By Christopher Arnott
3:40 PM EDT, September 5, 2013
The Shubert in New Haven prides itself on its historical significance. This was the theater where Rodgers & Hammerstein, Neil Simon and many other theater legends chose to try out their new works before they went to Broadway. The 2013-14 Shubert "Best of Broadway" season, however, is the most "modern" line-up of touring musicals that the theater's booked in years: Mamma Mia (Nov. 22-24), Bring It On — The Musical (Jan. 16-18), Once (Feb. 26-March 2), Stomp (March 28-30) and We Will Rock You (April 25-27). OK, some of those titles are 20 years old, or are fueled by 35-year-old pop hits. But for a venue that's almost always had a classic like West Side Story or South Pacific in the mix, this is a reminder that the Shubert also has kept up with the times. Occasionally the Shubert still gets tapped as a try-out house: national tours of Hair and Jersey Boys had their shakedowns here, and last year the Shubert stop on The Addams Family tour was used to revise and sharpen the show's script.
The Shubert, which turns 100 years old in 2014, is an example of the old-world theater history that the city still exudes. The city's other two major theater institutions are from a later generation. The Long Wharf and the Yale Rep are shining examples of the regional theater movement that blossomed in the U.S. in the 1960s. Both have been around for more than half a century.
Finally deciding a couple of years ago to stay put in its original location (after a decade of speculation that it would move downtown alongside Gateway Community College), the Long Wharf Theatre extensively renovated its lobby and auditorium. Upon reopening, it had a commercial hit with The Killing of Sister George (starring Kathleen Turner) and a commercial and critical hit in the theater's Stage II space with John Douglas Thompson starring in Terry Teachout's Satchmo at the Waldorf.
This year, the Long Wharf offers The Underpants, Steve Martin's adaptation of a early 20th century German comedy by Carl Sternheim (Oct. 16-Nov. 10); August Wilson's classic father-son drama Fences (Nov. 27-Dec. 22); the world premiere of Heidi Shreck's new workplace comedy The Consultant (Jan. 8-Feb. 9); Amy Herzog's hit 4000 Miles, about a nonagenarian New York grandmother tentatively bonding with her wandering West Coast grandson (Feb. 19-March 16); a world premiere Athol Fugard play, The Shadow of the Hummingbird, starring the playwright himself (March 26-April 27); and Jason Robert Brown's relationship musical The Last Five Years (May 7-June 1). The Consultant and Shadow of the Hummingbird (the fourth Fugard U.S. or world premiere at the Long Wharf since 2007) will be seen on Long Wharf's smaller Stage II space, while the rest are on the newly recently renovated mainstage.
Interestingly, Amy Herzog and Athol Fugard and August Wilson are all playwrights with strong prior connections to the Yale Rep. Herzog attended the Yale School of Drama (where her thesis project was The Wendy Play, about her experiences teaching at a drama camp elsewhere in Connecticut), and the Rep world-premiered her suspense drama Belleville just last year. The last time Fugard acted in one of his own plays on a New Haven stage was in A Place for the Pigs at Yale Rep in 1987; the Rep's world premiere production of Fugard's best-known play, Master Harold… and the Boys, won a Tony award.
So what's Yale Repertory Theatre up to now? Touting new writers and invigorating the classics. For more than a decade now, that's been the Rep raison d'etre of the theater's longest-serving artistic director, James Bundy. The 2013-14 season opens with Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (Sept. 20-Oct. 12), starring Joe Manganiello as Stanley Kowalski and Rene Augesen as Blanche DuBois; the show's director, Mark Rucker, did Williams' Kingdom of Earth at the Rep in 2001. Streetcar's followed Oct. 25-Nov. 16 by a rare revival of Owners, an anti-capitalist drama which was a breakthrough hit (in 1972) for Caryl Churchill. While Churchill's beloved of student directors (the Yale School of Drama did her Cloud Nine last year, while the Yale Summer Cabaret just did two of her one-acts in August), her plays don't get done often enough at professional regional theaters… except at the Rep, which did her Serious Money in 2002. Nov. 30-Dec. 21, the Yale Rep brings back the clown-theater team of Christopher Bayes (director) and Steven Epp (star), collaborators on hit Rep productions of centuries-old farces The Servant of Two Masters and The Doctor in Spite of Himself, with a much more recent comedy, Dario Fo's The Accidental Death of an Anarchist. The remaining three shows in the Rep season are all new scripts by playwrights who graduated from the Yale School of Drama: Meg Miroshnik's The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls (Jan. 31-Feb. 22); These Paper Bullets (March 14-April 5), adapted by Rolin Jones from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing with new songs by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong; and Marcus Gardley's 19th century New Orleans drama The House That Will Not Stand (April 18-May 10).
New Haven's got three renowned theaters, and the city's theater junkies are within an hour's drive of the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Westport Country Playhouse, Downtown Cabaret Theatre in Bridgeport, New London's Garde Arts Center, the Waterbury Palace, Hartford Stage, TheaterWorks and a slew of college, community and small theaters. It's good to be a theatergoer in Connecticut.
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