Williamstown Theatre Festival announces three mainstage productions for 2011.

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George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

Our beloved Williamstown Theatre Festival has announced its Mainstage productions for the 2011 season, which will extend from July 1 to August 28. (Information about the Nikos Stage Season, as well as additional details about the Main Stage Season, will be announced at a later date.) This will be the first season under the festival’s new Artistic Director, Jenny Gersten, whose appointment was announced last spring. She is the third Artistic Director of the WTF within the past seven years, but no matter: she, like her predecessors, has had a long involvement with the Festival, as associate producer from 1996 to 2004, the years when Michael Ritchie ran it as Producer 1996-2004. He was succeeded by Roger Rees, who only lasted from 2004 to 2007 as Artistic Director. Nicholas Martin then took over. Mr. Martin suffered a stroke only a year into his tenure. After a period of recovery, the stroke seemed to impair his creative work very little, but it did force him to make choices — to Broadway’s benefit. All of these people have had strong connections with Broadway, as well as the non-profit theatres of New York. Hence there has been a solid continuity at the Festival in spite of this rapid succession of quick changes.

In many ways, festival-goers will notice few changes. Many of the same actors who have established themselves over the years are back, and that is good news. WTF’s way of maintaining a loosely-bound repertory company through the recognition of seniority, an honor highly prized in the theatrical profession, has proven successful in balanced continuity with change. We get to see some young talent along with our favorites, and quality gets a chance to grow and become a part of the establishment. I have seen some bad performances at WTF, but it was not really the actor’s fault. At some other summer festivals you may well see some truly mediocre talent and wonder how they got there. Not so in Williamstown. The repertory is also quite characteristic of the Festival in recent years: a pre-war American comedy (cf. George Kelly’sThe Torch-Bearers of 2009, more of a rarity), a classic from earlier times, in this case an English 18th century comedy, and a musical comedy — a genre which has been a great crowd-pleaser at WTF in recent years, and which the company does extremely well.

As Ms. Gersten said in her announcement, “The 2011 Main Stage Season consists of the kinds of shows I’ve loved doing and seeing at WTF — a big screwball comedy, a Restoration gem, and a new romantic musical with some of my favorite songs. Each is challenging in its own way, and I believe they’ll show the best of what Williamstown can do on our Main Stage. To that end, we have added additional performances for the first and final shows to allow them to be seen by as many folks as possible in the Berkshires and beyond.”

Her skilful choice of words is interesting. She has managed to avoid using the word “comedy” three times, but that is in fact what we have in store for us. Although 163 years stand between the premieres of She Stoops to Conquer (1773) and You Can’t Take it with You (1936), they both tend emphatically towards farce, and they both revolve around engagement and matrimony, as well as human error. I think it’s a rather nice idea to bring these two dependable comedic vehicles together, and there is a potential for the pairing to become even more than each play might offer on its own. It is interesting to note that the WTF release states that YCTWY is intended for Broadway, which should give it a character of its own. I don’t know how often Williamstown has hosted Broadway tryouts, but I doubt it’s been that common.

Ms Gersten also pointed out that the first and last productions would have longer runs (NOT She Stoops to Conquer), “to allow them to be seen by as many folks as possible in the Berkshires and beyond.” Although I don’t understand what “and beyond” means, unless WTF plans to jump on the HD broadcast bandwagon, but it is clear that the usual four Mainstage productions, which ran roughly from ten to twelve days, will be replaced by three productions in more performances. While the Goldsmith will remain the usual ten days, YCTIWY will stay just over three weeks and the concluding musical, Ten Cents a Dance, a John Doyle concoction of Rodgers and Hart tunes, just under. As a result there will be less variety on the Mainstage, but perhaps more quality — not that that is often an issue at WTF — or at least more refinement, through longer commitments from the actors and presumably longer rehearsal time.

All of the cultural organizations have been playing it safe for some time, especially since the economic disaster or 2008, economizing radically and making their programming more audience-friendly and donor-conscious. I recently discussed this in connection with Tanglewood, but it is prevalent among the theatre companies as well. In the past the Williamstown Theatre Festival managed to deliver at least one “serious play” on the Mainstage every season. Up until last year, I especially enjoyed the quirky British plays of the 1960s and 1970s, for example Home and Quartermaine’s Terms, which were consummately produced and performed, while the plays, more than a generation away from their topical context, were retrospectively fascinating, but more entertaining, but hardly superficial curiosities rather than classics. That it allows us to catch up on this excellent work which has fallen through the cracks is one of the great beauties of summer theatre, although hardly a sure-fire draw. But then summer theatre has traditionally been a quieter and more genteel environment than Broadway, which has suffered from deeply-rooted artistic problems for years. Commercialism was always there, of course, but growing expenses, touristification, and the general dumbing-down of us all pushed Broadway over the edge, not that there aren’t still some good things to be seen. In any case summer theatre has been following suit in its modest way, and crowd-pleasers, above all, musicals have taken over, along with plays aimed at particular niche audiences. WTF’s 2011 program  may be weak on substance, but it’s not a bad compromise either. I’m looking forward to it as much as anybody.

You Can’t Take It With You, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart July 1 – 23

The Main Stage Season begins on July 1, with a Broadway-bound revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s timeless Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, You Can’t Take It With You (1936), directed by Tony Award-nominee Christopher Ashley (Memphis; Light up The Sky at WTF).

Last presented at WTF in 1966, You Can’t Take It With You is Hart and Kaufman’s masterwork which portrays the colorful, freethinking Sycamore family and the mayhem that ensues when their daughter’s fiancé brings his conservative, straight-laced parents to the Sycamore residence for dinner on the wrong night. Literal and figurative fireworks erupt over the course of the evening in a household that appears to be a madhouse but proves, in fact, to be the opposite: a sanctuary from the lunacies of the outside world. Brooks Atkinson, in his review of the original production, said, “Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman have written their most thoroughly ingratiating comedy, You Can’t Take It with You, which was put on at the Booth last evening. It is a study in vertigo about a lovable family of hobby-horse riders, funny without being shrill, sensible without being earnest…Mr. Hart and Mr. Kaufman are fantastic humorists with a knack for extravagances of word and episode and an eye for hilarious incongruities.What distinguishes You Can’t Take It with You among the Hart-Kaufman enterprises is the buoyancy of the humor. They do not bear down on it with wisecracks. Although they plan it like good comedy craftsmen, they do not exploit it like gag-men.Mr. Hart and Mr. Kaufman have been more rigidly brilliant in the past, but they have never scooped up an evening of such tickling fun.”

The cast has not yet been announced.

She Stoops To Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith July 27 – August 7

Nicholas Martin, former WTF Artistic Director (Our Town at WTF; Present Laughter; Hedda Gabler), will direct Oliver Goldsmith’s rowdy comedy of mistaken identities, She Stoops to Conquer (1773). The cast, which has already been established, includes Jon Patrick Walker (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at WTF; High Fidelity) as Charles Marlow, Tony Award-nominee Brooks Ashmanskas (Promises, Promises; The Producers; She Loves Me at WTF) as Tony Lumpkin, Tony Award-nominee Paxton Whitehead (The Importance of Being Earnest; Home at WTF) as Mr. Hardcastle, and Drama Desk Award-nominee Kristine Nielsen (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; Les Liaisons Dangereuses) as Mrs. Hardcastle.

The WTF release suggests that Mr. Martin will be taking a broad approach to Goldsmith’s classic comedy: “Pranks and hijinks abound in She Stoops to Conquer, a raucous 18th-century comedy of big costumes, big sets, big hair, and even bigger laughs.” However, it’s not unusual for the “creatives” to be on different pages. In any case She Stoops to Conquer is a comedy of words as well as of gags, and if Nick Martin’s past work is an indication, both will be well served. I’m only puzzled that Jenny Gersten referred to it as a “Restoration comedy,” since that movement came to an end a generation before Oliver Goldsmith was born. In the 1690s a growing moralism in society and a taste for loftier ideals on stage put an end to Restoration comedy, which was often bawdy and cynical. Goldsmith wrote SSTC in reaction to what was called sentimental comedy (as opposed to “laughing comedy”), which he criticized as neither funny nor really tragic — a sort of tradesman’s tragedy, as Voltaire called it. Goldsmith wrote it to make people laugh without offending the proprieties which made Restoration comedy unacceptable. His humor has dependably  stood the test ever since. Now the big costumes and big hair suggest that Mr. Martin might indeed be making SSTC into a 70s version of a Restoration comedy. Maybe not.  At least we know we’re not shopping for sunglasses.

Ten Cents A Dance, by John Doyle (book), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (music), August 11 – 28

Tony Award-winner John Doyle‘s (Sweeney Todd; Company) latest project, a celebration of the songs of Rodgers and Hart, Ten Cents a Dance will close Williamstown’s Main Stage Season. Tony Award-nominee Malcolm Gets (Amour; Anything Goes at WTF; “Caroline in the City”) plays Johnny and Lauren Molina (Rock of Ages; Sweeney Todd) and Jane Pfitsch (Les Liaisons Dangereuses; Company) will also be featured in this American Premiere production.

This new production should perhaps be left up to WTF, who know something about it:

Prepare to be bewitched and beguiled by Ten Cents a Dance, a new musical conceived by Doyle, who applies his signature style of engaging a company of actor-musicians to bring to life the extraordinary music of Rodgers and Hart. Crooner Johnny wistfully recalls his lifelong love affair of chorus girl Miss Jones, who is embodied by five women, each portraying a different stage of her life.  As Johnny and Miss Jones take “Manhattan” under a “Blue Moon” while “Falling in Love with Love,” you can’t help but think “Isn’t it Romantic?” – even if sometimes “The Lady is a Tramp.”  These and so many other unforgettable songs — filled with infatuation, longing, and enchantment — will sparkle like a glass of champagne on a sexy summer evening.  “All you need is a ticket, come on big boy, ten cents a dance.”

New curtain times for all Main Stage shows are as follows: Tuesday – Saturday at 7:30 pm, Thursday, Saturday & Sunday at 2:00 pm.

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