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Paul Slade Smith’s "The Outsider" Makes East Coast Premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse

Production photographs by Jerry Dalia

Paper Mill Playhouse (22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ) scores again – and with a side-splitting comedy of errors (and fun nonsense), The work is the East Coast premiere of Paul Slade Smith’s biting political satire The Outsider (running through February 18). 

The Outsider premiered in 2015 at Peninsula Players, Milwaukee, where it won a Best Play award. The play is described as “a timely and hilarious send-up of modern American politics, in the midst of a political scandal” and “a razor-sharp satire and an inspirational tribute to democracy.”

Smith’s comedy of errors surrounds a governor forced out of office in the midst of a sex scandal and how his lieutenant governor, Ned Newley is thrown into the spotlight. Though the brains behind the governor, he possesses no political instincts and a paralyzing fear of public speaking. At his swearing in, he can hardly repeat the oath of office. He’s quickly perceived as the worst candidate ever – one sure to lose a special election. He has to be made over. Arriving to the aid of his chief of staff are a smart political consultant and a once-powerful national candidate groomer. Add to the mix, the last-available temp to be a receptionist, a TV reporter who’s told to not to ask hard-ball questions, and her one-syllable speaking cameraman. Newley, unknowingly eventually becomes a powerful presence, but, and here’s the clever twist, he’s no longer the worst candidate ever.

Outsider1Connecticut-native Smith’s play Unnecessary Farce, has received 250 productions worldwide. And get this: as an actor he’s appeared on Broadway in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland. In addition, he’s toured in Wicked and Phantom of the Opera and worked extensively in major regionals. In a program note about the difficulties of playwrights getting new works produced, he compliments Paper Mill for taking “a gamble” putting his play up and thanks “the incredibly talented cast.”

Good for him. Often we hear actors state, “It’s all on the page.” True, and especially here it’s how actors, collaborating with their director – in this case, the invaluable David Esbjornson, superbly interpret what’s on the page.

Esbjornson, chair of the Rutgers Theater Conservatory and former artistic director, Classic Stage Company, had his deft hand behind the original Driving Miss Daisy, works by Albee and Miller, and the Public’s 2004 premiere of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. He was chosen by San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre artistic directors Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone to helm the 1991 world premiere of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika.

Smith is doubly-blessed. There’s the gifted ensemble, headlined by Paper Mill favorite Lenny Wolpe, whose career has proven he can do anything. Bumbling comedy seems to be a new addition to his resume, and, here, he bumbles, mumbles, and stutters into one of the best and certainly memorable performances of his career. 

Wolpe, in his sixth Paper Mill outing [which includes an acclaimed Herbie opposite Betty Buckley in Gypsy], originated Broadway roles in Bullets Over Broadway, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Mayor; and has a long-list of Off Broadway, regional, tour, and TV credits. 

He and the play benefit from veteran regional actress [making her Paper Mill and, probably, her East Coast] debut, Erin Noel Grennan as the temp who’s never held down a position for more than a day. She’s highborn to the manor of scatterbrain comedy in the way of Judy Holiday in Born Yesterday and, when it comes to the phone and intercom, the ineptness of Carol Burnett’s Mrs. Wiggins.

OutsiderBMosesJDuffyJDaliaAs the consultant, welcome back Julia Duffy (Golden Globe and multiple Emmy-nominated co-star of TV’s Newhart, whose last Broadway role was in the 1978 revival of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime). Wolpe and Grennan might get all the laughs, but Duffy, along with Tony nominee Manoel Felciano (Tobias, John Doyle’s 2005 Sweeney Todd revival) as the chief of staff provide the much-needed sensible backbone.
Also in his return to area stages is Drama Desk nominee Burke Moses (Gaston, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) as the eager-to-be powerful again candidate-maker. With his tall statue, bass voice, and swagger, he brings to mind young Orson Welles. 

OutsiderMFelcianoLWolpeJDaliaSmith throws in a whiff of romance between the chief of staff and the TV reporter who doesn’t like to be told what to do, tall and slinky (especially in ten-inch heels and body-hugging couture) Kelley Curran (who made her Broadway debut understudying the five female roles in last season’s Present Laughter); and, as the cameraman, Mike Watson (Lee Dixon on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black; numerous film and TV roles), who in the play’s poignant coda, proves to be anything but the silent type.

While not earth-shaking, The Outsider has many assets. It’s sassy, light, fluffy fun. A vast array of self-flagellating lines by Wolpe and every move by Grennan had the opening night audience in stitches and thunderous applause. With all that’s happening day-in-and-day out in American politics, we certainly can use laughs.

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"Not Another Christmas Letter!" Isn’t Your Typical Holiday Musical

The Nightmare Before Christmas
isn’t just a movie. It’s what you get when you open your mailbox and find one of those long, drawn out Christmas letters, sometimes even from someone you like, that go into great detail about what has transpired in their lives – month by month by month by month.

So, even though the holiday season got off to an early start just before Halloween, it’s really getting humbug crazy now. The perfect anecdote is Stomping Ground Theatre and Gwen Arment’s “holiday” gift to all the Scrooges out there: Not Another Christmas Letter! – by Laura Bergquist (music) and Paul Cozby (book, lyrics, additional music).

Performances run through December 20 at historic Metro Baptist Church (410 West 40th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues – across from Port Authority Bus Terminal).

Cozby describes this anti-holiday romp as “an original musical comedy unfolding in a series of comic and poignant vignettes. Four actors bring 46 characters to life, celebrating everything that drives us crazy about Christmas . . . and why we love it anyway. It’s fun and, yes, actually, heartwarming.”

NotAnotherChristmasLetterCastBergquist music directed Allegiance, and Jane Eyre; Off Broadway’s Daddy Long Legs and Jane Austen’s: Emma, as well as Sense and Sensibility at Chicago Shakespeare and Old Globe.

Former journalist Cozby is communications director of production company Fellowship for Performing Arts. He was associate producer of Rooms: A Rock Romance (directed by Scott Schwartz) and worked with Bert Draesel and Nancy Leeds on The Dancing Princess, a musical based on Judith Gwyn Brown’s children's book -- a finalist for the Eugene O'Neill Center National Musical Theater Workshop.

The actors are Laura Darrell (Vineyard/Signature’s OCC-nominated Kid Victory by John Kander and Greg Pierce); Rob Richardson (Clinton; Jekyll and Hyde, revival; A Tale of Two Cities); Bret Shuford (Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour; Amazing Grace, Disney’s The Little Mermaid); and Catherine Walker (a Phoebe in the Tony-winning Best Musical, A Gentleman ‘s Guide to Love and Murder, the Ragtime revival, Mary Poppins).

Nick Demos is director/choreographer, with music direction by Brett Kristofferson.

Stomping Ground is a non-profit “creating a home away from home for the socially conscious - the creative artist who wants to make the world a better place, the writer whose work needs to be heard; and the individual who faces discrimination because of skin color, gender, sexual identity, economic status or religion.” Arment has segued from a musical stage career to teaching master classes and co-producing (including the Tony-nominated Come from Away).

Tickets for Not Another Christmas Letter! are $25 and available at, where you’ll find performance schedules
and more information.


Gypsy of the Year Competition Collects Over $5 Million for Health & Outreach Services

The 29th edition of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS’ annual Gypsy of the Year Competition, held December 4 and 5 at the historic New Amsterdam Theatre, home of Disney’s Aladdin, shattered even the wildest expectations. A mind-boggling record amount of $5,609,211 -- $379,545 more than last December’s record tally. Thanks go to the hundreds of tireless volunteers in the Bucket Brigade and casts of 56 Broadway, Off Broadway, and touring shows  and their amazingly generous audiences during the six –week fundraising period.

"This event, like our annual Easter Bonnet and Broadway Bares shows, honors the tireless work of the ensemble singers and dancers in theater, known as ‘gypsies,’" says BC/EFA executive director Tom Viola. "For two performances, more than 200 of Broadway’s and touring shows’ gypsies and special guests perform in celebration of the donations raised. The annual largesse of theatergoers is truly awesome."

This year’s show was a big as any Broadway must-see with a huge contingent of pit singers, dressers, and costume, hair, make-up teams, and stage managers.
The grand total was announced at the end of Tuesday’s matinee performance by Meteor Shower’s Laura Benanti, Keegan-Michael Key, Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos, who put on a virtual 20-minute slapstick and comic “bitch fest” routine that could easily lead to the dynamic foursome starring in a TV sit-com. Obviously, from Schumer and Benanti’s backbiting antics and the deadpan cut-ups of Shamos and Key, this is one cast that really gets along. Schumer and Key are making their Broadway debuts.

GYPSY17The quartet also presented the awards to the top fundraisers and for best original performance. Returning to host for his 10th consecutive year was musical theater rapid-fire speaking everyman Seth Rudestsky, who again kept the packed house in stitches with his “deconstructions” of big musical numbers and those that sang [or talked] them.

Gypsy of the Year got off to a rousing start with School of Rock’s growing-taller-by-the-minute dynamo belter Amadi Chapata, Lea DeLaria, Cady Huffman, Lacretta, and Shakina Nayback headlining an amazingly energetic ensemble of 20 dancers and 12 off-stage vocalists celebrating the centennial of women gaining the right to vote in New York. The number was directed by Tony-winner Huffman and choreographed by Lorna Ventura.
Tony-nominee for Best Musical Come From Away company members took top honors for best onstage presentation with a self-deprecating journey through Tony-nominated choreographer Kelly Devine’s efforts to create choreography for actors who couldn’t dance. The zinger segue had standbys doppleganging for the cast members and doing choreographic acrobatics and high jinks. The sequence was written and directed by cast member Sharon Wheatley, with chorography by Richard J. Hinds.
The true spirit of the Christmas season was evoked by runner-up Aladdin, led by cast members Major Attaway (the new genie), Juwan Crawley, swing Angelo Soriano, and Deonte Warren sharing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” from Carols for a Cure 2017, the  community’s annual holiday CD benefiting BC/EFA [available with previous season’s CDs at], a soul-stirring, Yule-inspired compilation, that had some in tears, by Soriano, with additional lyrics from Tony-winner James Monroe Iglehart (original Genie, now portraying Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette in Hamilton). Soriano also directed, music directed, and choreographed.
Start-to-finish, there was spectacular dancing and one dazzling moment after another. Especially memorable were members of the Cats company lived far beyond their nine lives and transitioned into feline zombies. Jessica Hendy wrote and directed, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rod Temperton (Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”), pianist Ming Aldrich-Gan, and Hendy.

Who says you can’t dance and sing live? Certainly not two-time Tony-nominee Charlotte d’Amboise, in the top echelon of our great dancers, brought the house down with her tale of being in Chicago and Sweet Charity at the same time, the latter as stand-by for Christina Applegate, who she was assured would never miss a performance -- and then proceeded to break her foot.

A large contingent of actors representing touring shows number knocked the audience out with a standout number, directed and choreographed by Chaz Wolcott, to Sammy Davis Jr.’s rendition of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “Gonna Build a Mountain” from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off.

Hamilton’s Donald Webber Jr., accompanied by six dancers and guitarist Nate Brown, led a stirring mashup of Tupac Shakur’s “Thugz Mansion” and Sam Cooke’s “Change Gonna Come,” which explored police brutality and poverty, and the hope for a peaceful tomorrow. 

It wasn’t all razzle-dazzle. Attaway and Come from Away’s Chad Kimball, Caesar Samayoa, and Sharon Wheatley spoke on BC/EFA’s nearly three decades of harnessing the theatrical community’s innate ability to overcome obstacles to help  all races, all faiths; and finding the strength in united opposition to bigotry, intolerance, and governmental indifference across the country.

They noted how the Broadway Cares and the Actors Fund collaboration provides a safety net of social services across the country for those in the entertainment industry. 

BC/EFA has provided more than $90- million in support to the Actors Fund’s HIV/AIDS Initiative, the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative, the Dancers’ Resource, addiction and recovery services, Artists Health Insurance Resource Center, and the Friedman Health Center for the Performing Arts, the only health center in NYC designed to address the primary and specialty needs of those in the entertainment industry and performing arts.

GypsyFinaleHamilton’s Javier Muñoz recalled how the theater community came together for the first Gypsy competition in 1989, “The AIDS epidemic had taken a staggering number of people in our community alone. People infected and affected by the virus lived in fear and desperate sadness, too often isolated and alone. No one had not been deeply affected in some way. For those too young to know anything of the disease other than today’s medications and services, count yourselves lucky.
It was, indeed, worse than anything you can imagine.”

He noted the frustration and anger about the epidemic was so widespread that something was needed to “remember what brought us all together. So we observed a moment of silence.” For 29 years, that moment has been to reflect, said Muñoz  “on those we love who cannot be here and those whose voices still cannot be heard – not just because of AIDS but for a multitude of challenges.” He stated that many would not be here today without the lifesaving, life-altering support of Broadway Cares; and that many of the most vulnerable are worried about their rights, access to social services, and family and community’s safety. 

The moment of silence is in contemplation of lives lost to and affected by HIV/AIDS, is included in every BC/EFA event.

Muñoz closed, stating, “Let us now, together, take a moment to recommit to reaching beyond ourselves. To stand with those who need us most – and with each other – able, willing, and as ever, be compelled to do our part, however small, to ensure that all are embraced in times of crisis, isolation and injustice. No one is alone.”

"Annie" Gets Holly Jolly Revival at Paper Mill Playhouse


The holiday season has arrived for Paper Mill Playhouse audiences with a gaily-wrapped Christmas present under a tinseled tree. It’s the sumptuous revival of Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, and Thomas Meehan’s Tony-winning Best Musical Annie.  Just as they pulled a rabbit out of their collective hat this time last year with the North American premiere of The Bodyguard, producing artistic director Mark Hoebee and managing director Todd Schmidt, have done it again with a sterling production of “the world’s best-loved family musical” – one filled with whopping sentiment, hilarity, and beloved tunes fit for the entire family.

ANNIELeadPhotoThe vastness of Paper Mill’s stage, which comes extremely close to rivaling Radio City Music Hall’s, and set designers desire to fill it all the way Left and Right, has worked against many a show. But this isn’t one of those occasions.
Adapted from Harold Gray’s classic comic strip, Little Orphan Annie by the late three-time Tony-winner Thomas Meehan (The Producers, Hairspray -- and Young Frankenstein, enjoying quite a successful London revival), it’s the Great Depression and we find red-headed moppet Annie, the eldest child at the New York Municipal Orphanage, has never given up hope her parents, who dropped her off 11 years earlier, are coming for her. To search the streets and “Hoovervilles” (camps of the downtrodden) of NYC in the hope of finding them she becomes quite adept at escaping the drudgery of the hard-knock-life  – only to be caught and returned to the clutches of cruel, heavy-drinking, slovenly Miss Hannigan. In a twist of fate, billionaire industrialist, world traveler, art collector, and name-dropper of just about everyone famous in the 30s, Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, in a benevolent gesture, decides to pick an orphan to spend a Christmas like no other. At his Fifth Avenue mansion, Annie warms not only his heart, but the hearts of his secretary Grace Farrell, butlers, maids, even FDR, who’s finding ways to put Americans back to work. Warbucks engages Eliot Ness and the FBI in a search for Annie’s parents and offers $50,000 so they can start a new life. Hannigan’s brother, Rooster, straight out of the slammer, abetted by his moll Lily concocts a plan to capture the biggest prize of their tawdry lives. But …

AnnieBLeavelCSieberHoebee, a seasoned director (credits at Paper Mill alone include: Dreamgirls, Hello, Dolly!, High School Musical, Mary Poppins, Miss Saigon, and among numerous others, The King and I and West Side Story), also helms this production.
He’s assembled a huge cast of 30 plus, headlined by two Paper Mill favorites: indefatigable Tony-winner Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone; at Paper Mill and on Broadway in Bandstand and, in a long and storied career, as record executive Florence Greenberg in Baby It’s You (Tony nomination) as that stinker Miss Hannigan and Tony-nominee Christopher Sieber (Tony nominations, Spamalot and Shrek, later in Matilda as harsh, bombastic educator Miss Trunchbull) as Warbucks.

You might wonder, “Another Annie? Why?”
 The Broadway original inspired two main stem revivals, at least four national tours, two stage sequels, a musical film, TV adaptation, a horrible, somewhat-based-on musical movie set in contemporary times, countless local productions, and Paper Mill’s 1983 and 2002 productions – to name but a few. The answer is simple: Leavel’s Miss Hannigan, a role she was born to play and one  she inhibits with pratfalls, slapstick, and face-twisting antics; Sieber, whose amply-endowed outsized voice and steady hand offer just the reassurance needed in hard times; and it’s the perfect time of year to be lifted out of the doldrums with Strouse and Charnin’s score. Who doesn’t need to be assured that the sun’ll come out tomorrow?
Add two adorable, spirited ‘’orphan” heartbreakers as alternating Annies: Cassidy Pry [who performed opening night, January 26) and Peyton Ella [who got to join the company for bows opening night]. Season it with a brood of sassy, rambunctious orphan pests: Gabby Beredo (Pepper), Michelle Henderson (Duffy), Eve Johnson (Tessie), Lauren Sun (July), Sloane Wolfe (Kate), and pint-sized (nine-years-old) scene-stealing dynamo Tessa Noelle Frascogna (Molly), who also proves to be quite an acrobat.
Co-starring are Erin Mackey (Paper Mill: South Pacific; In Transit, Amazing Grace) portrays “Daddy” Warbuck’s secretary Grace Farrell; Cooper Grodin (Les Miz; title role, national tour Phantom), Rooster Hannigan, Miss Hannigan’s brother straight-out-of-the slammer and ready to do no good; abetted by Lily St. Regis, portrayed by Kim Sava (Matilda); and Kevin Pariseau is Franklin D. Roosevelt.

There are nice moments for featured cast members, such as Allen Kendall, in one of his four roles, radio personality Bert Healy, and his rendition of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” along with the program’s Boylan Sisters (Bronwyn Tarboton, Kate Marilley, and belter-who-needs-no-amplication Anneliza Canning-Skinner). Wait: there’s one more: Macy, the rescue dog as Sandy (a role she’s played many times).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
OANNIETFrascoPEllaMacyf course, there’re the tunes: Annie’s heart-breaking “Maybe” and optimistic “Tomorrow”; Leavel’s show-stopping “Little Girls”; Grodin, Sava, and Leavel’s “Easy Street”; Sieber’s poignant “Something Was Missing”; and those scraping orphans, who keep things roarin’ with “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.”
Jeffery Saver is music director and conducts excellent, new arrangements crafted for this production by Keith Levenson (music director, conductor, original Annie) and rousingly played by the 15-strong orchestra.
The superb design of reversible sets and stunning painted scrims of New York City by Tony-winning and Obie-honored craftsman Beowulf Boritt (Paper Mill: The Honeymooners, A Bronx Tale. Broadway: Prince of Broadway, Come from Away, Act One (Tony), and, among many others, the just-opened Meteor Shower) have been smartly resurrected from Paper Mill’s 2002 production; along with the costumes by Suzy Benzinger. The knee-jerk, acrobatic choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter (School of Rock; regional, The Nutty Professor), is far from a highlight – rarely rising to the occasion except for the orphan’s show-stopper “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” and some stylish movement when Mackey and Warbuck’s staff pay tribute to their favorite orphan in the show’s title song.

In the program notes, director Hobbee writes: “It’s significant that the show, like its lead character, has at its core an indefatigable spirit so full of hope. The anthemic tune Annie sings near the beginning of the story declares that even through the dark times of the Great Depression, when half the country was broke, or out of work, and it seemed as though politicians were unconcerned with the plight of the common man, there was still hope … [the late] Thomas Meehan threaded through this musical the powerful message that family can be found in the most unlikely of places … We can’t think of a better way to celebrate that love of family, the promise that hope brings, and the joy of the season than by sharing this wonderful musical.”

Photographs by Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made

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