brent johnson highlights one of the best places to see live theater in New Jersey, staged in one of the most unusual settings …
At the end of the boardwalk in Asbury Park, N.J., past the modern-looking shops and restaurants, sits a relic of the Jersey Shore: a circular, green-metal building that once housed a carousel.
Inside, you’d expect to find cobweb-covered horses of a ride that shuttered years ago.
Instead, it’s now the home of an exciting theater company.
Over the last few years, ReVision Theatre has staged unique, edgy shows in the most unusual of settings. Patrons pack inside the creaky old carousel house to watch New York-trained actors grace a square wooden stage. It’s like a small Manhattan theater production — only, a few hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean.
When they’re not performing original shows or little-known pieces, the company’s goal is to put a new spin on famous plays.
“We don’t want to do what they did on Broadway,” says David E. Leidholdt, ReVision’s co-artistic director. “We go against that. We want directors to have their own take.”
Recently, that meant staging Spring Awakening, the 2007 Tony winner for Best Musical — featuring book and lyrics by Steven Sater about teenagers discovering sex in 19th century Germany, with a rock-music score composed by pop singer Duncan Sheik. ReVision didn’t shy away from showing nudity. And thrillingly, the actors often delivered their lines a few inches from audience members’ faces, staring directly into their eyes. Then, at the show’s climax, a live band stepped out from behind a curtain to join the cast in the middle of the stage.
For Leidholdt, productions like this are a lot more risky than some of the shows he’s put on in the past. He used to work dinner theater in buttoned-down Ohio.
“You’re doing Fiddler On The Roof, and they want it exactly the way it’s been done for 50 years,” he recalls. “But Asbury Park is a unique town. It’s not very conservative. It’s very diverse. It’s got a bit of an edge.”
ReVision actually has its roots in the vaunted New York theater world. Leidholdt and his ReVision co-artistic director, Thomas Morrissey, helped found the Genesius Theatre Guild in the city in the mid-1990s. But a few years ago, they decided to take the company out of New York. That’s when they discovered Asbury Park.
In the mid-20th century, Asbury Park was a Jersey Shore destination — filled with amusement rides and thousands of beachgoers. But it hit hard times in the 1990s, seeing much of the boardwalk boarded up and the beaches deserted. Over the last few years, though, the beachfront has been rehabilitated with shops, restaurants and live music. The carousel house is one of the few leftovers from the old days, making the boardwalk a striking mixture of vintage and new.
The city’s population has also shifted — seeing more black, gay and Latino residents move in alongside Baby Boomers and weekenders from New York. In other words, it’s a mile away from the Garden State shown on MTV’s Jersey Shore.
“Actors get freaked out — ‘I’m going to New Jersey? Do I need a passport?'” Leidholdt jokes. “But I always say, ‘This isn’t your grandma’s New Jersey.'”
Apparently. When ReVision staged the counterculture classic Hair — complete with bare skin — Leiholdt was shocked at the response.
“We were concerned people would complain,” he says with a laugh. “They only complained the nude scene was not long enough.”
ReVision’s current production is called The Break Up Notebook. Its subtitle: ‘The Lesbian Musical.’
“It’s just about a girl who breaks up with her girlfriend and is trying to find love,” Leidholdt says. “It’s a very accessible script. It just happens to be about two women. It’s very fun, it’s very funny.”
The little-known play was originally produced in California, featuring a book by Patricia Cotter, music and lyrics by Lori Scarlett and additional music by David Manning. ReVision’s version — which runs through Sept. 25 — stars Christine Lakin, best known to Generation Y as Al, the tomboy daughter on 1990s sitcom Step By Step.
Most of ReVision’s actors live and were trained in New York, giving the company more heft than other local theaters. But some are from New Jersey. ReVision holds local auditions, as well.
Asbury Park has also become a destination for Halloween, with ghost tours and a zombie walk — and ReVision gets in the spirit. Last year, they produced The Rocky Horror Show. This year, they’ll stage Little Shop Of Horrors from Oct. 6-31. They close the year with four performances of the original show A Christmas Survival Guide from Dec. 16-18.
This year’s season was ReVision’s biggest yet, with six shows. Their goal is to be a year-round theater company.
As for the venue? The carousel house provides them with an offbeat, attention-grabbing location. But it comes with a price: It’s old, rickety — and during a recent performance of Spring Awakening, a storm ravaged the area, causing the roof to leak and the parking lot to flood. Hurricane Irene also led ReVision to cancel the final few performances of the show’s run. If they want to stay at the carousel, Leidholdt says, they’ll have to renovate it.
“We love it and hate it there right now,” he explains. “It’s not an indoor or outdoor venue. It’s somewhere right in the middle.
“But it’s also kind of magical at the same time — cool and fun.”
Just like ReVision itself.
ReVision Theatre holds performances at the carousel house in Asbury Park on Wednesdays through Sundays. For more information, visit their website.