‘The Neighborhood’ delights audiences in Summit

Years ago, there was Molly Goldberg’s neighborhood, a radio show about a New York apartment house where everyone visited by leaning outside the windows to converse; then there was “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” which still may be visited on reruns; and there still is — the neighborhood of “Sesame Street.”

Now, we have “The Neighborhood,” an original musical written by the folks at Dreamcatcher Rep and performed with elan at the theater company’s new digs in Summit. It is a delight to visit and meet the denizens of this fictional place.
These eight actors have performed together for so long that their relationships are totally convincing, whether as family, lovers, friends or, as in this case, “a bunch of strangers who happen to live” near each other: neighbors!

Artistic Director Laura Ekstrand has penned a book and lyrics set to music by Joseph Zawila. Actors sang and performed their interactions with each other in a show made up of easily recognizable vignettes, monologues and songs.
Lauren Moran Mills,who often directs at the Women’s Theater Company, makes her successful directorial debut at Dreamcatcher Rep with a flair that allows one number to segue smoothly into another, and showcases each performer well.

We’ve all met these people in neighborhoods we’ve lived in. There are the newcomers from the city looking for a better life — and better schools — for their children. There’s the young man —played here by Dave Maulbeck — who can’t wait to join the PTA or coach something, even though he doesn’t play a sport!

There is the aspiring actor, played by Jason Szamreta, who commutes by train to auditions, trying to study lines while fielding inane comments by a fellow from his neighborhood. There are the new parents, one laid back and enamored with his offspring’s beauty, the other working hard to prepare her infant for college admission.

Would-be homeowner Jessica O’Hara-Baker, looking for the “perfect house,” lists the odd features of houses she’s looked at, such as carpet in the bathroom and rooms the size of closets. Harry Patrick Christian extols the joys of being single in the suburbs while Noreen Farley, a “relic” in a neighborhood of young families, searches for a gray-haired gentleman for companionship. And of course, there’s the dog, whose annoying bark early every Sunday morning wakes up a neighbor, driving her to distraction and stern measures.

There are many more situations in this two-hour show that will strike a familiar chord. Scott McGowan and Harriett Trangucci portray Lawrence and Sandi, a couple that fights and loves, both very loudly. Their thick “New Yawk” accents mark them as city emigres! Farley and Christian are a stitch as the snooty couple who invites their neighbors over for a PowerPoint presentation on their trip to Tuscany! And the audience will recognize the yearly contest that goes on to see who will have the largest and most elaborate holiday decorations.

The intimate space at the Oakes Center and Zawila’s piano accompaniment are a good combination for this little musical. The actors do a fine job, and certainly act out the clever lyrics so convincingly that the audience forgets they are performing. Musical Director Jack Bender is to be commended for guiding the actors through the appealing musical numbers. Without being too fussy, the set by Wesley Krantz features silhouettes of houses that suggest a neighborhood. Lighting by Zach Pizza, sound by Jeff Knapp and costumes by Laura Ekstrand all unobtrusively add to the ambiance.

The finale certainly sums up just what “that weird thing-a-ma-bob,” the neighbor, really is. Facing a catastrophe in the middle of the night, the neighbors gather in the street where the line between “a stranger and a friend” blurs to become a fellowship, a community.

To paraphrase the lyrics, “our old neighborhood may not be like the one in our memories; when we look back on our neighborhoods, this is the one we see.” I certainly recognized mine, and you will too — and this will delight you.
“The Neighborhood” will be performed at the Oakes Center, 120 Morris Ave., Summit, through Sunday, Oct. 14. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets or for information visit www.dreamcatcherrep.org or call 908-514-9654.

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