Conversation with: Michael Preston

by Tim Leininger

After 19 years, with Bill Raymond stepping down from the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in Hartford Stage’s production of “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas,” running through Dec. 30, the company has looked inward, to the show’s own Mr. Marvel, Michael Preston, 59, of Hartford, as its new Christmas curmudgeon.

I had the opportunity to sit down with the Ohio native who also is an acting teacher at Trinity College, and discuss his life, training, career, and taking over the role of Scrooge.

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: I was born in Granville, Ohio, which is a small New England-style town where Denison University is, where my father taught civil liberties and American history.

My parents divorced when I was 8. I moved to Georgia for a couple of years and then to Woodbury, Connecticut, where my mother’s father had a farm he had bought in the early 1920s.

Q: When did you move to Connecticut?

A: In ’68. I went to school in Roxbury for a couple of years and Waterbury for a couple of years and I ended up moving to New Haven because my mother got a job as the registrar at the Yale Drama School, thus the dramatic side of my life begins.

Q: Your mom working at Yale Rep. Was that when you were bit by the acting bug?

A: My mother was a dynamic, somewhat crazy, very wonderful, energetic, interesting woman. So, drama had been part of my upbringing, and humor had been a part of my upbringing on both sides.

At Yale they needed a kid (for child roles). The first thing I did was written by Bill Hauptman — who wrote “Big River” later on — and had Sigourney Weaver in it and I think even Meryl Streep in it.

Q: Do you remember what it was called?

A: Called the “Hamburger Mayor of Night City.” It was a student-run production. It was a fantastic thing. I was the kid. I was the lead and I saw these kind of young adults doing great things, having a great time, and I think I just got the bug because of how much fun it was and it was a community of people. It was a very warm welcome for all.

My first job was in New Britain doing “The Little Prince” and Meryl Streep was The Snake.

Q: You got to work with Meryl Streep two shows in a row?

A: I think so. It’s been downhill ever since (laughing). Everybody was so talented. They were just doing incredible, exciting things. For a 13-14 year old this was much more interesting than Ohio.

Q: You’ve picked up other talents along the way beyond just acting. I know you’re an exceptional juggler.

A: I have to say the teacher I had in (University of California) Santa Cruz named John Achorn was a fabulous physical actor who had trained at this place called Blue Lake, which is still there. It is kind of a commedia school (founded by) Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, who came from the commedia tradition, he introduced a physical style of acting that I just loved.

(Later) I lived in Hoboken where … there was this faded sign on the door as you’re walking down as you get to the PATH station and it had “Hoboken Circus Arts” with a woman on a trapeze and it shared a building with a boxing gym. For three or four months I walked past and said “I wonder what that is.” I went up one day and these two wonderful, crazy Russians had started this school. I said, “Oh, I prefer that to taking acting classes. I could use this.” I started learning how to juggle, wire walk, how to do acrobatics, and clowning.

I started working with (Hovey Burgess, a circus skills professor at New York University) and I started doing circuses. I kind of go off and do the circus and make more money than I’d make in New York doing acting. Then I’d come back and work at La MaMa and places like that doing my experimental theater stuff.

Q: What kind of symbiosis happened between your acting and your circus performance?

A: I think this is where the Karamazovs come in because I was going back and forth and I was becoming a more physical and daring actor in some ways, building my skills.

They were working on a piece with Robert Woodruff who’s a very theatrical director and they needed an actor. He cast me, and then for the next 10 years I was touring the world with the Karamazovs.

If we’re doing a show that is 2½ hours, people get bored watching just juggling. It was always theater.

We wrote shows that had a dramatic through line and characters and juggling, and then shows that were just part of the new vaudeville movement. We did things that I think still nobody else has really done.

That was tremendous fun. We were doing 250-plus shows a year.

Q: Did this bring around a point to where eventually where you ended up getting married and getting yourself to settle down eventually, or did she travel with you?

A: Barbara (his wife), we met in New York, she had been on tour with the Swiss mask and mime troupe Mummenschanz, just as I went off with Karamazov. We fell in love and she lived in Berlin and I was over here and we’d see each other every couple of months. And when we got married in ’95, she moved over here … and I still continued to tour for another four years. I got tired after that and I wanted to live with my wife.

I was still going off doing the circus sometimes. Barbara ended up directing like the biggest musical in the world in Germany about Mad King Ludwig. She and I directed “Peter and the Wolf,” which was very successful in Amsterdam, so we thought we’d do more directing and we were going back to Europe.

Something fell through in Europe when we got the call (to teach at Trinity) and we thought, “Yeah, sure” and she’d been teaching all along. I had taught some.

Q: Do you do any performing anything aside from “A Christmas Carol” now?

A: We directed this piece called “Fraulein Maria” which was a dance theater retelling of the “Sound of Music” with the choreographer Doug Elkins. That was the reason I got to know people here because it was (former Hartford Stage Artistic Director and adapter of its production of “A Christmas Carol”) Michael Wilson who brought it in the last time he had something in the summer. They brought it here and that was when they asked me to do Mr. Marvel.

Q:What year did you start as Mr. Marvel?

A: It was six years ago, so 2011.

Q: Then Bill Raymond decides to step down from his tenure as Ebenezer. Was there much competitiveness in regards to some of the other cast members?

A: I don’t totally know about that. Before I knew Bill was retiring, there had been times when both Scrooges (including the understudy) had gotten sick, so I thought why don’t I learn it. I need a challenge. I did it last year in the “put-in” rehearsals where I got to do it on stage with some of the understudies in the cast. I had a really good time and I felt I had a dark affinity for it. I think being around it so much and loving parts of Bill’s rendition. That clown in him, there is something that he always saw in it. There’s something I really saw with Bill was his rapport with the audience and that they really wanted Scrooge to change. I’ve seen some Scrooges where you don’t really care.

Q: Bill’s Scrooge has always had this quirky charm about him that creates some connection. Have you found any difficulty in balancing the light and the dark in this character?

A: Everybody said, “Make your own Scrooge.” What is my Scrooge? Rachel (Alderman, the current director of “A Christmas Carol”) and I have been working in the fall before everyone got here to kind of opening it back up again. It was really fantastic to do that. I think there is a darker element to what I’m do ing, but I hope no less fun.

Q: What do you feel that you’re bringing to Scrooge that is new and compelling?

A: I don’t know if I’m the judge if it is new or compelling, but early in my life I had a lot of loss, which is just the way life goes. I understand this idea of getting away from humanity in order to deal with loss.

Q: With all the family turmoil you had early in your life, do you feel you were a recluse?

A: Not only I, but I saw everybody in the family do it. Scrooge has his beloved sister Fan die early on. I think it’s in everybody. I think this is why this is such a brilliant story. In the need to protect ourselves we often do the most unprotective things to ourselves in order to accomplish it. The touch of a human might actually help us, but we’re afraid of what the ramifications of that are. For me with going into Scrooge, I don’t think this is ever finished with. I love going the length of this journey with Scrooge from totally shut off to totally open. It’s a really spectacular to play.

Q: What does this show mean to you that it keeps bringing you back?

A: All of Hartford Stage and the community of people who come back to see it every year, and the (Hartt School) students, and the parents and the little kids who come here, it is an astounding community experience.

Q: How long do you think you can keep coming back and doing this? Bill did it for 19 years.

A: I don’t know. It seems a very relevant story for the world we’re living in right now. Working with Michael Wilson, his passion for it. He started this 27 years ago in Houston. It’s very important thing to him. The things we try to get to the people. When the top is bad of the society it makes everybody suffer and how do we solve that?

Q: There’s something that keeps bringing people back to it. What do you think it is?

A: I think Dickens wrote an apocryphal story. It’s almost Shakespearean. I think it’s just kind of a fantastic story and Michael Wilson did a fantastic interpretation. There’s not a lot of people who don’t know the story. It comes to the power of seeing something live. My belief which I have no proof of, but with all the electronic and wired in stuff we’re doing, the necessity of live theater becomes more important; seeing a story together. David Mamet says storytelling is genetic. Neuroscientists say there is a gene for it. It’s something deeply rooted in us. It goes into our deepest core as humans. I think it’s still there and I think it is the duty of the theater artist to make it as live as possible.

Jerod Haynes Switches From Ball to Plays With ‘Native Son’ At Yale Rep

by Frank Rizzo

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Growing up in Chicago, Jerod Haynes—who is starring as Bigger Thomas in the stage adaptation of Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre—had no interest whatsoever in becoming an actor.

Haynes’s dream centered on the basketball court and, for a while, it looked like that dream had a good chance of becoming true.

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“I dreamt of going to the NBA and I worked extremely hard at it,” says the young actor over lunch at New Haven’s Atticus Bookstore Café, during a break in rehearsals.

A star athlete in a state championship high school team, Haynes received a scholarship to the University of Idaho, a Division One school, and it looked like he was on a path to sports glory.

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“But when I got there I kind of fell out of love with the game,” he says, “and I hit a wall mentally, physically and spiritually.”

Coaching conflicts, lack of focus, and a bit of arrogance, he says, all contributed to his going off-course. He transferred to another college in Texas while trying to get a break in the minor league teams of the NBA, but nothing seemed to be going his way.

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Back home in Chicago after college, he was sleeping on the couch at his sister’s, without prospects. He was depressed. Then, one day, he came across an advertisement for an acting school and decided to apply. Lacking the funds for classes, he worked out a work-study exchange.

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The classes were therapeutic and “I was opening up—and it felt good.” Then he discovered that his acting skills were improving, too. He auditioned and got a part in a local production of August Wilson’s Jitney.

“I butchered the audition, but they must have seen something in me,” he says. “That’s when I made a decision to leave ball alone and pursue acting.”

Audiobooks’ George Guidall Talks About Talking

by Frank Rizzo

The Chosen, a coming-of-age story set in the 1940s, is now playing at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre through Dec. 17. Adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok from the novel by Potok, the show centers on two young friends from rival yeshivas — both with demanding fathers — who learn to question their place in a fast-changing world.

I asked one of the show’s stars, George Guidall, what makes an actor right to narrate audiobooks. Guidall should know. After all, his voice is the one you hear on more than 1,300 audiobooks. His narrations of classics such as Crime and Punishment, Frankenstein, The Iliad, Don Quixote and Les Miserables, along with many popular best-sellers, have set a standard for excellence recognized throughout the audiobook industry, winning three “Audies” for best audiobook narrations.

“Not every actor is cut out for narrating a book,” says Guidall, 79. “There are some fine actors who come to the mike and somehow don’t grasp the art of talking to somebody as much as they understand performing for people. There is no secret to it, other than to say it’s not just reading out loud.”

And the appeal of audiobooks?

“There’s a primal need to be told a story,” he says. “We are really wired for this, even before we knew how to read. It’s akin to people in a cave listening to a caveman telling of a hunt when they forgot about their troubles. You transport people in the telling to some other imagined world. I guess I’m a literary hermit crab, finding a home in someone else’s imagined truths.”

His most challenging assignment? “Don Quixote,” he says, which was also one of his favorite books to narrate.

And no, his golden throat is not insured, he says with a laugh. “It would be so phenomenally expensive,” he says. “I’ve been blessed with a steady instrument that has gotten deeper and a bit more gravelly as the years go on. But I do have a lot of cough drops.”

Hartford Stage Introduces a New Scrooge

By Karen Isaacs, Two on the Aisle

How do you take over a part that for 20 years has been play almost exclusively by one actor? Michael Preston is facing that dilemma as the new Scrooge in the Hartford Stage production of A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas, which runs through Sunday, Dec. 30.

 Preston admitted that Bill Raymond, the former Scrooge who retired from the role last year, had been a hero of his. “It was great to work with him,” Preston said, referring to playing Mr. Marvel for several years in the production. But he admits it is a “little strange” taking over the part.

“I see Scrooge as a man who has turned away from any comfort and shut himself off,” Preston said. “It’s about loss and disappointment, which are human traits.”

“It’s the journey he (Scrooge) takes to reach a point of celebrating life and touching people,” he added.  “At any moment one of the ghosts could send him down.”

For both Preston and director Rachel Alderman, this adaptation by Michael Wilson (former Artistic Director at Hartford Stage) gets to the heart of the story and focuses on the dynamic relationships.

“Everyone is trying to get him (Scrooge) to change and reaching out to him,” Alderman said. This adaptation is so reflective of the heart and warmth of Michael Wilson; it just infuses the entire story, she added.

Preston views the role as “tremendously entertaining” which requires “great clowning,” “You have to prepare the audience for the ending; Scrooge is has very human traits that are unpleasant, but there is a small spark within him, that the ghosts and his associates manage to fan,” Preston said. “You have to find the moment when he changes.”

One of Alderman’s responsibilities is adapting the staging to the new cast members – not only are there three new performers in major roles, but three others are switching roles. Plus there are the students from Hartt School of the University of Hartford which comprise the ensemble and the numerous children in the cast.

In the space of just six weeks, the cast will perform the show almost 50 times – 34 regular performances and 14 school group performances. For those, Buzz Roddy plays Scrooge.

“The audiences are so enthusiastic that energizes the cast,” Alderman said. “For some it is an annual event, some have never seen live theater, and each year there are grandparents bringing their grandchildren to the show.”  The cast, she says, feels that and responds to it.

It’s the audience as well as the students and children who help keep the whole show renewed and alive, she said.

Once again, a sensory-friendly performance will be available at reduced prices on Saturday, Dec. 2. This is geared for families with autism or other sensory sensitivities. A variety of accommodations to the production are made. For information on this, contact hartfordstage.org/sensory-friendly.

Local craftspeople will fill the lobby of the theater on “Market Days” that begin Sunday, Dec. 3 and continue the following two weekends. It’s been a popular event for audience members who can shop the unique offerings and local businesses.

For tickets or information, visit Hartford Stage.

The Musical Holiday — Carols, Pop Holiday Songs and Classical – Something for Everyone

By Karen Isaacs, Two on the Aisle

 It’s a long standing tradition – the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Orchestra New England starts the holiday season with its Colonial Concert. Audience members are transported back to the colonial era where maestro James Sinclair will introduce them to the “latest” European music. This year’s concert, held at United Church on the Green, New Haven is on Saturday, Nov. 25. It will feature a “recent” symphony by Mr. Hayden, as well as a popular French song by Jean-Paul-Egide Maitini. Organist Walden Moor of Trinity Church on the Green is a guest artist. The audience also gets a visit from the wife of the President of the Continental Congress. For tickets visit orchestranewengland.org or call 800-595-4849.

Two ensembles of the New Haven Symphony have planned concerts this season. Holiday Extravaganza features the Pops under the baton of Chelsea Tipton. Guest soloist is Connor Bogart and it always includes a sing-along. Performances are Saturday, Dec. 16 at Hamden Middle School, Sunday, Dec. 17 at Shelton High School and Thursday, Dec. 21 at Woolsey Hall.

The NHSO Brass Quintet will perform with Tony and Grammy Award-nominated Bryce Pinkham on Friday, Dec. 15 at Sacred Heart University and Saturday, Dec. 16 at the First Congregational Church in Madison. Among the selections will be “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “My Favorite Things,” and Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” For tickets to any of the concerts visit newhavensymphony.org or call 203-865-0831. For the Sacred Heart concert, visit Edgertoncenter.org.

The Hartford Symphony gets into the holiday mood with its Holiday Cirque Spectacular on Saturday, Dec. 18. You enjoy the music by the symphony as you watch the aerialists, contortionists and gymnasts of the world-famous Cirque de la Symphonie. It’s on Saturday, Dec. 16.  On Friday, Dec. 8 to Sunday, Dec. 10, the Symphony presents December Dreams which will feature selections from The Nutcracker and William Henry Fry’s Santa Claus (A Christmas Symphony) among other selections. For information and tickets visit hartfordsymphony.org or call 860-987-5900.

Three Bridgeport events are on the calendar. The Vienna Boys Choir is presenting a concert in Bridgeport on Saturday, Dec. 2. For tickets visit theKlein.org or call 800-524-0160.  Believe presented by Cirque Musica Holiday with the Greater Bridgeport Symphony is Tuesday, Dec. 12 at the Webster Bank area. Tickets are available at websterbankarena.com. The Symphony is also presenting Holiday Interlude on  Saturday, Dec. 16 at the Klein. Selections from The Nutcracker as well as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and holiday music are on the bill. Tickets are at theKlein.org.

Popular Music

Opera singers and local residents David Pittsinger and Patricia Shuman are in concert at Ivoryton Playhouse, Thursday, Dec. 21 and Friday, Dec. 22. Billed as The Ivoryton Playhouse Christmas Hour with David Pittsinger and Friends, it will feature both classical and popular holiday music. Joining Pittsinger and Shuman are Carly Callahan, Charlie Widmer and Katie Weiser. For ticket visit ivorytonplayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.

 The Kate in Old Saybrook is presenting three holiday themed concerts. On Saturday, Dec. 2 it’s The Drifters – Holiday Magic. The concert includes “Rudolph” as well as their iconic version of “Silent Night.”  Elisabeth Von Trapp – granddaughter of the legendary Maria of Sound of Music fame, performs on Sunday, Dec. 3.

The Connecticut Gay Men’s Chorus performs their concert, Twinkle – A Celestial Celebration­ on Sunday, Dec. 10. It includes the area premier of James Eakin’s “Stargazing.” The group will also present the concert of Saturday, Dec. 16 and Sunday, Dec. 17 at the High School of Performing Arts at 177 College Street, New Haven. Tickets for those shows are available at ctgmc.org or 203-777-2923. For any concert at The Kate, visit katherinhepburntheater.org or call 877-503-1286.

The Blind Boys of Alabama are bringing their Christmas Show featuring the Preservation Hall Legacy Horns on Saturday, Dec. 2. This group has earned five Grammy Awards plus a Lifetime Achievement Award. For ticket visit Shubert.com or call 203-562-5666.

From Tinseltown to Times Square: A Holiday Adventure is the title for the concert by the Hartford Gay Men’s Chorus on Friday to Sunday, Dec. 8 – 10 at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s Aetna Theatre. The concert will feature holiday songs from Broadway and films including How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Elf the Musical. Tickets are at www.tickets.hgmc.org.

In addition, numerous church choirs and community choruses present holiday concerts. You can also expect several performances of The Messiah either in concert or as “sing-alongs”. This includes the sing-along at The Kate on Saturday, Dec. 17.

This Year’s Holiday Offerings Include Classics and Contemporary Twists

By Karen Isaacs

Two new Scrooges are gracing Connecticut stages this holiday season. Each will bring a new take on the classic character of Scrooge, and the story of A Christmas Carol.

A new musical version of the story is at Goodspeed Musicals through Sunday, Dec. 24. A Connecticut Christmas Carol is the brainchild of LJ Fecho and Michael O’Flaherty, Goodspeed’s longtime music director.

“We had the idea about two years ago,” O’Flaherty said. “We had done a very silly and fun Pennsylvania Dutch version a few years ago. Larry (the book is written by him) suggested setting it in Connecticut”.

The setting is the Goodspeed Opera House around 1925. William Gillette, the famous actor who lived up the river from the Opera House, is planning a production of the story.

The unique part of this production—besides a totally original score that O’Flaherty characterizes as “pure musical”—is that the various ghosts are famous Connecticut residents—including Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and P. T. Barnum. These three play the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas yet-to-be.

This Scrooge, played by Lenny Volpe (he was Cap’n Andy in Goodspeed’s production of Show Boat) is not an ogre, O’Flaherty said. “We needed someone with strong comedic chops who could pull off the lightness of the ending.”

The show is being presented at Goodspeed’s Terris Theatre in Chester. There’s a number of special events and promotions during the run. For information and tickets, visit Goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.

And, a new Scrooge is also taking over at Hartford Stage. The annual presentation of A Christmas Carol–A Ghost Story of Christmas which runs through Saturday, Dec. 30.It’s the 20th year for this adaptation by former Artistic Director Michael Wilson; each year it sells out its many performances. For most of these twenty years, Scrooge was played by Bill Raymond. But last year, he announced his retirement.

Michael Preston, who had played Mr. Marvel, has taken over the part. It’s being staged by Artistic Associate Rachel Alderman. Alderman says this year’s production features some new costumes and new designs as well. While admitting to some hesitation at taking over from Raymond, Preston said he is looking forward to creating his own interpretation of the classic character.

In addition to all the usual performances, for the fourth year, a sensory-friendly performance is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 2. Ticket prices are reduced by 50 percent to make the show more accessible for families with people who have autism or other sensory sensitivities. Changes in the production include reductions in jarring Moises or strobe lights and startling effects. In addition, house lights are only dimmed, audience members can move about, and there is trained staff, volunteers, along with designated quiet areas and stress relievers available. For information about this performance visit hartfordstage.org/sensory-friendly.

A Christmas Story

One of the first holiday shows is a return visit of the Broadway musical, A Christmas Story, at the Bushnell in Hartford, Friday, Nov. 24 to Sunday, Nov. 26. The musical that had numerous Tony nominations is based on the Jean Shepherd essay which became a classic film. The creative team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Tony Award for Dear Evan Hansen, Academy Award for La La Land), did the music and lyrics. It’s about Ralphie, his desire for a Red Ryder air rifle, and his family in an Indiana town in the 1940s. Though it is a short run, the show is terrific and it will get the holiday season off in a heart-warming but comic way. For tickets visit bushnell.org or call 860-987-5900.

Radio Plays

Very few people remember the days when radio aired plays with live studio audiences watching as the actors played multiple parts, carried scripts, and created reality with the aid of sound effects.

Connecticut resident has adapted two famous Christmas stories into the radio play format. Each has become a holiday tradition, not just in Connecticut, but throughout the country.

Ivoryton Playhouse is giving us It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play from Thursday, December 7 to Sunday, Dec. 17. Inspired by the classic American film, five actors, directed by Sasha Bratt, perform the dozens of characters in the radio play as well as produce the sound effects. For tickets visit IvorytonPlayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.

While you are attending the Playhouse you can also see the Ivoryton Illuminations which runs to Friday, Jan. 5. More than 350,000 lights are throughout the village and on Connecticut’s tallest Christmas tree will sparkle in Ivoryton village. For more information, visit www.ivorytonplayhouse.org/ivoryton-illuminations-saturday-december-2nd-2017.

MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) gives us the radio play version of A Christmas Carol from Friday, Dec. 1 to Sunday, Dec. 17. Again, you are the studio audience as actors play multiple roles and handle sound effects to create the perfect illusion for the radio audience who would be listening at home. For tickets, contact musictheatreofct.com or call 203-454-3883 MTC is located at 509 Westport Avenue (behind Nine West) in Norwalk.

Charlie Brown and Rudolph

We all love the cartoon of A Charlie Brown Christmas, but now you can see a live production on stage at the Bushnell. All the favorite Peanuts characters come to life in this all-new touring stage adaptation of Charles M. Schulz’s classic Emmy and Peabody Award-winning animated television special, all set to Vince Guaraldi’s unforgettable music. It runs Friday, Dec. 1 to Sunday, Dec. 3. For tickets visit bushnell.org or call 860-987-5900.

Another well-loved TV cartoon, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, makes a stop at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre. The show is new to the city though it played in Hartford for two years. It runs Friday, Dec. 8 to Sunday, Dec. 10. For tickets visit Shubert.com or call 203-562-5666

The Nutcracker

The holiday season would not be the same without productions of Tchaikovsky’s famed ballet, The Nutcracker.

A very original take on the classic returns to the Bushnell in Hartford where it wowed audiences last year. That’s The Hip Hop Nutcracker, an evening-length production performed by a supercharged cast of a dozen all-star dancers, DJ, and violinist. The press materials says, “Through the spells cast by the mysterious Drosselmeyer, Maria-Clara, and her prince, Myron, travel back in time to the moment when her parents first meet in a nightclub. Digital scenery transforms E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story of a palace of sugarplums into a romance set in 1980s Brooklyn. The dance work celebrates love, community and the magic of New Year’s Eve.” It’s at the Bushnell on Sunday, Dec. 17. For tickets contact bushnell.org.

You have your choice of more traditional takes on the classic. The Connecticut Ballet’s production, Saturday, Dec. 16 and Sunday, Dec. 17 is in Stamford and features guest arts from the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. For tickets visit palacestamford.org. The Bushnell in Hartford has the Nutmeg Ballet’s production also on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 15 and 16. For tickets visit burshnell.org. The New Haven Ballet at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven features guest artists from major ballet companies. It’s Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 16 and 17. For tickets visit the203-562-5666 or at www.shubert.com.

In addition, The Kate is broadcasting the Bolshoi Ballet’s Nutcracker in high definition on Tuesday, Dec. 19. Toyota Oakdale Theater is presenting The Great Russian Nutcracker on Saturday, Dec. 2. For tickets, call 800-745-3000.

For Adults Only

If you are looking for something a little more cynical or adult-oriented, you have several choices. The Shubert Theater is presenting The Santaland Diaries, based on the essay by David Sedaris. This one-person play is about the fictionalized experiences of Sedaris when he worked one Christmas season as an elf at Macy’s–34th Street Santaland. It runs Friday, Nov. 24 to Sunday, Nov. 26.

TheaterWorks in Hartford is bringing back Christmas on the Rocks for the fifth year. This series of short one-act plays, shows us what all of those famous children from various holidays stories became when they grew up. So we see an adult Ralphie (A Christmas Story), Tim (A Christmas Carol), Clara (The Nutcracker), Charlie Brown (A Charlie Brown Christmas) and more. A new episode this year is based on the children from It’s a Wonderful Life. It runs Tuesday, Nov. 28 through Saturday, Dec. 23. For tickets visit theaterworksHartford.org or call 860-527-7838.

Sister’s Christmas Catechism is also returning to Connecticut stages this year. It’s at Long Wharf Theatre from Tuesday, Dec. 5 to Sunday, Dec. 17. It’s subtitled The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold and Sister uses science, local choirs, and some audience members to find out what happened to the gold. There’s lots of audience interaction. For tickets visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.

Playhouse on Park is again presenting what is billed as a “Burlesque Extravaganza,” Mama D’s Christmas Stocking: Where’s Santa? What is it? The press material says it’s a celebration of “all things sexy in an evening of music, dance and comedy.” The material admits “We’re rude, we’re crude and we’re partially nude.” The event is scheduled the weekends of Dec.15-16, 22-23, 29-30 and a special New Year’s Eve show. For tickets or information, visit playhouseonpark.org or call 800-523-5900.

With so many offerings, you are bound to find something that will fit your schedule and your taste.

THE JUKEBOX EXPLODES IN “GOIN’ TO THE CHAPEL”

THE JUKEBOX EXPLODES IN “GOIN’ TO THE CHAPEL”
BONNIE GOLDBERG 203-397-5433
Teenagers are often preoccupied with bouts of puppy love, going steady, getting their hearts broken, pledging eternal devotion, wearing varsity pins, and all the other diversions that make these adolescent years so dramatic and traumatic.  To get a glimpse into your past, no matter how many years ago your high school years were, hop and bop over to the Connecticut Cabaret Theatre in Berlin for Valerie Fagan’s world premiere musical “Goin’ to the Chapel” with arrangements and orchestrations by Bryan Crook playing weekends until Saturday, December 16.
If you can find your black leather jacket or pink poodle skirt, you’ll feel right at home as you meet the cool gang.  You’ll be just in time to see Johnny (Tony Galli) promise his heart to Suzy (Maria Pompile) for forever and a day, or at least until a new guy, a wild guy, rides into town.
When Jon Escobar’s Eddie breezes in, with danger as his middle name, Suzy and her gal pals Judy (Kristin Iovene) and Robin (Carleigh Cappetta Schultz) are soon all gaga over the exciting new possibilities.  Johnny and his friend Kenny (Rick Bennett) are initially bent out of shape by Eddie’s evident allure, but a hearty dose of “Love Potion #9” awakens their macho spirits.
While all these hook ups and break ups are happening, the group of six salute the 1950’s and 1960’s with an exploding juke box of classic hits like “Rock Around the Clock,” “Johnny Angel,” “All Shook Up,” “Fever,” “It’s in his Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song),” “Duke of Earl,” “Ring of Fire” and “Bye, Bye Love, among many others, all played with pizzazz by Nathaniel Baker and his lively band.
By the end of the night, you will agree that “rock and roll is here to stay” and also that teen romances are destined to last about a minute and a half.  Kris McMurray holds the dance cards for all the revolving couples until it looks like they are all “Goin’ to the Chapel” for eternal vows.
For tickets ($30), call the Connecticut Cabaret Theatre, 31 Webster Square Road, Berlin at 860-829-1248 or online atwww.ctcabaret.com. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with doors opening  at 7:15 p.m.  Remember to bring goodies to share at your table or plan to buy desserts and drinks on site.
Come and apply your Bonnie Bell Grape Lip Smackers  liberally so you’re all set to discover “who wrote the book of love” and why “breaking up is hard to do.”

SETTLE DOWN FOR A MUSICAL VERSION OF “A CHRISTMAS STORY” AT THE BUSHNELL (November 24-26)

BONNIE GOLDBERG 203-397-5433
Every good little girl and boy, and even the ones not so good, have a long and involved Christmas list for Santa.  If your name is Ralph and you are nine years old, live in Indiana and are growing up in the 1940’s, you only have one item written in bright red on your wish list.  Ralphie desires above all else one genuine, official, Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle, with a compass in the stock and a thing that tells time.  What he does not want are a pair of pink bunny pajamas.  You know he will get the pjs.  But is there any chance he will also get the magical, mysterious air rifle he has set his little heart on?  To discover the answer, you must go to one of the performances of “A Christmas Story,” a musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, based on the book by Joseph Robinette.
The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford will be entertaining Ralph and his gang from Friday, November 24 to Sunday, November 26 and you’re invited to share this classic tale of childhood desires. Forget old Ebenezer Scrooge and the mean-spirited Grinch.  Let Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer nap the holiday away. Now is the time to concentrate all your efforts on encouraging Ralph in his quest.  He wants that BB gun, but his mother is sure and positive that he will shoot his eye out.
With grit and determination, this little son of a gun (catch the pun?) will do anything to get what he wants to find under the Christmas tree.  In his plot to succeed, he will shamelessly involve his little brother, his school mates, his teacher, and even a mean old mall Santa Claus.  He is not above scheming and finagling his way to the prize.  The musical numbers, with a whole lot of tap dancing tunes, resonate.  Come hear “It All Comes Down to Christmas,” “Ralph to the Rescue,” “Parker Family Singalong,” and “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.”
Don’t bother to get Ralph an Erector Set or Legos, and certainly no socks.  Watch out for that frozen flag pole so keep your tongue clearly in cheek.  Remember what it was like way back when, when you had a must have gift on your Christmas list that made or broke your day. Now is the time to polish your lamps made from luscious legs of ladies, if you are lucky enough to have won one like Ralphie’s dad.
For tickets ($22.50-103.50), call the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford at 860-987-5900 or online at www.bushnell.org.  Performances are Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
The Parker family is expecting you.  Take a seat near the Christmas tree or at the kitchen table.  Come root for Ralphie to have all his dreams come true and, hopefully,  to not lose any eyes in the process.

Mia Dillon savors a jam-packed theater year

by Joe Meyers, CT Post

Acting is a tough profession that consists of countless interviews and auditions that rarely lead to jobs — the national unemployment rate at any given time is around 90 percent.

So, veteran performer Mia Dillon, 62, is savoring a highly unusual year in which she has been offered four juicy acting jobs without having to audition for any of them. Since last spring, Dillon has starred in “Cloud 9” at Hartford Stage, “Lettice and Lovage” at the Westport Country Playhouse, “Arsenic and Old Lace” at the Berkshire Theatre Group and the current “Seder” at Hartford Stage.

Mia Dillon is featured in the Hartford Stage production of “Seder,” running through Nov. 12. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

The Fairfield actor’s first job of 2017 was a sudden offer that grew out of a crisis at Hartford Stage when one of the cast members in “Cloud 9” was injured just a few days before the first public performance. The phone rang in Maine where Dillon was doing an NPR “Selected Shorts” show with her actor-husband Keir Dullea. Could she step in for the fallen performer and be on stage in four days?

 “I had three days to get ready. I worked on it four hours on Friday, did the show in Maine Saturday and then spent a full day (in Hartford) on Sunday. The actors were off Monday, so I just rehearsed with (director) Elizabeth (Williamson). I was on stage Tuesday night and off book for Act 1,” Dillon says, still sounding amazed by the radically compressed rehearsal and memorization period.

The actor faced the added challenge of playing two different roles in “Cloud 9” — a 10-year-old and a 60-year-old.

Mia Dillon in the spring 2017 production of “Cloud 9” at Hartford Stage. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

“I think I did a pretty darn good job,” she says of a performance that was cited by the Connecticut Critics Circle at its annual awards ceremony in the spring.

Dillon believes her emergency service on “Cloud 9” paved the way to working with the same director on “Seder,” which is running through Nov. 12 at Hartford Stage.

“My 60-year-old character in the play looks back at her 19-year-old self, her late-20s self and her 40s-self. I think Elizabeth might have told (playwright) Sarah (Gancher), ‘I know an actress who can play all the parts.’”

Dillon feels lucky to be in the cast of the world premiere of “Seder” that examines the Nazi and Soviet occupation of Hungary, but does so in a way that should make theatergoers think about present-day parallels.

“It’s a very, very interesting play with so many levels,” Dillon says. “Sometimes you go to the theater nowadays and you’re disappointed by what seems like an episode from a TV series. This is certainly not that. It’s a massive play that asks huge questions.”

In an age of nearly boundless entertainment options, Dillon thinks theater should offer a rich experience that can’t be found at home on a screen.

“You can get entertainment on your iPhone now,” she says. “This is more than entertainment — it’s about expanding your outlook on life. When I go to the theater, I want my mind to be challenged. I want to think and feel.”

Dillon worries that young actors who decide to focus on serious stage work won’t find the same opportunities she did in her early days in New York City.

“It’s totally transformed,” she says of a Broadway scene that no longer produces as many plays as it did in the 1980s. “Audiences and producers share a lot of blame for that … but part of it is producers thinking they need a TV star or a movie star rather than a trained stage actor.

“Prices are to blame too. When I did ‘Crimes of the Heart’ the top ticket was $25,” she says of the original 1981 Broadway production of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. “I remember seeing the original ‘Chicago’ for $5 in the last row of the balcony. Actors’ salaries have not gone up at the same rate as ticket prices, so it is much harder for an actor to make a living. In regional theater, I’m earning the same money now that I did during the 1990s. I don’t know how young actors do it.”

Mia Dillon in the 2014 Hartford Stage production of “A Song at Twilight,” with Brian Murray. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

The New York acting scene has been damaged, Dillon believes, by the exodus of straight plays from commercial productions on Broadway to nonprofit New York companies such as the Roundabout Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club,. The critical prestige might still be high, but the salaries are much lower than for a Broadway production. In her early days, Dillon was able to find good-paying jobs in several long-running Broadway hits, including “Agnes of God” and “Equus,” before her Tony-nominated work in “Crimes of the Heart.”

“I was very fortunate because there were a lot more opportunities to do plays on Broadway then. My first Broadway (job) was in ‘Equus,’ which had a seven-year run. Musical actors can still find work and make a living on Broadway, but it’s much harder for actors who do plays,” she says.

Dillon is savoring the chance to dig into her fourth meaty role of the year. She has been working very hard for months, but jokes, “Adrenaline is a very powerful drug. When you burn your candle at both ends you use up all of your energy, but you rise to the occasion. You get through it because you love what you’re doing.”

jmeyers@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @joesview

 

Broadway Hit ‘The Band’s Visit’ Began At Hartford Stage

by Frank Rizzo

First published in the Hartford Courant’s Hartford Magazine November 16, 2017

 

Broadway has a new hit with “The Band’s Visit,” but just like the little lost traveling band at the heart of the musical, the show’s journey was a circuitous one — starting in Hartford.

It all began when Orin Wolf, who graduated from the theater division of University of Hartford’s Hartt School in 2001, saw the film “The Band’s Visit” shortly after its 2007 release.

Wolf thought the modest and minimalist story — an Egyptian policemen’s band scheduled to perform at an Arab arts center in Israel is instead mistakenly directed to a remote Israeli desert town — would make for a wonderful and very different kind of musical. Wolf reached out to his friend and fellow Hartt alum, Maxwell Williams, who was at the time resident director at Hartford Stage.

After Wolf secured the stage rights of the movie from Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin, Williams approached then-artistic director Michael Wilson with the project who gave it a slot in the 2010 Brand:NEW” play reading series. The reading consisted mostly of the screenplay.

The response from that reading, which Williams directed and which also featured some atmospheric Mideastern music, was encouraging. “My objective was clear,” says Wolf. “I wanted to validate what I thought: that was this was a compelling theatrical story. At the end, that Hartford audience stood up and cheered.”

Says Wilson now: “We launched its formal development process and gave [Wolf and Williams] a very well-funded, large-cast workshop that helped send it on its way.”

Darko Tresnjak, who succeeded Wilson as artistic director in 2011, was interested in doing more musicals as part of his vision for the theater, and he continued to offer the possibility for a production for the show.

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