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CT's regional theaters offer diverse mix of innovative and traditional in 2014

Meg Mroshnik's "The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls" at Yale Rep, part of the upcoming winter-spring theater season in Connecticut
Meg Mroshnik's "The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls" at Yale Rep, part of the upcoming winter-spring theater season in ConnecticutYale Repertory Theatre

After looking back at theatre in 2013 last week, it may now be appropriate to look ahead to 2014 and talk about what’s worth looking forward to in the coming year at some of Connecticut’s professional regional theaters.

South African playwright Athol Fugard returns to the stage in his new play at the Long Wharf Theatre
South African playwright Athol Fugard returns to the stage in his new play at the Long Wharf TheatreLong Wharf Theater

Starting the year off at Hartford Stage is essentially a holdover from 2013, Gordon Edelstein’s very funny and highly enjoyable production of Steve Martin’s “The Underpants” which I reviewed last week. It opened this past fall at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre and it’s great that Hartford audiences now have the chance to enjoy Martin’s clever, creative take on this German farce from early last century.

The remainder of the spring season at Hartford Stage looks quite interesting, with will close with the local premiere of last season’s Tony Award winning Best Play, Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a funny, touching modern take on a Chekhov style play in which three siblings contemplate their relationship in the midst of a family’s economic crisis. Of particular interest to fans of the work is exactly who is going to be cast as the hunky, frisky, slightly dim boy-toy Spike.

Following the close of “The Underpants” on February 9, former Hartford Stage Artistic Director Mark Lamos will stage Noel Coward’s brittle comedy, “A Song at Twilight,” in which a writer and his wife await the impending arrival of one of the writer’s former lovers and her collection of perhaps incriminating letters. The production subsequently moves to the Westport Country Playhouse, where Lamos serves as Artistic Director.

This writer is looking forward to Hartford Stage’s production of Matthew Lopez’s (“The Whipping Boy”) new work, “Somewhere,” set in Hell’s Kitchen in the late 1950’s as “West Side Story” is playing on Broadway and matriarch Inez Candelaria hopes that her children can follow their interests in show business. Lopez’s aunt, Priscilla Lopez (“A Chorus Line” and “In the Heights” on Broadway) will play Inez who, according to Matthew Lopez, is inspired by Priscilla’s mother.

The aforementioned “A Song at Twilight” reopens in May at the Westport Country Playhouse to kick off that theater’s 2014 season. Of particular interest is Westport’s season closing selection, Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel.” That play has been on the theater’s radar for quite a while, as they staged a well-received reading of the work last year. It tells the story of an African-American seamstress in the early 20th century Manhattan who is caught between a culturally-acceptable relationship and a riskier one, built on genuine love. Another attention-getting offering will be Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” here called “Nora.” The season will also include a comedy by the prolific British playwright Alan Ayckborn whose work is not staged enough in the United States. Wesport audiences will be able to see his “Things We Do For Love,” another of his trademark comedic looks at love, humiliation and redemption.

At New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater, the excitement is building around the world premiere of South African playwright Athol Fugard’s “The Shadow of the Hummingbird,” which will feature the first stage performance by the playwright since 1997. The work will be staged by Long Wharf’s Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, who in recent years has developed quite the collaborative relationship with the playwright. The plot concerns a grandfather, to be played by Fugard, who spends an afternoon with his 10-year old grandson as they learn about each other and contemplate the beauty of the world around them.

With the world premiere of Heidi Schreck’s “The Consultant” now playing at the Theater’s Stage II, audiences can look forward to the Connecticut premiere of Amy Herzog’s (“Belleville” at Yale Rep) delightful and moving “4,000 Miles” in which a 21-year old young man drops in on his 91-year old grandmother after bicycling from California to Greenwich Village. Something devastating happened on the bike ride, but the feisty free-spirited grandmother may not be the best cure for what’s troubling Leo—or will she? Closing out the Long Wharf season is a popular musical, “The Last Five Years,” the story of a troubled relationship told simultaneously in chronological order by the husband and in reverse chronological order by the wife. (Don’t worry, it’s easy to follow.) The book and score are by Jason Robert Brown who is currently represented on Broadway by “The Bridges of Madison County” and next year’s anticipated “Honeymoon in Vegas” which received ecstatic reviews in its Paper Mill Playhouse debut. “The Last Five Years” has also been recently filmed featuring Jeremy Jordan of “Smash” and “Newsies” fame. It is expected to be released sometime later in the fall.

Across town at the Yale Repertory Theater the upcoming highlight is the world premiere of Rollin Jones’ “Those Paper Bullets” described as a rip-off Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” set in England’s Swinging Sixties. The plot involves a band of four modish rockers and a former member out for vengeance. The songs are by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, who apparently can’t shake the theater bug following his success with “American Idiot” on Broadway. Yale Reps’ 2014 winter season kicks off this week with Meg Mroshnik’s “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls” set in the new consumerist Moscow of 2005 as an American student explores her Russian roots and gets caught up in that country’s new fairytale. Closing out the season is the world premiere of Marcus Gardley’s "A House That Will Not Stand,” a riff on the Spanish play “The House of Bernarda Alba” by Frederico Garcia Lorca, but set in Gardley’s take in New Orleans.

At Hartford’s Theaterworks where Mark St. Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session” is currently playing, an event to anticipate in 2014 is “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie,” which features over 25 of the lengendary folk-singer’s songs as a cast of four uses Woody’s own words and songs to take the audience through the tumultuous journey that was Woody’s life. Coming up after “Freud” is the regional premiere of Sharr White’s “The Other Place,” an unnerving but surprisingly rewarding and moving portrait of a research doctor and the mystery illness that seems to be taking over her life. Following that will be the regional premiere of John Cariani’s “Love/Sick” which follows the format of his recent hit at Theaterworks, “Almost, Maine,” which is currently enjoying an off-Broadway revival by the innovative Transport Group with Cariani in the cast. “Love/Sick” features a number of short, comic vignettes about the vagaries of and unpredictability of love.

One town over in West Hartford finds the Playhouse on Park opening its first show of 2014, Ken Ludwig’s backstage comedy, “Lend Me a Tenor,” an uproarious comedy about an opera company’s efforts to assure that their guest tenor, “Il Stupendo” makes it to the performance. The theater’s next offering, however, is what is generating some attention: the world premiere of “Higgins in Harlem,” by Lawrence Thelan, an adaptation of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” set in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance and filled with the jazz and energy of that period. I believe that this is the first world premiere play for the Playhouse and we can hope it will prove to be an exciting find. Later this season, the Playhouse will stage the musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Shienkin, based on a concept by Rebecca Feldman with additional material by Jay Weiss. “Spelling Bee” focuses on a group of middle-school misfits trying to make their way through a spelling contest.

Also preparing for their upcoming season are the folks at Goodspeed Musicals who have lined up three classic shows for their main stage, East Haddam’s Goodspeed Opera House. One of the shows, while indeed a classic, is actually new to the stage. It’s a stage adaptation of one of the fondly remembered motion picture, “Holiday Inn,” the story of a country with a unique niche: it only opens on holidays but offers a great musical show. The music is by Irving Berlin and is the show that introduced “White Christmas” to the world and set the stage for the subsequent movie, “White Christmas.” The Goodspeed’s other offerings will include “Fiddler on the Roof” and the season’s kick-off, just in time for the start of baseball season, “Damn Yankees.” Even “Damn Yankees” will be staged with a twist—this version is called “the Red Sox edition,” in which the team trying to overcome Yankee domination is not the Washington Senators (who remembers them anyway?) but the Boston Red Sox. Let’s hope that fights don’t break out in the aisles at the Opera House during the production. In addition, a series of three new workshop musicals will be staged at the theater’s Norma Terris Theater in Chester.

Once again, Connecticut theaters impress with their ability to provide a diverse selection of theatrical opportunities, for those who enjoy the new and innovative to those who enjoy the more traditional.

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