East Haddam, CT's Goodspeed Opera House presents the world premiere of Houdini, a new musical with music by William Scott Duffield, book by James Racheff (Abyssinia) and lyrics by Duffield and Racheff, opens Oct. 17 and runs through Dec.14.
In development for the past two years, Houdini had a three week workshop at Goodspeed last year. Director Gabriel Barre, who just directed Goodspeed's revival of Finian's Rainbow, told Playbill On-Line, "It explores the relationships between the legendary magician and his wife Bess, and his brother Theo," who Barre said helped Houdini first develop several of his illusions.
Those illusions will be seen on-stage thanks to magic and illusion designer Peter Samelson, who told Playbill On-Line, "The magic is not being used presentationally, although Houdini will perform some tricks," like needle swallowing, the water torture cell and handcuff escapes. Director Barre said "The magic will serve as a storytelling function," used to illustrate plot changes and move the story along. Samelson said that in this production, "Magic weaves the story as a melody would," and he is "excited about merging music and magic."
Samelson has been working magic for more than 35 years in film, theatre and on cruise ships, with a goal to "travel around the world to find magic in different locations." He said his job is to choreograph the magic and added, "There is a real training period" for Timothy Gulan, who will play Houdini, "We're actually teaching the actor to pick locks." Samelson stressed the importance of all aspects of an actor's training and said actors draw on all their previous experience when performing magic tricks.
Joining Gulan, who has performed on Broadway in Blood Brothers and toured in Carousel and Les Miserables, are Barbara Andres (The Boyfriend, On Golden Pond, Kiss of the Spiderwoman) as Mrs. Weiss, Houdini's mother; P.J. Benjamin (Pippin, Sophisticated Ladies, Torch Song Trilogy) as impresario Martin Beck; Barbara Walsh (Nine, Falsettos, Blood Brothers) as Houdini's wife Bess; Lewis Cleale (Swinging on a Star, Once Upon a Mattress as his brother Theo and Antonia Shaw as Jenny. Barre described the production as "musical, magical and mysterious. It's dramatic, but has many humorous moments." Songs include "You'll Know It When You See It," a lesson to Houdini on showmanship from P.T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill and Florenz Ziegfeld; "The Letter," sung by Houdini, his wife and his mother; "With You," a duet for Houdini and his wife; "Tell'em What They Want To Hear," sung by three mediums and "There Will Never be Another Night."
"Houdini symbolized a quest for freedom of the human spirit against mechanization, and captured the imagination of the world," Samelson said. Barre agreed, "Being a human being became harder [in the Industrial Age] -- people felt a need to escape." Barre sees parallels today as we enter a new technological age, and Samelson said, "Magic is bigger today than it was 10 years ago." People use fantasy to find reality today, he said, and "What's so amazing (with magic) is to see it in person."
Those interested in possibly seeing magic first-hand are invited to attend an annual seance held to contact Houdini's spirit, this year hosted by Goodspeed. The event will take place on-stage at midnight, Oct. 30, the eve of Houdini's death.
For tickets or more information on Houdini, call (860) 873-8668.
--By Laura MacDonald