Theater is the most magical of all fantastical transports because what we see before us is real flesh and blood. You can see it in three dimensions, touch it, and listen to words and enjoy action that can be as convincing and real as anything you experienced before you took your seat. Theater is not an escape but a healthy and revitalizing respite or even a retreat from fixed and possibly false and misguided notions and/or opinions, to be open and receptive to other voices, other perspectives, other worlds.
In looking at the upcoming seasons at just a few of New Jersey’s professional theaters, I am encouraged and motivated by the number of plays and musicals that appear deliberately chosen by the artistic and executive producers at some of our top regional theaters to make the audience think outside the proverbial box.
91 University Place, Princeton. 609-258-2787. www.mccarter.org.
At McCarter Theater artistic director Emily Mann is not only overseeing the new season in Princeton but at the same time in preparation to direct “20th Century Blues” by Susan Miller for its New York premiere November 12 at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
The season here in Princeton opens with “Simpatico,” which I remember being a riveting play about the crime and vice world of thoroughbred racing. It is from the lauded canon of the recently deceased Sam Shepard. This collaboration with the acclaimed Chicago ensemble A Red Orchid Theatre stars Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon. Through Sunday, October 15.
Get set for a live band and psychedelic celebration with “A Night with Janis Joplin,” an edgy and harrowing musical that promises to bring down the house. Tuesday, October 10, through Sunday, October 29.
Welcoming the joyous Christmas season with Charles Dickens’ story of the redemption of Scrooge is a cherished annual tradition. This marks the second season for the highly praised newly envisioned production of “A Christmas Carol.” Tuesday, December 5, through Sunday, December 31.
Many of us have fond memories of “Stones in my Pocket.” This is Marie Jones’ Olivier Award-winning comedy about two Irishmen hired as extras in an American movie. British director Lindsay Posner directs this gem that played on Broadway in 2001. Friday, January 12, through Sunday, February 11.
The times seem right and ripe for this 15th anniversary production of “Crowns,” a celebration of African American women and their church hats set in South Carolina, an adaptation from the best-selling book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. Tuesday, March 13, through Sunday, April 1.
And no contemporary playwright writes outside the proverbial box with more unrestrained brio than Christopher Durang (“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”) Prepare yourselves for “Turning Off the Morning News,” a black comedy about two sets of neighbors, one of whom is peculiar at best. Friday, May 4, through Sunday, June 3.
205 East Front Street, Trenton. 609-392-0766. www.passagetheatre.org
This season we say a fond farewell to artistic director June Ballinger, who is leaving the Passage Theatre after 22 years of extraordinary and dedicated leadership. We can thank Ballinger for her successful efforts to bring socially relevant performances to Trenton’s only professional theater for a diverse multi-cultural audience. She will be serving in an advisory capacity this season as Ryanne Domingues takes on the position of artistic director for what promises to be a very exciting season.
There will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Passage on Monday, September 25, at 11 a.m. to meet Domingues, the co-founder and former producing artistic director of Simpatico Theatre in Philadelphia. All are invited.
The season begins with “Paradise” by Laura Maria Censabella, a co-production with the West Orange company Luna Stage. In it, a Muslim-American teenager investigates love with her mysterious biology teacher. Thursday, October 5, through Sunday, October 22.
As played to acclaim off-Broadway by Richard Hoehler, a homeless man finds peace of mind outside a city park in “I of the Storm” by R.J. Bartholomew. Friday, March 9, through Sunday, March 18.
The voices of incarcerated men speak out in writing by current and former inmates in “Caged” by the New Jersey Prison Cooperative about the human costs of a for-profit justice system. Thursday, May 3, through Sunday, May 20.
George Street Playhouse
103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick. 732-246-7717. www.gsponline.org.
It is David Saint, in this case, who is moving his entire staff, designers, and crews from the old theater to its new but temporary location on the Rutgers University campus. This is while a brand new arts complex is being built on the old Livingston Avenue site. “It took us nine months of looking to find the right venue,” says Saint. “We found it in the agricultural museum space at Rutgers, which we are now reconstructing and redesigning to be ready for our first show of the season.”
That show is “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” It has been updated by its author-lyricist Joe DiPietro and composer Jimmy Rogers to now include “topical issues such as gay marriage, the internet, and iPhones,” Saint says. “Dating has changed a lot since that show first opened 22 years ago and played for 12 years off-Broadway.” Tuesday, October 10, through Sunday, November 12.
Laughter is the reason for it all in “An Act of God” by David Javerbaum. Kevin Cahoon will direct this hit Broadway show, which will star, as Saint says, “an out-of-the-box performer.” In it, God in human form answers the most profound questions that have plagued mankind since creation. Tuesday, November 28, through Saturday, December 23.
After a holiday break Saint takes up the director’s baton for “American Hero,” the Christopher Demos-Brown play about an Iraq war hero whose life is upended when threatened by a fellow marine. This is the second play in the proposed trilogy that began with “American Son,” a critical and audience hit here last season. Tuesday, January 30, through Sunday, February 25.
“Trying” by Joanna McClelland Glass is about the influence that a 25-year-old secretary has on the cantankerous 81-year-old Frances Biddle, chief judge of the Nuremberg trials. I recall being impressed by this tough and tender play based on the playwright’s own experiences when I saw it off-Broadway in 2004 and now look forward to seeing it again. Tuesday, March 13, through Sunday, April 8.
And laugh until it hurts appears to be the dominant theme here as the season ends with “The Nerd,” the outrageously over-the-top 1986 farce by Larry Shue. Tuesday, April 24, through Sunday, May 20.
Crossroads Theater Company
Also without a home this season is George Street’s neighbor, Crossroads Theater. This lauded theater that has nurtured and produced plays that celebrate the culture, history, spirit, and voices of the African Diaspora is not only working outside the box this season but going outside the state for a co-production of “The Mecca Tales” by Rohina Malik with the New York-based Voyage Theater Company. The play tells the story of five Muslim women on the pilgrimage known as the Hajj to find meaning to their lives.
Performances begin at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture at 18 Bleecker Street, New York City, Friday, October 20, through Saturday, November 4. You can also see the play when it transfers to the Middlesex County Community College in Edison for its New Jersey premiere, Wednesday through Sunday, November 8 through 12.
Also on the schedule is the Fats Waller musical “Ain’t Misbehavin” directed by Andrea De Shields, who appeared in Crossroads’ 2011 production of the musical. It’s set for a performance at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Thursday, February 1.
The company’s season ends with the world premiere of Pia Wilson’s “Back to the Real.” Crossroad’s Marshall Jones III directs this sharp edged play involving Black Lives Matter and the revelation of a character’s genetic ancestry and heritage. It happens in May at the Rutgers University VJM Theater in New Brunswick.
Worth the Drive:
New Jersey Repertory
179 Broadway, Long Branch. 732-229-3166 or www.njrep.org
Audiences can determine right now if the current play “F Theory,” written and by and starring Alex Trow and Megan Loughran and directed by Ethan Heard, is really an “out-of-the-box” comedy as it spans the lifetime of two friends from college to old age. Through Sunday, September 24.
Next up is “Mutual Philanthropy” by Karen Rizzo, in what they are calling a “wicked comedy” about the haves and the have-nots. Thursday, October 19, through Sunday, November 19.
of New Jersey
36 Madison Avenue, Madison. 973-408-5600. www.shakespearenj.org.
The season is half over, but what’s coming up for the rest of the year is choice. Currently on stage is “What the Butler Saw,” one of my favorite farces. It is in the hands of director Paul Mullins. Through Sunday, October 1.
Next up is a show I caught at the Stratford Festival last summer and can’t wait to see again. “Shakespeare in Love,” based on the Academy Award-winning film, is quite a romp with the Bard in search of love and a good plot for his next play. Artistic director Bonnie J. Monte directs a huge cast. Wednesday, October 11, through Sunday, November 12.
The season comes to a close with “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” to be directed by Doug West and adapted from the film as a radio broadcast replete with commercials, sounds effects, and music. Thursday, November 30, through Sunday, December 31.
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn. 973-376-4343. www.papermill.org.
One has only to look at the slate of shows being planned for the new season at the Paper Mill Playhouse to appreciate the exciting path it has taken over the past few years. The vision of artistic director Mark S. Hoebee and managing director Todd Schmidt to continue nurturing and producing new musicals is commendable. Two of the five shows this season are world premieres, and two are having their East Coast premiere. One — “Annie” — is an established classic.
There is a generation of fans looking forward “The Honeymooners,” a new musical comedy inspired by the beloved and often hilarious TV series. The question is how closely will the performers conform to the images we have of Ralph Kramden, his buddy, Ed Norton, and their wives, Alice and Trixie. It remains to be see how successful the collaborators of the new score and the new story line will be in the light of a different era and the ever-evolving perspective we have today of married couples. Thursday, September 28, through Sunday, October 29.
“Annie” could be either a supplement or an antidote for “A Christmas Carol” at holiday time. This adored family musical, with direction by Hoebee and choreography by Denis Jones, finds Little Orphan Annie once again escaping the mean Miss Hannigan. Wednesday, November 22, through Sunday, December 31.
Is the public looking for the worst candidate to ever run for political office? This is the question posed and answered in this East Coast premiere of “The Outsider” by Paul Slade Smith that has, if nothing else, a timely and topical plot to spin. Wednesday, January 24, through Sunday, February 18.
The two beloved cavorting conmen who propelled the Academy Award-winning 1973 film “The Sting” to its stunning conclusion are now on the stage in this world premiere to be directed by John Rando. With choreography by Warren Carlyle, book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, and a score by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, this new musical will either have us conned or captivated and hopefully both. Thursday, March 29, through Sunday, April 29.
Director/Choreographer Jerry Mitchell (“Kinky Boots”) is at the helm of “Half Time,” an East Coast premiere. This new musical is based on a true story in which 10 ordinary seniors with big dreams audition to dance at halftime for a major basketball team. Thursday, May 31, through Sunday, July 1.
Take a look at New Jersey’s professional theaters and see what is being offered for the full year. An entire season subscription will likely be less than a single ticket to a hit Broadway show. Or as executive producer Gabe Barabas says to every audience before every show at N.J. Rep., “Enjoy, enjoy.”
70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.
The New Hope, Pennsylvania, theater is continuing its series of world premieres with notable performers — suggesting an eye for a New York move.
Now on stage is “Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story,” an original musical drama chronicling the story of the father of rock ‘n’ roll’ radio and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s attempt to stop the spread of the unwholesome music. The cast features.
Tony nominated performer Alan Campbell plays Freed with Emmy nominee George Wendt — Norm from the hit TV show “Cheers!” — as Hoover. Through Sunday, October 1.
“The Rocky Horror Show” is becoming almost an annual Halloween season presentation that started in 2013 with a fresh version directed by Hunter Foster and choreographed by Lorin Latarro — for adult audiences only. Friday, October 13, through Sunday, October 29.
“The New World” is a world premiere musical with book by the creator of the popular “Altar Boyz” and is a topical look at immigration — seen through the lens of a Native American tribe encountering the arrival of unruly Puritans — just in time for Thanksgiving. Tuesday, November 7, through Sunday, November 26.
The world premiere of “Ebenezer Scrooge’s BIG Playhouse Christmas Show” follows. Based on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the new work by writers Gordon Greenberg and Steve Rosen is being touted as “Five actors, three ladders, (and) lots of music and laughter.” Friday, December 8, through Sunday, December 31.
The new year brings two already established upbeat productions: “‘Til Death Do Us Part: Late Night Catechism” and “An Evening with Groucho” with Frank Ferrante recreating his New York to London to PBS performance of the major stage, film, radio, and TV comedy great, Grouch Marx. Wednesday, January 24, through Sunday, February 4, and Wednesday, February 14, through Sunday, February 25.
635 North Delmorr Avenue, Morrisville, Pennsylvania. 215-295-3694. www.actorsnetbucks.org.
It Can’t Happen Here. A cautionary tale following the ascent of a demagogue who becomes president of the U.S. by promising to return the country to greatness. Friday, October 13, through Sunday, October 29.
120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. 215-785-0100. www.brtstage.org.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. William Finn’s Tony Award-winning musical Tuesday, September 19, through Sunday, October 15.
Quartet. Cecily, Reggie, and Wilf live in a home for retired opera singers, where they take part in an annual concert. Tuesday, October 31, through Sunday, November 19.
Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, 609-570-3333. www.kelseytheatre.net.
Memphis. Music about a radio DJ who wants to change the world and a club singer who is ready for her big break. Through Sunday, September 17.
Barefoot in the Park. Play about two newlyweds Paul and Corie who couldn’t be more different. Friday, September 22, through Sunday, October 1.
Sleuth. The ultimate game of cat-and-mouse is played out in a cozy English country house owned by a celebrated mystery writer. Friday, October 6, through Sunday, October 15.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Based on the Victor Hugo novel. Friday, October 20, through Sunday, October 29.
Dogfight. A young soldier learns the power of compassion when he plays a cruel joke on an unsuspecting girl. Friday, November 3, through Sunday, November 12.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. $20. Friday, November 17, through Sunday, December 3.
The Honeymooners. Musical comedy inspired by the classic television series. Wednesday, October 4.
West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, West Windsor. 609-759-0045. www.pegasustheatrenj.org.
Chapter Two. Neil Simon’s romantic comedy. Friday, September 15, through Sunday, September 24.
721 Cranbury Road, East Brunswick. 732-254-3939. www.playhouse22.org.
My Fair Lady. Musical tale of a cockney flower girl transformed into an elegant lady. Through Sunday, September 24.
The Mousetrap. Agatha Christie’s mystery about a group of strangers stranded in a boarding house during a snow storm, one of whom is a murderer. Friday, November 3, through Sunday, November 19.
A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens’ holiday classic. Friday, December 8, through Sunday, December 17.
Somerset Valley Players
689 Amwell Road, Hillsborough, 908-369-7469. www.svptheatre.org.
Disaster!. It’s 1979, and New York’s hottest A-listers are lining up for the opening of a floating casino and discotheque. Through Sunday, September 24.
Dearly Departed. A southern comedy of caskets and country craziness that puts the “fun” in funeral. Friday, October 20, through Sunday, November 5.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The Herdman hijack the church Christmas pageant and begin to perform it in their own rough and tumble style. Friday, December 1, through Sunday, December 17.
15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. 732-246-7469. www.statetheatrenj.org.
Jersey Boys. Musical based on the true store of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Friday through Sunday, October 13 through 15.
Brain Candy Live!. Adam Savage, former co-host of MythBusters, and YouTube star Michael Stevens bring along more than three tons of toys, tools, and demonstrations for a celebration of curiosity. Wednesday, November 15.
The Sound of Music. New production of the musical story of Maria and the von Trapp family. Friday through Sunday, December 22 through 24.
475 Demott Lane, Somerset. 732-873-2710. www.villagerstheatre.com.
Equus. Psychiatrist Martin Dysart is confronted with Alan Strang, a boy who has blinded six horses in a violent fit of passion. Friday, October 6, through Sunday, October 22.
Avenue Q. Musical about a recent college grad named Princeton, who moves into a shabby New York apartment all the way out on Avenue Q. Friday, November 3, through Sunday, November 19.
Yvonne Theater, Rider University, Lawrenceville. www.rider.edu/arts.
Disenchanted: A Cabaret Production. Subversive musical version of “Snow White.” Not suitable for younger viewers. Friday through Sunday, December 8 through 10.
Rider University, 2038 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. www.rider.edu/arts.
Bonnie & Clyde. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow go from two small-town nobodies to America’s most renowned folk heroes. Thursday through Sunday, October 12 through 15.
The Good Person of Szechuan. When the gods reward the good Shen Te with a tobacco shop of her own, she is besieged by the poor asking for her charity and protection. Thursday through Sunday, October 26 through 29.
Disgraced. Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about Islamophobia. Wednesday through Sunday, November 15 through 19.