"When I go to the theater, I don’t want to have to think, I just want to be entertained.” How often have we heard those words? I’m not going to dwell on the obvious response except to propose to you the following: Considering how that any intelligent person might actually have the ability let alone the inclination to shut down all brain function when going to the theater is almost unimaginable. Of course, what I suspect those people are saying is that they prefer to leave all their personal problems and those of the world outside.
What they should realize (assuming that they are thinking) is no matter how serious, controversial, scary, or disturbing a play or musical is it still affords us an escape. After all, isn’t it why we get together in the dark? Going to the theater allows us time and the opportunity to consider and appreciate the dramatic creations and efforts of visual and performing artists who have made the decision and the commitment to think, if you prefer, for us.
The artistic and executive staffs of New Jersey’s 22 professional theaters as well as the 13 in the process of “emerging” (to meet the high standards of approval set forth by the New Jersey Theater Alliance to qualify as “professional”) make a concerted effort every year to think about how to create a season of shows that balances the frivolous with the topical, the timely with the classical. The issue for survival, especially in these days of reduced private and corporate donations and government funding, is always selling the largest number of tickets while maintaining the artistic integrity and mission of the theater.
I hope that my brief exchanges with some of the producers and artistic directors of theaters I attend with regularity will prompt you to make a commitment to at least one or more of them, or even those that are not included in my article but are certainly deserving of your interest. Although my comments about the plays, except for the world premieres, are often likely based on my having seen them in New York as an awards-voting member of the Drama Desk and as president of the Outer Critics Circle, most productions are generally given a completely new look, not to mention casting and direction. You may also feel confident that the best of best have been chosen.
This makes a repeat visit especially rewarding to me. There has been more than one occasion when the New Jersey production was an improvement. Conversely, New Jersey theatergoers often get a first look at new plays and musicals before they are produced in New York. That’s a very exciting plus. A visit to the theaters’ websites also gives information about deals, outreach programs, and discounts.
Once again I would like to mention that my intention is to whet your appetite for the live theater experience and not to single out certain theaters as being more worthy of your consideration than others.
91 University Place, Princeton, 609-258-2787, www.mccarter.org.
Emily Mann, artistic director of McCarter is right in the middle of rehearsals for “Baby Doll,” the first of the two plays that she will be directing this season. And it doesn’t come as a surprise to have her express her enthusiasm for a season that finds her working on plays by some of the greatest playwrights of all time. “I really mean that,” she says calling attention first to “Baby Doll,” a production that she says “is very close to my heart.”
“For the past several years, I have been working with French playwright and translator Pierre Laville on a new stage adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1950s film masterpiece, about the naive ‘Baby Doll,’ her controlling and pathetic husband and their Sicilian neighbor. I have long been charmed and disturbed by this story set on a decaying Southern estate in the deep heat of summer.”
I’m inclined to agree with Mann, that “Baby Doll” in addition to boasting a sterling cast — including Patricia Conolly, Susannah Hoffman, Robert Joy, and Dylan McDermott — is that rare comedy classic from the great Williams’ treasured trove. It is on stage September 11 through October 11
McCarter audiences will also be the first to see and hopefully laugh through the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s “A Comedy of Tenors,” his sequel to “Lend Me a Tenor.” It will be directed by comedy master Stephen Wadsworth (“Figaro” plays) and feature Rob McClure who was nominated for a Tony award for the title role in the Broadway musical “Chaplin.” October 13 to November 1.
Acclaimed nationally (and at McCarter) for her direction of August Wilson’s plays, Jade King Carroll will be at the helm of “The Piano Lesson” probably the most popular play in Wilson’s 10-play canon that chronicles the African-American experience in American during the 20th century. January 8 through February 7.
It’s doubtful that the upcoming production of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” under the direction of Adam Immerwahr (“The Understudy”) will run as long as the London production which is currently in its 63rd year. But mystery fans will undoubtedly flock to the theater for this popular whodunit, March 8 through 27. “I really try to find different stories, let different voices be heard,” says Mann who is also directing “All the Days” by the (almost) new voice of playwright Sharyn Rothstein. Rothstein’s play “By the Water” was acclaimed during its off-Broadway run last season and more recently at Premiere Stages at Kean University. “All the Days,” about “a family of very funny people in the midst of loss, love, and forgiveness,” will have its world premiere to end the season, from April 29 to May 29.
Mann reminds me that although “A Christmas Carol” is not part of the subscription series, you can’t say that a season is complete without this annual seasonal treat that can be seen from December 4 to 27. She concludes (and I concur), “I think the best way to look at our season is like a five course meal, six if you include ‘Carol.’ If you take ‘the ride’ and subscribe to all five shows, you’re going to get more out of the entire experience.”
205 East Front Street, Trenton, 609-392-0766, passagetheatre.org.
“I’m an actor at mostly other theaters and an artistic director who does not direct,” says June Ballinger who is otherwise celebrating the start of her Trenton-based theater company’s 30th season and where she is a very real and active presence. Passage has from the start been passionately connected to the community it serves. “Impassioned” is the best word to describe Ballinger who has made it her mission “to choose not only new work but plays that speak to and reflect the community.”
“We are bringing back the popular Solo Flight Festival which we laid to rest 4 years ago and will include a piece by our own David Lee White,” she says as she shares the excitement of the new plays that are part of the main stage season. “I am doing the world premiere of Tanya Saracho’s “Song of the Disappeared,” a comic thriller that has the energy at times of a brilliantly written telenovela. I am hoping we will attract the Latino audience with this play that had its developmental production at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.” It runs October 8 through 25.
For its spring production, Ballinger is preparing Bruce Graham’s “White Guy on the Bus,” that shows “aspects of our racial attitudes in the suburban/urban community that are framed in a highly theatrical form.” The play that premiered at North Light Theater in Chicago and won the Best New Play awarded by the Chicago “Jeff” awards runs May 5 through 22. “In short, I am excited to have two main stage plays that are right on mission. Community building by inclusiveness (“Song”) and a no nonsense, non PC direct hit on the unconscious racism we all harbor no matter how noble we might think we are (“White Guy”).
7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-545-8100, www.CrossroadsTheatreCompany.org.
This is the fourth season for associate producer, Amie S. Bajalieh with the Tony Award-winning Crossroads Theater Company. I’m pleased that Bajalieh who has been an active part of Crossroads family for many years has answers to my questions in light of producing artistic director Marshall Jones III taking advantage of some vacation time before the start of the new season of our country’s foremost theater dedicated, but not limited, to the African-American experience.
“We’ve given the season a theme: “Everyday Heroes,” she says. “It is intended to celebrate the everyday people who either aspire great things or through their circumstances are force do great things. In a break from tradition, we are leading the season with our annual Genesis Festival of New Plays, with the spotlight this year on Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Lynn Nottage.”
What is expected to be a highlight is a professional reading in repertory of two of Nottage’s acclaimed plays “Intimate Apparel” and “Fabulation.” As Bajalieh explains it, “Both shows explore black female entrepreneurs exactly 100 years apart and provides a sneak preview of what Crossroads plans to do with Ms. Nottage’s plays in the 2016-2017 season.” The Genesis Festival Weekend will also include new work from Nottage’s colleagues and students. It runs October 2, 3 and 4.
In keeping with tradition, the family friendly celebration of the holiday spirit “Holiday Jubilee” returns this year with a brand new Gospel Fest theme, and as always kids under12 attend free when accompanied by an adult ticket buyer. It runs December 11 through 20.
A premiere production of “College Colors” by Stacie Lents, under the direction of freelance director and Mason Gross School of the Arts faculty member Kevin Kittle, comes direct from last season’s Genesis Festival. Touted as a modern comedy, Bajalieh says “it offers a moving and funny look at racism on the American college campus,” running February 4 through 14. “Thrilled” is the word she uses to express Crossroads ability to present an encore performance run of a previous audience favorite “Fly” by Trey Ellis. It is being produced in association with the Pasadena Playhouse, set for April 7 through 17.
Bajalieh sums up the Crossroads mission: “In New Jersey, we are the only ethnically specific theater company, and we offer a voice and a type of storytelling throughout the season that shares and celebrates the culture, history, spirit, and voices of the African Diaspora. In addition, because we specialize in developing new work and nurturing up and coming artists, we feature new plays that our audience will not see at other theaters.”
9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717, www.gsponline.org.
George Street Playhouse, New Brunswick: The big news here is that this is the premiere season in which actor-director Michael Mastro assumes his new role as resident artistic director. He will be joining artistic director David Saint in sharing the theater’s artistic leadership. Audiences here have enjoyed Mastro’s many fine performances at George Street over the past few years including his direction of last season’s entertaining musical “The Fabulous Lipitones.” Mastro used the word “vision” to describe the season in which the plays selected “appear to have a common theme in which individuals are fighting to fulfill a vision either for themselves or for others.”
It isn’t surprising to have him express his excitement over the one play he is directing this season “Nureyev’s Eyes” by David Rush. He helped to develop it at the Delaware Theater Company in Wilmington where he also remains as an associate artistic director. He describes it as “the friendship between the international ballet star/Russian defector and the American painter James Wyeth (son of Andrew), two powerful artists, each very different, each at the top of their game wrestling with demons.” It will be presented as a co-production between DTC and George Street, February 2 through 21.
As I have talked with Saint about the season many times over the past 18 years of his tenure, I am pleased that Mastro, was able to respond to my request to hear his perspective of the season. “Every season is a new adventure with plays coming from anywhere. In particular, ‘Nureyev’s Eyes’ was brought to our attention at first by a museum curator and a board member in Delaware.
But I’m jumping the gun, so let’s go back to the season opener the off-Broadway hit “Murder For Two” in which the show’s composer Joe Konosian will be joined by Ian Lowe in this farcical musical with mayhem. I can assure you fun and laughter at this is veritable tour-de-force or should I say two-de-force as one plays the inspector and the other plays all the suspects and both play the piano, running October 6 through 25. Coming directly from its acclaimed world premiere at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven is “The Second Mrs. Wilson” by Joe DiPietro, author of “Clever Little Lies,” “Memphis,” and “The Toxic Avenger. As you may have guessed, this play, under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, is about President Woodrow Wilson’s second and very influential wife, November 10 to 29.
Saint himself will be at the helm of “Sex with Strangers” the sex and the Internet play that caused a stir off-Broadway last season. I found this play entertaining and provocative as the audience is drawn into the relationship and sexcapades of two people caught between the on-line fantasy of one and off line reality of both, March 8 through 27.
Attention will be on George Street’s director of education, Jim Jack, who will be making his mainstage debut directing the terrific (personal favorite,) award-winning “My Name is Asher Lev” by Aaron Posner, based on the novel by Chaim Potok. About a young Jew growing up in post-war Brooklyn who must create art at any cost, regardless of the will of his family, his community and tradition, it enjoyed an extended run off-Broadway a few seasons back. It runs April 12 through May 1.
#b#Shakespeare Theater of NJ#/b#
36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600, www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
Once upon a time known as the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, this long established company in residence in the F.M Kirby Shakespeare Theater on the campus of Drew University has earned for itself a reputation for giving a fresh look to the classics while also reaching out to the modern canon for the best of its dramatic literature. The season is already half over for STNJ, but based on the splendid reviews given the plays that opened the season last May — “The Royal Family,” “The Guardsman,” and “Misalliance” (as recently reviewed in U.S. 1) — the remaining three are highly anticipated.
As the artistic director for the past 25 years, Bonnie J. Monte says she relies on some basic factors in determining a season that will be both pleasing and hopefully profitable. “I ask myself what plays have we not done in a long time from the Shakespeare canon, as well as other classic plays that have been on our want-to-do list for a long time? Are the royalties available, and what actors in our sphere are ready for a Lear or the Scottish play? Perhaps more importantly, it’s what’s happening in the world that needs commenting on?” This is clearly why Monte has picked Bill Cain’s “Equivocation,” a popular regional and Manhattan Theater Club hit during the 2010 season as the next play.
In it, Shakespeare is a character in a plot that involves terrorists and speculates on the Bard’s involvement with the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and also how the Scottish play — “Macbeth” — came into being. Monte never misses a chance to present a classic play that resonates with issues of today. She says, “Equivocation” is not only about American politics right now but how the truth becomes revisionist to suit a political party.” It runs from September 16 to October 4.
Monte’s decision to present “The Diary of Anne Frank” was prompted by this year being the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps. Monte feels strongly that “we do this play while there are still survivors of the camps and that students are not getting enough of this history in our schools. It will be a strong student matinee show this year,” scheduled from October 14 to November 21.
“Rowdy” is one of the words that Monte uses to describe “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” which will be the holiday season offering. “I like plays during this time of year that break through the boundaries of any structured religious belief at the same time they celebrate the best of the human spirit. What I like best about it is that it is also jovial, good-natured and even magical,” which is why Monte is directing it to be (in her words) “a huge cornucopia of sugar plums exploding.” The show runs December 2 through 27. For tickets and information on the balance of the season call 973-408-5600 or BoxOffice@ShakespeareNJ.org
#b#New Jersey Repertory#/b#
179 Broadway, Long Branch, 732-229-3166, www.njrep.org.
This intimate theater, under the combined artistic and executive direction of husband and wife team Gabe and Suzanne Barabas, continues to fulfill its mission to develop and produce new plays that will make lasting contributions to the American stage. It has a subscriber base of more than seven hundred, remarkable for a 62-seat theater.
Plays at this year-round theater enjoy five-week runs. Many of those that begin life here go on to successful runs in New York, London, and regionally across the US. Here’s a bonus: It is only a couple of streets from the ocean, the invigorating boardwalk in beautiful Long Branch, and its proximity to lots of fine dining. The new season begins “The Seedbed,” a new play by Bryan Delaney who ran the New Playwrights Program at The Abbey Theater in Dublin. Suzanne will be directing this play about a family buffeted by forbidden passions, from October 15 to November 15.
“I will also be directing “Iago” by James McLure, the late, prominent Louisiana-born playwright most famous for “1959 Pink Thunderbird” and “The Day They Shot John Lennon” (1983), both produced and enjoyed by McCarter Theater audiences in the early 1980s. “Iago” has never been produced, and Suzanne says she has “the remarkable opportunity to premiere and further the work of this great playwright.” Check with the theater for titles (mainly world premieres) and dates for the six additional plays that comprise the rest of the season.
For the Barabases, furthering the work of new playwrights more often comes first. As Suzanne says, “From among an average of 500 submissions each year we select plays that we feel will intrigue our audiences and have them talking after they leave the theater. Since these are all new works our responsibilities include developing the play and ironing out the kinks for future productions by other theaters.
“We are unique in that we are a laboratory for new works and many of the plays that we launch are then produced by other theaters across the U.S. We produce exclusively new works so our subscription audiences never quite know what they will be seeing but are willing to go on an adventure into the unknown over and over.”
“We have reached a stage where we are outgrowing our space after 18 years and we are having increasing difficulties accommodating all those who want to see our plays. We now have 800 subscribers and this is constantly growing. We plan on building several new theaters, an art cinema, artist’s studios and classrooms. We will be creating a cultural facility that will serve the community for generations.” What can this reporter say but “Bravo and wow?”
#b#Paper Mill Playhouse#/b#
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343, www.papermill.org.
Since the mid 1940s, this venerable thousand-seats theater has played host to Broadway stars and classic musicals, but things have changed dramatically and musically here in the 21st century. At the forefront of its progressive mission is producing artistic director Mark S. Hoebee who has taken into consideration that “As our audience has grown and evolved, we have become more aware that, although they still love the classics, they have become increasingly enthusiastic and excited about new work. So I think producing two high-profile world premieres ‘The Bandstand’ and ‘A Bronx Tale’ this season is definitely an audience magnet.”
The impressive season begins with “The Bandstand” under the direction of Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler with a cast that includes Laura Osnes (R&Hs “Cinderella”), Corey Cott (“Newsies” and “Gigi”), and Tony winner Beth Leavel (“The Drowsy Chaperone”). Set in 1945, “The Bandstand” boasts “original swing music” as it follows a mismatched band of military veterans who join forces to compete in a national radio contest in New York City. It plays October 8 through November 8.
The balance of the season includes “A Christmas Story” based on the 1983 film and straight from two successful engagements on Broadway. November 25 through January 3. Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks are co-directing this world premiere with a book by Chazz Palminteri and a score by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics), February 4 through March 6. A good time is promised with the home cooking and songs of the “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” April 6 through May 1. The long-awaited “West Side Story” brings the season to an end, running June 1 to 26.
Like the leadership at most theaters, Hoebee is aware of the difficulty in putting together a season. As he sees it, “It is a balance of art, economy, lots of research, and then trying to predict what will attract our existing audience to return as well as expand that base — lots of educated guessing,” adding, “Since we are so close to New York City, if a show is on Broadway, touring, or even being contemplated for revival, doors are closed to us. For example, we have been asking for the rights to produce “West Side Story” since the year 2000, and they were finally granted to us for 2016.”
There is no place for modesty in Hoebee’s view: “The quality of our productions and the artists we collaborate with are unparalleled. And on top of saving the time, energy, and cost of theater in New York, (audience members) are also supporting a revered arts institution in your home state that gives back to the community. We not only present the highest caliber of musical theater, we have nationally renowned outreach and education programs that serve thousands and thousands of students of all ages, those with disabilities, and underprivileged communities in our state.” He calls it “Broadway in your backyard.”
70 South Main Street, New Hope, 215-862-2121, www.bcptheater.org.
The Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope is winding down its recent series and preparing two theater events. First is the second annual Oscar Hammerstein Festival — named in honor of the beloved lyricist who wrote such works as “The Sound of Music” and “Oklahoma!” at his country home in Bucks County. Set for October 2 through 4, the festival features readings, performances, discussions, and gatherings of theater professionals. This year celebrates the music of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim whose mentorship under Hammerstein is the inspiration for the festival.
The season concludes with the holiday offering of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, designed as a 1940s live radio program with music and choreography. The story — by a New Jersey writer — will be on the stage from December 11 to 27.
120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100, www.brtstage.org.
The Bristol Riverside Theater in downtown Bristol opens its new season with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Inge’s romantic Comedy “Bus Stop,” opening September 29 and running through October. 18. Following are “”An American Christmas Songbook,” running between December 16 and 20; “the Language Archive,” directed by McCarter Theater director Adam Immerwahr, January 26 through February 14; Neil Simon’s “Rumors,” March 22 through April 17; and “Man of La Mancha,” closing the season from Mary 10 through June 4.
Well, the season is upon us, so let’s stay with our mission and go see a show.
Actors’ NET, 635 North Delmorr Avenue, Morrisville, PA, 215-295-3694, www.actorsnetbucks.org.
A Raisin in the Sun. Lorraine Hansberry’s drama about an African-American family. $20. Through September 27. Friday, September 11.
Major Barbara. George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 comedy about a Salvation Army major. $20. Through November 8. Friday, October 23.
Meet Me in St. Louis. Musical based on the film features “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” $20. Through December 20. Friday, December 4.
Kelsey Theater, 1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, 609-570-3333, www.kelseytheatre.net.
Little Women. Musical based on the novel. $20. Through September 20. Friday, September 11.
The Fantastics. Musical. $20. Through October 4. Friday, September 25.
Around the World in 80 Days. Drama. $18. Through October 18. Friday, October 9.
Rumors. Neil Simon’s comedy. $18. Through November 1. Friday, October 23.
Violet. Musical. $20. Through November 15. Friday, November 6.
It’s a Wonderful Life. Based on the film. $18. Through November 29. Friday, November 20.
A Very Kelsey Christmas. $18. Through Sunday, December 13. Friday, December 11.
Mason Gross School, 85 George Street, New Brunswick, 848-932-7511, www.masongross.rutgers.edu.
An Oresteia. Translations and adaptations of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. $25. Through October 30. Thursday, October 1.
Jameson Studio Theater, New Brunswick, 848-932-7511, www.masongross.rutgers.edu.
Playwrights Festival. Productions and staged readings. $15. Through December 7. Wednesday, December 2.
Playhouse 22, 721 Cranbury Road, East Brunswick, 732-254-3939, www.playhouse22.org.
The Producers. Musical comedy by Mel Brooks. $22. Through Sunday, September 27. Friday, September 11.
A Few Good Men. Drama by Aaron Sorkin. $22. Through Sunday, November 22. Friday, November 6.
A Christmas Carol. Adapted by Tony Adase. $15. Through December 20. Friday, December 11.
Washington Crossing Open Air Theater, 355 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville, 267-885-9857, www.dpacatoat.com.
Jesus Christ Superstar. Musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. $15. Through Sunday, September 13. Friday, September 11.
Heathers. Dark musical. $15. Through Sunday, September 20. Friday, September 18.
Shrek the Musical. Family musical. $15. Through Sunday, October 4. Friday, September 25.
Sweeney Todd. Dark musical. $15. Through Sunday, October 18. Friday, October 9.