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

‘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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GO, GO ANNETTE: A ‘THIRD’ METRIC FOR SUCCESS

ThirdOscar and Emmy nominee Annette O’Toole stars in Wendy Wasserstein’s THIRD, continuing through June 22 at Two River Theater.

Originally published on RedBankGreen, 6/20/14

Wednesday marks the final homestretch of performances for Third, the Wendy Wasserstein play that closes out the 20th anniversary season at Two River Theater. For anyone who hasn’t caught the production under the direction of Broadway star and Middletown resident Michael Cumpsty, there are six more chances to catch the acclaimed and dynamic turn by Annette O’Toole now through Sunday, June 22. The Emmy nominated actress (for The Kennedys of Massachusetts, which also featured Cumpsty in a supporting role) and Oscar nominated composer (with her husband Michael McKean, currently on Broadway with Bryan Cranston in All the Way) stars as a middle-aged maverick professor at a Liberal Arts college, whose own bold ideas about Shakespeare’s King Lear are challenged by a young male student (Christopher Sears) who comes to represent everything the academic despises. Emily Walton, JR Horne and Amy Hohn co-star as the friends and family members in the professor’s eventful orbit.

Your upperWETside Control Voice spoke to Annette O’Toole about her role (and her time in Red Bank), with a Q&A around the corner.

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