Anticipation and expectation always run high at the beginning of a new theater season. The 2012-’13 season promises a lot, and the rewards of being part of the audience captivated by a live performance in any one of New Jersey’s 23 not-for-profit professional theaters are undeniably plentiful. In preparation for this season preview, I came across a quote from Viola Spolin, a 20th century innovator and teacher of acting technique. It is as apt for me as a critic as it is for me as a member of the audience: “The audience is the most revered member of the theater. Without an audience, there is no theater. Everything done is ultimately for the enjoyment of the audience. They are our guests, fellow players, and the last spoke in the wheel which can then begin to roll. They make the performance meaningful.”
While I think a theater critic is somewhat of an outsider, neither a performing artist, a production contributor, nor a typical member of the audience, I am, nevertheless, eager to herald the start of a new theater season, even as we are all caught between the squeeze of polarizing punditry and political posturing. Of course, it is also a good time to remember how closely aligned theater is and has always been to politics and to our social concerns.
As has been the case since the political satires performed in ancient Greece and Rome to those of today’s modern perspective, articulated by the late Gore Vidal (to cite just one example) who said that “all theater is political,” the professional regional theaters in our state have rarely shied away from confronting and exploring controversial subject matter, at the same time aspiring to entertain. That they actually achieve both season after season is quite a feat.
For example, audiences are currently being held in the grip of “Release Point,” a compelling and topical play at the New Jersey Repertory Theater in Long Branch (performances through September 23), where a conflicted daughter has questions for her father, a convicted sexual predator now released from a nine-year prison sentence. On the other hand, since pungent socio-political satire has always been the forte of Christopher Durang, his new comedy is likely to provoke gales of laughter at McCarter.
By the way, becoming a season subscriber or a single ticket buyer is a great way to be an activist in support of the above long-standing tradition. And it is good to report that the overall quality of the productions at our state’s professional not-for-profit theaters stands up admirably to anything that can be seen in New York — except possibly for those budget-be-damned spectacles — a conclusion that comes from seeing more than 150 shows every year in New York and New Jersey for the past 30 years.
It is always enlightening to speak directly to the artistic heads of the theaters, all of whom recognize –– indeed, face –– the challenges they have to confront during economically hard times. I’ve enjoyed brief conversations about this current season with a few (of the many) of those whom I admire and respect for their artistic integrity. While I have singled out their theaters and their seasons to whet your appetite, you can find a complete listing below of all of the fine professional and some non-professional theaters, and their seasons.
‘Theater matters, Crossroads matters! Because the mission of Crossroads focuses on people of color, we believe Crossroads is more relevant now than ever before,” says Executive Director Marshall Jones III in his opening comments about the season that begins on October 25. The date marks another collaboration between Crossroads and the New Federal Theater, whose founder, Woodie King Jr., directed “And the World Laughs With You” at Crossroads in 1994. Celebrated performer/director Andre De Shields, who directed a sensational production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” last season, is back to direct “Knock Me a Kiss,” a play by Charles Smith that garnered enthusiastic reviews when it was first produced by New Federal in 2010. In it we see what happens when the daughter of Harlem Renaissance writer W.E.B. Du Bois finds that marriage to poet Countee Cullen isn’t exactly what she expected. Performances run through November 11.
A tradition continues in December with “Holiday Jubilee,” a multicultural celebration featuring the music of Motown. Highly anticipated is the world premiere of “Kansas City Swing,” co-authored by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, in which Jackie Robinson has just integrated American baseball and the sport, as well as America, is about to change. “This play is not just for baseball fans and historians, but a must-see for all Americans,” says Jones about this latest collaboration by the team that wrote “Fly” about the Tuskegee Airmen. Performances begin in February.
Five Muslim women, while serving tea, uncover what lies beneath the veil in Rohina Malkik’s post-9/11 play “Unveiled.” Performances of this East Coast premiere begin on April 24. The season concludes with “Commonground: Festival of the People.” featuring the works of diverse arts groups including the South Asian Theater Festival. This intriguing festival begins performances on April 25.
Fans of Lewis Black, a regular on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” are looking forward to his comedy “One Small Hitch,” the season opener starring Mark Linn-Baker under the direction of Joe Grifasi. Though the play began gestating in the stand-up comedian’s head about 30 years ago during his college days, he sent the latest version to George Street’s artistic director David Saint, whose association with him goes back 25 years. About a lavish wedding gone amok, this play, says Saint, “is also an artistic reunion for Black, Linn-Baker, and Grifasi, who were together at Yale.” Performances begin on October 2.
Saint not only likes stars enhancing the season, but the stars like to return. “That Girl” Marlo Thomas is back for a third time to star in a new play, “Clever Little Lies” by Tony Award-winner Joe DiPietro (“Memphis”), who is also returning for a third round at George Street. “I actually postponed another play in order to do this now when, after reading it, Marlo said to Joe, ‘Let’s get right to it,’” says Saint explaining this “serio-comic” play about a New York couple, their son and daughter-in-law, and the little lies that are told to protect our loved ones. Performances begin on November 13.
“We are co-producing the last three plays of the season with three other major theater companies,” says Saint. Before it travels west to the Seattle Repertory Company, Saint will be directing “Good People” which was nominated for a Best Play Tony award in 2011. He says that David Lindsay-Abaire’s excellent play has a special resonance for him because he grew up not far from the “Southie” Boston neighborhood where it is set. So far no casting has been announced regarding who is going to play the desperate “Southie” woman with hopes that a successful old flame will help her get out of the economically depressed neighborhood. Performances begin January 29.
The Cleveland Playhouse is the next stop for “Rich Girl,” by award-winning playwright Victoria Stewart. A modern day adaptation of Henry James’ “Washington Square,” it is part of what the author calls the third in her “bitch trilogy.” That alone should be enough to trigger our interest in this world premiere under the direction of the Cleveland Playhouse’s artistic director Michael Bloom. Performances begin March 12. Saint doesn’t know yet who will be the “Venus in Fur” in David Ive’s sexy Broadway hit, the final play of the season beginning April 23, a co-production with the Philadelphia Theater Company.
For 23 years as the McCarter Theater’s artistic director Emily Mann has been a theatrical force not only on her own turf, but also on Broadway where she created a stir this past season directing a newly conceived production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Despite the economics that Mann says have forced her to produce a “leaner, meaner” season, she is committed to stirring up audience laughter with the world premiere engagement of Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-inspired “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” This co-production in association with Lincoln Center Theater (where the play will move following its McCarter run) stars Sigourney Weaver, Kristine Nielsen, and David Hyde Pierce under the direction of Nicholas Martin, a long-time Durang collaborator. Mann says Durang’s previous comedy “Miss Witherspoon” was a great success with McCarter audiences in 2005. This new comedy evidently meets the requirements of what she calls her “constant hunt for smart comedy.” Performances run through October 14.
Audiences that flocked to the McCarter over a four-day period last year to sit for the nearly eight-hour “Gatz” (the Elevator Repair Service Company’s acclaimed dramatically staged reading of the entire “The Great Gatsby”) will not want to miss this company’s “The Select” (taken from “The Sun also Rises”), which Mann hopes to “slim down” from its current three hours and 30 minutes. The moot question whether the seasonal and hugely successful production (since 1991) of “A Christmas Carol” will ever outstay its welcome is answered by Mann’s “Oy vey, but I love it and still cry when I see it performed within those gorgeous sets, the last designed by the late Ming Cho Lee.”
Mann will be directing “A Delicate Balance,” which she says is her “favorite Edward Albee play and not produced here since 1983.” McCarter audiences who were delighted by director Rebecca Taichman’s innovative and imaginatively staged productions of “Twelfth Night” and “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” will be happy to know she is returning with “A Winter’s Tale.” This co-production between McCarter and the Shakespeare Theater Company of Washington, D.C., is expected to be another visual treat.
The final show of the season is, as Mann puts it, “so not the ‘Into the Woods’ as we know it, but a version with “10 actors and a piano,” as created by the Fiasco Theater, an Off Off Broadway company whose production of “Cymbeline” had the critics doing cartwheels of joy last season. Fiasco directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld will be in charge of the minimalist magic.
The New Jersey
There is something very special as well as uncompromisingly admirable about the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, a theater that, under the leadership and artistic direction of SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas, has stood out for the past 15 years for producing only new plays. What is especially remarkable is that the NJRT produces at least six shows during the calendar year, each running for a minimum of five weeks. This is an awesome accomplishment, as is the way that the Barbarases have successfully nurtured their core, but ever growing audience, to be receptive to their mission.
Many plays, like their next play “Annapurna” by Sharr White (performances begin October 11), get their East Coast premiere here. What is sparking additional interest in White’s new play, “about a man resigned to living out the remaining weeks of his life in solitude,” is that critics waxed ecstatic over his previous play “The Other Place” produced Off Broadway and now heading to Broadway marking White’s Broadway debut.
Accustomed as Gabor is to making a disarming and informative pre-curtain speech, he always leaves us with two words that we know come from his heart, “Enjoy, enjoy.” He is sure to include this latest news that the New Jersey Repertory Company is one of the 10 recipients of the American Theater Wing 2012 National Theater Company $10,000 grants given to theater companies that “have articulated a distinctive mission, cultivated an audience, and nurtured a community of artists in ways that strengthen and demonstrate the quality, diversity, and dynamism of American theater.”
It’s a good bet that this season will turn out to be a sweet one for June Ballinger, who is celebrating her 16th year as artistic director of Trenton’s only professional theater company. Notable in recent seasons for the way it has gravitated to embracing the sizable pool of writers and performers from New Jersey and the Philadelphia area, Passage Theater begins its season with a unique, outdoor celebration of Mercer County landscapes called “Dancescapes NJ,” a collaboration between D&R Greenway Land Trust in Princeton and Passage, to be performed by Trenton’s professional dance company DanceSpora at two locations: St. Michaels Farm Preserve on Saturday, September 22, at 2:30 p.m. and at Trenton’s historic Cadwalader Park on Saturday, October 6, at 2:30 p.m.
On the main stage beginning on October 18 is “Blessed Are” directed by Adam Immerwahr. About this new play in which a man with a shameful past returns to his boyhood home to find two women ready to compete for his future, Ballinger says, “It is the first play of a talented Philadelphia area actress, Jessica Bedford, and it is a winner. I read it and simply loved it and declared we would do it.”
The press release calls the next major production “Roundelay,” a “globe-hopping tale of love in all of its complexity.” Ballinger enhances that description of this world premiere by Passage Playwrights Lab member R.N. Sandberg (also a Princeton University faculty member), adding that “it spoke to me as a parent and as an actor about the current global landscape of relationships and the meaningful connections being sought by six young people who come together via the internet.” It begins performances on March 21. In between these two major productions will be integrated a series of one-person shows, including new performance pieces by the popular monologist Lauren Weedman, singer-songwriter-story-teller Christine Lavin, and “Sarah Dash: One Woman,” the vocalist best known as part of the trio Labelle.
of New Jersey
The season is half over for this extraordinary theater company dedicated to old and new classics and currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. Bonnie J. Monte, the artistic director for the past 23 years, continues to astonish her loyal audiences as well as the critics with productions that more often than not exceed expectations. “This season particularly exemplifies what we stand for, often gifts of plays that audiences won’t see anywhere else.” says Monte. Britisher Neil Bartlett’s uniquely gritty “less sugared-up” adaptation of “Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist” features an ensemble of 12 actors playing a myriad of roles under Brian B. Crowe’s direction. Monte emphasizes how timely this play is “considering the struggle for social reform that is under attack right now in our own nation.” Anyone who saw Bartlett’s minimalist “A Christmas Carol” last year will not want to miss this novel take on “Twist.” Performances continue through October 7.
Musicals are a rarity here (the last one “Carnival” in 2004), but a production of “Man of La Mancha” defines Monte’s theme for the entire season — “The Art of Impossible Dreams” — promising to be something special under her direction beginning October 17.
A delightful diversion, Arthur Wing Pinero’s classic 1898 comic-romantic “Trelawny of the Wells,” has been selected for the holiday season. Monte says, “I’ve been waiting 30 years and for a special occasion as is this 50th year celebration to do this wonderful play about theater people at the turn of the 19th century.” It begins performances on December 5.
Allow me to end with another quote, this from Oscar Wilde: “I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
635 North Delmorr Avenue, Morrisville, PA, 215-295-3694, www.actorsnetbucks.org.
The Best Man. Gore Vidal’s drama about backroom politics. Through October 7. $20. Friday, September 14.
A Man for All Seasons. Robert Bolt’s drama about King Henry VIII. Through November 11. $20. Friday, October 26.
You Can’t Take it With You. Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s comedy about an eccentric family. Through December 16. $20. Friday, November 30.
Monroe Township Jewish Center, 11 Cornell Avenue, 732-251-1119, www.bimahplayers.org.
Surprise! Surprise!. Original play with music based on stories by O. Henry, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others. Register. Through November 11. $12. Sunday, November 4.
Bristol Riverside Theater
120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100, www.brtstage.org.
Oleanna. Drama by David Mamet. Through October 14. Tuesday, September 25.
America Rising: Voices of Today. Light supper followed by staged reading. Register. $15. Monday, October 8.
What a Glorious Feeling. Musical based on the movie musical. Through November 18. Tuesday, October 30.
America Rising: Voices of Today. Light supper followed by staged reading. Register. $15. Monday, November 5.
Bucks County Playhouse
70 South Main Street, New Hope, 215-862-2121, www.bcptheater.org.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Drama by Joe Landry based on the film is a 1940s live radio broadcast on stage. Directed by Gordon Greenberg and choreographed by Lorin Latarro. Through December 30. $29 to $54. Thursday, December 13.
College of New Jersey
Kendall Main Stage, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing, 609-771-2585, www.tcnj.edu.
Orfeo ed Euridice. Theater production of Gluck’s opera. Through November 4. $5 to $15. Thursday, November 1.
7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-545-8100, www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.
Knock Me a Kiss. Drama by Charles Smith about a wedding in Harlem, 1928. Andre De Shields stars. Through November 11. Thursday, October 25.
George Street Playhouse
9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717, www.gsponline.org.
One Slight Hitch. New Jersey premiere of a modern farce by Lewis Black stars Mark Linn-Baker. Directed by Joe Grifasi. Through October 28. $25 to $62. Opening night is Friday, October 5. Tuesday, October 2.
Clever Little Lies. Comedy by Joe DiPetro about a family — and secrets — stars Marlo Thomas. Directed by David Saint. Through December 23. $25 to $62. Tuesday, November 27.
Kelsey Theater, Mercer County Community College
1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, 609-570-3333, www.kelseytheatre.net.
Pippin. Musical by Pennington Players features music by Stephen Schwartz. Kyrus Keenan Westcott of Hamilton portrays the Leading Player with Dominick Sannelli of Levittown, PA, in the title role. Through September 16. $18. Now playing.
Born Yesterday. Comedy by Garson Kanin about politics, corruption, and the power of female persuasion presented by Yardley Players. $16. Opening reception with the cast and crew follows the performance. Through September 30. Friday, September 21.
Next to Normal. Musical with a contemporary score about a woman diagnosed with a mental illness and her family’s struggles. Presented by Pierrot Productions. Through October 14. $18. Friday, October 5.
Little Shop of Horrors. Rock musical about a plant from outer space with music by Alan Menken presented by Playful Theater Productions. Through October 28. $18. Friday, October 19.
A Little Murder Never Hurt Anybody. Comedy about murder presented by Maurer Productions. Through November 11. $16. Friday, November 2.
McCarter Theater (Berlind)
91 University Place, Princeton, 609-258-2787, www.mccarter.org.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Comedy about life in Bucks County in a new play by Christopher Durang. Actors include David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver. Through October 14. $20 to $72. Wednesday, September 12.
McCarter Theater (Matthews)
91 University Place, Princeton, 609-258-2787, www.mccarter.org.
The Select (The Sun Also Rises). Staged reading of Ernest Hemingway’s novel presented by Elevator Repair Service. Directed by John Collins. Through November 4. $56 to $100. Friday, October 26.
A Christmas Carol. Holiday classic by Charles Dickens. Through December 28. $20 to $60. Sunday, December 2.
5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766, www.off-broadstreet.com.
Black Tie. Comedy by A.R. Gurney focuses on manners and morals of the upper class. Cast includes Barry Abramowitz of Lawrenceville and George Agalias of Hopewell. $29.50 to $31.50 includes dessert. Through September 29. Now playing.
The Wildest: Hip, Cool, and Swinging. Musical inspired by Louis Prima and Keeley Smith. $29.50 to $31.50 includes dessert. Through Saturday, November 10. Friday, October 12.
There’s a Burglar in My Bed. Farce about a couple, their lovers, mistaken identities, a nymphomaniac, and a necklace. $29.50 to $31.50 includes dessert. Through Saturday, December 22. Friday, November 23.
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343, www.papermill.org.
A Chorus Line. Musical focuses on the hopes, fears, and dreams of performers. Through October 28. $26 to $97. Wednesday, October 3.
The Sound of Music. Musical based on the Von Trapp family story. Through December 30. $26 to $97. Friday, November 23.
Mill Hill Playhouse, 218 East Hanover Street, Trenton, 609-392-0766, www.passagetheatre.org.
Blessed Are. Drama by Jessica Bedford about guilt, forgiveness, love, loss, and redemption. Directed by Adam Immerwahr. Through November 4. $28. Thursday, October 18.
SRO. One-woman drama by Lauren Weedman is a story about hotels, electric guitars, gurus, horror movies, and sex. Directed by Jeff Weatherford. Through December 16. $22. Friday, December 14.
721 Cranbury Road, East Brunswick, 732-254-3939, www.playhouse22.org.
The Philadelphia Story. Drama. Weekends through September 30. $20. Friday, September 14.
Crazy for You. Musical. Weekends through November 18. $20. Friday, November 2.
A Christmas Carol. Classic story adapted and directed by Tony Adase. Through December 16. $20. Friday, December 7.
Princeton Shakespeare Company
Princeton area, 609-258-1500, www.princeton.edu/psc.
Othello. Shakespeare drama. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for information. Friday, October 12.
King Lear. Shakespeare drama. E-mail email@example.com for information. Wednesday, December 12.
Lewis Center, 185 Nassau Street, 609-258-1500, www.princeton.edu/arts.
French Theater Festival. “French Theater Today,” a panel discussion moderated by Florent Mass, department of French and Italian, at 4:30 p.m. “La Derniere berceuse” presented by Louis Arene at 7 and 9 p.m. Register by E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Free. Also September 26. Tuesday, September 25.
Princeton University Players
Frist Theater, 609-258-1500, www.princeton.edu/pup.
Assassins. Sondheim musical. Through October 6. $12. Thursday, September 27.
Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street, 609-258-1500, www.princeton.edu/pup.
Nine. Musical. $12. Through November 10. Thursday, November 8.
Raritan Valley Community College
Route 28, North Branch, 908-725-3420, www.rvccarts.edu.
Leo. “Circle of Eleven,” a one man show. $22 and $32. Friday, September 28.
Fran Lebowitz. Cultural satirist about gender, race, gay rights, and the media. $37 and $47. Saturday, September 29.
Capitol Steps. Political satire. $32 and $42. Saturday, October 20.
A Christmas Carol. Nebraska Theater Caravan presents. $37 and $47. Tuesday, October 30.
A John Waters Christmas. A one man show with adult humor. $30 and $40. Sunday, December 9.
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600, www.shakespearenj.org.
Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. New Jersey debut of adaptation by Neil Bartlett. Directed by Brian B. Crowe. $32 to $70. Preview. Through October 7. Wednesday, September 12.
Man of La Mancha. Musical by Dale Wasserman directed by Bonnie J. Monte. Through November 18. Wednesday, October 17.
Something Wicked This Way Comes. Readings from classic ghost and horror tales. $32. Monday, October 29.
Trelawny of the Wells. Drama by Arthur Wing Pinero and directed by Bonnie J. Monte. Through December 30. Wednesday, December 5.
Somerset Valley Players
689 Amwell Road, Hillsborough, 908-369-7469, www.svptheatre.org.
Oliver. Musical. Through September 23. $15. Thursday, September 13.
Dial M for Murder. Through November 4. $15. Friday, October 19.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Through December 16. $15. Friday, November 30.
15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469, www.StateTheatreNJ.org.
Phantom of the Opera. Fully staged production captured live from the Royal Albert Hall in London is broadcast in HD on a 46 foot screen. $12. Saturday, September 22.
Jack Hanna. “Into the Wild Live” with zookeeper, author, conservationist, and director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. $25 to $55. Sunday, October 7.
Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University, 609-258-1742, www.theatreintime.org.
Gruesome Playground Injuries. Drama by Rajiv Joseph. Through October 6. $12. Thursday, September 27.
475 DeMott Lane, Somerset, 732-873-2710, www.villagerstheatre.com.
God’s Favorite. Comedy by Neil Simon based on the Book of Job. Through September 30. $18. Friday, September 14.
Washington Crossing Open Air Theater
355 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville, 267-885-9857, www.dpacatoat.com.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Musical debut of show written by Louis Palena. Blankets, seat cushions, a flashlight, and insect repellent are recommended. Picnics welcome before show. Food available. Through October 7. $15. Friday, September 28.
West Windsor Arts Council
952 Alexander Road, West Windsor, 609-716-1931, www.westwindsorarts.org.
God of Carnage. Drama by Yasmina Reza. Through September 22. $18. Friday, September 14.
Now Theater Company. The new series of play readings focuses on the development of original plays written by area residents Ian August, Lynne Elson, James Christy, and EM Lewis. The theater company was founded in 2011 by Elson and Scott Langdon, a Plainsboro resident and an Equity actor. Reading of “Put Them Away,” a drama about a child, his parents, and the FBI, by James Christy. $6. Tuesday, September 25.
Now Theater Company. Reading of “Heads,” a thriller by Eli Lewis about civilians held captive in Iraq. The new series of play readings focuses on the development of original plays written by area residents Ian August, Lynne Elson, James Christy, and EM Lewis. The theater company was founded in 2011 by Elson and Scott Langdon, a Plainsboro resident and an Equity actor. $6. Tuesday, October 2.
Now Theater Company. Reading of “A Blessed Unrest,” a drama about a professional dancer who becomes a quadriplegic after a car accident, written by Lynne Elson. The new series of play readings focuses on the development of original plays written by area residents Ian August, Lynne Elson, James Christy, and EM Lewis. The theater company was founded in 2011 by Elson and Scott Langdon, a Plainsboro resident and an Equity actor. $6. Tuesday, October 30.
Westminster Choir College
Yvonne Theater, Rider University, Lawrenceville, 609-921-2663, www.rider.edu.
Nine. Musical based on Fellini’s semi-autobiographic film “8 1/2.” Through October 14. $9. Wednesday, October 10.
The Crucible. Drama focusing on the 17th century Salem witch trials, intolerance, and hysteria. Through November 4. $9. Wednesday, October 31.
Cole. Musical revue of Cole Porter songs. Through November 18. $9. Wednesday, November 14.