‘Fern Hill’ is a session of (sometimes weighty) words with friends

Jill Eikenberry and John Glover head a stellar cast of celebrated character players in FERN HILL, the play by Michael Tucker now in its world premiere engagement at NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photos by SUZANNE BARABAS

Published in the Asbury Park Press, August 17, 2018

As painter and college professor Sunny (Jill Eikenberry) tells it, the first time that she raised the specter of an assisted-living arrangement to her mother, “she looked at me like I was a terrorist.” 

That same aversion to the notion of growing old among strangers —a thought no doubt on Sunny’s mind as she approaches retirement age — sparks the proceedings in Fern Hill, the new play by actor-author (and Eikenberry’s husband of some 45 years) Michael Tucker. Now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the ensemble piece assembles six character actors of frankly awesome credentials with an in-demand director of international repute, for a prestige project that turns NJ Rep’s modest shadow-box stage into a rare Shoreside showcase for some top-shelf talents.

In this, the second NJ Rep endeavor for the married LA Law veterans known as “The Tuckerberrys,” the titular setting is an upstate farm house owned by Sunny and her English professor husband Jer (David Rasche) — and yes, regular theatergoers, we are once more planted on the dramatically fertile home turf of that curious species known as career academics — a locale that’s become a preferred gathering place for “the Sunny and Jer Show” and two other couples with whom they’ve maintained long-standing relationships. Vincent (Tony winner John Glover) is a noted painter whose nimble wit belies a body in breakdown mode, while his spouse Darla (Dee Hoty) is a gallery-exhibited photographer in breakout mode, with an impending show in Europe and some guilt over the prospect of leaving her ailing hubby at home. Fellow faculty member Michiko (Jodi Long) is herself the one most often left to hold down the home front, married as she is to the affable but aging tour-bus rocker and bon vivant Billy (Tom McGowan). Ranging in age from a rounded-off sixty to an arguable eighty, these people of education and accomplishment and passionately creative pursuits have one thing in common above all else: they are each, in their own way, feeling a little too old to be doing things the way they’ve been doing it for the past bunch of years. 

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SURF’s UP…UP…UP…UP (‘n UP!!) AT 5TH ANNUAL FEST

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, August 16 2018

It was a well-known left-handed guitarist (Jimi Hendrix) who famously said, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” It was another, brilliant if not-quite-so-famous southpaw (Allenhurst native John McBain, of Monster Magnet and Wellwater Conspiracy) who countered with, “Jazz ain’t the only American art form…(surf) was a musical apex for this once great nation.” And of course, it was a legendary leftie Fender-bender and surfer by the name of Dick Dale who best captured the thunder and lightning of the wild ride with the majestic “Miserlou,” first in 1962 and again in the opening moments of Pulp Fiction.

Although that 1994 Tarantino film helped re-ignite an interest in Surf Rock that continues unabated to this day — and that’s spread like California wildfire from subtropical South America, to sub-zero Scandinavia — the subgenre has historically been thought of as a left-coast thing; a phenomenon that couldn’t compete for precious Atlantic waterfront real estate with the sandy soul of Carolina beach music, Miami dance rhythms, or the SOAPy swells of the Asbury sound. But here in 2018, a married couple of enterprising, entrepreneurial impresarios from Monmouth County have successfully wed the epic thrill of surf music with the amped-up excitement of the Jersey Shore’s one true music city — and when the Asbury Park Surf Music Festival paddles out for its fifth annual edition this weekend, it’ll be an extended-play affair that can legitimately claim to be the largest such salt-water soiree, not just on the east coast, but in the entire surfin’ USA. Continue reading

IT’S WHAT’S UP FOR WEEK OF AUGUST 16-22

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, August 16 2018

SOUNDS: The Blasters at the Wonder Bar

In an interview we did several years ago with yelping, yodeling musicologist (and Ph.D-level math genius) Phil Alvin, the lead singer of The Blasters framed his hometown of Downey, CA as a true crossroads for what his band famously branded American Music: the roadhouse C&W, R&B, hard blues, Western swing, rockabilly, and saloon jazz that form the foundation for all to come. The four-piece band re-takes the famous stage of the Wonder Bar TONIGHT, August 16, for another raucous session of the kind of stuff that transmits anywhere, and transmutes leaden days into golden-age good times. And, while Alvin has expressed his disdain for the “clown” show of cowboy-hatted country (“If you told Bob Wills back in his early days that he played ‘cowboy’ music, he’d’a kicked your ass”), he’ll surely be pleased to share the bill with swingin’ singing cowboy Jet Weston and His Atomic Ranch Hands, in a bill (further featuring Lara Hope) that opens its doors at 7 pm, with tickets ($25) available at wonderbarasburypark.com.

SOUNDS: Guided By Voices at Asbury Lanes

When they returned to Asbury Park for the first time in a while, with an August 2014 gig at the Stone Pony, Guided By Voices delivered a now-legendary show (preserved for posterity on live Yahoo simulcast) that saw the dissolution of the band’s reunited “classic” lineup amid superhuman consumption of alcohol, epic rants, and onstage collapse on the part of frontman Robert Pollard, the sixty-something former schoolteacher whose astonishingly prolific GBV/ solo/ side-gig output numbers in the literal hundreds of albums, EPs, singles, and surprises. Of course, none of that failed to stem the ongoing tide of record releases — and when Guided By Voices materialized for a September 2017 date at House of Independents, a re-energized Pollard re-teamed with guitarist Doug Gillard for a satisfying revamp of the band’s mid/late 90s configuration that climaxed with an arena-ready cover of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” With a man-made mountain of material to draw from, the elder statesman master of the lo-fi two minute masterpiece goes positively Fourth Ave for a Friday night fracas at Asbury Lanes on August 17— and we wouldn’t be at all surprised if he doesn’t put forth another five albums between the bus and the back door. Available tickets for the 8:30 pm show ($25) at asburylanes.com. Continue reading

NJ REP WELCOMES (NOT YET OVER THE ‘HILL’) PROS IN A FRIENDLY EXPERIMENT

LA LAW veterans Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry are the playwright and the co-star of FERN HILL, a world premiere play that brings a cast of familiar actors to New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photo courtesy of Alli Angelou/ NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press, August 10, 2018

It’s an idea that’s so “out there,” that it just might…actually, it’s a perfectly horrendous idea, were any of us to try it in real life. But of such cockamamie notions are the stuff of great “mature comedies” often made — and in Fern Hill, the Michael Tucker play that makes its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company this weekend, a seemingly well-thought out and well-intentioned arrangement creates a situation that tests some long-established bonds of friendship, faithfulness, and fidelity to the truth.

As put forth by Sunny (Jill Eikenberry) — a painter, art history professor and, with her marital partner Jer, co-owner of the farmhouse property from which the play takes its title — the plan is a beautifully simple one at heart. Sunny and Jer invite four of their close friends — two couples with whom they share a love of food, wine, and laughter — to move in with them at Fern Hill; the idea being that this close-knit community of contemporaries would share their lives, work together, and be there for each other as they collectively enter their senior years.

It’s “an alternative to being shipped off to live with strangers,” as Eikenberry describes it — but the question of whether this plan functions as it was intended is one that promises to be addressed in the six-character script (rebranded from its originally announced title of Assisted Living), which was workshopped at the 2017 Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference. This is the second mainstage project at NJ Rep for Eikenberry and Tucker — together known far and wide as The Tuckerberrys — following their 2015 turn in The M Spot, and while it stands as only the second full-length play by actor-author-novelist Tucker, it’s a continuation of a rich and multi-faceted collaboration for the partners in life and art.

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‘HAIR’ gets the TONY treatment, at Axelrod PAC

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, August 9 2018

The scene, beneath a darkening evening sky a couple of Mondays back, might have qualified as something akin to “magic,” to anyone who keeps tabs on the Asbury Park music whirl. Magic, or maybe more accurately the stuff of superheroics — the kind in which a mild/wild-mannered actor/ singer/ director named Anthony D’Amato suits up as dynamic alter ego Remember Jones; summoning his big-band organization like a jukebox Justice League, and taking to the stage, any stage (in this case, a “surprise surprise” open-air freebie at Asbury’s Springwood Park), whenever the energy level threatens to flag.

The unannounced entry in the AP Music Foundation’s Music Mondays series was made all the more remarkable by the fact that D’Amato/Jones and company were supposedly just homeward bound from one of their most extensive multi-state tours to date — giving these assembled Avengers the apparent superpower of being in multiple places at the same time. It’s a not-at-all outlandish assumption for longtime observers of Remember Jones (the man and the band), given that the act has exploded so as to seem everywhere at once — touring and recording behind an ever-growing catalog of supremely soulful original music; astonishing audiences with themed sets dedicated to everyone from Amy Winehouse, Joe Cocker and Jeff Buckley, to Kanye West (and even a full concert experience drawn from R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet”); and just generally supercharging the show-band template in venues that have ranged from the smallest of spaces to the Stoney SummerStage.

“Really, I’m not a superman,” insists D’Amato, who in his “spare time” has starred as both Jekyll & Hyde in a recent production at Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal Park, portrayed Hedwig and Rocky Horror’s Frank N. Furter, and consulted as a producing artistic director with the Strand Theater in Lakewood. “I have anxieties…I lose my voice…and I’ve failed at things!”

That said, the succinctly self-described “entertainer” acknowledges that the Remember Jones project is “the fastest-moving thing I’ve ever been part of; it feels like the first time I’ve caught some fire, and it’s turned into something big…and something that’s a business…really fast.”

In the process of bolstering the act’s nationwide profile — and getting into position to become the honest-to-goodness Next Big Thing nurtured by the fertile Jersey Shore music scene — D’Amato continues to brainstorm ways in which to bridge the twin realms of theater and pop music. Attentive attendees at that Springwood set might have picked up a crucial clue to the showman/shaman’s next move, when the Remember Jones band launched into a stormcloud-defying chorus of “Let the Sun Shine In,” a timeline-defining signature selection from the groundbreaking Rado-Ragni-McDermott rock musical Hair. Not coincidentally, the show that marked the golden anniversary of its Broadway debut here in 2018 comes to the Axelrod PAC stage for five performances beginning Wednesday, August 15, in a concert-format production co-produced, directed by and co-starring the ubiquitous Mr. Jones.

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IT’S WHAT’S UP FOR WEEK OF AUGUST 9-15

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, August 9 2018

SOUNDS: Donavon Frankenreiter at the Pony

It’s become something of a more or less annual event in Asbury town, to welcome Donavon Frankenreiter for a summer concert — and when the veteran pro surfer turned singer-songster returns to the Stone Pony TONIGHT, August 9, it will be part of a tour leg that catches some major East Coast current (although, for whatever reason, he detours over to Seattle for a Friday evening one-off). With no brand new product to push, expect a retrospective (with maybe a few cover-tune curveballs thrown in) of the artist’s laid-back, highly personal songcraft, keynoted with opening sets by David Luning and returning Shore-fave chanteuse Lisa Bouchelle. Tickets for the 7 pm show ($22 advance; $28 d.o.s.) at stoneponyonline.com.

SOUNDS: Franz Ferdinand at the Stone Pony

Their previous time out of the gate, the Grammy nominated UK band Franz Ferdinand teamed with veteran LA-based eccentrics Sparks to form the “supergroup” project known as FFS. But having disengaged once more to record and release an all new album (Always Ascending) here in 2018 — and having lost the services of guitarist Nick McCarthy for the time being — the guys from Glasgow hit the North American pavement with a reconfigured five-man formation and an extensive coast-to-coast tour that comes to the Stone Pony on Friday, August 9 for one of its last dates before wrapping up in Nashville on Tuesday. Reports from the road indicate that frontman Alex Kapranos and company are confidently integrating the new material into a set of standards (“Darts of Pleasure,” “Do You Want To,” “Dark of the Matinee”), in a way that speaks both of continuity and the coming-out cotillion for a new chapter of a still-evolving organization. Tickets for the 8 pm show ($28 advance; $30 d.o.s.) at stoneponyonline.com.

SOUNDS: Prisoners of Second Ave at House of Indies

Their football-field list of credits takes in Conan O’Brien’s longtime TV show band, Southside’s Asbury Jukes, tributes ranging from Early Elton to The Fab Faux, and all those fondly recalled live appearances by Uncle Floyd. When Jimmy Vivino (guitar, vocals), John Conte (bass, vocals) and Rich Pagano (drums, vocals) take the stage of the House of Independents on Saturday, they’ll be transforming downtown Asbury’s all-purpose auditorium into one of the most venerated venues in classic rock history: Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. As the Prisoners of Second Avenue, the in-demand session cats and producers reach into their unabridged encyclopedia of pop for a salute to the many acts who lit up the stage at that long-gone NYC landmark — from Blind Faith to The Band, Johnny Winter to Jethro Tull, Buffalo Springfield to The Byrds, Procol Harum to Cream to Dylan to Traffic and The Who. It’s a passionately purveyed project that’s inspired regular sell-out performances at big-city locales, and it comes to Conte’s home turf for the first time in a 7:30 pm show for which tix ($30) can be purchased at houseofindependents.com, or in person at Lola’s European Café on Cookman Ave.

STAGES: ‘Murder They Wrote’ at Jersey Shore Arts

It’s Murder Most Fun, as the crazy-prolific La Strada Ensemble Theater people partner with Murder Mystery USA Inc., for a dinner/show fundraiser benefitting Ocean Grove’s Jersey Shore Arts Center (the old high school building at Main Street and Main Ave) and its resident stage troupe. Script writer Gian Carlo Durland (pictured) stars as intrepid sleuth Rocco DiCarlo — and attempts to investigate a string of unsolved murders, with some assistance from the audience — in the interactive comic caper that’s served up with a full dinner buffet at 6 pm on Saturday, August 11, as well as a brunch buffet at 1 pm on Sunday, August 12, with the show starting at 2. He’s supported by a cast of La Strada co-founders and regulars that include A.J. Ciccotelli, Evan Black, and Donna Knowlton, with all performances in the JSAC’s third floor Café space, and tickets ($45 in advance from lastradaensemble.com, or $50 at the door) including meal and show, plus dessert and coffee.

SOUNDS: Cake ‘n Folds on the SummerStage

They don’t come much more “ironic” than this Wednesday double bill that pairs California’s Cake — the long running, occasionally chartbusting outfit fronted by snarky songsmith John McCrea and horn-blaring multi-instrumentalist Vince DiFiore — with Ben Folds, the insanely eclectic piano bandleader, symphonic composer, internet trickster, and collaborator with everyone from Neil Gaiman to William Shatner. With a long-overdue new Cake LP (Sinking Ship) being teased — the last one turned out to be a false alarm — and Folds detouring off into projects that include a serious sidegig as a photographer, the fact that it’s anyone’s guess what shape this tour (which kicks off Monday in Boston) will take makes it a worthy ticket ($54.50 advance; $60 d.o.s. from stoneponyonline.com), and an excellent opportunity for pasty-faced alt-geek rock to get some well deserved sun and sea air.

Best Bets, we’ve had a few…but then again, way too many to mention. Lets just say that the greater/greatest Asbury Park area has a diversion foe every direction in which you can point yourself, any day of the week…and the cycle starts anew this THURSDAY, AUGUST 9, when strollers on our famous boards can home in on either of two concerts as free as the salt sea air: Ikebe Shakedown presiding over the ongoing Jams on the Sand series, off the north end of Convention Hall…while just SOUTH of the ConHall complex, John Luckenbill and the Asbury Park Concert Band are joined by a true Legendary Local, Dorian Parreott. All who recall the madcap glory days of the 1980s Jersey Shore clubscape should hie themselves to the Headliner on Route 35 FRIDAY, for a nostalgic reunion party of staff and regulars of Belmar’s Montego Bay (plus Tsunami of Long Branch) that’s presided over by the iconic “BEADA” himself (aka Don Ward). SATURDAY night sees the return of Dark Star Orchestra to the Stone Pony Summerstage, even as that harpin’ helper Sandy Mack invites the Jamily over to the AP Yacht Club for a session that presages his regular Sunday afternoon stand at the Asbury’s Soundbooth Lounge…speaking of SUNDAY, The Saint offers a first local look/listen to Channeling Cornell, an homage to the late Soundgarden/solo singer Chris Cornell, and a band that aims to wrest tribute-act treasure from the jaws of tragedy. Speaking of homages, the crazy-cat swinging legacy of “The Wildest Act in Vegas” is recreated (and for FREE, yet) when The Louis Prima Jr. Band takes it to Springwood Park as part of the Music Mondays series. TUESDAY finds the SummerStage maintaining the momentum of a busy week with a hitch-up by Band of Horses; WEDNESDAY sees The Predator Dub Assassins keeping the vibes voluptuous on the sandy stage just off the Anchors Bend…and every Thursday brings the full rundown of music, movies, theater, comedy and MORE (including the ongoing Jersey Shore Film Festival AND the annual Italian Festival in Ocean Township), exclusively in the paper pages of THE COASTER!

COMEDY TONIGHT, MUSIC ALL AROUND, ON SHORE STAGES in AUGUST

Actor-singer-bandleader Anthony “Remember Jones” D’Amato directs and co-stars with some Tony-lauded talents in a golden-anniversary concert version of the 1960s classic HAIR, going up for four performances this month at Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Ocean Township.

Published in the Asbury Park Press, August 3, 2018

Comedy tonight, music all around, on Shore stages in August

Anyone who still thinks of August as the mainly muggy curtain raiser to a serious new stage season hasn’t been paying attention to what the Shore’s theatrical companies are offering up in the interlude between Back to the Beach and Back to School. In this month’s breathless roundup/ rundown of live entertainments, we’ve got a hometurf pop sensation teaming with a couple of Tony nominees for a highly anticipated concert version of a milestone musical…we’ve got the welcome return of the Garden State’s most innovative showcase of new Latinx works for the stage…we’ve got the NJ premiere of a recent Broadway item, a whole lot of fresh looks at favorite tunefests, and a pair of revues that draw their laughs from some of the funniest and/or freakiest fare on the tube.

He’s the singing sensation and bandleader who’s taken many of the region’s most famous stages by storm with an astonishing series of themed tributes to albums by everyone from Amy Winehouse and Joe Cocker to R. Kelly and Kanye West. An actor who’s won acclaim in Hedwig and the Angry InchThe Rocky Horror Show, and the twin title roles of Jekyll & Hyde — and an impresario who’s guided Lakewood’s historic Strand Theatre as producing artistic director. When he comes off his current multi-state big-band tour under his pop alter ego Remember Jones, Anthony D’Amato will be donning his actor, vocalist and director hats for a new 50th anniversary concert version of the Rado-Ragni-McDermott musical Hair at Ocean Township’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center. Going up for four performances beginning Wednesday, August 15, the project will mark D’Amato’s third time at the helm of the 1968 milestone — and he’ll have some heavy help in the persons of a pair of Tony nominees: onetime American Idol finalist and two-time nominee Constantine Maroulis of Wyckoff (Rock of AgesSpring Awakening) as Berger, and Mary Bridget Davies (A Night with Janis Joplin) as Sheila. The director takes on the role of Claude for the concert-style presentation (which we assume means that everyone keeps their clothes on), with the Remember Jones Band doing duty “as both house band and members of the tribe, along with 15 other cast members.” An extra visual dimension is lent by Marc Rubinstein’s “Pig Light Show,” the real-time projection designs that famously graced such legendary venues as NYC’s Fillmore East. The happening, which will be accompanied by a display of historical materials from The Hair Archives, happens at 8 p.m. on August 15 and 16, with additional performances at 10 p.m. on August 18 and 3 p.m. on August 19. Tickets ($37-$45) are available at axelrodartscenter.com.

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STEVE FORBERT: HONORARY SHORECAT IN THE BIG LITTLE CITY

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, August 2, 2018 (photo by Alan Messer)

There it was again, just the other day — descending from the supermarket store speakers like a friendly angel; adding a subconscious spring to each shopper’s step with its perky piano-driven promise of “southern kisses” and sneak-on-out romance; blessing each purchase of Entenmann’s Glazed Pop-Ems and Plumpy’s Frozen Calamari with the same cheerful upbeat plea for love beneath sun and stars (or back there“behind the chandelier”) that took it to the Billboard Top Twenty chart in 1979.

Even those patrons of the Neptune Shop-Rite who immediately matched “Romeo’s Tune” with its composer and performer Steve Forbert might not have realized that not only is the veteran music maker “Alive on Arrival” and deliriously active on multiple creative fronts — he could very well be the next guy in the checkout line, having become a full-time Neptune resident some 17 years ago (and prior to that, a frequent flyer to our fair Shore, thanks to the presence of a longstanding Juliet to his Romeo).

For the Grammy nominated native of Meridien, MS who’s a proud inductee of the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame — and whose voice retains its honeydrip willow-weep drawl in conversation (and its fine-grain belt-sander blues-grit in concert), the area served by The Coaster is more than just a place to hang one’s figurative hat. Having written and recorded hundreds of songs since the release of his debut LP a full four decades back, he’s seen his works covered by the likes of Rosanne Cash, James Maddock, Carolyne Mas, Marty Stuart, and Keith Urban — and his established presence on the Asbury Park scene has granted him the local-dude cred to put forth such tunes as “Strange Names (North New Jersey’s Got ‘Em),” “My Seaside Brown-Eyed Girl”— and “Sandy,” a 2013 single that name-checked the communities devastated by that selfsame superstorm (and ended on a hopeful note of rebuild and restore).

Then there was Highway of Sight, the 2011 exhibition (and its 2015 sequel) that commandeered Cookman Avenue’s Art629 Gallery for a intriguing look at an altogether different facet of the musician’s art — a first-rate collection of photographs, showing people and places from one man’s ongoing road trip through the space and the spirit of a blacktop-laced continent. And it was Asbury Park that played a significant part in one of Forbert’s most famous extracurricular endeavors, when he took the stage at the old FastLane to sing Little Richard songs with Cyndi Lauper, then fronting the band Blue Angel — a lark that led to his appearance as Cyndi’s tux-clad beau in the mega-heavy rotation video for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

While he still practices his “glorified hobby” as a lensman, Forbert harbors no illusions about a pursuit in which “you’ve gotta be William Eccleston to be able to do a proper photo book” — and it’s the pursuit of his first and foremost muse that brings him back to the Asbury stage on Friday, August 3, when he pays a visit to the Circuit-side staple Wonder Bar in the midst of a northeastern tour with his band, The New Renditions.

It’s actually a rare full-combo gig on the home front, for a performer whose local appearances in recent years have ranged from duo sets at McLoone’s Supper Club and featured spots at Light of Day concerts, to holding down the Stone Pony SummerStage all by his lonesome, as an opener for Johnny and the Jukes. Backed by an “all Jersey people” organization — Jesse Bardwell (mandolin, guitar), Caleb Estey (drums), Todd Lanka (upright bass), and George Naha (lead guitar) — Forbert promises a retrospective that ranges from the earliest times of his 40-plus years as a troubador, to a preview of his latest album.

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