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Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King & I—though it isn’t tailored as a family show—offers a different kind of enchantment for children. (Photo courtesy of The Shubert )
Sarah Ruhl (Photo by Zakc Dezon courtesy of Frank Rizzo )
Max Ritvo (Photo by Ashley Woo courtesy of Frank Rizzo )
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Every holiday season I agonize over gift-giving for family and friends.
But if they’re theater enthusiasts like I am, the decision is much easier, with a wide variety of options from books, albums and that all important and au courant present—the “experiential” gift.
This year the choices are especially varied accommodating a wide range of personal preferences. Below is a guide for all levels of theater fans, from the young person who just got hooked on The Lion King, to the armchair listener of old school show tunes to the veteran theater goer who has seen it all—and wants something different.
1) For the kid who loved The Lion King but the parents are Disney-ed out: Well, The Wizard of Oz at the end of December and Finding Neverland in March are both at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre—and I’ve seen these productions and they’re fine. But kids can surprise you and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King & I—though it isn’t tailored as a family show—offers a different kind of enchantment for children. It even features a little boy finding himself in Siam with his loving mother and there’s a parade of Siamese children, too. The kids will leave the theater whistling a happy tune for sure.
2) For the book club member who may not be a great theatergoer but who loves heartwarming stories: Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo is a new book that remains on my bedside for moments when the newspaper headlines are just too tough to take and I need to take refuge in the book’s welcoming pages. Ritvo was a student at Ruhl’s playwriting class at Yale and when her student learned he had a fatal disease, they began exchanging letters and poetry and life observations that are gentle reminders of our humanity. This little gem of a book between two kind, wise souls—and great writers a generation apart—will touch the heart. It might even stay on your bed table, too.
3) For that cranky relative who says musicals are stupid: Take a chance and get him or her tickets to Come From Away, which will have a week’s run at The Bushnell in Hartford April 30 to May 5. And if you go, too, take tissues. On Sept. 11, 2001, and the days following the U.S. terrorist attacks, Gander, Newfoundland, and its big airstrip was home to dozens of planes that were diverted on 9/11 for safety. The tiny town provided food, shelter, and comfort to 7,000 airline passengers stranded there as the world tried to come to terms with the scope of the attack. This is a glorious musical about these people and their transformative experience in tragic times. You will leave the theater so uplifted you might even hug an usher. You might even embrace that cranky relative, too.
4) For the theater fan who likes to read about the theater, too: Chris Jones is the longtime theater critic for the Chicago Tribune as well as the director of the National Critics Institute at Waterford’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. He has written Rise Up! Broadway and American Society from Angels in America to Hamilton. It’s the best book I’ve come across dealing with the American theater of the past 25 years and its relationship to what’s happening in the world around us. Jones writes with intelligence, humor, and liveliness from his unique seat on the aisle.
5) For theater aficionados who want to be the first to see something new—and weigh in with their opinions: Hartford Stage has had a good track record of premiering musicals that then go on to success on Broadway and beyond. It first scored big with A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder (which won the Tony Award for best musical, among others) to Anastasia (which didn’t, but is now touring all over the world in a variety if productions). Director Darko Tresnjak is hoping to make it a Broadway trifecta of wins with his final show as artistic director at Hartford Stage with The Flamingo Kid, based on the 1984 Garry Marshall film that starred Matt Dillon.
6) For the Hamilton fan who couldn’t get tickets to the Bushnell: The definitive book from this Hamilton expert is the book Hamilton: the Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. This handsomely illustrated book—which also includes the entire libretto from the show—is filled with profiles, essays, and insights that make wonderful reading. Put on the record, get a cup of cocoa, and enjoy reading. It’s almost as good as being there.
Frank Rizzo is a freelance journalist who lives in New Haven and New York City. He has been writing about theater and the arts in Connecticut for nearly 40 years.
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