Month: August 2020

Couples at Bridge Players Theatre Company

Bridge Players Theatre Company made their inaugural entry into the cybersphere this August 20th. For this historic effort they chose a show written for just such a platform: Sean Grennan’s comedy Couples. The combination allowed the cast to zoom in on the comedy. Maureen Broadbent directed this witty take on virtual therapy.

Mr. Grennan crafted Couples for the coronaera. The show featured a virtual setting designed for an on-line presentation. This format allowed all of the actors to follow social distancing guidelines and perform from different locations. With the exception of the thespian playing Thomas, everyone in the cast remained on-screen for the entire show.

Technical Director Kris Kauker took premise of a good head shot to another level. The audience could only see the from the performers’ heads to just below shoulder level. The set-up gave the show an interesting perspective. Think something like the opening montage of The Brady Bunch,but with quirkier characters.  

The playwright’s format worked on multiple levels. Zoom meetings are the ubiquitous response to the COVID-19 guidelines. Group sessions are a popular form of therapy. So is marriage counseling. Add to those the increasing interest in virtual theatre, and Mr. Grennan provided performers with an outstanding overall concept with which to work.

Count Tolstoy famously wrote: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The beginning of Mr. Grennan’s play showed the prescience of Anna Karenina’s opening line.

Dr. Sharon Mercer (played by Gina Petti Baldassari) treated three separated couples during their fourth virtual session together. With the way these couples bickered in the opening act, the decision to host these meetings on-line proved a wise one. The pairs included Nevin (John Weber) and Barbara (Alice Weber), Sally (Akayla Butler) and Faith (Jessi Meisel), and Cynthia (Cathy Mayher) and Thomas (John Martelli). For the first act, the couples discussed a “date” they shared together at the doctor’s recommendation. For the second, the doctor prescribed that they spend a month without contact with one another. The side effects of this treatment ranged from hilarity to self-revelation.

As Dr. Mercer, Gina Petti Baldassari displayed the type of outstanding vocal skills more common in musical roles. She performed the character’s opening vocal exercises with the same authority as Ian Gillian’s delivery on Deep Purple’s “Child in Time.” Ms. Baldassari adjusted her tone to deliver a gripping monolog on the formula for a successful marriage: “Surrender. Give yourself. Lose yourself” with both passion and power. With the same skill, she used a dispassionate tone to describe her listening to a squabble between Thomas and Cynthia as “against professional ethics.” Then she followed their dispute with rapt attention.

The playwright applied a standard psychology tool for brilliant comedic effect. Ms. Baldassari gave all the couples a Rorschach test to form an “emotional baseline.” Intriguing impressions followed. John Weber provided the most memorable. He described one picture as “Abraham Lincoln in a sundress.”

In a clever bit of casting, a real-life married couple played Nevin and Barbara. John and Alice Weber worked very well opposite one another. Mr. Weber adopted the persona of a free spirt. Mrs. Weber expressed irritation with her husband’s unconventional behavior. Both performers added depth to their characters’ personalities.    

An encounter with a dying friend served as the catalyst for their decaying marriage. Mr. and Mrs. Weber showed the impact of this meeting on both their characters with both comedy and conviction.

Mr. Weber’s relaxed tone of voice and wardrobe choices showed Nevin’s cool composure and his disinterest in “acting his age.” As did his use of the expression “universal fail” in reference to the doctor’s “date night” idea. His hysterical humming of the Jeopardy! theme while accompanying himself with jazz hands became another one of the show’s funniest moments. He expressed Nevin’s serious side just as well. Clad in a suit and tie, he became lachrymose while describing his feelings for his wife.  

South Jersey community theatre afficionados know Alice Weber as a director of thought-provoking dramas. Mrs. Weber displayed the same riveting aptitude as a comedic actor.

As Nevin’s wife Barbara, Mrs. Weber delivered wonderful zingers. She used the skillful delivery of a stand-up comic when chastising Nevin for his tattoo of “A bald eagle with a cowboy hat riding a Harley screaming ‘ride or die.’” Her straight-faced references to watching the band Chemotherapy during their date enhanced the line’s comedic impact. Mrs. Weber also performed a deft enactment of her character’s sensitive side. She brought emotion to her revelation that she believed Nevin’s new persona his way of rejecting their marriage. Mrs. Weber also cried when talking about the couple’s friend Jeff.  

Sally (Akayla Butler) and Faith (Jessi Meisel) made up the next couple seeking the doctor’s services. Their relationship began based on passion, but had, to paraphrase Rabindranath Tagore, deteriorated into the “dreary hand of dead habit.” The responsibilities of parenthood smothered their feelings for one another.

Akayla Butler surmounted the challenge of playing a character full of frustration and passion both concealed by a shy exterior. While not finding their “bowling date” satisfying, she still expressed strong feelings towards Faith. She delivered a powerful reflection on the joy she experienced in response to a brief period of not feeling overwhelmed.    

Jessi Meisel played the more expressive of the duo. Even when not the focus of the scene, Ms. Meisel made herself relevant to the action. She responded to Mr. Martelli’s expressions of love for his wife by pursing her lips and shaking her head. The performer showed Faith’s toughness when bickering with the other characters. She also brought out the role’s loving side when telling (and virtually showing) Sally her affection for her.

Cathy Mayher showed that Cynthia could be both gullible and tough. She timidly defended her husband’s obvious lack of interest in her. This proved difficult as he didn’t arrive to the first session until its conclusion and gave her a bracelet engraved with another woman’s name. Ms. Mayher also brought the character’s more belligerent side to the screen when she confronted Thomas while intoxicated.

John Martelli portrayed the selfish and self-obsessed Thomas. Even though he didn’t appear in the show until late, he still made his time on screen relevant and comical. After arriving late to a session to save his marriage, he still left in order to take a phone call.

The audience had a condensed view of the performers, but the actors still utilized skillful costuming. While a referee’s uniform may have been a better wardrobe choice for Dr. Mercer, Ms. Baldassari did wear a shirt with stripes for the second act. John Weber selected an authentic pork pie hat for his character. Alice Weber chose a bow-like red one for Barbara.

At the end of the show, Cynthia revealed that, “Tom married a loser so that he could win all the time.” Fans of community theatre in South Jersey may feel that they’ve lost something due to the coronavirus quarantine. Thanks to Sean Grennan and organizations such as Bridge Players Theatre Company, supporters of the arts have venues when they can still experience theatre. That’s a win for everybody.  

Back Stage Grand Opening Cabaret at Burlington County Footlighters

Burlington County Footlighters selected the perfect date to inaugurate their Back Stage venue. The opening occurred on the eve of the 51st anniversary of another musical festival. Your correspondent had the pleasure of encountering someone who attended the original Woodstock in the audience at Footlighters. Phyllis Josephson explained that she paid $6 per day for tickets to the Aquarian Exposition. (Ms. Josephson added that she purchased her tickets early. By the opening day, they skyrocketed to the stratospheric cost of $8 per day.) Ms. Josephson felt satisfied that she got her money’s worth.

Tickets to the Back Stage Grand Opening Cabaret at Footlighters cost almost as much as Ms. Josephson paid for TWO days of peace and music. Would the grand opening of the outdoor Footlighters stage endure with the profundity of Jimi Hendrix’s innovative arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner”? Or would its legacy fade like the arpeggiated tempo of Sweetwater’s “What’s Wrong”? You correspondent found the answer on the evening of August 15th.

Most community theatre companies have settled for Zoom performances during the COVID-19 pandemic. Set designer Jim Frazer took the old Epiphone slogan, “When good enough isn’t good enough,” to a heightened level.

Burlington County Footlighters’ Back Stage is Jim Frazer’s most pioneering contribution to set design yet. Mr. Frazer not only conceived the concept, he obtained the appropriate permits from Cinnaminson Township and proceeded to build it himself during a sweltering summer heat wave. The stage he constructed outside the back of the Footlighters building allowed for proper social distancing for both the performers and audience members. To the delight of community theatre audiences, it allowed spectators to watch a live performance for the first time in over five months.         

Jim Frazer has turned the indoor stages at Footlighters into mesmerizing spectacles. They’ve included the Bonnie and Clyde death car, a Victorian Christmas village and a floating casino to name just three. One would like to say his Back Stage allowed for an audience’s greatest suspension of disbelief: it gave fans the opportunity to imagine themselves back in a pre-coronavirus era of live theatre.

The reality made it difficult to do. Reminders of the pandemic abounded. A Footlighters staff member checked all audience members’ temperatures before they entered the seating area. Everyone in attendance brought either their own chair or blanket upon which to sit. White lines on the grass marked the seating “rows” in order to ensure proper social distancing between attendees. Everyone not on stage wore a face mask.

Still, South Jersey community theatre audiences welcomed the return of live performances to the area. So did the performers.  

Vitaliy Kin made a memorable return to a New Jersey stage following a three-year hiatus. While his matching sequined shoes and bow tie alone would have ensured an unforgettable homecoming, Mr. Kin ensured it by serving as both the evening’s emcee and as a performer. A recent graduate who received both his JD and MBA, he got down to business by announcing the performers.

No one could object to Mr. Kin’s brand of hosting abilities. He leveraged his knowledge of theatre as one of his core competences. His best practice entailed adding insights into the performer’s song selection. He explained how their tunes fit into the stories of the shows in which they appeared. The emcee added judicious bon mots to his introductions, as well. For what one suspects as a first in the annals of community theatre, Mr. Kin drew comparisons between DJ Hedgepath and Marilyn Monroe; a moot point as Mr. Hedgepath’s singing warrants no comparison.

The program encompassed a range of material. Organizers Jillian Star-Renbjor and MacKenzie Smith included the emotional style songs that give musical theatre its enduring appeal. They also showed the proper way to sing them. Ms. Star-Renbjor performed a stirring rendition of “After All of This and Everything” from Freaky Friday. Ms. Smith delivered a heartwarming performance of “Meadowlark” featured in The Baker’s Wife. The two joined together for the duet “Who Could Love Me as I Am?” that appeared in Sideshow.

The set list included more duets. Matt Becker and Emily Huddell performed Frozen’s “Love is an Open Door” and “All the Wasted Time” from Parade. Mr. Becker also provided support for Gina Petti Baldassari on “Right Hand Man” from Something Rotten.

Some tunes appeared in shows produced by Burlington County Footlighters in recent years. Matt Maerten delivered “If You Knew My Story” from Bright Star. Gina Petti Baldassari sang Bonnie and Clyde’s “Raise a Little Hell” in an authentic Midwestern accent. DJ Hedgepath and Johnny Romz reprised their roles from City of Angels by performing “You’re Nothing Without Me.”

Rebecca Krunk added a comical song to the set list. It made those who spent their summer quarantining in New Jersey feel better. Ms. Krunk gave the audience reasons to chuckle with “Summer in Ohio” from The Last Five Years.

En francais, Vitaliy Kin delivered a powerful rendition of “Les portes de Paris” from Notre Dame de Paris. Those who follow South Jersey community theatre will recall his stirring performance of Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish during a production of The Wedding Singer. Mr. Kin established that there’s not much a polyglot with both law and master’s degrees can’t sing.  

Mark Henley sang a section of “Dentist” from Little Shop of Horrors while doing a hand-stand. The other performers added back-up vocals from off stage. In keeping with Footlighters’ requirements, all the performers not on stage wore face masks even while singing.

Gabrielle Affleck added her stellar operatic stylings to The Phantom of the Opera’s “This Place of Mine.” Shaina Egan applied her beautiful vocal stylings to “Stupid in Love” from Mean Girls and Forward’s “Quiet.” Aaron Wachs displayed outstanding modulation and tremolo on “Love Her” from Beauty and the Beast. He followed it up a wonderful rendition of “Freeze Your Brain” from Heathers. DJ Hedgepath sang Smash’s “Don’t Forget Me” in a way that guaranteed no one will. Rebecca Krunk performed a serious number “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” from Song of the New World.

Kate Guenther Brown performed exceptional piano accompaniment. Ms. Brown provided the music for all the performers.

Your correspondent believed that crickets caused the only sounds around Burlington County Footlighters during mid-August. The evening’s performance proved him wrong. The outdoor environment caused unusual distractions. Noises from the pool club next door, fireworks in the distance and the annoying gray tree frog in one of the branches above created an unwelcome cacophony. The performers didn’t allow these interruptions to affect the quality of their performances.

While unanticipated noises aren’t unheard of during indoor shows, the outside setting allowed for something that never occurs in a theatre: wind. Keyboard player Kate Guenther Brown’s sheet music almost blew off her music stand several times. The circulating air caused periodic pops against the microphones. Again, the performers showed their professionalism by not losing focus.

Mr. Kin concluded the show with the appropriate “You’ll Be Back”; a song featured in a show about another famous lawyer, Hamilton. Those who experienced the pleasure of attending this outdoor performance will no doubt welcome the opportunity to return to the Back Stage. While not billed as a festival of peace and love, the Grand Opening Cabaret allowed audiences to appease their love of theatre while participating in a piece of history.

Burlington County Footlighters has scheduled runs of three more shows on its Back Stage. They will take place from August 28th through the end of October. For more information, visit their website at: www.bcfootlighters.com.

Virtually Possible Theatre Festival Presented by Amber Kusching

The drama with Amber Kusching’s debut Virtual Theatre Festival began even before the show started. Ms. Kusching’s quintet of virtual plays premiered on a summer evening with expected downpours and thunder hammering in the distance. As an editor for Broadway World, Ms. Kusching crafted a legendary review of an opening night performance on just such an evening. Her witty and detailed appraisal of the Music Man in June of 2019 serves as the benchmark for entertaining community theatre reviews.

In keeping with the social distancing requirements necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the online platform Zoom served as the virtual theatre. With that format, technical issues always concern directors. The minatory weather added another variable.

Would Ms. Kusching’s festival warrant a similar review to the one she wrote one year ago?  Your correspondent learned the answer this August 7th.

The festival featured five one act plays written by Amber Kusching. The set list included material that would provide her fans with a complete Amber Kusching experience. The festival opened with a “quarantine original” called A Light in Dark Places. The two “Kusching classics” Crazy and Cloud Illusions made the bill. For those interested in the playwright’s new work, it featured world premiere plays When It Rains, Divorce and Pushing Up Daisies.

Your correspondent has described Ms. Kusching as a “theatrical guru.” Ms. Kusching could just as aptly be called “the Steve Winwood of South Jersey Community Theatre.” In addition to writing all five plays in a show that she produced, Ms. Kusching directed the original piece A Light in Dark Places.

The play was an interesting choice for a summer show. The action occurred during the winter and a ghost served as one of the characters. The drama centered on the reunion of an estranged mother named Carol (played by Sheila McDonald) and her son Chaddington (Tony Gonzalez). They’d chosen to reunite at the father’s hunting cabin following his death. The haunting presence of the past became manifest in the form of Marjorie (Betty Mitchell), a ghost with a terrifying secret.

Carolyn Tisher Messias directed the next show in the program When It Rains, Divorce. At his brother’s wedding, Daniel (Alex Levitt) prepared to deliver the toast. His mother Karen (played by director, Carolyn Tisher Messias) questioned his wife Lisa’s (Hallie Robin) fidelity. Why? Lisa wore yellow. Karen believed that color a symbol of unfaithfulness. Daniel’s suspicions arose when Lisa’s “friend from work” Rick (Beau Wade) displayed inappropriate closeness with Lisa.

Melynda Antionette directed one of Ms. Kusching’s self-described “favorites.” Crazy explored the tenuous boundaries separating the “normal” from the “deranged.” The playwright utilized a creative structure for the dialog. Psychiatrist (Sheila McDonald) asked a patient a question. After the character responded, the doctor asked a follow-up question. A different character answered and proceeded to speak. Performers Debby Tighe, Randy Hendler, David Grice, Rebekah Cianfaglione and Kat Hebert played the patients.

Ms. Kusching described the next show, Pushing Up Daisies, as: “A play that paints a picture of heartache and yearning with strokes of mystery and humor.” As with A Light in Dark Places, a haunting presence affected the character’s lives. Peter (Alex Levitt) spent his days in a dark room painting daisies. The choice of flower contained a dual meaning. His late daughter (Gracie Brown) shared the same name as the plant. His wife Nicole (Sara Viniar) implored Peter to make peace with the past and embrace the future. Megan Knowlton Balne directed this bittersweet family drama.

Most playwrights find inspiration from others who practice the same craft. Ms. Kusching showed how artists in other fields can provide dramatists with a muse. The Joni Mitchell track “Both Sides Now” stirred Ms. Kusching to craft Cloud Illusions. Melissa Harnois directed this tale of a chance encounter between workaholic lawyer Mitchell (John Nicodemo) and soon-to-be bride Joan (Allison Nicole). As a strong follow-up to Pushing Up Daisies, Cloud Illusions showed the cathartic power of living in the present.

Ms. Kusching’s prose stimulated the actors to deliver virtuoso performances. Alex Levitt and Sara Viniar played affecting characters in Pushing Up Daisies. Mr. Levitt also entertained through his comical proficiency in When It Rains, Divorce. Kat Herbert brought genuine realism to her portrayal of a schizophrenic in Crazy. John Nicodemo and Allison Nicole each brought heart-warming characteristics to their roles in Cloud Illusions.

Most virtual shows lack sophisticated backgrounds. In many, actors position themselves in front of dull colored walls. The more sophisticated perform from a den that includes a canine cameo. Thanks to Tony Gonzalez’s superb technical direction, the plays in this festival included more applicable scenery. The outdoor ambiance of Cloud Illusions and the pre-COVID-19 wedding reception in When It Rains, Divorce, gave the stories more depth. They also made it easier for audience members to suspend their disbelief.

The Virtually Possible Theatre Festival included a first for online theatre. Audience members received a stylish playbill. It included photos and bios of all cast members and directors. The layout integrated a creative use of colors as well.

To paraphrase her own text from Cloud Illusions, Ms. Kusching isn’t looking backwards or forwards. She’s looking up. The playwright presented the Virtually Possible Theatre Festival as a fundraiser for her Philadelphia Fringe Festival project Oz.org. That show will stream through Zoom in September 2020.

One more showing of this festival will take place on August 8th at 7:00 PM.

There may not have been power outages, flooding or bats flying around, but Amber Kusching’s play festival gave the audience a memorable opening night performance. Your correspondent can only hope that his review of it serves as a worthy tribute to the master.