IT’S WHAT’S UP FOR WEEK OF JULY 19-25

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, July 19 2018

SCREENS: John Cleese and the ‘Holy Grail’ at Convention Hall

As a quick scan of the daily headlines could tell you, there are times when current events rival the most surreal and absurd of vintage Monty Python sketches — and such times all but cry out for our historic heroes of the projected image to step out from the screen, put it all into perspective for us, and, if necessary, tell us to go boil our bottoms. From out of the dim dark videotaped past of 1970s British import TV — and the cultiest corners of offbeat cinema — the one and only John Cleese is headed in our general direction; armed with a copy of the 1970s classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as well as a set of bonus-feature backstories that finds the “writer, actor, and tall person” appearing onstage at Asbury Park’s Convention Hall this Friday evening, July 20. The founding Monty member  — also present at the creation of The Goon Show, Fawlty Towers, and A Fish Called Wanda — has been barnstorming his way across America; telling stories, taking questions, and taking no prisoners as he offers some pointedly pithy observations on the curious social mores (and/or sociopathic morons) of his adopted homeland. Making his Asbury Park debut as an encore to his previous pit-stop at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre, Cleese takes the stage following a 7:30 pm screening of Grail, the budget burlesque on the legends of King Arthur’s Round Table that spawned a surprise Broadway musical hit (Spamalot), and several generations of movie-quoting geek subculture.

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IT’S WHAT’S UP, WEEK OF JULY 12-18

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, July 12 2018

SOUNDS: Tribute Act Troop Movements, Revealed!

Tribute acts! They walk among us — and they’ve been a crucial component of the Jersey Shore scene since well before the dinosaur-days of Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones), Crystal Ship (The Doors), and Yasgur’s Farm (the whole Woodstock catalog). Taking it a step or two beyond the more generalized cover bands, they were the guys who devoted themselves to the legacy (and quite often the look) of a particular band/ artist or subculture scene — and the best of them have earned devoted fanbases of their own; recreating entire concert setlists with scholarly dedication, and stepping up to fill a void when the subjects of their recreations are deceased, retired, or just too plain tired to be anything but a cover-band version of their prime-time selves. For the next seven days and nights, several generations of tributeers bring their spot-on sonic salutes to Asbury area stages, where in recent weeks we’ve seen rocking re-enactments of the best of Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, The Bee Gees, and the most Fab of Fours.

On Thursday, the Stone Pony hosts vocalist James Times and North Carolina-based Michael Jackson homage Who’s Bad, even as the warm-weather anthems of GREASE receive a rocked-up twist, when the Summer Nights band (last seen playing the ‘resistance’ stage response to the Festival of Life in Bradley Park) hits the House of Independents for a sing-along session. Friday finds veteran Dead lifers Splintered Sunlight in a return to the Pony stage, plus the voices of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons captured by The Jersey Four up at Tim McLoone’s Supper Club — while out on 35, the Headliner welcomes the Bon Jovi bonhomie of Slippery When Wet (whose frontman Jason Morey recently contracted to serve as BonJo in the long-running Vegas revue Legends in Concert).

Freddy Mercury lives, as Ocean Grove’s Great Auditorium resounds with the sounds of the Ultimate Queen Celebration on Saturday — even as Sopranos alumnus Vince Curatola (pictured) channels the Chairman in a Sinatra salute at McLoone’s.  Yet another Jersey-fresh homegrown is celebrated Pony-side, as Tramps Like Us — taking a page from the Dead scholarship of projects like our own Dead On Live — recreates Springsteen’s legendary Roxy Theatre concert of June 7, 1978; an oft-bootlegged West Coast show that spotlighted a newly re-energized Boss in the summer of Darkness (and served as the basis for portions of his Live 1975-85 box set).

The Supper Club is the site once more on Sunday, when (Christine) Spero Plays (Laura) Nyro in a long-overdue honoring of the late soulful songmistress who gave us “Stoney End” and “Wedding Bell Blues.” Get the details on all these and more, in The Coaster’s weekly rundown — and be here in weeks to come, when the Asbury waterfront welcomes visits by The Band (The Weight), Eric Clapton (Bell Bottom Blues), Billy Joel (We May Be Right), Sublime (Badfish), The Dead (Dark Star Orchestra), The Jerry Garcia Band (Garcia Project), “Bruce Off Broadway” (courtesy of the ukelele stylings of Jim Boggia), and even the “David Byrne-meets-Byrning Spear” reggae mashups of Mystic Bowie’s Talking Dread.

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SHAKESPEARE, SHREK, CHAPERONES, ON SHORE STAGES THIS JULY

Comedian and storyteller Mike Birbiglia (“Thank God for Jokes”) offers a look at his new one entitled “The New One,” in a five day engagement at Red Bank’s Two River Theater. (photo courtesy Two River Theater)

Published in the Asbury Park Press, July 6 2018

There’s a timeless taste of Shakespeare in the open-air park…some all-age musical favorites in the air-conditioned dark…cooling Egg Creams and hot-wired teenage tensions, in the most intriguing of settings. A beyond-busy July is NO time to chill by the poolside, as the people of our local stage scene light the fuse on some midsummer nights’ diversions and delights.

Although it’s officially the “downtime” between mainstage seasons at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, you’d never know it from the buzz of activity centered around the ambitious expansion of the performing arts center’s physical plant — to say nothing of a buzzed-about event that serves to extend the  company’s schedule well into the Dog Days interlude. Offering six performances over five days, the preview production of The New One brings the latest creation of writer, comedian, actor (Orange is the New Black) and monologuist Mike Birbiglia to Red Bank in advance of its New York premiere. The author of a best selling book (“Sleepwalk with Me”), a film of that same name, several award winning comedy albums, and stage pieces that include My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and Thank God for Jokes,  Brooklynite Birbiglia has already toured the solo show (in which he “approaches an entirely new subject in a new way with the same heart and humor we’ve come to expect”) from coast to coast, earning plaudits from crowds and critics alike while selling out many of the theater-size venues along the way. The borough of Red Bank has his full attention with performances at 7 p.m. on July 18 and 19; 9 p.m. on July 20 and 21; 6:30 p.m. on July 21, and 3 p.m. on July 22. All are recommended for audiences age 16 and up, and available tickets can be reserved by calling the box office at 732-345-1400, or taking it to tworivertheater.org.

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IT’S WHAT’S UP FOR WEEK OF JULY 5-11

SOUNDS: James Maddock at Tim McLoone’s

When most recently seen in AP, Brit-born troubador James Maddock lent his sawtooth voice and social-justice sensibility to Willie Nile’s big birthday brobdingnag. Tonight at 8 pm, Maddock pays it forward, extending an invitation at his own headlined gig upside McLoone’s Supper Club to a fellow headliner whose Shoreside showcases have earned him a fervent local following. Best known for a cool cover of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (but quite the soulful songsmith in his own write), Jeffrey Gaines joins James at the boardwalk’s landmark roundhouse roadhouse penthouse for an evening that promises to draw from their collective 50-plus(!) years of recorded activity; a river that runs from beloved TV/movie soundtracks to compositions that caught the ear of no less a fan than Bruce Springsteen. Take it to timmcloonessupperclub.com for available seating and ticket info.

SOUNDS: Robert Gordon at the Wonder Bar

“The old suits don’t fit me these days,” Robert Gordon told us in an interview several years back; an admission that the sharp-dressed, impeccably pompadoured, splendid splinter who introduced both Springsteen’s “Fire” and Marshall Crenshaw’s “Someday Someway” was casting a more formidable shadow in the wake of quitting smoking. “But not smoking anymore is what’s allowed me to keep my voice.”

And wotta voice it is; a big baritone instrument uncommon in most modern music, and a thing that’s matured into a smooth fine bourbon as the veteran vocalist (a member of CBGB’s original graduating class, as frontman of the punky combo Tuff Darts) continues his explorations of rockabilly, classic country, the Elvis legacy, and vintage pop artifacts ranging from Bobby Darin and Brenda Lee to The Hollies and (Nancy) Sinatra. Always an interpreter with impeccable taste in backing bands (past guitar lieutenants have included Duke Robillard, Chris Spedding, and the late uber-legends Danny “The Humbler” Gatton and Link Wray), the “Bad Boy” who takes it to the Wonder Bar this Friday, July 6 is “still around…I put a lot of crazy stuff behind me, and I’m up here, singin’ my ass off!” Tight Lipped opens, with doors at 8 pm and tickets ($20 advance, $25 at the door) gettable at wonderbarasburypark.com.

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IT’S WHAT’S UP FOR WEEK OF JUNE 28 – JULY 4

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, June 28 2018

SOUNDS on SCREEN: A Bite at the Opera, at the Crane House

She’s honored as an Asbury Angel, same as Clarence Clemons and a gallery of other late great Circuit rockers — but before she died in 2011, Madame Era Tognoli rocked an altogether different house as the founder of Metro Lyric Opera, the company that staged grand opera classics inside Asbury’s Paramount Theatre for an incredible fifty-one seasons. Each summer since her passing, Frank D’Alessandro of the historic Stephen Crane House has hosted a free series of Opera On Film events in her memory — and TONIGHT, June 28, the series returns for a seventh season; this time on Thursday evenings (a necessary move, given the increasing scarcity of parking on beach-season weekends). It’s a “Bite at the Opera” slate that couples a 5 pm screening inside the Crane’s newly air-conditioned Lecture Room theater, with a home-cooked light dinner following the film.

This Thursday’s feature is the 2003 production of Puccini’s Manon Lescault, starring Kiri Te Kanawa and Plácido Domingo. Doors open at 4:30 pm, with the 129 minute film followed by dinner (refreshments will also be served prior to the screening, which will also be preceded by a brief introductory talk). As always at the Crane House, there is no charge for the film or the food; donations are always appreciated on behalf of the Asbury Park Little League or AP Historical Society, and new friends are welcomed, as a true legendary local is paid tribute at one of the city’s “best kept secret” cultural gems. Follow The Stephen Crane House on Facebook for updates on additional Bite at the Opera events, on July 26 and August 23.

SOUNDS: Lisa Sherman’s Broadway & Beyond at Tim McLoone’s

As versatile as her own encyclopedic repertoire, vocalist Lisa Sherman has made herself at home in settings that have ranged from glamour-gowned cabaret and glittering disco revivals, to big-band bop and blue-jeaned blues jams with harpin’ helper Sandy Mack. She’s equally at home in venues as expansive as the Count Basie auditorium, and as exclusive as private-party patios — and on Friday, June 29, the Shore area native takes it topside to the panoramic penthouse of Tim McLoone’s Supper Club, as the headline attraction for the revue Broadway and Beyond. Keynoting at 8:15 pm, it’s a set that finds the singing/dancing veteran of Broadway ensembles joined by Kristin Cochran (plus the assembled talents of Benny Gramm, Frosty Lawson, John Martin, John Micco, and Ralph Notaro, under the musical direction of Bob Himmelberger) in a guided tour of showtune-land that spans the songbook standards of Tin Pan Alley and the hit anthems of the present-day Theater District. All this, plus some of the most memorable themes from the movies…because, why not?

About that movie thing: it’s an occasion to welcome a very special guest to the proceedings, in the person of Academy Award and Golden Globe winning songwriter Franke Previte. The Jersey-guy frontman of 80s hitmakers Franke and the Knockouts (“Sweetheart”) — and the composer/lyricist best known for Dirty Dancing and its blockbuster anthems “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” and “Hungry Eyes” — joins Ms. Sherman (with whom he’s pictured here) for some potential-dynamite duets that are sure to include at least one of the aforementioned (and besides, when you’re up at Mr. McLoone’s roundhouse roadhouse, nobody but nobody puts Baby in a corner!). Take it to timmcloonessupperclub.com for available seating info and reservations.

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Broadway talents lift Two River’s ‘Songbird’ to honkytonk-angel heights

Felicia Finley and Marrick Smith are mother and son at different crossroads in their music careers in SONGBIRD, the musical now on stage at Red Bank’s Two River Theater. (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Published in the Asbury Park Press, June 22 2018

It’s probably not going out too far on a limb to state that Songbird, the musical now onstage at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, is the finest transposition of Anton Chekhov’s 19th century drama The Seagull to the honkytonks of present-day Nashville that you’ll see this season. In fact, the only real surprise here derives from just how seamlessly the Russian master’s group-portrait study of artistic passions, romantic obsessions, and trampled dreams manages to translate when given a guitar to twang the heartstrings, and a beer to catch the tears.   

You need not have ever seen or studied The Seagull to find fellowship with any of the interlocking tales of heartbreak at the core of Michael Kimmel’s adaptation — and you need not even especially love country music to connect with Lauren Pritchard’s smart score; a jukebox of styles that range from old-timey Opry and family-heirloom blues to alt-Americana and corporate contemporary, and that show their composer as skilled enough to create a perfect pastiche of a “needs-work” song, or even the kind of huge money-making hit that’s nonetheless a bit of an embarrassment to its creator.

Preserving the mother-child conflict at the troubled heart of the classic drama  (think of it as “fillet of Seagull”), and featuring a few of the cast members from the show’s critically acclaimed 2015 Off Broadway debut, Songbird is framed as a homecoming tale in which veteran country music superstar Tammy Tripp makes a grand return to the neighborhood bar on whose postage-stamp stage she got her start — in the process re-inserting herself into the lives of the grown-up son, relatives and faithful friends to whom she’s been little more than a voice on the radio in recent years. While the larger-than-life entertainer is welcomed with open arms by the old gang — and a few of the old rituals prove difficult to maintain after so many years — the invasive species represented by Tammy and her successful songwriter boyfriend Beck threatens to upset the fragile ecosystem of personal relationships and professional dreams, there in that corner bar where time moves too slow, and the trucks outside move way too fast.

With director Gaye Taylor Upchurch wrangling a bigger-than-usual cast of ten actor-singer-musicians — and with a giant cutaway gazebo set design (by Jason Sherwood) containing both the cozy clutter of a well-established neighborhood watering hole, and the dark fringes of an after-hours lakeside hang — this production of Songbird ups the ante in historically handsome Two River fashion; not least of which is the casting of Broadway veteran Felicia Finley (The Wedding Singer, Mamma Mia!) as Tammy, a woman who’s succinctly summed up in the phrase “she’s…a lot.” First glimpsed as a tense but undeniably talented hopeful making her Grand Ole Opry debut with newborn baby in tow, her hometown heroine radiates the confidence and spirit of the eternal life-of-the-party — even as she bemoans her fading status in a fast-changing pop landscape, and compartmentalizes her more troublesome emotions to the point of pushing away the very real needs of her aspiring songwriter son Dean. Exuding just the perfect degree of star quality, Finley quickly takes ownership of the part; assuming her rightful place at the center of the universe in her solo spots, and kicking things into high gear through her triple-threat skills as actor, singer, and boot-scuffing dancer (quadruple, if we consider her fall-back career option as a passionate player of the spoons).

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The quality of ‘Mercy’ is sort of strange, at NJ Rep

Nadita Shenoy and Jacob A. Ware share an uncomfortable moment at the workplace in MERCY, the play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Published in the Asbury Park Press, June 22 2018

Orville Marks (Jacob A. Ware) is a man with no small share of problems — not least of which is the fact that his pregnant wife was recently killed by a drunk driver, leaving him the entirely unprepared single father of a “miracle baby” who never cries, smiles, or otherwise makes a sound. His boss (Nandita Shenoy) is making unsolicited and un-subtle sexual advances at the workplace; his widowed father Walter (Dan Grimaldi) is urging him to go out and have as much sex as possible — and he’s just seen a man on the street (Christopher Daftsios) who he’s sure is the motorist that turned his world upside down.

It doesn’t take long before the many tragedies, frustrations and stressful situations of Orville’s life threaten to reach critical mass in Mercy, the play by Adam Szymkowicz that’s currently in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The various ways in which the basically introverted and deeply unhappy office drone manages to deal with his problems — or fantasize about dealing with them — form the thrust of a script that looks at the titular concept of Mercy from some odd angles; ranging from forgiveness, redemptive love and plain old pity, to humiliation, power dynamics, and the cold gunmetal of revenge.

Presented without intermission, and directed by NJ Rep artistic associate Gail Winar — her first mainstage project for the company since the goofy musical Don’t Hug Me in 2006 — Mercy offers its occasional glimpses of dark comedy; the kind that audiences aren’t always so sure they should be laughing at. But while its dramatic flashpoints are tautly constructed, and explode with the jarring energy of a quiet man pushed to the  brink, the real unsettling moments are those in which the slow simmer of the increasingly edgy Orville directs him toward some ever more regrettable choices — and directs the audience to the realization that neither we, nor he, quite know all that he is capable of.

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IT’S WHAT’S UP FOR WEEK OF JUNE 21-27

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, June 21 2018

Suddenly THIS Summer rears its head; shows its face (and maybe shows its rear, just for benny-time giggles) — and not a moment too soon, as the season of outdoor entertainments brings the top-down thrills to Asbury town’s boardwalk, beach and boulevards…

SOUNDS: Mihali on the Sand

With the official appearance of The Longest Day comes the return of Jams on the Sand, the salt-air concert series that sets up stage tonight, June 21 on the closest thing to a floating bandstand in the city of sounds: the beach-top enclosure on the north side of Convention Hall’s Anchor’s Bend bar. Boasting spectacular views of surf, seagulls, and sky (and offering a pleasing balcony along the boardwalk rail), the schedule keynotes with a 5 pm set by Bencoolen and a 6 pm headliner by Mihali Savoulidis. Touring behind his debut solo release, the moonlighting frontman of Vermont-based band Twiddle (who sticks around town to open up for Trevor Hall at the Stone Pony on Friday) ups the ante on an Anchor’s Bend season that further features the Asbury Park Surf Music Festival on August 18, as well as an a regular Wednesday evening sway with Shoreggae masters the Predator Dub Assassins.

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