As authors go, Jane Austen is the best represented among Philadelphia theater companies as they begin their 2013-2014 season.
Austen was born in 1775, so the burst of ambition to dramatize her works has nothing to do with a personal centenary….unless you consider the dates of her novels. Pride and Prejudice, that tower of wit and romance, was published in 1813 so that seems to be the anniversary upon which all of this Austentation is being pinned. The Hedgerow Theatre already showed the way with a charming production of Pride and Prejudice in May 2013. Pride gets two more showings, one by Bristol Riverside Theatre (Oct. 29 to Nov.24), employing the same Jon Jory adaptation as Hedgerow, the other by People’s Light and Theatre Company, which uses a script by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan (Feb. 26 to March 30).
Leading off the Austen mania is Lantern Theatre’s production of Emma, adapted by Michael Bloom (Sept. 19 to Oct. 27). Hedgerow returns to Austen towards the end of the season with a production of Sense and Sensibility, again adapted by Jory (April 24 to June 1).
While the lastingly popular Miss Austen and her adaptors transport us to Georgian England, most of the plays chosen for the Delaware Valley’s 2013-2014 theater season are set in contemporary times. Of the more than 200 productions by more than 30 companies that appear on my master list, works from the last 20 years, and especially recent Broadway and off-Broadway hits, predominate. These include this year’s Tony winner for Best Play, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, seen locally in fall 2012 at McCarter but this season returning with laurels to the Philadelphia Theatre Company (March 21 to April 20), albeit without Sigourney Weaver, David Hyde-Pierce, and the magnificent Kristine Nielsen. Other recent Tony winners heading for local stages are In the Heights, the gentle and tuneful look at Manhattan’s barrio, that kicks off the Walnut Street Theatre season (Sept. 3 to Oct. 20), and Monty Python’s ‘Spamalot,‘ a jauntily satirical look at those good old Middle Ages, at the Media Theatre (Sept. 25 to Nov. 5). Tracey Letts’s jaundiced view of an American clan, August: Osage County, is set for two appearances, at Oaklyn’s Ritz Theatre (Sept. 12 to Oct. 12) and Morrisville’s Actors’ NET (Feb. 28 to March 23). The Kimmel Center brings Broadway-level tours of the delicious commentary on religion, The Book of Mormon, way at the end of the season (July 29 to Sept. 7. 2014), and the folk-oriented love story, Once (Oct. 29 to Nov. 10). The 2012 recipient of Best Revival of a Musical, Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, an exciting if controversial adaptation of both the original DuBose and Dorothy Heyward book and Gershwin score, also heads to the Academy of Music (Feb. 18 to 23). Audra McDonald, the riveting centerpiece of the Broadway production, will not play Bess in the tour. You can see McDonald, a candidate for the single best performer of our time, in concert at McCarter Theatre on Nov. 22. (Also that week at McCarter, on Nov. 20, Kevin Kline bucks the season trend to do an evening of Shakespearean readings, Shakespeare: One Man in His Time. McDonald’s husband, Will Swenson, appears as Frank-N-Furter in a Bucks County Playhouse production of The Rocky Horror Show from Oct. 23 to Nov. 2.)
Meanwhile, earlier Tony winning musicals pepper the Kimmel season. The ever-popular Jersey Boys makes what looks like an annual pilgrimage to the woefully underused Forrest Theatre (also home to Book of Mormon) for an extended stay (Dec. 11 to Jan. 5). The Phantom of the Opera makes its regular appearance (March 19 to April 13) while another Andrew Lloyd Webber favorite Evita cries out for audiences (June 17 to June 22.) A third Lloyd Webber musical that earned a Tony, Sunset Boulevard, brings a little of silent-era Hollywood to the Media Theatre (April 16 to May 18) in a season when the Media is a tad Lloyd Webber-happy. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is the theater’s holiday presentation (Nov. 20 to Jan. 5). Fans of Man of La Mancha and South Pacific will have ample chance to see those shows, the major production of La Mancha heading to the DuPont Theatre (March 25 to March 30) while the most polished South Pacific will be at North Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse (April 9 to May 4.) Lloyd Webber’s Cats is on the schedule of the Broadway Theatre in Pitman (Jan. 24 to Feb. 16) and Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying makes appearances at the Broadway Pitman (Sept. 13 to Oct. 6) and the Walnut (May 13 to July 13). Ain’t Misbehavin‘ is on the Delaware Theatre Company schedule (April 2 to April 27).
Although amazingly not a Tony winner, West Side Story plays at the DuPont (Dec. 3 to 8). Two other musicals that were more deserving of Tonys than the recipients in their production years, Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, a taut, searing look at the Leo Frank case in Georgia, comes to the Arden (Sept. 26 to Nov. 3) while Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s moving and elegant The Light in the Piazza plays at Villanova (April1 to 13). Brown is having a busy September. His newest musical, Honeymoon in Vegas, has a major showing at Paper Mill (Sept. 26 to Oct. 27). Tony Danza and Rob McClure star.
Since Tonys have become a subject, Tony-winning plays being produced this year areDavid Auburn’s Proof at McCarter (Sept. 6 to Oct. 6), Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife from Theatre Horizon (Oct. 31 to Nov. 24), August Wilson’s Fences, directed by Phylicia Rashad, at McCarter (Jan. 10 to Feb. 9), Wendy Kesselman’s adaptation of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s The Diary of Anne Frank at the Media (Jan. 29 to Feb. 16), Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa from Curio Theatre (Feb. 13 to March 15), and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing at the Wilma (May 21 to June 22). An Oscar winner, Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, in a production that will later tour, is set for the Walnut’s Independence Studio on 3 (Jan. 14 to Feb. 2).
A CONTEMPORARY YEAR
Aside from a couple of Macbeths, Julius Caesars, and one worthy Othello on video from The National Theatre of Great Britain, precious little Shakespeare is set for this season. Classics of any kind seem to be on a back burner while newer works prevail. Even classic American drama is strangely absent. Two productions of Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana will hit the boards — one by the REP company at the University of Delaware (Sept. 26 to Oct. 13) and at Actors’ NET (Jan. 17 to Feb. 2) — but otherwise, no Williams, Miller, O’Neill, Inge, or Hellman can be found. Durang, Jon Robin Baitz, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Sarah Ruhl, Itamar Moses, Danai Gurira,Lydia R. Diamond, Paula Vogel, Quiara Alegria Hudes, Nina Raine, and Martin McDonagh have taken their places on theaters’ rosters. Philadelphia is being treated to the latest in lauded drama.
Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, at the Walnut (Jan.14 to March 2) graduated from a celebrated off-Broadway run to an equally praised stint on Broadway. It s plot sound familiar — An author goes home to family gathering and announces her next work is about the family. — but Baitz’s writing has bite and sentiment. Vogel, like Baitz, has been in the forefront of American playwrights of the last 20 years. Her Don Juan Comes Back from Iraq, derived from a play by Odon von Horvath about a man who returns from combat and finds his beloved girlfriend missing, is at the Wilma (March 19 to April 20).
Hudes has two occasions to celebrate. When Lin-Manuel Miranda had all this wonderful music for In the Heights but needed help with the book, he turned to Hudes who obliged admirably. Heights is at the Walnut from Sept. 3 to Oct. 20. Hudes’s new work, Water by the Spoonful, a Pulitzer Prize winner (although that award does not mean the same thing to theater as it does to journalism) and also about an Iraq war veteran who returns home, this time to Philadelphia, is at the Arden (Jan. 16 to March 16).
McRaney came to prominence when his Brother/Sister Plays were produced at McCarter in the first decade of this century. Those plays will be presented in repertory by Temple Theaters (Nov. 13 to 24) while the author’s The Brothers Size is given by Simpatico Theatre (Oct. 4 to Nov. 3).
Ruhl, the chronicler of harried women, and Moses, whose ideas sprawl Stoppard-like, will each have their works produced by People’s Light. Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth, (April 2 to 27) is a play that features letters between the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell while Moses’s Bach in Leipzig (July 9 to August 10) tells the back story of the competition Johann Sebastian Bach encountered when he was invited to audition to be the organist and music director of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche. Bach is not the central character of Moses’s story.
Gurira, whose earlier works In the Continuum and Eclipsed were provocative, presents a story of someone who must choose between tradition and a wide detour from it in The Convert at the Wilma (Oct. 9 to Nov. 10). Diamond ‘s Stick Fly is another play that was launched at McCarter. The play about a black man who takes his white girlfriend to his family’s summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, is at the Arden (Oct. 24 to Dec. 22). Raine’s play, Tribes, (Jan. 24 to Feb. 23) is about the bond that forms among people who share a trait that somehow separates them from the mainstream, in this case, deafness. The Philadelphia Theatre Company produces at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
McDonagh is the dark, trick-playing comedian of our time. Pillowman, one of the most serious-themes of his works, is presented by Luna Theatre (Jan. 18 to Feb. 8).
The witty and wily comic writer, Ken Ludwig, has three of his shows on local rosters — Lend Me a Tenor from DTC (Oct. 16 to Nov. 3), The Game’s Afoot, one I don’t know, at Hopewell’s Off-Broad Street Theatre (Nov. 8 to Dec. 14), and Moon Over Buffalo at Actors’ NET (May 30 to June 15). David Ives, another who can be relied on for laughs and heart, is represented by his adaptation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, The School for Lies, at Villanova (Feb. 11 to 23). Michael Hollinger, a local playwright who artfully marries his themes within moving and entertaining stories, will have productions of Red Herring, his play with many spies and briefcases, at Villanova (Oct. 1 to 13), and Incorruptible, his hilarious work about relics and other such “historical” mementoes, at the Arden, where it began almost two decades ago (May 22 to June 22).
Other recent or new plays of interest are Truth Values, an answer to the allegation that women are not talented in math or science, at The Annenberg Center (Oct. 1 to 5); Amy Herzog’s much lauded 4000 Miles, which features a young man and his grandmother, from Philadelphia Theatre Company (Oct. 11 to Nov. 10); The Devil’s Business, about blues singer Bessie Smith, written and performed by the enchanting Miche Braden, at People’s Light (Oct. 16 to Nov. 24); A Clockwork Orange, adapted for the stage by its creator, Anthony Burgess, at Luna (Oct. 19 to Nov. 9); Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, upstairs at the Walnut (Nov. 19 to Dec. 29); Nerds, a musical about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and about DOS and C drives, at PTC (Jan 7 to 26); Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams for InterAct (Jan. 17 to Feb. 9); Circle Mirror Transformation, a play about studying to be an actor by Annie Baker, for Theatre Horizon (Feb. 20 to March 16); Side Show, the interesting 1996 musical about Siamese twins, from 11th Hour (March 15 to 17); Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice , upstairs at the Walnut (March 25 to April 13); Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver at Lantern Theatre (April 10 to May 4); Sharr White’s Annapurna for Theatre Exile (April 17 to May 11); Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Douglas C. Wager at Temple (April 23 to May 3); Margaret Edson’s powerful play, Wit, from REP at the University of Delaware (April 24 to May 10); Kim Rosenstock’s Tigers Be Still for Azuka (May 7 to May 25); Neil LaBute’s In a Dark Dark House from Simpatico (May 7 to June 1); and Ritu Comes Home by Peter Gil-Sheridan for InterAct (May 30 to June 22).
THE RETURN OF THE PRINCE
Last season saw the restoration to both physical and artistic glory of the Bucks County Playhouse. This season we witness the resurrection of the Prince Music Theatre, bound to be called by a different moniker once some corporation or individual makes a gift large enough to earn naming rights.
In terms of theater, the Prince is presenting off-Broadway parodies of pop culture. Evil Dead: The Musical (Sept. 25 to Oct. 20) takes Sam Raimi’s cult film classic and adds snark to it by George Reinblatt, Frank Cipolla, and Melissa Morris. Potted Potter (Dec. 10 to Jan. 5) gives all seven books by J.A. Rowling the razz, as supplied by Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner.
And then there’s a difference. In the midst of all of this spoofing, the Prince presents The Suit (Feb. 26 to March 8), a piece conceived and directed by the legendary theater artist, Peter Brook, from an African story by Can Themba, Mothobi Mutloase, and Barney Simon about a suit that is left behind when a man scrambles from a scene of infidelity with the wife of another man who catches the philandering couple. Brook’s production maintains the air of comedy Evil Dead and Potted Potter begin, but the jokes are subtler and more theatrical.
Now to the best part. No matter what was happening on the Prince or AMTF stage, the company provided Philadelphia with one of the best programs ever, the cabaret. Whether at Stouffers, The Doubletree, The Barclay, the Bellevue, or in its own black box, the Prince brought the best and/or most interesting — remember Ingrid Caven — of variety entertainment to its cabaret spaces. This year is no different. Four cabaret performers — five really — will grace Morgan’s, the Prince’s cabaret room, and three of them qualify as reigning queens of the genre.
Barbara Cook will have just celebrated her 86th birthday when she appears at the Prince (Oct. 2 to 5). Her age has not altered the fine expressive soprano. Nor has it diminished the show biz savvy Cook has displayed since she took cabaret from the ashes circa 1975. Few things are more beautiful or affecting than Cook’s way with a ballad. Plus she can turn from tragic chanteuse to rollicking comic in a heartbeat. I think Cook’s voice stayed so supple and fresh because she sings everything. Even when she talks, it’s on a sustained tone. That keeps the vocal cords in shape. Whether my theory holds or not, Cook is a master at what she does.
Patti LuPone is about as versatile as a performer can be. She earned her fame because of music, but she is a great actress as well. LuPone has worked large auditoria and barn-sized nightclubs. It’s wonderful to be able to see her, and hear her, in an intimate setting like Morgan’s (Nov. 20 to 23).
Karen Akers is a master of song. Her voice is haunting, and she is another who can evoke a tear or elicit a laugh with her musical gifts (April 30 to May 3).
In between LuPone and Akers, Steve Tyrell, a man of many musical styles, comes to Morgan’s (Feb. 5 to 8).
Mark Nadler has played many roles in cabaret. He has been a musical director and accompanist. He has been the partner in shows, sharing numbers usually while remaining at his piano. Last season, at Manhattan’s York Theatre, Nadler did a heralded show, I’m a Stranger Here Myself: The Musik from the Weimar Republic, music that includes the title song by Kurt Weill (April 2 to 12).
BRAITHWAITE AND CHILDS
Cabaret of sorts has become a byproduct of some theaters. Since taking the helm at Act II Playhouse, Tony Braithwaite has continued to write and perform one-person shows from his various experiences. He also does a talk show in which he interviews local notables. This season, he begins Act II’s year with Didn’t Your Father Have This Talk With You? (Sept. 10 to Oct. 6) which is based on the time he spent teaching Sex Education at Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s Prep.
Braithwaite has also teamed with 1812 Productions artistic director on a series of shows that begin with the words, “Let’s Pretend.” One of those shows, Let’s Pretend We’re Famous, is also included on the Act II schedule (Jan. 7 to 26).
Childs is a student of comedy and comedians. She has created some wonderful, insightful pieces for 1812 based on her scholarship. Last season’s study of women as both presenters and subjects of comedy was a frequent delight. This year at 1812, Childs repeats, or more aptly, updates, shows her company has done in the past. These include The Big Time (Nov. 29 to Dec, 31), That Was the Year It Was (Dec. 8 to 10), An Evening Without The Catskills (March 10 and 11), This is the Week It Is (April 24 to June 1), and A Tribute to Phyllis Diller (May 12 and 13). 1812 begins its season with a tribute to a another great comic, Gilda Radner, with Bunny Bunny (Sept. 19 to Oct. 27).
Stand-up comedy is the root of Steve Solomon’s shows based on his mixed parentage. My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m Still in Therapy, a show with all new material, plays at Bristol Riverside (Sept. 17 to Oct. 6). Another show, My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m Home for the Holidays, is at Bucks County Playhouse (Nov. 6 to 17).
BEAUMARCHAIS A LA WADSWORTH
The classics have not been totally forgotten. Stephen Wadsworth has mounted some of the most stylized and brilliant productions of Marivaux and other classical playwrights during the last 15 years, mostly at McCarter Theatre.
He returns to Princeton this spring with two shows by Pierre Beaumarchais, The Figaro Plays. Don’t ask why I waited until the end of long piece to mention the single event that excites me the most this season. Wadsworth never fails to entertain and provoke thought with his intellectual yet comic and human approach to classic stories. That approach is unique, and I can’t wait to experience it again with The Barber of Seville (April 1 to May 4) and The Marriage of Figaro (April 9 to May 3).
2013-2014 is a season that garners justifiable enthusiasm. It is varied and brings many interesting voices to our midst.
Highlights of the season that have not yet been mentioned are Romeo and Juliet at Curio (Oct. 3 to Nov. 2); Macbeth at Hedgerow (Oct. 14 to Nov. 17); The White Snake, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman at McCarter (Oct. 15 to Nov. 3); Sugar Babies at the Ritz (Oct. 24 to Nov. 23); Elf at the Walnut (Nov. 5 to Jan. 5); My Life on a Diet, written by and starring Renee Taylor at Bucks County Playhouse (Nov. 20 to 24); Cinderella: A Panto by Kathryn Petersen and Michael Ogborn at People’s Light (Nov. 20 to Jan. 12); I Love Lucy: Live on Stage at the Merriam (Dec, 26 to 29); I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti at New Brunswick’s George Street Theatre (March 11 to April 6); A Boy and His Soul, written and performed by Colman Domingo at Philadelphia Theatre Company (May 23 to June 22); and The Million Dollar Quartet at the DuPont (May 27 to June 1).