The Bucks County Playhouse (BCP) in New Hope, Pennsylvania, belongs to an earlier — pre-digital — age when would-be actors followed their hearts and dreamt of trying out their singing and acting chops.
The playhouse embodied that tradition for decades, but thanks to unsuccessful operations, flooding, and changing audience trends it lost its luster as it entered the 21st century.
In 2010 the Playhouse was put on the market and was certain to be razed, but it was plucked out of serious financial woes by a Doylestown couple, Kevin and Sherri Daugherty, who had created the Bridge Street Foundation — named for the thoroughfare common to both New Hope and Lambertville — and injected funds and spirit into the building and operations.
Kevin is the founder of Speyside Equity, a private equity firm, and Sherri is the owner of Angel Hearts, a women’s boutique in New Hope. After $3 million in interior and exterior renovations, replacing walls, flooring, and audience seats, the Playhouse reopened in 2012.
Jed Bernstein, the former president of the League of American Theaters (now the Broadway League), took the producer’s helm and established a critically successful theater season in 2013.
Then Bernstein made a stage exit at the end of 2013 to become president of Lincoln Center in New York City. Meanwhile, the Bridge Street Foundation also acquired a church in Lambertville and had plans to turn it into a music hall, but ran into opposition over downtown concerns about event traffic and parking. Instead the venue has a permit for up to 49 occupants for BCP educational programs.
Now enter Alex Fraser, BCP’s new producing director, and Robyn Goodman, the new executive producer. Spend a few minutes chatting with Fraser and Goodman and it becomes clear that the two have a vision for putting on challenging works, attracting well-known actors, and presenting a schedule that already seems to be generating excitement among theater subscribers.
They also have the comfortable manner of two people who have been friends for a long time and who are able to finish each other’s sentences and punch lines. “You know, we’ve known each other for 30 years and always worked around each other. We’ve been very good friends,” Goodman says.
Fraser and Goodman bring a lifelong love of theater to the Playhouse, where they have been on the job since January. They have impressive stage achievements, which should work well at the Playhouse, where the play has always been the thing. Long ago, it had become an important destination on the Straw Hat Circuit of summer stock theaters that stretched south from New England and west as far as Ohio. It is immortalized in the short film “Straw Hat Cinderella,” which tells the story of an ingenue, by all appearances a Grace Kelly stand-in, who volunteers to paint scenery before eventually landing an acting role, which Kelly did at the Playhouse in 1949. The Playhouse was also the subject of the late caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who created one of his iconic drawings for the New York Times showing Broadway glitterati of the day mingling outside on opening night, July 9, 1939.
The playhouse had a long heyday presenting summer stock and major works. The roster of actors who graced the stage at the Playhouse including those familiar to modern audiences — Robert Redford, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Alan Alda, John Lithgow, and others. BCP also became an incubator of new work, which was always seen as its original mission. But rather than works generated by the old guard of the Moss Hart and George S. Kauffman coterie, new playwrights, especially Neil Simon, came along and made their name as the playhouse become a launching pad for their musicals and plays, which regularly landed on Broadway.
“The people who created (BCP) did so to develop new work,” Fraser says. “That’s something we’d like to get back to.”
“I was so excited when I heard that because usually summer theater is about the tried and true,” Goodman says. “But the idea that I could do here what I do in the rest of my life is very exciting to me, that we can do that without all the critics snooping around. We already have Joy Behar coming out on Mother’s Day with her one-woman show. To have other producers come out and try their work with us, that’s my dream.”
A Brooklyn native who grew up in West Orange, New Jersey, Goodman says she was raised with a love for the theater. Her father made wedding jewelry in Newark, she says, and her mother wrote and acted professionally for radio. “My mother brought me to a theater when I was five years old and continuously brought me to the theater because she wanted me to be in the theater,” she says.
Goodman says, “I’m in my 60s, you can say that. I like to keep some mystery.” Goodman is artistic director of Roundabout Theater in New York City. She has at least two coveted Broadway trophies, Tony awards for best musical, in 2004 for “Avenue Q,” and in 2008, for “In the Heights.” She also co-runs the production company Aged in Wood.
“Alex is really going to run the theater year-round. I’m going to be in charge of the programming aspect,” Goodman says.
“I have relationships with some people, but Robyn has more,” Fraser says. “I keep calling this a storybook theater. This is the picture you would draw. We are going to bring actors here. Robyn is able to identify people who go on to bigger and better things.”
“I always say that when you’re working with people, everything can come together but sometimes you need that bit of fairy dust,” Goodman says, punctuating her point with a gesture that suggested a dose of the very stuff had been produced.
Fraser, 56, was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He grew up in Memphis, where his family had moved when he was very young. His father’s career as a salesman had taken him to the Midwest from his native Philadelphia. “He sold a lot of things,” Fraser says, including commercial laundry equipment, water softening equipment, and silkscreen printing. His mother was an artist and art teacher. “She did everything,” Fraser says. “She painted, she sculpted, she drew.” Fraser has three sisters still living in Tennessee.
He says he got his start in the theater while in high school, where he landed in the chorus of “Bye, Bye Birdie.”
“My sister’s boyfriend was the drama teacher and track coach and he was looking for guys to audition for the spring musical, and I did.” He majored in journalism at NYU and didn’t get interested in the theater until after he graduated and a professor was casting a play.
“I fell into theater quite by accident,” Fraser says. “I was looking for a job after graduating. I had done some acting as a kid and never dreamed it would become a full-time job.”
BCP producing director Alex Fraser worked on the Broadway musicals "Crazy for You" and "Kinky Boots" and received a Tony for Best Revival of a Play in 2011 for "The Normal Heart."
Both say they were impressed with the scenic beauty and charm of the hinterlands along both banks of the Delaware River and are thinking about temporary homes here while still keeping their Manhattan addresses.
Fraser says he and his partner, Peter Maloney, a building contractor who specializes in historic restoration from Newton, New Jersey, are in the process of moving to Carversville, Pennsylvania, one of the picturesque river communities north of New Hope. “It’s important to have a foot in New York to attract artists to come here,” Fraser says. “We’ve talked a lot about how we can shake things up and get talented artists down here.”
Goodman lives in Manhattan with her spouse, Anna Louizos, the Broadway set designer. When asked how she juggles her demanding professional responsibilities, she says, “Sometimes I wonder. Right now my main focus is Bucks County and getting the summer season together. There will be plenty of time to rest. This first summer season is all productions that have been done before. Next summer we will be doing all new work.”
For Goodman and Fraser, the chance to produce new work for the theater was a major draw when they considered the Bucks County Playhouse.
“We’ve both been doing this since the 1970s,” Fraser says. “It’s a great opportunity to come into a young organization. Usually theaters are run by two people. There’s a manager and an artist. I think that with developing new work, that’s something we’re both passionate about.”
The playhouse’s new schedule is designed to appeal to diverse tastes. After the 75th anniversary gala, set for Saturday, May 3, two special events follow: on Wednesday, May 7, a Book Talk With Michael Smerconish will feature an interview with talk-radio host Smerconish (whose new book “Talk” has just been released) by Philadelphia news anchorman Larry Kane; and on Friday through Sunday, May 9 through 11, comedian Joy Behar will perform her new one-person show, “Me, My Mouth and I.”
Productions scheduled for this summer’s season include Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two,” directed by Marsha Mason, who had a lead role in the 1979 movie version, running Thursday, May 22, to Sunday, June 15; “Deathtrap,” by Ira Levin, directed by Evan Cabnet, Thursday, June 19, to Sunday, July 13; “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” directed by Sheryl Kaller and featuring Marilu Henner and Christopher Durang, the New Jersey native and Bucks County-resident Tony Award-winning writer of the production, Thursday, July 17, through Sunday, August 8: and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” directed by Hunter Foster and choreographed by Lorin Lotarro, Thursday, August 14, through Sunday, September 7.
Fraser and Goodman talk about how the refurbished facilities at the BCP have impressed Broadway actors. The two mentioned the reactions of actors who have visited the playhouse recently and were won over by the size of the dressing rooms, since facilities on Broadway tend to be smaller given the age of buildings in Manhattan.
“The real estate on Broadway — these are very old buildings with very old facilities,” Fraser says. “To have spacious dressing rooms — where actors spend most of their time — is a big plus.”
Among other projects at BCP, the pair also envision an internship program and an educational program for ages 9 through 17, along with programs for adults, focusing on storytelling and play writing. For young people, lessons of the theater can be readily applied to the rest of life, they say. For example, everyone in a production has to work together, and the spotlight can’t be on one person all the time.
Fraser does some thinking out loud on what lies ahead and what is possible within their budget, which, he says, was about $2 million. “How can we serve people and the artists?” he says. “How can this incredible facility benefit the community? There’s a real sense of discovery sitting down with our stakeholders and talking about how we can grow and what we’re focusing on,” he says.
“It is a very young organization; it’s a year-and-a-half old. We’re really working on what our goals are going to be. Once we get a little further along with that we’ll be able to figure out what the budget is going to be. We have a bunch of ideas right now that are in their formative stages. We have a very enthusiastic group of donors, and as we meet with them we will be able to determine how we can grow in a responsible way,” says Fraser.
A handsome new subscription brochure seems to be getting a good response. “Subscribers are your backbone,” Goodman says. “They’re the ones who keep coming back, saying, ‘Oh, this is something new.’ Not everyone is going to like everything you do, but on the whole they know they’re really going to enjoy themselves.”
Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.