Making Something ‘Beautiful’
When Julia Knitel was 16, she was on Broadway in the revival of Bye Bye Birdie. That’s the age when singer-songwriter Carole King began composing pop hits starting in the ’60s.
Now the 23-year-old Knitel is starring in the tour of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which will play the Bushnell in Hartford from Jan. 17-22.
The musical follows King from her days as a shy Brooklyn teenager through her songwriting collaboration with husband Gerry Goffin, a friendly rivalry with the songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, and to King’s 1971 solo album, Tapestry, the landmark recording that became the soundtrack of a generation, including those of Knitel’s grandmother and mother.
Knitel says when her mother was in college as a classical voice major, “she would take her sheet music of Tapestry into the rehearsal room and block the windows so no one could see what she was playing, and she would play through the whole book.”
Knitel says King’s storied life is extraordinary but relatable in a personal way through her music. She is also finding personality similarities with King. “I especially relate to her sense of humor, her ability to look at the world with joy and try to make those around her happy.”
Cathey’s New Haven Days
Reg E. Cathey, the Emmy-winning actor of Netflix’s House of Cards, is co-starring with Connecticut native Brian Dennehy in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, running Jan. 5-Feb. 5. I reminded him of his earlier days in New Haven when he was at the Yale School of Drama in the early ’80s and performing at the Yale Cabaret.
In one show by playwriting student OyamO (aka Charles F. Gordon, who is today a theater professor at the University of Michigan), he played in drag one of the prostitutes who hung out around the corner from the theater on Park Street. “We got to know the women over the course of the time,” he says, laughing. “But they never came to see the show.”
Cathey says the Yale Cabaret was pivotal in both his work on stage and the friendships he made. Several of his cabaret pals — Lewis Black and composer Rusty Magee — ended up after graduation running the downstairs stage at the West Bank Cafe in Manhattan’s theater district. That proved to be helpful to Cathey and fellow drama grad Charles S. Dutton because they knew they had a place to perform some sketch material and get on stage until they got their big breaks as actors. “That’s how The Roc [Dutton’s nickname] and Reggie Show began,” says Cathey, referring to their sketch comedy show at the West Bank (Dutton later used some of that material in his Roc sitcom on Fox in the early ’90s). “Every time I watch Key and Peele I think, ‘We were doing that years ago.’”
Discovering Lorraine Hansberry
Vanessa Butler wasn’t that aware of Lorraine Hansberry beyond knowing that she was the playwright of the landmark work A Raisin in the Sun. But when she was cast as the writer-activist in the world premiere of Jimmy and Lorraine last year at Hartford’s HartBeat Ensemble, she started researching Hansberry, studying her speeches, writings and interviews.
“Now I’ve completely fallen in love with this amazing woman,” says Butler, a Hartford-based actress who starred in the world premiere of the Hartford Stage season opener Queens for a Year and is in A Christmas Carol there.
Now the show, which received rave reviews and became HartBeat’s biggest hit, is returning for a limited run at the University of St. Joseph’s Autorino Center for the Arts in West Hartford Jan. 27-29. Joining Butler in the three-actor play is Aaron Pitre, who was also in the earlier HartBeat production, as writer and Hansberry pal James Baldwin.
Besides giving those who missed the show the chance to see it, the play is being remounted for potential producers and an upcoming college tour.
How would the civil rights activist Hansberry, who died in 1965 at the age of 34, react to the current political environment?
“She struggled about being an artist during turbulent times and I identify with that. She was always asking, ‘Am I doing enough?’ and feeling that perhaps she should be on the front lines [of the Civil Rights Movement]. But others, like actor/singer Paul Robeson, encouraged her to fight for her beliefs with her talent, that giving an artistic, academic or intellectual standpoint is just as valid, too. This is a huge issue and conflict today given our current atmosphere. A lot of people are very frustrated and hungry for something to change and wanting to know how to [make that happen]. I think this play is exactly what people need to hear now.”
Todd Returns To Roots
Fans of Tony Todd might remember him for his work in such ominous films as 1990’s Night of the Living Dead (and its 2015 animated reboot), The Crow, in the title role in the Candyman franchise, as well as in the Final Destination franchise and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
But the 6-foot-5 actor is a sweet guy and a terrific stage actor, too. Todd, who was raised in Hartford by his aunt (“I had a wonderful childhood,” he tells me), got his start in the theater in Connecticut and returns to the stage as often as his busy schedule will allow. (I saw him years ago in the title role in August Wilson’s King Hedley II in Boston. It was one of the most riveting performances I’ve seen on stage.)
Now Todd will be in the three-actor drama by Dominique Morisseau, Sunset Baby, which received positive reviews during its off-Broadway run. Todd will star in TheaterWorks’ production in Hartford, running from Jan. 12-Feb. 19.
“It’s been a long time since I felt that Connecticut cold,” he told me, basking in the sun from his home in Los Angeles. After so much California living, “I feeI the need for that New England reality.”
His acting roots began in Hartford as a teenager performing with Freedom Truth troupe, the Protean Theatre on Pratt Street and especially the Artists Collective. “The most important thing was when Jackie and Dollie McLean moved to Hartford and started that wonderful arts program. It not only changed my life but many others’ for generations.”
Todd also attended UConn, but he credits his stay at the National Theatre Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford and at Trinity Repertory Theatre Conservatory in Providence, Rhode Island, for “lighting the fire under me, and teaching me that it doesn’t matter when you make it; it’s how you make it.
“I have a great career and carved a little niche and am still working, which is wonderful,” he says. “I have seven films in the can, which is why I am able to leave and be here.”
Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned in the ’70s, including nearly 34 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at FrRiz@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter@ShowRiz.