Scene Change

K eely Baisden Knudsen and Stephanie Stiefel Williams had already named their fledgling company Legacy Theatre before they stumbled upon a real legacy in need of rescue. A dilapidated building on Thimble Island Road in Stony Creek had been a theater as far back as 1903. Knudsen recalls “huge gaping holes everywhere” and snakes under the stage. “I said, ‘Let’s put a carpet down and some chairs, we’ve got an audience, we’ve got a stage, this is great!’” she says, laughing as she recalls her naivete.

Thanks to years of fundraising, negotiating and, eventually, pandemic construction, there are neither gaping holes nor slithering creatures in the building today. Instead, we’re standing on the theater’s state-of-the-art stage, with fully motorized rigging above us and 127 red upholstered seats before us. The intimate space with its natural wood details, traditional red curtain and gold trim framing the stage is fully accessible, including the tech booth and a dressing room.

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The renovation honors the theater’s history, preserving the footprint and the restored exterior of its predecessor, a 1920s and ’30s theater where Orson Welles performed summer stock. In the 1960s, after a midcentury run as a factory for Panix—“the pantie and girdle that’s a stretch ahead”—the building became home to a collection of finely crafted Sicilian puppets and the Puppet House Theater, which presented “plays, musicals, dinner theater, puppet shows and children’s programs” into the 2000s, according to its antique website. In its waning days, the building hosted random concerts and rowdy audiences that frustrated neighbors, Knudsen says, but she was determined to find a new way forward. “We could kind of feel the ghosts of the actors and the directors who’ve been here over the century saying, ‘Do it!’”

The Legacy’s freshly minted stage is small, in keeping with the space, but its performances can still be big, says actress Mary Ann Frank, who plays the role of Mildred in June’s mainstage production, Just Desserts. “Actors can do quite extraordinary things in a limited space,” she says—in this case, “due to the creativity of [director] Bert Bernardi, who’s just done a stupendous job of making this little gem move.” A table backstage holds, among other props, five pies and five wedding cakes for the show, subtitled “A Musical Bake-Off.” It’s squeezed in next to a grand piano. For this production, the director chose not to use a sunken flex space in front of the stage, which can serve as an orchestra pit.

The stage provided one of the biggest construction surprises, Knudsen says. It had to be lowered for accessibility, but when the old stage was demolished, the reason for its height was apparent: It was built over a huge granite boulder. “There was a lot of excavating,” Knudsen notes. Another challenge for the architects was fitting the theater inside its historic shell, a requirement of a grant from the state Historic Preservation Office. The solution was to build seating over the lobby, creating a unique tiered ceiling above the box office. Also restored was a cottage next door, which will house visiting artists.

Seeing a show at the Legacy, which opened April 23, combines the best of a brand new facility—comfortable seats, modern bathrooms, a clean look—with a centuries-old experience. I attended a spirited performance of Just Desserts, a fun, campy sendup of baking competitions set at a county fair with five finalists vying for top honors. This world premiere checks off two boxes on Knudsen’s list of must-haves for every season to come: a straight play, a musical, a new work and “a strong children’s theater presence.” In July alone, the theater will present a mainstage production of Oedipus Rex; four Special Events including three performances of the one-man comedy Blood Type: Ragu; one Saturday children’s show titled Cardboard Explosion!; and several Broadway Spotlight Concerts featuring Broadway performers. In addition, two week-long Youth Intensives for children and teens will be led by seasoned Broadway and TV performers. The theater will also be the new home of Wheel Life Theatre Troupe, a Saturday evening program “for those who ambulate with crutches or use wheelchairs and their siblings.” The Legacy’s full season runs through October, with an additional two weeks in December for a production of A Christmas Carol.

Not everyone will be ready to sit shoulder to shoulder with strangers yet. Temperatures are checked at the door and masks are required for the unvaccinated, who are separated from other theatergoers by two seats on either side. Otherwise, it’s business as usual. Frank, for one, is thrilled to be acting and singing again. Just Desserts is about “ambition and competition,” she says, “but there is nothing more collaborative than… musical theater, and it’s what makes it such a delight to be back on stage with people.”

The Legacy Theatre
128 Thimble Island Rd, Branford (map)
Box Office Hours: Mon-Thurs 9:30am-1:30pm and one hour before performances
(203) 315-1901 | Info@LegacyTheatreCT.org
www.legacytheatrect.org

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, featuring Keely Baisden Knudsen, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2, featuring a moment from Just Desserts, photographed by Jamie Burnett.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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