By Young Soo Yang
Since it opened in 1963, Middlesex County’s Plays In The Park has been providing affordable, and at times free, theatrical productions at Roosevelt Park in Menlo Park.
On Wednesday, Plays In The Park opened its 50th season with My Fair Lady. Every summer, three full-scale Broadway-style musicals are staged at the Roosevelt Park Amphitheater, complete with a live orchestra and the latest lighting and sound equipment.
“We pride ourselves in giving you a first class production,” said Producer/Director Gary Cohen. “We don’t skip any of the details. It’s a union orchestra. In fact, there’s 23 pieces, 23 musicians in the pit. So this is My Fair Lady sounding like it was meant to sound and costume sets and lights, choreography. It’s all top notch.”
In addition to My Fair Lady, the other two productions on tap this summer are Damn Yankees and Grease.
Gary Cohen has been part of Plays In The Park since the 1980s. He says, over the years, the productions have grown beyond the summer season.
“In addition to the three summer musicals, we do an indoor children’s musical every October and for the past 18 years, we’ve been performing a musical called Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. We’ve been performing that at the theater in New Brunswick between Christmas and New Year’s.”
With the down economy and state budget cuts, arts programs have struggled to stay afloat in the past several years. Cohen says his community theater prides itself on being able to provide live theater at affordable prices. Cost of attendance is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and children 12 and under are free. At those prices, it’s cheaper than going to see the latest summer blockbuster at the local cineplex. For that, Cohen credits the Middlesex County freeholders for their support of the arts.
“We’re actually a line-item on the Middlesex County Department of Parks. We’re funded completely by the freeholders and the parks department.”
The minimal admission charge is an affordable option to many Broadway and some regional theater productions. As a result, Plays In The Park has been the introduction to theater for countless families, inspiring a life-long love for live theater.
“If you look at any given audience, there’s almost an equal distribution, of course depending upon the play, of seniors, parents and children alike. We really do get a wide range of ages and from all over.”
Rehearsal scene from Plays In The Park Presents My Fair Lady – Summer 2012.
Of course, staging an outdoor production comes with challenges, some beyond human control.
“If it were to rain during a performance, we have to stop. We offer, of course, rain checks. That’s the major challenge. The other challenges are minor. We can’t really start to design our lights until after the sun goes down. We do have to start the show at 8:30 where most theaters start at 8. But all of those are minor challenges. It’s really the rain.”
In addition to My Fair Lady, Damn Yankees and Grease, Cohen says there are special events planned to honor the 50th season.
“We’re having a free concert by Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer John Sebastian from the Lovin’ Spoonful. He’s going to do a free concert here on Sunday, August 12 at 6. In fact, that whole day will be different events in Roosevelt Park and we’re also going to publish and sell a 50th anniversary coffee table book documenting the first 50 years.”
For more information, visit www.playsinthepark.com for schedules, ticket prices and more.