New Hampshire Summer Stock Theatre: "The Magic That's Born in the Heart"
Everybody has their own idea of a great vacation, I guess. For my daughter Sarah and me, this year at least, it had to include a lot of theatre. She's an aspiring actress and I'm an aspiring playwright.
But we also wanted to include kayaking and tennis and fresh air and splendid scenery, and we didn't want to include city traffic, subways or taxicabs.
So we headed up to New Hampshire to enjoy great summer stock theatre performances in the splendor of the White Mountains. Three plays in three days. Tough work, but someone has to do it.
We went to the Barn Playhouse in New London, the Barnstormers Theatre in Tamworth and the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company in North Conway. These are three of New Hampshire's finest theatres, but there are lots of others where families can see great performances. Check out this map created by the New Hampshire Professional Theatre Association.
Stimulating the Imagination
I've been enjoying summer stock since I was a kid. My mom always included a dramatic production in our vacation plans whenever kids or grandkids came to visit. Besides recreation and exercise, we also got something to stimulate the imagination.
There are a lot of components that go into a successful production, and they all have to work for it to be successful -- acting, directing, choreography, and music, of course, but also costumes and set design and lighting.
In summer stock performances the actors, directors, choreographers, musical directors, costumers and everyone else are the same people who work on productions on Broadway, off-Broadway, and all the great regional theatres around the country, so you see the same kind of professional polish you would find on Broadway.
It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to put on a successful show every night of the week, especially since they're performing one play while rehearsing and building sets for the next one, but the result, they say, is a kind of magic that makes it all worthwhile.
"We would never suggest that what happens on our stage is anything but the result of very hard work by all concerned," says Geroge Cleveland of the Barnstormers Theatre, "But that hard work would be nothing were it not for the magic that is born in the heart."
Boot Camp and Heaven
For the actors/dancers/singers, summer stock is a cross between boot camp and heaven, if you can imagine such a thing.
At the Barn Playhouse, they have 16 actor/interns in the company who spend all morning building sets and rehearsing and then perform until eleven at night. The Mount Washington Valley Players has a larger company with more specialists, and The Barnstormers draws more on acting talent in the local community, but they all have to work day and night to get a production together in a week's time and then perform it while preparing the next one.
All three bring in 'jobbers' for the lead roles and roles requiring older actors.
Summer stock gives actors the ability to improvise when a lighting cue is missed, or some other minor glitch occurs. Company members learn to adjust to these glitches so the production continues smoothly.
It's the kind of seasoning a young actor really wants. And if a New York director sees an actor has worked in summer stock, it improves their chances for getting parts in the city or in other regional theaters, because it shows they know how to work under pressure.
For those with a passion for theatre, 18 hours a day is challenging, but in a way it's also an actor's paradise. Allison Foster, who interned for two summers at the Barn Playhouse says, "After that, I knew I could do anything."
"I found this summer's acting experience to be very positive," says Barn Playhouse actor/intern Brian Scott of Colorado. "It gave me a real world setting in which I could apply the things I've learned about my craft, and it also gave me a very clear and realistic view of where I fit as an actor and what I might expect to encounter in other theatres. To top it off, I've been given the opportunity to work with some amazingly talented and successful directors and choreographers with whom I hope to stay in touch for a very long time."
Dazzling Natural Scenery
The first two nights we stayed at the Rosewood Country Inn in Bradford with Dick and Lesley Marquis. If you're looking for serenity and beauty, this is where you'll find it.
People get married there every weekend; that's how beautiful it is. We enjoyed it as a great place to veg out between interviews, rehearsals and performances.
We took different routes to and from New London, but on every one of them we saw truly dazzling scenery. It's really like driving around in a picture postcard.
And the town of New London, situated on a hilltop in the Lakes Region, commands views that are nothing short of spectacular.
Then, for the productions in Tamworth and North Conway, we stayed at the Purity Springs Resort in East Madison, a wonderful place where many families have been going for thirty or forty years. It has been owned and run by the Hoyt family for six generations, and since they also run a summer camp and a ski area, they know a lot about having fun.
They have swimming and kayaking and volleyball and tennis and stuff like that on site, and they're located in the Mt. Washington Valley which has every recreational opportunity anyone could ever want from hiking up Mt. Chocorua to fishing the Swift River to riding the alpine slide at Mt. Attitash.
They take a canoe trip on the Saco River every Thursday and hold a lobster bake on Purity Island. They usually send a van to the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company on Friday night, but the week I was there the theatre was staging a non-family presentation of "Cabaret," which I loved, but I could see why they didn't send the van.
My Fair Lady
At the Barn Playhouse on Tuesday, Sarah and I saw "My Fair Lady." I sang all these songs with my grandmother: "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On the Street Where You Live," "A Little Bit of Luck." What could possibly be new about a play this old? Everything!
"It's awfully dull in town, I think I'll take me to Paree... mmmm... The missus wants to open up the castle in Capris... mmmm... Me doctor recommends a quiet summer by the sea..." Whenever I hear that introduction I get swept up in that wonderful song, "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," which shows how simple happiness can be for those with modest expectations.
The whole thing was a great delight, and I only wish my grandmother were here to hear it all yet again. The be'eading of 'enry 'iggins, the opening day at Ascot, the aunt done in for a hat, and of course the Regency Ball...
Katie Bruestle of Cincinnati, Ohio, sparkled as Liza and Jeffrey McCoy of Dublin, Virginia, brought all the necessary bluster to the role of Alfred P. Doolittle, one of the most engaging roles ever created. "They're always throwing goodness at you," he declares, "but with a little bit of luck, a man can duck."
One of the many challenges in summer stock is adapting the musical score for a small ensemble, and Musical Director Joel Mercier of New York City did a great job at this, adding an oboe and a trumpet to the piano, keybords and percussion.
Director Robert Sella and Choreographer Sarah Case, working with top-notch singers, dancers and actors, gave this production real professional polish.
The Barn Playhouse was founded in 1933 by Josephine Holmes, a drama teacher at Mt. Holyoke College, who staged student productions in the New London Town Hall for a year and then purchased the building known as the Pressey barn.
N. Warren Weldon purchased the theatre in 1947 and ran it for seven years. He sold it to Norman Leger, who owned and operated it for 50 years.
It's now a non-profit run by a board of directors and a professional staff, Executive Director William Michael Maher, Artistic Director Carol Dunne and General Manager Don Boxwell, with lots of volunteers and community support.
The Barn Playhouse also has a children's program that gives kids the opportunity to get involved in theatre as actors and stage hands.
Toad of Toad Hall
Wednesday night we saw "Toad of Toad Hall" at The Barnstormers in Tamworth, a signature production of this theater. I saw it there fifty years ago when I was six years old.
Based on Kenneth Grahame's book The Wind in the Willows, it's really a metaphor for America in the 21st century -- the weasels have taken over and the rightful owner, blinded by an obsession with motoring, must reclaim his own.
Roles like the river rat and the badger and the mole are handed down from generation to generation. Actor Dan Rubinate became something of a local legend playing Mr. Toad in five different productions over the course of 30 years. In the show we saw, the role was played to perfection by Scott Severance.
Everyone knows someone like the pompous, egotistical Mr. Toad, and of course the play is always a great hit with the children. "The world has held great heroes, as history books have showed, but was never a name to go down in fame compared with Mr. Toad." Those lyrics have been knocking around in my head for fifty years.
Will Cabell, Robert Bates and Jean Mar Brown also turned in splendid performances as Toad's patient friends Ratty, Badger and Mole.
The Barnstormers has been producing first-rate summer stock since Francis Cleveland (son of President Grover Cleveland) and his wife Alice founded the theatre in 1931. At first the company would 'troupe' around to different towns in the vicinity until they found a permanent home in Kimball's Store in 1935.
Francis Cleveland ran the theatre until his death in 1995 at the age of 92. The Barnstormers has continued under a board of directors headed by his nephew, George Cleveland.
Not Your Grandmother's Cabaret
Thursday Sarah had to take off back to Connecticut, but I soldiered on to a fabulous production of "Cabaret" by the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company in North Conway.
I should explain that this was not the original Broadway version or the 1972 movie version, but a version based on the 1993 adaptation by Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse in London and revived in 1998 at Studio 54 in New York.
It's a lot sexier, grittier and more hard-hitting. It was a bold choice for MWVTC, and it made for a riveting evening of entertainment.
The original production, I should explain, was based on a play by John Van Druten called "I Am a Camera," which was based in turn on Christopher Isherwood's book Goodbye to Berlin, so the work was a pretty fluid commodity to begin with.
In the original production the Emcee (famously played by Joel Grey) wore a tuxedo. In the Mendes version, the Emcee wore suspenders and not much else.
The MWVTC Emcee, Jesse Luttrell of New York City, was nothing short of spectacular and the rest of the company, the Kit Kat Girls and the Kit Kat Boys did an amazing job as well.
The Challenge of a Small Stage
I guess I was most impressed by the choreography. MWVTC has a 20-foot stage, but far from scaling back the dancing, Director / Choreographer Clay James seemed to take it as a challenge, and seemed to want to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that every member of the company could do some serious hoofing.
There were 15 or 20 dancers high-kicking gracefully and effortlessly on that 20-foot stage -- don't tell OSHA -- and leaping and swirling, and getting extremely personal with one another, all with the precision of a synchronized swim team. And of course they had to sing perfectly, too, which they did.
The show featured two highly talented newlyweds, Grant and Liz Clark Golson, as the young American writer Clifford Bradshaw and the cabaret performer Sally Bowles, and moving performances by Megan Thomas as the landlady Fraulein Schneider and the Craig Holden as Herr Schultz, the Jewish fruit vendor, whose romance is doomed by the Nazi takeover.
The newer version of the show presents the historical context more clearly for audiences several generations removed from World War II.
One truly chilling moment in the play is when a little boy (played by Liam Van Rossum) reprises a song from earlier in the show, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," but this time he's wearing an armband with a swastika. Another is when the cast appears in the striped uniform of the concentration camps.
All in all it was an evening of great theatre.
A Labor of Love
The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company has been directed by Linda Pinkham for more than thirty years. Herself an actress who has performed in more than a hundred productions in summer stock, regional and New York theatres, she took over the "artistically successful but financially struggling" MWVTC in 1982.
She changed the format to all musicals and produced sell-out performances at the company's home, the Eastern Slope Playhouse. She hires directors, designers and tehnical staff and holds auditions in New York and Boston to cast the shows.
Pinkham also lines up the local sponsors that all summer stock companies need to continue presenting top-notch theatre, and she is a cofounder of the New Hampshire Professional Theatre Association.
She says live theatre is increasingly important in the electronic age: ""Imagine young people growing up never seeing a live show, never knowing that the characters they love don't live in a box," she says. "Live theatre feeds the soul and nourishes the human spirit."
Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company
Find a list of New Hampshire theatres at the website of the New Hampshire Professional Theatre Association.
Rosewood Country Inn
Purity Springs Resort
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