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The best of Boston’s theater scene

Jules Becker

Do you look for fresh takes on classics at the theater? Do your tastes run more to the experimental and the envelope-pushing? Are you looking for new work? Would you prefer unexplored themes to familiar fare?

From Shakespeare to African American new voice Tarell Alvin McCraney, 2011 was a year with a variety of stage riches for even the most demanding theatergoers.

As usual, some of the musical riches came from strong Broadway Across America-Boston tours — most notably “Hair” and “South Pacific.” So far, plays are conspicuously absent from BAA-Boston’s 2012 line-up.

ARTS/Emerson expanded the downtown Theatre District mix with a strikingly eclectic inaugural season. If its Irish festival stretched from the disappointing “The Color of Rose” (Rose Kennedy) to a very affecting staging of the Martin McDonagh play “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” ARTS/Emerson also hosted such welcome uncommon fare as the theater and dance phenomenon “Psy” and a variation on “Twelfth Night” involving a totalitarian Arab regime entitled “The Speaker’s Progress.”

Local companies offering provocative fare probing African American themes and productions and giving strong roles to premier area African American actors ranged from the SpeakEasy Stage Company and Company One at the Boston Center for the Arts and the Lyric Stage Company of Boston to the Underground Railway Theatre and the Nora Theatre — both at Cambridge’s Central Square Theatre.

Kami Rushel Smith impressed as part of a dream ensemble of actresses in SpeakEasy’s eye-catching revival of “Nine.” Vincent Siders, Ramona Lisa Alexander and especially Joseph Elbert continue to shine in the magical Underground-Nora’s first co-production “Arabian Nights.” Johnny Lee Davenport was heart-wrenchingly good in Lyric Stage’s “Broke-ology.”

 If “Arabian Nights” looks to become a benchmark co-production and a likely Hub winter tradition, Mary Zimmerman’s brilliant revival of “Candide” at Huntington Theatre should be a platinum standard for future productions of this Leonard Bernstein gem. Not as definitive as “Candide,” American Repertory Theatre’s musical re-imagining of “Porgy and Bess” known as “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” boasts a riveting performance from Audra McDonald as the troubled title heroine and a strong ensemble cast.

Herewith — in alphabetical order — the best of 2011:

Small stages

1. “Arabian Nights,” a storytelling delight for all ages.

2. “Breaking the Code,” (Underground Railway Theatre). Allyn Burrows was commanding as Alan Turing, the man who cracked the Nazi’s Enigma code.

3. “The Brother/Sister Plays” (Company One) Dynamic James Milord was a standout in Tyrell Alvin McCraney’s important trilogy about coming-of-age African American young men and women — a benchmark effort by Company One.

4. “Hotel Nepenthe” (Actors’ Shakespeare Project at Somerville Storefront) is John Kuntz’s wonderfully offbeat, original play.

5. “The Most Happy Fella” (Gloucester Stage Company) is a lush rendering of the Frank Loesser score.

6. “My Name Is Asher Lev” (Lyric Stage Companyof Boston) is Scott Edmiston’s labor of love staging.

7. “Nine” (SpeakEasy Stage Company) is a dream ensemble with Timothy John Smith riveting as Guido.

8.  “Outside the Wire” (Cornerstone Stage Company at BCA) offered timely attention to returning American soldiers and their families.  

9. “The Secret Garden” (Longwood Players at YMCA Theatre) was a vividly evocative revival.

10. and 11.”To Kill a Mockingbird” (Boston Children’s Theatre at BCA and Roxbury Repertory Theater at Roxbury Community College) were the diverse and exciting revivals of the adaptation that honored Harper Lee’s classic novel.

12. “Spring Awakening the Musical” (F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company at Arsenal Center for the Arts) was an ambitious effort impressively realized by this exciting young company.

Large stages

1. “Candide” (Huntington Theatre Company) Bernstein would be  shouting “Bravo” for Huntington’s milestone revival, the best of all musical worlds.

2. The Cripple of Inishmaan (Druid and Atlantic Theater Company, ARTS/Emerson at Paramount Theatre) was a soaring tour.  

3. and 4. “The Comedy of Errors” and “Richard III” (visiting Propeller company at Huntington’s Boston University Theatre) were the kind of exuberant revivals that reassured jaded Shakespeare buffs.

5. “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” (A.R.T. at Loeb Drama Center; now on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre through June 24, 2012). Audra McDonald as Bess and Philip Boykin as Crown are the standouts in a vibrant ensemble.

6. “The Merchant of Venice” (Theater for a New Audience, ARTS/Emerson at Cutler Majestic Theatre) was a smart 21st century reading of the play with F. Murray Abraham a richly conflicted Shylock.

7. “My Fair Lady” (North Shore Music Theatre). The Lerner and Loewe classic was as fresh as ever.

8. “Prometheus Bound” (A.R.T. at Oberon) Steven Sater’s strong script and lyrics and Uzo Aduba’s knockout performance as Io.

9. “Ruined” (Huntington at BU Theatre) was Lynn Nottage’s timely look at women struggling for dignity and survival in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

10. “The Speaker’s Progress” (Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre – SABAB Theatre, Arts/Emerson at Paramount Theatre) offered eye-opening insights about censorship and the manipulation of culture by dictators.

11. “Three Pianos” (A.R.T. at Loeb through January 8, 2012) focuses on Shubert and the transcendent power of music.

12. “Two Jews Walk into a War” (Merrimack Repertory Theatre). Will Lebow and Jeremiah Kissel were radiant as the last Jews of Afghanistan writing a Torah.