by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Friday November 23, 2018

The cast of "ExtraOrdinaryl" which runs through November 30 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA.
The cast of "ExtraOrdinaryl" which runs through November 30 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA.  

There's a party on the stage of the Loeb Drama Center, at least through November 30. What it is celebrating is the theater itself — specifically the numerous musicals that have played at the American Repertory Theater since 2009 under the stewardship of artistic director Diane Paulus. And if you can get an invite, er ticket, do so — you won't be disappointed.

Not that Paulus's near-decade helm of the theater hasn't been without controversy. Just respelling the name "theatre" to "theater" in the company's moniker raised eyebrows — indicating a change from the more serious and high-brow fare that thrived when the company was a repertory company to a commercially-driven theater company with their eyes on the prize (Broadway). It has paid off with hit-after-hit, a number of Tony awards, a rise in subscriptions and that elusive Holy Grail of theater producers: young audiences. Oberon, the theater's smaller space, has become an incubator for innovative artists performing original work by and for largely Millennials.

So why not celebrate? One of the biggest changes made to programming under Ms. Paulus's guidance is the embrace of musical theater, a form that seemed foreign for the first 25 years of the theater company's existence. Sure, there was the occasional musical, such as the Tony-winning "Big River," but what musical productions there were leaned more to opera or plays with music: more Philip Glass than Stephen Schwartz. (I remember seeing a limp production of "The Boys from Syracuse" at the theater in its early years and wondered why they bothered.)

"ExtraOrdinary," the title given this hugely entertaining show, is, essentially, an old school revue with eight actors (seven cast members and one guest — more on this later) running through musical numbers from the 33 musicals that have played at the theater's numerous venues. Some went onto New York to win Tony Awards ("The Gershwins' Porgy and Pess," "Pippin,"); some have played the street to various degrees of success ("Waitress," "Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812," "Finding Neverland"); while some are still waiting for future productions, ("Arrabal," "The Black Clown" and "Jagged Little Pill").

As the cast points out early on, there's no way they'll be able to present numbers from all the musicals in two hours; instead they make mention of them with a list song that grows longer as each title is added on. (The song itself is the opening to "Natasha, Pierre..." with a new set of lyrics by Dick Scanlan, who interviewed the actors and provided the running commentary.) What follows offers songs from some of the bigger titles ("Pippin," "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," "Waitress") and some of the lesser-known ones ("Project Uganda," "Burn the Floor," "The Blue Flower") performed by actors that each has a personal connection with one of the shows.

That personal connection is a thread that runs through the show as each actor offers up. "Chorus Line"-style, reminisces of working at the theater and the impact it has had on their lives. Bryonha Marie Parham comments on how appearing in the all-black cast of "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" gave her the confidence not to be the sassy, black woman any longer; and the evening's guest performer — Patina Miller — talked about how playing the Leading Player in "Pippin" changed her life. It won her a Tony.

That guest performer is the variable in the production. Until the end of the run (on November 30) such ART-musical veterans as Lea Delaria, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Gavin Creel, Carolee Carmello and Elizabeth Stanley will join the company for a solo spot towards the end of the first act and as part of the ensemble in the second. (For the dates of their appearances, visit the American Repertory Theater website.) This means that the show is organic — changing from performance to performance. The presence of the remarkable Ms. Miller, who was on hand this past weekend, meant the show was "Pippin" heavy, with her solo numbers: a thrilling "Simple Joys" and a delightful "On the Right Track," which she recreated with Matthew James Thomas, who played Pippin opposite her in Cambridge and New York, to Clint Walker's Fosse-styled choreography.

Thomas also delivered a stirring "Corner of the Sky" early on, framed by a personal anecdote about his first vocal coach who encouraged him to sing the song, but he was reluctant because it was overdone. Throughout the evening this interplay between personal feelings and the actors' relationship to their experiences at the theater give the songs an authentic context. Parents die, children are born; but the work is the thing that keeps these actors going.

Some are Broadway veterans (an exuberant Terrence Mann), others relative newcomers; each get a moment to speak and perform either material they had performed before or something completely different, such as Kathryn Gallagher's "Maybe This Time" or new dad Brandon Michael Nase's "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for New York," both terrific. Two recreated numbers they originated in lesser-known shows: MJ Rodriguez reprises a show-stopping turn from the immersive musical "Burn All Night," and Melody A. Betts led a stirring "Bela Musana" with the company (from "Project Uganda.") Together the company performed a low-key, but effective "This Land is Your Land" (from the Woody Guthrie show "Woody Sez"), which the actors made personal in something of a progressive retort to "God Bless America." And they offered a lovely medley of songs from "Waitress" in which Sara Bareilles' songs sounded even more beautiful in the cabaret context.

Paulus stages the show with an emphasis on being audience-friendly, which may have felt a bit smarmy at some points, but largely hit the right note in breaking down the fourth wall. The superb musical direction by Lance Horne (on piano and leading an onstage band) provided the common thread that linked the disparate musical styles of the many shows. "ExtraOrdinary" — why the 'O' is capitalized is something of a mystery — offers plenty of reasons to celebrate the changes to the American Repertory Theater over the past decade. You can only hope it hints at what's to come.

"ExtraOrdinary" continues through November 30 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the American Repertory Theater website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].