It’s a bittersweet time for the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway.
Its Main Stage reopened in late September after being closed during the pandemic and undergoing some renovations during that time. But its smaller space, the Hamilton Stage (located in a nearby building), suffered significant damage in Tropical Storm Ida on Sept. 1 and will have to remain closed, at least until the end of the year. Shows that had been scheduled there have been postponed or moved to the Main Stage.
Executive director Craig Sumberg has some experience navigating a difficult situation, though. Just a few months after he took over as executive director at the South Orange Performing Arts Center in January 2020, the venue’s schedule was torn apart by the pandemic. He had to reduce the staff there by two-thirds in April 2020 and then he was let go himself, due to further pandemic-caused cutbacks, in October 2020.
“I am thrilled to announce that today is my first day as the Executive Director of the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, NJ!!,” he announced on Facebook on Aug. 30 of this year. On that day, Ida had already hit some Southern states hard and was on its way to the Northeast.
Nevertheless, he sees a great opportunity in UCPAC, which originally opened in 1928 as the Rahway Theater and has two smaller spaces in addition to the Main Stage and the Hamilton Stage (The Loft and the Fazioli Room).
“I spent 10 years at a similar venue — well, similar to the larger venue here (i.e., the Main Stage) — the Fox Theatre in Tucson, Ariz,” said Sumberg. “That’s an 1,164-seat theater. This one’s about 1,330 and it’s an historic building. I love working in those. So there were a lot of pieces of the puzzle at UCPAC that fit what I like to do and what I was really looking for. I was, honestly, excited when I saw the job opening. I thought it was a good fit.”
UCPAC is in an area of New Jersey that has seen a sharp increase in performing arts centers in recent years, with the opening, in 2019, of the Avenel Performing Arts Center, and this year, of the Carteret Performing Arts and Events Center. There is also, not far away, the Kean Stage series at Kean University in Union and Hillside.
“I’m very aware that it’s a vibrant area for performing arts centers,” said Sumberg. “We’ve got some great theaters, not so far away. So I’m just trying to figure out what our niche is.”
He said he’d like to expand both the kind of programming UCPAC does, and the number of shows.
“If you look at my history at the Fox Theatre, for example, we were booking, I don’t know, 60 or 70 of our own shows (a year). And they ran the gamut, although they did tend to be more classic rock than up-and-coming. But I definitely want to hit all the genres. Classic rock, Americana, maybe do some country, jazz and blues. Family programming. Comedy. I just think there’s room on our calendar to book more, and I’m hoping to do that.”
When the 199-seat Hamilton Stage reopens, of course, that will give him an option that most performing arts center executive directors don’t have.
“With a smaller, seated venue, you can do a lot more experimental, avant-garde, creative stuff,” Sumberg said. “With 1,300 seats, you’ve got to make sure you’re going to come close to filling it or half filling it, at least.
“I think what distinguishes us from other great venues around Northern and Central New Jersey is, it’s an interesting community. Union County — Rahway and the cities around it … I think there’s a lot of people that want to come see great entertainment. I want to serve them lots of different kinds of things.
“I think it’s a beautiful, historic building, but it’s got a lived-in feel to it. If I had to pick a theater I’d say it’s a little similar to, it’s the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester (NY). It’s got great ‘bones,’ and it’s a beautiful venue to see a show in, but it doesn’t feel like you can’t touch anything. I think you can rock in there, and so that’s part of what I want to do.”
Upcoming shows at Union County Performing Arts Center include:
Oct. 16: Postmodern Jukebox
Oct. 17: Jeff Boyer’s “Bubble Trouble”
Oct. 22: The Italian Chicks with Maryann “Boom Boom” Maisano, Cara Amore, Julia Branda, Regina DeSicco, host Gianna Messina
Oct. 23: “A Bronx Tale” featuring Chazz Palminteri
Nov. 5: Rosario Flores
Nov. 6: Asia featuring John Payne
Nov. 7: Champions of Magic
Nov. 12: Let’s Hang On (Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons tribute)
Nov. 13: Tommy James & the Shondells. Benefit Concert for the Homeless organized by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark.
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