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Preview: ATF's summer theatre season in Glens Falls

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The Adirondack Theatre Festival's summer season in Glens Falls starts this week with A.R. Gurney's Black Tie. The show opens with a matinee on Wednesday afternoon. Todd Moe talks with ATF artistic director Mark Fleischer about the 18th season, which includes Gurney's comedy set on the shores of Lake George, an award-winning Broadway musical and a tribute to Woody Guthrie.

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Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

According to the Adirondack Theatre Festival’s artistic director, Mark Fleischer, this year’s goal is to provide theater that moves beyond entertainment and sparks a conversation.

“First of all, there are two or three levels on this. One, ATF has a long history with Gurney, one of our playwrights who’s a prolific playwright in America. We were started with a production of Love Letters,” said Fleischer. The festival has not put on a play by Gurney since then, apart from a revival of Love Letters. According to Fleischer, Gurney’s plays are peppered with references to the Adirondacks.

Black Tie, which will be performed this year, is set at a hotel on the southern tip of Lake George on the eve of a family wedding. “Its location is fascinating to me because it does talk about the hotels in the Adirondacks, and it’s also not us, those of us who live here year round and love the beauty; it’s about a family that’s come here,” said Fleischer. The characters in the play are therefore tourists.

“I think the final level for me is that it’s about a wedding, but it’s from a male perspective,” said Fleischer. “It’s the father of the groom trying to give a toast in honor of his son, and as part of that, he’s remembering the toast from his own father and the role his own father played in it. So you have grandfather, father, and son, which is just kind of neat.” Fleischer said that he likes the fact that the play strays from the traditional focus on the parents of the bride and instead examines a father-son relationship in the context of a wedding.

This show has garnered positive reviews from critics and was a New York Times Critic pick. It is a relatively new play that first ran in New York off-Broadway in 2010 at Primary Stages. This is where Fleischer saw the production and was inspired to have it performed as part of the festival. “I think it’s a good story about a family. It’s a comedy,” said Fleischer. “I think we all, whether we’ve been through a family wedding or not, you know the stresses of family events. Everything just keeps happening; every time the door opens in that hotel room, someone brings another piece of information about what’s happening downstairs at the bridal dinner and it’s just kind of a fun show.” The show will be performed during wedding season, and local hotels have also partnered with the festival to promote it.

Fleischer will direct a production of Next to Normal, which opens July 6. This musical won the Pulitzer in 2010, and was the first to win since Rent. It also received 11 Tony nominations. “It’s a great rock musical, but it did push the envelope in terms of what musicals are willing to explore.” said Fleischer. “I saw it in New York and was blown away by it.”

The musical is about a family, and this is an overarching theme to ATF’s productions this season. According to Fleischer, Next to Normal wrestles with mental illness and specifically with the effect that bipolar disorder has on a mother. “It doesn’t sound like typical musical fare, but this show, which the New York Times described as ‘the feel everything musical’ is a great ride,” said Fleischer. “I think our audiences will identify with the family.”

One in five Americans suffer from some form of mental illness, says Fleischer, and he hopes that even audience members who don’t personally know anyone with a mental illness will be able to relate to the musical. The show explores the impact that the mother’s disorder has on her family and their relationships. “The show is very serious about its topic, but it does have humor, it has hope,” said Fleischer.

“It’s been amazing to explore because it’s a dramatic musical. It is our drama of the season. You will be moved, you will tap your feet, you will laugh, you will identify with this family. At least that’s the way I felt when I saw it,” said Fleischer. He described the rock musical’s score as “incredible.” There are over 30 musical numbers in it.

A number of organizations, including arts groups and theaters, are celebrating the life of Woody Guthrie this year since he would have turned 100 years old on July 14. ATF will be putting on a show created by long-time members of the festival entitled Woody Says:  The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie. The production is officially sanctioned by the Guthrie Estate and has already been performed, and well-received, in Boston. After ATF, the show will travel to Chicago.

“It’s an incredible show. It’s four actor-musicians and they play over 21 instruments throughout the evening,” said Fleischer. “They create the life and the story as well as, I think most importantly, the music.  It has this great union hall sort of feel.” Fleischer says that when he saw the show, the audience was tapping their feet and singing along. Guthrie’s experience in the dustbowl and his music resonate with contemporary listeners.

“His role in music is often, I think, forgotten,” said Fleischer, who found quotes from Bono, Springsteen and Bob Dillon that all claim Guthrie as an influence in their musical lives. “I think it’s a great time in the theater, and it’s again a biopic and a style of music we haven’t done,” said Fleischer. “The musicianship is amazing in the show.”

When Fleischer is deciding what shows to put on as part of the festival, he thinks of a mixed audience that contains both year round and summer residents of the area. Many of the shows are relatively new and therefore aren’t obvious tourist fare, though Fleischer says that they do have tourists who come to watch the performances each year. “The first step is shows that I’m interested in seeing,” said Fleischer. “Typically it’s going to be something I’m passionate about.”

Fleischer explained that he has tried to put on formulaic productions intended to please audiences in the past. However, when he wasn’t passionate about a play, neither were his viewers. “I’m looking for a journey for an audience,” he said. Many subscribers purchase tickets for the entire season and see every show. Fleischer said, “I want every show to be like they came into a magic box. You know, you start in this Lake George hotel and then we move to this rock and roll world of suburbia with Next to Normal, and then we go into a union hall.”

In terms of style, type and topic, the shows vary tremendously. Fleischer wants audiences to expect the unexpected when they come to watch a performance at the festival. It will include five different theater events and a cabaret this summer, all at the Charles A. Wood Theater.

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