COMEDY TONIGHT, MUSIC ALL AROUND, ON SHORE STAGES in AUGUST

Actor-singer-bandleader Anthony “Remember Jones” D’Amato directs and co-stars with some Tony-lauded talents in a golden-anniversary concert version of the 1960s classic HAIR, going up for four performances this month at Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Ocean Township.

Published in the Asbury Park Press, August 3, 2018

Comedy tonight, music all around, on Shore stages in August

Anyone who still thinks of August as the mainly muggy curtain raiser to a serious new stage season hasn’t been paying attention to what the Shore’s theatrical companies are offering up in the interlude between Back to the Beach and Back to School. In this month’s breathless roundup/ rundown of live entertainments, we’ve got a hometurf pop sensation teaming with a couple of Tony nominees for a highly anticipated concert version of a milestone musical…we’ve got the welcome return of the Garden State’s most innovative showcase of new Latinx works for the stage…we’ve got the NJ premiere of a recent Broadway item, a whole lot of fresh looks at favorite tunefests, and a pair of revues that draw their laughs from some of the funniest and/or freakiest fare on the tube.

He’s the singing sensation and bandleader who’s taken many of the region’s most famous stages by storm with an astonishing series of themed tributes to albums by everyone from Amy Winehouse and Joe Cocker to R. Kelly and Kanye West. An actor who’s won acclaim in Hedwig and the Angry InchThe Rocky Horror Show, and the twin title roles of Jekyll & Hyde — and an impresario who’s guided Lakewood’s historic Strand Theatre as producing artistic director. When he comes off his current multi-state big-band tour under his pop alter ego Remember Jones, Anthony D’Amato will be donning his actor, vocalist and director hats for a new 50th anniversary concert version of the Rado-Ragni-McDermott musical Hair at Ocean Township’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center. Going up for four performances beginning Wednesday, August 15, the project will mark D’Amato’s third time at the helm of the 1968 milestone — and he’ll have some heavy help in the persons of a pair of Tony nominees: onetime American Idol finalist and two-time nominee Constantine Maroulis of Wyckoff (Rock of AgesSpring Awakening) as Berger, and Mary Bridget Davies (A Night with Janis Joplin) as Sheila. The director takes on the role of Claude for the concert-style presentation (which we assume means that everyone keeps their clothes on), with the Remember Jones Band doing duty “as both house band and members of the tribe, along with 15 other cast members.” An extra visual dimension is lent by Marc Rubinstein’s “Pig Light Show,” the real-time projection designs that famously graced such legendary venues as NYC’s Fillmore East. The happening, which will be accompanied by a display of historical materials from The Hair Archives, happens at 8 p.m. on August 15 and 16, with additional performances at 10 p.m. on August 18 and 3 p.m. on August 19. Tickets ($37-$45) are available at axelrodartscenter.com.

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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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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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IT’S WHAT’S UP FOR WEEK OF MAY 17-23

A smorgasbord of savvy speakers get PASSIONate at the Paramount…the sound of Asbury Park gets seriously POLKA-fied at everyone’s favorite Festhalle…a former flavor-du-jour from the major label exurbs finds his INDEPENDENT voice, in a House call to the Cookman corridor…while a PROJECTIONIST pays tribute to a childhood icon, AND a lakeside Asbury landmark. It’s WHAT’S UP for the week ahead, and we’ve got the highlights right here right now…while the printed pages of THE COASTER carry your full rundown of sights, sounds, screens, and scenes!

SCENES: TEDx Asbury Park at the Paramount

“PASSION” is the theme for this year’s TEDx Asbury Park, the sixth annual edition of the happening that commandeers the Paramount Theatre stage on Saturday, May 19 for a day-long menu of dynamic speakers, storytellers, songsmiths and celebs. A hyper-local and independent offshoot of the international TED talks, the event that began life as TEDx Navesink (with early host venues that included Red Bank’s Two River Theater and the Lincroft campus of Brookdale Community College) has found its happiest harbor here in Asbury town, the Shore area’s crossroads for so much of what’s most exciting in art, commerce, and the marketplace of ideas. Far from a snoozefest in a stodgy lecture hall, the TEDx AP program is at its best a confluence of the people, the projects and the progressive thinking that will shape our shoreline in the seasons to come — with maybe just a healthy dose of ego.

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A CULT COMPOSER, AMAZING EDNA, RISING STARS ON STAGE IN MAY

Joe Iconis, composer of the cult-hit musical BE MORE CHILL, returns to Red Bank’s Two River Theater to star in a special benefit event on Saturday, May 19. (photo courtesy Two River Theater)

Published in the Asbury Park Press, May 4 2018

The merry month of May brings a bounty to Shore area theater fans, courtesy of a few newly flowering perennials, a couple of surprise sproutings, and maybe even an invasive thriller or two to keep things truly interesting. We’ve got your roundup, so to speak, right here.

A recent, widely read article in the New York Times called it “one of the most popular new musicals in America, with a passionate fan base that dwarfs the number of people who have ever seen the show” — a reference to none other than Be More Chill, the supercharged sci-fi high school musical that made its commissioned world premiere at Red Bank’s Two River Theater back in 2015. Based on a novel by the late Ned Vizzini — and playfully touching on themes that include addiction, acceptance, and assimilation into the popular-kids social hierarchy — the show by composer Joe Iconis and book writer Joe Tracz has since gathered major momentum through viral streaming of its soundtrack album, an international fanbase, and a series of school and community productions that included a successful staging by Tom River’s Exit 82 company. On the eve of a commercial Off Broadway revamp — and even as Two River Theater Company commissions an all new project from the Two Joes team — the Be More Chill songwriter returns to Red Bank for a special benefit event on Saturday, May 19. Billed as “An Evening with Joe Iconis and Family,” the fundraiser for TRTC’s ambitious slate of development programs is “a combination of rock ‘n’ roll jamboree and musical cabaret” that “will include classic tunes, new numbers, and works-in-progress.” Joining Iconis and director John Simpkins are such “family” member vocalists as orignal Chill veterans Lauren Marcus, Eric William Morris, and George Salazar; tickets ($60-$250) and details on a pre-show cocktail reception and post-show family dinner are available at tworivertheater.org or 732-345-1400.

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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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‘LUGHNASA’ DANCES INTO TWO RIVER THEATER

The cast of the Brian Friel play “Dancing at Lughnasa” conjures a slice of Irish life in the 1930s, in the Two River Theater production on stage beginning this weekend in Red Bank.  (Photo by Yurik L. Lozano)

Published in the Asbury Park Press, April 13 2018

“It’s one of the great plays of the twentieth century,” says the director Jessica Stone of her latest project for Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company. “And it’s because of how universal its themes are.”

While its characters, cultural references and conflicts are very much of a piece with its setting in the Irish countryside of 1936, there is a certain quality to Dancing at Lughnasa that resonates with audiences in the here and the now…and when Two River’s John Dias suggested Brian Friel’s Tony- and Olivier award winning 1990 play to Stone, the director “jumped at” the chance to “explore this world; to explore the bond of these five sisters, and the ways in which we live through our memories.”

Kicking off a month-long limited engagement this weekend at Two River’s mainstage Rechnitz Theater, the production represents something of a hat-trick for Stone, a young veteran Broadway actress (her credits include the 2011 revival of Anything Goes, and a debut as Frenchy in the 1994 staging of Grease) who has credited the late New England-based theater legend Nicholas Martin with mentoring her journey from player to professional director. It’s a road that’s seen her helm some acclaimed projects throughout the eastern United States, including a 2014 Boston staging of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike that carried on in the spirit of Martin’s Tony-lauded Broadway production — and for Two River, the Alan Ayckbourn comedy Absurd Person Singular, plus her own all-male, all-madcap take on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

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