‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ Entertains Audience With Comic Highlights and Humor

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“Casterbridge,” based on Thomas Hardy’s classic Victorian novel, “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” is a new musical theater work with book and lyrics by David Willinger and music by Christopher Beste. The 20-character, two-act musical is fairly faithful to Hardy’s parable of the spiritual ups and downs of man and features a score inspired by English country music of the period. Theater for the New City, NYC will present the piece’s world premiere run June 4 to 19, 2015, directed by Willinger.

In Hardy’s famous Victorian novel, ne’er-do-well Michael Henchard, when drunk, organizes an auction to sell off his wife. After taking a vow never to drink again, he pulls himself up by his bootstraps to be a pillar of society – Mayor of the town and a business owner. He reunites with his wife and starts over, only to get pulled back down by his own nature.

It is a work full of passion, love, and even humor as Henchard pays his karmic debt. While essentially a romantic tragedy of human flaws, destiny and will, it has both comic highlights and melodramatic moods to enliven it. Its main characters are riveting figures, full of depth and pathos, while its secondary characters are fun in their sharply defined peculiarities.

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Michael Hurst as Mayor Michael Henchard, Ayanna Williams as his nurse and mistress, Lucetta Templeman. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

The piece will be staged with a cast of 15. Its set emphasizes the town’s crossroads – a central bridge, which is also a metaphor for crossing between various states in a life’s journey. The quaintness of England’s West Country, where Hardy set the drama, is amply suggested. The score by Christopher Beste is heavily drawn from traditional English sounds. It hovers on the boundary between Broadway Musical and operetta, containing both lively, tuneful numbers and sung dialogue to connect them.

The show is the brainchild of David Willinger, who worked on it with Christopher Beste in fits and starts for twenty years. Upon reading Hardy’s novel, Willinger claims he immediately “heard the music in it” and writes, “Hardy’s dialogue is so beautifully crafted, rhythmic, and passionate, that it begged out to be fulfilled in singing.” He found the story of such grandeur that it struck him as comparable to a more modern version of Shakespeare.

David Willinger (Book, Lyrics, Director) has written the book and lyrics for a musical version of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Manor” under the title “The Open Gate,” with music by Arthur Abrams. He also wrote book and lyrics for “The Tale of Teiresias and the Idiot” that ran at Hartley House Theatre and an opera based on Hugo Claus’s “The Life and Works of Leopold II” with composer Hellmuth Dusedau.

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Michael Hurst as Mayor Michael Henchard. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

His non-musical original plays, which he has also directed, include: “Andrea’s Got Two Boyfriends,” “Malcolm’s Time,” “Frida y Diego,” “Bombing the Cradle,” “Caprichos” and “The Trail of Tears: A Drama from the Historical Record,” written with Peggy Dean. Has adapted and directed such novels as Joseph Conrad’s “Secret Agent,” Camus’ “The Stranger,” Carson McCullers’s “Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” Paul Willems’ “The Wound,” Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit,” Ibarguengoitia’s “The Dead Girls” and most recently William Saroyan’s novel “Rock Wagram” (under the title “The Upper Lip.”)

In film, he wrote the screenplay for and co-directed a full-length fiction film, “Lunatics, Lovers, and Actors,” which has been shown at many festivals. He participated in Joseph Chaikin’s Disabilities Project at the Public Theatre and has translated and published eight anthologies of French and Flemish-language plays, most recently “Four Millennial Plays From Belgium.”

He is writing a book about the Flemish director Ivo van Hove that will be coming out next year. He has directed world premieres of plays by Eduardo Machado, Jean-Claude Van Itallie and Adrienne Kennedy as well as plays by Hanoch Levin, Kalisky, Ghelderode and others. At City College of New York, where he is Professor of Theatre, he has directed approximately 30 plays, most recently the musical “Promenade” by Maria Irene Fornes and Al Carmines and “The Cherry Orchard.”

Theater for the New City has presented 14 productions written or directed by Willinger. He writes, “I am eternally grateful for Crystal Field’s longstanding support of my creative work. As it does for so many playwrights and directors, it makes a huge difference for New York City’s theatre scene.”

Christopher Beste (Composer) is a composer, arranger, singer and musician. He has been a Resident Composer for Tusculum Theatre in Tusculum, TN., where he has scored “The Midnight Mind of Edgar Alan Poe” and “Christmas Carol” and composed supplimentary music for “A…My Name Will Always Be Alice,” “The Addams Family” and “How to Eat Like a Child.”

His works have been presented by Princeton (NJ) Arts Council, Chez Odette’s in New Hope, PA and various organizations in Tennessee. He studied piano and composition at The College of New Jersey. He was a long time member of American Boychoir and now teaches and makes recordings for young people.

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Michael Hurst as Mayor Michael Henchard, Emily Stine as his wife, Susan Henchard. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Michael Hurst plays Michael Henchard, the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge; Emily Stine as his wife, Susan and Ayanna Williams as Lucetta Templeman, Henchard’s nurse and mistress. The acting company also includes Matthew Angel, Rachel Baccus, Sean Beck, Abby DeMauri, Danny Echevarria, Emily Epstein, Ruby Hurlock, Nathaniel Janis, Katie Lugo, Tracy Rosten, Juan Villegas and John Wiethorn.

Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., NYC will present “Casterbridge” June 4 to 19, 2015. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM and Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $15 general admission and $10 for seniors and students. The box office number is (212) 254-1109 and tickets can be purchased online at www.theaterforthenewcity.net.

Jonathan Slaff is a New York publicist in the specialty of international cultural events. Jonathan and his writers keep us ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.