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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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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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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