lDebbie Allen Possesses Atlanta
lNew Artistic Director for Seattle's 5th Avenue
lGorshin Burns Brightly in Fort Lauderdale Say Goodnight, Gracie
Having taken place just a mile from the theatre, The Lynching of Leo Frank makes a shattering Southeast premiere in Robert Myers' dramatization at Marietta's Theatre in the Square (Aug. 16-Sept. 24). Despite occasionally murky staging by Anders Cato, Frank still penetrates racial and religious hate made flesh and blood in star turns by Rob Cleveland and Jim Peck, while Jim Roof and Shannon Malone lance the heart as the bewildered Franks.
Also heart-stirring is Paula Vogel's uneasy coupling of erotica with spousal abuse in Synchronicity Group's Hot 'n' Throbbing at Push Push Theatre, Aug. 18-Sept. 9. Seldom as over the top as the show demands in its direction by Rachel May, Throbbing also features an odd couple casting in a boyish Bryan Mercer and matronly Patricia French as ex-spouses, but the two fine actors make their torturous love-hate uncomfortably real and sad.
A total success in all respects was the Center for Puppetry Arts' Kwaidan (Aug. 17-27), an innovative and elegant telling of three Japanese ghost stories that's bound for London and New York.
"Basically, that's the main reason they brought me on," says the engaging young director. "They see that the sort of truck show phenomenon that filled regional houses during the last 20 years has just tapered off, as producing original musicals on Broadway has gotten to be more expensive and difficult. I often tell people that producing one of these shows is comparable to a space shuttle launch. And you know, with musicals the success rate is much lower."
Armstrong, whose work has included both straight drama and musicals, claims that the inherent theatricality of musicals is what continues to draw him to the form. "I'm not very interested in naturalism. TV and film have taken that over as their domain, because they do it better. There's very little reason to go to the theatre if all you're going to see is a sitcom. And as to drama, when you've got "NYPD Blue" or shows of that caliber on, straight plays have some real competition. So what that leaves for the theatre is what I think it does best—non-naturalism, non-reality that's more real than real."
This season Armstrong will be directing Anything Goes, and says that his approach will be the same as whenever he approaches any "classic"—treat the material as if it's freshly written. This, he believes, was the reason for the success of the Royal National Theatre's revival of Carousel several years ago. "I loved that production, but people talked about the show as if [director Nicholas Hytner] 'reinvented' it. I disagree. Everything you saw on the stage was on the page. He just stepped outside the American tradition of saying, 'Well, how did they do it on Broadway?' and went from there. That's what I want to do with every project I take on."
Continuing its season-long winning streak, GableStage has a runaway summer hit in playwright Ben Elton's British import, Popcorn (July 21–Sept. 10). Displaying his trademark barbed iconoclasm to skewer both the dark underbelly and superficiality of America's celebrity-crazed, media-obsessed culture, Elton offers up rapier wit and insight. If the work has a flaw, it's the playwright's tendency to get a bit too preachy in the second act. The GableStage production is dominated by Paul Tei, who delivers all the manic edge necessary to capture the media-obsessed serial killer who governs the action.
Say Goodnight, Gracie, written by Rupert Holmes and featuring Frank Gorshin in a solo performance as the late George Burns, is currently having its Florida premiere at Fort Lauderdale's Amaturo Theater (Aug. 21–Sept. 24). Although Gorshin displays an uncanny physical resemblance to the performer, and delivers exquisite comic timing, Gracie is a momentarily diverting, but surprisingly unengaging trot through the icon's life.
Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre Company's two-play summer season has just ended with mixed results. Snakebit (June 24–July 23) presented a wonderfully acted and emotionally rewarding slice of thirtysomething urban life. Playwright David Marshall Grant's work managed to keep a light touch in evidence, balancing his occasional emotional bleakness with odd lyrical moments and unexpected humor and tenderness that infused the drama with a bracing freshness.
Miscast leads and themes treated without subtlety doomed Caldwell's production of playwright Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown (Aug. 5–Aug. 27). Despite superior technical assets, the production fatally lacked the charm and chemistry needed to make this most fragile of satires take flight and connect at an emotional level.
Concluding its first season under new management (Joanne Woodward et al.), the Westport Country Playhouse has a crowd-pleaser with the world première of Nicolette and Aucassin (through Sept. 9). Based on a 13th-century French fable about star-crossed lovers, its clever book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg and chirrupy music by David Friedman make for a bright and bouncy show.
It's also rather empty-headed and lacks the bawdiness of Boccaccio or Chaucer. Similar in some ways to Once Upon a Mattress, it could use some of that musical's sophistication, which encouraged a crossover audience between kids and adults. Still, it's a bubbly evening that seems headed to New York.
As the Playhouse season ends, Jeff Provost of Hartford Stage takes over from press and marketing director Pat Blaufuss. Provost's modified title is public relations and marketing director. Look for other broom-sweeps as WCP gears up as a year-round organization (which does not, as yet, translate to mounting winter productions in the venerable—and cold—barn).
Blaufuss continues her press duties with Stamford Theatre Works, which opens with Nixon's Nixon (Sept. 20-Oct. 8). Other September starts are both in New Haven: Yale Repertory Theatre's Mump and Smoot in Something Else with Zug (Sept. 14-Oct. 7) and Long Wharf Theatre's The Bungler (Sept. 20-Oct. 22), an adaptation by Richard Wilbur of Molière's first play, L'Étourdi, in its U.S. premiere.
Up in Bridgeport, Polka Dot Playhouse, the former community theatre that had a disappointing initial season under an Equity contract, continues to seek outside productions. So successful was Nunsense, which opened July 13, its engagement was extended two months past its original closing date and now goes to Oct. 8.
Upcoming at Polka Dot is Parallel Portraits, produced by Hartford's Chamber Music Plus, combining music and narration. Evening one features Keir Dullea (Oct. 27), the second has Barbara Feldon (Dec. 8), and February brings Jill Clayburgh as Jenny Lind. Also on Polka Dot's back burner is a cooperative venture with Waterbury's Seven Angels Theatre, whose artistic director, Semina DeLaurentis, was Sister Amnesia in the original Nunsense.
David A. Rosenberg
It's time to note a few of the outstanding performances here in the past few months. American musical theatre historian Lee Davis teamed up with Manhattan producer Patricia Watt for the "American Musical Theatre Salutes" series at East Hampton's Guild Hall. The first salutee was Noel Coward, followed by Arthur Laurents, set designer Tony Walton, and then the Rodgers family (Richard, Mary and Adam Guettel). The format—musical theatre artists performing while Davis intersperses brief chats with the honoree—was intimate and enlightening. The talented performers included Steve Ross, Lorna Dallas, KT Sullivan, Lee Roy Reams, Brent Barrett, Patrick Quinn, Melissa Errico, and Judith Blazer, plus musical directors Peter Howard and James Followell.
With American musical theatre evolving, five masters of the genre stopped in at Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, to discuss what changes might be in store. Peter Stone, Cy Coleman, Sheldon Harnick, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green noted that a good book is still the beginning of a musical, fine melodies and witty lyrics are necessary, and out-of-town tryouts are much better than previews to tune-up and/or rewrite a show. Stone stated that a musical must run at least two years today to recoup production costs, so long-running shows stay in the bigger Broadway theatres. "New musicals will be written for smaller theatres," he predicts.
Two of the most enjoyable productions this summer: Bay Street Theatre's revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy You Can't Take It With You, and the Hampton Shakespeare Festival's Much Ado About Nothing, set in the 1940s, with big band music and dance added.
There have been several play readings. Joe Pintauro's Karma Boomerang, about a successful playwright who may have "stolen" a friend's play, wife, and life, is in development. And Paddy Chayefsky's last play, The Latent Heterosexual, an absurdist comedy, had a reading at Bay Street featuring F. Murray Abraham, Alec Baldwin, and Bob Balaban. Abraham stole the show.
The Hamptons International Film Festival, Oct. 11-15 in East Hampton and Westhampton Beach, will be emphasizing independent features from first- or second-time filmmakers, and world cinema from areas of conflict such as the Middle East.
The ancient Chinese, when they wanted to curse their enemies, would say, "May you live in interesting times." In that respect, Boston's Publick Theatre has had an unusually interesting summer. The financially troubled outdoor theatre on the bank of the Charles River opened its season with a well-received production of Macbeth (June 29-July 23), directed by one of the area's best actors, Diego Arciniegas (remember that name). The second and final show of the season was Gypsy (Aug. 3–Sept. 3), in a production directed by Spiro Veloudos. It was between those two productions that much of the "interesting" stuff happened.
An exceptionally cool and damp New England summer led to canceled performances and smaller audiences. Vandals struck the theatre while Gypsy was in rehearsal, destroying sets and costumes and damaging much of the stage. Three days into the run of Gypsy, leading lady Maryann Zschau tore a hamstring muscle while executing a split in "Rose's Turn" and was out of the show for a week.
In the midst of all this mishigas, Spiro Veloudos announced that this, his 20th season as artistic director of the company, would be his last. He will remain as producing artistic director of The Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Meanwhile, as of Oct. 1, the Publick Theatre will be under the artistic leadership of Diego Arciniegas (I told you to remember that name).
Last summer, the fledgling Second Stage Theatre Company offered a fine production of Neil Simon's Proposals. This summer, unfortunately, not even a willing cast could save An American Comedy, Richard Nelson's early, dismal attempt at farce. Directed by Jim Murphy, the play ran in Newton Highlands (July 19–Aug. 5) and Newburyport (Aug. 10-20).
It wasn't precisely theatre, but American Classics offered Stars & Stripes, an enjoyable evening of politically slanted American show tunes and popular songs (July 26, at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge). The performers included cabaret favorites Ben Sears and Brad Conner, soprano Mary Ann Lanier, mezzo Roberta Gilbert, and pianist Margaret Ulmer. In November, American Classics will revive Irving Berlin's 1914 Broadway musical, Watch Your Step.