Allow me to respectfully suggest that we turn our thoughts away from politics for a few moments during this election year and consider voting in support of the excellent leadership behind our regional theaters and for the executive and artistic leadership behind them. From what appears apparent to this obsessive/compulsive observer of the theater scene is that the artistic directors of our state’s 22 professional theaters do not get elected to their positions nor do they have to worry about term limits.
They simply go on and on, year after year, decade after decade without fear of being replaced, rebuked, or challenged once ensconced through a search and selection process usually made by a theater’s board of directors. How great is that . . . unless the board decides for various reasons that a change is obligatory for growth, both financial and artistic?
Loss of subscribers, falling box office receipts, and questionable programming may be key factors in looking for change on the administrative and artistic level, as well by matters of a more personal nature. More importantly, however, a change in leadership might be deemed necessary only when a theater company has not kept in step with the times or been responsive to the subscribers.
Let me be clear. I’m not about to suggest that we need a change in artistic leadership as I look (and have looked for many years) at this upcoming season. Quite the contrary, as I find myself mostly in awe of the select group of men and women whose vision, talent, and integrity continue to make the theaters in our state vital to the communities in which they exist and beyond. It’s fair to say that the artistic directors of our most prominent theaters continue to earn as well as get votes of confidence.
Emily Mann (McCarter) and Bonnie J. Monte (Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey) are both celebrating 26 years as artistic directors. David Saint has been head honcho at George Street for 18 years and only last year began to share the post with actor/director Michael Mastro. It’s already a decade for Marshall Jones III, who became artistic director of Crossroads in 2006 following in the footsteps and the mission that began in 1978 with the theater’s cofounder Ricardo Khan, who now serves now only as “creative advisor.”
It was 20 years ago that June Ballinger became artistic director of Trenton’s Passage Theater, the same year that Gabe and Suzanne Barabas founded the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. For the Barabases this year is notable as they are seeing a dream come true with the transformation of Long Branch’s West End School into the West End Performing Arts Center under their leadership.
Mark S. Hoebee can “only” claim 16 years as artistic director of the Paper Mill Playhouse, but in that time has reversed the theater’s fortunes and transformed it into one of the nation’s most lauded regional theaters. It won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Regional Theater.
I hope that my brief exchanges with some of the producers and artistic directors of theaters that I attend regularly will prompt you to make a commitment to attend least one or more of them, or even those that are not included here 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 the best have been chosen.
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 reach New York. That’s a very exciting plus. A visit to the theaters’ websites will also give you information about special 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 one particular theater as being more worthy of your consideration than others.
91 University Place, Princeton, 609-258-2787, www.mccarter.org.
Artistic director Emily Mann’s mission is key to her continuing success and as she says, “to reflect and stimulate conversation on what is going on culturally and politically in our nation and in our world. That is part of what the theater has been about since its beginning in ancient times. Our current season absolutely exemplifies and balances both these impulses.”
It has been 13 years since McCarter audiences have seen a new play by Nilo Cruz whose “Anna and the Tropics” opened the Berlind Theater in 2003 and then moved to Broadway. Opening the season is the world premiere of his latest, “Bathing in Moonlight,” in which a relationship and the possible compromising of one’s vocation and passion develop between a priest and a Cuban-American family. Through Sunday, October 9.
Racial, cultural and marital issues collide in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced,” one of the most admired plays of the 2015 Broadway season. This co-production with the Guthrie Theater and Milwaukee Repertory Theater promises to be one of the more talked about and controversial plays of the season. Tuesday, October 11, to Sunday, October 30.
McCarter is bringing in New York’s innovative Bedlam Theater Company’s highly praised productions of “Hamlet” and “Saint Joan” to be presented in repertory by a company of four. Thursday, January 12, to Sunday, February 12, 2017.
In case you have already forgotten, McCarter produced Agatha Christie’s war horse “The Mousetrap” just last season. Enough is apparently not enough, so get ready for Christie again a la playwright Ken Ludwig (“A Comedy of Tenors”). He and detective Hercule Poirot are a match made by director Emily Mann as Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” goes off the rails with a train full of suspects. Tuesday, March 14, to Sunday, April 2.
However, the best reason I can personally give you to subscribe to this season is to see the wonderful multi award-winning play “Intimate Apparel” by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage (“Ruined”), set in New York at the turn-of-the century in which a young single African American seamstress gets a new lease on life. Friday, May 5, to Sunday, June 4.
Of course there is the return of — but wait a minute — we are being promised a totally reimagined version of “A Christmas Carol.” Imagine that. Friday, December 9, to Sunday, December 31.
205 East Front Street, Trenton, 609-392-0766, passagetheatre.org.
Each season presents a new challenge for artistic director June Ballinger at her Trenton-based theater. Her mission “to choose not only new work but plays that speak to and reflect the community” is laudable while also reminding me “It’s important to laugh,” adding “it’s complicated.”
The season begins with Leslie Ayvazian’s comedy “Out of the City,” in which two middle-aged couples take a celebratory trip together and ponder elusive romance and what comes next. Thursdays to Sundays, October 27 to November 13.
What actually comes next is “Miracle in Rwanda” which is based on “Left to Tell,” the New York Times bestselling true story of Immaculee Ilibagiza, a story of resilience in the face of the Rwandan genocide. Saturdays and Sundays, March 18 to 26.
Rounding out the season is David Lee White’s play “Fixed,” which centers on the sacrifices and challenges of friends dealing with mental illness. It will be directed by Maureen Heffernan. Thursdays to Sundays, May 4 to 21.
7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-545- 8100,www.CrossroadsTheatreCompany.org.
This could be the year for you to (re)discover the 1999 Regional Tony Award-winning theater dedicated, but not limited, to the African-American experience. Marshall Jones III, the producing artistic director, states that this season, in which our country’s voters may be electing its first female president, he is paying “homage to the power, glory, and struggles of women both famous and not.”
This becomes evident in the selection of plays that will feature the Virgin Mary, Harriet Tubman, and Sarah Vaughn. The season opens with Lisa Thompson’s “Single Black Female,” in which two 30-something middle-class African American women search for love, clothes, and dignity. Good reviews greeted this two-hander when it played Off Broadway in 2006. Thursday, October 6, to Sunday, October 23.
Look forward to the return of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” last seen at Crossroads in 1985, in which traditional Christmas carols and original music sung in gospel style recreate the classic Nativity. Friday, December 9, to Sunday, December 18.
To mark Black History Month, Jones will direct the world premiere of “Harriet Tubman: I See Freedom” about the abolitionist but given a “modern perspective.” Thursday, February 9, to Sunday, February 19, 2017.
In addition to the traditional “Genesis Festival” of works-in-progress by new and established playwrights, the season will conclude with another world premiere, Sara Stephanie Berry’s “Sarah Sings a Love Song,” about the famed jazz singer Sarah Vaughn. Thursday, March 9, to Sunday, March 26.
George Street Playhouse
9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717, www.gsp-online.org.
“You are only as good as your last show,” goes the famous show biz phrase, but if we go by the results of last season then we have to say bravo to actor/director Michael Mastro, who is now beginning his second season as resident artistic director, again sharing the leadership with artistic director David Saint.
Saint is directing the season opener “Mama’s Boy,” a play that promises to be chilling glimpse at Marguerite Oswald, the domineering, obsessive mother of Lee Harvey Oswald and the events leading up to that fateful November morning. About it Saint says, “Rob Urbinati’s text is based on actual testimony she gave to the Warren Commission.” Wednesday, October 18, to Sunday, November 6.
I am so pleased that Mastro has chosen to direct “Daddy Long Legs.” Paul Gordon’s rapturous score and the romantic book that John Caird adapted from the classic novel made this one of the musical treasures of the recent Off Broadway season. Thursday, November 24, to Saturday, December 24.
The balance of the season is also adventurous and should appeal to audiences unafraid of provocative subjects. “I knew we had to do this play the minute I read it,” says Saint about “American Son” by Christopher Demos-Brown. In this year’s recipient of the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award for a new play by an emerging playwright, a mother and her estranged husband rush to the police station when their son’s car has been pulled over. With no explanation forthcoming and emotions building, this highly charged drama twists, turns, and builds to an explosive conclusion. Tuesday, February 7, to Sunday, February 26.
Hilarity and pure havoc are components in one of my favorites among recent Off Broadway hits, “Bad Jews” by Joshua Harmon. In it two young members of a Jewish family argue over who should take possession of recently deceased “Poppy’s” chai necklace. Tuesday, March 21, to Sunday, April 9.
A fifth play is still to be announced to end the season. Tuesday, May 2, to Sunday, May 21.
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343, www.papermill.org.
It was bound to happen: Paper Mill Playhouse, which has played host to Broadway stars and classic musicals since the 1940s, won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. At the forefront of change and with a renewed progressive mission, Paper Mill continues this season with shows that should make its subscribers as happy as those who want to pick and choose.
The season begins with “The Producers,” the hilarious musical comedy that artistic director Mark S. Hoebee says (and I agree) is “arguably one of the funniest musicals of all time.” Wednesday, September 28, to Sunday, October 23.
Following its world premiere in London “The Bodyguard” is continuing the Playhouse’s mission to help launch new musicals. Following its run Hoebee hopes with help to launch a national tour, “so our production will be seen by audiences all over the country.” R&B superstar Deborah Cox stars in this musical based on Lawrence Kasdan’s Oscar-nominated film. Friday, November 25, to Monday, January 1, 2017.
If the title “Comedy of Tenors” sounds familiar to some of you, it is because Ken Ludwig’s farce (sequel to “Lend Me a Tenor”) had McCarter Theater audiences in stitches two years ago. It won’t be the first time that a hit has made its way from one regional theater to another. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t continue on its laugh-trek to Broadway. Wednesday, February 1, to Sunday, February 26.
It’s too soon to bring back “1776” as Hoebee did for the 2008-’09 election year, but he’s keeping the stage all American. Icons Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins will congregate, clash, and cavort at the famed recording session that served as the basis for the hit Broadway musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” Wednesday, March 29, to Sunday, April 23.
The season ends with the high flying “Mary Poppins,” the hugely popular musical based on P.I. Travers’ beloved book. Tuesday, May 24 to Sunday, June 25.
Theater of NJ
36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600, www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
The season is half over at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, but what is still to come is choice. Right now on stage is the long-awaited New Jersey premiere of “Red Velvet” by award-winning British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti in which unfolds, under the direction of Bonnie J. Monte, the true-life story of Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor and the first black man to appear as Othello on the London stage. Through Sunday, September 25.
Shakespeare’s monstrous monarch “Richard III” returns to thrill and to chill us in the historical saga that will be directed by Paul Mullins, who played the role 10 years ago. Wednesday, October 5, to Sunday, November 6.
After a pause of 13 years, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” based on the poem by Dylan Thomas will return for the holiday season. Wednesday, November 30, to Sunday, January 1.
New Jersey Repertory
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 Gabor and Suzanne Barabas, continues to fulfill its mission to develop and produce new plays that will make lasting contributions to the American stage. In these turbulent times, as people question immigration and our country’s long-standing policies of welcoming those fleeing for survival from their homeland, we have only to consider Gabor’s own escape from Hungry with his parents during the 1956 revolution.
From Suzanne’s perspective, “the current social and political atmosphere only highlights the importance of theater as a vital art form for maintaining an open arena for discourse, especially given the extreme polarization that does not particularly allow for conversation. Our choices of plays in general have not been as affected because we have consistently presented plays that grapple with challenging and timely issues. We have never been known to shy away from difficult or controversial subjects.”
Currently on stage is “Iago,” a posthumously presented play by James McLure that takes place during and after rehearsals of “Othello.” It is by the late, prominent Louisiana-born playwright most famous for “1959 Pink Thunderbird” (1980) and “The Day They Shot John Lennon” (1983), both produced by McCarter Theater audiences in the early 1980s. Through Sunday, September 25.
The next play, “Mad Love,” sounds like a lulu of a comedy by Marisa Smith. It involves a recent Ivy League graduate who doesn’t believe in marriage but does believe in babies enough to seek out a sperm donor with the right attitude — only he does not and is not helped by living with his brother who is in love with a hooker from the Ukraine. Check with the theater for titles (mainly world premieres) and dates for the six additional plays that comprise the rest of the season. Thursday, October 20, to Sunday, November 20.
70 South Main Street, New Hope, 215-862-2121, www.bcptheater.org.
The Bucks County Playhouse is winding down a winning season with several upbeat offerings, including “Say Goodnight Gracie,” the Tony-nominated Broadway show that returns legendary stage, film, and television comedian George Burns to the spotlight for an evening of recollections, theater history, song and dance, jokes, and memory of his stage partner and wife, Gracie Allen. Wednesday to Sunday, October 5 to 9.
Then there’s the now conventional offbeat season offering of “A Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Friday, October 21, to Sunday, October 30.
“Buyer and Cellar” is the comedy of a struggling actor who has an encounter with Barbra Streisand while working in a private shop in her Malibu basement. Sunday, November 6, to Saturday, November 26.
120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100, www.brtstage.org.
A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, about the famed 1950s and ’60s crossover. Tuesday, September 27, to Sunday, October 16.
Working: A Musical, adapted from the book by Studs Terkel, Tuesday, November 1, to Sunday, November 20.
Driving Miss Daisy, about an elderly Jewish widow who hires a black chauffeur. Tuesday, January 24, to Sunday, February 12, 2017.
Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical. Tuesday, March 21, to Sunday, April 16.
Witness for the Prosecution, Agatha Christie’s mystery. Tuesday, May 9, to Sunday, May 28.
635 North Delmorr Avenue, Morrisville, PA, 215-295-3694. www.actorsnetbucks.org.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Jethro Compton’s classic tale of good versus evil. Friday, September 16, to Sunday, October 2.
Our Town. Thornton Wilder’s classic. Friday, October 21, to Sunday, November 6.
The Man Who Came to Dinner. Comedy by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. $20. Friday, December 2, to Sunday, December 18.
1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, 609-570-3333. www.kelseytheatre.net.
Miss Saigon. In the turmoil of the Vietnam War, an American soldier and a Vietnamese girl fall in love, only to be separated during the fall of Saigon. Friday, September 16, to Sunday, September 25.
Neil Simon’s Jakes Women. A struggling novelist is more successful with fiction than with life. Friday, September 30, to Sunday, October 9.
In the Heights. Musical about New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Friday, October 14, to Sunday, October 23.
The Odd Couple – Female Version. Florence Unger and Olive Madison try to share an apartment. Friday, October 28, to Sunday, November 6.
Roebling – The Story of The Brooklyn Bridge. The tale of the men who built the Brooklyn Bridge and the woman who finished it. Friday to Sunday, November 11 to 13.
Babes in Toyland. Holiday spectacular featuring characters from classic fairy tales. Friday, November 18, to Sunday, November 27.
A Very Kelsey Christmas 2016. Musical Christmas variety show. Saturday and Sunday, December 10 and 11.
Lewis Center for the Arts
Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton, 609-258-5262. arts.princeton.edu.
Lobby Hero. A young black man and two white police officers face the fallout of gender politics, police corruption, and racial profiling. Friday, October 21, to Saturday, October 29.
Mason Gross School
Philip J. Levin Theater, 33 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. www.masongross.rutgers.edu.
Absolutely! (Perhaps). A thrilling puzzler about relative truths and neighborhood gossip. Friday, October 14, to Saturday, October 22.
Victoria J. Mastrobuono Theater, 85 George Street, New Brunswick.
Fear and Misery in the Third Reich. An exploration of lives behind closed doors, when public personas are placed under unbearable scrutiny. Friday, October 7, to Saturday, October 15.
The Movement Project. Exploring text and storytelling through movement. Wednesday, November 9, to Saturday, November 12.
5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766.
Marvelous Wonderettes. Musical about four high school girls set in 1958. Thursday and Friday, September 15 and 16.
Lombardi. Historical play about Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi. Friday, October 7, to Saturday, November 5.
Altar Boyz. Musical comedy about a fictitious Christian boy-band. Friday, November 25, to Sunday, December 18.
West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction, 609-759-0045. www.pegasustheatrenj.org.
PROOF. Story of a dedicated daughter haunted by her genius father’s past and overwhelmed by her fears for her own future. Through Sunday, September 18.
721 Cranbury Road, East Brunswick, 732-254-3939. www.playhouse22.org.
Cabaret. Musical based on Christopher Isherwood’s book. Friday, September 16, to Sunday, October 2.
Frost/Nixon. Drama based on a series of televised interviews Richard Nixon granted broadcaster David Frost in 1977. Friday, October 14, to Sunday, October 23.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Comedy about the relationships of three middle-aged single siblings. Friday, November 4, to Sunday, November 20.
A Christmas Carol. Friday, December 9, to Sunday, December 18.
Somerset Valley Players
689 Amwell Road, Hillsborough, 908-369-7469. www.svptheatre.org.
Bingo! The Winning Musical. Three flamboyant ladies recall the glory of long-lost friends as they embrace the joys of life. Friday, September 16, to Sunday, September 25.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Comedy about a crazy dysfunctional family. Friday, October 21, to Sunday, November 6.
It’s a Wonderful Life. Live radio show. Friday, December 2, to Sunday, December 18.
475 DeMott Lane, Somerset, 732-873-2710. www.villagerstheatre.com.
Barefoot in the Park. Neil Simon comedy about newlyweds. Friday, September 16, to Sunday, October 2.
Filling in the Blanks. New plays by Khy Garner. Friday to Sunday, October 7 to 9.
Titanic – The Musical. Musical retelling of the infamous 1912 sinking. Friday, November 4, to Sunday, November 20.
Washington Crossing Open Air Theater
455 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville, 267-885-9857. www.dpacatoat.com.
Oliver!. Orphan Oliver Twist navigates London’s underworld of theft and violence. Friday, September 16, to Sunday, October 25.
Jekyll & Hyde. Musical about the struggle between good and evil. Friday, September 30, to Sunday, October 16.
Rider University, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. www.rider.edu/arts.
Of Thee I Sing. Political satire comedy. Wednesday, September 28, to Sunday, October 2.
She Kills Monsters. Comedic journey into the world of Dungeons & Dragons. Wednesday, October 26, to Sunday, October 30.