BACKSTAGE: Connecticut's 'Tony' Awards, Steve Martin at Long Wharf, Al Pacino at Foxwoods

Mara Lavitt

London Calling

Rob Ruggiero found himself chatting with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and other celebs of the English stage not too long ago at the opening of the hit revival of Show Boat in London’s West End. The producing artistic director of Hartford’s TheaterWorks was there because it was his intimate adaptation of the classic musical — which he first did for the Goodspeed Opera House in 2011 — that was making its London bow. Ruggiero put the focus of the show on the relationship of the characters, while retaining the show’s historic sweep. Rodgers & Hammerstein: An Imagem Company, which licenses the musical, liked it so much that it made Ruggiero’s version one of three that theaters could now choose to do — along with the 1946 and 1994 scripts, which call for huge productions. Ruggiero’s version is seen as more likely to be the go-to version because of its more production-friendly size —  25 in cast, an orchestra of 11 — and dramatic efficiency. (And, yes, he and Goodspeed share modestly in royalties.)

The London cast of Show Boat. Johan Persson, perssonphotography.com

“It’s another piece of a legacy and I couldn’t be more proud to be associated with the show that changed the American musical,” Ruggiero tells me. “It’s humbling.” He also credits Goodspeed producer Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton for suggesting the project, making him believe it could be done on the minuscule East Haddam stage, and bringing it to fruition. That production was named best musical that season by the Connecticut Critics Circle.

Connecticut’s ‘Tonys’

And which show will be named show of the show by the state’s critics this year? Come to the free annual awards ceremony on June 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Hartford Stage and find out. Will Hartford Stage’s Anastasia, Long Wharf’s My Paris, Ivoryton’s South Pacific or Goodspeed’s La Cage Aux Folles win for best musical — or even be nominated? Or is there a sleeper ready to grab that top prize? And which play, actors, directors and designers will nab the coveted awards? It’s always an entertaining and emotional event, and really, it’s the only time Connecticut’s theater artists — and their fans — come together as a community to celebrate the amazing work on the state’s stages. ctcritics.org

Re-Imagining Greasepaint

Forget British invasions — Goodspeed is hosting an Australian one. For its first show at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, David Harris from Down Under is singing a boatload of Cole Porter songs in Anything Goes. Now another Aussie, Tony Sheldon (at right; photo by Diane Sobolewski) — who received a Tony Award nomination for his role in the dragtastic Broadway musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — is over at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester in the “developmental production” (that means the show isn’t ready for critics) of The Roar of the Greasepaint/The Smell of the Crowd.

The metaphorical fable didn’t exactly enrapture audiences when it opened on Broadway in 1965, but it produced some hit songs from Anthony Newley (who also starred) and Leslie Bricusse, now 85. Goodspeed director Don Stephenson (Guys and Dolls) received permission to re-shape it for the Connecticut run. Sheldon, who was previously at Goodspeed as Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly!, says Stephenson has Americanized it and now has a clear theme. (“It’s about survival and not the English class system,” he tells me). It also has a sharply reduced cast (who the hell were those urchins anyway?) and an adjustment or two to contemporary times (there’s no longer the character named “The Negro”).

Sheldon plays the role originated by ever-imperialistic Cyril Richard, best known as Captain Hook in Peter Pan starring Mary Martin. His character of “Sir,” he says, represents a terrorizing authority figure. “I think it’s very timely with authority figures now spreading fear and telling us that we have to listen to them or else we’re doomed.” Cue “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me).” goodspeed.org

The Hamilton Effect

What goes through a musical theater writer’s mind when they see Hamilton? Are they inspired, does it make them rethink their own craft or do they just give up?

I asked New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik that question because the musical he’s been working on for years, Table, has just been announced for Long Wharf Theatre’s upcoming season (along with the premiere of a new Steve Martin play, Meteor Shower; another premiere, Napoli, Brooklyn; Samuel Beckett’s Endgame with Brian Dennehy and John Douglas Thomas; a revival of Other People’s Money and Lydia R. Diamond’s recent off-Broadway hit, Smart People).

A few months back Gopnik wrote a piece for the New Yorker calling Hamilton “the musical of the Obama era as much as Camelot was of the Kennedy era.”

“The real lesson of Hamilton is not that everything has to be a hip-hop musical but that the form is more open than it’s ever been,” he told me. “It’s given writers new freedom.”

And no, he doesn’t see an oncoming flood of hip-hop musicals about American history. “It’s like when the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out. It you tried to imitate that it would just fall flat. But it allows others to explore other parts of the musical form.”

For those who can’t wait until Table is set for May 2017, Gopnik will also be presenting Through the Gates, an hour of New York storytelling, at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas on June 12 at 5 p.m. at Long Wharf Theatre. artidea.org, longwharf.org

Dinner For One

Playwright Becky Mode tells me she takes great pride in Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, because she, too, is a graduate of Wesleyan University in Middletown. Miranda, who developed his first musical, In the Heights, when he was an undergrad there, graduated in 2002, and Mode, ahem, some years before.

But Mode’s not doing badly herself these days. Her 1999 play Fully Committed has been updated to take advantage of the latest food and celebrity trends and is now running on Broadway starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson (TV’s Modern Family) in the solo show that centers on the frazzled taker of reservations at the hottest restaurant in Manhattan.

Mode has mostly been focused on her TV gigs: with Four Stars (about the military, not the Michelin Guide) and AMC’s new show, Feed the Beast (“about an alcoholic sommelier and cokehead chef”).

And does she have the nerve to throw her weight around to get that must-have reservation at the latest hot bistro when she’s in New York? “Sadly no,” she laughs. “I just don’t have that moxie.”  fullycommittedbroadway.com

Al Alone

Is this a new form of entertainment: a staged “conversation” with a star? If so, count me in. I remember attending An Evening With Cary Grant in Stamford in the ’80s, and though he didn’t say anything I didn’t know already, I still think fondly back on that night. I missed the recent night with Sophia Loren at Foxwoods.  (I had a lovely interview with her in the ’90s and yes, it was a rare time when I was completely smitten.) But there’s another biggie coming in June: An Evening with Al Pacino is set for the Grand Theater at Foxwoods on June 3 at 8 p.m. foxwoods.com

Frank Rizzo has covered the arts+entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned, with nearly 34 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at FrRiz@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.

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