With Broadway-credited artistic director Hunter Foster at the helm, the Redhouse Arts Center plans to take on the theme of family in 2019-2020 season, exploring how its different iterations inform the American and human experience.
The season includes a number of names even causal theater-goes will recognize, as it opens with Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” followed by “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza, the premiere of “A Syracuse Christmas Carol” by LJ Flecho and Michael O’Flaherty, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “Fences” by August Wilson and closing with Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home.”
The theme of family was chosen not only to keep the variety of shows cohesive, said Executive Director Samara Hannah, but also to engage the Syracuse community in a way that represents Redhouse’s goals.
“A part of what I think we’re trying to demonstrate to people is, you know, theater isn’t what you thought it was 20 years ago or 30 years ago. What it is today is just a family place,” said Hannah. Though not all shows in the season are friendly for the entire family, they all explore the theme in a different ways, says Foster.
Foster himself is a name the theater-inclined might recognize, as he is known for a number of credits in the theater world.
He has a resume in the industry that includes a list of off and on Broadway appearances, roles in national tours and, most notably, originating the role of Bobby Strong in “Urinetown.” Foster also received a Tony nomination for his performance as Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” and has directed shows at the Bucks County Playhouse and other regional theaters. He has writing credits as well, which include a libretto for an off-broadway musical, “Summer of ‘42,” and an adaptation to stage of the film “Bonnie and Clyde.”
So how did he end up taking a job in the cold upstate city of Syracuse? In Foster’s own words, “It just felt so right.”
“Once I got to know the Syracuse community, I realized it was the place for me. It felt like the theatre was on the cusp of becoming something with the new space and having the opportunity to be downtown,” said Foster. “I felt like it was a really good way to give back to the theater community and the Syracuse community as a whole.’
Though not a Syracuse native himself, Foster’s wife, Jennifer Cody, is from Rochester and known for her frequent appearances at Geva Theatre. This familiarity with the central and western New York regions was not only part of Foster’s draw to Redhouse, but Redhouse’s decision to choose Foster from a pile of qualified candidates.
“it was easier for him to transition into our community than I think it would have been for people coming in from just different either weather markets or demographic, we’re a small city and he gets it,” said Hannah. “It was just a natural fit, we wanted someone whose learning curve would be shorter so having that natural understanding of our demographic and location fit really well.”
Foster was on the hunt for the role of an artistic director, and Redhouse was on a national hunt for a new one after Laura Austin stepped down last summer after 15 years with Redhouse. Upon visiting Syracuse to check things out in-person, Foster was struck by Redhouse’s new building and the promise of the space itself. Considered an asset both by Foster and Hannah, freedom to work with the space is a big part of the upcoming season.
“Hunter really wants to showcase this new facility to the best of its ability so he wanted a season that provides the opportunity for us to recreate the space on a show by show basis,” said Hannah. “We’re not really be limited to a standard theatre layout. One of the things that makes us super unique is the fact that all of our spaces are fully reconfigurable.”
Foster plans to use the reconfigurable space to create an immersive theater experience, saying that he wants the show to start for each audience member the moment they walk through the doors.
As far as the theme of the season, Foster wanted to tie everything together and use some shows that kept popping up in surveys that put out to the community. He also wanted to keep to the history of the sorts of shows Redhouse likes to put on and make sure he wasn’t repeating something that had been done in Syracuse recently. More than anything, he wanted to speak to his new audience in a way that let them know he’s listening.
“We decided upon a few of [the shows] and then the rest started to fall in place because they felt like they were in the same world. It was pretty easy once we established that was our theme,” said Foster. “We also want to make sure its representation of a diverse audience, all sorts of people, representing all sides of the American life.”
“Fun Home,” the season closer, was actually the first show that Foster decided upon, and then the rest followed. “Fun Home” concerns memories of a dysfunctional family that come to a poignant end, whereas “Romeo and Juliet” examines the effect of family on their youth and “RENT,” according to Foster, shows the important of our chosen family.
“I chose shows that resonated with me and stayed with me after I saw them,” said Foster. “The goal is to have people still thinking about them after they leave the theater and to stick with them for a very long time.”
Here’s the list of shows planned for the 2019-20 season at the Redhouse Arts Center.
Discounted season pass tickets to the Redhouse are available until until March 1 on their website. More information about each show can be found at http://www.theredhouse.org.
By Jonathan Larson
Sept. 19-29, 2019
Set in the East Village of New York City, “Rent” is about falling in love, finding your voice and living for today. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama “Rent” has become a pop culture phenomenon. With songs that rock and a story the resonates with audiences of all ages, “Rent” follows a year in the life of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York’s Lower East Side, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS. The physical and emotional complications of the disease pervade the lives of Roger, Mimi, Tom and Angel. How these young bohemians negotiate their dreams, loves and conflicts provides the narrative thread to this groundbreaking musical.
“God of Carnage”
By Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton
Nov. 7-17, 2019
In its original Broadway run, the three-time Tony Award winning play featured James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels. This 90-minute thrill ride takes you into the most dangerous place on earth: parenthood. An innocent squabble over playground incident between eleven-year-old boys brings together two sets of Brooklyn parents for a meeting to resolve the matter. At first, diplomatic niceties are observed, but as the meeting progresses, tensions emerge and the gloves come off leaving the couples with a little more than just their dedicated principles in shreds. This comedic play will take audiences on an entertaining journey with an all-out, fur-flying, hilarious brawl between two couples.
“A Syracuse Christmas Carol”
Book by LJ Fecho and Music/Lyrics by Michael O’Flaherty
Dec. 12-22, 2019
A brand new musical written just for Central NY, “A Syracuse Christmas Carol” puts a new twist to the classic Charles Dickens tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, featuring many Syracuse landmarks and historical figures resurrected on stage. It’s a fun filled show with songs, laughs and recognizable Syracuse icons from the past and present.
“Romeo & Juliet”
Feb. 13-23, 2020.
Set in Verona where the rival houses of Capulet and Montague have had a long-standing feud, “Romeo & Juliet” is Shakespeare’s famous tragedy of star-crossed lovers, filled with all the passion of young love. Underscored by ingenious wit and astonishing beauty, the play pits the bitterness of resentment against the intensity of romance. Ultimately catastrophic choices and tragic twists proper them toward a final confrontation with fate.
By August Wilson
March 26 – April 5, 2020
Fences is the sixth chapter in August Wilson’s groundbreaking ten-play cycle of the African-American experience in the 20th century. The play depicts the life of Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball player, thwarted in his dreams of a Major League career, who struggles to provide for his family and break free from the boundaries imposed upon him. But in 1957, his son Cory, an emerging football star, sees the world through very different eyes, and his wife Rose yearns for an outlet for her love. With the intersection of old prejudices and changing opportunities, “Fences” is a powerful drama filled with passionate love and thundering rage, generous laughter and searing pain. Chances are you will be challenged to leave the theatre with your emotions in tact with this powerful play. “Fences” was most recently made into and Oscar nominated film starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis who took home the award for Best Supporting Actress.
By Alison Bechdel
May 28 – June 7, 2020
This Pulitzer Prize winning Drama won 5 Tony Awards including Best Musical. When her father dies unexpectedly, graphic novelist Alison dives deep into her past to tell the story of the volatile, brilliant, one-of-a-kind man whose temperament and secrets defined her family and her life. Moving between past and present, Alison relives her unique childhood playing at the family’s Bechdel Funeral Home which brings to light her growing understanding about her father’s hidden desires. “Fun Home” is a refreshingly honest, wholly original musical about seeing your parents through grown-up eyes.
Look to the front of the former Sibley’s Department Store Building on 400 South Salina Street and you’ll notice a sign for the Redhouse Arts Center that acts, appropriately this holiday season, as the bow on a new gift to downtown Syracuse. The local nonprofit, best known for its diverse theater offerings and commitment to arts education, makes a promise in its tagline: “Art is in the house.”
Also in the house is the company’s new artistic director, Hunter Foster.
On just his fifth day on the job — Friday, Dec. 14 — Foster already appears “at work,” or so he chuckles, standing with Executive Director Samara Hannah in the Redhouse’s new Austin Allyn Theater, in what any quick Google search of his name would reveal to be his trademark get-up: a slick suit jacket over a dress shirt, undone at the third button to form a holster for his glasses. When the time comes for his picture to be taken, Hannah asks Foster if he wants to lose the specs.
“Yeah, probably,” Foster says, then thinks again. “I don’t know, though. It makes me look very studious.”
He laughs, but he’s already doing something of a study, amid his search for a Syracuse apartment and stops at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Tasked with programming the Redhouse’s 2019-2020 season, Foster has begun surveying patrons about their taste in plays and musicals. The Austin Allyn — “Theater 1” in the Redhouse’s new $10 million, 40,000 square-foot facility — is set for “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and on the seat of every vibrant, red chair in the audience is a questionnaire that seeks to understand how Central New York consumes theater.
What shows do you enjoy seeing? What usually brings you to the theater? Of the following shows, which would you like to see produced at the Redhouse next season? That’s what Foster is wondering, and he offers up some cues — genres, occasions and show titles — to jog respondents’ memories. It’s simple science; a natural first step.
“It’s like the SAT, right?” Hannah jokes.
“Yes, it asks the same question, just in different ways,” Foster says, then puts on an artiste character: “I write some stuff on SurveyMonkey.”
Foster, at 49, is a veteran Broadway performer, noted for having originated the lead role of Bobby Strong in the satirical musical “Urinetown” in 2001 and for his Tony-nominated turn as plant-loving nebbish Seymour Krelborn in the 2003 revival of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Since the early 1990s, Foster has also starred in Broadway productions of “Grease,” “Footloose,” “The Producers,” “Million Dollar Quartet” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” In addition to these credits, he has acted in several off-Broadway and regional productions.
These days, though, Foster touts himself as a writer-director. As a librettist, he’s penned the off-Broadway “Jasper in Deadland” and “Summer of ’42,” among other books that have been produced regionally. It was not until 2013, at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, that Foster became a proper director. A production of his “Summer of ’42” had lost its leader, and Foster was offered the job — one he’d never thought he’d take.
“I never had any dreams of being a director,” Foster said in a phone interview last month. “I think a lot of people direct for the wrong reasons, whether it’s a power thing or about ego. That cannot come into play when you’re directing. It can’t be about you. It’s got to be about the show. It’s got to be about the story.”
After a healthy amount of thought, Foster accepted the gig, discovered that directing was his “true passion” and stayed on at Bucks County Playhouse as an artistic associate. There, he’s gone on to direct productions of “42nd Street,” “Clue,” “Guys and Dolls,” “The Buddy Holly Story” and “The Rocky Horror Show,” among other favorites.
Foster has directed a litany of other shows at companies across the nation, including the world premieres of the musicals “One Hit Wonder” at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, and this year’s “A Connecticut Christmas Carol” for Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Connecticut. The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout recently called Foster one of the best theater directors of 2018, writing “he’s a wonder-worker who belongs on Broadway.”
“I get very emotional about directing; I get almost like a proud parent,” Foster said. “I love performing, but there’s nothing like putting a show together and seeing it come to life on stage, knowing you had a hand in it all. Being the captain of the ship, basically — there’s something really wonderful about that.”
Technically, Foster’s first directing credit was in the third grade, when he wrote, directed and starred in a four-page play (“Eight pages, front-to-back”) about Dracula, for a class project he barely remembers. In fact, when asked to recount what specifically brought him to theater in the first place, Foster comes up empty, noting he somehow made a play before he even knew what a play was.
He grew up in a household that “didn’t have show tunes playing” in it, in rural Augusta, Georgia. His mom stayed at home while his dad worked for General Motors. His younger sister, Sutton Foster, would also curiously go on to make a living in musical theater — she’s a two-time Tony-winning actress.
“It’s weird, no one ever really encouraged us [to pursue theater] because they just thought it was another fun thing that kids do,” Foster said. “In Georgia, especially as a boy, you play football, you play baseball, you play basketball. Sports, sports, sports. The arts were not really something that anyone in my family or community thought about as being that important.”
Good stories, in general, Foster says, have always resonated with him. His appreciation for storytelling started at the movies, with 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Jaws” in 1975 (“It may be the best third act of any movie,” he adds) and the film that more or less pushed him into acting classes, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” A love for movies turned into a love for reading, which the present-day Foster still feels today. He tries to make time in his busy schedule to read the Pulitzer Prize winner each year.
“I’m a storyteller first,” Foster said. “Wanting to tell stories is something that has helped me as an actor, helped me as a writer and is now helping me as a director.”
It should help him now, too, as he takes up the full-time artistic director mantle at the Redhouse.
Samara Hannah said that, from a pool of 70-plus resumes, Foster’s was an immediate standout. It wasn’t until she met him, though, that Hannah knew Foster was the man for the job.
“Besides his professional credentials, it was his personality and demeanor that fit us,” Hannah said. “Theater is an intense thing, but he’s even-keeled, he’s fun, he’s friendly. He’s just got this way about him that’s completely approachable. You just don’t find someone who is that easygoing.”
Already, Hannah said, Foster is a hit at corporate events.
“People are just so excited that he’s down-to-earth and he’s tangible,” she added.
Hannah said that much of Foster’s charm comes from his already understanding Upstate New York — his wife, the Broadway actress Jennifer Cody, is from the Rochester area, and he’s spent a good deal of time there with her family.
“We’re not New York City and we don’t want somebody trying to turn us into that,” Hannah said. “We want somebody to appreciate who we are as a community. Hunter fits that.”
And taking Syracuse’s artistic temperature, Foster said, has already proven rewarding.
“I like these people and I like this town already. I don’t feel that way about a lot of towns, because I play a lot of towns where I’m like, ‘Get me the hell out of here,'” Foster laughed. “You can go to other places and they don’t want anything outside of the box. They want their ‘Pajama Game,’ their ‘Music Man.’ If you did ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch,’ they’d revolt. ‘Jesus Christ Superstar?’ They’d revolt. They just want their Golden Age musicals and that’s it, and if you don’t give it to them, they get angry. It feels like people here want something a little bit different.”
One patron, Foster said, recently told him that he’d like to sit down at a show having no idea what it is. Foster said the trick to curating a successful first season will be catering to the needs of an audience member like that while also satisfying an equally valid desire for classics.
“I want to be brave, but I also want to be smart. Art is a wonderful thing, but how do you balance that with making sure you keep the lights on?” Foster said. “You can’t just do dark art pieces. You’ve got to do your ’42nd Streets,’ too. Audiences’ appetites change. Do they want meatloaf and mashed potatoes or do they want sushi?”
Whatever the community wants, Foster said, the Redhouse will be able to deliver it. The amount of potential in the new facility is what inspired him to vie for this position.
“When I walked in the space, I realized that this is what other theaters strive to be,” he said. “The Redhouse has a scene shop and a costume shop. There are tons of different places to rehearse and do things. And to be centrally located, it’s a wonderful playground that anyone would want to have. Not only are we going to be providing entertainment for the community, we’re going to take care of the community.”
To the Redhouse’s Director of Education, Marguerite Mitchell, taking care of the community could mean leveraging Foster’s connections in the larger theater industry to inspire and provide opportunities to young artists in Central New York.
“It’s always been Redhouse’s mission to have people from all over the country come and work here while engaging local artists, so that no matter what you’re doing here, connections are being made,” Mitchell said. “With Hunter in the seat that he’s in now, with all his experiences and connections, we can really make good on that.”
For Hannah, Foster’s hiring was the final piece in launching the new Redhouse Arts Center into its next phase of development.
“Our programming is elevating, our audience is building and the demand for rental space is more than we anticipated,” she said. “I really feel like we’re there. It’s where Redhouse has been striving to get and we got there.”
As for Phase Two, Foster seems more than ready.
“We’re big boys now, and so we have to act like big boys,” he said. “The theater itself has to live up to the building it’s in. It could be the focal point of downtown.”
While major musicals faltered, other stageworthy offerings were plentiful all over the U.S. map.
BY TERRY TEACHOUT
The Broadway musical continued its demoralizing slump in 2018, with only one new show, “The Prom,” of any merit.
Otherwise, it was the usual string of lackluster-to-awful screen-to-stage adaptations (“King Kong”, “Mean Girls”) and jukebox shows (“The Cher Show,” “Escape From Margaritaville”). Even more disheartening, though, was “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” a mega-budget musical-without-songs that was noteworthy only for its special effects. Its box-office triumph bodes ill for the future of big-ticket Broadway theater.
Not so off Broadway and elsewhere in America, where imaginative new small-scale musicals abound. Two of the very best, “Be More Chill” and “The Girl From the North Country,” the Bob Dylan-Conor McPherson jukebox musical, are now headed for Broadway, while “The Royal Family of Broadway,” written by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn and produced by Massachusetts’ Barrington Stage Company, merits a similar fate. So does the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park version of “Twelfth Night,” co-directed by Kwame-Armah and Oskar Eustis and featuring delectable songs by Shaina Taub.
To keep the money coming in, Broadway’s producers put on more straight plays than usual. Among them were two sensational revivals, Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” directed by Joe Mantello, and Patrick Marber’s Roundabout Theatre Company production of Tom Stopipard’s “Travesties,” plus an interesting new play from England, Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman.” Several distinguished new plays also ran off Broadway, including Jonathan Leaf’s “Pushkin: A Life Played Out,” Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen” and Lynn Nottage’s “Mima’s Tale,” along with such fine revivals as A.R. Gurney’s “Later Life,” directed by Jonathan Silverstein for the Keen Company, and J.R. Sullivan’s Mint Theater Company production of “Days to Come,” a Lillian Hellman rarity.
Out of town, I saw numerous revivals of high distinction, including Mary Hall Surface’s small-scale Constellation Theatre Company version of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” in Washington, D.C., and Paul Mullin’s Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey revival of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.” In addition, top-flight classical productions were thick on the ground, foremost among them Davis McCallum’s gender-bending Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival version of “Richard II.”
World-class acting can usually be taken for granted on Broadway, where I cheered Lauren Ambrose in Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of “My Fair Lady,” Tom Hollander in “Travesties,” Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf in “Three Tall Women,” Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn in “Angels in America,” Eugene Lee in “American Son” and Elaine May in “The Waverly Gallery.”
Now, the best of the best:
Best performances in a play
Off Broadway, Jay O. Sanders gave a career-capping performance in Richard Nelson’s Hunter Theater Project revival of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” while Zazanna Szadkowski commanded the stage in Eric Tucker’s Bedlam premiere of “Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet.”
Best performances in a musical
Brooks Ashmansakas was touching in “The Prom,” and Anika Noni Rose came on like a wild blowtorch in John Doyle’s Classic Stage Company off-Broadway revival of “Carmen Jones.”
Best ensemble cast
The palm goes to People’s Light of Malvern, PA., for Paul Osborn’s “Morning’s at Seven,” a Broadway-worthy revival featuring a nonpareil cast mainly consisting of veteran company members.
Best revival of a modern play
“The Petrified Forest,” Robert Sherwood’s 1935 stage thriller, isn’t exactly new, but David Auburn’s no-nonsense revival for Massachusetts’ Berkshire Theatre Group proved it to be excitingly immediate.
Best classical production
David Staller’s conceptual staging of George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” produced off Broadway by the Gingold Theatrical Group, was the bet thing Mr. Staller has given us to date, which is saying something.
Best new play
Lincoln Center Theater’s off-Broadway premiere of Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem” proved its 81-year-old author to be the Shaw of our time.
Best new musical
“Miss You Like Hell,” in which Quiara Alegra Hudes and Erin McKeown tell the tale of an undocumented immigrant and her long-estranged daughter, had its premiere by the Public Theater to powerfully moving effect.
Directors of the year
Lila Neugebauer, who staged “At Home at the Zoo” and “Mary Page Marlowe” off Broadway and “The Waverly Gallery” on Broadway, is an erstwhile up-and-comer who now ranks among our top stage directors. As for Hunter Foster, who directed “The Drowsy Chaperone” for Goodspeed Musicals (about which more below) and “42nd Street” for Pennsylvania’s Bucks County Playhouse, he’s a wonder-worker who belongs on Broadway.
Company of the year
No company in America mounts more satisfying musical-comedy revivals than Goodspeed Musicals of East Haddam, Conn., which gave us superb stagings of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Oliver!” and “The Will Rogers Follies” by, respectively, Mr. Foster, Rob Ruggiero and Don Stephenson.
Playwright of the year
After going two decades without a Broadway production, Kenneth Lonergan hit the bull’s-eye twice in a row with unforgettable revivals of “Lobby Hero” and “The Waverly Gallery.” May “The Starry Messenger,” his best play to date, follow them there soon!
Mr. Teachout is the Journal’s drama critic.
Copyright 2018 Redhouse Performing Arts Center Inc. All rights reserved.