Rita Gardner, Off-Broadway's first Luisa in The Fantasticks, is Miss Havisham in Goodspeed Musicals' presentation of the new musical, Great Expectations, getting a full production Aug. 2-26 at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT.
Novelist John Jakes ("The Kent Family Chronicles") penned the book and lyrics to this version of the Charles Dickens classic, about Pip (played by Michael Winther) and his hope to be a gentleman and respectable in the eyes of Estella after escaping the clutches of the creepy Miss Havisham. Mel Marvin (Elmer Gantry, Tintypes) wrote the music. Kent Thompson, artistic director of Alabama Shakespeare Festival, directs and Janet Watson (Goodspeed's Mirette) choreographs.
Director Thompson told Playbill On-Line that he came aboard the project after its premiere in Hilton Head, SC. He and John Jakes had worked together previously on a Jakes adaptation of A Christmas Carol. There was some talk that Great Expectations might be a possibility for Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where Thompson is artistic director, but a non-musical version of the story had recently played there — it was too soon for Thompson to consider the tuner. Nevertheless, Thompson agreed to helm the Goodspeed staging.
"The style of the show is storytelling," Thompson told Playbill On-Line. "The incredible feature of the novel is the narrator. Moreso than any other Dickens book, the narrator is unsentimental in the way he describes himself. He tells his story — warts and all — without pulling punches. We've kept it very simple, it's about storytelling. The set is quite abstract. It's got an extensive book for a musical, but the music is an interesting blend of 19th-century musical styles and a Broadway sound."
Getting the sprawling novel to a manageable size has been a challenge, Thompson said. "What do you include and what do you not include?" the director asked. "Great Expectations is about the redemption of Pip," Thompson explained. "Fame, success, money and love...those are false dreams."
The score includes recitative and "transitional" songs and themes, but also lands with ballads and big numbers that rise with the story's "many moments of discovery, revelation and emotion," he said,
The Norma Terris is the developmental venue of Goodspeed Musicals, where new works are tested and tweaked in front of an audience. As a rare courtesy, newspaper critics do not review the shows, despite the full production values, Equity casts and top ticket price of $32.
Terence Goodman plays Joe, William Ryall is Jaggers, Rachael Warren is Estella. Winther, whose Pip acts as narrator, appeared on Broadway in 1776 and in the New York premiere of Hapgood and Artist Descending a Staircase. Gardner also appeared on Broadway in Kiss of the Spider Woman and 1776.
The company includes Elizabeth Arnold, Robert Aronson (Magwitch), Ben Arvan, Cary Barker, Ben Baxley (Young Herbert), Andrew Blau (Young Pip), Jason Dula, David Heuvelman, Jamie Jackson, Ken Krugman, Jamey McGaugh, Jonathan Prager, Annah Rozelle (Young Estella), Brooks Rozelle (The Boy), Colin Stokes, Kirsten Witsman and Kristin Woodbury.
Paul J. Ascenzo is musical director. Designers are Emily Beck (sets), Pamela Scofield (costumes) and Mark Stanley (lighting).
Talkbacks between audience and members of the creative team will be held Aug. 9, 16 and 23. For ticket information, call (860) 873-8668 or visit www.goodspeed.org.
— By Kenneth Jones