The story of 2019’s best New Jersey theater is one of two stellar, surprising, exciting productions—one in Princeton, one in New Brunswick—and a collection of somewhat intriguing, thought-provoking, or otherwise fun shows.
But beyond that list, most of the state’s major theaters played matters relatively safe. Witness December, which has seen approximately 4,512 professional versions of “The Christmas Carol” on N.J.’s professional stages. This is fannies-in-the-seats programming of the highest degree. The rest of the year looked similar: a few big-name writers like Ludwig or Taylor, a few chestnuts like “The Rainmaker” or “Cinderella” or “Romeo and Juliet,” and an underdeveloped premiere here and there. One always hopes that a balance can be found between alluring marquees and innovative theater. That balance was struck marvelously twice this year: here’s to hopes for a roaringly more exciting 2020.
My ten favorite productions of 2019 were…
- “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” at the McCarter Theater
Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater Company stormed the Princeton theater with a bold and visceral version of Shelley’s novel. Adapted and directed by David Catlin, this show asserted itself with a giant stage in the middle of McCarter’s large Matthews Theater, the playing surface upon which performers descended from above, rose from below, and swirled around in aerial gymnastics. Best though were the vibrant performances of the five-person company. At the heart of the show, Walter Briggs as the maniacal doctor and Keith D. Gallagher as his beastly creation combined to bring to compelling life this legendary story by Shelley (herself played wonderfully by Cordelia Dewdney).
- “Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical” at George Street Playhouse
The other stellar production in the state this year was in a theater space no longer operating: George Street’s temporary home on Rutgers’ campus before their pristine new home in downtown New Brunswick opened this fall. Written and principally performed by Laiona Michelle, “Little Girl” blue was partly a jukebox musical and partly a biography of jazz legend Simone, but it was mostly a layered and complex examination of the confluence of race, gender, art, righteous anger, protest, and myriad other social conditions that come to light in Michelle’s telling of Simone’s life and career. Michelle’s considerable talents made the impact of this show from way back in February linger throughout the year.
- “Heartland” at Luna Stage
Gabriel Jason Dean’s new play is concise and challenging, and under the direction of Ari Laura Kreith, Luna Stage found the show’s heart and grit. Focusing on how clashes of international politics can take root at the center of a loving family, the production asked us to explore the limits of our empathy. Kareem Badr was moving and warm as Nazurllah, a character caught in the middle of much of the play’s tension.
- “Noises Off” at Two River Theater
This show was a ton of fun. Michael Frayn’s 1982 farce about the world of theater is goofy, witty, and quick, not at all hesitant to capture the full power of a pratfall, slapped face, or slammed door. The cast was spot-on and Charlie Corcoran’s set was a wonder, but the best work here had to be by director Sarna Lapine, who was responsible for harnessing all of the play’s whacky energy toward something coherent and enjoyable. Her (and movement coordinator Lorenzo Pisoni’s) success amplified a silly evening out to a comic adventure.
- “Gloria: A Life” at the McCarter
In her swan-song season as the artistic director in Princeton, Emily Mann found warmth and energy in one of her own plays, a biographical sketch of feminist icon Gloria Steinem. The McCarter’s Berlind Theatre was transformed into a cozy talking circle, as Mary McDonnell played the title role surrounded by a six-woman ensemble who moved between many supporting roles in Steinem’s journey. Directed by Mann, the show felt at all times like a celebration of family, community, determination, and strength.
- “Pipeline” at Mile Square Theater
Detroit playwright Dominique Morisseau offered the Hoboken theater a challenging story of family, race, education, and American social structures. Director Kevin R. Free capitalized on Mile Square’s intimate space to make the proceedings feel more claustrophobic and tension-filled, allowing the central performances of Malikha Mallette and Jarvis Tomdio to push with desperate angst against the world that seemed always to be closing forebodingly in on them.
- “The Belle of Amherst” at Two River Theater
A one-woman show about a 19th century poet holed up in her house telling her life story to an imaginary audience of strangers might not sound like the most intriguing night of theater, but William Luce’s play finds surprising buoyancy in the life of Emily Dickinson. Directed in April by Two River founder Robert Rechnitz, the show was a great testament to Rechnitz’s career before his death at 89 in October. His direction supported superb work by Maureen Silliman to capture and celebrate the often-overlooked humanity of Dickinson as a person and a poet.
- “Beauty and the Beast” at Paper Mill Playhouse
Look, folks: Disney magic just works, ok? Well, I suppose there are conditions where it wouldn’t work, given poor production, but the Paper Mill nailed this “Beauty and the Beast.” Paper Mill artistic director Mark Hoebee (who spent a decade in the cast of the show’s Broadway run) found all the joy and celebratory dazzle in this show and brought it to the stage with full force. Belinda Allyn was a spot-on ingenue, and Gavin Lee was a blast as Lumiere.
- “Cyrano” at Two River Theater
It was a pretty good year in Red Bank, including this October surprise. “Cyrano” is a classic tale told over-and-over again in countless versions and media, but Jason O’Connell and Brenda Withers’s version managed to offer something of an interesting take. Putting pressure on the limits of theatricality, as O’Connell and his colleagues are wont to do, this “Cyrano” tried to shed the fairytale but still celebrate its love story. It was not entirely successful, but its sense of adventure and exploration are to be commended.
- “Voyage One” at New Jersey Repertory Theatre
Forgive me for admitting some ignorance here: but not until some internet sleuthing after having seen this play in Long Branch did I learn the truth of NASA’s 1977 Voyager 1 mission that included The Golden Record. It’s real, and you should Google it if you don’t know about it, but Jared Michael Delaney’s play is more than just a tale of a cool project in history. It uses the story of The Golden Record to probe big questions about people and goals and art and relationships and expectations. Along with director Evan Bergman, Joseph Carlson and Daven Ralston did great work in this two-hander to explore the nature of simple humanity in an infinitely complex universe. an infinitely complex universe.