The last time Gabriel Barre directed Billy Elliot, the musical based on the film of a working-class English boy who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, was two years ago in Mexico City when he staged the premiere of the work there in Spanish and oversaw five young actors in the title role for the one-year run. Now he’s overseeing the production at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. The show, which opened in September, continues through Nov. 24.
“To tackle a show like this at Goodspeed is as daunting as it was to do Sweeney Todd there in the mid-’90s,” says Barre, referring to the first Stephen Sondheim show Goodspeed produced. (Barre has also staged numerous workshop “developmental productions” — meaning no critics invited — at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester.)
But Billy Elliot has many unique challenges, he says, not the least of which is the fact that the lead actor is a boy who has to be charismatic as well as being able to sing, act and dance — including being a believable ballet wunderkind.
“We really had to find strong dancers,” says Barre of the two boys who will share the title role over the run. “That’s one thing you can’t expect someone to learn in a matter of weeks. So we went looking for dancers first and within that group we found those who could also sing and act — or close to the level we want. With both our Billys — Taven Blanke and Liam Vincent Hutt — there was no compromising with any of them.”
Barre also points out that the production will not only have original staging but new choreography by Marc Kimelman. “It’s great that we’ll have the opportunity to shake things up, play with the show and be imaginative.”
Beyond the fringe
How do you start a theater festival when none existed before?
That’s what Jeffrey Kagan-McCann was faced with when he decided to create the first Hartford Fringe Festival, which will be held Oct. 17-26, with all acts at the 80-seat Carriage House Theatre on Farmington Avenue. The 10-day event will consist of 41 performances of 20 productions between 30 and 70 minutes long. They include works by independent theater artists in the areas of music, dance, drama, improv comedy, musical theater, stand-up, and solo performance. There will be three to seven performances daily during the run of the festival.
“There’s a lot of talent out there that is looking for a chance to get its work out,” says Kagan-McCann, a Hartford native who worked in the administrative office of the International Seattle Fringe Festival. “It would introduce new and established local and out-of-state artists on a platform dedicated to creating adventurous new works.”
He started a year ago with a Facebook posting and now “we have 20 acts from around New England and New York. We hope after people get to see what’s here, even more will come on board next year and we’ll have it on multiple venues around Asylum Hill.”
And yes, there will be prize winners like other fringe festivals. Audience members will get to choose their favorites, Kagan-McCann says.
The gods are calling
Greek classics seem to be calling to American playwrights, as seen in works by Luis Alfaro, Suzan-Lori Parks, Sarah Ruhl — not to mention Broadway’s Hadestown. Now Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has a world premiere of Girls — playing Oct. 4-26 at the Yale Repertory Theatre — loosely based on Euripides’ The Bacchae.
“It’s appealing for writers because the plays are so good in spite of being so very old,” Jacobs-Jenkins says. “The plays seem obsessed with questions of identity and democracy, which are two incredibly large buzzwords for today.”
The playwright of An Octoroon, Appropriate and Everybody has also taught the art of adaptation for college students and has found that of all genres and periods explored, his class was most attracted to works by the classical Greeks. “Perhaps partly because the plays are such stunning examples of economy in storytelling, especially those by Euripides. They’re so modern it feels like psychology. So in some ways the stories we’re telling now are not new at all.”
As for The Bacchae, Jacobs-Jenkins says the last extant classical Greek play is “an amazing piece of writing and it’s clearly the work of a master at the end of his practice.
“I still find it very intimidating to take on and approached it with some hesitation and tried my best to honor it. Euripides was writing in the death throes of Greek democracy. It’s also concerned with people on the margins finding power together. That’s something that strikes a chord.”
Have you heard…?
… I will be “in conversation with…” author William Mann about his new biography of Marlon Brando titled The Contender as part of the Mark Twain House’s A Little Harmless Fun series on Oct. 22 in Hartford at 7 p.m.
… Andrew Burnap, who graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 2016, will be reprising the role he played in London — this time on Broadway in Matthew Lopez’s two-part, six-hour The Inheritance, now in previews and opening Nov. 17. New to the Broadway cast is Dylan Frederick, also of the Yale School of Drama.
… Ato Blankson-Wood and James Cusati-Moyer, grads of the Yale School of Drama’s class of ’15, are reprising their off-Broadway roles in the Broadway production of Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, which opens Oct. 6.