Here are four recommendations, the best, the bawdiest, most delightful, and thoroughly musical offerings onstage now: beginning with The Huntington’s MAN IN THE RING which is simply a masterpiece and  THE BEST PRODUCTION ONSTAGE NOW. This is a profoundly moving, complex, brilliantly performed and conceived bio-drama about fighter Emile Griffiths here played by two actors, old and young, seeking reconciliation. As the play opens, we meet an old man alone on a bed suffering dementia, the wounded, beaten-down Emile singing his younger self back into memory with the words “the brown man in the ring.” It’s a heartbreaking, devastating performance by John Douglas Thompson.

Photo/T. Charles Erickson

Young Emile is the gorgeous Kyle Vincent Terry who arrives from the Caribbean with an open-hearted smile, hat-making skills and dreams of becoming a baseball player or a singer; but he’s such a strapping physical specimen, he is soon co-opted by a white manager and talked into becoming a killer in the boxing ring. The performance is a dazzler.

Michael Greif directs Michael Cristofer’s extraordinarily nuanced play with poetic grace. Ghosts from the past and present float in and out on Emile’s stream of consciousness conveyed by a multi-tiered set of light and shadow, live performances intermingled with layers of projections linking past and present. The world of the play is tenderly redemptive and supple, echoing and encompassing the opposing facets of Emile’s persona: vulnerable and violent, abandoned and embraced, sexually ambivalent. The sorrow of living in a milieu that insists on the binary, is touchingly evoked by the story of a man who refused to define his masculinity so strictly, whose persona was richer, and more mutable. It’s a highly relevant tale now as the notion of identity grows increasingly fluid and a diversity of voices fight to be heard.  The last moments of the play are searingly painful and redemptive, a salve for the longing we all have to be whole, heard, and forgiven our trespasses.  MUST SEE THIS at Huntington Theatre Company’s Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA through DEC 22!

Photo/Meghan Moore

Then race on up to Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre to see the most delightful play of the season onstage right now, SURE to put you in the Christmas spirit if Jane Austen floats your boat– and it levitates mine. MISS BENNETT: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY looks the way it sounds, elegant and old fashioned, with a beautiful set of lounging sofas, grand piano, tall book cases and a TREE! This is a witty and warm-hearted sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” which picks up on the Bennett sisters who gather for Christmas at Pemberley with spouses, save for the bookish, no nonsense Mary, played with hilarious aplomb by Amanda Collins.

The top notch ensemble is cracking good, and thanks to Lauren Gunderson’s and Margot Melcon’s nimbly directed, fleet script, there’s sparkling dialogue, copious good humor, interfamilial plotting and planning, and much merriment as Mary is about to have her world turned upside down by the unexpected arrival of an eligible young bachelor who enjoys perusing a good almanac as much as she does. This production will put you in the mood, make you want to break out the egg nog and the Christmas carols and dress for dinner. Make this part of your Christmas festivities and SEE IT at MERRIMACK REP before it closes on Dec 23!!

Now if you’re feeling naughtier than nice–MUCH naughtier–the GOLD DUST ORPHANS have something up their sleeves and down their pants. DO NOT TAKE THE KIDS. And don’t take yourselves or this show too seriously or you will have a heart attack. Instead, have a blast at the obscenely funny Christmas horror story hot off artistic director Ryan Landry’s overheated imagination: “A Nightmare on Elf Street.” This world premiere which puts Dr. Shirley Holmes (Landry) and Dr. Jodi Watley (Qya Cristal) hot on the trail of whoever is slaughtering Santa’s reindeer, includes Vicki Vixen (“the vampy tramp!”), Chris Comet (“the cleanest buck in town”), and Percy Prancer (“the gayest mammal alive!”)

There’s excellent use of video to set up the slasher curse which haunts Santa’s freaky flight crew, and reveals a dastardly plot pitting Kris Kringle with Tim Lawton’s mountainous vocals, against the evil and grotesquely hung Krampus who wants to end CHRISTMAS!!! There’s nudity, pruriently pertinent puns, powerhouse vocals, whip-crack sound design, and references from “Jaws” to “Man of La Mancha,” with 60’s choreography, and cheesy-charming sets & costumes galore. It’s Kiki Samko’s explosive directorial debut (she also co-stars as feminist Claire Cupid) and she propels the production at breakneck speed until it practically takes flight! Don’t worry if you can’t follow the existential implications of the plot and nuanced character development. There isn’t any. So sit back, relax, have a drink, and enjoy the bawdiest offering of the season from the Orphans at The Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts, better known as Machine— through Dec. 23!

Photo/Mark S. Howard

Finally, The Lyric Stage Company co-presents “BREATH & IMAGINATION The Story of Roland Hayes” with The Front Porch Arts Collective committed to advancing racial equity in Boston through theater.  This debut production stars Davron S. Monroe in a breakout performance as Hayes, pioneering classically trained African-American tenor and composer born two centuries ago to former slaves. Maurice Emmanuel Parent well known as an accomplished local actor, here makes his directorial debut and facilitates a story I knew little about, despite Hayes’s strong connection to Boston. Hayes made his official concert debut at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1917 and went on to a very successful, critically acclaimed career composing and performing across the US and Europe.

Daniel Beaty’s musical too often lapses into sentimentality, and Yewande Odetoyinbo as Roland’s mother and guiding light “Angel Mo'” can’t hold a candle to Monroe vocally. But the production is intimate and powerful whenever Davron is onstage, and carries off an impressive command of diverse vocal styles that evoke the refinement and range of Hayes voice, as well as the spirit that impelled him. From operatic arias to gospel hymns, Monroe here breathes life into an artist who transcended expectations in a world stacked against him, and lit a way forward for others to imagine. See BREATH & IMAGINATION  at The LYRIC STAGE through Dec 23.