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A training ground for stars

It was party time on the front lawn at Williamstown Theatre Festival last week. The 47th season was being launched, but there was bigger reason to celebrate: WTF had won a Tony Award earlier this spring for being the Outstanding Regional Theater. It is the first summer-only organization to win the prestigious prize.

This important recognition, voted by members of the New York theater community, underlines the connections that link Williamstown, Mass., to Broadway, the film industry, and television.

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Long known as a crucible where actors are forged into stars, the WTF has helped spawn such personalities as Gwyneth Paltrow (who grew up at the festival, while her mother, Blythe Danner, appeared in the shows); Marisa Tomei, Richard Dreyfuss; and Kate Burton, who is married to WTF producer Michael Ritchie. One of Ms. Burton's two Tony nominations for best actress this year was for her role in "Hedda Gabler," which was produced here several seasons back.

Nicholas Martin, a frequent director at the WTF and artistic director of Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, staged both "Hedda Gabler" and this season's opening production, a revival of the 1948 musical "Where's Charley?"

"The training program is one of the reasons that WTF deserved the Tony," Mr. Martin says. "I think it's just like graduate school and far less expensive. It's better than grad school because they're working with real theater and real audiences."

Nearly 300 students spend their summers at WTF to study acting, directing, stage management, and theatrical design. Seventy apprentices, chosen from a pool of more than 200 applicants, pay tuition, room, and board fees of $3,000 to learn their craft. The rest of the students work as interns. The tuition helps support an annual budget of nearly $3 million, Mr. Ritchie says.

"We've been able to attract movie stars, but mostly movie stars who can act. When I first worked with Ethan Hawke and Calista Flockhart, they were kids," Martin says.

The expectation is that the same glitter will rub off on Christopher Fitzgerald, who plays the lead in "Where's Charley?" Martin and Ritchie chose the musical partly as a gift to Fitzgerald, who has spent eight summers climbing the competitive ranks of the training program. "He's a shining example of the absolute best," Ritchie says. "We took a kid who was just starting in college, and we were able to help him develop his talent, expose it, nurture him, and bring him into the profession."

Martin has lovingly concocted an exuberant production of Frank Loesser's and George Abbott's "Where's Charley?" in the mood and spirit of the period when the musical premièred.

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An attractive cast of actor-singer-dancers has been urged to run with the farcical elements, as if over-the-top were merely the starting point on a sprint to the final curtain. One treat of the evening was hearing a 14-piece orchestra accompany the cast in gems from Loesser's melodic score such as "My Darling, My Darling," the "New Ashmolean Marching Society," and "Once in Love With Amy,' staged as an audience singalong in homage to Ray Bolger, the show's original star, who used the gimmick to stop every performance.

Where Bolger was a long-legged tap dancer with the instinctive timing of an ex-vaudevillian working to milk every moment for laughs, Fitzgerald is a small package of energy. He borrows comedic bits from Charlie Chaplin and Milton Berle to win Amy's love – and the audience's wild applause.

However, Fitzgerald is not the only name to remember. He competes for the spotlight with Jessica Stone as the ditsy Amy; Sara Schmidt as her sidekick, Kitty; and David Turner as Charley's roommate, Jack. Veteran actor Paxton Whitehead appears as Amy's and Kitty's stuffed shirt of a guardian.

Ritchie insists that the theater's schedule of plays is not star-driven. "To start with a star, build a show around him or her, and then potentially lose them is too risky," he says. "Each September, I ask the directors I like to give me five ideas of shows they'd love to do. I really want the director to have a particular passion [for] the play."

While mindful of the WTF's mission to train young actors and "give a wide variety of theatrical experiences to our audiences," Ritchie's personal love is "rediscoveries. We've found a wealth of plays, particularly American plays from the 1920s to the 1940s," he says.

This season includes both the antics of "Where's Charley?" (through Sunday) and a long-neglected 1923 drama "God of Vengeance," adapted from Sholem Asch's play by contemporary writer Donald Margulies (July 31-Aug. 11).

Added to the Main Stage lineup is a series of new scripts and works-in-progress performed in WTF's smaller second theater, the Nikos Stage. Next on the Main Stage is the Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman play "Once in a Lifetime," which premièred on Broadway in 1930.

The production will field 55 actors to play 100 characters. "We produce both comedies and dramas that no one [else] can do anymore," Ritchie says, because of both the money and talent needed.

"Very few people can pull that one off. We can."