Backstage: Mary Beth Peil of 'Good Wife,' Matthew Morrison of 'Glee' & Oscar winner Dianne Wiest


Maternal Instincts

“It’s kind of trippy,” says Mary Beth Peil when she sees a fan approach at an airport. But which fan — from her years as “Grams” Ryan on Dawson’s Creek or for her role as the guv’s mum in The Good Wife? Or perhaps for her many stage parts, which include the last “Anna” that Yul Brynner played opposite in The King & I, before the actor died of lung cancer in 1985. Now she’s a grand Russian dame in the world premiere of the musical Anastasia at Hartford Stage, running May 12 to June 12. As for Anastasia, she says, “It’s a huge, epic- making musical; its storytelling is operatic and the score is glorious.” Brynner was in the 1956 movie version of Anastasia, based on the play, “and he told great stories about working with Ingrid Bergman.” And as for Brynner’s reputation for being volatile? “He was a perfectionist and he did not suffer fools gladly. But he was such an inspiration to me both on and off stage, as a human being and as a mentor.” She recalls him addressing the cast, giving “a fierce, school-masterly talk to us before the last performance [not long before he died] saying, ‘I do not want to see one tear.’ But when the curtain came down we were all awash.”

Singing With Glee

Peil isn’t the only actor with a Connecticut connection working on the last episode of The Good Wife, set to air on CBS May 8. There’s Bethlehem’s Christine Baranski, who plays cool partner Diane Lockhart, and Roxbury’s Jerry Adler, who plays frisky coot Howard Lyman. And then there’s this season’s Matthew Morrison, fresh from starring in Broadway’s Finding Neverland, who plays the prosecutor who’s after the (not-so) good guv in the series. But on May 26 Morrison will be seen in a much sweeter mode, singing in concert at the Ridgefield Playhouse. “And as for the beard,” he says, referring to the beard he grew for his Broadway role and maintained for the TV gig, “it’s still there — but I tame it much more these days.”

And about his role as an inspirational high school teacher on TV’s Glee, I asked him what teacher influenced him. “One of my high school mentors, Dr. Ralph Opacic, had a big influence on my decision making,” he says. “In my junior year he sat me down when I was faced with the dilemma of either focusing on athletics [soccer] or the arts. His words of encouragement regarding the arts had a huge effect on me, and I’m thankful for his guidance with making such an important decision. I have a close relationship with Dr. Opacic to this day.”

Seeing Red For Real

In John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play Red, which runs May 3-29 at the Westport Country Playhouse, we see the actor playing abstract artist Mark Rothko creating one of his masterworks on stage. But where can an art lover view the real deal in Connecticut? At the Yale University Art Gallery, for one, where there are nine Rothko works, but only two on view at the moment (with two more available “by appointment”). The most “red” of the pair (though not the one central in the play) is painting No. 3, dated 1967. (And admission there is free.) Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum also boasts a Rothko in its renovated Post-War Art Gallery: Untitled, oil on canvas, 1949. Red runs in repertory with Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning Art, a play about those who buy and collect art.,

Speaking of Painters and Theater

Bobby Steggert plays French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec — of the diminutive stature and oversized talent — in a new musical, My Paris, at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre May 4-29. It’s got a high-profile talent around it: Oscar-, Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winner Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) is writing the book for the show, which is directed and choreographed by another Tony winner, Kathleen Marshall (Anything Goes). But mon dieu, the original music is the real thing: It’s by singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour, now 91 and still performing and touring. I asked Steggert, also a Tony nominee (Ragtime) about his reaction upon meeting the French legend. “He carries an enormous air of experience and a life well and richly lived, and that comes into the room with him. He also has a real passion for singing with the heart and the soul, which is a very French thing and very much a musical-theater thing, too.”

As for depicting the artist’s short stature, no, the actor is not playing the role on his knees, thankfully, he says. Marshall is placing Steggert on different stage levels, casting taller actors around him and using other visual indicators like costumes and furniture to give the illusion of smallness.

Uzo Aduba, left, and Maggie Grace in Lifetime's film "Showing Roots," with a screenplay by Ridgefield's Susan Batten and directed by Michael Wilson, former artistic director of Hartford Stage. Photo by Joshua Stringer

Revisiting Roots

When Alex Haley’s novel Roots was made into a miniseries in 1977, it was not just a television landmark but a sociological one, as tens of millions were riveted as one — there was no Hulu then — to their TVs for the 12-hour event. This month, Lifetime Television will present a new version of Roots as an eight-hour miniseries, beginning May 30. Just prior to that it will present the film Showing Roots, with a screenplay by Ridgefield’s Susan Batten and directed by Michael Wilson, former artistic director of Hartford Stage. The movie, with Bill Haber of Westport as one of the executive producers (Batten is also a producer), is about how the original miniseries affected one Southern community. It stars Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black), Maggie Grace (Taken, Lost), Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey) and film, TV and stage legend Cicely Tyson.

“The movie is a wonderful story about a community coming together around race and it adds to our present national conversation about race,” says Wilson. He also says a powerful moment in Showing Roots comes when Tyson, who played Kunta Kinte’s mother in the original Roots, is seen watching that mini-series.

On a side note: Olivia Cole, who just starred in Having Our Say at Long Wharf Theatre and Hartford Stage, played Mathilda in the original Roots miniseries. Also, Bloomfield’s Anika Noni Rose plays Kizzy in the new Roots.

Off the mound

Oscar winner Dianne Wiest will be buried up to her neck and brightly chatting away in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at New Haven’s Yale Repertory Theatre through May 21. She was also quite talkative during a recent public conversation at the Rep, where she fondly recalled performing at Long Wharf Theatre’s children’s theater in The Dandy Lion at the start of her career in the ’70s. She talked about her not-so-great performances during that period but, ah, she knew she nailed her role in Hedda Gabler at the Rep in the ’80s. “I knew I could do it every night, solid.” (I saw it and, yes, she was extraordinary.) Of her film directors, Woody Allen “spoiled me” for others. She said she could only think of three “who weren’t blazing idiots.” As for her present role as Winnie: “I feel more free with Beckett than with anyone else. I’ve waited my whole life to do Happy Days. This is the Hamlet for women.”

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 Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz

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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 Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.