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ON THE GREEN: BIG THEATER ON SMALL STAGES

gyp_35_retKate Pentek is the child vaudevillian who grows up to become burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee as the classic backstage musical ‘Gypsy’ comes to the Count Basie stage for two weekends. (Photo courtesy Phoenix Productions)

basie-gypsy-091416The waning weekends of summer are traditionally a prime time to dust off your first-night finery and head back to the “theatah.” And even as Red Bank’s resident professional stage company, the Two River Theater, opens its new season with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the Greater Green’s three community troupes (that’s Phoenix Productions, Stone Church Players, and Monmouth Players) also are ready to raise the curtains on a variety of entertainments.

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RED BANK: MA RAINEY’S COMING TO TOWN

Arnetia_Walker_and_Doug_Doyle_WBGO_88.3_InterviewArnetia Walker is interviewed by WBGO radio’s Doug Doyle in a recent event at Two River Theater. The stage and screen actress steps/sings into the title role of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, the season-opening show that goes up in previews this weekend. (Photos by Carmen Balentine)

Arnetia_Walker_HeadshotIt’s a more-or-less annual highlight of the new season at Two River Theater: a further exploration into the work of the late August Wilson, the celebrated African American playwright whose “Century Cycle” of dramas — ten somewhat interconnected plays, each one set in a different decade and illuminating another aspect of the black experience in America — has apparently become an unstated but ongoing project at the Bridge Avenue performing arts space.

Just as they did with last September’s production of “Seven Guitars,” the folks at Two River are kicking off the new 2016-2017 slate of shows with a bluesy keynote from the house of Wilson: the playwright’s 1984 Broadway breakthrough “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Going up in previews beginning this Saturday night, September 10, and set inside a recording studio in 1927 Chicago, the music-infused ensemble drama is a bit unusual, in that it’s only one of the Cycle that’s not based in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh. And, as the title suggests, it’s the only one of the ten that boasts a central character drawn from real life.

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RED BANK: MA RAINEY’S BLOCK PARTY @TRTC

Brandon J DirdenReturning star Brandon J. Dirden (above) is among the cast members expected to attend — while J.W. Lawson and Dean Shot (below) bring the live blues tunes — as Two River Theater keynotes the season opening-production of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ with a Friday evening “block party.”

JW Lawson Dean ShotWhile we’re still a few Saturdays away from the start of the new 2016-2017 schedule at Two River Theater, the Red Bank performing arts space is keeping it outside for the moment — with a special event that harnesses the magic-hour mojo of the late-summertime season and sounds an early keynote for a blues-infused season opener.

That inaugural production is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the August Wilson ensemble piece that opens September 16 as the latest in Two River’s ongoing exploration of the late African American playwright’s “century cycle” of dramas. The special event is a Taste of the Blues Block Party that rocks the theater’s open-air patio with a Friday evening fricassee of live music, dancing, locally sourced cuisine, and “a chance to meet and mingle with the cast.”

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LITTLE SILVER: A CIRCLE OF LIFE, AT RBR

LionKing5Left to right: Ava DiLouie (Timon the meerkat), Matthew Maxcy (Simba), and Maggi Hough (Pumbaa the warthog) co-starred in an August 10 production of THE LION KING JR., presented for one night only by the students of the Visual and Performing Arts Summer Academy at Red Bank Regional High School. Over 40 student actors, musicians, crew members and designers collaborated on the staging of the musical, a special young-audiences version of the Broadway hit adapted from the beloved Disney animated film. RBR faculty member Kris Zook directed the production, which spotlighted the songs of Elton John and Tim Rice, and also starred Annabelle Adams, Lev Brewer, Jamie Lynn Eckhoff, Julie Homza, and Sophie Wright. The evening at RBR also featured an exhibit of visual art works created by VPA program students under the supervision of RBR art teacher Barbara Beckett.

RED BANK: BASIE TO STAY BASIE FOR CENTURY

basie awards 051816 1Originally called the Carlton Theater, the Count Basie Theatre will get to keep the Count’s name for at least another century. Below, a bust of the late jazz great outside the Red Bank train station. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

[Correction: the original version of this post misreported the year of Count Basie’s birth, which was 1904.]

By JOHN T. WARD

basie-bust2The Basie will get to be the Basie for at least another hundred years.

In conjunction with the anniversary of the birth, in Red Bank, of jazz great William ‘Count’ Basie, the town’s premiere entertainment venue has inked a deal with the trust that controls his estate to enable it to call itself the Count Basie Theatre for 50 more years, with five 10-year extensions, the two entities announced Monday.

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MIDDLETOWN: WILDER TIME TO BE HAD BY ALL

Thornton Wilder One ActsThe Monmouth Players serve up an appetizer for their upcoming season at the Navesink Arts Center with a program of one-acts by the celebrated playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, below.

Thornton WilderIt seems, at first glance, a summer-surprise coda to the recently wrapped 2015-2016 season of the area’s longest-established community theater company, Monmouth Players.

But when producers Paul and Lori Renick turn the key once more on their homestage space at the Navesink Arts Center in Middletown Saturday, they’ll actually be sounding a keynote to their upcoming 2016-2017 slate of shows.

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RBR SUMMER CAMP PRESENTS LION KING JR.

Lion King RBRStudents of Red Bank Regional’s Visual and Performing Arts Summer Academy audition for the dancing ensemble, as part of the August 10 presentation of THE LION KING JR.

Press release from Red Bank Regional High School

On Wednesday, August 10, the Visual and Performing Arts Summer Academy students of Red Bank Regional High School will present their staging of “The Lion King Jr.” Over 50 students will take part in the 7 p.m. performance, a 60-minute abbreviated version of Disney’s Broadway hit “The Lion King.”

Based on the popular animated film, the show features such Elton John-Tim Rice songs as “Circle of Life,” Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” with the young actors of the VPA program portraying such beloved characters as Simba, Nala and Mufasa.

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RED BANK: A SIXTH ANNUAL ‘CROSSING’

Flamenco_DancersThe outdoor plaza at Two River Theater comes alive on Wednesday evening with a colorful keynote to the Crossing Borders Festival, the annual free celebration of Latino theater curated by Stephanie Ybarra (below).

Stephanie YbarraIt’s become an eagerly anticipated annual feature of the programming from Two River Theater; a celebration of cultural diversity and connections that occurs on the border between the professional company’s mainstage seasons — and on a street named Bridge Avenue, no less.

Even as issues of national identity and immigration have been forced to the front once more during a superheated election-year summer, the frontiers represented by the Crossing Borders Festival go beyond mere lines on maps. Returning for a sixth annual edition this week, the five-day celebration of emerging Latino theater examines the barriers, access points and grey areas between heritage and assimilation; reality and fantasy; the pull of memory and the need to move on.

Kicking off with the now-traditional outdoor Neighborhood Party on Wednesday, August 3 — and continuing through Sunday, August 7 with a menu of play readings (one of them presented in both English and Spanish), lectures and audience forums — the festival maintains its mission of “bringing together writers and stories from all over the country to explore questions of individual and national identity, and what it means to be a part of the Latino diaspora,” in the words of guest curator Stephanie Ybarra.

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RED BANK: WHO’S NEXT FOR PHOENIX? YES.

Jonathan Jacob Phoenix TommyJonathan Jacob (top right, above) heads the young cast, and Victoria Keiser (below) is the seductive “acid queen” Gypsy, in Phoenix Productions staging of  “Tommy” this weekend.

Victoria Leigh Phoenix TommyIf it’s July at the Count Basie Theatre, then it must be time for the now-traditional summer musical from Phoenix Productions, the borough-based theatrical company that continues its long and productive residency at the venerable Red Bank venue.

With scores of aspiring actors of high school and college age currently between semesters, the troupe’s midsummer offerings have represented a showcase for young performers, with especially energetic and ever so slightly edgier selections (“Rent,” “Hairspray”) than the family-friendly fare (“Mary Poppins,” “Little Mermaid,”) that’s proven so successful for the Phoenix brand.

When the Count’s curtain goes up this Friday night, it will usher in a two-weekend stand for a Broadway sensation with a psychedelic countercultural pedigree: “The Who’s Tommy.” Read More »

RED BANK: GILDA IN THE HERE AND NOW

Gilda Rogers BCCGilda Rogers is the guest for the latest in a series of Author Talk events, Wednesday at the Red Bank Library — followed on July 18 by a special presentation at Project Write Now on Bridge Avenue.

Red Bank regulars know her from many different settings, and wearing many figurative hats — from faculty member at Red Bank Regional and coordinator of special community outreach initiatives for Two River Theater, to local talk show host, and onetime proprietor of Frank Talk Art Bistro, a much-missed Shrewsbury Avenue storefront that was as delightfully difficult to summarize as the woman who put her stamp on it.

Writer, activist and producer Gilda Rogers remains very visible around Red Bank in the coming days, beginning with an appearance at the Red Bank Public Library on Wednesday, July 13. Scheduled for 7 p.m., it’s the latest event in the library’s monthly Author Talk series; a session that finds the author of “Arrested Development: The State of Black Achievement and Education in Hip Hop America” discussing her debut as a dramatist, with a work entitled “Supernatural: The Play.”

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LINCROFT: TAKING ‘MEASURE’ OF SHAKESPEARE

Shakespeare BCCKate Bader (center) performs a scene from “Titus Andronicus” during last year’s Shakespeare on the Lawn presentation on the campus of Brookdale Community College. The summer series returns on Thursday evening with “Measure for Measure.” (Photo by Brookdale Community College) 

Summer-Shakespeare-300x271Ask any Shakespearean scholar you happen to see: the historic incubator and natural habitat of the Bard’s classic tragedies, comedies and histories has little to do with stuffy theater boxes, scratchy formalwear, and snoozing patrons of the arts. Rather, it’s an experience that’s best realized in the open air — with un-amplified voices, improvised solos by Mother Nature’s minions, and an audience of engaged, enthusiastic (and ever so spirited) folks from all walks of life.

It’s a tradition maintained locally each year on one of the greatest, greenest spaces of the Greater Red Bank Green — and, beginning this Thursday evening, Shakespeare on the Lawn returns to the Lincroft campus of Brookdale Community College for a 15th annual edition, with a new look at William Shakespeare’s tragicomic “problem play” known as “Measure for Measure.”

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RED BANK: WEEK TO REMEMBER MAMA @TRT

I Remember Mama TRT 6-2-16 018 I Remember Mama, directed by Jack Cummings III at Two River Theater Company 6/3/16 Scenic Design: Dane Laffrey Lighting Design: R. Lee Kennedy Costume Design: Kathryn Rohe © T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.netBarbara Andres (‘Mama’) sits at the head of the table, surrounded left to right by Heather MacRae, Dale Soules, Rita Gardner, Louise Sorel (back to camera) and Mia Katigbak in “I Remember Mama,” entering its final week at Two River Theater. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson) 

trt exterior 050211A cast of 10 veteran actresses — each over the age of 60 — playing the parts of some two dozen women, men and children. One big extended family that encompasses mama, papa, big/ little kids, a caring curmudgeon of an uncle, a trio of contrary aunts, a local undertaker, a dying cat, plus a broke boarder with a storyteller’s gift. And in place of the play’s all-important kitchen table, this version’s got 10.

Putting up eight more matinee and evening performances between June 22 and 26, the John Van Druten ensemble drama “I Remember Mama” closes out the 2015-2016 season at Two River Theater with a staging that lends a bit of cutting-edge cool to the warmly sentimental story of a Norwegian-American community, a dreamer of a daughter, and the Mama who could reputedly fix anything (and maybe even work the odd miracle).

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RED BANK: HERE’S THE BALDWIN- KLINE THING

Alec-Baldwin-Kevin-Kline-333x250The first time Alec Baldwin took to the stage of Red Bank’s Two River Theater, it was for a 2009 fundraiser, during which the leading man of silver screen (“The Hunt for Red October”) and Broadway stage (“A Streetcar Named Desire”) participated in a Q&A for the benefit of the local Junior League.

By the time Baldwin returned to the Bridge Avenue space two years later, he had netted two Emmys, a couple of Golden Globes and a SAG Award for his work on the sitcom “30 Rock.” That appearance found the actor taking part in an entertaining panel discussion with the Tony-nominated frequent Two River artist Michael Cumpsty — a chat moderated by TRTC artistic director John Dias, who made no secret of his desire to secure Baldwin’s services for a future mainstage production in Red Bank.

When Baldwin makes his scheduled appearance at Two River this coming Monday, he’ll have added to his list of conquered media (movies, TV, live drama, commercials, voice mails) a new one: podcasting. And, he’ll be bringing along a fellow multi-platform performer with a formidable set of skills.

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RED BANK: THE ‘WILD THINGS’ ARE US

Where Wild Things AreMaurice Sendak’s Max embarks upon an epic adventure…and the audience is along for the ride…as Vancouver’s Presentation House company brings its interactive adaptation of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE to Two River Theater for six performances this weekend.

First published back in 1963, “Where the Wild Things Are” quickly took its place as a boomer-generation touchstone; the picture-book tale (of rebellious young Max, and his supperless-bedtime voyage to an island of king-sized fantastical creatures) winning its author-illustrator Maurice Sendak a coveted Caldecott Medal, before going on to be adapted into an animated short, a live-action feature, and even an opera.

Somewhere along the way, Scotland-based TAG Theatre was inspired to turn this classic story of imagination, family ties — and an angry little boy’s exploration of his wild side — into an interactive “guided play experience” that successfully crossed the pond to become a staple touring production of Vancouver’s Presentation House Theatre. Beginning with two days of school-show matinees today and Friday, and continuing for six public performances on June 11 and 12, Two River Theater hosts the Canadian company’s touring troupe in an engagement pitched at kids ages 3 to 7, and their (big and hairy and snaggletoothed?) adult companions.

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