Theater Review

Coyote on a Fence at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage

When I realized Alice Weber would be directing this show, I felt glad I stopped off for that extra cup of coffee before entering the theatre. Two years ago I attended a performance of Dr. Cook’s Garden which she directed at Bridge Players Theatre Company. I still lose sleep at night trying to wrap my mind around that one. To the delight of theatre fans, Ms. Walker brought her unique brand of high minded, thought-provoking drama to Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage. She selected the perfect vehicle in the form of Bruce Graham’s Coyote on a Fence.

The Cinnaminson venue continued its own tradition of intense drama, as well. I didn’t believe it possible for 2nd Stage to follow-up their October presentation of ‘night Mother with a show of comparable intensity. They sure found one; and they selected the prefect director to stage it. A haunting evening of theatre resulted. I attended the opening night performance on March 24, 2017.

Coyote on a Fence told an uncomfortable story to watch. Death Row inmate John Brennan (played by Robert Beaucheane) passed his time writing for and editing the prison newspaper The Death Row Advocate. His flattering obituaries of those executed by the State neglected to mention their crimes. This apotheosis of sociopaths gained the attention of New York Times reporter Sam Fried (played by John Weber). Upon receiving the journalist’s letter informing Brennan that he’d like to meet with and write a story about him, a new prisoner entered the next cell.

White supremacist, the loquacious Bobby Reyburn, (played by AJ Krier) occupied it. While feeling no remorse for his crime, he accepted his guilt and didn’t want to appeal or delay his execution. Ironically, he developed into the more gregarious of the two men. This conflicted with Brennan’s view that he, and all those preparing for execution, were merely “accused” and had a duty to appeal their sentences. An existential debate ensued between the educated writer and the slow minded bigot. It concerned making one’s peace with God and accepting responsibility for one’s actions. Their exchanges made for a heady 90 minutes.

The playwright didn’t reveal the nature of both men’s crimes until mid-way through the show. Not knowing what each had done kept me engaged and added a sense of mystique to the drama.

Ms. Weber made outstanding casting choices for the two lead roles. Mr. Beaucheane and AJ Krier played off each other extraordinarily well. These two thespians’ complimentary skills as a dramatic team could only be compared to the aptitude of Footlighters’ comedy legends Al Krier and Dan Brothers. (Both of whom I had the pleasure of encountering in the audience prior to the show.)

It’s difficult selecting the appropriate superlatives to describe AJ Krier’s performance. He infused a sense of boyish innocence into the character. That’s not an easy achievement when continually reciting the Aryan creed. While playing an ostensible psychopath, he still drew laughter from the audience when either delivering comedic lines or imitating a seal. The man has range. He added authenticity to his role by speaking in a Southern accent. In spite of delivering myriad lines that made the audience cringe, he still evoked sympathy through his enactment.

Robert Beaucheane shares Ms. Weber’s artistic tastes. He played the title character in Dr. Cook’s Garden. For this show, he accepted the role of another complex character. He credibly played a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, death row inmate who wrote and edited a prison newspaper. It’s difficult to animate abstract concepts such as denial, but Mr. Beaucheane established the standard for doing so. He also managed to adjust from the psyche of an austere scholar to that of someone with anger issues. His approach to the character reflected the overall play: he got me thinking. As with the role of Dr. Cook, I struggled to understand the character’s true nature.

Regina Deavitt (another cast member from Dr. Cook’s Garden) and John Weber rounded out the ensemble. Ms. Deavitt (as prison guard Shawna DuChamps) evoked sympathy for those awaiting death sentences through her moving bar-room monologs. She brought such realism to these scenes I felt like I was having a beer with her.

Mr. Weber (as Sam Fried) took on the most difficult role in the play. As a father and writer who shared many of Brennan’s views, he needed to show how the two were similar but different. Through his mannerisms, speech inflections and rational thinking he proficiently balanced curiosity and irritation in his scenes opposite Mr. Beauchane. I even jumped when he threw his wallet. Still, he kept his anger controlled.

I did have a few issues with the script. It seemed far too cliché that the playwright made the unapologetic racist a Southerner. I found that too stereotypical; especially in a play that premiered in 1997.

I also thought the story took long in developing. That’s common with ‘serious’ character driven plots. I’d encourage audience members to hang in there through the first 20 minutes of exposition. The remainder of the play made it worthwhile.

In the playbill, Ms. Weber expressed the trenchant thought:

In vivid scenes, Coyote on a Fence explores the disturbing question: Can one be innocent though proven guilty? This penetrating new drama offers no clear verdict, just utterly compelling theatre.

I always appreciate this director’s intellectually provocative contributions to South Jersey Community Theatre. I leave her shows with a broader perspective on intricate questions. I’m sure other audience members do, too. Now, is there any chance Ms. Weber would consider making a career change and become a political analyst?

To Kill a Mockingbird at the Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ

Harper Lee crafted a unique American take on the traditional bildungsroman. The author’s powerful exploration of a young girl’s maturation through her harsh exposure to the world around her made for the timeless novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Fortunately, for theatre fans, Christopher Sergel adapted this Pulitzer Prize winning classic for the stage. Under the direction of Matthew Weil, The Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ presented an extraordinary interpretation when I attended the March 3rd performance.

Due to the immense success of both the book and the film, most in the general public are already familiar with the story. This presents a challenge for theatrical companies. How does one make something so well-known still interesting and engaging to audiences? The answer: through phenomenal performances. To Kill a Mockingbird included a host of them.

Maude Atkinson (played by Nicky O’Neal) expressed the following thoughts on Atticus Finch: “The highest honor the town can give a man: the ability to do good.” The actor who played him (Cory Laslocky) didn’t “do good.” He did a phenomenal job in his performance. Mr. Laslocky did extraordinary work balancing the character’s complexities; most notably when he cross examined Mayella Ewell (played by Kaitlin Healy). He displayed a reserved easy going manner with his deliberate questioning. Through his words he became a man who could be firm and tough. He managed this difficult equilibrium throughout the entire show; his convincing portrayal of the character’s passionate closing argument serving as the lone exception.

The moment that affected me the most in Mockingbird occurred during Mr. Laslocky’s exchange with his witness Tom Robinson (played by Mikal Odom). Mr. Odom’s stage presence and delivery during this scene were without peer. I’ve never experienced a performer capturing a character’s emotional state so well. With a Southern drawl, shaky voice and teary eyes he explained the events leading to his false accusation. He brought out the character’s fear and anxiety in a way that I could feel.  If his awesome performance didn’t move you: you’re not human.

Shawn O’Brien delivered a memorable interpretation of the villain, Bob Ewell. This performer really got into character. His choice of voice, exaggerated mannerisms and yelling captured the essence of a bitter, alcoholic racist. Several times in the courtroom scenes his shouting and swigging of a bottle convinced me he became unhinged. During a later scene his evil laughing while wheedling a piece of wood even gave me a chill.

The show’s most unforgettable moment occurred during the confrontation scene. While Atticus stood guard outside the jail housing Tom Robinson an angry mob arrived. They’d planned on hanging the accused. Showing shades of Atticus, his daughter, Scout (played by Sofia DiCostanzo) did an outstanding job in her dialog with Walter Cunningham (played by Mike Lovell). Ms. DiCostanzo delivered her lines as a naïve child engaging Mr. Lovell’s (probably intoxicated) character in conversation. She recognized him as one of her classmate’s father. After asking him to say “hello” to his son for her, he bowed his head as if in shame. He calmly instructed the mob to disburse and “go home.” While it had a lot of competition for this title, these performers made the scene the play’s most powerful.

The playwright chose to utilize a technique about which I experienced mixed feelings. In following the book, the playwright had the character of Jean Louise Finch (the Scout character as an adult) narrate throughout the show. The performer who played this role, Nellie Brown, did outstanding work as a story teller. Her expressions and delivery were very expressive as she recounted the events that transpired both on and off the stage. In addition Ms. Brown spent most of the show in view of the audience. I liked how she smiled nostalgically as the action played out. I could envision her as a person reliving all these events in her mind. She possesses a pleasant voice. Ms. Brown would be a good choice to narrate an audio version of the book. Someone that gifted in the performing arts deserves a better role to exhibit her talent.

In my view, the role of Jean Louise Finch brought to mind the character of Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers films. A narrator’s role in a comedy is much more effective. The method of having a character do so in a live dramatic play stops the action too much for my taste. In a medium that’s very dialog heavy, I find it adds too much ‘telling’ to the script. In this case Ms. Brown’s exceptional story telling ability made the narrator’s role enjoyable. Besides, an actor’s role is to interpret the script as written: not to correct bad writing.

Sensitive theatre fans should be aware that the show contained usage of racial epithets. The language complimented the theme of the story and fit the less-enlightened historical time period. For these reasons I didn’t find it offensive.

The show featured a very unusual intermission. During the trial scene Judge Taylor (played by Andrew Kushner) came out from behind the bench and walked to the front of the stage. He announced there’d be a 10 minute “recess.” As he spoke the house lights came on. The players remained on the stage during the break. They continued playing the parts of courtroom observers waiting for the hearing to resume. From their gestures and facial expressions it looked like Lori A. Howard and Mike Lovell had a pretty interesting conversation going on. I would’ve liked to have heard it.

It made me very happy to see Paul Sollimo (who played Nathan and “Boo” Radley) back on stage again. When they find the person who started this unfounded rumor about his retirement, they should do to him what the drunken mob wanted to do to Tom Robinson. (Even theatre critics are guilty of ‘bad writing’ once in a while.)

So many performers did exceptional jobs in this show that it’s unfair to leave anyone out. I’d like to credit Kyle Smart, Carter Weiss, Rhonda V. Fidelia, Kaitlin Healy, Sean O’Shea, Jay Burton, Andrew Kushner, Doug Supleee, Ann Moser Trenka, Nicky O’Neal, Lori A. Howard and Natasha Truitt for their contributions, as well. The show wouldn’t have been as engaging without them.

The play reflected the life of one of it’s characters. Kind of like Boo Radley, To Kill a Mockingbird comes out of seclusion, makes a huge impact and then returns to exile for a while. Fans of great literature, theatre and acting would be well served to see it performed at The Ritz Theatre while they can. The show runs through March 19th.

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.