New Jersey is the entertainment capital of the United States — it would be premature to say — but up and down the Garden State, sparkling, first-class theaters in just about every county are bursting back to life and offering jam-packed seasons booked with live entertainment. If New York City can have Broadway and off-Broadway, New Jersey can have off-Parkway: A few miles from any exit on the Garden State Parkway, you can pull over and see a show.
State Theatre New Jersey
The State Theatre in New Brunswick just celebrated its 100th birthday. Livelier than ever, this 1,850-seat beauty has had a rich and tumultuous history. Under the dynamic leadership of Sarah Chaplin, the State Theatre used its downtime for some renovations: The restoration of a “blade” (vertical) marquee in addition to its signature existing one, a redesigned lobby, new carpeting throughout, expanded dressing rooms and backstage areas, and renovated restrooms with a new “touchless” system. The shutdown was an opportunity to finally replace the old rope, tackle and sandbag method of moving scenery (one of the last remaining in the country) with a state-of-the-art, computerized rigging system that will speed scene changes and load-ins.
All these changes will be tested when the pent-up fall season explodes onto its stages: Straight No Chaser, the nine-member a cappella group, takes the stage on Sept. 14, followed by a Golden Oldies Spectacular featuring Jay and the Americans, (“Only in America”) Lou Christie (“Lightning Strikes”) and The 1910 Fruitgum Co. (“Simon Says”), among others. The State is a popular stop for touring Broadway shows, and this season features four of them: “Escape to Margaritaville,” featuring Jimmy Buffet songs and some new material, on Oct. 8, 9 and 10; “Million Dollar Quartet,” on Nov. 2, was a Broadway hit that imagines Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley gathered for a jam session at Sun Records in Nashville in 1956. “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” takes the stage Nov. 26 – 28. Leslie Odom Jr., who won a Tony Award for his performance as Aaron Burr in the smash hit “Hamilton,” takes the stage on Dec. 10. He’s gone on to do TV and film (“One Night in Miami”), but his gorgeous singing voice and charisma can fill a theater. Dec. 3-5, there’s the Tony-nominated musical “Anastasia,” the story of a young woman who may or may not be Russia’s princess Anastasia. There’s a special package deal for all upcoming Broadway shows. The rest of the 2022 season is just as action packed with Broadway shows, concerts and dance all in the historic, plush, indomitable State Theatre. You can check it out here: stnj.org/events/upcoming-events
Just down the street in New Brunswick is another cultural landmark, Crossroads Theatre Co., created by two Rutgers students, Lee Richardson and Ricardo Khan, in a storefront in 1978. They wanted a place where trained Black and brown artists could create and perform in new work and honor Black spirit, culture and history. From that proud and modest start, Crossroads has gone on to be an incubator and launching pad for the best new plays by African Americans. In 1999, Crossroads Theatre Co. made theatre history by becoming the recipient of the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre in America, a first for a Black organization in this country. Co-Founder and Artistic Director Ricardo Khan is excited about the Crossroads Festival Theatre, which opens the 2021-22 season at the Crossroads’ new address, the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center (NBPAC) — a gorgeous, new, state-of-the-art theater complex in downtown New Brunswick that houses several arts organizations.
“The advent of a new normal compelled us to design a way to tell our very important stories and voices on the African Diaspora,” Khan said. “Our 2021-22 season, appropriately titled ‘States of Change,’ was created against the challenging backdrop of COVID-19, social justicing and social distancing. The slate of programming spotlights today’s issues, including the power of voting against a backdrop of voter suppression, the importance of community activism against the backdrop of systemic injustice and the value of diverse voices being heard.”
Crossroads Festival Theatre consists of two installments: Fall Festival and Spring Festival, running Sept. 22–Oct. 10, and June 7–26, 2022, respectively. Crossroads will be partnering with theatre companies, including Harlem’s New Heritage Theatre and The Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa. “Crossroads Festival Theatre elevates our company’s commitment to creativity in the development of new plays and new writers, deepening community engagement and the involvement of the theatre in the pressing conversations of our day, ” Khan said.
Crossroads is also introducing the new Free Family Saturdays series of family friendly arts going experiences, from music to storytelling, with free art-making activities. The ever-popular Genesis Festival of New Works and New Voices returns April 4 – 17, 2022. To learn more, visit crossroadstheatrecompany.org/.
McCarter Theatre Center
Down the road from New Brunswick, the historic McCarter Theatre Center holds court on the campus of Princeton University. Established in 1938, the McCarter has long been an important stop in the development of plays that went on to national and worldwide recognition, like “Our Town” and “You Can’t Take It With You,” among many others. The McCarter morphed from a booking theater to a producing one and hired a series of artistic directors. The long tenure of Emily Mann (also a playwright) included the premieres of new plays by Athol Fugard, Edward Albee, Regina Taylor, Beth Henley and others.
Despite the lockdown, the McCarter is still at the forefront of the creation of new plays. Sarah Rasmussen is now artistic director, and she is joined by acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Paula Vogel, (“How I Learned to Drive”) to create “Bard at the Gate,” an innovative virtual play series borne of last year’s lockdown. A great success (they had 11,000 viewers in 2020), “Bard at the Gate” will return for an additional two seasons starting this fall. Still virtual for the time being, the lineup of plays and playwrights includes Zakiyyah Alexander (“How to Raise a Freeman”), José Rivera (“Sonnets for an Old Century”) and Christina Anderson (“Good Goods”) to be featured during the 2021-22 season. Starting with this strong lineup, a total of eight plays will be digitally produced and streamed in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons.
“Bard began as a very personal effort to give marginalized playwrights a voice, especially during the historic times we are living through,” Vogel said. “Partnering with McCarter will give Bard a national impact with brilliant plays that belong in the curriculum and in the seasons of theatres worldwide. I am grateful to everyone who likewise sees this vital opportunity to redefine what we consider to be the best American plays.” For reservations to stream and to register for the Q&A, visit mccarter.org/bard or bardatthegate.org.
Count Basie Center for the Arts
Red Bank is a cosmopolitan enclave that sits prettily alongside the Navesink River. It’s the home of the Count Basie Center for the Arts. Built in 1926 as The Carlton, it eventually became The Monmouth Arts Center (Springsteen performed there). Its name was changed in 1984 to honor native son and jazz legend, William James “Count” Basie. The complex has a combined seating capacity of over 1,500. Both its larger Hackensack Meridian Health Theatre and the more intimate two-tiered Vogel Theatre have been hosting live shows since July. The Hackensack Meridian kicked off September with Cheap Trick on Sept. 8, and there are three nights of the Broadway classic, “A Chorus Line,” upcoming from Sept. 24-27, followed by Christopher Cross on Sept. 28. October is jam-packed with Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, John Cleese, David Foster, Art Garfunkel, The Monkees, Jay Leno and Johnny Mathis, among others. The Vogel Theatre is hosting Suzanne Vega on Oct. 14, followed by Rick Wakeman with his Even Grumpier Old Rock Star Tour. For the complete performance schedule at both venues, visit: thebasie.org/.
Axelrod Performing Arts Center
Further south on the Parkway, Deal — with its ocean views and stately homes — is the home of the gorgeous Axelrod Performing Arts Center, built in 2005. Its handsome, woodsy, 550-seat theater has excellent acoustics and state-of-the-art equipment. There is an Axelrod Performing Arts Academy and an Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theatre as well. In an innovative twist, The Axelrod will reopen this fall with three musicals, each directed by a member of the original Broadway company. Richard A. Blake will direct “A Bronx Tale” Oct. 29-Nov. 14. (He played Lorenzo in the original production.) Abby C. Smith played Mrs. Puff in “SpongeBob SquarePants” on Broadway, and she will direct the Axelrod production Nov. 27-Dec. 5. Hunter Foster, Seymour in Broadway’s last revival of “Little Shop of Horrors,” makes his directorial debut at the Axelrod with “The Bridges of Madison County” scheduled March 4-20, 2022. Next year will also see productions of “Grease” and “Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” For dance enthusiasts, there will be a version of The Nutcracker called “The Nutcracker Rocks,” with a rockified score by The Gaslight Anthem. That’s Dec. 11-19.
“We are beyond excited to reopen our doors this fall to welcome back our audiences with the quality theatrical productions they’ve come to expect from our company,” said Artistic Director Andrew DePrisco. With first-class productions in a beautiful theater a few blocks from the ocean and a few minutes from Asbury Park — and free parking, who needs Broadway? You can check out the Axelrod here: axelrodartscenter.com/show.
Union County Performing Arts Center
Rahway’s pride and joy is the Union County Performing Arts Center (UCPAC). It opened in 1928 as the Rahway Theatre and was famous for its $20,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ. In the all too familiar pattern, the building fell into disrepair by the 1970s. Rahway Landmarks, Inc. stepped in, and the theatre became The Union County Arts Center. Its Main Stage has 1,300 seats, and that Wurlitzer is still there. Then there’s the Hamilton Stage with 206 seats for slightly more intimate works and the 55-seat Fazoli Room for recitals and rehearsals.
UCPAC hits the ground running on Sept. 25 with the band Bowling for Soup (“4 Irresistible Dudes”). This Texas pop/punk garage band is raggedy, witty and somehow captivating, especially if you’ve had a few sips of alcohol. The mix of music continues through to October, including something brilliantly titled Postmodern Jukebox on Oct. 16, created by pianist and arranger Scott Bradlee, who works modern pop and jazz into different genres. It all began in his Queens, N.Y. basement, and, thanks to YouTube, he became a sensation.
There is an entertaining mix of music, magic and comedy (including Cedric the Entertainer) through 2021, and 2022 is just as lively. Broadway sweethearts Jeremy Jordan and Ashley Spencer (they’re married) take the stage Jan. 8, 2022. Jeremy, a regular at UCPAC and a Broadway favorite, has been in just about every other recent Broadway show, and Ashley is a Broadway veteran as well. If you believe in true love and real talent you should check them out.
Box office manager and UCPAC cheerleader, Christine Bennett said, “We’ve been waiting to turn our lights on, and we could not be more excited!” It’s that kind of enthusiasm that makes UCPAC a regular stop for artists of all kinds. You can check out the rest of the lineup here: ucpac.org/events/
Bergen Performing Arts Center
Bergen Performing Arts Center (bergenPAC) is located in downtown Englewood. The former Englewood Plaza movie theater became the well-respected John Harms Center in 1976 and was a cultural beacon for its sophisticated neighbors. With over 1,300 seats, it became an acoustically perfect concert hall that also contained a state-of-the-art recording studio. The Harms Center closed but reopened in 2004 as the Bergen Performing Arts Center: bergenPAC.
The former recording studio, at One Depot Square, now hosts bergenPAC’s Performing Arts School, which provides students with unique and hands-on arts training by industry professionals as well as opportunities to perform on the theater’s main stage and throughout the county.
The first show for September is “Blippi Live!” on Sept. 19 for two shows. Blippi is Stevin John’s live-action character who demonstrates things to children, which most adults take for granted. This is a musical version, and John does not appear live in it. George Thorogood and The Destroyers take the stage on Sept. 21, followed by Demetri Martin on Sept. 24, Masters of Illusion on Sept. 26 and Roger McGuinn (The Byrds). Salsa singer Jerry Rivera appears on Oct. 1, followed by Neil Sedaka on Oct. 2. There’s a tangy mix of music, including Boys II Men on Nov. 19. Itzhak Perlman, Johnny Mathis, Three Dog Night and Michael Bolton are just some of the highlights through 2021. View the complete 2021-22 schedule here: https://www.bergenpac.org/events
If you treat your audiences right and give them what they want, they stick with you, but the lockdown was hard on artists and presenters alike: “We tried to stay optimistic, but as the months passed, there was no guarantee that we would reopen,” said bergenPAC President and CEO Dominic Roncace. “The incredible support we received … showed us how much our community values bergenPAC. Now that we made it to the other side, we are truly grateful and excited to be able to welcome everyone back to the theater for the joy of live entertainment.”
I used to live down the street from Montclair’s Wellmont Theatre, a big, old (opened 1921) and elegant movie house in the heart of town. Like most movie theaters, it suffered, reverting to “twinning” and then closing for years while the rest of Montclair boomed. It closed in 2006 and underwent extensive renovations. With its 2,500 seats, it is one of the biggest venues in the area. It reopened with “Dear Evan Hansen” and was off and running as live performance venue. It underwent a change in management and reopened in 2015 with a new name, the unfussy Wellmont Theater, as opposed to The Wellmont Theatre, and thrived until the lockdown, attracting big-name artists and big audiences. It kicks off September with Jersey legend, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, on Sept. 25, and then it’s one first-rate cover band after another with some comedy breaks, like “Whose Live Anyway,” a live version of the popular TV show, featuring four of its stars. Then, there’s Lewis Black’s “It Gets Better Every Day” show. Montclair’s own hometown heroes, Pinegrove, bring their intelligent sound on Oct. 15. The Psychedelic Furs visit on Nov. 11, and comedian Jim Breuer performs on Dec. 3. The 2022 season is just as diverse and action-packed. You can check out all the goodies the Wellmont has to offer here: https://wellmonttheater.com/upcoming-shows/
Mayo Performing Arts Center
Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC) has been a favorite stop for touring artists and attracts 200,000 visitors a year. Strategically located in historic downtown Morristown, it began life in 1937 as a first-run movie house; it’s where you went to see the big stuff, like “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur.” In the standard story, it fell into disrepair, and in 1994, after a major overhaul, reopened as a performing arts center. In September 2005, it opened a school, which now educates close to 1,000 in musical theatre and acting.
In 2011, the theatre officially changed its name to Mayo Performing Arts Center and, in 2016, earned the distinction of Outstanding Historic Theatre by the League of Historic American Theatres. Now, MPAC is all spiffed up and ready to rock. The great Audra McDonald visited MPAC to kick things off in September, as did music legend, Willie Nelson. Popular comedian Brian Regan takes the stage for two nights, Sept. 23 and 24. The rest of the season through 2022 is loaded with goodies. You can get a glimpse of them here: https://www.mayoarts.org/events-calendar.
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
Under the leadership of Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte since 1990, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) in Madison has a loyal audience and an extraordinary record of consistent critical acclaim. Now in its 58th season, it is the longest-running Shakespeare theatre on the East Coast.
The Shakespeare Theatre is housed in the beautiful F.M. Kirby Center on the idyllic campus of Drew University, and they also have a Backyard Stage and nearby amphitheater. I love Shakespeare, and STNJ always delivers with first-rate productions featuring first-rate actors. The lockdown had all the elements of a great Shakespearean tragedy: the conspiring fates, good versus evil and even a mad king. Having negotiated this rocky terrain many times onstage, Monte may have been better equipped than most to tackle it creatively in real time. With everyone else’s theater shuttered, Monte took her show outside. With her company of The Shrewd Mechanicals, eight actors, stranded by the pandemic and housed together, they used their Backyard Stage, drawing circles in the grass so people were safely socially distanced and staging live performances for entertainment-starved true believers. Always percolating, Monte and her crew have things in the works; rehearsals have started, but there’s nothing ready to report yet.
“Having reopened our outdoor stage for the first time in two years, we’ve already experienced the thrill of playing before a live audience again,” Monte said. “However, the outdoor stage experience is a very different one than performing on our main stage, and while both are exciting, we won’t feel that we are truly back in the saddle until we are on the boards at the Kirby Theatre again. Our hope is that we will be able to do at least one or possibly two shows in 2021; one in the late fall and one over the holiday season. We will be announcing plans as soon as we can.” Watch this space: shakespearenj.org/.
South Orange Performing Arts Center
The gorgeous South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) sits in the heart of The Village. South Orange Village Trustees, in partnership with Seton Hall University, envisioned SOPAC as the center of an ambitious redevelopment plan for South Orange. Nearly 10 years in the making, SOPAC finally opened its doors in 2006. Since then, SOPAC has become a cultural centerpiece for the town and the region, where many artists have chosen to live. There’s the 439-seat Jennifer and Tony Leitner Performance Hall as its mainstage and The Loft for comedy shows and more intimate productions.
Singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson started things off on Sept. 10 with special guest Caleb Hawley, and The Motor City Revue does a Motown Tribute on Sept. 17 just before Al Stewart visits on Sept. 18. Leonid & Friends is a Moscow-based Chicago tribute band who, believe it or not, get the sound just right. Check them out on Sept. 19. Grizzled rock vets, Los Lobos, take over on Sept. 23. New Jersey’s favorite son, John Pizzarelli, is joined by singer Catherine Russell (“a voice that wails like a horn and whispers like a snake in the Garden of Eden,” NPR said) to embrace the songs of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holliday. These two modern masters are the perfect combo to honor those two legends. You can check out the rest of the schedule here: sopacnow.org/calendar/.
Paper Mill Playhouse
Nearby Millburn is the home of historic Paper Mill Playhouse, which started out as an actual paper mill in the 1700s. Paper Mill Playhouse has created many happy memories for thousands of Jerseyans over the years with its first-class, star-studded productions. I saw my first Broadway show there on a school field trip, and it changed my life. With its 1,200 seats, it has the dimensions of a Broadway Theater, but is much lighter and brighter. Paper Mill has been officially designated as the “State Theater of New Jersey” and won the Regional Theatre Tony Award in 2016.
Paper Mill Playhouse raised the curtain on its first performance, a drama, in 1934. Since then, it’s mostly been associated with musical theater, and every significant musical of the past 40 years has graced its stages. I saw a production of “Gypsy” there that I liked better than the Broadway version. A fire in 1980 burned the theater to the ground, but in 1982, in the “show must go on” tradition, it reopened — better than ever.
Paper Mill Playhouse’s extensive education program has produced, among others, Millburn’s Anne Hathaway (Paper Mill Conservatory alumna and Rising Star Award nominee), Shanice Williams (Paper Mill Conservatory alumna, Rising Star Award nominee and Adopt-A-School participant), and has welcomed a slew of major talents, including Laura Benanti (another Rising Star Award winner), Maplewood’s Christine Ebersole, among many others, including Nick Jonas, a Jersey boy, and Liza Minnelli (not from New Jersey).
Paper Mill Playhouse has grown to be one of the most acclaimed not-for-profit professional theaters in the country, attracts more than 450,000 people annually, and has one of the largest subscription-based audiences. So, what can this loyal audience expect for 2021-22?
“We are so thrilled that we are able to bring three of our previously postponed shows into next season, ‘Sister Act,’ ‘Clue’ and the world premiere of ‘The Wanderer’ (based on the life and career of Dion),” said Mark S. Hoebee, producing artistic director. “And the entire family will enjoy ‘A Jolly Holiday’ with Disney on Broadway. We chose to kick off this reopening season with Jason Robert Brown’s ‘Songs for a New World’ because, right now, all of us are reemerging into a new world. At this moment, we need the power of theater to help us begin to heal and move forward. After this long, dark year, we are ecstatic to welcome audiences back to the Paper Mill for a season filled with music, laughter and light.”
The doors are open, the stages are set and the talent assembled. The curtains have risen, and the only thing missing is you.
Manuel Igrejas has worked in the theater as a playwright and a publicist on and off-Broadway. He was the publicist for Blue Man Group for 15 years, and his other clients included Richard Foreman, John Leguizamo, Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, STREB, Julie Harris and Peak Performances.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to everything that makes the Garden State great.
Sign up for our Newsletter
Delivered to your inbox every other week on Thursdays, Jersey’s Best is pleased to offer a FREE subscription to Garden Statement, highlighting the most popular Jersey’s Best content.
Credit: Source link