Ah, the Shore: Surf and cotton candy, sand and fine dining, Skee-Ball and theater. … Theater?
Yes — professional theater on Long Beach Island and in Cape May is busy in the summer months, when artistic directors choose work that’s light and airy, just like any Jersey Shore diversion. In Cape May, two companies operate year-round — although instead of a slow summer season as in most regional theater, Shore stages are often dark in the coldest months of winter. During the summer, the three theaters are humming almost nightly and sometimes with matinees.
Summer is the time for old chestnuts and crowd pleasers — even though theaters across the nation can draw large audiences for Shakespeare in the hot months, he’s a hard sell after a long day of mellowing in the sun.
Philadelphians are part of the summer audiences at all three professional theaters — professional because each has a contract with Actors’ Equity, the national union of stage actors and stage managers. The other night at Cape May Stage, I ran into a couple who’d just come down from their Montgomery County home for the long Independence Day weekend. “We try to go to Cape May Stage whenever we’re down,” one of them said. Other Shore-goers from metropolitan Philadelphia have told me the same thing.
What will they see? It varies during the summer months — but mostly musicals and comedies, each produced by the stage company involved. Over the winter, the local residents may have meatier choices, like Katori Hall’s fantasy about the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life, called “The Mountaintop.” That play, on Broadway three seasons back, was produced by Cape May Stage during the late spring, before the hot weather brought a summer whimsy to the Shore in general.
Here’s a rundown on the three professional Shore theaters in South Jersey, and what they’re producing this summer.
Cape May Stage
31 Perry St, Cape May, N.J.609-770-8311www.capemaystage.org
At one end of the park behind Cape May’s pedestrian downtown mall sits a former church that became a community center, then a welcome center and then — after a restoration that was finished in 2008 — the comfortable, modern home of Cape May Stage.
A year later, after answering a blind ad on the Web and getting the job, Roy B. Steinberg became its artistic director. Steinberg, who spent much of his adult life in Los Angeles directing and producing daytime TV dramas (“The Guiding Light,” “One Life to Live,” “Days of our Lives”), has plenty of show business colleagues, and they’re often found performing at Cape May Stage. High-level productions are the company’s standard, with the bar for costumes, lighting, sound design and other stagecraft similar to Philadelphia’s major professional stages.
“Moon over Buffalo” — Cape May Stage features this farce by Ken Ludwig through Aug. 1. It’s the story of a troupe of washed-out actors in the ’50s. They have a crack at the Hollywood big-time, if only they can get through their ill-fated stint in Buffalo. See my full review in NewsWorks’ “Shapiro on Theater” blog.
“Blithe Spirit” — Noel Coward’s story about a séance that goes all wrong, bringing a novelist’s dead first wife back to haunt both him and his second wife, runs from Aug. 6 through Sept. 19.
East Lynne Theater Company
500 Hughes St., Cape May, N.J.609-884-5898www.eastlynnetheater.org
Dedicated to what it calls the rediscovery of “lost gems,” the East Lynne company either stages old American plays (many of them long-forgotten) or presents premieres adapted from old material. This may seem like a restrictive mission, but the company seems to have little trouble fulfilling it, and frequently brings back plays that deserve a new production by playwrights whose work is worth seeing.
It’s obvious that for East Lynne, the focus is on the work, not necessarily the production. The company performs in the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Cape May, an easy walk from the pedestrian downtown mall. The altar area is the stage, generally, and although stagecraft is represented here, the acting is what stands out in an East Lynne production, not the production itself. Artistic director Gayle Stahlhuth makes the best of the space and in the end, the play really is the thing.
“The First 50 Years” — This dramedy begins in 1872 , after the Civil War, and follows the marriage of a couple through seven scenes that end in 1922 with their golden anniversary. Henry Myers’ play hit Broadway in 1922, before he wrote the screenplay for “Destry Rides Again.” The only known script of this play sat in the Lincoln Center library until Stahlhuth dug it out and decided to produce it, through July 19.
“Zorro!” — A novel called “The Curse of Capistrano,” serialized in a magazine in 1919, marked the first appearance of Zorro. The masked swordsman, who left his mark in the form of a “Z” on all things bad, is the focus of James Rana’s stage adaptation of the novel — and East Lynne world premiere that runs July 23 through Aug. 30.
“WIthin the Law” — A good example of East Lynne’s productions, this completely forgotten 20-character play about a sales clerk accused of shoplifting was a Broadway hit and money-maker in 1912, according to the theater company. It lasted 541 performances — a long run for the time — according to official Broadway records. It runs from Sept. 17 through Oct. 12.
201 Engleside Ave., Beach Haven, N.J.609-492-9477www.surflight.org
This Long Beach Island mainstay began operating in 1950, has occupied several venues, and moved into its current one — a sweeping auditorium with 450 seats — in 1987. But it wasn’t smooth ocean sailing a few years back, just after the 60th anniversary of what the company calls “Broadway at the Beach.” Financial problems loomed, and Surflight went into bankruptcy. It emerged only to be hit by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when four feet of water rolled in from the bay and caused $800,000 in damages.
Again, Surflight sprung back, with help from local residents, contractors and companies, foundations, even the Boy Scouts. The company’s artistic consultant, Charlie Siedenburg, describes its staying power over almost 65 years: “I call it the Timex watch theater,” he says, citing ads aired long ago for the watch’s durability. “It’s survived fire, flood, bankruptcy — and Sandy.”
Musicals are the main deal here during the summer, with major productions of general big-city quality. All three musicals at Surflight this summer won best-musical Tony Awards for the years they opened on Broadway.
“Fiddler on the Roof” — Tevye, his wife, and five daughters first took to the stage 50 years ago, and many theaters are honoring the anniversary with a production this season. It’s the sweet and unsettling story of Jews in a little Russian settlement, and the anti-Semitism they face. Surflight’s production runs through July 27.
“Spamalot” — The wonderfully goofy Monty Python musical is the King Arthur legend gone mad. The comedy group adapted it loosely from the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” a comic film masterpiece, but here with lots of music, too. It runs July 30 through Aug. 24.
“A Chorus Line” — A theatrical milestone for its storytelling, this musical about 17 performers competing to get a spot in a Broadway chorus line is a deft look at the events that have led them to this audition. The show runs Aug. 27 through Sept. 14.