Not unlike last summer, our regional theaters are making a play for the “new” with new plays and musicals popping up everywhere. After years of simply recycling Broadway fare more companies are taking the risky maneuver and sinking their time, talents and money into the unknown. Last summer saw a great new musical (“Unknown Soldier” Book and Lyrics by Daniel Goldstein, Music and Lyrics by Michael Friedman ) and a fabulous play (“Paradise Blue” by Dominique Morisseau), both at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, as a result of this changed point of view. Williamstown, in fact, only offered one older play and even that was a relatively unknown late work by William Inge.
This summer they are introducing a new musical, “Poster Boy” by Craig Carnelia (twice TONY nominated for “Working” and “Sweet Smell of Success”) and Joe Tracz. Inspired by real events this show opens a door on the gay community and suicide. They have four premieres and one of the most exciting revivals of the season with Marisa Tomei appearing in Tennessee Williams’ play “The Rose Tattoo.” Star-studded as this company normally is, their last show of the season, “And No More Shall We Part” by Tom Holloway features both Alfred Molina and Jane Kaczmarek. The season also includes an Irish sci-fi comedy thriller, Michael West’s “The Chinese Room” — a world premiere — and Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter.”
Barrington Stage Company, in Pittsfield, is altering their usual format and placing the main stage musical in the middle of the season, a revival of the kitchy Joe Papp version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” remembered chiefly for Kevin Kline’s pirate captain dueling with the orchestra’s conductor and Linda Ronstadt making her Broadway debut. They are opening their season, though, with a new musical called “Presto Change-O” about three generations of magicians written by Joel Waggoner and Eric Price. Later, they have a third musical, also a new one, written by Joe Iconis, Lance Rubin and Jason SweetTooth Williams, called “Broadway Bounty Hunter” inspired by the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. Now that seems like risk-taking!
Former Associate Director Rob Ruggiero is coming back to the company to direct Debra Jo Rupp in David Lindsay-Abare’s “Kimberly Akimbo.” The former “Dr. Ruth Westheimer” will be playing a teenager with a rare medical condition in this outrageously dramatic comedy. Julianne Boyd, company director, will open the season with the world premiere of a play by Christopher Demos-Brown, “American Son,” which was commissioned for the company.
In Stockbridge, the Berkshire Theatre Group is also introducing a new play, “The Stone Witch” by Shem Bitterman, starring the man for whom it has been written, Judd Hirsch. They too are bringing Tennessee Williams back to the Berkshires with a new production of “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” directed by David Auburn. Two years ago he directed Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie” for the company after severely cutting the play to reduce the number of characters. We’ll have to wait and see if the no-neck monsters and Reverend Tooker survive for this summer’s production.
Their big musical offering at the Colonial is the tiny off-Broadway classic “Little Shop of Horrors,” a show that received two regional productions here last summer at the Sharon Playhouse and the Ghent Playhouse. In conjunction with Kristen Van Ginhoven’s WAM Theatre the BTG’s Unicorn Theatre will present “The Bakelite Masterpiece” by Kate Cayley starring Berkshire County’s premiere theatrical couple David Adkins and Corinna May.
Shakespeare and Company in Lenox is returning to Shakespeare full force this season. “The Merchant of Venice,” “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and “Twelfth Night” highlight their season with two other works screaming the soul of the Bard,
Lauren Gunderson’s “The Taming” and Stephan Wolfert’s “Cry Havoc” helping to round out the roster. Tod Randolph will make a most welcome appearance in Liz Duffy Adams’ play “Or,” and Christianna Nelson will appear in “Ugly Lies the Bone” by Lindsey Ferrentino, directed by Daniela Varon. This play won the Joanne Woodward/Paul Newman Drama Award in 2014. At the end of summer Daniel Gidron directs Nilo Cruz’s play “Sotto Voce” starring company favorite Annette Miller, also a favorite of mine. A true highlight should be the outdoor stage production of Aphra Behn’s “The Emperor of the Moon,” adapted and directed by Jenna Ware. This play, written and performed in 1687 by one of the most successful early female playwrights, is a peculiar pairing with the Duffy Adams play in which Aphra Behn is a character.
Over in Chester (Massachusetts) the season consists of one world premiere and three regional premieres. New Artistic Director Daniel Elihu Kramer opens the season with his own new play, “My Jane,” adapted from Charlotte Bronte’s novel “Jane Eyre.” Their next show is a co-production with Israeli Stage, Anat Gov’s “Oh God,” followed by John Kolvenbach’s “Sister Play,” directed by Kramer. This show premiered at Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet and is by a Massachusetts playwright. Their final offering will be Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” about Martin Luther King’s last night of life.
If you missed Barrington Stage Company’s “Man of La Mancha” last summer Weston Playhouse Theater in nearby Vermont is presenting it with Treat Williams as Cervantes. Later in the season they return to the musical stage with “Mamma Mia” in its regional premiere. This ABBA scored musical was one of the biggest hits on the London Stage and ran on Broadway for years. This is a feel-good show with popular hit songs as the score and I can’t wait to see it again.
On their second stage is another off-Broadway hit, “Murder for Two” which should be a genuine laugh-riot and they are continuing their Barrington Stage do-overs with Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” a company favorite in Pittsfield a couple of years ago (2012).
A highlight of their season, for me, is the result of a historic collaboration among three Vermont theaters, Northern Stage and Dorset Theatre Festival being the other two. All three companies are producing Alan Ayckbourn’s “The Norman Conquests,” with each company producing one of three plays in the trilogy. Utilizing a single director, the same directors and the same cast, the entire affair ranges over four months. Weston has the third play, “Round and Round the Garden” which will play at the end of July.
The first of the trio, “Living Together” plays at Northern Stage in White River Junction at the end of April. The second play “Table Manners” will appear in mid-June in Dorset. The plays are set in the same house in different rooms on the same weekend. Each is a stand-alone piece, but the three plays together give you the whole story. Put on your jogging shoes for this affair; you’ll need them.
Also at the Dorset Playhouse this summer will be the regional premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s “Dear Elizabeth,” about poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop and the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s “Way of the World,” along with a local favorite, originally produced by Barrington Stage Company, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” about a low point in the career of blues singer Billie Holliday.
At Oldcastle Theater in Bennington, the season brings the Roger Miller musical, “Big River,” about the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a long-time favorite of mine and “The 39 Steps,” a delicious take on the Hitchcock film already seen in this region at other theaters. They are closing their season with an Arthur Miller play, seen locally years ago, “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan,” and a play about Charles Chaplin and the Nazis in conflict over his film, “The Great Dictator.”
New this year at the Mac-Haydn theatre-in-the-round musical stage is “Sister Act,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and “Into the Woods.” They are also presenting “My Fair Lady” last seen at Oldcastle and the Sharon Playhouse, “South Pacific,” “Chicago” — a new favorite of local high schools for some reason, and “The Addams Family” which the Theatre Barn recently did. In New Lebanon at the Theatre Barn Agatha Christie’s “Towards Zero” takes the stage after a theatrical farce, “Don’t Talk to the Actors,” by Tom Dudzik. The perennially popular revue “Forever Plaid” opens the musical portion of their season followed by the Allan Sherman musical “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” and the summer season closes with the Broadway musical based on an Adam Sandler film, “The Wedding Singer.” Their one-show fall season is A.R. Gurney’s play “The Cocktail Hour.”
The big patterns here are outlying theaters putting on shows already seen in the Berkshires (with one reversal of that at Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre) and a slew of inventive and new plays and musicals making our stages into their try-out venues. If we have the luck of 2015, there will be some great ones to brag about and a few duds that prove that if you don’t try something you just never know.
I am looking forward to the adventure of living theater and even looking forward to the next play at the Ghent Playhouse — “Boeing-Boeing” — which has already seen several other productions in recent years including Theater Barn (2011) and Dorset (2012). What comes around, it seems, comes around again.