Arts & Travel

Categories



A Theatrical Grand Tour

By:

A show biz junkie’s dream trip to Manhattan—and I make my Broadway debut!       I’m just back from a theater trip to the Northeast,  during which I made my first appearance on a Broadway stage, and attended a star-studded gala at the renowned Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut.   More about my Broadway  […]

November 10, 2009













A show biz junkie’s dream trip to Manhattan—and I make my Broadway debut!

 

 

 

I’m just back from a theater trip to the Northeast,  during which I made my first appearance on a Broadway stage, and attended a star-studded gala at the renowned Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut.

 

More about my Broadway  “debut”  later.  But the highlight of my trip was the evening at the Westport playhouse. Productions at this 80-year-old theater have featured such distinguished actors as  Julie Harris, Helen Hayes, Henry Fonda and Paul Newman, whose widow, Joanne Woodward, is a former artistic director and current board member.

 





Joanne Woodward, center, with Westport staff members.

 

After a  $30-million renovation, the old barn that once housed the theater has been transformed into a modern but still country-cozy facility that presents challenging and uplifting works throughout the year.

 

My second cousin,  Beth Huisking, is the patron services manager at the theater, and she invited me  to attend the gala, which celebrated the music of Richard Rodgers. Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara, who plays Nellie Forbush in the current Lincoln Center revival of “South Pacific,” thrilled the sold-out audience by singing numbers from the show, and from “The King and I.” Another Lincoln Center cast member, Loretta Ables Sayre (Bloody Mary),  sang “Bali Hai,” and a handful of the show’s strapping  sailors performed “Nothing Like a Dame.”

 

The honored guest of the evening was composer and screenwriter Mary Rodgers Guettel, the daughter of Richard Rodgers. She was an apprentice at the theater in 1950. One of her fellow apprentices that year, composer Stephen Sondheim, took the stage to pay tribute.  “I’m as old as this theater, but not as well refurbished,” Sondheim quipped. Rodgers said she met Sondheim when she was only 14. “He was the smartest  person I’d ever met, and he still is,” Rodgers said.

 

Another performer at  the gala was Karen Ziemba, who won a Tony for the original production of “Contact.”  At the party afterward, I told the charming actress that the Asolo was presenting “Contact” with the Sarasota Ballet. “I know,” she told me. “I spoke to the board last week.” And then I remembered Ziemba had met with Asolo supporters on an Asolo Rep Adventures tour to New York.

Karen Ziemba and me.

 

The Sarasota connections were numerous that evening.  The theater’s managing director, Michael Ross, is a friend and former colleague of Greg Leaming, the director of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory. And I helped promote one of the silent auction items, a month in the Siesta Key condo owned by Westport board president Sandra DeFeo and her husband, Neil.

 

"Hair"

 

The next day I took the train to New York to catch “Hair,” which won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical this year. Since I’m old enough to have bought the original cast album in 1968 (in fact, I still have it), I was predisposed to love this show,  and I did. It was probably the most heartfelt and exuberant musical I’ve ever seen, and its anti-war theme is still potent.  All the members of the “tribe” were terrific, but Will Swenson , as charismatic tribe leader Berger, and Gavin Creel  as the gentle, Vietnam-bound Claude, were riveting. I was so excited that I jumped up on stage when the cast invited the audience up to join them in the finale, "Let the Sunshine In."

 

Here I am in "Hair," my first time on a Broadway stage.

 

Posing with Hair‘s Gavin Creel

 

Here are some thumbnail reviews of other shows I saw:

“Hamlet”— Some critics have knocked Jude Law as being overwrought and angry rather than introspective in this production, which was imported from London after a successful run there. But I found his energetic, intense portrayal mesmerizing.  I had more trouble with some of the supporting cast.  But the three hours flew by. If it takes a movie star to get Broadway audiences excited about Shakespeare, I’m glad it was a classically trained star who had the chops to pull this off.

 

“God of Carnage” –  Sounds of the jungle are heard when the curtain rises on Yasmina Reza’s riotous comedy. In a swanky New York apartment,  two couples meet to calmly resolve a playground dispute involving their children. But the civilized veneer is quickly stripped away, and you get to see “really good actors behaving terribly,”  as a New York Times reviewer said. Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels  go at one another with gusto, though Gandolfini doesn’t quite make you forget about his Tony Soprano persona.

James Gandolfini signs autographs outside of God of Carnage.

 

“Next to Normal”—A musical about mental illness? Yes, and a thrilling, provocative one, too.  Alice Ripley won the Tony for Best Actress in the role of a wife and mother with bipolar disorder.  Her searing performance will stay with you forever, and the surging score by Tom Kitt conveys pain and anguish, but also hope.

 

“Ragtime”—I missed the original production of “Ragtime” on Broadway in 1998, which some critics felt was a technically dazzling historical pageant that lacked heart.  It’s hard to imagine anyone finding fault with this stunning revival, which I caught in previews.

 

This is a more intimate, scaled- down production than the original, and there are no big names in the huge cast.  But it’s a gripping portrayal of 1902 America,  where immigrants and blacks struggle for justice and privileged whites try to adjust to a changing world.  Terrence McNally’s book is  based on the E. L. Doctorow novel, and the gorgeous music is by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Marcia Milgrom Dodge directs this production, and at intermission I saw her in the back, discussing with her staff what needed to be tweaked before opening. I wouldn’t change a thing.