Friday, September 10, 2004

Dramatic turn of events on area stages

Delaware County, PA, always the home of fine community troupes, is witnessing a coming-of-age of its professional theaters. Those who say "live theater is dead," or think Broadway's the only venue for quality shows, will think again when they check out the local playbills.

Local stages will come alive with classics like "Cabaret" and "Camelot," contemporary hits like "The Full Monty" and "The Graduate" (with Morgan Fairchild, no less) and some world premieres.

In the case of Hedgerow Theatre, the term "coming of age" may sound odd. The stately stone theater on Rose Valley Road dates back decades and is part of the history of regional theater. Hedgerow, however, went through a transition period in which it moved from a cutting-edge theater of the middle 20th century to the best known of community houses.

In the last decade, another shift began. Under the artistic direction of Penelope Reed, Hedgerow moved toward the professionalism for which it was once known nationally. Each season brings more polish to its shows.

Hedgerow now has to be considered a peer with any of the regional theaters in the Delaware Valley.

Media Theater is on a different journey. It began life as a house for warhorses, or classic musicals. Every now and then in that early history, it showed signs of ambition, but it never established consistency.

When the borough of Media bought the theater two years ago, the same artistic crew, with Jesse Cline at the helm, flexed its creative muscle. As if freed from constraints, Cline took more chances and showed more depth. His production of Andrew Lippa's "The Wild Party" in March stands as one of the highlights of the 2003-04 theater season.

While the titles Cline has chosen for 2004-05 are familiar, the expectation is they will have a higher gloss compared to shows from the past era. Like the Hedgerow, the Media is on a growth track, and it will be exciting to watch where Cline leads it.

In neighboring Chester County, People's Light & Theatre Co. is marking its 30th anniversary with an exciting season, including a new play.

* Hedgerow Theater: For 2004-05, Hedgerow, like several Delaware Valley theaters, is mixing the known with the new. It just ended a world premiere run of "Bosie," a play that showed the old Lord Alfred Douglas confronting his younger self, the boy, nicknamed Bosie, often accused of being the downfall of pantheon playwright Oscar Wilde. John Wolfson's play needs honing, but it is an example of the kind of theater Reed wants to create.

The blend of known and new starts early. Fall at Hedgerow usually means a mystery or thriller. This year, the first three plays combine for suspense and chills. Next Friday, the theater opens the 1971 Tony-winning "Sleuth" by Anthony Shaffer.

Ripe for revival, this is an intellectual thriller with lots of tricks, some of them on the audience.

After "Sleuth's" Sept. 17 to Oct. 17 run, Hedgerow goes into repertory with Patrick Hamilton's classic look at a husband trying to drive his wife mad in "Gaslight" (Oct. 26 to Nov. 13) and a new play by Jared Reed, "The Hanging," the publicity line for which is: "Prepare to be scared." As predictable as a mystery in September is Hedgerow's annual rendition of "A Christmas Carol," as adapted by Nagle Jackson, for the holiday season.

In early winter, Hedgerow takes an unusual break, coming back in March with two world premieres in repertory. One is by Nagle Jackson, a consummate theater professional with whom Penelope Reed has worked. When Jackson left Princeton, he said he wanted to write more, and he has been doing just that. From March 11 to April 17, his latest work, "This Day and Age," plays in repertory with "According to Plan," which begins performances on March 30.

For the spring, Hedgerow presents a classic, Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," before going to a new play, journalist-turned-playwright Donald Drake's "Thank You For the Flowers," in June.

* Media Theatre: The Media Theater focuses on the popular this year, but the hits it has chosen are wonderful shows from several eras in music theater history - from "Cabaret" to "Camelot." They all combine for a good solid season that has some variety within it.

Media opens with "Cabaret," the 1966 musical that found new life in a recent Broadway revival. Among the things that revival proved was there is more than one way to present this Kander and Ebb piece.

For the holidays, the Media has chosen "The Wizard of Oz," followed later in January by Jones and Schmidt's musical take on a long marriage, "I Do! I Do!"

The Who's famous rock opera, "Tommy," gets a full staging at the Media in March. After a month's pause, Lerner and Loewe's "Camelot" takes the stage from May 4 to 29.

In addition to its mainstage season and children's series, the Media has, in recent years, attracted some interesting people to appear in concert. This fall is no exception. On Nov. 6, the Media presents Judy Kaye, who strikes instant affection in the hearts of theatergoers. Kaye made her first splash as Betty Rizzo in the first tour of "Grease," made her reputation for stepping into "On the Twentieth Century" when Madeline Kahn left the show, and cemented her bond with Broadway audiences in her Tony-winning role as the first American Carlotta in "The Phantom of the Opera."

Appearing with Kaye is a Media favorite, Jennie Eisenhower.

* People's Light & Theatre Co.: I remember trekking out to Westtown to see People's Light's first show. Now the company is age 30, another sign of local theater's maturity, and has an eclectic season planned starting with Moliere's wonderful piece about unrealized stinginess, "The Miser," through Oct. 24. A large production, "Around the World in 80 Days," directed by Ken Marini, takes the stage Oct. 15-Nov. 21 while a new piece, "A Higher Place in Heaven" appears Jan. 19-Feb. 27.

A new play about sisters, probably cast with People's Light stalwarts like Marcia Saunders and Alda Cortese, "The O'Conner Sisters," plays June 15-July 24. People's Light's children's shows are "Sleeping Beauty," done in the form of an English holiday panto, from Nov. 24-Jan. 2, and "Jungalbook," (yes spelled right,) in April.

Professional theater is only the beginning of what Delaware County offers. Three community theaters, the Players Club of Swarthmore, the Barnstormers in Ridley Park, and the Colonial Theatre in Aldan, have been entertaining locally for decades. A fourth theater, the Celebration Theater, is establishing itself in Lansdowne.

And don't forget that Wilmington, Del., is a short ride away, offering topnotch attractions at the DuPont Theatre, Delaware Theatre Company, City Theatre, and the Grand Opera House.

* DuPont Theatre: The DuPont, once the Playhouse, has been the keeper of Broadway-style theater for some time. Road shows are not as plentiful as they once were.

No matter. The season booked for 2004-05 is one that should get mouths watering.

It opens on Oct. 22 with a production of "On Golden Pond," starring Diahann Carroll, who it's difficult to imagine as an old woman. In Washington, where "On Golden Pond" is originating, Carroll's co-star is James Earl Jones, but so far, he has not committed to tour, so the male lead will be different at the DuPont where "Pond" runs through Oct. 31. Next up, from Dec. 3-12, is "The Full Monty," one of the cleverest musicals of the last five years.

One of this season's mysteries was who was going to play Mrs. Robinson when "The Graduate" arrived at the DuPont from Feb. 4 to 13. The suspense is over. Morgan Fairchild, of "Dynasty" fame, will be the one who contrives to bring a young and confused college graduate of age, even as he is attracted to her daughter.

"Big River," as performed simultaneously by a deaf and hearing cast, sails into the DuPont from Feb. 18-27, after which Rodgers and Hammerstein dominate the day, with "The King and I" starring Stefanie Powers in March and "Oklahoma" in May.

* Players Club of Swarthmore: One of the top community theaters in the entire region, the Players Club of Swarthmore begins 2004-05 on Sept. 23 with "The Wizard of Oz." The rest of the season spans a wide variety of shows from "Proof" to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Camelot."

Players Club also offers a chamber series, staging "Three Viewings" in November, "Stop Kiss" in April and a reader's theater, which presents "An Evening with the Algonquin Round Table" on Oct. 10-11 and Bruce Graham's "Coyote on a Fence," March 19-20.

* Barnstormer's: Ridley Park's Barnstormers opens with David Ives's "All in the Timing" from Thursday to Sept. 19; "Jesus Christ Superstar" from Oct. 8 to 23; "Dear Santa," in December, of course; "Theatre Stew II" in January; followed by "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "Crimes of the Heart."

* The Colonial Playhouse starts next Friday with "Mixed Emotions," a romantic comedy that launches the Colonial's 65th anniversary season.

* Lansdowne's Celebration Theater is the new kid on the block, and it has a three-production season planned: "Songbook at Sunset: Broadway Goes Batty" is a Halloween offering on Oct. 31. Other shows are "It's a Wonderful Life" on Dec. 4 and "Route 66" on March 20.

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