IT’s THEATER NOTES FOR APRIL! WAIT, IT’S APRIL?

Poet, playwright, producer and powerhouse performer Rock Wilk returns to Asbury Park on April 13, for a one-night engagement of his Off Broadway solo piece BROOKLYN QUARTET at Palette Artspace. (photo courtesy Rock Wilk)

Published in the Asbury Park Press on April 6, 2018

The potentially taxing month of April spells many happy returns for theater fans, suddenly faced with a springtime smorgasbord of choices. We’ve got your roundup right here — and it begins with a couple of intriguingly original oddities on display in and around Asbury Park.

One of the area’s best-kept-secret showcases for new original stage works is happening within the halls of a high school — the old Neptune High School, that is; alma mater of Tony winning lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and a place rebranded in recent years as Ocean Grove’s Jersey Shore Arts Center. It’s there that La Strada Ensemble Theater has made a home for itself, with the collective of Shore-based playwrights and performers having workshopped and debuted dozens of full-length and short works for the stage. On Friday, April 6, it’s Brick Township playwright Darren Debari’s turn in the spotlight, as the troupe presents its premiere production of the drama “Destruction of the American Male.” La Strada artistic director A.J. Ciccotelli stars as a hard-drinking actor turned stockbroker who’s had (and lost) it all more times than once, with Lite-FM radio personality Christine Nagy co-starring in the play that takes an unflinching look at the relationships, personal demons and identity crises that define men in 2018 America. Evan Black (who also appears in the supporting cast) co-directs with Donna Ault Jacobson, and “Male” call is at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with an additional 7 p.m. show on Sunday, April 8. Tickets ($25; senior and student discounts) can be reserved by visiting http://www.lastradaensemble.org or calling 732-455-2748.

He’s a poet, a playwright, a record producer, a spoken word artist, a vocalist and musician — and on the evening of Friday the 13th, Rock Wilk is a panorama of vividly realized characters, as the multi-talented, multi-tasking performer brings his one man show “Brooklyn Quartet” back to Asbury Park for a one night stand. It’s a return to his onetime “stomping grounds” for the artist who previously workshopped the full-length piece at such area venues as the historic Stephen Crane House — and whose Off Broadway and touring engagements of “Quartet” built on the momentum of his acclaimed (and autobiographical) solo piece “Broke Wide Open.” A fast paced, passionately performed script that’s been honed to razor-edged precision by its author, “Brooklyn Quartet” sketches a group of urban neighborhood friends as they make an uneasy, sometimes tragic, and cautiously hopeful transition from youth to adulthood. It’s a bracingly adult work for audiences in search of something different —and it’s on exhibit at Palette Artspace, the “arts block” gallery located at 716 Cookman Avenue. Admission is just $5, and the show starts at 7:30 p.m. sharp.

Radio personality Christine Nagy and A.J.Ciccotelli co-star in the LaStrada Ensemble staging of DESTRUCTION OF THE AMERICAN MALE, the play by Brick Township playwright Darren Debari that goes up at Ocean Grove’s Jersey Shore Arts Center on April 6. (photo by Laura Desantis-Olsson)

Two Sondheims and a Centennial

The vanguard works of Stephen Sondheim (side by side with his famous collaborator Leonard Bernstein) are celebrated on local stages in April, beginning with a new production of his early success “West Side Story” on the historic stage of Manasquan’s Algonquin Arts Theatre. Adapted by book writer Arthur Laurents from a vintage chestnut called “Romeo and Juliet,” the epic love story set against the racial tensions and daily struggles of urban teen gangs boasts a monumental Sondheim-Bernstein score, more explosive energy than a supercollider, and a timelessness that transcends its 1950s NYC setting. Rob Ryan and Lizzie Legregin head up a young cast as star-crossed Tony and Maria (with Alicia Rose Dishon and Nick D’Ambrosia as Anita and Bernardo) under the direction of Ian Moore and choreography by Jessica O’Brien. Opening night is April 7, and performances continue at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (April 14, 20, 21), with 2 p.m. matinees on April 14 and 21, and 3 p.m. Sunday shows on April 8, 15, and 22. Tickets ($32-$40, with discounts for seniors and students) reserved at 732-528-9211 or algonquinarts.org…some classic stories of a different bent served as the foundation for “Into the Woods,”  the Tony winning 1987 Sondheim musical that mixed fairytale characters from the Grimms and others, into an alternately grim and merry mashup that boasts many memorable moments and messages. The Spring Lake Theatre Company’s production goes up for three weekends at the Community House beginning April 13, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. (plus 2 p.m. matinees on April 22 and 29). Reserve tickets ($30 adults; senior, student and child discounts) at springlaketheatre.com…the best-loved songs from “West Side Story” are sure to figure prominently in “A Time for Us: The Leonard Bernstein Centennial,” a special concert presentation celebrating the 100th birth year of the late and legendary composer-conductor-pianist. Dr. Ryan Brandau and the Monmouth Civic Chorus join soloists and orchestra for a program of selections from “On the Town,” “Candide,”and Bernstein’s best known symphonic / devotional works and cantatas, for the event presented at Ocean Township’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center. Produced in partnership with Cabaret for Life, it’s a fundraiser for Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, and it goes up for two shows (April 21 at 8 p.m.; April 22 at 3 p.m.), with tickets ($38-$42 adults) available at axelrodartscenter.com.

Memorable Musicals

Back for their first production of 2018, the folks at the recently resuscitated Premier Theatre Company take on the most legendary musical in Off Broadway history, with a staging of the deceptively simple (yet deeply expressive) community stage staple “The Fantasticks.” The whimsical Schmidt-Jones romance that gave us “Try to Remember” goes up for three evening performances, April 13 through 15, in a novel setting with a full size stage: the Asbury Park Women’s Club (in Wanamassa, actually, at 57 Wickapecko Drive). Tickets ($22-$28) can be reserved by calling 732-774-STAR….Red Bank-based Phoenix Productions returns to the Asbury Park Press Stage at the famous Count Basie Theatre, with a new production of one of the community company’s most crowd-pleasing favorites: “Annie,” the Charles Strouse-Martin Charnin musical adapted from the comic strip adventures of the ever-plucky Little Orphan Annie. Kendall Thorner (Annie), Patrick Cogan (Daddy Warbucks) and Lauren J. Cooke (Miss Hannigan) star in the show that opens on April 20, with shows on Friday and Saturday evenings (plus Sunday afternoons) through April 29. Reserve tickets ($22 – $32) by calling the Basie box office at 732-842-9000 or visiting countbasietheatre.org…the students of the Department of Music and Theatre Arts at Monmouth University go way back to school for one weekend, with a spring musical staging of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The fun and somewhat interactive comic songfest goes up for four performances (April 13, 14, 16 at 8 p.m.; April 15 at 3 p.m.) 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 http://www.monmouth.edu/arts…the Spotlight Players offer up “a fun, high energy review of classic folk music,” as “The World Sings Folk” comes to Matawan’s First Presbyterian Church for two weekends, April 27 through May 6. Ticket information and reservations at 732-583-7874 or spotlightplayers.org.

Hate the Shakespeare? Love the Comedy

Some welcome news here in April, as mainstage plays make a long overdue return to the rustic rafters of Holmdel Theatre Company‘s Duncan Smith Theater. Beginning Friday, April 13 and continuing for three weekends through April 28, the playhouse on the grounds of Holmdel High School will be kicking it old school, courtesy of William Shakespeare’s comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.” Longtime Shore favorite and comedy specialist Tom Frascatore directs the production, with ticket reservations and full schedule details available at http://www.holmdeltheatrecompany.org…another veteran star performer of the Shore community, Paul Chalakani is in the director’s chair for “What a Piece of Work Is Man: The Wit, Wisdom and Wonder of Will Shakespeare.” Simply put, it’s a compendium of the man’s timeless observations and thoroughly modern mastery of communication; delivered the way the Bard intended (on the stage, not necessarily the page). The program goes up for seven performances (April 19, 20, 27 at 7:30 p.m.; April21, 28 at 8 p.m.; April 22, 29 at 2 p.m.) inside the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts at Ocean County College in Toms River. For ticket info and details, get thee to grunincenter.org…

…but if you’re the type who’s prone to declare “I Hate Hamlet,” take it over to the beautifully renovated Navesink Arts Center (the former Navesink Library) in Middletown Township, where the Monmouth Players continue their 65th season as the Shore area’s longest-established stage troupe, with Paul Rudnick’s comedy of a confused actor, his resolute girlfriend, and the ghost of John Barrymore opening Saturday, April 14 at 8:15 p.m.. The show continues through April 29;  dished up with the Players’ superior spread of homemade desserts inside, and with ticket reservations ($20, with discounts for seniors, students and veterans), show dates and directions available by calling 732-291-9211 or visiting monmouthplayers.net…it ain’t Shakespeare, but the formidable works of the great 17th century playwright Moliere continue to speak to us across oceans of time and space — and for two weekends (April 20-29), The Grange Playhouse in Howell plays host to a translation/adaptation of the master’s 1673 comic ballet of hypochondria and chicanery “The Imaginary Invalid,” with tickets ($18 general admission) including dessert and beverages. Call 732-768-2709 for details…meanwhile, up at First Avenue Playhouse in Atlantic Highlands, “The Old People Are Revolting” — the name of a comedy by New Zealander Devon Williamson, in which the residents of a seniors development rise up against a heartless city council by threatening to secede from the nation. Barry Prag 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 http://www.firstavenueplayhouse.org.

For Kids (and Kings) of All Ages

The young student performers of the nonprofit Brick Childrens Community Theatre take on a favorite work by the late great Roald Dahl, with a stage adaptation of “James and the Giant Peach” that rolls into the historic Strand Theatre in Lakewood, for a one-weekend production that goes up at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 20, and continues with 3 p.m. matinees on April 21 and 22. Tickets for the story of an inadvertently adventuring boy, his large insect friends, and their voyage inside an even larger peach can be reserved at bcct.booktix.com, with more information at 732-920-9041…Two River Theater welcomes the Australia-based Slingsby troupe in a touring production of “The Young King,” an award-winning fable for young audiences that was adapted by Nicki Bloom from the short story by Oscar Wilde. The Red Bank venue, which opened its current season with a staging of Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” hosts the production under the direction of Andy Packer for seven public shows (including a “relaxed performance” for audience members on the autism spectrum), April 20 through 22. Reserve tickets ($25) at http://www.tworivertheater.org or 732-345-1400…then check this space for news and reviews on the next mainstage production at Two River (“Dancing at Lughnasa,” beginning April 14) as well as the New Jersey Repertory Company premiere of “Issei He Say” (beginning April 19).