Theater Review

The Crucible at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Boy did I pick the right time to listen to Black Sabbath on the way to the theatre. “Voodoo”, “Lady Evil” and “Black Sabbath” put this reviewer in right frame of mind to experience The Crucible. The cool autumn air along with the full moon weaving through the breaks in the overcast sky added superb ambiance. I attended the opening night performance on October 11th at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Director Pat DeFusco selected an excellent show to follow up HPP’s 24 Hour Play Festival. Mr. DeFusco also directed that performance in which a number of writers crafted tales applicable to Twilight Zone episodes. It seemed appropriate that he would select Arthur Miller’s 1953 masterpiece The Crucible for his next endeavor.

In 1960 Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling developed his short story “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Avenue” into one of the series’ most memorable and chilling episodes. A power outage drove the residents of a suburban community into a state of madness, fear and paranoia. Their mania drove them to accuse one another of being the source of the anomaly. The horror in that piece didn’t lie in the supernatural, but in the way ‘normal’ people treated one another in the wake of an unexplainable event. Apply that premise to the seventeenth century and one has the world of The Crucible.

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible to draw parallels between the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s and the McCarthyism he experienced during the 1950s. While lacking in historical accuracy, the play made for some gripping theatre. It brought audiences uncomfortably close to a world of ambition, greed and selfishness exacerbated by suspicion.

For a settlement predicated upon deep religious convictions, the Massachusetts Bay Colony sure contained a host of unscrupulous characters.

Nick French played an exceptional Reverend Parris. Mr. French performed like a man possessed…with a gift for acting. The method with which he enacted the character’s quick temper brought out the reverend’s demons. Mr. French’s vocal inflections captured Parris’ anxiety over losing his job due to the ‘bewitched’ girl in his household. I also enjoyed the animated way he argued over the wages and firewood the congregation owed him. Mr. French’s portrayal allowed me to understand why so many of Salem’s residents were skipping services on Sundays.

Grace Narducci played 17 year old Abagail Williams. Ms. Narducci made Abigail into the embodiment of evil itself. Ms. Narducci’s facial expressions captured the malice lurking behind her character’s eyes. She also demonstrated Abigail’s duplicity just as believably. The performer entered into a frenzy of trembling and shaking while being attacked by spirits. They always seemed to strike her at the most opportune moments. Ms. Narducci’s convincing performance showed Abagail capable of the horrific things she did. Bravo and a belated Happy Birthday to Ms. Narducci.

The Putnams made for an interesting couple. Gary Werner portrayed landowner Thomas Putnam. The character stood to acquire land from someone he accused of witchcraft. His wife, Ann Putnam (played by Andrea Veneziano), accused a midwife of witchcraft due to several of her children dying in childbirth.

And then there was Judge Danforth (played by Robert Bush). Reverend Hale (played by Taylor Brody) asked him to postpone the executions of seven people convicted of witchcraft. The judge opted not to because, to paraphrase using modern parlance: “We’ve already executed 12 people. If we let these people live it would look bad.” That’s an extreme way to make a decision based on sunk costs.

Even had the witch trials never occurred one suspects 1690s Salem still would have provided ample fodder for playwrights.

To balance this company of the conniving, Mr. Miller included noble characters.

Justin Walsh delivered an outstanding portrayal of John Proctor. The character endured a conflict between the man he was and the man he wanted to be. Mr. Walsh concretized it brilliantly through his interactions with Ms. Narducci and Marissa Wolf.

Taylor Brody portrayed the change in Reverend Hale very well. While first a proponent of the witch trials, his doubt grew as they progressed. Mr. Brody showed the character’s development in a very measured way.

Marissa Wolf played an outstanding Elizabeth Proctor. Ms. Wolf demonstrated the torment her character experienced over both a troubled marriage and the fear she’d be accused of witchery. The performer selected exceptional facial expressions and modulated her voice with extraordinary skill all evening. Her enactment of her character’s inner strength during the show’s final moments was without peer.

This summer I watched Marissa Wolf deliver a powerful soliloquy during a production of The Laramie Project at the Maple Shade Arts Council. With the final scene in The Crucible, Ms. Wolf showed she can express thoughts just as compellingly without words.

Mr. DeFusco has a reputation for producing work of the highest quality. Even by that standard, The Crucible featured fantastic direction.

The opening captured the audience’s attention. While Tituba (Salina Nicole Miller) and the girls of Salem danced in the woods, a fog machine generated a ghostly mist that enveloped the stage. The background projection of a forest at dusk with a small fire in the foreground added to the eerie ambiance. Mr. DeFusco’s decision to have Reverend Parris enter the through the aisle aided in bringing the spectators into the story.

The trial scene burned like white heat. Mr. DeFusco still enhanced the intensity. Mr. Walsh and Ms. Narducci gave each other looks of unvarnished hostility while walking past one another. This brief incident was both well-conceived and well-performed. It made this pivotal scene even more dramatic.

The distress in the story required performers to cry on stage. Sarah Dolhansky’s character (Mary Warren) played the majority of these emotional incidents. Ms. Dolahnsky’s performance brought out the fear and torment tearing at her character.

Mr. Miller wrote late-seventeenth century verbiage and syntax into the script. The entire cast deserves credit for navigating this challenging dialog. The performers also managed to deliver it in ways so that I could understand its meaning.

Justin Mead designed authentic period costuming for this show. He demonstrated solid attention to historical detail with the buckles the reverends and judges wore on their shoes.

I’d also acknowledge Tami Funkhouser for her portrayal of Rebecca Nurse. Ms. Funkhouser’s make-up was marvelous. When she first appeared on stage I didn’t recognize her.

The Crucible contained an extensive cast. Other members included: Emma Scherz, Salina Nicole Miller, Sophia Frances, Rachel Aspen, Cassidy Scherz, Sera Scherz, Sabrina Gipple, Rebecca Kaserkie, Penelope Incollingo, Joe Sweeney, Kristine Bonaventura, Sheila McDonald, Doug Cohen, Julieann Calabrese, Tina Currado, Melynda Morrone, Tony Killian, Peter Tancini, Kacper Miklus, Ben Morris, Jeremy Noto, Dennis Dougherty, and Olivia Bee Sposa.

The following individuals completed the production team: Artistic Coordinator Nicole DeRosa Lukatis, Producer Sue C. Stein, Stage Manager and Light Board Operator Omi Parrilla-Dunne, Lighting Design Chris Miller, Properties Anna Diaczynski and Donna Scherz, Set Construction Mike Snyder. In addition to directing, Pat DeFusco served as Artistic Director, Set Designer, Sound Designer and Engineer.

When first performed The Crucible provided disturbing commentary on the Salem Witch Trials with latent parallels to McCarthyism. Is it still relevant sixty-six years later?

Last October your correspondent attended a three part lecture series on the Salem Witch Trials. Mickey DiCamillo, the President of the Historical Society of Moorestown, delivered them. Mr. DiCamillo explored the socio-political dimensions of this disturbing episode in American history. He explained that three elements led to the trials: Puritan society was divided into many factions, a rampant belief that the government lacked the capability to govern and what he termed an internal “fear factor.”

During The Crucible Judge Danforth asked those accused: “Have you seen Satan?” This reviewer saw him in most of the characters portrayed on stage. To quote a Black Sabbath lyric:

When you listen to fools

The mob rules.

 The Crucible runs through October 26th at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

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Driving Miss Daisy at the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Community theatre completists owe Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage a debt of gratitude. This October they are presenting the first play in Alfred Uhry’s Atlanta Trilogy: the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner Driving Miss Daisy. Three years ago Haddonfield Plays and Players staged the second and third parts of the series: The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Parade, respectively. I wondered when a company would provide South Jersey’s theatrical talent the opportunity to perform in one that opened it. The wait ended this October 4th at Burlington County Footlighters. Your correspondent attended that performance.

Driving Miss Daisy is a deceptively complex show to bring to the stage. It’s quite the antithesis to Parade. The latter featured an extensive cast, a high-tech spectacle and a catalog of musical numbers. Driving Miss Daisy contained no musical numbers, a sparse set and only three actors. The playwright, however, included 27 scene changes. The show did not contain an intermission, either. These unique challenges didn’t deter the cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.

Director Alice Weber has a history of directing high minded, cerebral works such as Dr. Cook’s Garden (at Bridge Players Theatre) and Coyote on a Fence (also at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage). Mr. Uhry’s exploration of race, poverty and hate crimes is still relevant today. Even with this disturbing background, the playwright infused his script with a belief in the redemptive power of humanity. I didn’t leave the theatre asking myself deep philosophical questions like I usually do after an Alice Weber show.

I asked Ms. Weber why she chose to direct Driving Miss Daisy. She replied that, in addition to liking the play, she believed it would work very well in the intimate setting the 2nd Stage provided.

For those unfamiliar with Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage, the room’s seating capacity is about 30 people. While some companies employ the theatre in the round format, the 2nd Stage uses a theatre in a semi-circle approach. The chairs are arranged in an arc consisting of two rows in front of the stage. This set-up allows the audience to watch just a few feet from the action.

Ms. Weber’s assessment proved correct. Performers Phyllis Josephson, Rick Williams and John Weber worked this close setting wonderfully.

Phyllis Josephson celebrated her birthday this October 1st. Ms. Josephson gave the audience a gift through her performance as Daisy Werthan.

In 2015 Ms. Josephson played the lead role in David Lindsey-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo; a show also presented by Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. In that production, Ms. Josephson convincingly acted the role of a teenager. For Driving Miss Daisy, she portrayed a bitter old woman with just as much realism.

Ms. Josephson executed every facet of the role to perfection. Her expressions captured the character’s inner thoughts, she maintained the accent of a Southern belle, and she showed the protagonist’s change with extraordinary skill. Ms. Josephson combined all three dazzlingly in the scene when she told her son about a missing can of sardines.

Real life anchorman Rick Williams proved he’s just as adept at making news as he is at reporting it. Mr. Williams delivered an outstanding interpretation of Hoke Coleburn.

Mr. Williams chose a very realistic accent for his character. His delivery complimented it. Both enhanced his comic timing. When asking Boolie (played by John Weber) for a raise, his cheery vocal inflection made the scene even wittier. The final line about it “feeling mighty good” to have two employers compete for his services had much more impact.

Mr. Williams’ mannerisms were among the best I’ve witnessed at a live performance. He deserves special credit for his slouching and squinting while behind the wheel. The large glasses he wore added comedic effect. His slower ambling and walking with a cane in the later scenes both appeared lifelike.

Ms. Josephson and Mr. Williams put on an acting clinic. They played the show’s dramatic scenes with the passion and poignancy the script demanded. Their portrayals during the ones where Miss Daisy taught Hoke to read, their reactions to the temple bombing and the pair’s trip to Alabama were spectacular.

Both actors clearly devoted a lot of time to preparing for this show. During the talk back session following the performance, Mr. Williams thanked his wife, Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams for her assistance when he rehearsed the role. As well as he portrayed Hoke, audiences should thank Ms. Mitchell-Williams, too.

John Weber played a terrific supporting role as Boolie Werthan. Mr. Weber served as an excellent straight man during his comedic scenes with Mr. Williams. He also captured the latent humor in Mr. Uhry’s dialog when interacting with Ms. Josephson.

Jim Frazer again treated audiences to his genius for set design. For Driving Miss Daisy, he somehow developed a way to position a portion of a car on the stage. I recalled the car he placed on the set of Footlighters’ 2015 production of Bonnie and Clyde. That vehicle entered and retracted from the center of the company’s much larger main stage. The car for Driving Miss Daisy set upon a rotating platform in the center of a small room. The headlights and gear shift even worked. Mr. Frazer continues to push the envelope for set design with every show he does.

The remainder of the production team included: Shelly Tibbets (Assistant Director), Lindsey Kilchesty (Stage Manager), Angel Ezell (Light and Sound) and Pat Frazer (Gloryboard Design).

Theatre fans will have limited opportunities to witness this masterpiece. The show runs through October 12th at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. Opening weekend sold out. Fans should purchase their tickets for next week ASAP.

South Jersey Community Theatre fans are also reminded that Alice Weber likes to direct thought provoking shows. Theatre aficionados who don’t take advantage of the opportunity to see this run of Driving Miss Daisy could very well end up the subjects of her next project.

The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor at the Ritz Theatre Company

Ghosts. Mystery. Murder. The Ritz Theatre Company selected the perfect show for ushering in the fall season. This September they’re presenting the world premiere of The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor. Bruce A. Curless directed this original work written by local playwright Kumar Dari. I attended the September 21st performance.

Like many aristocratic British families at the end of the nineteenth century, the Sappingtons’ profligacy resulted in financial trouble. In addition, Lord Sappington’s business partner swindled him shortly before his passing. In order to raise money his sons Edwin (played by John Jackowski) and Andrew (played by Craig Hutchings) contemplated selling the family estate, Ravenswood Manor. William’s widow, Lady Sappington (Ginna Higgins), planned on taking in lodgers to raise funds.

While this set-up made for a strong conflict, the playwright added a twist that complicated everyone’s plans: Lady Sappington revealed that a series of unexplained events occurred at Ravenswood Manor. She found paintings askew. The sound of mysterious footsteps echoed through the halls. Butler Rugggles (John Hager) discovered an expensive vase off its shelf and lying in the middle of the room. Lady Sappington surmised that ghosts haunted the manor.

To free the home of these spectral visitors, she contacted spiritualist Dr. Karmazin (Joe Carlucci). After surveying Ravenswood Manor, the latter recommended he perform a conjuring ceremony. An unexpected but inevitable result transpired.

While set in 1890 in Victorian England, Mr. Dari added contemporary themes to the show. I found it clever how the playwright drew parallels to the modern era. Andrew battled opium addiction. Edwin and Major Botwright (played by Andrew B Kushner) engaged in debates about the racial issues of the day. Lady Blackthorne (Jack Shaw) was really a transgender English lord.

One wouldn’t expect a ghost story set in Victorian society to serve as the background for a comedy. Once again, Mr. Dari showed exceptional creativity. Major Botwright (Andrew B. Kushner) had a fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan. He enjoyed transforming expressions into a jingle that would fit one of their shows. One of the catchier was:

Tuck, tuck, tuck

Into the duck, duck, duck.  

While no choreographer was listed in the playbill, the major’s “Ring, Ring, Ring for Ruggles” cadence, inspired the ensemble to perform a nineteenth century version of the Macarena.

Following the performance, the playwright and the cast participated in a talk back with the audience. Your correspondent asked Mr. Kumar what inspired him to write this story.

The playwright explained that he had ideas for a number of characters. During a process that took him three years, he refined them and decided to set the play in Victorian England.

The cast did an exceptional job of bringing Mr. Kumar’s unusual characters to life.

The randy Lady Blackthorne possessed a particular fondness for double entendres. Jack Shaw’s effeminate delivery when expressing them made these ribald references even wittier.

Of all the roles in the show, Lady Sappington was the closest to ‘normal.’ Ginna Higgins played an excellent serious character when working opposite Mr. Shaw’s comic one.

Joe Carlucci brought exceptional energy to the role of Dr. Karmazin. He danced about the stage with divining rods. The performer also spoke in a thick Balkan accent, but still expressed his lines so I could understand them clearly.

Andrew B Kushner played a wonderful Major Botwright. The walrus mustache made his transformation into the character even more believable. I also liked the pompous voice he used to tell the major’s myriad stories of personal grandeur.

John Jackowski and Craig Hutchings played the spoiled Sappington brothers. With their characters’ fondness for alcohol, one hopes they don’t strain their elbows.  It’s difficult to hold a glass for 2-1/2 solid hours.

Amanda Lynch Lizzio performed the role of Zenobia Sappington. Ms. Lizzio captured the bubbly and garrulous nature of her character very well.

John Hager added his unique brand of comic genius to the role of Ruggles, the butler. One has to credit him for keeping his torso at a 35 degree angle to the floor all evening. In addition to his professional interpretation of Mr. Dari’s script, Mr. Hager supplemented his performance with his gift for improvisation.

During the intermission I encountered Mr. Hager in the theatre. While remaining in Ruggles’ poor posture, he asked me, “Are you laughing at my pain?”

I’m sure I felt a lot more pain that Mr. Hager did. My side still ached from laughing at his performance during the first act.

Director Bruce A. Curless pulled a Hitchcock. His cameo came in the form of Lord Sappington. As with every other time Mr. Curless has taken the stage, he made his presence memorable. Without giving readers spoilers, he delivered the most haunting performance I’ve ever seen from him.

The production crew included: Technical Director Dan Rogers, Stage Manager Alexis Snyder, Assistant Stage Managers Alyssa Sendler and Gabriel Slimm, Light Designer Jennifer Donsky, Sound Designer Matthew Gallagher and Sound Board Operators Natasha Swann and Anastasia Swann.

Prior to the curtain rising, Production Manager Matthew Weil informed the audience that this run is the “world premiere” of The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor. I enjoyed the opportunity to attend. As Mr. Weil noted, “How often do you have the opportunity to see a ‘world premiere’?” While that gives theatre aficionados a strong reason to experience the production, the entertaining nature of the show serves as an even better motivation to see it.

Don’t become haunted by the specter of missing The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor. It runs through September 29th at the Ritz Theatre.

 

Disaster! at Burlington County Footlighters

Take a spoof of 1970s disaster movies, include a soundtrack that sounds like a best of K-Tell Records compilation add a cast of South Jersey community theatre legends and you’ve got Disaster! A 70s Disaster Movie…Musical! (To save readers the time of going back and re-reading that title: I know. I never thought I’d see those words written in that combination, either.) So theatre fans grab your roller skates, your pet rocks and hook up your CB radios. This September 20th my “20” was Burlington Country Footlighters.

Scott Angehr and Tracey Hawthorne directed this rib-tickling tale of terror. Drawing on the suspense of films such as The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and Jaws with the farcical wit of Airplane!, Disaster! told an old story with new twist.

Unscrupulous business man and Lothario wannabe Tony Delvecchio (played by John Romano, Jr.) came up with a clever scheme to avoid New York’s gambling laws. He owned a floating casino. As this was the 1970s, the establishment included a discotheque. Mr. Delvecchio’s ethical lapses also caused him to avoid spending money on the necessary safety measures.

To add to the potential for misfortune, scientist and disaster maven Ted Scheider (played by Evan Hairston) informed Mr. Delvecchio that a fault line lay underneath his casino. Mr. Delvecchio addressed this matter with same diligence that he managed the casino’s other safety concerns.

The late 1970s television series The Love Boat may have provided inspiration for the show’s characters. They were both quirky and the types of figures one would like to see the victims of misfortune.

The passenger list for this ship included a gambling addicted nun (Jillian Starr-Renbjor), a washed-up disco diva (Mikayla Nelson), the sappily married Summers pair (Alan Krier and Lisa Croce) and a wealthy couple (played by Antonio Flores and Kelly Scott) that made Thurston and Lovie Howell look like the Clampetts before Jed found “Texas tea” on his homestead.

The casino’s employees were even more idiosyncratic than its passengers. They included lounge singer Jackie Noelle (Alex Davis), waiter and malapropism prone pick-up artist Scott (Aaron Wachs) and a flamboyant chef (DJ Hedgepath).

Disaster! writers Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick infused their script with the philosophical wit of comedian Bill Hicks. The latter observed: “It’s only funny until someone gets hurt. Then it’s just hilarious.” And Disaster! was hilarious.

Dramatis personae this eccentric, a wacky script and a soundtrack that featured radio staples of a decade, required performers with the right skills to execute these unique challenges. Directors Scott Angher and Tracey Hawthorne made strong casting choices: many of whom are Footlighters’ legends.

John Romano, Jr. made the reprehensible Tony Delvecchio a pleasure to watch. He performed the most comical near-death scene I’ve ever watched. While crooning a melodramatic version of “Don’t Cry Out Loud”, Mr. Romano battled rising waters and a school of sharks. He made the scene and the outcome hilarious.

Ally Masson played investigative reporter Miss…Excuse me, that’s Ms. Wilson. Ms. Masson played a stellar straight performer opposite Mr. Romano’s comical concupiscence. She displayed perfect chemistry with the character’s love interest played by Vinnie DiFilippo. The two delivered a fantastic duet with “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight.” Ms. Masson also performed a memorable version of “I Am Woman/That’s the Way It Always Should Be” accompanied by BCF Mainstage newcomer Makenna Renbjor.

What Jim Frazer is to set-design, Vinnie DiFilippo is on his way to becoming as a theatrical performer. Mr. DiFilippo turned in another strong performance through the role of lovelorn Chad Rubik. The performer reciprocated the chemistry Ms. Masson displayed while working with him. While Mr. DiFilippo enacted all facets of the role perfectly, I especially enjoyed the soul he added to his vocals on “Without You.” He shifted the mood at the song’s conclusion by curling into the fetal position. This touch of comedy made the track even more memorable.

Evan Hairston played the deceptively complex character, Ted Scheider. Mr. Hairston delivered the sine qua non of this character type’s usual modus operandi. He ran around the casino and warned everyone who wouldn’t listen about a pending “disaster.” He executed this maneuver like the character’s namesake (the actor Roy Scheider) did in the movie Jaws.

Mr. Hairston added the requisite comedy to the role. His actions recalled those of another disaster spoof hero: Ted Striker, the protagonist of the film Airplane!

The performer still inspired empathy for Sheider. With his lamentations on the fate of the character’s deceased wife he showed Sheider’s personality deeper than that of a dispassionate scientist. He best did so through his interactions with his character’s love interest: nightclub singer Jackie Noelle (Alex Davis).

Alex Davis selected the perfect voice for the role. Ms. Davis spoke in a sultry high-pitched tone. It well suited the lounge singer’s vocal style on “Muskrat Love,” “Mockingbird” (accompanied by Mr. Hairston) and the “When Will I Be Loved” duet with Makenna Renbjor. Ms. Davis added her own brand of comedy to Jackie Noelle through the shuffle she used for her character’s walk.

Makenna Renbjor made her BCF Main Stage debut in the dual roles of Jackie Noelle’s children, Ben and Lisa. She selected a challenging show with which to do so. Ms. Renbjor managed the quick wig changes without flaw. The performer also showed strong vocal prowess as mentioned earlier. One has to credit her for the courage to perform along such outstanding performers as Ally Masson and Alex Davis during her first foray onto the Main Stage. Ms. Renbjor’s wonderful performance proved that she earned the right to share the stage with them and her real life mom, Jillian Starr-Renbjor.

Yet another Footlighters legend, Jillian Starr-Renbjor added her talents to this extraordinary cast. Ms. Starr-Renbjor played Sister Mary Downy, erstwhile gambling addict turned moral crusader turned gambling addict again. In a departure from the nun’s usual deadpan delivery, the performer expressed her character’s passion for one-armed bandits through her emotional rendition of “Torn between Two Lovers.”

A production consisting of this much talent and entertainment makes it difficult to select a most memorable moment. For me the casting of the Summers couple provided highlight of Disaster! Two of the best comic performers in South Jersey community theatre took on these roles: the extraordinary Alan Krier and the incomparable Lisa Croce.

Alan Krier provided his usual comedic genius for the production. He performed a perfect imitation of Ms. Davis’ shuffle. In perhaps an even more impressive feat: he did so without wearing heels.

Mr. Krier also returned to his roots in musical theatre for this role. He served as part of the group that performed “Ben.” He also delivered a fun duet with Lisa Croce on “Still the One.”

Lisa Croce’s fans will be ecstatic with her performance in Disaster! This show is an absolute “must see” for them. Ms. Croce treated them with her usual proficiency at comedy. Her portrayal of her character’s unusual medical condition, including Tourette’s like symptoms, delighted the audience. She sang a duet with Mr. Krier that was both comical and, in its own way, poignant.

Ms. Croce impressed most with her dancing ability; a skill that’s a bit out of her comfort zone. When I interviewed her on June 22, 2016, I asked about the most difficult role she played. Ms. Croce replied:

I feel much more confidence in my acting than my singing or dancing these days (age will do this!). Therefore, playing Rosie in Wedding Singer where I had to sing solo and dance was difficult for me. I needed to get out of my own head and just do it! I lean more towards plays or non-singing and dancing roles in musicals when I can.

Fans wouldn’t have suspected that for her performance in Disaster! She proved the old cliché that we’re our own harshest critics.

In this show, Ms. Croce performed a tap dance number. Part of the way through, Ms. Davis and Mr. Hairston accompanied her. Ms. Croce still occupied center stage while leading the ensemble. She executed the routine beautifully.

Set designer extraordinaire Jim Frazer worked his usual magic with the Footlighters’ stage. For Disaster! he turned it upside down: literally. Mr. Frazer transformed it into a dock, a lounge and a host of other settings one would find in a casino.

The show featured a live band under the direction of bassist Peg Petti-Smith. Ms. Smith led the Diablo Sandwich Band & Friends through the pop music of the seventies. The group performed tunes written in a range of styles. The songs included the contemplative “The Lord’s Prayer,” the upbeat “Saturday Night” and the disco masterpiece (now there’s an oxymoron) “I Will Survive.”

Tom Shaw, Jr. choreographed, Leslie Romanuski stage managed, Amanda Cogdell managed the costuming and Scott Angehr produced. The following performers completed the cast: Mark Henley, Christian Decolla, Shannon Ewing, Shannon Forbes, Mackenzie Smith and Abby Zahn.

Disaster! runs through September 28th at Burlington County Footlighters. As of this writing your correspondent hasn’t confirmed the rumors that FEMA: A New Musical will follow it. Sources do tell me that production is lacking the needed financing.

I found the performance of Disaster! at Burlington County Footlighters as anything but. Theatre fans can only hope we see the members of this talented cast perform again. If we don’t, it wouldn’t be a disaster: it would be a catastrophe for the arts in South Jersey.

 

Act 1 Scene 1 One-Act Festival Weekend at The Village Playbox

South Jersey contains a lot of artistic talent. To provide a forum for these creatives to practice their crafts, many community theatre companies feature play festivals for amateur playwrights. These events tend to last one evening and conclude after just a few hours.

The team at the Village Playbox decided to make their play festival just that: a festival. Their Act 1 Scene 1 One-Act Festival Weekend occurred over three nights and featured twenty shows. I attended the performances on Thursday, September 12th, Friday, September 13th and Saturday, September 14th.

With that much time and material, it wasn’t surprising that the plays covered a wide range of subject matter. Ryan Kaminski’s The Meadow (directed by Jennifer Evans) related the story of a woman who hired a private detective to investigate her husband. She suspected both his infidelity and that he wanted to murder her. Jason Pollock’s The Caterer (which he also directed) portrayed a caterer who lacked customer service skills, but had some interesting ideas about keeping his marriage vibrant. Jennifer Wilson wrote and directed Conceit; a piece that explored the perils of narcissism.

The plays presented addressed some topical issues.

We live in an era when many Americans fear losing their jobs to robotics. Playwright Cooper Gorelic applied this concern to the domain of theater in Fifth Ed. Performers Stephen Kreal, Donna Supulski and Kacper Miklus portrayed a world where even actors aren’t immune from this phenomenon. Gary Kochley directed.

The program also included serious dramatic works.

Heidi Mae’s Black Friday surveyed one of modern society’s scourges. Performers Amy Bannister, Ariel Golan, and Kacper Miklus explored the difficult decision a woman must make about coming forward as a victim of sexual assault. Chrissy Wick directed.

Ms. Mae explained that this piece serves as Act II of a three part drama she’s crafted. I found the Black Friday segment strong enough for presentation on its own.

The measured pacing added to the story’s tension. It opened with two women recounting the events of Thanksgiving night. What began as funny recollections of an evening of hard drinking steadily transitioned into darker reminiscences. The dual meanings of the title enhanced the story’s meaning.

The festival contained several comedic pieces.

Kevin Stephany contributed a comical take on the most despicable form of life ever to inhabit the Earth: the blogging community theatre critic. In The Director Becomes the Critic Steve Allen took on the role of a director struggling to respond to a barrage of so-called “ideas” from a community theatre critic. Gregory Furman played the latter. Jenn Evans directed.

Heidi Mae wrote and directed a one-person version of Meeting Heaven for this festival. Performer Michelle Tomko played multiple roles in this tale of unrequited love in a strange love triangle.

The five person cast of Meeting Heaven made the top seven finalists at The Ritz Theatre’s 10-Minute Comedy Play Festival in June of 2019. I was curious to see how Ms. Mae would organize this play with only one actor.

Ms. Tomko took the audience on the narrator’s voyage through states of exhilaration, bliss and disappointment. She did so while reciting all the story’s dialog and narration herself. While doing so the performer added the appropriate gestures and facial expressions to enrich the tale. I also enjoyed her clever use of the Panama hat as a prop.

Ms. Mae’s text contained a host of lyrical flourishes. My favorites included:

            She wore what angels wore on their day off.

            If I had a dollar for every dame who played Emily in Our Town I wouldn’t have to write anymore.

            Meeting Heaven put me in Hell.

Cooper Gorelick gave the audience a dose of dark humor in Post Mortem. For this piece, the audience accompanied a man (played by D. Michael Farley) from his last trip to the hospital through his corpse’s journey to its final resting place. Cara Dickinson and Hayley Melvin added their comedic skills to the cast. Ashley Bianchimano directed.

Tom Chin presented a comical spin on the power of reverse psychology with Hello Again. Doug Cohen directed this tale of a cold calling salesman (played by Kevin Dahm) using unorthodox means to sell to his customer (played by Jenn Evans).

Mr. Chin also contributed two other pieces to the festival. Doug Cohen also directed the poignant The Bright Red Popsicle Sticks about two elderly women ruminating on the trials of love. Gary Kochey directed the comedy of two brothers out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Won Ton.

Cooper Gorelick put a twist on an old cliché by showing that all is fair in love and love of pie through his comical piece Pie Fight. It featured performers Ashley Bianchimano (who also directed), Cara Dickinson and Haley Melvin. These players last shared the stage together in the farcical piece Noises Off! presented by the Village Playbox in February 2019. The trio carried over the slapstick hijinks from that show into Mr. Gorelick’s piece.

No theatrical festival would be complete without serious dramatic pieces. The Village Playbox included memorable plays in this one.

Kevin Stephany’s Family Reunion concluded the opening night performance. Chrissy Wick directed the real life father and son team of Steve Allen and Kyle Allen in this story of an estranged father and son reunited at the wife/mother’s deathbed.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should inform readers that the person writing this review is the same Kevin Stephany who wrote the play. While it sounds cliché, I like to think of myself as my own toughest critic. Steve Allen’s performance made it difficult for me to find flaws with this show.

Two weeks before the play festival, Steve Allen wrote in a Facebook post:

Even though the play is only 10 minutes long, it has been the most emotionally draining and challenging experience in my theatre life.

Following the performance he added:

It may have only been 10 minutes long, it may have only been acting, but the emotion was real.

So was the passion he brought to the role.

To paraphrase something I mentioned to Mr. Allen after the show: I wrote the play. I knew the story. I still felt uncomfortable watching it. That’s a testament to the skill of Steve, Kyle and Ms. Wick.

Both Steve and Kyle executed the myriad pauses in the script perfectly. Their proficient enactments of them added even more tension to the conflict between the characters.

It would figure that the best parts of something I wrote would be the sections without any words.

Erin Blackwell’s Hey El? followed the relationship of two sisters as one suffered from cancer. Chal Gallagher, Carol Furphy-Labinsky and Erin Blackwell brought strong emotions into this moving drama. Their skilled portrayals allowed me to feel the sensations of love and loss between the characters. John Blackwell directed.

Prolific playwright Joseph A. Dewan contributed six pieces to the festival. He directed all of them.

Border contained an outstanding surprise mid-way through the story. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t mention it here.

Mr. Dewan wrote an excellent version of a spy vs. spy story. He included a good balance of intrigue and romance to make it more engaging.

In Exchange, Kacper Miklus and Amy Bannister played undercover agents during the Cold War; he from the United States and she from the Soviet Union. As part of a goodwill program sponsored by their governments they exchanged presents for the Holiday Season. During their ensuing conversation they discovered they had much more in common than just their occupations.

Mr. Dewan crafted a heartwarming story with a delightful twist in Nosey. Joseph Chialastri played an embittered former clown confined to a hospital bed. Ariel Golan took on the role of a candy striper tasked with lightening his mood.

Sheltered was another well written piece. The plot contained exceptional conflict. Mr. Dewan played a bitter miser opposite Amy Bannister’s bubbly animal adoption agent. Stephen Kreal completed the cast on this entertaining tale about the redemptive power of pets.

Two one act monologues also appeared in Mr. Dewan’s repertoire. The playwright showed a lot of creativity with The C Word. In addition to the attention getting title a preacher served as the lone character. The plot contained an excellent twist when the narrator revealed the actual C word.

In Smoke, Mr. Dewan didn’t simply lead his character through a range of emotions. He enacted the entire scope of the human experience. That’s quite a feat for a one act monologue.

I’d also credit the Village Playbox for the clever bit of subliminal advertising they worked into the program. Jennifer Wilson let out a high pitched scream at the end of Conceit. Her vocal range reminded me a bit of Deep Purple’s legendary front man Ian Gillian’s.

As theatre fans know, Mr. Gillian also played the role of Jesus Christ in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. The Village Playbox will be presenting the theatrical version of it in May of 2020. Could they have included a prelude of the vocal stylings it will showcase into their play festival?

The Village Playbox production team included Producer Lauren Fabbri-Picerno, Stage Manager Mandi Heims and Gary Kochey on sound and lighting. The following completed the cast of actors who performed in the festival: Joey Bianchimano, Mary Corr Dewan, Sheila MacDonald, Jason Pollock, Thom Reese, Jessica Allen Shockley, Dee Stenton, Chrissy Wick, Jen Wilson and Nikki Zane.

Friday the 13th may be an unlucky day for some, but the Village Playbox made it and the days around it lucky ones for theatre fans, actors and playwrights. The Act 1 Scene 1 One-Act Festival Weekend showed all of us how lucky we are to live in such an artistically vibrant area as South Jersey.

 

 

24 Hour Play Festival at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Winston Churchill once observed: “It takes three to four weeks to write a good extemporaneous speech.” So just how long does it take to write a good play, manage the technical details and rehearse until the show becomes suitable for a live performance? Apparently, just a day according to Haddonfield Plays and Players. I attended their 24 Hour Play Festival on August 24th.

On the evening of August 23rd a group that included playwrights, directors and actors arrived at the Haddonfield Plays and Players’ playhouse. They formed teams and then were tasked with writing, producing and performing a one act play the following night. To ensure that no one brought a work already pre-written, these brave artists were asked to select from among a dozen settings, props and lines of dialog. They had to use the ones they chose in their respective plays. The playwrights crafted the scripts overnight. In the morning, the teams re-assembled and planned their shows.

Any speed writing contest is both intimidating and challenging. Fiction writers participate in Na(tional) No(vel) Wri(ting) Mo(nth). Every November they aspire to complete a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days. Theatrical performers may have raised the bar for speed, quality and grace under pressure with this 24 hour play dare.

In March of this year HPP’s Artistic Director Pat DeFusco orchestrated the company’s A Trip to Oz program. Through his creative wizardry, Mr. DeFusco transformed the playhouse into the Emerald City. Always the innovator, for the 24 Hour Playfest he led theatregoers through “a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are those of imagination.” This time he turned the playhouse into the Twilight Zone.

Three of the plays would’ve made Rod Serling proud and Richard Matheson jealous. Sans the Marius Constant introduction, theatregoers delved into the “middle ground between light and shadow.”

The show opened with a piece written and directed by Jennifer Wilson entitled Mutation.  While fans are familiar with “black box theatre”, this play may have added “black hole theatre” to the lexicon. Ms. Wilson and Sera Scherz performed the roles of a mother and daughter on an unusual quest. Using a space station as the setting, a walkie-talkie as a prop and the line: “Nothing you say can ever fix it”, these performers took the audience on an interstellar voyage “into another dimension; not only of sight and sound, but of mind.”

Amber Kusching’s Burden to Bear introduced theatregoers to a more grizzly answer to  “Talky Tina” in the form of Mr. Bear-Bear. Ms. Kushing wrote, directed and performed in this piece. The play utilized a jail as a setting, a teddy bear as a prop and the line: “There are costs that don’t include dollars and cents.” Performers James Cosby and Emma Scherz completed the cast. Ms. Kusching’s dialog transcended time while bridging events from the past and the present. The three actors navigated its intricacies brilliantly.

Danica Gabriele’s Change rounded out the trio of trips into the place “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Ms. Gabriele also directed and performed in this story regarding three people struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Tony Killian delivered a powerful performance of a man losing his mind. Emily Colon captured both the empathy  and eeriness in her character’s personality. Ms. Gabriele’s enactment of her character reflected the dystopian nature of the story.

In addition to the macabre, teams also presented observational humor shows.

Michael Oto’s A Shitty Situation (directed by Randy Hendler) explored the conundrum resulting when someone (played by Mark Henley) fails to clean up after one’s dog. The incident caused Adele Batchelder’s and Adam Dorn’s characters to engage in a witty banter over the difference between etiquette and being indecent. A dog park served as the set, the team selected a shovel as their prop. The play included the line: “That sounds like some kind of French fruit.”  Mark Henley portrayed the offending dog’s owner.

Casey Tingle’s Save Us Elvis (directed by Adam Dorn) reminded me of Sartre’s No Exit only presented in a lighter point-of-view. The team chose a rooftop deck as their setting, an Elvis painting as the prop and had to use the line: “I want to make sure I look good when the firemen arrive.” Performers Sophia Bollar, Gianna Cosby and Cassidy Scherz showed the ingenuity people locked on the roof of an apartment building will use to get rescued.

Like any good theatrical festival, this production included serious drama.

Sharon George’s Michael in the Middle explored one man’s journey to self-discovery. The setting took place in a coffee shop, both on Earth and in the ether. A football served as the prop and the line: “You think you can come in here and (blank)” appeared in the play. While not the “required” line, Ms. George worked an excellent one into the script: “Failing doesn’t make you pathetic; giving up does.” In addition to the playwright, the cast included Kevin Leckerman and Mark Henley. Perhaps in homage to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Mr. Henley played every major character in Mr. Leckerman’s character’s life; including one female. An exceptional show resulted.

During the 24 Hour Play Festival’s opening announcements, Mr. DeFusco explained with his dry sense of humor that “these plays didn’t exist 24 hours ago. Some of them will never be seen ever again.” Theatrical fans should hope that his Confession isn’t one of them.

Mr. DeFusco’s fans received the full Pat DeFusco experience on August 24th. In addition to producing and designing the sound and projections, Mr. DeFusco wrote, directed and performed the moving monolog: Confession. This play took place in a church, a rose served as the prop and it included the line: “If that’s true, then nothing they did was going to make a difference.” I found the piece both very well written and excellently performed. Mr. DeFusco the actor gave Confession the powerful delivery that Mr. DeFusco the playwright deserved.

The show included an outstanding technical production. It featured stellar background projections. Each one provided an authentic visual of the play’s setting. The lighting enhanced the action on stage; most notably during Change. I wouldn’t have suspected HPP’s team arranged something this professional in just a few hours.

Omi Parrilla-Dunne co-produced the program and served as Stage Manager. Kalman Dunne added his talents as the Sound Engineer. Tom Balne performed a cameo during his lyrical introduction of act two.

Nobel Laureate in Literature Winston Churchill required a month to write a “good” speech. This weekend playwrights in South Jersey showed they need just a few hours to craft wonderful one act plays. Fans didn’t need to visit the Twilight Zone to see them, either. They just had to “follow the sign post up ahead” to Haddonfield Plays and Players. With the 24 Hour Play Festival, they showed their commitment to superb theatre to be as “timeless as infinity.”

The Music Man at The Ritz Theatre Company

The Music Man at The Ritz Theatre Company experienced an opening night that has entered into annals of South Jersey theatrical lore.

On June 11th torrential rain and mass flooding plagued the South Jersey area. The Ritz’s building even lost a portion of its power. In response to the audience’s chants of “the show must go on”, the company continued the show.

The audience still went “batty” over the performance; one spectator did so literally. A winged creature of the order chiroptera entered the theatre. After it settled into a comfortable location to enjoy the show the performance continued.

Shortly afterwards all the power went out. The Ritz crew aided the audience in evacuating the building. That bat must have been one rabid theatre fan. It refused to leave.

The distinguished critic and theatrical maven Amber Kushing attended this performance. Ms. Kushing wrote: If the show was that good with less than half the production elements and a bat trying to steal the spotlight, I can’t wait to see the show in its full glory.

I had the opportunity to witness The Music Man “in its full glory” on Saturday, July 20th. Fans, let me tell you: that bat had some good theatre on its radar.

Katie Knoblock directed Meredith Wilson’s musical depiction of Professor Harold Hill’s (played by Matthew Weil) machinations. The “professor” worked as a con man. Set in 1912, he travelled to small towns throughout the country scamming residents. His scheme entailed selling musical instruments and band uniforms to boys for a concert he would conduct. (Bandleaders are known by the title “professor.”) Before the scheduled show date he would leave town with the money. It turned out the “professor” didn’t know how to play, read or conduct music.

Professor Hill’s latest mark (River City, Iowa) presented some unusual challenges. An anvil salesman named Charlie Cowell (played by Robert Repici) vowed to find and expose Hill as a fraud. The professor also developed a romantic interest in the town’s librarian, Marian Paroo (Jessica Ball). The latter added an additional complication as she also worked as the community piano teacher. To further obstruct Hill’s plan, Mayor Shinn (Alan Krier) and the school board harassed him for his credentials. They threatened to jail him if he didn’t produce them.

All these conflicts made for a riveting story. The Music Man included much more than just an entertaining premise, however.

The show featured brilliant choreography. Erica Paolucci coordinated superb dance routines. The Music Man included numerous complex ones involving the ensemble. Joe Kinnon (as Marcellus) led the group through a wonderfully upbeat “Shipoopi.” “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” added the challenge of singing 16th notes while dancing. Performers Bonnie Leigh Renner, Casey Clark, Patricia Kelly, Kathleen Corvino and Brianna Borouchoff executed this difficult routine flawlessly. “Seventy-Six Trombones” included an outstanding tap dance performed by the ensemble. Lindsey Krier impressed through the multiple splits she performed during the evening.

The Music Man added an element I’d never encountered during a theatrical production. The show contained a barber shop quartet. Crooners Steven Zellers, Marty Israel, Guy Kirk and David Epstein mesmerized the audience with their vocal skills. Their renditions of “Ice Cream/Sincere”, “It’s You” and “Lida Rose” made an enjoyable evening of theatre much more entertaining. Jessica Ball’s addition of her vocals to the quartet’s rendition of “Will I Ever Tell You” was phenomenal.

Credit also goes to vocal director Anthony Vitalo, sound designer Matthew Gallagher and sound board operator Sam Tait. The audio on the quartet’s performances sounded like an MP3 playing.

Fans of South Jersey community theatre productions know Matthew Weil as an extraordinary director. For The Music Man, Mr. Weil exchanged his director’s chair for the spotlight. He played the lead role of Professor Harold Hill.

Mr. Weil adopted the cocky, yet confident voice of an unscrupulous huckster. It complimented his singing on “Ya Got Trouble.” He also brought out his character’s sensitive side as the show progressed. Mr. Weil expressed it through an excellent duet with Ms. Ball on “Till There Was You.” The performer also showed off solid dance moves when performing with the ensemble.

Jessica Ball proved herself a strong triple threat. She showed Marian’s development from someone who spurned love into someone willing to open herself up to it. Ms. Ball performed exceptional dance moves even taking center stage during the “Seventy-Six Trombones” tap number.

As multi-talented as Ms. Ball demonstrated herself, I enjoyed her singing the most. In addition to her wonderful performances with the quartet and duets with Mr. Weil, Katy Gentry Hutchings, Nicky Intrieri and Emma Scherz, she displayed outstanding vocals when singing solo. Ms. Ball delivered a moving rendition of “My White Knight.”

This production of The Music Man included a few additional treats for theatre fans. The cast included two generations of the Krier Royal Family of South Jersey Community Theatre: Alan and his daughter Lindsey. One of South Jersey community theatre’s power couples also shared the same stage: Robert Repici and Lindsey Krier. Folks, this was an historic performance.

Alan Krier met your correspondent’s stratospheric expectations of him…again. He showed once again his extraordinary ability to become whatever character he plays. Mayor Shinn had a penchant for malapropisms. Mr. Krier spoke the lines so naturally that I thought he flubbed them at first. As the evening progressed, I realized that his character talked that way. That’s exceptional acting.

The following performers completed the ensemble: Quinn Wood, Lexie Chiasson, Aren Duffy, Mary McCabe, David A. Schwartz, Mabelle Davison, Isabelle Negrete, Zachary Moore, Darrin Murphy, Kyle Ronkin, Joseph Marney and Kendall DeVecchis.

On the evening I attended The Music Man performers didn’t receive a respite from extreme weather. At show time the thermometer read 95 degrees. Perhaps for the first time, a critic sweated more than the actors before a performance. Even in these conditions, the cast didn’t allow environmental factors beyond their control to affect them. They gave the audience an outstanding show conducted like the professionals they are.

Put The Music Man on your radar while you can. It’s difficult to imagine a community theatre production this good; but to quote Batman: “Everything’s impossible until someone does it.” Barring a series of blizzards, typhoons and earthquakes, the show will run through August 4th at The Ritz Theatre Company.

 

All Shook Up at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Theatre fans grab your bobby socks, hula hoops and put on your 3D glasses. Get ready for a trip back to the 1950s courtesy of Haddonfield Plays and Players. This summer they’re providing an entertaining theatrical journey featuring the music of Elvis Presley. I attended the Saturday, July 13th performance of All Shook Up directed by Ed Doyle and assisted by Rico Santiago.

Playwrights have incorporated Rock and Roll songs into musicals for some time. 1967’s Hair, 1992’s Tommy: The Musical and 1996’s Rent are some popular examples. In 2004 Joe DiPietro crafted a piece of musical theatre for Rock and Roll purists. The soundtrack consisted of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits. Now that’s real Rock and Roll.

I had high expectations for All Shook Up. Shakespeare’s work influenced the story. Elvis Presley provided the songs. That means the greatest playwright inspired the narrative. The King of Rock and Roll supplied the music. How can an audience expect better than this?

The script contained serious conflict; especially for a comedy. Like many comedies, it contained a complex plot. In essence all the main characters fell in love with another character who loved someone else.

The story began as Chad (played by Jake Hufner) entered town on his motorcycle. Combining the personality traits of a rebel, a Rock and Roll crooner and ladies’ man, he longed to liberate the community from its suffocating mores. In response, Mayor Matilda Hyde (Lori Clark) vowed to enforce the Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act. The law banned things such as Rock and Roll and public displays of affection.

Another plot line focused on the circumscribed social world of the 1950s. The Mayor also harbored a special dislike for interracial dating. Following that pronouncement, her son, Dean (Vinnie DiFilippo) began a romance with an African-American woman, Lorraine (Kyra Moon).

All Shook Up contained outstanding dance routines. Choreographer Allison Korn organized some mesmerizing sequences. The show opened with two attention getting performances through “Jailhouse Rock” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Ms. Korn incorporated 50s dance moves as well as some of Elvis’ trademark maneuvers. The cast’s high energy and sophisticated sequences made the choreography the most memorable part of this musical.

It seems redundant to write that the show included fantastic songs. Anyone with the most remote interest in Rock and Roll already knew that. The playwright arranged them for maximum impact on the story.

Somehow, Musical Director Chris Weed and the cast managed to present some of Rock’s greatest cuts in a humorous way. I liked how Natalie (Jenna German), Chad (Jake Hufner), Jim (Jim Dennis), and Miss Sandra (Faith McCleery) all had the opportunity to sing a portion of “One Night with You.” The location of each character’s segment provided excellent comedic effect.

Lori Clark led the show’s funniest scene through her rendition of “Devil in Disguise.” While the ensemble accompanied her, Mr. Hufner played a pitchfork like a guitar. I’d also credit Omaira Parrilla-Dunne for the lighting design and light board operation on this number. The red lights she projected during the choruses made the routine even more humorous.

The playwright applied Elvis’ songs to enhance the drama, as well. Vinnie DiFilippo and Kyra Moon performed a strong duet on “It’s Now or Never.” As Sylvia, April Johnson delivered a soulful rendition of “There’s Always Me.” Wes Hopkins (as Dennis) sang a moving version of “It Hurts Me.”

Jake Hufner played an excellent “roustabout.” Mr. Hufner adopted a bit of an Elvis voice while still making the songs his own. He mimicked the King’s mannerisms very well as evidenced by Courtney Bundens’ repeated fainting spells. He still kept the role funny. He expressed good frustration and persistence over Miss Sandra’s lack of affection. The confusion he displayed over his unexpected interest in “Ed” was classic.

Jenna German performed the role of Natalie/Ed. Ms. German delivered strong vocals throughout the evening. Even when her character didn’t speak, Mr. German made her feelings clear through well executed facial expressions. I also enjoyed the witty way she showed her character’s interest in Chad with “A Little Less Conversation.”

Wes Hopkins played the lovelorn Dennis. Natalie didn’t return his affections. He found himself in the position of helping her gain Chad’s interest while serving as his “sidekick.” Mr. Hopkins convincingly portrayed his character’s turmoil over this unsettling situation.

Ed Doyle designed an excellent set. Mike Snyder constructed it and Courtney Bundens painted the scenic design. They placed platforms in the shape of guitar bodies at stage right and stage left. A road stretching into the horizon adorned the center.

Renee McCleery designed authentic costuming. Cast members wore items such as a leather jacket, blue suede shoes and period eyeglasses.

The cast also included the following performers: Pat DeFusco, Amanda Barrish, Andrew Chaput, Trisha Dennis, Brennan Diorio, Kayla DiSibio, Joe Grosso, Mark Henley, Jr., Johanna Johnston, Gre Jones, Jenn Kopesky, Allison Korn, Renee McCleery, Jacqueline Spence, Aaron Wachs and William Young.

HPP didn’t have to say “don’t be cruel” to me before I wrote this review. After watching this phenomenal performance, “I don’t’ want to” be mean. “It hurts me” if theatre fans missed All Shook Up’s opening weekend. “That’s alright.” You can still “let yourself go” to Haddonfield Plays and Players. Come August 3rd, it will be “now or never”, however. So “c’mon everybody.”

Seussical at Collingswood Community Theatre

When evaluating the most imaginative directors in South Jersey, Mary Baldwin’s name always makes the short list. It seemed fitting that Ms. Baldwin would select a show inspired by “the thinks you can think” for her next project. She and the Collingswood Community Theatre presented a piece drawn from the creative mind of Dr. Seuss: Seussical: The Musical. I attended the opening night performance on Thursday, July 11th.

Seussical presented a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ beloved works. It included story elements from Horton Hears a Who!, Horton Hatches the Egg, Green Eggs and Ham and others. The show incorporated iconic characters such as Horton the Elephant (played by Stephen Jackson), the Grinch (Sean Coyle) and, the sine qua non of the Seuss universe: the Cat in the Hat (Jeff McGrail).

The Collingswood Community Theatre presented this show in the Main Ballroom of the Scottish Rite building. The room well suited the extensive cast and elaborate staging. The size accommodated my personal preference for musical performances: a live band. Brian Kain directed the orchestra located in the balcony.

Ms. Baldwin opted to forego the “theatre in the round” format CCT has used for its summer shows in recent years. She chose instead the traditional “picture frame” format for Seussical. I liked the artistic decision. With so many performers and multiple interactions between characters occurring during the scenes, it kept all the action within the audience’s rage of vision.

The characters still walked through the aisles and interacted with the spectators. I nearly got splashed by the Cat’s (Jeff McGrail) “tears” as he lamented a sad point in the story. While searching for the Whos, Horton (Stephen Jackson) inspected one of the clover patches held by the audience member sitting next to me. One of the Wickersham Brothers jumped out from behind a curtain a few rows from where I sat. His monkeyshines startled me.

As with every summer performance at the Collingswood Community Theatre, this one contained a spectacular visual spectacle. All audience members received complimentary bracelets upon entering the theatre. Perhaps owing to the magic of Seuss, the devices would light up in different colors during certain scenes. Looking out at the audience and witnessing a series of hues lighting the dark theatre created a wonderful ambiance.

Jeff McGrail took on the iconic role of The Cat in the Hat. Mr. McGrail captured the character’s energy, humor and mischievousness. He also performed outstanding vocal numbers. The high powered opening, “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think”, set the tone for the show.

I liked how Mr. McGrail added a bit of improvisation to the role. He provided an unexpected segue to the ironically titled “How Lucky You Are.” He tripped over the last step on his way to the stage. After a brief smile he broke into song.

Later when The Cat conducted an auction with the audience, Mr. McGrail informed one bidder: “Not you. You laughed at me when I fell.”

On his Facebook page Stephen Jackson commented on how thrilled he felt to be cast as Horton the Elephant. Mr. Jackson showed how much the role meant to him on opening night.

Mr. Jackson showcased the tender side of his vocal prowess in Seussical. He performed a moving duet with JoJo (played by Rory Bernardo) on “Alone in the Universe.” Mr. Jackson sang another deeply affecting piece in the form of “Solla Sollew.”

The following line recurred throughout Horton’s lyrics.

A person’s a person

No matter how small.

Mr. Jackson’s soft intonation expressed how much his character believed it.

Cara Davis has played a variety of secondary characters at the Collingswood Community Theatre. Gertrude provided her with some much deserved time in the spotlight. Ms. Davis delivered wonderfully funny renditions of “The One Feather Tale of Miss Gertrude McFuzz” and “Amazing Gertrude.” She sang an emotional version of “Notice Me Horton” accompanied by Mr. Jackson.

John Dunn played the role of General Genghis Khan Schmitz. The character led a war against people who eat their toast butter side down. That’s not the type of figure an audience would take seriously. Mr. Dunn found ways to make the general even more comical. His choice of voice, repeated twitching of his mustache and cowardly way he explained Jojo’s disappearance to Mr. and Mrs. Mayor made the role even funnier.

The show’s soundtrack contained more than the sentimental numbers mentioned above. The tunes “Monkey Around” and “Chasing the Whos” put the “fun” in Funk. Kaitlyn Woolford’s vocals injected serious soul into “Biggest Blame Fool.” Jessica Hale added her sultry singing style to “Amazing Mayzie.” Compliments go to Brian Kain and his orchestra for their proficient accompaniment.

Seussical also included Kate Schraff’s elaborate choreography. The Bird Girls (Emily Jackson, Kate Thomas Arter, Jen Laksh, Maria Leonen, and Kara Hasings) and the Wickersham Brothers (Hannah Morris, Jack Hastings. Sean Coyle, Ross Shannon, Cassidy Scherz, Ian McGowan, Dylan McGowan, Charlie Temple and Mallory Beach) performed stellar routines. The combination of dance, singing and lighting worked very well together on the “Havin’ a Hunch” number.

This production involved a lot of people. Between the cast and the near sold out audience, I thought we’d need to elect our own congressman before the show started. The following performers completed the ensemble: Matt Griffin, Emily Oleaga Talley, Joey Liberson, Olivia Bee Spinosa, Henry Kain, Ross Shannon, Ava Leacock, Millie Griffin, Caelan Gaines, Sera Scherz, Lydia Ncely, Charlie Temple, Susie Cook, Grace Janco, Cailyn Talley, Griffin Maylath, Buddy Neal, Millie Griffin, Alicia Smartt, Ava Leacock and Clark Griffin.

Several South Jersey community theatre companies have presented Seussical over the last few years. “How lucky you are” if you’ve seen it. The high-tech production at the Collingswood Community Theatre makes it well worth watching again. For those who feel “alone in the universe” for not having seen it yet: the show runs through July 13th at the Scottish Rite. Get your tickets now. Don’t “monkey around.” After Saturday, to quote Dr. Seuss: “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

The Laramie Project at the Maple Shade Arts Council

On October 6, 1998 a hate crime occurred in Laramie, Wyoming. This brutal act riveted the nation. It also inspired a team from the Techtonic Theatre Company to visit the site. Their goal: to develop and understanding of the community in which the incident occurred. Following a year-long investigation they brought their findings to the stage. They called it simply The Laramie Project. This summer the Maple Shade Arts Council presented this verbatim theatre classic on their stage. I attended the opening night performance on June 21st.

During the winter of 2017, I had the opportunity to interview The Laramie Project’s director, Lori Alexio Howard. At the time she was rehearsing for a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Howard expressed the following thoughts on that drama:

 It’s a good time to be doing that show with what’s going on in the country. It will make audiences question their view of the world. It’s good to revisit and question the state of things.

Ms. Howard applied this sense of social consciousness to her latest endeavor. In the playbill she reflected upon the life of her first openly “out” friend.

I am grateful that JT has had 41 years (and counting) to be EXACTLY who he is. It’s because of who he is that I love him so. And yes, twenty years after the events in Laramie, Wyoming, things like hate, prejudice, violence, injustice, and intolerance of those who are different than us are all too common.

The Maple Shade Arts Council’s performance of The Laramie Project made for the most solemn evening of theatre I’ve experienced. All the actors delivered impassioned performances. Because of the story’s tone, no applause occurred between scene changes.

The Laramie Project contained an unusual format for a play. The scenes consisted of a series of interviews the Techtonic Theatre Company conducted with Laramie residents. They asked a variety of people for their thoughts on the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Mr. Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die tied to a fence in a remote section of the Wyoming prairie. What motivated this brutality? Matthew Shepard was a homosexual.

The script crafted these different interviews into a coherent story. Because of the myriad people involved the show’s 16 performers played multiple roles.

The nature of the text added another challenge for actors. Steven Jackson (who played Matt Galloway, Jonas Slonaker, Doug Laws, William McKinney) observed that the script contained words spoken by real people. He dedicated much time to memorizing the text in order to speak his lines as written. “It’s a deep play,” he added.

The Maple Shade Arts Council has presented their summer shows in various venues over the years. The intimate space they selected at the Maple Shade Municipal Building well suited this show. Performers walked through the aisles during the haunting candlelight vigil. Actors entered the stage from the seating area. Cast members stood in front of the stage just a few feet from the audience when speaking. Ms. Howard utilized the entire room to bring the spectators into the story.

Lighting designers / operators Michael Melvin, Lori Howard and Jackie Duran crafted and executed the lighting impeccably. They managed it so well that it functioned like a character in the show. The darkening of the stage at the appropriate times set the mood. The eerie glow enhanced the scene where the cast re-enacted the discovery of Shepard’s body. The flickering during the hospital CEO’s (played by Nicholas French) press conference imitated cameras snapping photos.

The performances in The Laramie Project will haunt theatregoers. The events it depicted occurred in the recent past. It chronicled the thoughts and feelings of real people living in a rural community. It centered upon a tragedy all too common in the modern era. In a sense it was like the director turned the theatre into a mirror. The audience watched a reflection of itself play out on stage.

In one scene performers Abby Drexler and Phyllis Josephson played Laramie locals being interviewed by a member of the Tectonic Theatre Company (played by Nicholas French). Ms. Drexler and Ms. Josephson discussed life in Laramie in a playful and relaxed fashion: until he asked about the Shepard murder. Then the performers became guarded and laconic.

Marissa Wolf delivered a soliloquy expressing her character’s disagreement with the media’s portrayal of the killing. She delivered her character’s view that Mr. Shepard was “not a saint” in a way that didn’t sound bigoted. Her delivery brought out the complexity the events engendered.

Doug Suplee turned in a powerful performance as Matthew’s father. During the sentencing of one of the killers, Mr. Suplee presented a gripping monolog. His delivery combined with the message of temperance made one of the show’s most compelling moments.

The show contained many outstanding moments. Sara Viniar turned in impassioned performances as the Islamic woman and the college professor. Brian Gensel played the young man who discovered Shepard with uncomfortable realism. Steve Rogina brought out the conflict within the doctor who discovered he treated both Shepard and one of his attackers on the same evening the incident occurred.

When directors seek performers who can play multiple roles in the same show, Nick French is becoming South Jersey Community Theatre’s “go to” guy. After playing all eight members of the D’Yasquith family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in January of this year, he cut back to just four in this show.

Mr. French portrayed the moralizing firebrand Fred Phelps. The upside down American flag he wore on his jacket accentuated his character’s views. Mr. French also played the empathetic hospital CEO with the same proficiency.

Performers Chrissy Wick, Chuck Klotz, Frank Simpson Jr., James Gallagher, Jerrod Ganesh, Kat Ross Kline and Michele Liberton rounded out the cast.

The production team included: Assistant Director Lisa Palena, Production Assistant Jackie Duran and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick. Edwin and Lori Howard designed the set.

Even with the disturbing subject matter, Ms. Howard brought out the latent message of hope at the end. As she wrote in the playbill: “All you need is love.” The Laramie Project is one small step towards making that message more common. It runs through June 29th at the Maple Shade Arts Council.