'Children of a Lesser God' : From the Berkshires to Broadway

NEW YORK CITY — Though opening nights mark beginnings, they are also celebrations, homages to the tireless work submitted by cast and crew members to bring productions to fruition. There is perhaps no better place to honor that duality than Studio 54, a space that once housed a legendary New York City nightclub but has since reclaimed its dramatic origins with a 1,000-plus-seat Broadway theater. On Wednesday night, the building tucked between Broadway and Eighth Avenue hosted the opening for "Children of a Lesser God," which drew raves this summer in the Berkshires during a run at Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage. With all but Stephen Spinella (replaced by Anthony Edwards) returning from a cast starring Lauren Ridloff and Joshua Jackson, this Broadway revival's roots could be traced directly to warmer days in Stockbridge.

"I'm just so thankful for those six weeks," director Kenny Leon said during an after-party at The Edison Ballroom, the former Grand Ballroom of the Edison Hotel located next to Times Square.

"This one is a lot less nerve-wracking," Jackson said at the event when asked to compare this opening to his first Berkshires performance.

The reason, the actor of "Dawson's Creek" fame said, was that he was still uncertain about his signing ability at the time. Jackson plays James Leeds, a speech therapist who falls in love with a deaf maid, Sarah Norman (Ridloff), at a school for the deaf. In addition to signing his own lines to Ridloff in American Sign Language, Jackson must interpret hers for the audience.

While his performance's intricacies may have weighed less on his mind entering Wednesday's opening, Jackson could have been forgiven for feeling the burden of more scrutiny. Had he walked through Studio 54's purple-lit lobby at any point within 90 minutes of showtime, for instance, he would've found a horde of photographers, videographers and spectators making enough commotion to rival rush hour outside. In the leftmost lane, press members snapped shots of well-clad guests such as Phylicia Rashad, Edie Falco and Nyle DiMarco, as they walked down a purple carpet. DiMarco, the "America's Next Top Model" and "Dancing with the Stars" winner and deaf activist, was added as a producer of the play in January. (Rosie O'Donnell and Clay Aiken opted for the center lane, escaping much of the media traffic.)

Amidst the hubbub, however, there were resounding silences. The deaf and hard-of-hearing communities were well-represented at the opening. It wasn't uncommon to find a group solely communicating through signs. This production has catered to that audience, seeking to become the most accessible Broadway play in history. During the performance, supertitles relayed the script above stage; left of stage, interpreters signed. Additionally, spectators could download the GalaPro app to receive closed captioning.

After the show, which has been tweaked since its summer Berkshires run, Leon addressed the audience before presenting playwright Mark Medoff with a bouquet of flowers.

"As a director, this has been the joy of my life," said Leon, a two-time Tony Award-winner.

Leon migrated with many of those at Studio 54 to the after-party. The Edison Ballroom's 17,000-square-foot, art deco-styled, multi-floor space more than accommodated its guests. Those who had missed an early theater dinner (or were thus in need of late-night nourishment) could help themselves to buffets that included items both fancy (New Zealand lollipop lamb chops with mushroom risotto on plantain chips) and humble (pigs in a blanket and macaroni and cheese). With three bars keeping guests well-hydrated (one bartender said vodka cranberrys were a hit, though more exotic offerings were certainly to be had), many guests abandoned their white-tableclothed tables for the dance floor.

A group of Berkshire Theatre Group staffers were among the revelers. BTG Artistic Director/CEO Kate Maguire thoroughly enjoyed the night, later writing in an email, "It was a thrill to see 'Children of a Lesser God' find a home on The Great White Way! Trustees and staff were honored to be in the audience and at the wonderful celebration following on opening night. We treasure our relationship with the fabulous producer Hal Luftig, his team and of course the creative company assembled by the talented director Kenny Leon. The play delivers in so many important ways, and offers a rare lesson in communicating and tearing down barriers!"

Before joining the festivities in the ballroom space, cast and crew members entered a packed press area for more red carpet-style photographs and video interviews with media from around the world. After his first time through, Leon, dressed comfortably in Adidas athletic pants and sneakers, reflected on the play's Berkshire beginnings.

"I remember being terrified," he recalled of that opening night.

He looks back on his Berkshires experience fondly these days and has been pleased with how the leads have developed since then.

"She's more instinctive now," Leon said of Ridloff before adding that Jackson is "more fluid" with his signing.

Leon had spent time at Medoff's New Mexico home during his work on the play. The playwright and his wife, Stephanie, were circulating with other family members in the space. Medoff was one of few in the room who could compare this production to the play's 1980 Broadway predecessor.

"That was so scary," Medoff recalled of opening night 38 years ago.

He was more confident going into this one, citing Ridloff and Jackson's superb Berkshires performances. He felt that they met that standard once again on this night.

"I was just humbled by the beauty of it all," he said.

Kecia Lewis, who plays Norman's mother, acknowledged that New York is a much different environment for the play than the Berkshires.

"It's a little larger. It's a little louder," she said.

She's happy with how the play has come along since the summer.

"We all had a chance to simmer," she said, before they "came back like gangbusters."

The show's stars were later arrivals to the press area, where they were met by a throng. Jackson traded his onstage professorial attire for a brown suit and black tie. Ridloff ditched Norman's '70s wardrobe for a black sequin dress.

Following a slew of video interviews at different points in the press area, both stars were whisked away by staffers. Jackson was able to offer his perspective on the Berkshires opening as he exited; Ridloff was not.

"She hasn't even seen her family yet," a publicity person explained.

Fair enough — it was approaching midnight, more than two hours after curtain call. With the show running through the beginning of September, and Ridloff already receiving acclaim for her Broadway debut, it's clear we haven't heard the last from her, anyway.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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