Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Summer Stock and Upcoming Plays

We begin the summer season with another round of upcoming plays in New England. Some of these represent summer stock, an aspect of the New England theatre that is a particular favorite of mine.

Back when modern American theatre was flourishing, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the theaters would close in summer. There was no air conditioning then, and the wealthier patrons left the city in summertime anyway. Summer stock arose out of the two new features of modern life: the automobile, and summer vacationers. Summer stock gave young performers cutting their teeth in “stock” companies a chance to perform with major stars who went on the circuit after their engagements were concluded after the regular season ended. It allowed vacationers in remote Cape Cod, Maine, Vermont, the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, and along the Connecticut shore, to enjoy legitimate theater without heading for the big cities, and without the top hat and tails. Summer whites were all that was required, and straw boaters.

More on the history of summer theatre in New England as the summer progresses, along with a few current plays.

Here are what’s playing for the final shows of the regular season for some theaters, and the first shows of this season’s summer stock:

At the Ridgefield Theater Barn, Ridgefield, Connecticut we have the musical “Camelot” by Lerner and Lowe, from May 29th through June 27th, directed by Craig David Rosen.

The Berkshire Theater Festival of Stockbridge, Mass. presents “Faith Healer” written by Brian Friel and directed by Eric Hill, with David Adkins, Colin Lane, and Keira Naughton from May 21st through July 4th.

The Goodspeed Opera House of Haddam, Connecticut is running “Lucky Guy,” a new musical until June 14th. Their production of “42 Street” runs until June 28th.

The Lakewood Theater of Lakewood, Maine, which bills itself as America’s Oldest Summer Theater, is presenting “Rumors” by Neil Simon, directed by Jeff Quinn. The cast features Bart Shattuck, Jeralyn Shattuck, Cheryl Seamans, Cory King, MJ Clifford, Jeff Quinn, Gary Dorman, Christine Demchak and Jason Hilton. The show runs May 21, 22, 23, 28, 29, 30 8:00 p.m.; May 24th 4:00 p.m.; and May 27th 2:00 p.m . The Lakewood Theater is in Madison Maine, just north of Skowhegan.

The New Century Theatre of Northampton, Mass. opens its summer season with “Last of The Red Hot Lovers” by Neil Simon June 18-27th. The show is directed by Jack Neary.

The Peterborough Players, of Peterborough, New Hampshire present “I Remember Mama”, the classic by John van Druten on June 3, 5, and 6 at 8 p.m., and June 7th at 2 p.m. Some of the area’s best high school actors will work alongside professional actors Kathy Manfre, Ken Sheldon, and Michael Dell’Orto. Artistic Director Gus Kaikkonen directs.

Hartford, Connecticut’s The Bushnell presents the musical “The Color Purple” June 9th through 14th.

The Huntington in Boston presents “Pirates! (Or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder'd)” by Gilbert and Sullivan, directed by Gordon Greenberg in the Boston University Theater - main stage through June 14th.

The New London Barn Playhouse in New London, Connecticut opens its summer season with their “52nd Annual Straw Hat Revue” directed by Charles Massey June 11th through 14th. “Join the 2009 Intern Company as they introduce themselves and their formidable talent to our audiences. This barn tradition is free to the public but fills quickly so get your tickets early!”

The famed Ogunquit Playhouse begins its summer season in Ogunquit, Maine with the musical “A Chorus Line” featuring Lorenzo Lamas, through June 13th.

Westport, Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse presents “Children” by A. R. Gurney, directed by John Tillinger, through June 13th.

The heyday of summer stock in New England occurred in the 1940s through the 1960s, sometimes called the “straw hat circuit.” I hope you’ll just us in the weeks ahead for a look back, and a peek at what’s happening now, and share with us your memories of attending summer stock plays.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sharon Gless - Watch on the Rhine

Sharon Gless, probably best known for her role in the television series “Cagney & Lacey” (1982-88) made her stage debut at StageWest in Springfield, Mass., October 1989.

In an interview with Fred Sokol of The Springfield Sunday Republican, October 22, 1989, Gless confessed her fear at this new experience of performing live on stage.

“I go to sleep with my heart pounding. I wake up with my heart pounding.”

The play was Lillian Hellman’s “Watch on the Rhine”, directed by Eric Hill as part of StageWest’s 23rd season (for most of its existence, StageWest had been located in West Springfield, Mass.)

Gless played Sarah Müller, the role those more familiar with the 1943 film version was played by Bette Davis. Jan Triska played her husband Kurt, the Nazi hunter, and the venerable Academy Award-winning actress, Kim Hunter, played her formidable mother. Kent Broadhurst was the villainous informer Teck, and fans of 1960s daytime television would recognize Jacqueline Betrand as Anise, companion to Kim Hunter’s matriarch.

The intense drawing room drama was well suited to the intimate theater. One minor point worth noting is that perhaps one trick that kept the flow of the serious mood through the scene breaks and intermission was the use of stagehands dressed as household servants. Rather than scrambling in the half light (or dark) to strike props, the lights remained up, and “the maid” or “the butler” would stroll casually to retrieve or place whatever was necessary for the next scene.

Sharon Gless need not have been so terrified. “This is not fun yet” she replied in Sokol’s article during rehearsal. Her performance, and the play, was well done, a play that reflected America’s crisis of conscience in the days before World War II, and remains a timeless study of the risks both of ignoring political social forces, and the consequences of standing firm among them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Marilynn Miller at the Shubert, Boston

Marilynn Miller, one of the most popular stars of the Broadway musical in the 1920s and 1930s, began in vaudeville. Here we see her as part of the cast in “The Show of Wonders”, a series of musical sketches that went on tour in 1916 after its successful run at New York’s The Winter Garden.

This program is from Boston’s Shubert Theatre. Marilynn Miller was still a couple of years away from stardom when she joined the Ziegfeld Follies in 1918, where she shared billing with Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields, and Will Rogers. After that came her enormous hit show “Sally” with her signature song “Look for the Silver Lining” and Marilynn dropped one of the “N’s” in her name to become Marilyn, which because of her, became a very popular name of that era.

The Louis Alter mentioned in the cast later became a noted songwriter and composer for Broadway musicals, and a few early sound films. He collaborated with Oscar Hammerstein II, among others, and was an accompanist for Beatrice Lillie and Helen Morgan.

The Ernest Hare listed among the cast later found fame as a recording artist and singer on The Happiness Boys radio program, teaming up with Billy Jones. Maybe you remember their Interwoven Socks commercial (singing, “I’m Billy Jones/I’m Ernie Hare, We’re the Interwoven Pair/How do you doodle--oodle--oodle--oodle--do?).

Okay. Maybe you don’t remember that.

These performers had long and varied careers, but most of them never became stars. For this night in Boston in November of 1917, they were the pride of producers Lee and J.J. Shubert, and slayed (or attempted to slay) the audience in scenes with such descriptions as “In a Pullman Car”, and “The Oriental Bazaar” and “On the Beach.”

Marilynn Miller, Sidney Phillips and Arthur Davis sang a song called “Wedding Bells.” Patsy O’Hearn led the troupe of dancers in a song called “When Pavlova Starts Bucking and Winging.” Willie Howard gave out with “Yiddisha Butterfly.” Sidney Phillips, Virginia Smith, and a gaggle of chorus girls sang “Pajama Girlie.”

It was a different era in musicals, long before musical plays ever followed a single storyline, or when the songs forwarded the plot. That would wait for Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart.

For now, it was a bit of fluff during the grim days seven months after the United States entered World War I.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Corse Payton at the Court Square Theatre

Corse Payton arrived in Springfield, Mass. with his stock company in 1915 to play at the Court Square Theatre. He billed himself as “America’s Best Bad Actor.” Rather than keep the crowds away, this unlikely label seemed to attract them, if only out of curiosity.

Born in the 1860s, Payton was a Midwesterner who joined a traveling circus as a young man, and by 1900 had had enough touring through the country to settle down in Brooklyn and bought himself a theater and founded a stock company. Some future film stars got their start with Payton, including Mary Pickford, Ed Wynn, Fay Bainter, and Dorothy and Lillian Gish.

In August, 1915 at the Court Square Theatre, Corse Payton and his stock company, which included some of his relatives, like his brother, Claude, presented what the playbill labeled “the absorbing drama” called “Madame X.”

The teenaged girl who went to this performance at the Court Square Theatre wrote in pencil on top of the program “went with Agnes - cried a lot.”

Hopefully, the girls cried because it was such an absorbing drama, and not because Payton really was such a bad actor.

This photo of the Court Square Theatre here is from the Library of Congress, from the Detroit Publishing Company, taken sometime between 1900 and 1910.

The Court Square Theatre opened in 1892. Most of the theatre greats played here, the Barrymores, Helen Hayes, each in their season and generation. It was closed in 1955, demolished two years later.

Here is a shot of what remains of the Court Square block. For more on the Court Square Theatre, have a look at this blog post by Mark T. Alamed in his terrific “Exploring Western Mass” blog, and also here at Cinema Treasures for more history on the Court Square.