Gersten lands big names for her Williamstown Theatre Festival finale


WILLIAMSTOWN -- Jenny Gersten has left her position as Williamstown Theatre Festival artistic director with a big bang -- a 2014 Main Stage season featuring separate appearances by two Grand Dames of music and theater: opera soprano Renee Fleming and two-time Tony Award-winning actress, dancer and singer Chita Rivera.

Fleming, who is singing the National Anthem live Sunday at the Super Bowl, will make her Williamstown bow in "Living on Love" by Joe DiPietro and Garson Kanin, based on Kanin's 1990 comedy, "Peccadillo." Three-time Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall will direct. The show is a farce about the tangled relationship between an opera diva and her egomaniacal maestro husband who becomes enamored with the lovely young woman he has hired to ghostwrite his autobiography. It is scheduled to run July 16-26, following Fleming's July 5 appearance as soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at its Tanglewood season-opening concert.

The original Anita in "West Side Story," Tony Award-winning Rivera ("The Rink," "Kiss of the Spider Woman") will make her WTF debut July 31-Aug. 17 in "The Visit," a musical adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 1956 play about an abundantly wealthy woman who exacts a terrifying revenge against her former lover. The musical is one of the last collaborations between John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), who died in 2004. The book is by award-winning playwright Terrence McNally. John Doyle will direct. Graciela Daniele will choreograph.

"Living on Love" was brought to Gersten by producer Scott Landis, who is married to Marshall.

"I've been wanting to work with Kathleen for some time," Gersten said by telephone from her new office at Friends of the High Line in New York, where she is executive director. "(Scott) mentioned that he had done some readings of this Garson Kanin play in New York with Renee and would I be interested in having a full production here. I jumped at the chance."

Kander, Ebb and McNally have been working on "The Visit" since just before 2001. Rivera took over the lead role for the 2001 premiere at Goodman Theatre in Chicago when Angela Lansbury, for whom the show was designed, dropped out. Rivera has been with the project ever since. The musical was produced Off-Broadway in 2008 at Signature Theatre with Doyle directing.

Doyle, who directed "Ten Cents a Dance" at Williamstown in 2011, suggested "The Visit" to Gersten.

Gersten said that despite the marquee names attached to these projects neither is already promised to New York.

"If New York happens that's fine but for now both productions are being done at Williamstown as a safe haven, a place to develop and grow these pieces," Gersten said.

The Main Stage season begins July 2-13 with Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman's 1929 comedy about Tin Pan Alley, "June Moon," directed by Jessica Stone, who piloted an all-male "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at Williamstown in 2010 and Neil Simon's "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" in 2012.

"I love slapstick comedies, especially by George S. Kaufman," Gersten said. "What could be better in the summer than a comedy with June and moon."

Gersten is putting the finishing touches on the choice of a play for the outdoor Free Theatre and on the Nikos Stage schedule -- "I have all the plays in place except the last one. I love the Nikos season so I'm being very careful about the last play," she said.

Gersten -- whose successor, Mandy Greenfield, currently artistic producer at Manhattan Theatre Club, takes over at WTF in September -- said she wasn't quite prepared to leave Williamstown after only 3 1/2 years.

"Frankly," she said, "it's too soon, but I had to do it because there was an opportunity that I knew wouldn't come around again."

Acknowledging it felt somewhat "bittersweet" to announce this "marquee season" so early, Gersten had unalloyed praise for WTF Producer Stephen M. Kaus, who will oversee the festival's 60th anniversary season.

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