• ‘Next’ up: Vt.’s oldest theater changes with the times
    By Kevin O’Connor
    STAFF WRITER | July 07,2013
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    Above, actors Aaron Ramey, Heidi Blickenstaff and Margo Seibert rehearse the Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical “Next to Normal,” which opens this week at the Weston Playhouse. At left, music director Ryan Fielding Garrett rehearses with the cast of the musical.
    In 1952, the Weston Playhouse upended its 15-year history of straight drama for something unprecedented: a musical. “Brigadoon,” penned by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe before they wrote “My Fair Lady,” portrayed a man stumbling upon a mysterious Scottish village that rises from the mist just one day every century.

    Seem farfetched? Not for Weston, which saw it as a larger tale of love transcending all.

    Founded in 1937, Vermont’s oldest professional theater company has endured and evolved in the three-quarters of a century since. In 1962, its original building was felled by fire. In 1988, the rebuilt playhouse’s staff reorganized into a nonprofit Equity company. And this week it presents the area premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical “Next to Normal,” depicting a woman struggling with hallucinations related to bipolar disorder and their side effects on her family.

    Seem farfetched? Not for Weston, which sees it as a larger tale of love transcending all.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same at Weston, where a trio of artistic leaders, challenged by the recent recession and flooding from Tropical Storm Irene, nevertheless is marking the team’s 25th anniversary bringing big, worldly stories to a small, rural state.

    Drive south on Route 100 to the playhouse’s namesake town, population 566, and you might mistake the white-pillared theater — on the grassy village green near the original Vermont Country Store — as a magnet for out-of-state tourists. But audiences are mostly local, whether residents who travel from surrounding communities or have seen past Weston shows that toured statewide.

    When a young New York actor named Sam Lloyd first came to Weston in 1952, he juggled “Brigadoon” with rotating plays like Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” which the theater had presented just six years earlier.

    Lloyd, soon to turn 88, went on to star as Weston’s longtime state representative and town moderator. The shows he sees advertised today aren’t the time-tested standbys he once performed, but instead cutting-edge musicals like the Tony award-winning “Avenue Q” or original creations such as last year’s ripped-from-the-headlines “Pregnancy Pact.”

    “We were pushing the envelope 25 years ago when we were doing Stephen Sondheim for an audience that largely wanted Rodgers and Hammerstein,” says Steve Stettler, part of a leadership trio with fellow producing directors Malcolm Ewen and Tim Fort. “But increasingly, we’re finding our audiences enjoy discovering the most current hits.”

    Weston, as a result, is striving to widen the reach of its spotlight. That’s one reason it will premiere the new musical “Loving Leo” at the nearby Weston Rod and Gun Club later this month. And why, in one of the nation’s whitest states, it has showcased actors of color in works as varied as “Kiss Me Kate,” “Les Misérables” and “Ragtime,” the latter featuring the company’s largest cast.

    “We feel we’ve really been able to bring a broader world to our audiences, many of whom wouldn’t otherwise experience it,” Stettler says. “There are many forms of diversity, and we try to represent them all.”

    Take “Next to Normal,” which begins a 2½-week run Thursday. Nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2009, it won three, including best original score. The New York Times called it a “brave, breathtaking” work that’s “not your standard feel-good musical” but instead “something much more: a feel-everything musical.”

    Weston’s leaders saw the show during its New York run and understood why director Michael Greif — best known for “Rent” — decided to stage it. When the regional theater rights became available this year, they pounced.

    Weston’s production already has made industry news by bringing in Broadway veterans Heidi Blickenstaff in the lead role and Michael Berresse as director. But while many of today’s theatergoers know “Brigadoon” and its signature song “It’s Almost Like Being In Love,” “Next to Normal” isn’t yet a household name.

    “It’s always a challenge to attract an audience with a piece that’s newer and wrestles with thought-provoking issues,” Stettler says.

    Undeterred, Weston is offering seats priced as low as $25, director’s talks before or after particular performances, and free baby-sitting during select Saturday matinees.

    “Any way we can possibly make theater more accessible, more a part of people’s lives, we do,” Stettler says.

    Weston also is discouraging clinical categorizations of “Next to Normal” — which deals with everything from loss to suburban life to psychiatry ethics — as a musical about mental health.

    “We wouldn’t promote ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a play about teenage sexual behavior or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ as a play about racism. They’re about so much more. We choose theater that tells something about life and the human condition and resonates with us all.”

    In that light, Weston publicity sums up “Next to Normal”: “This emotional story reveals the risks and rewards of being truly alive.”

    The same could be said of the backstage drama in 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene flooded a recent $700,000 renovation of its dressing rooms, prop shop and orchestra pit harboring a baby grand piano.

    “We’re still recovering from the blow that it dealt to the state and its economy,” Stettler says. “We’ve found ourselves working harder to sell a better product to fewer people.”

    And so the leadership team will follow up “Next to Normal” in August with a revival from the trio’s inaugural season 25 years ago — the old-fashioned song-and-dance spectacle “42nd Street.”

    “When you choose a broadly popular iconic piece, you’re going to do better,” Stettler says. “But we aspire to offer a mix of material — both plays and musicals, new and old, compelling and challenging. We’re always looking for things that push the form.”

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