Congress Hall’s new play Into the Third Century is Cape May’s answer to Disney’s Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue. If you’ve never heard of this play before, that’s because it was written specifically for Congress Hall by their marketing manager, Iraisa Ann Reilly, and Curtis Bashaw, Co-Founder and Co-Managing Partner of Cape Advisors and Cape Resorts Group. The play begins in 2066, on Congress Hall’s 250th birthday, on the day the hotel digs up the time capsule buried in 2016. It manages to combine time travel and local history with a dose of American patriotism, plus some good family dining.
We had tickets for opening night, so after valet parking the car (which I didn’t realize is something you could do if you dine at Congress Hall, after working in this town for 12 years–you really do learn new things every day), we made our way to the ballroom. A gauntlet of cast members (and Blue the Pig!) offered greetings and trays of champagne, and we wandered around the banquet tables with our glasses until we located Table 3.
The ballroom was decked in red, white, and blue; the wait staff was immaculate in old-fashioned black and white serving costumes. To our delight, food was waiting for us on the table when we sat down. The first course was a family-style spread of artisan cheeses and dry-cured sausages, beets, carrots, asparagus, green beans, carrots, and roasted red peppers, eggs, pickled vegetables, and fantastic cornbread with wholeberry jam which we wholeheartedly recommend. A glass of red or white wine was included during the first course, and a second was offered halfway through the production.
The play kicked off with a song–The Stars and Stripes Forever–and the musical numbers kept coming. You’ll recognize most of them, although singing along might prove difficult if you’re singing from memory: the lyrics have been altered to reference Congress Hall. But if you like to sing along, you’ll be happy to know that not only is it welcomed, it’s part of the show. (Hint: The lyrics are printed in the show booklet!)
Across the play’s two hours, Curtis (who plays himself at the age of 106) and the story’s protagonist, Annie (a 16-year-old who works at Congress Hall) take you through 250 years of the hotel’s history. Cape Resorts staff members take on multiple roles, portraying historical figures including Thomas Hughes (the man who built Congress Hall), President Franklin Pierce, Annie Knight, John Philip Sousa, John Wanamaker, First Lady Caroline Harrison, Edward Dale, and the Reverend Carl McIntire–played by his actual grandson, Curtis Bashaw.
A family-style dinner was served during intermission, a great excuse to chat with the people around our table as we passed the dishes. Even with all of us sharing platters, there was no shortage of food, which included so-tender-you-can-cut-it-with-a-fork pot-roast (though gravy would’ve been nice), cod in a ravigote sauce, and the best chicken tenders I’ve ever had. I almost skipped them–That’s for kids! cried my inner adult–and that would have been a mistake. Sides included corn and tomato succotash, rice pilaf, and macaroni and cheese. I cleaned my plate.
Many moments will have you laughing (Wawa is still around 49 years from now AND we can teleport!), but there were touching moments as well. The performance of The Declaration of Independence comes to mind, but for me, the highlight of the show was Jim Lennon’s portrayal of Robert Thormann and his solo A Challenger, which told of the loss of Thormann’s son. When Lennon is on the big screen (or stage) one day, I can say I marched up to him afterwards to shake his hand.
Although Blue the Pig in choir robes arguably earned the most applause, we want to give a nod to the Congress Lamp, played by Alexander Shannon, who wore a hat with a three-bulb lamp post sticking out of it for the majority of the evening. His character is the one who has been at Congress Hall the longest and travels throughout time with Annie, tying the generations together.
Since the play centers around Congress Hall’s 250th birthday, dessert is, appropriately, birthday cake with generous frosting. Cake enthusiasts will appreciate this. (If anyone from Congress Hall reads this, I beg you to offer an alternative. Cherry pie, maybe? Apple? Also coffee.) It’s served at the very end.
Despite being amateur theater, there is heart at the center of the production. It’s obvious that Curtis and his staff care about the hotel, its history, and its significance to Cape May, now and in the future. And they have no shame in letting the audience know that.
If you don’t enjoy musical theater, this one’s not for you, but if you like your theater locally grown with a helping of home-style cooking, Into the Third Century plays Wednesdays through August 23. Tickets are $65 for adults and $15 for children. From start to finish, expect to be at Congress Hall for about two hours. I got home around 9pm and was still singing.