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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ReVision’s All About the SURVIVAL

Anthony Preuster, Samantha Croce, Julia Whary, Spiro Markos, Joe Ronga and Chuck Cataia show us all how it’s done in A CHRISTMAS SURVIVAL GUIDE, the ReVision Theatre production going up December 16-18 at the House of Jazz in Asbury town.

Yes, Virginia, there IS a ReVision Theatre Company — and they ARE putting on a show by the name of A Christmas Survival Guide.

Things, admittedly, were looking a Grinchly shade of grim for the Asbury-based stage troupe over the past several weeks — an interlude that saw the resignation of all three principal partners, the downsizing of its scheduled Xmastravaganza from the Paramount Theater, and the uncertainty surrounding the venue to which the production was relocated. It was enough to Krampus the style of the most devoted Xmas-Phile.

Call it a Christmas miracle if you will; chalk it up to good old “show must go on” gumption, but beginning Friday, December 16 and continuing for five performances through December 18, A Christmas Survival Guide makes its welcome debut on the subterranean stage of The House of Jazz on Lake Avenue — in a production that boasts the participation of several not-so-secret Santas.

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A Patrick Hat-Trick, Plus One

The Guy in Black is BACK: Authentically Jersey country singer/songwriter Michael Patrick invades The Saint in downtown Asbury on October 22, for the first of FOUR wildly different events celebrating his new release ANOTHER SONG YOU NEVER HEARD.

First time we ever heard tell of the man called Michael Patrick, the Morganville-bred country singer-songwriter was NOT putting forth a set of his characteristically warm ‘n witty, trad ‘n true originals with his band The Suburban Hillbillies. He was NOT fronting his acclaimed Johnny Cash tribute project Michael Patrick’s Ring of Fire Band, a heartfelt endeavor that’s taken him up and down the eastern half of these United States, and brought him a stamp of approval (along with the odd opening gig) from the likes of Carlene Carter and Rosanne Cash. Hell, he wasn’t even anywhere near chaw-spittin distance of a guitar or microphone.

The particular hat that Mr. Patrick was wearing that night — and by hat, we mean imaginary; not the no-cattle kind sported by the Nashville flavor/savior of the month — was as tireless impresario behind the Suburban Roots Concert Series, a very loose and very occasional vehicle by which Patrick has taken it upon himself to import some of the most exciting young talents in alt-country and Americana, to some of the most unlikely Jersey Shore venues ever to host a HeeHaw hootenanny.

When way-cool next-gen rebel Justin Townes Earle played The Claddagh Irish bar in Highlands, Michael Patrick was the guy behind the scenes. When awesome new traditionalist Pokey LaFarge — one of the greatest entertainers we’ve ever seen — took the stage of a bowling alley lounge in Bradley Beach, you could bet Patrick had a hand in that. And when no less a progeny than John Carter Cash came to Tim McLoone’s swanky Supper Club on the Asbury boards, Mike Patrick was already on the scene — tending to details; checking out sound and sightlines from every conceivable angle; removing the blue M&Ms from the dressing room and just generally remaining a body in motion not unlike your grandma hosting the family at the holidays (“Ma! Siddown and eat, you’re makin’ everyone nervous!”).

This Saturday night, October the DoubleDeuce, it’s all about the Patrick — and the Hat Trick, by which we mean the release of his THIRD independently issued album of songs, a set by the name of Another Song You Never Heard. The most assured session yet from MP, the album finds this refreshingly old-school professor lending the full faith and credit of his classic voice (think of the plainspeak elegance of Hank Snow, Sonny James, Porter Wagoner and Tom T Hall) to a fun bunch of compositions that address such universal topics as growing old, moving on, staying put, and the eternal plight of the barband entertainer.

The venue for the CD release event is arguably an unlikely one — downtown Asbury’s rockin’ roadhouse railroad car The Saint — until you consider that the venerable alternative rock club has also offered up snug harbor for Americana, acousticana and bammalamma acts of every conceivable star and stripe. It’s the inaugural stop on a multi-date, “MP4” CD release schedule that will also see Patrick take his new songs to a Bayshore coffeehouse, a bluegrass-infused church, and that welcoming temple of pinewoods traditionalism, Waretown’s fabled Albert Music Hall.

UpperWETside rang up this Jersey-fresh font of homespun wisdom and one-man musical movement in the midst of a typically frantic week. So make your selection, insert some southern juke coin and watch the record play.

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Blood in Bloom, at Asbury’s Carousel

Chelsea Zeno, Aliya Bowles and Stephany Mora make like intergalactic Angels during rehearsals for LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, the ReVision Theatre Company production going up Thursday, October 7.

ReVision Theatre Company is on a roll.

After an inauspicious start to a supremely soggy Summer 2011 season of entertainments at Asbury Park’s Carousel House (their candylicious Xanadu was one of the few shows that could boast an indoor rain-out on Opening Night), the professional troupe garnered the greatest reviews of its brief history via a totally fuckin’ electrifying Spring Awakening — with that well known Tony winner followed by a genuine surprise: an almost completely unknown Breakup Notebook that cheerfully won over a lot of audiences who didn’t think they were in the market for a so-called “Lesbian Musical.”

Here in October — that way-past-summer month when the Zombies walk and the costume parties ka-ching in the city that’s become the regional capital of Halloween — the ReVisionaries take one final spin on the Carousel, with a new production of the 1982 sci-fi songfest Little Shop of Horrors.

Really? Little Shop? The same show that your nephew co-starred in at his high school? Like, why not just skip straight to Nunsense, with a couple of readings of Love Letters thrown in for good measure?

Now hold on there DeWitt — the ReVision folks didn’t mean to insult your theater-snob sensibilities. It’s just that the whole extended Halloweekend season in Asbury cries out for something that fits within its creature-feature context — and with The Rocky Horror Show having already been successfully staged in 2010, there aren’t a whole lot of well-crafted monster musicals out there to choose from.

On the other hand, Little Shop is a popular show because Little Shop is a good show — one that’s based on a legendary 1960 Roger Corman drive-in groovie (in which a skinny kid from Bradley Beach named Jack Nicholson got a plum early role); that was satisfyingly remade as a screen musical in 1986; that boasted music by Alan Menken with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. Yeah, the Howard Ashman who gave heart and dimension to Disney’s Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast). One does not speak ill of the sainted Ashman.

On the third hand (did we mention it’s Halloween?), director Mary Kate Burke has out-and-out revealed that this a Little Shop like you’ve never seen before — one that’s chock full of surprises, even in light of a plot that revolves around a bloodthirsty man-eating plant from outer space. More on that in a moment.

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A ‘Breakup,’ and a ReVision ReBound

Supporting cast: Beth Malone is “carried” by her fellow players during rehearsals for THE BREAKUP NOTEBOOK, the ReVision Theatre Company production going up Thursday, September 8.

Darkness. Floods. Extreme heat and cold. By now, we’d have wagered that the folks at ReVision Theatre Company had experienced every Biblical plague short of the Rain of Frogs, in their quest to make Asbury Park’s Carousel House a viable place for musical entertainments. But imagine our surprise, when on a post-Irene stroll to the boardwalk we found the pavement out front of that quirky rococo roundhouse festooned with — not frogs, but fish.

We’re no ichthyologist — although we play one on TV — but we’d venture a guess that these finny fauna, their razor-tooth carcasses picked clean by scavenging seabirds, were very far from home (ditto the Costco-size bottle of Cocoa Butter, seemingly deposited here from somewhere east of 1971).

That fish-out-of-water imagery actually works pretty well when contemplating the third and latest offering of the ReVision summer season at the Carousel — the East Coast premiere of The Breakup Notebook: The Lesbian Musical. A relatively little known (but highly acclaimed) item about a recently dumped thirtysomething — and her uneasy re-immersion into the churning waters of the LA lesbian dating scene — the 2005 show by Lori Scarlett, David Manning and Patricia Cotter (adapted from Cotter’s own nonmusical play of the same name) lands with a Don Martin SPLADAP sound effect on the doorstep of the Carousel from far-off California, bringing with it a Tony-lauded, Hollywood-legendary producer and director in the bargain.

A top executive of The Walt Disney Company for more than a decade (his own documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty is a fine chronicle of the Disney brand’s toon revival during his tenure as president of Feature Animation) and a world champion bridge player, Peter Schneider also oversaw the wildly successful House of Mouse transition to Broadway player, via such stage sensations as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Post-Disney, the independent theatrical producer has been involved with New York and London hits like Sister Act and the Elton John-Tim Rice Aida — as well as a little show called The Breakup Notebook, for which he oversaw a well-received staging in San Diego.

So let’s review: the man who helped broker the game-changing deal between Disney and Pixar; who shepherded such latterday classics as Beauty, The Little Mermaid and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to the screen; who was present at the creation of the modern Broadway era…is very happy to be working in Asbury Park, taking a spin on the ever-quirky Carousel with the intrepid ReVisionaries of the city’s resident professional troupe.

He won’t be going it alone, of course. Beth Malone stars here as Helen, recently pink-slipped from what she thought was a cozy and committed relationship — who, with the encouragement of her gay guyfriend Bob and her butch buds Joanie and Monica, dives into an alien world of internet dating services, rebounders, twelve-steppers, dominatrixes and other 21st century signifiers. She’s joined in the nine-woman, one-man cast by Briana Davis, Jenn Furman, Melissa Hammans, Christine Lakin, Ariel Tyler Page, Caitlin Lee Reid, Jamison Stern, Natalie Wachen, and Nadine Zahr — most of whom appear in multiple roles.

While we would have loved to talk cartoons and Hollywood and big-time Broadway (and maybe even bridge) with this modern master of art and entertainment — personally, we think both Disney’s screen and stage brands have gone to the dogs since his departure — upperWETside played it strictly by the Notebook in our conversation with Peter Schneider. Flip the pixelated page to continue.

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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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