RED BANK: A LAST ROUNDUP FOR ‘LITTLE JO’

Teal Wicks (right) stars as the title character — with bride and groom Jane Bruce and Eric William Morris as frontier friends — as “The Ballad of Little Jo” enters its final week of performances at Two River Theater. (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

It’s always a pleasure to see the physical space and human resources of Two River Theater Company employed to their full potential, and with the current mainstage musical The Ballad of Little Jo, TRTC artistic director John Dias and company have crowned their 2016-2017 season with a polished production that packs something of a homegrown pedigree; that doesn’t skimp on the quality or quantity of assembled talent — and that speaks to the American soul in all of its conflicted, enterprising, ambitious, messy and often melancholy glory.

Co-written by, developed and directed here by Dias — and adapted from a 1993 film of the same name — the show that made its formal debut some 17 years ago at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre has traced a journey to the Red Bank stage almost as long as that of the real-life 19th century woman whose story (very loosely) inspired it. It’s a journey that enters its final stretch for the time being, as the production wraps its limited engagement with eight more performances, today through Sunday, June 25.

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RED BANK: ‘LITTLE JO’ GETS ACTUAL BALLADS

Teal Wicks (second from left) is the title character — and Daniel K. Isaac, Jane Bruce and Eric William Morris lend solid support — as the screen-to-stage musical adaptation “The Ballad of Little Jo” begins previews at Two River Theater. (Photo by Amanda Crommett)

In the 1993 film The Ballad of Little Jo, director Maggie Greenwald told the story of Josephine Monaghan, a young 19th-century woman from a proper Boston family who adapts to a life of self-exile in an Idaho frontier town by living her life as a man.

While the movie left the actual ballads at the door, a handful of creative people heard the music in its fact-based tale. And beginning with its first preview performance this Saturday, Little Jo adapts to life in the 21st century in its new incarnation, as a musical stage production from Red Bank’s own Two River Theater Company.

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RED BANK: A FRONTIER FUNDER AT TWO RIVER

Two River Theater.

Although it’s a brand-spanking-new addition to the growing crop of world premieres from Red Bank’s own Two River Theater Company, the upcoming production The Ballad of Little Jo represents the culmination of a years-long process, through which the borough-based stage troupe nurtured and developed the highly anticipated musical adaptation that closes out its 2016-’17 season in grand style.

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RED BANK: FAMILIAR FACES RETURN TO TRTC

johndiasTwo River Theater Company artistic director John Dias, above, directs a musical that he co-wrote, and Madeleine George, below, the theater’s first Playwright in Residence, will see her comedy — which is set in Red Bank mounted next season.

madeleine georgeThere are encore appearances by favorite actors. Re-visits to the words and works of Shakespeare and August Wilson. No less than three shows making their world premieres — including one set within “a larger-than-life version of Red Bank.”

When Two River Theater Company unveiled its 2016-2017 schedule of productions Monday night, it did so in a fashion that’s become a real rite of spring on Bridge Avenue: with the company’s celebrated artistic director John Dias joined on stage by creative people representing the comedies, dramas, musicals and multi-media experiences that will illuminate Two River’s stages beginning in September.

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A SECOND ‘WIND’ FOR A NEW TRTC TRADITION

Willows 2Becca Ayers (Mrs. Otter), William Thomas Evans (Dr. Badger) and Mike Faist (Mole) co-star in A WIND IN THE WILLOWS CHRISTMAS, the original family musical now onstage in a new encore production at Two River Theater. (photos by T. Charles Erickson; click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

In an interview that appeared here last year on redbankgreen, composer Mike Reid had this to say about his working habits — and the creative process that spawned A Wind in the Willows Christmas:

“I just kind of let it rip, to remind myself of the saying that the first thought is the BEST thought. Let the initial impulse be your guide!”

Reid — the 1970s-era All Pro defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals, turned Grammy winning Nashville singer-songwriter — must have had a change of game plan at halftime, as he and his creative partners (lyricist Sarah Schlesinger, book writer Mindi Dickstein) have returned to Red Bank with a re-imagined version of Willows, the original family show they developed for Two River Theater Company in 2012.

Now playing at Two River Theater through December 29, the musical (adapted from the familiar animal characters and tales by Kenneth Grahame) has been restaged with a new cast, new director, new production design, and a newly highlighted focus on the element of Christmas. And — as befits a simple story of one wetland creature’s quest for a home — it’s a show that’s succeeded in finding its heart.

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WEEKEND: FIRST NIGHTERS, FARE-THEE-WELLS

SherMackHeatherMorganLisa Sherman and Sandy Mack bring their all-new Sherman Mack project to the Walt Street Pub Friday night. Below: painter Martin Kammler has the floor at BCC, for a close-up look at his creative process. (Top photo by Heather Morgan; click to enlarge)

Friday, November 22:

martinLINCROFT: He’s spoken of the physicality of his artistic process, which makes sense: when he’s not creating vividly visceral canvases, Martin Kammler approaches his other career as an in-demand personal trainer with equal intensity. The native of Essen, Germany visits the Center for the Visual Arts Gallery at Brookdale Community College to talk about his work and demonstrate his unorthodox, “paint on the floor” method in a presentation that begins at 7 pm. Take it here for details.

Before arriving at CVA, stop in at the Monmouth Museum (adjacent to the Brookdale Performing Arts Center) for the opening reception of Artists Celebrate the Holidays, a group show featuring “a vast representation of holiday celebrations from the traditional to contemporary works and installations.” Reception’s on from 6 to 8 pm, and the show remains on display during regular museum hours through January 5, 2014. It’s a first-nighter as well for the Holiday Gift Gallery, an annual array of handcrafted and other one-of-a-kind gifts (including jewelry, scarves, ceramics, home items and more) from local artists. There’s live music and refreshments also featured at the reception from 6 to 8pm, and the Gift Gallery stays open for business during regular museum hours through January 12.

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TALKING TOADS AND KID LIT, AT TWO RIVER

 Tituss Burgess as Mr. Toad (center) with Tom Deckman as Mole (left) and Nick Choksi as Water Rat (right, in car) in A WIND IN THE WILLOWS CHRISTMAS at Two River Theater. (Photos by T. Charles Erickson)

By TOM CHESEK

He’s the impulsive, fad-conscious, spendthrift, anthropomorphized amphibian at the heart of the classic children’s book The Wind in the Willows — and even for those who’ve never gotten round to reading Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 volume of stories, the image of a gleeful Mr. Toad racing through the countryside in his open roadster is one of the most iconic in all of Kid Lit.

The timeless tales of Toad and his animal friends have been variously Disneyfied, Pythonized, and even showtuned in a Broadway bomb with Nathan Lane. Here in Red Bank — where many old-timers still recall the 1970’s watering hole Toad Hall — audiences are now being treated to the world premiere of an all new musical spinoff (commissioned and developed by Two River Theater Company artistic director John Dias), entitled A Wind in the Willows Christmas.

The annual holiday-season family show reunites the TRTC team with the partnership of Grammy winning singer-songwriter (plus 1970’s-era All-Pro defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals) Mike Reid and lyricist Sarah Schlesinger — the composers of the “chamber musical” In This House that premiered at Two River’s branded Bridge Avenue artspace last season.

Working with book writer Mindi Dickstein (Broadway’s Little Women and Toy Story: The Musical) and director Amanda Dehnert, the songsmiths have shaped the character of Mr. Toad to the talents of Tituss Burgess, an acclaimed creature of Broadway (he originated the show-stealing part of Sebastian in The Little Mermaid) and network TV (a recurring role on 30 Rock) whose trademark high tenor marks a departure from traditionally froggy-voiced conceptions of Toad. He’ll be starring alongside fellow woodland pals Nick Choksi as Water Rat, Tom Deckman (Spamalot) as Mole, John Jellison (Memphis) as Badger, and Farah Alvin (Nine) as a distaff Mrs. Otter.

In separate interviews, the Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to Burgess and Reid during rehearsals at Two River — and Q&As follow forthwith, with a flip of the pixelated page.

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TRTC: ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH

A slew of classic characters from the pens of Shakespeare, Coward and Wilson and more will tread the boards of the Red Bank stage this season.  (Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

“I feel like I’m having a dream,” the playwright and performance artist Lisa Kron said as she faced a capacity crowd at Two River Theater Monday night.

“In high school, we, the theater people, were like the outcasts,” she said. “This is the pep rally we never had.”

The occasion for the spirited assembly was the annual new-season announcement  by Two River Theater Company — one of the most highly anticipated such events in New Jersey stage circles, and one presided over by John Dias, now in his second season as TRTC’s artistic director.

As introduced by the nationally renowned producer and some celebrated associates, the 2012-2013 schedule builds upon the successful template established in the current 2011-2012 season — a season that climaxes with the production of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s My Wonderful Day, going up in previews on May 15.

Utilizing both the mainstage Rechnitz auditorium and the “black box” Marion Huber space at TRTC’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center, the new slate of eight shows mixes classics of the English language with new American voices; intimate solos with exquisite ensembles, and new faces with a whole lot of returning favorites — with words from the likes of Noel Coward, August Wilson and a guy by the name of Shakespeare.

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AT TRTC, AN ACTOR TACKLES TWO PLAYS

Tony winning actor Chuck Cooper is in the house for IN THIS HOUSE, the musical that kicks off its world premiere engagement next week at Two River Theater. (Click to enlarge)

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.

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AN EXTENDED RIDE FOR TRTC’s ‘JITNEY’

Tony winner Chuck Cooper (right) appears with J. Bernard Calloway in the Two River Theater Company production of JITNEY — and sticks around to star in IN THIS HOUSE next month. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

In August Wilson’s ensemble drama Jitney, the cantankerous cabbie Turnbo admonishes his call-in “trips” with a warning that they’d better be ready when he gets there, ’cause he ain’t waiting.

That said, if you’re worried that you might not make it to a performance of the critically acclaimed play in Red Bank, the folks at Two River Theater Company want to assure you that they’ll keep the motor running for you.

The show now onstage under the direction of Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson — an offering described by Sledger reviewer (and dean of NJ drama critics) Peter Filichia as “magnificent” in his recent review and as “vibrant” by Anita Gates in the New York Times — has just announced an additional four performances between Thursday, February 23 and Saturday, February 25. That’s good news for anyone looking to catch up with a production that some have branded a worthy candidate for a New York engagement in the near future — although it could be potentially exhausting news for one busy cast member.

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