Now more than ever, it is time to look to the theater, not for escape from a world that appears to have run amok, but for a deeper understanding of the causes of our ills.
This is the gift that our regional theaters bring to us as they seek to entertain and challenge but not offend, to encourage thought and conversation but not alienate.
Yet what do people really want and expect from our regional theaters, given the essential need for us to be otherwise engaged and entertained?
This led inevitably to asking some of the artistic directors of our regional theaters about what they are doing to keep abreast and apace in the current social climate with their audiences. How do they stay fresh and connected to their subscribers? Does New Jersey have its own perspective? And what plays being produced this season are intended to be both challenging and diverting, possibly both at the same time?
91 University Place, Princeton. 609-258-2787. www.mccarter.org
Artistic Director Emily Mann says, “We begin to plan our seasons a few years in advance, so it’s difficult to say the choices reflect any specific political climate. I think the best works for the stage are stories where different people with different perspectives can take away different ideas.”
With regard to Douglas McGrath’s stage adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel “The Age of Innocence” that opened the season, Mann says, “Some may approach the piece as a fairy tale from long past, a story of love and tough choices in the Gilded Age. For others, though, it can be viewed as people operating in a gilded cage, trapped by a rigid society. I think we’re living in another gilded age right now, with much more awareness about the discrepancies between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, and that also connects to Edith Wharton’s amazing story.” Through Sunday, October 7.
Up next, Jade King Carroll is directing Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ’67,” a humdinger of a play about a brother and sister who are running an unlicensed after-hours joint with a little background support from the songs of Motown.
Mann says, “Morisseau is, of course, keenly aware of the political happenings (a thread in all of her works), but her stories are less about the history and more about families, about groups of people; getting to the heart and soul of ordinary people just trying to live their lives in the middle of extraordinary happenings.” Tuesday, October 9, through Sunday, October 28.
Certainly the community gets to be a large part of the experience when Christmas rolls around. David Thompson’s highly praised adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” will again be under the direction of Adam Immerwahr. He enlists 35 members from the greater Princeton area to bring this traditional production to life. Tuesday, December 4, through Saturday, December 29.
The new year begins with what is being described as a riveting two-person drama. “The Niceties” involves a polite clash between a black student and a white professor that turns urgent and dangerous. Kimberly Senior is directing this new play by Eleanor Burgess. Friday, January 11, through Sunday, February 10.
McCarter audiences are getting used to laughing even before the next new comedy by Ken Ludwig shows up. “Ken Ludwig’s The Gods of Comedy” appears under the direction of Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall. The play deals with a young Princeton classics professor who puts her career and her love life in peril and calls on the gods of ancient Greece to save her. Tuesday, March 12, through Sunday, March 31.
The London and Broadway award-winning hit “Skylight” under the direction of Emily Mann closes the season. Sunday, May 5, through Sunday, June 2.
I asked Mann if she might share a view of whether New Jersey itself has its own unique perspective when it comes to theater. “I wouldn’t presume to speak for other artists and theaters around the state, but being involved in the life of this theater keeps me engaged and energized every day. There’s nothing that brings people together like experiencing something together.”
Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. 609-392-0766. www.passagetheatre.org
New artistic director Ryanne Domingues — the co-founder and former producing artistic director of Simpatico Theater in Philadelphia — has a clear vision about staying fresh and connected to the audience and the community she serves. “I think it’s important for people to understand that going to theater is truly a conversation. All of the shows chosen for this season are my reaction to something happening in our community, and our programming is shifting as we see what people are looking for.”
Staying fresh can mean a lot of things as it does in the first main stage production of the season “Salt Pepper Ketchup.” In this play by Philadelphia-born Josh Wilder, a layer of bulletproof glass won’t protect Superstar Chinese Take-Out from the gentrification consuming the Point Breeze neighborhood in South Philly. When a trendy food co-op opens nearby, the Wus and their customers initially see it as a hipster annoyance, but as tensions mount they begin to recognize the intrusion as an act of war. Thursday, September 27, through Sunday, October 14.
“We have a lot of competition nowadays with television and the internet. People want to stay home, tune out, and turn on Netflix. A major part of what I do every day is to try to gently remind people that interaction and engagement with their community is not only healthy, but the only way things will change our society. We have to talk to each other face-to-face.” That face to face is considered in the other main stage production of the season: “Morir Sonynado” by Erlina Ortiz in which a mother and daughter confront long-buried pain when the mother is released from prison. Thursday, May 2, through Sunday, May 19.
“At Passage, we are doing our best to make that face-to-face interaction an exciting one. We are doing shows that we think will both challenge and entertain our community,” says Domingues, who is excited about introducing “Theater for Young Audiences.” It will be inaugurated Friday and Saturday, November 2 and 3, with a staged reading of “The Real Life Adventures of Jimmy de las Rosas,” about a telekinetic 13-year-old as he struggles to save his neighborhood from a rash of disappearances.
I asked Domingues if she feels challenged by the social climate and if it is addressed at Passage. “Well, it is a balance. I feel like there is so much happening right now that many people have a tendency to want to fight or hide their head in the sand. How do we keep the stamina we need to have the tough conversations that enable progress?
Addressing that conversation are the other plays “To My Unborn Child: A Letter from Fred Hampton” by Richard Bradford about a Black Panther murdered by the Chicago police (February 8 through 10) and “Bicycle Face” by Hannah Van Sciver, about a feminist theory class taught 150 years in the future (February 15 to 17). They are part of a new perspective for the Solo Flights.
Of special interest are free events such as the Community Dialogue that is coming up on Wednesday, September 19. “This community conversation will touch upon the themes of our first show of the season, include a panel of people specializing in the topic, and allow our audiences to join in the conversation before seeing the show. Additionally, all of our Sunday matinee performances this season will be followed by a talkback conversation. We really want the experience to be a dialogue,” says Domingues.
“My challenge,” she continues, “has been to find work that can provide our audiences with opportunities to both laugh and reflect. We want people to leave the theatre inspired, not drained. In a country that is incredibly divided, it can be hard to find shows that will speak to everyone. My hope is that whether a person likes a show or not, they find ways to discuss and dissect why they felt that way. That is where the conversation begins.
George Street Playhouse
103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick. 732-246-7717. www.GSPonline.org
Artistic director David Saint says, “Theater artists can speak out with the least amount of censorship and express their true feelings without having someone else trying to spin it.
“I want the season here to reflect the zeitgeist of what is going on …and it is all over the place,” says Saint.
The first place he cites is Parris Island and the Marines, the setting for “The Trial of Donna Caine.” “Gripping,” is the word he uses to describe this play by Walter Anderson that will have its world premiere under Saint’s direction.
Based on a real event, it speaks to the controversial initiative of President Obama to let women be trained for military combat. In it, a Jewish liberal attorney takes on the military establishment even as she is assigned to defend a conservative woman Marine Staff Sergeant accused of a crime. Saint reminds me that President Trump is at work to rescind that initiative. Tuesday, October 16, through Sunday, November 11.
“I’m always looking to Broadway to see what’s good for George Street,” is Saint’s segue to “A Doll’s House Part 2,” which as you may suspect begins where Ibsen’s classic leaves off and as Nora reopens that door she slammed so famously.
The audiences here like intimate plays where they feel close to the action, and this one, with the same characters from “A Doll’s House,” and which had a successful run on Broadway last season, appeals to the head and heart. Tuesday, November 27, through Sunday, December 23.
“Who knew that Laiona Michelle had this incredible singing voice?” Saint says about this actress who got rave notices for her dramatic performance in “American Hero” last season. This season she is portraying “Nina Simone: The High Priestess of Soul,” in a one-woman show that she developed and that, Saint says, “Blew us away at a reading that brought back to me of the excitement our audience experienced with ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.’” Tuesday, January 29, through Sunday, February 24.
What could be more timely and topical for production now than Mark Harelik’s biographical “The Immigrant” about his Jewish grandparents who find refuge in a small town in Texas with only a banana cart in tow at the beginning of the 20th century? Saint says, “It’s what our country stands for. We should also be asking ourselves, ‘How are we treating immigrants in the 21st century?’” Tuesday, March 12, through Sunday, April 7.
For the season finale, Saint chose “Too Heavy for Your Pocket” by up-and-coming African-American playwright Jereh Breon Holder. It’s all about a bright young college scholarship-bound African-American who changes the course of his life and that of his family and friends when he joins the Freedom Riders in the summer of 1961. I recall it as one of the best off Broadway plays I’d seen a few seasons back. Tuesday, April 23, through Sunday, May 19.
This season marks the end of the GSP’s temporary residency on College Farm Road. Next season GSP will be among the premier tenants in the newly erected New Brunswick’s Performing Arts Center on Livingston Avenue featuring two state-of-the-arts theaters.
Pegasus Theater Company
West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction. 609-759-0045. www.PegasusTheatreNJ.org
The nonprofit professional theater is celebrating its third season with the East Coast premiere of “Human Error.” Written by Ohio-born playwright, actor, and former cartoonist Eric Pfeffinger, the play focuses on a liberal couple who in their hopes of having a child by surrogate find themselves bonded to hardcore conservatives and forced to navigate social divides for nine months. Friday, September 21, through Sunday, September 30.
120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. 215-785-0100. www.brtstage.org.
The season opens with “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,” taking its name from Bombeck’s popular syndicated newspaper column where from 1965 to 1996 she humorously chronicled the ups and downs of being an American woman, wife, and mother in Ohio. She also penned the best-selling book with the quip-like title, “If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, Why Am I Doing in the Pits?” This one-person show was written by two other journalists — and the sisters — Allison and Margaret Engel. Tuesday, September 18, through Sunday, October 7.
The world premiere of a musical version of “The Rivals” is next. Based on the comedy by 18th-century Irish writer Richard Brinsley Sheridan, this new work features book and lyrics by Tony nominee Peter Kellogg (“Anna Karenina”) and music by Richard Rodgers Award winner Stephen Weiner (“the Honeymooners.”) Tuesday, October 30, through Sunday, November 18.
American playwright Ernest Thompson’s 1981 romantic drama “On Golden Pond” opens 2019. The popular story is set on a family’s lakefront summer home and deals with love, family, re-connection, and acceptance. Tuesday, January 22, through Sunday, February 10.
“The Sunshine Boys” in the late Neil Simon’s hit comedy are a famous vaudeville duo whose crankiness and stubbornness have stopped them from talking or working together for more than a decade. Until, that is, they’re reunited for a big TV show. Tuesday, March 12, through Sunday, March 31.
And the season concludes with “The Christians,” Obie Award-winning playwright Lucas Hnath’s play about a popular minister whose sermon upsets his congregation and forces them to ask questions about their beliefs and behaviors. The production is designed to include local community members alongside professional actors. Tuesday, April 30, through Sunday, May 19.
Bucks County Playhouse
70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. 215-862-2121. www.bcptheater.org
The currently running “Million Dollar Quartet” is shaking things up and bringing in audiences with a ’50s-era look at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. The play centers around the actual occasion when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins got together and made music at Sun Records Studio in Memphis. Extended to Saturday, September 29.
Richard O’Brien’s adaptation of “The Rocky Horror Show,” based on the 1975 cult film, returns for the Halloween season to once again follow an innocent couple seeking shelter in the home of one of theater’s most famous transvestites, Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter. New this year, the theater is providing “authorized prop bags” at all seats. Friday, October 12, through Sunday, October 28.
New Jersey-born playwright Paul Rudnik’s 1991 hit comedy “I Hate Hamlet” appears next. The story is about a TV star who hates the play “Hamlet” but agrees to perform the role in Central Park. He finds help from an unexpected mentor, the ghost of noted Shakespearean actor and theater legend John Barrymore. Thursday, November 8, through Saturday, December 1.
Then the theater gets in the holiday mood with the return “Ebenezer Scrooge’s BIG Playhouse Christmas Show,” which premiered in 2017. It’s a sharp, breezy, and heartfelt take on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — one that has Scrooge transplanted to New Hope. Friday, December 7, through Sunday, December 30.
Crossroads Theater is still in the process of arranging its schedule while the company awaits its return to a permanent location. Meanwhile, audiences can follow the theater at www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.
635 North Delmorr Avenue, Morrisville, PA, 215-295-3694. www.actorsnetbucks.org.
Is He Dead? Comedy by Mark Twain, as adapted by David Ives. $20. Friday, September 28, through Sunday, October 14.
The Lion in Winter. Dramatic comedy by James Goldman. $20. Friday, November 30, through Sunday, December 16.
The Importance of Being Earnest. Farce by Oscar Wilde. $20. Friday, January 18, through Sunday, February 3.
A Winter’s Tale. Comedy by Shakespeare. $20. Friday, March 1, through Sunday, March 17.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Adult play by Adly Guirgis. $20. Friday, April 26, through Sunday, May 12.
Exit the King. Absurdist dramedy by Eugene Ionesco. $20. Friday, May 31, through Sunday, June 16.
Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. Musical tale of a man’s life by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. $20. Friday, July 12, through Sunday, July 28.
College of New Jersey
Kendall Theater, Ewing, www.music.tcnj.edu.
Urinetown. A musical comedy about inequality, oppression, justice, and reclaiming individual rights. Friday through Sunday, November 2 through 4.
1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, 609-570-3333. www.kelseytheatre.net.
Newsies: The Musical. $20. Through Sunday, September 16.
Fun Home. A musical about seeing your parents through grown-up eyes. Friday, September 21, through Sunday, September 30.
American Idiot. Friends try to break out of their post-9/11, aimless, suburban existence. Featuring the music of Green Day. Friday, October 5, through Sunday,
A Raisin in the Sun. Lorraine Hansberry’s classic work about a black working class family struggling to achieve the American Dream. Friday, October 19, through Sunday, October 28.
Beauty and the Beast. The Disney classic. Friday, November 2, through Sunday, November 11.
A Christmas Story: The Musical. $20. Based on the classic film. Saturday, November 17, through Sunday, December 2.
Noises Off. Friday, January 11, through Sunday, January 20.
Zorro: The Musical. Friday, January 25, through Sunday, February 3.
Love Letters. Friday through Sunday, February 8 through 10.
Four Weddings and an Elvis. Friday, February 15, through Sunday, February 24.
Peter and the Starcatcher. Friday, March 8, through Sunday, March 17.
The Sound of Music. Friday, March 22, through Sunday, March 31.
Sunset Boulevard. Friday, April 5, through Sunday, April 14.
Return to Forbidden Planet. Friday, April 26, through Sunday, May 5.
Inherit the Wind. Friday, May 24, through Sunday, June 2.
25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Friday, June 7, through Sunday, June 16.
Macbeth. Shakespeare’s tragedy. Friday, June 21, through Sunday, June 30.
Crazy for You. Friday, July 12, through Sunday, July 21.
Tom Sawyer. Based on Mark Twain’s novel. Friday, July 26, through Sunday, August 3.
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343. www.papermill.org.
The Color Purple. Moving musical based on the novel by Alice Walker. Wednesday, September 26, through Sunday, October 21.
Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. Musical based on the Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire film. Wednesday, November 21, through Sunday, December 30.
My Very Own British Invasion. A fable of young love set against the backdrop of the exploding 1960s music scene. Thursday, January 31, through Sunday, March 3.
721 Cranbury Road, East Brunswick, 732-254-3939. www.playhouse22.org.
Little Shop of Horrors. Sci-fi musical about a carnivorous plant. Friday, September 14, through Sunday, September 30.
Noises Off. A manic menagerie of itinerant actors rehearse a flop called Nothing’s On. Friday, November 2, through Sunday, November 18.
A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens’ classic tale. Friday, December 7, through Sunday, December 16.
Proof. Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about the daughter of a famous mathematician confronting her own emotions. Friday, February 1, through Sunday, February 17.
Into the Woods. Stephen Sondheim’s musical retelling of classic fairy tales. Friday, March 29, through Sunday, April 14.
Man of La Mancha. Musical inspired by Don Quixote. Friday, June 14, through Sunday, June 30.
Yvonne Theater, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, 609-896-7775. www.rider.edu.
Oklahoma! The classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. $20-$25. Wednesday through Sunday, October 10 through 14.
These Seven Sicknesses Part I. Sophocles’ seven surviving plays combined with music and food to present a portrait of the human condition. Presented in two parts. Tuesday, November 6, through Saturday, November 17.
These Seven Sicknesses Part II. Sophocles’ seven surviving plays combined with music and food to present a portrait of the human condition. Presented in two parts. Wednesday, November 7, through Saturday, November 17.
Jerry’s Girl. A tribute to the all-American master of song, Jerry Herman. Free. Friday through Sunday, December 7 through 9.
Somerset Valley Players
689 Amwell Road, Hillsborough, 908-369-7469. www.svptheatre.org.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe – The Songs of Leiber and Stoller. In an idealized 1950s setting, the classic themes of love won, lost and imagined blend with slice-of-life emotions. Friday, September 14, through Sunday, September 23.
Wait Until Dark. A sinister con man and two ex-convicts meet their match during a deadly game of cat and mouse. Friday, October 19, through Sunday, November 4.
A Seussified Christmas Carol. A whimsical reinvention of Dickens’ most beloved Christmas story in wacky rhymed couplets. Friday, November 30, through Sunday, December 16.
15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. www.statetheatrenj.org.
Something Rotten. Musical comedy set in 1595, when brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom set out to write the world’s first musical. Friday and Saturday, November 2 and 3.
The King and I. Musical comedy set in Bangkok about the unlikely relationship between the King of Siam and a British schoolteacher. Friday and Saturday, December 14 and 15.
Stomp. Eight-member percussion troupe using everything but traditional instruments. Friday and Saturday, January 11 and 12.
Chicago. Musical about Roxie Hart, who hires Chicago’s slickest lawyer to avoid be convicted for the murder of her husband. Friday through Sunday, February 15 through 17.
Finding Neverland. The story of playwright J.M. Barrie as he creates Peter Pan. Friday and Saturday, March 22 and 23.
475 Demott Lane, Somerset, 732-873-2710. www.villagerstheatre.com.
Our Town. Thornton Wilder’s classic. Friday, September 14, through Sunday, September 23.
The Wedding Singer. Based on the Adam Sandler movie. Friday, November 2, through Sunday, November 18.
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn. 973-376-4343 www.papermill.org.
Under the artistic leadership of Mark Hoebee for the past 11 years, the venerable playhouse is celebrating its 80th anniversary. Famed for its extravagantly staged productions that rival anything on Broadway, it boasts a season of classics and world premieres. Each of this season’s five shows promises subscribers three past Broadway hits and two world premieres.
Opening the season is “The Color Purple,” a musical based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Academy Award-nominated film. Hoebee is pleased to be producing the critically acclaimed version John Doyle directed that “stripped away the trappings and got to the heart of the story.” The great news is that Doyle will be directing it again at the Paper Mill. Wednesday, September 26, through Sunday, October 21.
Up next is “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn,” a terrific stage version of the classic movie that integrates 20 songs from the Berlin catalog, including, of course, “White Christmas” and even “Easter Parade.” Except for a new cast, the same creative team, including the choreography of Denis Jones (also “Mary Poppins” for the Playhouse) that made it a smash on Broadway will be staging it here. Wednesday, November 21, to Sunday, December 30.
The 1960s is revisited in the world premiere of “My Very Own British Invasion” which features songs from Herman’s Hermits, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and other legendary bands. “I fell in love with the show at a workshop in New York and knew I had to produce it here.” Jerry Mitchell (“Pretty Woman”) will be directing. Thursday, January 31, through Sunday, March 3.
Many of us have fond memories of the 1993 film “Benny & Joon,” so there is hope that its celebration of love between children and parents will be tenderly transferred to the stage. Hoebee calls this show, which premiered at the Old Globe, “very special. The Paper Mill is particularly committed to serving the needs of the community and of people who are mentally challenged.” Thursday, April 4, through Sunday, May 5.
Hoebee doesn’t shy from telling me “I played the pepper-shaker in the original production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” on Broadway.” He will be directing but not appearing in this wonderful and spectacular musical that closes the season. Wednesday, May 29, through Sunday, June 30.
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600 www.ShakespeareNJ.org
Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director for the past 28 years, makes a case for the classic theater revealing just about everything we need in order to understand the current political and social climate.
There is no hesitation in Monte’s voice when she says, “The political and social climate has influenced my choice of plays every year since the beginning. Classic plays give us historical context and perspective.
“We’ve never done a play by Sam Shepard, who passed away last year. I felt this was the perfect time to bring his Pulitzer Prize-winning and I believe his best play, ‘Buried Child,’ to the stage. It is a dark, funny, and unsettling play that depicts an American dream gone wrong. It also addresses the apparent fear that some Americans have of being pushed out of their own country by newcomers.” Wednesday, September 19, through Wednesday, November 7.
Dark comedy sometimes needs an antidote and for Monte it is the classic 19th-century British farce “Charley’s Aunt,” more familiar to modern audiences in its musical incarnation as “Where’s Charley.” Sans music but filled with improbable disguise and inescapable dilemmas, this farce is strictly for laughs and as Monte informs me, “It was one of the most produced plays in the world in the early part of the 20th century.” It is worth nothing that Director Paul Mullins (“Buried Child”) and Director Joe Discher (“Charley’s Aunt”) have been with Monte for the past 28 years and as she emphasizes, “they were trained here. Very talented and very loyal.” Wednesday, October 24, to Sunday, November 18.
Monte chose Shakespeare’s dramatic romance about rebirth and reunions, “A Winter’s Tale,” as the holiday offering. A darker view of the play as I recall it and one that Monte concurs is how people can sometimes choose to believe in an untruth despite all the evidence to the contrary. Shakespeare, however, makes sure that love wins the day. Wednesday, December 5, through Sunday, December 30.
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch. 732-229-3166 www.njrep.org
“We have been producing almost exclusively new works for over 20 years, essentially building a niche audience,” says artistic director SuzAnne Barabas. “In our selections we are attracted to fresh theatrical voices, to plays that explore the human condition and without shying away from provocative stories or ideas.” Working as a team with her husband, Gabor Barabas, who serves as the company’s executive director, they have come to know their audience. “Our audience is excited by the uncertainty and by the excitement that when they sit in our theater they know they are participating in the birth of a new play.”
Highly anticipated is the world premiere of “Wolf at the Door” by award-winning playwright Marisela Trevino Orta. Inspired by Latino folk lore and mythology, it is about a woman who finds the strength to stand up to her abusive husband and the price she must pay for her courage. Though Trevino Orta began her career as a poet she segued into dramatic literature because she found poetry too lonely a craft. Thursday, October 18, through Sunday, November 18.
Just as exciting as is their seasons of world premieres is the second season for the N.J. Rep’s West End Festival of the Arts this year called “When the Circus Comes to Town.” This, in their new and additional venue, West End Arts Center at 132 West End Avenue, that showcases both performing and visual arts. 32 short plays, live music, poetry, art and photography shows will be presented. Thursday, September 20, through Sunday, September 30.