Memorable Moments On Connecticut's Stages In 2017

Join me, as the year winds to a close, in a survey of some of the sensational stage moments, highlights and trends of the past 12 months.

Literary Lights

The year began and ended with excellent adaptations of hard-to-adapt books. Jan. 1 was the last night of the weeklong run of the national tour of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at the Bushnell, which used high-tech special effects and movement theater techniques to achieve a visual equivalent of the book’s unique mindset. This month at the Yale Rep, playwright Nambi E. Kelley and director Seret Scott took Richard Wright’s singular sociopolitical thriller “Native Son” and — by changing its structure and tone, adding an interior monologue voice and jettisoning about a third of the story — forged a miraculous blend of plot, characters, and important underlying messages.

Other page-turning theater pieces included James Lecesne’s tour-de-force one-man adaptation of his own novel “Absolute Brightness” at Hartford Stage.

Connecticut Takes New York

“Anastasia,” which premiered last year at Hartford Stage, opened on Broadway in May. The show had been tweaked (and much improved, in my opinion) during its journey from Connecticut to New York, including a complete overhaul of the song-and-dance number “Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart.” Despite getting snubbed by the Tony Awards (only two nominations, no wins), “Anastasia” is still going strong while shows that got a lot more attention (“Great Comet,” “Groundhog Day,” “Bandstand”) have fallen by the wayside. The Broadway “Anastasia” still boasts all but one of the same lead performers who were with the show in Hartford.

The Yale Rep’s “Indecent” also went to Broadway, following an off-Broadway run last year. It won two Tonys: for director Rebecca Taichman (whose Yale Rep work has regularly dazzled) and Hartford-born lighting designer Christopher Akerlind.

Other shows that Connecticut theaters helped send to New York this year include Steve Martin’s “Meteor Shower,” which premiered at Long Wharf in 2016, albeit with a different cast and director; “Napoli, Brooklyn,” another Long Wharf premiere, which transferred to off-Broadway with the same director and designers and many of the same actors; “Mary Jane,” with a different cast but the same director, Anne Kauffman, as for its Yale Rep premiere; and “The Moors,” with two of the same cast members as the Yale Rep premiere two seasons ago in an otherwise different production.

The Neighborhood Bar

Cheers! Feb. 10 at the Garde Arts Center marked the last Connecticut stop for the last national tour of “Once.” The show had previously played the Shubert (twice), The Bushnell and the Waterbury Palace. “Once” turned each of these stages into an Irish pub that served actual drinks to audience members bold enough to walk into it while the show’s cast indulged in a wild musical jam session before the show properly began. Now that the performance rights have trickled down to small local companies, we’ll likely see a lot of creative overhauls of area theaters, but unless they have liquor licenses we won’t get that immersive introductory pub effect.

Another show that’s trickled down from national tours to more intimate small theater productions is the historic rock jam “Million Dollar Quartet.” Long may it roll.

Toy Dogs

Gordon Edelstein’s production of “Endgame” at Long Wharf Stage II of the Samuel Beckett masterpiece had an all-star cast (Brian Dennehy, Reg E. Cathey, Joe Grifasi and Lynn Cohen), and some unexpected deviations from Beckett’s sacred text: Nagg and Nell emerged from clothes hampers instead of trashbins, Clov was not in redface, and broken computers were part of the onstage clutter. There was a lot to take in, but when a little toy dog joined the illustrious cast for a few moments, it stole the show. Wobbling and falling over with terrific comic timing, this inanimate object behaved as if it had been specially trained for the role.

Another scene-stealing canine was Paul, the life-size labrador puppet that Phillip Huber designed for “Darling Grenadine” at Goodspeed Musicals’ Norma Terris Theatre.

Shakespeare Lives!

While many regional theaters in other states embraced a popular new stage adaptation of “Shakespeare in Love,” the Yale Rep went darker and deeper with the premiere of “Imogen Says Nothing.” Aditi Brennan Kapil’s quasi-historical drama explored how insecure and depressing it must have been to be a member of Shakespeare’s touring acting troupe and added layers of female empowerment and ursine supernatural terror besides.

On the upbeat side of the bard, Darko Tresnjak directed both “The Comedy of Errors” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Hartford Stage this year, and Mark Lamos gave the nurse and parents a lot of unexpected funny business in his “Romeo and Juliet” at Westport Country Playhouse.

The comic onslaught, which in “Comedy of Errors” ran to Shakespearean fat jokes and fart jokes, could wear thin, but much of the merriment was welcome, and Tresnjak deserves credit for taking chances with tones, tempos and really long pieces of fabric.

Streetwise Economics Lessons

“Sunset Baby” at TheaterWorks was an excitable family drama with highly physicalized performers spouting revolutionary rhetoric. I thought it was the most provocative drama I saw all year. Here’s its heroine Nina (played by Brittany Bellizeare), explaining how she turned to crime in order to finance her education:

“You think books is free? You think college tuition just falls from the sky? Not when your mama is addicted and your daddy’s in jail. Nah. You want an education, you do what’s necessary to stay in the game. It’s a lot of straight A students hustlin’ to pay for those books. Sellin’ dime bags don’t put you in debt like Uncle Sam. Department of Education … they’re the real gangstas.”


It’s hard to gauge the historical accuracy of Daisuke Tsuji’s impression of Shakespeare in “Imogen Says Nothing” at Yale Rep, or Hershey Felder as the composer in “Our Great Tchaikovsky” at Hartford Stage or Aaron LaVigne’s Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Seven Angels Theatre, but they certainly were entertaining. Semina De Laurentis and R. Bruce Connelly captured the essence of a duo familiar from decades of TV and movies, in “George and Gracie — The Early Years” at Seven Angels without worrying overmuch about looks, while Isabelle Barbier in “The Diary of Ann Frank” at Playhouse on Park bore an eerie resemblance to photos of the real Frank. Andrew Long appeared in George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” as Boss Mangan, made up to look the spitting image of Donald Trump.

Connecticut historical figures brought to life on stage included Roger Sherman (in “1776” at CT Rep), William Gillette (in “The Game’s Afoot” at Ivoryton Playhouse) and Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, P.T. Barnum and William Gillette again in the new “A Connecticut Christmas Carol” at Goodspeed Musicals’ Norma Terris Theatre.

The most extraordinary celebrity impersonation of the year would have to be from Connecticut Forum’s “Laughter, Anyone?” panel discussion at The Bushnell. When moderator Colin McEnroe asked Fred Armisen how he builds a comic impression of someone, Armisen responded by creating one, on the spot, of McEnroe himself.

Reworked And Restyled

Oh, if these walls could talk — or sing! Connecticut reaffirmed its prowess as a place to rework problematic old shows when Goodspeed took on “Rags.” Director Rob Ruggiero, working with the show’s original composer and lyricist Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz and new book writer David Thompson, restyled “Rags” into a trimmer, leaner show set mostly around a single character (Samantha Massell as seamstress Rebecca) and a single location (a tenement flat on New York’s lower East Side). That apartment (scenic design by Michael Schweikardt) became a key character in the show; the scenes not set there were the weaker ones.

Ruggiero also helmed a heady, engrossing production of the musical “Next to Normal” at TheaterWorks. As with “Rags,” Ruggiero concentrated as much on the show’s environment — in this case a tidy middle-class home designed by Wilson Chin — as on its denizens. That’s just a smart move for musicals, where atmosphere is everything. Ruggiero isn’t just a director, he’s an architect.

Mia Dillon In ‘Seder’

Mia Dillon — who nailed two roles in Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud 9” at Hartford Stage in February — reunited with director Elizabeth Williamson for the premiere of Sarah Gancher’s “Seder” at the same theater in October.

“Cloud 9” required Dillon (a last-minute replacement for another actress who was hurt during the dress rehearsal) to play both a young boy and an elderly woman.

In “Seder,” Dillon played another elderly woman but also, in flashbacks, as she appeared several decades earlier.

While other regions of the country are still rallying to find more opportunities for female playwrights and actresses, Connecticut theaters in 2017 were staging full productions of new plays by Gancher, Amy Herzog, Meghan Kennedy, Aditi Brennan Kapil. All these plays had female protagonists. Jen Silverman had a reading at Long Wharf and a production of one of her earlier plays, “That Poor Girl and How He Killed Her,” at Connecticut Repertory Theatre. There were several productions of Sarah Ruhl plays around the state. Popular regional hits of recent years by Lydia Diamond (“Smart People” at Long Wharf) and Dominique Morisseau (“Sunset Baby” at TheaterWorks) easily found Connecticut stages to emote on.

These shows weren’t just written — and in most cases, directed by — women. They had great roles for women, Mia Dillon foremost among them.

A Child’s Face

George Brant’s “Grounded” is a tender, intimate monologue punctuated by a wall of blaring video screens. The Westport Country Playhouse production, directed by Liz Diamond and scenic-designed by Riccardo Hernandez, was careful not to overwhelm its human star (Elizabeth Stahlmann) with all the tech imagery, but at a key moment in the character’s descent into a special sort of madness, one image — one of a child, connecting the heroine’s home-life concerns with her immeasurable work stress and basic human decency — blasted from all the screens as the play burst into dramatic overdrive.

Quiet, Please

Two of my favorite shows of 2017 were defined by deafening silence. The premiere of “The End of TV” at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven juxtaposed shrill, blaring TV ads with the heartbreaking, story of an elderly person slumped voicelessly in front of the TV set. “The End of TV” didn’t just have a fast/slow dichotomy; it was quiet/loud as well. The biggest shift was from human actors to silent, two-dimensional shadow puppets. Dizzying, yet strangely calming.

Bess Wohl’s “Small Mouth Sounds” (an off-Broadway hit that began its national tour at the Long Wharf in August) took place at a spiritual retreat, where the participants observed a vow of silence. Wohl crafted a show that seemed experimental and mainstream at the same time, delving into all the dramatic and comic possibilities of its clever concept while maintaining an otherworldly, eerily calm air of mystery.

Top Tours

The MVP of national tours was Laurence Connor, who directed the first national tour of the raucous “School of Rock” (at The Bushnell in October) and the exquisite revival of “Les Miserables” at the Bushnell as well as co-directing the deliciously creepy tour of “Phantom of the Opera” (which dropped its chandelier in Waterbury in November). Connor brings new depth and character development to shows you might have given up expecting those things from. He also knows how to fill a stage with color, light and lots of people. That bright energy was contagious and filled some of the biggest auditoriums in the state.

While Andrew Lloyd Webber got his due this year (with tours of “School of Rock” and “Phantom” and local productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar”), the Honourable Lord had to defer to a previous generation of showmakers, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Jenn Thompson’s Goodspeed production of “Oklahoma!” dealt deftly with the show’s sexism and violent impulses and brought youth and humanity to its settlers’ struggles. Big national tours of “The Sound of Music” (with a modernistic stained-glass nunnery and black gospel added to the vocal styles) and “The King and I” (replacing racism with cultural awareness) also showed how Rodgers and Hammerstein can still work with modern sensibilities.

Children Should Be Seen And Heard

While national tours of Broadway shows continue to be traveling day care centers (“Fun Home,” “School of Rock,” “Finding Neverland”), lots of other shows are using youthfulness to good advantage. TheaterWorks made an ideal true-youth casting choice of Maya Keleher as the resilient teen Natalie in “Next to Normal” in the spring, then opened its 2017-18 season in the fall with “The Wolves,” in which nearly every character is a high school girl.

Cute kids livened up “An Enemy of the People” at Yale Rep. Their presence let star Reg Rogers lighten up the oft-dark lead role of Dr. Stockmann by giving him a ready onstage audience for his ingratiating comic high jinks.

Set Changes

Laurence Conner’s new national tour of “Les Miserables” at the Bushnell dispensed with the turntable stage traditionally associated with that massively complicated show, but contained numerous new twists and turns. When Javert leaps off a bridge, the set piece behind him rises, the perspective changes, and the projected backdrop becomes a roiling, swirling river that swallows up the obsessive police inspector as he sings his suicide song.

The second national tour of the Hartford Stage-birthed Broadway hit “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” at the Waterbury Palace in October, reminded us where we’d seen that trick before — when the jutting-toothed cleric Ezekiel D’Ysquith falls from the top of a cathedral. That plummet is through air rather than water, and ends with a comical thump.

Many theaters sought to freshen up established classics with new settings or technological trickery. The walls bled black in “An Enemy of the People” at Yale Rep. But nothing could beat the sight of Jack Worthing (Nick Nudler) pushing his way through a tiny balloon-filled greenhouse in “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Connecticut Repertory Theatre.

Balloons? A wall of screens? Stained glass? Chandeliers? Apartments as characters? Yeah, you had to be there. Connecticut theater in 2017 was a vision to behold.

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