"Happy Talk": Storm Couldn't Stop Surflight's 64th Season, July production of 'South Pacific'
You’ve heard the saying – “stronger than the storm” – and, in shore towns up and down the coast, you’ve seen evidence that the people of New Jersey have refused to let last October’s hurricane take away things that mean the most to them.
While many businesses have yet to reopen and far too many seasonal and summer residents still aren’t able to inhabit their homes, there are plenty of good news stories at the shore.
Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven is one of those stories.
As evidenced by the theater’s slogan “Broadway at the Beach since 1950,” Surflight has a long and luminous history on Long Beach Island. It was the dream of founder Joe Hayes that has evolved into what Surflight is today. But, as Executive Director Ken Myers told me, Joe’s vision didn’t seem entirely sensible at the start.
“Here you are, on a barrier island, with a mainly seasonal population and a single road for access on and off,” Myers said, “and he had a theater there.”
“But it’s been going for 64 years,” he added. “We don’t quite know why it works down here, but it does.”
Surflight felt the impact of Hurricane Sandy to the tune of 4+ feet of water in some spaces and a restoration bill that totaled more than $750,000. To get the complex – which includes the theater, offices, storage areas, and the beloved Show Place Ice Cream Parlour – up-and-running required a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources. But, as Charlie Siedenburg, Surflight’s Press Director told me, the space was usable by community theater groups in mid-February. And, in April, Surflight opened their season with “Thank You for the Music – A Modern Tribute to ABBA,” which drew an enthusiastic audience, many who came ABBA-attired and sang and danced along with the performers.
Siedenburg believes that one of the primary reasons for Surflight’s continued success is the large number of passionate theater goers in the tri-state area. “They don’t mind traveling to see a first-class production,” he said. And Long Beach Island itself also deserves credit. “LBI is more than a day-trip destination,” Siedenburg said. “People come for a weekend, or a week, or the summer – and they like to go out for quality entertainment.”
Surflight is a professional theatre and the largest employer on the island. And the organization regularly draws cast and crew members that are far more familiar with Broadway’s bright lights than they are with a place bordered by sand and water. But the theater also has non-equity people, interns and local talent.
“At its heart,” said Myers, “Surflight is community-based.”
Before taking on the job of Executive Director in 2012, Myers worked for a year in an interim capacity. “I was able to take my time to see what was going on, and I learned that the place had grown so fast that it was hard to keep up with all the details,” he said. “We just had to get back to basics.”
With that concept in mind, Myers is making it a priority to reinvigorate what was already in place. “In many cases, the programs were historically there, but the infrastructure wasn’t strong.”
Children’s theater is a prime example. “It existed, but it needed rebuilding,” Myers explained. Now the schedule is packed with almost-daily performances of kid-friendly shows like “Peter Pan,” “Alice in Wonderland”and “The Cat in the Hat.”
And the situation was similar with the intern program. “It had a solid base, but it needed attention. Now we have technical and stage interns that come here and we can provide them a professional staff to work with,” Myers said. “They help with everything – from painting sets to working the box office. We house them here. We direct them. We offer master classes. They learn so much.”
The same is true with the rest of the operation. The Show Place Ice Cream Parlour – another part of Joe Hayes’ vision for Surflight – has been serving sweet treats with a side of entertainment since 1975. Though the building took a big hit from Sandy, it was completely cleaned up and ready to open on Memorial Day weekend.
“The Show Place is a tradition on Long Beach Island,” Myers said. “So, even though we need to stay current with changing styles, we want to keep the Show Place authentic.”
“The whole premise of this season,” said Myers, “is to give our patrons a sense of security, to make them feel comfortable, and to reassure them that Surflight is not going away.”
And what better way to do that than with a season of favorites like like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific?”
“It’s a story of hope,” said Myers.
The show opens for a two and a half week run on Wednesday, July 10 and is being directed by Broadway veteran, Norb Joerder.
“I’ve done ‘South Pacific’ 19 times,” said Joerder. “It has always been one of my favorites. Rodgers and Hammerstein shows are so wonderful. They are so well written that you never have to fight the script,” he continued. “This is actually like a little vacation for me.”
When I asked him how this “South Pacific”was different from others he had done, Joerder explained, “For this production, I decided to return to the original concept, to one of the very first versions of the script, and I tried to choose the best parts from the past productions of this I have done.”
The cast he is working with is predominately made up of young people. “For many of them,” Joerder said, “this is their first exposure to ‘South Pacific.’ As a director, I try to take them back, explain about this period in time and about what was going on.”
He remarked that the story has many layers, and that the characters cannot be easily pigeon-holed. “The sailors, for example,” he said, “are not gung-ho hero types. They are just lazy Seabees, hanging out, selling shrunken heads and grass skirts. Then the war shoves itself in their faces and they step up. I want to help the actors understand that situation and that time.”
“They are a great cast – so open and so energetic. I hope that I am inspiring them,” he said. “I know they are inspiring me.”
The season is filled with other winners, too. “George M!”closes on Sunday, July 7; “South Pacific”runs from July 10 through July 28; “Les Misėrables” is on stage from July 31 to August 24; and the “summer” part of the season concludes with “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown – The Musical,” from August 28 to September 8.
From September 25 through October 4, Surflight presents their debut production of “Our Town,” and then the ever-popular holiday show – this year it is Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” – will be on the Surflight stage from November 29 to December 22.
It is clear, even though events of the past nine months have presented a multitude of challenges, that Surflight has truly weathered the storm.
“Our foundation is strong.” Myers said. “We are in good shape.”