6/20: A Game of Angry Inches

Kendal Hartse IS Yitzhak, and Chris Hall IS Hedwig in quiet-riot rehearsal, as they prepare for the L!VE Asbury Park presentation of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH at The Press Room on Bangs Ave — a show that’s offered both as a civilized evening of legitimate theatah AND a midnight-madness standing-room sensation.

Live theater in Asbury Park! What could operate more smoothly, and be more of a license to print money? We kid, of course: we’re well aware of the obstacles that regularly stare down those who are, after all, only looking to Put On a Show — whether professional or community; come-as-you-are or cast-o’-thousands.

This, however, is a story about three local companies who are snatching some semblance of victory from the jaws of deflated ego — including one fledgling concern that’s addressing the lack of a home-stage space by throwing out the rule book on how shows are presented to the public; even the question of who that theatergoing public IS. Another veteran company, given up for roadkill by some observers not so very long ago, reappears with a new home, a new season, and a renewed sense of purpose. Then there’s the established troupe that’s dealing with an unexpected setback by offering their fans an equally unexpected surprise.

This Thursday night, June 21, the people of L!VE Asbury Park — the all-new “entertainment company” formed by a cool and creative cabal of former regulars from ReVision Theatre regulars (producing partner Alecia Brooks, director Carlos Armesto, music director Michael Thomas Murray) present the first of five performances in what stands as their first fully staged musical production — a new look at the howlingly outrageous Off Broadway smash Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Like their one-nighter salute to Dusty Springfield a couple of months back, it happens inside The Press Room, that Bangs Avenue bandbar/ beergarden (co-owned by Brooks) which, in its comparatively short life, has been blessed with a video shoot AND an impromptu set by the Boss; hosted musical acts of every conceivable stripe, and received some decidely rah-rah writeups in every intelligencer from here to — just this past weekend — the New York Times (this after naming itself in memory of the building’s long-departed tenant, the Asbury Park Press).

You remember Hedwig — the glam-rock guignol (with songs by Stephen Trask, and book by original star John Cameron Mitchell) about an “internationally ignored” East German superstar wannabe, whose bollixed sex change (leaving her with that titular “angry inch” of flesh and an entirely appropriate name for her backing band), and stalker-grade obsession with backstabbing rockstar Tommy Gnosis leads to tragedy, frustration and an epic monologue punctuated by songs like “The Origin of Love,” “Angry Inch” and “Wig in a Box.”

The 9pm Thursday opening night will be a sit-down affair at The Press Room (as are the 8pm performances on Friday and Saturday), with tableside seating for 89 officially SOLD OUT all three nights as we post this (although a very limited number of bar-seating admissions may be available for $20). That’s just dandy all around, but that’s not what’s making this production of Hedwig so unique in how it’s being put in front of the public — that would be the fact that the dynamic downtown nitespot will also be hosting Hedwig for two standing-room-only midnight shows on Friday and Saturday; a move that we applaud as a savvy fusion of the rock-musical experience with the rock-bar clientele that tends to live life on a later schedule than your typical first-nighter.

Chris Hall (center) as Frank N. Furter, in the 2010 ReVision Theatre production of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW.

The way director Armesto tells it, “We’re trying to create something cool here…when we realized we had this venue to work with, we sought out shows that were appropriate to the place.”

The stage — a platform that’s hosted everything from garage punk, Americana and surf to local hiphop, blues and the aforementioned Bruce — will be “completely transformed” for the occasion in the words of Armesto, the founder of NYC’s theatre C and a guy who’s managed to successfully put on shows at the ever-quirky Carousel House (Tommy, Spring Awakening) and the Bingo hall of Asbury’s VFW (Kingdom).

“The vibe will be different…it’ll be a theatrical, environmental experience, 3-D, 360 degrees” the director says of the set design by Grace Laubacher. “We’re coming in and turning the place around.”

Without giving too much away, Armesto also hints that the creative team has “reconceived” the show’s ending; in a way that he describes as “much more grabbing, more cathartic.”

Another surefire grabber is the casting of Chris Hall — who made a very memorable Frank N. Furter in the 2010 ReVision production of Rocky Horror, and who wowed the crowd songs from Hedwig at the L!VE launch party earlier this year — in the operatically bigger-than-life title role, with Kendal Hartse as Yitzhak and music director Murray leading the onstage “Angry Inch” band. Elisabetta Spuria (who choreographed ReVision’s Hair and Tommy) directs the movement.

Calling the show “an iconic draw that fit really well within what we set out to do,” Armesto notes that “we didn’t want to take on anything too big, too soon…we want to excel at doing an intimate version of the show. It’s an emotional connection.”

While those midnight shows (which promise to feature an energy level supercharged by the presence of the largely younger, late-night, bar-hopping crowd of not-the-usual-theatergoers) remain a great impulse buy, you can reserve tickets online at liveasburypark.org or by calling 866.811.4111. Admission may also be available at the door, with an additional $5 venue charge.

Bernard Dotson returns to the ReVision Theatre stage — in this case the company’s new home at the former St. George Greek Orthodox Church — as Lead Actor in PIPPIN, going up in July.

Meanwhile, over at ReVision Theatre, the completely re-invented company (from which all three producing partners resigned at the end of last season) rebounded with some big news: a new homestage space inside the former site of St. George Greek Orthodox Church, and a June 14 season announcement event that introduced the new ReVision Theatre at St. George to the public. It’s an event that debuted on a high note, when former Asbury Park Press publisher Jules L. Plangere Jr. joined new artistic director Bob Angelini onstage to deliver a check for $25,000 from the Plangere Family Foundation, “in support of one of the great artistic endeavors at the Jersey Shore.”

Like so many of the impressive old houses of worship around Asbury Park, the 60 year St. George building at 700 Grand Avenue (whose congregation moved to an all-new Ocean Township complex earlier this year) is a grand space with high ceilings, polished wooden pews and intricate paintings of Christ and the Apostles that will be looking down upon the performers during ReVision’s fifth season of entertainments. Along with the basic amenities that were always conspicuous in their absence at the Carousel shows (indoor plumbing, A/C, heating, dressing rooms, lobby and non-leaky roof), the church offers an all-purpose room with stage and space for receptions; a lower-level set of classroom spaces, and enough nooks and crannies to keep things interesting during intermission explorations.

Angelini, the actor, director, veteran educator and retired officer in the County Prosecutor’s office, introduced a set of musical numbers (several of them from past and future ReVision offerings) performed by some young veterans of ReV shows, to an audience that included his wife, the Republican State Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini. Bernard Dotson, Bre Cade, Spiro Galiatsatos (aka Spiro Markos) and Julia Whary were among those who joined music director Andy Hertz for a selection of show tunes from Little Shop of Horrors, Hair and others (including She Loves Me and the Tony-winning Once)  — a preview of ReVision’s special “5th Anniversary Concert” event at the Paramount Theatre on the boardwalk. Richard Skipper (who channeled Carol Channing in the company’s inaugural fundraiser staging of Hello Dolly!) emcees the one-night-only benefit on Friday, July 6; a retrospective revue of songs and showstoppers from the musical shows produced by ReVision in its previous four seasons.

The soon-to-be-constructed new stage at St. George will be the setting for a new production of Pippin, the 1970s pop-rock Broadway smash and an early success for composer Stephen Schwartz (of Godspell and Wicked fame) inspired by the story of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and his son (and directed in its reportedly edgier original form by the late great Bob Fosse). In the gently psychedelic show-within-a-show, Bernard Dotson — who delivered a powerhouse version of the show’s “Corner of the Sky” to the June 14 crowd — stars as Lead Actor, a role that won Ben Vereen a Tony, in the show that opens July 26 and continues through August 12.

The St. George stage will also be the site of ReVision’s very first non-musical play, when John Logan’s Red (a two-character piece centered around abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko and his assistant) opens on August 23, continuing through September 9. Details on ticket reservations and season subscriptions — including a 30% off discount available through July 6 — can be had by going to the company’s website or calling 732.455.3059 weekdays from 12 to 6pm.

GREASE in Crisis: We’ve been hearing so much talk about the potential collapse of Greece lately that we almost completely missed the outright cancellation of Grease — specifically, the well-publicized production that was scheduled to go up at Asbury’s Paramount Theatre this weekend courtesy of producer Mark Fleming and the folks at  Premier Theatre Company. While we have no details as to the “unforeseen reasons” that caused the shelving of the crowdpleasing exercise in 1950s nostalgia (and, by extension of the movie’s appeal, 1970s-80s as well), we can report that the Premier principals have put together a little forget-me-not for all those who planned an excursion to the musical revival — with two performances, as FREE RANGE (meaning outdoors) as they are absolutely FREE. Spotlighting songs from past and future Premier offerings, the revue Beach Blanket Broadway goes up on the Fourth Avenue beachfront at 8pm Saturday night — with a Sunday evening encore on the poolside patio of the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel. Fleming and company return on July 12 to their all new, 120 seat Premier Room (inside a ballroom of the Berkeley) with a new take on the Kander-Ebb classic Cabaret , and we’ll have more on that (as well as ReVision, L!VE and anything else of note on local stages) right here on the upperWETside.