As 2012 draws to a close, it's important to remember that, outside of New York City, the state of Connecticut sustains one of the more robust theater environments in the entire country. We probably rival Chicago in the number of works that receive national attention and move on to further life either in regional theaters or off-Broadway and even occasionally on Broadway itself.
Long Wharf's masterful production of Aaron Posner's adaptation of Chaim Potok's "My Name is Asher Lev" is currently impressing audiences on 43rd Street in New York, in the work's off-Broadway premiere again helmed by Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, who is joined by two of his New Haven actors, the always reliable Mark Nelson in multiple roles and the remarkable young Ari Brand in the title role. This production was one of the highlights of my theater-going year in Connecticut and certainly deserves the acclaim it has received in its newest incarnation.
Another work that had its premiere at Long Wharf several years ago, Paula Vogel's "A Civil War Christmas," recently had its New York debut at off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop. Staged by the same director as at Long Wharf, Tina Landau, this new version, with a new cast and creative team, captures the drama and pathos that captivated so many in New Haven. Plus, it enjoyed the synergy of the renewed nationwide interest in Abraham Lincoln, generated by the Steven Spielberg film about the revered President.
The Long Wharf Theater also served as the premiere of up and coming composer Gabriel Kahane's "February House," a musical based on an actual brownstone in Brooklyn that for a short while in the 1940's housed a number of intellectual luminaries, including Benjamin Britten, W. H. Auden, Erika Mann, and even Gypsy Rose Lee. It went immediately on to New York's Public Theater, where despite its somewhat mixed reviews, it served to showcase the talents of Kahane and more than justified his growing reputation.
The New York Theatre Workshop will soon be home to another show premiered in New Haven, this time at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Amy Herzog's enthralling "Belleville," one of my theatrical highlights of 2011, will be staged again by her Yale director Anne Kaufmann, although the cast has yet to be announced. The play should please audiences and critics as it did during its Connecticut run and enhance the playwright's already-impressive track record.
Rumors are swirling that the Hartford Stage's world premiere production of "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," by the composing-writing team of Steven Lutvak and Robert Freedman, will be heading to Broadway sooner rather than later to take advantage of the closing of multiple musicals this month that not only leaves a dearth of tuners ahead of the Spring season but frees up a number of in-demand theaters. One imagines that could occur only after the work's scheduled run at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in March and April. where the versatile Jefferson Mays will recreate his agile role as any number of doomed members of the D'Ysquith family, as will Ken Barnett, who played the debonair anti-hero at the work's core. This delightfully-staged work, by Hartford Stage's Artistic Director, Darko Tresnjak, also occupies a place on my best of 2012 list and does deserve a wider audience.
That wide audience is now getting a look at the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning "Water by the Spoonful" by Quiara Alegria Hudes at the Second Stage Theater in the play's New York premiere. The work was commissioned and premiered at Hartford Stage in 2011 in a lovingly-detailed production by Davis McCallum, who repeats the assignment off-Broadway. The award-winning work has only been seen at Hartford Stage, so there is considerable interest now that the play has worked its way to the Big Apple.
There were also several other new works that opened in Connecticut over the past year that deserve exposure before New York audiences. The most impressive was Will Eno's "The Realistic Joneses" staged by the young New York theatrical dynamo Sam Gold at the Yale Repertory Theatre which employed initially enigmatic dialogue to reveal the growing connections between two disparate married couples in a middle-class suburb. The work featured astonishing performances from Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tracy Letts (now heating up Broadway with his excoriating performance in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf") and Glenn Fitzgerald as the husbands, complemented by the equally absorbing Johanna Day and an inviting Parker Posey. This probably was my highlight of the Connecticut theater season, moved as I was by the perfect mix of production and text.
Yale Rep closed out the year with the world premiere of Sarah Ruhl's "Dear Elizabeth," an epistolatory two-hander about two giants of American poetry, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. The young playwright Ruhl has always found a welcome audience at Yale, where her "A Clean House," "Euridyce" and "Passion Play" all received outstanding productions. Frequent collaborator Les Waters directed this new work, which pushed the envelope (excuse the pun) regarding plays devised from letters and correspondence and created a warm, tender evening full of theatricality, honesty and occasionally well-deserved awe. Some of the New York nonprofit theaters should be after this work as well, except that the wonderful Jefferson Mays, who played Lowell to remarkable effect, may be occupied for a while by "Gentleman's Guide," in San Diego and any Broadway move.
A world premiere at Hartford's Theaterworks, which itself has originated a variety of productions that have gone on to Broadway, off-Broadway or are still touring (There seems to be a production of "Ella" playing somewhere every week across the country), Jacques Lamarre's adaptation of Giulia Melucci's "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti" should easily engender interest particularly from regional theaters across the country. Audiences, especially women, will be able to identify with the heroine's ordeals on the dating scene and will most certainly want to watch as she prepares an actual Italian meal onstage. Requiring just a single performer on stage (in Hartford, the delightful Antoinette LaVecchia made the character and the pasta irrestible), the work does require a working kitchen, but that shouldn't prove to be too much of an obstacle for nonprofit theaters.
At Goodspeed Musicals, the theater's smaller venue, the Norma Terris Theater in Chester, offered several fully-stage workshop productions of new musicals. While all three of the productions offer opportunities for various companies, two seem to particularly have generated a lot of interest. "Amazing Grace," the story of the abolition-era roots of the popular hymn, recently had an invitation-only industry wide reading in New York in the near future, while the Julie Andrews' directed "The Great American Mousical" has a built-in pedigree that most assuredly guarantee it further future productions. One can almost see it at New York's New Victory Theater on 42nd Street, a theater dedicated to the more sophisticated family fare, which "Mousical" definitely is.
I also expect that we'll see additional life for "Satchmo at the Waldorf," theater critic Terry Teachout's take on the life of Louis Armstrong that premiered in a joint production with Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA and Long Wharf, directed by Edelstein and featuring a tremendous performance by the dynamic John Douglas Thompson. "Satchmo" is that rare one-person biographical work that manages to create suspense and tension as it progresses, as it aligns the famed musician's life story with the perspective of his long-time manager, whose underworld connections pestered Armstrong throughout his career.
Not only did 2012 demonstrate once again the impact that Connecticut stages have on the national theater scene, it also reaffirmed the range and scope of quality theater available at any time of the year in our state. For every one of these new works, there were plenty of other quality productions that entertained and rewarded audiences, from Phylicia Rashad's revelatory staging of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" at the Westport Country Playhouse to Rob Ruggiero's re-look at David Ives' "Venus in Fur" at Theaterworks, from Darko Tresnjak's luminous production of John van Druten's "Bell, Book and Candle" at Hartford Stage with the shimmering Kate McCluggage to Nicholas Martin's production of Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" featuring a grounded, resilient Maureen Anderman. In musicals, Goodspeed proved that their compact stage could accommodate expansive Rodgers and Hammerstein productions with this past summer's "Carousel," also directed by Ruggiero, which will, we hope, open doors for future R&H shows at the East Haddam theater.
Although one may not realize it, Connecticut is a great place for theater aficionados.