New Haven Register
New Goodspeed musical plans a tuneful, funny flashback that’s relatable
By Joe Amarante
07/22/16, 12:25 PM EDT
CHESTER >> In the news: Rancorous politics, nuts with guns, hateful cults of death and a drug-overdose “epidemic.”
In the theaters and galleries, meanwhile? Maybe a chance to catch your breath.
“I think theater as an escape is completely wonderful,” said director Gabriel Barre the other day, before rehearsals for the new musical “A Sign of the Times.” “There’s nothing wrong with that and a lot of entertainment can and should provide an ability to transport an audience; let’s call it that instead of escape.”
But what Barre is really drawn to, he said in a phone interview, is a show that can do that as well as “make you look at your life in a different way.”
“For me, I want people to be transported and laugh and have a good time and be dazzled and be surprised, of course,” Barre said. “But I also want them to think a little bit and to be emotionally moved, as well.”
Barre is directing “A Sign of the Times” at The Terris Theatre in Chester — about a woman from the sticks who moves to New York City in the 1960s amid the era’s backdrop of women’s liberation, the civil rights movement and anti-war protests. The musical runs from July 29 to Sept. 4 at Goodspeed Musicals’ development theater on North Main Street.
The title is based on the Petula Clark song, and Barre said it’s relatable.
“It’s quite interesting to juxtapose this song, and the protests of the ’60s that are depicted in this show, with the protests that are happening today,” Barre said. “And what’s remarkable to realize is… the signs of the times in the ’60s are not that different — sadly perhaps, tragically perhaps — than the signs of these times.
Still, Barre & Co. are creating a musical from scratch here, which is always daunting.
“That’s sort of the fun of it for me,” said Barre, who’s done several new shows at Goodspeed’s Terris Theatre as well as established musicals elsewhere and at the main Goodspeed theater in East Haddam.
Barre likes the older musicals, but he enjoys the challenge of the development process, too — “making sure the shows are clear, not too long, not too short. I’m really looking at it as a dramaturge, as an advocate for the audience.”
This one involves taking older songs — many by British singer Clark — and weaving them into “a completely new and original story.”
That was one of the first challenges that writer Bruce Vilanch had to face on the project. You know Vilanch — the hefty, blonde-haired writer who was head writer for the Academy Awards for years, not to mention “Hollywood Squares,” where he also occupied a square near Whoopi Goldberg. He also played Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” on Broadway and has written for Bette Midler and Diana Ross shows.
Richard Robin came up with the basic story idea and Vilanch took it from there, in later collaboration with Barre and the music staff led by Rick Fox and Joseph Church.
“I’m proud of the way we’ve woven these songs into the life of this young woman, Cindy, who’s from the Midwest and comes to New York to find her purpose in New York,” said Barre.
These types of shows — from tuneful “Bikinis” to the Queen tune-fest “We Will Rock You” — can be very thin in plot and real meaning. But this one is not just a jukebox musical, said Barre, although it does crank out the 1960s hits of Clark, Lesley Gore, Nancy Sinatra and others.
“We have six main characters who all have their own subplots and relationships. So we have a plot that’s very plausible… It’s more than a thin membrane that links the songs.”
Barre said the team is concentrating on the tone of the show. “We’re really investing in these characters and hope everyone else will, as well — taking the material seriously in the right places, but also having lots of fun here and there.”
Being a Terris show, the audience will help determine how that works and help the show find the right balance, Barre said.
Why Petula Clark music (“Downtown,” “I Know a Place”) as a focus? In the show’s notes, Vilanch says he always thought Clark’s songs sounded like they were from a musical.
“Like country songs, in a way, these songs have great character,” said Barre.
Barre said most of us know the tunes “but we sometimes dismiss the lyrics and just sing along. But in the context of a show, they actually (fit) quite well and come quite easily out of the mouths of characters that Bruce and Richard have drawn here.”
So much so that it sounds like a contemporary musical, Barre said.
And like watching the Abba musical “Mamma Mia!” the audience will have fun seeing “that engineering going on” and how the songs are justified.
There’s comedy with the music, of course.
Barre called Vilanch a “great, great person with a big heart… I’ve actually worked with him before on some benefits… I love watching him put together jokes and, of course, he’s been a laugh riot in rehearsals, which I expected. But what’s really surprising to me is his encyclopedic knowledge of … musical theater… He just knows every show that’s ever been done, who starred in it, when they left… But he knows a lot about the world (too).”
And there’s plenty of dance, said Barre, crafted by choreographer JoAnn Hunter and mainly performed by an ensemble of 10 dancers.
“The whole show was conceived by me and JoAnn and the team… as a constant flowing spectacle that never stops, in a way,” said Barre. “Even the transitions are all choreographed.”
If it works, the show indeed will transport viewers to not just another troubled time but a magical place.
“I think that (parallel) is one of the things that makes this show not just fluff or trivial or a jukebox musical that you can just go and escape… but that it’s a show that will actually remind people that Americans are still trying to find what it (America) is and who we are and what does it mean to be American.
“What does it mean to be patriotic? Does it mean you commit to the country as it is or can you be just as patriotic and be committed to changing it?”
Cindy (played by Ephie Aardema) goes from being an amateur photographer to a professional in the show, which gives the show license to use projections of images from the era, too. And evocative images are certainly a sign of both times, too, for bad or good.
Curtain times are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., July 29 at 8, July 30 at 3 and 8, and July 31 at 2 and 6:30. Tickets ($49 or less) are available a 860-873-8668 or online at goodspeed.org.