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A CurtainUp Berkshire Feature
Summing Up Summer 2003 in the Berkshires
By Elyse Sommer
Note: Links to reviews of all mentioned events can be found in the LINKS at the end of this piece.
Summers in the Berkshires are so chock-a-block full of plays, operas and concerts -- not to mention museum exhibits, historical house tours and outdoor activities -- that at best you can only do the cultural equivalent of grazing. With another season drawing to a close it's nice to know that some theaters, like Shakespeare & Company and Old Castle in Vermont will continue to operate through the leaf peeping season. However, with the curtain drawn on the main events -- including the Tanglewood Music Festival, it's time to take a look back at the season's high points. As always, even the shows that are unlike to leave an indelible stain on your memory, do leave you mouth agape with admiration for the effort put into mounting productions which in most instances have to be dismantled within weeks.
If I had to pick out a single play as the season's crème de la crème, it would be the Williamstown Theatre Festival's revival of Tom Stoppard's Travesties. It was one of those dream production where everything came together -- the enduring wit of the playwright's words and concept, the performances and the eye-popping, witty staging and beautiful performances. If this production ends up transferring to Broadway, as many past WTF plays have done, one can only wish that it does so with the cast and creative team intact.
To Barrington Stage artistic direct Julianne Boyd goes the prize for daring to put on a brand-new musical, The Game. While new as a genre, it's the popular old French drama, staged and filmed as Les Liaison Dangereuses. With its plot-propelling witty lyrics and catchy score the big question The Game raised was why no one has ever musicalized this story before. The show is certain to have a life beyond its run in Sheffield. If composer Megan Cavallari had only managed to use her experience as a jingle writer to make at least one or two of her baroque flavored, enjoyable melodies stick to the ear after the curtain, a move to Broadway might not be an impossible dream. For sure, Sara Ramirez who has a Broadway background and played the Marquise de Merteuil, proved that she's got Broadway star power. Christopher Innvar, another actor familiar to New York theater goers, was a much more appealing Valmont than the smarmy film version played by John Malkovich.
The Game, while the big new- new thing of Ms. Boyd's season, was the the grand finale of Barrington Stage's all-hit season.. The Main Stage opened with a revival of Funny Girl that revitalized a show mostly remembered for its original star, Barbra Streissand. The two musicals book-ended a superb revival of Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero which I enjoyed as much the second time around as the first time. The two plays at the company's second and smaller Stage were also home runs -- Ears On a Beatle, a new offering by Mark St. Germain, showed all the earmarks (no pun intended) of further regional productions and perhaps an Off-Broadway landing. Neil La Bute's, The Shape of Things was provocative and well acted enough to hold my attention even though I knew how it ended from seeing it when the author directed it in New York.
There was much to like besides Travesties during my summer of visiting Williamstown. The Three Penny Opera was flawed but far from fatally so and seeing it will make the two other versions coming to New York that much more interesting (the first Off-Off-Broadway and the second on Broadway). John Guare's Landscape of the Body frustrated a lot of WTF audience members but, again, I didn't find its shortcomings detracted significantly from its pleasures. Under Milkwood turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I somehow expected Dylan Thomas's poetic piece to be dated. Instead, under the always imaginative Darko Tresnjak's direction, it was so lovely to look at and with such fine performances that it turned out to be thoroughly enjoyable.
Though WTF's Nikos Stage is closed to reviews, I did see and like A.R. Gurney's Big Bill and feel confident in predicting that it will enjoy other productions. The well-regarded Off-Broadway theater Primary Stages, which often puts on Gurney's plays, comes to mind as a good bet for doing this touching play in the not too distant future. I did not see Berkshire Village Idiot which replaced a previously scheduled play by Frank Gilroy at the Nikos. However, if you follow our New York activites, you'll find a review there in September when it opens for a longer and reviewable run at the Zipper Theatre (so named because it was once a zipper factory).
The venerable Berkshire Theatre Festival, unlike Williamstown and Barrington Stage, had a season of more misses than hits. The Festival got off to a good start with a smart revival of American Primitive, an epistolary play about Abigail and John Adams by the Berkshires' resident elder playwright William Gibson. With Gibson's Golda's Balcony shortly re-opening on Broadway (after beginning life at Shakespeare & Company, and a sold-out, much-extended Off-Off-Broadway production) plus the popular John Adams biography, this was well-timed and well-received. However, running as it did at BTF's small Unicorn Theatre and for a very short time in the Spring, too few people had a chance to see it. It might have been a better idea to make it the Main Stage opener instead of the dated revival of Enter Laughing which took the opening slot.
Richard Chamberlain's box office appeal could not save The Stillborn Lover from landing on the Main Stage with a thud. My review brought numerous E-mails on the order of "you were too kind." The same thing happened after my review of the Unicorn production of Sondheim's Assassins.
I liked The Who's Tommy, the musical preceding that Sondheim chamber musical, a lot better than some of my readers or some of the local critics.
BTF did have its shining hour with Lanford Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning Talley's Folley and its Main Stage finale, Peter Pan, based on the John Caird-Trevor Nunn adaptation, had much to recommend it; in fact, it could just have been an unflawed hit had director Eric Hill, whose productions are always worth seeing, had fulfilled Barry's wish to cast a real little boy in the title role. Instead, we had his attractive step daughter, Isadore Wolfe, a graceful dancer, but not up to the demands of Caird and Nunn's darker, more nuanced "lost boy."
At Shakespare & Company in Lenox, the Bard sad and the Bard glad -- King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing -- were done in accessible and enjoyable rotation at the Founders Theater. The theater was re-configured to bring audience and players closer together. Very nice! But it was not the Bard but Eileen Atkins, in her capacity as playwright, who put the brightest jewel into the company's jewel encrusted cap. Her Vita & Virginia was sensitively directed by Dan McCleary and luminously acted by Todd Randolph and Catherine Taylor-Williams.
Shakespeare & Company's twice weekly free performances of an abbreviated Midsummer Night's Dream proved to be very popular with the kids. A very different Midsummer was part of the final weekend at Tanglewood as part of an all Mendelssohn program which featured Christopher Plummer as narrator for the overture and incidental music from Midsummer. Arranged by Plummer and Michael Lanchester, it was more than a concert with narration, but a full-fledged performance. Beautiful! Having seen Shakespeare & Company's King Lear, I can't wait to see it again when Plummer comes to New York to play the misguided father.
In the interest of diverse grazing, which means taking in local concerts, operas and at least a few of Jacob Pillow's dance programs, there were a whole group of small theaters (see Seasonal Index) that I unfortunately never get to. I did manage to catch the Turner exhibit at the Clark Museum and some of the latest work at the many local galleries. I also worked in my one annual trip to the Miniature Theatre of Chester to see a very touching production of three character drama called The Drawer Boy. This new to me play is much produced in regional theaters and if you see it listed in a theater near you, go see it. The Music Theater Group that has made brief but exciting stops in this area for a long time, had two dynamic staged readings -- Electra and Medea. I hope that by next year they will be able to move from the claustophobic Barn at Simons Rock College to take up regular and longer residency in the new theater now being built on the college campus.
Tanglewood, even without a resident maestro at hand and a season that even dared to rain on the much loved Tanglewood on Parade, had lots of highlights. I've already mentioned the all Mendelssohn evening which besides Christopher Plummer's narration for A Midsummer Night's Dream featured the Tanglewood debut of the dynamic young pianist Lang Lang. There was also a specially commissioned new opera, pops concerts and some favorite and some new guest artists. Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos practically took the roof off Ozawa Hall when he conducted "The Rite of Spring" for one of the hotter than hot TMC concerts. The final Sunday afternoon program celebrated the 65th Anniversary of the dedication of the Kousseveitzky Music Shed, with a reprise of the music played then -- including everybody's favorite, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
Tanglewood isn't the only musical game in town. This season brought lots of pocket opera productions -- two from the Berkshire Opera Company and almost too many from the worthy but somewhat overly ambitious Shaker Mountain Music Festival.
Clearly, it was a busy season. With productions like Travesties, Under Milk Wood and Talley's Folly, plus the excitement of a world premiering new musical (The Game), the bar was set well above what is usually associated with the term "summer theater."
LINKS TO SHOWS MENTIONED
Christoper Plummer Makes A Midsummer Night's Dream Soar at Tanglewood
The Drawer Boy (Miniature Theater in Chester)
Big Bill -- (WTF)
Ears On a Beatle (Barrington Stage)
Electra (Music-Theatre Works)
Enter Laughing (BTF- Main Stage)
Funny Girl (Barrington Stage)
Landscape of the Body (WTF)
Lobby Hero (Barrington Stage)
Peter Pan (BTF-Main Stage)
The Stillborn Lover (BTF-Main Stage
Talley's Folly (BTF-Main Stage
The Three Penny Opera
Under Milkwood (WTF)
The Who's Tommy (BTF - Unicorn)
La Traviata (Berkshire Opera)
The Secret Marriage (Berkshire Opera)
Shaker Mountain Performing Arts Festival Summer 2003
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