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Melia Bensussen, the incoming artistic director of Hartford Stage

In a story in the November issue, I wrote that Melia Bensussen was high on the list of people Hartford Stage (or Long Wharf Theatre) would turn to for its new artistic director.

Hartford Stage did just that. She will be succeeding Darko Tresnjak in the role June 1, becoming the first female artistic director to run a Tony Award-winning theater in Connecticut.

“I was a kid when I first worked with Mark Lamos at Hartford Stage in 1986,” she tells me. “It was my first professional job and if you told me then I would come back 30-some years later as artistic director, I would have never imagined it.”

Raised in Mexico City, Bensussen is fluent in Spanish and has translated and adapted a variety of texts.

“My first professional gig as a director in New York was with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, working with a number of really extraordinary Latinx writers. I hope to bring those voices to the forefront as well as a number of other multicultural voices.”

Four of the six shows for the 2019-20 season will be chosen by Tresnjak, but Bensussen will select two of them and will direct one. Recognizing the challenge of presenting new or unfamiliar work in Hartford Stage’s 500-seat theater, she will look at ways to find “new spaces to present in or new ways to use that [existing] space.”

Bensussen says she will spend the summer and fall getting to know the community, listening to theater-goers and forming relationships with other arts groups in the city. “There must be some way for all of us to play together.”

And the theater’s perennial A Christmas Carol?

“I’d love to find a way to allow Spanish speakers to access the show, but I don’t know exactly what that is yet. Perhaps supertitles or some sections done bilingually. The show is a treasure and I’d like to increase its reach.

“I feel I am in mid-career at 56 and going strong. I’m at a place in my career where I have great certainty about my own abilities and am now interested in mentoring others. This feels like the different strains of cultural and life experiences and my professional work have all come together to this moment in leading the theater now.”

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Jeff Sullivan as Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie in the musical Finding Neverland.

The Man Who Wouldn’t Grow Up

In his last Peter Pan experience, Jeff Sullivan was playing Nana the Dog in an outdoor amphitheater in Utah. Since then he’s received a major upgrade. He’s now playing the story’s author, J.M. Barrie, in the musical Finding Neverland, about Barrie’s inspiration for his now-classic tale of the boy who won’t grow up.

Though there’s much imaginative staging in the show, there’s no traditional “flying” in Finding Neverland, Sullivan says. The show plays the Shubert Theatre in New Haven March 15-17.

“This story is about how Peter Pan was created, so before we get to the flying we have to use our own imagination to believe and see,” he says. “This show is more about creativity.”

As for the role of Barrie, Sullivan describes him as flawed, intricate, quirky, energetic “and he has a very youthful quality to him. He was a man who created something that stood the test of time — a work that could have been considered a child’s play in a world of classical theater instead became a show for everyone.”

Sullivan is dedicating his performance to his younger brother, who has Down syndrome. “He is a huge part of my life,” Sullivan says. “Growing up in the tiny town of Bauline, Newfoundland, I had to learn to see the world through their eyes and see how he will never truly grow up. My brother will always have that heart of gold and an endless love for people. Because he was raised in such a loving family, he will always know how to love himself and others.” 

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Carl Cofield stages Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at Yale Rep.

Super Shakespeare

Carl Cofield has a new take on a very familiar Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night, and brings new meaning to protagonist Viola’s famous query: “What country, friends, is this?”

Cofield, who is staging the romantic comedy at Yale Rep’s University Theatre March 15-April 6, describes his take as “a vibrant Afro-futurist production.” Think the hip, tribal look of the film Black Panther.

“It’s inspired by the Afro-punk movement on Instagram and other social media,” he says, “in which brown and black people reclaim traditional Western narratives and create their own mythology based on the world around them.

“We’re telling Shakespeare’s story but through a futuristic, multi-cultural lens. We’re true to the text and not changing anything. But as long as you’re true to what Shakespeare is trying to do we can still tell the story, but one that will resonate in a different way when we see people unlike people we’ve seen before play it. The example I often use is that Francis Scott Key wrote the national anthem, but when Jimi Hendrix interprets it in his own way, it resonates on so many different levels.”

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Todd Almond's musical Girlfriend has its roots in Matthew Sweet's 1991 album.

They’re Playing Our Song

First love as a teenager can be an intense experience. That’s the basis for Girlfriend, a chamber musical in which a mixtape is the beginning of a romantic relationship between two teenage boys. The show is inspired and contains music from Matthew Sweet’s 1991 album Girlfriend.

Around 2000, actor-writer-composer Todd Almond approached Sweet’s management with the idea of using the album as the basis of the musical. It took many versions until Almond found the voice and style of the show, which will be presented March 21-April 28 by Hartford’s TheaterWorks at the Aetna Theatre at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (while TheaterWorks is being renovated).

“The play doesn’t reflect specifically my experience,” says Almond, who was composer and co-lyricist of the 2010 Yale Rep musical We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Still, he remembers being a vulnerable teenager “where your emotions are running wild and you don’t have enough experience about relationships — and heartbreak. Everything like that is brand new and a huge event.

“I think the music we listen to at that age really gets into us the deepest and stays for us our entire lives. Now, as a 42-year-old man, I think the music that I lived with as a teenager is still the most important music to me. I remember rolling my eyes at my dad when he wanted to listen to music he loved as a teenager and I thought, ‘Why are you listening to that old stuff?’ ”

 Have You Heard …?

… Most of this season’s off-Broadway Second Stage lineup is Connecticut rooted. This year begins with the Tom Kitt musical Superhero, which began at the National Music Theater Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford; then in May it’s a revival of Dying City by Christopher Shinn of Wethersfield. (Hartford Stage did a production of the Pulitzer Prize-finalist play in 2008.) In August it’s Bess Wohl’s Make Believe,which had its premiere at Hartford Stage in September. This is a new production staged by Michael Greif.

… There’s an EP of six songs from the musical Band Geeks — the show about a high school marching band — which had its world premiere at Goodspeed Musicals in 2010. The recording has been released on the Yellow Sound Label and is available on digital platforms, including iTunes, Spotify and Apple Music. Much of the original Goodspeed cast returned to record the EP, including Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles (Here Lies Love, The King and I), Tony winner Lindsay Mendez (Carousel), Patti Murin (Frozen), Alex Gemignani (Carousel), Hartt grad Douglas Lyons (Book of Mormon, Beautiful), Jill Abramovitz (Beetlejuice!, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Matt Braver (Mozart in the Jungle), Jason Michael Snow, F. Michael Haynie, Jacey Powers, Jared Gertner and Michael Millan.

Darko Tresnjak, outgoing artistic director at Hartford Stage, is writing the lyrics and book for a new musical called Sex and Death. Also look for three more new productions of the musical Anastasia, which he directed, in Europe in 2019.

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.

This article appeared in the March 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.

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.