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RED BANK: NJSO PLAYS IT TO THE HILTY

Megan HiltyBroadway bombshell Megan Hilty (above) is the special guest Valentine of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for a Friday night Count Basie concert. Carolyn Wong (below) takes the Sunday solo spotlight with the Monmouth Symphony.  

CarolynWong_violinistThey’re Playing Our Song, goes the old cliche governing the next-dance maneuvers of young lovers and senior lovebirds alike. But while the right tune blared from a tinny little speaker still does the job nicely, one can’t help but think that those truly heart-fluttering moments can only really be expressed by a full 40-piece complement of strings, brass, woodwinds, keys and kettledrums.

With that in mind, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra returns to the stage of the Count Basie Theatre Friday nigh for an event that’s designed to loosen up those starchy, itchy tuxes and gowns.

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MIDDLETOWN: SOMETHING’S NOT NORMYLE

Bill Normyle Anna Cibrian Bad SeedThe creepy janitor (Bill Normyle) has a proposition for sweet and innocent Rhoda (Anna Cibrian) as the Monmouth Players present the 1950’s suspenser ‘The Bad Seed,’ starting Saturday at Navesink Arts.

Following a December detour into holiday-themed comedy, the Monmouth Players resume their 2015-’16 “Season of Suspense” in signature style this Saturday with the first of eight performances of a drama that thrilled Broadway audiences more than 60 years ago — right around the time that the players were beginning their incredible run as the area’s longest continuously operating theatrical troupe.

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RED BANK: A LAST CALL FOR ‘REASON’

Lives of Reason TRTC 1-16 063 Lives of Reason, by Robert Rechnitz and Kenneth Stunkel, directed by Jonathan Fox at Two River Theatre Company 1/7/16 Costume Design: Karen Perry Lighting Design: Gina Scherr Set Design: Charlie Corcoran © T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.net

Ilona (Mairin Lee) is the center of attention, as the Two River Theater original LIVES OF REASON (above) enters its final round of performances…while Monmouth U’s Frank P. Fury (below) inaugurates a new series of Conversation + Play events at Two River. (Top photo by T. Charles Erickson)

FuryAlthough its authors — longtime Monmouth University English professor Robert Rechnitz, and veteran Dean/ History prof Kenneth Stunkel — have waved away any direct connection to their former place of employment or co-workers, the unmistakable flavor of a life spent in academia permeates Lives of Reason, the original ensemble drama that represents the maiden collaboration for its two octogenarian playwrights.

Even as Lives enters into the final eight performances (today through Sunday, February 7) of its limited engagement at Two River Theater, the venue re-establishes that Monmouth U connection with the help of the organization known as The Navesink, whose TEDxNavesink events used the Bridge Avenue arts center for its sold-out 2014 session (and who since relocated to, you guessed it, the Monmouth campus). Thursday, February 4 marks the first in a three-part series of Conversation + Play “salons” that pair an 8 pm performance of Two River’s current mainstage production with a special pre-show lecture — in this case the young MU faculty member and literature specialist Frank P. Fury, Ph.D.

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RED BANK: NEW ‘REASON’ FOR OLD FRIENDS

rechnitz stunkel 010616 2Ken Stunkel, left, and Two River Theater founder Bob Rechnitz are first-time, eighty-something playwrights getting the big-time treatment. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)  

By TOM CHESEK

hot-topicWhen the 2015-2016 season resumes at the Two River Theater in Red Bank this weekend, it will find the celebrated company once again departing from familiar Broadway-tested properties like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Seven Guitars to the latest in an ongoing slate of world premiere dramas by relatively “new” playwrights.

This time out, the play is called Lives of Reason, and the rookie playwrights are a couple of eighty-something colleagues named Bob Rechnitz and Ken Stunkel.

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RED BANK: GO TELL IT ON MONMOUTH

Black Nativity 2010A cast of some 45 actors, singers, dancers and community members brings the theatrical gospel celebration BLACK NATIVITY back to the Count Basie Theatre this Sunday, December 27, in the return of a local tradition from Dunbar Repertory Company. (Photo courtesy Richard Krauss)  

When it was first presented to Broadway audiences back in 1961, the theatrical experience known as Black Nativity was little more than a 40-page outline of a script on paper; an adaptation of the Gospel of St. Luke that was infused with the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes. In their fully fleshed form, however, the words came to life through a mix of traditional spirituals like “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” African American dance forms, colorful costumes, and an improvisatory element that encourages local clergy, schoolchildren and public officials to get into the act everywhere that Nativity has become the stuff of tradition, from Savannah, GA to Seattle, WA and numerous points between.

Beginning about the turn of the new millennium, Black Nativity became the stuff of Monmouth County tradition, when Darrell Lawrence Willis Sr. first presented its “powerful message of joy, hope, victory and liberation” at Manasquan’s landmark Algonquin Theatre, in a staging by Dunbar Repertory Company, the producer-director’s grassroots troupe dedicated to presenting the works of African American playwrights. Re-emerging at the Count Basie Theatre in 2010 (where Willis, a now-retired faculty member at Brookdale Community College, has served as a board member for ten years), the production quickly staked out a place as a year-end centerpiece of community life for performing artists and church congregations from all around Monmouth. Following a one-year hiatus, Black Nativity returns to the Basie stage this Sunday afternoon, December 27, for its fifth Red Bank appearance — a re-energized and highly anticipated extension of the Yueltide season, about which Willis found time to chat with redbankgreen.

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RED BANK: A CHRISTMASSY TRIO AT BASIE

Nebraska XmasThe forecast calls for indoor snow, timely spirits and much music, as A CHRISTMAS CAROL heralds a week of holiday entertainments on the Count Basie stage.

frozen-sing-alongThe dizzyingly jam-packed days of December continue apace at the Count Basie Theatre, where the stage of the area’s most Christmassy performing arts center receives visitations by holiday-themed entertainments hailing from points near and far.

Here are three, one each for the next trio of nights.

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BIG NEA AWARDS TO TWO RED BANK VENUES

Louis Prima JrNext-generation swing-music wildman Louis Prima Jr. and his Witnesses will perform at the Count Basie Theatre in spring 2016, as part of an enhanced Jazz at the Basie slate funded by an Art Works grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. Two River Theater also received an NEA grant, toward the development of a new musical. (Photo by Mitchell Glotzer)

From press materials issued by The Count Basie Theatre and Sen. Bob Menendez

Two major nonprofit arts entities in Red Bank have been named as recipients of a National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) Art Works award for 2015. The Count Basie Theatre and Two River Theater were among 15 New Jersey-based organizations awarded a total of $290,000 toward the development of original arts programming; part of a 51st annual slate of NEA grants totaling $27.7 million and supporting more than 1,100 projects in 49 states, U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.

The NEA’s Art Works category supports the creation of work and presentation of both new and existing work, lifelong learning in the arts, and public engagement with the arts through 13 arts disciplines or fields. Two River Theater Company was recipient of $20,000 to support the development and funding of The Ballad of Little Jo, an original musical featuring lyrics by Sarah Schlesinger and music by Mike Reid (A Wind in the Willows Christmas), as well as supplementary education programming (discussions, student matinees, classroom teachers’ guides) that focuses on the women of Frontier America.

In celebrating its namesake, the Basie will use its $15,000 NEA grant to help produce a series of programs and activities celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month, with jazz-related lectures, films and biopics scheduled to take place throughout April 2016. On May 19 the celebration will continue with a jazz-centric edition of the Count Basie Theatre’s “No Shush!” kid’s concert series, starring Louis Prima Jr and the Witnesses, as well as the Red Bank Jazz Orchestra under the direction of conductor Joe “Mooche” Muccioli, artistic director of the Jazz Arts Project at the Basie’s Performing Arts Academy. Proceeds from that performance — and a donation from the Gia Maione Prima Foundation, named for Prima’s late mother — will match the NEA gift.

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RED BANK: FUNNY THINGS KEEP HAPPENING

A Funny Thing...Forum TRTC 11-15 175 A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim choreography by Denis Jones directed by Jessica Stone Two River Theatre Company 11/13/15 Scenic Design | Alexander Dodge Costume Design | Clint Ramos Lighting Design | Jeff Croiter and Jake DeGroot Hair and Makeup: David Bova Sound Design | Drew Levy © T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.netDavid Josefsburg, Michael Urie, Christopher Fitzgerald and Kevin Isola keep the toga party going for one more weekend, as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ wraps its run at Two River Theater. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By TOM CHESEK

Red Bank’s Two River Theater offers one more long weekend of happy-humbug harbor to all of us who may feel caught between a Dickens and a Nutcracker this time of year.

Directed by Jessica Stone — and boasting an all-male cast of Tony nominees, TV personalities, Two River returnees and toga-clad Broadway babies — the TRT’s naughty and bawdy production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum reclaims the Stephen Sondheim musical comedy (based on the farcical works of ancient Roman playwright Plautus) from the community church basements and school auditoriums it’s long been consigned to. And it uses the novelty of its “stag” staging to mine maximum gold from its broad burlesque belly-laughs.

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MIDDLETOWN: FULL-TIME SANTA, TEMP ELF

Miracle34thEach tells a tale of Christmas set in a Macy’s department store. One is earnest and uplifting, and involves a real Santa mistaken for a fake one. The other is less so, and centers on an elf no one would ever mistake for the real thing.

Both make their way to the Greater Red Bank Green this weekend.

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RED BANK: ALL-FEMALE TAKE ON SHAKESPEARE

two river theater posterAn all-female cast of area high school students brings a special “Little Shakespeare” version of “Pericles” to life at Two River Theater this week.

Even as the all-male cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues to make merry on the mainstage of Two River Theater, the Red Bank institution’s black-box Marion Huber performance space gears up for a special presentation of a centuries-old classic with a distaff twist.

Running an extended schedule of school shows and public performances now through December 12, William Shakespeare’s Pericles offers an abridged version of the circa-1607 tragical history tour as the latest in Two River Theater Company’s annual student-actor project known as “A Little Shakespeare.”

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A ‘FUNNY THING’ ON THE WAY TO RED BANK

Director Jessica Stone joins actors Michael Urie and Christopher Fitzgerald in a promotional video for ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ the musical comedy opening at the Two River Theater this weekend. 

By TOM CHESEK

It was an early feather in the cap for modern master Stephen Sondheim, representing his first project as both composer and lyricist. Its book, based as it is upon some nearly 1,800-year old works by the Roman dramatist Plautus, was co-authored by TV writer Larry Gelbart on the way to his 1970s series success M*A*S*H. And, as befits a show whose breakout number is called “Comedy Tonight” (“something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone…”), it is one raucously irreverent musical toga party.

First seen by Broadway audiences in 1962, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum proved custom-fit to the larger-than-a-rhinoceros talents of the late great Zero Mostel — with the comic heavyweight starring as Pseudolus, a savvy slave in ancient Rome whose schemes to win his freedom (by helping his master win the fair maiden next door) take a classically farcical turn. The role also proved to be an express ticket to a Tony nomination for whoever filled that toga — from Mostel and old-school wiseguy Phil Silvers to (in its most recent revival) Nathan Lane, and even a well-received turn by Whoopi Goldberg that demonstrated the triumph of the Funny over etched-in-stone casting conventions.

With that in mind, when Red Bank’s  Two River Theater turned to director Jessica Stone (last season’s Absurd Person Singular) for some fresh ideas on this 55-year-old favorite — going up in previews this Saturday on the Bridge Avenue stage — the determination was made that “when in Rome,” do as the Romans did: by casting each and every part with a male performer.

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RED BANK: ‘PETER PAN’ GOING UP

Hook-Lily-PP_1Rumson’s Patricia McCarron is an imperiled Princess Tiger Lily at the center of a square-off between Mike Patierno (as Captain Hook) and Jennifer Townsend in the title role of PETER PAN. 

It’s been quite a year for Phoenix Productions, the long-running, Red Bank-based theatrical company that moved recently to a spacious new state-of-the-art headquarters on Chestnut Street. Apparently still floating somewhere east of Cloud Nine, the Phoenix phalanx mapped out a 2015 season that spotlighted such high-flying family favorites as Mary Poppins — and beginning this Friday, Phoenix rises once more to the occasion with another famously gravity-defying musical entertainment, Peter Pan.

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A LITTLE SILVER NIGHTMUSIK, AT RBR

AmadeusUPDATE: Due to the playoff schedule of Red Bank Regional’s undefeated football team, the school announced today a change to the published performance schedule for AMADEUS. New dates are Saturday November 21 at 7 pm, Sunday November 22 at 3 pm, and Monday November 23 at 7 pm.

As its Fall 2015 dramatic production, the Red Bank Regional High School Theatre Company will present an 18th century period piece that became a Tony winning 20th century hit on Broadway. Written by Peter Shaffer, Amadeus freely sketches a portrait of the young, brilliantly talented and boorishly behaving Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — as seen through the eyes and actions of his insanely jealous, revenge-obsessed fellow composer Antonio Salieri. The lead roles of Mozart and Salieri are played by Davis Bush of Millstone and Patrick Monaghan of Little Silver (left and right in photo), with the production marking the debut of RBR’s new drama director Reuben Jackson. The play goes up for three performances in the school’s auditorium, beginning Friday, November 20.

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RED BANK: MU STUDENTS CO-STAR WITH TRTC

TwoRiverMU1As part of a partnership program between Monmouth University and Two River Theater Company, Student Ambassadors Nick Zaccario, Sheri Anderson, Samantha Myers and Molly Huber are pictured outside the box office with TRTC staffers Courtney Perez, Cassie Galasetti and Angela White.

Press release from Two River Theater Company

In a partnership designed to deepen relationships between Two River Theater and the Music and Theater Arts Department at Monmouth University, the Red Bank performing arts center and the West Long Branch-based university have announced a new Student Ambassador Program, facilitated by Department Chair Joe Rapolla and Professor Sheri Anderson.

Three “Student Ambassadors” — sophomore Molly Huber, senior Samantha Myers, and junior Nick Zaccario — have been selected to lead the program for this inaugural season. The students will work closely with Two River’s marketing team to help create special programs and opportunities for their campus peers, starting with the theater’s upcoming production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which hosts its first preview on Saturday, November 14. Opportunities being explored include access to backstage tours and technical rehearsals; workshop/Q&A sessions with actors and/or designers, and more.

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MIDDLETOWN: TELL LAURA WE LOVE HER

LauraKelly Cibrian, Jeff Caplan and Bill Lee star, as the Monmouth Players continue their Season of Suspense with the classic mystery of LAURA.

A murdered woman of mystery, who may or may not lie so easy in the grave. A detective obsessed with the memory of someone he never met. A philandering fiancee and a set of acid-tongued, duplicitous friends that you wouldn’t wish upon your worst frenemy. When Hollywood began producing its great run of film noir classics in the 1940s, Vera Caspary’s novel Laura was ready and made to order; forming the foundation of an Otto Preminger production that boasted the otherworldly beauty of Gene Tierney, the square-jawed stoicism of Dana Andrews, the suave snake-oil of Clifton Webb and Vincent Price, plus a haunting title theme for the ages —  the stuff that movieland’s darkest dreams were made of.

Laura was also a stage play, adapted by author Caspary herself in cahoots with George Sklar — and beginning this weekend, the rarely revived drama receives a new airing, courtesy of the Monmouth Players and their incredible-but-true 62nd season as the area’s longest continuously operating theatrical troupe.

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