They called it “Broadway at the Beach,” and for most of the last 65 years that’s what it was at Surflight Theatre, a sweeping auditorium with 450 seats, just a short walk from the ocean in Beach Haven on Long Beach Island.
Just last summer, after bouts with bankruptcy and four feet of water from Hurricane Sandy, the professional theater bounced back with productions of three Tony-award-winning musicals: “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Spamalot” and “A Chorus Line.”
It would be Surflight’s swansong. This season Surflight is dark, and so is its popular ice cream parlor where the waiters would sing. Financial woes from declining ticket sales and rising costs continued. Earlier this year the theater’s board chairman sent patrons, volunteers and donors a letter that Surflight would cease productions.
That leaves two professional theaters operating down the South Jersey shore, both in Cape May and each a short walk from the other.
“Surflight Theatre is forced to cease operations after 65 years and file for bankruptcy,” wrote Surflight chairman Dave Kreines in his letter, on behalf of the theater’s board. “This was an extremely difficult decision, and it was not made without trying every possible action to save the theater we all love. Over the past few months, we and Surflight have worked tirelessly to improve the theater’s financial condition through a variety of means… Unfortunately, these efforts were unsuccessful.”
At the southern tip of the Jersey coast, Cape May Stage and East Lynne Theater Company are on more solid footing, busy with their regular season audiences, who tend to be local, and with Philadelphians who make up a portion of the summer audiences at both. Summer at these two professional theaters – professional because each has a contract with Actors’ Equity, the national union of actors and stage managers – tends to be a time in Cape May for producing crowd-pleasing lighter fare.
Here’s what you can expect at theater down the Shore this summer, if you’re in or near Cape May.
CAPE MAY STAGE31 Perry St., Cape May, N.J.609-770-8311, www.capemaystage.org
A former church behind Cape May’s pedestrian downtown mall became a community center, then a welcome center and then, after it was restored and re-opened in 2008, Cape May Stage. Roy B. Steiberg, its artistic director, spent much of his career in Los Angeles as a director and producer of daytime dramas – “The Guiding Light,” “One Life to Live,” “Days of Our Lives –and some of the actors he worked with can be seen in shows nowadays at Cape May Stage. The company’s high-level productions have also attracted professional actors from Philadelphia’s main stages. Here’s the summer schedule.
MARY, MARY. Jean Kerr’s play about a marriage gone nuts is set on Valentine’s Day, when the erstwhile couple – about to divorce — is stuck in an apartment because of a snowstorm. With them: A film hunk, the husband’s new trophy fianceé, and the couple’s lawyer. It’s currently running, through July 24.
THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE. Jane Wagner wrote this pointed and funny one-woman show for Lily Tomlin, her partner at the time and now her spouse. It’s a general critique of life in America, in this production starring Tricia Alexandro. The show runs from July 29 through September 4.
EAST LYNNE THEATER COMPANY500 Hughes St., Cape May, N.J.609-884-5898, www.eastlynnetheater.org
Old American plays – many of them long-forgotten – or premiere adaptations of old material are treasures for East Lynne, which stages them in the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Cape May. The altar area is the stage, which necessarily limits the playing space, so what stands out in an East Lynne production is the acting and direction, not necessarily the scenery, costumes or lighting. Here’s the summer fare.
MR. LINCOLN. A tour-de-force for the actor Tom Byrn, this show commemorates the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination. The one-man play by Herbert Mitgang appeared on Broadway about 35 years ago, and East Lynne’s artistic director Gayle Stahlhuth decided it was a fitting memorial for the man. It’s running now through July 25. (For my review: http://is.gd/wpm6uv)
HUCKLEBERRY FINN. The theater company has made a mark with adaptations, and this world-premiere adaptation by James Rana takes Mark Twain’s 1885 book about a carefree boy and his buddies to the stage, July 29 through September 5.