and DaCosta, most of the cast are on target. Mason Sand build's Byck's vivid soliloquy of despair and frustration-in which he even appeals to Leonard Bernstein to write love songs-to haunting rage. Ed Hoopman finds pathos as Czolgosz, and Mahoney is riveting if somewhat over the top as Guiteau. Elizabeth Rimer as upscale Saea Jane Moore and McCaela Donovan as Manson- idolizing Lynette"Squeaky" Fromme are winning together and separately as bumblers individually plotting against Gerald Ford. Jonathan Popp has his moments as Lee Harvey Oswald, though he needs more subtlety with the role. Meredith Stypinski is properly feisty as Goldman.

Sondheim and Weidman provide some timely food for thought about Americans who "can't get into the ballpark." Fittingly if unsurprisingly-for most of "Assassins"- LaCount and the richly consistent Company One send its unconventional wisdom over the fence.

JACK JONES: A Conversation in Song by Jules Becker

YOM KIPPUR: (Midtown International Theatre Festival, Abingdon Theatre Complex, New York (through August 2; festival running through August 10. 800-279-4200 or www.midtownfestival.org).  How important is Israel to American Jews?  While the answer to that question may ostensibly seem a no-brainer , recent research indicates that there are significant numbers of respondents who are profoundly ambivalent about their connection to the Jewish state. Such is the case with some ofr the four central characters in Meri Wallace's thoughtful and affecting new play "Yom Kippur" at New York's Midtown International Theatre Festival.

If the provocative world premiere begins in 1973 Jerusalem on the morning of the title holiday and soon confronts the start of the war of the same name (with the attack of Egypt and Syria), the focal two 20-something couples' diverse views about life in Israel and their responsibilities as new settlers certainly resonate today. American Jews-and Jews throughout the world, for that matter-continue to debate the nature of Israel's response to the terroism of Hamas and Hezbollah on the one hand and its involvement in peace talks on the other. As the Yom Kippur War begins, former Kibbutznick and artist Yitz kisses his pregnant former dancer wife Yael and leaves to join his unit, while his cellist best friend Ephraim, who admits to 'freezing under fire, speaks of obtaining a letter from a psychologist excusing him from enlisting.

Although this often touiching drama sometimes comes across as too episodic, with many quick scene changes from their two-bedroom apartment and a park bench to hospital room and air raid shelter, Wallace does well capturing the emotional roller coaster rides that Yael, her best friend Sara and Ephraim experience-first as they await the return of Yitz and later as harsh post-war realities call into question their evolving feelings about Aliyah and their respective futures in Israel. Loving new mother Yael worries about her son's future as the climate of violence and constant military struggle with Israel's neighbors hits home directly. Complicating further already difficult situations is Ephraim's obsession with Yael, whom- Sara fears- he has always loved more than her.

Strong-willed Yael tries to be as committed to Israel as she is to her young son . Her rich circle of friends prove to be both beneficial and challenging. Thirty year old Hadassah Hospital doctor Shlomo, himself an immigrant, supplies timely advice to her as well as Ephraim. Sara, for her part, never lets Ephraim's love for her best friend jeopardize her closeness to Yael. Evenso, an unexpected visit from Yael's cold and distant mother-in-law Bella and the latter's dark observations about the impact of Israel's wars on her family irrevocably shake her daughter-in-law's resolve.

Some theatergoers- this critic included, may feel that Yael is too tenacious a character to let a blunt but largely unsympathetic in-law like Bella persuade her to return to America. Others may see her decision as a logical consequence of her concerns as a mother. Still, 29 year old Avi, a pivotal Israeli army captain, provides a key note of optimism when he declares ,"I'm here. Israel is here. Come back." At the very least, Wallace's heartfelt play is likely to have audience members examining their own ties to Israel even as they consider the American immigrants' respective commitments and relationships.

Under Halina Ujda's crisp direction, a generally winning cast makes the most of the characters' journeys . Arela Rivas brings a compelling combination of toughness and warmth to heroine Yael. Gayle Robbins catches all of Sarah's loyalty to Yael and her steadfastness as a young settler. Orion Delwaterman adds some complexity to the tricky role of Ephraim, a character that needs more .development in the later going. Evan Sokal is very engaging as big-hearted Shlomo. Aylan Orian, who somewhat resembles a young Kirk Douglas, captures both the sharp candor and the deep tenderness of Sabra Avi. Shane Jerome has the right likeability as Yitz, while Annalisa Loeffler is rivetingly grim as Bella.

Early on Yael offers the following insight her father used to say- that "Yom Kippur is more about making amends with your fellow man than fasting. " While the couples and their friends may not be scrupulous about ritual observance, most of them do take pains with acts of loving-kindness. Likewise, "Yom Kippur" the play make timely points about connection and Israel as a bastion of human caring.

WHEN IT'S HOT, IT'S COLE! A Cole Porter Cabaret
: (American Repertory Theatre, Zero Arrow Theatre, Cambridge, MA extended thru 7/27. 617-547-8300).  Cole Porter may have gotten no kick from champagne, but he apparently had a better response to the Bible. Just look at the numerous allusions in some of his most impressive songs to its stories and characters. From Eve in "They All Fall Down" and the Tower of Babel in "You're the Top" to the tongue in cheek , rapier-witty 1933 "Solomon" about the fabled wise king's 1000 wives, the gifted wordsmith clearly enjoyed including such contexts and situations in much of his repertoire. Director Scott Zigler and collaborator Peter Bayne have conceived a snappy revue entitle "When It's Hot It's COLE! a Cole Porter Cabaret" which displays Porter's facility with biblical allusion and a kind of encyclopedic frame of reference. American Repertory Theatre's second Zero Arrow Theatre musicfest- after last season's acclaimed "What a Marvelous Party!"- proves more electric and satisfying than the earlier Noel Coward tribute.

While both shows share the considerable talents of four of Boston's best performers- namely Remo Airaldi, Thomas Derrah, Will Lebow and Karen MacDonald, this time with the addition of Parker Posey-like Angela Nahigian, "COLE!" actually does more justice to its equally celebrated subject and his work. Where "Party" sometimes sacrificed Coward's subtlety and lightness to a need to over-punctuate the message of some send-ups and satiric numbers, "COLE! " maintains a balance of romance and playfulness throughout the dense revue's near-30 numbers. If parts of the predecessor appeared more geared to crowd-pleasing, the current effort seems as nightclub 'De-Lovely' as Porter would wish.

Zigler captures the elegance and sophistication of "COLE!" equally well in the formal first act and the casual second. In solo and ensemble, the tuxedo-clad men and the evening dressed women move resonantly and skillfully through both heart-felt and smartly coy lyrics. All five make the most of the vividly inventive opener "Let Do It-let's Fall in Love"-most notably MacDonald about clams and sponges and Derrah about sloths and guinea pigs. Zigler has blocked the show well, moving his cast smoothly from handsome matching black barstools at center stage to various areas of the generous Zero Arrow space-particularly the sleek, long bar itself with a rainbow of bottles hanging overhead. A waiter even brings martinis to MacDonald and Nahigian (there is also continuous service to theatergoers at small cabaret tables ) during the sublimely eclectic number "Let's Not Talk About Love" from Venus and Adonis and Adam and Eve to humorous rhymes like " economy" and "Deuteronomy" and the "Tow'r of Ba-abel " and "Betty Gra-abel."

Clearly attention has been paid to the respective strengths of the performers. Derrah, who demonstrated his gifts as a soloist in "Part," finds all of the drama and passion that are integral to "Begin the Beguine." MacDonald, with masterful phrasing catches the poignancy "Miss Otis Regrets" and the rich pathos of "Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor") . Lebow, whether gesturing from a stool or dancing briefly with Nahigian, easily evokes the lightheartedness of "You Do Something to Me." For her part, Nahigian delivers the smart observations of an ironic gem like "Love for Sale" with singular ruefulness. The standout in "Cole" is Airaldi, who displays fine coloring and robust tone on both the romantic winner "So in Love" and the brilliantly irreverent narrative "Tale of the Oyster." Musical director Miranda Lord provides spirited accompaniment, and Lebow does the same on drums at times-particularly for Derrah and Nahigian's stylish work on " I 've Got You Under My Skin."

'COLE!" is true to Porter most of the time. "You're the Top" may look too cutesy during some numbers with moments of over-gesturing, though the inspired lyrics win out with sharp singing. "Too Darn Hot," a showstopper in the Tony -winning musical "Kiss Me Kate," should sizzle more here as a male trio. While the repertoire is generally wide-ranging, there ought to be room for such distinctive treasures as "I Concentrate on You" and "In the Still of the Night." Still, Zigler and his first-class ensemble-to borrow from the composer himself-are riding high in this exuberant songfest.

Some Porter fans embrace the lyrics' cleverness and range of reference that anticipate Sondheim. Others look to such moving and hauntingly melodic classics as '"Night and Day." A.R.T.'s joyous "COLE!" celebrates the enduring wonders of both.

OUR TOWN
: (Wellesley Summer Theatre Company, Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, Wellesley College). Thornton Wilder speaks of something eternal in the bones of human beings, and so it goes for his enduringly disarming gem "Our Town." Wellesley Summer Theatre Company artistic director takes her cue from the unassuming but always timely play's return to basic human truths about appreciating the most simple things in the universe and the primacy of human love and caring. In the intimate Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, Wilder's time capsule-like play attains a remarkably natural pacing with a strong ensemble cast.  Charlotte Peed and Lisa Foley smoothly alternate as the pivotal Stage Manager. Peed seems to have the more day-to -day comments and Foley the more philosophical and sweeping ones. The result is a division of labor that establishes the contrasting observations that make the Stage Manager at once understated and insightful about both iconic turn of the 20th century Grovers Corners and the world at large.  All of the Gibbs and Webbs family parents and children do well with the miming of activities that adds to the folkloric charms of the play. John Davin conveys Dr. Gibbs' strength and wisdom, while Sarah Barton finds Mrs. Gibbs' maternal concerns. Dan Bolton catches all of Mr. Webbs' closeness to his daughter Emily as well as his understanding of his wife . Christine Hamel has all of Mrs. Webb's confidence.  The focal friends turned eventually newlyweds are very engaging- Zach Bubolo strikingly direct yet feeling as George and Heather Boas affectingly vulnerable as Emily Webb. Eric Hamel brings sharp characterization to each of his four brief roles- most notably dapper entrepreneur Sam Craig returning from Buffalo due to an untimely passing. Boas is riveting and Bubolo very touching in the closing moments of the haunting third act. Costume designer Nancy Stevenson makes the simple but momentous wedding properly elegant. Wilder brilliantly made even the most mundane human actions take on surprising beauty and worth.  Hussey and company bring the same kind of inspired freshness to "Our Town" itself.

CARDENIO
: (American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge). 
Shakespeare regularly led up to closing nuptials in his best comedies ( "As You Like it" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" among them). Maybe Shakespeare expert Stephen Greenblatt and playwright Charles Mee ("Full Circle") would paid much better tribute to the Bard in their collaboration "Cardenio" if they had not begun their play with a post-wedding party with newlyweds and their young guests. If Shakespeare's earlier play of the same name survives in what acting A.R.T. artistic director Gideon Lester calls "a mangled eighteenth -century version." the Greenblatt-Mee world premiere is likely to have a much grimmer fate. Quite simply, this is a tedious and pretentious comic romance with little of the wit or singular poetry that is a trademark of even Shakespeare's lesser works.  What does it say that the best thing about this 'Cardenio" is Annie Smart's gorgeous set?Under Les Waters" uninspired direction, Mickey Solis makes a fairly dull groom. The best work comes from Nathan Keepers, who livens the proceeding up with an entertainingly quirky dance as off-beat Edmund and Maria Elena Ramirez' acidic tone as outspoken Doris.Thomas Derrah is memorable in support.  Call this "Cardenio" an earnest intention that should have stayed unwritten.

SHE LOVES ME
: (Huntington Theatre Company in association with the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Boston University Theatre, 6/15. 617-266-0800 or
www.huntingtontheatre.org. Williamstown Theatre Festival, 6/29-7/12.)
THE NEW CENTURY: (Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York thru 6/8. 800-432-7250).


These are the best of times for Nicholas Martin complete with a tale of three cities.  The veteran director- a frequent winner of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) ( “Dead End”and “The Rivals” ) and Elliot Norton Awards (Love’s Labour’s Lost) - has just won the latter honors’ highest acclaim, the Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence. Cited “for directing with distinction, developing new venues and playwrights, and leading the Huntington with style into the 21st century,” the company’s eight-year artistic director has been instrumental to the opening and development of the vital new Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Artists. Now he has blessed Hub theatergoers with a winderfully fresh revival of the 1963 musical “She Loves Me” that is unquestionably the best area production thus far this year. This soaring swan song will briefly follow Martin this summer to Williamstown Theatre Festival as he begins his tenure as its new head. The third part of the tale is the now-ending run of his acclaimed Off-Broadway Lincoln Center staging of a Paul Rudnick quartet entitled “The New Century.”

“She Loves e,” the company’s season’s closer, is also a rich labor of love. Speaking of the introduction of mid-century New York kids like himself to musical theater in his playbill article “Why I Love She Loves Me,” Martin observes, “It was a rite of passage for Jewish kids from the suburbs to be hauled aboard the BMT subway and carried to the matinees of shows by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Jule Styne, and Irving Berlin.” From the wide-ranging repertoire that included their work, “She Loves Me,” he confesses, “has always haunted me most persistently.”

That admission is borne out by his sublime production of this enchanting Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick collaboration. As soulful in its own way as their landmark musical “Fiddler on the Roof, “ “She Loves Me” also features Harnick’s wit and Bock’s very hummable melodies. The very affecting Joe Masteroff book , based on the celebrated Miklos Laszlo play “Parfumerie” will have film buffs recalling “’The Shop Around the Corner,” its endearing Jimmy Stewart-Margaret Sullavan film adaptation. Here, too, anonymous pen pals move from lonely hearts to enamored soul mates.
That combination of romance and love easily extends to this bewitchingly brilliant staging. Martin has captured the ambience of the musical’s 1934 Budapest setting and combined it with seamless pacing, artful design and a cast as first-rate as the best in recent seasons. James Noone catches the elegance of Maraczek’s Parfumerie and the sparkle of the Café Imperiale nightspot. Denis Jones’s high-stepping choreography finds all of the spirit and the exuberance that help eventual lovebird co-workers Georg Howack and Amalia Balash rise above any obstacles challenging their union. There are even a short circle dance or hora and acrobatically polished routines, including slapstick head waiter antics- credit Marc Vietor- in the standout Café Imperiale number “A Romantic Atmosphere” that seems like a Martin homage to the famed wedding sequence in “Fiddler.”

The entire cast are an unqualified delight. Brooks Ashmanskas has all of Georg’s vulnerable as well as his verve. His full speed ahead delivery of the joyous title song with striking facial expressions and properly broad gestures , should be studied by musical theater novices. Songbird Kate Baldwin finds Amalia’s early attitude with Georg and her later understanding. She sings the affecting winner ‘Vanilla Ice Cream” with beautiful coloring. Standouts in support include Dick Latessa’s world-weary but fiery Maraczek, Jessica Stone’s sharp-tongued Ilona (most notably in her anthem-like “I Resolve”), Troy Britton Johnson’s delightfully slick Steven and Jeremy Beck’s arrestingly agile and ambitious Arpad.

Robert Morgan‘s colorful work wear and formal evening designs complements the vivid look of Budapest. The string-rich orchestra, smartly positioned above the stage, heartily supplements the musical’s inner grandeur and makes the most of its vibrant overture and entr’acte.

Before Amalia meets her cherished correspondent, she unsurprisingly sings “Will He Like Me?” Here no such questions apply. You will adore Huntington’s magical ‘She Loves Me.

Martin’s other current effort “The New Century” has a fair measure of its own magic. Gifted wordsmith Rudnick may sometimes overdo the cleverness of his satire but the well-acted premiere at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre does well with the foursome’s timely insights about coping and the challenges of human acceptance. In the best play “Pride and Joy,”Linda Lavin is luminous and often riotously funny as a savvy Long Island Jewish mother displaying singular strength dealing with the various orientations – lesbian, transgender and gay in that order-of her three children. Jayne Houdyshell shines in the nearly as good “Crafty” as a Decatur , Illinois mother named who weaves her memories of her late gay son into the AIDS Quiit. There is a sharp sendup here of artist Christo’s controversial wrapping of Central Park. Peter Bartlett has the right flamboyance as gay off-beat public access talk show host Mr Charles. Rudnick makes the characters ‘ final play meeting and understanding (vis-à-vis anti-Semitism and hatred of gays ) persuasive.

“The New Century” would benefit from re-ordering some of the plays-probably most from moving the Lavin opener to third position. Still, Rudnick’s best observations are worth a visit –in large part thanks to Martin’s breezy direction.


THE PRODUCERS
: (North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly). 
Are a Hollywood film and a Broadway show with a kind of Third Reich Follies impossibly offensive?  Zany Mel Brooks richly disproved that gut-level assumption in his now classic movie "The Producers" and his hilariously funny Tony-Award-winning musical of the same name. As theater buffs well know, both works feature inspired envelope-pushing send-ups of the Nazis as well as a spirited tale of the Jewish Odd Couple-like title New York characters Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom. Now the North Shore Music Theatre is mounting the New England regional theater premiere of the landmark musical in an effort at once crowd-pleasing if not quite as outrageous as it should be.

Bialystock alone is the soul of outrageousness. As "The Producers" begins, the fictional self-promoter awaits the reviews and audience response to his latest unusual Shubert Theatre offering, a "Hamlet"-based musical called "Funny Boy." Of course, this half-baked idea flops, as previous ones have- so many that a theater marquee "Opening Night" sign that easily flips to a "Closing Night" one has been created just for his duds. In Brooks' brilliantly reverse-rich humor, Bialystock, who bills himself as the former "King of Broadway," means to be recrowned. Yet his track record proves that he is no successor to Boris Tomashevsky though he drops the name of the Yiddish Theater legend in the rousing opening scene number "The King of Broadway."
Enter timid accountant Leo Bloom. Clutching a kind of security blanket but letting his dreams about being a producer run free, he describes a tantalizing scenario of "creative accounting" by which "a sure fire flop" could earn as much as two million dollars for Bialystock and keep the IRS away from his door. A quest for the worst story ideas leads to a seemingly disastrous musical called 'Springtime for Hitler" that instead garners critical praise as "a satiric masterpiece" and becomes a surprise smash.

As co-producers Bialystock and Bloom now try to evade the law, Brooks' inventiveness- with book collaborator Thomas Meehan- becomes all the more outrageous. Eventually a Sing Sing extravaganza ensues with a rollicking ensemble called "Prisoners of Love." Where Bialystock's show titles once augured instasnt failure, his latest off-kilter musical names- among them, "47th Street," "Katz," "a Streetcar Named Murray" and "High Button Jews- cannot miss.
If "the show The Producers" proves ultimately as silly and madcap as the movie, it is nonetheless equally wild and wonderful. The key is a staging that matching its zaniness. Bill Burns, in his directing debut at North Shore, provides a good number of spirited dance numbers after the choreography of gifted Susan Stroman ("Contact") . "The King of Broadway" here captures the "Fiddler on the Roof " touches of the original with vivid hora and over-and-under routines. "Springtime" has all of the big number boldness that it should , though its German symbol costumes (with oversized beer stein, pretzel or sausage) are not as over-the-top as William Ivey Long's Tony -winning Broadway ones . A stand-out ""Little Old Lady Land" ensemble (sporting Bialystock supporters) with walkers remains a knockout.

Newcomers to "The Producers" may be satisfied with Burns' lively effort. Those who have seen the now-fabled Broadway edition or one of the winning Boston tours, though, are likely to find the first act less fast-paced than the second and Scott Davidson's Bialystock less outrageous than Brooks conceived him to be. He needs to be more larger than life and devilish. He could take a lesson from Stuart Marsland's inspired work as "Springtime"s gay director and fill-in for the role of Hitler. Marsland and Fred Berman as Roger's flamboyant assistant and lover Carmen Ghia help the second act rise to the level of a romp Davidson does pick up in the holding cell-set "Betrayed," bringing full vitality to the number's witty summary of the two producers' ups and downs and Max's despair knowing that Bloom and blonde girlfirend now wife Ulla have run off to Brazil with the musical's profits.

By contrast, Jim Stanek is often a hoot as Bloom, Moving with the frenetic intensity that Matthew Broderick brought to the Broadway staging, he smootlhy moves between Leo's alternating diffidence and dream-driven daring. Stanek's duet with Amy Bodnar-effectively ditsy yet appealing as Ulla- smoothly captures their blossoming romance. The only major disappointment is Patrick Wetzel as "Springtime"'s former Nazi author Franz Liebkind. Franz needs to be scarier and more unpredictably volatile. Instead, Wetzel inexplicably underplays the gun-toter who intimidates the producers who visit him to wear Swatstika bands.

Campbell Baird generally does well with the design challenges of the sets. The one glaring problem is the second act-opening scene at Max's office. Ulla has supposedly worked wonders during intermission,-even painting it. This admission ought to bring a big laugh considering how little time she had to do anything .Unforttunately, there are no visible wals here-only furniture and props, so that the audience is understandably more restrained in its response.

"The Producers" ought to be an unqualified success . Far from a Bialystock flop, the North Shore Music Theatre's entertaining edition still needs to be more of a riotous smash.


THE DRAWER BOY
:
(Vokes Players, Wayland.  www.vokesplayers.org). Memories and the truth often collide , with the former sometimes becoming an escape hatch from the latter. Michael Healey's disarmingly 'small' play "The Drawer Boy" artfully chronicles such a collison as an actor named Miles stays with two central Ontario farmers named Morgan and Angus in 1972 to gain first-hand and hands-on insights about them and their work in preparing for a role in a play. Director JulieAnn Charest Govang means to capture the depth of the farmers' friendship and the profound impact of the sojourn on actor.   She succeeds more in the later going as all three characters come to terms with a variety of challenges, but the opening situations seem to elicit too many laughs from theatergoers as the subtlety of the play is lost to overplaying--with the big exception of Brad Walters' letter perfect portrayal of war-wounded, memory-damaged Angus. If only John Small had modulated his responses as Morgan, the bonding between the two farmers would be fully moving instead of overly comical in the first act. Robin Gabrielli becomes more affecting as Miles retreats from manipulating his hosts and especially Angus. The vivid but assuming set is a sign of the kind of pristine beauty that is finally achieved in the better second act.

THE HISTORY BOYS: (SpeakEasy Stage Co., Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts thru June 7. 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com).  Can study of the Holocaust reduce the war dead "to an abbreviation" ? Could a facile contemporary approach actually compare the 16th century dissolution of monasteries by Henry the Eighth to the atrocities of the concentration without any embarrassment? Quite frankly,  might all of the so-called "proportion" that characterizes this kind of education be motivated more by aced exams leading students to Oxford or Cambridge than to heartfelt learning? These are the intriguing and often haunting questions dominating Alan Bennett's Tony Award-winning play "The History Boys," now in a brilliantly vital New England  premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts. Set in Cutler Grammar School for boys in 1984 urban Sheffield by Bennett-himself a graduate of Leeds Modern School, this witty and richly insightful work pits traditional and text-centered "fifty or so" general studies schoolmaster Hector against "twenty -five or so" strategy-following history teacher Irwin. While the former takes his cue from poet A.E. Housman's view that "All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use," the latter heeds the curriculum-directed advice of the school reputation-guided headmaster.  In a sense, there are two sets of "history boys." The obvious group are the eight young students- described as 17 or 18- who often see their journey to maturity in as much of a metaphorical frame of reference as their studies. As diverse as Hector and Irwin may be, they certainly constitute a second one as conflicted grown-ups with their own respective odysseys and connections to history. As multi-culturally correct as the 80's Cutler school is,  it still continues to confront its generally sharp male teenagers with  challenges of religion, race and sexual identity. Some of the conflicts involve the desires and motivations of Hector, who seems to fondle students on his motorcycle ,and Irwin, who struggles with a dangerous attraction. The student who takes Hector's teaching style and classes most to heart and the one who most reflects Bennett's own voice, is Jewish Posner, relatively small in stature and gay. Enamored of a complicated handsome classmate named Dakin, he thinks of him when he sings "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and makes the most of an unexpected French scene ( in Hector's class ) in which Dakin is the pivotal character. Posner also has to deal with a crack about his not having a foreskin, an observation that unconventional classmate Lockwood (who sports a variety of buttons on his jacket and wears sneakers) calls "...race-related, but it's not racist."   While the students may not resort to real stereotypes,  headmaster Felix Armstrong does seem to do so. At one point, he broad brushes Jewish boys and Asian boys as clever  and at another speaks of gays like Michelangelo and Oscar Wilde as "shrunken violets." If he obsesses about Irwin pushing the best students like Posner to crack finals and Oxford or Cambridge admissions, he also gives as much attention to "angry Jewish parents threatening to complain to the school governors" about Irwin's seemingly insensitive analysis of the Nazis and the Holocaust. By contrast, Irwin struggles to contain his attraction to straight but flirty Dakin. Indeed, what makes "The History Boys" particularly striking is the play's totally convincing interlacing of insights about the students' emotional  lives-referred to as courses without grades- and their contrasting sessions with Hector and Irwin. Director Scott Edmiston, one of the Hub's best ("The Women," among others) , keeps the lively interaction of the teachers and their students as fluid  as Bennett advises in a note on the first production of the play. The eight actors playing the students catch the music of their ensemble passages as well as the characters' vivid personalities. Karl Baker Olson finds all of Posner's sadness as well as his tenderness and intelligence. Don Whelton is both appealing and properly cagey as Dakin. Among the very good others, Jared Craig as an ongoing narrator-chronicler and a kind of student conscience, favorably calls to mind Robert Sean Leonard, while Samson Kohanski has the right quipping flair as Lockwood.  Bob Colonna could be even more larger than life as Hector, but he does capture the feistiness of  this crusty iconoclast. Chris Thorn brings together Irwin's classroom confidence and his personal ambivalence. Timothy Crowe has the right venom as headmaster Amstrong. Paula Plum, who gives feature roles the same inspired care she brings to lead parts, catches all of the restrained bitterness and understated wisdom of veteran teacher Dorothy Lintott.   Janie Howland's Broadway-quality set ,with a stage-spanning library and a pivotal stairway, smartly captures the school's 1980's ambience. Dewey Dellay's percussion-rich original music and driving sound design sharply evoke the pace and tempo of the play.   Describing his educational philosophy, Hector advises his students to take learning, feel it and "pass it on." The SpeakEasy Stage's soaring "History Boys"  is a first-class parcel all the way.

EDDIE IZZARD: STRIPPED: (Orpheum Theatre, Boston; Radio City Music Hall, New York, June 27 and 28. 212-307-4111 and www.eddieizzard.com).  In a real sense, the key to Eddie Izzard's latest show is a Jewish prayer in its set.

Yes, that is right. The front right panel (one of six) in his one-man performance piece provocatively entitled "Stripped" actually features a page from a  Sephardic Yom Kippur siddur. Taken from  the afternoon service on the eve of the holiday, the wording includes the end of "Aleynu," the Mourner's Kaddish, a prayer for the welfare of one's children and the traditional Jewish priestly blessing. While the gifted English actor-humorist may not be embracing Judaism per se in his richly wide-ranging new stage work, the informative and witty two-hour piece does ultimately reserve its kindest words about religion for monotheism and the Jewish commandment known as "Love Thy Neighbour As Thyself."

Announcing initially that "I thought I'd talk about everything that ever happened," Izzard quickly focuses on the place of religion and God in human history ( surrounded by the panels showcasing such early sources as Sanskrit, Egyptian hieroglyphics and cave painting images as well as the Hebrew prayers ) . With a stream-of-consciousness-like text that calls to mind the comic stylings of Monty Python (John Cleese has even called Izzard the "Lost Python" ) , he vividly details and dismisses the polytheism of such civilizations as ancient India, Egypt , Greece and Rome-in the process "stripping" down religious beliefs to their essentials and finding the monotheism of the Jews (and its variations with Christianity and Islam) the least questionable of the lot. Seeming to argue that if there is a God He has handed over the control of the world to humanity, Izzard sounds like a Founding Father deist a la Thomas Jefferson. Positing that "God  must have a plan," he soon concludes that His plan "looks very similar to no plan" given such factors as the 20th century World Wars and serial murderers. Referring to Noah, Moses, Mandela and Gandhi on the one hand and Hitler and Stalin on the other, he contends, 'It's up to us to control the God and Devil in us."

Anyone who has seen his Emmy Award-winning work on HBO or his earlier stage tour at the Shubert Theatre knows that this agile comic talent makes rich use of free association and pop culture references-Highlander and the science fiction classic "Dune" among them- in making his points. Not surprisingly, Izzard 'thinks out loud' about Noah building the ark and the challenges of putting diverse creatures on board two by two in one especially winning sequence. Moses, he submits, did lead the Israelites to the Sea of Reeds, but Izzard's flair for unpredictability sends out a call for a Hoover to vacuum up the water.

Moving later to human control of technology, he also speaks at length about Mac, Microsoft and Bill Gates' philanthropy in another. Throughout there are inspired set pieces-notably about giraffes, the three-horned but herbivorous Triceratops and the friction between paleontologists and geologists. In Izzard's hilariously eclectic conception, fighting dinosaurs call to mind the 1970's bouts of such English wrestlers as Nick McManus. A sharp passage about the coercion practiced by conquering Romans  ("Join us or die" ) and the complexities of their "silly language" (Latin) with its "too many ending" has enough insight and sheer  exuberance  to become a modern comic classic.

Near the end of "Stripped," Izzard hopes that the universe can be free from dictators by 2050. Will the set's excerpt from "Aleynu," in which the one God is accepted by all people,  become reality by then? Will the world then be governed by tolerance and understanding? Surely, Izzard's brilliantly disarming and thoughtful new show is making a significant contribution to that ideal.

SISTERS OF SWING: (Stoneham Theatre thru May 4.  www.stonehamtheatre.org).  Who would have thought that the Andrews Sisters had a Jewish sibling?  In fact, the famed trio's early manager Lou Levy was known as "the fourth Andrews sister." Levy fell in love with middle sister Maxine and eventually married her despite strong opposition from her apparently anti-Semitic father. Also adding to the group's Jewish connections were their signing by Jewish Decca Records head Jack Kapp and their tremendous 1938 hit "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon," a 1933 Yiddish song, with a new lyric by Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn. (As the informative playbill indicates, Holocaust concentration camp inmates secretly sang it.)

This pivotal Jewish impact on the great success of the singing threesome finds ample space in the pleasant and tuneful if not especially incisive area premiere "Sisters of Swing: The Story of the Andrews Sisters at the Stoneham Theatre. Covering the trio's early days on the road, this affectionate musical tribute -written by Beth Gilleland and Bob Beverage and featuring several of their biggest hits- often looks and sounds like a B- movie from the big band era. While this "revue-sical," as director Bobby Cronin calls it, does faithfully chronicle the group's difficult early days and showcase their appeal as a snappy three-part harmony talent, their are stretches of dialogue that suffer from corny exchanges and conventional dialogue.

Still, the role of Jewish material and players at key moments in their early days and the show's well-sung generous sampling from their popular repertoire ( with more Top Ten Hits than the Beatles or Elvis ) do make the show a charming portrait of what may be the most successful female group ever. Director Cronin has effectively turned the Stoneham Theatre stage into "a photo album come to life of the Andrews Sisters" (his apt words for the tribute) with numerous shots and footage of the trio at various performance venues-sometimes photographs with Lou and other times with legendary singers like Bing Crosby. Particularly affecting are act two shots of the untiring trio overseas during World War II entertaining American troops where they were stationed and voluntarily doing the same at military hospitals.

In the war -dominated and stronger second act, Gilleland and Beverage insert a revealing sequence about discrimination towards black G.I.'s. Here the fair-mind Andrews Sisters unrelentingly affirm the right of black solders to sit near the front of their audience and even insist that they be escorted to their seats. Although the trio's action may be little known, clearly they were as supportive of integration and civil rights as they were of Maxine's relationship with and marriage to Lou. An early scene in which the sisters' pianist and Lou try to translate the Yiddish of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon" and finally look to Sammy Cahn underscores the group's ease all kinds of people and material.
Of course this kind of musical scrapbook depends upon the actresses playing the Andrews and the actor playing Lou. While the story may not always seem compelling, the cast instantly establish a natural tone -both in dialogue and musical numbers-which they sustain throughout in their work together. Laura Degiacomo catches youngest sister and reminiscing narrator Patty's spirit and her vulnerability and sings her character's numerous solos with vibrant delivery-most notably on "I Can Dream, Can't I"

Kerri Jill Garbis has all of oldest sister Laverne's maternal protectiveness for her sisters, and Kimberly Robertson finds all of Maxene's tenderness with Lou and her spunkiness. All three capture the smart harmonies of the Andrews Sisters on such staples as their signature "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B" and the moves and stylings of swing with pizazz. Steve Gagliastro makes a properly energetic and caring Lou, though his other roles vary from an uneven suggestion of Crosby and a sharp evocation of Johnny Carson.

"Sisters of Swing" may not be a breakthrough show, but Cronin's fresh conception and his cast's engaging singing and acting make it an engaging tribute. The subtext about the place of Jews and Jewish material in the Andrews Sisters' early career provides a rich stage complement.

THEIR VOICES WILL BE HEARD: MY NAME IS RACHEL CORRIE / PIECES: (New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA).  Can the Israeli-Palestinian conflict achieve balance on the stage? For that matter, should one look for balance at the theater? Admittedly, community leaders and spokespeople on all sides of the political spectrum have been voicing deep concern about New Repertory Theatre's Hub premiere pairing of "My Name Is Rachel Corrie," a play clearly supportive of Palestinian views and "Pieces," a work sensitive to Israeli ones ( so much so that artistic director Rick Lombardo and the company have made available to audience members a critical perspectives booklet entitled "Supporting Voices/Dissenting Voices' that brings them together. After all is said and done, though, the two plays must stand on their own. While neither is truly a work of art, each intriguing monologue has its merits-not least of which are the tour de force performance of Stacy Fischer in "Rachel Corrie" and the exuberant work of Zohar Tirosh in her own autobiographical chronicle "Pieces."

"Rachel Corrie" is clearly the more controversial and arguably more problematic play. Put together by talented English actor-director Alan Rickman ("Sense and Sensibility" among other films) and Guardian editor Katharine Viner from the late title American's journals, this purportedly balanced effort (at least Rickman and Viner described it as such in the playbill for its Off-Broadway run) ultimately seems to see its subject as a martyr who gave her life to protect the home of innocent Palestinians from an Israeli bulldozer (though an Israeli military investigation has cleared the driver) . A careful examination of the just published journals themselves suggests that Corrie was an earnest and somewhat naive activist who may have been manipulated by less than non-violent Palestinians intent on smuggling weapons through tunnels and branding Israel as an Apartheid-espousing nation.

Were Rickman and Viner bent on turning Corrie into a flamboyant dissident who might be anti-Semitic as well as anti-Israel? Curiously they have left out a strong journal observations by Corrie that "the U.S. did not intervene to stop immediately" the "slaughter of Jewish people in Europe" and that America should have "allowed Jewish refugees to come here in greater numbers." At the same time, they have left her references to anti-Israel scholar and writer Noam Chomsky and have decided not to comment-in playbill footnote or in play comment on the fact that Hamas is a terrorist and not merely militant group and that the ISM-International Solidarity Movement- has been linked to direct action against Israel though it claims to be totally non-violent.

Did Corrie know that tunnels were being used to smuggle weapons? Did she know that the ISM -the play only speaks of Internationals- has been connected with less than Gandhian activity? This critic is neither condemning her nor considering her a saint . Surely the real Corrie was as playful in her early years and as free-spirited as gifted Stacy Fischer renders her in her brilliant stagework- under David R. Gammon's sharp direction-whether speaking vividly from under a large comforter or working on her journals and regular lists of things to do while in Palestinian center Rafah.

Controversy does not diminish real art. Witness the clear anti-Reagan pont of view of Tony Kushner's masterful "Angels in America." By contrast, "Rachel Corrie" as a play rambles repeatedly before the final confrontation with the bulldozer. Fischer's range and skill as an actress are what keep the later going absorbing.

If "Rachel Corrie" wanders, "Pieces" may actually be too well-ordered. Focusing on her two years of Israeli military service, now New York -based Jewish writer-actress Zohar Tirosh smartly performs her own autobiographical one-woman play. Informative and well-structured, her account details the kind of day-to-day basic training with which her American armed forces counterparts could easily identify. Her thoughtful work also includes a sharp contrast between her essentially disappointing relationship with a New York-based boyfriend who unilaterally decides to head west and a much more satisfying one in Israel.
Of course the insightful author-performer gives ample time to very real concerns about security and the on-going danger of suicide bombings by Hamas terrorists from Palestinian areas. Still, Tirosh does acknowledge the existence of Palestinian communities even if she does not really comment on them. Nevertheless, nothing about "Pieces" is inflammatory or demeaning. If there is a weakness in the play, it is the conventional structure , which moves fairly predictably from her pre-training days to her post-army ones.

What makes "Pieces" most worth seeing is Tirosh herself, a skilled and very appealing performer. There are vivid stretches in which the young Israeli recruits both immigrant and Sabra (native-born) are drilled on a variety of tasks and responsibilities. Tirosh does well playing a diversity of soldiers and capturing a variety of accents -especially in the case of their demanding commander.

Initially "Rachel Corrie" was to be paired with a play honoring the memory of Yonatan Netanyahu, one of the heroes of the celebrated Israeli raid on Entebbe to rescue hostages, until his brother Binyamin and the Netanyahu family objected to the inclusion of the former. Clearly the common concern in "Rachel Corrie" and "Pieces"with a learning experience that becomes a klnd of rite of passage for the respective women means that the pairing works as a springboard for discussion.
Will dialogue occur? All sides of the politcal spectrum can only benefit if it ensues. Surely New Repertory Theatre deserves praise for its earnest efforts and any follow-up it pursues to effect a full exchange of ideas. At the same time, Lombardo and his brave company would do well eventually to stage the Netanyahu-centered play on its own and to bring gifted Israeli-American writer-author Iris Bahr and her very fine Off-Broadway one-woman play "Dai (Enough) " (previously reviewed here) to the Arsenal Center.

AVENUE Q: (Colonial Theatre, Boston; open-ended run at John Golden Theatre, NYC. 800-432-7250.)  "Avenue Q" is as much a state of mind as a fictional New York brownstone location.  Embracing tenant solidarity in the manner of "Rent" but without drugs and AIDS and employing adult puppets and themes a la "Crank Yankers," this disarming 2004 Tony Award-winning musical teaches an always-timely lesson about human connection and understanding. Author Jeff Whitty has brought together Jews, non- Jews, straights, gays, immigrants, large hand-handled puppets and friendly monsters in alternately humorous and touching situations and relationships. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who collaborated on the original concept, have put together an ingenious score that combines catchy melodies and sharp but surprisingly direct messages about themes as diverse as prejudice, acceptance, dating and the pros and cons of the internet. Under director Jason Moore's smooth guidance, the tour at the Colonial Theatre has as much life as the still-running Broadway original.

Life is truly the operative word for a show with numbers as exuberant as they are insightful. "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" has the brownstone neighbors reminding each other about stereotypes such as Jews having the money, recalling that Jesus was Jewish and reconsidering the virtues of ethnic jokes . Seemingly quirky but instantly catchy, "It Sucks to Be Me" finds such tenants as unemployed 32 year old Jewish would-be stand-up comic Brian and Gary Coleman, once the child star of "Different Strokes" and now the superintendent of the outer borough location of the musical, lamenting their respective fortunes. "If You Were Gay" involves straight puppet Nicky affirming his friendship for and loyalty to his gay but closeted banker puppet roommate Rod. What makes these songs particularly winning is their singular mixture of humor and candor.

This savvy yet rollicking mixture runs all through "Avenue Q." A scene in which Kate Monster waits atop the Empire State Building for struggling college graduate puppet Princeton smartly parodies its famous predecessor in the film "An Affair to Rermember." "Schadenfreude," German for pleasure derived from another's misfortune, cleverly illustrates human foibles. There is even a striking wedding under Chupah between Brian and his Japanese fiancee actually named Christmas Eve. Here the Jewish groom traditionally breaks the glass, and participants wear white kipot with vivid red centers that call to mind the Target logo.

The cast's handling of puppets and human roles proves as smooth as the wedding. Gifted David Benoit moves Nicky, porn-addicted Trekkie Monster and other characters with great spirit and agility. Kelli Sawyer conveys all of Kate's heart and sings her winning solo "There's a Fine,Fine Line" with notable feeling. She does equal justice to femme fatale bar chanteuse Lucy. Robert McClure captures Princeton's resilience and Rod's telling defensiveness.
Cole Porter catches Brian's easy-going nature. New company member Sala Iwamatsu has Christmas Eve's assertiveness as she pushes Brian to find a job and her appealing confidence as a social worker looking for clients. Carla Renata sings with deep resonance as Gary Coleman.

Designer Anna Louizos gives the brownstone the right worn look. Howell Binkley catches the promise and the precariousness of the residents' fortunes in his lighting. Lopez makes the animation design properly amusing and clear -especially as Princeton searches for purpose in his life.

At one point the somewhat discouraged college graduate learns , as a song title goes,"There is Life Outside Your Apartment." There is even more vitality at the Colonial Theatre, namely the tuneful wisdom and high-spirited fun of "Avenue Q."

THE LIFE: (Boston Conservatory Theatre Ensemble. www.bostonconservatory.edu.)  Leave it to Jacqui Parker in her Boston Conservatory directorial debut and a crack combination of young performing artists and acclaimed professionals to make a challenging Broadway musical like "The Life" sizzle and burn with terrific feeling and real fire. The story about prostitution may be so0mewhat overlong, but the topnotch Cy Coleman music and Ira Gasman lyrics make the lyrical score a fitting descendant to Kern, Gershwin and Coltrane. Parker has fired up the energetic first-rate cast, and choreographer Michelle Chasse has the ensemble and individual dancers kicking high and moving with impressive speed, technique and grace.

Stephanie Umoh makes the most of properly bitter yet unbowed Queen, a regal woman who struggles to escape the addictive clutches of "the life." Her rendition of the clever solo "He's No Good" is a haunting showstopper. Anich D'Jae has all of her good friend Sonja's tenacity and Bud Weber has the kind of resonance and charismatic pull as Jojo that Sam Harris brought to the role on Broadway. Nicholas Ryan Rowe has the right impulsiveness as Fleetwood, Queen's hot-headed man. Keyon Richardson nails the scary bullying of pimp of pimps Memphis.

Add Boston Conservatory to your theater must-list. The company's visceral staging of 'The Life" has all of the vitality and excitement that a feisty multiple Tony Award -winning show deserves. Some day the Conservatory talents setting this rare revival on fire will be shaking New York stages.

THE CLEAN HOUSE: (New Repertory Theatre, The Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown. www.newrep.org.)  Imagine a setting identified as "A metaphysical Connecticut. Or , a house that is not far from the sea and not far from the city." Imagine that the resident husband and wife doctors have hired a young Brazilian woman to clean their home who would rather labor at finding the perfect joke. Creative playwright Sarah Ruhl has done just this in "The Clean House," a thoughtful if often funny Off-Broadway hit that ultimately plays like a combination of fable and folklore, and New Repertory Theatre has turned this Pulitzer Prize finalist into a delightfully messy evening of theater.

The provocative messiness begins right with the opening Portuguese humor delivered with telling body language by cleaning woman Mathilde-played with appealing exuberance by Cristi Miles. Ruhl purposely leaves out the translation of the joke, but theatergoers laugh because the Brazilian would be entertainer builds her gesturing to a crescendo of suggestiveness. While "The Clean House" eventually returns to this terrain by speaking of heaven as "a sea of untranslatable jokes," other foreign language passages-and unusual scenes, for that matter- are clearly explained by Jamie Whoolery's sleek projection design on the handsome grid-like backdrop of Cristina Todesco's set.Deb Sullivan's lighting , often pervaded by dark clouds , provides striking contrast.

In the early going,though, the joke seems to be largely on Mathilde's physician employer Lane herself. Not only does the 27 year old Brazilian not clean the elegant home but also the doctor's housewife sister Virginia makes a "deal" to do that work complete with large blue latex gloves. During her efforts, Virginia observes that a wife who cleans can tell from the evidence of her husband's dirty underwear whether he is being unfaithful. Ironically, in "The Clean House," out of place brightly colored panties in the laundry hint to the dust-obsessed sister that Lane's husband Charles is involved with another woman.

Hint becomes reality at the end of the breezy first act and especially at the start of the touching second. Unabashedly, Charles brings his Argentinian cancer surgery patient and new love Ana to meet Lane. When he explains that she is his "besherte," Yiddish for "destined one," Lane answers revealingly "You're not Jewish." Nevertheless, Ana-who is Jewish- cites a midrash (Hebrew for story with a moral) that speaks of God picking out each person's soul mate at 40 days of life and human beings running around looking for the besherte. Where Ana declares herself innocent according to Jewish law as one who has found her soul mate, the new love obviously messes up Lane's life. Metaphorically unkempt, the action now reflects the disorder as Charles and Ana toss objects from their balcony stage left which end up on the living room rug below. Yet if love is disheveled, human caring is quite clear and clean-particulary as Lane attends to Ana, whose cancer has returned. An epiphany of feeling and forgiveness follows with surprising but beneficial humor to boot.

When this critic first saw Ruhl's play a few seasons ago at Lincoln Center, that epiphany seemed a bit more profound. Even so, New Rep artistic director Rick Lombardo has staged the meta-realistic second act with good attention to the understanding and caring that bond Ana with Virginia, Mathilde and especially Lane. The exceptional cast prove a major factor. Miles wisely understates Mathilde's imaginings about her late parents, reputedly the funniest people of their village. Nancy E. Carroll is very amusing as Virginia, especially as she explains her philosophy of cleaning one moment and cavorts in liberation from dirt at another. Paula Plum , in designer Charles Schoonmaker's medical uniform-like pant suit, nails Lane's early cool demeanor and makes her emotional transformation totally convincing. Will Lyman brings striking directness to Charles' candor about his new love. Best of all is Bobbie Steinbach, who combines grandeur and vulnerability as fragile Ana. Her delineation of Ana's quiet courage and remarkable spirt is heartwrenchingly powerful.

God, Ruhl submits, eats ice cream "when he's tired." New Rep's gleaming "Clean House" comes close to being a divine dessert.

SOME MEN: (SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion, Roberts Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. www.SpeakEasyStage.com).  There are ultimately too many men in "Some Men."  Although Terrence McNally focuses on the nine guests at a contemporary same-sex wedding in this 2007 Off-Broadway play, about 50 very different gay males people the 14 scenes that evoke their lives and those of their predecessors. As in his Tony Award-winning "Love!Valour! Compassion!" the dialogue often possesses great heart and considerable wit, and SpeakEasy Stage Company artistic director Paul Daigneault has taken great care with both in the play's handsome New England premiere. Notwithstanding a staging as luminous as the Waldorf Hotel chandelier at the center of Eric Levenson's vivid sets, though, McNally's affecting play-not as tightly written and touching as "L! V! C!" - proves too busy with secondary stories.

"Some Men" certainly means to make some major statements about the challenges and changes that have confronted gay men like McNally himself (who came to New York in 1956 as a 17 year old) for the better part of the 20th century. Moving back and forth in time, the play returns as far as East Hampton 1922 in its first act and Harlem Renaissance 1932 in its second and reaches 2006 for a group counseling session and 2007 for the arrival of the wedding guests. Under Daigneault's sharp direction, a first-rate cast of some of the Hub's best actors smartly move between the characters and the quickly changing decades. While the non-chronological structure and the sweep and scope of the observations do justice to his intentions, the play itself often does not.

McNally is certainly too savvy and skillful a writer for "Some Men" to be an embarrassment. Still, the coherence and clarity of his "L!V!C!" and "Master Class," among others, make the uneven results here all the more surprising. A 1975 bathhouse scene, for example, seems mild-mannered in its insights, yet its nudity and frank language (in a play clearly for adults only) are anything but. "Stonewall(1969)" deliberately focuses on the feelings of the Greenwich Village gay bar patrons rather than the scene's title historic protest, heard off-stage. Admittedly, a red-wigged drag queen identified as Roxie (real name Archie) and played with terrific spirit by Will McGarrahan connects with a McNally irony that some people 'break free' from "personal boxes" to "bigger boxes." Evenso, the impact of Stonewall itself as a turning point in the fight for gay rights seems more highlighted in SpeakEasy's informative playbill (which features a 'U. S. Gay History Timeline') than in the under-dramatic first act-closing scene.
By contrast, a tightly written early exchange between a grieving Veteran father and Paul, an American beret soldier in Iraq who loved his son Tommy, speaks volumes about its subject-namely, what it means to love, to care and be 'immediate family'-with touching subtlety. Robert Saoud and Christopher Loftus are compellingly understated respectively as Tommy's Dad and Paul. Even a slightly overlong 2004 Internet scene eventually makes a telling point about emotional cruelty when an instant messenger who identifies himself as Top Dog (a properly callous Loftus) blocks the responses of a sincere but older man in favor of those of a shallow younger one.

The transformation of Top Dog-actually named Michael- is in some ways the key to what is problematic about "Some Men." Where some characters develop through the play, Michael does not appear to change very much. Inexplicably McNally has this formerly insensitive internet buddy eventually committing himself to one man at the wedding without really preparing audience members for this transformation. Yet the same talented writer fully evokes the opening of a closeted husband named Bernie to his inner urges through a series of well-drawn exchanges. Surely the most vividly drawn character in the play, he may even be a spokesman for McNally's own impassioned views about the struggles of gay males. Diego Arciniegas richly captures both the pain and the pleasure of Bernie's life-changing decisions.

Despite this kind of inconsistency in a play that ought to be more compelling, Daigneault and company provide Waldorf-level accomodations. Maurice E. Parent delivers the 1930 favorite "Ten Cents a Dance" with deep resonance and feeling in an eye-opening look at the lyrics of gay writer Lorenz Hart's gem ( including the repeated phrase "a queer romance," for one) . Christopher Michael Brophy brings his trademark care to all of his roles-whether a well-drawn librarian or a variety of under-written characters. Paul Cereghino catches both the singular personality and the pathos of East Hampton socialite David Goodman in a 1922 "Sur La Mer" ("By the Sea") rendezvous with his chauffeur-played with good fire by Ben Lambert- that recalls the class-crossing romance in the E.M. Forster novel "Maurice." Rounding out the crack cast is Andrew Wehling, who provides sharp piano accompaniment through the play. Lighting designer Chris Fournier's exquisite silhouettes add momentousness to pivotal encounters and confrontations.

Quite simply, "Some Men" lacks the kind of epiphany of heart and mind that graced "Love!Valour! Compassion !" In fact, there are passages in Jonathan Tolins' Gay Pride Day-set play "The Last Sunday in June"-also beautifully staged by SpeakEasy- that resonate more fully than stretches of quick banter in McNally's play. Still, it is impossible to write off a production that actually improves upon a lesser work by a major playwright.

To borrow the name of a second act scene, SpeakEasy has "A Long Term Relationship" with Terrence McNally and both- like the spouses in a great marriage- recognizes its uniqueness. Be prepared for "Some Men"'s failings, but see the play for SpeakEasy's memorable staging.

GARY: (Boston Playwrights' Theatre. www.bostonplaywrights.org).  Melinda Lopez's "Gary" lies far from the Indiana of "The Music Man," but her latest play does have trouble.  As her earlier award-winning drama "Sonia Flew" demonstrated, this talented actress-writer has a facility for evoking cultural and emotional tensions and tapping into the discord of family conflicts. Centered on the alternate hope and despair of three Indiana siblings at the end of the '70's, "Gary" appears intent on exploring similar dramatic -and sometimes comic- terrain via the music and diverse rhythms that influence their respective lives. If "Sonia Flew" followed through on its intentions, Lopez' latest effort ultimately seems as unfulfilled as its focal trio.

In the early going, Tommy warns young brother Mark that there is "a lot of bad music out there , bro." Likewise, a great deal of bad blood runs rampant between the siblings. The older brother repeatedly suggests that Mark is gay, while the younger one calls Annie a "slut." Throughout the short play (70 minutes with no intermission) , Annie questions whether Tommy has committed incest with her. At the same time, their cosmetics-selling mother Lenore-whose abusive husband has left her- struggles to keep the family together and conceal family secrets as she might cover the facial challenges of her customers.

There is certainly a lot of energy in the siblings' heated exchanges between themselves and with Lenore. There are also vivid moments in which Lopez contrasts Annie's knowledge about Tommy and her brother's girlfriend Cassie's memories about him. Yet high energy and musical parallels to these moments of genuine fire turn out to be more substitute than substance in a play that lacks the strong development of a "Sonia Flew." Compounding the play's problems in the later going are suspicions that Annie's father or even Mark may have been the actual culprit and not Tommy. Even musical associations with such diverse groups as the Partridge family, Air Supply, the Eagles and Boston generally carry little more insight than name-dropping.

If some scenes catch fire, credit M. Bevin O'Gara's sharp direction and a solid cast. Elise Manning is hauntingly moving as lost and wounded soul Annie. Nael Nacer has the right ambivalence and volatility as rage-ridden Tommy. Karl Baker Olson brings persuasive quirkiness to the role of Mark. Molly Schreiber stands up to Annie as her best friend Cassie and compels as Tommy's trusting love. Adrianne Krstansky combines remarkable strength and deepening despair as Lenore.

These novice singer-musicians -especially Krstansky on a country western solo - deliver their respective signature numbers with guitar, drum or keyboard with impressive spirit. Here, though, as with the dialogue, the sentiments and aspirations of the characters are never fully developed. Premiere designer Richard Wadsworth Chambers smartly reflects the precarious fortunes of the family in the stark backdrop for the band and the austerity of the characters' surroundings.

Annie tellingly counsels, "Get out of Gary." Theatergoers surprised that Lopez' new play lacks the polished stagecraft of "Sonia Flew," are likely to follow that advice. 

THE MISSIONARY POSITION: (Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell. www.merrimackrep.org).  America is supposed to believe in separation of religion and government, but does that distinction preclude a politics of integrity?  That intriguing dilemma informs both the sense and the scenario of Keith Reddin's provocative new play "The Missionary Position." Is unseen presidential candidate Hal Williams as principled as religious non-payroll consultant Roger believes him to be? Is this 'God squad' Christian intolerant of Jews, Muslims and anyone else who does not share his belief that America is a Christian country and the Founding Fathers intended it to be one (not borne out by history, of course) ? Reddin's tightly written drama (85 minutes in length), sharply staged by Tracy Brigden in its regional premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, eventually answers these questions with both insight and humor.

As topical as today's headlines, "The Missionary Position" finds Roger as deeply involved in Williams' campaign as the candidate himself. In fact, Roger is often unaware of his surroundings as he moves from city to city-so much so that all the hotel rooms seem the same to him. That point is visually established as Gianni Down's spare yet well-detailed set only changes by way of diverse framed landscapes. From moment to moment, Roger seems more and more sanctimonious-in particular as he advises regional campaign director Julia that someone ought to speak to Williams about right hand man Neil's "shadowy morality."

What keeps Reddin's play from being a mere didactic lesson about intolerance is the fact that both Neil and Williams have something illegal to hide. Indeed, Reddin may be stacking the deck by having Julia reveal that she previously drove under the influence and recently has invested unwisely in a questionable money-making scheme. Still, his timely play is savvy enough to give ample time to Roger's vulnerable situation. His own conscience troubles him with regard to the ill health and eventual death of his stepfather and the possibility that he might have not done enough to save him. Pathos also attends his loneliness as the hotel room campaigner recalls Rebecca, the woman he desired but lost in his youth.

Roger turns out to be so emotionally disoriented that he imagines finding her in a towel after showering in his bathroom. At this point the delusional protagonist sees himself discussing the genealogy of the biblical Rebecca-he speaks of Isaac and Jacob among other Jewish ancestors-with her and briefly believing that his married love might now be unattached. Providing humor-both dark and light-hearted- is the presence of a fourth actor-here the versatile Rebecca Harris- who plays not only Rebecca but also the very different maids who clean his hotel rooms.

Arguably the most virtuous characters in the drama are these hardworking relatively poor service workers. Ultimately, a moment of high irony occurs as Roger, who had earlier harassed one of the maids, receives telling reciprocal treatment from a maid who proceeds to call him a "loser." Harris easily delineates the differences between the maids-Southern accent with one, intimidation with another, among others- and makes the imagined Rebecca instantly vivid.

Tony Bingham catches Roger's insistence on moral high-mindedness but also convincingly demonstrates his gradual fall into disillusionment and despair. Tami Dixon has all of Julia's glib but humorous banter as a rich and largely clueless campaigner. Jeffrey Carpenter is properly direct, rough and menacing as Neil.

Robert C. T. Steele provides good humor in the contrast between Julia's very different outfits. Andrew David Ostrowski's subtle lighting makes the surprising appearance of Rebecca properly chimerical.

"The Missionary Position" may stop short of the actual nomination of a candidate, but Reddin's smart play has a lot to endorse -especially in Merrimack Rep's election-worthy staging.

MY FAIR LADY: (National Theatre of Great Britain at the Opera House, Boston. Broadway Across America/Boston.  ). Enchantment pours out of ever scene in the wonderfully fresh and rollicking National Theatre of Great Britain West End production of "My Fair Lady" at the Opera House.The award-winning visiting edition features a "Stomp"-recalling "With a Little Bit of Luck"-in which some ensemble members dance with garbage can lids and others use pot tops percussively. Another memorable moment involves winning and big-voiced Justin Bohon as sloshed suitor Freddy in the reprise of :On the Street Where You Live."

Christopher Cazenove smoothly balances Higgins' ferociousness and final warmth towards his flower girl student. Lisa O'Hare is lyrical as Eliza.She moves very convincingly from a flower girl guttersnipe to an elegant princess-like lady. Walter Charles has all of Colonel Pickering's class and humanity.Tim Jerome has all of the right sparkle whether agonizing humorously about middle class morality or reveling as much as possible before getting married. Marnie Nixon is an understated joy as Henry's very wise mother. Barbara Marineau as Mrs. Pearce speaks with compelling concern about Eliza's future.

Trevor Nunn directs the entire handsome revival with labor of love attentiveness. Gifted choreographer Matthew Bourne (the Broadway "Swan Lake") makes the socialites of the "Ascot " move as strikingly as galloping and cantering horses and keeps the ample townspeople high-stepping and merrymaking equally sharp.

The National Theatre of Great Britain's revival of "My Fair Lady" is so exuberant that exiting theatergoers will want to dance all night.

THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED: (SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts). Imagine a big Hollywood studio pressuring a respected playwright to change the gay Jewish writer hero of his hit drama to one who is merely "shy of women."  In a recent actual situation, Universal Studios tried to do something similar in adapting Douglas Carter Beane's Off-Broadway hit "As Bees in Honey Drown" and selecting Leonardo DiCaprio as their choice for the straight novelist they wanted as the lead character. Eventually, as with the unnamed author in the play, Beane left the project, which still remains in development. If the author eventually satirized this kind of Hollywood disrespect for gays in his 2006 Tony Award-nominated play "The Little Dog Laughed," he also turned it into a sharp statement about the difficulties that attend individuality and creative freedom in America. Now SpeakEasy Stage company has brought the savvy and very clever play to the Calderwood Pavilion's larger Wimberley Theatre-its first staging there-in a powerful and often darkly humorous New England premiere.  Set in the present in New York City and Los Angeles, "Little Dog" skewers both Hollywood homophobes and the destructive compromises by which controlling,grasping lesbian agent Diane works to persuade her closeted actor client Mitchell Green to sell his soul for a hollow but lucrative film career. Handsome, in-demand Green hires escort Alex with whom he eventually falls in love. For his part, Alex dates a young Westchester county woman named Ellen and claims to be straight. Will Mitchell admit to being gay and declare his love or will he continue to conceal his orientation for the sake of his career?  Where does opportunistic Ellen fit in the scheme of things? Not surprisingly, Diane has a place for her in the Faustian offer she is peddling to Green. Ultimately, only Alex, who is able to confront his own identity , makes the leap to true individuality and real freedom. While the other three -even Diane- enslave themselves to the demands of others, the respective odysseys of all four characters prove both vivid and involving. As Beane demonstrated in "Bees," he is an artful wordsmith and a playwright talented enough to create unforgettable roles. Such was the case with the enigmatic con artist Alexa Vere de Vere in the earlier play, and so it goes with Diane. Beane has given her wonderfully vitriolic tirades about the people with whom she does business and the power lunches . Probably the finest stretch here is the 10-minute scene that initially served as the the play itself- a telling depiction of the verbal warfare by which Diane reaches a contract that diminishes the work in question and demeans the playwright, identified pointedly as "He Meaning Him." Paul Melone's directs smartly. Maureen Keiller makes her portrayal of Diane as sharp tongued-sometimes with crisply pronounced Yiddish words- yet vulnerable as her Sylvia in SpeakEasy's revival of "The Women" last year. Her opening speech, one which certainly helped Julie White win the best actress Tony originating the role, smartly balances the agent's venom and vitality. Robert Serrell catches all of Mitchell's self-centeredness along with his ongoing inner struggle between love and career. Angie Jepson finds Ellen's glib tone and her general callousness. Best of all is Jonathan Orsini in the tricky role of Alex. Not only does he carefully demonstrate Alex's remarkable growth as a human being but he also makes the audience truly care about him. Eric Levenson conveys the mutability of the quartet's respective fortunes in the carefully articulated areas of his scenic design. Jeff Adelberg evokes the toughness of the screen world in his nuance-rich lighting. Alex seeks integrity in the later going, but SpeakEasy's luminous "The Little Dog Laughed" beams it out from start to finish.

WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND: (CITI Wang Theatre, Boston).  Andrew Lloyd Webber must have been taken with the 1961 Hayley Mills-Alan Bates film "Whistle Down the Wind" and its focus on the innocence of children and their willingness to believe that a forlorn young man--who turns out to be a fugitive convicted murderer-could actually be Jesus in his second coming. Maybe this strange scenario-originally a novel by Mills' own mother - would have worked somewhat in musical form if its composer and his collaborators Patricia Knop and Gale Edwards had kept the setting in Lancashire instead of moving it a small town in Louisiana. With the move to the American South, this overly busy and confused adaptation gives scant attention to the relationship between the children and their father and includes rebels without a cause whose story is never really developed. Worse still, a plot involving racism-especially from bigoted policemen- seems like an addendum to the main story. What makes the weak book and the mixed score all the more disappointing is the presence of two major talents-big-voiced Eric Kunze as The Man and songbird Whitney Bashor as older daughter Swallow. Kunze brings wonderful fullness to his character's vivid solo "So Many Cries" and gives his character a majesty missing from much of the musical. Bashor, who is very convincing and natural as the girl on the threshold of womanhood, sings with the rich tone and confidence of a major talent. They should respectively have the kind of wonderful future in New York that eludes not-ready-for- Broadway "Whistle on the Wind." To borrow a motif from the show , this very flawed musical never had a prayer.

THIRD: (Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University Theatre). Wendy Wasserstein touches a nerve in this witty look at a legendary fictional pioneer professor at a prestigious New England college who possesses tragic dimension. Laurie Jameson's hubris is an over-weaning certainty about her liberal views and the diverse attitudes of others, especially the ideas and work of a somewhat unconventional student wrestler named Woodson Bull III ( called "Third" by his friends). Unlike her cancer-stricken colleague Nancy Gordon, Jameson cannot deal with exceptions and changes to her long-standing assumptions about people and the world. Her single-mindedness leads to an erroneous charge of plagiarism and a confrontation of sorts with Third.  Unfortunately, this timely and thoughtful play never fully establishes its striking "King Lear" associations with three generations-father, daughter Laurie and her own child-and opts for a softer resolution in terms of Jameson's tough-mindedness than Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chrinicles," arguably her best play.Still Maureen Anderman is spirited as Jameson and Graham Hamilton persuasive as Bull III. Best of all is Robin Pearson Rose as tenacious yet open-minded Gordon, clearly Wasserstein's voice here.  Richard Seer directs the solid cast sharply.

ANGELS IN AMERICA: PART I - MILLENIUM APPROACHES; PART II - PERESTROIKA: (Boston Theatre Works, Roberts Theatre, Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.) The plays of Jewish playwright-prophet Tony Kushner seem blessed with the threshold of revelation. His recent "Homebody Kabul," actually written before 9-11, provides rich insight on not only Afghanistan but also the ongoing conflict between Western and Eastern nations. Now, thanks to an intensely moving revival of his two- play powerhouse "Angels in America"(1992) by the young but highly accomplished small company Boston Theatre Works, local theatergoers have a very timely opportunity to return to Kushner's breathtaking vision of an America-and by extension a world-progression to greater moral and spiritual integrity. While this sweeping epic is subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," time has only deepened the work's importance to all people- gay and straight, blacks and whites, Jews and Christians.

Indeed, "Angels" looks more prescient than ever. Part one, "Millenium Approaches," begins in 1985 with a New York rabbi named Isidor Chemelwitz eulogizing a Sarah Ironson as one of many shtetl-bred voyagers to a new life in America, where immigration now stands as a political issue as well as a phenomenon of change. Part two, "Perestroika," opens in 1986 with Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, billed as the world's oldest living Bolshevik, challenging his contemporaries to show him "the words that will reorder the world"-words that may be just as elusive in the age of terrorism, Chinese economic expansion and ever-growing militancy in the Islamic world. The play's Mormon Pitt family takes on importance in the plays as does a fellow religionist today as a presidential candidate. Even Jewish Republican McCarthy-era inquisitor Roy Cohn, denying his own gayness vehemently, calls to mind the recent similar actions of Idaho Senator Craig.

Whether audiences view Kushner's brilliant embrace of humanity as "fabulous creatures, each and every one" as a secular or religious take on the American experiment, its roots and sources are often richly Jewish. Prior Walter, the AIDS-stricken boyfriend of Ironson's grandson Louis and arguably the protagonist of the fantasia, alternately recalls biblical Jonah and Jacob as he tries to flee from prophecy at some moments and wrestles with one of the Angel of the Continental Principality of America at others. When hospitalized and finally disbarred Cohn dies from AIDS, Ironson-at the prodding of black gay nurse Belize-recites a fractured Kaddish ( he admits to not having a bar mitzvah) only to be curiously guided through the correct text of the memorial prayer by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom the notorious lawyer helped convict for spying.

Most of all, a large steel-paged book identified as the "Aleph Glyph" takes on the position of a holy book for the Great Work of change and transformation to which Prior-and all citizens of America and the world -are called. Of course, the Aleph itself stands out as the first letter of the Ten Commandments , the first letter of some of God's names and a Hebrew letter associated with amulets. While Kushner provocatively speaks of a divinity absconding from the university, he clearly also means to celebrate the ability of human beings like Prior,Louis, Mother Hannah Pitt and Belize to embrace life and make decisions unlike choice-less angels-a very traditional Jewish distinction.

As with all well -staged great theater, the specific and universal messages speak variously to different theatergoers. Yet the plays' heartfelt affirmation of human diversity and striving is unquestionable and stunningly evoked in a BTW triumph for talented co-directors Jason Southerland and Nancy Curran Willis. Kushner's stage directions advise no blackouts,rather rapid scene shifts and actor assistance with props, and the pacing and movement of the two plays ( which can be seen on one day with a break for lunch or in repertory) are gratiftyingly smooth. The only reservation here is the technical handling of the initial and dominant angel- played with good conviction if not enough intimidation by Elizabeth Aspenlieder. Even Kushner admits that its incredibly hard to make the angel's flying work, though some sort of wing evocation would be preferable to what resemble gates often used as safeguards in homes with young children. Also , the angel ladder could do with aleph adornment and a more mystical look (as the playwright suggests).

There is very little to quibble with about the first-rate cast. Recent Boston University graduate Tyler Reilly is commandingly vulnerable and valiant as Prior, especially as he struggles with the prophecy and later wrestles with an angel. Richard McElvain catches the music-like rhythm of clout-obsessed Cohn on the telephone and most of his meanness and forcefulness in the face of looming death in his hospital scenes. New York University masters degree recipient Bree Elrod sharply evokes the flowering of Hannah's daughter- in- law as she determines to explore her own future without her previously closeted court clerk husband Joe.

Sean Hopkins's wisely balanced performance as Joe catches the pathos as well as the volatile emotions that govern his changing life. Christopher Webb does well with Louis' odyssey to being a real mensch and caring for Prior. Maurice Parent is properly flamboyant and perceptive as Belize. Suzanne Nitter -called on for as many different roles as anyone in the cast ( all do well with the character switches called for by Kushner) brings good inflection to the Rabbi ( always played by an actress) and Rosenberg.

Nathan Leigh's sound design gives the right momentousness to the arrival of the initial angel and to the play's Arctic changes which anticipate recent global warming developments. John Malinowski's lighting incisively alternates between ominous muting and shadow on the one hand and ethereal radiance on the other.Laura C. McPherson's sets have most of the striking starkness that the plays demand-though the evocation of ruin could be more vivid in "Perestroika."
"Angels in America" continues to amaze and provoke with its poetic and poignant look at the changes- sexual, social and political- of the Reagan 80's. BTW's largely soaring staging-a company triumph no less-demonstrates that singular modern-day Jewish visionary Kushner has a lot to say about the transformations and movements that mark the Bush years as well.

Prior observes in his final touching speech- superbly delivered by Reilly- that "The world only spins forward." So it goes with the trail-blazing Boston Theatre Works' very involving "Angels."

MONTY PYTHON'S SPAMALOT: (BroadwayAcrossAmerica Tour, The Opera House, Boston; Providence Performing Arts Center).  Monty Python fans expect a musical "lovingly ripped off from the motion picture 'Monty Pyrhon and the Holy Grail'" to be silly ,even outrageous.The tour at the Opera House made the most of trademark zany jokes and routines, galloping knights and high-kicking ensembles. What may surprise audience members about the 2005 Tony Award winner "Monty Python's Spamalot" is the true highlight of the show, namely a splashy, engaging number named "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" in which King Arthur learns that Jews bring that elusive success. This seemingly offensive but actually praiseworthy ensemble ranges from a Hava Nagila tap sequence to a "Fiddler on the Roof"- derived nine-person bottle- balancing feat with five armor-covered knights even wearing Chassidic hats.  James Beaman proves winning as the number's featured knight Sir Robin. Jeff Dumas captures the great spirit of Arthur's secret Jewish assistant Patsy, and Patrick Heusinger delivers as a gay Sir Lancelot. Michael Siberry is merely effective as the king, but Esther Stillwell is commanding as the Lady of the Lake.  "Spamalot" will not be outrageous enough for Monty Python fanatics, but there is enough processed hilarity in this smorgasboard of silliness to delight theatergoers looking for an escape from more serious fare.

2 PIANOS 4 HANDS: (Presented with Marquis Entertainment at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell). Real-life would-be concert pianists Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt chronicle their own respective career and learning challenges in the autobiographical play "2 Pianos 4 Hands." Their individual and shared experiences here range from reflections on dreams and disappointments to specifics about practice, competitions and ordeals with a diversity of instructors. Tom Frey as Dykstra and Richard Carsey as Greenblatt play an eclectic repertoire- from Bach ,Mozart and Chopin to "My Funny Valentine and "My Way." Greenblatt, who actually directed the production at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, even tells how he chanted "Baruch atah a-do-nai"( the start of a Hebrew blessing, invoked to bring good luck to his play) no less when tested and drilled by teacher Sister Loyola. Eventually, both musicians accept the frank if seemingly cruel judgments of the conservatory experts who examine them and settle for teaching positions rather than unsuccessful concert careers.  If the play is not fully satisfying, so it goes for the performers. While Carsey and especially Frey-a standout in a Schubert impromptu-play with sensitivity and care, the former needs to vary his expressions and body language more as the two not only portray the friend-pianists but also play the very different teachers that alternately challenge and appraise their respective talents. Frey is delightful as maverick pianist and rock star Jerry Lee Lewis. Although the play proves a crowd-pleaser, the depiction of grueling practice and performance could be even more striking and incisive.  A closing Bach encore while satisfying ought to be more stunning, and so should "2 Piano 4 Hands."

Check Out Jules' Best of Theatre 2007!
Check Out Jules' Worst of Theatre 2007!

THE NUTCRACKER: (40th Anniversary of Boston Ballet edition with alternating casts, The Opera House). Through the years, Clara, the heroine of the now 40 year old Boston Ballet version of the Tchaikovsky- scored "Nutcracker," has become a maturing adolescent. Once more of a simply dream-struck child, she has danced en pointe in recent years with both the Nutcracker Prince and sorcerer Drosselmeier, its mysterious creator- a development in keeping these days with the demanding training and fresh choreography of company artistic director Mikko Nissinen. As with all Claras of late-including talented Lauren Herfindahl ( seen by this critic) , the engaging character gains insight about romance from the Sugar Plum Fairy and her attentive partner the Cavalier-the latter role also danced by the Nutcracker dancer. At the performance in question, Roman Rykine skillfully summarized the battle of the Toy Soldiers and the Mice before the Sugar Plum and later joined her gracefully as the Cavalier. His turns were fairly wide, and his leaps effective. Larissa Ponomarenko, always pure poetry as the Sugar Plum, proved a particularly regal and enchanting conjuror here-especially in her turns and expressive hand movement. The standouts in the crowd-pleasing second act Kingdom of Sweets were enigmatic Lia Cirio and muscular,high- lifting Sabi Varga in Arabian. Melanie Atkins had some moments of radiance as the Dew Drop. Romi Beppu and Varga, though, needed to be less wintry a pairing as Snow Queen and King.

LA BOHEME: (Boston Lyric Opera, Shubert Theatre). "La Boheme," as with any true operatic gem ( "Rigoletto" and "Don Giovanni," among others) , demands a great performance. Although Timothy Ocel stages this Puccini masterwork with fresh ideas about ensemble scenes( and notable gusto when toy vendor Parpignol appears) and a good appreciation of the still-appealing banter between poet Rodolfo and his equally poor but spirited friends and Ari Pelto conducts effectively, the supporting roles of painter Marcello and his love grisette Musetta are the standouts when the lead parts , the heroic writer and his seamstress love Mimi should be the dazzling pair. Derek Taylor should bring as much fire to his acting as to his arias, and Alyson Cambridge-who catches all of her character's sweetness - needs sharper phrasing in her delivery. Timothy Mix sings with striking resonance, and Kimwana Doner is electrifying as Musetta. BLO audiences can dream of a "Boheme" that soars past the current solid one to true greatness.

THE THREE MUSKETEERS: (North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, MA). Cardinal Richelieu seems to prowl the wings and the rear of this visually smart but dramatically uneven musical. Composer Stiles, lyricist Paul Leigh and author Peter Raby may be thinking of taking this ambitious effort to New York, but if so, Richelieu will need to demonstrate as much clout here as a character and a presence as he does in the Dumas novel. Kate Baldwin has her moments as Milady, but the first act ought to give the title swashbucklers stronger respective raisons d'etre. Aaron Tveit has appeal as D'Artagnan, amnd Jenny Fellner has some fire as Constance. Mick Bleyer is forceful as opposing swordsman Rochefort, but the musical inexplicably fails to give this significant adversary a signature number. Lez Brotherston provides sparkle with his inspired costumes, though director Francis Matthews does not seem to be demanding enough evocation of Paris from the double threat's sets, even given that this is theater in the round. Dennis Callahan should be calling for as much panache in his choreography as Bryce Birmingham delivers in his fight direction. One musketeer song chimes in "Count Me In," but a lot more needs to be done before New York audiences -or any others ,for that matter- rally around that sentiment.

FIGARO: (American Repertory Theatre in association with Theatre de la Jeune Leune and the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA). Somehow this blend of Beaumarchais and Mozart turned out smoother and more insightful than the "Don Juan Giovanni" collaboration with which it runs in repertory. Steven Epp is magnificent as Fig, especially at a moment of truth in which he looks at life-particularly his own- with brutal candor. Bradley Greenwald has the right imperiousness as Count Almaviva.

MY FAIR LADY: (Fiddlehead Theatre, Norwood, MA). If you see Bridget Beirne and Brendan McNab paired in a musical, call it a must-see.That was the case with their astonishing work in SpeakEasy Stage Company's haunting revival of "Parade." Now they mesh brilliantly in Fiddlehead Theatre's often loverly "My Fair Lady." McNab catches Higgins' light-hearted condescension and ultimate feeling and caring, while Beirne beautifully captures the transformation of Eliza Doolittle from a sometimes fearful, sometimes beleaguered Cockney flower girl to an unequivocal lady and independent spirit. David Krinitt smartly underplays as Pickering. Nathan Troupe, engaging as Freddy, richly delivers "On the Street Where You Live." The one weak performance is Dan Kelly's strangely under-played Alfred. Kelly often seems to be going through the motions in this stellar character role-especially in his musical numbers. Wendy Hall effectively choreographs the townspeople numbers. For the most part, director Stacey Stephens has really done it.