Month: July 2019

The Music Man at The Ritz Theatre Company

The Music Man at The Ritz Theatre Company experienced an opening night that has entered into annals of South Jersey theatrical lore.

On June 11th torrential rain and mass flooding plagued the South Jersey area. The Ritz’s building even lost a portion of its power. In response to the audience’s chants of “the show must go on”, the company continued the show.

The audience still went “batty” over the performance; one spectator did so literally. A winged creature of the order chiroptera entered the theatre. After it settled into a comfortable location to enjoy the show the performance continued.

Shortly afterwards all the power went out. The Ritz crew aided the audience in evacuating the building. That bat must have been one rabid theatre fan. It refused to leave.

The distinguished critic and theatrical maven Amber Kushing attended this performance. Ms. Kushing wrote: If the show was that good with less than half the production elements and a bat trying to steal the spotlight, I can’t wait to see the show in its full glory.

I had the opportunity to witness The Music Man “in its full glory” on Saturday, July 20th. Fans, let me tell you: that bat had some good theatre on its radar.

Katie Knoblock directed Meredith Wilson’s musical depiction of Professor Harold Hill’s (played by Matthew Weil) machinations. The “professor” worked as a con man. Set in 1912, he travelled to small towns throughout the country scamming residents. His scheme entailed selling musical instruments and band uniforms to boys for a concert he would conduct. (Bandleaders are known by the title “professor.”) Before the scheduled show date he would leave town with the money. It turned out the “professor” didn’t know how to play, read or conduct music.

Professor Hill’s latest mark (River City, Iowa) presented some unusual challenges. An anvil salesman named Charlie Cowell (played by Robert Repici) vowed to find and expose Hill as a fraud. The professor also developed a romantic interest in the town’s librarian, Marian Paroo (Jessica Ball). The latter added an additional complication as she also worked as the community piano teacher. To further obstruct Hill’s plan, Mayor Shinn (Alan Krier) and the school board harassed him for his credentials. They threatened to jail him if he didn’t produce them.

All these conflicts made for a riveting story. The Music Man included much more than just an entertaining premise, however.

The show featured brilliant choreography. Erica Paolucci coordinated superb dance routines. The Music Man included numerous complex ones involving the ensemble. Joe Kinnon (as Marcellus) led the group through a wonderfully upbeat “Shipoopi.” “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” added the challenge of singing 16th notes while dancing. Performers Bonnie Leigh Renner, Casey Clark, Patricia Kelly, Kathleen Corvino and Brianna Borouchoff executed this difficult routine flawlessly. “Seventy-Six Trombones” included an outstanding tap dance performed by the ensemble. Lindsey Krier impressed through the multiple splits she performed during the evening.

The Music Man added an element I’d never encountered during a theatrical production. The show contained a barber shop quartet. Crooners Steven Zellers, Marty Israel, Guy Kirk and David Epstein mesmerized the audience with their vocal skills. Their renditions of “Ice Cream/Sincere”, “It’s You” and “Lida Rose” made an enjoyable evening of theatre much more entertaining. Jessica Ball’s addition of her vocals to the quartet’s rendition of “Will I Ever Tell You” was phenomenal.

Credit also goes to vocal director Anthony Vitalo, sound designer Matthew Gallagher and sound board operator Sam Tait. The audio on the quartet’s performances sounded like an MP3 playing.

Fans of South Jersey community theatre productions know Matthew Weil as an extraordinary director. For The Music Man, Mr. Weil exchanged his director’s chair for the spotlight. He played the lead role of Professor Harold Hill.

Mr. Weil adopted the cocky, yet confident voice of an unscrupulous huckster. It complimented his singing on “Ya Got Trouble.” He also brought out his character’s sensitive side as the show progressed. Mr. Weil expressed it through an excellent duet with Ms. Ball on “Till There Was You.” The performer also showed off solid dance moves when performing with the ensemble.

Jessica Ball proved herself a strong triple threat. She showed Marian’s development from someone who spurned love into someone willing to open herself up to it. Ms. Ball performed exceptional dance moves even taking center stage during the “Seventy-Six Trombones” tap number.

As multi-talented as Ms. Ball demonstrated herself, I enjoyed her singing the most. In addition to her wonderful performances with the quartet and duets with Mr. Weil, Katy Gentry Hutchings, Nicky Intrieri and Emma Scherz, she displayed outstanding vocals when singing solo. Ms. Ball delivered a moving rendition of “My White Knight.”

This production of The Music Man included a few additional treats for theatre fans. The cast included two generations of the Krier Royal Family of South Jersey Community Theatre: Alan and his daughter Lindsey. One of South Jersey community theatre’s power couples also shared the same stage: Robert Repici and Lindsey Krier. Folks, this was an historic performance.

Alan Krier met your correspondent’s stratospheric expectations of him…again. He showed once again his extraordinary ability to become whatever character he plays. Mayor Shinn had a penchant for malapropisms. Mr. Krier spoke the lines so naturally that I thought he flubbed them at first. As the evening progressed, I realized that his character talked that way. That’s exceptional acting.

The following performers completed the ensemble: Quinn Wood, Lexie Chiasson, Aren Duffy, Mary McCabe, David A. Schwartz, Mabelle Davison, Isabelle Negrete, Zachary Moore, Darrin Murphy, Kyle Ronkin, Joseph Marney and Kendall DeVecchis.

On the evening I attended The Music Man performers didn’t receive a respite from extreme weather. At show time the thermometer read 95 degrees. Perhaps for the first time, a critic sweated more than the actors before a performance. Even in these conditions, the cast didn’t allow environmental factors beyond their control to affect them. They gave the audience an outstanding show conducted like the professionals they are.

Put The Music Man on your radar while you can. It’s difficult to imagine a community theatre production this good; but to quote Batman: “Everything’s impossible until someone does it.” Barring a series of blizzards, typhoons and earthquakes, the show will run through August 4th at The Ritz Theatre Company.

 

All Shook Up at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Theatre fans grab your bobby socks, hula hoops and put on your 3D glasses. Get ready for a trip back to the 1950s courtesy of Haddonfield Plays and Players. This summer they’re providing an entertaining theatrical journey featuring the music of Elvis Presley. I attended the Saturday, July 13th performance of All Shook Up directed by Ed Doyle and assisted by Rico Santiago.

Playwrights have incorporated Rock and Roll songs into musicals for some time. 1967’s Hair, 1992’s Tommy: The Musical and 1996’s Rent are some popular examples. In 2004 Joe DiPietro crafted a piece of musical theatre for Rock and Roll purists. The soundtrack consisted of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits. Now that’s real Rock and Roll.

I had high expectations for All Shook Up. Shakespeare’s work influenced the story. Elvis Presley provided the songs. That means the greatest playwright inspired the narrative. The King of Rock and Roll supplied the music. How can an audience expect better than this?

The script contained serious conflict; especially for a comedy. Like many comedies, it contained a complex plot. In essence all the main characters fell in love with another character who loved someone else.

The story began as Chad (played by Jake Hufner) entered town on his motorcycle. Combining the personality traits of a rebel, a Rock and Roll crooner and ladies’ man, he longed to liberate the community from its suffocating mores. In response, Mayor Matilda Hyde (Lori Clark) vowed to enforce the Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act. The law banned things such as Rock and Roll and public displays of affection.

Another plot line focused on the circumscribed social world of the 1950s. The Mayor also harbored a special dislike for interracial dating. Following that pronouncement, her son, Dean (Vinnie DiFilippo) began a romance with an African-American woman, Lorraine (Kyra Moon).

All Shook Up contained outstanding dance routines. Choreographer Allison Korn organized some mesmerizing sequences. The show opened with two attention getting performances through “Jailhouse Rock” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Ms. Korn incorporated 50s dance moves as well as some of Elvis’ trademark maneuvers. The cast’s high energy and sophisticated sequences made the choreography the most memorable part of this musical.

It seems redundant to write that the show included fantastic songs. Anyone with the most remote interest in Rock and Roll already knew that. The playwright arranged them for maximum impact on the story.

Somehow, Musical Director Chris Weed and the cast managed to present some of Rock’s greatest cuts in a humorous way. I liked how Natalie (Jenna German), Chad (Jake Hufner), Jim (Jim Dennis), and Miss Sandra (Faith McCleery) all had the opportunity to sing a portion of “One Night with You.” The location of each character’s segment provided excellent comedic effect.

Lori Clark led the show’s funniest scene through her rendition of “Devil in Disguise.” While the ensemble accompanied her, Mr. Hufner played a pitchfork like a guitar. I’d also credit Omaira Parrilla-Dunne for the lighting design and light board operation on this number. The red lights she projected during the choruses made the routine even more humorous.

The playwright applied Elvis’ songs to enhance the drama, as well. Vinnie DiFilippo and Kyra Moon performed a strong duet on “It’s Now or Never.” As Sylvia, April Johnson delivered a soulful rendition of “There’s Always Me.” Wes Hopkins (as Dennis) sang a moving version of “It Hurts Me.”

Jake Hufner played an excellent “roustabout.” Mr. Hufner adopted a bit of an Elvis voice while still making the songs his own. He mimicked the King’s mannerisms very well as evidenced by Courtney Bundens’ repeated fainting spells. He still kept the role funny. He expressed good frustration and persistence over Miss Sandra’s lack of affection. The confusion he displayed over his unexpected interest in “Ed” was classic.

Jenna German performed the role of Natalie/Ed. Ms. German delivered strong vocals throughout the evening. Even when her character didn’t speak, Mr. German made her feelings clear through well executed facial expressions. I also enjoyed the witty way she showed her character’s interest in Chad with “A Little Less Conversation.”

Wes Hopkins played the lovelorn Dennis. Natalie didn’t return his affections. He found himself in the position of helping her gain Chad’s interest while serving as his “sidekick.” Mr. Hopkins convincingly portrayed his character’s turmoil over this unsettling situation.

Ed Doyle designed an excellent set. Mike Snyder constructed it and Courtney Bundens painted the scenic design. They placed platforms in the shape of guitar bodies at stage right and stage left. A road stretching into the horizon adorned the center.

Renee McCleery designed authentic costuming. Cast members wore items such as a leather jacket, blue suede shoes and period eyeglasses.

The cast also included the following performers: Pat DeFusco, Amanda Barrish, Andrew Chaput, Trisha Dennis, Brennan Diorio, Kayla DiSibio, Joe Grosso, Mark Henley, Jr., Johanna Johnston, Gre Jones, Jenn Kopesky, Allison Korn, Renee McCleery, Jacqueline Spence, Aaron Wachs and William Young.

HPP didn’t have to say “don’t be cruel” to me before I wrote this review. After watching this phenomenal performance, “I don’t’ want to” be mean. “It hurts me” if theatre fans missed All Shook Up’s opening weekend. “That’s alright.” You can still “let yourself go” to Haddonfield Plays and Players. Come August 3rd, it will be “now or never”, however. So “c’mon everybody.”

Seussical at Collingswood Community Theatre

When evaluating the most imaginative directors in South Jersey, Mary Baldwin’s name always makes the short list. It seemed fitting that Ms. Baldwin would select a show inspired by “the thinks you can think” for her next project. She and the Collingswood Community Theatre presented a piece drawn from the creative mind of Dr. Seuss: Seussical: The Musical. I attended the opening night performance on Thursday, July 11th.

Seussical presented a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ beloved works. It included story elements from Horton Hears a Who!, Horton Hatches the Egg, Green Eggs and Ham and others. The show incorporated iconic characters such as Horton the Elephant (played by Stephen Jackson), the Grinch (Sean Coyle) and, the sine qua non of the Seuss universe: the Cat in the Hat (Jeff McGrail).

The Collingswood Community Theatre presented this show in the Main Ballroom of the Scottish Rite building. The room well suited the extensive cast and elaborate staging. The size accommodated my personal preference for musical performances: a live band. Brian Kain directed the orchestra located in the balcony.

Ms. Baldwin opted to forego the “theatre in the round” format CCT has used for its summer shows in recent years. She chose instead the traditional “picture frame” format for Seussical. I liked the artistic decision. With so many performers and multiple interactions between characters occurring during the scenes, it kept all the action within the audience’s rage of vision.

The characters still walked through the aisles and interacted with the spectators. I nearly got splashed by the Cat’s (Jeff McGrail) “tears” as he lamented a sad point in the story. While searching for the Whos, Horton (Stephen Jackson) inspected one of the clover patches held by the audience member sitting next to me. One of the Wickersham Brothers jumped out from behind a curtain a few rows from where I sat. His monkeyshines startled me.

As with every summer performance at the Collingswood Community Theatre, this one contained a spectacular visual spectacle. All audience members received complimentary bracelets upon entering the theatre. Perhaps owing to the magic of Seuss, the devices would light up in different colors during certain scenes. Looking out at the audience and witnessing a series of hues lighting the dark theatre created a wonderful ambiance.

Jeff McGrail took on the iconic role of The Cat in the Hat. Mr. McGrail captured the character’s energy, humor and mischievousness. He also performed outstanding vocal numbers. The high powered opening, “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think”, set the tone for the show.

I liked how Mr. McGrail added a bit of improvisation to the role. He provided an unexpected segue to the ironically titled “How Lucky You Are.” He tripped over the last step on his way to the stage. After a brief smile he broke into song.

Later when The Cat conducted an auction with the audience, Mr. McGrail informed one bidder: “Not you. You laughed at me when I fell.”

On his Facebook page Stephen Jackson commented on how thrilled he felt to be cast as Horton the Elephant. Mr. Jackson showed how much the role meant to him on opening night.

Mr. Jackson showcased the tender side of his vocal prowess in Seussical. He performed a moving duet with JoJo (played by Rory Bernardo) on “Alone in the Universe.” Mr. Jackson sang another deeply affecting piece in the form of “Solla Sollew.”

The following line recurred throughout Horton’s lyrics.

A person’s a person

No matter how small.

Mr. Jackson’s soft intonation expressed how much his character believed it.

Cara Davis has played a variety of secondary characters at the Collingswood Community Theatre. Gertrude provided her with some much deserved time in the spotlight. Ms. Davis delivered wonderfully funny renditions of “The One Feather Tale of Miss Gertrude McFuzz” and “Amazing Gertrude.” She sang an emotional version of “Notice Me Horton” accompanied by Mr. Jackson.

John Dunn played the role of General Genghis Khan Schmitz. The character led a war against people who eat their toast butter side down. That’s not the type of figure an audience would take seriously. Mr. Dunn found ways to make the general even more comical. His choice of voice, repeated twitching of his mustache and cowardly way he explained Jojo’s disappearance to Mr. and Mrs. Mayor made the role even funnier.

The show’s soundtrack contained more than the sentimental numbers mentioned above. The tunes “Monkey Around” and “Chasing the Whos” put the “fun” in Funk. Kaitlyn Woolford’s vocals injected serious soul into “Biggest Blame Fool.” Jessica Hale added her sultry singing style to “Amazing Mayzie.” Compliments go to Brian Kain and his orchestra for their proficient accompaniment.

Seussical also included Kate Schraff’s elaborate choreography. The Bird Girls (Emily Jackson, Kate Thomas Arter, Jen Laksh, Maria Leonen, and Kara Hasings) and the Wickersham Brothers (Hannah Morris, Jack Hastings. Sean Coyle, Ross Shannon, Cassidy Scherz, Ian McGowan, Dylan McGowan, Charlie Temple and Mallory Beach) performed stellar routines. The combination of dance, singing and lighting worked very well together on the “Havin’ a Hunch” number.

This production involved a lot of people. Between the cast and the near sold out audience, I thought we’d need to elect our own congressman before the show started. The following performers completed the ensemble: Matt Griffin, Emily Oleaga Talley, Joey Liberson, Olivia Bee Spinosa, Henry Kain, Ross Shannon, Ava Leacock, Millie Griffin, Caelan Gaines, Sera Scherz, Lydia Ncely, Charlie Temple, Susie Cook, Grace Janco, Cailyn Talley, Griffin Maylath, Buddy Neal, Millie Griffin, Alicia Smartt, Ava Leacock and Clark Griffin.

Several South Jersey community theatre companies have presented Seussical over the last few years. “How lucky you are” if you’ve seen it. The high-tech production at the Collingswood Community Theatre makes it well worth watching again. For those who feel “alone in the universe” for not having seen it yet: the show runs through July 13th at the Scottish Rite. Get your tickets now. Don’t “monkey around.” After Saturday, to quote Dr. Seuss: “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”