Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Little Theatre of Fall River, Massachusetts

Theatre is a magical part of community life. Large cities boast theatrical venues as part of their urban charm. Regional theaters and summer stock companies are extolled as among the virtues of vacation destinations.

And then we have the largely un-sung but enormously important community theatre world of semi-professional and amateur meeting after work for the challenge and the fun.

One such company, or community we may call it because that’s what it really is: The Little Theatre of Fall River, Massachusetts.

Like many community theatres, this organization was for decades essentially nomadic, performing plays in any local venue that was available and it could afford. Even today, the Little Theatre splits its time between the renovated old firehouse, pictured above, and a community college auditorium.

Have a look at the group’s website for a fun history of the intrepid players. I especially love the description of how early productions at the Women’s Club allowed for no wing space and how stage right opened right out to a fire escape, and how audiences had to wait patiently while sets were changed. The writer notes, “The casts and stage crews were hardier then, as were the audiences.”

The Little Theatre performed “Pygmalion” and “Pride and Prejudice”, all manner of historical costume dramas many smaller groups tend to shy away from these days for their difficulty and expense. Impressive, when you consider this group was formed in 1936, the middle of the Great Depression.

Their next production is “Rent” to be performed at the Margaret L. Jackson Performing Arts Center at Bristol Community College in Fall River. The show runs October 7th through the 10th. Have a look at the Little Theatre website here for details on show times.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lizzie May Ulmer on Tour

This ad from Byrnes’ Dramatic Times announces the beginning of a new season with Lizzie May Ulmer in the lead of “Dad’s Girl”, a part she would play in traveling stock for several weeks, if not years, to come. Her tour had its ups and downs.

The play, as the ad tells us, was written for her by Mr. E. J. Swartz, who was a well known journalist as well as playwright of the day. The play opened in Boston in August of 1884. We might assume that the North Scituate, Massachusetts address for G. T. Ulmer, the company’s actor/manager, could be the Ulmer summer digs, in this era before summer stock in small towns.

The play is set in New England, and a famous scene takes place on Nantasket Beach, that finger of sand that stretches out into Massachusetts Bay, just north of North Scituate.

Miss Ulmer plays Malvina Hoskins, a New England girl adopted by a grizzled adventurer from the wild West. “Dad” has made his pile and is settling down in the refined East with his tomboy charge. The ad calls it a “New England Ideal Play” and we can also assume that stereotypes abounded.

Following the play on a few stops around the country through newspaper reviews, we glimpse the astonishingly hard life the stock players had. Not only did they have to brave audiences and critics, but endured a rigorous schedule of arduous traveling.

After two weeks in Boston, the company headed for the Fourteenth Street Theatre in New York City. The New York Times of September 5, 1884 referred to Miss Ulmer as “a young actress seeking a ‘metropolitan reputation’ in a “felicitously entitled ‘Dad’s Girl’.” The slightly condescending “your playing with the big boys now” attitude fails to note that Lizzie May Ulmer had already trod the boards in traveling stock for many years, and had already had her portrait painted by Nelson A. Primus in Boston. Painted in 1876, her portrait is now part of the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford. Primus was one of the eminent African-American artists of his time.

The painting shows a dark-haired young woman, quite girlish, with an almost impish expression on her face that may have served her well in the number of child waifs and ingénue roles for which she was famous.

In “Dad’s Girl” her robust curiosity and courage helps to solve several thefts and murders. Oh, and she falls in love with a Good and Honest Man.

The review in the New York Times on September 9th hammers both the play and the actress.

The central figure in a not-over ambitious drama entitled “Dad’s Girl” cannot be said to have achieved brilliant success. To what extent this is owing to the deficiencies of Mr. E. J. Swarz’s remarkable picture of New England life, and in how great a degree to the actress’s own shortcomings cannot yet be decided. Miss Ulmer’s character is that of a slangy young woman whose heart is in the right place. If we are not mistaken, the same character has been seen before in various guises. The play is utterly improbable and is devoid of literary value. Two murders and any number of thefts are connected with the plot of “Dad’s Girl”, and its most striking scene is a view of Nantasket Beach at night, with not a soul in sight to enjoy the dazzling effect of the light of a monster moon falling upon a placid sea. Mr. Leslie Allen played a conventional old man in a conventional manner, and Mr. George C. Boniface imparted some interest to the character of an unaccountable idiot.

Still, he hands a valentine at the end:

“Last night’s audience found a great deal to admire in Miss Ulmer’s acting.”

Either the play improved, or the critics’ mood did, by the time the company reached Charlotte, North Carolina two weeks later. The Daily Mirror of October 4, 1884 noted of the September 22nd performance, that “Dad’s Girl” played to “crowded houses. Miss Ulmer has made herself a favorite, and she will always be assured of a good house here.”

On the way to Charlotte, they stopped for five days to perform at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C.

However, when they played in Pittsburg the following February, The Sporting Life newspaper of Philadelphia reported:

A great misfortune occurred to Miss Lizzie May Ulmer at Pittsburg, PA on Wednesday night when she was playing in “Dad’s Girl.” At the close of the performance she fainted, and on regaining consciousness she was found to be totally blind.” This was said to be a relapse from a long illness she had in St. Paul.

When “Dad’s Girl” came back to New York, this time playing at the Third Avenue Theatre. The New York Times noted:

This was her first appearance in several weeks, as her season was interrupted at Pittsburgh some time ago by sickness. She performed her part with considerable dash and spirit, and evidently pleased the audience, which was large enough to fill half the house.

Dash and spirit, but only a half-full house. So goes another year of bringing Nantasket Beach in all its moonlit glory to every great city and whistlestop.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Upcoming Plays for September and October

Here are some upcoming plays for September and October, 2010:

At the Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, Massachusetts: Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”

Directed by Julianne Boyd, the show runs October 6, 2010 - October 24, 2010.

“The Crucible was written in response to Joseph McCarthy’s blacklisting of Americans suspected of being Communists in the 1950s. Set in 1692, The Crucible focuses on the witch hunts in Salem, Massachusetts where a community is engulfed by hysteria after a group of teenage girls, accused of witchcraft, begin naming names. A timeless classic and one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.”

At the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Massachusetts:

The world premiere of “No Wake” written by William Donnelly, directed by Kyle Fabel.

“An estranged couple struggles to cope with the death of their daughter in William Donnelly’s world premiere play. Edward and Rebecca have moved on since their divorce- she to a new husband and he to a series of failed relationships. However, when an unexpected tragedy brings them back together, they’re forced to navigate a web of grief and guilt that leads to tears, laughter, and, ultimately, hope. At once deeply touching and filled with humor, ‘No Wake’ takes an honest look at the grieving process and the unexpected consequences it can bring.”

At the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, “Carnival!” runs through September 18th.

“The magical and heart-warming tale of a naïve young woman who eagerly joins a traveling circus. Surrounded by a riot of acrobats and jugglers, music makers and clowns, she is dazzled at first by the troupe’s manipulative magician. In the end she finds happiness with a disillusioned puppeteer who can only express himself through his delightful puppets. Based on the film “Lili” and with songs like “Love Makes the World Go Round” and "Her Face," Carnival! casts a romantic spell over the entire audience.”

Music and lyrics by Bob Merrill, book by Michael Stewart.

At The Hartford Stage, Hartford, Connecticut, William Shakespeare’s “Antony & Cleopatra” will be presented from October 7th through November 7th.

Directed by Tina Landau

“Joining critically acclaimed Shakespearean actor John Douglas Thompson as Mark Antony is the incomparable Kate Mulgrew (Broadway’s Equus, TV's Star Trek: Voyager and Ryan’s Hope) as Cleopatra, returning to Hartford Stage for the first time since her memorable portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in Tea at Five!”

The Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, Connecticut presents “Driving Miss Daisy”
September 29th through October 17th.

The Majestic Theater in West Springfield, Massachusetts presents “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs through October 17th.

The Merrimack Repertory Theater presents “The Complete World of Sports (abridged)” by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, featuring the Reduced Shakespeare Company runs through October 3rd.

“The “bad boys of abridgement” sprint through the world of sports at record-breaking speed in this brand-new championship comedy. From the earliest cavemen playing “Neanderthal in the Middle” to your own kid’s soccer practice, it’ll be a marathon of madness and mayhem as the entire history of world sports explodes in a tour de farce of physical theatre.”

The New Repertory Theatre of Watertown, Massachusetts presents David Mamet’s “Boston Marriage” in the Charles Moseisan Theater through October 3rd.

“In this biting comedy by David Mamet, Anna and Claire, two “women of fashion” who have long resided together, scheme to obtain the objects of their desire. Anna maintains their upper-middle class Victorian lifestyle as the mistress of a wealthy man who provides her with a healthy income and a distinctive emerald necklace for her companionship. When Claire’s attentions stray from Anna, Anna devises the “perfect plan” that grows in outlandishness, even as it backfires and the innocent parlor maid gets caught in the crossfire.”

The North Shore Music Theatre of Beverly, Massachusetts presents “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” September 21st through October 10th.

“Based on the popular 1988 MGM film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS centers on two con men living on the French Riviera – the suave and sophisticated Lawrence Jameson, who makes his lavish living by talking rich ladies out of their money; and a small-time crook named Freddy Benson, who, more humbly, swindles women by waking their compassion with fabricated stories about his grandmother’s failing health. After meeting on a train, they unsuccessfully attempt to work together only to find that this small French town isn’t big enough for the two of them. So they make a bet: the first one to swindle $50,000 from a young heiress, triumphs and the other must leave town. What follows are a series of schemes, masquerades and double-crosses in which nothing may ever be exactly what it seems.”

Book by Jeffrey Lane, music and lyrics by David Yazbek.

Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” starring Christopher Lloyd plays at the Paramount Theatre in Rutland, Vermont September 28th.

At the Portland Stage, Portland, “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps”, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan runs September 28th through October 4th.

“Mix an Alfred Hitchcock classic with a juicy spy novel, add a dash of vintage Monty Python and you have The 39 Steps, a fast-paced whodunit for anyone that loves the magic of theater. This Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning treat is packed with nonstop laughs, over 150 characters – played by a talented cast of four – handcuffs, missing fingers, and some good old-fashioned romance.”

The American Repertory Theater of Cambridge, Massachusetts presents “Cabaret” through October, featuring Amanda Plummer at The Emcee. Book by Joe Masteroff

The Huntington Theatre presents “Bus Stop” by William Inge, directed by Nicholas Martin September 17th through October 17th at the Boston University Theatre.

“A snowstorm strands a bus outside of Kansas City, and its passengers — including a stubborn, lovestruck cowboy and the nightclub singer he hopes to marry – seek shelter and warmth at a roadside diner. The motley crew spends one night together, filled with bluster, heartache, and laughter, searching for love in this classic American comedy.”

The Ridgefield Theater Barn of Ridgefield, Connecticut presents Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” Directed by Matt Austin, the show runs through October 2nd.

“The story revolves around the escalating problems of a middle-aged couple living on Second Avenue on the Upper East Side of New York City. Mel Edison has just lost his job after many years and now has to cope with being unemployed at middle age. An intense summer heat wave and a prolonged garbage strike just exacerbates his plight to no end as he and his wife Edna deal with noisy neighbors, loud sounds emanating from Manhattan streets up to their apartment and even a robbery of their apartment during broad daylight. Neil Simon walks a tightrope between comedy and drama in this bittersweet production.”

The Winnipesaukee Playhouse, Weirs Beach, Laconia, New Hampshire presents “Love Letters” by A. R. Gurney, staring Broadway veteran Carolyn Kirsch, October 8th through 10th.

“Letters exchanged over a lifetime between two people who grew up together but went their separate ways teach us what is implied is as revealing and meaningful as what is actually written.”

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Vermont Actors' Repertory Theatre Play Writing Contest

The Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre are now opening their “Fifth Annual Nor’Eastern Play Writing Contest”.

Sponsored by the Killington/Rutland Holiday Inn,

“This is the fifth year of world premiere staged One-Act Play performances to be presented in the Brick Box at the beautiful Paramount Theatre in downtown Rutland, Vermont. The Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre in its exciting fifth season is again presenting the Nor’Eastern Play Writing Contest with showcase productions of the three winning scripts on May 06 and 07, 2011. This contest features the work of three outstanding regional playwrights. Each script goes through a rigorous screening process of two panels in a blind reading. The scripts with the highest scores are submitted to the final reader who selects the three scripts to be showcased.”

Entry information is available at or can be requested by writing to:

The Nor’Eastern Play Writing Contest
Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre
PO Box 580
Rutland, Vermont 05702

Or by emailing at:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Finian's Rainbow" at the Ivoryton Playhouse

Go see a play or musical at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, Connecticut.

What follows is a review of their recent production of the musical “Finian’s Rainbow”, but the upshot is: go to the Ivoryton Playhouse. You will be delighted. You will likely even be amazed.

To be sure, New England summer theatre has its own particular charm, as I’ve stated often enough, I suppose, in this blog. Upon entering the Ivoryton Playhouse with its worn wooden floors, its simple seating chairs, and the rustic quality that is genuine, borne of decades, and not manufactured to be retro and decorative, one might lower one’s expectations for a performance that is, like the theater, serviceable, and good enough.

On the contrary. The show was as good as any I’ve ever seen in any theater, including Broadway, and better than most of them. It may be that the simple and whimsical nature of this show, “Finian’s Rainbow”, about a rascally Irish immigrant and his daughter, and a buffoonish leprechaun, and a flock of good-hearted villagers seeking redress from the local villain lends itself beautifully to this small-town theater.

Certainly, the minimalist and somewhat cartoonish set designed by Tony Andrea implies that we are required from the outset to suspend disbelief. However, the creative scrim effect and the lighting brings a poignant “reality” to the fairy tale, the way an impressionistic painting makes us recognize what we already know and wonder about what we had missed.

Another terrific illusion is created by the effect of the dual pianos in the pit, which give a richness that makes a larger combo or orchestra surprisingly unnecessary. The fabulous voices fill in the rest.

R. Bruce Connelly (whom your children will probably not recognize out of his costume as Barkley the dog on Sesame Street), is delightful as the rogue Finian, who steals a leprechaun’s pot of gold to put into action his own unique theory of economics.

Kathleen Mulready plays his feisty daughter, Sharon. She has a beautiful singing voice, with comedic timing that makes her at times appear as roguish as her troublesome father. She is well-matched with John Rochette, who plays Woody, the villager’s hero and best hope for defeating their oppressors. With his masterful baritone and striking good looks, Rochette’s scenes with Ms. Mulready, particularly during the number “Old Devil Moon” are sensual and moving.

Michael Nathanson is hysterical as Og the leprechaun, and Patryce Williams as one of the townsfolk steals the show in her featured number “Necessity.” Both these actors give strong, likable performances that fairly leap off the stage. The rest of the leaping is left to dancer Tessa Grunwald as Susan the Silent, who expresses herself wistfully in ballet.

Larry Lewis likewise plays a memorable Senator Billboard Rawkins, the villain of the piece who, after a little magic, has a change of heart. One note about Jamison Daniels, who plays the Sheriff when he’s not doubling as one of the townspeople: that high-pitched whine he uses as the sheriff that sounds like a teenaged boy’s voice changing is a hoot.

Costumes by Pam Puente, are evocative of the lazy summertime small town South, though Sharon’s dress stands out from the garden of small print dresses and aprons on the other ladies by its colorful stripes suggesting a rainbow.

The entire cast, including a good-sized ensemble, sings together with terrifically tight harmony and vocal precision. And the voices are beautiful. Director Julia Kiley and musical director John S. DeNicola are to be commended, as well as choreographer Schuyler Beeman for the cohesion in this production. It is fine-tuned and glorious to behold.

This is why I say this production is as good or better than others I’ve seen. There is always something overdone or underdone, even if in a small way, that happens in many theatre productions. Not this time. There’s nothing slipshod, uneven or out of place about this show.

There is a façade of simplicity, even nostalgia that remains and beguiles. Perhaps it is because there is not a lot of technical trickery, bells and whistles or eye candy to distract, thereby letting the pure and undiluted talent stand on its own merit. This is after all, summer theatre in a small town.

Perhaps it is because this show innocently harkens back to a time when tobacco was a time-honored crop and the dangers of its use in smoking were if not unknown, were at least not discussed. This production slings a modern-day joke into the dialogue, and thereby a connection to modern sensibilities, by having the townsfolk hack in a hearty community cough when discussing their treasured tobacco crop, on which they pin their hopes for economic independence.

Perhaps it is because this show reflects a time when we innocently thought racism could be vanquished merely by standing up to it. There were also chuckles from the audience when the bigoted Senator moans, “Ever since my family came to this country, we’ve had trouble with immigrants.”

In today’s political climate when racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry can so strongly surface over an argument, particularity when that bigotry is being manipulated and exploited, we might wonder if an innocent show like “Finian’s Rainbow” is out of date.

Somehow, here at the Ivoryton Playhouse, it is not out of date. It is surprisingly relevant and provides a bond not only to our cultural past, but our theatrical heritage. A painted wooden stage. A little puff of smoke from dry ice. Lights up. Lights down.

On the walls, a gallery of 8 x 10 photographs of some of the famous actors who played here. There are a number of them; after all, plays were first produced here in 1930 (the building dates back to 1911). Some of these actors were already famous when they played here, summers ago. Some were newcomers, like young Katharine Hepburn, who appeared in several shows in the summer of 1931.

Go see a play or musical at the Ivoryton Playhouse. It’s not just theatre in the summer anymore, but a produces a year-round schedule of professional theatre. For more on the rest of the 2010 schedule, have a look at this website. “Finian’s Rainbow” runs until this Sunday, September 5th.