From the 1930s into the 1970s, you could find stars such as Groucho Marx, Carol Channing, Bob Fosse, Eartha Kitt, James Mason, Mae West and Ethel Waters at the intimate Ivoryton Playhouse on Main Street in a bucolic village that's part of the town of Essex.
These days, Ivoryton Playhouse shows are more likely to have impersonations of famous celebrities rather than the stars themselves. The 2017 season opens March 22 with the Ol' Blue Eyes tribute "My Way — A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra" (through April 9). The first Connecticut production of "Million Dollar Quartet," re-creating the superstar rockabilly jam session of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, runs May 31 through June 25.
But some real-life famous names do still visit Ivoryton: Mike Reiss, "The Simpsons" writer and producer, will premiere his latest comedy "I Hate Musicals — The Musical" at the playhouse Sept. 27 through Oct. 15. This will be Reiss' third show there. His most recent one, "Comedy is Hard" in 2014, starred Micky Dolenz of The Monkees and Joyce DeWitt from "Three's Company."
Another play on the 2017 schedule, "The Game's Afoot" (Nov. 1 to 19) spotlights not just a famous Connecticut celebrity of a century ago, the actor William Gillette, but his stately home, now a state park just 15 miles from the playhouse. Ken Ludwig's comic mystery features the legendary actor (known for playing Sherlock Holmes) solving a crime in his own Gillette Castle.
Ivoryton is also presenting Neil Simon's army boot-camp memoir "Biloxi Blues" (April 26 through May 14), "West Side Story" (July 5 to 30) and "Saturday Night Fever — The Musical" (Aug. 9 through Sept. 3).
Executive Director Jacqui Hubbard, who has been involved with the playhouse for a quarter of a century, has developed a keen sense of what works best in Ivoryton. In some cases, they are shows that haven't worked elsewhere.
"It's amazing to me the things that critics have slammed in New York that I have great success with," Hubbard said in a phone interview last month. She sees the theater's size — just 270 seats — as a game-changer: "The advantage of the playhouse is that it's tiny. When you see a show here, you're almost in it."
Regarding the season-opener "My Way," Hubbard said she's seen other productions of the show and found them "static — I'm not sure I would have done it here if I couldn't make sure it would 'pop.' I wanted to make it move."
So she enlisted the husband and wife team of Rick Faugno and Joyce Chittick to co-direct and co-choreograph the show. Faugno (who starred as Frankie Valli in the Las Vegas production of "Jersey Boys") is also part of the four-person cast. "My Way" features more than 50 songs associated with Sinatra, divided not just into the various phases of his career but filtered through different aspects of his personality.
Besides the popular musicals and comedies, Ivoryton Playhouse introduces its audiences to new works. It held a Women Playwrights Initiative in late February and early March, with staged readings of four new plays.
"With the state of the world right now," Hubbard says, "people want comfort food, and we give them great comfort food. But I also want to show them something new."
In the tradition of what the Ivoryton Playhouse offered 60 or more years ago, Hubbard is a great believer in variety.
"Everything is niche now. Radio stations are country or rock. Theater is classic or modern. There's something to be said for providing a smorgasbord. Our audience is getting older, but you can say to them, 'I know you like this, but I would like you to see this too'."
MY WAY — A MUSICAL TRIBUTE TO FRANK SINATRA, created by David Grapes and Todd Olson, directed and choreographed by Rick Faugno and Joyce Chittick, opens the 2017 season March 22 through April 9 at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton. Tickets are $50, $45 for seniors, $22 for students and $17 for children. Season subscriptions are available: $125 for three shows, $200 for five shows and $260 for seven shows. 860-767-7318, ivorytonplayhouse.org.