August 8, 2018

Performers at Pettoranello Gardens Have a New, Improved Showcase

By Anne Levin

A new stage is in place at Community Park North Amphitheater in Pettoranello Gardens.

After two decades of wear and tear by musicians, dancers, and Shakespearean actors, the platform in the park off of Mountain Avenue was showing its age.

“It was time,” said Ben Stentz, executive director of Princeton’s Department of Recreation. “The stage that had been there was constructed by the recreation department’s maintenance staff more than 20 years ago. It was obvious to us that it was getting to the end of it’s life. And a bigger, better stage would open up the doors to other types of events there.”

The new stage is part of a partnership between the Princeton Recreation Department and the Princeton Public Library, which will present Helen O’Shea’s band, The Shanakees, on Sunday, August 12 and a Summer Reading Rock ’n’ Roll Wrap Up on Friday, August 17.

“When I heard about the new stage, I knew the time was right to bring Shakespeare and other acts back,” said Janie Hermann, the library’s programming librarian. “My hope and dream is that we can do even more at the amphitheater next summer and make it a regular
destination. To me, the setting at Community Park North, with the nature preserve and hiking trails, makes it seem like you are miles away when, in fact, you are still within walking distance to downtown and almost anyone in Princeton can easily bike to get there.”

Shakespeare has long been a focus of the amphitheater. The Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival performed there in years past. More recently, the Hudson Shakespeare Company presented The Tempest and All’s Well That Ends Well in partnership with the library. Blue Curtain has been staging musical events at the venue for over a decade.

“There is a long history of events,” said Stentz. “We looked into our options before we built the new stage. It has been perfect so far. It is more functional for the types of things happening in the amphitheater now, more appropriate for a big band or larger group of people performing.”

The base of the stage is stainless steel, which is meant to last. “I promised when we got it that it would last longer than I would,” Stentz said. “We had a great Blue Curtain concert this summer, and the library has these enhanced offerings with the concerts and Shakespeare in the park. I wanted to get the place busier.”

Singer Helen O’Shea’s band The Shanakees was the first to perform on the new stage this summer. While she had never appeared on the old stage, she recognizes the merits of the new one. ‘We were blown away, as were our guests, not just by the quality of the stage but the ease of getting on and off. It can accommodate much bigger bands,” she said. “And the sound was amazing, too. I think where the stage is positioned in relation to the audience and the trees makes it a unique venue.”

The Irish-born O’Shea, who lives in Princeton, will return with her band in a program called The Shanakee Sessions on August 12. The program is “in the round,” she said, with songs and stories from local songwriters Mike Montrey, Fil Wisneski, Marvin Perkins, and herself. “The word shanakee means storyteller in Ireland,” she said. “This is a very innovative show of three or four moving parts, and we’re expecting it to be very successful.”

Stentz is hoping for additional unique musical events to take place on the new stage. “I’m working on some other things. I’ve been desperately begging the Princeton High School Studio Band to figure out a way to come over and play, because they’re so good. It’s a time issue, but we’re going to make that happen,” he said.

He is hopeful that the new stage and new programming will bring more people to the venue — but not too many. “We want it to be full, but not too full,” he said. “Because when you run out of seats, it can be tough.”

All performances at the amphitheater are free. “We’re thankful for this partnership with the library. We want different things,” Stentz said. “Because not everyone likes Shakespeare and not everyone likes the same kind of music.”