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A CurtainUp Feature
Report from Philadelphia, a Theater Town
A look at touring productions and local productions in Philadelphia, with references to Passing Strange and Copenhagen

I love New York and make many forays there each year. It has seemed, though, as if some New York theater-goers are under the impression that in Philly boondocks we primarily see touring productions of successful Broadway shows. I'd like to dispel that idea, just in case some still think along those lines.

Of Philadelphia's many theaters, only four bring in Broadway shows: The Kimmel Center, The Merriam, The Academy of Music, and The Forrest. Les Miz just had a run at our magnificent Kimmel Center. Aladdin will be coming up. The Merriam Theater (now owned and operated by the Kimmel Center) was once our most prominent Broadway showplace. It now features primarily one or two-night performances by visiting artists. The Academy of Music, owned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, but managed by the Kimmel Center, brings in occasional Broadway touring shows. Hamilton will be there in April. The venerable, and usually dark, Forrest, a Shubert organization road house, is partnering with the Kimmel Center to feature the Waitress tour in February.

However, by far the lion's share of productions are created here, whether the material is in the canon or on the periphery. Many new plays premiere here and move across the country. And many plays that started out elsewhere get new productions here, sometimes in the National New Play Network Our local playwrights' reputations extend beyond this town.

We have well over 70 fine theater companies and performance art groups. We have producers, directors, actors, designers. . . everything. I can think of over 30 theaters and performance spaces right off the top of my head. Some of these venues have more than one stage.

A Philadelphia arts organization, Theatre Philadelphia, "celebrates this growing and ever-changing theatre community — nurturing local theatre artists, fostering the creation of extraordinary work, forging stronger connections between our art and audiences — recognizing that Philadelphia is a diverse, robust, and thriving theatre community." Theatre Philadelphia administers the coveted Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theater. Nominators and Judges determine the winners. (Disclosure: I am a Nominator.)The awards are presented at an annual gala Award Ceremony, much like the Tonys or the Oscars.

The work produced here can include new takes on Broadway plays. Two cases in point: I recently saw two new productions of high profile Broadway shows from years ago: Passing Strange at the Wilma Theater and Copenhagen at the Lantern Theater both run until February 18.

Passing Strange, which opened at the Public Theater in '07 and on Broadway's Belasco Theatre in '08 won a Tony and a bunch of Drama Desk Awards. Curtainup's critic Les Gutman reviewed both productions (Curtainup's review). I also recall Hilton Als's New Yorker description of its debut at the Public: "...a brilliant work about migration— a geographical migration but also its hero's migration beyond the tenets of 'blackness' and toward selfhood. .. a rock-and-roll Candide — a wanderer whose innocence is never entirely corrupted." It's in major revival at the Wilma, an el primo Philadelphia theater, whose artistic director, Blanka Zizka, has a special artistic relationship with creators Stew and Heidi Rodewald.

I didn't see the Broadway show. However, I know their work, having seen The Total Bent at the Public Theater and Notes of a Native Song at the Wilma. "Notes" is about where James Baldwin took Stew and where Stew and his band, "The Negro Problem," took us. These two shows are more like rock concerts than stories hang on, while Passing Strange is more story with punked out rock music attached. It concerns a suburban black youth (Jamar Williams) who wants to pass as really black, a kid from the tough streets. There's travel, sex, drugs, rock and roll, and finally, realizations. And the audience learns something too.

Wilma's dramaturg, Walter Bilderback, sees this work as a "performance art musical." Before the show he pointed out to me that the Wilma's is the first new production since Broadway that Stew has been involved in. There are changes in the new show: It has a new director, Tea Alagic, a new cast, a new band, and designers with new and vibrant ideas. Tightened up, it's a half hour shorter. And Stew is not in it. He doesn’t play his former Narrator role. That job is well handled by Kris Coleman, who said on NBC: "The Wilma Theatre has been a lesson for me. The amount of talent I've seen out here in Philadelphia is blowing my mind."

This production is filled with music, wit, and heart. During intermission Stew told me he's seen so many productions and they're all different. He said, "I really like this one."

Copenhagen at the Lantern
The second case in point about Philadelphia theater is Copenhagen, which opened at the Royale on Broadway in April, 2000. In her review of that production, Elyse Sommer wrote of how the "metaphorical set has transferred [from London] beautifully, turning the conventionally configured Royale into a stunning theater in the round on which the arguing actors spin round and round, like so many atoms. (Elyse's review) Some three dozen members of the audience once again sit in a balcony that evokes a university lecture hall, like students (or judges?)" In 2002 I saw the Broadway touring version at the Forrest Theatre, directed by Michael Blakemore, who directed the Royale production. Scenic, lighting, and sound designers were the same, but the cast was different. Mariette Hartley (Margrethe Bohr) had a Euro-ish accent and lots of presence. However, Len Cariou (Neils Bohr) and Hank Stratton (Heisenberg), both accomplished actors, just didn't come across to me as physicists.

The well respected Lantern Theater, which produced Copenhagen in its '03/'04 season, has taken a new look at it this year. The cast is the same (Artistic Director Charles McMahon, Paul L. Nolan, Sally Mercer), but the direction and design are different. There's no furniture beyond a couple of built-in benches on the edge of the circular performance platform that looks like Bohr's model of the hydrogen atom. There are no props at all. And unlike the Broadway show, a balcony is not used. Sound and music are nearly subliminal with an ominous movie-like hum at crucial parts. The lighting becomes over-bright to mark critical moments. The cast, amazingly spontaneous and completely engaged, keeps the long and talky intellectual play compelling. This Copenhagen definitely has the Lantern Theater stamp on it.

The Wilma's Passing Strange And Lantern's Copenhagen are not Broadway clones, but new takes on old shows. Like I said, Philadelphia's a theater town.

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