There are three shows currently onstage that are MUST SEES: A.R.T.s GATSBY, Arlekin’s THE DYBBUK, Broadway in Boston’s MJ.  These are among the finest productions ever mounted in greater Boston, all companies operating at the top of their game.

photo credit: Julieta Cervantes

GATSBY is the much anticipated world premiere musical based F.Scott Fitzgerald’s classic THE GREAT GATSBY, stunningly mounted by American Repertory Theater in Cambridge with a stellar cast and crew: music by Florence (sans The Machine) Welch & Thomas Bartlett, choreography by Sonya Tayeh, a soulful, brilliant book adaptation by Martyna Majok, knockout scenic design by Mimi Lien, all put in seamless motion by director extraordinaire Rachel Chavkin.

Onstage is a cast of exponential triple threats- singer/dancer/actors whose voices stir and sizzle and rouse with the glittering energy of 1920’s jazz age America, ricocheting from the first world war and headed for the big crash that will put an end to this frivolity. Closer to home, a deadly crash will terminate the fraught relationships at the intersection of East and West Egg, Long Island. Lien’s set ingeniously embodies both; mangled heaps of junked cars and twisted metal loom over the action like an omen, a giant trash heap which, courtesy of some magical lighting, is instantly transformed into the dazzling Gatsby mansion as a grand staircase slides into view. More sets swivel in and out: Daisy’s dining room, Myrtle’s rundown gas station apartment, a claustrophobic hideaway for bad behavior which rises up from the floorboards in the dim light of a cheap affair. Vertical neon bars hover like the NYC skyline giving way to banks of glowing headlights illuminating Gatsby’s manse. In all, a masterful lighting scheme by Alan C. Edwards.

Majok’s book makes clear the dramatic arc, text and subtext of this mythic story told from wide-eyed midwesterner Nick Carraway’s point of view.  Nick, the narrator of this sorry tale, is played by a superb Ben Levi Ross. He’s about to have his eyes opened to the desperate glamor of the age, which masks a vacuum beneath the tinsel (appropriately some hangs onstage) leaving everyone ravenous for more. Nick’s been invited to join the “smart set” as they flock to the mansion of the mysterious Gatsby, an autobiographical stand-in for Fitzgerald himself with a complex relationship to status, wealth, and money.

Gatsby is a cypher of a person sitting on a heap of ambivalence about the glittering crowd around him as he pursues the girl of his dreams: Daisy with a voice “like money.”  Isaac Powell is an unusual Gatsby and plays the part with more vulnerability than mystery. He lets us see the ardent, lovelorn man behind the smoke and mirrors designed to win Daisy’s heart– a dubious trophy. Charlotte MacInnes has a gorgeous voice and plays Daisy with calculated insouciance. I wish she had one more poignant ballad at the end of the show. That moment belongs to Solea Pfeiffer a yearning, sexy, Myrtle–Daisy’s husband’s mistress. She shakes, rattles, and rolls with the ache of  tragic loss, and her inability to cling to a husband who really loves her.

The propulsive score captures the tension of the age as does the insistent choreography. The ensemble is a decadent scramble of arms and legs pumping up the hoopla and punctuating the rabble’s need to be seen and heard. Music and moves are inescapably contemporary while still echoing the sounds and rhythms of the cut-loose 20’s and its high stepping Charleston swagger. The voices across the board are nothing short of marvelous, dramatically expressive and powerful.  I wish the score had allowed us more breathing room, but this brilliant adaptation is a magnificent take on a classic and knows to make the most of Fitzgerald’s woefully poignant last line when we finally exhale…

“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Couldn’t resist. GATSBY extended at the AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER  through August  3. 

photo credit: Irina Danilova

THE DYBBUK has also been extended– with good reason. Mounted by that most daring and unusually imaginative theater company working in greater Boston today, Arlekin Players  Theatre has channeled an ancient Jewish tale of a wandering spirit attempting to possess the one he loves. Directed and adapted by Igor Golyak from Russian author S. Ansky’s early 20th century play and Roy Chen’s script, THE DYBBUK is set in a sacred space that has housed its share of ancient spirits, the sanctuary of The Vilna Shul Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture on Beacon Hill–one of the oldest existing immigrant synagogues in the country. The production is nothing short of miraculous, creating a bridge for us to travel between dreams and reality, spirit and flesh, love and loss, seeking and having, and community. I felt like I had been far away and yet close to something I know is always around me and which was somehow made visible.

Hanna Rovina as Leah in the Hebrew-language premiere of The Dybbuk. Habima Theater, Moscow, 31 January 1922.

The astonishing Yana Gladkikh– who looks an awful lot like Hanna Rovina in the 1922 Hebrew premiere in Moscow 1922–plays the haunted bride Leah, while an extraordinary, wild-eyed Andrey Burkovskiy plays her would be husband Khonen, dead before his time. Bukovskiy explodes the boundaries of performance existing almost outside of himself as he DIS-inhabits the role…. of the dyybuk.  And a special shout-out to Deb Martin as a raging crone, Leah’s grandmother, who relentlessly stalks the dybbuk with exorcism on her mind. She’s ferocious. 

The audience lines the sides the synagogue with dim and dusty chandeliers illuminating layers of peeling murals, history, and the many lives who passed through. Elaborate scaffolding and several platforms fill the middle and expand the length of the playing area top to bottom; the actors can go anywhere and so can our imaginations in this limitless space (scenic design, David R. Gammons/costume & prop design, Sasha Ageeva /lighting design, Jeff Adelberg) Female spirits all in white with painted faces like a Greek chorus of spooky dolls sit on a platform, legs dangling over the action. They observe the living– rabbis, scholars, relatives, advisors, who come and go, debating earthly things– tradition, suitors, marriage– while Leah and her dybbuk express their love unencumbered by space and time. There are special effects out of thin air. Love is a tiny beam of light sparking between souls. The thinnest sheet of filmy plastic, wavering in shadow is an ocean in which they swim above and below, while we are swept along in this fantastical world.

This “Dybbuk” may be eerie– but it is not evil. In fact, we eventually discover Khonen may, indeed, have a hidden and sacred claim to his bride even in the hereafter. This DYBBUK seeks what it must viscerally have, and in so doing, captures not only the restlessness of a specific people in search of their home, but the spirit of a volatile age, all of us caught between opposing forces and seeking a foothold.  SEE THE DYBBUK extended through June 30 at Boston’s Vilna Shul in Beacon Hill, Boston.

Finally– and this took me by surprise– MUST SEE  MJ presented by Broadway in Boston. It’s the musical about Michael Jackson behind the scenes preparing his DANGEROUS world tour in 1992. Tony Award-winning Director/Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, have captured lightning in a bottle. It took three singer/dancer /actors to portray one Michael Jackson at three stages of his life: Roman Banks is MJ, Brandon Lee Harris is Michael, Josiah Benson is Little Michael. So accomplished are they that when any of them were onstage, I couldn’t see anything else! Of course, when we remember that Jackson not only sang, danced, and acted, but also wrote and arranged the songs, created the moves,  directed, and produced his shows that we understand the breadth of the talent of this damaged genius.

The musical finds unusual and seamless ways to pivot between the here and now and the artist’s troubled past, illuminating his psyche and his relationship between his abusive father and the expressive outlet and freedom he found on stage. While the show does reference his many eccentricities, from Bubbles his chimp to his face-altering plastic surgeries, it stops short of referencing allegations of sexual abuse, which surfaced after the DANGEROUS tour began. I was absolutely enthralled by the nimble and sophisticated concept of the show, exhilarated by the music, not to mention the over the top sets,  sound,  lighting,  choreography, and all of  these performances– off the charts. SEE MJ at the CITIZENS OPERA HOUSE through July 7!