A number of years ago I was in a grocery store near Bennington, Vermont when I saw an ad near the store’s exit. The ad told of a current production of Brecht’s Mother Courage at a Williamstown Theatre Festival. I assumed that the Williamstown Theatre Festival was merely a local amateur company, but being a fan of Brecht, I decided to see the production.
Upon arriving at the theatre, I quickly found that the company was a professional one, and that Olympia Dukakis, who had recently won an academy award, was to play Mother Courage. Olympia Dukakis was the first of several stage, film and TV stars I’ve seen at Williamstown. I’ve since seen the Blythe Danner and the late Christopher Reeves in Death Takes a Holiday, George Wendt in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Ginnifer Goodwin in The Corn is Green and Kelli O’Hara in Far From Heaven.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival seems to have the best of both worlds. While it is a top level professional theatre, it is snugly located in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. The surrounding area is lovely.
Besides presenting older plays, the Festival has taken on the important function of intoducing new works. Two years ago I saw the Rodgers and Hart review Ten Cents a Dance, put together by John Doyle, who is one of the best directors now working in musical theatre. It’s a shame that this show did not go on to a New York production. Last year I saw Far From Heaven, a musical that was subsequently produced at Playwrights Horizon.
My choice this year was the musical adaptation The Bridges of Madison County, with a score by Jason Robert Brown and a libretto by Marsha Norman. The versatile Brown, who usually gravitates towards jazz-style music and witty lyrics, was adept at incorporating country music into his score. The libretto was strong and often funny. The two principal performers, Elena Shaddow and Stephen Pasquale, have especially strong voices.
The second act, which was stronger than the first, was too long in a couple of places. I hope that the show will be considerably tightened before it opens in New York early next year. I would also like to know more about the teenage children in the story, who suddenly morph from brats into likeable human beings.
Nevertheless, this is that the type of musical that should be shown in New York. It is far superior to the jukebox musicals that now dominate the Broadway stage. The Williamstown Theatre Festival plays an important part in developing such work.