Woodstock Playhouse repertory back for summer season

Above, Rehearsal for Spamalot. Below, Randy Conti gives direction.

Above, Rehearsal for Spamalot. Below, Randy Conti gives direction. (photos by Dion Ogust)

conti HZT-It’s been two days since these 19 theater enthusiasts have gathered at the New York Conservatory for the Arts in West Hurley for the first time, and less than ten days from their first Woodstock Playhouse repertory performance of the new season, in Spamalot. But all sing as if they’ve been raised together since babes. And when director Randy Conti, one of the Playhouse’s two energetic heads, calls action the production feels there for all but costumes, props and sets. Or music beyond musical director Brendan Shapiro’s current piano accompaniment.

Everyone’s fit in their leotards and muscle shirts. The women all wear heels, the men solid walking-like shoes. Yet they dance and leap and sing and cavort and ham it up with no sense of constraint other than the precision and overall sense of joyous musicality that’s long been a NYCA characteristic, and is now the key to all the new Playhouse productions.

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The first act starts as Conti introduces the first props — fake fish for a slappy song about this being England and not Finland. A few stage directions get everyone in gear and Arthur comes on stage, followed by a rousing number, “I Am Not Dead Yet.”

Even the cast is smiling, laughing and clapping at all the fun bits within moments of the musical’s start.

The Playhouse’s Doug Farrell notes that yes, there are about a half dozen returning cast members from last year, and a couple from each of the previous three seasons since the former outdoor theater, built on the site of a fabled 1930s barn theater, got up and running again. And yes, things have been growing for the theater and its summer troupes, both in terms of audience loyalties (and numbers) and the Woodstock Playhouse’s reputation as a feeder for Broadway and traveling casts.

As it used to be, Farrell points out, back when Robert Elwyn first started it all in the latter years of the Great Depression, when what he created almost instantly became known as a rural extension of Broadway. Which in turn led to years of various stars, both on the stage and behind it, getting their start off Mill Hill Road, from local boy Lee Marvin to Diane Keaton, Larry Hagman, and a whole host of others.

“So many other rural theaters got their start because of the Playhouse’s success,” Farrell notes. “And we’re becoming a stepping stone once again…just this year one of the members of our first Chorus Line cast has landed a role in Book of Mormon. The roots of Broadway are waking up…”

As the hoofing, singing and fun theatrical acting continues in the NYCA rehearsal theater down the hall, we look over old clippings, and Farrell tells me of the Playhouse’s new academy, which will be taking in actor students, and putting on productions, year round from here on in.

Furthermore, he notes how there seems to be a new wave of talent rising, as noted the night before during the Tony Awards on Broadway itself.

“Maybe it has to do with the success of Glee and all the performance competition shows,” he says. “All we know is that it’s a great time to be doing what we’re doing.”

Later, he and Conti note how their last two seasons have been getting ever better, from that talent quotient through to sets, costuming, music. They get calls from Long Island and New Jersey theater fans who’ve heard the buzz. And even other businesses in Woodstock are noticing the effects of the Playhouse’s success, even if they don’t always get the fact that it’s all been made to happen by the new entity being not-for-profit.

“This all came about with a million dollar investment,” Farrell says of the $350,000 he and Conti had raised for their own NYCA theater being augmented with $750,000 in loans from the Catskill Watershed Corporation…and the help of numerous government entities, local banks, and foundations…as well as a truly appreciative audience.

“This year as a fundraising gift we’ve got 100 copies of a 1941 Al Hirschfield drawing of the old Playhouse, with Elwyn and Sally Rand among the persons depicted in his inimitable style,” he adds as a roar of laughter and clapping comes in from the rehearsal room.

We rush back for a rendition of “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” with everyone smiling who’s not on stage, and then the showstopping “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.”

With Spamalot running from June 19 through 29, Jesus Christ Superstar from July 10 through 20, The Three Musketeers from July 24 through 26, and West Side Story from July 31 through August 10, it’s going to be a grand season.

For tickets and more information, call 679-6900, visit ulsterpub.staging.wpengineplayhouse.org, or stop by the box office at the Playhouse on Mill Hill Road from 4 p.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays once the first performances kick off in a week.

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