ExtraOrdinary Celebrates 10 Years of Musical Theatre at the A.R.T.

September 20, 2018 | By Gillian Brown

In a cabaret-style retrospective celebrating the past decade of groundbreaking musicals, “ExtraOrdinary” began its three-week limited run at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge on Nov. 16. It was artists from previous A.R.T. productions returned to perform songs from past shows and different guest artists performed with the cast each night including Patina Miller, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Gavin Creel, Carolee Carmello, and Elizabeth Stanley.


Photo Courtesy of Gretjen Helene Photography

This season marks Diane Paulus’ 10th year as the A.R.T.’s Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director. Paulus directed “ExtraOrdinary,” as well as many previous A.R.T. productions.


The A.R.T. is known for its stellar theatre — many of its productions have transferred to Broadway. Shows like “Once, Pippin,” and “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” went on to win numerous Tony awards, and both “Waitress” and “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” earned multiple Tony nominations. 


The experience begins in the Loeb Drama Center lobby with museum-worthy displays of pictures, costumes, props, and various memorabilia from past productions. The theater is completely reimagined into a cabaret-style venue, with tables and chairs replacing the front orchestra seats. A minimalist set backdrops a five-piece band on stage. 


The show opens with a rendition of the “Great Comet” prologue, the lyrics cleverly changed to preface the show, describing and even naming all 33 previous A.R.T. musicals and musical theatre pieces. The Act 2 opener is equally entertaining: a Pippin sequence of circus theatrics ensues which includes Terrence Mann juggling pins and Matthew James Thomas jumping through an impressively high hoop in the air. 


A highlight of the first act is the love suite that mashes up songs such as “Falling Slowly” (from “Once”), “Head Over Feet” (from “Jagged Little Pill”), “Sonya Alone” (from “Great Comet”), and “You Matter to Me” (from “Waitress”). The end climaxes with a beautiful counterpoint of vocal melodies as the cast gives new father Brandon Michael Nase advice through “Dear Baby” letters, a nod to “Waitress” 


Multiple songs are performed from the 2011 rock musical “Prometheus Bound,” which tells the story of the very first prisoner of consciousness. The cast stresses the importance of a legend like Prometheus, who endured being eternally fettered as a punishment for gifting humanity with the knowledge of fire, an act of rebellion against the tyrannous Zeus. The show takes on a darker, more serious tone; some of the best performances are during this sequence. 


The cast reminisces about which shows inspired them to perform, particularly ones with roles they could see themselves in. Brandon Michael Nase remembers wearing out the “Hairspray” record; Melody A. Betts talks about how “The Wiz” accurately represented her neighborhood; Mj Rodriguez remembers seeing herself in Angel from “Rent;” Kathryn Gallagher recalls seeing “Spring Awakening” as a teen and realizing it was something she could be a part of. With the sharing of their own personal stories, the cast reminds audiences of the many stories out there that need to be told. They stress the importance of an art form like musical theatre. 


Even with the intimacy of a cabaret show, the cast of “ExtraOrdinary” has the vocals and talent of a full-blown Broadway musical. 


Melody A. Betts has powerhouse vocals that particularly shine during “Bela Musana” (from “Witness Uganda”), where her belts and vocal riffs are phenomenal. She sings with heart and soul, and even shares stories of singing in church, where she could sing for herself rather than an audience. 


Kathryn Gallagher, last seen in “Jagged Little Pill” this past summer, has a unique voice that can carry a wide variety of songs, from the pop ballad “You Matter to Me” to the showstopper “Maybe This Time” (from Cabaret). She also shows off her singer-songwriter guitar skills in multiple numbers. 


The Broadway legend Terrence Mann takes the stage with a presence that only comes with years of experience. Mann isn’t afraid to be the comedic relief throughout the show, yet still has serious moments like during “The Time of Collusion” (from “Prometheus Bound”) where his deep voice soars. He also plays piano for a beautiful duet of “Angels on the Levee” (from “The Blue Flower”). 


Brandon Michael Nase returns to the A.R.T. after just finishing the limited run of “The Black Clown.” Nase takes the stage with a rendition of “There’s a Boat Leaving Soon” from “Porgy and Bess,” another reminder of his seemingly effortless stage talent. He also opens up about growing up as a black man in a white family and his journey from music education to performing on stage. 


Bryonna Marie Parham has an ever-versatile voice that can beautifully sing classic pieces like “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” or more contemporary songs like “Falling Slowly” from “Once.” Perhaps her most captivating performance is “No One Else” (from “Great Comet”). The moonlit falling snow sets an enchanting scene and Parham completely encompasses the character she’s playing. 


Mj Rodriguez brings an electric energy to the stage with “Hit Record”. Even in ensemble numbers, her exceptional dance moves are a clear standout. She also gives a powerful performance during the emotionally charged “The Hunger” (from “Prometheus Bound”). 


Matthew James Thomas rounds out the cast with a smooth, contemporary sounding voice that flourishes during songs like the iconic “Corner of the Sky” from “Pippin.” He also offers his guitar playing skills for an unplugged cover of “Titan Prometheus” from “Prometheus Bound.” 


Everything about the production makes it feel like an intimate cabaret from the added table seating to the multitude of personal stories and anecdotes. “ExtraOrdinary” stresses inclusivity at its core, with its diverse casting and inviting atmosphere. It seeks to close the gap between audience and performer, blur the lines between stage and orchestra. The show is an immersive piece of theatre with the actors dancing through the aisles, standing on tables, and singing directly to audience members. Audiences are even asked to sing along to the acclaimed “This Land is Your Land,” as featured in “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie.” 


ExtraOrdinary is far more than a retrospective revue. It honors the artistry of past productions and acknowledges the need for such storytelling and innovation. Each show finds a new life on stage, reminding audiences of its perpetual relevance. The beauty of theatre is that it connects us all, allowing us to find a commonality with each other while still recognizing individuality. As each performer takes on a song that has already been sung, they share the emotions with those who came before them but still add a piece of themselves to the song. This is a truly unique piece of musical theatre that is nothing short of extraordinary.