Amidst bare walls and yet-to-be-installed floors, a splatter of nails and stacks of sheet rock, George Street Playhouse Artistic Director David Saint said he is very excited about the theater's inaugural season in its new home.
The five-play season is sandwiched by two new musicals and also features a one-woman comedy starring an Oscar nominee and Emmy winner, a suspense thriller based on a bestselling novel, and a world-premiere historical drama.
From one of the two stages of the soon-to-open New Brunswick Performing Center, Saint shared on Tuesday how the hi-tech, already-in-demand venue is a dream come true for him and a 45-year-old company that always has performed in converted spaces.
"For years, I've had this dream, and today it's finally coming true," said Saint, clad in a construction hard hat that contrasted his fine black suit and red pocket square.
"This theater has been a dream long felt and held, and it's finally happening because of a great public, private partnership between the city of New Brunswick, Mayor (James) Cahill, the county, the Middlesex County Freeholders, the state, Chris Paladino and DEVCO, and many others to make this finally happen," Saint continued. "I can't tell you how thrilling it is for me to stand here on this stage today. For the past three or four years, I've worked with the architects in designing this space. I'm so proud that the architects and I realized that you need to have a theater practitioner helping you to design a space that is a theater . If you don't have that input, you don't know what's important and what's not."
George Street Playhouse started 45 years ago in a supermarket on Burnet Street that was converted it into a theater, and then about 12 years later, to the city's former YMCA, which also was converted on the site where the arts center now stands.
The last two years, the Playhouse has been operating on Rutgers University's Cook Campus in an old agricultural museum, another converted space.
"This is the first time in 45 years that we are actually going to be performing in a center that was designed from the beginning to be a theater," Saint said. "And it makes a huge difference.
"George Street has always been a proponent of new work that can go on to New York and be produced around the country," he continued. "We've had a great track record that way, and it's only going to get bigger because now, for the first time, we have this building. One of the things I worked with the designers was to maintain the intimacy. So you're in the orchestra section and up above you is what we'll call the mezzanine. So we still maintain that intimacy that we had in the old George Street. That was very important to me; I wanted an intimate space. The big difference between the old George Street and this place is that this facility can accommodate any pre-Broadway show. Not only does it have an orchestra pit . it has an enormous fly system . enough so that you can fly out whole sets . The whole stage floor is trapped. So if you want scenery to come up out of the down-below . you can bring scenery up from there. There are large wings. We have enormous restrooms in the lobby. We have elevators. Nobody has to walk up and down stairs. And we really have addressed what we hope are all of our needs. We'll have a beautiful donor lounge upstairs. And the rehearsal rooms are incredible."
'Wow' season on new stages
The company's director for 23 years, Saint spoke from the stage of the Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theater named for a longtime supporter of George Street in honor of its largest-ever gift: $5 million from Elizabeth Ross Johnson Charitable Trust. The 463-seat theater is named in memory of the daughter of Betty Wold Johnson and Robert Wood Johnson III, longtime CEO of Johnson & Johnson.
Next door, the Arthur Laurents Theatre is named for the celebrated playwright who wrote the books for the Tony-winning musicals "West Side Story" and "Gypsy" and collaborated on many of his works at George Street with Saint, his protégé. The 259-seat venue was named in appreciation of a $2.75 million gift from the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation, which Saint administers.
'Best of both worlds'
Kicking off 2020 will be "Midwives," a world-premiere thriller based on the book-turned-film of the same name by Chris Bohjalian. Adapted for the stage by the author from his bestselling novel, an early selection of Oprah's Book Club, the suspenseful courtroom drama explores the fallout of an impossible decision made by midwife Sibyl Danforth during a routine at-home birth. The new play will be directed by Sheryl Kaller, a Tony nominee for "Next Fall," and will be staged from Jan. 21 to Feb. 16 in the Laurents Theater.
Also there will be Playhouse mainstay Joe DiPietro's "Conscience," a world-premiere historical drama set during the American Red Scare. Acting out boldly against party lines, real-world Sen. Margaret Chase Smith becomes one of the first to stand up against Sen. Joseph McCarthy in a gripping historical tale inspired by real events. Taking the stage under the direction of Saint, performances begin March 3 and will run through March 29. DiPietro's previous George Street premieres include the Outer Critics' Circle Best Musical Award-winning "The Toxic Avenger" and the Off Broadway-bound "Clever Little Lies."
Closing the season in the Johnson Theater will be "A Walk on the Moon," a new musical with music and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman and book by Pamela Gray, based on her acclaimed 1999 motion picture starring Diane Lane and Viggo Mortensen. The musical recaptures the affair between a mother and housewife longing for adventure and a free-spirited traveling salesman while she summers in the Catskills with her family. Their whirlwind romance is set in the summer of 1969 to the iconic backdrop of the Woodstock music festival and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's first steps on the moon. Sheryl Kaller will direct "A Walk On the Moon," with choreography by Josh Prince, April 21 through May 17.
"Each piece has something really special about it . created by award-winning, top-of-the-line American theater artists," Saint said. "I'm already talking to people now about the following season, and producers and writers are bringing me projects now because it's already happening. I tell my staff all the time, you wait and see what's going to happen because I knew the minute we had this kind of facility here in New Brunswick, so close to New York, producers, writers, directors, they're all going to want to be premiering their things here.
"What a huge day this is for New Jersey, for New Brunswick in particular, but for New Jersey as a state because it does mean that we are going to be able to host a lot of new exciting work," he continued. "The biggest producers in New York have all said to me, what you've done so well is you have kept a space intimate, so that we can engage an audience's response to a new piece, combined with the technical facilities to support a big Broadway musical. It's wider here than any Broadway stage. We have the depth, deeper than most Broadway stages. So this facility, you can actually try out a show and bring it right into New York without making any changes in the physical design.
"In the meantime, what you gain by coming here is the intimacy of 'feeling' a show. You want to feel the intimacy, so the audience becomes a part of the piece. That's the only way the creators and the director discover how it's landing. And then you can move into a bigger house if you want. But here, we have the best of both worlds."
The Playhouse has been well represented by numerous productions on and off-Broadway, including the Outer Critics Circle-, Drama Desk- and Drama League-nominated production of "The Spitfire Grill," and the Broadway hit and Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Proof" by David Auburn, which was developed at the Playhouse during the 1999 Next Stage Series of new plays. In 2015, "It Shoulda Been You" opened on Broadway, and in 2018, George Street was represented on the Great White Way with "Gettin' the Band Back Together," which premiered on the Playhouse main stage in 2013. "American Son," produced by George Street Playhouse in 2017, opened on Broadway in 2018 starring Kerry Washington and Stephen Pasqual. A film version is in development for Netflix.
In addition to the main stage season, the Playhouse's education department provides extensive programming for children, youth and adults. Partnering with administrators and educators throughout New Jersey, the Playhouse provides unique education experiences that reinforce classroom curriculum and investigate issues, such as bullying, diversity, immigration, health and wellness, and the rising epidemic of opioid addiction.
Full-season subscriptions are on sale and the only way to secure the best seats to all five shows. Subscribers receive a discount of 20 percent off regular ticket prices, which equates to one free play.
Individual tickets and partial-season ticket plans will go on sale at a later date. For more information about the 2019-20 George Street Playhouse season, call the box office at 732-246-7717 or visit GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.
The arts center also features an expansive two-story lobby, comfortable seating, and contemporary heating and cooling systems.
A booklet of renderings assembled by DEVCO, the city's nonprofit redevelopment corporation, impressed Broadway producers, particularly Jeffrey Seller ("Hamilton," ''West Side Story"), Saint said.
"He looked at the whole book, and then he was quiet a minute, and he looked up at me and his eyes filled with tears," the director said. "And he said, 'David this will change your life. This will change the life of George Street, and this will change the life of New Brunswick because it will become a destination for great theater.' And every producer that I showed after that agreed with him.
"And so what I found, what I learned a long time ago when I opened the theater at Seattle Rep. was that people come the first year to see this magnificent building," Saint continued. "The year after that, they come back for the art. They come back to see what's on the stage. So my first season, I knew had to be a wow season, had to have a lot of wow factors."
George Street will open its 2019-20 season in the Johnson Theater on Oct. 15 with "Last Days of Summer," a new musical based on the novel by Steve Kluger. The show is about a baseball fan transported back to his youth in the summer of 1942 and his beloved New York Giants after his son discovers the fan letters he and a friend wrote to the team's star third baseman asking his help to impress and suppress neighborhood bullies. When they receive a surprising response, an unlikely friendship is formed that affects both boys for the rest of their lives.
With music by Grammy-winner Jason Howland (Broadway's "Little Women"), "Last Days" will be directed by Tony nominee Jeff Calhoun ("Newsies" on Broadway). Kluger wrote the book based on his poignant tale of baseball, friendship, and the enduring bond between fathers and sons. The show will run through Nov. 11.
Next, in the intimate Laurents Theater, will be the recently Lucille Lortel Award-nominated "My Life on a Diet," an autobiographical comedy by Renée Taylor, Oscar nominee and Emmy winner known for her role in "The Nanny." The one-woman show was written by Taylor and her husband, Joseph Bologna, whose other collaborations include their Oscar-nominated adaptation of their play, "Lovers and Other Strangers." In "Diet," Taylor looks back on a life full of memorable roles in Hollywood and on Broadway, and just as many fad diets. Featuring juicy anecdotes about screen legends, such as Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, and Barbra Streisand, the comedy will run Nov. 19 through Dec. 15.