6/20: A Game of Angry Inches

Kendal Hartse IS Yitzhak, and Chris Hall IS Hedwig in quiet-riot rehearsal, as they prepare for the L!VE Asbury Park presentation of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH at The Press Room on Bangs Ave — a show that’s offered both as a civilized evening of legitimate theatah AND a midnight-madness standing-room sensation.

Live theater in Asbury Park! What could operate more smoothly, and be more of a license to print money? We kid, of course: we’re well aware of the obstacles that regularly stare down those who are, after all, only looking to Put On a Show — whether professional or community; come-as-you-are or cast-o’-thousands.

This, however, is a story about three local companies who are snatching some semblance of victory from the jaws of deflated ego — including one fledgling concern that’s addressing the lack of a home-stage space by throwing out the rule book on how shows are presented to the public; even the question of who that theatergoing public IS. Another veteran company, given up for roadkill by some observers not so very long ago, reappears with a new home, a new season, and a renewed sense of purpose. Then there’s the established troupe that’s dealing with an unexpected setback by offering their fans an equally unexpected surprise.

This Thursday night, June 21, the people of L!VE Asbury Park — the all-new “entertainment company” formed by a cool and creative cabal of former regulars from ReVision Theatre regulars (producing partner Alecia Brooks, director Carlos Armesto, music director Michael Thomas Murray) present the first of five performances in what stands as their first fully staged musical production — a new look at the howlingly outrageous Off Broadway smash Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Like their one-nighter salute to Dusty Springfield a couple of months back, it happens inside The Press Room, that Bangs Avenue bandbar/ beergarden (co-owned by Brooks) which, in its comparatively short life, has been blessed with a video shoot AND an impromptu set by the Boss; hosted musical acts of every conceivable stripe, and received some decidely rah-rah writeups in every intelligencer from here to — just this past weekend — the New York Times (this after naming itself in memory of the building’s long-departed tenant, the Asbury Park Press).

You remember Hedwig — the glam-rock guignol (with songs by Stephen Trask, and book by original star John Cameron Mitchell) about an “internationally ignored” East German superstar wannabe, whose bollixed sex change (leaving her with that titular “angry inch” of flesh and an entirely appropriate name for her backing band), and stalker-grade obsession with backstabbing rockstar Tommy Gnosis leads to tragedy, frustration and an epic monologue punctuated by songs like “The Origin of Love,” “Angry Inch” and “Wig in a Box.”

The 9pm Thursday opening night will be a sit-down affair at The Press Room (as are the 8pm performances on Friday and Saturday), with tableside seating for 89 officially SOLD OUT all three nights as we post this (although a very limited number of bar-seating admissions may be available for $20). That’s just dandy all around, but that’s not what’s making this production of Hedwig so unique in how it’s being put in front of the public — that would be the fact that the dynamic downtown nitespot will also be hosting Hedwig for two standing-room-only midnight shows on Friday and Saturday; a move that we applaud as a savvy fusion of the rock-musical experience with the rock-bar clientele that tends to live life on a later schedule than your typical first-nighter.

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3/3: L!VE’s List: Dusty, Tommy, an Angry “

The creative cabal behind L!VE Asbury Park — Carlos Armesto, Alecia Brooks and Michael Thomas Murray — have announced their inaugural season, and it kicks off later this month with a special one-night show at The Press Room.

“We’re the Dream Team!” enthused Carlos Armesto from the stage of The Press Room, the Bruce-blessed, downtown AP destination rockbar co-owned by Alecia Brooks. “We know we’re gonna do this…we’re confident that we have the support and know-how to get it all done!”

That’s the sort of supercharged, uber-the-top language that begs backing up under most any circumstances — but when the speaker is the founder of NYC’s theatre C and the guy who’s directed several of the most dynamite professional stage productions ever seen round these parts, well, we’re listening; we’re listening.

The occasion was a little thing called IGNITION!, the official launch party for L!VE Asbury Park — the newly formed, not-for-profit theater and entertainment concern which, as reported back in January on upperWETside, is gearing up to present its inaugural slate of musically-minded stage shows here in various corners of the city Where Music Lives. Armesto (the troupe’s Artistic Director) and Brooks (Creative Producer) were joined last week at the Bangs Ave watering hole by fellow members of the L!VE Board of Directors (including board prexy Robert Weiner), as well as resident music impresario Michael Thomas Murray and a roomful of invited guests, dignitaries and wellwishers. When the fuse was lit, the crowd got a luminous look at the first of the events  to sail under the L!VE banner.

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1/23: Live, from Asbury Park, it’s…

Carlos Armesto, Alecia Brooks and Michael Thomas Murray are the trez-savvy triumvirate behind Live! Asbury Park, the theatrical entity about which you’ll be hearing much in the near future.

It was a seasonably frigid but frightfully eventful week down at The Press Room, the downtown destination rockbar launched just a week or so ago (by Alecia and Trip Brooks with Tim Donnelly) in the Bangs Avenue bailiwick most recently occupied by Asbury Blues — and, another lifetime ago, by the Asbury Park Press (which reminds us: what the hell is a press room?).

First they packed the place for a first-nighter on a dreadful Jerseyshore January night better suited to Scrabble, Snuggies and Sunny marathons. They brought in migrating Shore songbird Nicole Atkins for an official kickoff that caught a healthy amount of solar wind from the concurrent Light of Day hullabaloo going on about town. They introduced a staff that boasted every unimpeachably accredited music heavy from Hinge to (program director of the much-missed Modern Rock FM 106.3 back in th’ day) Rich Robinson.

Oh, and they accommodated a daytime walk-in customer by the name of Bruce Springsteen, who lensed part of his new video in and around the bar — although we’re told that this well-circulated clip (an effort that’s copyrighted to the Boss himself rather than to Sony) is a “place holder” for a forthcoming, formalized vid that’s expected to feature more than a glimpse of the Press Room.

We’ve had our say on the new Bosssong in this forum, of course, and we could surely be babbling over any one of a number of Brooks-based excitements in the works (including a new Italian ristorante, the ongoing restoration of the Savoy Theatre, and another development so brain-tilting that we’re not sure we hallucinated it all). Still, the next time we ventured over to the Press (as the kids are most surely not calling it), we had an altogether different reason for being there — and a meeting about a pretty intriguing new project that involves Our Mrs. Brooks with two of the more dynamic personalities we’ve encountered on the regional theater scene.

If you’ve come across mention of something called Live! Asbury Park in regard to The Press Room, let it be known that the name connotes a professional company for the presentation of theatrical and performing arts productions at venues around town — with the accent on the ever-morphing sonic legacy of the seaside city Where Music Lives (and laughs, and loves).

The endeavor reunites three creative people who were involved to various degrees with ReVision Theatre —  former ReVision producing partner Alecia Brooks as Creative Producer, Carlos Armesto (director of several of the most acclaimed ReVision offerings — including a Spring Awakening that we described as the show in which the troupe had “truly hit its mark”) as Artistic Director, and Michael Thomas Murray (music director for the majority of the company’s rock-infused musicals) as what could ONLY be called music impresario.

Together they’re teaming up to fight crime — or at least the criminal lack of live professional theatrical productions in an arts-charged city that by all rights should be dripping with dramaturgs — with The Press Room as headquarters for the initial phase of the project.

While we’re confident that you’ll be hearing a lot from the Live! Asbury Park triumvirate in the coming weeks, no specific events have been announced or scheduled just yet — that said, upperWETside was pleased and proud to be the first boutique media outlet to introduce you to this crew, and for the deep-dish detail we respectfully turn the floor over to Carlos, Alecia and Mike…

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It Might As Well Be ‘Spring’

Director Carlos Armesto rehearses Elena Ricardo and Renee Bang Allen in a scene from SPRING AWAKENING, the new ReVision Theater production on view at Asbury’s Carousel House beginning August 4.

It was just a day or so ago that ReVision Theatre Company rang down the invisible curtain on their production of Xanadu — the light ‘n lively, fun and frothy, poppy, peppy, wacky, wink-y opener to a new season of musical entertainments at Asbury Park’s historic Carousel House.

Comes the first weekend in August, and it’s like Spring has sprung inside the rococo roundhouse performance space at the south end of the Boardwalk. Specifically, Spring Awakening — a show that, to the uninitiated, sounds like a regular frolic in the park in the merry month of May.

Take a closer look at the 2007 Tony winner for Best Musical (and its 1891 source play, a script by Frank Wedekind that has frequently found itself the subject of bans and boycotts) and you’ll find an ensemble coming-of-age saga that’s infinitely more dark, edgy, passionate and heartbreakingly, scrupulously honest than the umpteenth Community Players revival of Grease.

Set in late 19th century Germany, it’s a tumultuous piece — set to an alt-rock score by Duncan Sheik with book and lyrics by Steven Sater — in which a group of fast-maturing  young people rebel against the stodgy strictures of an obsolete education system and clueless parents; obsessing each step of the way about sex sex sex. Characters tumble into first sexual experiences, indulge in erotic fantasies, engage in reckless experiments in sadomasochism, confess histories of abuse, attempt suicide, encounter back-alley abortionists and break into songs with names like “My Junk,” “The Bitch of Living,” and “Totally Fucked.”

In other words, not exactly fodder for the school drama club or those aforementioned Community Players — but any residual shock value aside, Spring Awakening is a timeless tale of yearning, frustration, curiosity, connection and escape that transcends its sepia-toned 19th century setting, proving conclusively that postwar America never held a monopoly or a patent on teen rebellion. So, despite the Tonys (eight in all) and the smash productions on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s a show whose inaugural NJ production is best entrusted to the ReVision team.

For the engagement that previews on Thursday, August 4 and opens the following Friday night, the ReVees have once again secured the services of a friend and frequent collaborator — Carlos Armesto, artistic director of New York-based theatre C and a director whose previous endeavors in Asbury Park have included ReVision’s Kingdom and The Who’s TOMMY. He’s working with a cast that’s toplined by member of the Spring Awakening National Tour company — Billy Lewis, whose appearance here as the angry, passionate student Melchior overlapped with his stint in the cast of Xanadu. Also in the cast of twelve are Elena Ricardo, Noah Zachary, Hannah Shankman and Travis Mitchell, another veteran of the show’s National Tour. Elisabetta Spuria returns to ReVision as choreographer, and the rock-driven pit band is once more skippered by Michael Thomas Murray.

We caught up with director Armesto during rehearsals at downtown Asbury’s VFW hall (where Kingdom was staged to great acclaim in 2009); flip the pixelated page for more.

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ARCHIVE: The Kingdom and the Power

DownloadedFile (First published on Red Bank oRBit April 16, 2009)

When we first met up with the ReVision Theatre Company last year in oRBit, the newly established professional stage company in Asbury Park was in the process of transforming the seaside albatross Carousel building into a viable venue for live performance (for last summer’s successful run of Hair), while setting up offices, workshop and rehearsal space inside the city’s venerable VFW Post 1333 on 701 Lake Avenue at Bond Street.

When we looked in on them back in December, ReVision’s triad of Producing Artistic Directors (Thomas MorrisseyDavid Leidholdt and Stephen Bishop Seely) had turned the VFW’s amply scaled Bingo hall into a working playhouse for Scrooge in Rouge, a colorfully daffy parody of a vintage English music-hall barnstormer.

ReVision returns for anther go-round at the Carousel this August with The Full Monty, and in July they’ll spotlight Steven Brinberg’s uncanny Streisand portrayal in a benefit performance of Funny Girl, the show that catapulted Babs to stardom. But one production here in ReVision’s first full season sticks out against the otherwise light and lively slate of offerings — and that’s Kingdom.

Described as a “Latin Hip Hop musical” study of two friends from the barrio whose need to belong — in this case, to the Nation of the Latin Kings — tears them apart, the show by Aaron Jafferis and Ian Williams previews this Thursday at 8pm, opens this Friday, April 17 and runs through May 3 at the VFW Theatre.

This is an East Coast premiere of a work that’s only recently been fully staged in San Diego — and the cast is headed up by two veterans of the California production,Christian Amaraut and Miguel Jarquin-Moreland, whose respective roles as Juan and Andres saw their origins in true stories of current and former Latin Kings. Carlos Armesto directs an all-Latino cast that further features Dell Howlett (Cano),Desiree Rodriguez (Marisa), Keith Antone (Hector), Jose Candleria(Danny), Erikamarie Rumore (Queen 1), Judah Gavra (King 2), and Chelsea Zeno(Queen 2). Andre Da Silva replaced David Del Rio as King 1 when Del Rio was cast in a Nickelodeon TV series.

It’s a bold move for the ReVisionaries, with both an unknown quantity of a show and a subject matter that most communities would rather sweep under the sidewalk if they could. ReVision, however, took the opposite tack; hosting a Kingdom Kick-Off Party on March 6 that introduced and explained the show to the public, as well as a Kingdom Exploration Symposium on March 19, in which the show’s cast and crew joined a panel of gang experts in discussing the presence of gangs in Monmouth County, and the ways in which parents, teachers and community leaders can take action to prevent gang violence. Audiences are also being invited to take part in after-show forums that follow each performance.

After the jump, Red Bank oRBit speaks with director Armesto on the hows and whys of this much-anticipated show.

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