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Summer Stages: BWW's Top Summer Theatre Picks - Berkshire Region

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Summer Stages: BWW's Top Summer Theatre Picks - Berkshire Region

With four major regional theatre companies in the Berkshires - and a dozen more just beyond its borders - the summer in this theatrical destination is a nonstop festival of plays and musicals.

The bucolic Berkshire region has grown into a major summer theatre hotspot, but the arts have been drawing people to its gentle mountains for decades. Long the home of the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood, and the Jacob;s Pillow International Dance Festival, the area has an incredible array of visual arts galleries and both traditional and contemporary art museums as well. Here are our picks as the most interesting.

WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

Williamstown is the summer playground of quite a few stars, and they love to trod the boards of the '62 Center for the Arts on the Williams College campus. The company likes to mix things up, and as a goodbye gift, previous artistic director Jennie Gersten has left quite an impressive slate in place. For opera fans it will be soprano Renee Fleming starring in LIVING ON LOVE by Joe DiPietro and Garson Kanin that is the must-see. Running from July 16-26 and based on a Garson Kanin play, the outing will be directed by Kathleen Marshall. Opera writers from around the country are headed to the Berkshires to see it.

Also kicking up a fuss is the fabulous Chita Rivera in a revival of the great Kander and Ebb musical, THE VISIT (July 31-Aug. 17) with book by Terrence McNally. Directed by John Doyle, the odds-makers are having a field day as betters guess whether Doyle will have Rivera lugging an instrument around the stage, and which one. Nobody - other than Doyle - knows at this point.

My pick for the biggest WTF surprise of the season isn't a musical but has some music and heaps of laughs. That's JUNE MOON which opens the season on July 2 and runs to July 13. With a great script written by the masters Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman, director Jessica Stone has a lot more tricks under her hat and is sure to have us rolling in the aisles. Her previous hit at Williamstown, FORUM was the show that should have transferred to Broadway, it was a hysterically funny sensation.

Surprise casting of television and screen actors Chris Pine and Lauren Ambrose for a new staging of Sam Shepard's FOOL FOR LOVE is another top pick on the Nikos Stage July 24-Aug. 3. Two former lovers meet at a seedy motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert where they engage in a ruthless struggle over whether they can live with - or without - each other.

Samuel D. Hunter's play A GREAT WILDERNESS (July 9-20) is likely to arouse some controversy, dealing as it does with the gentle-natured leader of a Christian retreat that endeavors to "cure" gay teens, But when his final client quietly disappears into the remote Idaho wilderness, the play's real focus comes into view. http://www.wtfestival.org

BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY

How do you pick the best bet for Barrington Stage Company which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and has risen to give the much loved Williamstown Theatre Festival competition as the region's top show producer. Since its move to Pittsfield a decade ago, it has found an audience that is intellectually curious and adventurous. It's a compliment to AD Julianne Boyd that they trust her taste and judgement so completely. In a world of declining subscriptions, BSC has been growing its following, and expanding its season. They began in February with a ten minute play festival and opened in May with Marg Helgenberger in Sharr White's brain-twister THE OTHER PLACE, reviewed here earlier.

Following up o their first Shakespeare production last summer,KISS ME KATE (June 11-July 12) continues their nod to the Bard. It takes the same stage where the much celebrated ON THE TOWN began last summer, the latter due to open at the Lyric Theatre on Broadway in September. BREAKING THE CODE (July 17 - August 2) to be directed by Joe Calarco has the big buzz, as Mark H. Dold stars in this story of Alan Turing who broke the German's enigma code in WWII, and was driven to suicide by British intolerance after the war.

Berkshire theatre-goers are already talking about the world premiere of DANCING LESSONS by Mark St. Germain (August 5-24) He is, in essence, the company's resident playwright. He welcomes colleague and actor John Cariani who stars, with Julianne Boyd taking on the directing duties. The topical story tells of a young man with Aspergers and his attempts to navigate a relationship with a Broadway dancer, now sidelined with injuries. The prolific St. Germain has previously brought to the BSC stage the story of a meeting between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis (FREUD'S LAST SESSION), the life of Dr. Ruth (BECOMING DR. RUTH) and the tale of a civil rights activist and a leader of the Ku Klux Klan (THE BEST OF ENEMIES).

In the company's experimental Musical Theatre Lab comes THE GOLEM OF HAVANA (July 16 - August 10) with music by Salomon Lerner, lyrics by Len Schiff, book and direction by Michel Hausmann. The unlikely musical is about a Hungarian-Jewish family living in Batista's Havana on the brink of the Cuban Revolution. The score is clearly Broadway, but with some unusual Klezmer and Caribbean overtones.

Returning for a reworking from August 14-31 is William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's ROMANCE IN HARD TIMES, their 1989 musical about a depression soup kitchen. They will tinker with it in a workshop production, perhaps bringing a new vision of how love works during tough times. Joe Calarco directs.

The company also has a range of cabaret artists such as Fyvush Finkel, Joe Iconis, KT Sullivan, Joel Waggoner, Tommy Tune, Alix Korey, Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway, all slated to appear at Mr. Finn's Cabaret, over the summer, plus a Youth Theatre production of HAIRSPRAY JR. http://barringtonstageco.org

BERKSHIRE THEATRE GROUP

Formerly known as the Berkshire Theatre Festival, now the Berkshire Theatre Group, the company has been around since 1928 and continues to perform a blend of classic, contemporary and new plays. With multiple venues large and small, its summer offerings are as eclectic as the directors who stage them, all under the watchful eye of Kate Maguire.

"A Weekend in the Country" will give Sondheim's classic A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC a whole new meaning as the stylish show gets a full tilt production at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield June 30-July 19. Local favorite Maureen O'Flynn stars and Ethan Heard directs. It's a best bet. But not the only one.

Drawing folks to the Fitzpatrick Main Stage is CEDARS with two time Tony winner James Naughton, from July 23-August 9. It's the world premiere of a new play by Erik Tarloff and directed by Keira Naughton (James Naughton's daughter). CEDARS is described as a one-man comedy, a raw and witty exploration of an estranged father-son relationship.

Among the more traditional offerings are Michael V. Gazzo's A HATFUL OF RAIN directed by Greg Naughton on the Main Stage (Aug. 16-30) ; Nöel Coward's DESIGN FOR LIVING at the Unicorn Theatre July 30-Aug. 16) directed by Tom Story; and Michael Frayn's BENEFACTORS (July 9-26) in the Unicorn Theatre and directed by Eric Hill. http://www.berkshiretheatregroup.org

SHAKESPEARE & COMPANY

True to its namesake, Shakespeare & Company promises a memorable A MIDSUMMER'S NIGHT DREAM (June 21-August 30 at the Tina Packer Playhouse) The cast alone makes for an unforgettable production. Directed by ShakesCo Artistic Director Tony Simotes, the virtuoso cast includes Johnny Lee Davenport, Jonathan Epstein, Kelly Galvin, Malcolm Ingram, Merritt Janson, David Joseph, Robert Lohbauer, Annette Miller, Atalanta Siegel, Rocco Sisto, Alexander Sovronsky, Michael F. Toomey, and newcomers to the Company Cloteal L. Horne, Colby Lewis and Briana Maia.

Beginning July 4 and running through August 24, THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPARE (ABRIDGED) returns, jousting with A MIDSUMMER'S NIGHT DREAM on the Main Stage for our best bet.

Joining that pair in repertory will be a third Shakespeare offering HENRY IV, PARTS I & II from August 2-31.

The company will also stage ROMEO AND JULIET (July 17-August 23) at the Dell at the Mount, Edith Wharton's home, using the staircases and grand layout of the mansion to full theatrical advantage.

But for all the Shakespeare we think the contemporary Christopher Durang comedy VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is likely to be the crowd-pleaser at the more intimate (but acoustically challenged) Elayne P. Bernstein theatre from August 6-September 14. Already on the boards at the Bernstein is Kristin Wold in SHAKESPEARE'S WILL by Vern Thiessen which plays through the summer, ending on August 24. It is the story of Ann Hathaway, Shakespeare's enigmatic wife and the couple's unconventional courtship and marriage. http://www.shakespeare.org

CHESTER THEATRE COMPANY

Like a mirage, the Chester Theatre Company is tucked into the foothills of the Berkshires, in the little Town Hall of Chester, MA and for a quarter century, theatre lovers have made the long trek to see the latest thought provoking contemporary works, brilliantly done. Typical is MADAGASCAR, the haunting mystery of a young man's disappearance, from a remarkable voice in American theatre, J.T. Rogers. Featuring Debra Jo Rupp and Kim Stauffer. June 25 - July 6. In ANNAPURNA, (July 10-20) Emma tracks down her cowboy-poet husband only to find him hooked to an oxygen tank and cooking sausages in the buff. A startling play by Sharr White who recently saw his mystery play, THE OTHER PLACE open the Barrington Theatre Company 2014 season May 22.

Also irresistible is A NUMBER a fast-paced, futuristic, psychological thriller which is all about a man who learns that he is a clone. "The first true play of the 21st century" from eminent playwright Caryl Churchill. July 30 - August 10. In THE AMISH PROJECT, Allison McLemore takes on seven characters who seek answers in response to a tragedy in an Amish Community. August 14 - 24. http://chestertheatre.org

AROUND THE REGION

This summer also finds the Berkshire Fringe Festival relocated to Pittsfield from Great Barrington, while the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont premieres a new play from Leslie Ayvazian, OUT OF THE CITY from July 10-19. which is unapologetically described as a fun and provocative summer comedy. From June 16 to July 8, Tim Daly returns to star in RED. the six time Tony Award winning play about Mark Rothko.

Oldcastle Theatre Company in Bennington, VT has a full slate and 4,000 MILES by Amy Herzog could be the standout, having been a finalist for the Pulitzer. It tells the story of a 21 year old, after the loss of a loved one seeks the solace of his feisty 91 year old grandmother.

Just over the Connecticut border, the TriArts Sharon Playouse is prepping the new musical NINE WIVES, (July 24-27) with music and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen and book and lyrics by Dan Elish. John Simpkins directs. It's all about Henry Mann, a 32-year-old bachelor who discovers that the love of his life has met someone new and is about to get married.

At the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY the regional premiere of THE ADDAMS FAMILY (Aug, 21-31) is on tap as the tiny company continues to surprise locals and visitor alike. Also likely to score a hit is YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY by Charles Busch from June 27 to July 6.

All in all, it look to be a banner summer in the Berkshires and environs, and a busy one, too.

Photo: A Midsummer Night's Dream. at Shakespare & Company, Lenox, MA. L-R: Annie Considine, Johnny Lee Davenport and Kelly Galvin. Casting subject to change. Photo by Kevin Sprague.

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Larry Murray Larry Murray has been writing about theatre, music and dance for a long time. Over the years he has worked with Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Ballet, and numerous theatre companies. He helped begin Arts Boston, an umbrella organization and served as its CEO for a decade. As chair of Boston's Midtown Cultural District Task Force,he paved the way for new facilities for local theatres. He works behind the scene to nurture the performing arts, but in 1989 was named New England's Entertainer of the Year. His online blog, BerkshireOnStage.com is well known as an authoritative voice on the arts of Western Massachusetts. Over the years he has written for the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, Berkshire Fine Arts and is a regular contributor to Nippertown, the Albany, NY entertainment website.


 
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