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A CurtainUp New Jersey Feature
A Preview of the 2008-09 New Jersey Theater Season

May I respectfully choose not to subscribe to the theory expressed by a top government economist who says that the recession is largely psychological? However, I do fully endorse as sound planning the majority of the plays that have been selected and especially the money-saving subscription plans that New Jersey's professional theaters have put in place for this season. Even if you resist the idea of being committed to every show or to a particular night of the week, each of the theaters provides multiple options, including substantial savings to suit every request or need.

But what are the options that must be considered by the business heads of theaters when funding has once again become a major concern? What about the options for the artistic leadership as they recognize how their patrons might be overwhelmed by political and economic considerations? The public may no longer fall for bromides like "forget your troubles, c'mon get happy" or, as we were advised in 2002, to "go shopping." But, isn't the theater exactly the place where we need to be to see a more balanced perspective of our lives and a clearer vision of where we have been and aspire to go and not the mall?

Even as theaters are primarily in the entertainment business, the artistic and executive leadership doesn't ignore the fact that the current state of world affairs has an impact on our interests and how our immediate social concerns inform our tastes. I was particularly interested to see if they consider theater as necessary in filling a void in our day-to-day lives. And what specifically during the season exemplifies their artistic mission?

For the most part, you can count on our professional theaters to present plays that reflect a broad spectrum of the human experience, to entertain as well as to enlighten, and to challenge as well as to charm. The artistic directors of some of our most prominent theaters have expressed their views on these issues.

Mc Carter Theater Center
It doesn't take a lot of prodding to get McCarter Theater Center's artistic director Emily Mann to voice her opinion: "In times of economic and political strife, we need the theater more than ever. Theater elevates the spirit by evoking laughter, compassion and discussion—-qualities all-too-rarely found in the American media and in political discourse. To quote from the musical Herringbone, which opens our season at McCarter: "culture durin' hard times does real well." With regard to filling a void, Mann continues, "Audiences don't go to the theater to be merely distracted from the complexity of politics and economic depression, but rather to engage, to empathize and to share with their fellow human beings." Mann's concern for those who are budget-challenged gets high priority: "Because I believe in the healing and revitalizing power of the theater for all people, we have many packages and discounts for our patrons. No one need feel excluded due to cost. Beyond our special packages, every one of our plays has two pay-what-you-can performances. Public Rush Tickets are available at 50% off the single ticket price for all Theater Series performances at the box office on the day of performance. This offer is also available at which is promoted through the New Jersey Theatre Alliance."

The McCarter Theater Center is first out of the gate and most likely nearest to your home. Last minute changes and decisions are not uncommon hereand often pay-off to everyone's delight. When the new musical Take Flight by the composing team of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire had to be postponed,there was a show ready and waiting in the wings. That show, Herringbone, has been making the rounds for 25 years, but not with the current star. It's a one-man musical tour-de-force, part ghost story and vaudeville with a dash of murder stars the multi-talented B.D. Wong. Roger Rees, , who also directed Wong in Herringbone last summer in his final season at the Festival, directs the McCarter's enhanced production through October 12. (To read Elyse Sommer's review of the Williamstown production go here).

Lanford Wilson's 1979 Pulitzer-Prize winner Talley's Folly, which is up next, is now considered a 20th century classic. Set in 1944 it is a touching valentine to unlikely romance. What makes this production special is that it will be directed by Marshall W. Mason, the founder of the legendary Circle Repertory Company, where many of Wilson's plays had their premiere during the 1970s and 80s. During his illustrious career, Mason directed over 60 Wilson productions plays so we feel secure that he knows Talley's Folly very well.

Every season deserves its nod to George Bernard Shaw and the scandalous (in its time) Mrs. Warren's Profession is one of his best. You can expect a few surprises as it will be under Mann's direction. (October 12 — November 2).

McCarter joins forces with The Shakespeare Company of Washington, D.C. for a co-production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. That's the one about a girl getting shipwrecked in a foreign land where sexual identity, self-deception and misconceptions create havoc before love conquers all. It is under the direction of Rebecca Taichman whose staging will come to the McCarter (March 8 — 29) following its initial December run in D.C.

The season ends with another co-production. This one with the Public Theater: The Brother/SisterPlays, an ambitious trilogy of new plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney that will be presented over two evenings. These tales of family and legacy their kinship, love, heartache and coming of age are steeped in southern rhythms and inspired by Yoruban culture. Tina Landau will direct Evening 1 (In the Red and Brown Water) (April 24 — June 21) and Robert O'Hara will direct evening 2 (Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet). (May 14 —June 21). Notice that the productions overlap so that so you don't have to wait until one play ends before you can see the second play.

A Christmas Carol is not part of the McCarter's subscription series but the popular holiday show returns December 5 through December 28.

The George Street Playhouse

Can a green mutant superhero save the day? The George Street Playhouse's artistic director David Saint thinks he has the answer to this and other worries: "Given the current economy and upcoming elections, this is an important year for all Americans. Now, more then ever, we need the arts and entertainment to inspire us and to offer a pleasant respite from the troublesome times in our society."

The George Street Playhouse begins the season with the world premiere production of The Toxic Avenger, based on Lloyd Kaufman's classic cult film. With book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro (I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change), and music and lyrics by David Bryan (founding member of New Jersey's own Bon Jovi), this rock musical about a guy who becomes a super hero after being tossed into a big vat of radioactive goo will be directed by John Rando (Urinetown). (September 30 — November 2). Conor McPherson's 2008 Tony award nominee and Olivier Award winning Christmas ghost story The Seafarer, under the direction of Anders Cato, will follow (November 18 — December 18). Donald Margulies' insightful drama about an artist and his muse, Sight Unseen, will begin the New Year. (January 20 — February 15). A fourth play to fill the March 3 — 29 slot has yet to be determined. But prodigious playwright Arthur Laurents (currently represented on Broadway with the Tony Award-winning revival of Gypsy) returns to GSP with the world premiere of his new comedy New Year's Eve, under the direction David Saint (April 14 — May 10).

Crossroads Theatre

There is reason to cheer that Crossroads Theatre is celebrating its 30th anniversary season. The Tony Award-winning theater seems to be surmounting the turbulent and unsettling times it faced in the recent past. Its future continues to be shaped by artistic director Ricardo Kahn who perseveres with a commendable vision. "It's hard to count the number of ways we truly come together as community in our society, or how many opportunities we have that tap our own creative spirit. There is a void filled by the experience of theater that is as powerful spiritually as it is entertaining. "

It may look like déjà vu all over again at the Crossroads Theater with a season devoted to shows that previously played the theater. But what better way is there to celebrate the Tony Award-winning theater's 30th anniversary than with a trio of hits from three different decades? It's not only a celebration but also an opportunity for those who haven't seen them to become acquainted and for those who did to enjoy them anew. Opening the season is The Colored Museum, a satirical review-styled show set in a museum in which stereotypes and myths about hair, slavery, and Big Momma are spoofed. Written by George C. Wolfe, it helped to launch the national prestige of Crossroads Theater in 1986 and as well as the career of Wolf, who would go on to become a hugely successful playwright and the artistic director of the Public Theater. (September 25 — October 5).

It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues first played Crossroads in 1998 just prior to moving to Broadway. There are hopes that some of the original cast will be returning for this engagement that runs November 2 to 23. The final production is Sheila's Day, which is fortuitously the third time Duma Ndolvu's view of the civil rights struggles in the 1960s in the United Stages and South Africa will have played at Crossroads. Mbongeni Ngema, the original director, will return to direct this play that was first seen at Crossroads in 1989 and again in 1995. This production has some new material by Ebony Jo-Ann, who appeared in the previous productions (April 16 — May 3). The Genesis Festival, a tradition at Crossroads, offers the public an opportunity to attend readings of five scripts being nurtured by Crossroads. (March 25 — 29).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is in the home stretch of their 46th anniversary season, a season (begun last April 30th) that has been one of unparalleled excellence. Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte refers to this season as one devoted to "the greatest hits." Monte can be proud to report that the Shakespeare Theater broke box-office and subscription records this year despite the economic downturn. "Lowered ticket prices for subscribers resulted in the largest response yet and exceeded our goal," says Monte.

Tennessee Williams' classic A Streetcar Named Desire, under Monte's direction, is current and features Shakespeare Theatre and Broadway veteran Laila Robins as the legendary Blanche Dubois. Shakespeare Theatre veteran Gregory Derelian plays the sexy brute Stanley. When I ask Monte if she took a new approach to this famous play, she answers, "You don't muck with Streetcar." (September 10 — October 5.)

Curiously, Monte fears that Shakespeare's most famous love story, Romeo and Juliet, may be the riskiest play of the year as it will not conform to the tradition that some purists expect. "It does honor the story and 'the swords,' but I like the way the director David Kennedy has found a minimalist, modern and abstract way to depict the Renaissance world, mainly through its colors and fabrics, " says Monte. (October 15 — November 16.) Monte thinks She considers The Winter's Tale, the final show of the season, s another great Shakespeare romance. She feels it will provide a joyous holiday finale as it celebrates the triumph of love, nobility, and all things good (December 3 — 28).

Paper Mill Playhouse

The immediate future of the Paper Mill Playhouse has been determined by the town of Millburn which has purchased the financially distressed theater for $9 million. It then leased the building and land back to the theater for 75 years. This will enable the venerable institution to proceed to proceed in celebrating its 70th birthday (Platinum Anniversary). There will be six shows on the boards which Mark S. Hoebee, Paper Mill's Artistic Director says, "will delight the many diverse constituencies that make up Paper Mill's audience while continuing our goal to provide intergenerational entertainment."

A fresh new look is promised for Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved Oklahoma (September 17 — October 19) and continues with Disney's High School Musical, the stage production based on the Disney Channel original movie. (November 5— December 7); Oscar Wilde's masterpiece of modern comedy The Importance of Being Earnest will surely lift you out of the mid-winter doldrums (January 14 — February 15); Master Class is another laugh-provoker in which the famed opera diva Maria Callas instructs three students, even as the play gives us insightful glimpses into her life and art (March 4 — April 5); the human face is put on American history in 1776, the inspiring musical about life, love and the pursuit of happiness. (April 15 — May 17). Based on the international hit film, the stage version of The Full Monty is known as the grin and bare-it-all musical. Terrance McNally's witty book and David Yazbek's bouncy score contribute to the fun and poignancy of this story about a group of unemployed steel workers who are desperate to make some quick cash. (June 10 — July 12).

Playwrights Theatre

Playwrights Theatre in Madison, which focuses on developing new plays and presenting world premieres, presents a trio of plays that confront many of the issues we are contending with in this first decade of the 21st century. Rising Water,by the Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright John Biguenet looks at the tragedy of Katrina in New Orleans through the eyes of a long-married couple trying to keep each other alive while the water rises. (October 9 — 26). Class struggle is the issue in Augusta by Richard Dresser in which a stranger is willing to give up her position and resources so that a young girl can get our of the hopeless economic cycle in which they are both stuck. (January 29 — February 15). Immigration is the theme in Our Dad Is in Atlantis, in which two young brothers in Mexico who have lost their mother try to make their way to their dad who has found a job in the United States. (April 16 — May 3).

New Jersey Rep

The New Jersey Rep in Long Branch rarely takes a breather during the year. The season is already under way with Poetic License by Jack Canfora, a drama about greed, ambition, and madness, in which a poet laureate is confronted by his past. (to October 5). Apple by award-winning Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen is an unflinching look at an extramarital affair that develops more than the usual problems. This is an East Coast premiere (October 23 — November 23). Contact the theater for the balance of the season.

Passage Theatre

Making theater an essential part of our lives is a task that strongly resonates with Passage Theatre's artistic director June Ballinger: "My prescription is to return to stories that stimulate the original urge towards theater-going the urge people have to assemble and hear their stories told on stage in a way that is awe inspiring and transcending. As you know, for 22 years, Passage Theatre has developed and produced new work by both emerging and established playwrights. Last year, In order to distinguish ourselves from the 38 other professional theatres in New Jersey, many of which also focus on new work, we refined our mission to produce new works that test the limits of conventional theater and still speak to a richly diverse audience. We now seek writers that emphasize language, ritual, and a sensibility towards heightened or even magic realism. I look for plays that are political yet personal and thought-provoking while still accessible and entertaining. It is a big order but we believe that this focus will give us a reputation for the unusual.,"

Broadway veteran performer Brenda Pressley will star in the season's first play The Summer House by Amber Kain, a darkly comic thriller. (October 30 — November 23). According to Ballinger, "Of all the plays this season, I think Instructions for Breathing by Caridad Svich, speaks directly to our mission shift. The play centers on the mysterious disappearance of a child and the ensuing unraveling of a marriage. Rich in language, it speaks to important aspects of today's world, lends itself to high theatricality in execution, will have a multicultural cast, and is accessible yet challenging. We believe it will excite the hearts and minds of our audience." (April 30 — May 24). Mid-season is The 7th Annual Solo Flights Festival, a popular festival of one-person shows, music and dance. (March 5 — 29).

There are 23 professional theater companies listed as members of the New Jersey Theater Alliance. For more information regarding the season of plays at a theater near you, please use Curtainup's directory of New Jersey professional theatres.
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