Month: July 2015

Sportin’ Life

If Jesus of Nazareth were among us today he wouldn’t be a carpenter. He spent his time on Earth among the lowest strata of the society of his day, such as lepers and prostitutes. It would only be fitting for Him to spend the present day with the true outcasts of our society; the ones whom everyone looks down on, insults and derides. Jesus would be an athlete.

After the U. S. Women’s National Soccer Team won the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, a fellow South Jersey resident said to me, “Delran (the next town over) should really do something for Carli Lloyd.” It got me thinking. When does this country ever recognize athletic accomplishments? I became deeply sullen. The only thing we Americans distain more than sports itself are the people who play them. It’s wrong. I’m issuing a call to action to give athletes the recognition they deserve for all they do to make society better.

I envision a day when sports are valued. I remember when I became a volunteer librarian for a local museum. Competition was harsh. I had to beat out at least two dozen people for the position. Keep in mind that the role didn’t pay anything. It wasn’t an internship. The expression, “it’s harder to volunteer as a local historian than it is to get into an Ivy League college” is a cliché for a reason.

Culture and heritage are important, but so is a winning sports team. Both amateur and professional sports franchises have to beg and plead with people to get involved. How many baseball games have you seen this year where teams struggled to get nine people on the field? It’s so difficult to find athletes these days that many high schools and colleges have been forced to drop their sports programs entirely. The term “jock” used to be an epithet of derision. Now athletes long to hear it.

It gets worse than that, though. I still remember the first time someone published my writing. The Mayor had a banquet in my honor. He handed me a proclamation declaring “Kevin Stephany Month”. The township closed off Main Street and various speakers heaped praise on me for my, “showing the world our community’s appreciation of the arts.” It then sponsored a bond issue on the ballot to increase funding for local historians like me.

I felt more embarrassed than humbled. I didn’t deserve this treatment. When’s the last time a town recognized anything a local sports team accomplished? Forget about taxpayer funding for anything to do with sports.

I often hear the argument that the National Endowment for the Arts is superfluous. It’s true. The private sector money in “big arts” draws myriad people to the field. That’s why any artist will tell you how they struggle to find the time to practice their craft. They spend the majority of their working day cashing checks. There’s no question the NEA’s funds would be better spent in a National Endowment for Sports.

It makes me so sad to watch professional sports franchises struggle to raise money. How many sports stadiums are “state-of-the-art” these days? Can any of us really understand how tough it is to sell hot dogs and pretzels from a five year old concession stand? When teams want to upgrade they have to raise needed funding on their own. In their selfishness, taxpayers and fans refuse to contribute. With this trend, franchises in some of the poorer markets such as New York and Boston will be forced to re-locate to Los Angeles.

And then there are the sacrifices athletes make. Someone once told me that 60% of professional basketball players end up bankrupt within two years of leaving the game. It’s no wonder based on the pittance the owners pay them. I’m optimistic an NES would be able to supplement incomes and bring them over the poverty line.

In reference to the poor wages, many athletes are forced into the “job of last resort” once their careers end. That position, of course, is professional coaching. That’s when the financial squeeze becomes crippling. It’s well documented that former professional football head coach Jim Harbaugh got demoted to working for a college. The media tried to downplay this career set-back by pointing out the school offered him $48 million dollars. This is misleading. The media downplayed that this “salary” was part of a multi-year contract. Think about what your employer pays you. Imagine them deciding to stretch that out over several years. Could you live on that? I sure couldn’t. My heart goes out to Coach Harbaugh and his family during these tough times.

It’s no wonder that athletes are forced into such pitiful sources of income once they can no longer play sports. “Scholar-athlete” is an oxymoron. It’s an open secret that all the good financial scholarships go to intellectuals. Since so few people have any interest in sports, athletic scholarships are extremely rare. Even if sports stars can get one, they’re forced to settle for places with dubious academic credentials like Stanford, Notre Dame and Duke, or other barely accredited “schools”.

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To be fair, I’m a sports fan, myself. I even played a number of them in my youth. I have great respect for the U. S. Women’s National Soccer Team. They worked hard and became the best in the world at what they do. These talented athletes reached the pinnacle of their profession. That’s a tremendous accomplishment that no one can ever take away from them.

I don’t have issues with athletes. I do object to the way society treats them. It’s not that we worship athletes, we deify them. Whenever a local sports team wins anything, we treat our “heroes” in a way that calls to mind Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The athletes themselves would be better served remembering what happened to Him a week later.

Summer Runnin’

It’s that time of year when the temperature often breaks the 90 degree mark. Dew points routinely hover around the 70 degree range. This atmosphere creates the sensation of an afghan blanket soaked with hot water enveloping one upon stepping outside. What better time to take a nice long run through the neighborhood?

Please bear in mind that jogging in this sort of environment is dangerous. I’ve been running for thirty years. I always make sure to drink a lot of water and stretch properly before leaving. In addition, I stay on alert for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Most importantly: I stay close to home in the event I pull something or become dehydrated.

Before people applaud my vigilance, an old saying comes to mind. “Good judgement comes from experience. But experience comes from bad judgement. There’s the problem.” I learned this lesson the hard way a few summers ago in Louisiana.

Way back in the days of my youth—my late thirties–I engaged in some reckless activities. As a life-long runner, I thought I could do anything. I’d run in the snow with the temperature in the teens, and I’d jogged in hundred degree heat. The way I saw it, “Beowulf had his Grendel, I run in the elements.” When I got to Slidell, Louisiana for a September vacation, I had no reason to modify my running routine.

My Dad and I stayed at my stepmother, Pat’s, house. She lived in a cul-de-sac like I’d never seen before. The street stretched for three miles to a dead end. I didn’t believe Pat when she explained that. She then took my Dad and me for a ride to the end of it then back to her house. While I didn’t check the odometer in the car, the length and duration of our trip led me to believe her. My first thought: I’ve got to run this thing.

I’d jogged for thirty minutes many times back in the Philadelphia area. I ran steep hills in summer heat. This route was flat; scenic, too. Water surrounded the entire development. It would be a nice change of venue.

The next day I opted to change my daily routine. Most times I’d run in the late afternoon after returning from work. Since I had a full vacation day planned, I decided to head out around 11:00 AM.

“Be careful,” my Dad and Pat said. “It’s hot.”

I snickered. It was mid-September. I’d been running all of July and August back home. This would be nothing. I sauntered out the door and jogged down the road.

While into my trek I learned a few things. For one, distances seem much different on foot than they do from the back-seat of an air conditioned car. I coasted down the street admiring the nice homes and view of the water. In spite of doing half-hour jaunts for years, getting to the end of this road seemed much longer than I expected.

I also discovered that the Gulf Coast is much closer to the Equator than the Southern half of New Jersey. No clouds appeared in the sky, either. I’d run in Texas and Kansas in the summertime, too. Neither of those places prepared me for the heat and humidity of the New Orleans area.

My most interesting discovery during my jog concerned the State of New Jersey. While it’s known as “the Garden State” it has a lot of trees, too. While on the road in Pat’s development, I didn’t see one. I had no shade at all. Heat, humidity and abundant sunshine don’t have favorable effects on the human body.

When I reached the end of the street, I felt winded. Sweat flowed from every pore on my body. I’d only completed a part of the run. Now I had to make my way back to Pat’s house.

I thought about all the hills I’d run back in Jersey. I had one route that included seven hills; some of which approached a 45 degree angle. I never would’ve thought the toughest run of my life would take place on a flat surface.

While heading back to Pat’s the heat exhausted me. I thought about stopping and walking. I checked my watch. I’d only been jogging for 17 minutes! One thing I learned as an overweight teenager: long runs turn into much longer walks. I resolved to keep going.

Did I mention just how long this street was? I used the house numbers to keep myself motivated. If I had a better source of inspiration I would’ve used it; any other one would’ve helped. I watched them decrease from 620 to 618 to 616. Pat lived at 168. The numbers continued to fall. 604…602…600…598…What! I did a double-take. Yep. I read it correctly. 598….596…

At this point I became scared. I’d like to write that my pulse accelerated, my breathing increased and my palms sweated, but they already did because of the jogging. As the sun beat down, I thought I could be in a serious life-threatening situation.

I focused on my task. All those years of running hills in the heat served as conditioning. I was going to get through it. Every step was one step closer to my goal. I kept repeating that over-and-over in my mind until I arrived at house number 168.

As I entered my Dad asked. “How did your run go?”

I smiled and said. “I ran for 35 minutes.”

“Wow!” Pat’s eyebrows danced up and down.

“Aw, I always do that back home. Hey, mind if I finish off the sports drinks?”

I’ve been known to mix sports drinks with gin to make my own blend of “gin and juice.” I wisely opted not to do that in this case. As I stood in the shower with the handle cranked all the way to cold I still sweated. I thought to myself, maybe, just maybe I need to reevaluate my preparations for running in the heat.

The Wedding Singer at Haddonfield Plays and Players

These days it may be “All about the Bass”, but in 1985 it was “All about the Green”. The Haddonfield Plays and Players took theatergoers back to an era of big hair, junk bonds and the New Coke through their presentation of The Wedding Singer.  This Connor Twigg directed musical featured upbeat rocking numbers, romantic angst and even a Ronald Reagan impersonator.  This show had something that would appeal to just about any audience member.

The Wedding Singer told the lugubrious tale of lovelorn loser Robbie Hart (played by Steve Stonis). He met waitress Julia (played by Jayne Zubris) at the reception hall where he worked. After the two discussed their pending nuptials (to other people), Julia asked Robbie to sing at her wedding. He agreed.

The next day Robbie’s fiancé, Linda (Tricia Gardner), broke up with him. She did so through a note that he received while waiting for her at the altar. The effects of his ensuing insanity included an inability to continue as a wedding singer. He reneged on his promise to sing at Julia’s wedding. Ever the gentleman, he agreed to help Julia prepare for her wedding. The two fell in love. This presented Julia with the dilemma: should she marry the man she loved or settle for Glen (played by Bobby Hayes): the guy who could provide her with all the material comforts she could ever desire?

The romantic twists kept coming. Robbie’s band mate Sammy’s (Evan Brody) ex-girlfriend, Holly (Genna Garofalo) developed an interest in him.

As a Who fan I’ve heard of rock operas. The Wedding Singer just may be the first rock and roll soap opera.

Steve Stonis played an excellent Robbie. I thought he did a great job in the scene where he spoke to Julia from inside a dumpster. The somber tone of voice he used managed to covey sadness while still getting laughs from the audience.

His best stage time occurred when he sat on his bed with his guitar and played “Somebody Kill Me Please”. He performed this number acoustically. In the movie of the same name, Adam Sandler cranked it out of an electric guitar. For my personal tastes, I preferred Mr. Stonis’ unplugged version.

Jayne Zubris displayed great emotion in her role as Julia. At first, her only life goal was to get married. Upon getting to know Robbie, her quest transitioned into a desire for true love. Ms. Zubris best conveyed Julia’s heart-wrenching conflict while singing the “If I Told You” number in a wedding dress. That helped me to understand the internal struggle plaguing the character.

Ms. Zubris also did a great job on the vocal harmonies. No singing is ever easy; especially on a very humid night. Her vocal skills enhanced the tunes “Awesome” and “Grow Old with You”.

In addition to directing this show, Connor Twigg also choreographed. He and the cast did a phenomenal job on “Saturday Night in the City”. It served as a perfect, high-energy ending for Act I.

The highlight of The Wedding Singer occurred when Tricia Gardner performed the “Let Me Come Home” number. In addition to a solid vocal performance, she executed a complex dance number. The latter included a summersault over Robbie. (I give Mr. Stonis credit. It takes a lot of courage and trust in your partner to let her do a summersault over your recumbent body.) The routine then entailed doing splits. Ms. Gardner performed this challenging sequence flawlessly. She impressed me even more by doing all this without getting hurt or injuring Mr. Stonis.

As expected, my friend Lisa Croce played a memorable role as the “Rappin’ Granny”. The Wedding Singer marked the first time I’ve heard her sing on stage. She delivered a beautiful rendition of “A Note from Grandma”. Living up to Grandma Rosie’s nickname, she kicked it out old school just as proficiently as she sang. In addition, she delivered the trademark comedic chops I’m accustomed to hearing from her. She sweated to the oldies in a way that would’ve made even Richard Simmons find humor in them.

Vitaliy Kin (in the role of George) got steady laughs through the evening, as well. Song accompanied his best humor. He joined Ms. Croce on the rap duet. He also sang Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish. As much as I found his performance funny, I still thought he crooned the ballad exceptionally well.

The show did experience a few technical issues. Static broadcast over Mr. Stonis’ microphone during the “Casualty of Love” number. In the next scene while in the dumpster, his mic cut out. The actor had to perform the remainder of the first act without amplification. Much to his credit, he handled the situation like a true professional. He didn’t allow this snafu affect his performance at all. Mr. Stonis delivered his lines loud enough that I could hear from the back of the room.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of the technical glitches affecting Mr. Stonis for the evening. During the pivotal performance of “Grow Old with You”, his acoustic guitar was out of tune. When he played the instrument during the first act it sounded fine. Something must’ve happened to it back stage. Once again, he remained focused on performing the scene.

I saw Mr. Stonis in the lobby following the show. I didn’t have the opportunity to speak with him, but I noticed him smiling. I would suggest all the “temperamental” “artists” out there remember that.

To paraphrase Glen Gulia: the 1980’s may have been “All about the Green”, but I experienced some “green” at the end of this show. I felt a bit jealous of the skill and talent the cast and crew showed in putting on The Wedding Singer. I didn’t have to spend a lot of “green” to watch it, either. The Haddonfield Plays and Players will be performing The Wedding Singer until August 8th.

The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council

It’s not often one witnesses the triumvirate of comedy, horror and fencing in the same show. The Maple Shade Arts Council production of The Addams Family:  A New Musical Comedy (directed by Michael Melvin) seamlessly incorporated all three. Just for good measure they included some outstanding musical and dance numbers from a stellar cast to round out the performance.

The musical told a tale of trauma in the Addams household. Wednesday (played by Casey Grouser) found her true love. She and her boyfriend Lucas (Robert Achorn) recently engaged. Her fiancé hailed from the “normal” world. In order to introduce the two families, she arranged a dinner at the Addams home. As if that didn’t make for a tense evening, she told her father Gomez (D. J. Hedgepath) about her pending nuptials. To add to the conflict she asked that he not tell her mother Morticia (Rachel Comenzo) about the arrangement until after dinner. Gomez NEVER kept a secret from Morticia; a fact she brought to his attention repeatedly during the show. The story contained more conflict and tension I would have expected from a light -hearted musical.

One has to respect D. J. Hedgepath for taking on the role of Gomez. Any theatrical performance is a challenge; especially when taking on a role iconized by another actor. After watching Mr. Hedgepath’s interpretation of Gomez, I’ll now view John Astin’s performance of the character on the same level as his role as The Riddler. (Mr. Astin is very talented, but he’s no Frank Gorshin.) At first I found it unusual to see Gomez Addams without a chalk stripe suit and smoking a cigar in every scene. As the show went on, Mr. Hedgepath reinvented the role as his own. He brought much more passion and energy to Gomez than other actors I’ve seen. For purists: he did include many “cara mias” while kissing Morticia’s arms from her wrist down to her shoulder. He also added fencing to his repertoire.

Rachel Comenzo clearly studied the role of Morticia. With crossed arms, fingers spread across her upper arms, and her pale face with a blank look the role became the actress. As usual, she showed off her exceptional vocal prowess. She showcased her abilities best in “Just around the Corner”. The song contained a homonym. The lyric went: death is just around the corner. Ms. Comenzo explained to the audience that, “death is just around the coroner. Get it?” It’s usually a bad sign when a performer needs to explain a joke to an audience. Ms. Comenzo did so very naturally and with such charm that she still got laughs.

I also have to give Ms. Comenzo credit for her skill as a dancer. Most of the choreography required her to dance in a long dress while wearing heels. She managed this difficult task flawlessly.

The real highlight of The Addams Family came during the “Tango de Amor” number with Gomez, Morticia and the Addams family ancestors. The ensemble performed a complex tango with Gomez and Morticia in the spotlight. I applaud choreographer Sarah Dugan for putting this together. Watching Mr. Hedgepath and Ms. Comenzo tango together brought to mind the legendary drum battle between Ginger Baker and Art Blakey. The level of talent displayed on stage is difficult to put into words. These two triple threats executed an intricate dance sequence brilliantly. It was a pleasure to see this much aptitude in one musical. Not that the two actors competed with one another, but if they had, like in the famous drum battle, the audience would’ve been the true winner.

Many memorable musical performances took place in The Addams Family. Casey Grouser (Wednesday), Lori Alexio Howard (Alice Beineke), Brian Padla (Uncle Fester) and Jacob Long (Pugsley Addams) all turned in very strong vocal performances. Mr. Hedgepath delivered a moving rendition of the somber ballad “Happy/Sad”.

I did feel a bit let down at one point with the song selection. When the second act began I thought ZZ Top were about to play. It turned out it was just Nicholas Olszewski in the guise of Cousin It.

I’d also like to give special acknowledgement to Phyllis Josephson as Grandma. She didn’t get a lot of stage time in this show, but she proved the old adage, “There are no small roles: only small actors.” Every time she had the spotlight, the audience became hysterical. I enjoyed her tone of voice. It sounded similar to the “Cat Lady” on the television show The Simpsons. Unlike that character, I could still understand her clearly, though.

My only criticism of the show concerned the technical issues. Several times a loud humming noise broadcast over the loudspeakers. Hearing the actors became challenging. Much to their credit, they remained focused and didn’t let it interrupt their performance. At the beginning of the show the acoustics were poor, as well. Both the orchestra and the dialog sounded muddled. Mr. Hedgepath and Ms. Comenzo both project their voices very well. I know my difficulty hearing had nothing to do with the actors.

At a key moment in the performance, the cast played a game called “Full Disclosure”. They passed a chalice around the dinner table. The person drinking from it would have to reveal a secret. One wouldn’t have to give it to members of the audience for them to disclose how well the cast and crew presented The Addams Family. That’s no secret. The show runs through July 18th  at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium.

Flagged

Today South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capital. As the Palmetto State’s secession from the Union marked the advent of the Civil War this is truly an historic occasion.

The controversy involving what the flag represents is well documented. There’s no reason to recount it here. Personally, I’ve had another issue with its use by governments in what was once the Confederacy. I’ve never understood why states that opted to return to the United States, still desired to fly the flag of a nation that went out of existence.

An acquaintance of mine who once lived in South Carolina explained to me: “The flag is a symbol of their heritage.” While the South is merely a section of the country, it has a legacy many nations could envy.

I’ve traveled through the South a number of times. In fact, I’ve been to every state except two that comprised the former Confederacy. I’ve often commented on the exceptional warmth and hospitality I’ve received from Southerners.

Our country has a great political tradition, thanks to the South. A Southerner penned our “Declaration of Independence”. Four of our first five presidents were Southerners. Three of the last six presidents of the United States hailed from the South. Historian Richard Hofstadter (a Northerner) once called South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, “probably the last American statesman to do any primary political thinking.”

With the greatest of respect to New Yorkers, the South has been the wellspring of great American culture. It’s rare to listen to a song on the radio where one can’t hear elements of the Delta Blues. The original American art form known as Jazz evolved in the “Big Easy”. There’s no doubt that our literary tradition would’ve been much poorer without the contributions of Mississippian William Faulkner.

The South is justified in being proud of its heritage; by extension, all Americans should be proud of our shared heritage.

I just wonder if flying the flag of a foreign nation at government buildings is the proper way to display that pride. For instance, the South West portion of the United States was once part of Mexico. Would all Americans be as understanding if states such as Arizona, New Mexico and California decided to fly the Mexican flag on government grounds? What if Louisiana opted to hang the French flag from the state capitol? Since the entire Eastern Seaboard was once part of the United Kingdom, would people respond favorably to adding the Union Jack to the flags of the original 13 colonies? I have to admit, the latter would make 4th of July celebrations much more interesting.

We’re Americans. Our nation is comprised of States. The only flags that belong on government land are those that represent the Federal Government, the State Government or those that support the troops. Individuals wanting to display symbols of pride have the freedom to do so on their own property and possessions. That’s what freedom of speech allows us all the opportunity to do. What could be controversial about that?