Outdoor theater launches 34th season in Danbury park
Theater under the stars is one of the great pleasures of summer.
As the sun goes down, and the stage lights begin working their magic, the shift from reality to fantasy is somehow even more potent than what happens in a indoor theater.
Whether you are in Central Park watching the venerable New York Shakespeare Festival or at one of the many other outdoor summer stock theaters around the country, the mixture of nature and art is always intoxicating.
For the past 33 summers, audiences have been enjoying shows on the grounds of the former Stanley and Irene Richter estate in Danbury — with only the occasional interruption by a thunderstorm.
“The weather is always a huge challenge — it’s always a crapshoot,” co-founder Bradford Blake says. “The biggest heartache is losing closing night to bad weather. That always hits the young cast members hard.”
The 2018 Musicals at Richter season began on June 29 with a production of “Legally Blonde” set to run through July 14 and will continue with a production of “Annie” from July 27 to Aug. 11.
The outdoor theater will also be the scene of daytime children’s theater productions and a summer youth theater workshop.
Blake laughs as he recalls the 1985 season. The performer and director had always been a fan of outdoor theater — he started working in summer stock a few weeks after he graduated from high school — and when he (and partner Greg Wencek) suggested putting on a musical at the Richter Arts Center, he was shocked by the speed of the management’s response.
“I gave them my name and asked if they would like to do a musical on the lawn. ‘No, we want you to do two,’” he recalls with a chuckle.
“There were only three or four weeks from the time I said yes until the opening of ‘Little Mary Sunshine,’” he says of the 1950s-era musical spoof. “It was straight out of an old Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie. But instead of ‘My uncle has a barn,’ it was ‘My uncle has a golf course.’” (The arts center is adjacent to Richter Park Golf Course).
In the decades since, Blake has watched children from early shows grow into adulthood and then bring their children to Richter Park.
The theater has also served as a training ground for performers who have gone on to appear in such Broadway shows as “Matilda” and “Hairspray.”
Blake believes the somewhat rough conditions of doing a musical outside prepares young theater artists for whatever challenges they might face in the future.
“You’re changing your clothes in the forest,” he says, laughing. “Working in some of the worst conditions but keeping a smile on your face.”
This summer, Blake is directing the second musical, “Annie,” while his successor as artistic director, Lauren Nicole Sherwood, put together “Legally Blonde.”
Sherwood came to the theater as a performer in “Bye Bye Birdie,” but was immediately hooked on the place. She is now in her fifth season as artistic director of Musicals at Richter.
“It’s a big responsibility, but it’s worth it,” she says of the seeing the excitement of performers in rehearsal and then the delight of audiences picnicking on the park grounds.
The shows are chosen by Sherwood in conjunction with the other directors who have worked there. “We try to find shows that actors want to audition for and that audiences want to see.”
“Every year is a little different. We ask directors to suggest shows they really want to do,” she notes, adding, “Last season I really wanted to do ‘West Side Story.’”
The Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents classic that blends dance and music to tell a story of gang warfare in New York City, tested the limits of what can be done on the outdoor stage.
“It was by far the most ambitious show we did in my five years, but it showed me that if you pull together a talented production team, there are creative ways to do most shows,” she says.
Sherwood agrees that there is something very special about summer theater under the stars.
“One of the best stories that has been passed down at Richter involves ‘Guys and Dolls.’ The cast just started to do ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’ when it began to drizzle. Audience members took out their umbrellas and the rain stopped. It was a magical and powerful moment with everyone so involved in the show that the brief rain didn’t matter.”
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