Month: January 2019

A Streetcar Named Desire at Burlington County Footlighters

Several years ago it seemed like every South Jersey community theatre produced a version of Sister Act. Now it seems like they’ve graduated to more sophisticated material. Tennessee Williams has become the new ubiquitous feature on community theatre marquees.

Burlington County Footlighters presented the latest rendition of Mr. Williams’ work in the form of A Streetcar Named Desire. I attended the opening night performance on January 25th.

Streetcar told the story of down-on-her luck dilettante Blanche DuBois (played by Morgan Petronis). She’d lost her husband, her job and the family estate in quick succession. While a common theme in country music, Williams applied this trio to the stage. He did so magnificently. The show received the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the process.

Blanche’s sister Stella (played by Alex Davis) agreed to let her stay in the New Orleans home she shared with her husband Stanley Kowalski (John Helmke). Blanche found the accommodations lacking in the sophistication to which she’d accustomed herself. She also discovered Stanley to be a boorish “madman.” Stanley responded to Blanche’s contempt and haughty attitude by working to destroy her reputation.

So do audiences really need another installment of Tennessee Williams? With conflict this strong how could a real theatre fan ever get enough of it?

Tennessee Williams’ work presents a host of challenges for actors. Director Lou DiPilla selected a superb cast with which to meet them.

Morgan Petronis played an exceptional Blanche DuBois. The performer first deserves credit for taking on one of the most iconic roles in American theatre. In addition, the character presents several difficulties for those with the courage to play it. Let’s start with the writing.

Watching this show reminded me of a conversation I once had with the late Glenn Walker. In a discussion regarding HP Lovecraft, he criticized the author’s use of narration. When thumbing through one of Lovecraft’s stores, one can see blocks and blocks of text without dialog.

A reader could criticize the text of Streetcar for a similar reason. After perusing its pages just now, I witnessed blocks and blocks of dialog. This creates a problem for actors. People in the modern era are used to 5 second sound bites and Tweets of less than 140 characters. How can one engage contemporary audiences with such verbose material?

Ms. Petronis got it done. She delivered her lines in keeping with the sing-song lyricism of Williams’ dialog; adopting a very authentic Southern accent. One has to credit her for keeping the cadence without misspeaking any of her lines.

Now that was just the speaking facet of the role. Not only did Williams’ protagonist change throughout the story, the character became more of a fabulist than even Willy Loman.

Ms. Petronis played this liar very believably. Even as someone familiar with the play, I struggled to tell when Blanche told the truth or fibbed. I liked the casual ways Ms. Petronis said that she’d only have one drink…or two. She strolled around the stage in finery claiming an old suitor tried to contact her. While the audience could tell the character had begun losing touch with reality, Ms. Petronis portrayed Blanche as though SHE believed the things she said. That’s a very difficult balance and the performer executed it brilliantly.

Tennessee Williams didn’t limit himself to only making Blanche a complex character. His antagonist possessed some complexities of his own. The Stanley role reminded me a bit of the title character from Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. Only this one contained much more attitude, anger and vindictiveness. John Helmke met the role’s demands.

Mr. Helmke played well opposite Ms. Petronis. As highbrow as she made Blanche seem he enacted Stanley as the opposite. His rough accent and the way he shifted his weight while walking suited the character. With equal dexterity Mr. Helmke played a hard-drinking “one-of-the-guys”, a destructive alcoholic and a contrite husband. The latter a challenging task for a character harboring a low opinion of women. The realistic way he begged for Stella’s forgiveness made me cringe.

Alex Davis played Stella, the bridge between these two poles. The character harkened back to Shakespeare’s Brutus. Like him, Stella meant well, but always made the wrong decisions. The nonchalant way in which Ms. Davis would either make excuses for or express enjoyment over Stanley’s behavior was chilling. Ms. Davis’ rendition showed Stella didn’t see any flaws with his actions.

Fran Pedersen played a phenomenal love interest for Blanche, Harold “Mitch” Mitchell. Mr. Pedersen stumbled over his words and laughed awkwardly while attempting to woo her. When Stanley told him what he’d discovered about Blanche, Mr. Pederson adapted. With disheveled hair he raged at her, sounding almost as angry as Stanley. At the show’s end he gave her sad looks that expressed his regret better than words.

Blanche complained about her “nerves” throughout the show. After watching performances this powerful, I’m sure the audience felt a little unsettled.

The following performers rounded out the cast: Kori Rife, Matt Dell’Olio, Shay Fuller, Jeff Rife, Tim Schumann, Lauren DiPilla and Brian Wayman.

In December of 2016 I attended Burlington County Footlighters’ presentation of A Christmas Carol. Set designer Jim Frazer crafted a Christmas village that converted the stage into a real-life Norman Rockwell painting. I didn’t think it possible to create a stage set better than that one. Then came The Explorers’ Club. After this show, I’ll start adding the words to date whenever I describe Mr. Frazer’s “best.”

When I entered the building I felt like I strolled right into the French Quarter.  The set for Streetcar transformed the stage into vintage New Orleans. The broken shutters, the wood balcony and the cerulean backdrop gave the setting authenticity. The flickering streetlamps at both sides of the audience created an eerie ambiance when the house lights (also designed by Mr. Frazer) dimmed.

One wouldn’t expect a non-musical drama to contain good singing. Footlighters’ presentation of Streetcar did. Carla Ezell added her soulful vocal prowess to the production. Since the action occurred in the Big Easy, instrumental jazz music played throughout the performance.

That brings me to my one criticism of the show. With all the jazz music I’d hoped the Mike Parisi Trio would return to the Footlighters stage. They played at the Winter Warmer the company hosted in December. Their jazz stylings would have fit well with this ambiance. Maybe the next theatre company will take note when it presents Tennessee Williams.

The brutality and brilliance of A Streetcar Named Desire will never lack relevance. The cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters demonstrated why it will always be a timeless masterpiece.

While Williams’ work may be timeless, time is running out at Burlington County Footlighters. Theatre fans shouldn’t depend on the kindness of strangers to buy tickets for them. They have until February 9th to see the show. After that they can still stand outside the building yelling, “Stella! Stella!” They’ll receive a much different response than Stanley Kowalski, however.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at the Ritz Theatre Company

Once again the arts mirror sports. As football fans watch teams vying for the championship battling to eliminate each other in the playoffs, the Ritz Theatre Company treated audiences to a similar premise. They opened this year’s season with a tale of a young man eliminating rivals in his quest for an earldom. To show just how driven he was, he utilized even more ruthless methods than Sean Payton. I witnessed the spectacle myself on January 19th.

Set in Edwardian Britain, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder delivered just what the title promised. It showed Monty Navarro’s (played by Taylor Darden) ascent from poverty into the British aristocracy. Following his mother’s death, Miss Shingle (Trisha Dennis) told him a family secret. Mrs. Navarro was a relative of the posh D’Yasquith family. They had disowned her for marrying out of her class in favor of a travelling musician.

Upon this discovery, Monty wrote to Lord Asquith D’Yasquith, Sr. requesting a job. The latter responded by telling Monty never to contact him again.

To complicate matters for Monty, he’d fallen in love with the sprightly Sibella (Sophie Jones). She rejected him opting instead to marry a wealthy man in spite of finding him rather dull.

Monty had no money. Because of that he’d lost the woman he loved. And he was eighth in line to become the Earl of Highhurst. Monty personified Frank Sinatra’s observation that: “Lack of money is the root of all evil.” He resolved to ascend the social ladder by taking out a few rungs. Monty chose to murder his way into an earldom.

The premise would suggest A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder a terrifying horror story. Author Robert L. Freedman and songwriter Steven Lutvak instead developed Roy Horniman’s concept into a musical comedy. Director Peter John Rios chose the perfect cast for such an endeavor.

Taylor Darden’s stage presence made him the perfect Monty. Through his boyish-looks along with his mischievous mannerisms he became the character. The way he winked at the audience at the show’s end expressed Monty’s inner thoughts wittily. Mr. Darden also used props for comedic effect very well; especially through the way he scurried about the stage with an axe.

Mr. Darden treated the audience with his exceptional vocal prowess. He performed a wonderful ode to Monty’s love interest in “Sibella.” Mr. Darden displayed range by delivering a memorable comedic number with the same proficiency. The audience enjoyed his duet with Nicholas French on the double entendre laden “Better with a Man.”

For theatre fans who enjoy operatic vocals, this show is a must see. Musical director Michael J. Weaver worked with a trio of talented performers. Sophie Jones (as Sibella), Mariel Rosati (as Phoebe) and Alyssa Batsakis (as Miss Barley) all performed superb vocals with a challenging score. I’d also compliment Mr. Weaver’s stellar piano playing to accompany them.

The evening’s highlight came when Mr. Darden, Ms. Jones and Ms. Rosati teamed-up for the “I’ve Decided to Marry You” number. Phoebe proposed to Navarro while Sibella listened in on the other side. The routine included some elaborate coordination and choreography (also by Peter John Rios). A set with two doors was placed in the center of the stage. Ms. Jones remained on one side, Ms. Rosati and Mr. Darden on the other. As they sang Ms. Jones tried to listen in and then enter the other room as Mr. Darden struggled to block her. The scene made for quite a visual spectacle.

When a show contains numerous dramatis personae it can become difficult to follow. When the same actor performs most of the roles all of them can seem similar. Performer Nicholas French ensured that didn’t happen. Mr. French played eight members of the D’Yasquith family; that included two women.

Mr. French gave every character its own distinct personality. For Lord Adalbert D’Yasquith, Sr. he adopted an austere, dignified persona. He played Asquith D’Yasquith, Jr. as a sybaritic playboy. Working with Alyssa Batsakis (as Miss Barley) in that role the two performers displayed great chemistry as one another’s love interest. Lord Adalbert D’Yasquith, Jr. behaved like a glutton; even making snorting noises while dining.

This actor proved just as adept at playing the female family members. Mr. French showed himself a much better performer than the one he played: Lady Salome D’Yasquith Pumphrey. His rendition of aspiring philanthropist Lady Hyacinth D’Yasquith, was among his best.

Mr. French showed extraordinary skill playing all these roles. His rendition of “I Don’t Understand the Poor” and his performance as weightlifter Major Bartholomew D’Asquith were absolutely hysterical. He displayed the most talent performing the Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Yasquith. For that role he wore prosthetic teeth which gave the character an overbite. Even with that obstruction in his mouth, Mr. French still delivered his lines clearly.

After Mr. French’s performances as each character I could understand just how much having money and status meant to Mr. Navarro. It had to for him to want in to this family.

As one can surmise, playing eight characters in one show required “the fastest quick changes ever” as the director described them in the playbill. One has to credit Mr. French and “quick change dresser” Briana Bailey for executing them so flawlessly.

Michael J. DeFlorio played a superbly comical Chief Inspector Pinckney. With his Sherlock Holmes outfit, continuous mouth twitching and drawling of a British accent he made his stage time very entertaining.

The following performers rounded out the cast: Trishia Dennis, Caroline Milby, Shawn Hudson, Megan Felasco, Bryce Menard, and Charles Finchon.

Act Two opened with the musical question, “Why Are All the D’Yasquiths Dying?” The mourners at the final funeral sang the lines:

I happened to notice there wasn’t a lot of crying

I even heard a snigger from the back

Oh, it really is a shame

How I start to feel the same

How many are there left to bury after what’s-his-name?

Theatre fans won’t take that attitude when this run of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder wraps. The Ritz is currently the only regional licensor of the show. Theatre fans in the South Jersey area should see it while they can. It meets the fate of many D’Yasquith family members after February 3rd.

Lecture Review – “Sherlock Holmes of America” by Marisa Bozarth

Museum Curator of Burlington County Marisa Bozarth clued local history buffs in to the life of a real Sherlock Holmes. Ms Bozarth discussed some of the famous and infamous cases of Ellis H. Parker; Burlington County’s first Chief of Detectives. The lecture occurred at the Moorestown Library on January 16, 2019. The Historical Society of Moorestown presented it as part of its New Jersey History Speaks series.

Ellis Parker’s early years gave little indication he’d pursue a career in law enforcement. A proficient fiddler, he’d planned on working as a musician. His pursuit of that endeavor provided an unusual segue to a lifetime of crime fighting.

Needing transportation to a gig, he borrowed his father’s horse and carriage. Following the show, someone absconded with it. It also contained his fiddle. Wanting to retrieve the source of his livelihood, and to avoid his father’s anger, Parker searched for the missing items himself. Upon finding them, he informed the police.

Horse thievery was a common crime in late nineteenth century America. The novice Parker’s ability to solve such a case impressed the officers. They offered him a job.

Thus, in 1891, Parker began work for the Ocean and Burlington Counties Detecting and Pursuing Association. When the organization divided in 1894, he became the first Chief of Detectives in Burlington County. Parker held the post for over forty years. While in that role he solved 288 out of the 300 crimes he investigated.

In a bizarre ironic twist, the legendary crime fighter’s career ended when he became a criminal himself. Chief Parker spent the final days of his life in federal prison. What happened?

Ms. Bozarth described Parker’s technique. He possessed a profound understanding of how to talk to people. He applied a pragmatic approach to his questioning technique. The lone witness to the 1906 murder of Moorestown resident Florence Allison was a little girl. During the interrogation he gave her pieces of candy every time she answered a question.

At times Parker would “weave lies” to get information. He used this tactic when he interrogated George Small and Rufus Johnson during the Allison investigation. During his questioning he told them that each had accused the other of committing the crime. Both men reacted to this by blaming the other one. The information obtained during the interviews provided Parker with enough evidence to convict both men.

Parker possessed strong powers of observation. They aided him in solving the 1911 Firebug Case. A series of barn fires plagued Burlington County. Authorities suspected arson as the motive. Parker determined that the perpetrator’s true goal wasn’t burning, but robbery.

At the scene of one crime he observed that a fence rail had been removed. He also noticed hoof prints leading in opposite directions from where the barn stood. From these inspections he deduced that the criminal brought an old horse to the barn, stole a more robust animal then burned the barn (and his original animal) to cover up the crime.

The Chief’s attention to detail helped solve the David Paul murder case of 1920. Upon its discovery the body was wet. Parker noticed that the water in a nearby creek looked “different.” A lab’s analysis revealed that it contained tannic acid; a by-product from a tannery upstream. That chemical worked as a preservative. From this revelation, Parker determined that the killer committed the crime days before investigators originally believed. From this new information, they apprehended the perpetrator.

Ms. Bozarth portrayed Parker as a bit of a psychiatrist. He also knew how to read emotions. While investigating the murder of seven year-old Moorestonian Matilda Russo he applied this ability brilliantly. The suspect’s wife informed him that the man (Lewis Lively) left on a trip. She didn’t know when he’d return. The woman had also recently cleaned the bedroom floor. All the other rooms in the house appeared “lived in.” From her conduct Parker deduced she knew her husband committed the crime.

Parker received news that Lewis had moved to Canada. The Chief devised a ruse to lure him back to the US. He had Mrs. Lively imprisoned. Almost a century before the term “fake news” entered the American lexicon; Parker planted a false story in newspapers throughout the East Coast. It reported that she had been arrested for the killing. The trick worked. Believing no one suspected him of the murder, Lewis returned to New Jersey. He was arrested and convicted of the crime.

So with such extraordinary success as a law enforcement officer, just how did Parker become a criminal? As one can tell from the cases mentioned, the Chief wasn’t averse to using dubious methods to gain convictions. They crossed into illegal during his investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping.

Ms. Bozarth’s discussion of Parker’s involvement in this case could’ve made for a lecture of its own. In essence, Parker became convinced that Bruno Hauptmann didn’t murder the Lindbergh baby. He believed that a man named Paul Wendel committed the crime. To extract a confession Parker “deputized” three thugs to abduct and torture Wendel until he admitted it.

In American juris prudences first application of the “Lindbergh Law”, a jury convicted Parker of kidnapping. The first Chief of Detectives in Burlington County’s history spent the remainder of his life in prison; quite an ignominious end for the Sherlock Holmes of America.

Aristotle once noted: “There is no great genius without a touch of madness.” That observation would aptly apply to Chief Parker. Although a movement to pardon him has existed for some time, his conduct during the Lindbergh investigation raises some serious questions about his methods. Several of Parker’s cases resulted in suspects receiving the death penalty. One has to hope his behavior during the Lindbergh case an aberration.

Avenue Q at Collingswood Community Theatre

It’s not often one encounters a musical that so well captures the essence of the generation that inspired it. Avenue Q featured iconic anthems to the new millennium such as “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?”, “It Sucks to Be Me” and “The Internet is for Porn.” To those unfamiliar with it, a show like this would seem to possess the life-affirming nature of something out of Ibsen or O’Neill. Instead, Avenue Q’s creators opted to explore this era from a lighter point-of-view. They utilized an unusual technique in that they added puppets as characters; even including an explicit love scene between two of them. The Collingswood Community Theatre’s production even included a cameo by the town’s mayor.

You’d have to see this one to believe it.

I attended the Saturday evening performance on January 12, 2019. It took place at the Scottish Rite Theatre in Collingswood.

Director Mary Baldwin established the ambiance the moment I entered the theatre. The set designer, Chuck Jackson, crafted a set that resembled both the buildings from Sesame Street and the neighborhood from Rent. It provided the perfect background for this story.

As those unfamiliar with the show have guessed, Avenue Q contained a pretty complicated plot. A muppet named Princeton (played by Sean Coyle) needed a place to live. He found apartments from Avenue A through Avenue P too expensive. Arriving at Avenue Q, he met a series of eccentric characters. They included: 32 year old Brian (Ross Shannon), an aspiring stand-up comic ten years out of college; his fiancée, a Japanese woman with two masters degrees, named Christmas Eve (Linda Mozdzen); a closeted homosexual muppet investment banker, Rod (played by John Dunn); his muppet roommate Nicky (CJ Kish), pornography addicted muppet Trekkie Monster (also played by CJ Kish) and the building superintendent, former child star Gary Coleman (Alicia Smartt). Muppet Kate Monster (Lisa Kain Marcelli) developed a romantic interest in Princeton. Through all this he sought his purpose.

There’s an old cliché that a person “can never be too rich or too thin.” Avenue Q’s author (Jeff Witty) along with its lyricists and songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx apparently believed that a musical can never be “too original.” To complete the ensemble they included muppet Lucy the Slut (Stef Bucholski) to complicate Princeton’s and Kate’s romance. The Bad Idea Bears (performed by Cara Davis and Kate Scharff) served as Princeton’s and Kate’s demons. Kate’s muppet boss, Mrs. Thistletwat (Kaitlyn Halligan) antagonized Kate.

It amazed me that, even including intermission, all this wrapped up in under 2-1/2 hours.

Since the show contained a cartoonish premise, it required actors with skill for voices. I’d credit them for their abilities to, not only speak in unusual voices, but to sing in them as well. My two favorites were the neurotic whining John Dunn chose for Rod and the gravelly tone CJ Kish provided for Trekkie.

Lisa Kain Marcelli performed an extraordinary rendition of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” to conclude Act One. Last summer I complimented Ms. Marcelli for her rendition of “Tell Me It’s Not True” at the Collingswood Community Theatre production of Blood Brothers. She impressed by being able to cry, sing in an English accent while still remaining in key. In retrospect, it seems that she used that performance to practice for this one.

Ms. Marcelli delivered an impassioned version of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line.” She explored a range of sad and angry emotions during the performance. She used excellent facial expressions to compliment the number’s somber lyrics while singing like someone becoming unhinged. Ms. Marcelli managed to do all this while operating a puppet. Bravo.

2018 was a sad time for Rhythm and Blues fans. After losing Aretha Franklin in August, we commemorated the 12th anniversary of James Brown’s passing this Christmas. On Boxing Day we recognized the 19th anniversary of losing Curtis Mayfield. It’s refreshing to hear the spirit of real R&B living on in performers such as Stef Bucholski.

It takes a certain kind of talent to make a muppet seem seductive. Enter Stef Bucholski. This performer delivered a sultry, soulful version of “Special.” It showed just how special her singing is.

The group worked in something that’s becoming a tradition at the Collingswood Community Theatre’s winter shows. After the curtain call, the cast performed an encore. They returned to the stage and sang the Philadelphia Eagles fight song.

Olivia Marcelli and Emily Jackson completed the ensemble. Brian Kain directed the music and Katie Scharff choreographed.

Avenue Q showed the lives of twenty-somethings struggling to cope with life after college. In effect, it centered on the resulting conflict when a person’s reality falls short of his/her dreams. It made for some pretty interesting theatre. The show premiered in 2003. The so-called “Great Recession”, the explosion of the opioid epidemic, and the rise of populism hadn’t occurred at that time. It would be curious to watch the same characters attempt to deal with these kinds of problems. A sequel would make for even more interesting theatre.

The Collingswood Community Theatre will perform Avenue Q through January 20th at the Scottish Rite Theatre.