Month: March 2019

A Trip to Oz at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Dorothy opined that “there’s no place like home,” but this weekend there was no place like Haddonfield Plays and Players. The company presented a musical tribute to L. Frank Baum’s classic tale. The encomium occurred in the form of a musical cabaret titled A Trip to Oz. Fans put on their ruby red slippers and marched down the yellow brick road until reaching the Emerald City that is Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Talk about serendipity. Last weekend I attended an online watch party. It featured a 1974 live recording of Pink Floyd performing The Dark Side of the Moon. This weekend I decided it “time” to determine the accuracy of the rumor about the album synching up with the soundtrack to the Wizard of Oz. * Haddonfield Plays and Players allowed me to “breathe” easier by helping me find the answer. I took the musical journey in the form of A Trip to Oz on March 30th.

Director/Producer Pat DeFusco and the team at HPP displayed monumental creativity with this concept. They also expanded on the company’s history of presenting shows that correspond to holidays. Just last month HPP staged Love Letters to commemorate Valentine’s Day. It surprised me that they didn’t put on a special program for St. Patrick’s Day. Then this show began. Almost every performer in this show wore green. Tami Gordon Brody even accessorized with emerald ear rings and an emerald necklace. I liked the untraditional method of referencing to the season. The use of green still alluded to the Emerald City; a key figure in Oz. Bravo for tying both together.

The cabaret featured renditions of songs performed in The Wiz, Wicked and both the film and theatrical versions of The Wizard of Oz.

The entire company took the stage at both the show’s beginning and conclusion. They opened with “Merry Old Land of Oz” and ended by performing two numbers together. Following “For Good”, they selected the perfect tune to finish the program. In perhaps a veiled public service announcement about driving home safely, they used “Ease on Down the Road” as the finale.

A Trip to Oz included some songs with mind twisting melodies. Some of them would have impressed King Crimson’s founder, Robert Fripp. Special credit goes to Alexa Gershon for her performance of “The Wizard and I” and Tami Gordon Brody for “Home.” They delivered powerful versions of very intricate material.

Evan Brody took the idea of following in his mother’s footsteps literally. He walked on stage right after his mom’s performance. He delivered what he promised in his version of the upbeat “Dancing through Life.” After the intermission he returned and delivered a moving rendition of the classic “If I Only Had a Heart.”   

Amber Kusching added the role of disco diva to her already extensive repertoire. Ms. Kusching delivered a funky toe tapping rendition of “You Can’t Win” that included a well thought out dance routine. She deserves a lot of credit for executing her moves while wearing heels. Ms. Kusching also thrilled the audience with her vocal prowess on “No Good Deed.”

The Stage Kidz added one of their dance routines to the set. Choreographer Brennan Diorio directed performers Abigail Brown, Leah Cedar, Logan Endes, Ava Favieri, Hope Gallagher, Lucas Oelten, Jesse Plumley, Tess Smith and Olivia Bee Sposa through the dance accompaniment to “The Jitterbug.”

Love stories happen even in Oz. The cabaret included two duets between performers Kristine Bonaventura and Chris McGinnis. They moved the audience with “As Long As You’re Mine” and “What is This Feeling.”

Those familiar with the Oz franchise know it includes numerous beautiful songs. The performers in this cabaret delivered some stellar versions of them. Deanna Beaucher sang a wonderful “Over the Rainbow”, Gaby Frasca performed an inspiring “Believe in Yourself” and Kate Sherlock delivered an emotional version of “I’m Not That Girl.”

Dana Masterman Weiss performed the musical apotheosis of narcissism known as “Popular.” Ms. Weiss got into character for this song. The performer added the perfect mannerisms and gestures to express her character’s self-absorption. It’s this type of skill that makes Ms. Weiss so “popular” with HPP’s audiences.

The following performers added their exceptional talents to the program as well: Isabel Bramhall sang “Defying Gravity”, Catherine Davies performed “Already Home” Eric Monzo delivered a song that lived up to its title, “Wonderful.”

In addition to producing and directing, Pat DeFusco managed the sound and projections. The pictures on the screen included images from The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz and Wicked. Mr. DeFusco even added snippets from the films for effect. Stage Manager Omi Parrilla-Dunne ensured that the production proceeded perfectly.

I found the show very entertaining and well performed. I didn’t like the fact that it began eight minutes late. I also didn’t like how 15 minutes after the show’s scheduled start time audience members were still taking their seats. When people come in late it creates a distraction for both the performers and the spectators. It’s also dangerous for people to walk around in a darkened room.

I would remind everyone of some good advice someone gave me: “If you can’t be on time: be early.”

To my ears the music from The Wizard of Oz didn’t synch up with The Dark Side of the Moon. I lost “money” on that bet. My situation reminded me of a story. Ray Bolger, the performer who played the Scarecrow in the 1939 movie, had an interesting observation regarding his own financial situation. When asked if he received a lot of money due to the film’s success, he replied, “No, just immortality. I’ll settle for that.” As the cabaret only ran for two performances, A Trip to Oz may have achieved the same status with theatregoers.

*Alan Parsons, the sound engineer during the recording of The Dark Side of the Moon, has denied this.

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“American Women and Royal Marriages: New Jersey’s Real Life ‘Lady Coras’” by Melissa Ziobro

At the turn of the twentieth century 20 American women held the royal title of “princess.” In fact, some 500 American ladies became members of the European nobility during the time period from the end of the Civil War through the First World War. Historian Melissa Ziobro entertained the Historical Society of Moorestown with tales of these “Dollar Princesses.” The Mooretown Library hosted this latest program in the New Jersey History Speaks lecture series on March 13th.

So how did women raised in a country that rejected the concept of an aristocracy become part of a European one? Depending upon one’s perspective it could be argued that they did so in the good old capitalist fashion: they bought their titles.

Professor Ziobro explained that the United States transitioned from an agrarian society into an urban one starting in the mid-nineteenth century. This resulted in massive wealth creation. By 1900 some 4,000 millionaires lived in the country. Even with abundant financial resources, this “new wealth” failed to gain social acceptance among the nation’s “old wealth.”

Across the Atlantic, the nobility of Europe suffered through royalty’s equivalent of hard times. Their hereditary titles provided them with social status. The changing nature of society combined with their royal lifestyles, however, strained the remainder of their dwindling finances.

American ingenuity came up with a solution to both these dilemmas. Enter the era of the “Dollar Princesses.”

Professor Ziobro selected the subtitle to her talk, “New Jersey’s Lady Coras”, from a character in the television show Downton Abbey. Cora Levinson, a wealthy American, married into British royalty to become the Countess of Grantham. The concept of an American marrying into royalty intrigued the professor. It inspired her to research the topic further. She shared her findings with the audience.

The speaker described a quarterly publication from the era called Titled Americans. She compared it to “internet dating sites today.” The second half of the journal listed eligible European nobles. As the professor observed, “The lure of being an actual princess was strong.”

Professor Ziobro described many of these marriages as “not happy.” In some cases American mothers drove their daughters into theses unions. Many ended in divorce.

To compound the misery of the “Dollar Princesses”, the media vilified them. News publications criticized the amount of money they took out of the United States. When adjusted for inflation, Professor Ziobro estimated that these expatriates added $25 billion dollars to the United Kingdom’s economy alone.

The professor shared brief biographical sketches of some of these women. Jennie Jerome of New York was the most famous. Upon marrying a British aristocrat she became known as Lady Randolph Churchill. The speaker called their marriage a true “love match.” The couple remained together until Lord Churchill’s death. The couple is still well known today as the parents of British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.

A few of these “Dollar Princesses” came from New Jersey. Consuelo Yznaga lived in Orange at the time she married the Duke of Manchester. This marriage wasn’t a happy one. The Duke became displeased upon discovering that his duchess didn’t possess the financial means he believed she did when he married her. He expressed his discontent by resuming his bachelor ways in the UK. The American media portrayed him as a figure of derision.

During the question period, most audience members inquired about the divorces. Professor Ziobro depicted them to be as unpleasant as the marriages they ended. Divorced “Dollar Princesses” didn’t retain their aristocratic titles. The men didn’t refund dowries, either. The professor explained that the women’s abundant financial resources provided them the means to get divorced.

Professor Ziobro based her remarks on an article she wrote for New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal; a publication she also edits. “’The almighty dollar will buy you, you bet/A superior class of coronet’: Biographical Sketches of N.J.’s Gilded Age ‘Dollar Princesses’” appeared in the summer 2018 edition.

“The First World War marked the death knell of the ‘Dollar Princess’ craze,” the professor said. “The Old World ways of life lost their appeal.” Professor Ziobro said that she’d delivered this lecture twenty times. Judging from the attendance at this one, interest in this trend won’t lose its appeal in the foreseeable future.

 

The Glass Menagerie at the Ritz Theatre Company

March Madness came to the Ritz Theatre Company in the form of The Glass Menagerie. The show premiered on Broadway March 31, 1945. Its playwright, Tennessee Williams, was born in March 26, 1911. As alcohol played a role in the story, this run began just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. I attended the March 16th performance.

Director Matthew Weil is a boon for serious theatre fans. Mr. Weil has brought such legendary works as The Fantastiks, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Brighton Beach Memoirs to South Jersey stages. I relished the opportunity to experience his interpretation of an American classic: The Glass Menagerie at the Ritz. The director met the high expectations established by his reputation.

The Glass Menagerie told the story of a troubled family. The shy Laura Wingfield (played by Sara Viniar) lived a sheltered life. Aside from family, a Victrola and collection of glass animals comprised her only companions. Her brother Tom (played by Taylor Darden) aspired to become a writer. His warehouse job bored him. He longed to escape and pursue a life of adventure. Their mother Amanda Wingfield (Lori Howard) struggled to keep the family together. Circumstances made this quite a challenge.

In the wake of their father’s abandonment, the family appeared on the verge of disintegration. As Laura was either unwilling to or unable to support herself, Amanda understood that her daughter would need a husband to take care of her. Recognizing Tom’s need for “adventure” (and a fondness for alcohol) she worried that he’d leave the family the same way his father had. She made a deal with him. If Tom could find a suitor for Laura, Amanda would allow him to leave.

This premise reminded me a bit of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The characters expected an unknown stranger to enter their lives and fix everything. That’s not the best approach to addressing one’s problems. It does provide for some outstanding drama on the stage, however.

An editor of the Tennessee Williams Annual Review, Robert Bray, called The Glass Menagerie a “memory play.” He may not have been describing the story. I’m thinking he referred to the actors’ need to recall all of Williams’ “lyrical language.”

To test this theory I tried an experiment. I opened a copy of (the New Directions Paperbook Ninth Printing) The Glass Menagerie to a page at random. Looking at pages 50 and 51, three quarters of the text is stage direction. One line is Amanda’s. The rest is a page-and-a-quarter soliloquy that Tom delivers.

One always expects outstanding performances from a Matthew Weil directed show. Based on the previous quality of their work, one always expects that from the actors he selected. They all delivered wonderful interpretations of Mr. Williams’ tragedy.

Taylor Darden selected an excellent accent for the role of Tom. Mr. Darden delivered his lines in a slow Southern drawl. Depending upon the situation, at times that drawl morphed into a slur. The performer’s lanky gait made his character even more unique.

Sara Viniar turned in a heartbreaking interpretation of Laura. Her face displayed a sad look for which one couldn’t help but feel sympathy. The performer’s limping about the stage brought out even more pity for the character. All these traits made the character’s struggle to overcome her shyness much more powerful.

Lori Howard no doubt drew upon her real life experience as a mom in her role as Amanda Wingfield. Ms. Howard played the role so credibly that I felt like part of the Wingfield family. When she criticized Tom for his poor posture I sat up straight. During her final scene with Mr. O’Connor, she instructed his character to leave. Her tone of voice and angry facial expressions made me uneasy. That’s an excellent connection with an audience member.

Jared Calhoun played Jim O’Connor: the gentleman caller. Mr. Calhoun selected an excellent voice. It reflected his character’s proficiency at public speaking. He played well opposite Ms. Viniar when trying to coax Laura out of her shyness. Their chemistry together gave this poignant moment much more impact.

This run marked Melissa Harnois’ first endeavor as a Stage Manager. Ms. Harnois coordinated all the facets of this intricate production wonderfully; and the show contained a lot of components to synchronize.

In The Glass Menagerie the lighting became an integral part of the drama. It almost became a character in itself. Jen Donsky designed this critical feature very well. Technical Director Connor Profitt executed it without flaw.

Those with any interest in either classic American theatre or a family drama would enjoy The Glass Menagerie. Don’t follow Tom’s example by going to the movies. This run closes on March 31st. In the playbill Director Matthew Weil discussed the play’s themes of “decisions” and “regret.” South Jersey community theatre fans will regret making a bad decision of their own by not attending the show at the Ritz.

Lecture Review – “For the Work of a Day We Want Something to Say: Social Change and Suffrage” by Lara Vapnek, PhD

2019 marks the centennial of American women’s achievement of a right that so many take for granted: the right to vote. To commemorate this milestone in human history, the Alice Paul Institute is presenting a series of lectures as part of the “Suffrage Speak: Honoring the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Right to Vote” program. This Women’s History Month Dr. Lara Vapnek delivered a talk entitled “For the Work of a Day We Want Something to Say: Social Change and Suffrage.” The event occurred at Paulsboro in Mount Laurel, NJ on March 9th.

According to her biography on amazon.com: Dr. Vapnek teaches history at St. John’s University in Queens, NY. She earned her PhD at Columbia. She specializes in the history of gender and labor in the nineteenth and twentieth century United States. The professor based the speech on her 2009 book Breadwinnners: Working Women and Economic Independence 1865 – 1920.

Dr. Vapnek structured her comments along three themes. The working women during the time period considered themselves “breadwinners.” They worked out of necessity to financially support either their families or themselves. These women didn’t feel that men either represented or protected them. Their inability to vote inhibited them from achieving full political equality with men. Lacking that parity affected their ability to achieve their goals within the labor movement.

Stereotypes inhibited the efforts of early reformers. Society viewed women’s proper role as that of homemaker. The “male breadwinner ideal” mythos permeated the eras’s thinking. So did the “middle class ideal” of women belonging at home. Through a series of statistics Dr. Vapnek showed this chauvinistic belief as just that: a fantasy. In 1870, 15% of women participated in the work force. By 1920 that percentage jumped to 25%. In urban areas the figure reached one third.

The professor included some brief biographies of early leaders within the women’s rights movement. She described the contributions of individuals such as Jennie Collins, Leonora O’Reilly and Leonora Barry among others. As many of these figures gave excellent speeches, Dr. Vapnek added memorable quotations to her talk. Some of the best included an 1866 line from Frances Harper: “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.” While testifying before the US Congress in 1912, Leonora O’Reilly stated, “We women have dreamed of democracy but we have never enjoyed it.” The most prescient also came from Ms. O’Reilly. In 1899 she observed:

Women, whether you wish it or not, your first step must be to gain equal political rights with men. The next step after that must be equal pay for equal work.

A shorter work day was another goal for which these reformers fought. During the nineteenth century people typically worked 12 to 14 hour days. Jennie Collins pushed for a “reduced” 10–hour day. Years later Leonora Barry advocated an 8-hour one.

These advocates proved adept at organizing. They established groups such as the Women’s Trade Union League (in 1903) and the Wage Earners Suffrage League (in 1911). During the fall of 1909, the “Uprising of the 20,000” occurred. These women’s garment workers initiated a walk out in protest of conditions within the industry. The work stoppage lasted until February of 1910. The media at the time portrayed it as the “girls strike.” In a crass attempt to send a message, the authorities tried many of those arrested in night court along with prostitutes. Some 700 received sentences of hard labor.

Labor conditions from the Reconstruction through the First World War were harsh. People worked extended hours in cramped and dangerous conditions. Events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 made the modern expression “workplace safety” seem like an oxymoron. The plight of the “breadwinners” became more egregious than taxation without representation.

The efforts of these labor reformers facilitated the movement for women’s suffrage. They proved that a person couldn’t have economic rights without corresponding political ones. The power to elect those who make the laws provides a strong incentive for politicians to govern prudently.