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Will CT theater in 2014 top last year's theatrical memories?

A scene from the Playhouse on Park production of "The Hound of the Baskervilles"--one of the theatrical highlights in Connecticut in 2013
A scene from the Playhouse on Park production of "The Hound of the Baskervilles"--one of the theatrical highlights in Connecticut in 2013Rich Wagner

With the 2014 theater schedule about to get underway across Connecticut, one hopes that lightning will strike once again, with many of the area’s regional theaters being able to recapture some of the spark, surprise and excitement that characterized quite a few of their productions in 2013. Connecticut’s regional theaters proved once again that they are able to offer audiences thrilling, innovative and vastly entertaining shows that mark our state as a leader in breathtaking theater outside of New York.

Esau Pritchett and Portia in "Fences" at Long Wharf--one of the highlights of the 2013 CT theater season
Esau Pritchett and Portia in "Fences" at Long Wharf--one of the highlights of the 2013 CT theater seasonT. Charles Erickson

Take for example the Goodspeed Opera House’s ability to give us back to back revivals of two genuine classics of the American musical theater, each one distinguished by outstanding casts and distinctive looks, that not only breathed new life into these rarely revived shows but made them completely accessible to a contemporary audience. The highlight was Daniel Goldstein’s spirited and funny take on Jerry Herman’s “Hello, Dolly” that featured an irresistible and endearing Klea Blackhurst in the title role. With a vital assist from choreographer Kelli Barclay and a design team working at their zenith, Goldstein moved his cast from Yonkers to early 20th century Manhattan, with stops on Fifth Avenue for a big parade and on 14th Street for a rousing reunion at the Harmonia Gardens, all the while assuring that the Goodspeed’s tiny stage could accommodate all this action—including a steady progression of elaborate production numbers—easily.

Right on the heels of this memorable production, the Goodspeed and director Rob Ruggiero came up with a new version of Frank Loesser’s opera-like “The Most Happy Fella,” bringing to life a Napa Valley ranch in the mid-1950’s, filled with bright California sunshine and bittersweet twilights. The amiable Bill Nolte offered a very believable Tony, both larger than life as well as shy, who sang like a dream. Loesser’s mixture of pop (“Standin’ on the Corner”) and bravado (“My Heart is So Full of You”) never sounded better in new arrangements that somehow captured the glory and expansiveness of the composer’s original instrumentations for a much, much larger orchestra. It’s hard to believe there was so much creative energy going on around the Goodspeed campus this summer. Perhaps everyone was inspired by the theater’s 50th anniversary celebration which was observed throughout the past season.

Fresh off the good reviews generated by its 2012 world premiere production of the musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” which has subsequently opened to predominantly great reviews on Broadway, Hartford Stage in 2013 rewarded its audience with dazzling revivals of plays by one of the local audience’s favorite playwrights—William Shakespeare. Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak concluded his first full season in this role with an eye-popping, giddily delicious production of “Twelfth Night” that featured a stage bathed in bright green and yellows with action centered above and within a below stage level maze. Tresnjak used that set in wonderfully surprising ways, with tiny bridges over the separations between the hedges and occasionally sending characters down deep into the pathways. I will always remember the heads of the various servants of the royal household bobbing up and down among the hedges as they spied on the marvelous Malvolio of actor Bruce Turk, who perfectly captured the character’s foolishness, vanity and tragedy.

Also impossible to forget is the contorted, twisted face of Matthew Rauch in the title role of “Macbeth,” Hartford Stage’s second successful take on Shakespeare in 2013, directed with equal care and intelligence by Tresnjak. This was a stirring production that used a simple set to convey the savagery that resulted from one man’s disturbing and spontaneous turn to the dark side, with a sturdy push from an ambitious wife. That Rauch was able to translate this transition believably while subsequently depicting the man’s own horror at what he ultimately set in motion was quite an accomplishment in this literally dark version of the Scottish play, one that proved to be more consistent and dramatically rewarding than the recently completed Lincoln Center Theater revival that starred Ethan Hawke.

We also enjoyed and appreciated Hartford Stage’s production of Marivaux’s “La Dispute” that ran in repertory with “Macbeth” which not only brought repertory theater back to Connecticut, but also provided a delightful, amusing and clever counterpoint to the heaviness of the Bard’s tale. Tresnjak proved that he is at home directing tragedy as well as comedy, even as he was also preparing for his own Broadway directorial debut.

The Westport Country Playhouse kicked off its season in May with a tender and heartfelt production of A.R. Gurney’s first major success “The Dining Room.” Artistic Director Mark Lamos helped the audience transition from one of Gurney’s wise and knowing sketches to the next, while transporting us to the genteel world of upper class WASP’s, on whom Gurney has focused so much of his work. The game cast played any number of characters from children to aging parents and the entire evening resonated with a sense of wistful nostalgia for a time and a people who are slowly disappearing into America’s famous melting pot.

The Playhouse immediately followed up with a rare revival of George Kelly's once-popular “The Show Off,” which succeeded in large parts due to the performances of the always wonderful Jayne Houdyshell and always surprising Will Rogers as the two formidable antagonists, the matriarch Mrs. Fisher and the brash, boastful Aubrey Piper and the direction of Nicholas Martin whose careful direction demonstrated that the Kelly chestnut still had life.

Up the road apiece, the Long Wharf Theatre season will be remembered for a number of highlights. The theater’s Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting brought us a sharp, witty, satirical and ultimately moving production of Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize winning comedy-drama “Clybourne Park,” which captured all of the nuance and social commentary that earned the show praise in its original Broadway production. It was charming and disturbing all at the same time, thanks to Ting and an able cast called upon to play different characters in two different time periods.

This past fall the Long Wharf offered two welcome surprises, first with an ingenious and hilarious take on comedian/novelist/actor Steve Martin’s play “The Underpants,” his adaptation of a German farce designed in his words to comment on the consequences of celebrity and wardrobe dysfunctions. In Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein’s very capable hands, the carefully timed action and well-chosen cast also seemed to cast a light on the ingenuity of women, especially those who in the late 19th century often found themselves quite powerless at the hands of various men, but were determined to retain their integrity and dignity nonetheless. The good news for theatergoers who missed the Long Wharf engagement is that the production has now moved to the Hartford Stage where it will play until mid-February. It is definitely a must-see for the winter season.

The actress and now burgeoning director Phylicia Rashad directed a revealing and unexpectedly moving production of August Wilson’s “Fences” to end the year at the Long Wharf. Although the Troy Mattson of Esau Pritchett was not as formidably large as James Earl Jones in the original Broadway production, Rashad managed to convey the tragedy of the man’s fall from Negro Baseball League standout to Pittsburgh garbage collector and his tempestuous relationship with his intelligent, sensitive son and his long-suffering wife. The production conveyed the feel of the Steel City’s Hill District and the entire cast offered vivid and honest performances.

In spite of the star power presence of Paul Giamatti in the title role of “Hamlet” and “True Blood” werewolf Joe Manganiello as Stanley in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the most memorable productions at the Yale Repertory Theater included the two-hander “Stone in His Pocket” by Marie Jones, in which Euan Morton and Fred Arsenault played what seemed like the entire population of an Irish village and all the members of a visiting film crew, including director and star. Director Evan Yionoulis kept the story flowing seamlessly and the actors created something uproariously funny and sweet.

Memorable in an entirely different way at Yale Rep was Robert Woodruff’s staging of an early Rainer Werner Fassbinder film “In a Year of 13 Moons” that he and actor Bill Camp adapted for the stage. Camp played the transsexual Elvira vividly and harrowingly as she attempts to rediscover her place in the world after being abandoned by her lover. David Zinn’s multi-faceted set and Woodruff’s typically deliberate and somewhat alienating direction combined provided a sturdy foundation that made Elvira’s journey riveting and unbearable at the same time.

The Rep also provided an opportunity to see the play that initially propelled British playwright Caryl Churchill to fame, “Owners,” a work filled with topics and references found in her later successes, including issues of class, money, sexism and gender. The Yale production, also directed by Yionoulis, was an intelligent take on the play that allowed its transgressive and occasionally absurdist humor to shine through.

Hartford’s Theaterworks left wonderful memories in audience’s minds at the end of the year with Rob Ruggiero’s world premiere of “Christmas on the Rock,” an evening of seven short plays by noted contemporary playwrights, revealing the adult destinies of certain children in famous Christmas tales. Well directed and funny, the plays could go from over-the-top to tender, but they provided some thematic theater-going in a unique and clever way. Earlier in the fall, the theater impressed with a production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Mrs. Mannerly” which under Ed Stern’s direction, proved to be a playful little delight. The theater’s production of Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” brought the play out from under the star-studded trappings of its Broadway engagement to reveal an interesting but fictional look Martin Luther King’s last night in Memphis and the inexorable demands of history.

The theater also premiered a revised version of Mark St. Germain’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” which received excellent notices in its Barrington Stage Company world premiere two summers ago under the title of “Dr. Ruth—All the Way.” This new version was tightened up extensively and reduced to a single act, yet under Julianne Boyd’s direction and Debra Jo Rupp’s reprise of her role as sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the play won over audiences and ended up in New York, recently completing its off-Broadway engagement.

I am always impressed by the productions that the Playhouse on Park manages to put together with their shoestring budget in their lovely thrust theater in West Hartford. They seldom disappoint, thanks to the discipline and energy they devote to their productions. This past year, I particularly enjoyed director Tom Ridgely’s madcap take on the comedic version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” which featured a cast whose sense of fun was contagious along with some deliciously absurd sound effects. I enjoyed the opportunity to finally see a production of “Moonlight and Magnolias,” a comedy about the writing of the movie script of “Gone with the Wind,” and pleased that the theater sees fit to continue it exploration of the Shakespeare canon with a pared down but nonetheless comprehensive version of “Othello” set in some modern but unspecified war zone.

This should show that there is plenty of theatrical opportunities in Connecticut for both the most traditional and most venturesome audiences. I have not even included that various touring productions that fill some of the bigger houses in our major cities, nor cited any of the specialty productions that are mounted as part of festivals (The International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven) or by independent producers who rent out theaters for professional productions. There’s a lot coming up in 2014 and I’ll start telling you about it in the next few days.

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