ART's "ExtraOrdinary": Who Gets to Tell Your Story?

Guest Artist Patina Miller in "Extraordinary"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

With apologies to Lin Manuel Miranda and Hamilton, the current production at ART, titled ExtraOrdinary, might well have utilized the tag line, “Who Gets to Tell Your Story?”, as the compilation of numbers from the last ten years of the company's offerings promises. If there is a common thread throughout this latest effort, it would be the undeniably strong emphasis that ART has always placed on the necessity of theater to enable the telling of the story of a person or group themselves as opposed to someone else telling it for them. Thus the long-overlooked and forgotten, the oppressed and the downtrodden, the characters so often marginalized in other media have found a home and a voice in the welcoming genius that is Artistic Director Diane Paulus. On the surface, this was a celebration of her enduring spirit, unabashedly consistent and sincere liberalism, and uncanny skill in knowing what works in the theater of today. At its base, though, this was a much broader manifesto about the power of music and drama, especially when commingled, to offer resistance to the darker powers in the world outside the confines of a performance venue. As Paulus quotes none other than Brecht in the program: “In the dark times, will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing, about the dark times”.

Matthew James Thomas in "Extraordinary"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

The festivities got off to a rollicking start with a clever update of the song from Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (arguably the greatest production in the history of the company) that introduced all of the major characters in that show (“Prologue”). It was a superb way to re-introduce the ART audience to some of the performers associated with a baker's dozen of the “over thirty musicals, operas, music theater pieces, and plays with music”. These included three actors from the company's successful revival of Pippin, guest performer (and Tony winner for her “Leading Player”) Patina Miller, Terrence Mann and Matthew James Thomas in the title role, as well as local favorite MJ Rodriguez (who prefers not be pigeonholed as a trans actor, and justly so in this era of self-affirmation, and given such extra-ordinary talent) from Burn All Night, Melody A. Betts (Witness Uganda), and Bryonha Marie Parham (Porgy and Bess). Also in the company were two recent performers, Kathryn Gallagher (Jagged Little Pill) and Brandon Michael Nase (The Black Clown). The tight-knit troupe of eight were uniformly excellent in their portrayals, (though one of them jarringly hammed it up and needs to be restrained a mite), a further testament to Paulus and her team and their pluperfect casting abilities.

The Cast of "Extraordinary"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

With all this talent on stage, it made for a sometimes dazzling cabaret experience. Whether or not one is blown away by their numerous star turns depends on one's preference for cabaret, which this decidedly was. Any such effort faces two possible challenges, one being the very subjective choice of numbers to be presented and the impact (or lack thereof) of songs that are delivered out of any theatrical context. Adding to these potential pitfalls was the frequent lack of information (neither in the program nor its inserts nor any supertitles) as to what show a song was from or even what the name of the song was. Thus the more familiar numbers, such as Parham's superlative “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess (in tandem with great trumpet virtuosity by Riley Mulherkar) stood out while excerpts from less popular works (Prometheus Bound and The Blue Flower) went unidentified. There were several choices from Pippin (but markedly not the best showstopper in the revival, “No Time at All”) perhaps recognizing the presence in the audience of its Composer/Lyricist Stephen Schwartz. And shows that went on to Broadway distinction such as Waitress or Finding Neverland were underrepresented (as noted above, however, a subjective reaction). On the creative side, the Choreography by Abbey O'Brien (supplemented by Chet Walker) was amazing, complemented by the Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood, Costume Design by Emilio Sosa, Lighting and Projection Design by Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew, and perhaps most especially the Sound Design by Jonathan Deans. The small but effective band quintet led by Lance Horne was an invaluable asset as well.

Bryonha Marie Parham, MJ Rodriguez, Melody A. Betts & Kathryn Gallagher in "Extraordinary"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

If cabaret style evenings like this are your cup of tea, (here only until November 30th), you'll love this trip down memory lane, which will feature guest performers during the run such as Norm Lewis or Alicia Hall Moran (both from ART's revival of Porgy and Bess), Rachel Bay Jones (Pippin), and Lea DeLaria (Prometheus Bound). And there's no reason not to expect ten years hence another evening of Paulus' greatest hits to be enjoyed for the next decade; she is not one for looking backward or resting on her estimable laurels. One has the distinct feeling that this giant in the theatre has only just begun. 

No comments:

Post a Comment