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Regional Reviews by Matthew Small

Best of Both Worlds
American Repertory Theater

Best of Both Worlds
Best of Both Worlds Finale
For the final installment of American Repertory Theater's Shakespeare Exploded! festival, Artistic Director Diane Paulus helmed a revival of Best of Both Worlds, which she co-wrote with writer-lyricist-husband Randy Weiner and composer Dierdre Murray.

The A.R.T. masterfully served the festival's first two courses, its celebratory The Donkey Show and the eerily experiential Sleep No More, both of which I have been recommending to anyone willing to listen. It was A.R.T.'s exceptional work throughout the autumn that raised my own expectations for the finale ultimo—a gospel—and R&B-infused musical in the company's flagship Loeb Theater Center. I assumed I would love it. Of course I would love it. I am a neo-A.R.T devotee. But, several minutes into the first number of Best of Both Worlds, the punch wore off.

I was disappointed to witness an ensemble of extraordinarily talented actors perform in a beautifully designed and directed production of a mediocre piece of theater. A re-imagined version of William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, Best of Both Worlds is the story of a jealous King who banishes his wife and child. His people warn that happiness will elude him until his family returns home.

The divine cast includes legends in the theater today: Mary Bond Davis, Hairspray's original Motormouth Maybelle; Darius de Haas, who sings the hell out of "Lost in the Wilderness" on the original Children of Eden cast recording; and Cleavant Derricks, Broadway's first Jimmy Early in Dreamgirls. It is an all-star cast for any theater, but there's even more than this dynamic trio. The entire ensemble (including the rich, unstoppable voice of Gregg Baker and the gloriously captivating songstress Jeannette Bayardelle) offers an impressive, emotionally charged delivery. The first-rate band, cleverly placed on a moveable flatbed trailer, nearly knocked the garage door through the back wall of the stage. I could listen to this group of performers forever (and ever, amen!).

Even before the show began, it was thrilling to sit in scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez's minimalist space, created with the look and feel of an authentic, in-the-trenches Off-Broadway theater. The rollicking music syncs well with the overall aesthetic of the production. But after a short while, the lyrics take away from the moments the actors have worked so hard to create through their songs. No longer a developmental production, Best of Both Worlds received previous guidance from Brooklyn's Music-Theatre Group and The Women's Project, an esteemed Manhattan theater dedicated to the work of female playwrights. Fortunately, many people don't pay attention to lyrics. For them, this production may rate very well. But for someone who expects a triple-threat musical—book, music and lyrics—I was left unsatisfied.

Despite this recent disappointment, two strong productions out of three is an excellent batting average for a new Artistic Director. And speaking of baseball, Paulus has a new musical about the Red Sox curse on deck for the spring. Following a re-imagined Great Gatsby double-header and an inning of Paradise Lost, A.R.T. will deliver an America festival that will possibly rival Boston's other favorite pastime in 2010.

Best of Both Worlds runs through January 3 at Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. For tickets and information, visit the A.R.T. box office, call 617-547-8300, or purchase online at www.americanrepertorytheater.org.


Photo: Marcus Stern

Matthew Small

Follow Matthew on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msmallreviews.



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