By Karen Isaacs
The Royal Family of Broadway is getting its world premiere this summer at Barrington Stage Company through July 7. While it needs some work, the bones are there for a delightful musical.
Willian Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book) have created a new musical based on a fondly remembered play about an outrageous theatrical family. The two collaborated before on the award-winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee which also premiered at Barrington Stage Company.
The musical is based on the play (later movie) by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber and an adaptation by Richard Greenberg.
It revolves around the Cavendish family based loosely on the famous Barrymore acting family. At the time the play was set (1927) these included Ethel, Lionel and the flamboyant John Barrymore. But the family had an illustrious theatrical past.
Here we have the gande dame, Fanny (Harriet Harris), her daughter Julie a successful stage actress, her son Tony, a movie star known for his escapades, and Julie’s daughter Gwen a rising young star. Added in to the mix is Fanny’s brother and sister-in-law (Bert and Kitty) both much less talented, an agent and two love interests – one for Julie and another for Gwen.
Tony arrives unexpectedly, hiding out after another escapade and pursued by reporters. Julie is about to turn over her part in a hit show to Gwen and is looking for the next thing. Gwen is engaged to a young WASP stockbroker (Perry) whom the family does not embrace. She’s also questioning her desire to be in the theater; this horrifies Fanny. To add to the confusion, Julie’s old flame, who went to Brazil and became a millionaire arrives saying he has always loved her; Bert has written a play that he wants Julie to star in but Kitty also wants the part.
Act 1 sets up the complications and leaves us wondering if Gwen and Perry will marry, if Julie will retire and go to Brazil with Gil will Fanny return to the stage, and will the Cavendish legacy continue.
Act 2, set a year later, gives us answers to most of this. Let’s just say that the stage has an allure that is not easily severed.
The musical, sensibly makes the Cavendish family both “straight” actors (those performing in non-musicals) and musical comedy performers. The general outline of the original plot is maintained. However, in making room for the music, it is necessarily tightened.
To my mind, the result of the tightening is that some of the focus of the original is weakened. The original play split the focus between Julie and Fanny; here Fanny seems the main story – her desire for the family tradition to continue and her failing health. But also, perhaps accidentally the subplot of Bert and Kitty seem to become equal to the plots involving Julie, Gwen and Tony. Tony, despite a terrific performance by Will Swenson almost becomes a minor story.
The performances are all fine – Harriet Harris as Fanny and Will Swenson as Tony give us the extravagant gestures of actors who are not only melodramatic but always “on.” Swenson also sings wonderfully and dances. Harris has a voice that may grate after a while; it did for me but she put over her numbers with panache.
The other performers are very good, if not always exuding the “star power” that we are told they possess. This is especially true of Laura Michelle Kelly as Julie and Hayley Podschun as Gwen. It must be admitted that Gwen is the blandest of the Cavendishes. This may be why Bert and Kitty, played terrificially by Arnie Burton and Kathryn Fitzgerald seem to steal the spotlight. The director (John Rando) by giving each a recurring gag: Bert’s toupee is always askew or falling off and Kitty is always looking for something to eat.
As Perry, A. J. Shively is a surprise. He’s supposed to be the stereotypical, upright, reserved WASP, but when he dances and sings, he exudes both charm and charisma. He should do more musicals.
Gil, Julie’s lover is another role that needs further development. Alan H. Green sings wonderfully, but he seems stiff and remote; part of that is the character but it is difficult to understand why Julie has loved him so long.
A highlight of the evening was the song “Gloriously Imperfect” sung touchingly by Chip Zien as the longtime manager of the family. It is quiet and lovely.
Musically, Finn has a lot to work with and much of it is very good. I enjoyed the title tune, “The Girl I’ll Never Be,” “Baby Let’s Stroll,” “I Have Found” and others. I’d like to hear the score again.
Choreographer Joshua Bergasse has captured the dances of Broadway in 1927. There’s tap and more.
Credit must go to the costumes of Alejo Vietti and the arrangements and musical direction of Vadim Feichtner. Overall the sound design was good but at times high notes sounded shrill.
Director Rando has created a very good production that has great potential. It will be interesting to see how it develops. One thing that needs to be done is shorten the opening number of the second act; it is part of a performance of Bert and Kitty’s new show and it goes on too long.
For tickets visit Barrington Stage..
By Karen Isaacs
Ragtime is a big show, full of music and requiring a large cast. It takes vision to see how to effectively do a show this size on a summer theater budget with a smaller stage. Director Joe Calarco and the Barrington Stage Company have succeed beyond all expectations.
He and his talented company have created an emotionally moving production of this sprawling story.
Based on the E. L. Doctorow novel (which later was an excellent film), Ragtime interweaves three stories showing different aspects of a changing America at the turn of the 20th century.
We have the story of a upper middle class, white family living in New Rochelle: Father, Mother, Son, as well as Mother’s father (a retired professor) and her brother (who is seeking something to give meaning to his life.) Father is a businessman who owns a factory that makes firecrackers and other patriotic paraphernalia. Mother runs the house and defers to Father. But times are a changing and when Father goes off for a year’s journey to the North Pole with Admiral Perry, Mother begins to not only gain independence but decides she likes it.
Then there are the African Americans who are more and more moving out of the South. They are exemplified by Booker T. Washington, but also by Coalhouse Walker, a young ragtime pianist in Harlem who wants respect and freedom. It is his story that spurs much of the plot. He falls in love with Sarah, a servant in New Rochelle, they have a child and it is of his revenge when his Model T is vandalized there that propels the story.
The third strand is the mass of immigrants from Eastern Europe (many Jewish) flooding into the factories and tenements of the city. Here it is Tateh who has arrived from Latvia with his young daughter. He wants a better and safer life but soon finds that the sweatshops and housing are worse than what he left behind.
Doctorow in his novel and Terrence McNally who wrote the book for this musical interwove into the story historic figures from Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington, to political activist Emma Goldman and celebrities Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit.
Calcara and his production team have cleverly used just one set – an attic – that suggest the many scenes in the show – from Harlem, to the tenements, to Union Square, J.M. Morgan’s library and more. The show opens with Mother, Father and the rest of the family climbing up into the attic in modern dress and transforming themselves into the period clothing. A small, replica of the house stands on a pedestal. He uses chairs to create cars, podiums for various speeches and a rocking horse for Nesbitt’s velvet swing.
Ragtime depends on the cast, particularly the roles of Mother, Coalhouse, Sarah and Tateh. Here Calcara has casted the show beautifully, particularly Coalhouse (Darnall Abraham) and Sarah (Zurin Villanueva). After all the original production gave Audra MacDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell their first big roles, and first awards.
Abraham has a wonderful baritone voice and projects Coalhouse’s dignity and determination as well as his love for Sarah. Villanueva’s Sarah begins as a shy young woman but she grows in strength and uses her supple soprano to break our hearts.
Elizabeth Stanley’s Mother goes from compliant wife to determined woman who stands up to her husband. She does an excellent job with some of the most delightful music of the show – “Goodbye, My Love” and “Back to Before.”
Praise must also be given to J. Anthony Crane as the immigrant Tateh and David Harris as Father who does not understand or approve of the many changes occurring. The actors who play historic characters are good but don’t quite live up to the performances of the others. Lawrence E. Street is overly stiff as Booker T. Washington, Anne L. Nathan’s Emma Goldman needs more stridency and more of an accent and Leanne A. Smith seems overly girlish as Evelyn Nesbit.
But despite these minor complaints, this production is well worth seeing.
Calcara has assembled a versatile cast of 22; most of the ensemble double as one of the minor characters in the play and the ten piece orchestra does full justice to the music by Stephen Flaherty. Lynn Ahrens wrote the music; this team (including McNally) are responsible for the current Broadway show Anastasia. He is aided by the period choreography of Shea Sullivan
In addition, Sara Jean Tosetti has created costumes suggestive of the period. Particular praise should be given to lighting designer Chris Lee and the scenic designer Brian Pather.
At times, words were muddled or too soft both in spoken dialogue and songs; but it did not detract from the overall effectiveness of the production.
Ragtime, which deals with an America that was changing drastically – with all the stresses that such a change engenders – is worthwhile seeing as America appears to be going through another major change in our society.
It’s at the Barrington Stage Company Mainstage, 40 Union St., Pittsfield, Mass. For tickets visit Barrington Stage Company.
By Karen Isaacs
Theater lovers who want a getaway – that combines beautiful scenery, outdoor recreational activities, terrific restaurants, shopping and theater have been going to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts for years.
Everything is there: opportunities for hiking, fishing, boating of all kinds, restaurants, antique shops, hotels, motels and B and Bs are all nearby. Plus there is outstanding theater, dance, music (classical, jazz and pop) and art. What more could anyone want?
Four major theater companies operate each summer. With their second stages, that means at least eight theaters offering a wide variety of classics and new plays.
WTC, at the far northern end of the Berkshires near the Vermont border, was founded in 1954 on the campus of Williams College, (by the way, Stephen Sondheim’s alma mater). For many years it has attracted a variable who’s who of theatrical notables – actors, directors, technical people and more. Many, in fact, have summer homes in the area. This year is no exception.
The Main Stage is presenting three productions. Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tatto runs June 28 to July 17. It’s directed by Obie Award winner Trip Cullman and stars Oscar winner Marisa Tomei. Christopher Abbott plays opposite her. A world premiere is up next; Romance Novels for Dummies by Boo Killebrew (July 20-31). It’s directed by Tony nominee Moritz van Stulpnagel. It’s about two very different sisters and their differing assumptions about life, love and child-rearing. The final main stage production is a revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s An American Daughter (Aug. 3-21). It’s directed by Evan Cabnet and the cast includes Kate Walsh and Grace Gummer.
The Nikos Stage (named for the former long-time artistic director) is a smaller theater that focuses more on new works, though not exclusively. It’s opening with a world premiere, Cost of Living (June 29-July 10) by Martyna Majok and directed by Jo Bonney. It’s described as a play about four different people in different circumstances, each trying to get by and who find their lives intersecting. Next up is another world premiere, The Chinese Room, (July 13 -22) by Michael West. Obie Award winner James Macdonald directs what is billed as a sci-fi comedy thriller. Next the world premiere of Poster Boy (July 27-Aug. 7). It’s a musical with music and lyrics by Craig Carnelia and book by Joe Tracz. It is inspired by the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi who committed suicide due to cyber-bullying. The Nikos ends the season with And No More Shall We Part (Aug. 10-21) and American premiere by Australian playwright Tom Holloway. Alfred Molina and Jane Kaczmarek star as a couple facing a terminal illness.
Yet that is not all WTC is offering this summer. Three weekends offer the Late-Night Cabaret which often features members of the various casts performing. Then the theater is working with local residents to create and perform Orpheus in the Berkshires. In addition there are concerts and comedy, lawn talks, talkbacks, back stages tours and more. For information, schedules and tickets, visit wtfestival.org.
In 2010, the Berkshire Theater Festival which had been based in Stockbridge since 1928 joined forces with Pittsfield’s Colonial Theater to create this new group. Now productions are staged at the Colonial as well as two venues in Stockbridge: the smaller Unicorn Theater and the Fitzpatrick main stage.
So let’s look what they are presenting. At the Unicorn Theater in Stockbridge, the season opens with the Pulitzer-Prize winning musical Fiorello! through July 23. From Aug. 3 to 27, Gregg Edelman will direct Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat in Constellations.
A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opens the season at the Fitzpartick Theater in Stockbridge. It runs June 22 to July 10. It’s directed by Pultizer-Prize winning author David Auburn and stars Rebecca Brooksher as Maggie, Jim Beaver as Big Daddy and Michael Raymond-James as Brick.
Judd Hirsch will star in the world premiere of The Stone Witch, July 20-Aug. 20. The press materials says, “reality and fantasy collide when a struggling, young writer is chosen by a powerful book editor for a special assignment—to help a reclusive children’s book author and illustrator complete his first manuscript in over a decade.”
At the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, two musicals are being offered. Little Shop of Horrors runs July 6 to 23, followed by Beauty and the Beast, Aug. 11 to 19.
During foliage season the Unicorn Theater is presenting the American premiere of The Bakelike Masterpiece, Sept. 29 to Oct. 23. This Canadian play is about an artist arrested at the end of WWII in Holland for selling a Dutch masterpiece to Hermann Goering. He claims it wasn’t the original but a forgery he painted.
In addition, there are various concerts, even opera and other events. For tickets, schedule or information, visit berkshiretheatregroup.org.
The newest of the theaters is the Barrington Stage Company founded in 1995, in Barrington, but now it performs exclusively in Pittsfield on its Boyd-Quinson Mainstage and the St. Germain Stage as well as at Mr. Finn’s Cabaret.
The mainstage season opens the world premiere of An American Son through July 9. It’s about an estranged multi-racial couple.
For a change of pace, it is Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance directed by John Rando from July 14 to Aug. 13. Rando directed the recent Broadway revival of On the Town which began at BSC. Jenn Thompson directs a production of Tribes, Aug. 18-Sept. 3, the 2012 Drama Desk winner for best new play. The play is about a young man born deaf into an unconventional hearing family and the young woman he meets. The season ends with playwright Mark St. Germain’s Camping with Henry and Tom, Oct. 5-23. The play is about a fictional camping trip with President Warren G. Harding, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
On the St. Germain Stage. Rob Ruggiero (producing director of TheaterWorks in Hartford), directs BTC favorite Debra Jo Rubb in Kimberly Akimbo. The play by David Lindsay-Abaire runs through July 16. Following is peerless which premiered at Yale Rep this past season. It is about two sisters who are “gaming” the college admissions process in a very MacBeth-like way. It runs July 21 to Aug. 6. From Aug. 12 to Sept. 4 is the world premiere of Broadway Bounty Hunter. The musical is said to be inspired by 1970s films like Shaft about an unemployed actress who is hired as a bounty hunter to capture a South American drug lord.
For information, schedules or tickets, visit barringtonstageco.org.
In 1978, director Tina Packer founded Shakespeare & Co in Lenox, originally at The Mount, the home of Edith Wharton. Now the company produces plays – both Shakespeare and others – at three theaters nearby: the mainstage – the Tina Packard Theater, a second stage – Elayne P. Bernstein Theater, and outdoors under a tent – the Rose Footprint.
The main stage this year is presenting two Shakespeare plays plus one other. The Merchant of Venice begins July 1 and runs through Aug. 21. Two Gentleman of Verona starts Aug. 4 and runs through Sept. 4. Or, a comedy about Aphra Behn, who is often called the first English woman writer. It is “about one chaotic night in the life of the poet, spy, and first female playwright Aphra Behn. Determined to leave the spy trade behind and launch her new career, Ms. Behn must deliver a play by morning.” This runs July 23 to Sept. 4.
On the Bernstein stage, four productions are scheduled. The Taming runs through July 30. Inspired by The Taming of the Shrew, it is a comedy about the red state-blue state battle mixed with a battle of the sexes. Also running through the end of July is Ugly Lies the Bone, about a female combat veteran who finds an experimental video game helps her deal with her emotional and physical scars. Following those is a one man show, Cry “Havoc” from Aug. 3-13. “Stephan Wolfert recounts his own experience pre- and post-military service. Through the lines of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches and his own personal insights, Wolfert explores our societal neurosis of war.” Sotto Voce by Pultizer-Prize winner Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics) runs from Aug. 18 to Sept. 11. A Jewish-Cuban young man “seeks out a famous, reclusive novelist who, decades earlier was separated from her lover when he boarded the MS St. Louis, an ill-fated ship of Jewish refugees during World War II.”
The outdoor theater is presenting a new adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Emperor of the Moon from July 15 to Aug. 20. It’s billed as a farce based on Italian commedia dell’arte.
For information, schedule or tickets, visit Shakespeare.org.
So enjoy the summer, the scenery AND the theater.