TheatreWorks New Milford balances classic musicals with more daring fare

To survive in a crowded marketplace for 50 years, you have to be doing a lot of things right.

That’s what TheatreWorks New Milford has achieved with its reputation for juggling mainstream shows with edgier dramas and comedies. The snug theater on Brookside Avenue is a place where you can expect to see musical classics such as “Man of La Mancha,” but also dark comedies in the vein of Nicky Silver’s “The Lyons,” in which a family bickers over the patriarch’s deathbed.

President Christine Daley attributes some of her company’s success to being part of a larger Connecticut theater community in which supposed “rivals” support each other. When she married and moved to the area from New Jersey in 1988, Daley got involved in the theater closest to her — the Sherman Playhouse — but she moved on to TheatreWorks after auditioning for a show there.

“We really are one big happy family,” Daley says, remarking on the way the region’s theaters help each other as they all draw from the same talent pool.

“It was nice to hear from the president of the Sherman Playhouse recently (about the upcoming) season so that we don’t end up doing the same shows,” she says.

That isn’t generally a problem for TheatreWorks, however, because the group will often do shows that are riskier than what might be seen elsewhere, with the recent production of the slightly sacreligious “An Act of God” being a good example.

“I think when we did ‘Assassins’ we were the first ones in the area to do the show (after the New York production),” Daley adds of the Stephen Sondheim musical about the men and women who have killed, or tried to kill, the president of the United States.

“We always like to pick at least one show (like that) each season — not to put people off — but to challenge them. We balance ‘Young Frankenstein,’ that sold out every performance, with ‘Act of God,’ which is not selling as well, but that we really wanted to do,” she says.

The plays are chosen by a committee that Daley heads made up of two board members and two non-board members: “We’re very lucky that at least two of them go to see everything (in New York) ... even if a play is very obscure they know it and can (endorse it) or say, ‘No, I don’t think that would work here.’ I’ve learned to place a lot of trust in them because they’re right most of the time.”

TheatreWorks New Milford also places a lot of trust in the directors who have worked there and will suggest plays that they have long wanted to do. That’s the case with both the Arthur Miller classic “All My Sons,” which opens in September, and “Man of La Mancha,” which will debut later in the year.

“We like to give prior directors a chance to come back with something they are really excited about ... we want their enthusiasm,” Daley notes.

TheatreWorks New Milford only seats a little over 100 people, and the stage is small compared to some of the other venues in the area, but the president has seen creative directors bring a new intimacy to musicals that have been staged on a much larger scale elsewhere.

“’Young Frankenstein’ was a real reach for us, but we worked around all of (the challenges) with the use of projections (and other devices) ... people love being so close to the actors,” she says.

“Of course, every detail has to be attended to because the audience is right on top of you,” Daley adds.

Daley credits a large and very talented pool of area actors as a source of great strength for the non-Equity theaters in Connecticut. In addition to young aspiring performers, the area has a lot of former professional actors who have chosen to pursue other careers but still want to flex their creative muscles.

“If it’s a role they want to do, some actors and actresses will drive an hour to do it ... they have bucket lists of parts and will go wherever that play is being done,” she adds.

Much of the success of TheatreWorks has to be attributed to a loyal audience that has been coming out to plays in New Milford for a half century.

“We’re not in any (financial trouble) right now, but once or twice there has been a huge danger of us closing for lack of funds, and the audience rallied behind us. I think that as long as we keep doing interesting theater, the audience will support us,” Daley says.; Twitter: @joesview