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A CurtainUp Feature
Berkshire Summer '09 Sumup

Undaunted by the dismal economy and unseasonably chilly and wet weather the many Berkshire arts and entertainment organizations soldiered on to provide Berkshire regulars and visitors with the varied fare that has made this area a magnet for people who like their gorgeous mountain scenery mixed with top tier entertainment. That's not to say that the economy didn't have a ripple effect on donations and advance ticket sales that required belt-tightning by artistic directors and some bargain pricing measures to keep a more thrift-minded public coming.

At Williamstown, the belt tightning took the form of a Main Stage season without a musical and putting on three instead of four new plays at the Nikos Stage. As for ticket pricing, while the roomy buildings that replaced the old facilities a few years ago relieved the annual mad scramble for tickets, the economy made the now larger theaters harder to fill. Thus this renowned theater which used to require a donation to gain access to advance tickets added an evening rush seat option and also participated with other area organizations in a program offering $10-off with a stub from another show.

Although Berkshire Theatre Festival and Barrington Stage didn't eliminate musicals, both Carousel (Barrington) and Candide (BTF) featured two pianos instead of an orchestra. Both organizations participated in the aforementioned $10-off program and also offered other options geared to savings conscious consumers.

Shakespeare & Company's money saving strategy took the form of cutting down the expense for stagecraft and rehearsals at the Founders' Theater with replays of previous productions, some like Othello and Hamlet, quite recent. That said, the sprawling Lenox complex was aburst with activity, with much use made of the company's second stage. This made it possible for actors like John Douglas Thompson, Tina Packer, Jason Asprey and Michael Hammond to take on one of the super bare bones productions at the Elaine Bernstein Theater when not on the Main Stage.

The Berkshire Opera unfortunately found itself so hobbled by financial problems that their 2009 summer season simply didn't happen and so, instead of my annual visit to see a fully staged opera at the Pittsfield paint store restored to its original glory as the Colonial Theater, I took in a couple of the shows for which the Colonial has become a one to three night tour stop: First Jeff Daniels, taking time off from his Broadway gig, the hit play God of Carnage, to don his singer/songwriter hat (delightfully so!) and the latest version of comedian Robert Wuhl's amusing Assume the Position (new to me but apparently like a visit from an old friend to the audience dominated by people familiar with Wuhl from his TV shows).

But enough about the economy and the abundance of torrential rainstorms. What were the season's standout theatrical experiences?

As always, summer theatrical fare in this area was not just the "let's put on a show in the barn" fluff some people associate with summer stock. Even the larger organizations' smaller second stages once again distinguished themselves with some challenging choices and very professional casts. There was no shortage of local premieres and revivals worth seeing again. But while much of what was on offer was entertaining and worthwhile, there wasn't a single new show to really knock your socks off (oh for another chance a to say "I saw it before it became a major hit" as was the case with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee which helped Barrington Stage to buy its own theater).

At Williamstown Theatre Festival things got off to an enjoyable start with an early A. R. Gurney play, Children, and last and best, Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms starring Jefferson Mays as the touchingly useless man of the title. George Kelly's The Torchbearers somehow wasn't the hoot it was when Dylan Baker directed it off-off-Broadway with the incomparable Marian Seldes. On the other hand, having Paul Sparks available to play one of the brothers in True West, more than compensated for the fact that the news-making casting of two real brothers fell through. The Nikos Stage usually presents new plays, quite a few of which have subesequently landed in New York (Last year's wonderful Broke-ology is cheduled for Lincoln Center this Fall). The trio of summer '09 offerings was disappointingly uninspiring, with Caroline in Jersey the best of the lot and most likely to have another life. Note: For full details about the season and CU reviews go here.

Berkshire Theater Festival's revival of Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue proved to be remarkably fresh and, given the upcoming Broadway revival of two of Simon's Eugene plays, especially timely. A newly adapted Ghosts was certainly interesting and, in some instances, surprisingly funny. However, BTF's billing its version of the popular New York Broadway by the Year series as a musical was something of a stretch. This very pared-down version (three singers, a piano and the show's creator and narrator) added up to a rather pale shadow of the much larger and livelier Town Hall productions. The strongest of the three offerings at BTF's second stage, the Unicorn, proved to be a revival of Brian Friel's The Faithhealer, whereas the 2-piano Candide was fun but some of the word-of-mouth indicated that audiences felt that this was a bit too much like a well-done high school or college production. The Unicorn's last show, Sick, once again boasted a stellar and thoroughly professional cast and a director who was himself a Pulitzer-prize playwright (David Auburn), the play itself fails to live up to the potential of its premise. Note: For full details about the season and CU reviews go here.

Barrington Stage lined up a nicely balanced program of high quality, proven plays. It began with a classic musical, Carousel (gorgeous music, despite that aforementioned 2-piano score) and concluded with a classic play, A Streetcar Named Desire which gave Broadway diva Marin Mazzie a chance to take on a meaty non-singing role — which she did with panache. Sleuth, the middle play, was a sure-fire old crowd pleaser and with just 2 actors (albeit a finely detailed set) suited to the season's budget constraints. As it turned out, the company's biggest hit was Freud's Last Session, a 2-hander with lots of philosophical talk about religion, life and death. It extended several times, and when the play planned for the Musical Theater Lab ran into problems, it was brought back for a second run-- which immediately sold out and was extended into Labor Day. Note: For full details about the season and CU reviews go here.

Shakespeare & Company, as stated offset the lack of new productions on its Main Stage with a series of easily mounted and cast plays at the Elayne Bernstein Theater, organized under umbrella titles like the Diva Series (one-woman plays) for which Company Founder Tina Packer took time off from reprising her role as Gertrude in Hamlet to revisit one of the company's big hits, hit, Shirley Valentine. Another series called Life Laid Bare focused on thought-provoking themes. The word-of-mouth as well as critical hit in this busy lineup was a trio of plays by Harold Pinter (Pinter's Mirror). Note: For full details about the season and CU reviews go here.

The Chester Theater, situated in the Chester Town Hall, is not always included in articles about the many theatrical riches in this area. However, this intimate little venue off the more regularly beaten path has gained many admirers for its well chosen, staged and acted production and reasonably priced tickets. Chester's artistic director Byam Stevens was even able to take one of last year's productions, The Dishwashers, to New York for a well-received Off-Broadway run. The 2009 Chesters season started out well enough with a play by a new young playwright (Anna Ziegler's Dov and Ali. Unfortunately, what followed was not especially satisfying. Note: For full details about the season and CU reviews go here.

Tanglewood, the granddaddy of outdoor classical music fastivals, suffered the most from the excessive number of torrential rain and thunder storms. Water proof boots were the hottest seller at the gift shop. The seasons' biggest star (besides Tanglewood icon, James Taylor) was conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the charismatic head of the San Francisco Symphony and a former Tanglewood Music Institute Fellow. His 2-performance show about his grandparents, Yiddish theater legends Bessie and Boris Tomashevsky, was sold out before the season even began. Fortunately the skies were clear on both nights so that people not seated inside Ozawa Hall could see it on the lawn which at this venue, unlike the big Shed, is raked and has good sightlines. While mostly on the podium, Tilson Thomas's song-and-dance routine at the top of the second act indicates that the musical theater lost a star to the classical music world. With Judy Blazer and Neal Benari to play the Thomashefskys, and Patricia Birch to direct, this was as good as any Broadway musical gets.

My own favorite Tanglewood concerts — the Saturday afternoon full orchestra performances by the young musicians of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute at Ozawa Hall — continued to delight. Given their location, the weather was not a problem and at just $12 a ticket, these three annual concerts also qualify as giving the undisputed best bang to be had for one's buck.

In the Berkshires Dancing With the Stars means watching the stars of modern dance at Jacobs Pillow. I don't get up to the Pillow nearly enough, but whenever I do it's an exhilirating experience. For details about Jacob's Pillow and the one event I did cover go here.

Although most of the plays still running as of this sumup will close after Labor Day, some theaters have scheduled events geared to the hikers, leaf peeper and skiers who make the Berkshires a year round destination. And don't forget, while Curtainup's focus is on theater, this area has many wonderful museums -- from restored mansions like Edith Wharton's The Mount and Ventforth Hall, to the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Clarke and MASS MOCA.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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