September brings life, death, mystery, magic (and a touch of music), to Shore stages

Red Bank-based photographer Elisabeth Koch-McKay’s “Ringer” is among the art works on display “When the Circus Comes to Town,” as New Jersey Repertory Company presents another in a series of Theater Brut short play festivals at its new West End Arts Center in Long Branch.

Published in the Asbury Park Press, September 7 2018

For anyone who makes their home on or around the Shore, the immediate aftermath of the Labor Day holiday can be likened to the morning after the circus pulls its wagons out of town. But, as at least one company of troupers reminds us in no uncertain terms, September can mark the moment when the passing carnival truly makes a stand, and in more ways than one.

When the Circus Comes to Town” is the big thematic umbrella for eleven days and nights in the latter part of the month, as the folks at Long Branch-based New Jersey Repertory Company launch the latest in an intermittent series of “Theater Brut” Festivals of the Arts; bringing an ambitious slate of new short plays, live music, visual art and spoken poetry to the walls, halls and repurposed classrooms of the company’s West End Arts Center facility. Occupying a full block of real estate — and with on-site parking, yet — in the heart of the city’s West End neighborhood, the onetime primary school building hosted an acclaimed Theater Brut fest (centered around the them “All About Eve’) in the fall of 2017, and two weekends from now they’ll be maintaining the newly minted tradition with a multi-media cavalcade of works that draw their inspiration from the colorful clamor (and the occasional shadowy corners) of one of the oldest and endlessly fascinating realms of popular entertainment. 

It all begins with a free Art and Photography Reception from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, September 20, as the building’s gallery space hosts a display of works (by such well known Monmouth County artists and photographers as Mare Akana, Kate Eggleston, Elisabeth Koch-McKay and Mike Quon) that remains on view for the duration of the ten day Theater Brut festival. Beginning September 21 and running eight distinct programs through September 30, the event presents the premiere of 31 original works (plus one encore, the mini-musical Stepping Into Fire) that range from zany surreal comedies to stark dramatic sketches, and even a tuneful take inspired by the vintage Tyrone Power film noir Nightmare Alley. Contributing playwrights include several who have seen their full-length works produced by NJ Rep — among them LA Law veteran Michael Tucker (whose Fern Hill wraps up its world premiere engagement this weekend at the company’s downtown Long Branch playhouse), Marisa Smith, and Joel Stone — as well as actors Christopher Daftsios, Jared Michael Delaney, and Barney Fitzpatrick. Directors include NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, Gail Winar, frequently featured player John FitzGibbon, and Point Pleasant native Peter Zazzali. Rep regulars should be on the lookout for some favorite familiar faces (and maybe a few surprises) in the casts, which will be made public shortly.

Interspersed between the Theater Brut play programs will be a free Storytelling Event for kids ages 5 to 10 (Tuesday, September 25 at 4 p.m.); a Poetry Night (Wednesday, September 26 at 7 p.m.) that spotlights contributions by New Jersey writers, and a Music Night concert (Friday, September 28 at 8 p.m.) showcasing the bands Homeless Apiens, Jackson Pines and others. Admission to any of the individual Theater Brut play programs is $50 (includes post-show music and refreshments), with the Poetry and Music Night events priced at $15. A limited number of complete-schedule Festival Passes are available for $300 each, and all tickets can be reserved by calling 732-229-3166 or visiting njrep.org, where you’ll find a complete performance schedule and other details.

Bright Stars, Secret Gardens, Technicolor Dreamcoats

As it winds down its sophomore “comeback” summer season on Long Beach Island, the born-again Surflight Theatre of Beach Haven enters the post-Labor Day interlude with the continuation of its NJ premiere production of “Bright Star,” the collaboration between funnyman-playwright Steve Martin and folk-rocker Edie Brickell that was drawn from their Grammy nominated album. Set in North Carolina in the aftermath of World War II, the musical tale of forbidden love, family secrets, personal ambitions and a connection that spans the decades runs now through Sunday, September 9 — and it’s followed on the professional stage by a pair of intriguing limited engagements. Playfully adapted from the Hitchcock thriller of the same name, “The 39 Steps” brings quick-change farce to a whole new level, with the frenzied tale of seductive spies, mistaken identities, and mysterious MacGuffins putting a cast of four through its paces as some 150 different characters. The show runs from September 12 through September 16 — and it’s followed in short order by “Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins.” If you recall Meryl Streep as Florence in the recent feature film, you’ll know that Mrs. Jenkins was the real-life society matron of boundless ambition and finite musical abilities, who famously brought her cacophonous coloratura to a sold-out Carnegie Hall showcase concert in 1944. Told through the viewpoint of her accompanist Cosme McMoon, the Stephen Temperley play makes its local debut in a production that runs from September 19 through September 23. Ticket reservations and full schedule details for all of these events can be found at http://www.surflight.org.

She made her mark on Broadway as the female lead in “Jekyll & Hyde” (one of several professional collaborations with then-husband Frank Wildhorn) — and has since been no stranger to multiple musical personalities; having honed her chops as a lounge singer in AC, achieved household-name status as an undefeated champion on “Star Search,” dressed in gowns as a singer of Songbook standards, and in blue jeans as  she toured behind her album of country-pop kickers. When Linda Eder steps once more onto the Asbury Park Press Stage at Red Bank’s Count Basie Center for the Arts on Thursday, September 20, it’s anyone’s guess as to where the evening might take the listener — but it’s a reassuring sign when your captain announces, “I’m Linda Eder and I am a singer…that’s all I’ve ever done.” Reserve tickets for the 8 p.m. concert ($25 – $75) by calling the Basie box office at 732-842-9000 or visiting thebasie.org…an early triumph for composers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice takes it to the house of worship, as Middletown-based Stone Church Players return with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Christine Jay directs the performances inside All Saints Memorial (the historic “Old Stone Church” at the junction of Navesink and Monmouth Avenues), with complete schedule details and ticket reservations ($25) at 732-226-6131…returning to their regular homestage berth at Ocean Grove’s Jersey Shore Arts Center, NENAproductions Theater Project tackles an all-ages classic with The Secret Garden, the 1991 muscialization of the oft-adapted 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Company founder Nick Montesano directs the production of the show that boasts a Tony-winning book by lyricist Marsha Norman (and music by Grammy winner Lucy Simon), with the show opening on Friday, September 28 and continuing through October 7 with tickets ($25) reserved at 732-988-1007 or via ticketleap.com. 

Serious in September

Their reputation as specialists in the art of stage comedy has long been established — but as the calendar year fades into its late ‘embers, the folks at the Atlantic Highlands dessert theater First Avenue Playhouse are getting suddenly serious, in the process taking on one of the most seriously groundbreaking dramas of the past century. The “Angry Young Man” movement in postwar British drama had its most important exponent in playwright John Osborne, and with the 1956 play Look Back in Anger the frustrations of an embittered working class found their voice. Adapted into a memorable film with the young Richard Burton, the portrait of smart but scornful ne-er-do-well Jimmy — and the ways in which his lashing out at the world threatens to up-end his every human relationship — is directed here by First Ave regular Dave McGrath. Opening Friday, September 7, the show plays Fridays and Saturdays through the month at 8:30 p.m. (with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee on September 16), and reservations ($22) can be had by calling 732-291-7552 or visiting http://www.firstavenueplayhouse.org…meanwhile, at the historic nearby library building that does duty now as the Navesink Arts Center, “A Season of Life and Death” is the theme for the new slate of offerings from Monmouth Players, as the Shore area’s longest-established stage troupe launches its season (the 66th?) with a program of Life and Death One-Acts. Opening Saturday, September 15 and continuing for six more matinee and evening performances through September 30, the production sets the pace for a late-innings 2018 that further spotlights the adapted words of Edgar Allan Poe, Orson Welles, and Anne Frank. Ticket reservations ($15) and additional info can be obtained by calling 732-955-0335 (note the new phone number), or visiting monmouthplayers.net.

Such legendary literary sleuths as Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade are on the case once more, as the folks at Aural Radio Theater present a program of Classic Radio Detective Stories, performed “LIVE, with music and Foley sound effects.” The retro-noir action happens for two shows only (Saturday, September 15 at 2 and 7:30 p.m.) on the stage of the Middletown Arts Center, with tickets ($10) available by calling 732-706-4100…if any Garden State Bard could lay claim to being the Shakespeare of New Jersey, it’s Ed Shakespeare, member in good standing of Ocean Grove’s La Strada Ensemble Theater and the scribe behind WMAD, a new script that makes its public bow on Thursday, September 20. Described as a “comedy-drama powerhouse play about a radio DJ and the community he creates on air,” the show goes up for two performances (September 20 at 8 p.m., September 21 at 2 p.m.) at the third floor cafe at the Jersey Shore Arts Center, under the direction of Donna Ault-Jacobson. Take it to lastradaensembletheater.com for tickets.