IT’S WHAT’S UP FOR WEEK OF NOVEMBER 15-21

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, November 15 2018

SCENES: Dr. Sketchy’s Belly Dance at Bond Street Basement 

The always-amazing and energizing CJ Mars IS the latest regeneration of the good Dr. Sketchy, the local chapter of the monthly series of themed drawing-class sessions that’s found a subterranean home at the Bond Street Basement Bar. Join CJ (pictured front and center in photo at left) and friends TONIGHT, November 15, for a very special event centered around the ever-exotic realm of Belly Dance — and featuring the incredible Brazilian-American dancer Yamé as guest live model! The teacher and leader of the SharQui Dance company (pictured above, during a previous Sketchy session keyed to the signs of the Zodiac) invites sketchers to sketch ‘er at 6:30 pm; it’s $10 admission to reserve a seat (via eventbrite.com or at the door); there’s a prize package giveaway of art supplies, plus unique merchandise for sale AND more details at the Facebook page for Dr. Sketchy’s Asbury Park.

STAGES: ANNIE at Axelrod Performing Arts Center 

Andrea McArdle, the original Little Orphan Annie of the Tony winning 1977 Broadway original, returns to the hit musical (this time as mean Miss Hannigan). Performances at 8 p.m. on November 15, 16 and 17; at 2 p.m. on November 17; and at 3 p.m. on November 18. Reserve tickets ($46-$56 adults, with discounts for seniors and students) at axelrodartscenter.com. Check upperwetside.wordpress.com for our archived Coaster interview with McArdle on the new production.

STAGES: THE DROWSY CHAPERONE at Monmouth U

A clever pastiche of 1920s Jazz Age tunefests (and the fans who love them), the Tony winning 2009 meta-musical (with songs by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison) comes to the Lauren K. Woods Theatre in a production from the Department of Music and Theatre Arts at Monmouth U. Professor Sheri Anderson directs a student cast, with performances at 8 p.m. on November 15, 16 and 17, plus a 3 p.m. matinee on November 18. Reserve tickets ($20; free for MU students) at http://www.monmouth.edu/arts.

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Two River, Dirden continue their Wilson cycle with ‘King Hedley II’

Published in the Asbury Park Press, November 16 2018

Actor Brian D. Coats returns to the world of August Wilson’s acclaimed cycle of plays, as Two River Theater and director Brandon J. Dirden prepare to open a new production of Wilson’s KING HEDLEY II in Red Bank. (photo courtesy of Two River Theater)

While they’ve never formally announced a grand plan to take on every play in August Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” the folks at Red Bank’s Two River Theater are well on their way, having previously presented major professional productions of the late Pittsburgh-based playwright’s Jitney, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. With the latest offering in the company’s milestone 25th season, Two River has reached the halfway point in the collection of ten dramas — each of them set in a different decade — that encapsulate the African American experience in the twentieth century, primarily through the lives of those who make their home in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

That offering is the 1999 ensemble piece King Hedley II, the penultimate play in the chronological sequence — and a loose sequel of sorts to Seven Guitars, a work set nearly 40 years prior to this one. Two River’s 2015 staging of Guitars marked the directorial debut of Brandon J. Dirden, the in-demand actor of stage (as MLK in Broadway’s All the Way) and small screen (a long running role on The Americans) whose many endeavors in Red Bank have included Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine and last season’s A Raisin in the Sun. Returning to the director’s chair for Hedley (and taking the action “right into the lap of the audience,” to the more intimately scaled environment of Two River’s Marion Huber “black box” space), Dirden reunites with several of the actors from the previous project — among them Brian D. Coats, appearing in his third production for Two River. 

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IT’S WHAT’S UP FOR WEEK OF NOVEMBER 8-14

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, November 8 2018

SOUNDS: The Duprees at Tim McLoone’s 

Their catalog boasts “My Own True Love,”  “Have You Heard,” and what might just be their finest few minutes on record — that travelogue pledge of undying love, “You Belong to Me.”  Some 60-some years on, The Duprees don’t just belong to the ages (or to that know-it-all “oldies” collector in the track suit who wouldn’t cut you a break on that scratched-up single by the Jive Five) — but to the here and now, as the doo wop quartet has never stopped delivering their sublime little slices of streetcorner soul to a multi-generational public that’s hungry for harmony. On Saturday, November 2, the veteran vocalizers take it topside to McLoone’s Supper Club for some smooth slow-dance Saturday night sets of favorites from the Fifties, the early Sixties, and both-ways beyond. Available tickets for the 8 pm show start at $40, with seating reserved at timmcloonessupperclub.com.

STAGES: ANNIE at Axelrod PAC

Andrea McArdle, the original Little Orphan Annie of the Tony winning 1977 Broadway original, returns to the hit musical (this time as mean Miss Hannigan) in a new production at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Ocean Township. Performances at 8 p.m. on November 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 and 17; at 2 p.m.  on November 10, 11, and 17; at 3 p.m. on November 18, and at 7 p.m. on November 11. Reserve tickets ($46-$56 adults, with discounts for seniors and students) at axelrodartscenter.com. Check upperwetside.wordpress.com for our archived Coaster interview with McArdle on the new production.

STAGES: HAPPENSTANCE at Jersey Shore Arts 

The prolific collective La Strada Ensemble Theater returns again to the third floor cafe space at  Ocean Grove’s Jersey Shore Arts Center, with a program of four short original “plays about rolling the dice” (by Tom Cavanaugh, A.J. Ciccotelli, and Emmy winner William Mastrosimone) plus a cast that boasts Lite FM radio personality Christine Nagy (pictured at left). Performances are November 9 (8 pm) and November 10 (2 and 8 pm); reserve tickets ($25; senior and student discounts) at lastradaensemble.org or 732-455-2748.

STAGES: THE DROWSY CHAPERONE at Monmouth U

A clever pastiche of 1920s Jazz Age tunefests (and the fans who love them), the Tony winning 2009 meta-musical (with songs by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison) comes to the Lauren K. Woods Theatre in a production from the Department of Music and Theatre Arts at Monmouth U. Professor Sheri Anderson directs a student cast, with performances at 8 p.m. on November 9, 10, 14, 15, 16 and 17, plus 3 p.m. matinees on November 11 and 18. Reserve tickets ($20; free for MU students) at http://www.monmouth.edu/arts.

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HERE’S WHAT’S LEAPIN’ ONTO NOVEMBER’S SHORE STAGES

At left: Lite FM radio personality Christine Nagy and Brendan Keffner star in A.J. Ciccotelli’s  “The Un-Destined Traveler,” one of three short plays premiering under the umbrella title of HAPPENSTANCE, as La Strada Ensemble Theater returns to Ocean Grove’s Jersey Shore Arts Center in November. Photo by A.J. Ciccotelli

Published in the Asbury Park Press, November 2 2018

There’s the highly anticipated return of a true “Broadway baby” to the show that made her famous, with a twist. A mix of musical entertainments that aim to take some of the chill from the air, plus comedies, interactive family outings, a bit of sobering historical drama — and it’s beginning to look a lot like, well, November, here on Shore area stages.

The big news, as reported here earlier in these pages, is the long-awaited arrival of Annie to the auditorium of Ocean Township’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center, in a professional staging from producer Andrew De Prisco that boasts the starpower of Andrea McArdle. The actress and singer is indeed the same red-headed dynamo who was famously pulled from the show’s company of “orphans” to take on the title role in that multiple Tony-winning 1977 musical (a classic Broadway true-life tale that Busby Berkeley could not have choreographed better) — but while it’s never been uncommon for the likes of Rex Harrison and Yul Brynner to revisit their signature roles in multiple revivals of earlier stage triumphs, the APAC production finds the 54-year old McArdle portraying not Harold Gray’s eternally plucky comic strip heroine, but her nemesis, the ornery orphanage operator Miss Hannigan. 

“I’m literally being thrown into this…but the third time’s the charm,” says the recently minted grandmother who played the role in two previous Annie engagements (and who appeared briefly as “The Star To Be” in a 1999 TV movie version). “It’s a really daunting task…my memory of working with (original Hannigan) Dorothy Loudon is so vivid and strong…but I’m a quick study.” 

The commitment to the part represents a renewed interest in the Martin Charnin-Charles Strouse musical hit for the performer who became the youngest actress ever to be nominated for a Tony, and who went on to feature in the original casts of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express and State Fair, as well as to star turns in Beauty and the Beast and Les Miserables. Having since built a solid career as a cabaret artist, a concert attraction at some of the world’s major halls and a mentor to young stage hopefuls, she checks in to the autumnal Jersey Shore for a run of 15 performances that promise to be “a really good production…and fortunately, the little girl who’s playing Annie is a real treasure; a real find.”

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An ‘ANNIE’ with ANOTHER SIDE OF ANDREA McARDLE, AT THE APAC

Inset: Andrea McArdle is pictured as she appeared (with co-stars Sandy and Reid Shelton) in the original 1977 Broadway production of the hit musical ANNIE. The stage star returns to the show that made her famous — this time as mean Miss Hannigan — in the production that runs for three weekends at Ocean Township’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center.

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, November 1 2018

She was famously pulled from the ensemble to be thrust into the title role of one of the season’s most hotly anticipated musicals, in a story that might have made for a classic “backstage” musical in itself. She became the youngest performer ever to be Tony-nominated as Best Lead Actress in a Musical, only to lose out to the veteran who played her character’s nemesis in the same show. And, although her look and her voice and her positively charged energy have served as the standard against which all future portrayers of Annie would be judged, she would retire her characterization of the plucky Depression-era moppet at the end of the 1970s.

Beginning tomorrow night, November 2, and continuing across three weekends through November 18, Andrea McArdle returns to the Martin Charnin-Charles Strouse musical adaptation of the long-running comic strip Little Orphan Annie — not as Harold Gray’s juvenile heroine, but as that aforementioned nemesis, the mean orphanage matron and criminal conspiracist Miss Hannigan.

The professional production going up at Ocean Township’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center actually represents the third time that McArdle has taken on that comical villain role originated on Broadway by Dorothy Loudon. But, as the 54 year old stage star suggests, “the third time’s the charm” — especially when weighed against her original misgivings about accepting a role that would represent a forever-break from the “girl next door” parts that she had excelled in long into her adulthood (these included her stint in the original Broadway cast of State Fair at age 33, and, at 38, an acclaimed stint as Belle — “a Belle as old as time,” she jokes — in the Disney show Beauty and the Beast).

That first turn as Miss Hannigan, at the North Carolina Theatre in 2010, turned out to be “a real head trip” and a success for McArdle, despite it being “a really daunting task” for a lifelong performer whose “memory (of working with the Tony-winning Loudon) is so vivid and strong.”

“I’m literally being thrown into this one… but I’m a quick study, and fortunately the character has only two big songs instead of thirteen,” explains the actress and singer who first revisited Annie when she briefly appeared as “The Star To Be” in a 1999 ABC-TV movie version. “I’ve also had fantastic Annies each time I’ve done the show…and the little girl who’s playing Annie (Echo Picone) is a real treasure; a real find.”

“She has a quiet strength; a strong presence…some kids are just naturals,” says the former child star who has spent much of her career working with and mentoring young stage hopefuls — and whose adult daughter has also amassed a resume of theatrical credits (now a proud grandmother, McArdle also praises her 9 month old granddaughter for having “the tone and the pitch” to succeed in show business).

As McArdle recalls, “I did my share of shows performed for an audience of toys, with the hairbrush microphone…but I had to beg my parents to audition for a commercial;”  an experience that would lead to her first big break in a recurring role on the soap opera All My Children. “We as a family all had a part in my success.” Continue reading

A premiere at NJ Rep asks, will the ‘Wolf’ survive?

Liz Zazzi costars in WOLF AT THE DOOR, the play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Published in the Asbury Park Press, October 26 2018

There is a lyrical, passionate, even magical play inside Wolf at the Door, the drama that’s now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — a play that, like some noble beast within, strives to express itself in the form to which it’s best suited. Like that inner animal, however, it must work its way out through the threadbare fabrics of forced civilization, and layers of forever-flawed human flesh.

Set at a remote hacienda in colonial-era Mexico, and inspired by Aztec folk legends, the script by Chicago-based playwright Marisela Treviño Orta looks in on the household of Isadora (Desiree Pinol) and her husband of one year, Septimo (Oscar A.L. Cabrera). It’s an unhappy place, where the pregnant young wife agonizes over being able to deliver the male heir so desired by her spouse — a near-stranger who has revealed himself as a bitter, emotionally manipulative, physically abusive tyrant of his small realm; obsessed with his “legacy” and his status as a self-made man.

Hovering over this arrangement is Rocio (Liz Zazzi) — housekeeper, nursemaid, frontier midwife, dispenser of old-world wisdom, and spiritual counselor to the troubled Isadora — while just at the perimeter of the property are the unseen wolves that bay in the night; their motives unclear and their music adding a further note of unease to the tense situation. With the news of an impending visit by family members, the pressure to produce a firstborn child is heightened — but when the pregnancy results in a stillbirth, the already fragile equilibrium threatens to shatter like the coffee cups that Septimo “breaks like eggs” — and an appeal is made to the old spirits, to ferry the souls of the innocent to a better place.  

The answer arrives on all fours, in the naked and also very pregnant form of Yolot (Alexandra Lemus) — a mysterious young woman who has “come across the river” to take up temporary residence in the stable. Describing herself as a “porter” and “beast of burden” for a “most precious cargo,” the feral yet eloquent stranger — who may be something entirely other than what she appears to be — becomes in Septimo’s eyes a convenience to be kept chained up, until such time as “the baby is born and the family leaves.”

The vulnerability of the captive “interloper” triggers something in Isadora, who stands up to her husband for the first time — and who, with Rocio’s assistance, attempts to free Yolot, who nonetheless insists that she cannot return home empty-handed. 

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A HAPPENIN’ HALLO-WEEK, IN AND AROUND ASCARY PARK

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, October 25 2018

Let other towns lay claim to being the area’s capital of Christmas cheer; home to the longest running St. Patrick’s Day celebration; scene of the most star-spangled July Fourth display. With dozens of venues in which to dance the witching hour away — and plenty of world renowned boardwalk and boulevards on which to strut one’s carefully costumed stuff — Asbury Park has a lock on the days and nights leading up to the Eve of All Hallows, making the seaside city that so famously “came back from the dead” the undisputed headquarters of Halloween festivity.

It’s an interlude that sounds an early-October keynote with the Asbury Park Zombie Walk, the annual lurch previewed in these pages a few weeks back. And in between there are events like this past Saturday’s Haunted Carousel Dance Party, the gala-ghoul benefit for local charities from which images can be seen at ahauntedcarousel.com. But from the moment the sun goes down tonight, October 25 — and on through the moment the clock strikes midnight on November 1, the Day of the Dead — both the legendary haunted landmarks and the shiny new haunts of the greater Asbury area are where the sights, the sounds, and the seriously fun cosplay can be found.

CONCERTS

On the Asbury boards, the major concert event in the season of the witch is Convention Hell — and in this year’s edition of the Hall-rocking happening, the venerable venue welcomes the jam-circuit juggernaut Pink Talking Fish, a band that — as the name implies — triangulates a tribute to the collected works of Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, and Phish. On Saturday night, the four-piece group and friends will be saluting Floyd’s epic album Dark Side of the Moon in sound and light — and joining in the spirit of dress-up fun are three local favorites portraying acts who appeared at Convention Hall in summers past: Wild Adriatic (as Led Zeppelin), Waiting For Mongo (as James Brown and his Famous Flames), and The Burns (as Jim Morrison and The Doors). Doors open at 7 pm, with tickets ($20 advance; $25 d.o.s.)  at the box office or via apboardwalk.com.

While the Convention Hell show is open only to concertgoers age 21 and up, fans of all ages can take it over to the headquarters of the Asbury Park Music Foundation (in the Lakehouse complex on Lake Avenue) on Saturday night, where from 7 to 11 pm the annual Diamond Concerts Halloween Show presents a bill headlined by the up-and-coming Brick Township-based band The Ones You Forgot. Continue reading

NOT CRYING WOLF: NJ REP PREMIERE IS A GRIM FAIRYTALE OF OLD MEXICO

Published in the Asbury Park Press, October 19, 2018

L-R: Alexandra Lemus, Liz Zazzi, and Desiree Pinol are featured in WOLF AT THE DOOR, the play by Marisela Trevino Orta that makes its world premiere this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photo by Suzanne Barabas

According to Marisela Treviño Orta, it all started with a nightmare — one in which “I was being chased by a pack of wolves…they got into my house; I could see their teeth eating their way through the door.”

From the stories of Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, to the lycanthropic legends that spring up wherever the full moon shines, the figure of the wolf has represented everything from the external threats of violence, want and lawlessness, to the uncontrollable beast within. But in Wolf at the Door, the play that makes its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company this weekend, playwright Orta “takes a different turn;” one that draws from Aztec myths of the afterlife, in which the spirits of the dead are ferried along their journeys to purification on the backs of canine creatures.

A Texan by birth, and a young veteran of the Bay Area theater scene, the author of several acclaimed full length scripts (including Braided Sorrow and Woman On Fire, itself inspired by the Sophocles classic Antigone) has been spending time at NJ Rep’s downtown Long Branch headquarters to fine-tune her latest produced full length work, and to “make myself available as a resource for everyone involved with the production.” As one of the National New Play Network’s ongoing series of “rolling world premiere” properties, Wolf at the Door will be produced additionally by stage companies in Dallas, Portland (Oregon), and Orta’s recently adopted home base of Chicago — but the Shore area audience will see it first, in the production that runs in a limited engagement through November 18.

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