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MIDDLETOWN: PLAY ON, AT TWO LANDMARKS

The Navesink Arts Center (the long-ago Middletown Library) and the “Old Stone Church” at All Saints are the settings for some hearth-warming community theater events in weekends to come.

Here in the season of the Great Pumpkin Spice, thoughts stray across the Oceanic Bridge, and into the Navesink-Locust precincts of Middletown Township — a place of rustic old landmarks, foliage-festooned hillside trails, and the mist-shrouded banks of Many Mind Creek.

Beginning this weekend, and for many October days and nights to come, two of the area’s most historic haunts are offering up some diversions designed to take some that encroaching seasonal chill from the bones.

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ON THE GREEN: TWO TICKETS ON THE AISLE

Joseph York (The Prince), Alison Levier (Cinderella) and Gina Teschke (Little Red) are among the storybook characters going “Into the Woods,” when Phoenix Productions stages the Sondheim musical at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre. (Photos courtesy Tom Martini)

On a weekend that marks the official curtain-up for Two River Theater’s season-opening production of A Raisin in the Sun, two of the area’s longest established community stage companies are offering up something for those who get a thrill from first-nighting — with fresh local looks at a couple of Broadway favorites from the 1980s and 1990s.

When last we looked in on Red Bank’s own Phoenix Productions, the resident theatrical troupe of the Count Basie Theatre was marking its turf with a revisit to West Side Story — an early success for the young lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and an indicator of great things to come. When the company’s 2017 season resumes this Friday, September 15, it will once again look to the Sondheim playbook — and to the storybook realm of the Brothers Grimm — with a musical journey Into the Woods.

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MIDDLETOWN: BRUSH UP YOUR SHAKESPEARE

The Navesink Arts Center, home of the Monmouth Players, is the setting for an evening (and a couple of afternoons) with William Shakespeare beginning Saturday.

Despite its claim as the area’s longest established theatrical company — having first “put on a show” back in 1953, well before the involvement of any of its current principals — the Monmouth Players have not been ones to stay snug in their comfort zone of their Middletown beginnings.

Under producers Paul and Lori Renick, the company has continued to challenge the local audience with projects that have ranged from offbeat and edgy, to as literary-minded as the former library in which they make their home.

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MIDDLETOWN: DAZE OF THEIR ‘PRIVATE LIVES’

Seen here in a 2015 staging of ‘Present Laughter,’ the Monmouth Players return to the Noel Coward canon with a production of ‘Private Lives’ that begins Saturday.

It was a time when the Garden State Parkway had miles to go until completion, and Neil Simon had yet to pen his first play. Way back in 1953 — well before the arrival of professional playhouses to the sleepy bedroom communities of Monmouth County — a fledgling theatrical company by the name of Monmouth Players chose as its first fully staged production Blithe Spirit, a ghostly farce by a then very-much-alive Noël Coward.

Over the years — some 63 of them, in fact — the Middletown-based players have made numerous return trips to Sir Noël’s well, not just for encores of Spirit but for Present Laughter (staged as recently as 2015) and, beginning this Saturday, a fresh look at the vitriolic valentine known as Private Lives.

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MIDDLETOWN: DURANG, IN SMALL DOSES

Ever had a weekend of Durang? You know, one of those interludes in which your every human interaction — whether a disastrous date, a stress-inducing so-called vacation, or a simple trip to the store for a can of tuna — borders on the absurdly surreal?

Fortunately, we have the celebrated Christopher Durang, seen at right, to provide a road map of sorts through these needlessly complicated, often over-thought encounters. And beginning this Saturday, we have Middletown’s Monmouth Players at the wheel of the tour bus.

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MIDDLETOWN: PLAYERS DISH UP FINE ‘DINING’

The cast of ‘The Dining Room’ is mostly under the table as the Monmouth Players present A.R. Gurney’s engagingly experimental ensemble comedy for six performances.

When last we looked in on the Monmouth Players, that longest-running of all area community stage troupes was offering up a holiday-season production of A Long Christmas Dinner, a Thornton Wilder playlet in which a single dining room serves as the setting for a century’s worth of action, with a small cast playing multiple generations of characters in the life of an American home.

When the players resume their Season of Classics this weekend (their 63rd overall, if you can wrap your head around that), it will find them still lurking about the dining room — or more precisely, The Dining Room, an ensemble “comedy of manners” that packs its own playfully experimental edge.

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MIDDLETOWN: A WILDER WAY TO HOLIDAY

mp_long_christmas_dinner_121016_aLeft to right: Kelly Cibrian, Lori Renick, Kevin Huelbig and Carolyn Robertshaw appear with Grace Modla (below) and Brandon Guerriero (not pictured) in ‘A Long Christmas Dinner,’ the Monmouth Players production going up this Saturday at the Navesink Arts Center. (Photo by Grace Modla)

grace-modlaWhen the Monmouth Players sounded the 2016-’17 season’s keynote back in August with “An Evening with Thornton Wilder,” they did so not in the auditorium of their Navesink Arts Center homestage, but in the more intimate setting of the historic building’s beautifully refurbished reading room/ lobby — a space that formerly served as part of Middletown Township library system.

Beginning Saturday and continuing through December 18, the elegant book-lined room makes for a made-to-order setting, as the Players take another walk on the Wilder side with the 1931 ensemble piece “A Long Christmas Dinner.”

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M’TOWN: PLAYERS TAKE ON A MODERN CLASSIC

reading roomThe Navesink Arts Center is the setting for DEATH OF A SALESMAN, the Arthur Miller classic going up in a Monmouth Players production this Saturday, November 5.

A funny scene in the screen comedy Soapdish has down-on-his-luck former TV actor Kevin Kline performing Arthur Miller’s heavyweight Death of a Salesman on the tiny stage of a neon-lit South Florida dinner theatre, to a blissfully oblivious audience of Rascal-riding retirees and dish-dropping buspersons.

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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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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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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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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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RED BANK: TRAGIC DIVAS, COMIC THRILLERS

evitaRehearsals proceed at Phoenix Productions’ new Chestnut Street headquarters for EVITA, going up this weekend on the Count Basie stage with Kelliann De Carlo in the title role. (Click to enlarge)

kelliann de carlo evitaEven as Two River Theater Company inaugurates a new season with the first previews of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars (about which more to come here at redbankgreen), the longest-established community theatrical troupes on the greater Green continue their winning ways — Phoenix Productions in Red Bank with a revisit to a tragically glamorous Andrew Lloyd Webber heroine, and the Monmouth Players of Middletown with a farcical spin on a Hitchcockian maguffin.

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NAVESINK: PLAYERS WRAP UP A ‘PRESENT’

MonPlayersEric McDonough (center) and his fellow Monmouth Players serve up Noel Coward’s PRESENT LAUGHTER at the Navesink Arts Center.

Way back in 1953, a fledgling theatrical troupe by the name of Monmouth Players chose as its first fully staged production Blithe Spirit, a comedy from the quill of actor-director-producer-playwright-songwriter Noel Coward. Here at the close of its frankly astonishing 62nd consecutive season of entertainments — a track record unequalled by any other community stage company in the area — the Middletown-based Players have revisited the work of that master multitasker with a production of Coward’s Present Laughter that wraps up the 2014-2015 season in an elegant (and mischievously ticking) package.

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NAVESINK: MONMOUTH PLAYERS BESEECH THEE

AJ Melnick GodspellAJ Melnick heads a youthful cast as Jesus, as the Monmouth Players present their production of GODSPELL inside the Navesink Arts Center. (Photo courtesy of Monmouth Players)

The 2014-2015 season of shows from Monmouth Players continues apace at the Navesink Arts Center — the reborn and rebranded former Navesink Library at Monmouth and Sears Avenues in Middletown — with a busier-than-ever slate of entertainments that hasn’t let a little thing like a particularly rotten winter spoil its fun. When the figurative curtain went up this past weekend on the latest community production from the long-running troupe, veteran watchers of the Players were treated to something rare indeed: a musical.

Continuing through March 22, the Players production of Godspell matches the 1971 perennial from songsmith Stephen Schwartz (Wicked) with a cast of fresh faces — many of them brand new to the Navesink company that’s been in business since before its current executive producers (Lori and Paul Renick) made their own entrances on the world stage. Based on parables from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the show that birthed the hit “Day by Day” puts forth an age-of-Aquarius message of love and tolerance via an eclectic score that ranges from folk-infused pop to vintage vaudeville — and it’s a spotlight opportunity for one prominent member of the company who’s “happy to be joining a community comprised of such fanciful characters.”

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MIDDLETOWN: A ‘RABBIT’ RUN IN NAVESINK

Rabbit HoleDavid Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer winning drama RABBIT HOLE makes its local debut this weekend in a staging by the Middletown-based Monmouth Players.

rabbit hole logoAs the area’s longest continuously operating theatrical troupe — established over 60 years ago, in a time long before the arrival of professional companies like Two River Theater — the Monmouth Players made their mark as purveyors of comic specialties from the likes of Neil Simon, or lightweight mysteries from the typewriter of Agatha Christie and that ilk.

But while the Navesink-based company hasn’t exactly knocked the Doc (refer to their 2013-2014 “Season of Simon”), the players, under the stewardship of husband-wife team Paul and Lori Renick, continue to rethink the boundaries of what a small-town community playhouse can do.

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NAVESINK: BRIT FARCE, SCOTTISH PLAY

NavArtsStoneChurchThe venerable venues of the Navesink Arts Center (long ago, the original Middletown Library) and the “Old Stone Church” at All Saints are the scene for a new season of community theater this weekend.

Between its rustic old landmarks, the mist-shrouded banks of Many Mind Creek, and the hillside trails of the Hartshorne Woods, the Navesink section of Middletown Township seems a natural draw here in the season of the Great Pumpkin Latte — and among its many autumnal delights is the annual kickoff to a new interlude of intriguing community theater; both from the area’s longest-established stage troupe, as well as from a relative upstart with a history-steeped connection.

It all begins this Friday, October 3, when the Stone Church Players return with a new take on a classic that’s old as the ruddy moors — William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth. The allegedly accursed “Scottish Play” has been blamed for as many freak backstage accidents as it has elevated thespian careers — but while the Bard’s blood-drenched drama of murderous ambition and ill-met-by-moonlight madness seems a perfect fit for All Saints’ Memorial (the historic “Old Stone Church” at the crossroads of Navesink and Monmouth Avenues), the producers have cooked up a cauldron of surprises for theatergoers.

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NAVESINK: SUDDENLY, THIS SUMMER

Tennessee-Williams-631.jpg__800x600_q85_cropThe short plays of the late great Tennessee Williams are explored by the Monmouth Players, in a special two-weekend presentation at the troupe’s Navesink Arts Center homestage.

When last we looked in on the venerable Monmouth Players, the area’s longest-running stage troupe was making its frankly mind-boggling sixtieth season all about the Neil Simon — but, feeling energized after completing the inaugural season at the reborn and rebranded Navesink Arts Center, the company under the stewardship of Lori and Paul Renick added a pair of surprise bonus features to the normally dormant summer season. For the second production of the summertime, the Players put aside the Simon for a serious look at one of the Twentieth Century’s most celebrated playwrights, Tennessee Williams.

The author known best for such classics of the American stage as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was also a prolific writer of short-form dramas throughout his long career — two of them, Suddenly Last Summer and This Property is Condemned — are better known than many of his full-length works. For the next two Saturdays and Sundays (August 16, 17, 23 and 24),  the Monmouth Players host An Evening of Tennessee Williams’ One Acts, with the Saturday performances going up at 8:15 pm, and the Sunday matinees at 2 pm.

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NAVESINK: SIGNS OF SUMMER LIFE

VitalsSamantha Ambler, Grace Modla and Ronnie Marvald are among the cast of VITAL SIGNS, the “suite of theatrical miniatures” that extends the Monmouth Players’ 2014 schedule into A/C season, beginning this weekend.

Last we looked in on Monmouth Players, the oldest continuously operating stage troupe in Monmouth County was wrapping up its season of all-Neil Simon comedies — its first at the reborn and rebranded Navesink Arts Center — and looking ahead to its next season, a slate that traditionally begins in October. But with the Players now in full charge of the landmark facility that until recently served as the Middletown Township’s Navesink Library branch, the summer-stock bug has evidently bit — and beginning today, June 7, the Arts Center stage hosts the first of two welcome new bonus additions to the schedule.

It’s Vital Signs, a “suite of theatrical miniatures” that’s made up of more than thirty brief monologues by the enigmatic (and frankly fictitious) playwright known as Jane Martin. The pseudonymous author (who is generally speculated to be a man) was nonetheless the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize nomination for Keely and Du — and here, as in the earlier Talking With…, the writer presents a “collage about contemporary woman in all her warmth and majesty, her fear and frustration, her joy and sadness.”

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RED BANK: OGRE ACHIEVERS AND MORE

JustinManciniMichaelRandazzaBobMiraJohnMaschioAbove: The cast of LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR brings the Monmouth Players’ “Season of Simon” to a rollicking close in Navesink…while below, SHREK: THE MUSICAL kicks off the 2014 slate of shows from Red Bank’s Phoenix Productions at the Count Basie.

Fiona-ShrekWhen the borough-based Phoenix Productions returns to the Count Basie Theatre this weekend, it’ll be kicking off its 2014 season of musical entertainments at the venerable venue — a local tradition that has seen the 25-year old Phoenix company up the ante considerably in terms of production values. Beginning Friday, April 25, the community stage troupe will be commandeering the Basie boards for six performances of a family favorite that’s as recently minted as it is minty green: Shrek the Musical, the stage adaptation of William Steig’s children’s book characters (and more to the point, the even more popular Dreamworks animated films). Jay Giberson stars as the unseemly ogre (and unlikely hero), with Carly Nelson as feisty Fiona, Aaron Lee Battle as wisecracking sidekick Donkey, and Anthony Preuster as Lord Farquaad, the bad guy with a ‘short’ temper. The show under the direction of Rick Joyce continues for two weekends, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm, through May 4. Tickets are priced between $20 – $32, and can be reserved right here, with tix also on sale for the upcoming Phoenix stagings of Grease and The Sound of Music.

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WEEKEND: ALL YOUR EGGS, MANY BASKETS

TROUBLE_press_1It’s opening weekend for the Two River Theater Company production of TROUBLE IN MIND, above. Below, the kids from Rockit! polish Janis Joplin’s PEARL as part of the annual Brookdale Guitar Festival. (TRTC photo by T. Charles Erickson) 

Friday, April 11 – Sunday, April 13: 

view_image.aspRED BANK: Although the late Alice Childress is known these days primarily as author of the young adult novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich, among her many firsts and foremosts was becoming the first African-American woman to have one of her plays produced in New York. She also became the first female playwright to win an Obie Award, for a 1955 play entitled Trouble in Mind.

On Friday night at 8 pm, Two River Theater Company opens a new production of the comedy-drama directed by the acclaimed Jade King Carroll, associate director for the recent Broadway Streetcar Named Desire. It’s a “backstage” portrait of a multi-racial theatrical troupe, a play-within-a-play about a Southern lynching, and the fireworks that fly when the show’s black leading lady (Brenda Pressley of TRTC’s In This House) questions the inaccuracies and stereotypes being perpetuated by her white director (fellow Two River returnee Steven Skybell).

Surprisingly resonant today, the oft-overlooked play costars Tony winner Roger Robinson (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone), with McKinley Belcher III, Jonathan David Martin, Brian Russell, Hayley Treider, Amirah Vann — and Robert Hogan, the octogenarian character ace of stage and screen interviewed here on redbankgreen, when he starred in Two River’s recent On Borrowed Time. The show continues with performances at 3 pm and 8 pm Saturday, as well as 3 pm Sunday; take it here for schedule details and tickets ($20-$65). Then stick around after Sunday’s matinee show (or drop in free of charge at 5:30 pm), when director Carroll is joined by Pressley, TRTC Artistic Director John Dias, and her longtime associate, Tony winning actor-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, for a panel discussion on “Modern African American Theater (1950s to Today),” presented as part of Two River’s “Exploration of Justice” slate of special events.

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WEEKEND: THE SECRET WOID IS VARIETY

rb street fair 041413A first responder benefitting spring edition of Street Fair returns to Red Bank Sunday while, below, the one and only GROUCHO goes wild, in the person of Frank Ferrante, Friday night at the Basie. 

grouchoRED BANK: “We all want to be Groucho,” Frank Ferrante told us a few seasons back, “to be that wild, irreverent pulverizer of those in power.”

In the acclaimed stage show An Evening with Groucho, the actor-director gets to be all that and more, as his spot-on channeling of the classic comic force of nature Groucho Marx comes to the Count Basie Theatre for the first time. Performed with piano accompaniment, minimal set and trademark makeup, the 90-minute, all-ages friendly tour de farce mixes canonical Marxist quotes, anecdotes from a life in show business, signature silly songs (“Hooray for Captain Spalding,” “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady”), and — in a bracingly contemporary touch — an interactive element that finds Ferrante/Groucho duckwalking the theater aisles. “Fully one-third of it is improvised,” says Ferrante. “That’s what Groucho’s magic was, really – the ability to create comedy on the spot.” Get your tickets ($19 – $49) right here — and when you take it ’round the corner for more Weekender wonderment, tell ’em Groucho sent you.

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WEEKEND: MOODY BLUE & MINTY GREEN

stPatsThe second annual Rumson St. Patrick’s Day Parade takes to the borough streets on Sunday. Below, the Moody Blues.

Friday, February 28:

MoodysRED BANK: From the harmonies of their early, raw recordings to the dramatic sweep and ambitious scope of their orchestral masterpieces – to their repeated reunions, and a new century of crowdpleasing tours – one might be tempted to call them the British Beach Boys.

But the Moody Blues have done what they’ve done without all the meltdowns, litigation, and endless appearances on the county fair circuit of their American cohorts. And this weekend, the longtime trio of Justin Hayward (guitar), John Lodge (bass) and Graeme Edge (drums) comes to Red Bank for two consecutive nights (Friday and Saturday, 8 pm) at the Count Basie Theatre, on a Timeless Flight Tour that promises to mix those lush album-era radio classics (“Tuesday Afternoon,” “Question,” “Ride My Seesaw” and the game-changing “Nights in White Satin”) with more recent vintage oldies (“Your Wildest Dreams,” “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere”) and highlights from solo projects past. Leaving the symphony orks at home, the core Moodies are joined by an auxiliary corps of young musicians on keyboards, flute and extra drums. Tickets ($50 – $145) can be reserved right here.

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WEEKEND: THE GREENHOUSE HEATS UP

Home-Free-Colder-Weather-The-Sing-Off-VideoAbove: The champion vocalists from the NBC show THE SING-OFF come to Red Bank for two Friday night shows…while below, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Ben E. King is the “Stand By Me” special guest, during a Saturday benefit concert at Red Bank Regional HS. 

ben-e-king-1337080315-view-0Friday, February 21:

RED BANK: Time was, a hidebound rule of show business stated that people would never pay to attend a live version of something they could see for free on TV each week — but nowhere has that been disproved more than the Count Basie Theatre, the venerable venue that’s regularly booked sold-out events starring some of the most fervently followed singers, comics, emcees, psychics, ghost hunters, dog whisperers, cake bosses and skinnygirls this side of the flat screen. Tonight, the Basie adds another hi-def highlight to the mix, as they host the first-ever touring edition of the hit NBC talent contest The Sing-Off. Home Free, the winners of this past season’s a capella competition, headline a program that also features fellow finalists Voiceplay and The Filharmonics — with a special guest performance by The Princeton University Footnotes. It’s a chance for fans to “be up close and personal with their favorite groups as they perform with no instruments and voices only” — and response has been such that they’ve added a second, earlier show (5:15 pm) to the 8 pm main event. Tickets ($29.50 – $69.50) can be reserved right here.

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