Is there anyone in the mid-Hudson who doesn’t know about Powerhouse? Lots of communities have summer theater festivals, but Powerhouse is renowned throughout the region and beyond as an incubator since 1985 for works-in-progress and premieres by the best and brightest young playwrights, directors and composers. The program consists of an eight-week residency on the Vassar campus, during which more than 200 professional artists and some 40 apprentices live and work together to create new theater works. Some end up in full productions on or Off-Broadway and elsewhere, go on to win their authors a variety of dramaturgy awards or get their film rights snapped up, once they’ve emerged from this crucible of talent that burbles away each summer in Poughkeepsie.
The season traditionally begins and ends with the Readings Festivals, but in between, there are lots of opportunities to catch more fully staged works. Perhaps the most talked-about Powerhouse event for summer 2011 will be a one-night-only “musical reading” at 4 p.m. on July 17 of the great singer/songwriter Dar Williams’ first crack at a full-fledged stage musical. Per the press release, “Williams combines her passion for the environment with her trademark exquisite songs in a new musical tale of a faraway island whose inhabitants must confront the forces which threaten their magical home, and come together to protect their beloved island.” The Island Musical is kid-friendly and admission is free, but make your reservations post-haste, as this special event in the Martel Theater will surely fill up quickly.
The Martel stage will host three other “concert readings” of musicals this season. Lyricist Steven Sater and composer Duncan Sheik, the Tony Award-winning creators of Spring Awakening, have now set the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale of “The Emperor and the Nightingale” to music. Directed by the Tony Award-nominated Moisés Kaufman (33 Variations, I Am My Own Wife), The Nightingale will run at Vassar from July 8 through 10.
Next, from July 14 to 16, comes February House, a musical by Gabriel Kahane and Seth Bockley with a fascinating historical setting: a dilapidated Brooklyn boardinghouse that during World War II was simultaneously home to novelist Carson McCullers, composer Benjamin Britten, poet W. H. Auden and burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee. The odd assortment came together under the aegis of George Davis, longtime fiction editor at Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle (who, in spite of being flamboyantly gay, later went on to marry Lotte Lenya after the death of Kurt Weill). The musical is the first commissioned by the Public Theater’s Music Theater Initiative.
Finally, from July 28 to 31 Powerhouse will unveil Piece of My Heart, a bio-musical tribute to “the most famous composer you’ve never heard of”: Bert Berns, who died young in 1967. His prodigious output of songs include the Beatles’ hit “Twist and Shout”; Janis Joplin staples “Piece of My Heart” and “Cry Baby”; “Cry to Me,” first a hit for Solomon Burke and later covered by the Rolling Stones; and the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy,” which eventually was designated the Official Rock Song of the State of Ohio.
And those are just the Martel Musicals! Vassar’s Mainstage, on the other hand, is the place to catch fully staged and designed dramatic works-in-progress. This summer will spotlight two premieres: F2M, the tale of a college freshman trying to establish an identity separate from his famous parents, was written by award-winning actress and playwright Patricia Wettig, best-known for thirtysomething and Brothers & Sisters. Directed by Maria Mileaf, it will star Talia Balsam, Harriett D. Foy, Keira Keeley, Ken Olin, Deirdre O’Connell and Phoebe Strole and run from June 29 to July 10. Then, from July 20 to 31, Tony Award nominee Sam Buntrock will direct Poughkeepsie-born Rob Handel’s A Maze, in which “a graphic novelist struggles to complete his 15,000-page comic book, a musician searches for the inspiration for his next hit and a young girl strives to recreate her identity after years in captivity.”
Another component of Powerhouse for works in an earlier stage of development is the Inside Look Series of semi-staged play workshops. Margaret and Craig by David Solomon will be presented from July 1 to 3, and Handball by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld runs from July 15 to 17. The Apprentice Company will also get opportunities to put on some free shows over the summer, including Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cymbeline and a dance theater piece based on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The season ends July 29 through 31 with five more offerings in the Readings Festival, including a new John Patrick Shanley work called Sleeping Demon.
Tickets to the summer 2011 Powerhouse Theater season at Vassar College are now on sale online at http://tix.vassar.edu or at the box office at (845) 437-5599 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting (845) 437-5599 end_of_the_skype_highlighting. Advance reservations are required for admission to all free performances. The full subscription price of $170 plus $17.50 handling fee offers admission to all Mainstage, Martel Musicals, Inside Look shows and all ten readings at 15 percent less than single-ticket prices. A Mainstage Matinee subscription, at $59.50 plus $5 handling fee, offers admission to any afternoon performance of the two Mainstage shows at 15 percent less than single-ticket prices. Single tickets for Mainstage productions go for $35, $30 for Martel Musicals and $20 for Inside Look Series admission. For lots more info visit http://powerhouse.vassar.edu.