The political and the personal collide with devastating effect in Larry Kramer's powerful and passionate 1985 play, The Normal Heart, about the early years of the AIDS crisis, now launching its national tour at Arena Stage. Part history lesson, part cautionary tale, and part call to continuing action, this thinly disguised autobiographical work focuses on the efforts of crusading journalist Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen) to get New York's gay community -- as well as its government and media -- to pay attention to the mysterious disease that is rapidly claiming the lives of gay men.
Ned is sparked into his quest by no-nonsense, paraplegic physician Emma Brookner (Patricia Wettig), but Ned's pleas to having his gay brethren to follow her exhortation to stop having sex altogether -- as well as his hair-trigger temper -- eventually alienates him from fellow activists Bruce Niles (Nick Mennell), Mickey Marcus (an excellent Michael Berresse), and Tommy Boatwright (the very fine Christopher J. Hanke), and even his beloved older brother, Ben (John Procaccino). His dedication to the cause is only intensified when his lover, New York Times reporter Felix Turner (Luke MacFarlane), contracts the mysterious, life-threatening illness.
While the entire cast -- most notably, Breen, MacFarlane, and Wettig -- gives highly committed and extremely intelligent performances, director George C. Wolfe or restaging director Leah C. Gardiner has turned the intensity level down a bit from the Tony Award-winning Broadway production -- which is probably a conscious choice to accommodate the intimate Kreeger Theatre. But Kramer's play is meant to be a loud polemic, and the occasional subtleness of these performances slightly lessens the great work's impact.
Subtlety does no favors either to Shakespeare's slighter-than-slight comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, being presented at Sidney Harman Hall by the Shakespeare Theatre Company -- the 2012 winner of the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre.
In this production directed by Stephen Rayne, Daniel Lee Conway's inventive, beautiful set -- which evokes small-town England at the end of World War II -- and Wade Laboisonniere's spot-on costumes provide consistent visual appeal, even when the machinations of this extremely silly story about the revenge taken by wronged wives Mistress Page (Veanne Cox, priceless as ever) and Mistress Ford (the lovely Caralyn Kozlowski) against the loutish, lusty Sir John Falstaff (David Schramm, ideally cast) sometime become dull.
Even more than many of the Bard's works, this play seems filled with a huge array of pointless supporting characters -- not to mention an uninteresting romantic subplot about three suitors vying for the hand of the Page's daughter, Anne (Alyssa Gagarin) -- which stretch this sketch to nearly three hours.
Fortunately, Rayne gets some first-rate performances from his cast. In addition to Cox and Schramm, there are noteworthy turns by the hilarious Michael Mastro as the overly jealous Frank Ford; the vivacious Amy Hohn as the meddlesome Mistress Quickly; the superb Tom Story as the foolish, foppish and French-accented Doctor Caius; and the blithering Michael Keyloun as the callow Slender, all of whom provide enough merriment to keep this souffle from falling completely flat.
If music be the food of love (to quote the Bard), prepare to surrender your heart to Molly Smith's delightful revival of Meredith Willson's The Music Man at Arena Stage. Despite the decided lack of scenery on the Fichandler Stage, the town of River City, Iowa comes vividly to life in this exuberant, briskly-paced production.
As might be expected, no one brings more to these proceedings than the luminous Kate Baldwin as the frosty librarian Marian Paroo, who takes a considerably long time to melt and ultimately succumb to the dubious if oddly sincere charms of sweet-talking con man/traveling salesman Harold Hill (a fine Burke Moses), who transforms the lives of these parched backwater citizens with his promise of a children's band.
It would be worth the price of admission just to hear Baldwin's glistening soprano give full body to Willson's glorious score; her renditions of "Goodnight My Someone," "My White Knight," and especially "Til There Was You" are little short of flawless.
However, Smith is aided in her crowd-pleasing mission by her invaluable choreographer Parker Esse -- who creates a series of brilliantly athletic dances for his supremely talented young ensemble -- and the work of such top-notch supporting players as Donna Miglaccio as Marian's feisty mother, Nehal Joshi as Marcellus Washburn, and Barbara Tirell as Eulalie Mackenzie Shinn.
A reworking of an earlier incarnation of the show first seen at Schaeffer's Signature Theatre, this delicious musical revue affords audiences the chance to hear six excellent performers (Heidi Blickenstaff, James Clow, Alan H. Green, Leslie Kritzer, Patina Miller, and Matthew Scott) and a 23-person orchestra work their way through a judicious sampling of the tunes of these legendary songsmiths.
While Schaeffer and Loud have hardly skimped on the expected showstoppers -- including Blickenstaff's dizzying and dazzling "Ring Them Bells"; Miller's sardonic "How Lucky Can You Get," Green's aptly-named "Razzle Dazzle;" and a perfectly executed "Cell Block Tango" from the entire cast -- part of the joy of this confection is hearing lesser-known gems from the pair, some of which work even better out of the context of their original material.
Each audience member will probably have their own favorites, but Kritzer's terrific takes on "Colored Lights" and "The Money Tree;" Scott's sublime "Dressing Them Up," and Blickenstaff's blazing "Sing Happy" are among my standouts.
I also really enjoyed a handful of artfully conceived medleys and group numbers such as the obscure "Boom Ditty Boom," "Only In the Movies/Happy Endings/At the Rialto," and "Walking Among My Yesterdays/Go Back Home," which further illustrate the depth of this pair's craftmanship and heart.