El Chupacabra terrorizes the alternate reality of a cartoonist turned comic book hero, in the 2018 Two River Theater production EL COQUÍ ESPECTACULAR AND THE BOTTLE OF DOOM. Photo by Richard Termine

Published in the Asbury Park Press, December 28 2018

Star-powered casts — and a set of new and diverse voices — set the pace for the live theater stages of Monmouth and Ocean counties in the calendar year 2018. The area served by the Asbury Park Press continued to draw the attentions and the talents of some top-shelf pros, even as its many creative crannies proved that the most interesting things can occur in the most unlikely of venues. Here are a handful of the Great Performances and all-around Good Things that we happened across in the year that was.

New dramas

Bemoaning the fact that comic book characters seem to be hijacking the entire mass culture? Well, get over it, because back at the top of the year, Red Bank’s Two River Theater set the pace with a “superhero play” of supercharged energy: the intriguingly titled El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom. Emerging from Two River’s annual Crossing Borders festival of new Latinx plays, the play by Matthew Barbot succeeded where the mighty Spidey and Superman fell short in their respective musical misadventures; investing its story (of a young unemployed Puerto Rican-American artist turned self-styled costumed crimefighter) with a choreographed visual verve that played, under the direction of Jose Zayas, like a musical minus the music. Throw in a layered plot that segued smoothly between the alternate realities of the dual-identity protagonist, with projected images that heightened the shift between parallel worlds, and the result was a dazzling cultural satire that compared favorably with the company’s trailblazing premiere production of the musical phenomenon “Be More Chill.”

Over at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, some new faces arrived in town with April’s production of Chloe Hung’s Issei, He Say — and those newcomers had a compelling story to tell, in the Chinese-Canadian TV writer’s semi-autobiographical account of an immigrant family’s struggles with assimilation, aspirations, and the next door neighbor, an elderly gentleman of Japanese descent. As the play’s 12 year old central character, Christina Liang headed a superb cast in a drama that placed a perfectly constructed, intimately scaled frame around the big issues of blinding prejudice, national tragedies, home-front secrets, and the things people use to forge alliances in the darkness.

In an April photo shoot, Christina Liang (seated0 joined fellow cast members and creative team of ISSEI HE SAY, the New Jersey Repertory premiere that was one of the dramatic standouts of 2018.  Photo courtesy NJ Rep

New musicals

Adding to their growing catalog of musical productions, the folks at Two River concluded one mainstage season, and kicked off another, with a pair of talent-packed tunefests. A late substitution to the 2017-18 schedule, the June production of Songbird transplanted the beating heart of Chekhov’s classic “The Seagull” to the honky tonks of Nashville, with Felicia Finley (“The Wedding Singer,” “Mamma Mia!”) heading up an impressive cast of Broadway veterans, all of whom made the most of the eclectic score of original country music songs by actor-singer-songwriter Lauren “LOLO” Pritchard.  Then in September, the new season began with the culmination of a project to see a “lost” work by the late Wendy Wasserstein to the stage, with the first fully fledged engagement of Pamela’s First Musical. Co-scripted by Christopher Durang (and based on Wasserstein’s children’s book of the same name), the “meta”-musical experience boasted music by the late great Cy Coleman, a cast featuring some Tony’d pros, and a tone that successfully straddled both a sincere affinity for the joys of musical theater, and a sly satire of same. At its best, the show was exactly what it aimed to be — a family entertainment that’s genuinely “fun for all ages,” and a great little intro to a magical world that’s just made to order for that special Pamela in one’s life. 

Professional revivals

Continuing their impressive track record with professional-cast productions of modern classic musicals — and upping the artistic ante in 2018 — the creative team at Ocean Township’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center hosted a 50th anniversary concert version of the Rado-Ragni-McDermott musical Hair; an August engagement that spotlighted the multi-tasking talents of one of the Shore’s breakout music stars, Anthony “Remember Jones” D’Amato. The sell-out stand further boasted “American Idol” finalist and two-time Tony nominee Constantine Maroulis, as well as the added visual dimension of Marc Rubinstein’s legendary and period-perfect “Pig Light Show.” Then in November, artistic director Andrew De Prisco and company made headlines when they secured the services of Broadway’s original AnnieAndrea McArdle, to return to her star-making project, this time in the role of ornery orphanage operator Miss Hannigan. 

Back in Red Bank, the Two River team continued their commitment to presenting the entirety of August Wilson’s celebrated “Century Cycle” of dramas with a powerhouse November production of the late Pittsburgh playwright’s King Hedley II. In his sophomore directorial outing, the in-demand actor (and frequent Two River collaborator) Brandon J. Dirden rallied an ensemble cast of Broadway veterans and Wilson specialists (plus one dynamite newcomer, Blake Morris in the title role) for a project that offered joy and hope and humor, a bit of song and awkward dance — and the onrushing train-wreck spectacle of a loose extended family, thrown together and torn asunder by the sins of the past and the dashed dreams of the future. 

Cool stuff in strange places

While it’s still being treated as very much a work in progress, the old elementary school building that houses NJ Repertory’s new West End Arts Center is a functional space that’s accommodated several of the company’s short play festivals — and this past June, the classrooms and all-purpose room played host to Five by Ferber, a four day festival that celebrated the life and legacy of the Pulitzer Prize winning fiction writer, playwright and feminist Edna Ferber. Featured were readings of five new short plays — each adapted from a Ferber story by female playwrights — as well the premiere performance of the Ferber adaptation (by by fellow Pulitzer winner Horton Foote) Selina Peake, and a lecture by the author’s niece on the journey of Ferber’s “Showboat” from novel to musical. Meanwhile, down at another repurposed school building — the old Neptune High School, now home to Ocean Grove’s Jersey Shore Arts Center — the prolific playwrights-and-performers collective La Strada Ensemble Theater maintained a beyond-busy schedule in 2018; commandeering the third-floor cafe space for numerous programs of short plays (including the annual  Rainbow Festival), as well as the premieres of local-playwright works like Darren Debari’s Destruction of the American Male and Ed Shakespeare’s WMAD 

Another theater troupe with a longstanding connection to Jersey Shore Arts, NENAproductions Theater Project broke with tradition last March, presenting its offbeat spring show (William Finn’s edgily autobiographical 1998 musical A New Brain) in an equally unusual setting (The Starving Artist at Days Restaurant, scene of NENA’s summertime porch revues). Then in April, Bronx-based renaissance man Rock Wilk returned to Asbury Park for an encore performance of his acclaimed one-man Off Broadway show Brooklyn Quartet, this time at the Cookman Avenue gallery Palette Artspace (the playwright-poet-producer-performer would later workshop his latest in-progress solo piece at another of Asbury’s best kept secret spaces, the Stephen Crane House).

The comeback trail

Welcoming a new artistic director and getting back into gear in 2018, Holmdel Theatre Company kept the lights on at their Duncan Smith Theater last year, beginning with director Tom Frascatore’s staging of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and continuing with crowdpleasing productions that highlighted both young casts (S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders) and familiar veterans of the community scene (Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You). Winding down its sophomore “comeback” summer season on Long Beach Island, the born-again Surflight Theatre of Beach Haven offered up some intriguing entertainments in the interlude after Labor Day, including the NJ premiere production of the Steve Martin-Edie Brickell collaboration Bright Star, the Hitchcockian fast-change farce The 39 Steps, and Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins. 

Honorable mentions

While the world arguably wasn’t crying out for one more play about the problems of frustrated academics, NJ Rep’s August premiere of Michael Tucker’s Fern Hill was a treat for audiences who appreciated the reassuring faces and pleasing voices of its ensemble of seasoned character actors (including Tony winner John Glover, David Rasche, and Tucker’s partner in LA Law and life, Jill Eikenberry). Taking his act to Two River in advance of the show’s New York run, writer-performer Mike Birbiglia offered Shore area audiences a summertime sneak peek at The New One — and capping a summer slate of presentations by the nonprofit Cabaret for Life troupe, Tim McLoone’s Supper Club welcomed back The Housewives of Monmouth County for a ninth annual production that centered around the timely theme of #MEthree,” even as it deftly skewered the timeless foibles of the folks who inhabit Monmouth’s chichiest zip codes.