Among the most memorable musical theater experiences this past year, “Bright Star,” Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s love story set in North Carolina during World War II, shines most radiantly.
“Bright Star,” which played The Shubert in April, employs a bluish-grass score replete with lush love songs (and performed by an onstage bluegrass band) and dramatic tension to tell of a brilliant, somewhat hellaciously rebellious woman. Alice Murphy resolves to reunite with her “illegitimate” son, who was violently ripped from her arms just moments after delivery, and presumed dead.
The music, lyrics and book, all created by Martin and Brickell, work together for an enchanting and moving adult fable, splendidly directed by Walter Bobbie.
Another interesting musical was Goodspeed Musicals’ developmental production of “Cyrano,” adapted from Rostand’s masterpiece “Cyrano de Bergerac.” The chamber musical, which ran at the Norma Terris Theatre as August turned into September, cast “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage as Cyrano. The show’s creators — brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (music), Matt Berninger and Carin Besser (lyrics) and Erica Schmidt (book and direction) — eschewed our hero’s iconic beak and let Dinklage’s short stature stand for his physical “peculiarity,” shall we say. The concept works beautifully because Dinklage, already esteemed for his movie and dramatic work, proves himself an actor of range possessing a resonating, pleasant baritone seldom heard in song.
“Beautiful,” which played The Shubert last March, was a tip-top touring production of the Carole King musical bio. As with “Jersey Boys,” “Beautiful” adds a story, distinguishing itself among the millions of jukebox musicals threatening to take over the world. Sarah Bockel was gratifying as King, the Brooklyn-born pop songwriter whose life conveniently divides into two acts: first in the early 1960s, toiling as a teen composer with her lyricist-husband Gerry Goffin in the Brill Building, New York’s pop hit factory at the time; and then Carole King, divorced singer-songwriter whose “Tapestry” unleashed a five-year reign of rarefied success. “Beautiful,” one of King’s hit songs that one pictures King singing to herself to bolster her ailing self-confidence, encapsulates this personal story of reclamation (King saving herself from miserable success for soul-fulfilling success).
“Hamilton” arrived at Hartford’s Bushnell a few weeks back, inserting itself implacably at the top of all theatergoers’ dance cards for December. No matter that this was the national tour and not Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original company performing the juggernaut hip-hop bio of our founding father/father of banking who excelled at everything except marksmanship. This musical is 200 wattage for secluded moths aching for some bright, comforting light.
Austin Scott is a dashing, earnest and desirable Alexander Hamilton, complemented by an equally convincing Josh Tower as Aaron Burr, “the fool that shot” our titular hero. Josh Tower was another standout as that chilly villain, Burr. Thomas Kail’s inspired direction has the ensemble moving nonstop in poetic (and practical) motion throughout. Technically, “Hamilton” is a peach.
Just as “Hamilton” was the theater event on many a social calendar, anticipation of Peter Brook’s arrival at Yale Rep to stage his latest stage work, “The Prisoner,” is Dodgers win the 1955 World Series, the Jets beat the Colts in ’69, and USA beats the USSR hockey 1980 team all rolled in one for purist theatergoers and fans of foreign noir-ish film. Brook, most often with collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne, has created some of the most interesting theater, globally speaking, in 60 years. Brook and Estienne tell their tale of a man convicted of a heinous crime within his village whose sentence is to stand alone outside the walls of a prison to contemplate his actions, his past and his future. The production in November at the Rep was a study in minimalism, with respect to text, sound, scenery and deed. The piece invites theatergoers to consider anew their perspective on justice, judgment and redemption. Absent entirely is any moralizing from the show’s creators.
Yale Rep and The Sol Project launched Charise Castro Smith’s poetic “El Huracán” in a pip of a world premiere co-production in October. Inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Castro Smith uses titular metaphor to represent the precarious nature and human vulnerability to forces of and against nature as personified by two catastrophic storms: Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the fictitious Penelope coming in August 2019. Putting the epicenter of the storm in each act also addresses the cyclical nature of calamity, both meteorological and political. The collaboration also introduced The Sol Project’s Artistic Director (and YSD alum), Jacob G. Padrón to Elm City theatergoers just in time for the announcement of Padrón taking over as Long Wharf Theatre’s artistic director.
Suzan-Lori Park’s epic “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3” was a memorable trip to Yale Rep’s University Theatre in March. Directed by Liz Diamond, Parks’ “Father Comes Home” is a unique perspective of Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.”
Set during the Civil War, it is the story of Hero, a slave who joins the Union Army when promised his freedom if he survives it. Unlike his literary ancestor, Hero’s destiny and happiness depend on who wins the war and his owner’s whim. The irony that Hero fights for a country that regards him as a partial citizen fuels the play, which proves a genuine Greek tragedy in its own right.
Long Wharf’s production of Julia Cho’s “Office Hour” blends topicality with classic truths about our tendency to judge a book by its cover, especially in race, gender, age and outfit. Gina, a gutsy and compassionate college writing instructor, is resolute in her attempt to crack Dennis, one tough egg of a student who scares the be-Jingo out of his other teachers and all of his classmates. Why scary? I mean, c’mon! Dennis, who is Asian, wears a hoodie, smolders in scary silence during class and writes like the craziest creative writing assignments ever! Surely he’s packing an AK-12 and, like the Virginia Tech murderer, can empty a room of all human life by spraying a hundred bullets over the walls in his delusional two-minute massacre.
Jackie Chung’s Gina dares to venture into the head of Dennis (Daniel Chung) when others before her ran wee-wee-wee all the way home. She eventually breaks through, liberating all of Dennis’ capacious humanity from his creepy exterior. Though she still finds Dennis a palpable threat, she connects with him and possibly saves a life. Hers is forever changed, for sure.
After yielding to other directors during her initial years as Elm Shakespeare’s producing artistic director, Rebecca Goodheart stepped up to stage The Bard’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” for August’s outdoor production at Edgerton Park. Since the early days when James Andreassi et al established the fledging theater company as a dynamic cultural force in the community, audiences expect the best in outdoor storytelling. Goodheart’s whimsical production keeps Elm Shakes moving in the correct direction. Her direction and her design team proved fresh, vibrant and fearless, even with a script most would omit from Shakespeare’s deserted island top 5 (or 10 or 15).
E. Kyle Minor is the New Haven Register theater critic.