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Knocking ‘Em Dead: New ACT theater looks to help make Ridgefield an arts destination

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“Mamma Mia!” performers (from left): Jodi Stevens, Juliet Lambert Pratt and Sheri Sanders.
Photo Credit: Michelle Spanedda Photography

Bringing “Broadway-style” entertainment to a local community can be a hard promise to fulfill. But ACT (A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut) in Ridgefield is doing just that, with Broadway-trained talent both on- and off-stage.

“We thought that the one missing piece of the arts puzzle in Ridgefield was an Equity theater,” said Daniel Levine, the theater’s artistic director.  “And to do this right, we wanted to make sure we were affiliated with the union.”

The Actor’s Equity Association is the union for stage professionals; all Broadway shows, as well as many national tours and regional theaters, operate under Equity contracts. The benefit, as opposed to putting on a show in an unaffiliated barn or high school auditorium, is that audiences are assured of seeing Broadway-caliber talent, while the talent can legally and ethically make the trip to Ridgefield without jeopardizing their standing with the union, Levine said.

Ridgefield’s arts community is well-established, from its numerous art galleries and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum to the Ridgefield Playhouse. Indeed, Levine — whose acting resume includes such Broadway shows as “The Rocky Horror Show” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” as well as touring productions of “Chicago” and “The Who’s Tommy” — has spent several years at the latter, where he still serves as artistic advisor for its Broadway and cabaret series.

From left: ACT Artistic Director Daniel Levine; Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal; ACT Executive Producer Katie Diamond and ACT Resident Music Director Bryan Perri at the Ridgefield theater’s opening night gala. Photo Credit: Bruce Glikas.

It was there that he met Katie Diamond, also an actor with numerous Equity credits, at the behest of the Playhouse’s executive director Allison Stockel.

“As great as the Playhouse is, it’s not really designed for limited-run theatrical productions,” Levine said. “It’s built to do 250-300 one-night performances a year. And with the nearest Equity theaters being the Westport Playhouse, the Music Theatre of Connecticut in Norwalk and the Goodspeed Opera House (in East Haddam), we started thinking about starting our own here in Ridgefield.

“We talked about it for about a year,” he continued. “Would we be able to get actors to come out here to work? Is there a need for something like this? What will it cost? We finally decided that it wouldn’t happen unless we did it, and that was enough for us to at least try.”

Levine credited Rudy Marconi, the town’s first selectman, with helping the group find its home on the long-abandoned onetime site of the Schlumberger-Doll Research Center, a five-acre parcel at 36 Old Quarry Road that the town purchased in 2012 for $7 million. Much of the remaining space — ACT’s building takes up about 9,500 square feet — will be developed for parks and trails or left as open space.

While the property’s potential was obvious, so was the need for work: having flooded a few years back, the Schlumberger space was “a mess,” Levine said. “But we had a strong support team and a board that worked hard to get us the money necessary to make it happen.”

Levine estimated the cost of renovating the space at $2 million, with another $800,000 spent on acquiring and installing seats, equipment, a turntable section in the stage, and the like. The end result holds 175 seats; the front row is less than two feet from the edge of the floor-level stage, which can make for some interesting theater-going experiences in and of itself.

“About a year and a half after our first meetings, we were in rehearsals” for ACT’s first production, “Mamma Mia!,” he said. That engagement, which ran June 7-24, sold out every show, said Levine, who also directed. The cast included Broadway vets Juliet Lambert Pratt (“Les Miserables”), Jodi Stevens (“Urban Cowboy”) and Craig Ramsay (“Fiddler on the Roof”).

“We put asses in the seats,” Levine laughed. “It was as successful as you could want your first show to be.”

Levine — whose husband Bryan Perri is ACT’s resident music supervisor — said the Abba jukebox musical was chosen in part because an informal survey of Ridgefield residents revealed it to be an overwhelming favorite musical. “Some of them kind of admitted it under their breath,” he chuckled.

To skeptics wondering how “Mamma Mia!” could win such praise over stage stalwarts like “Guys and Dolls” or “West Side Story,” Levine noted that, as ACT’s name indicates, the focus is on “contemporary.”

“Even so, it’s almost 20 years old now, so we were pushing ‘contemporary’ a bit,” he said.

New York City-based auditions are, now wrapping up for ACT’s next show, “Evita”; Levine said he was pleased that about 85 percent of the cast will be Latinos, which he believes will give it more authenticity. Scheduled to run Oct. 5-21, “Evita” will be followed on Feb. 22-March 10 by “Stephen Schwartz’s Working” — part of an agreement with the Ridgefield resident, whose credits also include “Wicked” and “Pippin,” to produce one of his lesser-known works each season — and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” May 31-June 16.

Levine said he expected ACT’s seasons going forward to consist of three musicals and one play.

In the meantime, he’s also keeping busy overseeing two summer camp workshop sessions for third-to-12th graders from July 16-27: a new musical workshop, wherein they’ll learn about the process behind playwright Kate Herzlin’s penning “Peter Pan and Wendy: The Neverland Takeover,” and a showcase workshop, wherein students will learn songs, scenes and dances from current and recent Broadway musicals like “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “School of Rock.”

“These are the kinds of things I didn’t have growing up,” he said. “I still wonder if I’d been exposed to theater when I was younger, where would my career be now?”

The workshops fall under ACT’s umbrella New Works Festival, which will also include two receptions and two professional readings of putative Broadway-bound musicals “Victory Train” and “Austen’s Pride.”

Levine said he’d also like to add a conservatory program for “serious” high school students, possibly within the next year.

“We’re really looking to elevate the level of entertainment in Fairfield County,” he said. “And we want to put Ridgefield on the map as an arts destination.”

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