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Some enchanted evening: Goodspeed welcomes audiences back inside its Opera House

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As Goodspeed Opera House finally reopens its doors to theatergoers, things are different.

There are, of course, the audience COVID rules; everyone has to be fully vaccinated or have a pre-approved exemption and a negative COVID test — and they all still have to wear a mask unless drinking in the bar area or outside.

But the pandemic has also meant changes to what Goodspeed is putting on its stage.

The previously planned Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” simply wouldn’t work. It’s a huge musical; the Goodspeed cast was scheduled to consist of 27 performers, including swings and understudies.

In deciding what to sub in, Goodspeed kept to Rodgers & Hammerstein music but chose to produce a revue, with five actors in the cast.

“A Grand Night for Singing: A Celebration of Rodgers & Hammerstein” debuted in 1993, and, unlike a traditional revue, it has a bit of a narrative. Rob Ruggiero, who is directing he Goodspeed production, says it’s about “how we look at a relationship and love and marriage and children.”

Within that, though, the Goodspeed production is working to bring something fresh to the proceedings. With the OK of Concord Theatricals, which licenses the music and theatrical rights for the Rodgers & Hammerstein catalog, the Goodspeed creative team changed the order of a few numbers and cut a couple of songs.

Even more important, they reimagined the piece for the year 2021.

When Goodspeed Artistic Director Donna Lynn Hilton brought “A Grand Night for Singing” to Ruggiero, who had been onboard to helm “South Pacific,” he recalls, “It made sense that a celebration of Rodgers & Hammerstein would be meaningful to the Goodspeed audience, and I agreed. The thing was when we talked about it, I said, “Yes, AND …’ I think it’s important that if we do the show, it needs to feel like it belongs in 2021 and really connects to this moment and this place that we’re all in. So we knew how we cast it was important. We wanted the cast to really represent the world today, so it’s a very diverse company. Out of the five people onstage, four are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) artists, in different ways. It’s an awesome group of people.”

With these three women and two men in the cast, Ruggiero says, the “A Grand Night for Singing” team responded to the individual artists because the show is built on the company. They wanted to explore the material differently, too.

“We know that we need to look at the material in that 2021 lens, meaning it needs to reflect all relationships. You know, it’s a celebration of the R&H canon, but it’s really a celebration of love and life, using the R&H canon to explore a relationship and connection,” he says.

“I said right away that it can’t just be male-female in 2021. So we’re playing with all that fluidity. We’re also gender bending, so songs that are traditionally women’s are men’s and vice versa. It’s been a lot of fun.”

In “Oklahoma!,” Curly sings “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” to Laurey. In the first number at Goodspeed, though, it’s with a contemporary sensibility and a woman sings it to a man.

“It right away says, ‘We’re going to break some rules here,” Ruggiero says.

‘Such a thrill’

Being back in the Goodspeed rehearsal hall, Ruggiero says, has been “such a thrill. It’s very emotional for an artist — for a director or an actor, the choreographer, the music director. All those moments you took for granted — and it wasn’t like you took them for granted on purpose, but it was just part of what we did in our everyday creative process — every one of those now is heightened, I guess. There’s just a lot more gratitude and a lot less fretting over small things because you’re just so happy to be together.”

The opening moments of “A Grand Night for Singing” will likewise reflect the impact of the past year and the joy of returning to live theater.

It starts, Ruggiero says, with a black void, symbolic of how the last year-plus has felt. Then an actor steps onto the stage.

“We’re really leaning into what does that feel like, to be onstage again. And then we hear music, and there are other actors and there’s an audience. It’s really an organic opening of sorts. We lean into their friendship and their relationship. Their connection to each other kind of launches our storytelling,” he says.

One idea Ruggiero originally had about how to begin the show had to be scuttled. He had considered bringing the performers down the theater aisles, but he knew early on that couldn’t happen because of COVID-19.

Beyond that, though, COVID protocols haven’t affected the staging of the show too much. Goodspeed is abiding by Actors’ Equity union guidelines.

Ruggiero notes that everyone “understands that you can’t do a show and not have the actors interact. It doesn’t work. You can do a concert, but then it’s just, like, five microphones, six feet apart, and they sing.”

The production is keeping artists a certain distance from the audience.

Everyone in the “A Grand Night for Singing” company is fully vaccinated, and they created a pod. Very few people outside of that were allowed in the rehearsal room. The performers wore masks unless working onstage, Ruggiero says, and he wore a mask unless he needed take it down so they could understand him, but even that was at a distance.

“Everybody’s being very careful and trying to honor this safety pod,” he says.

If you go

What: “A Grand Night for Singing: A Celebration of Rodgers & Hammerstein”

Where: Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam

When: Runs through Nov. 28; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7;30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat. and 2 p.m. Sun.; also 2 p.m. shows on select Thursdays and 6:30 p.m. shows on select Sundays

Tickets: Start at $29

Contact: (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org

 

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