For six years, A Broken Umbrella Theatre has been producing theatrical works that incorporate New Haven history, staged in relevant locations. With Seen Change!, which has its final run of shows Feb. 25–28, the local troupe has put together a show that trades upon the history of theater in New Haven, using the Shubert lobby for Act I, the lobby of the Taft next door — where traditionally opening night receptions were held — for Act II, and the stage and orchestra section of the Shubert itself for Act III.
With book by Jason Patrick Wells, lyrics by Rob Shapiro, music by Will Aronson, and direction by Ian Alderman, Seen Change! is Broken Umbrella’s most ambitious work to date, enacting a story that commemorates Shubert history, plays with superstitions from theater lore, and delivers song, dance, and the-show-must-go-on comedy. It surprises and impresses with its resourcefulness and its bravura love for theater as a communal experience.
As with other Broken Umbrella plays, Seen Change! begins with a feeling of the impromptu and the ad hoc. Lisa, a theater apprentice played by Lisa Daly, is trying to kick off an event meant to pay tribute to Timothy T. Wilson Willoughby, (fictitious) author of many Shubert shows. Interruptions come in the form of stage managers (Jes Mack, Emily Kane), the head of wardrobe (Robin Levene), technicians (Dana Astmann, Aric Isaacs) and actors — a guy in a toga (Lou Mangini), a guy in a kilt (Matthew Gaffney), and Ryan No. 1 (Aaron Jafferis), all of whom run about with opening-night worries and jitters. A brief video clues us in on the illustrious work by Willoughby (Ryan Gardner) and informs us about his unfinished musical. It’s been 50 years and now, as prospective backers, the audience is invited to get in on the revival of this missing masterpiece. However, another video, which shows Daly clowning around backstage earlier, involves the infraction of a theater superstition and the ensuing bedlam makes us all leave the Shubert for the Taft.
There we find Dana Wasserman (Rachel Alderman), a lyricist, and Rob Fitzgerald (Matt Barcewicz), a composer, frantically at work, trying to write the unwritten finale to the show, when what to our wondering eyes should appear but figures from the 1940s — another actor named Ryan (Tim Kane), and Willoughby himself, who is back to try one more time to get his show off the ground.
After an intermission, by which time the audience has regrouped in the Shubert lobby, the show returns to the theater itself, which is where Seen Change! really delivers on its premise. Shapiro and Aronson have come up with a series of numbers that recall the days of 1940s musicals. Things get interesting with Gardner’s lovely vocal on the lyrical “The Theatre Stayed the Same.” “The Curtain Will Go Up” — a song by the current producer, Mary Jane (Mary Jane Smith) and, from the past, Maurice (Michael Peter Smith), a producer who once owned the Shubert — celebrates the opening of a new show. Other numbers pay tribute to the Shubert’s “Out of Town” function and to theater’s tendency to inspire “Showmance” behind the scenes.
The conceit that we’re watching a show in which producers, writers, and technicians sing about putting on a show finally reaches its breaking point when two displeased “backers” in the audience, Peter (Peter Chenot) and Cynthia (Cynthia Miller) protest — “I want to see a musical, not random people singing!” — which leads into “The Shubert Premieres,” a charming number that includes a well-staged chorus in the theater boxes, on three levels. The show is topped with “Scene Change,” when Vinnie, a technician (professional dance-man Danny Gardner), and wardrobe head Jacy (choreographer Robin Levine) take to the stage and show what they can do. It’s a fitting tribute to the skills of behind-the-scenes workers — there’s a shout-out to the union — who contributed to the famed quality of the shows that opened at the Shubert. The shows passed through. The crew stayed in place.
A tribute to the Shubert, New Haven theater, and the dedication of theater workers, Seen Change! finds comedy and romance in the drama of putting on a show while putting on a show. The “showmance” of seeing Broken Umbrella, which has staged theater everywhere but on a stage, on stage at the Shubert makes for a delightfully New Haven-y event.
True, you have to walk between the Shubert and the Taft twice on an inhospitable February evening. But weather is part of New Haven lore too.
A Broken Umbrella Theater’s Seen Change! plays at the Shubert and the Taft Feb. 25–28.