By TOM CHESEK
When last we looked in on Two River Theater Company, the folks over at Red Bank’s regional professional stage were keeping the motor (and the meter) running on an acclaimed production of August Wilson’s Jitney, a modern American classic set in the heart of a scarred but scrappy urban neighborhood.
When the lights come up this Sunday in the Two River Theater’s intimate “black box” performance space, they’ll beam down upon a now-vacant home in a quiet bit of country; a setting in which two sets of strangers a troubled young couple who’ve lost their way, and an older pair who’ve returned to this place to find something they’ve been missing are brought together by chance on a frosty New Year’s Eve, In This House.
At first glance, the two shows would appear to have little in common but a closer look reveals the presence in both casts of Chuck Cooper, the Tony winning actor and singer (1996 Best Featured Actor in the musical The Life) who topped the cast of Jitney as Becker, the dour and disillusioned boss of the play’s gypsy cab depot.
In the “chamber musical” that’s being staged for the first time anywhere one of two world premieres in TRTC artistic director John Dias‘s 2011-2012 season (the other was last October’s Seven Homeless Mammoths…) Cooper co-stars with Brenda Pressley (Broadway’s original cast of Dreamgirls) as the older couple Henry and Luisa. Jeff Kready (Broadway’s Billy Elliott) and Margo Seibert (TRTC’s Orestes) appear as younger couple Johnny and Annie under the direction of May Adrales.
And, as if the production didn’t already have enough to distinguish it, it may just be the only musical you’ll see this season that boasts a score by a former NFL defensive tackle.
While the notion of a pro footballer who writes musicals is not entirely unheard of refer to Middletown’s own Michael Attardi the work of Nashville-based Mike Reid and his songwriting partner Sarah Schlesinger is hardly a novelty. The two have penned several theatrical works together (their Ballad of Little Jo was also in the running as a possible TRTC offering), and Reid has spent years as one of Music City’s most successful songsmiths, with a slew of hits for Ronnie Milsap (the Grammy winning “Stranger in My House” and several number one singles), Kenny Rogers, The Judds, Shelby Lynne, Willie Nelson, Tim McGraw and more. The 1970s era All-Pro lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals also topped the Country charts with his own recording of “Walk On Faith” in 1991.
For In This House, a work that TRTC first presented in 2011 as a staged reading with a different cast and director, Reid and Schlesinger (who were “in the house” to fine-tune the show as it developed) collaborated on the book with Jonathan Bernstein. Music director James Sampliner leads a four-piece, piano-strings-reeds chamber ensemble.
The Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to the very busy Chuck Cooper, making his home at Two River in between his final round of performances in Jitney, and tech-week rehearsals for In This House.
redbankgreen: Between your commitment to JITNEY and rehearsals for IN THIS HOUSE, you must be getting pretty familiar with Red Bank, New Jersey. Have you been commuting back and forth to the city, or staying locally these past couple of months?
CHUCK COOPER: I’ve been put up at the Shrewsbury Manor, which has just been wonderful; very comfortable, luxurious accommodations with a view of the water.
I’m always amazed at how actors are able to juggle two major projects simultaneously, given what you need to summon for every performance…
Well, you could think of it as watching two movies that are playing in the same theater at the same time you walk in on one, then you go across the hall and walk in on the other.
You make it sound a whole lot easier than I know it is in real life. What makes it especially amazing is that IN THIS HOUSE is a musical where you’re one of just four actors, and JITNEY is a drama with some heavy stuff going on and a lot of actors moving on and off the stage.
They are two very different shows, different experiences, but I find it refreshing in a way. I do enjoy the contrast. I enjoy flexing those very different muscles between doing a play and doing a musical.
When you think about it, there are some similarities between the characters you play in each show. Do you find yourself zeroing in on some of those factors in common; drawing from that a little bit?
The two characters are similar in that theyre both fathers and men who have experienced tragedy. Theyve both lost people in their lives, whether it was a loss that they couldnt prevent or, in Beckers case, the rejection of his son.
You’ve done a good deal of musicals on Broadway and elsewhere, but IN THIS HOUSE, which Two River presented in a rough earlier form, is something a little different from the norm: a little quieter and more contemplative than a traditional Broadway-style production packed with showstopper production numbers.
Well, there have always been some very dramatic musicals going back to West Side Story and certainly a lot more in the years since then. I enjoy musicals that are a little weighty in their subject matter. I think that musicals are a great way to embody and address some large issues. They present the big picture in a way that the audience can respond to on an emotional level.
Is it difficult to just switch off being a singer when you’re doing straight drama? Your Mr. Becker seemed like a very serious guy who would never exactly break into song for any reason…but, as (Jitney director) Ruben Santiago-Hudson told us, there is a rhythm to the words of August Wilson, and he sought out actors like yourself who had an understanding of that.
There are abstract similarities between musical drama and August Wilsons writing, which is very musical. In fact, Ruben told us at the start of rehearsals that we should work as if we were musicians, playing a piece of music together.
Well, you and the whole cast of JITNEY hit all the notes, in a show that created a lot of advance buzz. Compare and contrast with IN THIS HOUSE, a show that’s an unknown quantity for just about everyone who comes to see it but one that’s being nurtured here with a lot of love.
Everyone involved has been working hard to get everything just right. We’re working with a very evocative, beautiful set design, and with a four piece ensemble it’s a wonderful little show that works as both a play and as a musical. I’m very fortunate to be a part of it.
In This House presents the first in an extended run of previews on Sunday, March 4 (3 pm) and Tuesday, March 6 (8 pm); official opening night is Saturday, March 17 (that performance is SOLD OUT), and the show continues with a schedule of evening and matinee performances, Wednesdays through Sundays until April 8. Tickets are $45 $65 (with a new discounted price of $24 for anyone 30 years and younger) and are available by calling the TRTC Box Office at 732.345.1400, or visiting the TRTC website for schedule details and availability as well as info on dinner/show packages and other special-event performances.