Great Theater Doesn’t Take a Vacation in Connecticut by Karen Isaacs

Connecticut theater doesn’t take a summer vacation. While some of the major companies – Yale Rep, Long Wharf and Hartford Stage 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 can sit outdoors or under a covering or in traditional theaters.

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.

John Kander & Fred Ebb wrote Cabaret, Chicago 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; Kiss of the Spider Woman was homophobia and dictatorships told via Hollywood fantasy.

But perhaps The Scottsboro Boys was their most audacious. They used 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. Though eventually their convictions were overturned, their lives were ruined.

Playhouse on Park in West Hartford is tackling this ambitious and controversial show, from Wednesday, June 26 to Sunday, August 4; contact Playhouse on Park.

According to director Sean Harris, he was drawn to the show because, as he says “It tells a profoundly important, true story that too many people know nothing about.” But 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 almost the entire cast of (al Black men) play all the roles – male, female, black and white.

Harris, referring to an article by Joyce Kulhawik, 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 went on to say, 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 does not.

Dog Lovers

With Because of Winn Dixie
, a Goodspeed tradition continues. Bowdie 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 the family surrendered him; he was energetic and possibly too large for them. Since that time (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. It’s based on a novel (and later a film), 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.

Lighter Fare

Don’t be afraid that only “serious” works are on stage.  Mamma Mia! will be 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.

If you like more open air theater – either al fresco or in a covered space, Summer Theater of New Canaan has Pippin Thursday, July 4 to Sunday, July 28, Elm City Shakespeare is doing Comedy of Errors (Thursday, Aug. 15 to Sunday, Sept. 1. 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

Brand New

Goodspeed is giving us a new musicals 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 production. It runs Friday, July 26 to Sunday, Aug. 18. Information for both are 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-Manual 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.

Day & Weekend Excursions

With the late sunsets and the glorious weather, it is a great time to explore theaters a little farther afield.

In Connecticut, the Sharon Playhouse in picturesque Litchfield county is presenting 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, the Thrown Stone Theater, 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 and daughter’s 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 over nine different stages. Plus there music, dance, antique shops, historic sights (did you know Melville’s home is there?) 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 family reaction when the wife-mother-grandmother announces at her 50th wedding anniversary that she wants a divorce! Other works new works include Selling Kabul about an interpreter for the US Military hiding in Afghanistan from the Taliban (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 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, they are 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

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

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