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Westport Country Playhouse )
The cast of Skeleton Crew, left to right, Perri Gafney, Sean Nelson, Toni Martin, Leland Fowler )
Because of Winn Dixie will be offered once again at Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam. (Photo courtesy of Goodspeed Musicals )
Arielle Siegel in Actually (Photo by Lanny Nagler )
Cooper Grodin, Sam in Mamma Mia at Ivoryton )
Tamika Pettway, Courtesan in Comedy of Errors, Elm City Shakespeare )
Dominique Morrissea, playwright, Skeleton Crew )
KP Howell, Antipholus of Syracuse in Comedy of Errors, Elm City Shakespeare )
Sam Given, Emcee in Cabaret, Ivoryton )
Laiona Michelle, Donna, Mamma Mia! )
Terra Chaney as Luciana in Comedy of Errors, Elm City Shakespeare )
The O’Neill Theater in Waterford is devoted to the production of new musicals and plays. (Photo courtesy of The O’Neill Theater )
Sean Harris, director of Scottsboro Boys, Playhouse on the Park )
The cast of Mamma Mia!, being offered this summer at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre (pictured) and the Ivoryton Playhouse. (Photo courtesy of the Connecticut Repertory Theatre )
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Connecticut theater doesn’t take a summer vacation. While some of the major companies—Yale Rep, Long Wharf, and Hartford Stage—do take a summer break, others go on all year and still others present a summer-only season.
Long gone are the days of the “straw hat circuit” of productions that toured a variety of summer theaters in New England offering light comedies often starring B-list or aging Hollywood and TV names. Now you can see world premieres with leading performers as well as classic musicals, dramas, and plays. You might be seated in a traditional theater, in the great outdoors, or in a theater space that is a little of both.
The quality is reflected in the awards and nominations from the Connecticut Critics Circle these productions annually receive. Just last week, summer productions took home acting, directing, and production awards at the ceremony.
Summer theaters in Connecticut take risks. Among the bigger risks this summer is The Scottsboro Boys at Playhouse on Park, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.
Kander and Ebb also wrote Cabaret and Chicago, both times using show business genres to illuminate social issues. In Cabaret it was the rise of Nazism set in a typical cabaret; Chicago was public love of “bad girls” told via vaudeville. They also wrote Kiss of the Spider Woman, which grapples with homophobia and dictatorships via Hollywood fantasy.
The Scottsboro Boys is perhaps Kander and Ebb’s most audacious collaboration. They use the minstrel show genre to relate the tragic and disturbing story of nine young black men falsely accused of rape in the 1930s in the south. While their convictions are eventually overturned, their lives are ruined nonetheless.
Playhouse on Park in West Hartford is tackling this ambitious and controversial show, from Wednesday, June 26 to Sunday, Aug. 4; for tickets, visit playhouseonpark.org.
Director Sean Harris says he was drawn to the show because “It tells a profoundly important, true story that too many people know nothing about.”
He recognizes that the show has been controversial. When it was on Broadway in 2016, where it won critical acclaim, some protested the use of the minstrel show genre despite the fact that the cast was almost entirely made up of black men who played all of the roles—male, female, black, and white.
Harris, referencing an October 2016 review by Joyce Kulhawik for NPR on WBUR-Boston, explains that the show turns the minstrel show idea (caricaturing black people) on its head with the cast caricaturing white folks in telling a true tale of racial prejudice. As he points out, the show is told from the view point of the nine young men. But its music does make reference to the typical minstrel genre and structure. Kulhawik said the use of the minstrel show is a “subversive device as brilliant as it is disturbing.”
While the traditional minstrel shows used blackface—for both white and black performers—this show at the Playhouse on the Park does not.
Serious Themes Continue
The Scottsboro Boys isn’t the only serious work on stages this summer. Westport Country Playhouse is offering theatergoers the final play in Dominique Morriseau’s Detroit Trilogy, Skeleton Crew. The trilogy features stories about African Americans in three different periods in Detroit. Long Wharf produced the play about Detroit in the 1950s, Paradise Blue, and Hartford Stage produced Detroit ‘67. So audiences can now see the one about the effect of the closure of one of the last auto plants in Detroit. It runs through Saturday, June 22.
Another serious work is Actually, now at TheaterWorks in Hartford (theatreworkshartford.org) through Sunday, June 23. This two person, 90-minute work that takes place at Princeton explores what happens when two students meet up for an evening of drinking and more. What is consent? What is rape? This play will challenge your views on both questions, and more, along with your emotions. If you are a parent of a college student (or a soon-to-be student) you may find the play unsettling. The actions of these 18 year-olds, and the consequences of those actions, may have lifelong impacts.
The Redemptive Power of a Dog’s Love
Because of Winn Dixie, a Goodspeed tradition, is offered again this summer. Bowdie, the dog who plays Winn Dixie, was trained by Bill Berloni. Berloni, a Connecticut native, was interning at Goodspeed in 1975 when he was offered the opportunity to get his coveted Equity card if he would find a dog and train it for the new musical Annie. He found his Sandy at a local animal shelter, rescued it, trained it, and the rest is history. Berloni has gone to rescue and train a variety of animals for Broadway, tours, TV, and more.
Bowdie joined Berloni’s pack (all the animals retire to his farm in Connecticut) when his family surrendered him; he was energetic and possibly too large for them. Since that time in 2014, Bowdie was the Nana in Peter Pan Live on NBC and has filmed commercials, as well as appearing in the HBO series High Maintenance.
Because of Winn Dixie is a newer musical, possibly heading to Broadway, about the redemptive power of a dog’s love. In a small southern town, a pastor and his young daughter take in a stray dog and, slowly, the quirky town perks up. The musical is based on a novel that later became a film. It features music by Douglas Sheik (Spring Awakening) and book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin (Mean Girls). It runs Friday, June 28 through Sunday, Sept. 1.
More Light Fare
While some theaters are focusing on serious issues and difficult stories, others are offering light fare as well. This summer will give us two productions each of Mamma, Mia! and Cabaret as well as the Broadway musicals Waitress at the Bushnell Tuesday, June 28 to Sunday, June 23 (bushnell.org) and A Bronx Tale at the Shubert (shubert.com), Wednesday, June 26 to Sunday, June 30.
The productions of Mamma Mia! are at the Connecticut Repertory Theater (crt.uconn.edu) on the UConn campus in Storrs through Saturday, June 22 and then at the Ivoryton Playhouse (ivorytonplayhouse.org), Wednesday, June 26 to Sunday, July 28. The Connecticut Rep has Cabaret from Thursday, July 4 to Saturday, July 21. Ivoryton’s production runs from Wednesday, Aug. 7 to Sunday, Sept. 1.
Madison Lyric Stage is offering Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which intertwines Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales with the rewards and consequences of obtaining one’s wishes. The production runs from Thursday, July 18 through Sunday, July 28.
Summer Theater of New Canaan (stonc.org) will offer Pippin Thursday, July 4 to Sunday, July 28.
Shoreline Arts Alliance is taking a year off from its highly popular Shakespeare on the Shoreline this year, but there are several other options for Shakespeare lovers.
Branford-based The Legacy Theatre is staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Branford Green Tuesday through Saturday, July 2 through 6 at 8 p.m., as part of the Branford 375th celebration. More information is available at www.branford375.com.
Elm City Shakespeare (elmshakespeare.org) is doing Comedy of Errors from Thursday, Aug. 15 to Sunday, Sept. 1, on the Great Lawn in the Center of Edgerton Park, 75 Cliff Street, New Haven. It is, as always, free and no tickets are needed. More information is available at www.elmshakespeare.org.
Valley Shakespeare in Shelton is performing the very seldom-done play Henry VIII (partially attributed to Jack Fletcher) from Thursday, July 11 to Sunday, July 14. Information is at vsfestival.org.
New Musicals, Too
A new musical, Passing Through, at Goodspeed at Chester, tells the story of a young man who travels the United States on foot, collecting stories from the people he meets. It was the hit of Goodspeed’s 2018 Festival of New Musicals and is now getting a full production. It runs Friday, July 26 to Sunday, Aug. 18. More information is available at Goodspeed.org.
The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center overlooking Long Island Sound in Waterford is devoted to the development of new plays and musicals. Each summer, after a competitive application process, a handful of new works and their authors are invited to the center. The plays are worked on and culminate in workshop and semi-staged productions featuring top notch actors and directors. Many of the most important works of the last decades have been developed here—from August Wilson’s plays to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, and many more.
The season starts with new musicals from Saturday, June 22 to Friday, July 12, new plays from Wednesday, July 3 to Saturday, July 27 and cabaret performances from Wednesday, July 31 to Saturday, Aug. 10. For the complete schedule and information visit theoneill.org.
Time for a Roadtrip?
With the late sunsets and the glorious weather, summer can be a great time for a roadtrip to explore theaters a little farther afield.
In Connecticut, the Sharon Playhouse (sharonplayhouse.org) in picturesque Litchfield county is presenting the Gershwin musical Crazy for You from Friday, June 21 through Sunday, July 7 and then follows that with Beauty and the Beast (Friday, July 19 to Sunday, Aug. 4) and Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Friday, Aug. 9 to Sunday, Aug. 24).
In Ridgefield, ACT-CT will present The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee through Sunday, June 16. Contact actofct.org. The Thrown Stone Theater, also in Ridgefield, is presenting two newer plays in repertory. The season begins with the Connecticut premiere of Cry It Out, about three new mothers and the struggles each endures. It begins Friday, July 12 and runs through Sunday, July 28. It will alternate with the east coast premiere of Birds of North America (Friday, July 19 to Sunday, Aug. 4) about a father-daughter relationship over years of bird watching together. Visit ThrownStone.org for information.
Want a weekend (or midweek) excursion? The Berkshires—less than two hours away—offers four professional theater companies bringing works to more than nine different stages. Plus there is music, dance, antique shops, historic sights, and much more.
Williamstown Theatre, on the campus of Williams College, in the northern part of the Berkshires is well known for its outstanding casts of Broadway professionals (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Uma Thurman, and more are appearing) and dedication to new works. It’s offering multiple world premieres as well as new adaptations of older works. Ferguson is in Grand Horizons (Wednesday, July 17 to Sunday, July 28) about a family’s reaction when the wife-mother-grandmother announces at her 50th wedding anniversary that she wants a divorce. Other new works include Selling Kabul, about an interpreter for the U.S. military hiding from the Taliban in Afghanistan (Friday, July 5 to Sunday, July 21) and a new adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts (Wednesday, July 31 to Sunday, Aug. 18). Check out wtfestival.org.
Just down the road from Williamstown is Barrington Stage Company, which has two theaters in Pittsfield. Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is there Wednesday, June 19 to Saturday, July 13. They are following that with a comedy, What We May Be about a group of actors on the night their theater is shutting down. It runs Wednesday, Aug. 7 to Saturday, Aug. 31. Information is at Barringtonstageco.org.
The Berkshire Theater Company is presenting Rock & Roll Man—The Alan Freed Story at its Pittsfield theater Thursday, June 27 to Sunday, July 21. At its theaters in Stockbridge, it’s showcasing Thornton Wilder’s classic comedy of the absurd, The Skin of Our Teeth from Thursday, July 11 to Saturday, Aug. 3 Information is available at Berkshiretheatregroup.org.
The annual guide to the CT River Valley has arrived.