From Halloween Hobgoblins to Real-World Horrors, on October stages

Actor and playwright Douglas Taurel portrays a parade of characters in “The American Soldier,” coming to Monmouth University in West Long Branch this weekend, and to Manasquan’s Algonquin Arts Theatre in November. Photo courtesy of Monmouth University Center for the Arts

Published in the Asbury Park Press, October 5 2018

There are, to be sure, the requisite number of restless spirits, wicked witches, man-eating monsters and mysterious murders at large here in this interlude of lengthening shadows. But there are also glimpses of the sort of horrors that don’t get packed away with the seasonal decorations — and in between, entertainments that range from creepy-kooky tunefests to altogether uplifting modern classics. It all starts this evening, October 5, on a Shore area stage near you.

Voyagers and Veterans

The settings span the bleak battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War to present-day Afghanistan; the people ranging from the can-do combatants of WWII to a grieving mother at the Vietnam Memorial. A solo show performed by actor Douglas Taurel (“The Americans,” “Blue Bloods,” “Nurse Jackie”), “The American Soldier” looks at more than 240 years of American history through the eyes of the people on the front lines — both literal and emotional — of the conflicts that have framed and defined our nation’s history and place in the world. Drawn from first-person stories, journalistic accounts, and letters to home, the play takes an unflinching look at the life-changing experiences of combat, and the ways in which Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, suicidal thoughts, and other lasting emotional scars of war continue to affect lives long after the field of battle goes quiet. Created by Taurel as a way “to say thank you and continue to help raise awareness of all the sacrifices made by our veterans and their families,” the critically acclaimed touring presentation makes the first of two scheduled stops in coastal Monmouth County on Friday, October 5, when the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University hosts the Amnesty International Award nominee in an 8 p.m. presentation for which tickets ($30) can be reserved at monmouth.edu/arts or by calling 732-263-6889. Then on Saturday, November 10, “The American Soldier” returns Shoreside for a 2 p.m. performance at the Algonquin Arts Theatre in Manasquan, with tickets ($25, with discounts for seniors, students, veterans and military) reserved at 732-528-9211 or algonquinarts.org. 

Speaking of visitors to our fair Shore, “Broadway at the Basie” is the name of a new series that brings top-notch national touring productions to the Count Basie Center for the Arts. As the Hollywood classic “The Wizard of Oz” approaches its 80th anniversary, the stage adaptation of the 1939 musical adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s timeless tale sounds the inaugural keynote for the series, with a two-day stand that brings the instantly recognizable songs of the Arlen-Harburg score to the Asbury Park Press Stage of the Red Bank landmark. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 31 and Thursday, November 1, with tickets ($40-$79) reserved by calling the Basie box office at 732-842-9000 or visiting thebasie.org.

Mysteries, Martians, and Massacres

Finding a welcoming new host venue at New Jersey Repertory Company’s West End Arts Center (132 West End Avenue in Long Branch), the collective known as The American Poetry Theater returns this weekend with a new stage work that examines the issue of gun violence in America. A collection of monologues and skits created by the cast and community members, “Gun Love” presents a range of voices that encompasses black parents, school shooting survivors, teachers, the NJ head of Moms Demand Action, and many others. APT founder Rich Quatrone directs a cast that includes NJ Rep’s Carl Hoffman, with 8 p.m. performances on October 5 and 6, as well as matinees on October 6 (2 p.m.) and October 7 (3 p.m.). Tickets are $18, and can be purchased at the door or reserved by calling 732-822-4338…in a much lighter vein, the folks at Atlantic Highlands dessert theater First Avenue Playhouse usher in another Halloween season with “The Ghost Train,” an ensemble comedy that strands a motley group of travelers at a remote rail station allegedly haunted by the titular apparition. Dave McGrath directs the script by Arnold Ridley, in the production that opens October 5 and continues on Fridays and Saturdays through the month at 8:30 p.m. (with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee on October 21). Reservations ($22) can be had by calling 732-291-7552 or visiting http://www.firstavenueplayhouse.org.

Meanwhile, across Route 36 at the nearby Navesink Arts Center, the Monmouth Players salute the eternal Master of the Macabre, as their historic homestage becomes a fitting fireside setting for “An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe.” The selection of stories and spooky poems offers two performances only (October 6 at 8 p.m.; October 7 at 2 p.m.), and is followed on the weekend of October 20-21 with a radio-play presentation of “The War of the Worlds” that recreates the 1938 H.G. Wells/ Orson Welles Halloween broadcast that moved the nation in some notoriously unexpected ways. The Players’ traditional spread of refreshments will cushion the shock in famous fashion, and tickets for these events ($15) can be obtained by calling 732-955-0335 (note the new phone number), or visiting monmouthplayers.net…over at The Grange Playhouse, the question is “Whodunnit?” — and the answer is the contributing playwrights of the Howell-based community theater, in a program of one-act murder mysteries that unfolds over two weekends (October 19-21 and 26-28), with tickets ($18) reserved by calling 732-768-2709.  

Crowd-pleasing Comedy, Acts of Economy 

Opening on Friday, October 12 as the latest production from Freehold’s Center Players, the comedy-drama “Italian Funerals and Other Festive Occasions” finds the dutiful son of a dementia-plagued mother delving into the “great opera” of his family’s past for the answers to his future. Ray Parnese directs the show that continues through November 4, with tickets ($24) and schedule details found at http://www.centerplayers.org…if it’s October, it must be time once again for the South Street Players of Spring Lake to present the Tri-State Theatre Festival, the eighth annual edition of which goes up for three performances on the weekend of October 19-21. A program of original short plays written by local playwrights from New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, the South Street signature event is a fundraising vehicle for the troupe and its ongoing activities at Wesley Hall (inside St. Andrew’s Methodist Church). Call 732-447-5169 for schedule details and ticket information…with a new artistic director (Kathy Connolly) now on board, Holmdel Theatre Company enters a new chapter with a look back at a classic ensemble comedy from the team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. A quirky, uplifting portrait of a defiantly eccentric family and its positively charged battle against creeping conformity, “You Can’t Take It With You” rings the rustic rafters of the Duncan Smith Theater beginning Friday, October 26, with full schedule details and ticket info available at http://www.holmdeltheatrecompany.org.         

Musicals from the Bookshelf 

Continuing for one more weekend at Ocean Grove’s Jersey Shore Arts Center, “The Secret Garden” the Tony-winning Marsha Norman-Lucy Simon musicalization of the oft-adapted 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, as the fall production from producer-director Nick Montesano’s NENAproductions Theater Project. Young veteran Maura Whalen (from NENA’s staging of “Fun Home”) and Jeffrey Fiorello head the cast, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on October 5 and 6 (plus a 3 p.m. Sunday matinee on October 7), and tickets ($25 adult, $19 kids) reserved at 732-988-1007 or via ticketleap.com…the Broadway Series of mainstage shows at Manasquan’s Algonquin Arts Theatre resumes this Saturday, October 6, with “Kiss Me, Kate,” the 1948 musical comedy that marries the timeless tunes of Cole Porter to a show-within-a-show inspired by Shakespeare’s highly spirited “Taming of the Shrew.” As the feuding former spouses whose lives intersect with the Bard’s bawdy comedy, Joseph Stefanelli and Cindy Chait topline a big cast under Gina Lupi’s direction, in the production that opens Saturday, October 6 and continues through October 21, with tickets ($32-$40; discounts for seniors and students) and full schedule details found at 732-528-9211 or algonquinarts.org. 

While Independence Day seems a world away from the impending slate of late-year holidays, the folks at Red Bank-based Phoenix Productions evoke the spirit of a sweltering summer of “1776,” as the hit musical inspired by the somewhat boisterous birth of our nation returns to the Asbury Park Press Stage at the Count Basie Center for the Arts for a single weekend, October 12-14.  Reserve tickets ($20 – $32) by calling the Basie box office at 732-842-9000 or visiting thebasie.org…more “altogether ooky” and apropos to the season of the witch, “The Addams Family” takes a musical spin through the mad world of the classic cartoon characters of Charles Addams (with a big burst of inspiration from its classic 1960s sitcom incarnation), when Gomez, Morticia and company take to the stage of the Spring Lake Community House, in a Spring Lake Theatre Company staging that opens on Friday, October 12 and continues for six evening and matinee performances through October 27. Tickets ($30 adults; senior, student and child discounts) reserved at springlaketheatre.com…another recently minted favorite signifier of the season returns to the local stage on October 12, when Exit 82 Theatre Company seeds a new production of “Little Shop of Horrors” at the troupe’s new playhouse at 73 Main Street in downtown Toms River. Adapted from the legendary 1960 sci-fi comedy from Roger Corman (a film that gave a young Jersey Shore hopeful by the name of Jack Nicholson an early break), the tale of nebbishy flower shop employee Seymour Krelboin and his carnivorous alien plant Audrey II boasts a score by the Disney hitmakers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (“Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast”) — and, we should point out, is sponsored here by Narcissus Florals. Reserve tickets ($25 adults; $23 seniors) by calling  732-228-7000 or visiting http://www.exit82theatre.com.

Lastly but never leastly, most Jersey Shore Octobers would scarcely be complete without a fresh-blood look at the Atlantic City Ballet adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” the production by choreographer Phyllis Papa that returns to the historic Strand Theatre in Lakewood for a single 4 p.m. performance on Sunday, October 21. Reserve tickets ($25-$35; discounts for seniors and students) by calling 609-348-7201.