Crazy For You
The last time Christiane Noll played a powerful maternal part it was as the goodness-filled Mother in Ragtime. But for the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal, the Tony-nominated actor is playing a mom with troubling issues: bi-polar ones. “You have to really reach down for this role,” she says of the part she will be playing during the run at Hartford’s TheaterWorks March 23 to April 30. (It’s the largest musical endeavor the theater has yet undertaken.)
Though not a “method” actor, Noll, whose other Broadway credits include Jekyll & Hyde and Chaplin, says this role is such an intense one “and there’s always the fear that you’ll go down a long dark tunnel and not come back.” But she’s going to be just fine, she tells me — and reassures her family back in New York. “My heart breaks more for my character’s family than for her,“ she says. “She’s just trying to figure out where she is and she’s trying her best to face it.” But the effect it has on those around her, she says, makes the show so deeply affecting.
And speaking of family dynamics …. Oh, that Eugene O’Neill and his turbulent relations with women, his children, his family, well, almost everyone. That dramatic life is detailed — especially in his relations with his mother, lovers and three wives — in a new book by Arthur and Barbara Gelb, By Women Possessed: A Life of Eugene O’Neill. The pair’s third biography of the four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author — and the only American playwright to earn the Nobel Prize in literature — is an intimate look at O’Neill, beginning with his boyhood in New London, where he spent his summers, to his death in 1953 and what happens after with his erratic widow.
I asked Barbara Gelb, who spent more than six decades writing about O’Neill with her husband, who died in 2014 at the age of 90, what productions of O’Neill’s play were her favorites?
“The original production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Frederic March and Jason Robards Jr.,” she says without missing a beat. (That’s the one set at Monte Cristo Cottage, his family’s summer home in New London.) Another favorite is the 2015 New York production of The Iceman Cometh with Nathan Lane as Hickey and Brian Dennehy as Larry Slade.
“I think O’Neill would have liked those productions,” she says, “though you could never do a production the way he originally planned.”
Barbara Gelb died on Feb. 9, shortly after this interview. She was 91.
James Lecesne’s solo show — The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey — is timely, he says. Though based on his 2007 novel of a joyful boy who doesn’t always fit in with those around him, the show connects with headlines about bullying.
“It’s about a kid who was unusual and vivacious and flamboyant and kind-of-not gay — because he was too young to be gay — but he probably exhibited some of those stereotypical signs. It’s about what happens when he comes to a town that was not used to his over-the-top behavior.”
In the play, his young character “brings out the best of people, and the worst,” Lecesne says. He is bringing the show to Hartford Stage for a March 30-April 23 run.
Because of Lecesne’s work with the Trevor Project — a nonprofit organization focused on suicide-prevention efforts among LGBT youths — he’s always been aware that there are young kids out there who are challenging the idea of what “normal” is. “They go about their lives feeling fabulous and realizing one day it’s suddenly not OK because your joyfulness is bothering some people in some way.”
Lecesne wants to have conversations with adults “about how do we look out for these kids and make their lives safe. It’s all well and good to tell people to be yourself and that it’s going to get better, but we have a responsibility to actually look after them while they are discovering who they are. The play touches on that stuff, not in a preachy way, but hopefully in an entertaining way.”
Come From Away
Sue Frost, an Old Lyme resident and Tony Award-winning producer of Broadway’s Memphis, is at it again with a show that is especially challenging: Come From Away, a musical rooted in 9/11.
Yes, “the 9/11 musical,” but it’s not what you think. Though the story takes place on the morning of the terrorist attacks, it is centered on 38 planes which were re-routed to Gander, Newfoundland, because of fear of more terrorist attacks on U.S. flights. The small Canadian town with a large airfield welcomed the more than 6,500 stunned passengers who arrived unsure of what exactly was going on and how long they would remain there.
Frost says the popularity of other musicals with unusual or challenging topics, such as Dear Evan Hansen and yes, Next to Normal, shows there’s an audience for her show. “Once people see it, the word of mouth becomes very strong.”
Frost also says folks might just be in the mood for a story about nice people behaving well and taking care of each other. “I think people are hungry for that.”
The show is set to open on Broadway on March 12.
Did You Know...?
… Tony Award winner Alan Cumming (Cabaret, Eli on TV’s The Good Wife) will perform his cabaret act at Long Wharf Theatre’s annual gala June 5.
… director-playwright-artistic director Emily Mann will be “in conversation” with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes (Water By the Spoonful) at Wesleyan University on March 29 at 7 p.m. at Memorial Chapel. Free.
.... there are theater treasures (from Langston Hughes, The Emperor Jones, Eubie Blake, Josephine Baker) to be found at the new, building-wide exhibition Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance & the Beinecke Library. The free exhibit at Yale continues through April 17.
… Jordyn DiNatale, who is in the world premiere of Napoli, Brooklyn at Long Wharf Theatre through March 12, is from East Haven. (The show then moves off-Broadway for its New York bow.)
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.