CHESTER – Goodspeed Musicals has announced it’s reopening the Norma Terris Theatre for the first time in nearly four years.
The last show to run at the 200-seat theater on North Main Street, which features almost exclusively new works, was “A Christmas Carol in Connecticut,” which closed in December 2019.
The theater shut down in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will reopen July 26 with the new Dolly Parton musical, “Here You Come Again: How Dolly Saved My Life in 12 Easy Songs.”
Goodspeed Musicals Artistic Director Donna Lynn Hilton, who took over the position in 2021, said the theater has never been able to break even on projects due to it being a research and development space.
In 2021, Goodspeed presented three streaming performances and six outdoor concerts and productions before opening the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam again for indoor performances in September. It has produced four more musicals since.
When Goodspeed opened its doors to audiences again, Hilton said the focus at the time was on reopening, stabilizing and sustaining the work and audience at the opera house.
“We are feeling in a good place in terms of pandemic recovery at Goodspeed,” she said. “We were very encouraged with how our audience returned in 2022.”
Comparing ticket sales between their first show of 2022, “Cabaret,” and their last show, “Gypsy,” she said, shows that audience numbers are growing and subscribers have increased.
Being in a more financially sound spot, Hilton said it was time to focus on Goodspeed’s commitment to developing new works at the Terris Theatre.
“We felt if we waited any longer, we’d be at a greater deficit,” she said.
“Here You Come Again,” directed and choreographed by Gabriel Barre, will feature the songs of Parton and a book by Bruce Vilanch, Barre and Tricia Paoluccio.
The show is scheduled to run for five weeks until Aug. 27, longer than usual for a production at the theater, Hilton said.
“It’s a rolling world premiere,” she said, meaning a production that opens consecutively at various theaters across the country. The musical first premiered in September at the Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington, Delaware, and then four other theaters.
“Goodspeed is supporting further development,” Hilton said. “There will be two weeks of rehearsal before opening. It’s much further along in its life cycle.” Parton has signed off on the project, Hilton added, and is supporting its regional journey.
“‘Here You Come Again’ is a musical set in the attic of a home in middle America,” she said. “A man has returned home at the height of the pandemic to isolate in his parents’ attic. He’s a huge fan of Dolly Parton. When he needs some comfort, he calls on Dolly Parton. This time, she comes to him. Matthew Risch [the musical’s lead] is finding so much depth and warmth. It’s a heartbreaking and uplifting show.”
The second and final musical of the season at the theater is “Private Jones,” which has been in development at Goodspeed since its conception, Hilton said.
Written and directed by Marshall Pailet, “Private Jones” is inspired by the story of a Welsh World War I sniper who spent most of the war profoundly deaf, unbeknownst to his military leaders, she explained.
“Marshall arrived in the winter of 2019 and he had a piece he was coming to work on,” Hilton said. “We were mesmerized by the show. It’s for the hearing community to receive access into the deaf individual’s role.”
“Private Jones” is still in the pre-production phase, but Hilton said there will eventually be subtitles, projections and likely interpreted sign language in the piece. Following its stint at the Terris Theatre, the musical will be performed at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia.
Hilton said she hopes inviting more critics to review in-development productions will attract more attention to the theater, something Goodspeed has historically avoided.
It became a point of contention in 2018, when noted theater critic Frank Rizzo broke this long unspoken agreement and wrote a review of Goodspeed’s production of “Cyrano” for Connecticut Magazine.
“It’s something I have thought about for as long as I have been producing at the Terris,” Hilton said. “What drives that decision is we’ve done some pretty phenomenal work down there. We have developed work that was completely unknown when Goodspeed discovered them. Writers, directors, choreographers. That continues to be important to us. I feel that the organization has not received the credit due to artist development. I think that is in part because we have not welcomed criticism in that process. It’s important for people to have a safe space to do their work but we have to balance that with Goodspeed’s institutional need.”
She said inviting critics to Terris productions would help expose the theater to new audiences and bring in more revenue.
“There are people who don’t know the theater exists,” she said. “I think that partnership with critics has something to do with how we have not told our story as much as we can.”
Hilton said Goodspeed’s commitment to the Terris Theatre remains strong.
“In 2024, we are going back to three new musical developments,” she said. “It is activated for about 75 nights a year. We’re looking at how do we do more in that space? An intentional process toward guiding the Terris to where it’s earning more of its new keep.”