Author: kevsteph

Nunsense A-Men at Burlington County Footlighters

I would’ve lost a bet that nuns would make for the most popular topic in South Jersey community theatre this year. When I read that Burlington County Footlighters planned to present Nunsense A-Men this December, I had to question the wisdom of this decision. Three area companies staged productions of Sister Act over the last several months. How could another theatre company hold my attention regarding the topic of holy sisters? I wondered. I can’t say Footlighters surprised me by figuring a means to do so. They selected a show so unusual it would’ve impressed Samuel Beckett. I attended their opening night performance of Nunsense A-Men on December 8th.

Playwright Dan Goggin crafted a veritable trifecta of distinctiveness. Nunsense contained the most imaginative premise, story and setting I’ve encountered. Here goes my best attempt to explain the tale. The cast consisted of five main characters: all nuns played by male actors. The convent’s cook—the comically named Sister Julia, Child of God—served an improperly prepared helping of vichysoisse to the community’s sisters. As a result 52 perished from food poisoning. The surviving nuns raised enough money for the burials. Thinking they had more cash than needed for the task, the Mother Superior wasted some of the funds on pricey home entertainment amenities. This spending spree left the order with only enough means to bury 48 of the nuns. They placed those remaining in the freezer until they could acquire the funds to finish the task. To raise that capital, they decided to host a variety show at the Mount Saint Helen’s school auditorium. They didn’t change the stage set from the school’s eighth grade production of Grease in the background. Add to this mix a series of eccentric characters. Sister Act this wasn’t.

Director Jillian Starr Renbjor selected an A-level cast for Nunsense A-Men. Her choices gave Musical Director Peg Smith and Choreographer Kaitlyn Delengowski some superb talent with which to work.

Matt Maerten took on the role of erstwhile dancer, Sister Mary Leo. This marked the first occasion I’ve watched a ballet routine performed in a community theatre show. Mr. Maerten executed some impressive turns and jumps throughout the evening. One really has to credit a performer for doing so while wearing a dress. He also delivered some excellent singing on “Benedicte.” He crooned a sensational duet with Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. on “The Biggest Ain’t the Best.”

John Romano, Jr. played one bad mother of a Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina. He got the comedy started the moment he took the stage. He delivered his first line by speaking with a high voice. After clearing his throat he reverted to his deeper range. I enjoyed his singing on “Turn Up the Spotlight” as well as his pining for his character’s possible past as a tightrope walker. This performer’s highlight came when he presented a witty take on why nuns should avoid anything stronger than coffee. For the record: I was glad you’re character was okay, Mr. Romano. The remainder of the show wouldn’t have been as entertaining without you.

Connor Twigg played Sister Robert Anne: the wannabe Mother Superior. From the passion he injected into that role, he showed just how badly the character wanted it. His strong singing on “I Just Want to Be a Star” made the title ironic. An actor that talented already is one. He delivered great comedy chops with his Carmen Miranda hat and impressions of the Wicked Witch of the West and Idina Menzel. (Again I emphasize just how original this show’s content.) Reprising his superb tap dancing skills I last saw in The Drowsy Chaperone, Mr. Twigg put on his taps while leading the rest of the cast through a soft shoe dance.

DJ Hedgepath…well, the best compliment I can give him is that he delivered a “DJ Hedgepath kind of performance.” After speaking in a slightly high pitched Southern accent all evening, he crooned his character’s yearning ode to Country stardom: “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville.” For this show he added the task of “quiz show host” to his repertoire. Mr. Hedgepath conducted a question period with the audience. It takes a great deal of courage for a performer to interact with live spectators. Mr. Hedgepath handled their unscripted responses perfectly; improvising while remaining in character. To prove once more that there’s no activity he can’t handle on stage: he performed opposite a puppet that he operated. His character, Sister Mary Amnesia, may have struggled with her memory. No one who watched his performance in Nunsense will ever forget it.

Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. rounded out the cast as Sister Mary Hubert, Mistress of Novices. At first I felt disappointed by the musical material the show presented him. Mr. Thompson delivered his usual outstanding singing. His duets with Mr. Romano and Mr. Marteen served as good examples. The songs, however, didn’t challenge his extraordinary vocal prowess. It turned out he was making the audience wait for his big number. I’ve described Mr. Thompson as one of the best soul singers I’ve ever heard. He belted out an extraordinary performance of the gospel based “Holier than Thou” number. He proved that in terms of vocal ability, he sure is.

Jim Frazer designed a set that well suited the show. The entire time I watched the performance, I felt like I was in a middle school auditorium staging a performance of Grease. I thought the “Greased Lighting” insignia on the car a nice touch. The chalkboard menu across from the 1950s style counter made the setting more authentic, as well. He also designed the lighting. Nunsense featured more illumination adjustments than most shows. At times the house lights went up, in some scenes the stage lights dimmed while in others a character performed in the spotlight. It impressed me that no glitches occurred.

The show’s opening didn’t grab my attention as I would have preferred. At first performers walked about the theatre interacting with the audience. Following that, the characters walked around the stage prattling. It seemed disorganized, but understanding the characters and the premise after watching the whole show, it made sense. The scene did bring me into the world of the story. I still thought the beginning could’ve started with more immediacy.

I wouldn’t have thought that five men dressed as nuns playing in yet another show about holy sisters could keep my focus for an entire evening. I’d normally attribute this to an early Christmas Miracle, but I have to credit phenomenal performances from gifted cast members. To illustrate how well they suspended my disbelief, when MacKenzie Smith took the stage as Sister Mary Meredith Taco, I thought it strange to watch a female performer portray a nun. Now that’s skill.

For those who missed opening weekend, Hallelujah! Nunsense A-Men runs through December 17th at Burlington County Footlighters.

 

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In Memoriam – Glenn Walker

Glenn Walker“When you inspire one person you have already changed the world,” Sabina Nore wrote. Through his influence Glenn E. Walker earned the distinction of changing the world many times over. A writer, teacher and pop culture maven, Mr. Walker passed away far too soon on December 6th.

While writing professionally, Glenn still provided his tutelage to local writers through the South Jersey Writers’ Group. While serving as Membership Director he also led the group’s blogfests. In fact, he’s the person who introduced me to the organization.

Had it not been for Mr. Walker’s encouragement and support you wouldn’t be reading this right now. Glenn served as an invaluable inspiration to me when I began pursuing serious writing back in the early 2000s. Even now whenever I write something, I still ask myself, “What would Glenn say about this?” Three drafts later I’m still asking the same question.

Anyone who writes knows that it’s not a field of endeavor for the thin skinned. We can all recall either receiving harsh comments or outright discouraging critiques about our work; but never from Glenn. He always provided constructive feedback. The noblest intentions motivated his observations. Glenn understood that the most important task of a critic is to inspire a writer to write.

I first met Glenn at a critique group. His passion for writing really impressed me. Whether reviewing science fiction, political dramas or treatises on gardening, he showed the same enthusiasm. That love of craft carried over into his support of aspiring writers.

The highlight of my own writing career involved Glenn. He always promoted writers through “Writer Wednesdays”, “Follow Fridays” and by re-tweeting blog posts. When I last saw Glenn during the summer of 2015, I thanked him for his re-tweets. In fact, he’d just re-tweeted a pseudo-obituary I’d written about Pink Floyd’s recent break-up. With his most matter-of-fact tone he replied, “Hey, we’re a writing community. We support each other. It’s what we do.” I’ll never forget what he did next. Glenn shook his head and in his bass baritone said, “Man…that one on Pink Floyd.” I’d used the names of various songs from the band’s catalog to tell the story in that piece. I remember telling a friend at the time: “Something I wrote impressed Glenn Walker! This is my Nobel Prize in Literature!”

Malala Yousafzai once instructed: “Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” Like a great writer, Glenn didn’t tell us: he showed us.

I extend my deepest condolences to Glenn’s family, friends and fans.

 

A Christmas Carol at Haddonfield Plays and Players

HPP A Christmas CarolThe originality of A Christmas Carol always impressed me. I never would’ve imagined someone spending Christmas alone while haunted by the ghosts of the past, present and future without the use of alcohol. I also found the dramatic presentation of this tale performed by Haddonfield Plays and Players to be equally distinctive. The cast delivered a stellar rendition of this sine qua non of the Holiday season. I attended the December 1, 2017 performance directed by Mark Karcher.

Michael Hicks delivered a haunting performance of a haunted man. Mr. Hicks is a superb and gifted actor. Several years ago I had the pleasure of watching his exceptional interpretation of Dr. Sloper in the Haddonfield Plays and Players production of The Heiress. (Talk about a character that reveled in bitterness and alcohol.) I relished the opportunity to watch his rendition of what began as the most miserable character in literature. This time the role required a transition into a joyous humanitarian. Would Mr. Hicks meet the challenge?

This performer went beyond what many would do in order to get into character. To adopt Scrooge’s appearance he grew mutton chops. He delivered the iconic line “bah, humbug” with suave assurance. Mr. Hicks then craftily brought the audience into the character’s metamorphosis from a self-absorbed miser into a kindly philanthropist. As morose as he portrayed Scrooge at the show’s beginning at the end he became a different character. He demonstrated the laughter and joy of a man impassioned with humanity. Dickens’ character changed dramatically, and Mr. Hicks brought that transformation to life on the Haddonfield Players’ stage.

A Christmas Carol featured an exceptional visual spectacle. I actually heard gasps from the audience when the Ghost of Christmas Past (played by Jennie Pines) made her appearance. Ms. Pines wore a white gown similar to a wedding dress. A strand of bright lights wrapped around her. The theatre became dark. As she descended down the aisle, her entrance created the illusion of an apparition floating from the heavens down to the stage. Then the rotating specks of light against the backdrop simulated snowfall. Ms. Pines costume along with the set combined for a beautiful image of a winter wonderland.

I received an early Christmas Present with Alex Levitt playing the Ghost of Christmas Present. I enjoyed watching this veteran of the Haddonfield Players return to the stage. He applied more range to the role than I would’ve expected. The character began as a jolly and merry soul. Before his exit, he delivered a minatory warning to Scrooge. Mr. Levitt selected a raspy voice in which to do so. The long beard combined with the red robe made him look like Santa Clause. The contrast between his appearance and his delivery made for an interesting scene.

George Clark’s sound design enhanced the atmospherics. The echo effect on Ms. Pines’ voice made her character even more ethereal. When used on Tony Killian’s (as the ghost of Jacob Marley) it made him much more horrifying.

While not the musical version of A Christmas Carol, the dramatic performance still showcased some fantastic singing. Nicky Intrieri (as Tiny Tim) delivered an outstanding unaccompanied solo number. The falsetto choir’s rendition of Holiday staples such as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night” emanated a superb Yuletide spirit.

I’ve written before that I don’t care for narration in live drama. John Mortimer adapted this rendition of A Christmas Carol for the stage. Instead of one story teller he decided that just about every performer should narrate some section of the tale. While I find this type of exposition annoying, in this show I also found much of it unnecessary. The most egregious offenders included:

“Scrooge sees Marley’s face on the door knocker.” A character delivered this line as I watched Scrooge both look at and comment upon Marley’s face on the door knocker.

“Scrooge hears bells.” A narrator said this line while my ears rang (no pun intended) with the sound of myriad bells going off in the theatre.

“Marley walked down the stairs dragging his chains.” This one requires no further explanation.

To all the budding dramatists out there: show or tell. Make a choice. Don’t do both.

I’d like to credit Edwin Howard for putting his power tools to proficient work on the set design. The London backdrop featuring Big Ben, London Bridge and the full moon made great scenery.

It’s also proper to recognize the other performers who rounded out a stellar cast. Their combined efforts delivered a very entertaining evening: Dan Safeer, Jonathan Greenstein, Jay Burton, Tony Killian, Jennifer Flynn, Maddox Mofit-Tighe, Gracie Sokiloff, Brynne Gaffney, Gianna Cosby, Tess Smith, Ryan McDermott, Jake Hufner, John Williams, Isabella Mulliner, John Bravo, Ricky Conway, Anne Buckwheat, Olivia Williams, Jenn Adams, E’Nubian Beckett, Jessi Gollin, Solaida Santiago, and Nadia Faulk.

It’s hard to imagine the Holiday Season without experiencing A Christmas Carol in some form. For those interested in witnessing it performed live, the Haddonfield Players are presenting a great version. That’s no “humbug.” The show runs through December 16th. After that, the Ghost of Christmas Past may just haunt you for not taking advantage of the opportunity.

 

The Explorer’s Club at Burlington County Footlighters

Explorer's Club SetThat’s got to be the most underrepresented topic in the history of theatre, I thought when Gaby Affleck described her latest project to me. As an award winning director of shows ranging from Dracula to Of Mice and Men, Ms. Affleck could’ve opted to bring any subject to the stage. Just what did she choose this time? She decided to direct her first farce: a play about explorers. While a topic traditionally overlooked by community theatre companies, the cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters more than compensated for this history of neglect. I embarked on a voyage of laugher (and TO SCIENCE) during the opening night performance of Nell Benjamin’s The Explorer’s Club this November 3rd.

The story contained a hyper-extreme conflict by the standards of 1879 Victorian society. Explorer Phyllida Spotte-Hume (played by Rachel Comenzo) aspired to be the first woman to join The Explorer’s Club. Ms. Spote-Hume encountered resistance from the membership. Not much of a surprise, there. Initially, I thought the whole ‘farce’ premise had to do with men from that less enlightened era even allowing a woman to enter their building. At any rate, the conflict continued to build as the botanist, Lucius Retaway (played by Michael Muller) and the dashing Harry Percy (played by Tim Petrillo) competed for her affections. In addition, a native she named ‘Luigi’ (played by Matt Dell’Olio) caused an international incident by greeting Queen Victoria in his tribe’s traditional manner: he slapped her across the face. With the overall tone of the story, I wondered if the playwright used this detail to add a bit of subtext.

As one would expect from a farce, the show featured a host of eccentric characters. Also, as anticipated, Ms. Affleck selected the perfect performers to play them. Ethan Rundell met the challenge of portraying the effeminate snake lover, Professor Cope. Lou DiPilla’s expressive performance of religion scholar, Dr. Sloane, blessed the audience. Dennis Dougherty depicted Guniea pig aficionado Professor Walling. Harry Percy (played by Tim Petrillo) seemed to lose all the men who followed him on his expeditions; his latest voyage to discover the East Pole proved no exception. It’s some club when the botanist (played by Michael Muller) who named a coma and death inducing plant after the woman he loved came across as the ‘normal’ one.

Mr. Muller and Mr. Petrillo played opposite one another particularly well. Their performances concretized the conflict between the nerdy botanist and the rugged explorer. Ms. Comenzo deftly displayed interest towards their characters at different times. Her warm smiles towards Lucius and extension of her lips toward Percy in various scenes accentuated the conflict.

Theatrical shows always contain some attribute that makes them unique. Speeches served as this one’s main feature. Ricardo Estevez delivered an impassioned oration regarding his insatiable need for vengeance and retribution…while playing a monk. His inclusion of karate chops and kicks while moving about the entire stage enhanced the performance. He selected impeccable gestures to compliment his delivery.

Rachel Comenzo spoke with flawless diction when delivering her character’s opening lecture. One also has to credit her for keeping a straight face. The new society her character discovered looked like a nation of people from the Blue Man Group. This performer impressed by pronouncing place names most people can’t attempt to spell.

I also applaud Ms. Comenzo for her choice of accent. In the playbill she mentioned devoting a great deal of time towards perfecting it. Her efforts paid off handsomely. She played the dual roles of twin sisters in the show. She adjusted her voice to fit each character and make both distinct.

Matt Dell’Olio possesses a genius for delivering soliloquys. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone, he presented a monologue about Lobster Bisque soup in a method that made it rival the “to be or not to be” monolog from Hamlet. In this show, he presented a solo speech just as gripping. He did so while speaking in gibberish. With a character talking incomprehensibly, gestures and facial expressions become more crucial. He nailed them. Mr. Dell’Olio also displayed phenomenal dexterity prancing around the stage.

Last year Mr. Dell’Olio earned BCF’s Best Actor Award for his performance in Dead Man’s Cell Phone. His robust portrayal in this one may have netted him another one.

I didn’t believe it possible for Jim Frazer to design a better set than the Christmas Village he created for 2016’s A Christmas Carol. This one came close. It captured the essence of a manly “Old Boys’ Club” while including a touch of comedy. The stage featured enormous tusks arranged like an archway, the ubiquitous deer heads, bearskin rugs hung on the wall and a globe displayed off to stage left. I give Mr. Frazer credit for creativity by including the mounted walrus head made by the show’s makeup artist Jasmine Chalfont.

The bar scenes proved a challenge for the cast. Mr. Dell’Olio’s character would say, “Here’s your drink, sir.” Then he would quickly slide a glass towards the front of the counter. It amazed me that every time he did this, the character he tossed the drink towards caught it the moment it slid off the bar…at least until the very end of the show.

Bernard DiCasimirro (as Sir Bernard Humphreys) dropped a glass before taking his curtain call. This performer made the best recovery I’ve witnessed at a live performance. Burlington County Footlighters legend Dan Brothers sat in the first row. While watching the play I thought Mr. Brothers would’ve been a solid addition to this show. He inadvertently got his chance. In response to Mr. Brothers’ jeer, Mr. DiCasimirro tossed the glass’ contents at him. I credit the performer for this improvised move. It made the miscue much more entertaining than it would have been if he’d executed the scene as written.

Harry Percy discussed following up his discovery of the East Pole with a trip to the West Pole. If he embarks on that voyage of exploration, let’s hope this cast and crew is available to tell the story.

I enjoyed Ms. Affleck’s latest journey as a director. “Farce is nothing to laugh at!” She wrote in the playbill. “It’s hard work.” That work paid off in the form of The Explorer’s Club. Audiences may survey it at Burlington County Footlighters through November 18th.

Book Review – The Republic for Which It Stands by Richard White

It seemed as though Richard White wrote The Republic for Which It Stands for an unorthodox reason. From my perception, he utilized it to raise awareness regarding the vilest villain in American History. As the book covered the period from the beginning of Reconstruction through the Gilded Age’s conclusion, the choice surprised me. I’d expected a monopolist, a Klansman or even John Wilkes Booth to claim that title. The impact of the malign monster in question impeded our nation’s progress towards a more perfect union and set it back for generations; destroying the “free labor” dream of the post-Civil War generation in the process. And what is the identity of this individual who belongs among the ranks of Judas, Crassus and Brutus in the Ninth Circle of Hell? Stephen J. Field. Now who reading this can honestly say they guessed that?

The volumes comprising the Oxford History of the United States tend to be rather compendious. In this one, Dr. White pushed the envelope. He chose to present an overview of the period from the end of the Civil War through the election of 1896. Many historians have approached Reconstruction and the Gilded Age as two distinct periods in American history. In this sense, Dr. White isn’t the typical historian. He explained it appropriate to group the two together. The latter era served as a logical resolution of the first.

Reconstruction witnessed the beginnings of the “free labor” system in the United States. During the years that bridged the time period, the nation transitioned from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Small producers gave way to monopolies. Labor’s role in this transition became unsettled. Strikes and violence ensued. And here enters the Snidley Whiplash of American history.

Stephen J. Field served as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court. Ironically, the most revered figure of the era, Abraham Lincoln, appointed him. The legal concept of substantive due process served as his major contribution to the annals of American juris prudence. His views inspired other judges to adopt his original application of the due process clause enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment. While not well defined in the book, in essence, substantive due process allows judges to prohibit the government from infringing on rights not mentioned in the Constitution. Gilded Age judges did so in detrimental ways. As the author summarized:

The judicial imposition of liberal free labor and contract freedom in regard to workers and their unions had a large and surprising caveat. The courts continued to appeal to common law doctrines of “masters” and “servants,” which flew in the face of freedom of contract. The contradictions gave judges even greater leeway to pick and choose among doctrines so that workers and their unions often faced “tails I win, heads you lose” situations. On the one hand, the courts granted workers property in their labor, but on the other, they also granted employers a property interest in their employees’ labor. Actions by workers that deprived employers of this labor illegally stripped them of property. The courts assumed that companies were entitled to their “servants” loyalty and obedience; actions by workers that threatened this entitlement could be ruled illegal. The courts sanctioned the employers’ right to petition the courts and unleash state violence against workers’ organizing efforts. (Page 819)

Dr. White added:

The Sherman Antitrust Act became virtually a dead letter against corporations for much of the 1890s, but unions, which were not the original concern of the legislation, became its targets. The courts would empty laws of content and fill them with new meaning. Of the thirteen decisions invoking antitrust law between 1890 and 1897, twelve involved labor unions. (Page 819)

That’s a disturbing ending to an historical epoch that began with the eradication of slavery and the advent of a “free labor” system. While troubling, the professor proved his thesis very well.

The Republic contained A LOT of detail regarding this thirty year period. It covered political events, social history and the increasing conflict between industrialists and labor. That’s a broad array of topics for a single book. At times the abundance of information became overwhelming. Still, it made for a good general overview of the era.

In 1879, reformer Lyman Abbott observed,

“Politically America is a democracy; industrially, America is an aristocracy.” The worker might make political laws, but “he is under industrial laws. At the ballot box he is a king; in the factory he is a servant, sometimes a slave.” (Page 674)

Substantive due process ignited the process through which this enigma occurred.

White, Richard. The Republic for Which It Stands. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Print.

 

Book Review – The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Without doubt Mr. Ishiguro crafted the most creative work of literature I’ve ever read. The latest Nobel Laureate in Literature fused a fantastic story, superb plot twists along with elements of the Arthurian legend into a memorable tale regarding the power of memory. Ironically, it focused on the lack of ability to remember.

The Buried Giant contained an outstanding setting. The story took place in a medieval society just after the reign of King Arthur. A mysterious mist spread over the land causing denizens to lose their memories. With this backdrop, the author chose to make his novel a quest story. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, two married Britons, Axl and Beatrice, endured a strong marriage. The former, in fact, always addressed his wife as ‘princess.’ While they ostensibly left their village to visit their son, their journey turned into a voyage of discovery. That unearthing included not only the mist’s source, but attributes about themselves. It also made for an entertaining read as the plot developed.

While Axl and Beatrice endeavored on a metaphorical quest, Sir Gawain (of Arthurian legend renown) and Saxon warrior Wistan embarked on a more concrete quest. Both undertook to slay the evil dragon, Quereg. They along with the married couple joined together for a good portion of the journey. I mentioned the author showed extraordinary imagination while writing this, didn’t I?

The novel became philosophical regarding the concept of memory without becoming pedantic. Prior to discovering the mist’s source, Beatrice opined:

Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, or something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget. And as the stranger told Ivor, when God won’t remember, it’s no wonder we’re unable to do so. (Page 83)

The monk Father Jonus revealed the source of the mist to Beatrice. (So as not to reveal spoilers, I shall neglect to mention it.) The following dialog ensued.

“Mistress, you seem happy to know the truth about this thing you call the mist.”

“Happy indeed, father, for now there’s a way forward for us.”

“Take care, for it’s a secret jealously guarded by some, though maybe it’s best it remains so no longer.”

“It’s not for me to care if it’s a secret or not, father, but I’m glad Axl and I know it and can act on it.”

“Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?” (Page 171)

Mr. Ishiguro used voice very well in this story. All the characters spoke in ways consistent with their personalities. Sir Gawain addressed others as a noble knight of the Round Table would talk. Even the Saxon, Wistan, also expressed his thoughts like a distinguished warrior. I liked his statement, “You’ve more to fear from your silence than my anger. Speak.” (Page 262)

At times, The Buried Giant read like a work of poetry. The author’s liberal inclusion of alliteration added to this effect. Some examples included:

“pleasant place to pass” (Page 15)

“pollute this precious place” (Page 40)

“soon see his head as smooth” (Page 42)

“tall fence of tethered timber” (Page 51)

“Ivor took a step back and smiled self-consciously.” (Page 77)

“warrior’s way of walking” (Page 104)

“beating back brambles and bushes” (Page 121)

“witness the ways of warriors” (Page 132)

“heads of hideous hags” (Page 190)

“slaughter a sea of Saxons” (Page 233)

“startling them as they sat silently in their semi-circle” (Page 238)

While not alliterative, I thought the expression “pressing in oppressively right” (page 36) exhibited a clever method of expression.

The author melded all these disparate aspects into the narrative brilliantly. While doing so, he thrilled with some well contemplated plot twists. Through all this he kept the story progressing forward. That showed exceptional skill at fiction writing.

At times I did find the dialog a bit repetitive. It made the reading drag at times. All of the exceptional aspects of this book more than compensated for this slight flaw.

I’m jealous of those with the opportunity to read The Buried Giant for the first time. Maybe that mysterious mist will meander into my home and I’ll have the chance to do so again.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Buried Giant. New York: Vintage International, 2015. EBook.

 

Book Review – New Jersey and the Great War by Richard J. Connors

Connors, Richard J. New Jersey and the Great War: 1914-1919. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing Co., 2017, Print.

No one questions The Great War’s monumental impact on the world at large. How it affected areas outside the battle zones sometimes gets lost in analyses of the conflict.  Historian Richard J. Connors made a great stride towards rectifying this gap. In New Jersey and the Great War, he showed how the First World War both shaped and became shaped by the Garden State’s contributions. Both an enlightening and engaging read resulted.

The author explained how the expression above the state capital’s railroad bridge, “Trenton makes, the world takes”, applied to the entire state beginning in 1914. (Page 6) New Jersey served as a source of munitions, shipbuilding and aircraft. “Just as the Du Ponts had come to dominate explosives, John D. Rockefeller dominated oil.” (Page 23)

To my surprise, the city of Hoboken played a much unheralded role in the war. (Pages 37 -39) During America’s neutrality it served as a major location for many of the industries that contributed to the Allied war effort. Following the nation’s entry into the conflict its availability as a major port made it a primary center of embarkation for Europe by American “doughboys.”

While all readers know the dangers of combat, Dr. Connors described how civilians faced comparable risks working in war related industries.

In all its phases, munitions was a dangerous business. Manufacturing powder, loading shells, transporting these to the waterfront, placing munitions onto barges for transfer to ocean going vessels: every step was at high risk…Fires, explosions and related disasters became part of the New Jersey story during the Great War. It was not in a corporation’s interest to publicize these, but news of major tragedies did reach the press. Examples from 1914-17 include and explosion at Du Pont’s Carney’s Point plant in January 1916; disaster at Jersey City’s Black Tom complex in July 1916; the destruction of the Canadian Car and Foundry plant in Lyndhurst in January 1917; a major explosion at Du Pont’s Haskell works that same month. (Page 28)

The Du Pont Haskell facility was a particularly treacherous place to work. The plant experienced twenty-five explosions in 1916. (Page 30) Another tragedy occurred when the T. A. Gillespie facility located in the Morgan section of Sayerville exploded in 1918. Historians estimate that it cost one hundred workers their lives. (Page 35)

Dr. Connors balanced his depictions of weaponry and war materiel with the state’s contributions to preserving life.

During the war years, New Jersey did make significant contributions to the survival of military casualties. One was in the field of quality surgical instruments, a Newark specialty. Another was anesthetic ether, where E. R. Squibb of New Brunswick had been active since the late nineteenth century. Arguably the most important was the work of the Johnson brothers, who headed another New Brunswick firm. Johnson and Johnson (J & J) was a nineteenth century pioneer in sterile surgical dressings, absorbent cotton, and bandages. During the Great War the Allies obtained the bulk of these necessities from the firm. (Page 26)

Of interest to both military and local history buffs, the book contained brief but informative histories of both the 29th and 78th infantry divisions. These units included soldiers from New Jersey. As a South Jersey native, I enjoyed reading about the origins of the latter’s home: a facility built during 1917. At the time known as Camp Dix, the facility still operates today.

Dr. Connors concluded his history by discussing Garden Staters who distinguished themselves in combat far above the call of duty. The first appendix detailed service members who received the Medal of Honor for their valor. The next included biographical paragraphs regarding airmen who received the “ace” designation. (James Pearson, the man believed to have been the last surviving American ace of the war, passed away at the age of 97 in Upper Montclair on January 6, 1993.) New Jersey native and World War I casualty Joyce Kilmer’s “Rouge Boquet” rounded out the final one.

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture Dr. Connors presented concerning this subject. His colorful wit and erudition inspired me. At the conclusion of his remarks, I wanted to learn more about New Jersey and the Great War. I found his book of the same title an extraordinary resource to do so.

 

Lecture Review – Richard J. Connors, Ph.D.: New Jersey and the Great War

Richard J. Connors opened his remarks with perhaps the most unusual preface to a talk regarding warfare: he spoke about love. The man whose death ignited the Great War, Archduke Ferdinand, married for love. The professor then informed his audience that he “falls in love easily” when he addressed the Historical Society of Moorestown. The erudite gentleman explained that he’d fallen in love with the host town upon visiting. Those interested in history certainly loved his talk this October 5th at the Community House.

Dr. Connors holds the title of Professor Emeritus as Seton Hall University. A catalog of his notable works includes: A Cycle of Power: The Local Political Career of Mayor Frank Hague, The New Jersey Constitution of 1776 and New Jersey and the Great War; the latter serving as the basis for his lecture. In addition to writing about military affairs, the professor possesses personal knowledge of the subject. He served as an officer in the Army Corp of Engineers with the Army of Occupation in Okinawa in 1947. From 1951 – 1952 he served in the Korean War.

The professor commenced his talk by describing the European conception of warfare at the advent of the Great War. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, “royal affairs” between rival kingdoms comprised armed conflicts. The Napoleonic Era spawned a transition to “quick and dirty affairs” between nation states. This led planners to anticipate a brief First World War. This miscalculation gave rise to “total warfare.” Conscription allowed for an “army of millions” to take the field against an opponent of equal size. In the end, the conflict led to 30 million soldier and civilian casualties.

Many technological innovations occurred during the 99 years following Napoleon’s defeat until the first shots of the Great War. Tanks, aircraft, flamethrowers, barbed wire, heavy artillery, poison gas and machine guns entered the battlefield for the first time. Many historians cite these developments as reason for the massive loss of life during the war. Dr. Connors added an incisive corollary to that analysis: these weapons “gave a lot of emphasis to the defense.” This would explain why the British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Dr. Connors enlightened the audience regarding the role the Garden State played in the war. He used the old real estate aphorism “location, location, location” to explain its significance. New Jersey housed several munitions plants; an industry which experienced a boom (no pun intended) once the war commenced. The state’s refineries also provided a source of fuel for the Allies. Cites, such as Camden, became centers of ship building.

To local history buffs’ delight, Dr. Connors also discussed the 78th and 29th Infantry Divisions. Both units included soldiers from New Jersey. Camp Dix served as the training ground of the former and Camp McClellan for the latter. The professor noted the interesting fact that although located in Alabama, a former Garden State governor and Union general provided that base’s name.

When contemplating wartime casualties, one traditionally thinks of injuries sustained in combat. Dr. Connors reported that flu and pneumonia proved more deadly than the battlefield. According to a study conducted in the early 1930s: Americans suffered 52,000 casualties in battle. The twin scourges of Flu and pneumonia combined for 63,000.

America’s declaration of war on April 2, 1917 led to an eruption of patriotism “overnight.” That seemed an odd, as when asked why the US entered the conflict the professor replied, “Damned if I know.” He went on to hypothesize that the nation did so for the following reasons: 1) while initially ‘neutral’, American financiers such as JP Morgan bankrolled the Allies from 1914 – 1917. These economic ties ensured entering the conflict against the Central Powers. 2) Unrestricted German submarine warfare negatively impacted American business interests. 3) The Zimmerman Note, in which Germany offered to assist Mexico in retaking the American Southwest, became widely reported. Dr. Connors added that both the British and Germans propaganda machines operated stateside during the war. The British possessed more skill in this field due the shared language.

Josef Stalin observed: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the deaths of millions is a statistic.” Many historians neglect the human cost of the tragedies they explicate. Dr. Connors avoided this error. He humanized the Great War’s cost by quoting a poem written by New Jersey native Joyce Kilmer: himself a casualty of the conflict.

A discussion that began with the subject of love concluded with its antithesis. At the cessation of hostilities “a demand for peace turned to a demand for revenge.” It became the catalyst for an “age of bigger government.” As Dr. Connors wrote in New Jersey and the Great War: “Subtly and sadly, then, the Great War trained us for World War II.”

Kiss Me Kate at Haddonfield Plays and Players

On the surface, the opening number “Another Opn’in, Another Show” would work as an appropriate introduction to a musical. At the opening night performance of Haddonfield Plays and Players’ Kiss Me Kate, it didn’t fit. As the show progressed, I couldn’t describe it as just “another” opening night at “another” show. I found this October 6th performance absolutely spectacular.

This Chris McGinnis directed and choreographed musical featured a “play within a play” format. That seemed a fitting approach for a piece that referenced Shakespeare. This Cole Porter classic told the story of a theatre company’s travails in staging the Bard’s The Taming of The Shrew. The events on the stage bore an uncanny resemblance to the lives of the 1940s actors in the play. Comedic hijinks coupled with superb singing and dancing resulted.

Arielle Egan took on the dual roles of Katherine and the actress who played her, Lilli Vanessi. I enjoyed the clever approach this thespian utilized to transform the latter into the former. One also has to acknowledge her skill in bringing out the humorous aspects of a bad temper. She animated the concept that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” with great wit. While she treated the audience to extraordinary acting, Ms. Egan impressed even more with her vocal capabilities.

This performer manages her voice as though it’s a distinct musical instrument. Ms. Egan executed outstanding trills and vibrato while singing the comedic “I Hate Men.” Her character very well may have, but this reviewer sure loved her singing. It proved a challenging song to perform. The track contained rests and accents in unusual places. She impressed by performing the song flawlessly while emphasizing the funnier aspects of the words.

Anthony Vitalo’s stellar vocal prowess also captivated the audience. In addition to a voice that broadcasts well, his style reminds one of Greg Lake’s; only with an American accent. I felt like a “lucky man” given the opportunity to hear his renditions of “Where Thine Thy Special Face” and the witty ode to ribaldry “Where is the Life that Late I Led.” It’s an achievement to speak those titles without tripping over the alliteration. Mr. Vitalo sang with confidence and achieved terrific interpretations.

Mr. Vitalo also exhibited proficiency for facial expressions. Whether his character connived, wooed or angered, he displayed the best mannerisms to express the emotions. From my seat at stage right, I had a clear view of him during Ms. Egan’s superb solo performance on “So in Love.” His somber pining for his lost love gave the song much more impact. That’s a remarkable achievement for a performer sitting silently on stage during the number.

The cast gave Musical Director Justin Adams a lot of talent with which to work. One of the evening’s highlights took place when Mr. Vitalo and Ms. Egan joined together for the “Wunderbar” tune. The song’s title proved an adept description of its delivery from both performers.

Colleen Murphy (as Lois Lane/Bianca) added her remarkable vocals to the show. Many of the lyrics she sang contained dual meanings and she varied her tone to express these changes. Ms. Murphy delivered a striking rendition of the archly titled “Always True to You in My Own Way.” I also enjoyed her duet with Dennis Summerville (Bill Calhoun/Lucentio) on “Why Can’t You Behave?”

Perhaps, serving as an inspiration to Sister Act, Kiss Me Kate utilized gangsters as a source of comedy. Curt Shoyer and Steve Ciapanna provided that comedy through their accents, dialog and costumes. They added singing and dancing to their repertoire with the hilarious “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” number.

Act II opened with the show’s most memorable moment. Kahil A. Wyatt (as Paul) led the company through an intricate song and dance number entitled “It’s Too Darn Hot.” One has to credit Chris McGinnis for coordinating the elaborate choreography. The cast deserve recognition for the flawless performance of such a multifarious routine.

Kiss Me Kate featured a rotating set to accommodate the musical’s 16 different scenes. It transported the audience from Ford’s Theatre in Baltimore to Elizabethan England. Rennee McCleery’s costuming enhanced this effect.

Jordan Gulick, Faith McCleery, Tony Yates, Charles L. Bandler, Alex Chupik, Brian Gensel, Felicia Capece, Nicole Lukaitis, Jennie Pines, Gia Lukatis and Krista Reinhardt added their talents to an outstanding cast.

To borrow from Shakespeare, “all’s well that ends well.” Sadly, the show will end on October 21. Following that, audiences can kiss Kiss Me Kate goodbye at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Seussical at Burlington County Footlighters

What better way to spend an evening having fun

Than seeing a musical inspired by the power of imagination?

I found this one more amusing than Mother Goose.

Oh, the thinks you can think when it comes to Seuss.

 

Okay, no one will ever confuse my writing with Mr. Geisel’s. Lest his fans become too distraught by my weak imitation, the Footlighters cast and crew proved much more adept at carrying on his legacy. I attended the premiere of Seussical on September 15, 2017.

 

When I opened the program I was delighted to see

It was directed by theatrical guru Dennis Doherty.

I watched the show before going to bed,

Now these rhyming couplets are stuck in my head!

 

Ugh! Well, I don’t often attend performances that inspire me to imitate the characters’ speech patterns. That shows the quality of this production.

Patrick O’Malley turned in an animated performance as that troublemaking tabby, The Cat in the Hat. The fast paced strutting about the stage with either his hands on his hips or clasping the inside of his jacket deftly mimicked character’s mannerisms.

Of course, the role required a flair for comedy. Mr. O’Malley captured the character’s arch nature. While approaching the sleeping JoJo he placed his finger to his lips to shush the audience. He mimed a sleeping position to show the child slumbered. Then he bellowed, “WAKE UP!”

This demanding part included several complex song and dance numbers. He dazzled with the ironically titled “How Lucky You Are.” The deft way he utilized the cane enhanced the routine. He also did a superb job teaming up with the Hunches on “Havin’ a Hunch.”

Seussical featured the best dance routines I’ve observed. Choreographer Liz Baldwin did phenomenal work coordinating them. Since many of them included several performers, it made the numbers much more intricate. The company impressed me by staying in synch and executing these complex dances so well.

Tre DeLuca shone in an impressive performance as JoJo. He transformed his character from a naïve boy into a mature young man throughout the evening. He served as a great foil to the autocratic General Gengus Khan Schmitz (Suzie Ramsdell) and displayed great chemistry with Mr. O’Malley. I liked his enactment of perplexity when Mr. and Mrs. Mayor (Michael Sheldon and Jenny Scudder) chastised him for “thinking” too much.

Mr. DeLuca delivered memorable singing. He performed a somber rendition on the reprise of “Alone in the Universe.” Duets made up all his other numbers. His high vocals complimented the other ranges. He rounded out the harmonies very well.

Brian Padla turned in a moving performance as the sensitive elephant, Horton. During the first part of the show, he “heard a Who” on a speck of dust. He placed it on top of a clover. While the residents of Whoville performed at the other side of the stage, he listened. His facial expressions captured the feelings of someone enraptured by what he heard.

His non-verbal skills accentuated Mr. Padla’s vocal capabilities. He best combined those strengths on “Here on Who” accompanied by the residents of Whoville.

Under the musical direction of Peg Smith, Seussical featured many stellar vocal performances. Jill Bradshaw sang movingly in her renditions of “The One Feather Tail of Miss Gertrude McFuzz” and “Notice Me, Horton.” Alex Davis belted out “Amayzing Mayzie” and “Mayzie in Palm Beach” like a seasoned cabaret singer. Kendra Hecker delivered awesome vocals on the soulful sections of “Biggest Blame Fool” and “The People Versus Horton the Elephant.”

I’ve written before about how Burlington County Footlighters likes to bring the audience into their shows. When Brian Bacon and Mark Urmson joined together for the catchy “Monkey Around” they danced down the aisles with Horton in pursuit.

Playwrights Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens didn’t spare any performer dialog laden with rhyming couplets. In their roles as the Mayor and Mrs. Mayor, Michael Sheldon and Jenny Scudder had the most difficult. In the scene where they confronted JoJo about his “thinking”, they alternated rhyming couplets. I credit them for not allowing the word patterns to distract them. They also crooned a moving rendition of “Solla Sollew” along with Mr. Padla and Mr. DeLuca.

I enjoyed JP Helk’s baritone rendition of the Grinch’s voice. I enjoyed it even more when he used it to deliver his jaded rendition of the Grinch’s Christmas story to the Whos.

As always, Jim Frazer did an exceptional job with the set design. Mr. Frazer’s talents make the “willing suspension of disbelief” very easy for audience members. This time he transformed the Footlighters stage into the surreal world of Seuss; ranging from the Jungle of Noor to Whoville to the Circus McGurkus.

Amanda Codgell’s costuming enriched the show. The attire conveyed the characters’ personalities while staying true to Dr. Seuss. At the same time, it didn’t overshadow the performers wearing it. Ms. Codgell did some very inspired work with red bows, such as The Cat in the Hat’s tie and the dual bows on Mazie’s stockings. Mazie’s and Gertrude’s feathers enhanced those characters’ appearance. The Cat’s iconic hat was spot on.

I’d also credit performers Liz Baldwin, Julia Fraupel, Alyssa LaPierre, Suzie Ramsdell, Gabriella Kelsey, Michaelina Petti, Tristan Codgell, Max Hann, Morgan Hann and Harrison Scudder for their contributions to the production.

It didn’t surprise that a show based on imagination would bring together so many creative people. Seussical transported the power of “the thinks you can think” to the stage. The Footlighters cast and crew made it a reality. They put on one “amayzing” show.

Just because you’re a Seuss fan doesn’t make you nerdy,

Go see Seussical at Footlighters before it ends September 30.