New musical at Barrington Stage creates magic out of thin air
PITTSFIELD >> Director Marc Bruni knows what it means to be a magician, an illusionist. Each time he begins work on a show, he is setting out to create magic — illusions of reality.
In Bruni's newest project, "Presto Change-O" — an original musical that is having its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage — the magic is both literal and figurative; literal in that magic routines are performed in this story about three generations of a family of magicians who, on one day, are drawn together under the same roof and what happens when the grandfather's magic-making inexplicably takes on a life of its own; figurative in that the magic also carries meaning of its own.
Unlike musicals like "The Magic Show" and "Merlin," where the routines were designed by their star, illusionist Doug Henning, to show off his skills, here magic is integral to the narrative. "Joel (Waggoner, the composer) and Eric (Price, book writer and lyricist) use magic to establish the story and move it forward," Bruni said during a joint interview with two of his actors, Michael Rupert and Barbara Walsh, at a coffeehouse a few blocks away from BSC's Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center on Linden Street, where "Presto Change-O" is running through June 11.
"The show is about a family of magicians for whom magic is part of who they are."
"Presto Change-O" has been developed and is being produced under the aegis of Barrington Stage Company's Musical Theatre Lab, which is supervised by Tony Award-winning composer and writer William Finn. Finn ran across Price and Waggoner at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where, as an adjunct faculty member, he teaches of the Graduate Program of Musical Theater Writing.
"Bill was very excited about the prospect of putting Eric and Joel together," Bruni said.
They were offered a commission to write whatever they wanted. "What they settled on," Bruni said, "is the story of a family and the magic of forgiveness.
"They've created this entirely out of their own imaginations. It's not based on something."
The duo began work on a draft in March 2014 and finished it in June. There were readings that August in Pittsfield and December in New York, and then a workshop one year later in New York with the thought that the musical might be ready for BSC's 2015 season.
"But after the reading, we all felt the show needed more time," said Bruni, whose credits include the Broadway hit, "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical."
"A lot of writers get workshops and readings. Here, at Barrington Stage, Joel and Eric were told at the beginning of their process that this was going to be produced. That is remarkable in theater. There is a whole lot of musical theater institutional know-how here."
"Presto Change-O" is not without its challenges. In addition to learning dialogue, dialogue rewrites, staging, and original music and lyrics, Bruni's cast — Rupert, Walsh, Jarrod Spector, Lenny Wolpe, Jenni Barber and Bob Walton — have had to learn a whole new skill set — performing magic and making it look as if they've been performing these routines all their lives. Bruni, his actors and everyone else involved in "Presto Change-O" are legally bound to protect the tricks' secrets.
"True magicians spend years working on tricks to make them look so original and practiced," said Rupert, who plays the David Copperfield-like Lance Presto, a recluse ever since an event sent him into a tailspin 12 years earlier.
To get his actors where he needed them to be, Bruni brought in magician, visual effects specialist and consultant, Joseph Wartnerchaney, who creates and builds tricks for magicians. He worked with the cast once a week in New York — teaching them, seeing if and how various routines would work within the construct of the show.
"My first thought," Bruni said, "was that the magic he created_was something I'd never seen before."
"This was completely foreign to me," said Walsh, who plays Lance's ex-wife, Mary Cunningham, whose father was a magician, and who worked with Lance until something happened and she left the magician's life to go into high-end real estate.
"I was never crazy about magic," Walsh said. "But I was charmed by the script and she's a great role. And I have come to realize that magic is such a theatrical craft. I think of it as choreography. It has its own rhythm, movement, clarity. It's every specific."
"I'm seldom, surprised by anything in theater anymore." said Rupert, a 1986 Tony Award-winner for his performance in "Sweet Charity."
"But then you run into something surprising," Walsh said, "something like this, and it reinvigorates you."
"We're all experienced actors," Rupert said. "We've all been involved in developing musicals, We all have our ideas.
"We all want this to be the best story we can tell for these two hours or so on stage.
"There is nothing harder in theater than creating something new, something no one's ever seen before, out of original thought."
That well might be the toughest, and most rewarding, trick of all.
What: "Presto Change-O." Book and lyrics by Eric Price. Music by Joel Waggoner
Who: Barrington Stage Company
When: Now through June 11 (press opening, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday). Evenings — Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30. Matinees — Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 3
Where: St. Germain Stage, Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield
How: (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org; in person at Barrington Stage box office – Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St.
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