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A CurtainUp Feature
A Look Back at the Berkshire Summer '07 Season

The artistic directors of summer theaters face many challenges. Not the least of these is mounting a play which often has just ten days on stage, before dismantling the set for the next production. With a tightly scheduled season, there's no opportunity for extension other than an extra matinee. However, if the stars fall right, a play may transfer to New York or elsewhere for a longer life. Generally, a 3-week run is really long. Season long runs, such as those at Shakespeare & Company, usually entail fewer performances per week and easily dismantled and mounted sets to make it possible for several plays to run in repertory.

An even bigger challenge is just what plays to include in the season's line-up. While Berkshire audiences are avid entertainment consumers, there's no time to really build an audience if initial reviews and word of mouth aren't good. There's also a lot of competition, not just from other theaters, but from music and dance organizations like Tanglewood and Jacobs Pillow. That's why it's always a safe bet to schedule revivals which are proven crowd pleasers and have enough substance and relevance to still hit home. Casting a show with some well known actors from the New York stage or TV can go a long way towards stirring up enough excitement to get the box office phones ringing and keep internet ticketing websites busy. Though even audiences who tend to greet overly familiar revivals with been-there, done-that shrugs will succumb to the charms of a well produced and performed old-timer, there is an expectation for some less familiar things with real bite—especially from a theater company with a smaller second stage.

The way Berkshire Artistic Directors deal with these decisions inevitably leads to a season with some misses as well as hits. Here then is a look back at how the area's most popular theater seasons shaped up in terms of expected and unexpected successes.

Williamstown Theatre Festival. (Reviews of all the shows mentioned can be found here
While WTF didn't escape the hits-and-misses syndrome, it's a thrill to enter the festival's lobby that leads to three theaters. The crowds milling to see a show reminds me of the days when the Joseph Papp Public Theater first began running shows in several theaters simultaneously.

The crowd pleasing revival spirit reigned at the Main Stage with the one super hit and the most likely to wend its way down to the Big Apple being The Corn Is Green. It was made especially exciting by having Kate Burton play the dedicated, no-nonsense teacher and her son Morgan Ritchie make his WTF debut as the gifted young coalminer.

Front Page was nicely staged but somehow felt dated, and the attempt to update Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit by giving it a 1970s setting didn't work very well. As for the last main stage production of Lillian Hellman's last play, Autumn Garden, it had a cast so good that it persuaded a few critics to announce that time had transformed it into the gem it never was. Perhaps if I hadn't just seen a revival of Uncle Vanya, I might have been more enamored of Hellman's version of Chekhov and David Jones' direction which I felt could have benefitted from a brisker tempo and the elimination of the second intermission. I should add, that while the audience exit comments were in synch with my review, there have been rumors about giving this Hellman play a chance to better its original meager 101 performance run.

The smaller Nikos Stage carried out its something new mission with two new plays, a new musical and a revival by a new director but high profile actress, Kathleen Turner. First up, and most successful, was Damian Lanigan's very fine Dissonance, about a fictional string quartet. The five-character play was beautifully staged and acted and, while it doesn't have the razzle-dazzle for Broadway, it could do well in a non-profit theater like Playwrights Horizon and in regional theaters.

Villa America, a play mounted to synchronize with the Williams College Museum's exhibit Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy, failed to make a case for having a play written to to tie in with a specific event, sort of like assigning a journalist to write an article to fit a catchy magazine cover line—especially, if the playwright given the assignment seems to have little familiarity with or feeling for his subject. The only thing original about this production was that the Festival published a first production edition -- but if anyone bought a copy with the idea that it will become valuable as the play becomes a classic, they will be sadly disappointed.

The new musical, Party Come Here, had a cast of seasoned Broadway performers, but the show was a mess, with little sign of fine tuning since its premiere at the New York Music Theater Festival. Though its Pulitzer credentials have always mystified me, director Kathleen Turner and the terrific actresses playing the Magrath sisters made me enjoy Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart more than I ever did in the past.

While the four Nikos productions didn't blaze on all burners, kudos to the Festival for taking a risks there as well as at the third venue, the Center Stage: Early in the season, Roger Rees directed B. D. Wong in the one-man musical Herringbone. It was a triumph for Wong, though this remains an odd little musical memoir with limited appeal. What was really wonderful and exciting at Center Stage was the collaboration between the Festival and Williams College's drama students, which gave them a chance to work with professional actors, including artistic director Rees. The play used to implement this worthy collaboration was The Physicists. Clever staging and superb acting gave this now rarely produced Cold War play new relevance and stronger than ever legs.

Berkshire Theatre Festival. (Reviews of all the shows mentioned can be found here
I suppose you can call artistic director Kate Maguire's four Main Stage productions playing it safe all the way. But starting the season with Terrence McNally's Love, Valour and Compassion wasn't really all that risk free. This three-hour, two-intermission replay of a group of men at the height of the AIDS crisis isn't exactly the stuff of summer fare and neither is full frontal nudity. However, as directed by Anders Cato and with a just about perfect cast, McNally's country house saga was as moving as ever -- and any thoughts that Nathan Lane "owned" the Buzz Hauer role were dispelled by Stephen DeRosa's portrayal.

Cato, a BTF favorite, also directed the final Main Stage production, another tried and true play, Mrs. Warren's Profession, with great originality. Even though I saw an outstanding revival in New York a short time ago, I wasn't bored for a minute. This was also true for Mornings at Seven, as directed by Vivian Matalon, the man responsible for making it a hit by moving it back to a still carefree time, pre-jazz age and great depression.

While Berkshire Theatre Festival, like Williamstown Theatre Festival, has no problem attracting Broadway talentl, it was Jonathan Epstein as the rebel inmate in a mental hospital who made the much produced and famously filmed One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest a Berkshire hit. Epstein, a local resident, who was until recently one of Shakespeare & Company's most popular actors, brought enormous audience good will to the role long associated with Jack Nicholson. Also contributing to the BTF production's success was director, Eric Hill (Maguire's husband).

With Hill also directing the first of the three plays at the smaller Unicorn Theater, it was something of a family affair, since Ms. Maguire sidelined some of her executive duties to play Amanda Wingate. While one would expect a work by one of the 20th Century's greats to be mounted in the larger theater, it was seeing it at this intimate venue that made it a fresh experience.

The second Unicorn offering was the less well-knownTwo-Headed. Like Cukoo it featured two outstanding actresses long associated with Shakespeare & Company, Diane Prusha and Corinna May. They more than lived up to their reputations. The season concluded with another two-hander—and another winner—, Educating Rita, and Jonathan Epstein once again took on a role long associated with its movie interpreter (Michael Caine) and with his co-star, Tara Franklin, another local actor this production made another case for this rather than Broadway name-conscious casting. With the actors not rushing back to New York or Hollywood, the production can, after a hiatus on August 31st, reopen for a Fall run from September 30th through October 20th.

Barrington Stage
(Reviews of all the shows mentioned can be found here
Barrington Stage's investment in refurbishing one of Pittsfield's two old vaudeville houses, has done much to bring the city back to its prosperous General Electric days. The balcony is now operational and the state of the art sound system makes form a refreshing change from the hollow, overmiked sound typical of too many Broadway musicals. With Boyd known for her expertize with musical, what else to launch the season than a grand old musical like West Side Story. A hit? You bet.

The two other main stage events were a revival of Peter Schaeffer's Black Comedy and Uncle Vanya. Boyd's first experience with directing Chekhov proved to be quite successful but, since the new theater doesn't have room for a second stage, I would have liked something more edgy than Schaeffer's somewhat dated comedy sandwiched between the revivals of the classic musical and play.

Actually, the company does have a small second stage in the basement of the nearby Pittsfield library. However, except for one two-character play (A Picasso) the second stage was for the second season devoted to the Musical Theater Lab mentored by William Finn. This year's three productions focused on story-telling musicals aimed at pleasing young and young at heart audiences a mission they seemed to accomplish. All three involved music and books by young people with previous experience. It remains to be seen whether the LAB process will help these shows find a longer "regular" stage life.

Having always been committed to mounting something by and for community youths, what else but its own version of that Disney phenomenon, High School Musical. It was put on in a local church and definitely a hit.

Besides the Youth Theater, the company usually puts on all sorts of special one-night events. This year, that meant the return of Marni Nixon, best known as the voice of Hollywood but in recent years front and center in numerous Broadway shows. What a pro -- and what timing, given that her night at the Main Stage coincided with West Side Story, one of her many Hollywood dubbing assignments.

Shakespeare & Co.
(Reviews of all the shows mentioned can be found here
With the Springlawn Mansion sold for the company's financial well-being, this is the second season that the company had to juggle all but its FREE production on its main stage. Thus while Rough Crossing, Blue-Orange, Midsummer Night's Dream and Antony & Cleopatra all ran for most of the summer —with quite a few cast members keeping their parts in two productions in their heads— the performances had to accommodate a rotating repertory schedule. Like Kate Maguire, Shakespeare & Company's artistic director Tina Packer took to the stage as a rather unusual Cleopatra.

If the plans to restore the building on the grounds that includes room for a just-right sized second theater move forward as announced, next summer should be less of a juggling fest and perhaps bring back some of Dennis Krausnick's terrific adaptations of Edith Wharton's work, and perhaps Fanny Kemble, the former owner of the property the company now calls home.

Chester Theater.(Reviews of all the shows mentioned can be found here
This modest organization located in the Chester Town Hall has become an increasingly popular destination, largely through word of mouth raves. All three of this season's productions were notable for exploring provocative themes to give audiences much to talk about on the way home. If any of the three plays topped the popularity rating, it was Mercy of Love, but all in all, this little theater could boast an all hits/no misses season.

The Theater Barn in New Lebanon (Reviews of all the shows mentioned can be found here
I don't usually get to the Theater Barn even though it's not a major drive from my home in Lee. However, thanks to my astute backup, Gloria Miller, Curtainup did get to cover enough of their shows to recommend them as a charming venue that has the courage not to rely strictly on well-known crowd pleasers and do excellent work with limited resources and non-equity actors. If you were too busy with Tanglewood and Jacob's Pillow and the big-name theaters, it's not too late to investigate the Theater Barn in September and October when they will put on Marie Jones' comedy Stones in His Pockets (September 7-16 ) and actor John Cariani's charming first play Almost Maine (September 21-October 7). Since Gloria lives in this area year-round, she will be reviewing at least one of these. Thanks to Gloria's assistance, I was able to cover some of the season's outstanding music events as well as several Jacobs Pillow events. For details see Two Nights at the Opera and Jacob's Pillow Summer 2007.

To sum up this sumup, one thing that's never iffy about a Berkshire season: There's enough live theater, music and dance to make an evening at home as rare as a big metropolis's smog and cacophony of noises.

Try for great seats to
Jersey Boys
The Little Mermaid
Lion King
Shrek The Musical

broadway musicals: the 101 greatest shows of all time
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.

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Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide

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