Diversity dominated local theater this year. Both large and small stages embraced plays and musicals about Jewish characters and their challenges, goals, and priorities. So it went with their African-American, Hispanic, and LGBTQ counterparts.
Sadly, 2019 saw the demise of two acclaimed Boston companies: Zeitgeist Stage Company and Israeli Stage. Attention should be paid to their very versatile respective artistic directors, David J. Miller (also an imaginative scenic designer) and Guy Ben-Aharon.
On the positive side, Needham-based Arlekin Players Theatre – which regularly boasts a significant percentage of Jewish cast members and tech workers as well as sharp artistic director Igor Golyak – continues to stage Jewish as well as classic material. At the same time, the beloved revived Emerson Colonial Theatre continues to expand its lineup.
The following is this critic’s best of 2019 list of Greater Boston theater.
“Birdy” (Commonwealth Shakespeare Company) – Friendship, caring, and deep love flew very high in this wonderfully intense staging. Will Taylor was extraordinary as the adult Birdy.
“Cabaret” (Ogunquit Playhouse) – This fresh revival brought welcome riffs to Kander and Ebb’s landmark look at anti-Semitism and hate in pre-Holocaust Germany. John Rubinstein proved especially heart-wrenching as Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz.
“Cymbeline” (Commonwealth Shakespeare Company) – Troupe regular Fred Sullivan Jr. directed this rarely staged but intriguing play with great flair.
“Indecent” (Huntington Theatre Company and Center Theatre Group) – Rebecca Taichman reprised her Tony-winning direction of Paula Vogel’s play-within-a-play, probing intrepid Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s daring – especially about lesbian love — in his drama, “God of Vengeance.’’
“Moby Dick” (American Repertory Theater) – Dave Molloy has made his world premiere musical as ambitious, wide-ranging, and evocative in its own way as Melville’s truly great American novel.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” (Huntington Theatre Company) – Company artistic director Peter DuBois smartly developed the relationship of the two title characters – deep friendship and even love – in this savvy revival.
“Sunset Boulevard” (North Shore Music Theatre) – The Beverly theater made an artistic coup landing Alice Ripley (a well-deserved Tony for “Next to Normal’’) as Norma Desmond. At the same time, the big standouts here were Nicholas Rodriguez as ill-fated Joe Gillis and William Michals as Max von Mayerling.
“The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” (Merrimack Repertory Theatre) – The Lowell theater strongly followed up its previous “Pride and Prejudice’’ adaptation, “Miss Bennet.’’
“The Waverly Gallery” (Shakespeare & Company) – Annette Miller was hauntingly strong as an aging Jewish matriarch struggling with dementia.
“We Live in Cairo” (American Repertory Theater) – Brothers Daniel and Patrick Lazour’s world premiere musical combines solid feeling and rich visuals – particularly David Bengali’s projection and video design – in its exploration of the 2011 student protests in Egypt and their aftermath.
Small and Midsize Stages
“Becoming Dr. Ruth” (New Repertory Theatre) – Anne O’Sullivan sharply portrayed the now-91 Jewish Renaissance woman – strong-willed matriarch, psychologist, and sex maven, Nazi escapee – in Mark St. Germain’s vivid one-person play.
“Caroline, or Change” (Moonbox Productions) – Director Allison Olivia Choat brought new clarity to this thoughtful Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical about an undaunted African-American heroine and her both warm and complicated relationship with the Jewish family for whom she works.
“Parade” (Moonbox Productions) – In an age of spiking anti-Semitism, the Jason Robert Brown musical resonated more than ever in this powerfully disturbing revival – arguably the best Hub show of the year – with Phil Tayler viscerally touching as scapegoated Jewish factory manager Leo Frank.
“Photo 51” (Nora Theatre) – Scientific exploration and biophysicist Rosalind Franklin’s struggle against male exploitation of her achievements clicked beautifully in this soaring revival.
“The Little Foxes” (Lyric Stage Company of Boston) – Returning guest director Scott Edmiston tautly captured the volatile family dynamics of this Lillian Hellman classic.
“Ragtime” (Wheelock Family Theatre) – Library and liberty harmonized in a cleverly designed edition of this E.L. Doctorow masterwork-based musical.
“The Return” (Israeli Stage) – In the last and certainly not the least effort in a near decade of provocative stagings, founding artistic director and adaptor extraordinaire Guy Ben Aharon once again embraced controversy in a strikingly designed Israeli-Palestinian encounter.
“The Smuggler” (Boston Playwrights’ Theatre) – A new Ronan Noone play is always a special occasion, particularly as here with a tour de force one-person performance by gifted Billy Meleady.
“The Stone, The Seagull” (Arlekin Players Theatre) – This group has established itself as not only a showplace for Russian stage gems, but also a singular venue for envelope-pushing fare. The company demonstrated these strengths in these stellar productions.