Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review - Broadway by the Year - Berkshire Theatre Festival

There is something rustically elegant and exquisitely symbolic about the wooden screen doors that gently swing open to the Berkshire Playhouse. They are an effortless gesture to the heritage and style of New England summer theatre. It is as if the building itself, designed by Stanford White in 1888 and now on the National Register of Historic Places, is both conscious and yet demure about its prestigious history.

Inside, a more pointed display is on hand with a number of headshots from stars of the past several decades, and period posters to which the patrons are riveted when they are not out catching the summer breeze on the porch, or having a drink on lawn.

The Berkshire Theatre Festival began in 1928, and celebrates its 81st season. Currently “Broadway By the Year” is playing here, and like the old wooden playhouse, makes the past real and relevant.

Musical review series created for New York’s The Town Hall by Scott Siegel, focused this time on the year 1930 and 1964. Mr. Siegel wrote the narrative which accompanies the songs, and hosted. His remarks were insightful, humorous, and along with his depth and knowledge of Broadway history, showed a warm admiration for the hits and stars of the past that the audience clearly shared and appreciated.

The singers were Scott Coulter, who also directed; as well as Christiane Noll, and Kerry O’Malley. Piano accompaniment was provided by Ross Patterson, musical director.

The 1930 segment featured songs from “Girl Crazy,” “The New Yorkers”, “Three’s a Crowd”, “Simple Simon”, “Nina Rosa”, “The 9:15 Review”, and “Strike Up the Band.”

The 1964 portion featured songs from “Fiddler on the Roof”, “High Spirits”, “Anyone Can Whistle,”, “Funny Girl”, and “Hello Dolly!”

Mr. Coulter’s mellow tenor was accompanied to great effect by Ms. O’Malley’s powerful, rich voice with its great range, and Ms. Noll’s beautiful high soprano. At a few turns in the show, most notably during “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler”, and “I Got Rhythm” the trio exhibited terrific close harmony.

First act costumes were formal and evocative of the era of 1930, and the second act boldly announced 1964 in the mod and colorful style, right down to Mr. Siegel’s multicolored tied and cummerbund, as if we’d all just gotten color TV.

Highlights included Ms. O’Malley’s second act opening shot-out-of-a-cannon rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, Ms. Noll’s tear-filled eyes at the end of “But Not For Me”, Ms. O’Malley’s lusty and fun “Home Sweat Heaven” sung on top of the piano, the soulful “Ribbons Down My Back” by Ms. Noll, and Mr. Coulter’s wistful “Anyone Can Whistle.”

The show continues through June 27th. It is a real treat, and well worth seeing. If you’ve seen it, let us know what you think.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Upcoming Summer Stock

Here are some more upcoming plays around New England as we launch into our season of summer theatre:

At the Acadia Repertory Theatre of Mt. Desert Island, Maine, “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher will be presented July 3rd through 19th.

Lakewood in Maine gives us the comedy “A Bad Year for Tomatoes” by John Patrick, directed by Stephanie E. G. Irwin. The show features Jeralyn Shattuck, Bart Shattuck, MJ Clifford, Larissa Gaias, Gary Dorman, Midge Merrill-Pomelow and Tim Pomelow. Dates are: June 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27 8:00 p.m.; June 21st 4:00 p.m.; June 24th 2:00 p.m. & 7:00 p.m.

New Century Theater of Northampton, Mass. presents “Other People's Money” July 2-11th. Written by Jerry Sterner, directed by Keith Langsdale.

The Peterborough Players of New Hampshire presents the comedy “Bad Dates” by Theresa Rebeck, June 17-28 th.

Connecticut’s New London Barn Theater is currently producing Ken Ludwig’s “Leading Ladies”, directed by Peter Hackett, June 16-June 21st, the farce about two out-of-work actors who disguise themselves as women in order to inherit a fortune.

The Ogunquit Playhouse of Maine presents “Shout!” the Mod Musical, June 17th through July 11th.

The Ridgefield Theater Barn of Ridgefield, Connecticut will produce “Expecting Houdini” by Sam Havens, July 10th through 18th, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m .

Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse is presenting the musical, “tick, tick…boom!”, book, music, & lyrics by Jonathan Larson June 23 - July 18th.

The Weston Playhouse, Weston, Vermont presents “Fully Committed” by Becky Mode, June 23rd through July 4th

Rhode Island’s Newport Playhouse is currently running the comedy “Breaking Legs” by Tom Dulack until July 12th. Directed by Martin Raymond, the cast includes Matt Siravo, Kyle Medeiros, Ed Carusi, Bing McGrath, Camille Terilli, Nishan Lawton, and Fred Davison. The show is about three Mafia bosses who want to invest in a play, but have a few changes to the script.

Finally, Berkshire Theatre Festival of Stockbridge, Mass. is presenting the musical review “Broadway By the Year” June 18th through June 27th. Next week, this blog will feature a review of this show.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Valley Players - Holyoke, Mass.

A fondly remembered summer theater company produced plays and musicals on the top of Mt. Tom in Holyoke, Massachusetts. An idyllic spot of picnic groves, restaurant, ballroom, dance pavilion, amusement park, and zoo, Mountain Park also featured a theater called the Casino. At one time, it was the home of what was reputed to be the largest summer theater in New England.

From 1941 through 1962, the Casino was home to The Valley Players, a theatre company which helped nurture, or even launch the careers of many young actors, Hal Holbrook among them, who first performed his famous one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight” here. Future Tony nominee and native of nearby Westfield Anne Pitoniak appeared here as well.

Mountain Park was created in the late 19th century when the first train and trolley and mountain tram cars made their way up Mt. Tom. An early vaudeville theater was built here, later replaced by the Casino. In 1911 the Casino Stock Company produced stage plays here, but folded after one season. Vaudeville acts and silent movies shown at the Casino drew in the crowds. Stage plays were attemped again in 1924, and a 1935 renovation of the Casino led to more plays here showcased by the Works Progress Administration (more on the WPA theatre project another time). One Depression-era member of the company was future film star Wendell Corey.

Carlton and Jean Guild created the Valley Players here in 1941. They had been involved in other New England summer theaters, and along with collegues Dorothy Crane, Lauren Gilbert and his wife Jackson Perkins, Walter Coy, Louise Mudgett and Joseph Foley, were looking for a site for a new company. All would function on the administrative staff or perform in many of the plays produced by the Valley Players, or both. Joseph Foley went on to do some live television, was Gabriel Gurney the principal for the first season of “Mr. Peepers”, until his untimely death in the summer of 1955 in Holyoke.

The Valley Players was an Equity stock company. During 1943 Mountain Park was closed due to the wartime gas rationing. The heyday for the Valley Players was throughout the 1950s (coinciding with what is generally perceived as the golden age of summer theatre in New England), but the dawn of the 1960s brought rising production costs, lower attendance, and the curtain was brought down in 1962 with Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.”

Mountain Park closed in 1987.

Here are a few programs from The Valley Players. “Bell, Book & Candle” with Hal Holbrook was the final production of 1953. “Holiday” from July 1954 featured Si, (later billed as Simon) Oakland, later seen in many future film and TV productions. Hal Holbrook also appeared in “The Velvet Glove” July 1953, one of his earliest appearances with The Valley Players. The following month he had a part in “The Happiest Days of Your Life”.

Ralph Edwards, who at the time was the host of the “Truth or Consequences” gameshow on radio, and would also be the host when this show eventually moved to television, appeared in “Nothing But the Truth” in August 1942.

I’d love to hear from anyone who attended a show by The Valley Players, or was involved in any way in their productions.

Note: the postcards of the Casino Theater are from the Imagine Museum website. These programs for The Valley Players came to me by way of an old family friend (and collectibles & antiques dealer) Gail Watson. My dearest thanks to her.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The American Theatre Wing

Coupling our launch of a series of blog posts about New England summer stock, and the upcoming Tony Awards, we note a local tie-in with the American Theatre Wing which co-produces, along with The Broadway League, the Tony Awards®.

The American Theatre Wing started out as part of the World War II Allied Relief Fund, which had roots in the Stage Women’s Relief Fund founded in 1939. One member of that group of theatrical women was Antoinette Perry, for whom the “Tony” is named. When the US entered the war, this group started the famed Stage Door Canteen to entertain servicemen.

Above we have a brochure published in 1942 by the American Theatre Wing War Service, Inc., and the Actors’ Fund of America, which was distributed in the program of a play presented by The Valley Players of Holyoke, Massachusetts. More on The Valley Players will be featured in posts in the weeks to come.

The pamphlet included information on the Stage Door Canteen and the work of the Actors’ Fund, which was to provide economic aid to the sick, aged, and indigent members of the acting profession. The Actors’ Fund was already over 60 years old. The Actors’ Fund supported the Actors’ Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey for aged actors and actresses, and also funded two cemeteries “for the final resting place of its people.” We were then coming out of the era long past when actors and actresses were regarded as disreputable vagabonds of dubious virtue, so any kindness towards them was a virtue.

Here is another notice by the Actors’ Fund placed in a 1956 program. By then the American Theatre Wing had transitioned from a wartime relief aid fund, to supporting education in the theatre, and by then the Tony Awards had been established.

The Valley Players was a professional summer theater begun in 1941, producing shows at the Mountain Park Casino in Holyoke, which had hosted various other road productions for at least a generation before that. Ensconced in the little theater on the highest mountain in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, The Valley Players seemed tenuously linked, despite its isolation, to the grander theatre world of New York.

They staged “Three’s a Family” August 6th through 11th, 1956 starring Jean Guild, John O’Connor, and Jacqueline Paige, and the producer’s notes in the program posted a thank you to all the patrons who, responding to a plea in a program from a show weeks earlier, donated a total of $815.61 to the Actors’ Fund of America to “provide relief and comfort to many of the acting profession who, because of age, illness or misfortune, are in need of assistance.”

The theatre is a big family sometimes, in a small world.

For more on the American Theatre Wing, have a look at this website.