Weston Playhouse = Weston Theater Company: New name but more great theater inside | Vermont art

For its 86th season as Vermont’s oldest professional theater, the Weston Playhouse Theater Company became the Weston Theater Company.

“When I started in theatre, Walker Farm, the new building, was only in its second year opening,” explains Susanna Gellert, Weston’s Executive Artistic Director. “One of the things that struck me is that the Weston Playhouse is such an iconic building to us that it has created confusion around Walker Farm. Is Walker Farm part of this organization? There was a question about the role of the new building.

“That’s part of it,” said Gellert. “We started thinking about what’s special about this theater company, is the community that we’re part of – Weston. We wanted to put the city and community at the center and make sure the theater as a whole encompasses these buildings and not just one.”

In its first indoor season since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Weston will be presenting at the Weston Playhouse and the more intimate Walker Farm. And to celebrate the occasion, all five productions will be familiar to most theater lovers.

“It’s definitely a season that focuses on titles we know, stories we know,” Gellert said. “We’ve all just been through a wrestler like that, and I wanted to do whatever it took to invite people back in and realize that it’s been a long time.”

Last summer’s three outdoor productions, two of which took place under a tent, were successful but had limited audiences due to social distancing.

“So this summer has really been in search of as much ‘big tent’ storytelling as possible,” Gellert said. “And it’s really about getting people back into the theatre. In a way, all of these stories are about how we as a society, we as a culture, have gone through difficult moments before and found our way through them by talking, connecting and shaking hands.

“So in the wake of the pandemic, I undoubtedly wanted to weigh more on the entertainment side of the scale,” she said.

Perhaps more than any other show, legendary musical Hair (July 20-August 13 at the Weston Playhouse) fits that bill. With book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, and music by Galt MacDermot, it tells the story of the “Tribe,” a group of politically active long-haired hippies of the “Age of Aquarius” who lived an unconventional life in New York City and fought against the Conscripted into the Vietnam War.

“When it was done, it was such a groundbreaking musical,” said Gellert (who directs the production). “And it got people talking — and the reason it got people talking was because Broadway had nudity for the first time ever. But it also got people talking because it really looks at us. In 1967 when it was written, in 1968 when it came out on Broadway, the country was in turmoil.”

The Grammy, Tony and Drama Desk award-winning rock musical features hits like “Good Morning, Starshine” and “Aquarius.”

“It’s so brave about social justice, racial equality and gender equality, but it does all of that by just having a lot of fun,” Gellert said. “In a way it’s a jukebox musical – we know all the songs.”

The season opens with “Marry Me a Little” (July 6-30 at Walker Farm) in honor of Stephen Sondheim, the legendary Broadway composer and lyricist who passed away last November. With music and lyrics by Sondheim, conceived and developed by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene, it follows a man and woman who live one floor apart in the same apartment building.

“They never meet,” Gellert said. “It’s kind of a fantasy, imagining that they’re alone on a Saturday night and wishing they were together. It also occurs when…

“It’s Sondheim, so of course they don’t get together,” Gellert said. “But it’s really beautiful and touching.”

Sondheim remains one of the greatest creators of American musical theater.

“He’s so smart — and I think he makes us feel smart,” Gellert said.

Steel Magnolias (August 18-September 4 at the Weston Playhouse) remains one of the most popular comedies in American theater. Six friends gather in Truvy’s salon for hairdos, manicures, juicy gossip and witty banter. Through thick and thin they have friendships – friendships to lean on when tragedy strikes.

“It’s a guaranteed tearjerker; it is known as Chick Flick; it’s a crowd favorite, but it’s a really good piece,” said Gellert. “It’s an incredibly well constructed piece, from beginning to end, in every scene, line by line. It is extraordinary.

“I always find it surprising — because the story creeps up on you,” she said.

The season concludes with Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie (Sept. 28-Oct. 23 at Walker Farm, including student performances), developed by David M. Lutken and starring Nick Corley and Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein and directed by Corley.

“It tells his life story, and it tells his life story in the context of the history of 20th-century America,” Gellert said. “It’s like the opposite of the jukebox musical because it has so much to offer.”

Four performers, playing more than 20 instruments, paint a portrait of a man whose songs have brought joy and understanding to generations of Americans. Songs include “This Land Is Your Land” and “Bound for Glory.”

“I’m just so drawn to his songs,” Gellert said. “These are my childhood songs. We all grew up singing these songs at school with our friends, so this track has a bit of nostalgia about it. But also because it’s about Woody, it’s so smart.”

Weston’s gift to southern Vermont is the Young Company production of “Shrek: The Musical” (June 22-July 10 outdoors at Walker Farm and on tour with free admission), with music by Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home ’) and book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire. Based on the Oscar-winning film, Shrek, the lovable, smelly ogre, goes on a quest to rescue the quirky, captivating Princess Fiona.

“Jeanine Tesori writes super fun songs,” said Gellert. “It’s a come-to-life children’s book, but it’s incredibly smart. It’s very disrespectful.

“It’s as silly as it gets, but it has a really great heart and a great message: everyone is a little different, but we all belong,” she said.

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