Arts Around Town

Arts Around Town: Summer theater has cool offerings at Muhlenberg College, Pa. Shakespeare Festival

Summer is a great time to be refreshed, and what better way to be invigorated than to visit some local college campuses in the Lehigh Valley and experience firsthand some quality theater productions being offered ranging from a classic musical thriller, a comic opera, American classics and, yes, even Will Shakespeare.

"We're not community theater, but theater for our community. We're preserving live performance," said Charles Richter, director of theater at Muhlenberg College in Allentown and artistic director of its Summer Music Theatre (MSMT), now in its 32nd season. Richter is director of the season's opener – the regional professional premiere of "Hairspray: The Broadway Musical," running June 13 through July 1. Adapted from the John Waters movie partially filmed in the valley, "Hairspray" features Angela DeAngelo as Tracy Turnblad and Bill Mutimer as her mother, Edna Turnblad. The musical features a book by Mark O'Donnell, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

Richter said he hopes his audiences for "Hairspray" leave "having a grand time, especially after experiencing the energetic score and choreography based in the 60s."

Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" was always a role Broadway star William Michals wanted to play. When the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) in residence at DeSales University in Center Valley chose to open its 21st season on June 13 with the demonic 'Barber of Fleet Street,' director Dennis Razze, also associate artistic director of PSF, was anxious to work again with Michals from last season's PSF production of "South Pacific." Playing opposite Michals in "Sweeney Todd" is Dee Roscioli as Mrs. Lovett.

Michals portrayed Emile DeBecque in the landmark revival of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center, and both the Beast and Gaston in the Broadway production of "Beauty and the Beast." Roscioli, who hails from Easton and is a DeSales graduate, played Elphaba on Broadway, and in the Chicago, San Francisco and national touring productions of the hit musical, "Wicked."

"It should be exhilarating, a great thrill ride," said Razze in describing how audiences of "Sweeney Todd" should leave. "They're going to a really fun haunted house that ends up being really moving. It's got some of the best music in musical theater."

Both Richter and Razze have high hopes for full houses this summer. And so they should with casts and crews headed by some highly recognizable names known to valley theater patrons. Richter rounds out his "Hairspray" production to include Nichi McFarlane, Matthew Alan Smith, JoAnn Wilchek Basist, Neil Hever, and the singing Gilbert family (Taryn, Tasia and Teara). Karen Dearborn is choreographer.

Other MSMT offerings are Gilbert & Sullivan's "HMS Pinafore," July 11-29, with Peter Schmidt as Captain Corcoran and Muhlenberg alumna and lyric mezzo-soprano Lauren Curnow as Little Buttercup. For young audiences, it's "Harold and the Purple Crayon," June 20-July 28, an adaptation of Crockett Johnson's book created by the Enchantment Theatre Company.

The PSF summer season includes "The Tempest," June 20-July 15, "Much Ado About Nothing," July 11-Aug. 5, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," July 19-Aug. 5, and "King John," July 25-Aug. 5. In addition, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is currently under way through Aug. 4, and "Shakespeare for Kids" runs July 25-Aug. 4.

So what has been the success formula behind each of these performing arts organizations that attracts thousands of patrons each summer?

"Quality! Quality! Quality!" is Richter's answer. "We're maintaining the Broadway tradition…and Lehigh Valley audiences deserve really high quality work. It's commitment to quality and the support of foundations that make it possible. We've got the finest actors and students showcased. We've got a professional orchestra. We've got the stars of the future. Many of our people have gone on to Broadway and their work has been recognized with Tony Awards. It's a real starting point."

Razze calls the season mix of Shakespeare and musicals "unique in the valley. It really showcases what theater does best. It's very lyrical, very theatrical. People can come and exercise their imaginations. It's a refreshing experience."

Patrick Mulcahy, producing artistic director of PSF, puts it simply – "Great artists, great plays. We've engaged actors who have proven themselves on Broadway by headlining Broadway productions…directors who have delivered some of the best work PSF has produced. And we have assembled design teams to match their acumen. …There's nothing easy about achieving mastery and there are no guarantees. But the formula is not so complex. Great artists, great plays."

As for musicals and Shakespeare plays, Mulcahy said "they share many common traits, a structured language rich in imagery and metaphor, music and singing, specialized movement like dance or sword fights, and situations heightened to the point where everyday conversation just isn't enough for the full expression of the human experience."

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Another great mainstay of summer in the Lehigh Valley is when the principal musicians of the Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra begin the popular and long-established summer chamber music series known as Valley Vivaldi. The first of the four Sunday evening concerts takes place June 10 at 7:30 p.m., at Christ Lutheran Church, Allentown. The repertoire is not exclusively by Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, although one of his pieces is in every program. The concert opener on June 10 will be Vivaldi's "Sinfonia No. 1 in C."

The program will feature husband-and-wife musicians, Robin Kani, Sinfonia principal flute, and Lawrence Wright, Sinfonia principal trumpet, in "Suite No. 1 in b for flute and strings" by J.S. Bach, and "Trumpet Concerto in D" by Johann Friedrich Fasch, respectively.

Valley Vivaldi continues July 8 at Christ Lutheran Church and July 29 and Aug. 19 at Wesley Church, Bethlehem. Upcoming soloists include Mary Ogletree, violin; Rebecca Brown, violin; Deborah Davis, cello; Nobuo Kitagawa, oboe; Fran Duffy, harp, and Allan Birney, harpsichord.

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A mansion with a scandalous past is one of many structures featured in this year's Allentown West Park House Tour on Sunday, June 17 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The opulent mansion was the backdrop for a love triangle involving William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies and Martin Kern.

The house tour, sponsored by Allentown's West Park Civic Association, marks its 30th anniversary with 13 properties including grand mansions filled with exotic carved woods, marble mosaic floors and crystal chandeliers, 21st century interiors tucked behind beautifully restored facades. Open concept floor plans, gourmet kitchens, luxurious bathrooms with glass and onyx tiles, and 17th century antiques juxtaposed with contemporary works of art round out the assortment.

Advance tickets are $12 and may be purchased at: BoutiqueToGo, 522 N. 19th St.; C. Leslie Smith, Village West Shopping Center (Cedar Crest and Tilghman streets); Phoebe Floral Shop, 2102 W. Hamilton St.; Walter's Pharmacy, 401 N. 17th St., and Albrights Hardware, 2119 Walbert Ave. Tickets are $15 day of tour and will be available at Episcopal Church of the Mediator, 1620 Turner St. There will be free parking available at the Masonic Temple, 16th and Linden Streets.


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