Jane M. Von Bergen’s “Theater Beat” rounds up news and notes from the Philadelphia region’s theater scene.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson was already writing Natural Shocks, opening Dec. 4 at Simpatico Theatre, when the Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland, Fla., occurred on Valentine’s Day in 2018.
Gunderson is one of the most produced playwrights in the United States, and this work resonated with longtime Philadelphia actor Amanda Schoonover who was looking for a one-woman show to pitch to area theaters. She, in turn, found a ready taker in Allison Heishman, Simpatico’s artistic director. “Really well-written one-woman plays are hard to find,” said Schoonover. “I read this one, and it absolutely took my breath away.”
Schoonover’s had a busy month. This month, the crew shooting AMC’s Dispatches From Elsewhere wrapped production in Philadelphia. Schoonover, a Barrymore Award winner in Philadelphia theater, played a “salty waitress,” appearing in a supporting role with Jason Segel and Sally Field. (Field, Schoonover said, is “absolutely delightful, one of the most supportive people ever.”)
What moved Schoonover about Natural Shocks was its intermingling of gun violence and domestic abuse, she said. “It was very important for me to do this play in the hopes that I could help someone in this situation."
In a related work, a mother confronts unbearable loss in another one-woman drama, On the Exhale — this one at Theatre Exile, Nov. 29 through Dec. 22.
Suli Holum, who just finished playing a 13-year-old dancer in Dance Nation at the Wilma Theater, here plays a character with mixed feelings about the weapon that changed her life. Holum is a founding member of the Pig Iron Theatre Co., and artistic director of The Work, an incubator for new performance.
McCarter lands a big musical
Preeti thinks Mary, a biracial college student, isn’t “Indian” enough to dance on the Bengal Tigers Bhangra team, so Mary and her roommate Sunita start their own team to compete in the Intercollegiate Bhangra, a high-stakes competitive “dance-off” of traditional Punjabi folk styles.
That’s the story line for the brand new, large-scale musical, Bhangin’ It. Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center has announced that the show, in coproduction with La Jolla Playhouse and backed by the influential Jerome Robbins Foundation and Project Springboard, will be part of its 2020-21 season.
Bhangin’ It signals the return of original musical theater to the Princeton venue, where productions that come through in their early stages sometimes find their way to Broadway.
It’s at the tail end of the 2021 season, so you’ll have to wait to June 2021 to see it. In the near term, McCarter is staging A Christmas Carol Dec. 10 through 29.
He sees stage people
Once upon a time, Travis Greisler, director of Once at the Bucks County Playhouse, was a 6-year-old who told his mother about an unusual ability.
“I can see music,” he recalled telling her, then asking, “Who is the person who makes the pictures on the stage?’”
Somehow his mother figured out that Greisler was describing the duties of a music-theater director. Knowing that, Greisler wanted to direct, starting immediately.
Greisler’s parents looked for a directing class for 6-year-olds near their home in Holland, Bucks County, and were overwhelmed with choices. Well, no.
But Wendy and Scott Greisler, who now live in Center City, enrolled little Travis, then 8, in acting classes at the Bucks County Playhouse, where he debuted on stage as the narrator in Pinocchio.
Full circle: Greisler is now making his regional-theater directing debut at the Playhouse. (He’s been associate director of The Cher Show on Broadway, plus director of many other Off-Broadway shows through the years.) At age 35, Greisler said, he still retains his childhood gift: “I picture live-music videos is the simple way to describe it.”
Written in 2007, Once, a romantic musical about two struggling artists in Dublin, is now a classic. But Greisler, who lives in Manhattan, wanted to add his own twist. Instead of setting Once in an Irish pub, as it often is, Greisler imagined the bar as the inside of guitar and worked with designer Nate Bertone to craft an unusual set, stringing wires overhead to evoke guitar strings.
With just three weeks of rehearsal, “we needed to get a group of people who knew the material and who loved the material,” yet were willing to be amenable to Greisler’s vision. “They trusted me and my choreographer (Misha Shields) to build up the show.” Once runs through Nov. 30.