Author: kevsteph

Lecture Review – “Paulsdale Metal Detecting Finds” by Michael F. Burns, PLS

This February 9th I received an introduction to a new method of historical detection. Michael F. Burns, Professional Land Surveyor described the nuances of using a metal detector to unearth clues about the past. The event took place at Paulsdale in Mount Laurel, New Jersey.

Mr. Burns possesses a unique expertise on both the subject of metal detecting and local history. A surveyor by trade, he is also a member of the South Jersey Metal Detecting Club, the Mount Laurel Historical Society, the Federation of Metal Detectors and Archaeology Club. His metal detecting finds include items such as coins, relics, heirlooms and artifacts. Mr. Burns reported on his findings at the Paulsdale property.

After watching the British television show detectorists, he felt inspired to take up the hobby himself. It seemed a natural extension of land surveying.

The speaker opened his remarks by providing a technical synopsis of the field of metal detecting. Fortunately for your correspondent he did so in language lay people could understand.

He began by introducing the audience to his preferred tool, White’s Spectra V3i. Their machine contains both an audio and a visual component. A polar plot displays vectors that plot the different frequencies the device detects. He, however, prefers to interpret the sounds that represent the different signal strengths. Mr. Burns explained that a good detectorist understands how to read them.

Detecting consists of the following steps: sweeping, pin pointing with the detector, digging, pin pointing with a pin pointer, recovering the target, re-checking the hole with the detector and then filling in the hole.

The latter step is crucial. Mr. Burns along with most detectorists practices “responsible metal detecting.” The trade even has a Metal Detecting Code of Ethics. One component entails getting permission from the property owner before detecting. Practitioners perform their craft with the dual goals of both “saving history and protecting the hobby.”

Paulsdale is a six acre property located on Hooton Road in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. In 1991 the Department of the Interior designated it a National Historic Landmark. It’s most famous as the home of legendary suffragist and co-author of the Equal Rights Amendment, Alice Paul. From 1800 until the late 1950s the property operated as a functioning farm.

Mr. Burns displayed both photos and samples of some items he located on the Paulsdale grounds. He presented an interesting array of objects. The property contained some unusual finds. The speaker located part of a toy gun and a lead toy cowboy from the 1950s. He also found a brass brooch of unknown date, an ignition coil from a Model T Ford dating from the 1920s and a silver plated spoon manufactured in Fairfield, England in 1915.

The most common items he located were old coins. He unearthed a 1922 Order of Railway Conductors convention coin, one from 1938 commemorating the 50th anniversary of Collingswood, New Jersey among some regular currency.

There’s an adage among detectorists that: “It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.” Mr. Burns emphasized that research is the most important part of metal detecting: both in determining where to search and in identifying the items discovered. With his passion for his work, local history buffs will be hearing about Mr. Burns’ discoveries for years to come.

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Noises Off at the Village Playbox

Director Valerie Brothers explained to me that farces are “a lot of hard work” following a run of The Fox on the Fairway. The Village Playbox proved just how incisive Ms. Brothers was. I attended the February 8th performance of Noises Off. John Blackwell directed this rendition of Michael Frayn’s comical take on the theatre business.

Noises Off reminded me a bit of the film This is Spinal Tap. Like the fictitious rock band, Mr. Frayn’s made-up theatre company just couldn’t seem to execute any task properly.

The show told the story of a travelling theatre troupe in their quest to perform a comical play called Nothing On. As the tour wore on, this lighthearted comedy became a serious drama: backstage. Increasingly that drama started making its way into the main production. While the patrons attending Nothing On may not have been impressed, the audience for Noises Off was delighted.

As witty as I found the show, the set made for the most memorable aspect of Noises Off. Watching the crew make the adjustments to the set entertained me as much as the show itself. The performance contained three acts. Acts I and III featured the set of the play-within-a-play: the living room of the Brent’s country home. For Act II, the crew converted the set into the backstage of the theatre. Somehow the crew changed the stage into the second set in less than 15 minutes during the first intermission. During the second intermission, they transformed the stage back to the original setting from Act I.

After the show, Mr. Blackwell told me, “I didn’t think we could do it.” He and the crew deserve great accolades for this accomplishment. Producer Rob Kristie, Assistant Director Steve Allen, Stage Manager/Line Director Ariel Golan, Erin Gallagher on stage crew, and set constructor Gary Kochey along with the cast members who helped move everything around all did a phenomenal job completing this difficult task.

There’s an old adage that “in comedy, timing is everything.” In conjunction with the set changes, the cast members performed an extraordinary job with their timing. Each act of Noises Off entailed the performers acting out the same material from Act I of Nothing On. When the actors did so in Act II they delivered their lines from off stage most of the time. The audience could only see the events occurring backstage. Mr. Blackwell coordinated and the cast fulfilled these challenging maneuvers flawlessly. In Act III when the tempers flared, the Nothing On cast forgot their lines and production fell apart, the performers still remained in-synch.

Esteemed actress and director Lisa Croce once told me that she “keeps her drama on the stage.” The characters in Noises Off would have been well advised to take Ms. Croce’s advice.

I often compliment directors for selecting the right performers to fit the show’s roles. I would make the same observation about Mr. Blackwell for this one. The same could not be said regarding the fictitious director, Lloyd (played by Chal Gallagher). Lloyd’s casting choices did reflect the quality of his judgement, however. During the run, he dated both Stage Manager Poppy (played by Ashley Bianchimano) and female lead Brooke (Haley Melvin).

The conflicts didn’t end there. Garry, the male lead, (Scott Partenheimer) and Dotty (Phyllis Josephson) engaged in a troubled love affair of their own. Frederick (D. Michael Farley) had a propensity for nose bleeds and lightheadedness. Selsdon (Tom Lorenz) was a chronic alcoholic. Belinda (Cara Dickinson) had a sarcastic way of ending sentences with either the words “my love” or “my sweet.” Stage Manager and male understudy, Tim (Evan Hairston), took the brunt of the director’s frustration with the cast.

Not an ideal situation for a group presenting a theatrical production. Witnessing their antics did make for a very entertaining evening for theatregoers, however.

Due to the complexity of the musical routines in Rent, I wondered if Jonathan Larsen hated actors. Because of the physical demands of Noises Off, I wonder if Mr. Frayn had his own issues with them.

Noises Off included a lot of slapstick. Scott Partenheimer delivered a masterful comedic display. He performed physical comedy reminiscent of the great Tim Conway. Mr. Partenheimer fell down a flight of stairs, slipped on a sardine falling on his back and even hopped around the stage with both his shoelaces tied together.

Michael Farley also displayed some stellar dexterity. He maintained his balance while hopping around the stage with his pants around his ankles.

Phyllis Josephson showed her skill at physical comedy as well. Ms. Josephson walked the entire length of the stage with a telephone wire caught around her ankle.

I doubt the playwright intended this, but I’d pay tribute to the cast members who met the unique environmental challenge this performance presented. Chal Gallagher, Tom Lorenz, D. Michael Farley and Haley Melvin all performed scenes in their underwear. While this type of costuming is a boon for producers, it can challenge actors; especially on a winter evening in South Jersey with the temperature in the 30s. One has to respect these performers’ dedication to their craft.

Noises Off also included some memorable performances. It seemed as though Mr. Partenheimer and Ms. Melvin competed to determine whose character could overact more.

It was also a pleasure to watch Phyllis Josephson play a role I didn’t think she would be capable of playing: that of a bad actress. She did so wonderfully. That’s a true testament to her skill as a performer.

Comedy can be serious business. Noises Off showed it. The multifarious antics involving so many performers made them difficult to absorb in one viewing. As with Spinal Tap, I feel like if I watched Noises Off a dozen times, I’d still catch things I hadn’t noticed before.

It’s doubtful this cast and crew will take Noises Off on the road to Trenton, Harrisburg and Akron. The Village Playbox will present it through February 16th.

Fun Home at Haddonfield Plays and Players

One knows it’s going to be an interesting evening of theatre when the title refers to a funeral home. Add to that a bildungsroman with the protagonist’s family imploding in the backdrop. This premise led me to anticipate a saturnine night of theatre. Fortunately, director Bill C. Fikaris along with the cast and crew also brought out the wit in Alison Bechdel’s tragicomic biographical piece. I attended the February 3rd performance at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Fun Home is Lisa Kron’s and Jeanine Tesori’s musical stage adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name. It tells Ms. Bechdel’s journey of personal discovery. It chronicled her life from her upbringing in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, through her development as a cartoonist, and finally to her discovery of her lesbian sexuality. While reflecting on her life, Adult Alison (Maura Jarve) sought clues to help her understand her father. (Michael Sheldon) The latter lived as a closeted homosexual. He eventually committed suicide.

The show required three different performers to play Alison. Each one enacted the character at a different stage of her life. Gabrielle Werner played Small Alison, Courtney Bundens performed Medium Alison and Maura Jarve played Adult Alison; the character who also served as the narrator.

The story didn’t follow a linear time progression. The scenes flowed between the past and the present. Having three Alisons allowed the progressions to move seamlessly without confusing the audience.

I thought it interesting that all performers playing Alison looked alike. In one scene where Ms. Jarve and Ms. Wener shared the stage, they both maintained the same facial expressions. I credit them and Ms. Bundens for playing the same person at different stages of her life so believably. (Perhaps they’ll consider re-uniting for Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women in a few years?)

Aside from the script itself, Fun Home contained multifarious components that made it a challenging spectacle to produce. It featured a range of musical material (directed by Chris Weed), elaborate dance routines (choreographed by Amanda Frederick) and sophisticated visual projections (designed by Pat DeFusco and Gary Werner). Even with all these elements, the group still produced the show flawlessly.

The musical pieces served as a good catharsis to offset the serious nature of the story. They contained a lot of the comedy. The Bechdel children decided to write a commercial for the family funeral home. The resulting “Come to the Fun Home” sounded like an upbeat Jackson Five-esque number. Gabrielle Werner, Zach Johnson and Jake Gilman even performed it like the Motown group. In keeping with the 70s pop theme, later Vinnie DeFilippo and the company joined together for a Partridge Family encomium in the form of “Raincoat of Love.”

Ms. Frederick’s choreography made these numbers much more entertaining. As did her coordination of the entire company for the opening number “It All Comes Back.” I enjoyed the cast’s proficient execution of the number’s myriad vocal harmonies.

The drama made its way into the musical numbers as well; especially at the end. Michael Sheldon’s duet with Maura Jarve on “Telephone Wire” was powerfully moving. Mr. Sheldon’s follow-up “Edges of the World” captured the character’s anger, frustration and turmoil. Sensitive theatregoers may have their dreams haunted by Megan Knowlton Balne’s rendition of “Days and Days.”

To facilitate the scene changes Fun Home included visual images projected on to the back drop. The roadside setting passing by added realism to “Telephone Wire.” The pictures of Ms. Bechdel’s actual drawings kept the story in perspective. I found the projections (and sound) of working televisions very creative as well.

In addition to all this, Fun Home included some extraordinary performances.

Michael Sheldon portrayed the tortured Bruce. In the fall of 2016 I watched Mr. Sheldon play the Mayor of Whoville in a production of Seussical at Burlington County Footlighters. Bruce was about as antithetical to a character speaking in cheery, rhyming couplets as one can imagine.

Mr. Sheldon met this role’s challenges. He gave his character depth when he played a devoted father opposite Young Alison (Ms. Werner). He became sly and manipulative in his scenes with Mr. DiFilippo. He released the character’s anger when performing with Ms. Balne. He showed himself to be emotionally lost when singing the “Telephone Wire” number with Ms. Jarve. The anguish came through his voice when he sang “Edges of the World.”

Megan Knowton Balne played his wife, Helen. She captured the seething rage the character kept suppressing. I most enjoyed her performance opposite Ms. Bundens. While holding a glass of wine she described when she first discovered her husband’s homosexuality. It occurred during their honeymoon. She related the story like someone ready to go ballistic, but managing to keep her composure. It proved an excellent segue into the “Days and Days” number.

Courtney Bundens portrayed the most entertaining version of Ms. Bechdel in the character of Medium Alison. I enjoyed the way she found humor in the character’s nervousness. Ms. Bundens and Julie Roberts exhibited great chemistry working together as Alison and she explored their feelings for one another. It made Ms. Bundens’ performance of “Changing My Major” the pivotal moment of the show.

This production of Fun Home contained an unusual feature. Some performers may have been acting, but I’ve never seen a show with that many left-handed people in the cast. It seemed like the stage contained more southpaws than all the pitching staffs of the National League East combined.

While I don’t share the same challenges my left-handed friends face, I do think of them every time I drive a car, turn a doorknob and use a can opener.

Director Bill C. Fikaris wrote in the playbill:

On the surface, Fun Home would seem like a tragic evening of theatre. However, the beauty of this piece is that it’s incredibly uplifting and provides us with a feeling of hope by the end of Alison’s journey.

With material this intricate, it’s a credit to the cast and crew that they could convey this message of optimism in the wake of such tragedy. Fun Home closes after February 16th at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

The Boys Next Door at Bridge Players Theatre Company

“I can’t tell if this is the saddest place I’ve ever been or the happiest,” social worker Jack observed. That’s a good summation of The Boys Next Door. It contained both a heart-rending and heart-warming story. I attending this opening night performance at the Bridge Players Theatre Company on February 1st. Edwin Howard directed.

The Boys Next Door related the stories of several men living at a group home. Arnold Wiggins (played by Stephen Jackson) possessed a compulsive and nervous disposition. Mentally retarded middle aged man Lucien P. Smith (Jay Scott Burton) had a fascination with books. Norman Bulanski (Matthew Brent) fixated on donuts and locks. Schizophrenic Barry Klemper (Jeff Skomsky) believed himself a golf instructor.

Case worker Jack Palmer (Thomas Everett) attended to these clients. The continuous struggles of helping these men fit into society strained him. He confessed to feeling burned out. “Either they deserve better or I deserve better,” he mused. Maintaining his composure proved a challenge.

Bridge Players’ production featured some powerful performances. Stephen Jackson played a convincing compulsive obsessive personality. His repeated counting, quick pacing and even faster talking captured Arnold’s essence. It’s difficult to speak clearly when delivering a machine-gun like barrage of words. I credit Mr. Jackson as he spoke in a way that I could still understand him.

Jay Scott Burton delivered the most powerful speech in the show. After his genuine portrayal of a man with mental deficiencies, he stood upon a soap box. Mr. Burton delivered a disquisition on the plight of the mentally retarded. He animated playwright Tom Griffin’s dialog with authority.

Matthew Brent played the lovable donut aficionado, Norman Bulanski. Perhaps, because of that, his character was the only one with a love interest. His scenes with Lisa Croce (as Sheila, the resident of a different group home) made for the show’s most sentimental. I give Mr. Howard and the performers credit for not allowing this relationship to deteriorate into melodrama. Their portrayal of the conflict that resulted when Ms. Croce innocently asked for Mr. Brent’s keyes aided in that regard.

The most moving scene occurred at the end of Act One. Mr. Bulanski and Ms. Croce danced together. They performed a well-choreographed routine. They showed each character’s affection for each other by smiling the entire time. So did the audience.

Jeff Skomsky played an exceptional Barry. Through the serious way he discussed “business” and conducted his golf lessons, I had difficulty telling why the character was even in the group home. Then Barry found out that the father he hadn’t seen in nine years was coming to visit him. At this point, Mr. Skomsky brought out the character’s inner turmoil.

Mr. Skomsky kept a blank look on his face while staring straight ahead. In an eerie monotone he told unbelievable stories about Barry’s father. He described “Kipper” Klemper as a third base coach for the Yankees, a defensive coach for the 49ers and Ted Williams’ fishing buddy. The performer’s interpretation of Barry’s mental state showed that the two men’s reunion would not end happily.

This segued into the show’s most memorable scene. Russ Walsh played Mr. Klemper as socially inept and crass. When he asked Jack to leave the two alone, Mr. Everett paused and gave him an uncomfortable look. Mr. Walsh then showed the dark side of “Kipper” Klemper’s personality. He and Mr. Skomsky played a very unsettling scene together. The emotions involved and the quality of the acting made it very difficult to watch.

With characters of this nature, humor becomes a challenge. The cast and director conveyed it respectfully. One of the most comical moments occurred when a neighbor (played by Andrea Veneziano) visited. While sitting on the couch sandwiched between Mr. Brent and Mr. Skomsky she asked if they’d seen her son’s hamster. I’ll avoid giving away spoilers, but the startled looks on their faces showed that they had.

The production also included some spectacular lighting. It figured. Bob Beaucheane is one of the best lighting designers in South Jersey community theatre. The Boys Next Door showed why. The multi-colored lights that simulated the dance hall looked very authentic. It complimented the music very well. (Mr. Beaucheane also handled the sound design.) The full moon projected on the backdrop created a superb ambiance for the outdoor night scenes.

Bridge Players Theatre Company President Timothy Kirk rounded out the ensemble.

Director Edwin Howard wrote in the playbill:

In today’s world of tolerance and acceptance, sometimes we forget that everyone has wants and needs. Just because simple things are harder to do for some people, doesn’t mean they are any less human and deserve any less care and love.

The Boys Next Door is a solid commentary on these sentiments. The show runs through February 16th at the Bridge Players Theatre Company.

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.

Scrooge: The Musical at The Ritz Theatre Company

What better way to commemorate the Holiday Season than with a high-tech Christmas spectacle? I’ve commented before about how The Ritz Theatre Company has transformed the South Jersey area into the Wonderful World of Disney. This time the company converted it into a Winter Wonderland. I attended their presentation of Scrooge: The Musical on December 21st.

Upon approaching the theatre I noticed the Ritz lettering colored in red and green. Inside the building lit Christmas trees surrounded by gifts adorned the left and right of the stage. A lighted wreath hung over its center flanked by two others on both sides.

It’s not beginning to feel a lot like Christmas, I thought. This is Christmas.

Director Steve Stonis selected an excellent team to coordinate this elaborate production. Kate Orlando choreographed, Marley Boone designed the costumes and Nicholas French served as Musical Director. The show even included a local ballet troupe: the Cooper River Ballet. Ann Moser Trenka choreographed that group’s routines.

Mr. Stonis brought the audience into the show. Two small platforms were placed in the middle of the theatre on both the left and right of the audience. Actors performed several scenes from them. Performers utilized the aisles for both the action and the dance routines, as well.

During the scene where a man requested a charitable donation from Ebenezer Scrooge, performers Michael Arigot and Bruce A. Curless delivered part of the exchange right in front of me. I got an up-close view of two stellar performers perfecting the craft of acting.

While a delightful Holiday experience, the show included a tint of sadness. This run will serve as Bruce A. Curless’ swan song as Scrooge. This production marks the last time he’ll take on the role of everyone’s favorite Christmas curmudgeon. Mr. Curless made it a memorable one.

When directors chose to utilize the entire room, it gives performers opportunities to interact with the audience. Mr. Curless used the opportunity brilliantly. I enjoyed his disgruntled murmurs while looking at audience members.

Scrooge is a pretty complex character. In the Dickens tale, he transformed from a misanthrope into a philanthropist within a few hours. He even transitioned from Isabel’s adoring suitor into an avaricious miser in the same scene. Scrooge: The Musical added another element to the role: humor. Mr. Curless’ performance captured all these facets of Scrooge’s personality while keeping the role entertaining.  

Mr. Curless performed a comical take on “I Hate People.” Scrooge may not have cared for others, but the audience sure loved Mr. Curless’ musical description of it.

Michael Arigot performed various male roles throughout the evening; some rather diverse. Mr. Arigot chose exceptional voices for them. The horrifying one he used for Jacob Marley enhanced his minatory presence; as did the addition of reverb to it. The comical cockney tone of Mr. Fezziwig made that figure quite amusing. The performer’s ebullient Ghost of Christmas Present brought out the character’s essence. His upbeat rendition of “I Like Life” with Mr. Curless enhanced it.

Hannah Keeley played various female characters. They included Mrs. Cratchit, Mrs. Fezziwig, Isabelle and the Ghost of Christmas Past. I enjoyed her shocked reaction in the first role when Mr. Cratchit (played by Steve Stonis) proposed a toast to Ebenezer Scrooge. These characters provided Ms. Keely with various opportunities to showcase her lovely voice. The most enjoyable occurred when she performed the fitting “Somewhere in My Memory” as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

The show included a remarkable duet between Mr. Arigot and Ms. Keeley. While playing the roles of Young Scrooge and Isabele, they performed a somber rendition of “Happiness.” The tune’s minor key melody showed it to be ironically titled. These two performers—accompanied by Mr. Curless—captured the song’s dreary spirit in a way that made it haunting.

Scrooge’s songwriter Leslie Bricusse provided other performers with opportunities to perform vocal numbers. As Tiny Tim, Addie Crow sang a wonderful rendition of “Beautiful Day.” Urchins Megan Lex and Lily Bunting exhibited their vocal prowess on the tunes “Where is Love?” and “Believe” respectively.

Perhaps in homage to The Nutcracker, Scrooged included some stellar ballet routines. They enhanced the show’s entertainment value. The Cooper River Ballet opened the show by accompanying the cast during the “Overture.” During this performance dancers occupied the stage and both platforms in the middle of the theatre. The set-up created a terrific effect. The group also performed during the “Shades”, “Celebration” and “Isabelle” numbers.

Scrooge included an extensive cast. I’d also like to credit performers Holly Guzik, Emily Ferry, Jameson DeMuro, Olivia Bee Sposa, Max Ruggles, Joey Liberson, Dillinger Crow, Olivia Bathurst, Barbara Fraga, Caroline Grexa, Irelyn Wilkinson, and Audrey Mirtos.

The following members of the Cooper River Ballet added their talents as well: Abby Barrett, Taylor Carey, Emily Collins, Madeline Connor, Caroline Filosa, Lucas Filosa, Kim Fiordimondo, Caroline Hanifen, Gemma Miller and Evan Pirouz.

On multiple levels, I found Scrooge The Musical an outstanding show. I did have one criticism. The show began nine minutes late.

This run of Scrooge will probably be best remembered as Mr. Curless’ final performance in the title role. While his fans may wish that’s “humbug,” in the words of Dr. Seuss: Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened. The show I attended certainly gave the audience a lot of reasons to do so.

Scrooge: The Musical runs through December 23rd at the Ritz Theatre Company.

The Winter Warmer at Burlington County Footlighters

In the movie The Return of Spinal Tap, Paul Schaffer’s character observed: “It’s funny how the business does a thing.” I still recall DJ Hedgepath’s breathtaking rendition of Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Collingswood Community Theatre. I also remember Cynthia Reynolds’ superb performance as the lead in Carrie: The Musical at Burlington County Footlighters this past May. This December 14th I attended a show in which they both sang Christmas songs. To quote the late Sammy Davis, Jr.: “Only in this business.”

All kidding aside, South Jersey features immense talent that performs at local community theatre shows. With so many gifted performers sharing the stage, the skill of individual players can get overlooked. I’ve wondered what it would be like to listen to some of them just standing in front of a microphone and singing. I found out at the Burlington County Footlighters Winter Warmer.

The program featured local community theatre actors singing Christmas songs. The organizers bracketed the performance with some stellar Jazz performances. The evening opened with music by The Mike Parisi Trio featuring Ryan Smith on piano, Mike Parisi on bass and Evan Smith on saxophone. They warmed up the audience by playing jazz versions of Christmas carols. A supreme performance by Stephen Mitnaul and the Smooth Show concluded the evening’s festivities. John Romano emceed.

The show featured some deeply moving versions of Christmas classics. Jerrod Ganesh delivered emotional renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Mary, Did You Know?” Shaina Egan performed a stirring version of “O, Holy Night” accompanied by Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. on harmony vocals. Mother and daughter team Carla and Angel Ezell teamed up for the soulful “Miss You Most at Christmas Time.”

The latter tune affected me personally. For Rhythm and Blues fans, Christmas time always brings a tinge of sadness. We lost two legends of the genre during the Holiday Season. James Brown passed away on Christmas Day on 2006 and Curtis Mayfield left us on Boxing Day 1999. While their talent can never be replaced, the performances turned in by singers such as DJ. Hedgepath, Mr. Thompson and Ms. Ezell showed that the spirit of their music has continued into the next generation.

The show featured a range of styles in the song selection. It included several upbeat numbers. Stephen Jackson applied his charming vocal stylings to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “The Christmas Waltz.” In a radical departure from the dirge-like minor key melodies of Carrie, Cynthia Reynolds delivered the popular Holiday staple “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” just as brilliantly.

What Christmas show would be complete without a little romance to spice up the Holiday Season? Ms. Reynolds performed the affectionate “Merry Christmas, Darling.” Emily Huddell geared up the audience for the next Holiday with the inviting “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

The event included an original take on a seasonal classic. Alex Davis sang a cheery version of “White Christmas.” At the end of the song, Ms. Davis interpolated the somber mood of the original. It rounded out this unique rendition nicely.

You know it’s a good show when even the intermission includes outstanding music. During the break, The Mike Parisi Trio took the stage. They performed an instrumental version of “The Christmas Song” that would’ve impressed both Nat King Cole and Bill Evans.

America’s original art form made its way into the regular program, as well. Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. delivered a high energy rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

During his performance of “This Christmas”, DJ Hedgepath informed the audience: “This is a very special Christmas for me.” It was just as special for his fans. Mr. Hedgepath treated them to the Holiday favorite “Jingle Bells.” He brought the audience into the show with “This Christmas.” When the music started he told them that he expected to hear “foot tapping” and “hand clapping.” A lot of the former occurred while he performed and even more of the latter took place when he concluded.

Following the individual performances, saxophonist Stephen Mitnaul and the Smooth Show took the stage. They opened their set by backing-up Darryl S. Thompson, Jr as he performed a moving rendition of “Christmastime is Here.” They then treated the audience Mr. Mitnaul’s unique blend of jazz, gospel, funk and soul/R&B.

The band’s sound reminded me of Miles Davis’ when he experimented with Jazz Fusion. That seemed appropriate. Mr. Mitnaul’s style contains the soul of Miles Davis with the chops of John Coltrane.

Like Miles Davis, Mr. Mitnaul has an ear for talent. He surrounded himself with a group of stellar musicians. The Smooth Show included Hasan Govan on bass, Jared Alston on keyboards and Clayton Carothers on drums.

Mr. Mitnaul informed the audience that the band didn’t realize they were playing a Christmas show. They didn’t know many Christmas songs, but could try and include a few in the set.

This seemed a little cliché to me. Did I just hear a jazz musician suggest he might be able to improvise? Isn’t ‘the ability to improvise’ the number one task listed on a jazz musician’s job description?

Mr. Mitnaul and the Smooth Show proceeded to prove themselves worthy of the title: jazz musicians. They worked some Holiday tunes into their set; concluding with an awesome rendition of “This Christmas.”

All the musicians demonstrated remarkable soloing ability. Special credit must go to Clayton Carothers. Mr. Carothers played one of the most outstanding drum solos I’ve ever heard: and I’m an Art Blakey fan who’s attended several Rush concerts. Even more remarkable, his kit consisted of just the basics: a snare drum, a floor tom, a tom, a high-hat and some cymbals. All you drummers who need to be air-lifted into your sets please take note.

The band showed that this wasn’t just a job to them. They genuinely enjoyed playing this gig. Its members often smiled at each other throughout the evening. So did their audience.

Christmas only comes once a year. Unfortunately, so does Burlington County Footlighters’ Winter Warmer. During the show Darryl Thompson, Jr. announced that the company planned to make this a regular annual event. Now I know what to ask Santa to bring me next Christmas: a ticket to the 2019 Winter Warmer.