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A strong year on local stages large and small

From classics to premieres, quality abounded

When the most exciting theatrical events of the year are a TV movie of a 12-year-old play -- "Angels in America" -- and a revival of a 35-year-old musical revue -- "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" -- then you might think it wasn't a terribly interesting year on the theater front. But theater is about surprise, and 2003 was a year in which local people, theaters, and organizations asserted themselves in ways that made you sit up and take notice.

No one who has heard her sing in musicals or cabaret is surprised that Leigh Barrett has risen to the top of her profession in the Boston area. The only surprise is that it took people so long to cast her in parts worthy of her talents. After excellent turns in some Stephen Sondheim shows around town, most notably "Passion" at SpeakEasy Stage in 2002, director Scott Edmiston cast her in his superlative revival of "Brel" at the Gloucester Stage Company, which was followed this fall by another amazing turn in "Follies In Concert" by Overture Productions.

With a graceful mezzo-soprano delivery that bores into the emotional center of a song, Barrett also shone this year in "A Class Act" at SpeakEasy Stage Company and as the Beggar Woman in the New Repertory Theatre's "Sweeney Todd." Come the new year she'll be returning to the New Rep in "The Threepenny Opera" as well as going back to "Brel" if it's extended into February, which makes both of them must-see productions.

The post-Brustein era at the American Repertory Theatre began in earnest this year and anyone who thought it would mean a lessening of the auteur-director aesthetic was in for the rudest of awakenings. Peter Sellars, Anne Bogart, and a number of other directors continued to recast the classics with postmodernist panache, adding more Eastern elements along the way.

There was also more music, typified by the best production of the year, Rinde Eckert's "Highway Ulysses," directed by artistic director Robert Woodruff.

It's sad to see less of an emphasis on a standing company as well as on elegant and traditional productions, such as David Wheeler's less auteurish takes on modern classics, but even when this year's ART plays didn't fully succeed they offered a different way to look at theater.

At the other end of the spectrum, Broadway in Boston had a sensational season. With so many lousy road-show productions touring the country, what we saw here was first-rate, particularly "The Producers," "Hairspray," and "The Exonerated." BIB-meister Tony McLean also imported Peter Hall's magnificent "As You Like It" with the Huntington and got New York casts of "Say Goodnight, Gracie" and "Def Poetry Jam" here. The company also worked with the Wang Center to copresent a fine "42nd Street."

Meanwhile, at the New Repertory Theatre in Newton, Rick Lombardo was coming into his own as one of the best directors in Boston with terrific productions of 20th-century classics like Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." He also showed a commitment to local playwrights with the world premiere of Joyce Van Dyke's "A Girl's War."

Another theater that seemed to take a quantum leap forward was Gloucester Stage Company, not only with "Jacques Brel," but also with new ("Sins of the Mother") and old ("The Indian Wants the Bronx") works by artistic director Israel Horovitz and a masterful production of "Collected Stories" starring Nancy E. Carroll, one of Boston's best actors and, it turns out, a superb singer in both "Sweeney Todd" and the more sentimental "A Man of No Importance" at SpeakEasy. Back in Gloucester, my Globe colleagues were also impressed by Gloucester Stage's productions of new chestnuts "Proof" and "Stones in His Pockets."

The North Shore Music Theatre is another jewel in the Route 128 crown and this year excelled in just about everything it did, whether classics like "West Side Story," rarely performed treasures like "Pacific Overtures," or world premieres like "Memphis." Richard Dyer also smiled on "Mame" and "Smokey Joe's Cafe."

Shakespeare & Company continues to be one of the best troupes in Massachusetts, but the consistency was particularly impressive this year. Tina Packer and her Lenox-based company not only make Shakespeare our earthy contemporary but they also bring a classic elegance to contemporary plays like "Vita & Virginia," "The Fly-Bottle," and "Lettice and Lovage."

My colleagues and I also found consistently high quality at the Huntington Theatre Company (most notably "Butley" with Nathan Lane), Providence's Trinity Repertory Company (especially Paula Vogel's "The Long Christmas Ride Home," the current "Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience," and "A Christmas Carol" at the Cutler Majestic) and Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, which is nothing new for those companies. W.H.A.T. also came to Jimmy Tingle's Off-Broadway in Somerville with "A New War," Gip Hoppe's satire of the Bush administration and the media that turned out to be eerily prescient.

Scott Edmiston, who directed "Brel," also won an Elliot Norton Award for his fine revisitation of Harold Pinter's "Betrayal" for the Nora Theatre Company, while two younger playwrights, Neil LaBute and Keith Bunin, were in excellent hands, those of SpeakEasy Stage for LaBute's "The Shape of Things" and Zeitgeist Stage Company for Bunin's "The Credeaux Canvas."

Finally, farewell to the dean of American theater critics and one of the classiest people you ever saw on an aisle seat, Elliot Norton, who died at the age of 100.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

Ed Seigel's Picks
'Highway Ulysses'
Karen MacDonald and Tomas Derrah in "Highway Ulysses" at the American Repertory Theatre.
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