REVIEW: WORLD PREMIERE OF “LEMPICKA” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

LempickaMaking its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Lempicka is a breathtaking masterpiece that is destined to become the next great American musical.

Based on the rags-to-riches story of Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, the show begins in 1916 with the artist and her husband Tadeusz abandoning their aristocratic lives to flee the Russian Revolution. The couple arrives in Paris to start anew, and to survive, Lempicka embraces her all-consuming love of painting. It’s there that she meets Rafaela, a prostitute who becomes both her lover and muse. Suddenly, Lempicka is torn between two worlds: the comfortable life she knows with Tadeusz and the infinite possibilities she is discovering through her affair.

“I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe,” Lempicka once famously said. But as fascism casts an increasingly long shadow over Parisian society, the innovative painter must decide who she is – and if she can have it all – in a moment of history defined by intolerance and chaos.

Playing the titular character, Eden Espinosa (Brooklyn the Musical) is a revelation. As an actor, she arms Lempicka with confidence, charm, staggering intellect, a bleeding heart, and a raw, urgent need to express herself through art. As a vocalist, Espinosa is as powerful and talented as the character she’s playing was a painter. Even notoriously hard-to-please critic Ben Brantley proclaimed that “Eden Espinosa’s Lempicka is indeed a legitimate successor to Ms. Patty LuPone’s Eva Perón” in his glowing New York Times Critic’s Pick review.

“From the very first moment I heard the music, I knew it was special and unique. I knew Tamara’s story needed to be told,” Espinosa posted to Instagram on the show’s opening night. “I’m beyond humbled to portray this unbelievable woman. So proud to share the stage with the kindest, most generous, hearts and spirits. In awe of the talents and visions of the creatives. I have been broken open and renewed. I have been stretched beyond limits. I am new.”

While playing this character may be a transformative point in Espinosa’s career, the audience also has the rare treat of watching her tackle what is a role that she so clearly was born to play. The result is one of those can’t miss, superstar-solidifying performances of the same caliber as Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple or Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. In fact, her depiction of Lempicka is so nuanced and multi-dimensional that if it could be captured on a canvas, it would fit perfectly alongside the artist’s renowned self-portraits as a mandatory understanding of her legacy.

One would think, then, that it would be impossible to have eyes on anything but Espinosa’s greatness during this show. Yet part of what makes Lempicka so marvelous and unstoppably delightful is that not only does the rest of the company hold their own, they shine in their individual and undeniable ways.

This is particularly true of the always-fabulous Carmen Cusack, whose impassioned portrayal of Rafaela is as gorgeous and unique as her unmistakable singing voice. As the spark that ignites Lempicka’s artistic fire, the Tony nominee (2016’s Bright Star) delivers yet another unforgettable performance. Like Espinosa, her vocal prowess is a weapon that penetrates deeply into the souls of her audience. Hearing the two of them belt and blend harmonies at once induces the type of full body chills that too few theatergoers ever have the luxury of experiencing first-hand. Despite the nearly three-hour runtime, the show feels too short: you don’t want to ever stop listening to these two powerhouses duet.

Lempicka

Additional standout performances include Rachel Tucker (who like both Espinosa and Cusack has played Elphaba in Wicked) as The Baroness, a bold woman who commissions Lempicka for a portrait based on ulterior motives. As Suzi Solidor, a lesbian whose bar becomes a temporary refuge for the Parisian queer community, Natalie Joy Johnson is a scene-stealer. And as Tadeusz, Andrew Samonsky brings palpable vulnerability to a man who increasingly struggles with living in his wife’s shadow.

With a book and lyrics by Carson Kreitzer and music by Matt Gould, the songs of Lempicka are as exquisite as are the talents performing them. Though the musical is set in the first half of the twentieth century, the songs are definitively present-day. With a modern pop flair combined with echoes of the storytelling grandeur of classics like Les Misérables, the richly layered music of Lempicka demands that the cast give their A-games at every show.

The results are catchy, impressive and beautiful—so much so that the fact that the cast recording is not yet available for sale feels like a major crime.  In an era dominated by jukebox musicals and revivals, numbers like the empowering “Burn It Up”, the sultry “Stillness” and the climactic “The New Woman” serve as vivid reminders of how impactful original musicals can still be.

“A friend introduced me to Lempicka and I realized I knew her paintings, but I didn’t know who she was. And that’s a wrong in the universe,” Kreitzer told The Berkshire Eagle. “I wanted to crack open her paintings the way they crack the world open.”

“The music leapt off the canvasses,” Gould continued. “And I didn’t know who she is, and that pissed me off. I could name you off the top of my head 10 male painters of that time.” Through their combined brushstrokes, Kreitzer and Gould’s songs paint a picture of a phenomenally talented and complex woman whose extraordinary story becomes instantly unforgettable for anyone who listens to them.

Like the score, Rachel Chavkin’s avant-garde directorial vision fuses the period piece with a contemporary sensibility. Chavkin already demonstrated her genius with Broadway’s cutting-edge 2016 musical, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812– another show that interpolated a perennial story with a distinctly current imagination. With Lempicka, she once again breaks theatrical ground. Between these two shows, it’s quite evident that the Tony-nominated director has a penchant for reshaping the lenses with which audiences observe stories they may think they already know.

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Whether it’s completely revamping a Broadway theater into an Imperial Russian ballroom or marrying a sparse set with evocative lighting, Chavkin creates a fully immersive and genre-defying experience for those consuming her meticulous work (think of the grand scope of Julie Taymor mixed with the intimacy of David Cromer). Her brilliant staging is complemented perfectly by Bradley King’s stunning lighting, Riccardo Hernandez’ minimalist scenic design, Montana Levi Blanco’s lavish costumes and Raja Feather Kelly’s magnificent choreography. The sum of these parts adds up to the most astounding, daring and exciting new musical of 2018.

In its 64th season, the esteemed Williamstown Theatre Festival has delivered home run after home run. For Lempicka, this world premiere production is the beginning of a journey that should include a sweep of the Tony Awards, affirming the legacy of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.



CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Lempicka, now playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts until August 1.

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEWS: “THE CLOSET” AND “THE SOUND INSIDE” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

Williamstown Theatre Festival

You know it’s officially summertime in the Berkshires when the annual Williamstown Theatre Festival kicks off. This year, the iconic institution celebrates its 64th season, holding its inaugural performances last week.


Up first on the Main Stage is The Closet. Written by Douglas Carter Beane (XanaduSister Act) and inspired by the French play Le Placard by Francis Veber, this world premiere comedy is running from June 26-July 14. Starring Tony Award winner Matthew Broderick (Brighton Beach Memoirs; How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying), Tony Award nominees Jessica Hecht (A View from the Bridge) and Brooks Ashmanskas (Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me), as well as Ann HaradaBen AhlersWill Cobbs and Raymond BokhourThe Closet is an uproarious contemporary farce guaranteed to make its audience ache from non-stop laughter.

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Set in modern-day Scranton, Pennsylvania, the play tells the story of Martin O’Reilly (Broderick), a middle-aged man who’s all but given up on his dreams of a bright future. He’s barely holding onto his dead-end job, his wife has left him, and his son (Ahlers) thinks he’s too boring and ordinary to spend even a minimal amount of time with him. At work, his impending firing is an open secret that office gossip queen (a scene-stealing Harada) loves to spread. Meanwhile, Martin obliviously and regularly accepts baked goods from his co-worker Patricia (Hecht), whose crush on him is as subtle as the giant crucifixes that adorn the office of the Catholic supplies distributor where they work.

Martin’s life is soon turned upside down with the introduction of his new roommate, Ronnie Wilde (the always hysterical Ashmanskas) – a flamboyant man who is as loudly boisterous as the patterns on his blazers. It’s not long before Ronnie infiltrates both Martin’s personal and professional lives.

Upon learning what Martin’s boss, Roland (Cobbs), is planning on doing at lunch that day, Ronnie concocts a wild and lavish scheme to convince Martin’s colleagues that the two of them are a gay couple. As a result, he can argue that if they do let Martin go, it would be because he was gay. Therefore, the already-floundering company would get terrible PR for its discriminatory treatment of a gay worker (despite the fact that they would be completely within their legal rights to fire him for that reason – Ugh).

The chain of events that ensues is a rollicking and whimsical ride in which every character is ultimately pushed to come out of their own respective closets, whatever they may be. Brilliantly directed by Mark Brokaw (How I Learned to Drive), The Closet is an undeniably laugh-out-loud satire about political correctness, yearning to fit in, and the pursuit of love in extraordinary places.

An equally intelligent and slapstick comedy, The Closet manages to both entertain and pack a poignant punch. After all, there’s an encouraging message at the heart of the show: live life as your most authentic self. In these uncertain times, that’s a reminder that’s never in short supply.

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The Sound InsideUp first at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s more intimate Nikos Stage is another world premiere play. Written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Rapp (Red Light Winter) and starring Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony Award winner Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds; Angels in America), The Sound Inside is the absolute must-see show of the summer. Directed by freshly minted Tony Award winner David Cromer (The Band’s Visit), this cerebral drama runs from June 27 – July 8.

Although she enjoyed some literary success early in her career, Yale University professor Bella Baird (Parker) hasn’t published a novel in nearly two decades. Now in her early 50s, Bella is diagnosed with cancer and given less than a 20% chance of survival.

Enter Christopher (Will Hochman). A freshman in one of Bella’s English classes, Christopher is unlike his contemporary peers. He doesn’t “do e-mail” and prefers discussing the merits of William Faulkner to taking selfies. One day, he shows up to Bella’s office hours without an appointment. Despite his professor’s insistence that he follow protocol and schedule a formal session through the university’s online calendar, Christopher keeps appearing unannounced. He tells Bella that he’s writing a novel and that, as someone enamored by her class, early prose and expertise, he needs her help in fleshing it out.

As Bella and Christopher spend more time together, she aids him in developing not only his novel’s characters and plot, but also (most importantly) his literary voice. At one point when his new mentor asks for an update on his progress, Christopher explains that he can’t think about anything other than his book. He says he feels like the novel is writing him instead of the other way around. With a knowing smile, Bella describes this as “the free-fall,” the part of a writer’s process in which their work begins to pour out of them like a faucet. This is the point when the author’s mind becomes so completely consumed by their story that the lines between what’s real and what’s fiction become a blur. It’s the stage that can only be reached when you listen and give in to the sound inside.

But as Christopher inches towards the milestone of completing his first draft, Bella becomes consumed by a different kind of force. In order to achieve the harrowing new goal she’s set for herself, she needs someone to help her – but as discreetly as possible. A prized loner with a rapidly intensifying disease, she decides to turn to the one person who she feels she can fully trust: her student. The result is a staggering exploration of not just what people are able to do for one another, but also what mortality means for an artist.

Parker’s tour-de-force transformation into Bella is a master class in stage performance. Her nuanced and raw portrayal allows audiences to peel back enough layers of Bella to become fully immersed in her audacious and often erratic psyche. Parker’s performance skillfully juxtaposes Bella’s sorrow and confidence, painting a vivid portrait of a simultaneously hungry and depleted woman on a quest to define her legacy.

The jaw-dropping reveal in the play’s climax dares its viewers to refocus the lens through which they not only examine Bella but also the overwhelming and sometimes shocking power art can have over its creator. The Sound Inside is a bold, remarkable and unforgettable character study that will haunt, challenge and inspire you long after the curtain closes.

The Sound Inside

Originally published on PopBytes

5 REASONS NOT TO MISS “THE ROSE TATTOO” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

wtf-2016-heroesThis year, the legendary and revered Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts is opening its 62nd season with a production of Tennessee Williams’ classic The Rose Tattoo. Winner of the 1951 Tony Award for Best Play, this dark comedy is directed by Obie Award-winner Trip Cullman and is playing on the Festival’s Main Stage now through July 17th.

Here are our top five reasons not to miss this production of The Rose Tattoo:

1 MARISA TOMEI’S ITALIAN HOMECOMING

Marisa TomeiThe last time that Marisa Tomei tapped into her Italian background to bring a character to life, she won an Academy Award. This time around, the My Cousin Vinny star plays Serafina, a Sicilian immigrant in Louisiana who can’t seem to get back on her feet after the death of her husband. A recluse in her own home, she can barely get dressed and spends years drowning in memories instead of trying to create new ones.

Because she’s the only local seamstress, Serafina is on the receiving end of the anger and frustration of neighboring women because she doesn’t bother to fill orders in any sort of timely fashion. As a ferociously devout Catholic, her go-to source for advice, clarity, and purpose, is an old figurine of the Virgin Mary. Her religion also acts as the lens through which sees people – like the village idiot, who she claims must have shaken hands with the devil because of her crooked nails. Then there’s her teenage daughter’s sailor boyfriend. As soon as Serafina meets him, she makes him get on his knees in front of the Virgin Mary figurine to swear to not take advantage of her child’s innocence and return her home with her virginity intact.

Complete with a thick Italian accent, Tomei portrays Serafina as a frantic, emotionally unraveling woman, who at the same time is loud, in-your-face, energetic and full of sassy zingers. This makes her clashes with the townspeople and her overbearing relationship with her daughter hilarious to watch. What Tomei so impressively does is use Serafina’s pain to create a fiercely comical character whose outrageous, highly entertaining, and ultimately heartwarming roller-coaster journey is nothing short of a comedic master class.

2 CONSTANCE SHULMAN’S SCENE-STEALING PERFORMANCE

As Yoga Jones in Orange Is The New Black, Constance Shulman gives off a very mellow, calm, and peaceful presence. In The Rose Tattoo, however, she gets to show off a whole new side of herself. As The Strega, Shulman is outlandish, crazy, and above all, a huge gossip. Physically, she’s disheveled and looks like a cross between a witch from Macbeth and a pirate from a Tim Burton film. Whether she’s chasing the goat or giving foul-mouthed recaps of the goings on she’s seen about town, Shulman steals every scene she’s in with her ridiculous antics and biting banter.

3 THE CHEMISTRY BETWEEN MARISA TOMEI AND CHRISTOPHER ABBOTT

Christopher Abbott and Marisa TomeiIn Act II, the grieving Serafina decides to give love another chance when she meets the handsome, younger Alvaro Mangiacavallo (whose last name literally means “eat a horse”). Alvaro, immediately smitten by the widow, goes to extreme lengths to convince Serafina to open her heart again. He even gets a rose tattoo on his chest like the one that her dead husband had. To Serafina, Alvaro has the same body as her ex (but with a “clown face”), and she takes this as a sign from the Virgin Mary to allow him into her bed. The affair that ensues becomes an increasingly over-the-top, uproarious series of dramas and misgivings. Tomei and Abbott carry the comedy beautifully, while also having palpable sexual tension and chemistry. It’s impossible not to root for them.

4 LINDSAY MENDEZ’ VOICE

Stage veteran Lindsay Mendez sings various Italian songs to set an array of tones throughout the show. Mendez – whose impressive credits include Significant Other,Wicked, Dogfight, Godspell, Grease andEveryday Rapture – has a soaring and evocative voice that adds texture and depth to whatever Serafina is feeling at the moment of her next scene. Her emotional, soulful delivery of this music is worth the price of admission alone, and it powerfully ties the play together in a simultaneously stunning and intelligent way.

5 THE SET (+ GOAT!)

Mark Wendland’s meticulous scenic design brilliantly transforms the stage into a genuine Southern coastal town. Extending through the orchestra of the theater is a wooden catwalk that immediately morphs the venue into a boardwalk. The way that Serafina’s house is anchored on its side allows audience members to clearly see her when she goes inside without sacrificing the feeling that they are surrounded by the beach.

The stage is covered in sand, and Serafina’s waterfront property is adorned by dozens of pink flamingos. The flamingos aren’t real, but the show does feature a live animal. A goat makes several appearances on stage, acting as a symbol of Serafina’s intense sexual feelings – whether it is when she remembers her husband or thinking about the temptation of Alvaro.

The Rose Tattoo

Wrapped in the backdrop of the set is Lucy Mackinnon’s projection design of a beach. Throughout the show, the waves constantly crash against the shore, making the audience forget they’re even inside. As the days turn into nights, the beach gets darker and the clear blue water turns into a black abyss with glowing foam washing up in front of it. This produces a truly transcendent effect, which will make you want to drive straight from Williamstown to Cape Cod.


Click HERE to purchase your tickets to The Rose Tattoo, now playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, MA through July 17th.

Originally published on PopBytes

AUDRA MCDONALD & WILL SWENSON IN ‘A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN’ AT THE WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

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It’s been eight years since Audra McDonald and Will Swenson shared the stage.

After they met during the 2007 Broadway revival of 110 in the Shade, the pair got married and quickly became the Brangelina-level power couple of the theater world. Since then, Swenson has garnered a Tony nomination for his turn in the acclaimed 2009 revival of Hair, and landed starring roles in high-profile shows like Les Miserables and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. McDonald has gone on to cement her status as modern Broadway royalty – not only because her six Tony Awards make her the record holder for the most wins, but also because she’s the first person to win in every single acting category (most recently for her astounding transformation into the late Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill). In between making theater history, McDonald has taken center stage at Carnegie Hall, co-starred in Disney’s upcoming live action remake of Beauty and the Beast and the latest Meryl Streep film, Ricki and the Flash. She also has begun gearing up for the original Broadway musical, Shuffle Along, alongside actors Billy Porter and Brian Stokes Mitchell, set to open in April 2016. So for a couple as busy and in demand as McDonald and Swenson, the idea of spending the summer working together was a no-brainer.

20188930090_55c39a0074_zNow playing at the revered Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, A Moon for the Misbegotten reunites McDonald and Swenson in a professional setting. During 110 in the Shade, Swanson was an understudy (for Bill Starbuck), and although he did go on opposite his future wife, they never rehearsed together. Moon marks the first time that the duo have collaborated on a piece of theater from the ground up, and getting to dive into writer Eugene O’Neill’s emotionally vast drama together has opened up an entirely new and rewarding chapter in their relationship.

“We’re getting to know each other in a completely different way,” McDonald explained to Broadway.com about working with her husband. “We’re learning who we are in the creative process. It’s a new experience to get to know someone you think you already know so well, but in a different light.”

“Because I’ve never really worked up a show with Audra I feel like I’m learning things about her that I had no idea about. We’ve been together for years and years. You think you know somebody pretty intimately but there’s this huge part of Audra that I haven’t ever really got to experience,” Swenson told The Huffington Post. “It’s been thrilling actually because … I say this not just because she’s my wife … but it’s been amazing. I feel like I’m learning something every day the way that she is this truth-seeking missile who will absolutely mine a moment within an inch of its life to find the truthfulness in it and the way that that has a ripple effect throughout the coming moments,” he continued. “I’m just learning a lot from working with her.”

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Written by Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten is a semi-sequel to the playwright’s seminal work, Long Day’s Journey into Night (which will be returning to Broadwaythis March with Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher, Jr.). In the play, Long Day’s Journey character Jamie Tyrone (Swenson) is older but as self-destructive and dissolute as ever. He’s the landlord of a Connecticut farm and is allegedly preparing to sell the property out from under its tenants, Phil Hogan (in a riveting performance by Glynn Turman) and his daughter, Josie (McDonald). When the Hogans become aware of Tyrone’s plans, they concoct a scheme for Josie to seduce Tyrone and blackmail him into selling the farm to them for the significantly lower price that he once promised them. But as Josie kicks their plan into action, she and Tyrone embark on a harrowing journey through the course of one night that exposes their innermost darkest truths, fragile desires, and haunting pasts. Will they achieve the redemption they seek by the time dawn comes? Or are these two souls too damaged to be repaired?

Ripe with meaty monologues and gritty character unraveling, the play provides for an incredible actor’s showcase for both McDonald and Swenson. Unsurprisingly, their chemistry is palpable, and both are excellent in their layered portrayals of these tortured individuals who somehow find temporary solace and peace in one another’s arms.

Staging the infamously dense O’Neill can often prove to be a tricky feat. So in a successful attempt to be more accessible and impactful for contemporary audiences, this production employs race as a way to underline the socio-economic differences between the Hogans and Tyrone. Set in 1923, the original play depicted the Hogans as Irish-Americans (O’Neill wrote that Josie had “the map of Ireland stamped on her face”). But in this new telling of the story, the Hogans are African-American and Tyrone is the lone Caucasian.

20350740266_642a7babbc_zIn the show’s program, director Gordon Edelstein elaborates on this redirected focus. “I have had a long relationship with A Moon for the Misbegotten and the work of Eugene O’Neill, and when [Williamstown Theatre Festival Artistic Director] Mandy Greenfield and I began discussions about a way to present this work with revitalizing eyes, we began to explore the notion of making the Hogans African-American tenant farmers,” he divulges. “It is certainly true that a minor theme in the play is the relationship between representatives of two classes of Irish-Americans in early twentieth century America. Those distinctions are lost on contemporary audiences much like the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote his plays is, for the most part, lost on us today. We hope the juxtaposition of whites and blacks in this production illuminates O’Neill’s themes of class and power with an even greater clarity. The music of the language can be heard anew, much like when you hear a refreshing new interpretation of a piece of music that you thought you knew—further proof of the fungibility of great theatrical art. Great plays are about human beings and it’s the human experience that is being portrayed here, always shifting depending on who is doing it and how it is being done.”

But what’s unchanged are how the characters grow and subsequently interact with one another. Josie starts off as a thick-skinned, no-nonsense, earthy woman who is unafraid to voice her opinion and assert her dominance over those who try to challenge her. As the show progresses, her walls are slowly taken down and we see the nurturing and compassionate person inside who simply yearns for earnest human connection and understanding. Similarly, Tyrone is introduced as a selfish, smug city boy whose priorities in the country don’t extend beyond alcohol, sex, and his own financial gain, no matter at whose expense. Yet as he too begins to shed the armor he’s initially presented with, Tyrone reveals himself to be a vulnerable, pained, and rather broken man. As a result, these two characters who at first seemed worlds apart, are able to relate to one another in a way that makes Moon a dark, captivating, and ultimately tragic love story.

Adding literal depth to the production is the evocative scenic design by the renowned Ming Cho Lee. Lee’s design calls for an open, melancholy sky that falls behind the Hogans’ farm in a rounded way that appears as though it stretches far beyond the theater’s walls. The farm is located atop a hill, and the hike that the actors must take when coming and going to and from the property lends a striking degree of realism that brilliantly plays off the sense of intimacy that the script demands. The breathtaking design almost suggests that with so much world around them left to explore, the Hogans and Tyrone have imprisoned themselves by clinging to this small piece of land and allowing it to dictate who they evolve into. It’s no wonder, then, that the play opens with Josie helping her brother (played by Howard W. Overshown) run away to make his own way in the world free from the confines of the farm.

So will Moon follow in the footsteps of other recent Williamstown Theatre Festival productions (like The Elephant Man and The Visit) and transfer to the Great White Way?

“These are notoriously difficult roles. I wouldn’t want to step out on Broadway to try Josie for the first time,” McDonald confessed to The Boston Globe. “It’s great to have a place up here [in the Berkshires] to start to crack it open. It’s a safe, fertile environment in which to take a big risk.”

And it’s a risk that more than pays off. With A Moon for the Misbegotten, McDonald and Swenson not only triumph in showing off their artistic versatility and seemingly limitless partnership, they also resurrect an American classic in a way that makes it feel exciting, fresh and poignant for today’s audiences.

Click here to buy your tickets for A Moon for the Misbegotten, now playing through August 23rd at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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Originally published on PopBytes