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The List: Top Theaters in NJ Are Impressive Supplement to Great White Way

Theater in New Jersey is a match for the best available in any region when it comes to talent, innovation, cost, and diversity

McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton
McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton

Here in New Jersey, many professional theater companies give us access to talent and entertainment that would be the envy of most of the rest of the country. It’s easy to overlook that fact when we’re within a stone’s throw of Broadway, the zenith of commercial theater.

“New Jersey is a national leader in the work that it does to make theater available to everyone,” John McEwen, executive director of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance says. “We have a very exciting and thriving community here. We want people to go to New York as well, but your theatergoing experience should definitely include New Jersey. We’re putting on shows that are truly high quality, much like what you would find across the river.”

There are many professional theaters putting on top-drawer shows in the Garden State and this list of 11 should give a flavor of what’s available far closer than a drive to the city. This list does not include major venues like the New Jersey Performing Arts Center or the State Theatre in New Brunswick because it is limited to theaters that present original productions. In no particular order:

1. The Growing Stage (family-friendly)

The Growing Stage, the Children’s Theatre of New Jersey in Netcong was founded in 1982 and moved into the historic Palace Theatre in 1995. Main-stage shows are cast with Actor’s Equity Association professionals and community members, while their reasonably priced matinees are completely AEA staffed. The spring season will feature classics including Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat” and David S. Craig’s adaptation of the novel “The Neverending Story”, as well as the world premiere of “The Box of Stories”.

2. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (specializes in Shakespeare)

The longest-running Shakespeare theatre on the East Coast, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey stages works from the Shakespeare canon as well as other classics. The company traces its roots to 1963, when it began as the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival in Cape May; it took up residence in the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre in Madison in 1998. Going into its 55th season — May through December — the theater will be the first in the Northeast to premiere “Shakespeare in Love” based on the film of the same name. It also offers five plays on the main stage and one summer production at the Outdoor Stage in Florham Park.

3. Eagle Theatre (musicals)

A South Jersey bastion of high-quality, professional performances, the Eagle Theatre began as a silent movie theater and playhouse in 1914. From 1944 to 2006 the building served as a church and storage facility until the Hammonton arts and cultural committee decided to preserve and reinvent it. The 2017 season features “Rock of Ages,” the classic “The Fantasticks,” along with the Tony-award winning play “Peter and the Starcatcher.”

4. East Lynne Theater Company (historical)

The East Lynne Theater Company in Cape May specializes in historical performances, and the 2017 season is stocked with vintage favorites like Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!,” and radio-style productions of several Sherlock Holmes’ adventures. A renowned home for American classics, the ELTC produced 168 plays and musicals (excluding repetitions) and 49 world premieres between 1980 and 2016.

5. Writers Theatre of NJ (poetry, new works)

The Writer’s Theatre of NJ, based in Madison, focuses on cultivating new talent and producing innovative works; its New Play Development Program gives opportunities to young writers, women playwrights, people of color, and anyone with a passion for the arts. The 2017 season will include plenty of new works. One of their most exciting events is the Poetry Out Loud spoken-word competition for high school students. Regional competitions begin in February; the state finals in March will determine who will compete nationally in Washington, D.C. in April.

6. New Jersey Repertory Company (new works)

Another theater specializing in new works, NJ Rep this season will be staging four world premieres that tackle diverse topics; one play deals with a professional athlete struggling to overcome a traumatic brain injury, another how to properly repair a 1966 Jaguar. The Long Branch theater was founded in 1997 and has produced over 93 plays including 61 world premieres.

7. Count Basie Theatre (comedy)

Home to an eclectic variety of performances, the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank is the place to go if you’re interested in seeing Tony Bennett, a mariachi band, or drag performer extraordinaire Bianca Del Rio. And while no one would categorize the theater itself as “unknown,” some of its most innovative and entertaining shows tend to fly below the radar. This season, its improv comedy nights feature some of the biggest names in New Jersey’s underground comedy scene.

8. Crossroads Theatre Company (diversity)

A Tony-award winning theater dedicated to preserving and presenting works related to the African-American experience, the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick is a true Garden State gem. Coming up this season, a historical drama “Beyond the Oak Trees” examines the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman with a modern twist; the world premiere of “Sarah Sings a Love Story” sees Sarah Vaughan’s career through the eyes of two of her biggest fans.

9. George Street Playhouse (pre-Broadway productions)

Another theatrical powerhouse based in New Brunswick, the George Street Playhouse is widely seen as a key stop in the track from local theater to the Broadway stage. Recent productions that have made the jump include “Shoulda Been You,” “The Spitfire Grill,” and Tony-winning play “Proof” by David Auburn. This spring season, the GSP is putting on mainstage productions of “American Son,” “Bad Jews,” and “Curvy Widow.”

10. Paper Mill Playhouse (musicals)

The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn is one of the most critically acclaimed theaters in the state. Its proximity to New York means that many of its shows feature actors from the Broadway pool of talent. Most recently, it received a 2016 regional theater Tony award. This season features some old favorites and new discoveries like “A Comedy of Tenors,” “Million Dollar Quartet,” and “Mary Poppins.” The theater will also be performing an autism-friendly version of “Mary Poppins.”

11. McCarter Theatre Center (new works and old)

The Princeton-based McCarter Theatre Center offers more than 200 performances of theater, dance, music, and special events annually. It prides itself on serving as both a professional producing theater and a major presenter of the performing arts. This spring season, the McCarter is hosting the New York theater company, Bedlam, with productions of “Shakespeare’s Hamlet” and George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan.” The season also includes Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” and Pulitzer playwright Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel.”

Carly Sitrin is a former editorial assistant at NJ Spotlight.

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