Boston Theatre Works production of "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's
Scientology Pageant" by Kyle Jarrow. (Nosaj T. Herland)

It was the little things that meant a lot

Hyped shows didn't always deliver, but surprises abounded


By Scott Heller, Globe Staff  |  December 31, 2006

Imagine what a year in arts will look like in January, and you hone in on the special events, the world premieres, the visits from luminaries. Boston certainly expected its share in 2006, thanks especially to James Levine's penchant for star-driven concert versions of operas at Symphony Hall. "Monty Python's Spamalot" and "Wicked" were due to make their first appearances downtown, and the pre-Broadway tryout of "High Fidelity" was on its way.

Smaller companies promised to stretch themselves with stagings of ambitious works like "The Pillowman" and "Ragtime." And the American Repertory Theatre planned a powerful slate that included adaptations of the film "Wings of Desire" and a collaboration with cabaret rockers the Dresden Dolls.

Look back on that year in December -- this December, at least -- and the truly memorable events turned out to be less "officially" special, yet utterly rewarding just the same. "High Fidelity" had one great number ("Conflict Resolution") but not enough of a reason for being. All those onstage local references damaged "Wings of Desire," though the airborne kiss between the angel and the aerialist may have been the year's most breathtaking moment of theater.

Instead, many of the events that stood out for me in 2006 were left-field surprises, or they were part and parcel of a cultural landscape that delivers top-notch work on a regular basis, without a lot of fuss over who's first or what's new. To wit:

JENNY LEWIS, Berklee Performance Center
When the lead singer of an up-and-coming band decides to put out an album under her own name, it probably means trouble for the band. I wish indie rockers Rilo Kiley all the best, but this transporting Berklee show proved that lead singer Jenny Lewis can pretty much do anything all on her own. Touring behind the wonderful "Rabbit Fur Coat" disc, Lewis and backup singers the Watson Twins delivered a night of roadhouse soul worthy of "Dusty in Memphis," though Lewis's confessional songs are a lot spikier. Critical distance be damned; once Lewis and the twins arrived in glittery mini-dresses to deliver the new "See Fernando," I wanted to paste her picture on the cover of my loose-leaf binder.

The TomKat wedding got the headlines, but the real news for Scientology watchers was Kyle Jarrow's mini-musical, at once perfectly silly and perfectly searing. A gaggle of kids put on the show, tracing the story of L. Ron Hubbard with the utmost of seriousness and the cheesiest of props. Under Jason Southerland's shrewd direction, the gimmick worked beautifully. Yes, you laughed, but you also understood the lure of any get-clean-quick therapy, no matter how outlandish its teachings. Bravo to Southerland's company for such very alternative holiday-season programming.

"BOBRAUSCHENBERGAMERICA," American Repertory Theatre
There wasn't much buzz for the New York-based SITI company's latest appearance on the ART stage, and based on the company's 2003 "La Dispute," I saved my visit until late in the run. How I would have regretted missing Charles L. Mee's weird and wonderful exploration of the will to create, as refracted (sort of) through the sensibility of the collage artist. On a stage dominated by an oversize American flag, members of the exemplary cast clowned, skated, and sang. There wasn't a story, exactly, but the show proved that nostalgic pastiche could be deeply emotional, too. Rarely have everyday activities -- a picnic, a yard sale -- been imbued with such grace.

It took 10 years from its London debut for this riveting psychosexual rework of the ballet to reach Boston, and in fact, weak sales meant the American tour closed up shop early here. That made the final performance, with Jose Tirado as the lead Swan, extra special. I'd loved Bourne's spoofy choreography and Lez Brotherston's clever design when I first saw the production on Broadway; this time, though, the male swans seemed to be dancing for their lives, and the show felt like anything but a laughing matter.

"SERENADE," Boston Ballet
The big news on the bill was the premiere of a "Carmen" by Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo and set (the company said) in the world of high fashion. But all the joy came courtesy of George Balanchine, whose "Serenade" proved that neo-classicism, done well, is its own reward. Anything but high concept, this was all about lavender gowns and beautifully turned arms extending in unison. Just lovely. (An excerpt from "Carmen" looked better as part of the Ballet's gala later in the season.)

SIBELIUS, SYMPHONY NO. 3, Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine's provocative programming (the Schoenberg-Beethoven project) and capital-E events ("Moses und Aron " ) were must-see. But the BSO performance that reached me most directly was a regular old evening of Sibelius, with Robert Spano holding the baton, not Levine. These days the symphony's brash, horn-driven sound can raise the roof. Here, though, was the BSO at its quietly aching best. At moments you had to lean in to hear. And you never wanted to pull away.

In its continuing effort to stay relevant, the Pops guessed right by bringing in Kentucky psych-rockers My Morning Jacket for a concert that gave delusions of grandeur a good name. Tucked into tuxedoes that made them look like hippies at a prom, the band members seemed awed to be in Symphony Hall. This charming awkwardness disappeared once lead singer Jim James opened his mouth. With his full-throated wail on "Gideon" and "Run Thru," backed by the Pops' orchestral muscle, pomp rock never sounded so fine. When is the follow-up show -- and how about holding it at an outdoor arena so MMJ drummer Patrick Hallahan can really pound away?

"FIVE BY TENN" and "THE WOMEN," SpeakEasy Stage Company
The ensemble casts were excellent; so were the sets and costumes. But the star of both productions was their director, Scott Edmiston , who found new ways to breathe life into a set of minor Tennessee Williams playlets and Clare Booth Luce's arch comedy. In both cases, Edmiston framed the shows as narrated by surrogates for their authors. In "Five by Tenn," this lent the plays the gravity of Williams's own troubled biography, making for the musical-savvy SpeakEasy's strongest production of a drama to date. The conceit worked less well in "The Women," but it did allow Edmiston an Act 1 tour-de-force finale: His entire cast sauntered onstage to sing "Down in the Depths," by Cole Porter, and the lyrics felt like they were written for these very women: "When the only one you wanted wants another," they sang, "What's the use of swank and cash in the bank galore?" It was nowhere in the script, but everywhere in the marrow of this bitter comedy.

"SPRING AWAKENING," Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York
Take an 1891 play about German teenagers struggling to understand their bodies. Add a highly contemporary musical score with numbers right out of the emo songbook. Unbelievably enough, what you got is Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's blazingly original show, which features what may be the best rock score ever heard on a Broadway stage.

Oh, there was one special event that did turn out as special as promised: the opening of the first new art museum in Boston in nearly a century. Yes, it was delayed. Yes, it sits amid parking lots. Yes, some people are more impressed by the building than the art (I thought the inaugural "Super Vision" show was a well-conceived welcoming gesture). But the museum's free public opening on Dec. 10 was, simply, a great day in Boston. The weather cooperated, the crowds were patient, the entertainers delivered. Now the hard part -- reminding the thousands of people who passed through the doors to visit regularly. Special as it is, the ICA is not just meant for special occasions. Globe arts editor Scott Heller can be reached at  

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