The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

[1997 in Review]

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Sweeping the stage

1997 in review

by Carolyn Clay

1. Cabaret (Barrington Stage Company, Orpheum Theatre Foxborough, and Cambridge Theatre Company) and Cabaret Verboten (Huntington Theatre Company). The one-two Weimar punch was packed by the simultaneous appearance in these parts of Julianne Boyd's tough-edged production of the 1966 Kander & Ebb musical based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories and Jeremy Lawrence's entertaining, historically informative, eerily contemporaneous compilation of actual songs and sketches of Berlin cabaret, 1918-1933. Both shows caught the almost ghoulish decadence of the period, were superbly performed, and featured more than a whiff of Nazi menace in the wings.

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2. Chicago (Colonial Theatre). As soulless and seductive as Weimar cabaret is Kander & Ebb's sinuous and jazzy 1975 musical-vaudeville send-up of Justice subverted by show-biz flim-flam as two unrepentant murderesses turn smoking guns into smoking headlines and stardom in the Windy City. The stripped-down Tony-winning revival, directed by Walter Bobbie, features a dynamite performance by Charlotte d'Amboise as Roxie Hart and dazzlingly sexy choreography by Bob Fosse protégée Ann Reinking.

3. Dead End (Williamstown Theatre Festival). Like Dickens's Marley, Sidney Kingsley had been as dead as a doornail. Or so it seemed until this ambitious revival of the playwright's 1935 play, a condemnation of American inequality that calls for 42 actors and New York's East River -- into which the famed Dead End kids cannonball with frequency. So what's a prestigious summer theater festival for? Nicholas Martin directed the vibrant, well-acted production whose cast included Robert Sean Leonard, Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Marian Seldes, and Scott Wolf, and which took us back to what Broadway, at its atmospheric and crusading best, was like in the '30s.

Diary of Anne Frank 4. The Diary of Anne Frank (Colonial Theatre). This carefully muted, Broadway-bound production wasn't perfectly calibrated, but Wendy Kesselman's intelligent, lyrical new adaptation goes a long way toward removing the saccharine idealism and everyday melodrama from the 1955 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Anne Frank's story remains important if almost unbearable, and the James Lapine staging, with film actress Natalie Portman as Anne, showcased a particularly fine performance by Linda Lavin as vain, fragile Mrs. Van Daan.

5. Faith Healer (Gloucester Stage Company). A beautiful cast of Paul O'Brien, Paula Plum, and Will LeBow footed Brian Friel's modern-day Irish Rashomon, three interlocked accounts of the life and death of a low-rent Irish faith healer that form a lyrical yet earthy meditation on the mysteries of art and faith. James Christy directed.

6. The Game of Love and Chance (Huntington Theatre Company). Eighteenth-century dramatist Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux was considered too French for American audiences until adapter and director Stephen Wadsworth took up his cause. And a worthy one it was, as this ravishing production of Marivaux's intricately frenzied, delightfully mannered Upstairs, Downstairs of the heart demonstrated.

The Game of Love and Chance 7. The Heiress (Lyric Stage). The happily ubiquitous Paula Plum gave a touching, heady reading of plain-Jane Catherine Sloper, who is stunted by her father's contempt and then jilted by a fortune hunter, in Ruth and Augustus Goetz's romantic melodrama based on Henry James's Washington Square. An effective if old-fashioned piece of stagecraft, the 1947 play suited the Lyric Stage, whose Polly Hogan helmed the handsome, straightforward production.

8. Laughter on the 23rd Floor (Merrimack Repertory Theatre) and subUrbia (SpeakEasy Stage Company). What do Neil Simon and Eric Bogosian have in common? In this case, crack ensembles that made the absolute most of Simon's exhaustingly funny account of his years writing for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows (directed at Merrimack by David Zoffoli and featuring bravura turns by Ken Baltin, Jeremiah Kissel, Phillip Patrone, Michael Poisson, and Kathy St. George) and Bogosian's roiling if ultimately melodramatic depiction of alienated youth loitering in a convenience-store parking lot (directed for SpeakEasy by Steven Maler, with an impressive cast of unknowns).

9. Man and Superman (American Repertory Theatre). Probably the most delicious thought feast of the year, David Wheeler's three-and-a-quarter-hour buffet of Shaviana included a truncated but still-juicy rendition of the famed "Don Juan in Hell" dream sequence. Exquisitely set by Christine Jones, costumed by Catherine Zuber, and lit by John Ambrosone, Shaw's paean to creative evolution also brought bracing new blood to the solid ART company in the form of Don Reilly, as cerebrally swashbuckling a Jack Tanner as any Life Force could wish for.

10. The Old Neighborhood and When the World Was Green (American Repertory Theatre New Stages). Both these brief new works, by American-theater-legends-in-the-making David Mamet and Sam Shepard (with Joseph Chaikin) respectively, had a potency that wafted through their imperfections and lingered. Mamet's chiseled yet haunting triptych, touching on the impossibility of either recovering or shaking the past, recently opened in New York, directed as it was here by Scott Zigler but without the artful, humanizing contributions of actors Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams. Shepard & Chaikin's play, subtitled "A Chef's Fable," is similarly poetic and cryptic. A murder mystery that blossoms into a redemption ritual built around mango chutney, it was compellingly performed by Alvin Epstein and Amie Quigley, with musical punctuation by pianist and composer Woody Regan.

So many kudos, so little space: the year's best performances included, in addition to those mentioned above, Christopher Plummer's precise, insouciant star turn in the Broadway-bound Barrymore and Randy Danson's electrifying switch from giddy triumph to piercing horror in ART's The Bacchae. Also worthy of note: the newly inaugurated Providence Play Festival, under the auspices of Trinity Repertory Company, presented two worthy world premieres, Paula Vogel's The Minneola Twins and Anthony Clarvoe's small-scale Croatian-American epic, Ambition Facing West.