New York New York It’s a Helluva Town

Berkshires on Broadway

By: - Dec 09, 2014


Two shows that were developed in the Berkshires are currently doing well on Broadway.

On October 16 in the New York Times Ben Brantley wrote “I caught the Barrington production and admired how it restored the libido to ‘On the Town.’ It was one of the highlights of my summer, a perfect warm-weather diversion in a small, bucolic theater. But the news that it would be coming to Broadway — and to the cavernous Lyric Theater, once home to a singing Spider-Man — gave me pause. Frothy charm can go flabby when it gains weight.

“Yet Mr. Rando’s ‘On the Town’ has grown up quite nicely, thank you, with much of its original cast not only intact but also improved. Every element has been heightened in just the right way, a delicate achievement when you consider the heightening that’s aspired to.”

Now Williamstown Theatre Festival’s stunning "Elephant Man" has just opened to rave reviews. Typically, Joe Dziemianowicz reports in the Daily News “Step right up, folks, and check out the Hollywood heartthrob delivering a brilliant star turn in ‘The Elephant Man.’

“That must-see attraction is Bradley Cooper, a two-time Oscar nominee and one-time Sexiest Man Alive, whose riveting performance powers the revival of Bernard Pomerance’s fact-based drama, first staged on Broadway in 1979.

“…This new Broadway staging by director Scott Ellis — seen in 2012 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival with the same three principals — is spare and fluid. Sliding drapes that smartly evoke the idea that Merrick is a specimen to be gawked at. What’s really on view are man’s inhumanity and a topnotch Cooper.”

Last summer the hottest ticket was for the smash hit “Fool of Love” by Sam Shepard at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. There was fire and ice in the cyclotron collision of the smoldering co stars Tony winner, Nina Arianda, and the pumped, testosterone oozing Sam Rockwell. It was recently announced that the red hot Arianda, one of the most compelling leading ladies of her generation, will return to Broadway with Rockwell next season for her first appearance since winning for a 2012 lead in “Venus in Fur.”

On a Monday night in 2013, under then artistic director, Tony Simotes, a caravan of stars appeared in Broadway in the Berkshires. The benefit gala for Shakespeare & Company was organized by Deborah Grausman and hosted by the actor John Douglas Thompson.

Currently Thompson is starring in “Tamburlaine” by Christopher Marlowe at Theatre for a New Audience. When that show closes, it has been extended to January, as he told me in a recent phone conversation, he heads to Chicago for rehearsals at the Goodman Theatre. They are refreshing a production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh’ for the Brooklyn Academy of Music which opens on February 5 running through March 15. The epic play will likely then move to Broadway. Thompson will be reviving his classic role as Joe Mott.

For the past few seasons Thompson has been a well kept secret in the Berkshires with a number of astonishing performances for Shakespeare & Company. His solo role in Terry Teachout’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf” toured after opening in Lenox. There has been a regime change at S&Co. so nothing is certain but Thompson would like to return this summer in a play that’s not by the Bard yet has an historical Shakespearean theme. Thompson is fast evolving as a New York marquee attraction. His next Berkshire appearance is bound to be a major media and audience event.

So there is an interesting shift from Broadway in the Berkshires to the Berkshires on Broadway.

Ask any artistic director or actor about that, however, and they will break out in a hot rash of denials. To a fault they will respond to annoying and ill informed suggestions that their goal, first and foremost, is to present the best possible theatre in the Berkshires.

Yeah, right.

Part of the magic, however, is that stars and developing productions enjoy coming to the Berkshires with the pressure cooker of two to three weeks of rehearsal and a run of two weeks. They can relax and experiment while performing below the radar of sharp shooting, play killing New York critics.

For some productions, particularly at WTF, the national media is told to stay home. That transforms local critics into crucial and influential first responders. Of course our opinions don’t count. Particularly the negative ones. What nobody admits is that raves for “On the Town” “Elephant Man” and “Fool for Love” are used to drum up visits from Broadway producers. 

Now and then the Times and WSJ make it to the Berkshires providing the down field block that opens lanes for a run to the end zone of Broadway. Or checkerboard moves and jumps to regional theatres and then a New York production.

This has been the route taken for a number of successful plays by Mark St. Germaine which premiered at Barrington including “Freud’s Last Sessions” “Best of Enemies” “Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah” “Becoming Dr. Ruth” and “Dancing Lessons.” His “The Fabulous Lipitones” skipped Pittsfield and opened in Seattle last October. The musical is now in New Jersey.

Beyond prestige and putting a company on the map there isn’t much financial incentive other than modest points. It’s not a sure fire means of paying the bills. 

But it is invaluable for ambitious companies hoping to lure A list talent to the Berkshires. There is the opportunity to do great work in a bucolic setting. With the added incentive that an increment of the very best work will move on and have another life.

In theatre things rarely go according to plan. There was a lot of excitement last summer when Jenny Gersten in her final season at WTF enticed opera diva, Renee Fleming, to, what else, play an opera diva in a light comedy “Living on Love.” Also the now elderly Chita Rivera made her first Berkshire appearance in “The Visit” the last Kander and Ebb musical. The show opened in Chicago in 2001 but because of 9/11 no New York producers got to see it. Both shows earned respectful reviews but proved to be one off productions.

Gersten’s WTF production of “Bridges of Madison County” made it to Broadway last year for a modest run and Tony nominations. There was a similar arc for the WTF musical “Far from Heaven.”

Given the tough economics for Broadway shows the major regional theatre companies are playing an ever more important role. The old system of developing shows through out of town tryouts is no longer feasible. Instead the norm now is for a month of previews before opening night. That’s not a lot of time to work out the kinks. The doomed “Spider Man” set a new precedent with months of previews and critics jumping the gun with ersatz, work in progress “reviews.”

It is becoming ever more routine for critics to catch one of the final previews to have copy ready for reviews the morning after opening night. Some call that cheating or worse. Nowadays everyone is cutting corners like the Wall Street Journal second stringer who outed herself as a “bolter.” Meaning splitting after intermission for plays that did not keep the hack riveted to her seat.

Truth is a lot of us pros just bite the bullet, suck it up, and return to snooze through the second act. Thank God third acts are mostly a thing of the past.

Then there is a rare thrill of loving a show so much that you want to see it again. But theatres don’t comp return visits. Not as a rule. So I had to pony up for me and the Mrs. when our friend, visiting NY critic, Fast Eddy, wanted to see “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” It was his first viewing so he got comped and we didn’t even get a discount.

That’s why it was super generous for Charlie Siedenburg who does PR for Barrington to invite us to see “On the Town” last week. And after the show to introduce us to cast members.

It was a case of déjà vu all over again.

Actually it was an apples and oranges experience.

In the modestly scaled Barrington production “On the Town” was so compressed, combustive and high energy that it blew the roof off the theatre. Seeing the restaged Leonard Bernstein musical was just the thrill of a lifetime. Me and me mates just gushed that the production was a shoe in for Broadway.

In our rush to judgment, however, none of the local scribes in our wildest dreams anticipated that it would land in Broadway’s Death Valley that vast and unforgiving Grand Canyon, Lyric Theater, at 213 West 42nd Street. It’s that same overwhelming space where the ill fated “Spider Man” withered and died.

Give much credit all around, however, that “On the Town” has been expanded and filled out nicely on that huge stage. Some of the big dance and production numbers which got cut at Barrington have been put back in for Broadway. So the show runs longer. The first act lasted about an hour and a half. That's tough on aging kidneys.

Wisely, with the exception of a bona fide ballerina to play Miss Subways, Ivy (Megan Fairchild) most of the smashing Barrington cast remains intact including the stunning song and dance leads Tony Yazbeck (Gabey), Jay Armstrong Johnson (Chip), Clyde Alves (Ozzie). Another holdover is the red hot mama with chutzpah Alysha Umphress (Hildy). What a hoot.

When we attended on a Tuesday there was a modest house which would probably fill most other Broadway theaters. With a big cast and large orchestra the show is carrying a hefty weekly payroll. 

That’s OK from now to New Year which is prime time for Broadway. Shows struggle to make it through the dead of winter hanging on hoping for the boost of Tony nominations. Winners can run for years.

There was skepticism about an early, lesser know, Bernstein musical set in the dated era of WWII. But those three guys on leave “New York New York It’s a Wonderful Town” have just blown the socks off the critics.

If the show makes it to spring. They say “If you can make it here you can make it anywhere” the show has a good shot at nominations for Best Musical Revival, Best Actor in a Musical (Tony Yazbeck), Best Director (John Rando), Best Choreography (Josh Bergasse) and for cripes sake Best Supporting Actress in a Musical (Alysha Umphress). 

Wouldn’t that be just sweeeet.

Oh, and Best Actor for Bradley Cooper in “Elephant Man.”

Bet on it. No bank on it. All in.