A dramatic return to the stage

NJPAC’s new theater ventures take a cue from Broadway and beyond.
 

The theater is full of comeback stories. This story is about the comeback of theater to NJPAC.

Following the 2010-2011 season, NJPAC “went on hiatus,” as President and CEO John Schreiber puts it, from Broadway-centric programming, largely composed of touring productions of American musicals like South Pacific and A Chorus Line. The idea was to take a break, reassess and make new partners of other theaters in the region so NJPAC could take a proactive role in curating and producing dramatic works.

Rather than booking a road show, the Arts Center would write its own script, so to say, by presenting fresh plays and musicals, almost always in collaboration with others.  New dialogues began in earnest with Two River Theater Company in Red Bank and other stages.

With projects simmering in its Arts Education Department, and the creation of a producer position with oversight on new theatrical ventures and community programming, NJPAC was preparing to answer a frequent question from patrons: “Are you bringing back Broadway shows?”

Yes, and then some.

“The key to our programming approach is to not repeat what’s on Broadway or what is touring elsewhere in the market, but rather create and develop original content that can continue beyond its genesis at NJPAC,” says NJPAC Executive Producer David Rodriguez. “There’s also an opportunity to build relationships with exciting creative talent and to partner with other theaters that have strong track records.

“Our hope is to lead in the creation of new works, rather than follow.”

Take a splashy Broadway chestnut like The Music Man. Obie award-winning director and playwright Robert O’Hara (Antebellum) has signed on to direct a new version for a co-production between NJPAC and Two River Theater Company. Meredith Willson’s The Music Man will play Red Bank before moving into the Victoria Theater for four performances, March 21-23. O’Hara has reinterpreted the story for an all-African-American cast – the River City, Iowa, bamboozled by con man Harold Hill will be based on historical accounts of black communities of the era.

Drawing some inspiration from New York City Center’s Encores! concert stagings of American musicals, the show will be performed book-in-hand, focusing more on orchestral arrangements and performance, less on choreography and with minimal sets. Kenny J. Seymour (Memphis) will be musical director and arranger, working with a hummable score that includes “Seventy-six Trombones,” “Goodnight, My Someone” and “Till There Was You.”

Last November, NJPAC unleashed an in-your-face reveille for theater fans. John Leguizamo, the actor and writer who dishes about his life, loves and pinballing movie career in his brash solo shows, brought his 2011 Broadway hit Ghetto Klown to Newark for four performances in the Victoria Theater. The shows were taped by HBO for an airing later this year, a result of the Arts Center’s readiness to attract and accommodate broadcast opportunities.

The booking also provided a gateway for high school students to interact with Leguizamo behind the scenes, and clicked with the State’s Latino community. All seats were priced at $59.

Ghetto Klown is a high-energy, comedic  mash-up of memories. Like Leguizamo’s other stageworks – Mambo Mouth, Spic-O-Rama, Freak and the Tony-nominated Sexaholix … a Love StoryGhetto Klown is a roll-call of his characterizations of no-names and celebrities, from his quirky advice-spewing grandfather to puffed-up actor Steven Seagal. The show was directed by actor and Oscar-winning filmmaker Fisher Stevens.

On May 11, 2003, Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old lesbian and sophomore at West Side High School, was murdered at a bus stop at Broad and Market streets in Newark when she rejected the advances of her assailant. The outrage expressed by LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) leaders, and throughout the city, led to the creation of the Newark Pride Alliance.

Playwright Chisa Hutchinson was so moved and angered by the tragedy that she wrote She Like Girls, a taut 90-minute drama about intolerance. After passing through the Lark Play Development Center, the nine-character work was produced notably at off-Broadway’s Ohio Theatre in 2009, when The New York Times called it “a love story at heart” and praised Hutchinson’s “sharp ear for dialogue.”

She Like Girls received its first New Jersey reading in October, when NJPAC provided space for the community to gather, converse and embrace in remembrance. The free reading, directed by Rodney Gilbert, took place in the Chase Room and drew a full house, including members of the Gunn family.

In January, NJPAC hosted a week-long workshop for a musical version of Gift of the Magi, based on O. Henry’s ironic tale about the price of love. The Christmastime favorite was given a new treatment by composer and co-lyricist Josh Schmidt (Adding Machine, A Minister’s Wife) and bookwriter and co-lyricist James DeVita, a playwright and actor with Wisconsin’s American Players Theatre.

A partnership between NJPAC’s Arts Education Department and Chicago’s famed Second City improv company makes Newark the fourth city to host Second City’s on-site training program of comedy workshops for students and adults. Following the August residency, the troupers (Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey and Mike Myers are among Second City’s alumni) will devise an original political comedy revue that lampoons the fun and foibles of life in the great Garden State. Look for Second City Does New Jersey: Paved and Confused in November, right around election time.

Arts Education will again team with The Johnny Mercer Foundation to produce an original musical in Greater Newark middle schools. Last year’s performance of Rhythm, Love, & Hip Hop: A Brooklyn Story, allowed about 100 students from four schools to show off their newfound theatrical skills – and self-confidence – before an audience. Nearly two years ago, NJPAC was the incubator for another family musical: A Night in New Orleans, inspired by Mary Pope Osborne’s book Magic Tree House #42: A Good Night for Ghosts. The touring production, about a young Louis Armstrong, has since been seen at arts centers throughout the country.

A musical version of another of the author’s books, Dinosaurs After Dark, is currently in the works in fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in five Newark schools. Produced through a partnership between Arts Education and iTheatrics – a Manhattan-based company founded to promote a love of musical theater in youngsters – the half-hour show will be staged by classroom teachers and performed by the students at their schools. In a Broadway Junior Performance at NJPAC on June 5, the five casts will each perform a scene to present the show in its entirety.

And for the second time, NJPAC will welcome The Stages Festival of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, which will hold some of its special events on-site on March 21 and 22, during the run of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. The public is invited – for free – to attend the Newark Writers Festival on March 21 and various theatrical workshops (mask-making, stage combat and more) the following day.

March 4, 2014

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