TWO ON THE AISLE IN RB’s THEATER DISTRICT

staceysargeant2Stacey Sargeant stars in the season opener INTIMATE APPAREL at Two River Theater, one of a pair of high-profile productions going up on Red Bank stages in these final days of summer.

By TOM CHESEK

One’s a 60-year-old crowdpleasing classic, back for its umpteenth revival as a dependable draw for several generations of musical theater buffs. The other’s a relatively little known, off-Broadway play that’s been hailed for its “lyric and powerful expressive writing.”

One boasts a cast ranging from folks who sing and dance for a living to some local youngsters making their biggest entrance outside the aisles of their school auditorium. The other is scripted by a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, with several critically acclaimed pros performing under the sure hand of a nationally renowned director.

When The King and I and Intimate Apparel open at the Count Basie Theatre and Two River Theater, in coming days, such distinctions will be entirely arbitrary for local theatergoers. With Summer 2010 gasping its last, the “Red Bank Theater District” centered around the borough’s two top-notch performance venues offers up a choice of ways in which to build a night on the town — and we’ve got a rundown for you, coming up right after this brief scenery change.

shall-we-dance-1Deborah Dutcher is Anna and Christopher Pica is the King of Siam as Phoenix Productions opens a fresh production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s THE KING AND I, tonight at the Basie. (Courtesy Phoenix Productions)

Last we looked in on borough-based Phoenix Productions, the Basie’s resident nonprofit theatrical troupe was staging what turned out to be a very successful engagement of RENT — one in a string of hits (including High School Musical and Miss Saigon) that the Phoenix phalanx has drawn from the playbook of newly minted repertory favorites.

While the influx of Rent-heads and other first-time Phoenicians is a welcome thing, Phoenix artistic director Tom Frascatore is quick to point out that the company has scarcely ignored the longtime subscriber base and family audiences that have made up its core crowd. And beginning tonight on the Basie boards, Phoenix continues its mission as a standardbearer for the creme of great American musicals, with a new revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I.

Featuring a score highlighted by “Shall We Dance,” “Getting to Know You”  and “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” the 1951 show adapts (and fictionalizes) the true story of British-born Anna Leonowens and her 19th century tenure as teacher to the children of Siamese ruler King Mongkut. Gradually finding its groove despite the sudden death of its ailing star Gertrude Lawrence, K&I subsequently took its place in the canon of shows upon which the curtain never sets — even beyond the involvement of the one and only Yul Brynner, who made the role of the proud/progressive King his signature right up to his 1985 passing.

In this latest of several Phoenix go-rounds for the show, leading man Christopher Pica (who previously appeared at the Basie in The Scarlet Pimpernel and Jesus Christ Superstar) brings a luxurious head of hair and a solid background as King — having previously reigned in the role with Bergen County Players in 2007. His dance partner Anna is personified by Deborah Dutcher, whose formidable resume includes major stints as Christine in Phantom of the Opera (on London’s West End as well as in the UK tour) and European tour companies of Carmen and Les Miz.

Phoenix co-founder (and undisputed master of the intermission raffle) Tom Martini returns to the director’s chair for the production, with a supporting cast toplined by Yaeko Oh, Raymond See, Andrea Brooks and Casey Okamoto. Musical director is Beth Moore, with choreography by Noelmarie Rossi.

Opening tonight at 8p, The King and I continues with five more performances at the Count’s court through September 26 (if you miss it, there are two shows scheduled at The Strand in Lakewood on October 2). Tickets for the Red Bank run are priced between $22 – $29, and can be reserved at the Basie website.

nottagescottPulitzer winner Lynn Nottage scripts, and Seret Scott directs, as Two River Theater Company gives us a peek at INTIMATE APPAREL beginning Tuesday, September 21. (Photos by Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Jebb Harris)

Saturday, September 25 marks the official start of the 2010-2011 season for Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company, with company founder/ executive producer Bob Rechnitz and his TRTC team (including new artistic director John Dias) getting ready to roll out the first of six major mainstage productions on the schedule. Before all that, however, curious onlookers will be offered a tantalizing glimpse of Intimate Apparel — the show that begins a five-night run of previews on Tuesday, September 21.

A 2003 ensemble piece by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, Apparel centers around Esther, an unmarried, 35-year-old African American seamstress plying her considerable skills in 1905 New York City. Even as she crafts wonderful creations for society ladies and prostitutes alike, Esther struggles to tie together the threads of her own life — finding some small support in the disparate group of New Yorkers in her orbit; agreeing to marry a rough-hewn Panama Canal worker — in a time when, as Variety said, “the cut and color of one’s dress — and of course, skin— determined whom one could and could not marry, sleep with, even talk to in public.”

Starring as Esther is Brooklyn-bred Stacey Sargeant, with actor-director Seret Scott (who helmed a major West Coast revival of August Wilson’s Fences earlier this year) taking on Nottage’s script. Writing in a recent email blast, author-educator-style maven Gilda Rogers of Red Bank’s own Frank Talk weighed in with, “What I commend Two River Theater for is thinking beyond mainstream in an effort to attract diverse theater-goers, because contrary to popular belief Black people do enjoy theater. With this bold statement, Two River Theater has denounced such theater malady by showcasing the talent of Black women on all levels — playwright, director and actress.”

More on Apparel — which certainly promises to be a tour de force showcase for TRTC’s in-house costume department — coming up in these pixelated pages, along with a getting-to-know-you conversation with John Dias. Intimate Apparel plays in discount-priced previews through September 24, opening September 25 and continuing through October 10. Ticket reservations and more info on this and other upcoming productions can be had on the TRTC website.