Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Summer Theatre Summary - 1940

The first summer theater is believed to have begun in the 1890s in Denver, Colorado. But like most new inventions, the public was not exposed to this new entertainment, at least not in very large numbers, for a long while, not until the late 1920s and early 1930s. This is when more people could afford to leave the sweltering cities in the summer. This is when they began to vacation in the country, and this is when the automobile first made that journey a bit easier. This is when those lush and lovely locales in the mountains or by the sea provided theater entrepreneurs the opportunity to push their own unique product to the vacationers.

In June 1940, Theatre Arts magazine celebrated the first decade of summer theatre with an article by author and theater manager, Warren P. Munsell, Jr., who noted, “It is no longer a quaint idea to pop out to the country in July and take in a straw hat show.” He rejoiced that now it was a commonplace thing to do. He noted that “actors, like everybody else, like to get out of the city in the hot weather. Unlike everybody else, in their spare time actors like to act.”

Interestingly, Munsell observed that even at this time, slowly over the preceding decade of the Great Depression, the old-style repertory theater was being altered by the presence of big-name stars from Hollywood. If the audience was asked to pay the enormous sum of $2.75 a ticket to see Henry Fonda live on stage, then by golly, they would expect to see an entire season of big stars rounding out the casts. Munsell notes that such demands by the audience, no longer content with the backwoods repertory, put a huge strain on the theater’s coffers, so much that summer theaters are “generally close to bankruptcy.”

He notes that audiences prefer familiar titles of recent Broadway hits (at the time of this article, it was “You Can’t Take it With You” and “Susan and God”). Giving the public what it wants also extends to what he calls his hesitancy “to offer Oscar Wilde to an audience comprised mainly of farmers.”

He notes comedy is a bigger draw than drama, and notes the risks of trying out new plays as opposed to presenting familiar chestnuts. Except for the price of the tickets, he could be talking about today. Munsell closes his article with a warm summation at which we might smile, “But if, in its maturity, the straw hat circuit seems to have less spontaneity, and to be of less value as an incubator for Broadway plays and Hollywood protégés than before, it has evolved its own special, significant function. It is another outlet for theatre. For summer theatres are supported on the whole by communities a varying percentage of which have no contact with the stage.”

That, too, may still be true, although the big cities are not so far away anymore, just a few exits down the superhighway for most people. But with so many competing sources of entertainment, is live theater likely to be any more popular today for an evening or afternoon’s entertainment than it was in the Great Depression when money was scarce, but many more small communities had a tradition of theatre?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Singin' in the Rain" - Ogunquit Playhouse

Ogunquit Playhouse brings to life “Singin’ in the Rain” with elaborate sets, complex technical effects, and a cast whose energy and talent impress and delight. Ogunquit has a huge show in “Singin’ in The Rain,” and a huge hit.

Joey Sorge, Amanda Lea Lavergne, and Jon Peters seem to almost channel Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor of the original film on which this stage musical is based. The 1952 landmark movie has become so iconic that a stage musical must of necessity evoke memories of the film, and for this production we therefore have the iconic Gene Kelly pose on the street lamp, umbrella in hand, by Joey Sorge, the Donald O’Connor inspired frenetic sight gags during the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number performed by Jon Peters, and Amanda Lea Lavergne’s “All I Do is Dream of You” bursting from a cake a’la Debbie Reynolds.

Particularly impressive for the audience to remember is that Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor were not singing at the top of their lungs while doing those impressive dance routines; they were lip-syncing to playback. On the stage, everything is live (though the tinny sound of the mics is somewhat distracting), and Sorge, Lavergne, and Peters don’t have the luxury of mouthing to playback or re-takes. They give it everything they’ve got, and what they’ve got is great. Their soaring voices and snappy tap dancing may have evoked the actors of the original film, but no mimicry was used or needed. They let us know from the start that, though this show might have been inspired by an old movie, this was live theater in all its immediacy and energy, its ability to excite and involve.

Other moments inspired by the film is the scene of the gossamer scarf of dancer Cyd Charisse enveloping Gene Kelly during the “Broadway Rhythm” number, and it is replicated with an interesting and creative variation. In the “Good Morning” number, at the moment Sorge, Lavergne, and Peters leap in unison onto the back of the couch and tip it over, the audience responded with impromptu applause, because that is one of the most memorable moments of that dance number in the film, and they were delightfully surprised to see it replicated on stage.

Amy Bodnar, who plays the ditzy diva Lina Lamont, rates a special mention for her fabulous performance. One would have to go a long way to top the comic antics of Jean Hagen in the original film, but Ms. Bodnar does it. I think whenever I see the 1952 from now on, I will be reminded with a warm memory of Ms. Bodnar’s performance. She is utterly hysterical in each line, each pose, managing to be both exasperatingly haughty and charmingly endearing. She was singled out for a standing ovation at the conclusion of the performance I saw, and well deserved.

Celia Tackaberry, who doubled as Phoebe Dinsmore the much-put-upon vocal coach, and Dora Bailey, the gossip columnist guiding us through the Hollywood premieres, gave us a touch of zany spoofing.

A fascinating, and highly entertaining aspect to this production is the use of silent film style film sequences of the actors shown on a screen in several scenes that meld with the live action and illustrate the sometimes wacky film world of the late 1920s. This was through the efforts of one of the new sponsors of the Playhouse, Video Creations. We see the difficulty transferring the accustomed silent film story to the new and groundbreaking sound film technology, not always with expected results. The “movie” clips were inventive and really funny.

And of course, it rained on stage.

Boy, did it rain. A spectacular special effect, this must have been a terrific challenge, and audience was taken away by it, and Joey Sorge leaped and splashily tap danced through puddles before our eyes. Bradford T. Kenney, Executive Artistic Director and Jayme McDaniel, director/choreographer are to be congratulated for the triumph “Singin’ in the Rain” represents for Ogunquit Playhouse. Musical director for this show is Matthew Smedal, who led the orchestra through the familiar, and some unfamiliar original numbers by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed.

“Singin’ in the Rain” runs at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Ogunquit, Maine through September 12th. Make every effort to see this show if you can; it’s terrific. If you’re lucky enough to catch it, let us know what you think.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Upcoming Plays - August

Upcoming plays for August 2009:

The Barrington Stage Company of Pittsfield, Mass. is currently running Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” through August 29th.

The Berkshire Theatre Festival down the road in Stockbridge is running “Ghosts” through August 29th.

Across the state and by the sea, the Cape Playhouse will present the Ken Ludwig comedy, “Moon Over Buffalo” beginning August 17th through the 29th.

The Ivoryton Playhouse, in Ivoryton, Connecticut is currently running Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple”, directed by Lawrence Thelen, through August 30th.

New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington Valley Theater will present the musical favorite “Hello Dolly!” August 18th through the 30th.

Connecticut’s New London Barn Playhouse cast off last night with the Cole Porter shipboard musical “Anything Goes”, running through August 23rd.

The Weston Playhouse of Vermont gives us “Musical of Musicals - The Musical! for its Vermont premiere. Opening tonight, the show runs through September 6th, with music by Eric Rockwell, Lyrics by Joanne Bogart, book by Eric Rockwell & Joanne Bogart. According to the website: “is a send-up of some of the musical theatre’s greatest composing teams. The time-honored tale of a damsel in distress is told by four actors in five musical styles. From Cats to Mame and from the cornfield to the cabaret…”

The Williamstown Theater Festival of Williamstown, Mass. also opens tonight with “Quartermaine’s Terms”, running through August 23rd. Written by Simon Gray, directed by Maria Aitken, this is “heart-felt 1960s comedy about an endearingly eccentric group of English teachers in Cambridge whose insatiable quest for knowledge has masked their secret longings for passion, romance, and true happiness.”

Lastly, at Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse, another opening night tonight for the movie-now-stage musical “Singing in the Rain” based on the MGM film starring Joey Sorge, Amanda Lea LaVergne, and Jon J. Peterson, and running through September 12th. Next week, we’ll review this Oguinquit Playhouse production.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ethel Barrymore and the Democracy of Summer Theatre

One of the most fascinating and irresistible aspects of summer theatre is the prevailing panache of democracy not clashing, but complimenting stage “royalty.”

Here we have an ad from a Cape Playhouse program from August 1935 announcing the upcoming appearance of the legendary Ethel Barrymore in “The Constant Wife.” Her name is followed by a group of lesser actors, most of whom are probably unknown to most of us today, but who for that moment are noted forever as colleagues of the great Ethel Barrymore.

Ethel Barrymore, Library of Congress photo.

The producer, Raymond Moore, also boldly proclaims with equal enthusiasm, a couple of kiddy shows featuring a magician and some puppets. Ethel had to share the bill with puppets, but probably took it in her stride.