Every fall, the anticipation of a new theater season brings with it a flood of conflicted feelings. I want to see everything . . . and can’t. Time constraints and traveling limitations allow only so many opportunities to see many of the worthwhile shows being presented by the 22 professional theaters in the state, and that doesn’t account for another 13 theater companies that are rated as “emerging” to meet the high standards of approval set forth by the New Jersey Theater Alliance — that is in order to qualify as “professional.”
And this is not to say that many of the non-professional community theaters in our state are less worthy of your attention and support. I’d attend a lot more theater in New Jersey were it not for all the Broadway and Off Broadway shows that I am committed and obligated to see and review as an awards voter for the Drama Desk and as nominator and president of the Outer Critics Circle. But it’s my calling and I embrace it with no regrets.
While New Jersey theater lovers can be assured of excellent productions to suit their taste at all of the professional theaters, there comes the moment of decision when one has to pick and choose, whether because of location, cost of a subscription or that of a single ticket, or from your past experience with a theater company.
The theory that a subscription is the way to go because of the savings can be off-set by being committed to the entire season. On the other hand, single ticket purchasing is not cost-effective, but you do get to see only what you want. My hope is that you will look over the entire listing and use my article and the theaters that I picked only as a jumping off point, as these are the theaters that I attend regularly and can attest to their commitment to excellence.
I hope that my brief exchanges with some of the producers and artistic directors will prompt you to make a commitment to at least one or more of these theaters, or even those that are not included in my article but are certainly deserving of your interest. A visit to the theaters’ websites will also give you information about special deals, outreach programs, and discounts.
Crossroads Theater Company
What I have found to be extraordinary and revelatory is the diversity in the missions of our most highly profiled theaters: missions that reflect and also respond to a variety of tastes. Crossroads has had its economic and artistic ups and downs for the past 36 years. This is the company that won the Tony for Best Regional Theater in 1999 and has been celebrating “the culture , history, spirit, and voice of the entire African Diaspora” since it was founded in 1978 — a legacy that its artistic producing director Marshall Jones III assures me that he is committed to continuing.
I had a short phone chat with Jones just before he was off to London for an enviable 10 days of theater. He shares the exciting news that instead of directing the first Crossroads play of the season, he will instead be in New York City directing Walter Mosley’s suspenseful play “Lift, ” which was developed and premiered at Crossroads last spring. It is being produced this fall with the same cast at 59E59 Theaters from Tuesday, October 21, to Sunday, November 30, again under Jones’ direction.” So if you missed it at Crossroads, here is your second chance to see this Crossroads hit.
Although Jones says that Crossroads’ goal is to produce plays that they develop, that isn’t always possible. “We are excited, however, when we find other plays that fit our goal,” he says. That includes the first play of the season “Letters From Zora: In Her Own Words,” which opens Friday, October 9. Vanessa Bell Calloway stars as the controversial and lauded African-American Harlem Renaissance author in this one-person play by Gabriella Denise Pina. It was so well received when it premiered last year at the Pasadena Playhouse under the direction of Anita Dashiell-Sparks that it was brought back for an unprecedented return engagement. Crossroads wouldn’t mind that happening to them.
Jones, however, will be directing this February the highly anticipated “Preparing a Nation” by Michelle Salter, that he explains as a “metaphorical play dealing with the controversial subject of reparations for African-Americans as it applies to one family.” Jones believes “it has the potential to be a 21st century classic.”
Great expectations are pinned on Richard Wesley’s “Autumn,” a new play about “the mayor of a large city who is pegged by the National Democratic Committee to make a run to become the first African-American governor of the state, until a change in plans puts their support behind his young protege.” The play’s run starts Friday, April 24.
This is the fifth year for “Holiday Jubilee,” a joyous revue under the direction of Rick Sordelet beginning Thursday, December 11. Kids are admitted free to this family show with the purchase of an adult ticket. Jones expresses his hope that the many funding organizations such as the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation (“they have been truly wonderful to us”) will continue to see the progress that Crossroads has made to maintain what Jones calls its “authenticity.”
George Street Playhouse
With GSP’s artistic director David Saint away in preparation for the season, I had the opportunity to speak with managing director Kelly Ryman, whose association with the theater goes back 14 years as their director of marketing. Who knows better than Ryman, even in her new capacity (her second year) to oversee the business side of running the theater what it takes to please the 4,000 (and growing) subscribers and continue to attract new audiences to keep all of its 350 seats filled?
And how could anyone named Kelly not be tickled with the play that Saint picked (and will be directing) to open the season? The play is “Outside Mullingar,” a touch of romantic malarkey on the Emerald Isle by John Patrick Shanley (“Doubt” “Moonstruck”) — a hit on Broadway last season. It opens Tuesday, October 7.
GSP favorite Michael Mastro will be directing “The Fabulous Lipitones” a musical written by John Markus and Mark St. Germain (co-writers on the “The Cosby Shows”) about a barbershop group that needs to find a replacement for the lead tenor who has just died only one week before a national competition. The play’s first night is Tuesday, November 18.
If my endorsement counts even before it opens, please make a point to see “The Whipping Man” (on stage Tuesday, January 20) by Matthew Lopez, the 2011 winner of the Outstanding New Off Broadway Play Award from the Outer Critics Circle. About a wounded, Jewish African-American Confederate soldier who returns to his family home, it has deservedly become one of the most produced plays in the country.
If you don’t mind laughing until it hurts then “Buyer and Cellar” (opening Sunday, February 15) is a play you don’t want to miss about an underemployed actor who gets a job working in the basement “mall” of a famous actress — with more than a passing similarity to Barbra Streisand.
Saint will be directing the season finale, the 25th anniversary production of John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” an absorbing story about fame, celebrity, and social standing. It strikes me when Ryman says, “Seeing it 25 years ago changed my perception of theater.” It made me think also how GSP must have helped to change the perception of theater for many of its subscribers over the past 40 years since its founding. “Six Degrees of Separation” starts Tuesday, April 21.
McCarter Theater Center is as receptive to multi-cultural theater as it is also to keeping a truly eclectic balance of classic and new plays that unquestionably reflect the “challenging” aesthetic of its artistic director, Emily Mann. The challenge paid off with the theater winning the 1994 Tony for Outstanding Regional Theater. A more recent big winner for McCarter was the 2013 Best Play Tony Award for “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a play commissioned, developed, and premiered at McCarter. For those who missed this loony comedy there or during its successful run on Broadway, it will be among the shows this season at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
The McCarter season begins with Shakespeare’s “Antony & Cleopatra” (starting Friday, September 5) and is notable for the casting of gorgeous Nicole Ari Parker as the queen of Egypt. Undoubtedly it was Parker’s performance as Blanche in Mann’s staging of “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway in 2012 that triggered this reunion.
McCarter’s associate artistic director Adam Immerwahr will be directing Theresa Rebeck’s “The Understudy,” a very funny play about what can go wrong when an understudy creates friction backstage. Previews begin Thursday, October 14.
If you have already made it a tradition or have just heard how wonderful it is, keep in mind that the annual and very spectacular production of “A Christmas Carol,” under the direction of Michael Unger will be a tough ticket this December, so get yours now.
“Sizwe Banzi is Dead,” one of South African playwright Athol Fugard’s most powerful plays, first astounded us 40 years ago. It is back with the acclaimed stars John Kani and Winston Ntshona in a co-production with the Market Theater and Syracuse Stage. Previews begin Friday, January 16.
Given that the playwright’s name is part of the title, just know that “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” is by the author of “Lend Me A Tenor,” so you can start laughing now at this world premiere, on stage starting Tuesday, March 10.
To end the season, Mann will be directing the new play “Five Mile Lake” by Rachel Bonds, in which a group of “young people yearn to make the right choices.” The play enters previews on Friday, May 1.
Paper Mill Playhouse
If there is one theater in New Jersey that comes the closest to the New York experience, it is the Paper Mill Playhouse, with productions that rival anything on Broadway. Producer/artistic director Mark S. Hoebee is clear about the direction the Playhouse is taking to please its 20,000 subscribers, whom he calls “the backbone of our theater,” especially after focus group and surveys show that “audience and age demographics are opposite of what we originally thought. We are getting substantially younger audiences, young urban transplants who are starting families in our backyard.”
Hoebee says that the five shows that have been chosen from the 16 to 25 titles considered reflect this younger and family-friendly audience. This season is notable for its mix of familiar titles with a couple of high-profile world premieres.
The season opens Wednesday, October 1, with the Cole Porter musical “Can-Can” that boasts a revised book that Hoebee says is “90 percent new” by co-authors Joel Fields and David Lee (“Cheers” and “Frazier”) with the latter directing with an eye for Broadway.
The Broadway hit “Elf” (starting Wednesday, November 26) will be the holiday attraction to be followed by the only straight play this season, Tony Award winner “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (starting Wednesday, January 21) by New Jersey’s own Christopher Durang.
There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the long-awaited, decidedly darker-toned stage version of the 1996 animated Disney musical “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with a score by Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken and a new book by Peter Parnell. Wednesday, March 4, will be the East Coast premiere of this co-production between San Diego’s La Jolla Theater and Disney Theatricals. According to Hoebee, “There are no plans as yet by Disney to move it to Broadway,” as happened with “Newsies,” the previous collaboration between Disney and the Playhouse.
To cap the season, Kathleen Marshall will direct and choreograph the musical version of the Drew Barrymore film “Ever After,” a re-telling of the Cinderella story with a book and lyrics by newcomers Marcy Heisler and music by Zina Goldrich. Hoebee says it is “their first major undertaking.” The results are on stage beginning Wednesday, May 21.
While Hoebee says that he is not undertaking the direction of any show this season — “My first break from directing in 13 years” — he is, nevertheless, making sure that “we stay true to our mission.”
New Jersey Repertory Company
This intimate theater is admirable and rewarding in many ways. Under the combined artistic and executive direction of husband and wife team Gabe and Suzanne Barabas, it is not only fulfilling its mission to develop and produce new plays that will make lasting contributions to the American stage, but also as Gabe says, “steadily increasing its subscriber base (unlike the national trend) since 2010. It is now topping 700 — remarkable for a 62-seat theater.
Plays at this year-round theater enjoy five-week runs. Many of those that begin here go on to successful runs in New York, London and regionally across the U.S. Here’s a bonus: It is only a couple of streets from the ocean, the invigorating boardwalk in beautiful Long Branch, and it is close to lots of fine dining.
Always in full swing, the stage currently hosts the world premiere of Dan Lauria’s “Dinner With the Boys,” a satire about gangsters who talk nonsense and eat glorious food. Opening Thursday, October 23, is another world premiere, “Angels and Ministers of Grace Defend Us,” by Elaine Smith, in which a sister who can’t stop making craft angels tries to unravel her eccentric family’s problems.
Oh, to be 29 again is wishful thinking for some of us, but it’s the wonderful reality for this Trenton-based theater that has made it a mission during that time to be passionately connected to the community it serves. Its impassioned (there’s no better word to describe her) artistic director June Ballinger says, “We choose not only new work but plays that speak to and reflect the community.”
A play with a surprisingly direct connection to Trenton is “The Little Rock Nine,” beginning Thursday, October 2. Rajendra Maharaji has written a book with music that tells the story of the nine black students who fought for integration in the Little Rock High School in 1957. Ballinger says, “The play was brought to my attention by Emily Mann of McCarter, where they did a reading of it, and who declared, ‘Passage should be doing this!’”
Reminding me that “Passage is also committed to producing work with socially responsible and relevant themes,” Ballinger is excited to be presenting “The Gun Show,” a solo show about America’s most favorite pastime that premiered in Chicago, beginning Friday, January 23.
This May life gets complex for Franny and Andy in “The Goldilocks Zone.” Why? Because she can’t conceive, he’s gay, and they both want a baby. Let’s see how playwright Ian August and director Damon Bonetti handle that situation. We already know how impressively Ballinger has handled the goals of Passage as a place “to transform a community through arts and transform lives through the power of live theater.”
Shakespeare Theater of NJ
For 51 years the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey has been celebrating the greatest of the world’s dramatic literature, classics, and contemporary plays that you can rest assured benefit from the superior productions under the artistic direction of Bonnie J. Monte. The season that begins in May is already half over, but what is still ahead looks wonderful.
With Monte taking a breather away from the theater following her acclaimed direction of “The Alchemist,” I spoke about the rest of the season with Madison resident and recently appointed artistic associate and casting director Stephen Brown-Fried, whose association with STNJ goes back 23 years beginning as a sixth grader in an outreach program.
“What I like best about our season is that it has given audiences lots of opportunities to laugh.” Well maybe not so much during the upcoming “stream-lined version” of Henry VIII,” beginning Wednesday, October 15. As Brown-Fried sees it, we can relate to the royal scandals in Henry’s court in the same way we do with those in “The West Wing” and “House of Cards.”
But there is laughter immediately ahead with David Davalos’ merry and witty play “Wittenberg,” within the university’s halls young student Hamlet wrestles with the notions of Martin Luther and Doctor Faustus. The play opens Wednesday, September 10.
For the holidays, it’s the Bard’s comedic romp “Much Ado About Nothing,” opening Wednesday, December 3, featuring the renowned Scott Wentworth and his wife Marion Adler as the bickering Benedict and Beatrice in a production that will be framed by a very white Christmas. As Monte’s right hand man, Brown-Fried says that he sees the season as reflecting her daring vision and her bold sense of theater. I couldn’t agree more.
In addition to the above members of the New Jersey Theater Alliance, there are other companies that attract central New Jersey theater audiences — including those across the Delaware River — and have also posted their new seasons.
Among them: Bristol Riverside Theater in Bristol, Pennsylvania, and the Bucks County Play House in New Hope, Pennsylvania. And here in New Jersey Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Theater continues its 30th anniversary year.
635 North Delmorr Avenue, Morrisville, PA, 215-295-3694, www.actorsnetbucks.org.
The Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Trinity Victory Church. $20. Through Sunday, September 28.
Equivocation. $20. Through Sunday, November 9. Friday, October 24.
Cheaper by the Dozen. $20. Through Sunday, December 21. Friday, December 5.
120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100, www.brtstage.org.
Menopause the Musical. Written by Jeanie Linders. Through Sunday, September 14. Wednesday, September 10.
The 39 Steps. Comedy based on Alfred Hitchcock. Through Sunday, October 26. Tuesday, September 30.
Lost in Yonkers. Coming of age story. Through Sunday, November 30. Tuesday, November 11.
Bucks County Playhouse
70 South Main Street, New Hope, 215-862-2121, www.bcptheater.org.
Ain’t Misbehavin’. The music of Fats Waller directed by Hunter Foster. Through Sunday, September 7.
The WTYT 960 Billboard Sitters. $19.60 to $49.60. Through Saturday, October 11. Tuesday, October 7.
The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron? Through Sunday, November 23. Wednesday, November 12.
Season Finale. Through Sunday, December 28. Tuesday, December 2.
7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-545-8100, www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.
Letters from Zora: In Her Own Words. Multi-sensory dramatization of personal letter explores Zora Neale Hurston’s views on integration, segregation, and social justice. Vanessa Bell Calloway plays the title role. Through Sunday, October 26. Thursday, October 9.
Holiday Jubilee. Family show is a multi-cultural celebration of the holidays. Through Sunday, December 21. Thursday, December 11.
9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717, www.gsponline.org.
Comedy Special. Live taping of “A Simple Man,” Jim Florentine’s show. He was raised in Old Bridge and started his comedy career in New Brunswick. General seating. Register. $15. Saturday, September 13.
Outside Mullingar. Romantic comedy by John Patrick Shanley stars Ellen McLaughlin as Rosemary. Opening night Friday, October 10. Through Sunday, November 2. $41 to $68. Tuesday, October 7.
The Fabulous Lipitones. A capella musical comedy by John Markus and Mark St. Germain. Opening night is Friday, November 21. Through Sunday, December 14. Tuesday, November 18.
1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, 609-570-3333, www.kelseytheatre.net.
Kiss Me, Kate. Musical comedy based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” presented by PinnsWorth Productions. $20. Cole Porter’s musical score includes “Too Darn Hot,” Wunderbar,” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Through Sunday, September 21. Friday, September 12.
The Mousetrap. Agatha Christie murder mystery presented by Yardley Players. $18. Through Sunday, October 5. Friday, September 26.
The Secret Garden. Musical based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett is presented by Pierrot Productions. $20. Through Sunday, October 19. Friday, October 10.
Count Dracula. Bram Stoker’s novel is presented by Maurer Productions OnStage. $18. Through Sunday, November 2. Friday, October 24.
Jesus Christ Superstar. Rock musical based Christ’s last week of life is presented by Playful Theater Productions. $20. Through Sunday, November 16. Friday, November 7.
Miracle on 34th Street. Family holiday drama presented by M&M Stage Productions. $18. Through Sunday, November 30. Friday, November 21.
91 University Place, 609-258-2787, www.mccarter.org.
Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare play combines history, tragedy, and romance. Esau Pritchett and Nicole Ari Parker play the title roles. Emily Mann directs. Music by Mark Katsaounis on percussion. Opening night is Friday, September 12. Through Sunday, October 5. Friday, September 5.
The Understudy. Comedy set behind the scenes on Broadway. Through Sunday, November 2. Tuesday, October 14.
A Christmas Carol. Holiday classic by Charles Dickens. $20 to $60. Through Sunday, December 28. Saturday, December 6.
NJ Repertory Co.
179 Broadway, Long Branch, 732-229-3166, www.njrep.org.
Dinner With the Boys. A world premiere comedy. $35. Through Sunday, October 5. Thursday, September 11.
Angels and Ministers of Grace Defend Us. A world premiere drama. $40. Through Sunday, November 9. Thursday, October 9.
5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766, www.off-broadstreet.com.
A Little Murder Never Hurt Anybody. Comedy spoof of 1930s comedies and stage mysteries. $29.50 to $31.50 includes dessert. Through Saturday, September 27.
The Gin Game. Drama about a woman in her twilight years. $29.50 to $31.50 includes dessert. Through Saturday, November 8. Friday, October 10.
Little Women. Musical based on the life of Louisa May Alcott and her sisters. $29.50 to $31.50 includes dessert. Through Saturday, January 3, 2015. Friday, November 21.
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343, www.papermill.org.
Can-Can. Cole Porter musical featuring Kate Baldwin as Pistache and Jason Danieley as Aristide. $28 to $99. Through Sunday, October 26. Wednesday, October 1.
Elf. Holiday musical based on the film. Through Sunday, January 4, 2015. Wednesday, November 26.
205 East Front Street, Trenton, 609-392-0766, www.passagetheatre.org.
The Little Rock Nine. Through Sunday, October 26. Thursday, October 2.
721 Cranbury Road, East Brunswick, 732-254-3939, www.playhouse22.org.
Putting It Together. Musical. $22. Through Sunday, September 28. Friday, September 12.
Mame. Musical. $22. Through Sunday, November 23. Friday, November 7.
A Christmas Carol. Classic story adapted and directed by Tony Adase. $15. Through Sunday, December 21. Friday, December 12.
Luedeke Theater, Rider University, Lawrence, 609-896-7775, www.rider.edu.
A Doctor in Spite of Himself. By Moliere. Aapted by Steven Epp and Christopher Bayes. Directed by Carter Gill. $9. Through Sunday, November 2. Wednesday, October 29.
Spitz Theater, 609-213-8268.
Rider Theater: Fall New Play Festival. Brand new plays by area playwrights performed by Rider University students as staged readings. A different play will be presented each day of the festival. Free. Through Sunday, November 9. Friday, November 7.
Theater of NJ
F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600, www.shakespearenj.org.
Wittenberg. $35 to $70. Through Sunday, September 28. Wednesday, September 10.
Henry VIII. $35 to $70. Through Sunday, November 16. Wednesday, October 15.
Much Ado About Nothing. $35 to $70. Through Sunday, December 28. Wednesday, December 3.
689 Amwell Road, Hillsborough, 908-369-7469, www.svptheatre.org.
I Hate Hamlet. Comedy by Paul Rudnick about a television performer. $18. Through Sunday, September 28. Friday, September 12.
Footloose. Musical. $20. Through Sunday, November 9. Friday, October 24.
Humbug. $18. Through Sunday, Decmeber 21. Friday, December 5.
475 DeMott Lane, Somerset, 732-873-2710, www.villagerstheatre.com.
A Streetcar Named Desire. Drama. $15. Through Sunday, September 28. Friday, September 12.
The Woman in Black. Drama. $15. Through Sunday, October 19. Friday, October 10.
Hair. Musical. $20. Through Sunday, November 23. Friday, November 7.
Washington Crossing Open Air Theater
355 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville, 267-885-9857, www.dpacatoat.com.
Thoroughly Modern Millie. Musical. $15. Through Sunday, September 7.
Big. Musical. $15. Through Sunday, September 21. Friday, September 12.
Fiddler on the Roof. Musical. $15. Through Sunday, October 5. Friday, September 26.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Musical. $15. Through Sunday, October 19. Friday, October 10.