The Tyrant

Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Theatre fans get ready for one “Weil”d December. This month legendary South Jersey community theatre director Matt Weil is directing not one, but TWO shows for the Holiday Season. Talk about a gift for audiences. This reviewer attended the first, Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, at Haddonfield Plays and Players on December 7th.

Several weeks ago Director Weil spoke with your correspondent. When asked if he directs Holiday shows any differently than he approaches others, Mr. Weil replied, “No. The purpose is to tell a story.” And what a story he and the cast at Haddonfield Plays and Players told.

Willy Wonka (played by Tommy Balne) faced a dilemma. He longed to retire from the chocolate business. His lack of either an heir or a successor forced him to continue working.

Young Charlie Bucket (played by Matthew Goodrich) also experienced troubles. His family lacked money. His father’s (Michael Wemer) job at the toothpaste factory provided the household’s only source of income. This extended family consisted of Mrs. Bucket (Marissa Wolf) and both sets of Charlie’s grandparents. Then the toothpaste factory closed.

In the wake of this, Willy Wonka announced a contest. The winners would receive tours of his factory as well as a lifetime supply of chocolate. The contestants needed to find one of five golden tickets placed in packets of Wonka Bars. In spite of his poverty, Charlie found the means to purchase one bar. It contained a winning ticket.

The show opened with Tommy Balne delivering a beautiful version of “Pure Imagination.” That theme continued throughout the evening. Director Matt Weil deserves immense credit for the ingenuity he applied to this project. He took a piece with the spectacular visuals audiences remember from the 1971 film and made it just as memorable on the stage. Mr. Weil also executed this task with minimal scenery. The set itself (also designed by Mr. Weil) consisted of a checkerboard floor and a series of bay openings with flashing lights.

Without the accoutrements of a fantastic confection producing paradise, the suspension of the audience’s disbelief became an immediate challenge for the cast. The performers showed superlative acting ability to create the illusion. The actors’ expressions and reactions reflected the grandeur and wonder of the chocolate factory. The performers also showed fear and rocked to simulate the motion of the boat as Willy led them down the river into the unknown.

Willy Wonka did not lack for special effects, however. Violet Beauregarde (played by Sophie Holliday) turned into a blueberry. The crew executed this task by inflating her costume and through a creative use of lighting. When Charlie and Grandpa Joe (Tony Killian) floated towards the ceiling, Mr. Weil and his team used an innovative means of presenting this scene on the stage. The bubbles added a nice touch.

In the playbill, Mr. Weil described his initial reluctance over directing Willy Wonka:

Frivolous, saccharine, and lacking in in any major substance, Willy Wonka represented everything I was taught to avoid as an artist – or so I thought.                 

The show did contain similarities to Mr. Weil’s other work. For one, the story contained characters just as gluttonous and socially maladjusted as those in The Heiress and The Pillowman.

The kids who found the golden tickets were not ideal children. Veruca Salt (Cassidy Scherz) was even more spoiled than a Siamese kit kat. Her father (Cory Laslocky) enabled her by believing every day was payday and he could buy anything his little girl wanted.  Augustus Gloop (Dominick T. McNew, Jr.) ate to the extent that he made those suffering from hyperphagia seem like vegan dieters. It took three cooks to prepare his feasts. His ebullient mother (Faith McCleery) encouraged him in his gastronomical pursuits. Mike Teavee’s (Jake Gilman) appetite for television eclipsed Gloop’s hunger for food. His mother (Victoria Tatulli) kept him out of school so he could focus on his interest in television. This group made Violet Beauregarde the most normal member of the bunch. She had an addiction to chewing gum. Her Southern belle mom (Lori Alexio Howard) allowed her to do so as often as she liked.

Phineous Trout (Alex Leavitt) played the reporter tasked with interviewing these lucky “winners.” Mr. Leavitt’s caricaturish grin, initial enthusiasm and later astonishment with these characters drew snickers from the audience.

The Oompa-Loompas provided commentary on the children’s behavior. Performers Abigail Brown, Lorelei Ohnishi, Nathan Laslocky, Logan Murphy, Sera Scherz and Gabriel Werner played the roles of Willy Wonka’s factory workers. They performed fantastic renditions of the “Oompa-Loompa” songs while executing Katharina Muniz’s choreography. Costumer Renee McCleery and Assistant to the Costumer Jenn Doyle designed authentic looking garb for these iconic characters.

Tommy Balne turned in one of the best performances your reviewer has seen on this side of the Milky Way. Mr. Balne possesses a phenomenal ability to talk with his eyes. His communicative facial expressions were so proficient that your correspondent would’ve been just as entertained watching him all evening.

The role required some physical adeptness. Mr. Balne also executed these challenges without flaw. One of the demands included the ability to twirl a cane. Mr. Balne didn’t have butterfingers. He utilized the prop brilliantly all evening.

In addition to his expressive mannerisms, Mr. Balne proved himself a stellar triple threat. Besides the lead role, he also played the character of The Candy Man. As with his rendition of “Put on A Happy Face” in Bye Bye Birdie, Mr. Balne took a theatrical standard and infused it with his own personality. Besides his awesome vocal stylings, he completed an outstanding dance routine with Tess Smith, Michael Thompson, Leah Cedar and Quinn Wood while delivering the popular tune: “The Candy Man.”

The scene reminded this reviewer of a drum battle between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Another famous “Candy Man” crooner hosted it on The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show. Mr. Rich joked to Mr. Davis, Jr. that the winner should receive one of Mr. Davis, Jr.’s shoes. After his performance in Willy Wonka, one of Mr. Balne’s shoes would’ve been a better prize than the tour of factory or a lifetime supply of chocolate.

Matthew Goodrich also performed outstanding song and dance routines. His execution of the “Think Positive” sequence made for one of the show’s most memorable moments. Mr. Goodrich completed some intricate twirls that added superb showmanship to the scene.

Performers Marge Triplo and Lori Clark also added their talents to this extensive cast.

Other members of the Production Team included: Assistant Director Melissa Harnois, Producer Megan Knowlton Balne, Vocal Director Kendra C. Heckler, Stage Manager Sara Viniar, Assistant Stage Manager Brennan Diorio, Set Construction Dan Boris, Lighting Designer Jen Donsky and Props Designer Debbie Mitchell.

South Jersey community theatre aficionados will feel glad Mr. Weil decided to add Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka to his repertoire. He wrote:

Today, my assumption is that you may be sitting there feeling very much the same way I felt one year ago. My hope is that our show will tickle and delight you, that you may take a similar journey as my own, and that you will find Willy Wonka simple, sweet and satisfying – like a bite of chocolate.

The “Weil”d December continues at the Ritz Theatre Company. The director’s next Holiday project is Scrooge: The Musical. That show runs from December 12th through December 22nd.

Audiences don’t need to win a golden ticket at one in ten million odds to see Willy Wonka. It runs through December 21st. After that, the chocolate factory closes forever at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Legally Blonde: The Musical at Bridge Players Theatre

Bridge Players Theatre debunked the myth that blondes have more fun. They showed that it’s the audience that has the most fun during their run of Legally Blonde: The Musical. Your correspondent attended the Saturday, September 28th show in Burlington, NJ. The site of West Jersey’s former capital hosted one capital performance.

The 2001 novel and film Legally Blonde inspired this musical of the same name. With music and lyrics by Lawrence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hatch, it told the story of Elle Woods (played by Alix Vitarelli), a woman perceived as a stereotypical blonde. Her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (played by Mike Gibbins), ended their relationship because he didn’t think her a “serious” person. To win his love, she decided to follow him to Harvard Law School.

While there she discovered that Warner had become engaged to Vivienne Kensington (Caitlin Reed). This development along with the academic demands of the pretentious Professor Callahan (Brian S. Rothman) led her to re-consider her decision to pursue her lost love to law school. Her friendships with beautician Paulette Buonofuonte (Dyani Myles) and recent Harvard Law graduate Emmett Forrest (Antonino Baldassari) caused her to think she may have found her true calling.

The word energy would best describe this production. Jessi Meisel served the dual roles of both Director and Choreographer. The energy Ms. Meisel needed to fill these roles was infectious. It carried over into the cast.

The beginning of Act I would’ve been just as effective as a routine for an exercise program. It opened with the dynamic song and dance number “Omigod You Guys.” It featured over ten cast members performing intricate dance routines together on stage.

The opening to Act II may have been even more demanding. In the role of fitness queen Brooke Wyndham, performer Gina Petti led a group of performers through the musical rendition of an actual exercise workout. I’ve never seen a theatrical scene this difficult to perform. (In fact I’m shaking my head in disbelief as I’m writing this.) The ensemble danced and sang while jumping rope. Let me repeat that. They danced and sang while jumping rope. They even executed a 360 degree turn while doing the latter.

Ms. Petti deserves immense praise for the proficiency she brought to the “Whipped into Shape” sequence. As someone who has choreographed shows in the past, she may have needed all the knowledge and skills she’s acquired from those experiences just to perform this arduous number. Ms. Petti also contributed outstanding lead vocals to the song; a tune that didn’t have the easiest melody to sing. I’m not sure how she managed to so while jumping rope and dancing around the stage for several minutes.

And there was more high impact dancing.

The ensemble performed an astonishing tap number on “What Do You Want.” Alix Vitarelli led a large ensemble through some brilliantly choreographed maneuvers. Credit goes to the entire team for remaining in-synch during the performance.

On the evening I attended, the weather added an additional complication. Even though autumn began a few days before, the atmosphere had the feel of a balmy July night. The temperature hovered in the low 80s. The dew point approached the mid-70s. The theater itself didn’t have air conditioning.

And this was just the weather outside and in the theatre. The performers had hot spotlights beaming down on them all evening.

Not the ideal conditions to perform intensive dance routines.

I’d recommend the performers’ friends and family to skip the tradition of bringing them flowers following the show. Oxygen and electrolytes would be more practical.

Legally Blonde contained some outstanding vocal numbers. I especially enjoyed Dyani Myles’ pining ode to the Emerald Isle: “Ireland.” Caitlin Reed nailed some stratospheric pitches on “Find My Way.”

Alix Vitarelli turned in a phenomenal performance as Elle Woods. Ms. Vitarelli proved herself a triple threat of the highest order all evening.

Ms. Vitarelli channeled the character’s personality through her interpretation of the role. She selected a perfect walk for Elle. She ambled while keeping her back straight and her palms parallel to the floor. The performer silently expressed Elle’s inner thoughts through the facial expressions she displayed. Ms. Vitarelli’s timing captured the bubbly essence, the latent comedy and the disillusion in Elle’s dialog.

Ms. Vitarelli sang an emotional rendition of the show’s title track. She also joined with cast members for some wonderful duets. They included the sorority anthem “Delta Nu Nu” with Ms. Petti and the motivational “Chip on My Shoulder” with Antonino Baldassari; the latter accompanied by the Delta Nus (Amanda Adams, Cynthia Reynolds and Amanda Hoffman).

Any fan of Antonino Baldassari’s must see Legally Blonde. I’ve watched Mr. Baldassari play hysterical characters in musicals (Aldolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone) as well as serious ones (Edward Bloom in Big Fish). The role of Emmett Forrest allowed him the opportunity to showcase his skill at playing both these character types.

Mr. Baldassari displayed his usual aptitude for comedy during Emmet’s makeover. For a funny guy, Mr. Baldassari possesses some serious skill for singing. He best captured the character’s serious side through his duets with Ms. Vitarelli. Their performances on “Chip on My Shoulder” and “Legally Blonde” were both outstanding.

Legally Blonde also gave theatre fans to watch South Jersey community theatre’s preeminent power couples perform on stage together. For those who are unaware, Antonino Baldassari and Gina Petti are married in real life.

I’d also credit performer Cynthia Reynolds. I’ve watched her perform a terrific lead in Carrie: The Musical and as an ensemble member in Spring Awakening. Both shows contained very dark subject matter. Ms. Reynolds showed that she’s just as adept at playing a giddy, upbeat character (Serena) in a lighthearted show.

A physics student, Ms. Reynolds applied her mastery of the science during the dance routines. Circumventing the limitations of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, she calculated the speed and location of her high kicks so they didn’t contact any performers.

I had two criticisms of the show.

The performance began ten minutes late. Even after the curtain went up I still saw audience members walking down the aisles to take their seats. Folks, if you can’t be on time be early.

During one crucial scene in the show, performer Alix Vitarelli came out on stage dressed as the Easter Bunny. In keeping with that theme, it would have been nice if the theatre gave out candy to everyone. I’m just sayin’.

The cast also included the following human performers: Caroline Piotrowski, Kori Rife, Ashley Carragher, William H. Young, Allyssa Winkelspecht, Ryan Mulligan, Gregory Drey, Jimmy Hoffman, Erin Gupta, and Yvette Burroughs-Myles.

The following canine performers added their histrionic skills to the production: Allie Rothman and Pudge Hoffman.

The production team included: Assistant Director Ethan Rundell, Musical Director Diana Dohrmann, Producer Marissa DiPilla, Stage Manager Tim Kirk, ASM Lyz Lydon, Technical Director/Audio Engineer/ Set Construction Manager Jeff Rife and Lighting Design/ Lighting Technician Bob Beaucheane.

The verdict on Legally Blonde: Bridge Players Theatre treated audiences to one high-energy, funny and entertaining performance. The statute of limitations to see it ends on October 5th. Regrettably, it won’t receive a stay of execution. Don’t let the people who’ve already watched the show have all the fun. Endorphins aren’t the only thing that can make a theatre fan happy. Find your way to Bridge Players Theatre before October 5th.

 

Red Wrench at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage

Playwright Tesia Nicoli received a unique birthday present from Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. The company chose to present the opening night performance of this gifted playwright’s work on her actual birthday. Ms. Nicoli attended this show in-person. The audience felt like they’d received a present following this powerful performance of Red Wrench on April 5th.

This evening also featured a first for Burlington County Footlighters’s 2nd Stage. It marked the first time the group produced the work of a new playwright. They selected Ms. Nicoli’s Red Wrench for this inaugural endeavor.

Director Carla Ezell continued the tradition of bringing intense drama to the 2nd Stage. The playbill included the following tag line: Following a tragic car accident, a family struggles with their darkest secrets as their father’s life hangs in the balance. Ms. Nicoli’s website provided this summation: Once we know someone’s shocking secrets, can we still love them? The emotional turbulence in Red Wrench rivaled other works performed there.

Red Wrench told the story of a family drama. Harris family patriarch, Bill, (played by Lou DiPilla III) lay dying in the hospital following a car accident. Or was it? Speculation abounded that he intentionally collided with a tree. His son (Jonathan Edmonson), and daughters Casey (Lauren DiPilla) and Sofie (Kori Rife) gathered in the hospital waiting room. As they discussed their lives, past scandals, and family secrets bitterness came to the fore.

The resulting conflict made it seem the Harris family’s members contained more baggage than a Samsonite warehouse. The playwright offset this nicely by including unexpected sources of redemption in the forms of the eccentric stepmother Shannon Harris (Kathy Harmer) and people arriving in the visiting room from outside the Harris family: Daisy (Shay Fuller), Rosie (Stevie Neale) and Mikyla (Angel Ezell).

Ms. Nicoli provided an excellent setting for the actors to exhibit their craft. The hospital waiting room put characters that harbored deep grudges against each other in close proximity. They interrupted and spoke over one another. The behavior showed their latent animosities and lack of respect.

Lou DiPilla III delivered an impassioned performance as Bill Harris. He played an intense scene performing opposite the character’s son, Andy (Jonathan Edmonson). A discussion about Andy taking over the family business segued in Mr. Edmonson’s interjection of a family secret. The conversation became unsettling. Both performers captured the tension inherent in the moment.

Mr. DiPilla also played opposite his real life daughter, Lauren DiPilla. This dynamic carried over into the performance. Their most powerful scene together came as his character lay on his death bed. He revealed his guilt over a past action. The actors displayed the anxiety and the underlying hope in Ms. Nicoli’s dialog.

Jonathan Edmonson and Angel Ezell showed wonderful chemistry during their scenes working with one another. Mr. Edmonson played an unhappy, emotionally adrift adult while Ms. Ezell portrayed a teenage girl who collected unusual facts. This unusual pairing of characters led to one of the show’s pivotal moments. Both performers made for a memorable concretization of Mr. Edmonson’s character’s self-discovery.

Mr. Edmonson, Ms. DiPilla and Kori Rife impressed by playing the feuding siblings. They provided another one of the show’s impressive scenes. The rancor Mr. Edmonson and Ms. Rife exhibited in their performances made their exchange very realistic. Ms. DiPilla’s effort to serve as de facto referee added to the scene’s believability.

Kathy Harmer played the stepmother, Shannon Harris. Her interpretation of the eccentric free-spirit added levity to this intense drama. The playwright used the character to provide a moment of clarity for the Harris siblings later in the show. Ms. Harmer’s performance made the scene impactful.

Performers Shay Fuller, Patrice Cantrell Frazer, Stevie Neale and John Weber rounded out this extraordinary cast.

The incomparable Jim Frazer leant his stellar talents to this production. In addition to the scenic design, Mr. Frazer managed the lighting and sound. His use of the former for The Ether scenes created an unearthly ambiance throughout the theatre.

The opening night performance included a bonus for theatregoers. Following the show the company presented a “talk back” with the playwright, the director and the cast. Those in attendance were treated to insights on the writing of, rehearsal and final production of the show. Footlighters provided wine and cheese, as well. Another “talk back” is scheduled following the closing night performance on Saturday, April 13th.

An emotionally gripping story that at times became uncomfortable to watch, the theme of love ran through Red Wrench. Audiences who like their theatre to contain a lot of conflict moderated by the hope of redemption will love Red Wrench. These theatrical fans should give themselves either an early or belated birthday present by seeing it at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.