A new professional theater company set for Ridgefield
A new theater company designed to present Broadway quality musicals and plays is taking shape in Ridgefield.
A Contemporary Theatre is the brainchild of two Broadway actors — Daniel C. Levine and Katie Diamond — who moved to the area a few years ago and decided that the one component missing from the burgeoning Ridgefield arts scene is a professional equity contract theater company.
With support from “Wicked” and “Pippin” composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who lives in town, the duo is planning to launch the first season next summer. ACT has already presented well-received concert productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Who’s Tommy” at the Ridgefield Playhouse to generate advance interest in the new venture.
“We have the Aldrich Museum and the Ridgefield Playhouse, but I think ACT will further elevate the town as a true arts destination,” says Levine, whose many New York City stage credits include”Mamma Mia!,” “Les Miserables” and “Chicago.”
For the past few years Levine has been the artistic director of the Ridgefield Playhouse’s Broadway & Cabaret Series that has brought stars like Betty Buckley and Chita Rivera to town for one-night stands.
“That’s a fantastic series, but the playhouse (is so heavily booked that it) can’t do limited runs of musicals, so the idea of starting a new company began to form,” he says of his partnership with executive producer Diamond.
ACT will be using the auditorium space at the Philip Johnson-designed Schlumberger-Doll Research Center complex on Old Quarry Road. After the Schlumberger company moved to Cambridge, Mass., in 2006, the town took over the 45-acre site, and is in the process of redeveloping it, with an arts complex as part of the multiuse mix.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” Levine says of finding an ally in Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi, who helped ACT lease the auditorium space in the complex for $1 a year. ACT is raising the $1.5 million necessary to turn the Schlumberger auditorium into a 178-seat theater. In May, the company had its first benefit gala featuring Broadway and TV star Aaron Tveit (“Next to Normal”), along with “Wicked” stars Lindsay Mendez and Kara Lindsay.
“It’s not a big space, but we are going to make it state of the art,” the artistic director says, adding that one donor has already committed to underwriting a stage turntable that will allow for easy set changes in the intimate venue.
Levine is looking forward to seeing directors and designers work in the snug ACT space.
“We’re obviously not going to be a doing a 60- person ‘Les Mis’ like I did on Broadway. But I also did a small version of ‘Evita’ that was very effective,” Levine says. “It’s all about the directors and how they tell stories in a specific space.
“The name of our theater is A Contemporary Theatre, so we are definitely interested in contemporary musicals, but I’m also excited by the idea of reimagining classics,” he says. “What could ‘My Fair Lady’ look like as a chamber musical? I recently saw a really interesting ’Man of La Mancha” with a cast of eight and nothing but chairs as the set, and people were sobbing at the end.”
ACT will be honoring its artistic adviser Schwartz with a production of one of his musicals in each of the first three seasons. “Everyone knows ‘Pippin’ and ‘Godspell,’ but he’s written so many other fantastic things. When he heard about ACT he said, ‘How can I help?’ and ‘Sign me up,’ right away. He couldn’t be more supportive,” Levine says.
He agrees the American musical is in good health at the moment, with Broadway audiences making huge hits out of such offbeat shows as “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“I think we’ve gone away from the spectacle of the mega-musical in the 1980s,” Levine says of a decade that was dominated by “Phantom of the Opera,” “Miss Saigon” and other elaborately produced shows. “Now we’ve gotten back to true storytelling. ... Who knew that something like ’Next to Normal,” with a schizophrenic (protagonist), could work so well?
“So far we haven’t hit any bumps,” Levine says of ACT’s fundraising and construction work at the Schlumberger site. The company has lined up the rights and licensing to the first show, which contractually can’t be announced until closer to the production date.
“It’s a huge undertaking, but the community is excited and behind us,” Levine says.
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