IT’S THEATER NOTES FOR MARCH!

Asbury Park’s Brett Colby (center) IS Mister Bungee, as William Finn’s offbeat (and somewhat autobiographical) musical  A NEW BRAIN comes to the intimate setting of The Starving Artist at Days Restaurant, courtesy of Ocean Grove’s NENAproductions. Available tickets…which are close to selling out as we post this…can be reserved by calling 732-988-1007.  (Photo courtesy of NENAproductions Theater Project)

(Published in the Asbury Park Press, March 2, 2018)

March, and its attendant awards-season hangover, may come on like a lion — but Shore theatergoers might find more than a few opportunities to catch up with some recent Tony favorites (and a genuine Tony winning legend) before the month takes it on the lam. We’ve got the roundup right here.

From such dynamic recent productions as a “Jekyll & Hyde” that starred Shore singing sensation Remember Jones — to the announcement that Broadway’s original “Annie,” Andrea McArdle, will be stepping into the role of Miss Hannigan in a Fall 2018 staging — artstic director Andrew De Prisco and the creative team at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center continue to position the Ocean Township venue among the region’s most dynamic forums for musical entertainments. Beginning this weekend, another of APAC’s favorite guest artists, director-choreographer Luis Salgado, returns to the building’s Vogel Auditorium with a highly anticipated follow-up to his 2017 take on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.”

Adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling novel of early 20th century America (and its 1981 film version), the musical “Ragtime” also boasts a crucial Shore connection, in that the Tony-winning score’s lyricist Lynn Ahrens (“One On This Island,” “My Favorite Year,” “Seussical”) is a 1966 graduate of Neptune High School. The writer collaborated with composer Stephen Flaherty and playwright Terrence McNally on the stage show that examines the still-young nation through the dramatic intersect of three facets of society — the comfortable upper middle class, the immigrant experience, and an African American community ready to take the cultural spotlight — through an eclectic playlist of music that folds in popular marches, gospel, Eastern European traditions and, of course, those subversive new syncopations of ragtime.

Salgado, whose Broadway credits include “On Your Feet,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and the original cast of “In the Heights,” directs a young cast that embodies characters ranging from the fictional dramatic flashpoint and ragtime pioneer Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Alex Gibbs), to such real-life figures as scandalous socialite Evelyn Nesbit (Ashley Eder), Emma Goldman (Julie Galorenzo), and Booker T. Washington (Richard Coleman). Preformances of “Ragtime the Musical” are March 3, 10, 17, 23 and 24 at 8 p.m.; March 4, 11, 18 and 25 at 3 p.m., with an additional 2 p.m. matinee on March 17. Visit axelrodartscenter.com for tickets ($38-$42 adults) — as well as details on a High School Preview Night scheduled for Friday, March 2.

Director and choreographer Luis Salgado (center) conducts rehearsals for RAGTIME, the musical opening this weekend at Axelrod Performing Arts Center. (photo courtesy of Hahn Films)

Musical Madness

Inaugurating a new season of shows in Ocean Grove this weekend, NENAproductions Theater Project offers up an offbeat entertainment (William Finn’s edgily autobiographical 1998 musical “A New Brain”) in an unusual late-winter setting (The Starving Artist at Days Restaurant, scene of the troupe’s traditional summertime porch revues). Inspired by the composer’s real-life struggles with a life-threatening brain disorder — as well as by the special hell of the compromising writer’s life — the creator of “Falsettos” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” reclaims music, humor and whimsy from some pretty dark corners, in his portrait of a songwriter mired in a frustrating gig with one epically annoying TV kids’ show. Nick Montesano directs and choreographs a cast that features both company regulars (Ray Dademo, Amanda Munice) and NENA newcomers (including Asbury Park’s Brett Colby as the iconic Mr. Bungee). Seating for the three 7:30 p.m. shows (March 1-3) is limited, and tickets ($25) are close to selling out, but updated info is available at 732-988-1007, where you’ll also find details on next fall’s production of “The Secret Garden,” at NENA’s Jersey Shore Arts Center homestage.

Another monumentally quirky idea for a tunefest — and a delightfully unlikely Broadway hit in its Tony-winning 2001 run — “Urinetown” mixed New Deal-era social satire (and some pointed parody of socially conscious stage works) with absurdist humor born of latter-day fringe festivals and experimental theater. Set in a dystopian cityscape lorded over by a pay-toilet tycoon (and graced by such showstoppers as “It’s a Privilege to Pee”), the Mark Hollman-Greg Kotis musical comes to Matawan’s First Presbyterian Church, in a Spotlight Players production that plays Fridays and Saturdays (March 2, 3, 9, 10) at 8 P.m., with 3 p.m. Sunday matinees on March 4 and 10. Ticket information and reservations at 732-583-7874 or spotlightplayers.org.

Lullaby of Basie

The month of March brings a double dose of “Broadway at the Basie,” there at Red Bank’s far-famed Count Basie Theatre. The star wattage comes courtesy of Kristin Chenoweth, the actress and vocalist whose pretty awesome resume embraces her having originated the role of Glinda in “Wicked,” plus an Emmy winning turn in “Pushing Daisies,” a Tony for the 1999 revival of “Charlie Brown,” and numerous nominations for her series work in “Glee.” On the evening of Sunday, March 25, Chenoweth takes the Basie’s Asbury Park Stage in an equally exciting and relatively new role — that of in-demand concert attraction, touring behind a chart-topping debut jazz album — in a 7 p.m. “Intimate Evening” for which tickets are priced from $65 to $129…then on the mid-week stretch of March 27, 28 and 29, Baby and Johnny are in the Count’s corner, when the touring show “Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage” adapts the hit 1980s film to the live arena in a dance-infused experience that’s soundtracked by such familiar faves as “Do You Love Me,” “Hungry Eyes,” “She’s Like the Wind,” and of course “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” All performances are at 8 p.m., and tickets ($35-$79) can be reserved, along with the Chenoweth event, by calling the Basie box office at 732-842-9000 or visiting countbasietheatre.org.

Dogs and Bridesmaids

It’s that bittersweet relationship comedy in which the lead actress portrays a faithful dog — and while A.R. Gurney’s 1995 play “Sylvia” has gone on to lead a charmed dog’s life, both in professional revivals and countless community stagings, it also makes for a great vehicle via which drama students can hone their chops. Now through March 8, the Department of Music and Theatre Arts at Monmouth University takes on the time-spanning tale of an empty-nester couple — and the mutt who changes the trajectory of a long marriage — with Dr. John J. Burke returning to direct a cast that features Mark Cayne, Samantha Truglio, and (in the title role) Kara D’Antoni. Performances continue at 8 p.m. (March 1-3, 6-8), with a 3 p.m. matinee on March 4, at the historic and always fascinating Lauren K. Woods Theatre on the eastern side of the Monmouth campus. Tickets ($20; free for MU students) can be reserved at www.monmouth.edu/arts…meanwhile, up at First Avenue Playhouse,  the Atlantic Highlands dessertt theater ushers in March with “Always a Bridesmaid,” the ensemble comedy (by the playwriting team of Jones, Hope, and Wooten) following four friends whose vow to be part of each other’s weddings survives the passage of careers, waistlines and even marriages. Dawn Witek directs the show that plays Fridays and Saturdays through the month at 8:30 p.m. (with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee TBA). Reservations ($20) can be had by calling 732-291-7552 or visiting www.firstavenueplayhouse.org.

And, Still On Stage

Some forty years ago, the Spring Lake Theatre Company inaugurated its long and successful run as a purveyor of top-notch musical entertainments with a fun favorite of the postwar Broadway stage: the 1960 Lee Allen-Charles Strouse hit “Bye Bye Birdie.” Here in 2018, the Birdie makes a belated and long-awaited return to the Spring Lake Community House, with a production that offers two more performances through Saturday, March 3. The show that helped launch the careers of Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera and Paul Lynde still packs its share of showstoppers (“Kids,” “Put On a Happy Face”) and big laughs, even as it scores satirical points with mass media, small-town America, and youth-driven celebrity in the age of Elvis. Reserve tickets ($30, with senior, student and child discounts) at springlaketheatre.com…the Broadway Series continues at Manasquan’s Algonquin Arts Theatre through Sunday March 4, with Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer winning drama “A Soldier’s Play.” Set at a WWII-era Army base in Louisiana, the drama frames an unflinching look at some complicated racial dynamics within a compelling mystery that’s centered around the murder of a black soldier. Tickets ($32-$40, with discounts for seniors and students) reserved at 732-528-9211 or algonquinarts.org…in their 1968 play “Lovers and Other Strangers,” the late Joseph Bologna and his actress-author wife Renee Taylor found their professional breakthrough in a collection of vignettes inspired by their own Jewish-Italian wedding and extended family. Retooled to reflect the successful 1970 screen adaptation, the ensemble comedy keeps the wedding party going at Freehold’s Center Playhouse for two more weekends through March 11. Tickets ($24) and schedule details at www.centerplayers.org…then check this space for news and reviews on the two current premiere productions at Monmouth County’s professional playhouses, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” (through March 18 at Two River Theater in Red Bank) and “Wild Horses” (through March 25 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch).

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