As I happily brace myself for a particularly promising theatergoing year in 2017 — especially regarding new plays — I can't shake some lasting images of the year just past. From the start of that year, with "The Moors" at Yale Repertory Theatre and "Romeo and Juliet" at Hartford Stage, to the end of it, with the national tour of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" at The Bushnell and the final performances of Bill Raymond as Scrooge in Hartford Stage's "A Christmas Carol," fine performances and strong direction were augmented by audacious scenic designs and special effects.
I like feeling overwhelmed in the theater. It happened a lot last year, and I can already sense overt signs of being overwhelmed in '17.
I reviewed well over a hundred shows for the Hartford Courant in 2016. You could say that each had its moments. Here's a look at 10.
The Tap Dance From 'Anything Goes'
Daniel Goldstein's production of this Cole Porter classic, for Goodspeed Musicals, had a lot going for it. But the spectacular tap dance at the end of the first act, led by Rashidra Scott, just kept going and going and going, until the audience was as exhausted and exhilarated as the cast's frenetic feet.
The Train Trip From 'Anastasia'
The world premiere in May of Hartford Stage's latest Broadway-bound musical, set to begin performances this March at New York's Broadhurst Theatre, relied on giant projection screens for many of its special effects. The journey of the show's titular possibly-a-princess heroine from St. Petersburg to Paris had grand video backdrops, but also transformed various set pieces that were already on the stage into a thundering steam train.
The Mother's Voice From 'Lewiston'
Playwright Sam Hunter took a huge risk by ending this new work with a long, disembodied monologue delivered by a deceased character who wasn't portrayed onstage. The words came from a cassette tape toted about by the character's daughter. Thepremiere production of "Lewiston" at Long Wharf Theatre in April was also notable for some convincingly fizzled-out fireworks.
The Murder In 'The Moors'
You could feel it coming for many country miles away, so when the sensational slaying in Jen Silverman's feminist gothic horror show finally did come, it had to be outrageous. As staged at Yale Rep by Jackson Gay, it was. Buckets of blood also drenched the stage in the Yale Rep production of Sarah Ruhl's "Scenes from Court Life" in October.
The Spirit Of August Wilson
When I interviewed the great August Wilson in 2005, my first question to him was this: Since most of his plays deal with supernatural elements, why do directors and designers invariably stage them in hyper-realistic settings? The playwright told me he'd always wondered that himself. This year, Hartford Stage showed us the virtue of realism by staging "The Piano Lesson" in a large,multi-room, two-story set, while just a few weeks later the Yale Rep used an airy, angular, expressionistic style for Wilson's "Seven Guitars." Both worked wonderfully. (An expansive full-house setting also served the Hartford Stage/Long Wharf co-production of Emily Mann's "Having Our Say.")
The Bedroom In 'Burning Desire'
The head of the devil incarnate (Lou Diamond Philips, who also wrote the play) popped up in the middle of a bed, moments after a couple had just done some lovemaking in it. Clever bits like that distinguished this old-fashioned relationship comedy with a forked-tailed twist.
Richard Dreyfuss Plays With A Drinking Bird Toy
The fine film actor had enough stage experience to find delicate little moments in his portrayal of Albert Einstein in Mark St. Germain's new play "Relativity," which sold out its entire run at TheaterWorks in the fall. Dreyfuss' amusement at the bird-headed glass-tubed toy on his desk was an example of how he and St. Germain were able to condense cosmic concepts into human-sized expressions of wonderment.
Succour on This
"Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour" is a well-known novel in Scotland, but hard to find here. That means audiences were unprepared for the verbal and physical onslaught of the stage adaptation of the book, which had its U.S. premiere at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in June. The bits we have been told to expect — choral renditions of Electric Light Orchestra pop hits — were heavenly.
The Hole In Norm's Body In 'Meteor Shower'
Some of the one-liners in this abstract metaphysical comedy by Steve Martin hit their mark. Others flew over heads or under salaciously spread legs. But this world premiere production's biggest visual joke — when Norm (Patrick Breen) wandered onstage with a meteor having burned a round hole through his stomach — was a cannon-sized bull's-eye. Another great fiery stage effect of 2016: the top of Dianne Wiest's umbrella shooting off sparks in "Happy Days" at the Yale Repertory Theatre.
Lots Of Love Letters
There were two separate star-studded stagings of A.R. Gurney's sparse script-in-hand, two-chairs-and-a-table drama "Love Letters." One was at The Bushnell, that starred Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw from the film "Love Story." The better one — the one where you felt the actors had really read and absorbed the play beforehand — was at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, and starred Brian Dennehy and a riveting Mia Farrow.
"Kinky Boots." The entrancing Lola returned to Connecticut, twice. The tour had the same energy and powerful messages of empowerment it had when visiting Hartford (with a different cast) in 2015.
"If/Then." A sensitive, intimate show that deserved to live longer on Broadway earned a chance to tour and made the most of it, enlisting Anthony Rapp and Jackie Butler from the New York cast.
"Matilda." The uproarious adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel, by playwright Dennis Kelly and songwriter Tim Minchin, was just as crazed as it was on Broadway.
"Dirty Dancing." Romantic, but not afraid to get goofy. It played both The Bushnell and the Waterbury Palace in 2106, and will be at the Shubert in New Haven in April.
"Cinderella." Hip jokes and quick-change costume effects enliven this fun reworking of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, which was at The Bushnell and Shubert in 2016 and will be at the Waterbury Palace in February.
What Will 2017 Bring?
Now, on to the future and the thrill of the new. Connecticut is one the foremost incubators of new plays in the United States. All its regional theaters regularly host world premieres, and there are workshop and development opportunities aplenty.
The premiere of Aditi Brennan Kapil's "Imogen Says Nothing" is at Yale Rep this month, just across town from the Long Wharf Theater, which premiered a different play by the same playwright in 2011.
The Long Wharf has two premieres upcoming: Meghan Kennedy's "Napoli, Brooklyn" in February and the new musical "Table" in May, while Yale Rep's season ends with the premiere of Amy Herzog's "Mary Jane" in April. The New England premiere of Karin Coonrod's "texts&beheadings/ElizabethR," staged by theater collective Compagnia de' Colombari, is at Wesleyan Center for the Arts Feb. 17.
Hartford playwright Jacque Lamarre, whose "Born Fat" premiered at Seven Angels in Waterbury in January and is best known for "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti," returns to the kitchen for "Raging Skillet," premiering in March at TheaterWorks.
The Goodspeed has three new musicals on the 2017 slate at its Norma Terris Theater in Chester. The Goodspeed's main Opera House is doing a major revision of the immigrant-themed "Rags" in October, directed by Rob Ruggiero, the producing artistic director of TheaterWorks in Hartford. TheaterWorks will take on one of its largest musical theater projects in March: "Next to Normal" by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt. This is great news for those who enjoyed the national tour of Yorkey and Kitt's "If/Then" at The Bushnell in August.
West Hartford's Playhouse on Park also has joined the modern musical bandwagon. Having done "Passing Strange," "Altar Boyz" and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" in recent years, the playhouse is staging "[title of show]" this month. Readings of musicals you haven't even heard of yet can be glimpsed this summer at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center (where Paulette Haupt is stepping down as artistic director of the National Music Theater Conference she has run since 1978) and the Yale Institute of Music Theater.
As for classics, this year Hartford Stage is showing a keen interest not just in Shakespeare but in George Bernard Shaw, and is also embracing a British classic of the 1970s, Caryl Churchill's "Cloud Nine." Westport Country Playhouse's season is largely made up of contemporary dramas—"Grounded," "Appropriate," "Sex With Strangers"—but begins with Peter Shaffer's "Lettice and Lovage" and concludes with "Romeo and Juliet."
Circus theater, a curiosity just a few decades ago, is a fixed item on theater schedules nowadays. The International Festival of Arts & Ideas, in New Haven in June, typically offers circus shows both in indoor venues and on New Haven Green. The Canadian company 7 doigts de la main, which has brought shows to Arts & Ideas and also was part of the tour of "Pippin" that was at The Bushnell in 2015, brings its "Cuisine & Confessions" show to UConn in late March.
Foxwoods Resort Casino, which hosted the U.S. premiere of Cirque Eloize's "Saloon" in August, brings the troupe back in April with "Cirkopolis," inspired by the Fritz Lang film "Metropolis." Also in April, The Bushnell has bagged "Circus 1903," which features a life-size elephant controlled by puppeteers. The exemplar of "new circus," Cirque du Soleil, was at the XL Center in June, and will be back there in March with "Toruk," inspired by the film "Avatar."
Indian "Bollywood" movie musicals are making an unlikely splash on local stages: Darko Tresnjak's worked a Bollywood routine into Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" this month at Hartford Stage, while the touring musical "Taj Express" is visiting UConn's Jorgensen Auditorium Feb. 9.
And long live rock 'n' roll, which has brought fresh energy and new audiences to old theaters. Ridgefield Playhouse has "The Wall — Theatrical Extravaganza" this month. The national tour of "Motown the Musical" comes to the Shubert in June while The Bushnell (which offered "Motown" in March) begins 2017 with "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" Jan. 17 to 22 and brings back "Jersey Boys" in March.
Waterbury's Seven Angels Theatre has the holy father of all rock musicals, "Jesus Christ Superstar," in the spring. Bridgeport's Downtown Cabaret is doing Wesleyan alumnus Lin-Manuel Miranda's pre-"Hamilton" hip-hop hit "In the Heights" in April/May.
The Garde in New London has a homegrown series of "Classic Albums Live" as part of its Broadway series, with "Purple Rain" this month and "Ziggy Stardust" in May. There are competing productions of "The Who's Tommy" in February at Curtain Call in Stamford and the Warner in Torrington. See them, feel them.