Month: September 2018

Spring Awakening at Burlington County Footlighters

South Jersey community theatre fans experienced an historic evening on Friday, September 14th. Both a mother and son directed shows that opened on the same day. Tami Gordon Brody, the matriarch of the Brody acting family, directed a second run of Love, Loss and What I Wore presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players. Following his mother’s lead Evan Brody made his directorial debut with Spring Awakening. I attended the latter.

With the waning days of summer upon us, Burlington County Footlighters opted to open their 81st season with Spring Awakening. This show contained elements that would appeal to a wide variety of theatrical fans. It included a unique interpolation of the Aeneid, the music reminiscent of mid-1990s pop along with a whole lot of teenage angst added for dramatic effect. The story combined Nihilistic philosophy with myriad references to onanism. I have to admit: I never would’ve expected someone to fuse that kind of range into any medium; especially a dramatic production. For a show set in the bland days of the late nineteenth century, this musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik sure didn’t lack for diversity.

Several years ago I attended a performance of Marsha Norman’s ‘night Mother at Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage. At the time I didn’t think it possible to present a show more intense than that one. Well, Footlighters raised that bar again. Imagine something like ‘night Mother put to music with a passionate ill-fated love affair worked into the story. Then add the moral universe of Grimm’s Fairy Tales where children who disobey authority face brutal retribution.

As harsh as all that may seem, Spring Awakening presented a solid exploration regarding the tragedy of the human condition. The music (under the direction of Anthony Sinigaglio) and dancing (choreographed by Tiara Nock) made the heavy themes easier to process. The gifted actors who brought the story to life with such passion required it to balance out the mood.

Spring Awakening told the story of star-crossed lovers Melchoir (Evan Newlin) and Wendla (Jenna German); he an idealistic intellectual driven by reason and she a repressed and isolated young lady with little understanding the world’s ways. They attended unisex schools in Germany during an era when authority figures viewed any nonconformity to society’s mores as anathema. In spite of this bleak background, Melchoir and Wendla developed a friendship that evolved into a deep passionate relationship.

At this point I understood why Footlighters decided to present this show in September. With all the ragweed in the air, people in the South Jersey area have been stocking up on tissues. After processing this set-up I knew they were going to need them. I did not expect the story to end well. The cast and crew’s skill in presenting these characters’ tragic journey allowed me to enjoy the voyage.

Both Mr. Newlin and Ms. German played complex roles to perfection. They exhibited profound capability to bring out the suppressed aspects of their characters’ personalities. These two performers expressed Melchoir’s and Wendla’s inner conflict with holding back their feelings very believably.

Mr. Newlin and Ms. German proved just as adept with their musical numbers. Ms. German delivered a somber rendition of “Mama Who Bore Me” to open the show. It sounded absolutely haunting and established the mood that dwelled over the performance. Mr. Newlin changed tack and showed strong comedic skills, as well. He and the cast added a humorous take on hopeless situations with the “Totally F*cked” number.

Vincent DiFilippo delivered another awesome performance. He nailed the essence of the jittery Moritz. Mr. DiFilppo transitioned from playing the role as a comic character with a nervous disposition to a tragic figure overwhelmed by circumstances. He turned in one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen.

Rachael Grodzielanek and Michael Sheldon played evil authority figures brilliantly. The military style marches they employed when approaching each other added to the characters’ malevolence while adding just a slight touch of the comic.

I liked that the playwright provided opportunities for the supporting characters to perform solos. I’d credit everyone in the ensemble for their contributions to a strong show. Paul Sigall, Evan Hairston, Aaron Wachs, Jerrod Ganesh, Melany Rosa, Alexis Short, Shannon Forbes and Cynthia Reynolds added their talents to a wonderful production.

The visual atmospherics gave this show an exceptional ambiance. During the climax, the stage became eerie. Lighting Designers Naomi Burton and Rebekah Macchione (who also assistant directed) crafted flawless illumination for this moment. While providing a sensual atmosphere a sense of doom pervaded during this pivotal scene. The candles held by the cast members made the moment absolutely ominous.

I must caution theatre goers that Spring Awakening is a show for mature audiences. It includes adult themes, language and an explicit love scene: all of which are legitimate artistic means to present a story. With all that material I’m a little surprised they let me in the door. I would strongly advise those offended by any of the above to avoid this show, but to get out of the house more often.

Set in a world devoid of love yet rife with mindless conservatism, Spring Awakening presented an excruciating take on the tribulations of adolescence. Even though the story took place over a century ago and a continent away, the concepts and themes give it a chilling relevance in our own era. That’s what makes it so impactful. To quote Nietzche, “Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.”

Spring Awakening goes into eternal slumber at Footlighters after September 29th.

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Lecture Review – “The Music of World War II” by Dr. Sheldon Winkler

At first I thought it unusual for a dentist to present a lecture on the music of the 1940s. Then I discovered that dentist was Sheldon Winkler. Appropriately enough, Dr. Winkler cut his teeth back in the early 1950s as the band leader for Sheldon Winkler and His Orchestra. While he didn’t share any of his chops with this audience he presented some great stories behind the great music of the Second World War. The Moorestown Library hosted his lecture on August 20th.

Dr. Winkler possesses tremendous range; well beyond that of most musicians. He previously served as the Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Prosthodontics and Dean of Research, Advanced Education, and Continuing Education at the Temple University School of Dentistry. Now he is Professor Emeritus at Temple University. Currently, he’s an Adjunct Professor at the School of Dental Medicine, Midwestern University located in Glendale, Arizona. The man doesn’t rest. I’d note that when he has time he delivers a lecture on music history that can’t be beat.

Dr. Winkler discussed the stories behind a number of war time classics. Some songwriters used their craft to convey a political point. He explained that Nat Burton wrote the lyrics for “The White Cliffs of Dover” to encourage American participation in the war. The speaker noted that the lyricist took some poetic license with the words. No bluebirds inhabit the United Kingdom.

Of interest to local historians, the professor talked about the local connection to some of the era’s most well-known tunes. A South Jersey clergyman inspired one of the war’s most popular songs. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Haddonfield resident Chaplain Howell Forgy issued the famous declaration, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” to his shipmates aboard the USS New Orleans. The expression inspired Frank Loesser to write the war time anthem of the same name.

Dr. Winkler endeavors to have an historic plaque placed on Chaplain Forgy’s Haddonfield home. His efforts are ongoing.

Any Philadelphia Flyers fan knows Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America.” Dr. Winkler shared the song’s origins. In 1938 Ms. Smith and her manager Ted Collins approached Irving Berlin. They asked him to write something she could use on her radio program. Mr. Berlin resurrected a tune he’d written during World War One, but never used. He modified it a bit and presented it to Ms. Smith. It became her signature song. Decades later it became a staple at the Broad Street Bullies’ home games.

During the Second World War a movement began to replace the “Star Spangled Banner” with “God Bless America” as the National Anthem. Dr. Winkler explained that it seemed Ms. Smith, Mr. Collins and Mr. Berlin the only people who opposed the change. With the global conflict raging, they didn’t believe it enough of a “war song.”

To borrow a quote from Rod McKuen, Dr. Winkler showed that, “1939 -1945 was a terrible time for the world, but it was a glorious time for songs.” His lecture also served as the most enjoyable hour I’ve spent in the presence of a dentist. The speaker based the talk on his book The Music of World War II: War Songs and Their Stories.

An Evening with Joe DiBlasio at the Moorestown Library

What better way to commemorate one’s birthday than by reliving one’s life to a rapt audience? Moorestown resident Joe DiBlasio did just that. The Moorestown Library presented an evening with him on August 29th.

Reference Librarian Maria Esche served as the event moderator. She opened her remarks by observing that “Joe has a big fan club.” Mr. DiBlasio added a comical quip that, “Half of you in the audience know me. The half that knows me doesn’t want to know me.” Over the next two hours Mr. DiBlasio showed why everyone in the audience would be honored to know him.

Mr. DiBlasio described the process that led to his taking up residence in Moorestown. His father came to the United States from Italy at the age of 17. He brought his family over six years later. Shortly afterwards Joe was born in Camden. The family moved to Moorestown while Joe attended third grade.

The DiBlasio family had already established roots in town. His grandparents lived in the community. His grandfather worked as a stone mason who commuted to Moorestown from Camden. In the early twentieth century this journey took 2-1/2 hours each way. Some of the Quakers in town helped his grandfather find a home to spare him the traveling.

Mr. DiBlasio shared his observations on his 80 plus years living in Moorestown. He experienced the most momentous events of the twentieth century in the community. Regarding life during the Great Depression, “I never went to bed hungry,” he said. His family still struggled.

His mother baked bread three times a week. He traveled about town selling loaves for $0.10 each. “That’s the only reason I had a bicycle,” he explained.

His father worked for RCA as a cabinet maker. During the Depression, he lost his job and became unable to pay his mortgage. Mr. DiBlasio described two gentlemen from the Burlington County Trust Company approaching his father at home. The men had come to foreclose. The elder Mr. DiBlasio wouldn’t allow them. “I don’t have the money now,” he said, “but I’m going to pay you.” The men left the premises. His father did eventually pay the bank the money he owed.

The speaker described life in town during the Second World War. When hostilities began in Europe, people didn’t worry. The conflict took place too far away to cause concern. When the United States began supplying the Allies, then people became anxious.

Upon America’s entry into the war rationing began immediately. The draft began in 1940, but the government still allowed high school students to graduate before becoming eligible. Young men could drop out of school and enlist, however. Moorestown also enforced blackouts. Regarding the latter, Mr. DiBlasio noted, “We never worried about being bombed.”

The war didn’t alter some aspects of life in town. Mr. DiBlasio described himself as a “big star” on both the high school baseball diamond and the gridiron during the early 1940s. He added a comical observation to his own assessment of his abilities. “Who can object to that now?”

Mr. DiBlasio discussed some of the other local events he experienced. He recalled watching as they tore up the old trolley tracks from the center of Main Street. Gravel covered the roads prior to asphalt. Once or twice a year they would oil the streets in order to keep the dust low. He even remembered the original paving of Route 38. Mr. DiBlasio described learning how to swim in the artesian wells that border what is now Strawbridge Lake. He even picked apples at the orchard where the Moorestown Mall now stands.

The guest concluded his reminiscence by discussing the various service clubs started in Moorestown following the war. He belonged to the Lions Club that incorporated in 1948. He even brought a visual aid from the era to show the audience: a wreath the organization crafted in 1952. It was the first Christmas ornament ever displayed in town.

Mr. DiBlasio served in the Marine Corps for three years, worked for the family business (Perla Block) and married in 1950. He turned 95 this August 12th. One suspects that after this evening, he’s going to have an even bigger fan club.