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

It maybe didn’t qualify as the strangest sight that’s ever been seen around these parts; that day a few summers ago when a cherry-red classic Cadillac convertible eased onto the herringboned hardwoods of the Asbury Park boardwalk, cheered on by hundreds of onlookers, and numbering among its passengers the runaway rocker Joan Jett, and a surfboard-toting Paul Shaffer.

But for the woman behind the wheel, that sunny afternoon in July 2015 represented the home stretch of a fifty-plus years journey; one marked by detours off the main road every bit as much as victory laps. After a long career as that uncredited voice behind the hit song, or that kind-of familiar face on the movie screen, or that seasoned professional working her craft “twenty feet from stardom,” Darlene Love was finally in the driver’s seat, as the justly celebrated superstar of her own story.

The occasion was the filming of the official music video for “Forbidden Nights,” the (Elvis Costello-penned) single from the (Steven Van Zandt-produced) album Introducing Darlene Love — and as a crowd of camera-ready fans gathered in front of the shoot’s beachtop stage, the star of the show explained to a “making of” documentary crew that the people of Asbury Park “adopted me as their own…so when I come here, I automatically have fans that I didn’t know I had.”

A little more than a month later, Darlene Love was back on the boards; this time as the headline attraction for a Paramount Theater concert organized and produced by Van Zandt — one that found the veteran voice of countless Phil Spector recording sessions recreating that fabled “Wall of Sound” with the full faith and fury of the Monmouth Symphony Orchestra. The vivacious vocalist whose 1960s work so inspired Van Zandt and his E Street Boss has returned many times to the area since; notably for a series of Yuletide-season concerts at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre.

As Ms. Love tells it, those shows grew out of the handful of songs that she performed on the Spector-produced A Christmas Gift for You, the 1963 album that overcame its bad-timing debut (it was released on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination) — as well as its Bad Santa association with the now jailed-for-life impresario — to trailblaze an entire new market for pop/rock holiday LPs. While Darlene appeared on the record as a member of Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans (whose space-age Spectorization of the Disney tune “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” was an oddball hit that caught the ear of young Springsteen) — and was billed under her own name for a set of secular seasonal favorites that included “Marshmallow World” (co-written by hit composer Peter DeRose, who owned a home on Asbury Park’s Eighth Avenue) — the real standout track was “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the thrilling Ellie Greenwich-Jeff Barry original that, as it turns out, had a very influential fan in the person of one David Letterman.

“Dave gave me a brand new career,” she says of the late night host who made a tradition of inviting her to perform her signature “Christmas” song on his show a total of 29 times, beginning in 1986. “He dubbed me the Christmas Queen…and I’ve been really blessed to be remembered for it by so many people.”

Among the people who took notice from the start was the restaurateur-entrepreneur-philanthropist and eternal Shore musicmaker Tim McLoone, whose concerts with the positive force known as Holiday Express drew a tremendous part of their sonic signature from Love’s classic Christmas repertoire. In a break from the big-event settings for which the singer is best known, the bandleader has invited her to perform several times with his combo The Shirleys, in the more intimate environment of Tim McLoone’s Supper Club. On Friday night, June 22, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love joins Tim and the Shirleys for a special summertime set, inside McLoone’s sophisticated space at the top of the space-age landmark that famously and formerly housed Asbury’s HoJo’s restaurant. Set to start at 8 pm, it’s an evening that promises “a mix of my songs…I never know what we’re gonna do until he calls me” (it’s also, happily but also sadly, an event that’s apparently sold out as we post this).

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A ‘Bridge’ of souls on Bridge Avenue, at Two River premiere

Actor-playwright David Greenspan (fourth from left) tops the cast in his adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, on stage now at Two River Theater.  (Photos by T. CHARLES ERICKSON)

(Published in the Asbury Park Press on March 2, 2018)

“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead,” wrote Thornton Wilder at the end of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” the 1927 novel now on stage in a world premiere theatrical version at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, “…and the bridge is love.”

Those who’ve come to love Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning piece of work may find this “Bridge” to be an altogether different structure. But while it takes some ever-wilder liberties with the sometimes somber source material — a meditation on mortality and the seeming randomness of the Creator’s will, set in the aftermath of a rope-bridge collapse that kills five people — the dramatization by serial Obie Award winner David Greenspan manages to preserve the beating heart of the author’s core themes, even while losing the one presence who pretty much tied it all together.

Presented without intermission inside the Marion Huber space at Two River’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center, Greenspan’s commissioned work finds the dynamic actor-playwright-director working once more with a company of fellow players, having recently wrapped a Guinness-level gig during which he performed a six-hour solo take on Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth “Strange Interlude.” He and the other eight members of the cast collaborate here under the direction of Two River returnee Ken Rus Schmoll, whose 2017 production “The Women of Padilla” served as satisfying prelude to this time-hopping tale centered around an 18th century Peruvian village.

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Left to right: Dustin Charles, Maria Couch, Dana Brooke and Jared Michael Delaney share space in “Multiple Family Dwelling,” the James Hindman play that premieres this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photos by SUZANNE BARABAS

It’s a play that’s ostensibly set in its author’s hometown of Mount Clemens, Michigan — but as James Hindman tells it, “Multiple Family Dwelling” was directly inspired by frontier tales of gentrification here on the Jersey Shore, specifically his own experiences house hunting in and around Asbury Park around the turn of the century.

“I was standing out front of an old house in Asbury, and just as the real estate agent was putting her key in the front door, a team of police in full militarized riot gear pulled up to the house next door, and surrounded the place with assault rifles,” the playwright recalls. “Without missing a beat, the realtor says, ‘See? The neighborhood’s cleaning up nicely!'”

While he eventually settled upon Bradley Beach as his down-the-shore base of operations, Hindman would make Asbury Park’s landmark Carousel House the 2010 premiere venue for “The Bikinis,” a jukebox-musical study of a (not always harmoniously) reunited 1960s girl group that’s gone on to more than 50 productions around the country. For his return to the Shore area stage, the writer and actor whose credits range from Broadway’s “Mary Poppins,” to a recurring role on Marvel Studios’ forthcoming Netflix series “Iron Fist” expanded a ten-minute playlet into the full length “Dwelling,” which opens this weekend as the latest in a long line of world premieres at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

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9/30: Turning the Mall Into Movie Nirvana

The Broken Circle Breakdown-Belgian director Felix van Groeningen’s THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN is among the more than 20 sneak preview films screening in Chuck Rose’s Arthouse Film Festival, starting October 1st at Monmouth Mall. 

There’s the notion of the Best Kept Secret…and then there’s the sort of gem that Hides in Plain Sight; in this case for the 20-plus years that the Arthouse Film Festival has been operating inside one of the most heavily trafficked locales in Monmouth County.

Formerly known as the Filmmakers Symposium series, Arthouse Fest is a twice-yearly slate of sneak-preview screenings from major Hollywood studios and indie distributors; a schedule of ten-week Fall and Spring sessions that unspools at the AMC Loews Monmouth Mall 15 multiplex on Tuesday evenings, beginning on the first of October (a concurrent series of Monday night screenings takes place at the AMC Loews on Route 22 in Mountainside).

It’s the work of one man — Chuck Rose, a unassuming guy from Brielle and a lifelong cinephile who’s worked variously as a film prof, a story editor, a director, and a correspondent for The Hollywood Reporter. And, while it’s not necessarily a cheap ticket (a five week half-session subscription runs $133), it’s a real opportunity to see some buzzed-about features on the big screen, long before anyone else…and in a setting that’s blissfully free of talking, texting, and any of the other behaviors that make a night at the multi such a pondersome purchase.

If you’d followed the Arthouse series from its inception, you’d have been among the first people on the planet to catch everything from Shawshank to Schindler’s…and you’d have been present for guest interviews with the likes of Jesse Eisenberg, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ethan Hawke, Famke Janssen, Viggo Mortenson, Aaron Sorkin, and Kevin Smith. The Fall 2013 session promises fare like director Steve McQueen’s highly anticipated 12 Years A Slave, in addition to Meryl Streep in August: Osage County and Nicole Kidman as Grace of Monaco; as well as the latest from Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey), the Coens (Inside Llewyn Davis), Clooney (The Monuments Men with Matt Damon), and David O. Russell (American Hustle with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence).

Features are generally announced close to screening time and never advertised; the idea is that it’s absolutely worth dropping what you’re doing to see these films, and to maybe take part in a Q&A with a very special invited guest. So how does Chuck Rose do it? Your upperWETside correspondent decided to investigate…

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5/3: A Multi-Track RIDE in Red Bank

lisa-kron-1-500x333“That was the greatest ride,” says Lisa Kron — or rather, Lisa Kron as her own diabetic, heart-diseased, legally blind father — in “2.5 Minute Ride,” a rollercoaster that rambles up one track on an outing to a sun-baked Midwest amusement park, and swoops down another on a pilgrimage to the dark heart of Auschwitz.

The one-woman show, for which Kron won an Obie Award in its 1999 staging at New York’s Public Theater, is being performed by its creator for the first time in several years, during an all new engagement at Red Bank’s Two River Theater. It’s a production that re-teams the playwright with director Mark Brokaw — as well as with Two River Theater Company’s John Dias, who brought her play “Well” to Broadway a few seasons back.

The title notwithstanding, “2.5 Minute Ride” is an approximate hour and a half of high comedy, matter-of-fact tragedy, poignant fantasy — and the reality that life means having to drive many hours to get from one to the other. Framed as an unseen slide show on a sparsely appointed stage (designer Allen Moyer works with lighting director Philip Rosenberg and the audience’s own imagination to fill in the “missing” elements), the play finds Kron, laser pointer in hand, quantum-leaping from the slapstick sitcom of her aging family’s annual caravan to Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio — to the “malevolent ground” of the Birkenau death camp, where she accompanies her ailing father on a trip to the place in which his parents met their fate.

Delivered by the playwright in a largely breezy, conversational tone that doesn’t let the pace flag for a second, it’s a “Ride” that hurtles willy-nilly through time more so than space; a midway attraction that travels parallel tracks, branching off into unexpected detours  — a strangely funny scene at a Winona Ryder movie, a Gestapo member’s thought-provoking words to his interrogators, a supermarket encounter with the ghosts of Kron’s grandparents — that somehow converge on a satisfying end point. It may take a moment to realize that the ride has reached its conclusion, but a conclusion has most surely been reached.

Kron is hardly the first performer-playwright to have collaged a solo show from a scrapbook of family memories (or to have used the spectre of the Holocaust as the glue that holds the images in place), but unlike too many “Journey to Me” theatrical pieces, the author is not the center around which the universe revolves — she’s an observer-participant who cedes the spotlight to her impressions of her notoriously picture-phobic mother; a crippled and contrary aunt; a cantankerous closet-case uncle and a lonely brother whose Jewish Singles explorations lead him to embrace the Orthodox faith. The implication is that all of these people reside within her to varying degrees — and that it takes an understanding of these (at times unsympathetic) figures to form a portrait of the storyteller.

An out lesbian in a clan that would just as soon never have to attend another wedding — and a self-appointed caretaker who’s often in need of directions herself — the Lisa Kron of the script uses keynotes like food to trigger jumps between memories, and goes from complaining about the Sandusky theme park to wishing that the hopelessly confusing real-world Poland of her travels was replaced by a more easily navigable “Poland World.”

Lisa Kron has the take-no-prisoners timing of a battle-tested standup comic, the sizing-up savvy of a seasoned sideshow barker, the laser-honed instincts of a photojournalist, and the entrancing oral-tradition skills of that one good friend whose stories are a joy to listen to. She’s no slouch as a playwright and a performer either, and for the duration of this “Ride” she’s got the audience strapped in right where she wants them.

“2.5 Minute Ride” continues with a mix of matinee and evening performances through May 12. Tickets ($20 – $65 adults) can be obtained by calling (732)345-1400 or visiting

12/27: WET, in Need of Changing

Thanks again to Danny Sanchez for the proey-looking photo session, one image from which even wound up in a gallery exhibition. Hint: one of the objects in this scene is a phony prop.

And…we are back. Wait, no? Yeah.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the upperWETside blog has been in the middle of a holiday hiatus of sorts; a newly minted tradition that’s timed to coincide with that time of the year when most of the things we write about stop dead for a spell, broken only by the annual Bouncing Souls Home for the Holidays stand, the Light of Day 2012 hoohah and a Polar Bear Plunge or two.

We’re taking the opportunity to catch up with various entities and ecstasies on the local artscape; collecting some news, rumors, interviews and twaddle from up and down the Upper Wet Side of NJ — and getting ready to effect some changes here on everyone’s favorite boo-teek blog.

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Asbury Brains: the JerZombies are BACK!

Festerin’ Festivals! The biggest and best-organized lurch of the undead in the WORLD returns to the boards and boulevards of Asbury Park this weekend — and this time the horrorcultural contagion has spread to an entire three-day Undead Fest of Guignol and guest stars; cosplay and cake; murderous merch and musical theater.

The undead hordes lurched and lumbered by the thousands onto the herringboned hardwoods of the Asbury boardwalk; summoned to this place at the edge of an autumn-angry sea by forces they could scarcely comprehend.

The sexy ones in the miniskirts were the first to filter away; driven from the seasonally chilly late-October oceanfront by the mercilessly bracing Atlantic breezes. Still, scores more stuck it out, howling occasionally for BRRAAIINNS and huddling toward some communal purpose…while from the rooftops and o’er the ramparts of the storm-battered landmarks, a team of steely professionals surveyed the scene, and waited, and counted…

When it was all over, the 2010 New Jersey Zombie Walk had set a new record — a clicker-confirmed, independently audited and certified, Guinness World Records record for the largest such gathering of costumed zombies anywhere on the planet — 4093, to be precise; a number that could easily have swelled past an estimated 5000 had the 40-degree temperature not spooked many in the already cold-blooded collective.

When the fourth annual New Jersey Zombie Walk returns to Asburied Park this Saturday, October 22, it’ll be the gruesome centerpiece of an Undead Festival that’s grown into a weekend-long celebration of Guignol goreplay and costumed chaos, in and around the Convention Hall complex that so recently hosted everything from the ATP fest to Beerfest to Tattoofest. It’s a “contagion” that infects the entire town; a Halloween hullabaloo that dares challenge the mighty Chiller Theatre convention itself — and if you’re wondering what they’re planning to do to top last year’s Zombie census, the answer is “So Who’s Counting?”. With the World Record apparently in no danger of being seriously challenged here in 2011, Zombie King and festival founder Jason Meehan has made the decision to put down the click-counter, amp up the excitement and present a “high energy event” designed to make a reanimated body feel very much at home, all over town and for all three days.

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