By Clark Groome
New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse was first saved from demolition in 1939. A group of theater artists, including Bucks County resident and famed playwright Moss Hart, turned the doomed gristmill into a theater and, on July 1, opened “Springtime for Harry,” starring Edward Everett Horton.
Over the years the Playhouse became one of, if not the, most important summer theaters in the country. Its proximity to New York and Philadelphia, its rural setting and its appealing building lured many American theater greats to its boards early in their careers. Among them were Bea Arthur, Kaye Ballard, Shirley Booth, Kitty Carlisle (who would later marry Moss Hart), Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy (in their first appearance together on stage), Colleen Dewhurst, Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes, Kim Hunter, Grace Kelly, Jack Klugman, Bert Lahr, Angela Lansbury, Paul Lynde, Walter Matthau, Liza Minnelli, Leslie Neilson and Robert Redford, to name a few.
Playwrights Kauffman and Hart and Neil Simon premiered shows there. In addition Mary Chase’s “Harvey” and James Whitmore’s “Give ‘em Hell, Harry,” started at the Playhouse.
Over the years the Playhouse had its ups and downs. In the 1980s and early 1990s it had something of a revitalization, becoming after years as a semi-professional theater fully professional, meaning it had a contract with Actors Equity, the actors and stage managers union. Over those years I reviewed 24 shows, all in the summertime. The last professional production was 20 years ago in June 1992: A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.”
After that the Playhouse lost its Equity contract, produced less-than-inspiring work and generally fell into financial trouble while also deteriorating physically. It even lost its long-held designation as Pennsylvania’s official state theater.
In recent years the building was again threatened with demolition. Broadway producer Jed Bernstein came to the rescue a couple of years ago, determined to save the building — which has been completely renovated — and return the theater to its former glory.
On July 2, almost exactly 83 years after its first show and 20 years after its last Equity production, the Bucks County Playhouse reopened with the Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II review, “A Grand Night for Singing.”
It’s an appropriate choice since Hammerstein, like many other theater artists, called Bucks County home. The show, which recently appeared at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, is a delight.
R&H wrote the stage musicals “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “Allegro,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” “Me and Juliet,” “Pipe Dream.” “Flower Drum Song” and “The Sound of Music;” one movie, “State Fair;” and the TV version of “Cinderella.” Songs from those productions, often given a new and surprising twist, make the 100-minute production very easy on the ears.
The BCP production is just about flawless. Directed by Broadway veteran Lonny Price, it has an exemplary cast: Courtney Balan, Ron Bohmer, Greg Bosworth, Erin Davie and Kenita R. Miller. They, together with musical director Phil Reno’s superb six-piece combo, make this show a stunningly impressive beginning for the Playhouse’s new life.
Price’s production also features good designers Jim Noone (the simple but versatile set), Nicole V. Moody (the often witty costumes), Kirk Bookman (the evocative lighting), Walter Trarbach (the subtle sound) and choreographer Lorin Latarro.
Throughout most of the show there are pictures of Rodgers and Hammerstein displayed. They seem to be overseeing the proceedings. There’s no question that they would be pleased with what they’re seeing and hearing. The show and the renewed Bucks County Playhouse are a smash.
Next up for the Playhouse is a production of Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” called “Nobody Loves Me” when it began its life in Bucks County. It will play Aug. 7-26.
For more information about New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse or for tickets to “A Grand Night for Singing,” playing through July 29, call 215-315-7788 or visit bcptheater.org