Joe Iconis, composer of the cult-hit musical BE MORE CHILL, returns to Red Bank’s Two River Theater to star in a special benefit event on Saturday, May 19. (photo courtesy Two River Theater)

Published in the Asbury Park Press, May 4 2018

The merry month of May brings a bounty to Shore area theater fans, courtesy of a few newly flowering perennials, a couple of surprise sproutings, and maybe even an invasive thriller or two to keep things truly interesting. We’ve got your roundup, so to speak, right here.

A recent, widely read article in the New York Times called it “one of the most popular new musicals in America, with a passionate fan base that dwarfs the number of people who have ever seen the show” — a reference to none other than Be More Chill, the supercharged sci-fi high school musical that made its commissioned world premiere at Red Bank’s Two River Theater back in 2015. Based on a novel by the late Ned Vizzini — and playfully touching on themes that include addiction, acceptance, and assimilation into the popular-kids social hierarchy — the show by composer Joe Iconis and book writer Joe Tracz has since gathered major momentum through viral streaming of its soundtrack album, an international fanbase, and a series of school and community productions that included a successful staging by Tom River’s Exit 82 company. On the eve of a commercial Off Broadway revamp — and even as Two River Theater Company commissions an all new project from the Two Joes team — the Be More Chill songwriter returns to Red Bank for a special benefit event on Saturday, May 19. Billed as “An Evening with Joe Iconis and Family,” the fundraiser for TRTC’s ambitious slate of development programs is “a combination of rock ‘n’ roll jamboree and musical cabaret” that “will include classic tunes, new numbers, and works-in-progress.” Joining Iconis and director John Simpkins are such “family” member vocalists as orignal Chill veterans Lauren Marcus, Eric William Morris, and George Salazar; tickets ($60-$250) and details on a pre-show cocktail reception and post-show family dinner are available at tworivertheater.org or 732-345-1400.

A Ferber Fest in West End

She’s not the member of the legendary literary circle of the Algonquin Round Table who was born in Long Branch — a distinction reserved for Dorothy Parker — but at the end of this month, the seaside city rolls out a very special welcome for the late Edna Ferber, hosted at New Jersey Repertory Company’s new West End Arts Center. The life and legacy of the Pulitzer Prize winning fiction writer, playwright and feminist (1885-1968) is celebrated in  Five by Ferber, a four day festival (May 31 – June 3) that commandeers the repurposed classrooms of the former West End School building at 132 West End Avenue. Julie Gilbert — the author’s great niece, and one of several female NJ Rep playwrights taking part in the tribute — keynotes the festival on May 31 with “The Story of Showboat,” an examination of how Ferber’s darkly shaded novel compares to its musical version and subsequent screen adaptations (excerpts from which will be shown during the program). The nights of June 1 and 2 see the readings of five brand new short plays, each adapted from a Ferber story, by playwrights that include Gilbert, D.W. Gregory, Marisa Smith, Julie Weinberg, and the team of Sheilah Rae and Debra Barsha. The Sunday, June 3 finale boats a concert reading of Selina Peake, a lost-and-newly found full length play adapted from Ferber’s breakthrough novel So Big by fellow Pulitzer winner Horton Foote. Admission to any of the Five by Ferber programs is $25 per day, with a Festival Pass priced at $75, and discounts for NJ Rep subscribers. Call 732-229-3166 or visiting njrep.org to reserve — and watch this space for further Ferber Festival info.

Springtime for Harold Hill

There’s always another mark down the road for Professor Harold Hill, the lovable huckster at the heart of The Music Man — and always an audience for Meredith Willson’s hit musical of a traveling con man, a small Iowa town, and a scheme to rally the community behind the notion of its very own concert band. For just two days and four performances, the young performers of the Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts program at Ocean Township’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center take on this energetic piece of Americana, in a production directed by Lisa Goldfarb with choreography by Wendy Roman andmusical direction by Randal Hurst. Crowd-pleasing numbers like “Trouble,” “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Shipoopi” are performed by a cast featuring Joseph Grisanzio as Harold, with Carlie Goldfarb as local librarian Marian Paroo; Simon Clissold as Marcellus, plus Gillian Finnegan and Max Borish as the Paroo parents. Performances are at 1 and 5 p.m. on May 6 and May 13; tickets ($22) and can be purchased at axelrodartscenter.com; by phone 732-531-9106 x14, or in person at the APAC box office, 100 Grant Avenue in Deal Park.  

Arguably the funniest musical ever staged — and one whose playful jabs at the business of Broadway continue to resonate along with the laughs — The Producers returns to the local stage in May as a Broadway Series production at Manasquan’s Algonquin Arts Theatre. Adapted by Mel Brooks from his own 1968 screen comedy, the tale of would-be theatrical moguls Bialystock and Bloom — and their seemingly ingenious scheme to bilk their investors via a surefire Broadway flop — is packed with vividly over-the-top characters, hilarious gags, and the one-of-a-kind showstopper “Springtime for Hitler.”  The show runs a total of eight performances between Friday, May 11 and Sunday, May 20, with some of the showtimes on the verge of selling out; tickets ($32-$40, with discounts for seniors and students) can be reserved at 732-528-9211 or algonquinarts.org

Murder, Madness and Mid-life Crises

South Street Players of Spring Lake springs back into action this month of May with Rehearsal for Murder, a clever play-within-a-play mystery adapted by D.D. Brooke from a 1982 made-for-TV movie by Columbo creators Levinson and Link. Framed as a reading of a playwright’s latest script — and centered around the mysterious death of the writer’s late fiancee — the neatly constructed thriller goes up tonight, May 4; continuing Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. (with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.) through May 13 at Wesley Hall (inside St. Andrew’s Methodist Church). Tickets ($22, with discounts for seniors and kids under 12) can be reserved by calling 732-447-5169…beginning tonight and continuing through June 3, director Dave McGrath and Freehold’s Center Players take on a modern American classic with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, adapted by Dale Wasserman from Ken Kesey’s landmark novel of rebellion, rules, and regular everyday insanity. Tickets ($24) plus full schedule details can be found at http://www.centerplayers.org.

Over at First Avenue Playhouse in Atlantic Highlands, The Big Five-Oh brings playwright Brian Mitchell’s “hilarious, sometimes touching account of a grown man coming to terms with his age, his relationship with his son, and his future” to the dessert theater stage in a production packed with comic characters and situations. Leslie Hochman 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…the Middletown Arts Center (36 Church Street, adjacent to Middletown train station) is the setting for “An Evening of Classic Radio Plays,” performed live (and with music plus Foley sound effects) on Friday, May 11. It’s a presentation of Aural Radio Theater, and general admission to the 7:30 p.m. program is $10, with more information available at 732-706-4100.