STORRS — The University of Connecticut is getting a big assist from a Broadway star as it works to establish itself as a summer destination for high-quality theater.
Terrence Mann, who originated the role of Rum Tum Tugger in "Cats" and earned Tony Award nominations as "Javert" in the original Broadway production of "Les Miserables" and the Beast in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," is spending his second summer in the small campus town in northeastern Connecticut to participate in the Connecticut Repertory Theater's Nutmeg Summer Series.
After playing Henry Higgins in last summer's production of "My Fair Lady" at UConn, Mann agreed to return this season to take the lead role in "Man of La Mancha," which wraps up Saturday, and direct the theater's production of "The Pirates of Penzance" in July.
Spending the summer in Connecticut, Mann said, is a way for him to take what amounts to a working vacation from the daily grind and pressure of "showbiz in New York."
"To be able to go to a place that is just 2 1/2 hours from the city and get that feeling that you first got when you first got 'the bug,' that's what this does for me," he said. "It takes away all the sort of business aspect of it, and it's just about doing the shows."
Mann's involvement has been good business for the theater. The summer series, which began in 1949, is experiencing a revival. After falling victim to budget cuts in 2002, it was brought back in 2009.
Since then, audiences have been steadily growing, in large part because of the buzz surrounding Mann, theater officials said.
The Nutmeg Series drew about 7,000 people to four shows in 2010, approximately 10,000 to three shows in 2011, and expects to sell about 13,000 tickets for its three shows this year, officials said.
The plays are performed in a 500-seat theater located behind the bigger auditorium in the Jorgenson Center for the Performing arts. Tickets range in price from $40 to $10 for children and students.
"You can't see anything on Broadway for $10," said Vincent Cardinal, the theater's artistic director. "What I've heard over and over again is that it's transformative being able to see people of this caliber doing their art form this close."
Mann said he came to UConn at the urging of Frank Mack, the theater's managing director, a friend since both were teenagers working in the production of the "The Lost Colony" on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Mann's wife, Broadway actress Charlotte d'Amboise, joined him in Storrs to choreograph "My Fair Lady," and their 9- and 10-year-old daughters took small roles as street urchins in the play.
"It was a great way for us to still do what we do in an environment that is so friendly," Mann said. "It's like summer fun, and you also feel you are becoming part of the community."
Mann said being in Connecticut also allows him to head back to the city on his off days to take care of his other business. (He and d'Amboise are preparing to run the Triple Arts Musical Theater workshop for young actors there in August.)
Cardinal and Mack said they hope the combination of a nurturing atmosphere, great work and a bucolic setting near New York will prompt other actors to follow Mann's lead.
"We really were determined to get the most extraordinary artists we could find to come up here and do the work," Mack said. "What we really hope to develop over time is a place where really great Broadway and regional theater artists will want to come and spend some time in the summer."
It seems to be working.
Mann said he talked his friend Sean Martin Hingston into playing the Pirate King in "The Pirates of Penzance."
The cast of the series' other production, "The Odd Couple," includes Broadway actresses Liz Larsen and Kathleen McNenny.
"Because of our connections with the Terrance Manns and the Liz Larsens and the Broadway community, there is a buzz in the New York community that this is a great place to be in the summer," Cardinal said. "So, instead of us having to explain what we are doing, they are contacting us and saying, 'Hey, that sounds like a great place to work. I'd love to join you if there is ever an opening."
Regional theater and television stars are also being brought in, Cardinal said. Game show host Pat Sajak will be playing Felix Unger in "The Odd Couple."
But there remains an educational component as well. Many of the technical cast and some actors are UConn students or hired on for the summer, an experience Cardinal said will be invaluable to their careers.
Established alumni also are chipping in. James Barry, a 2001 graduate and Mansfield native who just finished a run on Broadway in "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson" returned to his hometown to appear as the Padre in "Man of La Mancha."
Well-known stage actor Richard Ruiz, a 1998 UConn graduate, has played alongside Mann as Alfred P. Doolittle last summer and Sancho to his Don Quixote this year.
Mann said he, Ruiz and actress Alex Paige, who has received glowing reviews as the female lead in both "My Fair Lady" and "Man of La Mancha," have developed a chemistry that he would like to see continue in future productions.
And that means more summers in Connecticut.
"I really would like to continue doing this," he said. "It gives me a chance to play roles I otherwise would not get to do. It really harkens back to those summer stock days when everybody was in their teens or 20s and you didn't know nothin'; you just had this huge passion for wanting to do theater."