“Everybody thought it was going to be three months, four months, five,” Joe Brancato said. “But now it’s two years.”
Mr. Brancato is the artistic director of the Penguin Rep in Stoney Point, N.Y., which for more than four decades has been a beacon for theater lovers in Rockland and Bergen counties. And of course, he was referring to the forced closing of theaters everywhere. The good news is that after the pandemic hiatus, Penguin is back with an expanded season and — here’s the better news — lower ticket prices than in 2019.
And there is no bad news.
The 2022 season includes six productions rather than the usual four, including the world premiere of “Far From the Home I Love: Eight concert performances of the songs from Fiddler on the Roof,” reimagined by Paul Shapiro and scheduled for April 2 to April 10.
Mr. Brancato and Andrew Horn, the theater’s executive director, obviously are looking forward to the season with high hopes — but also a bit of trepidation.
The world situation “makes it very difficult time to rejoice,” Mr. Brancato said. “Hopefully what we do in the theater will remind people of the beauty of listening to someone else’s story, engaging in the story, perhaps laughing or giving them something to think about.”
The Penguin was luckier than some other regional companies. When the theater world closed down in March 2020, Penguin hadn’t finalized its summer season. So there were no contracts to break or revise, no refunds to hand out to patrons. Instead, Penguin’s leaders spent the first year off upgrading the safety measures in the theater — a converted barn.
“We then tried to figure out what we can do to let people know we’re still here,” Mr. Horn said. “So starting last summer we did concerts outside the theater that were incredibly well attended. It created a community of people who wanted to get together but in a safe way.”
As theater returned to live performances, the Penguin concerts transitioned inside. All the while, Mr. Horn continued, “we were planning to resume theatrical production, and trying to figure out how we do that. How do you try to reengage an audience? And how do you provide employment and opportunities for artists to create?”
Penguin came up with an eclectic series of shows, starting with a one-person performance by Robert Montano. The autobiographical play, “Small,” which will run through March 27, details Montano’s rise from Belmont Park jockey to actor who has worked with everyone from Chita Rivera to Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Mr. Brancato, who knows his audience — and his reporters — notes: “The next show is right up your alley.” He goes on to describe a video Mr. Shapiro showed him that convinced him to stage “Far From the Home I Love.” It showed Mr. Shapiro playing “Fiddler” songs to enthusiastic crowds in the middle of a Warsaw square. “They went through the roof with joy.
“We said, why don’t we take the score and give it some universality? Let’s span it out. Maybe someone’s Anatevka is in South America. Maybe someone’s Anatevka is another foreign country. So we assembled three amazing singers from all parts of the globe and Paul Shapiro is going to be presenting it as a concert.”
Mr. Brancato’s hope is that these two shows— he calls them soft openings because their runs are shorter than the typical three-weeks at Penguin — will act as theatrical magnets, “pulling people back, getting them used to coming in again.”
What awaits then are shows such as “Now Comes the Fun Part,” about what happens when you turn 50 and that first AARP card comes in the mail.
Another is the comedy romp, “The Virtuous Life of Joseph Andrews,” inspired by the bawdy work of Henry Fielding. It’s by Gary Gitter, a Penguin favorite, who wrote “The Sabbath Girl,” the sold-out 2019 Brancato-directed production that Penguin moved to an off-Broadway run.
In mid-description, Mr. Brancato puts on his best “Front Page” voice and shouts: “Wanna scoop? I have a scoop for you! This is a scoop. Nobody knows this. The playwright” — that’s Mr. Gitter — “is working with Neil Berg adapting “Sabbath Girl” into a musical. And we’re hoping to stage that next season.”
Mr. Horn then chips in with more news: Two two additional concerts, tributes to Stephen Sondheim and Carole King, also are planned for this season.
The biggest worry the voluble Mr. Brancato has now is how will he greet returning friends. Hugs are out. Or are they?