Theater is king of the Massachusetts mountains

HARTFORD, Conn. — For most of its 11-year history, Barrington Stage was the little theater at the southern-most edge of the Berkshires, presenting most of its productions in a high school auditorium.

It was removed in location and status from the posh college setting of the Williamstown Theater Festival, the venerable Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge or the estate setting of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox.

Then it hit big with a big hit.

Last year, it presented a workshop followed by a full production of a little musical with an ungainly title: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The William Finn tuner quickly became the show everyone wanted to see, eventually moving to Off Broadway and going on to win two Tony awards. It continues to play to sell-out houses, while plans proceed for a national tour.In the same way that “Annie” power-boosted Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House in the ’70s — giving it national recognition, regional cachet in a crowded theater market and handsome royalties for years — Barrington Stage is benefiting from its new status as king of the Massachusetts mountains.

Or, rather, queen. Julianne Boyd, artistic director and founder of the theater, feels grateful but says she remains focused on the work at hand. “We have worked so hard for this, but I have to keep my eye on the ball,” she says.

Boyd notes, however, that the phone calls are now coming in more than they are going out, with more pitches and scripts — particularly musicals — than she could possibly handle.

“It’s Julianne’s year,” says Shakespeare & Companyartistic director Tina Packer.

“Clearly, the upstart theater is in some way eclipsing what everyone is doing,” says Seth Rogovoy, editor-in-chief of Berkshire Living magazine, who likened Barrington Stage’s success to that of the 1969 Mets, who emerged from a decade of startup seasons to win the World Series.

But what about the year after the “Spelling Bee” championship season?

Barrington Stage managed to break from the one-hit-wonder curse by opening this summer’s season with a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” which broke box office records and attracted national press.

“We could have run it all summer,” says Boyd. Barrington’s next show, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” was the most successful non-musical in the theater’s history; the second-stage “Hair” revival was a hit, while Finn’s elegant song cycle “Elegies” also is drawing well.

“We ran out of programs and ticket stock — twice,” says Boyd, adding that attendance went from the theater’s normal 28,000 to between 35,000 and 40,000. Subscriptions — not a big factor in the Berkshire theater dynamic — spiked almost 25%.

Seizing the momentum, Boyd announced at the start of the season that Barrington is purchasing a 500-seat theater in Pittsfield. The theater will open next summer and then continue with off-season shows as well. Boyd says she will also present smaller productions at a local space still to be named.

A blue-collar factory town, Pittsfield may not have the pedigree of tony Stockbridge, Williamstown or Lenox, but it does have good highway access that taps into the Albany market, plus community leaders eager to make the burg — the largest in the Berkshires, with a year-round population of 45,000 — an arts player.

Adding to the critical mass is a cultural arts zone that encourages artists to live and work in downtown lofts, the region’s largest multiplex and the opening next summer of the long-shuttered 800-seat Colonial Theater, now undergoing a $21 million renovation. It’s expected to be primarily a presenting house, offering some original productions.

Barrington Stage is not the only theater reporting upbeat numbers.

“How Tanglewood goes, so goes the Berkshires” has been the mantra of the region, and last year the summer home of the Boston Symphony — which was between conductors — took a B.O. tumble, as did many of the region’s theaters. But with the high-profile James Levine taking over the baton, attendance is up at the main tourist attraction, and theaters are also reporting their own good fortune.

Shakespeare & Company reports a 7% boost even with a rarely produced work by the Bard, “King John”; Williamstown Theater Festival saw a 10% increase (led by season opener “Lady Windermere’s Fan” and its big-scale Tom Stoppard farce, “On the Razzle”); and Berkshire Theater Festival — where Barrington Stage a.d. Julianne Boyd was a.d. before she ankled in the early 1990s — rocketed 27% (its season featured Chris Noth in “American Buffalo” and the Broadway-bound “Souvenir”).

But change is afoot. The 28-year-old Shakespeare & Company this month sold a 30-acre parcel of its 63-acre property for $3.9 million to help stabilize its finances. And the 77-year-old Berkshire Theater Festival — known as the grand old lady — is showing her age. Artistic director Kate Maguire says she and her board must come to terms in the next six months with details of a major campaign to undertake an extensive renovation or rebuild the theater elsewhere in the area.

The 51-year-old WTF doesn’t have that concern, with the opening this summer of a $60 million arts center owned by Williams College that may have been as big a draw as the quartet of plays presented in the main theater. It also mounted a trio of no-critics-please workshops in its smaller stage.

Also giving the WTF season a celeb boost was the debut of its new a.d.: Brit-born actor-director Roger Rees, best known for TVs “Cheers” and “The West Wing,” as well as for his Tony Award-winning perf in Broadway’s “event” of the 1980s, “Nicholas Nickleby.”

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