Critic's choice: Theater with night music


Here we are again at another summer theater season in the Berkshires and environs -- a season that seems to me as diverse and wide-ranging as ever.

Writing about what's showing up on my radar before the season is fully underway is always tricky. Theater is made on the stage, not in press releases or season brochures. The unexpected and unanticipated hang around every opening.

So, with that in mind, here in no particular order are the shows that are catching my eye for a variety of reasons.

n Musicals

Two masterpieces of the genre by two masters of the genre -- Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim. At Barrington Stage Company, Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate" (June 11-July 12, Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Pittsfield), is a shrewd, witty valentine to theater set against the background of the tempestuous relationship between the co-stars -- a divorced couple -- of a Broadway-bound musical version of William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." The score is arguably Porter's best, and his collaborators, Sam and Bella Spewack -- with a little help from William Shakespeare -- have given him a smart book.

Theater also plays a role in "A Little Night Music" (Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, June 30-July 19), Sondheim's classy, knowing musical about finding spring in the autumn of life, inspired by Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film, "Smiles of a Summer Night." Beyond the cast and the venue, what catches me in particular is the fact that it's being directed by Ethan Heard, an inventive young director from Yale School of Drama whose abundance of energy and understanding of style fueled BTG's "The Cat and the Canary" last summer at BTG's Unicorn Theatre.

n Also at BSC and BTG

At Barrington Stage, there is a change of pace from playwright Mark St. Germain, who has found a creative home at BSC. Rather than historic characters -- Dr. Ruth, Freud, Ernest Hemingway, C.S. Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others -- Germain's brand new play "Dancing Lessons" (Aug. 7-24, Boyd-Quinson Mainstage) offers us fictitious characters -- a young man with Asperger's Syndrome and a Broadway dancer sidelined with injuries. In any other playwright's hands this would be a recipe for mawkish sentiment. Expect something just a touch more offbeat from St. Germain.

At Berkshire Theatre Group, CEO and artistic director Kate Maguire has shown over the years a keen interest in rarely performed American plays. This year, she is resurrecting Michael V. Gazzo's 1955 drama "A Hatful of Rain," about a returning Korean War veteran with PTSD, a heroin addiction, and a pregnant wife (Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, Aug. 13-30). But what interests me even more at BTG is English playwright Michael Frayn's "Benefactors" (July 9-26, Unicorn Theatre), about an idealistic architect, his wife, and their neighbors -- a former journalist and his wife, a retired nurse -- whose marriage is in trouble. The combination of playwright, director Eric Hill and cast -- real life couples David Adkins and Corinna May, and Walton Wilson and Barbara Sims, first-rate actors all -- is compelling.

n Williamstown

The biggest events on the theater scene this summer are at Williamstown Theatre Festival, where Chita Rivera stars in Kander and Ebb's "The Visit," a musical based on Friederich Dürrenmatt's chilling play (Main Stage, July 31-Aug. 17), and renowned soprano Renée Fleming stars in the world premiere of "Living on Love" (July 16-26, Main Stage), a comedy by Joe DiPietro and Garson Kanin, based on a play by Kanin. But what captures my interest most at Williamstown is the Main Stage season-opener, Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman's "June Moon" (July 2-13). For one thing, I am drawn to American comedy of the 1930s (OK, in this case 1929). But it's the director, Jessica Stone, that makes this a stand-out for me.

Stone's all-male "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" four seasons ago at Williamstown was sheer genius. She also did wonders two seasons ago with Neil Simon's "Last of the Red Hot Lovers." No matter what the style, there is a fine art to comedy. Stone gets it, and that is so rare a skill these days.

Also of note in and around the Berkshires this summer:

n Chester Theatre Company's season -- "Madagascar" by J.T. Rogers (June 25-July 6); "Annapurna" by Sharr White (July 10-20); Caryl Churchill's "A Number" (July 30-Aug. 10); and Jessica Dickey's "The Amish Project" (Aug. 14-24). Artistic director Byam Stevens is marking CTC's 25th anniversary with an especially intellectually stimulating season.

n "4,000 Miles," July 11-Aug. 3 at Oldcastle Theatre Company. This is the first production in our region of talented playwright Amy Herzog's Pulitzer Prize-finalist play about a troubled 21-year-old man who turns up unexpectedly at 3 in the morning at the Greenwich Village apartment of his anything-but-conventional 91-year-old Jewish leftist grandmother.


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