Bristol Riverside Theater

George Street

McCarter Theater

New Jersey

Paper Mill

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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 18, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Theater Season

What is the role of the theater community in a time

of crisis? This was the question posed by the New Jersey Theater Alliance

to various theater artists and professionals at a symposium —

"Theater: A Catalyst for Transformation in Times of Crisis"

— held at Crossroads Theater on January 28, 2002. Although much

of what was said in response to the tragedy of September 11 was deemed

"insightful commentary," there was an attempt to see the theater’s

current role in society as a targeted mission rather than as an unrestricted

and unencumbered arena for the creative spirit.

Transformation in the theater is a given as long as the theater is

allowed to remain free of directives and mandates, free from the confines

of the immediate and the finite; and mainly free to reveal the improbable,

the fantastical, the infinite, and the true. We go to the theater

to be transported by the classics of the past and the best plays of

the present. So let’s go.

That means it is a time to go to the theater and possibly take some

risks. New Jersey theaters are doing just that. Based on facts and

figures supplied by NJTA, we have no reason to doubt that New Jersey’s

professional regional theaters are entering the new season with more

hope and a sense of stability than was the case a year ago. Sweating

a little less, the various artistic and executive directors all seem

to be sending out messages of cautious optimism.

One clear note of optimism comes from Crossroads Theater this week.

The highly-regarded regional theater, winner of the 1999 Tony, which

has been dark since fall 2000, has announced the appointment of new

staff and a three-play fall season set to launch on Wednesday, October

23. Roberta Coleman, former AT&T executive and Phi Beta Kappa graduate

of Fisk University, is Crossroads’ new executive director. She leads

a seven-member management team headed by artistic director George

Faison, with producer Curtis Hodge, and general manager Sherry Moore.

While details are not yet firm, board member Dick Miller reports that

fall season will comprise three plays presented in limited runs through

mid-December with plans to present a world premiere musical in early

2003.

If the balance of last season reflected the inspiring support of the

public and stalwart nature of the theater community, the prospects

for the new season, both economic and artistic, are encouraging. Is

it a coincidence or something about its theme of reconciliation that

"The Tempest" is being staged at both McCarter Theater and

New Jersey Shakespeare Festival? And how lucky can playwright Regina

Taylor be than to get productions of her two new plays — "Crowns"

at McCarter and "A Night in Tunisia" at the George Street

Playhouse — in the same season?

Strong artistic leadership is evident at our theaters. This does not

mean that the various artistic directors I spoke with are attempting

to either define or determine public taste, but rather to continue

serving the public as a guide into the past and into the growing library

of new dramatic literature. The public is also served by the theaters

that promote social and political dialogue and debate. To this end,

they all agree. There is always the constant question of attendance

and subscriptions, whether they are lagging or exceeding expectations

as the new season gets under way.

Although Emily Mann, artistic director at McCarter Theater, says she

is aware from such sources as American Theater magazine that many

regional theaters across the country are struggling, she says, "McCarter

is very lucky. We are breaking box office records this season. We

are also fueled by the excitement generated by the building of the

new 350-seat second stage, the Roger Berlind Theater set to open this

time next year."

If her declaration, "I don’t pander to audience taste," infers

something about her artistic leadership, it may say even more about

her artistic integrity. "You have to be able to read the times

and know what’s in the air even if you are doing an ancient work that

needs to be looked at anew," says Mann referring to her own new

approach to "The Tempest."

"It’s important to me," she says, "not because Shakespeare’s

play is full of fantasy, but because it tells how Prospero, when he

has the opportunity to wreak vengeance on his enemies, decides that

the greater act is in reconciliation." When I note that this was

Shakespeare’s only really original play, she replies with the information

that her Prospero will be played by a woman — Tony-winner Blair

Brown. Now that’s original.

"There are many new plays opening that deal with forgiving the

unforgivable," says Mann. "It’s in the air. But it’s more

of a risk to do a completely new play like `Crowns.’"Based on

the best-selling book of photographs and interviews of black women

in their church hats by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, "Crowns,"

has been adapted by actor and playwright Regina Taylor, who will also

direct. Presented as a co-production with New York’s Second Stage

Theater, where it will subsequently appear, the show promises a generous

dose of "hattitude."

Another McCarter world premiere is "Fiction" by Steven Dietz,

about a couple that finds out that their lives have not been an open

book. "I think we needed a new version, a new vision, of `Uncle

Vanya,’" Mann continues, "very spare, very beautiful, and

very emotional." Mann will direct her own adaptation in a co-production

with La Jolla Playhouse. In preparing this season, as with every season,

Mann says "What we are doing as artists is reflecting the world

we live in. If a particular play isn’t your cup of tea, the constant

is that it will be done at a high artistic level."

David Saint, artistic director at the George Street Playhouse, reports

that business was actually up last season over the previous year,

yet he expresses concern with the reduction in government, state,

foundation, and corporate funding caused by the stock market crash

of the past year. "We are feeling that now," he says. The

theater is working to develop more individual giving and presenting

two co-productions this season to reduce costs: "Dirty Blonde"

with Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater and "Let Me Sing" with the

Charlotte Rep in North Carolina.

Saint resists my question when I ask him if he think any of the plays

he has picked for this season are a risk. I can’t pin him down and

we laugh. He waxes ecstatic about Suzzanne Douglas who, after playhouse

triumphs as Dr. Vivian Bearing in "Wit" and as Billie Holiday

in "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill," is returning in

"A Night in Tunisia," a Regina Taylor musical celebrating

the female spirit that opens this Friday, September 20. Later in the

season, Saint will direct a double comedy bill of "The Vibrator"

by Arthur Laurents, and "The 75th" by Israel Horovitz.

One way to work with an audience that might be alienated by demanding

plays is to have a public dialogue at which political and social issues

are shared with the artists. Harold Pinter’s "Old Times" was

such a play and it benefited from its post-play discussions. This

season, a play with dance elements that will undoubtedly invite audience

response is "The Last Bridge" by Wendy Kesselman, about a

holocaust survivor.

Another play that Saint says "shows the theater reflecting a changing

world," and could invite discussion is "Let Me Sing,"

a musical about young hopefuls struggling to keep up with a changing

world and define what it means to be Jewish, female, or African-American

on-stage and off. "The more we work on it, the more we see how

this show, that spans the first half of the 20th century, is about

our identity as individuals and as a nation. We are making the George

Street experience a personal experience," says Saint.

Risk taking is generally not part of the mission of the Paper Mill

Playhouse where popular feel good shows have for the past 64 years

have had an edge over shows with provocative themes. But when asked

which is the riskiest venture of the season executive director Angelo

Del Rossi submits that producing the world premiere of a new musical

in the dead of winter might be considered a risk. The musical is "Romeo

and Bernadette," inspired by Shakespeare but sounding more like

the "Sopranos" set in Brooklyn. Another winter entry "Blue,"

by Charles Randolph-Wright, with music by Nona Hendryx, is about a

well-to-do African-American family in the South. Del Rossi hopes the

show, originally at New York’s Roundabout Theater, will feature Leslie

Uggams.

Despite the departure of long-time resident artistic director Robert

Johanson, Del Rossi says no artistic director is being sought as a

replacement. Johanson will be back to direct "Camelot" this

season, as well as others shows in planning. Mark Hoebee, who worked

under Johanson, will have the title of associate director, and is

at the helm of the season opener "Miss Saigon," currently

on stage. Del Rossi reports that, despite drops in attendance last

September, the season’s final two shows, "The King and I"

and "My Fair Lady," played to 100 percent capacity, and total

attendance exceeded the previous year.

"Except for `Miss Saigon,’ the shows this year will not have the

big budgets as last year," says Del Rossi, adding that the costs

of the first four shows of the season are being reduced through co-productions

with various regional theaters. "It’s the way to go," he says.

No artistic director seems to take more risks or asks more of her

audience than the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival’s Bonnie J. Monte.

For the current season called "The Grand Magic," she has balanced

two popular Shakespeare plays, "The Tempest" and "A Midwinter

(adapted from Midsummer) Night’s Dream" and one rarity "Pericles,"

with two relatively obscure classics, Corneille’s "The Illusion"

and Pirandello’s "Enrico IV" (see review page 19).

Is Monte afraid of alienating audiences with too many unusual plays?

"I believe they are aware they are getting treats that other audiences

aren’t getting," says Monte, who also acknowledges that certain

shows don’t attract the individual ticket buyer. "Unlike last

season, in which business bounced back big about a week after 9/11,

we are beginning to feel the hit now with disappointing sales despite

acclaim for our shows," she says. "While our subscriber base

remains healthy, I hope others will come out to see `Enrico IV,’ an

extraordinary experience by Italy’s greatest playwright."

Monte says that she sees the theater in general and the NJSF in particular

as a catalyst for changing the world. "We were determined after

9/11 to do a season that dealt with the power of things to transform

the darker elements like rage, vengeance and bitterness into forgiveness

and redemption. We have done that."

Top Of Page
Bristol Riverside Theater

120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. $25 & $32.

Forget Herostratus. Grigory Gorin’s comedy set in ancient

times, directed by Armen Khandikian, artistic director of Yerevan

State Drama Theater in Armenia. October 8 to 27.

Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol. Family show by Tom Mula

features the traditional Christmas tale told through the eyes of Jacob

Marley. Edward Keith Baker directs December 3 to 22.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Musical by Lanie

Robertson about jazz legend Billie Holiday, directed by Susan D. Atkinson.

January 28 to February 16.

Hamlet. Shakespeare’s tragedy directed by Douglas Campbell

with Peter Donat as the Prince. March 18 to April 6.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Musical featuring favorite songs of

Leiber and Stoller. May 6 to 25.

Top Of Page
George Street

Playhouse

9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $26 to

$50.

A Night in Tunisia. Regina Taylor’s play, set in a feast

of hip-hop, blues, and jazz, stars Suzzanne Douglass and Cheryl Freeman.

Ted Sod directs. September 17 to October 20.

Dirty Blonde. Tony nominated romance inspired by the life

of Mae West written by Claudia Shear and James Lapine, a co-production

with the Wilma Theater of Philadelphia. October 29 to November 24.

Let Me Sing. New musical featuring Tony-nominated actor

Andre De Shields. December 3 to January 5.

Double Play. Comedy double bill stars actors Elizabeth

Wilson and Tom Aldredge in "The 75th," by Israel Horovitz,

and "The Vibrator" by Arthur Laurents. January 14 to February

9.

TBA. Fourth production of the season. TBA. February 18

to March 16.

The Last Bridge. A story of loss, love, and making choices

by Wendy Kesselman. March 25 to April 29.

Top Of Page
McCarter Theater

91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $24 to $47.

Loot. Joe Orton’s modern comedy classic. $24 to $47. September

18 to 29.

Crowns. A world premiere gospel-driven celebration of

black women and their church hats based on the book by Michael Cunningham

and Craig Marberry, adapted and directed by Regina Taylor. October

15 to November 3.

A Christmas Carol. First night for the family holiday

heartwarmer that has become a Princeton tradition, with scenery by

Ming Cho Lee and featuring John Christopher Jones as Scrooge. December

9 to 29.

The Tempest. Blair Brown stars as Prospera in Emily Mann’s

unconventional production of Shakespeare’s final magical drama. February

11 to March 2.

Fiction. World premiere by Steven Dietz about a married

couple who decide to share their diaries. March 25 to April 13.

Uncle Vanya. Anton Chekov’s classic story of obsessive

love and mid-life anguish, adapted and directed by Emily Mann, and

featuring John Glover. April 29 to May 18.

Top Of Page
New Jersey

Shakespeare Festival

F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600.

$22 to $41.

Enrico IV. Luigi Pirandello’s tragicomic examination of

human existence. $32 to $51. Continues to September 29.

The Tempest. Shakespeare’s final masterpiece, directed

by Brian Crowe. October 29 to November 24.

A Midwinter Night’s Dream. Season finale is a fantasy

for family audiences adapted from Shakespeare’s summer comedy. Joe

Discher directs. December 3 to 29.

Top Of Page
Paper Mill

Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343. $30 to $67.

Miss Saigon. Performances of the musical continue to October

20.

Annie. A 25th anniversary production of one of the most

popular Broadway shows of all time. October 30 to December 8.

Blue. Comedy with jazz featuring music by Nona Hendryx.

January 8 to February 9.

Romeo & Bernadette. World premiere of a romantic musical

comedy by Mark Saltzman that sends Romeo to Brooklyn in 1960 and into

the arms of the daughter of a mob boss. February 19 to March 23.

Camelot. Lerner and Loewe’s King Arthur musical. April

2 to May 18.

Grease. Musical salute to the fabulous ’50s. June 4 to

July 20.


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