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theater

A year of big names and big letdowns on stage

From left: Guiesseppe Jones, Natalie Mendoza, and James Barry in “Arms on Fire.’’

Rick Teller

From left: Guiesseppe Jones, Natalie Mendoza, and James Barry in “Arms on Fire.’’

The bigger they were, the harder they fell in 2013. It was just that kind of year in theater.

Many of the disappointing productions had boldface names and/or sky-high expectations attached to them. Few were more keenly anticipated than “The Jungle Book’’ at Huntington Theatre Company, adapted and directed by the talented Mary Zimmerman.

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Though competently executed and not a disaster by any means, “The Jungle Book’’ was a decided letdown. The performances were a distinctly mixed bag, and the world Zimmerman created onstage was just not captivating enough, making it hard for audiences to lose themselves in either the story or the sensations she sought to evoke. All in all, the Midas touch Zimmerman demonstrated two years ago at the Huntington with “Candide’’ deserted her this time.

And then there were the productions that went well beyond disappointing, all the way to excruciating. We’re talking full-on train wrecks of the sort that can have a theatergoer fighting the temptation to run for the exits. We’re talking performances where you’re consumed with envy of those lucky people who had decided to stay home and watch paint dry.

Take “We Will Rock You,’’ for instance, not that it proved easy to do as the bloated musical, presented by Broadway in Boston, shrieked its way through the Boston Opera House. Although “We Will Rock You’’ is (flimsily) built on the songs of the rock band Queen, this grating production strongly suggested that the “Ka-ching’’ of the cash register is the sound that most interests its creators and producers.

There was much ballyhoo surrounding the world premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company of “Kurt Vonnegut’s Make Up Your Mind,’’ which focuses on a man who starts a business to help people who are paralyzed by indecision. As an admirer of “Slaughterhouse-Five’’ and other Vonnegut novels, I was looking forward to the play, “assembled’’ by writer Nicky Silver from nearly a dozen versions written by Vonnegut. But “Make Up Your Mind’’ turned out to be shockingly underdeveloped and misshapen. By never making up its own mind on what it wanted to be about, the production ended up being about nothing — and not in a good “Seinfeld’’ way, either.

Another much-anticipated world premiere that went seriously awry was “Arms on Fire,’’ which debuted at Chester Theatre Company. Written by Steven Sater of “Spring Awakening’’ fame, with music by Duncan Sheik, his collaborator in that Tony-winning musical, “Arms on Fire’’ sought to dramatize the possibility of redemption through its tale of the friendship between a disc jockey-turned-factory worker and the spacey hipster who stumbles into his life. But Sater’s approach was abstract to the point of inertness. Ultimately, “Arms on Fire’’ was extinguished by its own pretentiousness.

My expectations were fairly high for “The Mountaintop,’’ Katori Hall’s play about the final night in the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., produced by Underground Railway Theater. After all, Hall’s two-hander, which revolves around King’s encounter with a mysterious hotel housekeeper, had won the 2010 Olivier Award for best new play when she was still in her 20s. So I was surprised by what an erratic mess “The Mountaintop’’ turned out to be. There are glimpses of Hall’s undeniable talent, but her attempt at history-as-fable manages to be simultaneously shallow and grandiose.

So many duds, so little time: The “rolling world premiere’’ of Steven Dietz’s irritating “Rancho Mirage’’ at New Repertory Theatre made me wish it would keep rolling, right out of town. Ditto for Guillermo Calderón’s ponderous “Neva,’’ a Public Theater production presented by ArtsEmerson that could not be saved even by the exemplary Bianca Amato, playing the actress Olga Knipper, Chekhov’s widow.

Speaking of actors: Some well-known performers turned in work that was flawed or generally underwhelming in 2013.

The musical “We Will Rock You.”

Queen Productions Ltd.

The musical “We Will Rock You.”

Olympia Dukakis fell short of valid hopes that she would deliver an unforgettable portrayal of the title character in Shakespeare & Company’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,’’ while the performance by Robert Sean Leonard (“House’’) as Professor Henry Higgins in Williamstown Theatre Festival’s “Pygmalion’’ was too mild by half.

Charles Shaughnessy (Maxwell Sheffield on “The Nanny’’) costarred in North Shore Music Theatre’s “La Cage aux Folles,’’ returning to the venue where he had played Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady’’ two years earlier. Though a likable performer, Shaughnessy did not demonstrate an ability to sing in either show. Um, isn’t that generally considered an impediment to starring in a musical? True, he got through “My Fair Lady’’ by using the old Rex Harrison speak-sing method, but the score of “La Cage’’ exposed his vocal shortcomings and weakened the show.

Cathy Rigby showed up in Boston as part of what was billed as a farewell tour of “Cathy Rigby Is Peter Pan.’’ When Rigby flew at the Citi Wang Theatre, she certainly soared, but when she was earthbound and had to speak, her performance dramatically sagged, and so did the production.

It was one of many times in 2013 that the helium of hype yielded to the popped balloons of reality — and one of many pieces of evidence, worth keeping in mind as we head into 2014, that it’s not who’s on the marquee but what’s on the stage that counts.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com

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