LOOKING BACK ON THE BEST OF LOCAL STAGES, 2018

El Chupacabra terrorizes the alternate reality of a cartoonist turned comic book hero, in the 2018 Two River Theater production EL COQUÍ ESPECTACULAR AND THE BOTTLE OF DOOM. Photo by Richard Termine

Published in the Asbury Park Press, December 28 2018

Star-powered casts — and a set of new and diverse voices — set the pace for the live theater stages of Monmouth and Ocean counties in the calendar year 2018. The area served by the Asbury Park Press continued to draw the attentions and the talents of some top-shelf pros, even as its many creative crannies proved that the most interesting things can occur in the most unlikely of venues. Here are a handful of the Great Performances and all-around Good Things that we happened across in the year that was.

New dramas

Bemoaning the fact that comic book characters seem to be hijacking the entire mass culture? Well, get over it, because back at the top of the year, Red Bank’s Two River Theater set the pace with a “superhero play” of supercharged energy: the intriguingly titled El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom. Emerging from Two River’s annual Crossing Borders festival of new Latinx plays, the play by Matthew Barbot succeeded where the mighty Spidey and Superman fell short in their respective musical misadventures; investing its story (of a young unemployed Puerto Rican-American artist turned self-styled costumed crimefighter) with a choreographed visual verve that played, under the direction of Jose Zayas, like a musical minus the music. Throw in a layered plot that segued smoothly between the alternate realities of the dual-identity protagonist, with projected images that heightened the shift between parallel worlds, and the result was a dazzling cultural satire that compared favorably with the company’s trailblazing premiere production of the musical phenomenon “Be More Chill.”

Over at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, some new faces arrived in town with April’s production of Chloe Hung’s Issei, He Say — and those newcomers had a compelling story to tell, in the Chinese-Canadian TV writer’s semi-autobiographical account of an immigrant family’s struggles with assimilation, aspirations, and the next door neighbor, an elderly gentleman of Japanese descent. As the play’s 12 year old central character, Christina Liang headed a superb cast in a drama that placed a perfectly constructed, intimately scaled frame around the big issues of blinding prejudice, national tragedies, home-front secrets, and the things people use to forge alliances in the darkness. Continue reading

A ‘HEDLEY’ THAT’S FIT FOR A KING, IN RED BANK

Blake Morris and Harvy Blanks co-star in the Two River Theater production of  August Wilson’s KING HEDLEY II, now onstage in Red Bank. (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Published in the Asbury Park Press, November 23 2018

“I know right from wrong,” insists the title character in King Hedley II, the play by August Wilson that’s onstage now at Two River Theater — clarifying that with, “I know what’s right for ME.”

Presented inside the theater’s smaller “black box” Marion Huber performance space, Hedley finds the Red Bank-based professional stage company now fully halfway through the  late playwright’s celebrated “Century Cycle” — a collection of ten dramas, each set in a different decade, that view the African American experience through the prism of characters in Wilson’s hometown Hill District of Pittsburgh. For the play that’s chronologically second-to-last in the timeline — if not necessarily in the order of presentation by Two River — the company has assembled a skilled group of frequent collaborators (as well as some supremely talented new blood) in the service of a script that addresses such sprawling themes as love, loss, legacy, dreams, honor, betrayal, the pursuit of happiness, and downright biblical levels of retribution, from the vantage point of two adjoining back yards.  

As framed by Michael Carnahan’s set design, it’s a place where folks tend to put their most intimate business, their hopes for the future, and the pent-up demons of decades past out on full display. And, while there’s much that is constant in this place, Hedley finds the Reagan-era 1980s casting its shadow over the decaying, transitioning neighborhood. The image of the grinning Gipper beams out from the periphery; the music is Michael Jackson and Grandmaster Melle Mel — and “Aunt Ester,” the quasi-mystical presence who hovers over so many of Wilson’s works, has reportedly just passed at 366 years of age, taking a last living link to a people’s history with her.

Back home from a stint in Western State Penitentiary — and anxious to stake his own claim to the go-go 80s action, by opening a video store with a specialty in kung fu epics — is King (Blake Morris), a still-young man whose impulse to put things right ranges from wanting to start a family with girlfriend Tonya (Brittany Bellizeare), to nurturing a garden from the hardscrabble soil of the yard. Unfortunately, the path to business success runs through the peddling of stolen refrigerators, as well as other schemes enacted with his close friend Mister (Charlie Hudson III) — and, as becomes all too clear, the beef and the bloody conflicts of the past are as impossible to escape as the darker aspects of King’s nature.

In for a visit and a friend’s funeral is King’s mother Ruby (Elain Graham), a onetime band singer who is herself the subject of a drop-in by her long-ago lover Elmore (Harvy Blanks). Occupying the house next door is Stool Pigeon (Brian D. Coats), an apparent local eccentric who prefers to call himself a Truthsayer, in the same way that his hoarding of old newspapers becomes to his mind a mission to preserve history and knowledge. Bookending the action with matched monologues on fast-changing times and the Lord’s fiery vengeance, he’s the dour conscience of a play whose people don’t always heed their better angels — and followers of Wilson’s work will know him as the aged version of Canewell, who along with the younger Ruby appeared as supporting characters in the 1940s-era Seven Guitars (produced by Two River in 2015).

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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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‘PAMELA’S FIRST’ IS ONE TO REMEMBER, IN TWO RIVER PREMIERE

Howard McGillin and Sarah McKinley Austin co-star in PAMELA’S FIRST MUSICAL, the season opener now in its world premiere engagement at Red Bank’s Two River Theater. Photos by T.C. ERICKSON

Published in the Asbury Park Press, September 21, 2018

Their many productions for family audiences have included a homegrown musicalization of The Wind in the Willows that starred Tituss Burgess as Mr. Toad; a Charlotte’s Web told with live actors and puppets, and imaginative revisits to several favorites from decades past — but with the show that opens their milestone 25th season of professional theater in Monmouth County, the folks at Two River Theater might have happened upon their most crowdpleasing all-ager yet.    

Conceived by Wendy Wasserstein — and based on her 1996 children’s book of the same name — Pamela’s First Musical makes a very long-awaited world premiere, not in the Broadway of its setting, but at Two River’s branded Red Bank performing arts center. Despite the added contributions of Christopher Durang, the music of celebrated composer Cy Coleman, and the participation of an all-star cast at a 2008 concert production, the show’s journey to the stage was unable to surmount the obstacles of Wasserstein and Coleman’s passings — although you’d hardly know it from this fun and colorful limited engagement, presented without intermission (except for a fake one that’s actually part of the proceedings) inside the Rechnitz auditorium.

While both Wasserstein (the Pulitzer winning playwight of The Heidi Chronicles) and her posthumous collaborator Durang (author of the Tony winner Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) necessarily dialed down the edgier aspects of their literary voices here, the book of Pamela’s First Musical is nonetheless a breezy affair, packed with plenty of knowing in-jokes for Broadway buffs, and hitting all the bases for a kid-centric story in which Pamela (Sarah McKinley Austin) — an 11 year old misfit with a not-so-secret life as the award winning star of her own bedroom-based epics — finds her already terrible-awful birthday ruined by the news that her widowed dad (long-running Phantom star Howard McGillin) plans to marry into a family of obnoxiously self-smitten health and fitness freaks. Enter free-wheeling Aunt Louise (Carolee Carmello), toting a chocolate cake with extra frosting — and a pledge to whisk her niece away to the big city, where the two kindred spirits will catch a Broadway musical, and maybe even meet some of the amazing people who make that special kind of magic happen.

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A BROADWAY ‘VALENTINE’ GETS ITS LONG-AWAITED DELIVERY, AT TWO RIVER THEATER

Left to right: Tony nominated actor-singer and Monmouth County native David Garrison (we all know him as Steve on MARRIED WITH CHILDREN) appears with Sarah McKinley Austin and Carolee Carmello in PAMELA’S FIRST MUSICAL, the talent-packed project that makes its long overdue world premiere this weekend as the opening entry in Two River Theater’s milestone 25th season. (photo by T.C. Erickson)

Expanded from an article published in the Asbury Park Press, September 14 2018

It’s a life-affirming, upbeat show that boasts a book by two titans of the modern American theater, Wendy Wasserstein (the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of The Heidi Chronicles) and Christopher Durang (author of the Tony winning play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike). It sports a score of songs by Tony’d tunesmiths Cy Coleman and David Zippel (whose various credits include Sweet CharityOn the Twentieth CenturyThe Will Rogers Follies, and the Disney films Hercules and Mulan) — and its public bow in an all-star 2008 concert production drew the participation of Joel Grey, Sandy Duncan, Donna McKechnie and Tommy Tune, while inspiring the New York Times to hail it as “a valentine to Broadway.”

And yet, that love letter would somehow remain lost in the post for years, due in large part to the untimely passings of co-creators Wasserstein and Coleman. All that is about to change, however, as the team at Red Bank’s Two River Theater presides over the formal world premiere staging of Pamela’s First Musical, in the inaugural production of the professional company’s milestone 25th season. Adapted from the children’s book of the same name by Wasserstein, the show opens tonight, September 14, as the most ambitious “all-singing, all-dancing” project in the history of the troupe whose recent forays into musical theater have included the debut of the runaway phenomenon that is Be More Chill. 

Continuing its limited engagement through October 7 at Two River’s mainstage Rechnitz auditorium, the show centers around the universally appealing story of a young girl whose “eccentric and fabulous” Aunt Louise (triple Tony nominee Carolee Carmello) rescues her from a less than memorable birthday — by spiriting her away to the big city, where Pamela (Sarah McKinley Austin) becomes immersed in the world of a lavish musical; both via the magic on stage and the vivid characters who make it all happen. The production reunites two creative contributors from that 2008 staging, including the ten-time Tony nominee Graciela Daniele (Annie Get Your Gun, The Visit) as director and choreographer — and, in the role of producer Bernie S. Gerry (a playful amalgam of Schubert organization bigwigs Bernie Jacobs and Gerry Schoenfeld), a familiar face of stage and screen, Monmouth County native David Garrison.

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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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Two River Theater musical ‘Songbird’ is a Seagull with a Nashville twang

Broadway leading lady Felicia Finley stars as country singer Tammy Trip in the musical SONGBIRD, onstage this weekend at Two River Theater in Red Bank.  Photo by KEVIN THOMAS GARCIA

Published in the Asbury Park Press, June 8 2018

“This project is AMAZING,” offers Felicia Finley, in regard to her starring role in “Songbird,” the critically acclaimed musical that makes its New Jersey premiere as the season-closing production at Red Bank’s Two River Theater. “I mean, how do you explain this to people?”

Moments later, the actress and singer attempts to address her own question, with the view that “it’s very Jerry Springer at times…these people aren’t shy about showing their emotions!”

A late substitute addition to the Two River schedule (the previously announced “Oo-Bla-Dee” will instead be presented in June of 2019), and a show that made a big impression during its 2015 run at NYC’s 59E59 theater, “Songbird” is actually a loose adaptation and musicalization of Anton Chekhov’s 19th century drama “The Seagull,” with the action transposed from the Russian countryside to the country music capital of Nashville, and the play’s once-grand actress Irina Arkadina reborn as Tammy Trip, a fast-dimming recording star who returns to her old honkytonk haunt to reunite with the son she left behind during her pursuit of fame — and, perhaps, make amends by giving the young musician a leg up on his own dreams of stardom. 

The opportunity to “chekhov” such a bucket-list acting milestone, and in such a novel fashion, seems made-to-order for the Broadway veteran who “grew up singing bluegrass” in her native Appalachian region of North Carolina — and whose showbiz ambitions revolved more around becoming a ballerina or an entertainment lawyer, than the dynamic performer who wowed crowds as Linda in the original cast of “The Wedding Singer” (a show on which she met her future husband, theatrical director Paul Stancato), as well as in a celebrated two-and-a-half year turn as Tanya in “Mamma Mia!” Still, it’s the leading lady who expresses awe at becoming part of a company that boasts several carry-overs from the Off Broadway production — an experience that’s “been a joy, to say the least.”

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‘Dancing’ in language and light, at Two River Theater

Harry Smith watches over his family as the narrator Michael in DANCING AT LUGHNASA, on stage now at Two River Theater in Red Bank.  Photos by T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Published in the Asbury Park Press, April 27 2018

Winner of the 1992 Tony Award for Best Play; revived and produced by countless professional, school and community companies; adapted into a screen vehicle for Meryl Streep — the Brian Friel play Dancing at Lughnasa is familiar ground for the legions of theatergoers who have chanced to look in on the Mundy household during that momentous Irish summer of 1936.

Yet even a single visit to this ensemble drama that’s been rightly branded a modern classic — a “memory play” that comes packed with its own set of spoilers regarding the characters’ offstage lives and future struggles — can whet the appetite for more. And whether you’re a newcomer or an experienced “Lughna-tic,” the production of Lughnasa now onstage at Red Bank’s Two River Theater  — a production under the nuanced direction of Broadway-vet actress Jessica Stone; previously known here for broadly comic outings like Forum — impresses with its splendid stagecraft, and its embrace of the playwright’s often beautiful language.

Set in the fictional County Donegal village of Ballybeg, during the late-summer harvest festival known as Lughnasa, the play is at heart a group portrait of the five Mundy sisters — led, more or less, by the prim schoolteacher and breadwinner Kate (Megan Byrne, in an adept portrayal of her take-charge character’s flashes of vulnerability and humor). Add to that mix the more boisterous Maggie (Mylinda Hull), the introverted Agnes (Christa Scott-Reed), the somewhat slow-witted and entirely lovelorn Rose (Mandy Siegfried), plus the lovely and rather defiantly unmarried young mother Chris (Meredith Garretson). It’s a portrait framed by the recollections of Chris’s now grown-up son Michael (Harry Smith), who observes and comments upon the play’s action, provides some often sobering updates, and performs the lines of his five-year old self, there in that interlude when so much seemed possible, and yet so many storm clouds were gathering in the big world beyond cottage and village.

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