Month: July 2018

Lecture Review – “In Flew Enza: The 1918 Flu Epidemic in Philadelphia and New Jersey” by Mikey DiCamillo

2018 marks the hundredth anniversary of one of history’s most horrific years. With the bloodbath of the First World War, it’s easy to forget that 2018 also commemorates the centenary of another catastrophe. This one also caused massive loss of life. Unlike the war, this one affected people well beyond the battlefields. It even made a tremendous impact in our region. This disaster caused eight to 12 thousand deaths in Philadelphia and another 2,600 in Camden County. This malady made no noise, had no smell and couldn’t be detected by the naked eye. Today we know that killer as the influenza virus.

Historian Mickey DiCamillo enhanced my understanding. He presented a lecture on the 1918 flu pandemic this July 11th. It took place in the May Barton Memorial Garden located at the Historical Society of Moorestown.

While a somber topic for a summer lecture, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about it. I have a personal connection to this subject. My great-grand aunt and Philadelphia resident Edith Bishop Clark succumbed during the 1918 flu pandemic on October 13, 1918. Mrs. Cark was only 27 years old. Since her sister, my great-grandmother Violet Bishop Connelly, lived to be 80, I wondered how someone so young could be struck down by something as common as the flu.

Mr. DiCamillo didn’t disappoint. He provided a thorough overview of the outbreak. The historian performed copious research on the topic. It gave him a solid understanding of the subject matter.

The lecture focused on several key areas: the epidemic’s origin, why it spread so quickly and how society responded to it.

I’d often heard the pandemic referred to as the “Spanish Flu.” Mr. DiCamillo explained that this is a misnomer. He explored the historiography of how scholars analyzed the outbreak’s roots.

During the First World War a myth spread that the pandemic originated with German POWs. Interestingly, during the 1940s and 1950s, historians then theorized that it began among Russian POWs. Mr. DiCamillo noted that in both cases, the historians of the day attributed it to America’s main adversary.

Contemporary historians theorize that the virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas around February of 1918. A physician named Loring Miner observed young, strong people becoming ill and dying. They experienced regular flu like symptoms that quickly developed into pneumonia. Dr. Miner published his findings. He ominously warned: “the public should be alarmed.”

In March of the same year this flu strain affected Camp Fungsten, a military base in the Haskell County area. Within three weeks medics reported 1,100 cases there. Many soldiers from this facility landed in Brest, France. Mr. DiCamillo described that city as “ground zero” for the European’s flu’s outbreak.

The Haskell County origin is a hypothesis, Mr. DiCamillo noted. Modern researchers can document the Kansas outbreak because Dr. Miner published his findings in a Federal Government journal. The epidemic struck all over the world. That makes it very difficult to identify its precise beginning.

The scourge spread to the Northeast beginning in late summer. Soldiers at military bases became its first victims. The close quarters common to barracks allowed for the illness’ easy transmission.

Mr. DiCamillo then focused his remarks on the Camden County and Philadelphia areas. He cited a “voice from the era”, to describe events. A local newspaper, the Camden Daily Courier, reported that the flu had passed the region on 9/20/1918. Then between 9/20 and 9/24, Camp Dix experienced 1,000 cases of it.

The speaker referenced another voice from the era in the person of Alton W. Miller. While stationed at Kentucky’s Camp Taylor, he wrote letters to his sister stating he felt “sick.” He didn’t report his illness at the base because, “Everybody who goes into the hospital doesn’t come out.” His concern proved prescient. When he could no longer hide his symptoms, he was sent there. He passed away shortly afterwards.

Mr. DiCamillo presented his own theory as to how the epidemic spread through the area. On September 28, 1918 a Liberty Loan Rally was scheduled to take place at Willow Grove Park. With flu raging through the Northeast, the organizers debated whether or not to hold the event. Philadelphia’s public health officials adhered to the specious belief that they had a vaccine to combat the illness. They gave permission for the gathering to take place. On that date 200,000 people gathered in Willow Grove Park.

Three days later the number of flu cases in Philadelphia leapt from 100 to 635. Around this time news of the flu appeared on the front page of the Camden Daily Courier for the first time.

So why was this flu so contagious? Mr. DiCamillo provided two explanations. He estimated that 75% of the area’s trained medical personnel went overseas to support the war effort. He added that the conflict “sped everything up.” Factories operated 24 hours a day.

People of the day used some modern methods to treat the malady. The patient would be isolated. The sick person’s body temperature would be carefully monitored. Cathartics would be used to “rid the patient off poisons.” The patient would be encouraged to breathe fresh air, keep their windows screened and to drink plenty of fluids.

Mr. DiCamillo shared some amusing stories as to how people responded to the crisis.

By the first week of October, officials in Camden and Philadelphia took measures to control the illness’ spread. They ordered schools, churches and social clubs closed. Philadelphia even took the added step of shutting down saloons. Camden did not. This led to an influx of people from the City of Brotherly Love into the South Jersey area. Residents described their behavior as failing to give credence to the city’s nickname.

At the time doctors prescribed whiskey to treat the epidemic. Historians doubt that’s what led so many Philadelphians to swarm into South Jersey’s taverns, though.

During the crisis the Philadelphia Inquirer made an editorial decision not to print articles about the flu on the front page. Unlike modern media that thrives on sensationalism the newspaper didn’t want to start a panic.

Remember that “vaccine” Philadelphia public health officials figured would defeat the illness? It was designed to fight a bacterial malady: not a viral one. Even if it had been, it wouldn’t have had much impact. The epidemic passed around the third week of October.

Mr. DiCamillo opened his remarks by saying that talking about the subject, “Makes me nervous to be around people.” After listening to his lecture, I could understand why. If Mr. DiCamillo ever becomes interested in making a career change, he’d make a great salesman for flu shots.

 

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Disney’s Mary Poppins at the Ritz Theatre Company

Yet again the Ritz Theatre Company is bringing the magic of Disney to the South Jersey Area. This summer they’re mesmerizing audiences with Mary Poppins. This piece, directed and choreographed by Brian Rivell, contains something that would appeal to just about anyone. It features elaborate special effects, unbelievable dance sequences and some stellar performances. I witnessed the spectacle for myself on July 20th.

The Banks family had problems. An emotionally distant man George (played by Paul McElwee) devoted himself to making money. Winifred (Jenna Lubis) harbored doubts about sacrificing her acting career to marry him. Their two children (played by Cassidy Scherz and Colin Rivell) behaved unruly. To show the extent of their issues, they’d been through more nannies than the Trump Administration has been through National Security Advisers….and Communications Directors…and Secretaries of State. Enter Mary Poppins (played by Martha Marie Wasser) to fix this mess.

This show contained extraordinary special effects. Ms. Wasser and Mr. Kish floated through the air. An overturned table moved right-side up after Ms. Wasser waved her hand. Broken shelves fixed themselves following the same motion. The Ritz Theatre presented one enchanted production. Well-earned kudos goes out to Technical Director William Bryant.

The lighting made the performance a visual delight. The panels on both sides of the stage illuminated. The London backdrop took on different hues throughout the evening. Stars projected on the backs of the seats prior to the “Anything Goes” number. The display brought the audience into the show. Light Board Operator Casey Clark also gets well deserved praise for the spectacle.

Mary Poppins contained sophisticated and intricate dance routines. Brian Rivell coordinated awesome choreography. The cast did a superb job executing it. How to pick a favorite? I would suggest “Step in Time”, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Anything Can Happen” as the strongest contenders for that title. However, if I wrote down all the routines on separate pieces of paper, placed them in a hat and drew one at random it wouldn’t be difficult to make an argument for that one being the best.

CJ Kish (as Bert) always performs with great passion and energy. At times it seems like he’s flying around the stage. In Mary Poppins he did so literally. Mr. Kish performed one sequence in which he executed flips in mid-air and hopped about as though dancing atop chimney brushes.

This show is a “must see” for Mr. Kish’s fans. I found the title of one of his musical number “Twists and Turns” very appropriate. He performed the best dance routines I’ve seen him do. He’s such a talented actor and vocalist (as evidenced by “Chim Chim Cher-eee”) that I hadn’t realized the extent of his dancing ability.

Martha Marie Wasser’s performance wasn’t “practically perfect”: Ms. Wasser turned in a flawless rendition of everyone’s favorite nanny. I always credit performers who can dance in heels. Ms. Wasser had some tricky numbers in which to do so. In “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” the tempo changed several times. She and cast executed the routine seamlessly and while singing.

Ms. Wasser adopted all the mannerisms of the title character. From the way she held her umbrella, to her calm manner of speech and through the posture she adopted while floating through the air Ms. Wasser transformed herself into the real Mary Poppins.

I’d also compliment Ms. Wasser on her singing ability. The show contained a number of Disney classics. Ms. Wasser made them her own. “Practically Perfect” and “A Spoonful of Sugar” stood out as the most beautiful.

The Banks family sure had its problems. They didn’t prevent the performers playing them from displaying their own vocal prowess. The four performed well together as a group on “Cherry Tree Lane” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Paul McElwee (as George) delivered a moving rendition of “Good for Nothing.” Jenna Lubas (as Winifred) sang an incredible version of “Being Mrs. Banks.”

In addition to their scenes with Mr. McElwee and Ms. Lubas, Cassidy Scherz (Jane) Colin Rivell (Michael) got to share the stage with Ms. Wasser and Mr. Kish. They displayed great chemistry working together on numbers such as “Step in Time” and “Practically Perfect.”

My favorite scene occurred during the smackdown between the dueling nannies. Mary Poppins and Miss Andrew (played by Kendra Cancellieri Hecker) confronted one another by using their signature method as a weapon. The former utilized “a spoonful of sugar” and the latter opted for “brimstone and treacle.” It made for a stellar clash enacted by Ms. Wasser and Ms. Hecker. The musical number itself made the audience the real winners of this conflict.

Credit also goes to performers Anne Buckwheat, Darrin Murphy, Kendra Cancelleri Hecker, Kaitlyn Delengowski, Olivia West, Jamie Talamo, Ryann Ferrara, Caleb Tracy, Kyle Ronkin, Darrel Wood, Lindsey Krier, Kelsey Hodgkiss and Leah Senseney. They each contributed to an outstanding ensemble.

Mary Poppins stays on as long as she’s “needed.” The Ritz Theatre Company anticipates that will be until August 5th. Take advantage of that opportunity. The Ritz is being generous. With the superb quality of entertainment I’ve experienced at that company, community theatre fans should feel grateful she’s “needed” there at all. Mary Poppins is another reason why.

Big Fish at the Maple Shade Arts Council

Big Fish possessed one complicated title. As this is July, I anticipated a musical ode to that age old summer past time. Not so. The protagonist’s son went “fishing” into his dad’s past to discover the truth about him. Well, the title either alluded to that or Edward’s being a figurative “big fish” in a small pond. At any rate, theatergoers should leave their rods and reels at home. Settle in for an odyssey of singing, dancing and stellar entertainment with the Maple Shade Arts Council.

Edward Bloom loved to share stories with his son. Who wouldn’t want a tale-telling fabulous fabulist of a father? Well, not Will. When he discovered himself about to become a dad, he longed to know the real Edward behind the stories. But time became an issue. Edward received news he had terminal cancer. Would Will learn the truth? I found out when I attended the July 14th performance of Big Fish presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council.

Director Michael Melvin engaged in some unexpected casting for this project. Antonio Baldasari is one of the funniest actors on the South Jersey community theatre circuit. His performance as Aldolpho in the Maple Shade Arts Council’s The Drowsy Chaperone was the most comical character I’ve seen brought to the stage. April Lindley has also played memorable comic characters in recent years. I attended a performance of Shrek: The Musical at the Collingswood Community Theatre in which she played the emotionally volatile Princess Fiona. That character changed moods about as often as most people inhale. With those two at the top of the bill I entered the Maple Shade High School Auditorium expecting some side-splitting entertainment.

Well, the creative Mr. Melvin had other plans. He cast these performers in dramatic, sentimental and heart-rending roles. He made a good decision. These players proved just as adept at performing “serious” characters. To the audience’s delight both Mr. Baldasari and Ms. Lindley delivered performances just as memorable as their comedic work.

Big Fish included sophisticated dance routines choreographed by Erica Paolucci and assistant Mallory Beach, a live orchestra led by Jim Sheffer and vocal direction by Lauren Delfing. All facets combined for an exceptional show. Oh, yes, and DJ Hedgepath played the son. You know it had to be one grand production for me to mention Mr. Hedgepath last.

Mr. Melvin turned Big Fish into a mesmerizing visual spectacle. He coordinated the lighting, as well. The director ensured the different shades of color on the set reflected the mood of the events occurring on-stage. The bright yellow hue combined with the flowers spread around the stage heightened the beauty of the “Daffodils” number. The red, white and blue costumes accentuated the stellar dancing in the “Red, White and True” routine. The dark costumes of the witch ensemble boosted the ominous aura of the “I Know What You Want” scene. The glowing crystal ball the witch (Nicole Perri) held illuminated in various hues.

Antonio Baldasari has done strong supporting work. I relished the opportunity to watch him take the lead as Edward Bloom. He didn’t disappoint. The performer grabbed my attention at the beginning with his solo rendition of “Be the Hero.”

Mr. Baldasari became Edward. He adopted the character’s slow Southern drawl. I liked his calm mannerisms when confronted by the witch and the assassins; but not when confronted by his son. He complimented Ms. Lindley very well in numbers such as “Daffodils” and “Time Stops.” He worked just as proficiently with cast members Tre Deluca on “Fight the Dragons” and DJ Hedgepath on “Showdown.”

Besides the musical numbers, the show contained serious drama. Mr. Baldasari and Mr. Hedgepath played superb opposites. Mr. Baldasari’s laid back and imaginative persona worked well against Mr. Hedgepath’s angry and analytical nature. April Lindley and Jayne Collotti (as Will’s wife Josephine) served as mediators. Even without the songs, this conflict alone would have made for a great story.

DJ Hedgepath’s fans will be delighted, as usual. I enjoyed his renditions of “Stranger”, “What’s Next” and the “Be the Hero” reprise. In addition to the hostility to Mr. Baldasari’s character, he showed great emotion when visiting him in the hospital. He brought out Will’s development very believably.

April Lindley turned in an absolutely awesome performance as Sandra. Ms. Lindley delivered her lines in a perfect Southern accent. She inspired empathy for Sandra through her flawless facial expressions.

Ms. Lindley established a new standard for dramatic vocals. With the dying Edward resting in her lap she sang “I Don’t Need a Roof” while crying. She performed as though every word agonized her character even more. All the time she remained in key. Ms. Lindley brilliantly extended a rest before hitting the final note. It made a deeply emotional moment even more powerful.

The highlight of this show occurred during the “Little Lamb from Alabama/Time Stops” sequence. April Lindley, Shaina Egan and Emma Kelly joined together to perform this song and dance number. They sounded just like the Andrews Sisters playing on an MP3. The “Little Lamb from Alabama” number featured a quick upbeat tempo. It segued into “Time Stops” sung by Ms. Lindley and Mr. Baldasari. For that one the three dancers slowed down and performed the same moves in slow motion. They executed this transition with precision.

I also compliment the other cast members who contributed to the production. Tre Deluca (played Young Will the night I attended), Jane Collotti, stilt walker Stephen Jackson, Nicholas French, Nicole Perri, Allison Abiva, James Gallagher, Ryan Bogie, Matthew Maerten, Mallory Beach, Erin Daly, Laura Foley, Jerrod Ganesh, Evan Hairston, Lori Alexio Howard, Nicole Manning, Jordan Moore, Lisa Palena and William Young.

During the intermission Mr. Melvin told me to “get the tissues ready for Act II.” I’m sure audience members shed tears at its conclusion, but not because of the story. I doubt I’m the only person who felt sad that it ended. Missing out on the experience would’ve made me even more miserable. For theatre fans still in the doldrums you have until July 21st to catch Big Fish.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Haddonfield Plays and Players

This Friday the 13th theatregoers got lucky. Haddonfield Plays and Players decided to present a witty take on some dirty rotten scoundrels. There may not be honor among thieves, but they sure displayed some pretty good acting, singing and dancing chops. I attended the opening night performance on July 13th.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels told the story of aging con-man Lawrence Jameson (played by Chris Fitting). Accompanied by his assistant, police Inspector Andre Thibault (Kacper Miklus), he took on the guise of a fictitious prince. He travelled the Riviera swindling women. During one con he encountered Freddie Benson (Sidney (Syd) Manfred Maycock III). The latter aspired to a life of chicanery but struggled to get his start. He asked Jameson to teach him the art of the craft.

Initially reluctant, Jameson discovered that one of his marks, the gun toting Jolene Oakes, (Lauren Elisabeth) already arranged their wedding. Facing an exile to the prairies of Oklahoma Jameson reconsidered the novice’s offer. The two teamed up on a comical skit to dissuade her. Then the partnership deteriorated.

The two made a deal. Whoever could swindle the next wealthy woman they met for $50,000 could remain in the area. The loser would leave town. Enter the “soap girl”, Christine Colgate (Kristina Coia). As they utilized some creative hijinks to win the challenge, both men found themselves falling in love with her.

I’ll avoid giving away spoilers. I will note that the script contained outstanding use of foreshadowing. Author Jeffrey Lane and lyricist David Yazbek used it with great subtlety, but it all made sense at the story’s conclusion: and what a conclusion! The ending contained plot twists that rivaled the Saw movies finales.

This show gets my Sienkiewicz Award. This honor comes from a line in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis: “I wish it had been worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (directed by Ryk Lewis) impressed me that much.

Chris Fitting cemented his reputation as the sharpest dressed man in South Jersey community theatre. There’s only performance I’ve seen where Mr. Fitting didn’t wear either a suit or a tuxedo. It’s refreshing that even in the modern era some people still find it appropriate to dress up for a night at the theatre.

The wardrobe aside Mr. Fitting’s style of performing puts him in a unique class. The aristocratic tone with the hint of a British accent suited his character brilliantly. He also displayed exceptional skill in adding an Austrian accent to it when his character played the doctor from Vienna.

Mr. Fitting executed some complex song and dance numbers flawlessly. I enjoyed his somber rendition of the ballad, “Love Sneaks In.” Through this tune he added an unexpected dimension to the con-man’s personality. He performed this adjustment in a believable manner.

Syd Maycock possesses a genius for comedy. His befuddled facial expressions while Ms. Koia sang “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True” were just as superb as her singing. He made it obvious he couldn’t believe the things she said. When she prodded him to continue the song, he stumbled over lyrics like he was hearing them for the first time.

When trying to deceive Ms. Coia’s character into giving him the money Mr. Maycock utilized a tender voice of his own. The way he exaggerated it made the inflection hysterical.

His best number occurred when he performed “Great Big Stuff.” Ryk Lewis’ choreography turned it into an awesome song and dance routine with the ensemble. After a performance like this some great big stuff is in store for Mr. Maycock.

Kristina Coia wins the first ever Sienkiewicz Award for Best Actress. Ms. Coia pulled off the most ingenious character transformation I’ve ever seen, heard or read. I won’t give it away as it would ruin the experience for those unfamiliar with the story. Ms. Coia enacted the change in a way that will still surprise audiences.

Aside from revolutionizing the concept of character transformations, Ms. Coia also displayed exceptional vocal capability. She selected the proper voice to sing her character’s songs. Ms. Coia’s soft, tender vocals worked very well on numbers such as “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True.”

These three thespians complimented each other wonderfully. The “Ruffhousin’ Mit Shuffhausen” made for the show’s highpoint. Mr. Fitting attempted to win the bet by forcing Mr. Maycock to admit he could feel below his waist. Mr. Fitting made this effort while singing, dancing and hitting him on the thighs with a cane. Mr. Maycock’s expressions and strained denials were impeccable. Ms. Coia’s concern and naïveté added the perfect enhancement to the scene.

I’m familiar with Gina Petti’s skill as a dancer. Ms. Petti displayed it often in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I’d never heard the performer’s singing skills. The show provided the opportunity. As Muriel Ms. Petti performed lovely renditions of “What Was a Woman to Do” and the “Like Zis/Like Zat” reprise.

Kacper Miklus delivered and sang his lines in a perfect French accent. He joined Ms. Petti for the duet “Like Zis/Like Zat” and crooned the solo “Chimp in a Suit.” He got laughs trying to play the suave suitor to Ms. Petti while struggling to ignite a cigarette with an empty lighter.

Jennifer Gordon choreographed the “Oklahoma?” routine. This one combined elaborate dancing with comedy. Lauren Elizabeth led the ensemble through one rockin’ hoedown.

I would also credit performers Mary Simrin, Julieann Calabrese, Tony Yates, Sarah Blake, Jen Stefan, Rebecca Dilks, Sheila M. Haswell, Andrea Veneziano, Briant Lopez, Ryan Fanelli, and Robert Haggerty for their contributions to the performance.

I had some minor issues with the script. The show broke fourth wall a few times. Most notably when Jolene informed Lawrence that she arranged their wedding, he asked, “Did I miss a scene?”

I also couldn’t tell when the story occurred. The script contained references to Bob Guccione, Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump; the latter because of his wealth. As the movie of the same name released in 1988, I figured it took place during the 1980s. Then Lawrence made a joke alluding to George W. Bush. I found this inconsistent.

In the “Give Them What They Want” number, Lawrence added, “then you leave them wanting more.” The cast and crew of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels did just that. The same song borrowed a line from John Keats’ Endymion:  “Truth is beauty.” It may be, but it’s not as beautiful as this performance. If you don’t believe me you have until August 3rd to determine for yourself.