Theater Review

Theatre Review – Sister Act at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I’m not in the habit of reviewing musicals like Sister Act. Nevertheless, I had faith that Haddonfield Plays and Players with the aid of director/choreographer Chris McGinnis, musical director Robert Stoop and the rest of the cast and crew would put on a good show. Hallelujah! Now I have to testify that when it comes to musicals: there’s ‘nun’ like it. I rejoiced after watching the February 4, 2017 performance.

Sister Act told the story of aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier. (Paige Smallwood) On Christmas Eve of 1977 she witnessed her gangster boyfriend murder someone. Fearing for her safety, she sought help from the Philadelphia PD. The officer with whom she spoke, a man with the clammy nickname “Sweaty Eddie”, (Terrance Hart) happened to be someone from her past. In fact, he had a crush on her in high school. In order to hide Deloris before the court date, he opted to place her in the one location the thugs would never suspect: a convent. In addition to worrying about the criminals, Deloris now contended with an austere Mother Superior (Tami Gordon Brody) and living a lifestyle antithetical to her usual one. The nuns had a choir, but that didn’t ameliorate the situation. To be as polite as possible: it didn’t perform at Deloris’ musical level. Think Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz without the musicians playing in the same key.

Paige Smallwood delivered a spectacular performance; and it started the moment she took the stage. The “Take Me to Heaven” number fused funk, soul and disco. She, (accompanied by performers Amanda Barrish and Dana Masterman), delivered a high energy rendition that drew me into the show. After getting my attention, she did an outstanding job keeping it. The stellar moments kept coming; culminating with her emotional singing of “Sister Act.” When not taking soul singing to another level, she got laughs through her perfect comedic timing. One also has to credit the great tap number she performed with the ensemble, as well.

Terrance Hart sang one of the most challenging numbers in the show. The melody on “I Could Be that Guy” stretched from bass to alto. (And I thought Motown songs challenged vocal ranges.) But this “Sweaty Eddie” didn’t sweat it. Mr. Hart hit Larry Grahm territory with the lower registers and would’ve impressed Smokey Robinson the way he nailed the higher notes.

Then Mr. Hart took the Motown adage: “the rhythm needs to move your feet and the lyrics need to stir your soul” literally. He and the ensemble accompanied this soulful ballad with a superb dance number. I credit him for not getting distracted by the numerous costume changes while performing.

I’ve watched Tami Gordon Brody display her acting talents in several shows at Haddonfield Plays and Players. In Sister Act I finally had the opportunity to hear her vocal prowess. The Mother Superior character possessed an unemotional disposition. The “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” number served as a catharsis for her inner turmoil. Ms. Gordon Brody channeled the character’s feelings exceptionally well through her delivery.

Both Ms. Gordon Brody and Ms. Smallwood played off each other extraordinarily well. The former served as the passionless character; always speaking and moving in a measured fashion. The latter behaved as a free spirit lacking inhibitions. Their scenes together made for some amusing personality clashes.

I also enjoyed Kelsey Hogan’s performance as Sister Mary Robert. Among this exceptionally talented group of performers, she displayed the best acting ability. In the show’s early phases, she spoke in a soft voice reflecting the character’s timid nature. I could still understand her words, so I credit her for still talking loud enough to hear. During “The Life I Never Led” she belted out a high note that nearly made the building rattle. Ms. Hogan projected the tune with confidence and authority. The delivery concretized the character’s development through the course of the evening.

Billed as a musical comedy, the show contained some humorous numbers, as well. Phyllis Josephson drew laughs by adorning a pair of sunglasses and becoming a rapping nun. I also found the “It’s Good to Be a Nun” track (performed by Karen Henry, Mary Corradino, Lori Clark and the ensemble) quite witty. The bass line made it sound like a country song. It really stood out in a musical comprised of soulful tunes.

The funniest moments of the show occurred when the hoodlums played by Eric Acierto, Michael Melvin, and Carlos Diaz (also the Dance Captain) took the stage. In essence, they applied the Keystone Cops premise to bad guys. These players accompanied Curtis on the “When I Find My Baby” number. Mr. Melvin took the lead on the sultry “Lady in the Long Black Dress” track. Listening to these performers sing and watching them dance more than justified the cost of admission.

I have to give Mr. Melvin credit. About a year-and-a-half ago I heard him sing gospel and soulful style music in Bonnie and Clyde. I already knew he had a talent for Rhythm and Blues. I never would’ve suspected he had such funky dance chops in his repertoire, too.

As the character of Monsignor O’Hara, Charles L. Bandler played the one role in the show that lacked any rhythm whatsoever. He used this to fantastic humorous effect. His high pitched giggling made the character even more comical.

I also credit Taylor Brody, Kristine Bonaventura, Breyona Coleman and Brooke McCarthy for their work in the ensemble. They rounded out the cast very well.

I had two issues with Sister Act. The first entailed a reference to the Smurfs. The action took place between 1977 and 1978. While the Smurfs debuted in Europe during the late 1950s, the popular animated series didn’t premiere in the US until 1981. I thought the reference historically inaccurate.

Also, who was the performer who played Curtis? I found him very funny. His use of a lollypop added great comedic effect for a street tough. His vocals on “When I Find My Baby” brought out a lot of laughs, too.

I didn’t see his head shot on the board. The character of “Curtis” wasn’t listed in either the playbill or on the company’s web site. I wondered if, like the protagonist in the show, he wasn’t hiding out from someone.

Seriously though, the gentleman played a great role. He deserves to be acknowledged.

I had a revelation this weekend. It’s gospel truth that the audience experienced a heavenly evening watching Sister Act. Fortunately for theatregoers, I didn’t attend the ‘soul’ performance. For those who would like the opportunity to see it at Haddonfield Plays and Players, their prayers will be answered. Barring some kind of divine intervention, the show will run through February 18th. Can I get an “Amen” to that?

Theatre Review – The Fox on the Fairway at Burlington County Footlighters

Ken Ludwig crafted the most atypical adaption of a classical work of literature ever performed on the stage. In her giddy and bubbly way, Louise (played by Bailey Shaw) introduced The Fox on the Fairway as essentially a modern rendition of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. The setting took place not along the Aegean Sea, but at the Quail Valley Country Club. In lieu of javelins and arrows, the combatants took the field with irons, drivers and putters. While eschewing traditional combat tactics such as blockades and sieges, the Pericles and Alcibades of the links utilized chicanery and gambling to vanquish their opponent. The result: a farcical spin on golf. I attended Burlington County Footlighters opening night performance of this comic piece on January 20, 2017.

The story contained a lot of conflict for a light comedy. A synopsis of it shares the complexity of Thucydides’ masterpiece. You might want to bring a score card to keep track of this one.

Henry Bingham (played by Dan Brothers) faced a dilemma. Every year his organization, the Quail Valley Country Club, would lose the big tournament to Silly Squirrel; a rival club run by his arch nemesis Dickie Bell (Alan Krier). Knowing he had a star golfer (of dubious membership) who would guarantee victory, Bingham wagered a substantial sum on this annual contest. Since he knew he couldn’t lose he agreed to add his wife’s antique shop to the bet without her knowledge. After making the deal Dickie revealed that the star golfer had quit Quail Valley and just joined his club. Then Quail Valley’s Vice President, Mrs. Peabody (played by Elizabeth Deal), informed Bingham that the board decided to fire him if the club lost the big tournament again.

Fortunately, Bingham discovered that Justin (played by Kevin Pavon), one of his new employees, shot rounds in the mid-sixties. He and Mrs. Peabody connived to make Justin a member of the club and enter him in the tournament. Problems solved, right?

No, there’s more. Justin had recently become engaged to Louise (played by Bailey Shaw). His fast track admission to a prestigious country club combined with the love of a beautiful woman should’ve put Justin at the top of his game, so to speak. But another complication ensued. Louise happened to be the most emotionally high-strung person ever to grace this earth. Justin also had a bit of a quirk himself: he’d become a horrible golfer when anything upset him.

Louise then lost her engagement ring (originally Justin’s grandmother’s) while her beau played in the tournament. The two quarreled over the matter causing both their relationship and his golf game to suffer. At the same time, Bingham’s wife Muriel (played by Eileen Rackus) learned of his reckless gamble.

Director Valerie Brothers selected the perfect cast of players for such an amusing story. Their superb complimenting of one another allowed me to follow what would have been a very confusing series of connections. Mrs. Brothers assembled a group of people who displayed the best chemistry I’ve witnessed on a live stage together. It showed when they tossed a “nineteenth century English Ming vase” around the room.  The object travelled back-and-forth through the air to different players standing several feet apart. Each member of the ensemble impressed me by catching it cleanly.

The best moment of the evening occurred at the conclusion. Following the curtain call, the ensemble shouted, “One more time!” The cast then proceeded to re-enact the entire show in about two minutes. The first time around they delivered an impressive performance. They did the whirlwind version just as brilliantly.

Even when paired in twos, the players complimented one another extremely well. Dan Brothers and Alan Krier performed like a classic comedy team together. Mr. Brothers and Mr. Krier worked off each other exceptionally well when they made the bet. The former took a cocky, uptight approach to the scene while Mr. Krier delivered his lines like a cocky, carefree persona. Their attire reflected these personalities. Mr. Brothers’ conservative gray suit contrasted brilliantly with Mr. Krier’s increasingly outlandish sweaters. Kudos to Dana Marie Marquart: the silly squirrel sweater seamstress.

Mr. Brothers and Ms. Deal enhanced one another’s performances in their shared scenes; he portraying the unhappy husband, she as the lovelorn woman with three failed marriages. They developed the characters’ relationship steadily throughout the show. The most memorable part occurred when they attempted to set-up a romantic dinner for Justin and Louise. Its unforeseen consequences led to the two sharing a few drinks. As they drowned their inhibitions, comedic hijinks ensued. Ms. Deal lay on the ground and presented Mr. Brothers the opportunity to hit a golf ball out of her mouth. His character unwittingly professed his longing for her into an open microphone; thus revealing his deepest most intimate desires to the entire tournament crowd.

Bailey Shaw showcased an exceptional rendition of a rather hyper and emotionally volatile woman. When Kevin Pavon’s character proposed to her she became giddy and ecstatic. Upon losing her engagement ring she converted into a tearful and despondent person; doing so in a way that still got laughs. That’s not an easy achievement. When Mr. Pavon forgave her he made an offhand comment related to the incident. That’s not a good thing to do to a rather hyper and emotionally volatile woman. She abruptly became livid and stomped around stage before exiting.

Kevin Pavon’s character ran through a range of emotions as well. He needed to in order to cope with Louise’s caprices and to deal with Bingham’s machinations. This performer played them all convincingly. I could empathize with him when he tried to console Louise and unwittingly made the situation worse. A pretty comical pre-golf shot dance became part of his repertoire, as well.

For lack of a better expression, Eileen Rackus’ character served as the comic relief. That’s quite a challenge among this group of quirky performers. She played best opposite Mr. Krier. I liked the dynamic of a gruff unhappily married woman interacting with a carefree lothario. I credit her selection of a great voice for her character. She spoke in a tone both angry and loud; at times she sounded as though growling. While speaking in this manner, she still kept it funny.

The cast of Footlighters’ productions often makes the audience feel like part of the show. For this performance they brought me personally into the action much more than usual. When seeking a replacement golfer for the tournament, Ms. Deal suggested a series of names to Mr. Brothers. His character rejected all of them as being poor golfers. One name that came up during the discussion was Kevin Stephany.

I would inform Mr. Brothers I’m a very consistent golfer. I always shoot between the high 50s and low 60s…at least until the third hole…when playing miniature golf.

From a story standpoint, I can’t dispute the choice of Ms. Shaw’s character over me to participate in the contest. While I’m often very critical of myself, I strongly suspect she wore the red dress better than I would have. Nor will I make any effort to prove that wrong.

They say all is fair in love and war. Burlington County Footlighters’ presentation of Ken Ludwig’s The Fox on the Fairway proved that golf pushes the envelope when it comes to that premise. After watching the six characters interact all evening, it made the Peloponnesian War seem like a game of touch football and a golf outing seem like a rugby match. While the show didn’t inspire me to join a country club, it did provide an audience with a very funny and entertaining evening. Now to paraphrase one of Mr. Krier’s more colorful sweaters: if you “like big putts” check it out.

Theatre Review – The Producers at Collingswood Community Theatre

The Collingswood Community Theatre presented an evening of politically incorrect statements, myriad references to unscrupulous business practices along with a host of crass comments objectifying women. This took place on January 14th of this year, so, no, they did not host a 2016 Presidential Debate. Instead, they staged a spectacle intentionally meant to be comical. Under Mary Baldwin’s direction, they staged Mel Brooks’ irreverent take on the theatre business The Producers.

The musical told the story of Max Bialystock (played by CJ Kish). Once a producer of legendary Broadway shows, his recent work “flopped.” More complications ensued when accountant Leo Bloom (played by Chris Fitting) audited his books. Upon discovering Max stole two thousand dollars from the production, he observed that, “under the right conditions, a producer can make more money with a flop than with a hit.” Max’s extraordinary cajoling convinced this self-described “nobody” to become his partner and aid in producing a theatrical disaster; thus providing Leo with the vehicle to pursue his ambition to become a Broadway producer. Then the real hijinks commenced.

In their quest to find the “worst script” the pair optioned Springtime for Hitler: an encomium written by Franz (Tyler Cunnion), an erstwhile Nazi turned pigeon keeper. Then they sought out the “worst director” in New York. Initially reluctant, Roger De Bris (played by Ryan Adams), after some encouragement from his “common law assistant” Carmer Ghia (Jeff Mc Grail), agreed to direct the show; so long as he could “Keep it Gay.” Max proceeded to pursue his main means of raising money: seducing old lady “investors.”

To add to the scheme’s complications, a lovely young Swedish woman with the long first name of Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden (played by April Lindley) entered Max’s and Leo’s lives. Longing to audition for the show she stayed on as the duo’s housekeeper until presented the opportunity. Her presence and romantic interest in Leo led to complications in the producers’ partnership.

CJ Kish turned in a transcendent performance as Max; a very challenging role. It required singing, dancing and delivering comedic chops. Mr. Kish delivered a stellar performance in all three areas. His rendition made an unscrupulous and despicable character funny and likable. Through his moving recitation of “Till Him” he even inspired empathy for Max.

Mr. Kish brought unparalleled enthusiasm to his performance. I attended the second show CCT presented on Saturday. The energy he displayed on stage reflected that of someone just back from vacation. During the “Betrayed” number, he summarized the entire musical to that point, even acting out highlights from various scenes. That took a lot of skill, especially at the end of the night. He seemed as fired-up then as he did at the evening’s beginning.

As Leo, Chris Fitting played the role of a “nobody” evolving into a “somebody” very well. He convincingly brought to life a dull accountant with an unorthodox nervous tick. When anxious this bean counter would remove a blue baby blanket and rub his face with it. (And some people think actors have strange habits.) His performance worked as a great contrast with both Mr. Kish and Leo’s love interest, the alluring Ulla. (April Lindley) He also performed an outstanding song and dance number with the ensemble on “I Wanna Be a Producer.”

Ms. Lindley and Mr. Adams deserve great credit for both singing and dancing in heels. On a personal note, I struggle to walk right for a few days after buying new loafers. I can’t imagine the challenge of navigating a stage during a routine while wearing elevated shoes.

In terms of Mr. Brooks’ show itself, I didn’t like that it broke the “fourth wall” several times. When Max and Leo asked Ulla when she’d cleaned the office she replied, “Intermission.” Shortly after, she asked Leo why he walked so far “stage right.” During the “Betrayal” number, Max mentioned that “it’s a long show.”

I can, however, appreciate that Mr. Brooks likes poking fun at many subjects. I do have to commend including his own work among them.

I also discovered a few typos in the playbill. Both Mr. Kish’s and Mr. McGrail’s bios got cut off in my version. Performers memorize pages of text and spend countless hours rehearsing musical dance numbers. They exhibit their craft in a medium that allows them one chance to “get it right.” And many do this several times a year in multiple productions. These people aren’t like the rest of us. I’m always interested in learning about the kind of people with the courage and inspiration to do this. I would’ve liked to read their full comments.

In addition to the great performances Collingswood Community Theatre treated the audience to a fantastic multi-media spectacle. Brian Cain did an outstanding job as musical director. Kate Scharff crafted complex choreography with a large ensemble. Chuck Jackson’s set construction provided theatregoers with a true sense of being in the actual locations where the action occurred.

The Producers opened with a fictitious audience leaving the theatre grumbling about the poor quality of Max Bialystock’s show. No one did that for this Collingswood Community Theatre production. This cast and crew sure took Ulla’s musical advice “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” in terms of their skills during this performance.

For the finale the entire ensemble gathered on stage and sang a number called “Goodbye.” In it they instructed the audience to leave. It’s good they did. With their superb rendition of this Mel Brooks musical I’m sure people would’ve hung around waiting for an encore…even if Max produced it.

 

Theatre Review – Leap of Faith at Haddonfield Plays and Players

DJ Hedgepath achieved the impossible. This skillful thespian followed-up his recent portrayal of Judas Iscariot by playing an even more despicable figure associated with Christianity. In the role of “Reverend” Jonas Nightingale, Mr. Hedgepath played a greedy, selfish, prurient huckster who prayed on others’ desperation for his own financial gain. As in his performance of Judas, he still managed to bring about empathy for his character. Through his skillful interpretation of the “Reverend” he transitioned Jonas into a respectable and even a likable figure by Leap of Faith’s conclusion. This alone made his return to the stage extraordinary.

It figured that Mr. Hedgepath would mark his reappearance with something this remarkable. As one of the most active members of the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit, I worried something had happened to him. It seemed odd when I attended two consecutive shows without seeing his name in the playbill. Fortunately, I received an early Christmas present watching him star—and hearing him sing–in this production after a four month hiatus. * (Please see note at bottom of article.)

The cast and crew of Haddonfield Plays and Players made it difficult for Mr. Hedgepath to stand out the way he did. Director Craig Hutchings, Musical Director Robert Stoop and Choreographer Jen Zellers coordinated an entertaining show with a phenomenal cast. I experienced the pleasure of Leap of Faith on December 3rd.

The show featured outstanding vocal numbers. The tracks in this musical sounded to my ears a hybrid of both soul and gospel. The director cast the perfect singers for such songs. Toni Richards (as Ida Mae) drew me into the story with her section of “Rise Up.” Kahil Wyatt (Isiah) crooned a fantastic “Walking like Daddy”; the most melodically challenging tune of the production.

Various songs required multiple cast members to perform together. These alone justified the cost of admission. My favorite ensemble piece “Are You on the Bus?” allowed Beatrice Alonna (Ornella), Jennifer Fisher (Sam), Toni Richards, Kahil Wyatt, and Mr. Hedgepath to showcase their skills together. The Angels of Mercy (Maggie Hartboard, Lorraine Iaquinta, Chris Jewell, Lindsey Krier and Faith McCleery) worked as an outstanding choir on “Step into the Light”, “Lost” and “If Your Faith is Strong Enough” among others. Their dance routines added to the fun.

A series of moving duets enhanced the evening. John Sayles (Jake) played a wheelchair bound child who begged Jonas to heal him. Mr. Hedgepath and Mr. Sayles displayed great chemistry together. The “Like Magic” track provided them with the perfect musical vehicle to express it. These performers took full advantage of the opportunity.

Amanda Frederick played Marla; a complex role for musical theatre. Ms. Frederick’s character required her to fill the multifarious parts of Jake’s mother, the local sheriff and Jonas’ love interest. While displaying the disparate traits of toughness and tenderness, she brought all this character’s qualities to life brilliantly.

Ms. Frederick and Mr. Hedgepath complimented each other well. The two expressed the characters’ evolving relationship through different musical styles. The upbeat “Fox in the Henhouse” described the prurient aspects of the reverend’s personality. “I Can Read You” provided a tender and intimate exploration of each character’s history. These performers managed to adjust their emotions to convey the feelings behind these songs. Due to their characters’ changing views of each another, this required skill and flexibility.

In Ms. Frederick’s playbill bio, she quoted Oscar Wilde. “The self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression,…Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.” This performer took that opportunity during her moving renditions of “Long Past Dreamin’” and “People Like Us.” She delivered a somber reading of the latter with such emotive force that I could feel Marla’s pain.

The ensemble also deserves credit for their contributions. Andrew Chaput, Bridget Hartshorne, Brittany Halzman, Mike Werner, and Tami Gordon Brody played the Sweetwater, Kansas crowd that became the reverend’s de facto personal cheering section. It’s a testament to their collective skills that they managed to show even more enthusiasm than the real audience.

The show contained one scene I found objectionable. It occurred when Sam (Jennifer Fisher) confronted Jonas regarding his tryst with the sheriff. She delivered a line intimating Marla could use her handcuffs for an erotic purpose. This bothered me. I understand that the original Leap of Faith musical premiered in 2010. That line is much more inappropriate today. I fear it could inspire those contemplating a musical version of Fifty Shades of Grey. What Christian wanted to do to Anastasia, a musical based on the book would do to theatre.

Leap of Faith began by Mr. Hedgepath pointing at me and shouting, “Sinner!” The fact I still liked the show after the self-described “King of Sin” character berated me as such shows how phenomenal this performance. For those who’d like to take the “leap of faith” and check it out: your “last chance salvation” is December 17th. “Are you on the bus?”

(* For all those so-called “artists” out there, please keep in mind: not actively practicing one’s craft for four months is an extremely long period of time for some people. It should be noted that during Mr. Hedgepath’s “down time” he directed another show.)

Theatre Review – A Christmas Carol at Burlington County Footlighters

Burlington County Footlighters bewildered me. I heard they’d planned to present the musical version of a Charles Dickens story for the Holiday Season. I couldn’t imagine a tale of putrid coke painting London’s skyline, children suffering under horrific child labor practices and business barons brutalizing the working classes coinciding with the festive mood in the air. Fortunately, they opted to stage a musical version of the author’s heart-warming Holiday classic A Christmas Carol; not his harsh critique of nineteenth century industrialization Hard Times. God blessed us everyone. The cast and crew’s wonderful presentation of the former proved Footlighters made the appropriate artistic call.

I attended the opening night showing directed by Scott Angehr and Tracey Hawthorne on December 2nd. While billed as a musical, I thought A Christmas Carol an entertaining spectacle on multiple levels. Of course, it featured a variety of extraordinary voices. The authentic costuming provided the audience with a means of visualizing the social strata of Victorian England. The set design achieved the latter while transforming the theatre into an idealistic image of a Christmas town. While this show possessed many attributes of a big budget New York play, I enjoyed the opportunity to experience it in my home town of Cinnaminson, New Jersey.

I always credit performers courageous enough to perform roles iconized by other actors. It’s much harder to do this while playing a character that’s become a recognizable part of mainstream pop culture. Steve Phillips’ portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge would’ve made Dickens proud while making Reginald Owen and George C. Scott jealous. With his top hat, gray mutton chops and warm bass toned “Bah, Humbug” he made Scrooge his own.

While a talented singer, I enjoyed listening to Mr. Phillips’ speaking voice the most. Just a thought: could an audiobook of A Christmas Carol be in his future?

If I may borrow a song title from the show, I had a “jolly good time” listening to the singing. The return of Footlighters veterans Ryan PJ Mulholland, Colin Becker, Kaitlyn Delengowski, Carla Ezell and Rick Williams made for an early Christmas present. Buddy Deal’s (in the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present) upbeat crooning with his ensemble on the “Abundance and Charity” number made “Holly Jolly Christmas” sound like a depressing grunge song by comparison. The dancers accompanied this track with a well-choreographed (by Laci DeLuca) soft shoe tap dance. I thought the women’s matching red and green dresses took the Christmassy feel into overdrive.

The most unforgettable routine occurred during the “Link by Link” number. This song began solo by Vinnie DiFilippo (as Jacob Marley) and evolved into a Riverdance-esque dance number with a male ensemble. It served as a cautionary tale to Scrooge about how he’d spend eternity wearing the chain he built in life. I admired the group’s ability to sing and dance flawlessly while attired with cumbersome props.

Ryan Mulholland and Scott Angehr deserve immense praise for their work on the costuming. It impressed me the most about this show. An award wouldn’t be enough to recognize their efforts. They earned a medal. Mr. Mulholland played Bob Cratchit. The authenticity of his clothes showed superb attention to detail. He wore scuffed shoes. Holes showed on both his pants and jacket. Their condition displayed the level of Mr. Cratchit’s impoverishment. The chains and lock boxes Mr. DiFilipo adorned as Jacob Marley appeared very realistic. The long white gown Ms. Delengowski wore accentuated by the glitter dotting her face and hair animated the sprightly Ghost of Christmas Past. The long green robe and holly hat did the same for Buddy Deal as the mirthful Ghost of Christmas Present.

Jim Frazer’s one of the best set designers on the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit. His skills reached another level in A Christmas Carol. I suspect if Norman Rockwell had painted a romanticized image of a Victorian Christmas village, it would have looked like this set. The small winter lights in the windows added an authentic touch. Mr. Frazer crafted the rotating stage extraordinarily well. The multiple levels and the faux fireplace presented an authentic image of Scrooge’s home. When turned around this set became the front of the residence. While an intricate stage-upon-the-stage, crew members managed to turn it around and move it back-and-forth without difficulty. The set construction crew deserves kudos for building this elaborate spectacle so well.

This Holiday Season you will be visited by three ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past will transport you to the first time you read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Your youthful self will say, “What a great story. I wish I could see it performed as a musical.” Then the Ghost of Christmas Present will explain what a phenomenal production of this beloved tale Burlington County Footlighters is presenting this December. Afterwards you’ll receive a harrowing visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Future. This apparition will transport you to January of 2017. You’ll be pining for the past Yuletide season. Then you’ll see a playbill that reads the final performance of this show occurred on 12/11/16. Then the Ghost of Christmas Present will return. He’ll warn you that this is one possible future. You still have the power to change it. And for that, “God bless us everyone.”

Theatre Review – Dead Man’s Cell Phone at Burlington County Footlighters

It’s rare to witness that unique combination of themes such as technological obsession, the search for true love and the business of organ trafficking in the same show. Somehow, Burlington County Footlighters melded these disparate concepts in their production of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Under the direction of theatre guru extraordinaire, Dennis Doherty, they did an exceptional job in the process.

Mr. Doherty’s choice for his latest project didn’t surprise me. It featured a host of really unusual and quirky characters. The ensemble reminded me a bit of roles in The Drowsy Chaperone; in which this summer at the Maple Shade Arts Council Mr. Doherty played the Man in the Chair. This time he swapped that seat for the director’s chair. When I attended the opening night performance on November 4, 2016, it made me glad he did.

For those who haven’t guessed from the dramatis personae, the playwright crafted an atypical story for this 2006 work. Ironically, it opened with a very relatable scene all too ubiquitous in the modern world. While sitting in a café, Jean (played by Alex Davis) became annoyed by a cell phone ringing behind her. When the man (Matt Dell’Olio) ignored her entreaties to answer it, she removed it from his pocket and responded for him. In the process of speaking, she discovered he was dead. After reporting his death, she opted to keep his phone and continue answering his calls. In the process she became acquainted with his brother (also played by Matt Dell’Olio), his mother (played by Jenny Scudder), his widow (played by Amanda Lizzio) and a business associate (played by Danica Harvey). Each of these individuals seemed in competition for who could be the most eccentric.

I’ve seen Alex Davis play numerous supporting roles. (She’s also a veteran of The Drowsy Chaperone.) I enjoyed watching her take the lead role in this one. It required her to carry the show and she met the challenge. Since her character didn’t know anything about the dead man, she had to talk her way through conversations with people who knew him intimately. This resulted in some awkward discussions. It’s never easy to ameliorate nervous tension through comedy, but she did so like a true theatrical professional.

Ms. Davis is very expressive with a strong aptitude for non-verbal communication. I liked the way she opened the performance by raising an eyebrow while the cell phone in the café increasingly annoyed her. She did a nice job displaying confusion while trying to explain to Gordon’s (the dead man’s) family that she worked for him in “incoming.” At the time neither the character nor the audience knew that he facilitated organ trafficking.

Matt Dell’Olio played dual roles in this show. His performance captured the essences of both the cunning narcissistic dead man as well as his timid awkward brother, Dwight. He brilliantly delivered the dead man’s soliloquy to open Act II. In the speech, the character explained how he pursued a selfish, self-absorbed existence motivated by personal gain. His speaking technique made me feel like I was listening to Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” oration. That’s quite an achievement under any circumstance. It’s even more remarkable because of the content.

I liked how Mr. Dell’Olio transformed into the timid Dwight; in some instances after playing Gordon in the preceding scene. He got into character by slouching and through some graceless laughing. With measured precision he developed a socially awkward character into Jane’s love interest.

The supporting performers portrayed their characters in ways that enhanced the play. Jenny Scudder nailed the role of the overly dramatic mother, Mrs. Gottleib. I found Amanda Lizzio’s rendition of Gordon’s widow as intoxicating as her character was intoxicated. Danica Harvey created a wonderful sense of mystery regarding Gordon’s “other woman.”

Jim Frazier did awesome work with both the set and lighting design. The contrast between the light blue and black colors underneath the multicolored lights created a very unique effect: both simple and yet abstract; just like the play itself. The combination enhanced the unusual nature of the story.

Sarah Ruhl wrote a very cerebral text for this piece. It required a lot of thought to absorb its nuances and themes. At times during the show the air conditioner activated and made it difficult to hear the performers. (Yes, even those of us in South Jersey need air conditioning in November from time-to-time.) It also distracted me from contemplating the show’s complexities. Given the choice between feeling cool and hearing the performance, I would’ve preferred the latter. Iggy Pop bled for his art. I’m willing to shed some sweat for Footlighters’.

I saw Dennis Doherty on his cell phone after the performance. That showed me just how into this project he is. Judging from the laughter and applause, I’d have to say the audience was even more into it than he. Then again no one can accuse anybody associated with the performance of phoning it in. See it no later than November 19th. After that Dead Man’s Cell Phone goes dead at Footlighters and redial won’t be available.

 

Theatre Review – Parade at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I have some “real big news” for both fans of “pretty music” as well as those who prefer “a rumblin’ and a rollin’” in their seats. Haddonfield Plays and Players are putting on an outstanding production of the musical Parade. I experienced the pleasure of witnessing the show firsthand at the premiere on October 20, 2016. Director Pat De Fusco understood one person couldn’t “do it alone.” The cast and crew earned their share of “the glory” for this remarkable performance. Many times “it’s hard to speak my heart.” So I hope readers will forgive me for “all the wasted time” I spent on this “prelude.” I would point out that the substantive parts of this review are “not over yet”; and there’s a lot of substance to this one.  So “what am I waiting for?”

Parade (book by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by James Robert Brown) told a disturbing tale for a musical. The action commenced on Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, 1913. With the backdrop of a parade commemorating this Georgia holiday, authorities discovered the body of a 13 year-old factory worker named Mary Phagan (Played by Alexa Reeves) in the basement of the building she worked. In order to advance his political career, Georgia Governor Slaton (played by Michael Doheny) pressured District Attorney Hugh Dorsey (played by Michael Lovell) to quickly convict someone of the crime. He opted to frame a Jewish migrant from Brooklyn, Leo Frank (played by Andrew Jarema).

Mr. Jarema’s role reminded me of a character from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. With his big spectacles, clean-cut looks and straight hair he looked the part of an average man drawn into a bizarre happening through forces beyond his control. He showed great range in his performance, as well. When police asked his character to identify Mary’s body he became squeamish and anxious. During an enactment of (false) court room testimony, Mr. Jarema did a superb job transforming from a timid man wrongly accused into a predatory lothario. I enjoyed his spirited performance in the later incarnation during the jazzy “Come Up to My Office” number. He also demonstrated tenderness singing the “This is Not Over Yet” ballad accompanied by Lucille Frank (played by Arielle Egan). I have to applaud this performer for transitioning his character into a courageous and even heroic figure by the end of the show.

Arielle Egan played an outstanding supportive wife in the role of Mrs. Frank. Mr. Jarema’s character didn’t make it easy for her. In spite of his taking his anger and frustration out on her, sometimes in rather shrill tones, she conveyed both her anxiety and devotion to him. I found her renditions of “You Don’t Know This Man” and “All the Wasted Time” very moving.

I also liked the way she adjusted her character’s personality throughout the show. While visiting her husband in prison she expressed a desire to leave town during his trial. Like her counterpart’s, her character became more audacious throughout the performance. Later in the show her character approached the governor at a private party and asked him to re-open her husband’s case. Her animation of Mrs. Frank made this change credible.

The best moment in the show occurred with Darryl Thomson, Jr.’s soulful performance on “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall.” With the chain gang serving as a chorus and the image of the scorching sun over the Georgia landscape in the background, he sang the blues in a way that would’ve made Robert Johnson jealous. I enjoyed the song so much it gave me the blues because it ended too soon.

I also appreciated Taylor Brody’s portrayal of cynical reporter Britt Craig. His dark suit along with the tie hanging loosely under his unbuttoned top button looked the part of a beat reporter in search of a scoop. So did his taking notes while attending Ms. Phagan’s funeral. The rendition of “Real Big News” really captured his character’s essence. Visuals of newspaper headlines projected against the background enhanced the atmosphere on this tune, as well.

I applaud Michael Arigot for his very emotional portrayal of Frankie Epps. He began by playing a carefree teenager courting Mary Phagan. Following her death he delivered heartbreaking singing during “The Funeral Sequence.” I found that portion of the show very poignant. Following that, he compellingly played a man consumed with rage and obsessed with the need for vengeance.

Parade featured a veritable high tech extravaganza. A projector flashed images on the rear wall during several crucial scenes. A pre-recorded soundtrack played in the background for the musical numbers. Several times the harmony played so loud it drowned out the singers’ voices. Towards the end of the show the music cut out several times. With a show this complex these things happen. None of the performers let the distractions affect their performances. They remained focused until the sound crew addressed the issues. That’s a credit to everyone’s professionalism.

I also want to credit Michael Lovell (as DA Hugh Dorsey) and William H. Young (as Riley) for the interrogation. If I may borrow a line from Hamilton, these gentlemen made me feel like I was “in the room where it happens.” The questioning occurred the same way I would’ve imagined a politically ambitious DA grilling an African-American witness in the Deep South during the early twentieth century. Mr. Lovell delivered threats with veiled hostility. Mr. Young prayed and trembled while listening. The proficiency of these two performers made this scene uncomfortably realistic.

My “verdict” on Haddonfield Plays and Players production is that this show was phenomenal. If someone tells you I made different comments regarding Parade, tell that person, “‘That’s what he said.’ ’You don’t know this man.’”

“Somethin’ ain’t right,” though. “It don’t make sense” that the show’s “finale” will take place just a few short weeks away on November 5th. The performance deserves a longer run. Where’s the “hammer of justice” here? Visit Haddonfield Plays and Players before Parade passes by. That’s my “closing statement.”

Theatre Review – ‘night, Mother at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

Intense. Marsh Norman’s drama allowed an audience to share the final hour-and-a-half of a young woman’s life with her. Jesse (played by Stevie Neale) accepted her impending passing with quiet reservation. ‘night, Mother began with her informing her Mama (played by Phyllis Josephson) of how quickly her end approached; opting to share her last moments with her. This set-up alone would have made for a powerful dramatic performance. The cause of Jesse’s death made it intense: she’d planned on committing suicide before the evening’s end.

In my experience with theatre, I’ve found that the fewer the characters in a given performance, the more challenging the roles. With only Jesse and Mama in this case, ‘night, Mother proved it. Fortunately for theatre fans, director Tim Sagges, selected two extraordinary talents for this Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage production. I attended the opening night performance this October 7th.

Stevie Neale deserves immense credit for playing the role of Jesse. The character had failed as a wife, raised a criminal son and couldn’t keep a job due to poor health. She explained various household miscellanies to her mother such as the arrangement of silverware, the location of spare fuses and how to order groceries from the local store while discussing terminating her life. That’s quite a challenge.

Ms. Neale selected an exceptional voice for Jesse. She used a calm, almost whisper-like tone containing a trace of anger. It really conveyed Jesse’s emotional state, or lack thereof. She described suicide with the same passion as someone reciting passages from the National Electrical Code book. This inflection demonstrated how Jesse viewed life as a bus trip that she “wanted to get off.”

But Jesse’s character possessed more dimensions than the surface showed. When Mama brought up Jesse’s ex-husband, Ms. Neale stared into the distance. Her facial expressions displayed a pining for the past coupled with immense sadness for the present. It illustrated why taking care of Mama just “wasn’t enough” to inspire an interest in living.

Upon getting to know Mama through Phyllis Josephson’s exceptional interpretation, I could understand why. I credit the playwright for pairing a suicidal character with the worst possible person to talk her out of it. It made for great conflict. When Jesse asked Mama if she’d loved Daddy, a pause and a matter-of-fact “no” followed. While Jesse believed a fall from a horse in adulthood caused the epilepsy which thus fractured her marriage, Mama rebutted that she’d had “fainting spells” since childhood. (She’d never thought to take Jesse to a doctor because of them.) Then she expressed jealousy towards Jesse’s relationship with her father, a man Mama admitted she didn’t love. I wrote that this show was intense, right?

I’ve watched Ms. Josephson play comedy as Grandma in the Addams Family Musical. I also attended a performance of the dramedy Kimberly Akimbo, in which she played the title character. I really enjoyed watching her take on a role this much more complex. Mama ran the entire range of grieving emotions from denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance in less than 90 minutes. At the same time she struggled to give her troubled daughter reasons to live. In the course of doing so, she reflected on her own life. That’s a very demanding role and Ms. Josephson portrayed it brilliantly.

In terms of the play itself, I thought the playwright could have written it better. While an intense drama I thought it lacked emotive depth. Jesse had already resigned herself to her, if self-inflicted, fate. Mama experienced myriad emotional states during the show, but they passed quickly. By the time I understood her feelings she’d already moved on to another. No doubt, the show’s time frame necessitated this. It encompassed a consecutive 90 minutes of these two characters’ lives. It also lacked an intermission which required the drama to progress quickly. With that acknowledgement, both performers and the director did an exceptional job with the material.

At the show’s conclusion the audience sat silently for several moments. No one seemed exactly sure how to respond until the woman next to me cried. Due to the unsettling subject matter ‘night, Mother may not be for everyone. The phenomenal performances by Ms. Neale and Ms. Josephson certainly made it worth seeing, though. I can summarize the quality of their performances in one word: intense.

Theatre Review – Violet at Burlington County Footlighters

Director Brian Blanks is taking theatergoers on a journey this fall. The station is Burlington County Footlighters and the vehicle is Violet; a deceptively complex musical that explores one person’s voyage of self-discovery. I bought my ticket and embarked on the show’s opening night, September 16th.

Footlighters opted to kick-off their 79th season with this lesser known piece by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley. When I arrived a woman in the audience asked me if I’d ever heard of Violet. In fact, even the director told me that among his theatre friends familiarity with it is “about 50/50.” When I heard the tale centered on a young North Carolina woman’s bus trip across America, I figured, “Here we go: yet, another story about a small town girl heading off to Hollywood.” This piece ended up as different from that premise as one could imagine.

Violet (played by Roxanne Paul) suffered a disfiguring accident as a child when her father (played by Chuck Klotz) inadvertently hit her in the face with an axe blade. In 1964, several years following his death, she embarked on a bus trip from her North Carolina home to Tulsa, Oklahoma. She sought a televangelist (Michael Gearty) there she believed could heal her. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” During the sojourn, Violet encountered a host of interesting characters that transformed the trip from an external one into an internal voyage of discovery. During the journey she experienced a series of flashbacks that facilitated the later. All this occurred to the accompaniment of a live band (directed by Cameron Stringham) playing sensational sixties sounding music.

None of the players used microphones. They didn’t need to. Violet featured performers with very strong voices. I encountered Footlighters veteran Dan Brothers in the audience before the musical began. Mr. Brothers can project his voice better than anyone I’ve ever heard. His presence in the building may have inspired the newcomers to this theatre group. When Michael Gearty testified in the role of the evangelist I’m sure people way up in the Heavens could hear him. Soulful Tee (in the role of choir singer Lula Buffington) belted a note that made both my eardrums rattle. As a longtime Motown and Stax fan, I welcomed the volume.

Roxanne Paul delivered a stellar performance as Violet. Her music featured a range of styles, from soulful tracks to upbeat numbers to ballads. Some began a capella. I liked the soft way she vocalized the mellow, “Lay Down Your Head.” While sitting in a bed near the back of the stage, she crooned in a voice soft enough to convey feeling, but loud enough for the audience to hear.

Ms. Paul’s brilliant facial expressions and mannerisms conveyed the character’s vulnerabilities in ways that Brian Crawley’s lyrics couldn’t. Her proficiency added an element that made the serious aspects of the show more impactful.

Darryl S. Thompson Jr. turned in a moving performance as Flick. The lone African-American character in a story he played a crucial role. As the bus travelled through the Deep South before the advent of the Civil Rights Era he encountered prejudice. When a character addressed him with a racial epithet even the audience gasped. I found it interesting that they became just as affronted as the character.

Mr. Thompson also sang some challenging vocal numbers very well. He rightly drew cheers from the house during his rendition of “Let It Sing.” He delivered the number so well it made me wish the songwriter would have let his character sing more often.

Gabrielle Affleck deserves great credit for taking on multifarious, and rather diverse, roles. In this one show Ms. Affleck played an old woman, a choir singer and a prostitute. That’s range. I liked hearing her vocals on the bluesy track “Anyone Would Do.” It’s doubtful anyone would have done it as well as she did.

As mentioned, Violet featured a host of phenomenal voices. I’d compliment Nicholas Zoll, Alex Davis and Glenn Paul for their contributions to the performance, as well.

Throughout the show myriad references were made to Violet’s being “disfigured.” When the subject arose, Ms. Paul did a nice job exhibiting anxiety by wincing and nervously covering her cheek. Her face didn’t have any scars, however. Young Violet (Ms. Orlowski) didn’t either. I could overlook it in the latter case since that character didn’t have as much stage time. Ms. Paul’s Violet appeared on stage in almost every scene. Her “ugliness” served as a crucial part of the show.

Ms. Paul is a good-looking woman. As much as I tried I simply couldn’t visualize her as “deformed.” In retrospect I figured the playwright intended symbolism to show Violet as a beautiful person who needed to discover it for herself. I can accept the premise. It just took me a while to understand it. That’s a reflection on the playwright, not the cast or crew.

A true “team effort” made for the most memorable scene of this show.  With apologies to Kenny Rogers, “Luck of the Draw” just may be the best song ever written about poker. This bouncy number featured Chuck Klotz (as Violet’s father), Emily Orlowski (as Young Violet), Ms. Paul, Mr. Thompson and Brandon Zebley (as Monty) working together. They did a nice job transitioning from Young Violet’s learning the game from her father to modern Violet applying those lessons. I liked hearing so many talented vocalists on the same track.

I enjoyed taking Violet’s journey. In the playbill Mr. Blanks commented on its timeless themes. Unfortunately for theatre fans, time’s ticking on the show’s run. Take a journey to Burlington County Footlighters no later than October 1st.  Don’t miss the bus.

Theatre Review – Brighton Beach Memoirs at Haddonfield Plays and Players

The Haddonfield Plays and Players theatre group has a history of presenting challenging “dramedies.” It seemed fitting that they’d add Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs to their repertoire. This semi-autobiographical sketch of an extended Jewish family living in 1937 New York featured a host of comedic yuks coupled with intense drama. The cast and crew met the demands of this Pulitzer Prize winning playwright.

I attended the premiere performance on September 15th. The evening also entailed HPP’s rolling out of an original stage set-up. They relocated it closer to the center of the theatre. While tasked with animating Neil Simon’s dialog, this cast had the additional duty of playing to both sides of the room. Due to the new seating configuration, I expected to spend most of the evening staring at the backs of performers’ heads. The talented assembly of thespians accommodated this new format like seasoned stage veterans. I’d also give credit to director Matthew Weil for coordinating everyone around this original arrangement.

Dylan Corbett (as Eugene Jerome) faced the toughest challenge. While his character played an active role in the story’s events, he also served as a narrator. On numerous occasions he addressed the audience directly. With it seated both in front of and in back of the stage, this presented quite a challenge. I sat in the row against the far wall. Mr. Corbett’s deft movements to both sides of the stage made me feel like he spoke to me personally the entire night. That’s a remarkable accomplishment for anyone under these circumstances; especially for someone performing in his second community theatre show.

The play’s action took place over the span of two weeks. Mr. Corbett convincingly transformed from an immature, libidinous kid into a young man and then back again. That’s not an easy feat with a script covering that short a time span.

Nick Ware played an outstanding Stanley Jerome. He’s a very expressive performer. I really enjoyed the animated way he gesticulated while explaining how he stood up to his boss, thus risking his job at a time his family depended on his salary. He added a nice touch of humor when asking his cousin Nora (played by Meaghan Janis) to mention Abraham Lincoln’s “principles” at dinner. This would allow him to segue into a discussion about it with his father. His method of interjecting the topic at supper proved much more comical.

Lori A. Howard portrayed the epitome of a Jewish mother living in 1930s New York. She chose the perfect voice to compliment the role of Kate Jerome. Ms. Howard got into the character so well that I consciously avoided her after the show. (I worried she’d be forcing me to eat liver.) While she delivered funny lines well, her character possessed much more depth than simple “comic relief.” Mrs. Jerome battled anxieties over her husband’s health, her son Stanley’s wild ways and her sister’s descent into self-pity after becoming a widow. Combined with these challenges, Ms. Howard also served as the core holding this troubled family together. I liked the way she manifest all this tension in her argument with the character’s sister Blanche (performed by Marissa Wolf).

In addition to this altercation with Ms. Howard, Ms. Wolf launched an intense dispute with Blanche’s daughter, Nora (played by Meaghan Janis). These two performers did a phenomenal job during this heated exchange. While difficult to watch, the rewards of witnessing two talented performers play characters who want to love, but struggle in doing so made it worthwhile. They executed this difficult scene so realistically that I felt uncomfortable. That’s superb acting.

Doug Suplee (as Jack Jerome) played the clan’s patriarch. The role reminded me a bit of Mike Brady with a New York accent. Mr. Suplee brought to life the character of a wise father committed to the well-being of his family. I liked the way he showed tenderness as a surrogate father to his niece, Nora. He became a stern, but loving parent to his son, Stanley in their scenes together. When Kate worried about her sister’s condition, Mr. Suplee counseled her wisely. Understand the Brady reference now?

I also give credit to 11 year old, Sera Scherz in the role of Laurie Morton. She played an unemotional, detached young lady very well. The talent she displays at this point in her career shows she has a great future ahead of her in theatre.

During long portions of the show, performers who weren’t involved in the scenes didn’t leave the stage. They either sat at the ends of stage left or stage right. I found that unusual. I suspected that the new configuration had something to do with that. The designer located both egresses at the middle of the stage. None of these entertainers did anything to attract attention in these instances. However, at times my gaze drifted towards them because I wondered if they had a role in the action.

Several weeks ago, Lori A. Howard informed me that HPP’s presentation of Brighton Beach Memoirs “features an extraordinary cast that is my honor to work with.” After attending the show I could understand her enthusiasm. The show runs through October 1st. After that, Brighton Beach Memoirs becomes a memory at Haddonfield Plays and Players.