July 27, 2022

“DETROIT ’67”: Performances are underway for “Detroit ’67.” Directed by Anike Sonuga, the play runs through July 31 at the Hamilton Murray Theater at Princeton University. Above, from left, are Sheleah Harris (Bunny) and Gabriel Generally (Lank). (Photo by Ethan Curtis Boll)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The Detroit Riot of 1967, also known as the Detroit Rebellion or the 12th Street Riot, is the setting of Detroit ’67. Dominique Morisseau’s 2013 drama depicts an African American woman’s determination to provide security for her family; and her younger brother’s wish to start a new life, and blur racial boundaries. All of these goals are tested by the arrival of a mysterious white woman — and the riot.

Chelle, one of the protagonists, hosts underground parties to pay for her (unseen) son Julius’ college education. Lank, her younger brother, wants to open his own bar. This ties into the event that incited the Detroit Riot: a police raid of an unlicensed bar, in which all of the patrons were arrested.

Detroit ’67 is an installment of Morisseau’s three-play cycle The Detroit Project. Morriseau is a 2018 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow whose other credits include the Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.

The music of Motown, notably the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” pervades Detroit ’67. Music is a “resource and clue to my work, and music plays a unifier among cultural barriers.” Morisseau tells Broadway.com.

Princeton Summer Theater (PST) is concluding its 2022 season with Detroit ’67. Directed by Anike Sonuga, the production successfully conveys the colliding character arcs and rising tensions, which are exacerbated by historical events. more

July 6, 2022

“THE GREAT GATSBY”: Princeton Summer Theater has staged “The Great Gatsby.” Directed by PST’s 2022 Artistic Director Ethan Boll, the play with music has been presented June 24-July 3 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above: Narrator Nick Carraway (Jay White, center) encounters Jordan Baker (Megan Pan, left) at the home of his cousin, Daisy (Allison Spann, right). (Photo by Raquel Ramirez)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

A bit over a century ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald arrived at Princeton University, which he attended from 1913-1917. As a student, the aspiring author wrote stories and poems for the Triangle Club, the Princeton Tiger, and Nassau Lit.

During his sophomore year, Fitzgerald returned home to Saint Paul, Minn., during Christmas break. There, he met and fell in love with Ginevra King. The Chicago socialite became the basis of several characters in Fitzgerald’s novels — particularly Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.

Although the 1925 novel is told from the point of view of Daisy’s cousin Nick Carraway, Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship mirrors Fitzgerald’s courtship of King. Prefiguring a line in the novel, King’s father disdainfully told Fitzgerald, “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.” (Eventually King married a wealthy Chicago businessman, and Fitzgerald married Zelda Sayre.)

In The Great Gatsby the now-wealthy title character buys a house across from Daisy’s home, with the express purpose of persuading her to resume their relationship. This arouses the jealousy of Daisy’s domineering and philandering husband, Tom, who contrives to eliminate his rival.

Almost a century after the publication of The Great Gatsby, a stage version of the classic novel has been presented at Fitzgerald’s alma mater. Making a welcome return following a (pandemic-enforced) three-year hiatus, the student-run Princeton Summer Theater (PST) has opened their 2022 season with Simon Levy’s adaptation, which received its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in 2006.

Levy successfully adapts the novel for the stage, succinctly highlighting the backstory and dynamics between the characters. He is faithful to the plot but does not follow the novel slavishly; he converts some of Fitzgerald’s prose into dialogue for the narrator, Nick Carraway, highlighting the character’s development.

PST’s production adopts Levy’s suggestion (printed in the script) to include live music; an onstage band performs before and during the performance. Saxophonist and clarinetist Henry Raker, drummer Paolo Montoya, and bassist Cliff Wilson — led by Music Director Ned Furlong — establish the grit and glamour of the Jazz Age. more

June 29, 2022

“BROADWAY POPS!”: Princeton Festival has presented “Broadway POPS!” Above: Broadway and West End star Sierra Boggess, left, joined the PSO in a program of highlights from musical theater. The concert was conducted by Rossen Milanov, right. (Photo by Carolo Pascale.)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton Festival has presented Broadway POPS! Broadway and West End star Sierra Boggess joined the Princeton Symphony Orchestra in a program of highlights from musical theater. The June 24 concert was conducted by the orchestra’s Edward T. Cone Music Director Rossen Milanov.

Boggess made her Broadway debut in the 2007 stage version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. She has portrayed Christine Daaé in multiple productions of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (including the 25th anniversary concert at Royal Albert Hall), as well as the West End premiere of its sequel, Love Never Dies. With Julian Ovenden she has released an album of duets, Together at a Distance.

Broadway POPS! marks Boggess’ third collaboration with the PSO, following appearances in 2017 and 2018. The Olivier Award nominee also starred in The Age of Innocence (2018) at McCarter Theatre.

Boggess and Milanov created a selection that alternated between orchestral and vocal pieces, letting most of the featured composers be represented by at least one of each. The resulting program delighted the audience that packed the Festival’s performance tent on the grounds of Morven Museum & Garden. Boggess remarked that she chose pieces that she wanted to hear the orchestra perform.

The concert opened with an orchestral selection: “The Music Man: Symphonic Impressions,” crafted by Richard Hayman from Meredith Willson’s score. The woodwinds, especially the flutes, shone with the strings in the lush ballad “’Till There Was You.”  The piece closes with the rousing “76 Trombones.” A Broadway revival of the show opened this past February.

Boggess entered, sporting a bright red dress. Despite her long association with Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, she chose as her first selection “Home,” a song from a different stage adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel. Phantom (1991) has a book by Arthur Kopit; the music and lyrics are by Maury Yeston. “Home” is a number that opens delicately and ends operatically — a progression often favored by Boggess — waiting until the end to let the singer reveal her high soprano.  more

June 22, 2022

“YOURS SINCERELY, STEPHEN SONDHEIM”: Princeton Festival has presented “Yours Sincerely, Stephen Sondheim” in tribute to the late Broadway legend. Matthew Stephens was the music director and accompanist for the concert, which was presented June 15 in a performance tent outside Morven Museum & Garden. Above: vocal duo Alyssa Giannetti and Jason Forbach. (Photo by Carolo Pascale)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Into the Woods is a musical in which familiar fairy tale characters meet, and their stories intersect. In the prologue, the characters sing about their reasons for journeying into the titular forest. Cinderella sings, “I wish to go to the festival.”

Last Wednesday she could have been referring to the Princeton Festival, which presented Yours Sincerely, Stephen Sondheim, a tribute to the show’s late composer and lyricist. Vocalists Alyssa Giannetti and Jason Forbach performed several of the Broadway legend’s songs, interspersed with quotes from his letters — many of which his correspondents have shared via social media since his death last November. Music Director Matthew Stephens accompanied the duo.

The June 15 concert was presented in a performance tent outside Morven Museum & Garden. The seating was configured to resemble a dinner theater or cabaret; tables were set up so that audiences could enjoy drinks and light (but elegant) snacks — the latter served before the show and during intermission. A set for the Festival’s subsequent production in the tent (Albert Herring) resembled a bar, adding to the illusion of being in a Times Square nightspot.

A classically trained singer, Giannetti made her professional debut as an understudy for the role of Christine Daaé in the first national tour of Love Never Dies. She was in the cast of the Paper Mill Playhouse’s world premiere of UNMASKED: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.  more

June 15, 2022

“THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS”: Princeton Festival has opened its 2022 season with Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Above: Soloist Storm Large, left, and vocal quartet Hudson Shad were accompanied by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, which also performed Rodion Shchedrin’s “Carmen Suite.” Rossen Milanov, right, conducted the concert. (Photo by Carolo Pascale)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton Festival has opened its 2022 season with The Seven Deadly Sins. The June 10 concert featured acclaimed singer and actor Storm Large, and vocal quartet Hudson Shad. The vocalists were accompanied by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, which completed the program with Carmen Suite. The performance took place in a large tent on the grounds of Morven Museum & Garden.

The entire program was conducted by the orchestra’s Edward T. Cone Music Director Rossen Milanov. This concert marks the first collaboration between Princeton Festival and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra since the two organizations merged last year.

The Seven Deadly Sins (1933) is a ballet chanté (“sung ballet”) composed by Kurt Weill (1900-1950), The work marks Weill’s final collaboration with playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), whose German libretto has been translated into English by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Edward James, a wealthy British poet, commissioned the work. James stipulated that it must include his wife, dancer Tilly Losch, whom he thought to resemble singer Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife), for whom the composer was writing the piece.

This resulted in the core concept of a split-personality plot, in which Anna I (the singer) obeys the demands of her family (an all-male vocal quartet). Anna II (the dancer) initially is resistant, though she reluctantly defers to Anna I.

The title ironically refers to the fact that the wholesome, idealistic Anna II is perceived as committing the “sins,” and is redirected by the worldly Anna I. The piece, which premiered in Paris the year that the Nazis rose to power, can be viewed as a meditation on authoritarian indoctrination.

Since 2013, Large has been one of the composition’s foremost interpreters, having sung it at Carnegie Hall in the first of several performances with the Detroit Symphony. In performing the work, Large has been collaborating with Hudson Shad since the 2014 Ojai Music Festival. more

May 25, 2022

“SHREK THE MUSICAL”: Theatre Intime and Princeton University Players have presented “Shrek The Musical.” Directed by Eliyana Abraham and Gabbie Bourla, it played May 20-22 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above, from left, Princess Fiona (Ann Webb) is rescued by unlikely friends Shrek (Rafael Collado) and Donkey (Tobi Fadugba). (Photo by Emily Yang)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Theatre Intime and Princeton University Players have collaborated to present Shrek The Musical. The show entertained an enthusiastic mixed-age audience, which filled the Hamilton Murray Theater on opening night.

The 2008 Broadway musical’s often witty book and lyrics are by David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapts the screenplays of the popular DreamWorks film series, which is based on William Steig’s 1990 picture book. The music — which incorporates elements of pop, R&B, and traditional musical theater — is by Jeanine Tesori. The show interpolates “I’m a Believer,” which is written by Neil Diamond.

This production is smoothly directed by Eliyana Abraham and Gabbie Bourla. They let the audience be a part of the action, by reserving a row of seats through which the cast often moves.

The crisp musical direction is by Giao Vu Dinh, assisted by Sam Melton and Chloe Webster. The band opens the show with a brief “Overture,” consisting of a series of triumphal chords followed by a bouncy march.

“The wry “Big, Bright, Beautiful World” shows the childhood experiences of Shrek (played by Rafael Collado) and Fiona (Ann Webb). At age 7, Shrek is sent to live on his own having been warned by his parents (played by Aria Buchanan and Matt Gancayco) that he will be shunned for his looks. Eventually he finds a swamp, where he is content to live alone.

Fiona blithely re-titles the show Fiona The Musical, and tells her story. As a child she is shut in a tower by her parents, King Harold (Andrew Duke) and Queen Lillian (Jacquelynn Lin), to await Prince Charming. more

May 18, 2022

“GROUP!”: Performances are underway for “Group!” Directed by Maria Patrice Amon, the musical runs through May 22 at Passage Theatre. Above, from left: Jessica (Liz Barnett) facilitates a court-ordered anti-addiction group therapy program, but her methods (such as passing around a soccer ball on which she tapes impractical ideas) scarcely help the participants, including Sandra (Nicole Stacie), Ceci (Tamara Rodriguez), and Everly (Deja Fields). (Photo by Jeff Stewart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre is presenting the world premiere of Group! By turns poignant and wry, the new musical portrays six women who meet at group therapy session to battle addiction.

Five of the women attend the program because of a court order. The sixth, Jessica, is the well-meaning but ill-equipped facilitator who moderates the sessions. Although Jessica appears to have little in common with the women she is trying to help, all of them are expected to succeed by a system that hinders their ability to do so.

Group! tells an original story set in present-day Trenton. The book is by Julia B. Rosenblatt; the dialogue segues seamlessly into Eloise Govedare’s lyrics. Composer Aleksandra M. Weil draws on a variety of musical styles, but uses an energetic pop rock sound to anchor the score.

Upon entering the theater we immediately see scenic designer Kayla Arrell’s set. Most of the action takes place in a room with (artfully) drab walls and uncomfortable-looking plastic chairs. A door marked “exit” is prominent, letting us wonder whether these women will successfully exit the therapy program. The walls are decorated with posters on which are written platitudes such as “change,” and “believe and succeed.”

Above the therapy room are three windows representing apartments. Moments that use that upper level — in which we see the participants’ lives away from the sessions — have some particularly effective and dramatic lighting by Alex Mannix. more

May 11, 2022

“RIDE THE CYCLONE”: Performances are underway for “Ride the Cyclone.” Produced by McCarter Theatre and Arena Stage, and directed by McCarter’s Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, the musical runs through May 29 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Above, from left, are Constance (Princess Sasha Victomé), Noel (Nick Martinez), Ocean (Katerina McCrimmon), Jane Doe (Ashlyn Maddox), Ricky (yannick-robin eike), and Mischa (Eli Mayer). (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In the musical Ride the Cyclone, six teenagers are killed in an accident while riding the titular amusement park ride. In an otherworldly warehouse they meet The Amazing Karnak, a mechanical fortune teller that is about to be destroyed by a bass-playing rat who is chewing on his power cord.  The fortune teller offers to send one of the teenagers back from the dead, instigating a literal fight for their lives.

It must have been entertaining to listen to early pitches for the show, whose book, music, and lyrics are by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond. But within the eccentric, morbid plot are engaging, uplifting character arcs, conveyed by songs that are by turns eerie and exuberant. Ride the Cyclone is both offbeat and upbeat.

Ride the Cyclone is being presented at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre (in a co-production by McCarter and Arena Stage). In a program note, Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen — who directs the production — recalls a quote from Our Town: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it … every minute?”

Both Our Town and Ride the Cyclone acknowledge the fragility of life; lyrics in the song “Jawbreaker/Sugarcloud” echo the line quoted by Rasmussen. Karnak fulfills a role similar to that of Our Town’s Stage Manager: an emcee to guide the characters.

Any similarity between the two shows generally ends there. In Wilder’s play, the dead characters are confined to chairs. In the musical, the characters sing, dance, and even spin in midair. Our Town usually is performed with no scenery and few props. Ride the Cyclone rejects this aesthetic, reveling in lavish production elements. more

May 4, 2022

“THE ART OF PLEASING PRINCES”: The Princeton University Players have presented a staged reading of “The Art of Pleasing Princes,” performed April 28-30 at the Whitman Theater. Directed by Solomon Bergquist, the new musical takes place in a fantasy kingdom that is beset by court intrigue and labyrinthine conspiracies.Above, from left, are Maddox (Alex Conboy), Rowan (Lana Gaige), Jason (Andrew Matos), Louis (Delaney Rose), and Maya (Miel Escamilla). (Photo by Elliot Lee)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton University Players, a student-run organization whose website describes it as “Princeton’s home for musical theater,” has presented a staged reading of a new, student-written show, The Art of Pleasing Princes, at Whitman College’s Class of 1970 Theater this past weekend.

With a book and lyrics by Mel Hornyak and Elliot Valentine Lee, and music by Lee, the musical is set in a pseudohistorical fantasy kingdom — but with a viewpoint and aesthetic that are resolutely contemporary. The show subverts tropes of the fantasy genre — and to an extent, musical theater.

A rogue prince leads an unlikely group of co-conspirators in a plot to assassinate his estranged, tyrannical father. Along the way, we discover the protagonists’ secret ambitions and forbidden relationships.

The performance is classified as a staged reading, as the performers are permitted to use scripts. However, the show has the choreography, costumes, and props of a full production.

The Art of Pleasing Princes opens with a recognizable image. The king’s favorite guard, Jason Bartok (infused with affable sincerity by Andrew Matos) is kneeling at the feet of the monarch’s daughter, princess Maya Astor (Miel Escamilla), proposing marriage to her. The tableau will be seen again later, with a twist.

The opening number (“Your Day in Court”) begins with a waltz that is artfully exaggerated in its delicacy. The courtiers profess excitement at the (presumably) impending royal wedding, and set the too-perfect scene: “Every man has his duties; every servant his place; every lady her suitors … our lives our perfect, charmed.”

Clearly, this equilibrium is just waiting to be upended. Indeed, as the musical language gradually sheds the pastiche, the lyrics describe the scene as a “careful charade.” The ensemble sings of the ruthless politics at court, “You won’t know if you’ve made a mistake here, ‘til you’re the only one kept from the ball.” more

April 27, 2022

“THE LARAMIE PROJECT”: Theatre Intime has staged “The Laramie Project,” presented April 15-24 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Directed by Ethan Luk, the play explores the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, as well as interviewees’ reactions to the idea of being depicted in a docudrama. Above, from left, are cast members Luc Maurer, Alexis Maze, Sabina Jafri, Rilla McKeegan, Ay Marsh, Arthur Yan, and Matthew Shih. (Photo by Rowen Gesue)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In October 1998 Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten and left to die near Laramie. Rescuers took him to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., where he died of his injuries six days later.

Writing about Shepard’s attackers, a history.com entry notes, “To avoid a death sentence, Russell Henderson pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder in April 1999 and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Later that year, Aaron McKinney attempted to use a “gay panic” defense at his own trial, claiming that Shepard’s advances disgusted him.” Both Henderson and McKinney are serving life sentences.

The history.com article adds, “Matthew Shepard’s death sparked national outrage and renewed calls for extending hate crime laws to cover violence based on a person’s sexual orientation.”

In 2000 the New York City-based Tectonic Theater Project presented The Laramie Project — first at Denver’s Ricketson Theatre, then off-Broadway at the Union Square Theatre. Two years later the play was presented in Laramie.

Written by Moisés Kaufman in collaboration with members of the theater company, the docudrama explores the events and viewpoints surrounding Shepard’s death. We learn that Tectonic members arrived in Laramie in November 1998, a month after the event. Members of the theater company interviewed Laramie residents, and all of the dialogue is derived from those conversations, as well as Tectonic members’ journal entries. Published news reports also are excerpted.

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime has presented The Laramie Project. In a program note, director Ethan Luk admits to having had doubts about the play’s relevance: “How does The Laramie Project speak to an audience more than 20 years after its premiere?” For the director, an answer can be found in events such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and the Brooklyn subway shooting: “Violence and injustice, both in explicit and implicit forms, still run rampant … perhaps that is why we find ourselves in front of the mirror time after time.” more

April 6, 2022

AUDRA MCDONALD: National Medal of Arts winner Audra McDonald (above) performed April 2 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, accompanied by Andy Einhorn. (Photo courtesy of McCarter Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Award-winning singer and actor Audra McDonald performed at McCarter this past Saturday night. The concert, which played to a packed Matthews Theatre, featured a selection of Broadway standards. The evening was by turns uplifting and introspective. McDonald’s range and stellar vocal technique, and her respect and passion for material on which she was determined to make her own, all were on display.

In addition to six Tony Awards, two Grammy Awards, and an Emmy, McDonald has received a National Medal of Arts. Her numerous stage credits include Ragtime and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. The Juilliard-trained soprano’s opera credits include Houston Grand Opera and Los Angeles Opera. Screen credits include the HBO series The Gilded Age, as well as the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect.

McDonald was accompanied by Broadway music director and conductor Andy Einhorn. Multiple songs heard in the concert appear on McDonald’s 2018 album Sing Happy, for which Einhorn conducted the New York Philharmonic.

Einhorn struck one key on the piano, which was a sufficient introduction for McDonald to launch into the stirring opening number, “I Am What I Am.” Early in the song Einhorn’s accompaniment was comparatively spare; as McDonald’s impassioned performance grew in speed and intensity, Einhorn’s accompaniment grew more elaborate. more

March 23, 2022

“ON BECKETT”: McCarter Theatre Center presented “On Beckett” on March 18. Created, directed and performed by Bill Irwin, the show played at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Above: Irwin considers, among other questions, whether the “Waiting for Godot” playwright’s work is “natural clown territory.” (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Award-winning actor, writer, director, and clown Bill Irwin presented On Beckett at McCarter on March 18. The entertaining monologue excerpts passages from the author and playwright’s writings, interspersed with comedy routines and affable, thoughtful commentary. Early in the evening Irwin poses an overarching rhetorical question: “Is Samuel Beckett’s writing natural clown territory?”

On Beckett is the result, and culmination, of Irwin’s extensive experience performing Beckett’s works. He has acted in multiple productions of Waiting for Godot, including the 2009 Broadway production; and he performed in American Conservatory Theater’s 2012 production of Endgame.

“Mine is an actor’s relationship to Beckett’s language; but it’s also a clown’s relationship,” Irwin explains to this writer in an interview for (the March 16 edition of) Town Topics. “I’m hoping to welcome you in, and in doing so, re-welcome myself back in, because I am forever rediscovering this writing — the wit in it.”

On Beckett premiered at Irish Repertory Theatre in 2018, following development at ACT. The McCarter presentation is produced by Octopus Theatricals, in partnership with the Lewis Center for the Arts.

Irwin’s other original stage works include The Regard of Flight, The Happiness Lecture, and Old Hats. He won a Tony Award for Best Actor for his performances in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Fool Moon (the latter is created by Irwin and David Shiner). Television credits include Elmo’s World; film credits include Rachel Getting Married and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. more

March 2, 2022

“A DOLL’S HOUSE”: Theatre Intime has staged a reimagined “A Doll’s House,” presented February 18-27 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Directed by Ariel Rockman, Ibsen’s 19th-century drama is transplanted to a literal, contemporary dollhouse. Above: Nora (Caitlin Durkin) spends time with one of her “children.” (Photo by Rowen Gesue)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Late in A Doll’s House Nora, the play’s protagonist, says this in a confrontation with her domineering husband: “I’ve been your doll-wife here, just as at home I was Papa’s doll-child. And in turn the children have been my dolls.” In a recent production, that literally was true.

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime has presented (February 18-27) a stylized production of A Doll’s House. Working from Rolf Fjelde’s translation of Henrik Ibsen’s script, Director Ariel Rockman brings a contemporary, imaginative viewpoint to the 1879 drama about a woman’s self-discovery.

There is a marked change from the visual aesthetic of many productions. Set Designer Kat McLaughlin replaces the usual staid, if opulent, 19th-century parlor. Instead, we see bright pink walls and furniture that resembles dollhouses that one might see in commercials for Barbie toys. McLaughlin also is the sound designer, and makes the doorbell an imitation of those heard on Barbie houses.

In a program note Rockman explains the reasoning behind this approach. “I was inspired to set the play in a literal doll’s house to emphasize how Nora is a doll-like figure to everyone in her life,” the director writes. “I also wanted to show that she has agency in turning herself into a doll for other people.” more

February 23, 2022

“THE OK TRENTON PROJECT”: Performances are underway for “The OK Trenton Project.” Written by David Lee White, Richard Bradford, and members of the OK Trenton Ensemble; and directed by Passage’s Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues, the play runs through February 27 at Passage Theatre. Above, from left, are Richard Bradford, Wendi Smith, Kevin Bergen, Carmen Castillo (seated), and Molly Casey Chapman. (Photo by Jeff Stewart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In August 2017 the Associated Press ran an article with the headline, “Not OK? Sculpture of hand gesture moved over gang worries.” The subject of the piece was Helping Hands, a metal sculpture of a hand making the “OK” sign, which was installed on a city-owned vacant lot on the corner of Trenton’s Perry and Montgomery streets.

Helping Hands was created by students (ages 12 to 15) from Camp Mercer, a summer camp operated by HomeFront, a nonprofit group. The sculpture was crafted in collaboration with artist Eric Schultz of Grounds For Sculpture, along with Trenton-based community development organization Isles, Inc.

The AP article notes that the students chose the “OK” sign “because they felt the peace sign was overused.” After the mayor’s office received anonymous complaints that Helping Hands resembled a gang symbol, the sculpture was removed from city property.

The controversy surrounding the removal of  the sculpture — and reactions to other works of art — is explored in The OK Trenton Project, a new play that is being presented by Passage Theatre. The docudrama was developed through Passage’s PlayLab program, over a period of four years.

This iteration of The OK Trenton Project marks the first full mainstage production of  “Trenton Makes,” a season that will feature plays about the city. “Both true and fictional, each piece highlights the capital city’s triumphs and challenges while celebrating its unique community,” promises a promotional email from Passage. more

February 9, 2022

“SCENERY”: Performances are underway for “Scenery.” Presented by Maurer Productions OnStage, and directed by Judi Parrish, the play runs through February 13 at Kelsey Theatre. Above: married, veteran actors Richard Crain (Thom Carroll, left) and Marion Crain (Laurie Hardy) bicker, as an opening night finds them wearily discussing their life in the theater, and as a couple. (Photo by John M. Maurer)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Early in Scenery, veteran actor Marion Crain complains about being given new lines on opening night. Her husband, costar Richard Crain, tartly replies, “They gave us new lines last week; you just didn’t learn them.” Marion retorts, “I was busy learning the old ones.”

This exchange encapsulates the themes and content of Scenery, which is being presented at Kelsey Theatre. Playwright Ed Dixon scripts flippant conversations (which include adult humor and strong language) that achingly probe anxieties about time passing by and leaving us behind — specifically, as we grow older.

In addition to his work as a playwright, Dixon is a seasoned composer and award-winning Broadway and concert performer. His voice is heard on several recordings (including the Kennedy Center premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, conducted by the composer). As such, Dixon’s own career offers him ample material for a play about longtime actors.

The play received its premiere from New York’s Montauk Theatre Company in September 2001 (five months after the Broadway opening of another comedy about theater and its practitioners: The Producers). Five years later, Grand Rapids Press reported that Dixon considers a subsequent production, presented at Saugatuck, Michigan’s Mason Street Warehouse, to be “the world premiere of a substantially rewritten script.” more

January 26, 2022

“OUR TOWN”: Performances are underway for “Our Town.” Presented by Kelsey Theatre and Shakespeare 70, and directed by Jake Burbage and Frank Falisi, the play runs through January 30 at Kelsey Theatre. Above: the Stage Manager (Curt Foxworth, center) and the cast. On ladders are George (Jake Burbage, left) and Emily (Kate Augustin). (Photo courtesy of Jake Burbage)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

On January 22, 1938, Our Town premiered at McCarter Theatre. Thornton Wilder wrote to a friend that the performance, which was “sold out with standees,” was an “undoubted success.” An unimpressed Variety declared that the play would “probably go down as the season’s most extravagant waste of fine talent” — an ironic assessment since Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama later that year.

Eighty-four years later (almost to the day), Our Town is being presented by Shakespeare 70 at Kelsey Theatre. Directed by Jake Burbage and Frank Falisi, this smooth, deft production honors Wilder’s intentions, while subtly giving additional focus and insight to a central character.

In terms of the visual aesthetic, this Our Town generally does not stray from what audiences might expect after seeing photos of past productions. In keeping with Wilder’s request for “no scenery,” Judi Parrish (credited with “props”) furnishes the stage with simple wooden chairs, on which cast members gradually sit before the performance begins.

Although the play is set at the beginning of the 20th century, costume designer Brittany Rivera generally eschews period costumes, letting most of the cast wear casual contemporary outfits. Among the notable exceptions is the good-naturedly pedantic Professor Willard (an exuberant Ray Fallon), whose bright yellow suit matches the character’s personality.

As if to blur the lines between stage and audience, the house lights are not dimmed until the performance has been underway for several minutes. The Stage Manager (Curt Foxworth) delivers the customary pre-performance reminders about emergency exits and silencing electronic devices, then seamlessly goes on-script to give a detailed introduction of the play’s setting. more

December 15, 2021

“WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME”: The North American tour of “What the Constitution Means to Me” has played at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre (December 7-12). Directed by Oliver Butler, the play depicts a debate between Jocelyn Shek (left) and playwright Heidi Schreck (Cassie Beck, right) about the merits — and deserved fate — of the Constitution. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The North American tour of What the Constitution Means to Me has played at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre December 7-12. Heidi Schreck’s play, which depicts a debate over the merits — and deserved fate — of the founding document, pulled the enthusiastic opening-night audience into the argument.

Schreck drew inspiration from a series of debates in which she participated as a teenager, giving speeches on what the Constitution meant to her. Money awarded at these contests helped pay Schreck’s college tuition. The play is set at one of the American Legion’s oratorical contests (in Wenatchee, Wash., where the playwright was raised).

A finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, What the Constitution Means to Me was commissioned by True Love Productions; the 2017 debut at the Wild Project in New York was followed by a West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. An off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop was followed by the 2019 Broadway production.

For much of the play the debate about the Constitution appears to be internal. Initially Schreck re-enacts her debate performance from the point of view of her 15-year-old self; although aware of injustice, she believes in the Constitution. (“I loved it. I was a zealot,” she recalls.) Later, as she learns more about the history of the country — and the women in her family — the adult Schreck angrily disowns her youthful idealism, rejecting long-ingrained beliefs.  more

November 24, 2021

“MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING”: Theatre Intime has staged a reimagined “Much Ado About Nothing,” presented November 12-21 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Directed by Katie Bushman, Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is transplanted to the era of World War I. Benedick (Solomon Bergquist, center left) and Beatrice (Cassy James, center right) have a bickersome courtship, which is jeopardized by an action taken by Claudio (Harit Raghunathan, left) at his wedding to Hero (Lauren Owens, second from left). Onlookers: Leonato (Hank Ingham, second from right) and Don Pedro (Alex Conboy, right). (Photo by Elliot Lee)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare has Balthasar, a musician, sing: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more; men were deceivers ever.” This world-weary comment, about the timelessness of dishonesty in relationships, would seem to offer directors latitude to reimagine the period in which this comedy is set.

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime has presented (from November 12-21) a production that takes advantage of this dramaturgical license. Director Katie Bushman transplants the play — first published in 1600 — to the end of the First World War.

This is clear as soon as the audience enters the theater. We hear popular songs of that period, including Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and, more thematically relevant, George M. Cohan’s “Over There.”

Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (portrayed by Alex Conboy) returns home from winning a battle. With him are two of his soldiers: Claudio (Harit Raghunathan) and Benedick (Solomon Bergquist). The play is set at the home of a noble, Leonato (Hank Ingham); he invites the soldiers to stay for a month.  more

November 17, 2021

KELLI O’HARA: Stage and screen star Kelli O’Hara (above) performed November 13 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, marking her debut there. For the concert, which included a selection of show tunes and standards, the Tony Award winner was accompanied by a quartet of instrumentalists. (Photo courtesy of McCarter Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Stage and screen star Kelli O’Hara performed at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre this past Saturday night. The concert featured a selection of classic and contemporary show tunes, as well as a few stand-alone songs, that have had special significance for the Tony and Drama League Award winner.

Her stage credits include numerous musical theater roles on Broadway, as well as Metropolitan Opera performances in The Merry Widow and Cosi fan tutte. Screen credits include the web series The Accidental Wolf, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, and HBO’s upcoming The Gilded Age.

O’Hara made her McCarter debut with the November 13 concert. However, one of the musicians who accompanied her — percussionist Gene Lewin — is an alumnus of Princeton University and its Triangle Club.

Dan Lipton was the musical director and pianist. Guitarist Justin Goldner and bassist Alex Eckhardt completed the well-balanced quartet.  more

November 10, 2021

“HOW TO RAISE A FREEMAN”: McCarter Theatre and Bard at the Gate are presenting a prerecorded video of Zakiyyah Alexander’s “How to Raise a Freeman.” Directed by Reginald L. Douglas, the video is available via McCarter’s website. Above: Keith (Malcolm Barrett, top), Dean (Jamie Lincoln Smith, middle left) and Greg (Francois Battiste, middle right) teach Marcus (Aric Floyd, bottom) some lessons he will not learn in school. (Digital image courtesy of ViDCo)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is presenting How to Raise a Freeman online as of November 3. The theater’s website describes Zakiyyah Alexander’s play as a “dark comedy that asks how a middle-class, African American family can keep their son alive in a world where every 28 hours a Black man is killed by law enforcement.”

The pre-filmed production is a collaboration between McCarter and Bard at the Gate. Founded by Paula Vogel, Bard at the Gate is “designed to become a widely accessible platform for powerful, overlooked plays by BIPOC, women, LGBTQ, and disabled artists,” according to the series’ website.

How to Raise a Freeman opens Bard at the Gate’s second season. The curators are Vogel; McCarter’s Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson; and the Bard at the Gate Advisory Council. Princeton Public Library is hosting a Bard at the Gate Watch Party Series, the first installment of which took place on November 4.

Alexander is an award-winning writer whose other works include the plays 10 Things to Do Before I Die, The Etymology of Bird, and the musical Girl Shakes Loose. Her television credits include 24: Legacy, Grey’s Anatomy, and Hunters. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Alexander is co-founder of the Killroys, an organization that focuses on parity in American theater. more

October 13, 2021

“EVE’S DIARY”: Theatre Intime has staged a reading of “Eve’s Diary,” presented October 10 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Directed by Anna Allport ’23, the show dramatizes Mark Twain’s retelling of the Creation story. Adam (Ally Wonski, standing left) and Eve (Oriana Nelson, standing right) meet. Seated, from left, are Mel Hornyak, Jill Leung, Elliot Lee, Madeline Buswell, and Sheherzad Jamal. (Photo by Elliot Lee)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Eve’s Diary is a witty but poignant re-imagining of events in the Garden of Eden. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) writes from the title character’s point of view, adding intermittent comments from Adam. First published in 1905, this anachronistic version of Genesis is strikingly relevant in its satire on conflicts in relationships between men and women, as well as its consideration of the search for one’s identity and purpose.

Twain’s story first appeared in the Christmas issue of Harper’s Bazaar, and subsequently in the anthology Their Husband’s Wives. In 1906 Harper and Brothers published it as a book. It is a successor to Extracts from Adam’s Diary (1893).

On October 10 Princeton University’s Theatre Intime presented a live, in-person staged reading of Eve’s Diary, at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Both the cast and the audience were masked.

Director Anna Allport reveals in a program note that she performed a monologue from the story in high school, and was enamored of the work’s “delightfulness and surprising complexity,” as well as Eve’s endless curiosity, headstrong spirit, and unshaken optimism.”

Because the presentation is a staged reading, the only production element is the lighting by Greyson Sapio. An apple, placed in the center at the edge of the stage, is the only prop. However, there is enough movement to provide visual interest. Allport keeps the pacing tight by avoiding pauses between monologues. Twain’s prose is divided among seven actors; four actors share Eve’s lines, and three read for Adam.

As Eve, Oriana Nelson opens the show. She stands up, and — with spring in her step — moves toward center stage. “Saturday — I am almost a day old,” she recites, gesturing expressively. Twain immediately imbues Eve with a mixture of self-confidence and philosophical introspection. “I feel like an experiment,” she muses early in the story, though she senses that her experiences will be “important to the historian some day.” Nelson accentuates Eve’s self-confidence.  more

October 6, 2021

“SNIPER”: Performances are underway for “Sniper.” Presented by Theatre Intime and directed by Sabina Jafri ’24, the play runs through October 10 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. After (fictional) teenager Anthony Vaccaro (Dominic Dominguez, standing, center) commits a fatal mass shooting, he probes his relationships with people in his past. The cast includes, from left, Violet Prete, David Smith, Luke Pascucci, Nemo Newman, Solomon Bergquist, and Kate Stewart. (Photo by Elliot Lee)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Sniper is a psychological, often harrowing drama that examines the past — and state of mind — of a teenager who fatally shoots multiple citizens of his small town. Playwright Bonnie Culver loosely bases the play (which ran at Center Stage, NYC in 2005) on a shooting in Olean, N.Y., where she happened to be at the time.

In 1974, 17-year-old Anthony F. Barbaro randomly fired on people from third floor windows of a high school, onto a shopping center. Three people were killed, and 11 were injured. Eleven months later, Barbaro hanged himself in his jail cell.

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime is presenting Sniper. The production is in person, but both the cast and the audience are masked.

Director Sabina Jafri states in a program note, “We have been challenged on our decision to produce such a sensitive piece of work. However … it was important to bring this show to the stage because it examines a significant issue that will not be resolved unless it is acknowledged and discussed.” more

July 14, 2021

“ORDINARY DAYS”: Performances are underway for “Ordinary Days.” Directed by Laurie Gougher, the musical runs through July 17 at the Kelsey Theatre. Claire (Jazmynn Perez, left) has suffered a loss that complicates her relationship with her boyfriend, Jason (Shane Tapley, right). Warren (Jackson Jules, second from left) forms an unlikely friendship with Deb (Karaline Rosen, second from right). The cast is accompanied by Michael Gilch (seated at the piano). (Photo by Evan Paine)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In the musical Ordinary Days a character sings, “All of my most favorite places are places that I’ve never been.” For many theatergoers, a theater housing a live, in-person production is a place that they have never been — at least since March 2020.

Kelsey Theatre has resumed in-person performances. The Kelsey Forward Initiative’s production of Ordinary Days originally was to be presented outside, on the Mercer County Community College (MCCC) campus. However, severe heat and humidity, as well as updates in CDC and state guidelines, led to the production being moved into the auditorium.

The production is “using social distanced seating, and masks are requested during the show,” according to Kelsey’s website. Copies of the program are online rather than in print, and tickets for a livestream are available for viewers who prefer to watch the show online. But the in-person performance attended by this writer (Saturday, July 10) was sold out.

Ordinary Days is a sung-through musical that depicts four New Yorkers whose lives briefly intersect in an unexpected, poetic way. The unassuming, character-driven show is poignant and warmly humorous. It examines the tension between grand ambitions and an ability to treasure daily life; and a character’s need to confront a painful past, in order to welcome a happier future. more

May 19, 2021

“A TWIST OF WATER”: Passage Theatre has presented an online production of “A Twist of Water.” Written by Caitlin Parrish (from a story by Parrish and Erica Weiss), and directed by Michael Osinski, the play portrays a widowed history teacher whose adopted daughter Jira (depicted above) decides to search for her birth mother. (Artwork by Jonathan Connor and Leon Rainbow, courtesy of Passage Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre has concluded its mainstage season with A Twist of Water. The drama depicts Noah, a history teacher who confronts the death of his husband and the decision of their adopted African American teenage daughter, Jira, to seek out her birth mother.

Written by Caitlin Parrish, from a story by Parrish and Erica Weiss, A Twist of Water premiered in 2011. Set in Chicago, the play debuted in that city (produced by Route 66 Theatre Company). An off-Broadway run followed in 2012.

Passage’s online presentation was presented May 12-16. A press release observes that the play “portrays characters with intersecting identities that include race and sexual orientation.”

The video begins with a caption to remember that A Twist of Water “takes place in what is colonially known as the city of Chicago, which is located on the traditional unceded homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations.” While it is becoming customary for theaters to begin events with a land acknowledgement, the subject is thematically connected to this play.

“Chicago is Chicago because of its water,” Noah remarks philosophically. “In the 1600s French explorers were making their way across the continent and came upon a river, which was called ‘shikaakwa’ by the Native Americans.” As a young woman gazes out at what presumably is either Lake Michigan or the Chicago River, Noah adds, “The newcomers heard this name, and their version became ‘Chicago.”

This contemplative opening monologue (which presumably is preparation for a lesson) is in sharp contrast to the subsequent scene, in which Noah (Josh Tyson) frantically makes repeated calls to Jira, to find out where she is. Jira (Kishia Nixon) finally answers, and coolly explains that she has been “by the lake.” more

April 7, 2021

“SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY”: Passage Theatre has presented an online production of “Surely Goodness and Mercy.” Written by Chisa Hutchinson and directed by marcus d. harvey, the play depicts Tino (above, left) and a classmate, who try to help an irascible but caring school cafeteria worker. (Painting by Leon Rainbow, courtesy of Passage Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre has presented Surely Goodness and Mercy. Playwright Chisa Hutchinson’s inspirational coming-of-age drama follows Tino, an intelligent and caring 12-year-old boy. Tino and a classmate form an unlikely friendship with a school cafeteria worker, and seek a way to help her out of a crisis.

This online production was presented March 25-28; the run was extended for a second week (April 1-4). Surely Goodness and Mercy has been part of Passage’s Theatre for Families and Young Audiences series — which, according to the company’s website, is “geared towards students in elementary or middle school and focus on themes that affect the youth in our area.”

Hutchinson’s play is uplifting, but it also is grittily realistic. Set in Newark, Surely Goodness and Mercy attacks poverty (specifically the inability to afford health care), racism, and child abuse. Hutchinson also explores faith and its ability to empower people to change situations.

Tino (serenely portrayed by Layton E. Dickson) lives with his embittered aunt, Alneesa (played by Tamara Anderson, whose performance is characterized by bored, haughty glares and barbed line readings). When Tino tries to engage Alneesa in conversation, she pointedly fast-forwards through a commercial to avoid him.

Alneesa approves of Tino’s classmates teasing him for reading the Bible at school. She also rants about his generation when she learns that he discovered his church via Yelp. She tasks him with dusting, before abruptly reassigning him to scrubbing the bathtub. Later we learn that Tino’s mother died to save him from a gunshot. Alneesa’s resentment stems from the fact that she did not want children, but has been tasked with raising her late sister’s child. more