Before Jessica Evans takes her show on the road, she's got the opportunity to warm up before a hometown crowd.

The 22-year-old Eagleswood Township woman stars in the Ocean Professional Theatre Company's production of the musical "Sweet Charity."

The regional theater company is best known for producing musicals and other plays at theaters in southern Ocean County.

But when the lights go down following the last performance Thursday at the Stafford Township Arts Center, Evans and the rest of the "Charity" cast and crew will be embarking on a 15-city national tour that will take them from Watertown, N.Y., to Baton Rouge, La.

That's an impressive resume entry for Evans, who studied theater at Rowan University in Glassboro, Gloucester County, and is now pursuing a masters degree there.

But, it's also smart business for the theater company, which produces most of its plays during the busy summer and holiday seasons.

While mounting a national tour takes planning and more money then just staging a local production, the payoff is worth it, said Steve Steiner, a company founder and producing artistic director.

The tour generates revenue at a time when the theater would normally be dark and also raises the company's stature, Steiner said.

"It's a way to augment what we are doing as we are building the new theater company," he said. "It brings in money to help build up the company."

This isn't the first time the theater company has taken a production on the road. It mounted its first national tour a few years ago. Then, its cost-effective and popular production of the Buddy Holly musical "Buddy" was tapped to step in for another production of the show that couldn't make it financially. That gig led to Steiner and company hitting eight cities in a mere six weeks. A four-week booking of the Johnny Cash musical "Ring of Fire" in Laguna, Calif., led to a 13-week production in Reno, Nev.

It was a lot of work, but that's what life is like when actors go out on tour.

"For the actors - especially if you are doing very short engagements - it's a lot of traveling. You get to see a lot of the countryside, but you don't get to see a lot of the country," he said.

The "Charity" tour will involve a similar schedule, with the show opening in Watertown on March 1 and the tour wrapping up by the end of April.

"We are going to New York and Illinois, Florida and Alabama - so yeah, we are going all over the place," Steiner said. "This is what they call a bus and truck national tour - the set goes in a truck and then we have two buses, one for crew and one for the cast."

While it sounds like a grind, there was no shortage of actors auditioning to participate.

"The stature of a national tour is a lot bigger than the stature of a small regional theater, so everybody jumps at it. It's a real resume builder," Steiner said.

That sometimes results in a higher-quality cast than would be found in a typical regional production, even one that "auditions long and hard" like his company, Steiner said.

Going on the road and playing venues with larger stages also forces the company to up its game when it comes to building sets.

Audiences expect more from touring shows than they do from regional productions, so the company has to deliver.

"When we did 'Titanic' at our theater, we built the set just to last for our production. That set cost $4,000. The set for touring the show cost about $35,000," he said.

Not only do touring sets have to be bigger, they also have to be rugged enough to stand the hazards of the road and easy for the road crew to put up and strike quickly. Costumes are kept in large rolling wardrobes that can be loaded and unload quickly.

"We can set up the set and lights in four to six hours and take it down in two," Steiner said.

All of this means local audiences are in for a treat when "Charity" takes the stage in Stafford, where they will be paying regular ticket prices to see a show that will cost a lot more to attend once it rolls across state lines, Steiner said.

"That's one of the attractions of seeing it here. It's kind of a special thing that this community gets to partake of before we head out," he said.

Local fans also will get to cheer on Evans, a Pinelands Regional High School and Rowan University graduate who's embarking on her first tour.

The play, with a book by Neil Simon and choreography by Bob Fosse, tells the story of the romantic ups and downs of a New York taxi dancer. Evans plays the title character.

"I'm beyond excited," Evans said. "This is something I've been waiting for and hoping to do all my life, so I'm definitely excited to be heading out on the road."

In addition to worries about remembering her lines and keeping straight whether she's in Florida, Texas or Alabama, Evans also must find some way to continue her studies for a masters degree in theater administration at Rowan.

"It's an online program, so I'm taking it on the road with me," she said.

Contact Steven V. Cronin:


If you go

'Sweet Charity' staged 8 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Sunday and 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at OceanFirst Theater, Stafford Township Arts Center, 1000 McKinley Ave. Tickets are $35 at