Sunday, August 15, 2010

Random Roundup of New Jersey Productions

It's time to play catch-up. I've got a plethora of shows that tend to involve either Shakespeare or New Jersey to go over with you. Where to start? It all feels like a blur, but I'll try and make sense of it all while being brief.

Let's begin with the ReVision Theatre's production of "Tommy," which enjoyed a sold-out run last month at the Carousel House in Asbury Park. I have seen two prior Revision Theatre productions, "Hair" and "The Full Monty," performed within this skeletal, once abandoned, in-the-round structure next to the beach. It is my understanding that the troupe is looking for a different theater space to use in the future. As unique and special as the Carousel House is as a venue, it brings with it a horror house of sight line and acoustic problems.

I thought that "Tommy" was a more than appropriate choice for the venue and the young theater company. Though still in its infancy, ReVision has proven itself to be an enterprising and freethinking group that has brought a youthful, unpredictable downtown mentality to the rather polite and ordinary New Jersey theater scene. It's surely New York's loss that the troupe has set its sights primarily on the Garden State.

What was most fascinating about their "Tommy" was their choice to Americanize and modernize it. World War II became Vietnam. Victoria Station became Grand Central Station. Mrs. Walker is now 31 instead of 21 when Tommy enters his trance, though I don't really understand the point of that change. And in another unnecessary change, they changed the plot so that Captain Walker is killed, rather than the mother's lover. This choice is problematic in terms of story and character. Why should the mother's lover care so much about Tommy? The mother's lover wouldn't sing "I Believe My Own Eyes."

Nevertheless, the choice to Americanize the story was altogether successful and could be an important step in making "Tommy" more appealing to amateur theater companies that don't know how to sport British accents. Similarly, their production demonstrated that "Tommy" can be mounted with no video or computer imagery whatsoever, though some shadow puppetry was effectively employed for Uncle Ernie's molestation scene.

Oh, and before I forget my favorite part of all about the production: antique pinball machines outside the theater! Loved it!

Another musical I saw in New Jersey was "Rent," performed by New Jersey Youth Theatre at NJPAC, which consists of young actors in their late teens to early 20s. This was an unusual choice for the company, which I have seen perform "Carousel," "1776" and "Sweeney Todd" with pitch-perfect production values. Vocally, Cynthia Meryl's production was superlative, just as all her previous stagings have been. But the acting was pretty lackluster - in fact, completely ineffective. Did these kids not grow up as Rentheads? Are they too far removed from the grim realities of the AIDS epidemic to understand the musical's sobering realities?

But perhaps worst of all was Meryl's unmistakable choice to copy the original staging. Not just the original scenic design, but almost every move. Not just the simple staging of "Seasons of Love," but the entire choreography of "La Vie Boheme."

A show I enjoyed far more in New Jersey was "Arms and the Man," performed by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. I find it hard to believe that no major New York companies have mounted Shaw's anti-war comedy in response to the Iraq invasion. Unlike Shaw's heavier and more didactic plays, "Arms and the Man" manages to be light and breezy while also full of intelligence. Bravo to the Shakespeare Theatre on its smart programming choice and an altogether smashing production.

Now that we've reached the end of this round-up, I must confess that I must now move to a show I saw not in New Jersey, but New York's Hudson Valley - namely "Troilus and Cressida" at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. I had never before seen a show at this well-regarded outdoor space, and was eager to finally set a date to do so. After arriving at the train station, I took the company's "Bard Bus" to the company's extraordinarily scenic location a few miles away. Stunning views of the Hudson Valley.

It didn't rain, but perhaps I didn't choose the best night to see the show. It was humid - deadly humid. I must confess that I could barely concentrate due to the heat and the flies. I even had to put on complimentary bug spray during intermission. But whatever. The company's production of the rarely seen romance was quite lovely, though opening Act Two with a takeoff of Beyonce's "Single Ladies" was unnecessary and weird.

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