Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Out of Town Tryouts - "Sing Out, Sweet Land"

One aspect of New England’s rich tradition in theatre lies in its proximity to New York City. We are sometimes the land of the Out of Town Tryouts for new Broadway plays.

This could have been more than unusually daunting back in the day, since New Englanders had the reputation (much more then than now, I expect), of “sitting on their hands” or not being very generous with applause.

However one out of town tryout was well received on November 9, 1944. A brand new musical came to The Bushnell in Hartford called “Sing Out, Sweet Land.” Starring Alfred Drake, who had just enjoyed enormous success starring in “Oklahoma!” the previous year, this new musical was compared to “Oklahoma!” in its folksy examination of American history through popular music.

Among its featured performers was Burl Ives, who sang his trademark “Foggy, Foggy Dew,” “Blue Tail Fly”, and “Rock Candy Mountain.” Negro spirituals, folk music, Tin Pan Alley tunes all flowed through this musical which opened on Broadway the following month, and ran 102 performances, closing in March 1945.

Time Magazine, however, panned the show when it was on Broadway, writing in January 1945, “What should have been an exciting show remains, at best, a pleasant song recital.”

But Hartford loved it, according to the New York Times review of November 10, 1944, which compared the show favorably to “Oklahoma!”

“A delighted audience of more than 3,000” enjoyed the musical parade of history through “energetic singing and dancing.” The book was by Walter Kerr, the score by Ellie Siegmeister. Hartford did not sit on its hands this time, if Time Magazine did.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Upcoming Plays

At the Goodspeed Opera House of Haddam, Connecticut, the musical comedy “A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” continues through to November 29th.

At the Merrimack Repertory Theatre of Lowell, Massachusetts, “The Seafarer” a hilarious and chilling Irish tale of the sea opened last week and runs through November 8th.

At The Shubert of New Haven, Connecticut, the riotous “The 39 Steps” opens November 5th and runs through November 7th. This Broadway smash is described as what happens when you “mix a Hitchcock masterpiece with a juicy spy novel, add a dash of Monty Python.” A cast of four plays over 150 characters.

At the American Repertory Theatre, using the Old Lincoln School in Brookline, Mass., a unique theatre experience in an unusual telling of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

Award-winning British theater company Punchdrunk makes its U.S. debut with “Sleep No More”, an immersive production inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, told through the lens of a Hitchcock thriller.

“The Old Lincoln School in Brookline, Massachusetts, will be exquisitely transformed into an installation of cinematic scenes that evoke the world of Macbeth. You, the audience, have the freedom to roam the environment and experience a sensory journey as you choose what to watch and where to go. Rediscover the childlike excitement of exploring the unknown in this unique theatrical adventure.”

At the New Hampshire Theatre Project in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Edward Albee’s “Seascape” opens November 12th and runs through November 29th. Directed by Blair Hundertmark.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Oklahoma!" Kicks off Post-WWII Season

The first post-World War II theatre season in New England got off to a rousing start with what had been a wartime favorite in New York, “Oklahoma!”

This first celebrated pairing of the music and lyrics of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II opened at Hartford’s Bushnell Memorial Hall October 15, 1945, and played for a week. This road company featured James Alexander as Curly, Mary Hatcher as Laurey, former vaudevillian Mary Marlo as Aunt Eller, and Dorothea MacFarland as Ado Annie (who had understudied Celeste Holm in the New York production). Richard H. Gordon played Jud Fry.

While wartime privations continued in Great Britain, and the European continent and Asia would take years to recover from the war’s devastation, Americans were seemingly already shedding the horror of the world’s largest and most terrible conflict, and were moving on to an unknown modern world with a vengeance. An ad in the program for new perfume sold at Hartford’s famed department store, G. Fox & Co. (see more on G. Fox & Co. in my New England Travels blog), called “Yanky Clover” sold with a dress inspired by “Oklahoma!” and its depiction of “box luncheons, picnics under the stars…the romantic, nostalgic feeling of our own wonderful West.” See Toiletries, street floor.

That romantic nostalgic feeling might be fleeting when the new realities of post-war life set in, some exciting, some foreboding. For now, it was “Oklahoma!” in Hartford, where the cheap seats in the second balcony went for 90 cents, and most expensive orchestra seats would cost you $3.00.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Comedy Comes to the Boston Museum

Back in the days before theatre was acceptable, the Boston Museum on Tremont Street staged dramatic performances such as John Wilkes Booth in “Romeo and Juliet”, as well as other cultural presentations. Calling the theater a museum somehow made it more legitimate, as if Shakespeare performed in a building called a theater would be déclassé.

The Boston Museum was also really a museum, however, with art and natural sciences exhibits. One wonders if any pretense to culture was blown out of the water when The Dalys came to town.

Above is an ad from Byrne’s Dramatic Times of October 18, 1884, announcing the two-week engagement of The Dalys at the Boston Museum beginning November 3rd. Their show was “their now famous athletic comedy” called “The Vacation - or- Harvard vs. Yale”.

Perhaps “athletic” was used for what would later be termed “slapstick”, but this was such a novelty at the prestigious Boston Museum that the ad declared, “The only comedy on earth that ever played an engagement at the Boston Museum in its regular season.” The show had come straight from a brief run at Tony Pastor’s in New York, billed as “the most pronounced hit of any comedy during the present season.”

The Dalys were a popular family of vaudeville performers in the late 19th century. Several siblings entered the business one by one, and eventually formed a troupe that appeared together in plays.

Author William Ellis Horton in his “About Stage Folks” (Free Press Printing Co., Detroit, 1902), gives us a bit of background on the performing Daly family. Brothers William and Timothy were song and dance men, later joining with Mort Emerson and Willis Clark to form the “Four King High Kickers”, which was, according to Horton, “at one time considered the strongest act of its kind in vaudeville.”

The siblings William, Thomas, Robert, and Daniel were joined by Thomas’ wife Lizzie Derious for the comedy “Vacation.” There were other brothers and sisters, either not involved in the theater, like their oldest brother Timothy, who was a prosperous merchant in Boston, or had their own acts, like sister Lizzie who was a dancer and married minstrel show man Billy Buckley.

At the time of Horton’s 1902 book, some 18 years after their appearance at the Boston Museum, we learn that Thomas had died from “the effects of a severe beating given to him by a cowardly set of ruffians” who were the stage hands at the Academy of Music in Chicago. There’s got to be more to that story.

Robert died of consumption, and sister Lizzie, now a widow, performed a dance act with her daughter Vinnie.

All the Daly siblings owned summer homes on Crescent Beach, back in the day before summer stock, when theatre folk took it easy during the summer months. The only “season” was the theatre season. They, or the ad men, called “Vacation” -- “The laughing success of the century.”

Note: the photo of the Boston Museum is from the Library of Congress, now in public domain.