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Smokey Joe’s Cafe:  ACT of CT offers a rocking good time to kick off its new season

It was four days before the stage premier of “Nickel Mines,” a new show to hit the stage of ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) of CT, in Ridgefield, when the theatre’s artistic director, Dan Levine, found out the show had to be shut down. It was March 2020 and the orders had come down from the governor. 

Still emotional about the moment when recollecting it, Levine said it was one of the hardest things he’d ever had to do.

“If you’ve worked on a show like this, you know that a year of pre-production work has already gone into it before an actor even steps on the stage,” he said.

This was to be an exceptionally exciting production as “Nickel Mines” was a brand-new show.
“We would be the first professional theatre to produce it,” Levine said.

“Nickel Mines” interprets a 2006 Amish schoolhouse shooting in which a lone gunman shot 10 girls, 5 fatally, before taking his own life. In the opposite of his initial experience, Levine was grateful to call cast members back to work recently. ACT of CT has announced its new season and “Nickel Mines” will be the third production. 

ACT of CT is a nonprofit, 501 (c)(3) professional Equity theatre located in Ridgefield, and founded by Broadway veterans Katie Diamond, Daniel C. Levine and Bryan Perri. 

The theatre presents limited engagements of well-known musicals, as well as world premieres of new work. In addition to fully produced productions, ACT also offers a New Works series, a Broadway Unplugged series, and a theater education program. 

With its 182 seats and turntable stage, it offers an intimate, immersive and unique theatrical experience. 

The company stayed active during the pandemic thanks to local support, the hard work of its members, and the town of Ridgefield’s support of the arts, according to producing director Erin Craig.

“We knew we had to do something to keep the audience engaged,” Craig said.
The theater pivoted and created several virtual programs including a hilarious “Happy Hour” series, a “Broadway Bakes” series” and “Story Time” (a partnership with Ridgefield’s independent bookstore, Books on the Common where actors from past ACT productions read children’s books virtually).

Last fall, the theatre opened with a smaller, socially distanced audience and a cast that kept itself in a distanced pod. 

“We were one of the first theatres to reopen,” Craig said. People came from over an hour away because they were so anxious to see live theatre again, she said. 

This past February, the theatre company got creative with a production of Stephen Schwartz’s “Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook.”

“Snapshots” is an original musical which incorporates over two dozen of Schwartz’s songs, including selections from “Wicked,” “Pippin,” “Godspell,” and “Enchanted.” 

Schwartz, who lives in Ridgefield, is a “big friend of the theatre,” Craig said. The performance was filmed off site in in Ridgefield and was streamed to ACT audiences.

Another popular series offered is the Broadway Unplugged series. The regular event was created by one of the theatre’s founders, Bryan Perri, who currently serves as the music director and conductor of “Jagged Little Pill”. It includes “unplugged” performances by the stars of hit Broadway shows and is an intimate evening of songs and stories.

In the spring, a local tree company, Bart’s Tree Service, created a “forest” on the stage, and ACT did a concert version of “Into the Woods” partnering with the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra. ACT’s Summer Teen Conservatory students performed the same show (with the same set) following the professional production.

When it came to opening the fall season, there was no question for Levine as to what show he wanted — “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”

The show is a celebration of legendary songwriting team Leiber and Stoller, who virtually invented rock ‘n’ roll. This high-energy show features nearly 40 of the greatest songs ever recorded — including “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand by Me,” “Yakety Yak,” “Hound Dog,” “On Broadway,” and many more. 

It was one of the first shows Levine had ever seen, and its joy and positivity is what we all need right now, Levine said.

“We’ve all suffered and struggled so much over the past year and a half, and right now, I didn’t feel as though a show like Les Misérables (with three hours of peasants begging for their lives) was the best choice to officially reopen with. I wanted a production where audiences would be smiling from ear to ear and singing along with the cast, and ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ is that show,” Levine said. 
Levine pointed out that theatre was one of the hardest hit industries by the pandemic.

“I have friends who are incredible musicians who played in the pits of various Broadway productions. When the pandemic hit and Broadway shut down, these artists left NYC to pursue other careers, and the sad truth is, many will never return.” Levine said. 

But the opening of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is a “celebration of normalcy,” he said. The show runs through Oct. 24. 

In December, Broadway Unplugged, the holiday version, returns. 

“Nickel Mines” makes its long-awaited debut to the ACT of CT stage in January, followed by “Jesus Christ Superstar” in late March. ACT of CT will close out its 2021-22 season with the powerhouse show “Rent.”

Tickets can be individually purchased, or theatre lovers can buy a membership and become a patron, at actofct.org. Masks are required for audience members.