Your Blues COLORA familiar face on the Two River Theater stage, Brandon J. Dirden (right) returns as a first-time director, with a production of August Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS that opens the new Two River season this weekend. 

Last time the Drama Desk looked in on Brandon J. Dirden, the actor was preparing for his starring turn in the Two River Theater world premiere of writer-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine; a project that capped a busy year on the Broadway stage (where he won acclaim as Martin Luther King Jr. in the Tony winning All The Way), the TV screen (a recurring role as Agent Aderholt in the FX series The Americans), and — with wife and frequent co-star Crystal A. Dickinson — the ongoing adventure of new parenthood.

When the native Texan helps Two River Theater Company inaugurate its new season this Saturday, September 12, it will be without Santiago-Hudson, the collaborator who previously directed him in the August Wilson plays Jitney (in Red Bank) and a 2012 production of The Piano Lesson that earned the actor an Obie award. It will, however, be in the spiritual company of the late great African American playwright, whose ten-play “Century Cycle” receives continued exploration by TRTC, with a limited engagement of Seven Guitars that runs through October 4 — and that represents Brandon J. Dirden’s first foray as director. Continue reading


NG1 COLOR(L-R): Layla Khoshnoudi, Jacob A. Ware, Judith Hawking and Gregory Haney star in “Nobody’s Girl,” the dark comedy that makes its American debut this weekend at New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch.   Photo by SUZANNE BARABAS

It takes place in a world pretty much like our own; one where a shocking account of the most unspeakable sexual scandal hijacks the 24-7 news cycle — and where the whole thing threatens to come crashing down, when the “victim” in the story departs from the standard script.

If playwright Rick Viede has learned one thing in the three years since moving to the U.S. from his native Australia, it’s that America’s celebrity-obsessed, conflict-crazed media culture is even more “ridiculous” and “feral” than the one he left behind — no mean feat for the land that gave us Rupert Murdoch. The realization that “the temptation is always there to twist the volume way up” inspired Viede to revisit his play “Nobody’s Girl;” a “dark comedy” that makes its Stateside premiere this weekend at the Jersey Shore’s edgy-play incubator, New Jersey Repertory Company.

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closure23Gary Cole plays one-man Good Cop/ Bad Cop with Biniam Tekola in CLOSURE, the steamy tropic-set noir drama now in its premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company.

Summertime is noir time — a fact borne out by the programmers of Turner Classic Movies, and by the crime-thriller authors who rush to ready their latest page-flippers for beach-blanket consumption. There are many more of us for whom the seemingly celebratory season of sun and surf instead conjures thoughts of temperatures-rising passions “touched by fire;” of lost hours spent disappearing into the crowd and cacophony of a blackout night-before…and of the harsh morning-after light that hammers its way past the dusty venetian-blind barricades of a small and stifling room.

Here in what’s normally a season of rest for new dramatic productions in the region, New Jersey Repertory Company has stepped up with a slowly simmering noir scenario that’s in sync with the coastal currents, cocktail-fueled confessions and sudden storms of a Jersey Shore July — one that jettisons the signature concrete settings of the naked city for the patio furniture, potted palms, pastels and deceptively laid-back pacing of a small (and not terribly specific) Caribbean resort island.

Written by Richard Dresser (Rounding Third) and tautly directed by Joe Cacaci of of LA’s legendary Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble, the regional premiere Closure makes for a tense but tight fit with the similarly claustrophobic confines of the Long Branch playhouse’s shadow-box stage. Its quartet of characters — the parents of a college-age young woman who’s gone missing; the American expatriate police detective charged with investigating the disappearance; a “person of interest” hotel worker — are castaways in a curiously depopulated place that offers little room for hiding, and no apparent options for escape from the personal demons that cruise like sharks in the unseen waters beyond. Too caught up in the lethally languid spell of this oppressive “paradise” to do what they know to be the right thing, they make another excuse, put another drink on the tab — and help turn what could have been a turgid potboiler into a darkly compelling piece of theater.

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KhadijahMohammedCOLORIn-demand singer, songwriter and proud Asbury Parker Khadijah Mohammed teams with brother Talib at the front of The F.L.O.W. Show, the musical force that’s seducing new fans through a monthly residency at The Saint. (Photo by King Joseph Photography)

(Expanded from article originally published in the Asbury Park Press on June 19, 2015)

She’s performed at Giants Stadium with P. Diddy; sang before a London audience of 100,000 people with Lenny Kravitz; toured internationally with Dave Matthews, and shared a recording booth with Cissy Houston at the invitation of Luther Vandross. But even if Khadijah Mohammed has spent much of the past 25 years as a sought-after backup singer for some of the biggest arena-scale acts in the business, there’s no venue as important as anywhere she performs in any given moment…no song more exciting than the original music that she’s now sharing with the world…and no place like Asbury Park, the music-mad city where she and younger brother Talib grew up and eventually assembled the band known as The F.L.O.W. Show.

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Will Connolly (center) and the cast of BE MORE CHILL carry the energetic world premiere musical beyond the school year, as Two River Theater extends the originally announced engagement through June 28. (photo by T.C. Erickson)

(Originally published on RedBankGreen.com June 18, 2015)

The academic year may be ending right about now (if not sooner) for most high schools — but for the cast of the school-set musical Be More Chill, Graduation Day has been delayed another week.

The Two River Theater Company team announced recently that the amped-up, sci-fi infused, satirical tunefest — a production originally scheduled to ring down the curtain after June 21 — has been ordered to “stay after school” by popular demand, with a round of five additional performances between June 25 and 28.

If you haven’t caught this talent-packed, ready-for-primetime piece of work —the third consecutive world premiere in a season of surprises at Two River — you may be missing out on a darkly comic and brightly energetic offering; one that closes out the current TRTC schedule on a “high” note in more ways than one.

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Emily Linder vert COLORClockwise from top left: Marnie Andrews, Dana Benningfield, Corey Tazmania and Jenny Vallancourt star in in THE REALIZATION OF EMILY LINDER, the play by Richard Butler making its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory on April 25.

The first time that Richard Strand had one of his scripts produced at New Jersey Repertory Company, it was a Kafka-esque comedy by the name of Ten Percent of Molly Snyder — a nutty nightmare in which a young woman’s very identity threatens to vanish in a vortex of clerical errors and berserk bureaucracy.

Here in 2015, Strand is represented in Long Branch once again with The Realization of Emily Linder — a world premiere work in which a middle-aged woman gathers her daughters together to inform them that she has determined the exact date and time of her death.

If both of those scenarios seem like they wouldn’t be out of place on Rod Serling’s vintage Twilight Zone, the California-based playwright doesn’t consider that an insult — going so far as to cite Serling as one of his primary writerly influences.

“I didn’t see a lot of plays back when I was ten years old,” offers the author of numerous published plays, dating back some four decades. “It became clear early on, that there was some good writing and storytelling to be found on TV.”

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BrandonJDirdenBroadway and TV actor Brandon J. Dirden returns to Red Bank as star of YOUR BLUES AIN’T SWEET LIKE MINE, the drama by Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson that begins its world premiere engagement this weekend.

It’s been quite a year-and-change for Brandon J. Dirden, the Obie award winner whose previous projects for Two River Theater Company include August Wilson’s Jitney, and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, in which he starred alongside his brother Jason. The 35-year old actor made a big impression on Broadway — as Dr. Martin Luther King, no less (and alongside Bryan Cranston’s LBJ) — in the Tony-winning smash All The Way. A role on the FX series The Americans found him becoming a regular presence as FBI Agent Aderholt — and somewhere along that timeline, he and his wife, actress Crystal Anne Dickinson, became the parents of a baby boy.

When Brandon Dirden returns to Red Bank this weekend, he’ll be reuniting with his Jitney director — Tony winning actor (and August Wilson authority) Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who also steered Dirden to that Obie in a 2012 production of Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. The vehicle for their collaboration this time is Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine — an original script by Santiago-Hudson that stands as the second of three shows making their world premiere on Bridge Avenue this spring.

Merritt Janson co-stars as Judith, a well-to-do Manhattanite whose encounter with homeless-shelter staffer Zeke (Dirden) sparks an Upper West Side dinner party invitation that “brings an unlikely group together, spawning a passionate and explosive debate on America’s relationship to race.” Andrew Hovelson, Roslyn Ruff and Charles Weldon complete the cast, and your upperWETside Control Voice caught up with Brandon J. Dirden as Your Blues prepped for its first preview this Saturday, April 11.

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Sonics_2_by_Merri_SuttonThey were covered by Bruce; coveted by Little Steven — and for the first time in nearly 50 years, the legendary band of 1960s Northwest stompers THE SONICS hits the East Coast for a tour that takes them to NYC’s Irving Plaza (April 8) and Asbury Park’s Stone Pony (April 9). (photo by Merri Sutton)

“Strychnine.” “Psycho.” “He’s Waiting.” “The Witch.” You won’t find a one of these stomping, screaming Sixties seethers in your directory of Billboard chart-toppers, but if you hail from any of the generations of proto/post-punks and detached-garage revivalists who made them gospel chapter ‘n verse — or if you’re, say, Bruce Springsteen, who made “Have Love Will Travel” a centerpiece of his 1988 tour — The Sonics are pure pantheon.

Blasting their way out of Tacoma’s working-class/ working-band scene in the early half of the 1960s, the fivesome fronted by soul-soaked shouter and organist Jerry Roslie — and fortified by brothers Larry and Andy Parypas on guitar and bass; Bob Bennett on bash, and supersonic secret weapon Rob Lind on honking, gargling, quackety sax — delivered a take-no-prisoners brand of band-battle rock ‘n soul that was born and bred in unglamorous three-sets-a-night reality. It was also preserved for posterity on a pair of sought-after long players, Here Are the Sonics and Boom — albums that encapsulated their raw-power mix of originals and hard-earned bar band essentials like “Louie Louie,” “Money,” “Do You Love Me,” and even “Since I Fell for You,” the slow-dance blockbuster best known from Asbury Park’s Lenny Welch.

The Sonics went their separate ways by 1967, completely skirting that whole Summer of Love/ Woodstock thing — but fast forwarding to the strange new world of 2015, we find the septuagenarian core of the band (Jerry, Larry and Rob) — reinforced by Kingsmen bassist Freddie Dennis and Agent Orange drummer Dusty Watson — back in business with a tour that takes them back east big-time, with dates at NYC’s Irving Plaza (April 8) and Asbury’s Stone Pony (April 9).

It’s an incredible journey that began with a popular-demand reunion gig in 2007; led to a first-ever Euro-tour the next year, and culminated in the self-release of This is the Sonics, a relentlessly rocking self-release (on Revox USA) that mixes originals like advance track “Bad Betty” and the screamer “Livin’ in Chaos” with caterwauling classics from the likes of Hank Ballard, Willie Dixon, Ray Davies and Ray Charles; all “recorded in earth-shaking Mono” by producer Jim Diamond (White Stripes, Dirtbombs). Make no mistake: The Sonics have been summoned back into being to “Save the Planet” (“it’s the only one with beer!”).

Your upperWETside Control Voice rang up Rob Lind on the eve of the album drop marked with a big Seattle show that paired the boys with their spiritual progeny in Mudhoney. Flip that record over for more…

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