By Karen Isaacs
Every year as theaters announce their up-coming seasons, certain productions pique my interest. I circle their dates on my calendar in anticipation.
So what have I circled for this up-coming year? Connecticut theaters offer a good mixture of the new, the classics, the familiar, and the rare. I have circled some of each.
(One caveat: Goodspeed, Ivoryton and Westport have not announced their productions for the first half of 2018. I’m sure some of those would have made my list).
Rags at Goodspeed Musicals (Oct. 6 –Dec. 10). This isn’t a new musical, but one of those shows that “failed” on Broadway but has developed a devoted following. Its authors, Charles Strouse (Bye, Bye Birdie,) and Stephen Schwartz (Pippin), have worked on the show extensively with a new book writer (David Thompson) and the revised version has been performed to good reviews. This show about turn-of-the-20th century Jewish immigrants seems timely; the score is excellent.
Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story at Seven Angels Theater, (Feb. 15 – March 11). I’m not sure if this is a one-woman show or not, but it focuses on the life and career of vaudeville star Sophie Tucker.
The Bridges of Madison County at MTC (Nov. 3-19). I love Jason Robert Brown’s score for this adaptation of the novel. I’ll be interested in how director Kevin Connors handles it on the smaller stage. I suspect it will increase the intimacy and emotional impact.
Oklahoma at Goodspeed (through Sept. 27). I’ve already seen this production and while it is quite good, it disappointed me. It didn’t live up to all I had hoped it would be.
I like Shakespeare and Connecticut is blessed with two directors who have a track record of outstanding productions of Shakespeare. Each is directing a work this fall.
Romeo & Juliet at Westport Country Playhouse (Oct. 31 to Nov. 19). Artistic Director Mark Lamos directed one of the best productions of this tragedy at Hartford Stage years ago. I still remember it and hope this production will live up to his earlier one.
Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage (Sept. 7 to Oct. 8). Artistic Director Darko Tresjnak has given Connecticut an almost annual Shakespeare production including terrific productions of MacBeth, The Tempest, Hamlet, Twelfth Night and a riotous A Comedy of Errors. Now he is turning his hand to this classic comedy. It’s bound to be good.
It seems as though Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is having a resurgence; there were two productions in New York last season and now it is opening Yale Rep’s season (Oct 6 -28). This play is about individual responsibility, courage, economics, and environmental health, yet it was written almost 140 years ago.
Dramas & Comedies (New, Familiar & Rare)
Matthew Lopez is a fine younger playwright, whose works I’ve enjoyed (The Whipping Man, Reverberation), so I’m looking forward to The Legend of Georgia McBride at TheaterWorks (March 15 – April 22). It’s about a young man, a former Elvis impersonator who becomes a successful drag queen.
Fireflies (Oct. 11 – Nov. 5) at Long Wharf is featuring an outstanding cast including Jane Alexander. For that reason alone, it’s on my list.
The Connecticut Rep is doing Our Country’s Good (Nov. 30 – Dec. 9). It premiered at Hartford Stage many years ago and is a fascinating look at the founding of Australia and the power of theater to transform people.
Almost all of Hartford Stage’s productions sound interesting, but if I am to pick just one it would be Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immortality Act, (May 10- June 3). Why? Athol Fugard is one of the great playwrights and this is an earlier work, plus it reveals more about life under apartheid in South Africa.
It’s also hard to pick which Yale Rep play will astound me: I am unfamiliar with many of them. But if forced to circle just one on my calendar, it would be Kiss, (April 27-May) by Guillermo Calederón. Why? The description sounds interesting: about people surviving in Damascus.
I did not get to see Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist off-Broadway, so I’m looking forward to the Playhouse on Park production, April 11-29. It’s about a young man who visits an elderly cousin in Warsaw who is a Holocaust survivor.
These twelve selections are just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the other scheduled productions, including those at the Bushnell, sound very interesting. So check them all out. Connecticut has amazing theater!
By Karen Isaacs
The gala celebration of Connecticut’s professional theater, co-chaired by Shore Publishing’s own Amy Barry, produced winners from both the largest professional theaters in the state and some of the smaller.
The big winners were The Invisible Hand produced by Westport Country Playhouse and Next to Normal produced by TheaterWorks.
Invisible Hand by Ayah Akhtar won outstanding drama, outstanding director (David Kennedy) and outstanding actor (Eric Bryant). The play is about an American banker who is held hostage in Parkistan; it deals with economics, terrorism and religious fundamentalism.
Next to Normal, the musical about a family dealing with the mother’s bipolar condition received awards as outstanding musical, outstanding director (Rob Ruggiero), outstanding actress (Christiann Noll), outstanding lighting (John Lasiter). Maya Keleher who played the daughter received the debut award.
Special awards were presented to actor Paxton Whitehead for his body of work; he has appeared frequently at Westport Country Playhouse in productions of works by Joe Orton and Alan Ayckbourn. The presentation was made by noted director John Tillinger.
Tillinger also made a brief tribute to playwright A. R. Gurney who died in June. Not only did Gurney live in Connecticut, but many of his works were produced here. Tillinger directed a number of them at Long Wharf and Hartford Stage.
James Lecesne, actor, playwright, novelist and activist was honored for his outreach activities while performing his play The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey at Hartford Stage this year. Lecense talked about the impact theater can have on audiences and spoke of how it had “saved” him as a gay teenager. Many winners made similar comments on the importance and impact of theater.
The Tom Killen Award for contributions to Connecticut theater (and theater in general) was given to Paulette Haupt who has served as the artistic director of the National Musical Theatre Conference at the O’Neill Center in Waterford since 1978. Among the 120 new musicals she has selected and helped include In the Heights, Nine, Avenue Q and many more. She’s been instrumental in the careers of Lin Manuel Miranda, Maury Yeston, Tom Kitt and others.
Three of Connecticut’s smaller professional theaters – the Summer Theater of New Canaan (STONC), Music Theater of Connecticut (MTC) and Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury were honored. Jon Petersen received the award for outstanding solo performance at Seven Angels as Anthony Newley in He Wrote Good Songs. Peterson was unable to attend because he is starring as the Emcee in the national tour of Cabaret which was in Portland, Oregon.
West Side Story at STONC received awards for outstanding choreography (Doug Shankman) and outstanding actor in a musical (Zach Schanne)
Kate Simone received outstanding featured actor in a musical for her performance as Louise in Gypsy at MTC.
Hartford Stage took home awards for outstanding actress in a play (Vanessa R. Butler) in Queens for a Year, outstanding featured actress in a play (Connecticut resident Mia Dillon) in Cloud 9 and featured actor in a play (Cleavant Derricks) for The Piano Lesson. The theater also received three awards for A Comedy of Errors) – outstanding set design (Darko Tresjnak), outstanding sound design (Jane Shaw) and outstanding costume design (Fabio Toblini).
Rhett Guter who is now in rehearsal as Curly in Goodspeed’s Oklahoma! won outstanding featured actor in a musical for last year’s Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed. He played Birdie.
Long Wharf’s production of Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower received the award for outstanding ensemble.
Among the presenters were Sirius-XM radio’s Broadway channel program director Julie James, producer Patricia Flicker Addiss, Tony-winning set designer Michael Yeargen and two former artistic directors of Connecticut theaters: Michael Wilson of Hartford Stage and Michael Price of Goodspeed Musicals.
Terrence Mann, three time Tony nominee, and artistic director of Connecticut Repertory Theater’s Summer Stage hosted the evening. Bobby Conte Thornton, star of Broadway’s A Bronx Tale provided two terrific songs.
But perhaps the stars of the evening were sisters Ella and Riley Briggs, two adorable young girls with bright futures ahead them. Ella played the young Frances Gumm in Chasing Rainbows last year at Goodspeed and she and Riley were both in Godspeed’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.
By Karen Isaacs
Connecticut’s professional theaters produced over 40 shows from June 2016 to the end of May 2017; plus various national tours played the major producing houses. Connecticut theatergoers had over 60 productions to choose from. I saw nearly 90 percent of the shows at the professional theaters and some of the national tours.
So how did the season measure up?
My top plays:
The Invisible Hand at Westport Country Playhouse
Queens for a Year at Hartford Stage
Scenes of Court Life at Yale Rep
A Comedy of Errors at Hartford Stage
The Piano Lesson at Hartford Stage
Meteor Shower at Long Wharf
Endgame at Long Wharf
Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage
My top musicals:
Next to Normal at TheaterWorks
Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed
Gypsy at MTC
He Wrote Good Songs at Seven Angels
The top touring shows:
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelsky at Hartford Stage
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Marriage at the Bushnell
The King & I at the Bushnell
An American in Paris at the Bushnell
A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at the Bushnell
Shows that pleasantly surprised me:
Absolute Turkey at CRT
Bilox Blues at Ivoryton
Trav’ling – the Harlem Musical at Seven Angels
Half of my top plays were new – often world premieres..
Many musical productions were fine overall productions, but either not exciting shows or not exciting productions.
The Bushnell had a stellar season of national tours including the rarity of a play.
Darko Tresjnak continue to prove he is also a terrific scenic designer with Italian setting for A Comedy of Errors.
Among the Disappointments.
Unfortunately some shows that I had looked forward to disappointed me. Mostly they were well directed and well- acted, but they just did not maximize their possibilities. Sometimes it is new play which is still being developed or trying to do or say too much.
Assassins at Yale Rep. I’ve seen and liked the show in the past, but this production just missed, at least for me.
The Most Beautiful Room in New York at Long Wharf. What can I say? It didn’t live up to my expectations.
Napoli, Brooklyn at Long Wharf. More soap opera than compelling drama.
Camelot at Westport. This minimalist version was just too minimal though the performances were fine.
But even these productions had elements that were enjoyable and were well worth seeing.
TheaterWork’s production of the musical “Next to Normal” led the nominations for the 27th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards event to be held Monday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Sacred Heart University’s Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts in Fairfield.
The show received a total of 10 nominations, including best musical. Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Ayad Akhtar’s play “The Invisible Hand” led the non-musicals, receiving seven nominations, including outstanding play.
Other outstanding play nominees are: “The Comedy of Errors” at Hartford Stage; “Mary Jane” at Yale Repertory Theatre; “Scenes From Court Life” at Yale Repertory Theatre and “Midsummer” at TheaterWorks.
Also nominated for outstanding musical are: “Assassins” at Yale Repertory Theatre; “Bye Bye Birdie” at Goodspeed Opera House, “Man of La Mancha” at Ivoryton Playhouse and “West Side Story” at Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
The awards show, which celebrates the best in professional theater in the state, is free and open to the public.
Three-time Tony Award-nominee Terrence Mann will be the master of ceremonies for the event. Mann joined the Connecticut theater community this year as artistic director of Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.
Last year’s top honorees — Yale Repertory Theatre’s play “Indecent” and Hartford Stage’s musical “Anastasia” — are currently on Broadway.
Also receiving special awards this year are James Lecesne for his work using theater as a way to connect with LGBT youths in works such as his solo show “The Absolute Brightness off Leonard Pelkey,” which was presented this spring at Hartford Stage, and Paxton Whitehead, for his longtime career in theater, especially in Connecticut
Receiving the Tom Killen Award for lifetime achievement is Paulette Haupt, who is stepping down after 40 years from her position as founding artistic director of the National Music Theater Conference at Waterford’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center
Other nominees are:
Actor in a play: Jordan Lage, “Other People’s Money,” Long Wharf Theatre; Tom Pecinka, “Cloud Nine,” Hartford Stage; Michael Doherty, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series; Eric Bryant, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; M. Scott McLean, “Midsummer,” TheaterWorks.
Actress in a play: Semina DeLaurentis, “George & Gracie,” Seven Angels Theatre; Emily Donahoe, “Mary Jane,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Ashlie Atkinson, “Imogen Says Nothing,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Vanessa R. Butler, “Queens for a Year,” Hartford Stage; Rebecca Hart, “Midsummer,” TheaterWorks
Actor in a musical: Robert Sean Leonard, “Camelot,” Westport Playhouse; Riley Costello, “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series; David Harris, “Next To Normal,” TheaterWorks; David Pittsinger, “Man of La Mancha,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Zach Schanne, “West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
Actress in a musical: Ruby Rakos, “Chasing Rainbows,” Goodspeed Opera House; Christiane Noll, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Julia Paladino, “West Side Story.” Karen Ziemba, “Gypsy, Sharon Playhouse; Talia Thiesfield, “Man of La Mancha,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Director of a play: Darko Tresnjak, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; David Kennedy, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; Marc Bruni, “Other People’s Money,” Long Wharf Theatre; Tracy Brigden, “Midsummer,” TheaterWorks; Gordon Edelstein, “Meteor Shower,” Long Wharf Theatre.
Director of a musical: Rob Ruggiero, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; David Edwards, “Man of La Mancha,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Melody Meitrott Libonati, “West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan; Jenn Thompson, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Kevin Connors, “Gypsy,” Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk.
Choreography: Denis Jones, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Chris Bailey, “Chasing Rainbows,” Goodspeed Opera House; Doug Shankman, West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan; Patricia Wilcox, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Darlene Zoller, “Rockin’ the Forest,” Playhouse on Park.
Ensemble: Cast of “Smart People,” Long Wharf Theatre; Cast of “Trav’lin’ ” at Seven Angels Theatre; cast of “Meteor Shower,” Long Wharf Theatre; cast of “Assassins,” Yale Repertory Theatre; cast of “The 39 Steps” at Ivoryton Playhouse.
Debut performance: Maya Keleher, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Dylan Frederick, “Assassins,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Nick Sacks, “Next to Normal, TheaterWorks.
Solo Performance: Jodi Stevens, “I’ll Eat You Last,” Music Theater of Connecticut; Jon Peterson, “He Wrote Good Songs,” Seven Angels Theatre.
Featured actor in a play: Jameal Ali, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; Andre De Shields, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Cleavant Derricks, “The Piano Lesson,” Hartford Stage; Steve Routman, “Other People’s Money,” Long Wharf Theatre; Paxton Whitehead, “What the Butler Saw,” Westport Country Playhouse
Featured actress in a play: Miriam Silverman, “Mary Jane,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Rachel Leslie, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Mia Dillon, “Cloud Nine,” Hartford Stage; Christina Pumariega, “Napoli, Brooklyn,” Long Wharf Theatre
Featured actor in a musical: Mark Nelson, “The Most Beautiful Room in New York,” Long Wharf Theatre; Edward Watts, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Goodspeed Opera House; John Cardoza, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Jonny Wexler, “West Side Story,” Summer Theater of New Canaan; Rhett Guter, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Michael Wartella, “Chasing Rainbows,” Goodspeed Opera House
Featured actress in a musical: Maya Keleher, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Jodi Stevens, “Gypsy,” “Music Theater of Connecticut; Katie Stewart, “West Side Story,” Summer Theater of New Canaan; Kristine Zbornik, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Kate Simone, “Gypsy,” Music Theater of Connecticut.
Set design: Colin McGurk, “Heartbreak House,” Hartford Stage; Michael Yeargan, “The Most Beautiful Room in New York,” Long Wharf Theater; Wilson Chin, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Adam Rigg, “The Invisible Hand,” “Westport Country Playhouse; Darko Tresnjak, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage.
Costume design: Ilona Somogyi, “Heartbreak House,” Hartford Stage; Marina Draghici, “Scenes from Court Life,” Yale Repertory Theater; Fabio Toblini, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; Gregory Gale, “Thorough Modern Millie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Lisa Steier, “Rockin’ the Forest,” Playhouse on Park.
Lighting design: Matthew Richards, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; Yi Zhao, “Assassins,” Yale Repertory Theatre; John Lasiter, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Matthew Richards, “Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; Christopher Bell, “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” Playhouse on Park, Hartford.
Sound design: Jane Shaw, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; Fan Zhang, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Shane Rettig, “Scenes from Court Life,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Karen Graybash, “The Piano Lesson,” Hartford Stage; Fitz Patton, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse.
2017 Nominations List
Outstanding Solo Performance
Jodi Stevens I’ll Eat You Last MTC
Jon Peterson He Wrote Good Songs 7 Angels
Maya Kelcher (Natalie) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Dylan Frederick Assassins Yale Rep
Nick Sacks Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Cast of… Smart People Long Wharf
Cast of… Trav’lin 7 Angels
Cast of… Meteor Shower Long Wharf
Cast of… Assassins Yale
Cast of… The 39 Steps Ivoryton
Michael Commendatore Assassins Yale
Jane Shaw Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Fan Zhang Seven Guitars Yale
Shane Retig Scenes From Court Life Yale
Karin Graybash Piano Lesson Hartford Stage
Fitz Patton Invisible Hand Westport
Outstanding Costume Design
Ilona Somogyi Heartbreak House Hartford Stage
Marina Draghici Scenes from Court Life Yale
Lisa Steier Rockin’ the Forest Playhouse on Park
Fabio Toblini Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Gregory Gale Modern Millie Goodspeed
Matthew Richards Invisible Hand Westport
Yi Zhao Assassins Yale
John Lasiter Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Matthew Richards Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Christopher Bell A Moon for the Misbegotten Playhouse on Park
Outstanding Set Design
Colin McGurk Heartbreak House Hartford Stage
Michael Yeargan Most Beautiful Room… Long Wharf
Wilson Chin Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Adam Rigg The Invisible Hand Westport
Darko Tresnjak The Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Denis Jones Modern Millie Goodspeed
Chris Bailey Chasing Rainbows Goodspeed
Doug Shankman West Side Story STONC
Patricia Wilcox Bye Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Darlene Zoller Rockin’ the Forest Playhouse on Park
Outstanding Featured Actor – Musical
Mark Nelson (Carlo) Most Beautiful Room…. Long Wharf
Edward Watts (Trevor) Modern Millie Goodspeed
John Cardoza (Gabe) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Jonny Wexler (Action) West Side Story STONC
Rhett Guter (Birdie) Bye Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Michael Wartella Chasing Rainbows Goodspeed
Outstanding Featured Actress – Musical
Maya Keleher (Natalie) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Jodi Stevens (Secretary/Mazeppa) Gypsy MTC
Katie Stewart (Anita) West Side Story STONC
Kristine Zbornik (Mother) Bye, Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Kate Simone (Louise) Gypsy MTC
Outstanding Featured Actress – Play
Miriam Silverman (Brianne/Chaya) Mary Jane Yale
Rachel Leslie (Vera) Seven Guitars Yale
Antoinette Crowe-Legacy (Ruby) Seven Guitars Yale
Mia Dillon Cloud 9 Hartford Stage
Christina Pumariega (Tina) Napoli, Brooklyn Long Wharf
Outstanding Featured Actor – Play
Jameal Ali (Dar) The Invisible Hand Westport
Andre De Shields Headley) Seven Guitars Yale
Cleavant Derricks Piano lesson Hartford Stage
Steve Routman (Coles) Other People’s Money Long Wharf
Paxton Whitehead (Dr. Rance) What the Butler Saw Westport
Outstanding Director – Musical
Rob Ruggiero Next to Normal TheaterWorks
David Edwards Man of La Mancha Ivoryton
Melody Libonati West Side Story STONC
Jenn Thompson Bye Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Kevin Connors Gypsy MTC
Outstanding Director – Play
Darko Tresnjak The Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
David Kennedy The Invisible Hand Westport
Marc Bruni Other People’s Money Long Wharf
Tracy Brigden Midsummer TheaterWorks
Gordon Edelstein Meteor Shower Long Wharf
Outstanding Actor – Musical
Robert Sean Leonard (Arthur) Camelot Westport
Riley Costello (Finch) How to Succeed… CRT
David Harris (Dan) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
David Pittsinger (Don Q) Man of La Mancha Ivoryton
Zach Schanne (Tony) West Side Story STONC
Outstanding Actress – Musical
Ruby Rakos (Judy) Chasing Rainbows Goodspeed
Christiane Noll (Diana) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Julia Paladino (Maria) West Side Story STONC
Karen Ziemba (Rose) Gypsy Sharon Playhouse
Talia Thiesfield (Aldonza) Man of La Mancha Ivoryton
Outstanding Actor – Play
Tom Pecinka (Betty/Edward) Cloud 9 Hartford Stage
Michael Doherty (Black Stache) Peter and the… CRT
Eric Bryant (prisoner) Invisible Hand Westport
Jordan Lage (Garfinkle) Other People’s Money Long Wharf
Scott McLean (Bob) Midsummer… TheaterWorks
Outstanding Actress – Play
Emily Donohe Mary Jane Yale
Semina DeLaurentis (Gracie) George & Gracie 7 Angels
Ashlie Atkinson (Imogen) Imogen Says Nothing Yale
Vanessa R. Butler (Solinas) Queens for a Year Hartford Stage
Rebecca Hart (Helena) Midsummer TheaterWorks
Outstanding Production – Musical
Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Man of La Mancha Ivoryton
West Side Story STONC
Bye Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Outstanding Production – Play
The Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Midsummer (a play with songs) TheaterWorks
Scenes From Court Life Yale
The Invisible Hand Westport
Mary Jane Yale
By Karen Isaacs
Thoroughly Modern Millie is a lightweight, fun musical that is getting a very good production at Goodspeed Theater in East Haddam, through July 2.
The show may seem like it was written in the 1920s when it set, but in reality, the show hit Broadway in 2002. The plot is based on the 1967 movie musical that starred Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing and Beatrice Lillie. For the movie, original music was written by Jimmy Van Huesen with lyrics by Sammy Cahn as well as others; popular music of the 1920s was also an integral part of the score. The show, part camp satire of the period and part serious, was a success and earned a number of Oscar nominations.
The stage version of the show began in 1999 but did not hit Broadway until 2002. The music of the ‘20s was discarded as were most of the songs written specifically for the movie. Jeanine Tesori wrote new songs for the show with lyrics by Dick Scanlan who took over the role of book writer after Dick Morris passed away.
The plot is fairly typical for 1920s shows. A young woman, Millie, arrives in New York City from Kansas, eager to break out of the confines of her small town existence and to enjoy the big city. She is ready for the new haircuts, short skirts, and the freer behaviors that were beginning to sweep the country. She is also determined to find a job as a secretary (or “typewriter” as the women were often called) and to marry her boss.
The secondary plots involve Miss Dorothy Brown, another single young lady but seemingly more shy. She too arrives at the same hotel for young women as Millie. But there is a secret at the Hotel Priscilla presided over Mrs. Meers. It seems that young women who have no family mysteriously and suddenly “check out” never to be heard of again. We quickly discover they have been drugged, abducted and sent to the Far East for the white slave trade.
Millie gets a job working for Trevor Graydon, a handsome (and single) executive, but she also meets Jimmy, a young man who seems less motivated. Of course, we can anticipate what will happen. While Millie has her eye set on Graydon, she unwillingly becomes increasingly attracted to Jimmy. Graydon, meanwhile, meets Miss Dorothy and is immediately smitten. Once Mrs. Meers learns that Miss Dorothy is an orphan, she sets in motion the plot to kidnap and sell Miss Dorothy.
Of course, all ends happily. Neither Jimmy nor Miss Dorothy are exactly what they seem. Mrs. Meers is defeated.
There’s also Muzzy Can Hossmere, a wealthy, older nightclub performer who was married to a very wealthy man. She tries to convince Millie that love is most important and helps Millie, Jimmy and Trevor save Miss Dorothy. Two Chinese brothers work as hotel employees for Mrs. Meers; they are forced to assist her in her evil ways because she has promised to bring their mother to NYC.
Even in 2002, the portrayal of the two Chinese brothers was problematic. While the authors tried to make them less stereotypical “Asian” characters, some elements of that remained. But they did have them speak Chinese, with English translations projected for the audience, and gave one of the brothers a rebellious streak. Ching Ho falls for Miss Dorothy and does everything he can to save her.
The Goodspeed production has a lot going for it. As usual, the production values are terrific. Scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III has created a wonderful art deco backdrop and an elevator for the hotel. Between him and the lighting design by Rob Denton, you are convinced the elevator is moving. Gregory Dale’s costumes bring you back to the 1920s and the Jazz Age. Jay Hilton’s sound design adds to the overall affect and keeps the sound from blaring.
Denis Jones, a Tony nominee this year, has returned to Goodspeed to direct and choreograph. Once again he has used the small stage adeptly and his tap numbers are terrific.
That brings us to the hard-working cast. The ensemble of dancers and singers, who often play multiple roles is excellent. And certainly the cast all sing and dance very well. But at times, something seems missing.
Taylor Quick, who has her on “new girl in town story,” is Millie. While technically fine, in such a slight musical, the role requires star power; the ability to focus our attention on her and to project a joie de vivre. Unfortunately Quick lacks, at least at this point in her career, those abilities. She just seems like a nice average girl, trying hard. When the show opened on Broadway, Sutton Foster who had been in the ensemble but had taken over the lead during the tryout period, radiated that charisma.
In fact the only performer who made you focus was Edward Watts as Trevor Grayden and that be in part due to his ruggedly handsome looks. Technically Dan DeLuca as Jimmy, Samantha Sturm as Miss Dorothy, Ramona Keller as Muzzy and James Seol as Ching Ho were all good. Loretta Ables Sayre was a rather tame Mrs. Meers; some of the evil intent seemed lacking.
If you want an enjoyable evening of nice tunes, terrific dancing and good performances, you will enjoy Thoroughly Modern Millie. Just don’t expect insightful drama. It is just good, clean fun.
It is at Goodspeed Musical Theatre in East Haddam through July 2. For tickets, visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.
By Karen Isaacs
A recurrent trend in musicals is to take a well-known Hollywood musical and adapt it for the stage. Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical, is just such a property that is now at Roundabout Theatre’s Studio 54. This version began life at Goodspeed in East Haddam in the fall of 2014.The stage version has a book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge
The film was known for starring the top song (Bing Crosby) and dance (Fred Astaire) men of the period. It combined Irving Berlin songs – some old, some new – in a plot about two show business partners who break up. Jim (the Crosby role) wants to quit show business to marry the sexy girl (Lila Dixon) in the act; he’s bought a farm in Connecticut sight unseen and plans to become a farmer. Ted Hanover (the Astaire role) wants to make it big in Hollywood and convinces Lila to go along for one last big engagement that may get him to California.
The big engagement at Chicago’s Pump Room keeps getting extended while Jim is back in Connecticut struggling with a dilapidated house and a lack of farming skills. But he does meet an attractive schoolteacher (and former aspiring singer/dancer) whose family owned the property. Plus he meets Louise, a jack-of-all-trades handy woman with a sense of humor. Soon he’s behind in his mortgage. With a little help from Linda Mason, the schoolteacher, and Louise, he hits on a plan: Enlist his show business buddies who are off on holidays and have nowhere to go, to turn the farm into an Inn complete with rooms, food and entertainment. The gimmick? It will ONLY open on holidays.
Complications have to develop. Lila wants no part of rural life; she is still dreaming of Hollywood until a Texan with money entices her to relocate there. Jim and Linda are obviously meant for each other but some bumps in the road must appear. In this case it is Ted, again. He had lured Lila away for that one last gig. Now he shows up at the Inn totally inebriated on New Year’s Eve and dances with Linda. Soon she is all he can think of – she is the “perfect” partner to get his show business dreams on the road again. So while Jim and Linda are making slow but steady progress in the romance department, Ted ss about to swoop in and offer her a chance at a Hollywood screen test.
Yet, it all ends happily. What else could you expect from a 1940s move musical? What was different, it that this was one of the few films were Astaire does not get the girl.
What other changes from the movie? One number which has become controversial — a number for Lincoln’s Birthday that was performed in blackface — has been removed, as well as one or two other songs. BUT lots of great Irving Berlin songs have been added. So while “Easter Parade” was in the original we now also have “Blue Skies,” ‘What’ll I Do?” “You’re Easy to Dance With,” “Let’s Take an Old Fashioned Walk,” and “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” among others.
Turning a classic movie into a stage show creates some problems. Special effects, even with today’s stage technology is more limited as are playing spaces and sets. Yet this production overcomes most the obstacles.
Is it a great musical? Not really, but it is an enjoyable evening’s entertainment in large part due to the outstanding cast.
Bryce Pinkham is Jim, and brings his terrific voice and winning personality to the role. He adds charm to the part of the earnest idealist. His renditions of “Blue Skies,” “It’s a Lovely Day Today” and “White Christmas are all spot on. You believe he is heart-broken over losing Lila, no matter how suitable the audience can see she is from the very beginning, his awkwardness around Linda and his frustration when Ted once again appears to be taking away his girl.
Corbin Bleu is Ted. He doesn’t try to capture the suavity of Astaire but projects a less polished and sophisticated energy in the character and in the dancing. Plus he has a very good singing voice.
Lora Lee Gaynor is girl next door Linda who once had show business aspirations. She develops all the complexities of the role: the lonely school teacher with ties to both the farm and show business. Her number with Jim of “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk” is a standout.
The more comic elements are carried by Megan Lawrence as Louise. Plus, she gets a chance to show off her singing and dancing. Her comic timing is terrific. Megan Sikora plays Lila brings out her “dumb blonde” and gold digger aspects to good comic effect. But she makes her likable which is necessary for the plot. Morgan Gao also adds humor as the young boy, Charlie who pops up to deliver messages from the bank and make some wise comments.
Gordon Greenberg has directed the piece with affection and steady pacing. This is a show that keeps moving aided by the choreography by Denis Jones. Two dance numbers are standouts – one involves jump rope and the other includes firecrackers; a homage to the Astaire fourth of July number in the film. It’s more impressive on the stage.
Contributing to the effects of the show are costumes by Alejo Vietti, set design by Anna Louizos, lighting design by Jeff Croiter and sound design by Keith Caggiano.
Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical is at Roundabout’s Studio 54 Theater, 254 W. 54th St., through January 15. For tickets visit Roundabout Theatre.
Inside notes and comments about Connecticut and New York Professional Theater
By Karen Isaacs
Oscar Winner in Hartford: Richard Dreyfuss, who won an Oscar and has performed before in Connecticut at Long Wharf, has joined the cast of Relativity, at TheaterWorks. The new play by Mark St. Germain is about a mystery in Einstein’s life: the birth of a daughter in 1902 who was never heard about after 1904. Years later, Einstein is questioned about it by a young reporter. Dreyfuss will play Einstein. Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero directs. The play runs to Nov. 13. For tickets visit TheatreWorks.
Bank Ad Causes Controversy: Wells Fargo Bank probably thought the ad series for the Teen Financial Education Day (Saturday, Sept. 17) was just clever. But the ad series raised the ire of the artistic community, so much so that the company issued an apology and withdrew the ads. The headlines in the ads featured phrase such as “a ballerina yesterday. An engineer today.” These headlines were interpreted as implying that artists would be better served by going into the sciences. Social media is awash in variations on the idea, such as “Bob Newhart – an accountant yesterday, a comedian and star today.”
Theater’s Loss: The death of Edward Albee at the age of 88 is an enormous loss for not just American theater but the world. While he is best known for his biting but humorous look at marriage in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? his other works often shocked and puzzled audiences while exploring important issues about relationships. Connecticut audiences were blessed to see fine productions throughout the state: Mark Lamos directed several excellent productions at Hartford Stage, as did Michael Wilson. Long Wharf had a memorable production of Virginia Woolf starring Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
Tickets on Sale: Tickets are on salefor the new musical Anastasia which had its premiere at Hartford Stage last spring. Tickets are available at Telecharge.com. Also going on sale are tickets for the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which will star two-time Tony winner Christian Borle which opens in April. It’s also available at Telecharge.
Broadway Notes: Tony nominees Kate Baldwin will play Irene Molloy and Gavin Ceel will play Corneilus Hackl in the Bette Middler – David Hyde Pierce revival of Hello, Dolly! which opens this spring. The first day that tickets were on sale via Telecharge, sales exceeded $9 million. Something Rotten! closes on January 1 after an almost two year run; Jersey Boys will also end it’s 11-year run on Jan. 15. Following it into the August Wilson Theater will be the musical, Groundhog Day which won raves in London. Andy Karl stars. There’s some talk that Colin Firth may star as Professor Higgins in a revival of My Fair Lady; we can only hope. If you can’t get tickets to Hamilton you may be able to get tickets to the parody Spamilton which was developed by the creator of Forbidden Broadway. Lin-Manuel Miranda has apparently given his approval. It runs through Oct. 30, off-Broadway. Tickets are available at triad.nyc.com/buy-tickets.
Goodspeed Next Year: Goodspeed next year will present two revivals and a new version of musical flop PLUS three new musicals at The Terris Theater. The season opens with the Tony-winning Thoroughly Modern Millie (April 21-July2), followed by the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma1 (July 14 –Sept. 28) and the season concludes with a revision of the Charles Strouse (Annie) and Stephen Schwartz (Wicked) musical Rags (Oct. 6-Dec. 10). At The Terris Theatre are the new musicals Deathless (June 2- July2), Darling Grenadine (Aug. 18-Sept. 17) and A Connecticut Christmas Carol (Nov. 17-Dec. 24). Season tickets are now on sale at 860-873-8668. Tickets for individual productions go on sale Feb. 19th.
Off-Broadway Notes: The Classic Stage Company is presenting the world premiere of Dead Poets Society directed by Tony winner John Doyle based on the film. Jason Suderikis stars in the Robin Williams role. It begins previews Oct. 27. For tickets call 212-352-3101 or visit Classic Stage. The Signature Theatre Off-Broadway is presenting Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold” …. and the Boys began on Oct. 18. The play had its world premiere at Yale Rep. Fugard will direct the work. For tickets call 212-244-7529 or Signature Theatreg.
What Kind of Fool? Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury is continuing the Anthony Newley trend in Connecticut with He Wrote Good Songs. Earlier this year there was a concert of his music at the Madison Library, and then a reimagined production of his musical (with Leslie Bricusse) The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd at the Goodspeed’s Terris Theater. Newley was a British actor, singer, songwriter and more who wrote musicals and hit songs: “Goldfinger,” “The Candy Man,” “What Kind of Fool Am I?’ and “Who Can I Turn To? among others. Jon Peterson has conceived, written and will perform the show. He has done similar work with a show on George M. Cohan. The one man show runs Nov. 3 to Nov. 27. For tickets, call 203-757-4676 or visit Seven Angels.
New Musical: Ivoryton is presenting the Connecticut premiere of Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical from Oct. 26 to Nov. 13. Clooney started as a band singer, moving on to recording a number of pop hits in the ‘50s and developing a movie career. Later in life she was a respected jazz and cabaret artist. The musical is described as a biography with her signature songs woven into her story – both her professional life and her struggles in her personal life which included marriage to actor Jose Ferrer and five children. For tickets call 860-767-7318 or visit Ivoryton.
Suspense: MTC in Norwalk is presenting the Tony-winning thriller, Sleuth from Nov. 4 to Nov. 20. The play which also had a successful film that starred Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, is a cat-and-mouse thriller about a celebrated mystery writer and the younger hairdresser who is his wife’s lover. For tickets call 203-354-3883 or visit MTC
Starting the Holidays: The Palace Theater in Waterbury is presenting the excellent A Christmas Story: The Musical on Nov. 18 and Nov. 19. The musical is based on the classic Jean Shepherd story and subsequent film. The show itself was nominated for several Tony awards during its Broadway run. For tickets call 203-346-2000 or visit Palace Theaterg.
Five More Years: In a somewhat unprecedented move, James Bundy has been reappointed as Dean of Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater. This,his fourth term, will begin July 1, 2017. It’s unprecedented because previously Yale has limited most Deans – including the Drama School to two terms (10 years) though some served an extra year while the search for a successor was on-going. During his tenure the Yale Rep has produced numerous world and American premieres two of which have been Pulitzer Prize finalists. Congratulations.
Helping the Area Economy: The International Festival of Arts & Ideas which ran June 10-25 generated an economic impact exceeding $15.4 million for the region’s economy. The study was done by Quinnipiac University. It is based on attendance and ticket sales and reported visitor behavior. Other figures: visitors reported spending an average of $140 on food, retail, lodging and transportation. The Festival employed 213 full and season staff. Local vendors, venues and rental companies were hired to help. In addition the 855 artists and speakers required 766 hotel nights in the greater New Haven area.
Election Drama: I don’t usually write about community theater productions though many are excellent. Just too many shows, but I will make an exception for Now or Later at Square One Theatre in Stratford. Why? The play, which I’m unfamiliar with, is written by Christopher Shinn a Connecticut native (An Opening in Time, Dying City) and it is very relevant. The play, which runs Nov. 3 to Nov. 20 is about a presidential election and what happens’ when controversial photos of the candidate’s college age son go viral, potentially sparking an international incident. For information visitSquare One; for tickets call 203-375-8778.
By Karen Isaacs
Bierko Comes to Long Wharf: Craig Bierko, who was nominated for a Tony for his performance as Harold Hill in the Broadway revival of The Music Man and is now on UnREAL on Lifetime, has joined the cast of Meteor Shower by Steve Martin which opens the Long Wharf season. The show runs Wednesday, Sept. 28 to Sunday, Oct. 23. For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 203-787-4282
Auditions for Kids: Hartford Stage will be auditioning children 5-13 for its annual production of A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas from Tuesday, Sept. 20 to Thursday, Sept. 22. Auditions are by appointment only. For information about preparation and requirements or appointments email Auditions.
This Year in Waterbury: The season at Seven Angels Theatre has been finalized. It opens with A Room of My Own, a semi-autobiographical comedy about a writer in a wacky family; it runs Thursday, Sept. 22 to Sunday, Oct. 16. Next is the return of Jon Peterson with a one man show about Anthony Newley: He Wrote Good Songs from Nov. 3 to 27. From Feb. 9 to March 3 is George and Gracie: The Early Years about the early life of George Burns and Gracie Allen. R. Bruce Connelly and Semina De Laurentis star. Jesus Christ Superstar, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical runs from March 23 to April 23. The season concludes with Trav’lin –The 1930s Harlem Musical which recalls the period and features the music and lyrics of Harlem Renaissance composer J. C. Johnson. It runs May 11 to June 11. Tickets are available at 203-757-4676.
King Arthur: Robert Sean Leonard will be King Arthur in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Camelot which runs Tuesday, Oct. 4 to Sunday, Oct. 30. It is billed as a “reimagined” production directed by Mark Lamos. While Leonard may be known for his work in the TV series House, he has numerous Broadway credits and received a Tony Award and another Tony nomination. For tickets – which are going fast – visit Westport or call 888-927-7529.
Chasing Rainbows: Goodspeed’s new musical, Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz which is how Judy Garland became a young star, is in rehearsals preparing for its opening Friday, Sept. 16. Of course, the show features many of the songs she made famous and also includes the making of The Wizard of Oz film which was supposed to star Shirley Temple. Goodspeed has a number of special evenings scheduled including a Saturday wine tasting (Sept. 17), teen nights, meet the cast, and others. For information and tickets visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.
Classic to Contemporary: Westport Country Playhouse has announced its 2017 season, its 87th. It opens (May 30 to June 17) with the British comedy Lettice and Lovage which was a 1990 Tony nominee. Following is the 2014-15 Obie (off—Broadway) Award winner for Best New American Play, Appropriate which runs July 11 to 29. Grounded, a solo production that won the 2016 Lucille Lortel Award in that category and an award at the Edinburg Fringe Festival runs Aug. 15 to Sept. 2. Sex with Strangers, which runs Sept. 26 to Oct. 14 is about a modern relationship in the digital age. The season concludes with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Oct. 31 to Nov. 19), directed by Mark Lamos, who is well known for his fine Shakespeare production. I still remember his production at Hartford Stage starring a young Calista Flockhart. For information and tickets contact Westport or call 888-927-7529.
Curtain Up: MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) in Norwalk opens its season with Gypsy from Friday, Sept. 9 to Sunday, Sept. 25. The iconic show features a cast of solid Broadway professionals. For tickets visit MTC or call 203-454-3883.
Investors Hard to Find: Even Barbra Streisand has problems finding investors. The most recent rumor is that the planned film version of Gypsy that has been talked about for years, is now in doubt again due to the withdrawal of an investor and distributor.
Controversy: Bay Street Theater on Long Island, had planned a concert reading of the new Stephen Schwartz and Phillip LaZenik musical Prince of Egypt, which is based on a film about an Egyptian prince who learns his true identity. Schwartz’ song for the film,“When You Believe” won an Oscar. That was the plan and the concert was cast with some high powered Broadway veterans. But the concert was cancelled after complaints that the cast was not diverse. Apparently there were not just complaints but comments on social media and online which the director termed “harassment” and “bullying.” This is not the first time recently that a controversy has erupted over casting.
New York Notes: The Berkshire Theatre Group is transferring its well-received production of Fiorello! to Off-Broadway this fall. It begins previews Sun., Sept. 4 at the East 13th Street Theater. For tickets visit Fiorello or call 800-833-3006. The Pearl Theatre is reviving A Taste of Honey, last seen 35 years ago. Austin Pendleton directs. It runs Tues., Sept 6 to Sun., Oct. 16q. For tickets visit pearltheatre.org or call 212-563-9261. Another off-Broadway Theater – Primary Stages is opening its season with Horton Foote’s The Roads to Home directed by Michael Wilson, former artistic director of Hartford Stage. The production stars Harriet Harris, Devon Abner and Haille Foot. It begins performances Tues., Sept. 13. For tickets visit Primary Stages or call 212-352-3101
New York Notes: Tickets are now on sale for Heisenberg which stars Mary Louis Parker at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. It begins previews on Tuesday, Sept. 20. Tickets are available through Telecharge. Jenn Gambatese who starred at Goodspeed in Annie Get Your Gun and has numerous Broadway credits is replacing Sierra Boggess in School of Rock on Broadway. Tickets are also on sale for the revival of Falsettos starring Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells and Stephanie J. Block. The William Finn/James Lapine musical begins previews Thursday, Sept. 29 for a limited run. Ticketmaster is handling tickets.
CRT Season: The Connecticut Repertory Theater which performs on the UConn campus in Storrs is the last of the Connecticut theaters to announce its 2016-17 schedule. It begins with an ambitious play: Shakespeare’s King Lear from Thurs., Oct. 6 to Sun., Oct. 16. This coincides with the exhibition of a rare Shakespeare first folio to the campus (Thur., Sept 1 to Sun., Sept. 25) via the Folger Shakespeare Library’s tour. Changing gears, the second show if a translation of the Feydeau farce Le Dindon, called An Absolute Turkey, from Dec. 1 to 10. In 2017, Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty will play Feb. 23 to March 5 followed by Shrek: The Musical from April 20 to 30. Please call 860-486-2113 for information and subscriptions. Tickets for individual performances go on sale Sept. 1. Information is available at CRT.
Broadway People: He’s hot! Lin-Manuel Miranda has left his show Hamilton but he won’t be resting anytime soon. He’s working on the film version of his first hit, In the Heights, which is now a “go” because of the Hamilton success. He’s also signed to co-star in the 2018 Disney film that will be a sequel, Mary Poppins Returns. Emily Blunt will play Poppins. It’s a new story (set in London in the 1930s) and a new score. Angela Lansbury is not retiring; she’s returning to Broadway in 2017-18 in a revival of The Chalk Garden. She’ll be over 90 when it opens. Joe Mantello has been directing more than acting recently; he had two well received shows on Broadway last season. But he’s pulling out his acting talents to co-star with Sally Fields in a revival of The Glass Menagerie that begins previews next February. Sam Gold will direct.
On the Road to Broadway: Lots of shows have Broadway aspirations, but few make it and even fewer succeed. Among the shows that are supposedly enroute is Josephine, about the legendary American performer Josephine Baker who was a major star in Paris. It just played in Florida and producers say the next stop in Broadway. Grammy nominee Deborah Cox starred. The musical version of From Here to Eternity with lyrics by Tim Rice has played London, but made its US debut at the Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival this summer. Who knows if it makes it to Broadway; if you’re interested, there is a London cast album. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty will have Anastasia on Broadway next spring and their other new musical, The Little Dancer is also continuing development. After a production at the Kennedy Center in 2014, extensive revisions were done on the book. It’s inspired by a sculpture by Edgar Degas.
From East Haddam to Broadway: A musical that began life at the Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals in 2013 will make it to Broadway. Come From Away tells the inspiring story of the residents in the Gander, Newfoundland area who hosted thousands of stranded air travelers when their flights were diverted to Gander on Sept. 11, 2001. From Goodspeed’s Festival, the show has more recently had successful runs at the La Jolla Playhouse, the Seattle Repertory Theater and will soon open at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC before going on to Toronto and then Broadway. It’s scheduled to open in February.
By Karen Isaacs
Goodspeed is taking us back to 1960s with a terrific production of Bye, Bye Birdie which has been extended to Sept. 8.
Now this show by Charles Strouse (music), Lee Adams (lyrics) and Michael Stewart (book) will not make anyone’s list of the top ten musicals of all times, but it would make a list of the top 100 shows. It doesn’t break any new ground – except maybe for being one of the first shows to include some soft rock-style music – but it is fun and totally enjoyable. It was Strouse and Adams first Broadway show; they later wrote Applause and Golden Boy among others and Strouse also wrote Annie.
When the show opened in 1960, the plot may have seemed “ripped from the headlines.” Just two years earlier, Elvis Presley had been drafted into the US Army, leaving millions of teenage girls heartbroken.
The show focuses on Albert Peterson, a Milquetoast like character who manages (and occasionally composes songs) for the latest teen idol, Conrad Birdie, a Presley like figure. Birdie has been drafted and Peterson comes up with a way to capitalize on the event: Birdie will debut a new song just as he leaves to be inducted. Not only will he debut the song “One Last Kiss” but actually kiss the president of his fan club in a small Ohio town. Of course, complications and subplots emerge. One is Rosie, Peterson’s longstanding girlfriend (and secretary) who is tired of waiting for him to sever the apron strings from his manipulative mother and marry her. Plus there are the residents of Sweet Apple, Ohio: Kim the president of the fan club, her boyfriend Hugo, plus her exasperated father and the other parents and teenagers in the town.
Much of the show is conventional, from the exasperated father to the stereotypical smothering mother. Yet so much is fresh with this show plus director Jenn Thompson has given it such energy and an outstanding cast, that you overlook the lamer jokes, predictable plot turns and extraneous moments.
A strength of this show is the songs – even if you haven’t seen a production, and I was surprised to realize that I never had – you will recognize many of the songs including “Put on a Happy Face,” “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” as well as the title song and the humorous “Kids”.
This production has so many plusses, that it’s difficult to know where to start.
I’ve already mentioned the excellent direction by Jenn Thompson. Thompson is familiar
with Connecticut; she performed at Ivoryton Playhouse as a member of The River Rep for many years. But now she is an accomplished director. She exhibits a sure hand here; she understands the material and allows it to be done seriously though with an occasional wink. Both acts open with a series of projections – in the form of various typical TV screens – of familiar things of the period – Ed Sullivan, JFK, cars, kids, and more. It immediately sets the time and mood. In addition, she made use of the aisles which totally involved the audience.
Patricia Wilcox provides excellent choreography. This is a Goodspeed show that does not feature tap dancing. Instead we have lots of dances playing off the later ‘50s rock and roll idiom.
Adding to the effects are the scenic design b Tobin Ost, sound by Jay Hilton and lighting by Philip S, Rosenberg.
Costume designer David Toser not only captured the period for both the teens and the adults but also had the challenging task of making adult performers looks like 14 to 16 year-olds.
The fine production elements are matched by a fine cast.
The two standouts for me were Janet Dacal as Rosie and Rhett Guter as Birdie. I really can’t say enough about either. Dacal sings and dances up a storm as well as imbuing Rosie with a range of emotions from frustration to love to compassion. Her renditions of “An English Teacher” and “Spanish Rose” are great. Guter plays the Elvis-like Birdie without being a copy of Elvis. He projects a self-awareness and humor of his situation and the reaction people have of him. He plays with the audience deliciously. Albert Peterson is a difficult role, since he can be both weak and bland; George Merrick grows into the role. At first he blends in but you find yourself looking at him more and more. He does a terrific job with “Put on a Happy Face.”
It was terrific to see Warren Kelly (another member of The River Rep) back in Connecticut as the exasperated father played originally by Paul Lynde. He doesn’t mimic the distinctive Lynde but gives us a typical 1960s sitcom father. Donna English has the less
satisfying role of Kim’s mother. Kristine Zbornick makes Albert’s smothering mother both funny and annoying. It is a stereotype but she gives the role as much individuality as she can.
Overall the cast playing the teenagers are excellent. While not in their teens many are quite young. I especially liked Alex Walton as Hugo, Kim’s boyfriend. He projected that gawkiness and uncertainty of the age.
Tristen Buettel as Kim sings and dances well, but she is given a basic problem. She and most of the teen girls are supposed to be 14 or 15; she just doesn’t look it. If they had been slightly older – may be 16 or 17 – she would have fit the role better.
Overall it was interesting that many of the cast playing the teenager girls had difficulty passing as a young teen; the young men in the cast seemed to more realistically look their parts.
You will have a good time at Bye, Bye Birdie — I certainly did – and it is a great show for young people.
Bye, Bye Birdie is at Goodspeed in East Haddam through Sept. 8. For tickets contact goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.
Inside notes and comments about Connecticut and New York Professional TheaterBy Karen Isaacs
Music Theater Institute: In conjunction with the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, the Yale Institute for Music Theater will present two new musicals for development. The Festival culminates in open-to-the public rehearsal readings on Friday, June 24 and Saturday, June 25. The musicals are Blessings which takes place during Spirit Week in Blessing, Alabama, and The White City that takes place around the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbia Exposition. For tickets visit artidea.org/tickets or call 203-498-3772.
Revised Musical: Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theater at Chester will present what it calls a “bold reimagining” of the Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse musical The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd from Friday, May 20 to Sunday, June 26. Tony Sheldon, who was Horace VanderGelder in the Goodspeed production of Hello, Dolly! leads the cast as Sir. Among the familiar songs from this 1960s musical are “Who Can I Turn To?” “Feeling Good,” “A Wonderful Day Like Today” and “The Joker.” For tickets visit goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.
Tony Nominations: Tony award nominations were announced May3; it was no surprise that Hamilton the show everyone wants to see but can’t get tickets, received a whopping 18 nominations — a record. You can expect that it will haul home a load of awards at the Sunday, June 12 ceremony. Also Audra McDonald will not be racking up her seventh Tony award; she was not nominated for her role in the new musical Shuffle Along…. Multiple major nominations went to the revivals of Arthur Miller’s The View from the Bridge and The Crucible, new plays Eclipsed (which began at Yale Rep), The Humans, King Charles III, Blackbird, and the revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night. Besides Hamilton, multiple major nominations went to the new musicals Shuffle Along…,Waitress, Bright Star, and School of Rock as well as the revivals of The Color Purple, She Loves Me, Spring Awakening and Fiddler on the Roof. The new musicals Tuck Everlasting, American Psycho, Disaster! and On Your Feet! were pretty much shut out.
Collaborations on the Schedule: Long Wharf has announced its 2016-17 season and it includes some familiar names working with the theater. Steve Martins newest play, Meteor Shower, opens the season (Sept. 28 – Oct. 23). Then comes the 1980s comedy about corporate takeovers, Other People’s Money (Nov. 23 to Dec. 18). Brian Dennehy and John Douglas Thompson return to the Long Wharf stage with Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Jan. 4 to Feb. 5. The world premiere of Napoli, Brooklyn (Feb. 15-March 12) will be produced in collaboration with NY’s Roundabout Theater. The last two shows are Smart Money (March 15 – April 9), a recent off-Broadway production and the season closes with a new musical Table (May 3-28). For information and subscriptions visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282
Hartford Next Year: Hartford Stage has announced four productions for next year though with no specific dates, plus two more to be announced soon. The season will open with a world premiere of Queens for a Year; also on the schedule in the fall is August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize drama, The Piano Lesson. The new year begins with Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors directed by Darko Tresnjak, and The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkev. As usual, the holiday season will feature its outstanding production of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story. For information or subscriptions call 860-527-5151 or visit hartfordstage.org.