Theatre Firsts

Critics’ Roundtable
We asked members of the Ct Critics Circle to talk about their first experiences with theater and what “turned them on to it.” Below are the edited responses.

Participants include: TOM HOLEHAN – Stratford Town Crier, WPKN-FM; KAREN ISAACS –, Shore Publications,; BONNIE K. GOLDBERG – Middletown Press; NANCY SASSO JANIS –, Naugatuck Patch; TIM LEININGER – Journal Inquirer, One Man’s Opinion; ZANDER OPPER –; FRANK RIZZO – Variety,; SUSAN GRANGER – SSG Syndicate; KANTHALINA ANDREUS – CT Critics Mentorship Program.

What was the first theatrical production you remember seeing?

Bonnie Goldberg: When I was five, my mother would put me on the trolley in front of our apartment and I would travel alone downtown to New Haven and my father would meet me at the corner of Chapel and College Streets. He was the manager of the Loew’s Poli College Theater and his good friend was Maurice Bailey, the manager of the Shubert Theater across the street. Maurice would call my dad on a Saturday and say, “Sid, bring Bonnie and come to the show.” I got to see everything and after the show my dad would take me to Kaysey’s Restaurant also on College for dinner and to see the stars from the show. Later my dad would take me on Chapel to an old fashioned candy shop, Hasselbach’s and buy me two chocolate dipped marzipan candies, in a little white box, tied with a bow.

That is my memory of growing up and where my love of theater was born. Do I remember any of the memorable theater I saw, regretfully not.

Tom Holohan: I was a teenager and it was a community theatre production of Guys and Dolls. It probably wasn’t very good but it made me interested enough to audition for their next production of Life with Father in which I was improbably cast as a doctor. A 14-year-old doctor at that! It was ghastly and I loved every minute of the experience.

Kanthalna Andreus: A production of A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry with my middle school class. It was also the first play I read around the same time and remains one of my favorites. I remember being especially moved by the production because it was the beginning of a period of cultural connection for me. It opened the door for my education on the Black American experience told from the perspective of Black Americans instead of my social studies book. It was like seeing the words and characters I had just read for the first time come to life.

Nancy Sasso Janis: When I was in public school in Stratford, CT, I was able to attend many productions at the American Shakespeare Theatre. After reading King Lear in class, I clearly remember seeing a matinee production at the AST with other high school students from CT and beyond. Our teachers were able to tell which of the schools had required the students to study the play before attending the performance because their students sat up a little straighter when the bloodiest scenes were about to happen.

After I graduated from high school and performances returned to the Shakespeare Theatre, I saw Richard III with Michael Moriarty in the title role and Viveca Lindfors as Queen Margaret and I still have to program for that one. The ticket cost $6.50!

Karen Isaacs: The first theater I remember seeing was a Met Opera production of Die Fledermous that played for one night in New Haven; it was probably around 1950. After that I remember seeing lots of classic musicals at various summer theaters in Connecticut – Show Boat, Desert Song, Naughty Marietta, Anything Goes and more. Luckily my parents loved musicals and took me along.

Zander Opper: I really discovered theater through my interest in movie musicals. When I was twelve or thirteen, my two favorite films were Cabaret with Liza Minnelli and Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand.

Eventually, Cabaret became my favorite film of all time (which it still is for me) and I grew fascinated not only with Liza and fellow Oscar winner Joel Grey, but with director Bob Fosse. My interest with Bob Fosse led me to my very first Broadway cast album, the original Chicago with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach.

Frank Rizzo: I really don’t remember the first play of any kind I saw for sure. I do remember a “play-let” I wrote in 5th or 6th grade that we did in class about Socrates. My sister was in The Curious Savage when she was in high school about the same time [that] I must have seen; and a local amateur production of Mary, Mary. I was in a community theater production of Anniversary Waltz when I was around 12 and definitely caught the acting bug.

Tim Leininger: The first theatrical production I saw was a production of Annie at a small dinner theater in California that I pleaded my grandmother to take me to. I don’t remember much about it except that I was really disappointed because it didn’t look or feel like the movie, which I had seen a number of times at that point. Of course I was only 5 or 6 at the time and didn’t appreciate the difference.

Susan Granger: As a child, the first show I remember seeing was Finian’s Rainbow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium in the early 1950s.

My parents took me to see other musicals there, but this was special because Ella Logan’s daughter, Binnie, was my friend – and we watched it from the wings. Ella Logan opened the show on Broadway in 1947 – and then took it on tour. Backstage, I met David Wayne, who played the leprechaun, and Yip Harburg, the composer. I was absolutely dazzled by Glocca Morra.

What was your first professional production that you saw? Details please.

Nancy Sasso Janis: My first Broadway play (another high school field trip) was to see The Night of the Iguana at The Circle in the Square with Richard Chamberlain, Dorothy McGuire and Sylvia Miles. That ticket? $9.95. I remember that I loved sitting in seats around the stage with my classmates and enjoying the performance. The Broadway show that I chose to see as a graduation gift from my aunt who lived in NYC was Godspell at the Ambassador with Sesame Street actress Sonia Manzano singing “Turn Back, O Man.” We had third row seats and the actor playing John the Baptist blew into the shofar while standing right next to my aisle seat, I remember jumping, even though I knew the score inside out.

Tim Leininger: The first professional production I saw was a dinner theater production of You Can’t Take it With You starring Don Knotts as Grandpa in Kansas City, Missouri in the spring of 1997. We sat at the lip of the stage and were able to see all the details of the set, and got a good look at Knotts’ performance. I was just starting to study theater at the time and didn’t have a full appreciation of the talent and what they were doing at the time. Most of my focus was on the actor who was playing Ed, since I was about to play the same role in a college production in a few weeks’ time.

Tom Holohan: Road show productions that came through my city every year, but the most memorable was on Broadway to see Grease, Raisin and Irene one weekend. I went with high school friends and we stayed at the Collingwood Hotel which was something like $39.95/night in mid-town. I recall loving Grease, not so hot about Irene but Raisin moved me to tears. Why isn’t that musical ever revived?

Frank Rizzo: Don’t quite remember which was the very first professional production but it was either Funny Girl with Babs, Hello, Dolly! with Ginger Rogers or Oliver, all around 1965 in NYC.

Zander Opper: My father saw in the newspaper that Joel Grey was bringing the 1987 Broadway revival of Cabaret to the Bushnell. My father bought tickets for me, him, and my two brothers. I remember that the leading lady was out sick and her understudy went on. What struck me most about seeing this show was that I was absolutely stunned that everyone knew their lines! It was PERFECT. I will confess that I missed not seeing Liza onstage, but Joel Grey was amazing and it was a privilege to see him recreate his role as the Emcee.

Kanthalina Andeus: The first and only Broadway production I’ve ever seen in person was Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet. The set was beyond anything I’ve ever witnessed and I listened to the soundtrack over and over again on the way back home. I’ve seen quite a few high school productions including A Streetcar Named Desire and Other Desert Cities. I’ve also seen many filmed, professional Shakespeare productions.

Karen Isaacs: Probably many of the shows I saw were “professional,” but two stick out in my mind – my first Shakespeare play at the Stratford Shakespeare Theater and my first musical at New Haven’s Shubert Theater. The Shakespeare was Much Ado about Nothing with Katherine Hepburn and Alfred Drake. The Shubert show was a new musical on try out – The Happiest Girl in the World with Cyril Ritchard, Bruce Yarnell and Janis Rule. From then on, I saved my allowance, bought tickets to Broadway matinees ($4.80 for orchestra seats) and saw many shows.

What about these got you hooked?

Frank Rizzo: Original cast albums mostly. And the full page ads in the Boston newspapers about the out-of-town try-outs. Also Boston Herald critic Elliot Norton’s “educational television” series about those out-of-town tryouts,

Karen Isaacs: First I got hooked on original cast albums. My father bought many of them, and we played them constantly. One of the songs I sang as a child was “I’m Just a Girl who Can’t Say ‘No’” from Oklahoma! But later, it was just the shear magic of live theater.

Tom Holohan: The slick polish, the sheer energy of live performance floored me. From the very first experience of live theatre, it was very easy to get hooked.

Tim Leininger: The truth is, neither of them hooked me on theater. The first one was a let down and the other was after I was hooked. I had seen high school productions when I was a teen, but it wasn’t until my freshman year of college when I played Cholet in our production of Arthur Kopit and Maurey Yeston’s Phantom that hooked me. I had originally been an understudy for Carriere and played several minor roles, dying three times throughout the show, but after the original Cholet dropped out, I was given the part for some reason or another. I had a great time.

Nancy Sasso Janis: Growing up in Stratford got me hooked on Shakespeare and then on to my love of musical theater. I never even thought about reviewing theatre until the Phoenix Stage Company opened in 2011 and I decided that I wanted to do everything I could to keep it open long enough that I could audition for a role in my hometown. I wrote my first review of the PSC comedy Drinking Habits and soon expanded my reviews to other community theatres. By the way, I did get to audition for a few shows at the Phoenix Stage and earned the role of Martha in The Last Supper: A Musical Reenactment.

Kanthanlina Andreus: My first high school theater class got me hooked on theater. I was amazed by how the plays we read tackled so many complex topics at once and took us through so many perspectives and emotions all in a 40 minute class period. Essentially, the storytelling is what kept me captivated. The sets and costumes contribute greatly and it’s nice to watch recordings of performances with awarded performers with great skill, but the scripts are really what made me love theater. I like being able to analyze and experience at my own pace things I might not catch in a performance.

Zander Opper: After Cabaret, I started seeing shows at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven. I saw the touring productions of Anything Goes, Into the Woods, and A Chorus Line It seemed that with each new show I was seeing I was getting hooked more and more on theater and, especially, musical theater.

My very first show on Broadway was the recently opened City of Angels. The experience was AWESOME and I remember especially loving Randy Graff and Kay McClelland in the song “What You Don’t Know About Women” and, then, in the second act, Randy Graff belting out “You Can Always Count on Me.” I still remember this show like it was yesterday!

Following “City of Angels,” my grandmother took me to other Broadway shows: Grand Hotel, with Tommy Tune’s astonishing staging, and then Tyne Daly in Gypsy. When I saw Gypsy, we sat in a box seat on the right side of the house and I remember Tyne Daly blowing the roof off the theater with a stunning “Rose’s Turn.” By this time, I DEFINITELY was hooked on theater!

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