Lehigh Valley Summer Theater: Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival explores new terrain for 2018 season
It’s one of only seven places in North America, where you can see three of Shakespeare’s plays at one event.
The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) 27th summer season at Desales University in Center Valley is poised to attract patrons from across the globe with its professionally-produced Shakespeare and so much more.
This year, in addition to three Shakespeare plays (the popular “Twelfth Night,” the history play “King Richard II,” and the bittersweet comedy “All’s Well That Ends Well”), PSF is presenting a contemporary play about Shakespeare, as well the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Ragtime” and two children’s shows.
“This season explores the terrain of outsiders,” says PSF Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy. “Getting the right alchemy in a season is quite a process. We’re always looking for balance and a variety of ways to inspire people.”
The 2018 season, which runs through Aug. 5, will present 50 performances of six different plays. With performances mornings, afternoons and evenings, Mulcahy promises “a truly festival feeling.”
PSF is coming off a record-breaking 2017 season, which boasted attendance of 38,000 people, ticket revenues of more than $1.2 million and 2,634 subscribers, the largest number in the festival’s history.
PSF Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze directed last year’s “Evita” to 103 percent capacity, which made it the festival’s highest-attended production in its 26-year history with 10,760 tickets sold. Razze returns to helm “Ragtime,” June 13 to July 1 on the Main Stage in Labuda Center for the Performing Arts.
Razze says he saw a production of “Ragtime” last summer and got very excited. He felt it was the “right moment to take on the challenge.”
“Ragtime” is set in the volatile melting pot of New York City at the dawn of the 20th century. Three distinctly American tales are woven together as characters from very different backgrounds are united by their pursuit of the American dream.
“’Ragtime” has one of the best scores of the last 25 years,” Razze says. “Stephen Flaherty is too often overlooked for the quality of his musical genius.
“The music in ‘Ragtime’ is very different, but what he [Flaherty] has managed to do with this score is take ragtime, the pop music of that time, and explore every nook and cranny and recreate it to great dramatic purpose in the show.”
Razze says it is a challenging musical to cast, but PSF has assembled a cast of 39 great actors as well as a 15-piece orchestra for “Ragtime.”
“The scale is large,” Razze says. “This show is as big as ‘Les Miserables.’ This is an epic show.”
Mulcahy adds that the story in “Ragtime” about different groups of immigrants and the struggles each faces resonates.
“The conversations that take place in ‘Ragtime” are ones that are still taking place today,” he says. It’s a theme familiar to The Bard. “Shakespeare asks us to hold a mirror up the nation,” says Mulcahy.
Next up, Shakespeare’s most beloved romantic comedy, “Twelfth Night,” brings its lovers and fools and mistaken identities to the intimate Schubert Theatre, June 21 to July 15.
Desales alumni Matt Pfeiffer is one of Philadelphia’s leading directors and returns to direct his favorite of Shakespeare’s plays.
“Matt [Pfeiffer] has deep passion for this show,” says Mulcahy.
“It is delightful and funny,” Mulcahy says of “Twelfth Night.” The PSF production will feature live music and already has lyrics written in the script.
Composer Alex Bechtel, who has collaborated with Pfeiffer on past shows, returns with new original music for “Twelfth Night.”
“He [Bechtel] has created some fascinating insights into play through music,” says Mulcahy, who notes Shakespeare also had live music played during his productions in his time.
Shakespeare’s “King Richard II” is the 30th of Shakespeare’s 38 plays that PSF has produced. It will be presented in repertory with “Shakespeare in Love,” a play based on the popular film, and which will be making it’s Pennsylvania premiere. The shows run July 11 to Aug. 5 on the Main Stage with the same cast alternating performances daily and often on the same day.
“They are two amazing plays that are so different,” says Mulcahy. “But both are filled with poignancy.”
Based on the Academy Award-winning screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, and adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, “Shakespeare in Love” tells of a young Will Shakespeare’s love affair that ultimately inspires him to write his most famous tragic romantic masterpiece.
Mulcahy returns to the director’s chair for “Shakespeare in Love,” the first non-Shakespeare show he has ever helmed for PSF.
He says he was taken with the 1998 film when he first saw it and when it was adapted for stage he immediately set to work to acquire the rights to produce it.
“The show is having quite a moment,” Mulcahy says. “it is incredibly popular and is the most produced play in the nation this year following its run in London’s West End.”
Mulcahy says while the story may not be historically accurate, it “lends insights into inspiration and the making of theater. Everyone is seeking a way to transcend.”
“King Richard II” is a moving portrait of how the forces of history collide to set in motion a dynastic civil war that lasted 100 years. The play is the first chapter in Shakespeare’s cycle of history plays chronicling the wars that shaped England’s political landscape. In coming seasons, PSF plans to produce the next two chapters, “Henry IV,” Parts I and II.
“’Richard II’ is filled with deeply poignant lyric poetry,” says Mulcahy. “It’s theme of ‘How do we choose our leaders?’ never goes out of style.”
Closing the season is Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well “ in the Schubert Theatre, July 25 to Aug. 5. In the palaces of France and Florence, the charming Helena uses her courage and wits to win Count Bertram’s admiration and love.
“This show explores really complex terrain,” Mulcahy says. “Helena is outside the power structure. She is not from aristocracy, but she falls in love with an aristocrat. Her power is in her heart, mind and soul.”
The show will be performed in what Mulcahy calls “hit and run” style, recreating the way it would have been done in Shakespeare’s day without a director or designers. The actors arrive with their lines learned, raid the costume shop, stage the play themselves, and open within days.
PSF’s children’s production “Alice in Wonderland” is on stage in the Schubert Theatre through Aug. 4. “Shakespeare for Kids,” a one-hour production designed to introduce elementary school age children to Shakespeare in on the Main Stage, July 25 through Aug. 4.
“Shakespeare for Kids,” a festival original is celebrating its 10th anniversary and will give its wacky, kid-friendly take on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
Patrons are welcome to come early before shows for Elizabethan music on the lawn outside Labuda Center for the Performing Arts and enjoy al fresco dining with an expanded PSF food menu, including chef-made meals and picnic baskets available for preorder.
Tickets: Labuda Center for the Performing Arts lobby box office, DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley; pashakespeare.org/psf_tickets.php; 610-282-WILL (9455)