Embarrassment of riches as NJ theaters open world premieres, revivals

A scene from Ken Ludwig's "A Comedy of Tenors" directed by Stephen Wadsworth PHOTOS: Roger Mastroianni
A scene from Ken Ludwig’s “A Comedy of Tenors” directed by Stephen Wadsworth and currently on stage at McCarterTheatre. PHOTOS: Roger Mastroianni

It’s been a busy few weeks for New Jersey theatergoers, and critics, as the 2015-2016 season gets underway with several world premieres.

Openings last week included “Murder for Two” at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, the world-premiere of “A Comedy of Tenors” at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, a revival of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, and the world premiere of “Bandstand,” a musical at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

I’ve seen all but “Bandstand” and write about them, as well as National Theatre Live broadcast of Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Hamlet” last week, below. If interested in “Bandstand,” which opened last night (Oct. 18) and stars Beth Leavel ( Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for “The Drowsy Chaperone”), Tony nominee Laura Osnes (for “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella”)  and is directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler (winner of the Tony  and Drama Desk awards for his choreography of “In the Heights” and probably will win next year for “Hamilton”). Check back later this week as I won’t be able to see the musical “Bandstand” (Broadway bound?) until Wednesday.

Not to be forgotten, “The Nether” is receiving its New Jersey premiere in Hackettstown at the Centenary Stage Company.  Also, “Song for the Disappeared,” a new is drama having its world premiere at the Passage Theater Company in Trenton. Both close  Oct. 25. To learn more about them, read NYTimes’ critic Michael Sommers reviews here.

MURDER FOR TWO

“Murder for Two” is a superbly funny murder mystery set in a large house owned by a rich man with a finite number of suspects all of whom were in the room for his surprise birthday party when the murder happened and it has nothing to do with Agatha Christie. Well, not directly anyway.

The musical play owes its basic format to that Great Dame — eliminate suspects one by one until the killer be unveiled —  but that  Steinway grand piano smack dab in the middle of the relatively minimalistic set lets us know something much more fun will take place on our way to unveiling the killer. You could say the piano is the the main “character” because it is played throughout the 90-minute show propelling along a swift-moving plot that doesn’t even stop for an intermission.

Ian Lowe is the very earnest small-town policeman Marcus Moscowicz who really, really wants to discover who killed American novelist Arthur Whitney before a detective shows up to take over the case. He thinks out loud as he tries eliminating the diverse suspects — Whitney’s wife, his dancer lover, family doctor and so many more it’s hard to keep track them — all played by Joe Kinosian. Lowe and Kinosian take turns at the piano or play simultaneously sometimes even fighting over  the keyboard and piano bench.

Don’t believe me? Check out this video.

If that’s not enough talent, Kinosian wrote the book and music with Kellen Blair who co-wrote the book and penned the lyrics.

Set designer Beowulf Borritt lets us know we’re in for a treat when we enter the intimate theater to see a British music hall-like  proscenium arch with  bright lights and a bare back wall. There are a few large travel trunks, a hidden mirror, a red drape and. of course, that hard-to-miss piano that dominates the stage. .

The tech team and director Scott Schwartz certainly deliver a show that keeps the audience laughing and eagerly involved in what happens next. So involved that you may find yourself verbally accosted for a ringing cell phone or dragged on stage to participate in the show. All in good fun, of course, and I dare you not to have fun at “Murder for Two”  As the promo says: “Music, Murder & Mayhem!” Hip, hip hooray!

George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave, New Brunswick, NJ
Box office: (732) 846-2895

Closes Oct. 25.

HAMLET

Thank God for National Theatre Live for without it I wouldn’t have been able to see Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role of “Hamlet” at the Barbican Theatre in London.

The Oct. 15 live broadcast, seen around the world by more than 225,000 people made it the largest global audience for a live broadcast day of any title in National Theatre Live, according to the NTL website.

The broadcast played on more than 1,400 screens and in 25 countries on a live or time shifted basis. In addition to English subtitles for international markets, the NTL reported, “Hamlet” was delivered live with Swedish subtitles, and for the first time on a live basis, Russian subtitles.

And a first for me, although I’ve been around long enough to see close to 30 “Hamlets,” this melancholy Dane was really funny in places. Under the direction of Lyndsey Turner, Cumberbatch brought a modern sense of looking askance, frustrated, perplexed with other characters through facial expressions or just plain throwing his arms up in the air in disbelief. Kind of like when my 22-year-old son tells me he needs to “borrow” 20 bucks for gas on Monday morning although he got paid Friday afternoon.

Cumberbatch’s Hamlet excelled in his soliloquies and truly seemed a young, sensitive man who has had too much thrust into his face with the death of his father, quick marriage of his mother to his uncle, and a visit from his dead father’s ghost accusing his brother of murdering him. Then there’s the murder of Polonius by Hamlet who mistook that figure behind the curtain to be his murderous uncle. Who wouldn’t be a bit overwhelmed?

“Hamlet” runs through Oct. 31st at the Barbican in London. For information on encore screenings, including dates and locations, which begin Oct. 22, click here.

A COMEDY OF TENORS

A world-premiere co-production between the Cleveland Play House and McCarter Theatre, “A Comedy of Tenors” opened last  weekend in Princeton and continues through Nov. 1. Like its predecessor, “Lend Me a Tenor,” both by Ken Ludwig, it’s a dead cert to become popular in theaters across the country as four characters from that show reappear in this one, set in a hotel suite in 1930s Paris.

But first, let’s start at the end. I love a choreographed curtain call but I have never seen one that, in about a minute, recreates the entire show — all 1 hour, 40 minutes of it, including several dives off a balcony — with impeccable timing. I hope — make that pray — that McCarter Theatre posts it on YouTube so I can watch it again and again.

Directed by the marvelously talented Stephen Wadsworth, who channels the soul of the Comédie-Française into new plays and contemporary interpretations of classic works, his signature touch heightens the effects of door-slamming, slapstick comedy, sex,  and mistaken identity. The result is tons of fun.

There is no need to have seen “Lend Me a Tenor” to appreciate this kinda sequel. For those who’ve seen it, take joy in knowing the new piece includes the return of Tito Merelli, the world-famous Italian tenor; his temperamental wife, Maria;  the opera house’s tyrannical manager, Saunders, and amateur opera singer Max. They are played here, respectively, by Bradley Dean, Antionette LaVecchia, Ron Orbach and Rob McClure (the former Paper Mill Playhouse box office worker who earned Tony, Drama League and Outer Critics Circle nominations for the title role on Broadway in “Chaplin” and last seen at Paper Mill and on Broadway in “Honeymoon if Vegas”).

Like the last time, Tito is at the center of the storm. Saunders has booked Tito, Max and a third opera sensation Carlo (Bobby Conte Thornton) to sing together at Paris’ Olympic Stadium. Tito’s young daughter Mimi (Kristen Martin) however, is involved in a secret relationship with Carlo. Meanwhile Tito’s former love Tatiana Racon (Lisa Brescia), a world-renown Russian soprano shows up and — of course — an opera-singing bellhop who looks just like Tito rounds out the cast.

As the show’s advertising campaign proclaims: “What could go wrong?” It’s farce. Lots goes wrong and the audience laughs from beginning to end because the entire cast is simply perfect.

A spectacular set by Charlie Corcoran, costume design by multiple Tony Award winner William Ivy Long with lights by David Lerner enhances the delightful comedy.

For information, plus special dates, ticket prices and more click here.  Performances: Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays 2 p.m.

Image of Exterior of the Kirby Theatre, home of the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey located on the campus of Drew University in Madison.
Exterior of the Kirby Theatre, home of the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey located on the campus of Drew University in Madison.

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK

No matter how many times I see “The Diary of Anne Frank” I am still blown away by the fact these characters on stage were real people. They didn’t spring from the play writer’s imagination. They lived, they were persecuted, they hid in an attic for almost two years under stressful conditions before being discovered and shipped to concentration camps where all but  Anne’s father Otto perished.

The play, currently being produced at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through Nov. 21, includes a celebration of Hanukkah with lighting a menorah and prayers. I don’t remember seeing this scene before in previous productions, but maybe my memory is faulty. It definitely reminds the audience these people are indeed Jewish and hiding because of their religion. It demonstrates the power of people who love God and their religion in a positive way.

It also, at times, is funny and filled with hope and love of life personified mostly by Anne (Emmanuelle Nadeau).

Directed by Joseph Discher on a cramped set designed by Brittany Vasta and lit by Matthew Adelson, we feel the lack of privacy and see of privation suffered by Otto Frank (Bryan Scott Johnson), Edith Frank (Jacqueline Antaramian), Margot Frank (Lauriel Friedman), Peter Van Daan (Sean haddock), Mrs. Van Daan (Carol Halstead), Mr. Van Daan (Anthony Cochrane),  and the dentist Mr. Dussel (Patrick Toon).

Hidden in the attic, or annex of Mr. Frank’s business, they are cared for by Miep Gies (Shana Wiersum) and Mr. Kraler (Michael Leigh Cook).

The only flaw in the 2 hour, 15 minute production is the anti-climatic arrival of three German policemen on the morning of Aug. 4,1944, who got a tip about the hidden Jews and have come to arrest them. There was no pounding on the secret door, no screaming in horror or fear, no noise at all as the Germans  sneak into the attic and aren’t even immediately noticed. What? After rounding up the adults, they also sneak up on the children in the upper level, and hurried them all out and, as we now know, to  concentration camps where Anne and her sister Margo died from disease barely a month before their camp was liberated. It just doesn’t work.

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