I recently went to the theater, vaxxed and masked, and saw two productions which couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed. One was an honest, affecting, reality-based memoir that shed light on one of the most crucial and challenging issues of our times. The other was a repackaged bundle of cliched claptrap, an embarrassment in motion.  I’ll start at the top and work my way down.

Photo by Mark S. Howard

MR. PARENT is a world premiere now playing at The Lyric Stage and it is a MUST SEE–crucial viewing. This one-man show stars Maurice Emmanuel Parent as himself in his real life role as a teacher in an urban public school system by day, actor in Boston area theaters by night. I am very familiar with Mr. Parent’s remarkable work on stage but had no idea he moonlighted as a teacher for five years– and my awe and respect for this performer has multiplied exponentially. I was once a HS English teacher and I promise you, it is the hardest, most challenging work I have ever tried to do, emphasis on “tried.” Mr. Parent’s honesty about just how hard it is really hit home.

Written by acclaimed playwright/teacher/actor Melinda Lopez, MR. PARENT capitalizes on Parent’s talents as an actor: his charisma and comic timing — his absurdly real anecdotes from the classroom are hilarious; deft impersonations– he conjures an array of students in seconds with a mannerism, a turn of phrase, just the right intonation. But its Parent’s vulnerability, his rooting himself in the present moment, the truth telling onstage which distinguishes the best actors; that’s what gripped me here and must have gripped his students too.

Photo by Mark S. Howard

What we learn about the public school system remains devastating. Shocking statistics charting gross inequities and miserably underserved schools tumble out in between anecdotes both painful and funny. One incident about a teacher overheard screaming and threatening to hammer her students’ heads if they didn’t behave, was played for laughs and sympathy; overwhelmed by the yawning chasm of need before her, this teacher had clearly blown a fuse.  Many of these students arrive each day frustrated and starving– for a meal, safety, guidance, an outlet– any path forward through a thicket of want. What’s to be done? That’s on all of us.

Mr. Parent has already stepped up, did his best in the classroom, and continues to share his wisdom onstage.  There were moments in the piece when I couldn’t tell if the actor was on or off script– ironically very much to the point– and my heart caught in my throat when by the end, he became visibly distressed– at the inequities before him, at his own struggle to keep teaching, at his continued striving to make even the slightest dent in this mountain of dysfunction without wearing himself down. His guilt around leaving teaching was palpable and made me want to rush the stage and wrap Mr. Parent’s own last words around him. In the show’s closing moments, Mr. Parent vowed that the next time he ran into one of his former students now a tattoo artist–he would ask for a tattoo. Not necessary I thought– they’re already under his skin. And mine too. Thank you for this living memory of a show, Mr. Parent. You are aptly named.

MUST SEE  “MR. PARENT” through February 6 at Lyric Stage Company.

As for PRETTY WOMAN: The Musical a staged version of the 1990 hit movie presented by Broadway in Boston at the Opera House? Without Julia Roberts gamine charm, Richard Gere’s sex appeal, their chemistry, and the emotional beats provided by director Garry Marshall in this fairy tale about a prostitute who finds her prince charming in a wealthy piano-playing businessman while turning tricks on Hollywood Blvd– this transplant doesn’t survive the operation, which was tricky to begin with.

Here Olivia Valli (Frankie’s granddaughter) opposite Adam Pascal (the original Roger in RENT!) in the leads are mismatched vocally and every other way, wading through generic songs and perfunctory choreography which subtract rather than add. The best parts were the vocal snippets at “the opera” within the soap opera, and Kyle Taylor Parker popping up in multiple roles, but nothing could revive a show dead on arrival. Through January 30 at the Citizens bank Opera House.