Taking Stock of Summer Theater

Area theater companies offer something for everyone this season.

By: John Dunphy
   From nature hikes to roller coasters, sports and the Shore, Central New Jersey offers a host of summer activities, inside and out. Its area theater is no different.
   May 25, the Washington Crossing Open Air Theatre, in the 3,100-acre Washington Crossing State Park in Titusville, opens its 44th season with Annie Jr. at a special season-opening $5 price. It also marks the premiere performance under the new production team of Ralph Miller and Richard Akins, who bring with them a combined seven decades-plus of theater experience.
   The Princeton Summer Theater troupe, which performs on the Princeton University campus, opens its 39th season June 14 with Bell, Book and Candle by John Van Druten.
   Meanwhile, Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival, which has previously put on productions of Shakespeare’s works at Pettoranello Park in Princeton, will not be performing this summer. The company will, however, offer its Repertory Apprentice Program for high school and college-aged students, which will hold performances in July at a yet-to-be-determined location.
   Mr. Akins, 60, says he and his co-producer, who has owned and operated the Bucks County Playhouse for more than 30 years, are trying to make the Washington Crossing Open Air Theatre "a slice of Americana I remember when growing up that doesn’t exist anymore."
   "Fresh popcorn, cotton candy, Good & Plenty’s instead of Airheads," he says. "The olden days, but not old. A real family atmosphere." Mr. Akins and Mr. Miller have signed on to produce shows at the Open Air Theatre for the next five years.
   Although the Washington Crossing Open Air Theatre has been in existence for more than 40 years, there is a key difference between years past and this year — which features both children’s productions such as Annie Jr., Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty Kids, as well as adult performances such as Nunsense, Annie Get Your Gun and The Music Man, premiering June 7. "The Open Air Theatre was a theater where local community theater groups would put on shows," Mr. Akins says. "The main difference with us taking over is we are a professional company, and thus the product will be professional."
   Just because it’s professional doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, especially for Mr. Akins, who has been involved in theater for as long as he can remember. He walks across the gravelly stage with a smile on his face as he recalls "getting neighborhood kids together and holding shows in the basement."
   Mr. Akins notes the numerous improvements that should be complete by opening night, such as new lighting and sound, a fresh coat of paint and an extension of the stage, which before had been separated from the front row by a thin, steady stream of water.
   Mr. Akins calls it the best-kept secret in the area. "There’s a tree growing on stage," he laughs. "I love it."
   While there aren’t any trees popping up on stage where Princeton Summer Theater holds its performances, there is plenty of history clinging to its walls.
   "It’s been around a long time," says Marisol Rosa-Shapiro, 21, the production director for Princeton Summer Theater’s 2007 season. "We’re so lucky to have this space."
   While Princeton Summer Theater, formed in the late 1960s as an offshoot of Princeton University’s Theater Intime (pronounced "on team"), performs on campus in its historic Hamilton Murray Theater, with mostly Princeton students or alumni, Ms. Rosa-Shapiro notes the group’s relative autonomy. Besides allowing the group to run its productions at the venue for no charge, the university is not involved.
   "For PST, we have to make money," she says. "We’re a non-profit, but we pay all our company members. Everyone does everything. Actors work on sets, lights, costume designs. It’s a learning laboratory, both for performers and managers."
   While both the performers and managers are being given an education on how to run a proper theater production, Ms. Rosa-Shapiro, a graduating history major with certification in theater and dance, notes the high level of professionalism from everyone involved. "We work really hard," she says.
   PST Publicity Director Rodney DeaVault, 23, a graduating English major at Princeton, as well as a cast member in the troupe’s take on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, opening July 12, says because everyone is involved in everything all the time, that dedication is reflected in the final product. "We’ve had more time to devote to this. You can actually focus," he says.
   Robert Walsh, 22, a junior acting major at the Mason Gross School of Performing Arts at Rutgers University, was part of the troupe in 2004 and 2005. He returns to the fold this year in Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues, opening June 28. Mr. Walsh also appears in Ten Little Indians and Art, by Yasmina Reza, opening Aug. 2.
   "There’s something for everyone. One night, it’s a comedy. Then there’s a thriller," he says. "Try to hit every show. It’s going to be a great experience every time."
   "We live in such turbulent times," Mr. Akins says. "To be able to take someone away from that for a few hours — it’s such a joy."
Washington Crossing Open Air Theatre, Washington Crossing State Park, 355 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville, will open its 2007 season with Annie Jr., May 25-June 3. Performances: Fri.-Sat. 7 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Tickets cost $5; (609) 737-4323; www.buckscountyplayhouse.com
Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University, will open its 2007 season with Bell, Book and Candle, June 14-June 24. Performances: June 14-16, 23-23 8 p.m., June 16-17, 2-23 2 p.m. Tickets cost $10-$18. (609) 258-7062; www.princetonsummertheater.org
Princeton Repertory Company’s Repertory Apprentice Program for high school and college students runs June 25-Aug. 8. Apprentices will have the opportunity to create, produce, design and act in two one-hour shows geared toward young audiences. (609) 921-3682; www.princetonrep.org