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Stage Review

‘ExtraOrdinary’ showcases an eventful decade of Diane Paulus

The company of “ExtraOrdinary”Gretjen Helene Photography


From its title on, an aura of self-congratulation surrounds the American Repertory Theater’s “ExtraOrdinary,’’ an aura that is only partly dispelled by the caliber of the performances uncorked at the Loeb Drama Center. Some of which are, yes, extraordinary.

Directed by Diane Paulus, this alternately pulsing and wistful revue consists of songs drawn from some of the 33 musicals that have been presented at the ART in the exceptionally eventful decade since Paulus became artistic director, many of them helmed by her: “Jagged Little Pill,’’ “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,’’ “Waitress,’’ “Pippin,’’ “Finding Neverland,’’ et. al.

In a way, “ExtraOrdinary’’ amounts to a Rorschach test on the still-polarizing question of Paulus’s leadership of the ART.


To her detractors, “ExtraOrdinary’’ will likely stand as further evidence that Paulus has reduced the House That Brustein Built to a Broadway tryout venue: allowing commercial calculation to enter the ART through the front door and diluting the company’s once-sacred mission while using the Cambridge theater as a springboard for her own directorial ambitions.

To her admirers, “ExtraOrdinary’’ will register as another illustration of what is special about the Tony Award-winning Paulus: her singular gift for delivering a jolt of creative adrenaline to whatever she touches, and her knack for turning each production into an audience-embracing event — all of it driven by a determination to capture the currents of contemporary life within bold theatrical forms.

What is less open to dispute, and is in fact underscored by “ExtraOrdinary,’’ is that the ART has been a talent magnet under Paulus’s stewardship. (Of course, it was no slouch in the talent department in the decades preceding her tenure, either.) At the center of “ExtraOrdinary’’ is a gifted core company of seven who have performed in ART musicals. Between songs, they recount the back stories to their performances at the ART, some of them quite personal stories of finding something crucial in or about themselves, or overcoming personal loss so the show could go on. Diverse in every sense, with divergent but complementary talents, this core group will be augmented at each performance by a guest artist from a past ART musical.


On Sunday night, mirabile dictu, the guest artist was none other than Patina Miller, who proved she hasn’t lost an ounce of star quality since she portrayed the Leading Player in the ART’s circus-themed 2012 production of “Pippin,’’ then went on to win the Tony Award for best lead actress in a musical after the show moved to Broadway. Miller brought the audience to its feet with a sinuous and electrifying performance of “On the Right Track,’’ from “Pippin,’’ in a duet with Matthew James Thomas, who played the title role at the ART and on Broadway. Among those watching from a nearby seat in the audience was Stephen Schwartz, the composer-lyricist behind “Pippin,’’ “Wicked,’’ and “Godspell,’’ whom Paulus warmly saluted from the stage at the curtain call. (“ExtraOrdinary’’ takes its title from a hubristic song sung by the protagonist in “Pippin.’’)

But Miller and Thomas were not the only ones to shine. Bryonha Marie Parham (“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’’) delivered a rendition of “Summertime’’ in her silvery soprano that was utterly spellbinding. Melody A. Betts, a vocal powerhouse, led the company in a rousing performance of “Bela Musana,’’ from “Witness Uganda.’’ Equally stirring — and quietly pointed, given the grotesque political moment we’re all trapped in — was the ensemble’s hushed, reverent performance of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,’’ featured in 2012’s “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie.’’ Also making the most of their moments in the spotlight were the charismatic Brandon Michael Nase (“The Black Clown’’), Kathryn Gallagher (“Jagged Little Pill’’), MJ Rodriguez (“Burn All Night’’ and “Trans Scripts: Part 1: The Women’’), and the white-maned Terrence Mann (“Pippin’’), whose voice booms as authoritatively as ever, and who appears to be having the time of his life.


(Disclosure: Paulus directed my son Matt’s opera, “Crossing,’’ at the Shubert Theatre in 2015 and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year. In addition, the ART last year presented a festival of works by the American Modern Opera Company, an ensemble in which he serves as co-artistic director; another AMOC festival is scheduled at the ART next month.)

It’s legitimate to ask whether 10 years is really long enough for a retrospective celebration like “ExtraOrdinary,’’ though such questions tend to dissipate in the face of the actual experience of the show. It helps that the tone of the revue — scripted by Dick Scanlan, based on interviews with company members — is genially good-natured, if more than a little insidery, right from the start, when Thomas, surveying the Loeb Drama Center, exclaims: “The last time I was here, this place was a circus!’’

An opening number borrows the melody from “Prologue,’’ from “Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812’’ (presented at the ART in 2015) with new, ART-specific lyrics by Scanlan, and later, a sight gag evokes Captain Hook from “Finding Neverland.’’ But possibly the most self-aware moment of “ExtraOrdinary’’ arrives when Mann tweaks the gimmick underlying the very show he’s performing in, bellowing about “singing songs onstage with people I have no connection to.’’


Guest artist Patina Miller in “ExtraOrdinary”Gretjen Helene Photography


Written by Dick Scanlan. Choreography, Abbey O’Brien. Music director, Lance Horne. Directed by Diane Paulus. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through Nov. 30. Tickets start at $25. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin