Theater Review

Holmes and Watson at Burlington County Footlighters

Theatre fans won’t have to do a lot of sleuthing to find good theatre this winter. Burlington County Footlighters is presenting Holmes and Watson. The game was afoot on Friday, January 17th. Your correspondent attended the opening night performance that evening.

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher put Sherlock Holmes’ observation that “what one man can invent, another can discover” into crafting this play. He also disproved the fictional sleuth’s musing that, “There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.” Mr. Hatcher expanded on the “whodunit” premise and added a “whoisit” element to the tale. Holmes and Watson explored a mystery in which the famous detective served as the source.

Three years following Holmes’ death, Dr. John Watson (played by Ed Marcinkiewicz) received a strange memo. A man named Dr. Evans (played by Kevin Esmond) summoned him to an asylum off the coast of Scotland. Three men had arrived each claiming to be Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Evans invited Watson to identify the correct one. In a set-up that seemed a bit like a Victorian version of the game show To Tell the Truth, Watson went to this island and then interviewed each alleged Holmes.

Each supposed Holmes had an eclectic personality. Three outstanding actors portrayed the alleged sleuth.

Performer Matt Becker played the most conventional of the three. Mr. Becker captured the attributes of the confident, analytical Holmes. He spoke in a quick fashion, reminiscent of Jeremy Brett, and exhibited the detective’s self-assurance. He best portrayed these features during his first meeting with Watson. Mr. Becker illustrated the sleuth’s powers of deduction by interpreting the scent of the tobacco on his clothes and evaluating the cut of his suit.

Joe Chialastri portrayed the neurotic version of Holmes. Mr. Chialstri showed superb delivery with his narration of Holmes’ final encounter with his nemesis Professor Moriarty. He deftly varied his character’s lines by talking in both American and convincing British accents. His hurried speaking expressed the character’s anxieties. His nervous demeanor added humor to the show; as did the straight jacket he wore throughout the entire performance.

Dave Pallas enacted the deaf, mute and blind incarnation of Holmes. These personality traits didn’t provide Mr. Pallas many opportunities to flex his histrionic muscle. C’est dommage. The performer, however, exploited the opportunities the script presented him. When hypnotized by Dr. Evans he delivered a gripping description of Holmes’ last confrontation with Moriarty.

Like many detective stories, this one became more complex as the story developed. To add to the mystery, Dr. Evans revealed that an inspector (played by Bernard DiCasimirro) arrived before Watson. Someone murdered this investigator. His final words were, “Sherlock Holmes.”

The plot then became even more involved. A missing document and the arrival of a woman (played by Kristin Curley) who claimed to be “murdered” became part of the story. Dr. Evans and Dr. Watson each struggled to solve these mysteries while attempting to identify the true Holmes.

“It has been a long axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important,” Holmes said in A Case of Identity. The same premise applies to directing.

A story featuring a legendary character requires a renowned director to present it. Burlington County Footlighters chose theatrical maven Gabrielle Affleck to lead this project. Ms. Affleck has directed several shows at Footlighters including Kimberly Akimbo (on BCF’s 2nd Stage) and the award winning productions Dracula and The Explorers’ Club. For the latter, Ms. Affleck received the Best Director honor for Footlighters’ 2017 – 2018 season.

Ms. Affleck may have found inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. Perhaps recalling Sherlock Holmes’ observation that he couldn’t “make bricks without clay,” Ms. Affleck selected excellent performers to bring Holmes and Watson to the stage.

Mr. Marcinkiewicz applied Holmes powers’ of deduction into Watson’s character. The performer displayed calmness and cunning reasoning ability. He also delivered the quick reasoning more often identified with Holmes’ character. His slow walk as he explained his analysis showed an underlying arrogance.

Kevin Esmond played the guarded Dr. Evans as an enigmatic figure. His laconic responses showed that he knew much more than he was willing to tell. His character gave Watson incomplete information; in many cases telling him that he couldn’t share the details. The only ideas he expressed openly were those on Watson’s writings. His character harbored a belief that he understood them better than Watson himself. Mr. Esmond’s critiques made his character even more intriguing.

The two characters’ personalities allowed Mr. Marcinkiewicz and Mr. Esmond to perform gripping exchanges opposite one another. These two thespians’ performances made them much more engaging than the dialog suggested.

Mr. Hatcher added elements of literary criticism to the script. Mr. Esmond accused Watson of writing exaggerated “stories” about Holmes. He argued they enhanced the Holmes mystique at the expense of facts. Mr. Marcinkiewicz countered that he wrote accurate “accounts” of Holmes’ deeds. A tense, yet witty conversation resulted.

Kristin Curley played all the female roles in the show. They required a range of acting skills. Ms. Curley expressed the different accents and character traits believably. Her characters included the traumatized “woman”, the unemotional Irish orderly and the ebullient woman in red.

Bernard DiCasimirro added his monumental talents to the show. Even while in the background, Mr. DiCasimirro’s presence hovered over the scenes. His funny accent, shuffle and bushy beard allowed the Orderly to provide excellent comic relief.

Mr. DiCasimirro played another very notable role in the show. He took on the role of the detective genre’s most famous villain in the form of Professor Moriarty. The dark hat and cape he wore gave him a Snidely Whiplash aura sans the handlebar mustache. Mr. DiCasimirro brought out the character’s malicious persona without degenerating into melodrama.

This portrayal of Moriarty once more showed Mr. DiCasimirro rather adept at playing “bad guys.” In October of 2018, Mr. DiCasimirro played an outstanding Richard Nixon in Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage production of Frost/Nixon. After his mastery of portraying antagonists, it would be interesting to watch Mr. DiCasimirro play a likable protagonist. The strength of his recent performances shows that he has the ability. Perhaps Mr. DiCasimirro should consider trying the role of someone like Sherlock Holmes. If his performance in this show is any indication, he could do so without audiences even knowing that he’s acting.

“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” Holmes said in A Scandal in Bohemia. Judging from the gasps of surprise your correspondent heard during the show, this audience did much more of the former than the latter. The script contained more plot twists and surprises than the last two minutes of a Saw film. While mind-bending at times, the shifts made the suspension of disbelief more interesting.

Once again, Jim Frazer proved himself a set designer beyond comparison. In the past, he’s turned the Footlighters stage into a Christmas village, a Victorian explorers’ club and the Bonnie and Clyde death car among many other locations. This time he transformed it into both Switzerland and a late-Victorian asylum.

Holmes and Watson contained flashbacks to the final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty. This scene occurred at the Reichenbach Falls in the Bernese Oberland. The rocks combined with creative lighting (also designed by Mr. Frazer) to simulate moving water made Mr. Frazer’s set appear even more uncannily authentic than usual.

Mr. Frazer displayed excellent attention to detail with the asylum. Exposed brick showed through sections of the gray concrete walls. The archways leading off-stage added to the dreary ambiance.

This set provided the director with opportunities for some mesmerizing visual spectacles. Ms. Affleck used them brilliantly. The scene at the falls where the silhouette of Holmes played his violin looked more like a movie scene than live action theatre.

Ms. Affleck used lighting ingeniously for another key scene. When Kristin Curley (as “the woman”) explained the events that led to her situation, Ms. Affleck had her move to center stage. A spotlight provided the only illumination. This staging gave the scene more impact.

Mr. Frazer and Sound Designer Bob Beaucheane combined their talents to create realistic thunder and lighting. The crashes and flashes enhanced the tension on stage at the appropriate times.

“They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” He (Sherlock Holmes) remarked with a smile. “It is a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.”

The same premise applies to theatrical performances. The cast and crew at Footlighters sure showed their own brand of genius for Holmes and Watson.

Other members of the production team included: Assistant Director Pat Frazer, Producer Torben Christiansen, Stage Manager Chrissy Wick and Props/Special Effects Coordinator Jasmine Chalfont. Amanda Cogdell, Ty Chalfont, Jen Scache Bloomberg managed costumes. Valerie Brothers performed hair and make-up.

The real mystery is why theatrical fans would miss the opportunity to see Holmes and Watson. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s work will enjoy the show; as will anyone interested in detective stories. Its plot twists will also appeal to fans of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. South Jersey’s community theatre fans don’t need someone as smart as Mycroft Holmes to tell them to see it. The decision to watch this show is “elementary.” It runs through February 1st at Burlington County Footlighters.

 

Sweet Charity at the Ritz Theatre Company

Valentine’s Day comes early this year compliments of the Ritz Theatre Company. The production team replaced all the theatre’s Holiday decorations with hearts, red streamers and a musical about the joys and sorrows of looking for love. The fickle finger of fate led your correspondent to attend Sweet Charity on Saturday, January 11th.

Charity Hope Valentine (played by Lauren Bristow) endeavored upon a quest for love. A series of unfortunate choices caused some navigational problems along her voyage. One boyfriend threw her into a lake. Another used her as his personal ATM machine. The third time seemed more promising.

An encounter with Oscar Lindquist (played by Matthew Weil) led to a blossoming romance. Unfortunately, quirks riddled Mr. Lundquist’s personality. His pathological obsession with purity functioned as the most glaring. Charity feared her job as a ‘dancehall hostess’ would cause him to terminate their relationship. It caused Lundquist to wonder if his taste in women could be as flawed as Charity’s taste in men.

That’s pretty heavy material for a book written by Neil Simon based on a concept by Bob Fosse. While witty at first, the story contained the potential of becoming a 1960s answer to Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Fortunately for theatre fans, directors Bruce A. Curless and Roberta Curless kept the performance lighthearted and entertaining.

Sweet Charity featured a host of impressive dance routines choreographed by Co-Director Roberta Curless. Most of them highlighted Charity. Lauren Bristow proved herself the perfect performer to play the part. Ms. Bristow opened the show with a wonderful solo dance that contained no vocal accompaniment. She deftly incorporated a hat and a cane into the “If My Friends Could See Me Now” number while singing Dorothy Fields’ lyrics. (Cy Coleman wrote the music.) Later in the show, Ms. Bristow executed a series of quick twirls while performing “Where Am I Going.”

The other cast members performed a memorable sequence themselves. The instrumental “Rich Man’s Shrug” included an eclectic mix of music. It allowed the choreographer and ensemble to explore their creativity. During the number’s first part, this reviewer thought: if Mike Myers wrote Austin Powers as a musical, this song would be in it. The piece’s second section hearkened back to the sound of the Roaring Twenties. The routines Ms. Curless crafted well suited both these unique musical styles.

Charity may have struggled to find love, but audiences will find it easy to love Lauren Bristow as Charity. Ms. Bristow turned in a superlative performance. Because of the strength of her solo dance routines, her dancing ability impressed the most. She also showcased stellar vocals all evening on songs such as “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, “Ciao Baby” and “Where Am I Going” as well as on the ensemble tracks.

Through her acting ability, Ms. Bristow captured the character’s inner hopefulness. In spite of Charity’s romantic turmoil, Ms. Bristow’s smile expressed her indomitable optimism. Her curious yet amused facial expressions during the Rhythm of Life church scene, showed how the character could find amusement in even the most awkward situations. In addition, Ms. Bristow delivered her many comic lines with both seriousness and the proper timing.

Ms. Bristow also captured the serious side of the character’s personality. For a story written in 1966, Charity evolved into a model of female empowerment. Ms. Bristow portrayed this change with believability; in large due to her skillful display of Charity’s inner optimism.

After the completion of his latest directorial project, Willy Wonka, Matt Weil returned to the stage for another show about sweetness. Mr. Weil pulled his own version of a ‘Nicholas French at the Ritz’ performance.* Mr. Weil played all three of Charity’s boyfriends. He played the first two as humorous characters. He wore a pompadour wig and dark sunglasses for Charlie. Mr. Weil adopted a silly voice while wearing a shaggy wig for the second beau.

Well known for his directing prowess, Mr. Weil showed himself just as adept a performer while on stage. In the role of Oscar Lundquist, Mr. Weil sang an impassioned rendition of “Sweet Charity.” He displayed a comical, yet believable case of nerves when trapped on the elevator with Ms. Bristow. His vocals on “I’m the Bravest Individual” expressed his anxiety.

Ms. Bristow and Mr. Weil complimented one another very well. When Ms. Bristow confessed Charity’s real profession, Mr. Weil exhibited empathy and understanding. Later, Mr. Weil did an excellent enactment of Oscar’s inner conflict. He modulated his character’s attitude making the confrontation scene much more moving. Ms. Bristow’s response gave the resolution added impact.

Vocal Director Tim Brown conducted wonderful arrangements. “Big Spender” featured performers Lauren Bristow, Lindsey Krier, Kelly Govak, Kristin Hegel and Melanie Ervin singing together. Mr. Brown split the vocal sections between the performers. The organization allowed the melody to create a unique audio effect.

Other memorable tunes populated the set list. Ms. Krier and Ms. Govak turned in a strong performance of “Baby Dream Your Dream.” Craig Bazan led a terrific rendition of “I Love to Cry at Weddings.” Terrance T. Hart delivered an operatic sounding “Too Many Tomorrows.”

Sweet Charity’s ambiance gave the performance an excellent 60s vibe. The set (designed by William Bryant) contained a mix of bright and semi-dark colors. The choices reminded this reviewer of the cover of Cream’s Disraeli Gears album.

Costume Designer Tina Greene-Heinze used the same patterns in her work. She placed Ms. Govak in a bright yellow dress. The sequins on Ms. Krier’s blue dress sparkled and enhance the brilliance. The black dress Ms. Bristow wore and the tuxedo on Terrance T. Hart offset the bright colors. The psychedelic patterns on the Rhythm of Life Church members’ clothes fit the time period.

Jim Reed’s wig designs kept the audience rooted in the period as well. They comprised currant buns, long shaggy hair and big Afros. With all the high impact dancing, it surprised this reviewer than none of the performers lost their wigs during the show.

Other members of the Production Team included: Sound Designer Matthew Gallagher, Lighting Designer Chris Miller, Technical Director Nathan Kunst, Stage Manager Brian Gensel, Properties, Meg Iafolla, Assistant Stage Managers Melissa Harnois and Alyssa Sendler, Sound Board Operators Anastasia Swan and Natasha Swann and Spot Operators Gabe Slimm and Jessi Meisel.

The show your correspondent witnessed included a moment for the blooper reel. Since there is no video recording of live theatre, fans will have to be content to read about it. When Matt Weil’s character entered the dancehall, performer Craig Bazan (as the proprietor Herman) called him by his real name, Matt.

Charity observed, “Without love, life has no purpose.” Without shows as fun as Sweet Charity, musical theatre has no purpose. Make a date to see it at the Ritz no later than February 2nd. After that, this run will seem as ephemeral as one of Charity’s relationships.

 

*In the Ritz Theatre’s January 2019 production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, performer Nicholas French played all eight members of the D’Yasquith family.

Scrooge: The Musical “Revitalized and Reimagined” at the Ritz Theatre Company

The “Weil”d December continues for South Jersey community theatre fans.

Under Matthew Weil’s direction, the Ritz Theatre Company premiered the “revitalized and reimagined” version of Scrooge: The Musical this week. This perennial Holiday classic took the stage sans Bruce A. Curless in the lead role. It’s also the second Holiday show that Mr. Weil is directing this month: and it’s one extraordinary Christmas tour-de-force. Your correspondent attended the Saturday evening show on December 14th.

While approaching the Ritz, a series of illuminated Christmas wreaths adorning the Ritz building captured your correspondent’s attention. As did the evergreen strands descending from the roof onto the marquee. The red and green colors of the iconic R-I-T-Z letters distinguished this historic South Jersey institution from the other edifices along the White Horse Pike.

As much as those features established the Holiday mood, the Ritz staff made the interior even more festive. Scrooge purists will be delighted that the production team retained the familiar wreath, evergreen garland and Christmas trees that framed the stage.

The “Weil”d December turned into one “Weil”d Winter Wonderland.

The wrapped gifts underneath the Christmas tree seemed superfluous, however. The real present was the one the performers delivered to the audience.

Alan Krier demonstrates courage when selecting theatrical projects. He played dual roles in Bruce Norris’ exploration of housing discrimination: Clybourne Park. For his first directorial endeavor he chose David Lindsey-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole: a Pulitzer Prize winning play centered on a family coping with the death of their child. Mr. Krier’s decision to play the role of everyone’s favorite Christmas curmudgeon may be his bravest choice yet.

As South Jersey community theatre fans know, 2019 marks the first time the Ritz is presenting Scrooge without Bruce A. Curless in the lead role. He is, in essence, the Tom Brady of Scrooge performers. He’s played that role every December for over twenty years. Unlike actors such as George C. Scott, Winfred Owen and Seymour Hicks, Mr. Curless is a veritable institution as Scrooge. When the Ritz’s production team decided to return this South Jersey “Holiday tradition” to the stage, they only thought of one performer to take the mantle of Scrooge from him: Alan Krier.

Mr. Krier pulled off a theatrical Jimmy Garoppolo, as it were. When stepping out of a master’s shadow, he took a franchise with an uncertain future to another level. The witty delivery he employed for the “I Hate People” number drew laughs from the audience. As did his riposte to Marley’s (played by John Nicodemo) announcement that Scrooge would be visited by three ghosts. The nervous, “I’d rather not,” added to the legacy of vintage Krier comedy.

Director Weil made this incarnation of Scrooge much more dramatic than last year’s performance. He discarded the fluff and pageantry (and thankfully, the platforms in the middle of the room) to focus on the story. By removing those layers, he allowed the depth of Charles Dickens’ original tale to surface. A fable of greed, poverty and redemption played out on stage.

Mr. Krier enacted the dramatic scenes with extraordinary skill. His interactions with John Nicodemo (in the roles of Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Future) equalled the strongest performances he’s delivered on stage. His somber pining when watching his younger self (played by Robert Repici) and his lost love Isabelle (Lindsey Krier) moved this reviewer. The sorrow on his face when Lindsey Krier performed “Isabelle’s Dance” to end the first act concretized Scrooge’s heart shattering.

The Ritz team understood that the comparisons between Mr. Krier and Mr. Curless would occur. Director Weil didn’t burden Mr. Krier with carrying the show on his own. Mr. Weil surrounded him with a cast of monumentally talented performers. They gave the “revitalized and reimagined” Scrooge its own identity.

Robert Repici and Lindsey Krier delivered a gripping version of “Happiness.” The cool baritone of Mr. Repici’s voice accentuated the song’s bittersweet lyrics. Ms. Krier applied palpable passion and enthusiasm to this number. The addition of the dark background, lighting and snow made the scene a visual spectacle for the ages.

The Cratchit kids (Adalyn Crow, Anna Bizhko, Jeffrey Smith and Lillian Low) delivered the “cute factor” for the “Good Times” number. Kaitlyn Healey’s vocals and Steve Stonis’ operatic syllables made this another unforgettable number.

Mr. Weil ensured that each of Scrooge’s spectral visitors possessed their own distinct personalities.

John Nicodemo’s anguished delivery as Jacob Marley captured the character’s torment. His slouching under the weight of the chains showed it. Mr. Nicodemo’s silence and slow movements made the Ghost of Christmas Future even more minatory.

Daio Fumilayo delivered a haunting performance as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The lighting and white gown gave her character an ethereal ambiance. Ms. Fumilayo’s calm delivery (with just a touch of reverb added) and blank stares at Scrooge reflected the character’s otherworldly nature.

John Romano, Jr. made the Ghost of Christmas Present just as jolly as Good Old Saint Nick himself. His Marc Bolan style wig added good comedic effect. The laughter and mannerisms Mr. Romano used while showing Scrooge both the Cratchits’ and Harry’s Christmas festivities gave the impression that he enjoyed the show just as much as the audience. Mr. Romano moderated his character’s frivolity when Scrooge inquired about Tiny Tim’s fate. The tempered anger in his voice while repeating Scrooge’s point about “excess population” gave the point more impact.

Thanks to Mr. Weil’s hospitality, your correspondent attended a rehearsal for Scrooge. During that session Musical Director Nicholas French and Alan Krier teamed up for “Thank You Very Much.” The two brought immense energy to that run through. They displayed even more vitality during the actual show. This reviewer wouldn’t have through that possible.

Steve Stonis, who directed Scrooge last year, and Adalyn Crow performed outstanding acapella numbers, as well.

While this year’s Scrooge didn’t include a ballet company, it did contain a solo dance in that style. Lisa Krier performed a wonderful routine on the “Celebration” number; the latter composed by Bob Cerulli.

In addition to the talent, Mr. Weil added spellbinding visuals to this version of Scrooge. The snow falling from the ceiling along with the strategic use of lighting (designed by Mr. Weil and operated by Stage Manager Melissa Harnois) enhanced the action on the stage. The periodic illuminating and dimming of the wreath above the stage and Christmas trees on stage left and stage right made the show a spectacular Christmas spectacle.

The other performers who provided their talents for this outstanding show included: Charles Bandler, Liz Baldwin, Jay Burton, Sadie McKenna, Audrey Mitros, Dillinger Crow, Beatrice (Bee) Fraga, Gwen Low and Ella Samuel-Seigel.

Assistant Stage Manager Brian Gensel, Costume Designer Briana Bailey and Sound Operators Sam Tait and Natasia Swan rounded out the production team.

Community theatre fans have the opportunity to get the full range of Mr. Weil’s directorial talents this December. Those impressed with the “revitalized and reimagined” Scrooge are encouraged to attend Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka at Haddonfield Plays and Players. Mr. Weil also directed that show; Scrooge’s Stage Manager Melissa Harnois assistant directed. Wonka runs through December 21st.

Mr. Weil’s direction ensured he won’t be visited by any apparitions this Holiday Season. The stage set, the marquee and the overall story would satisfy the Ghost of Christmas Past. Mr. Krier’s interpretation of Scrooge, the performance of the cast and crew as well as the “reimagined and revitalized” franchise would captivate the Ghost of Christmas Present. (He’d probably be happy that the platforms in the middle of the building are gone, too.) All the new faces in the cast would make even the dreadful Ghost of Christmas Future smile. These performers may ensure the Scrooge franchise a home at the Ritz for the next two decades.

This run, however, passes from the domain of the Ghost of Christmas Present to the Ghost of Christmas Past on December 22nd. Fans should see Scrooge: The Musical before the Ghost of Christmas Future haunts them about the prospect of missing it.

 

Little Women at Bridge Players Theatre Company

After spending Thanksgiving with family, audiences now have the opportunity to spend some time with one of the most iconic families in American literature; compliments of the Bridge Players Theatre Company. For the second show in their 2019 – 2020 season of “celebrating the joy, complexity and strength of women” the group presented Marian DeForest’s theatrical adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Your correspondent boxed up his Thanksgiving leftovers, made an early New Year’s Resolution to lose weight and headed over to the theatre to spend an evening with the March family on November 30th.

In keeping with the upcoming Holiday Season, the story began in December 1863. The family lamented not having their father home for Christmas. (The War Between the States had inspired him to serve in the army.) While his daughters rehearsed for a play that Jo (played by Allie Shaw) wrote, their mother (Ashley Carragher) received word of Mr. March’s illness. She left their Concord home to attend to her husband in Washington. Following her departure, the March girls began their transformation from girls into women.

Director Maureen Broadbent wrote in the playbill: I am sure, however, that we can nonetheless relate to one or more of these characters in our own lives. The author and the playwright made it easy to do so. The writers ensured each of the four March daughters possessed their own unique traits.

Jo March (played by Allie Shaw) possessed the qualities of a non-conformist and temperamental artist. In keeping with mid-nineteenth century society’s conventions, Meg (played by Emily Rose O’Connell) longed to become a wife and mother. Amy (Mia Zambrano) harbored aspirations of becoming a woman of high society. Other than an interest in nature, the timid Beth (Arielle Kline), to put it charitably, didn’t share her sisters’ having ambitions.

These four diverse dispositions created myriad opportunities for conflict. The performers utilized the clashes for both dramatic and comedic effect. Ms. Zambrano delivered frequent mispronunciations when alluding to Jo’s lack of sophistication. Mr. Shaw’s book toss when discussing Meg’s pending engagement captured the character’s frustration. Ms. Shaw accomplishedly combined anger and humor when discovering Meg and John Brooke (played by Aaron Wachs) making their marital plans official. She called her parents by saying, “Mr. Brooke is being disagreeable with Meg (beat) and Meg’s liking it!”

SPOILER ALERT: Little Women also contained a nineteenth century version of a love triangle. Family friend, Teddy Laurence (Alex Stork), often took Amy on various excursions. He secretly longed for Jo’s love. Mr. Stork and Ms. Shaw both brought strong emotions into the scene when he expressed his feelings. Both performers made it a very powerful and uncomfortable episode to watch. Ms. Shaw became just as devastated while rejecting Mr. Stork’s advance as his character felt receiving her response to it.

Allie Shaw enacted Jo’s myriad emotional states magnificently. Ms. Shaw’s gift for facial expressions showed the passion within Jo. The performer executed wonderful overacting while performing Jo’s play-within-the-play. Ms. Shaw displayed the same skill during the tragic scenes. She also showed tenderness playing opposite Ms. Kline during Beth’s illness. Ms. Shaw turned in an all-around outstanding acting performance.

While the weekend after Thanksgiving is a busy one for most people, this reviewer found the attendance at the November 30th performance of Little Women disappointing. During a time of year when audiences will be inundated with plays, programs and movies featuring images of mutton chops, the sounds of British accents and the scenery of Victorian London, why not escape the monotony by enjoying a classic American story set in Civil War era Massachusetts?* Besides, the cast at Bridge Players Theatre turned in an incredible interpretation of it.

Other performers in the show included: Cynthia Young, Bob Rossi and Gavin Knox. Timothy Kirk, the current captain of the Bridge Players Theatre Company enterprise, played Mr. March.

The following served as members of the Production Team: Assistant Director Patti Keefer, Producer Gwen Ricks-Spencer, Stage Manager Lori Gilmore, Technical Director Kristian Kauker, Lighting Design/Lighting Technician Bob Beaucheane, and Set Construction Manager Bob Broadbent. Bob Broadbent, Dave McGrath, Bob Shaughnessy, Bob Rossi and the cast worked on set construction. Nora Krahenbuhl, Noelle Small and Mary Kay Hansen handled the costuming.

Your correspondent enjoyed the time he spent with the March family. The experience gave him something else for which to be thankful during this Thanksgiving weekend. Time is running out for those who haven’t had the opportunity. Make an early New Year’s Resolution to see Little Women at Bridge Players Theatre Company. The show runs through December 7th.

 

*It is with embarrassment that your correspondent acknowledges he’s never read Louisa May Alcott’s novel.

Preview of Scrooge “Revitalized and Reimagined” at the Ritz Theatre Company

This December will be an historic one at the Ritz Theatre Company. While the company will be reviving its popular Holiday show Scrooge: The Musical, this year it will include a significant change. For the first time in over two decades, Bruce Curless will not play the lead role.

This November 23rd, your correspondent sat down with Director Matt Weil, as well as the Ritz’s Communications and Group Sales Manager Robert Repici (who is also playing the roles of Young Scrooge and Harry) and the new Scrooge himself, Alan Krier. We discussed the upcoming “revitalized and reimagined” production of Scrooge.

Prior to the 2018 production of Scrooge, Mr. Curless announced he would no longer play Scrooge after that run. The organization’s production team explored other options for their 2019 Holiday program. While Scrooge had been among the Ritz’s top revenue producers last year, financial considerations weren’t the only reason the group decided to return it to the stage.

“The show has a rich history,” Mr. Repici explained. The “thematic potency” appeals to audiences. Watching it at the Ritz during the Holiday Season is “a family tradition.”

“Tradition is a big, big factor,” Mr. Weil added.

So what inspired the director of shows such as Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Pillowman and Big River to add a Christmas production to his repertoire? “It’s impossible to watch a show and not direct it in your head,” Matthew Weil said. For the last four years, Mr. Weil has been: “watching (Scrooge) in various capacities…This show keeps coming back. I wanted to do it.”

While an immense talent in his own right, Mr. Krier understands that he is following a legendary performer in the lead role. He acknowledged that the comparisons to Mr. Curless will be “inescapable.” “I see it as a tribute. No one can fill Bruce’s shoes.” Mr. Krier’s goal is to “entertain the audience.”

Mr. Krier added that, “We’re doing it so differently this year.”

Audience members will not have to crane their necks or turn around in their seats. Mr. Weil and Mr. Repici explained that this version of Scrooge will not include the platforms in the middle of the Ritz Theatre. Mr. Weil described them as “polarizing.” “I’m not a fan artistically,” he added. He prefers to: “build layers on the suspension of disbelief.” He believes that the platforms “break the spell.”

The actors will not perform in the aisles, either. Mr. Weil is sensitive to the fact that some “audience members aren’t comfortable getting close to the characters.” This year, all of the action will occur on stage.

The “reimagined and revisited” Scrooge also will not include the ballet routines. “It gave the show more of a pageant feel,” Mr. Repici said. As a director, Mr. Weil explained that he “focuses on the story and this one is character driven.” For Scrooge, he wants to “strip away the fluff and get back to the story.”

The Ritz has made “major changes” to the show in the past. Mr. Weil noted that one year they made all the characters into animals. He referred to the 2019 version as “another iteration.”

The Ritz production team allowed your correspondent to remain for the rehearsal. The scenery from the Ritz’s current production of The Wiz in the background seemed fitting. Mr. Weil displayed intelligence, heart and courage through his own magical wizardry. He coordinated various scenes and integrated the dance numbers into the larger production with the grace of a conductor leading a symphony.

Under Mr. Weil’s direction, Kaitlyn Healy delivered differing versions of “Good Times.” Each contained very moving sections. “The cute factor is high (in the Cratchit dance number),” Mr. Weil said. Nicholas French and Mr. Krier performed a high-energy rendition of “Thank You Very Much.” With that much passion, potency and appeal at a rehearsal, it will be interesting to see the quality of the finished product.

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Mr. Krier worked his own ideas into the role of Scrooge. In addition to getting many laughs from his cast mates, he even incorporated a jig into one scene. Dancing ability must run in the Krier family. Mr. Krier’s daughter, Lindsey, is the show’s choreographer.

The Ghost of Christmas Future puppet (which Mr. Weil built) is no more. This time John Nicodemo will play the role. Your correspondent got a sampling of his climactic confrontation with Scrooge. This one contained an unexpected twist that will delight audiences.

The “revitalized and reimagined” Scrooge contains elements that will appeal to both purists and those interested in a new take on a classic. Regarding the changes, Mr. Weil said, “If (the show is) good, the audience will like it.” Scrooge runs from December 12th through December 22nd at the Ritz Theatre Company.

The Wiz at the Ritz Theatre Company

While many in South Jersey lamented not seeing some individuals with no heart, no brain and no guts wearing green this weekend, The Ritz Theatre Company provided an outlet. They treated audiences to a rhythm and blues infused extravaganza down the Yellow Brick Road and into the Emerald City compliments of The Wiz. Your correspondent attended the November 9th performance. Kyrus Keenan Westcott directed.

L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz inspired this musical. It’s unlikely that Baum anticipated the story presented as a dance extravaganza accompanied by the funky soul music of the 1970s. William F. Brown’s and Charlie Smalls’ concept worked, however. Perhaps the Hamilton of its day, The Wiz premiered in 1974 with an all African American cast.

 The Wiz described an amazing journey. Following an argument with her Aunt Em (played by Danielle Harley-Scott), Dorothy (played by Olivia West) longed to escape from Kansas. A wind storm then came through town transporting her to a place called Oz. Upon arrival, Dorothy then longed to return to her Kansas home. A group of Munchkins suggested she visit the Emerald City and ask The Wiz (Darryl Thompson, Jr.) for advice.

While traveling along the Yellow Brick Road she encountered a trio of interesting characters. They included a Scarecrow (Kyle Smith), a Tin Man (Malik Muhammad) and a Lion (Craig Bazan). As these individuals also needed The Wiz’s assistance with their problems, they accompanied her. Upon meeting him, he offered to help, but on the condition they first kill Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. (Danielle Harley-Scott) The four companions’ journey had only just begun.

Devon Sinclair performed exceptional choreography for this show. The mesmerizing dance sequences included groups of Tornados, Monkeys, Poppies as well as other members of the cast. Mr. Sinclair arranged stellar moves for these entertaining scenes. The ensemble impressed by executing them so well.

Olivia West’s acting made Dorothy a very easy character with whom to empathize. Ms. West accentuated this trait through her singing. She delivered moving numbers such as “Soon as I Get Home” and the “Finale” beautifully. Her duet with the Lion (Craig Bazan) on “Be a Lion” was also very touching. The performer showed the same vocal proficiency when singing upbeat numbers such as the iconic “Ease on Down the Road.”

Kyle Smith approached the role of the Scarecrow with a lot of intelligence. His raggedy costume (designed by Yu’seph Cornish) made his character appear very authentic. Mr. Smith added further realism to the role with the way he wobbled while walking. He also sang a marvelous rendition of “Born on the Day Before Yesterday.”

Malik Muhammad put his heart into playing the Tin Man. Mr. Muhammad performed fantastic dance moves. He impressed by doing so in such an elaborate costume. The sparkles he wore in his beard complimented it very well. The axe he carried seemed symbolic of the outstanding vocal chops he delivered all evening. His warm voice well suited “Slide Some Oil to Me” and “What Would I Do if I Could Feel.”

Craig Bazan showed a lot of courage taking on the role of the Lion. In addition to strong dancing and vocal skills, Mr. Bazan displayed a strong aptitude for comedy. He played a hysterical scene when enticed by the Poppies. His delivery on the ironically titled “Mean Ole Lion” made the song much more comical.

The title of “The Wiz” would well suit Darryl Thompson, Jr. even better than the character he played. Once again Mr. Thompson, Jr. showcased the wizardry of his voice for theatre fans. Mr. Thompson, Jr. sang an inspirational version of “Believe in Yourself.” He also performed “Meet the Wizard” so powerfully that it would’ve have been just as easy to hear him without a microphone.

 1970s Oz experienced a bigger witch infestation problem than Salem did during the late seventeenth century. All three of Oz’s enchantresses put the audience under a spell. They achieved it through their vocal charms. Siiyara Nelson played Addaperle, April Johnson performed Glinda, and Danielle Harley-Scott took on the role of Evillene.

The ensemble included performers: April Johnson, John Clark, Terrance T Hart, Dhameer Kennedy, Shakeer Hood, Rafi Mills, Kiara Johnson, Zoe Holmes, Melanie Camille, Breyona Coleman and Mikaela Rada.

The production team comprised: Director Kyrus Keenan Westcott, Vocal Director Michelle Foster, Costume Designer Yu’seph Cornish, Sound Designer Matthew Gallagher and Set and Light Designer Chris Miller.

Director Kyrus Keenan Westcott wrote in the playbill:

 …I don’t want you to think of this as “the black version of The Wizard of Oz.” I think this story and these characters and this music deserve so much more than that notion. While it does tell the story through the eyes and musicality of African Americans, it speaks a universal language that everybody can enjoy.

That’s so true. A tale of someone struggling to overcome obstacles on a quest to find “home” is one that all people can understand. The Wiz’s powerful message of believing in one’s self resonates with everyone.

The Wiz works its magic through November 24th. After that, it’s back to Kansas for the Ritz Theatre Company; well, make that Haddon Township’s Arts District.

Arsenic and Old Lace at Burlington County Footlighters

Just when theatre fans thought the horrors of Halloween had passed. Burlington County Footlighters added a touch of terror to the Thanksgiving season this November. After attending this run of Arsenic and Old Lace, no audience members will be able to complain about spending Turkey Day with the family this year. Your correspondent attended the opening night performance on Friday, November 8th.

First time director Matt Dell’Olio (assisted by A. Robert Basile) presented a dark comedy with a disturbing plot. Elaine Harper (played by Alex Davis), a minister’s daughter, became engaged to the most odious creature this planet has produced since humans evolved out of the primordial ooze. She’d planned on marrying the real-life version of H. P. Lovecraft’s the thing that should not be. Her fiancé, Mortimer Brewster (played by Russell Palmieri) worked as a…gasp… theatre critic.

It says something about the Brewster family that a dramatic critic served as its paragon of normalcy. Showing outstating imagination, playwright Joseph Kesselring ensured that one did.

Mortimer’s spinster aunts, Abby Brewster (Susan Dewey) and Martha Brewster (Jeanne Wayman), killed a dozen people. His brother Teddy (Benjamin Couey) believed himself to be Theodore Roosevelt. His other brother Jonathan (Daniel McDevitt) was a serial killer with ambition. He aspired to kill more people than his aunts did.

Mortimer’s realization that no amount of chlorine could cleanse this gene pool caused him to contemplate ending his engagement. At the same time, he attempted to keep his aunts’ macabre hobby from law enforcement. The latter became difficult due to the many visits from police officers (Mark Henley, Tyler Conklin Jeffrey Rife and Nanci Cope). They seemed to spend as much time at the Brewster home as the family did. Mortimer also struggled not to become the latest statistic in Jonathan’s quest.

As one can discern from the plot summary, performer Russell Palmieri had a busy evening playing Mortimer. Mr. Palmieri balanced his facial expressions so they displayed terror, but always with a touch of humor. His best occurred when performer Nanci Cope explained that her character (Officer O’Hara) was a playwright. His reaction to her narrative showed more perturbation than when on the receiving end of Jonathan’s and Dr. Einstein’s (Kori Rife) machinations.

Daniel McDevitt played an outstanding villain in the form of Jonathan. His character may not have liked the comparison to Boris Karloff, but his voice reminded this reviewer of Bobby “Boris” Pickett. His addition of a malevolent tone to his deep baritone made listening to him more enjoyable.

Kori Rife played a terrific sidekick to him as Dr. Einstein. She expressed her lines in a German accent that was easy to understand.

Susan Dewey and Jeanne Wyman made the Brewster sisters’ murderous mayhem witty. Both performers used soft voices when calmly discussing the killings. They maintained the same facial expressions one would use when describing something as benign as the weather. Their deliveries and mannerisms enhanced the comedy in Mr. Kesselring’s script brilliantly.

Footlighters legend Alex Davis added her histrionic talents to the ensemble; as did Footlighters newcomers Ron Brining and Benjamin Couey.

The production team included Stage Manager Will Nelson, Producer Dennis Dougherty, Costumers Amanda Cogdell and Leslie Romanuski.

This production of Arsenic and Old Lace was unique in that two of the best set designers in South Jersey were involved in the project. Jeff Rife opted to forgo working on set design in this one, however, instead focusing on his acting. He played the dual roles of Mr. Gibbs and Lieutenant Rooney. Footlighters’ sublime set specialist, Jim Frazer, handled the set design.

For this show, Mr. Frazer placed a window at stage right that led to an opening outside the Brewster home. It appeared realistic and served its functional purpose by allowing for Mr. McDevitt and Ms. Rife to climb through it.

The set included a real staircase that led to a landing. There it turned a full 90 degrees leading to an upper balcony. In addition to the aesthetic appeal it also served a practical use. Multiple performers climbed it during the show. Benjamin Couey utilized it throughout the evening as his character led imaginary troops into combat.

To borrow one of Teddy’s favorite phrases, theatre fans should “chaaaaarrrrge” to Burlington County Footlighters. After watching this killer comedy, audiences won’t feel quite as disturbed by eccentric relatives at Thanksgiving Dinner: unless they happen to be theatre critics. Everyone will still avoid the elderberry wine, though.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs through November 23rd at Burlington County Footlighters. After that, it succumbs to community theatre’s version of “yellow fever” and will rest in one of the metaphorical locks at Teddy’s Panama Canal.

Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Village Playbox

The Village Playbox is taking theatregoers back to the beach this autumn. Audiences should pack up their cars and head not to the shore, but to Haddon Heights, NJ. Something more entertaining than sand and surf awaits them there. The company is presenting first volume of Neil Simon’s Eugene trilogy: Brighton Beach Memoirs. Your correspondent attended the Saturday, 11/02/19 performance.

What is it about families that makes them so interesting? Director Steve Allen inquired in the playbill. If one is to use Mr. Simon’s fictitious Morton family as an example that answer is “a lot.” The clan included a mix of both lovable and quirky characters. Their dreams and flaws made for a lot of conflict and confrontations in a show billed as a comedy.

Ostensibly a story following Eugene Morris Jerome’s (played by Ricky Conway) transition from adolescence into manhood, the show really focused on the trials facing the Jerome’s family. Eugene’s Aunt Blanche (Jennifer Wilson) and her two daughters had moved in with his family after her husband’s passing. She’d become withdrawn and emotionally lost following the tragedy. Her youngest daughter Laurie (Sofia DiCostanzo) had a heart condition that limited her physical activity. Nora (Madeline Johnston), the elder, harbored aspirations of quitting high school to become a Broadway dancer.

Eugene’s father Jack (Dave Helgeson) worked several jobs to earn the money needed to support this extended family. The strain impacted his heath. Eugene’s brother Stanley’s (Jonathan Wallace) immaturity caused him to make reckless financial decisions. Eugene’s mother Kate (Amy Bannister) endured the most difficult task of all. She had to hold this unit together: while trying to find Blanche a husband.

Ricky Conaway played Eugene: a challenging role. Eugene served as both the narrator and a character in the story. Mr. Conway brought passion and energy to his performance. He rattled off the myriad zingers in Mr. Simon’s script with ease. The more memorable included:

“I love tense moments! Especially when I’m not the one they’re all tense about.”

“The tension in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Which is more than I could say for the liver.”

“If only I was born Italian…All the best Yankess are Italian…My mother makes spaghetti with ketchup. What chance do I have?”

Fittingly, Eugene longed to become a writer.

Mr. Conway also showed the same skill when performing dramatic scenes. He and Jonathan Wallace worked very well together. The two performers made it easy to visualize them as brothers. They showed the characters’ love for one another while still fighting like siblings. During their confrontation scene Mr. Conway showed Eugene’s change from the mindset of a child into that of an adult.

Amy Bannister wrote that she was elated to be in her sixth show by her favorite playwright in her cast bio. Her enthusiasm came through in her performance as Kate. Ms. Bannister captured her character’s essence by enacting her diverse traits. She portrayed the wise and stern mother when telling Eugene to put away the cookie he took from the kitchen. She became the empathetic confidant when telling Jack that the family would find a means of managing their financial problems. Mr. Bannister expressed strong feelings during her confrontation scene with Jennifer Wilson.

Ms. Bannister and Ms. Wilson engaged in a heated argument. As Mr. Helgeson said when refereeing this dispute, “You’re having the fight you should have had 25 years ago.” Ms. Bannister became emotional to the point of crying. She and Ms. Wilson made the fight so genuine that it became unnerving to watch.

Steve Allen has a skill for finding the latent nuances within argumentative dialog. He possesses a profound understanding of the underlying emotions the characters are experiencing. Scenes that could turn into shouting matches become much deeper and meaningful through his interpretation of them. His direction of Jennifer Wilson’s confrontation scene with Madeline Johnston served as an excellent example.

Ms. Wilson’s character loved Nora, but didn’t know how to show it. Ms. Johnson’s character wanted Blanche to love her, but didn’t feel like she did. The two performers contrasted one another very well. Ms. Wilson played the low-key character to Ms. Johnston’s more animated one. Ms. Johnson is a very expressive performer in both the way she says her lines and through her non-verbal actions. The two different styles added to the conflict and made the scene much more powerful. Thanks to Mr. Allen they did so without rattling the audiences’ eardrums.

The crew at the Village Playbox always shows remarkable skill at maximizing the space allotted to them. For Brighton Beach Memoirs, set designer/builder Gary Kochey transformed the stage into the Jerome house. It contained two upstairs bedrooms, a living room and a dining room: all with the appropriate furniture. The layout allowed performers not involved in the main action to remain on-stage. It gave the audience a real sense of being in a Brooklyn home circa 1937.

Other members of the production crew included: Producer, Stage Manager and Costumer Anita Rowland; Stage Manager Donna Allen; Set Construction and Lighting/ Sound Effects Gary Kochey and Amy Bannister along with the cast also handled the costuming.

On the weekend South Jersey residents turned the clocks back, the Village Playbox turned back time to the late 1930s. The cast and crew showed that what may seem like a simpler time was anything but. To borrow one of Mr. Allen’s observations, it did show that family can be so many things. One is a wonderful evening of entertainment when described by talented playwright and a portrayed by an outstanding cast.

Brighton Beach Memoirs runs through November 16th at the Village Playbox. After that audiences can add this production to their memoirs.

 

When You Wish Upon a Star: Magical Musical Memories at the Village Playbox

Yet again a South Jersey community theatre company transformed the region into the Wonderful World of Disney. The Village Playbox presented a spectacular musical tribute to a land of mermaids, toys that come to life and just plain old good music. Your correspondent attended the October 26 performance directed by John Michael Demchak.

The program took fans on a musical journey that spanned seventy years. The songs included material from 1949’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow through 2019’s Descendants 3. It contained tracks from popular movies such as 1989’s The Little Mermaid and 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, songs from Broadway versions of those shows (produced in 2008 and 1994 respectively) and even cuts from some lesser known films in the Disney catalog such as The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon; both released in 1977.

The set-list incorporated a variety of musical styles. Ryan Bogie delivered a jazzy rendition of “One Last Hope.” He incorporated some entertaining dance moves to enhance this song from Hercules. Paul Rather followed him with another track in the style of America’s original art form. He performed a toe tapping take on “The Headless Horseman.”

Jazz isn’t the only musical genre songwriters draw upon for Disney tunes. Jennifer Campbell performed the rhythm and bluesy “He’s a Tramp” from Lady and the Tramp. Zach Wiseley’s piano playing served as the perfect accompaniment to Ms. Campbell’s singing.

Musical duo Rusty and Jan contributed their musical skills to the show. Flautist Jan accompanied Rusty as he sang played guitar on Toy Story’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” With the guitar capoed at the third fret and the addition of the flute, their sound brought to mind Bob Dylan meets Jethro Tull: quite an achievement with Disney material.

No tribute to the music of Disney would be complete without some heartwarming and heartbreaking numbers. Nancy Bailey delivered a moving rendition of the somber “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins. Rusty and Jan accompanied Katie Beth Burow on an emotional “Someone’s Waiting for You” from The Rescuers. Musical Director John Michael Demchak sang a powerful version of “If I Can’t Love Her” from the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast.

Even Disney songs contain melodies that would impress Robert Fripp. Nikki Zane sang an outstanding version of “My Once Upon a Time.” This track from Decendants 3 contained a melody that seemed more like a medley. “Candle on the Water” from Pete’s Dragon included some intricate musical phrasing, as well. It didn’t inhibit Ariel Golan from performing a beautiful version of it.

The event organizers included a very topical song in the set. William Young performed the macabre “Jack’s Lament” from The Nightmare before Christmas. The tune worked as both a commemoration of Halloween and as a prelude to the upcoming Christmas Season.

As the Village Playbox hosted this event, the show included some theatrical performances. Accompanied by Nikki Zane, Kelsey Brown sang a colorful version of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from the Broadway version of The Little Mermaid. Colin Becker added humor to the evening with his comical performance of “Les Poissons” from the film version of the latter.

With all the talent prevalent at theatrical performances, costuming tends get overshadowed. Emcee Geri Watson ensured that didn’t happen at Magical Musical Memories. Ms. Watson complimented the “bomb dress” performer Bella Kokotajlo wore. Besides appealing to fashionistas, Ms. Kokotajlo delivered an outstanding version of “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid.

The show included exceptional singing from other South Jersey community theatre performers. Presley Terch, Samantha Harner, Madeline Johnston, Katelynn Kokotajlo and Haley Melvin added their stellar vocals to this wonderful tribute to Disney.

Director Demchak included three Disney medleys in the program. All the performers stood on stage and performed them together. Pianist Zach Wiseley provided the sole musical accompaniment. With the elaborate orchestral arrangements common in Disney songs, it’s easy for the beauty of the melodies to get lost in the mix. Mr. Demchak ensured that didn’t happen during these numbers. The choral effect on the melodies and harmonies enhanced the beauty of these magical numbers. Credit goes to the musical director for his arrangement and to the performers for their perfect execution of it.

Other members of the production team included: Gary Kochey managed the technical aspects, Chuck Watson handed props and Anita Rowland produced.

The Magical Musical Memories program created some magical musical memories of its own. Audiences should wish upon a star that this isn’t the last time a South Jersey community theatre company transforms the Garden State into the Wonderful World of Disney.

 

Night of the Living Hotspurs! at Burlington County Footlighters

They’re baaaack!

This October 18th marked the return of the Hotspurs! to Burlington County Footlighters. The comedy team of John Hager, Evan Harris, Sean O’Malley, Brendan Rucci and Andrew Snellin entertained the audience with their unique brand of improvisational humor. Your correspondent attended the Friday, October 18th performance.

For this Halloween themed installment of the Hotspurs! Burlington County Footlighters established proper mood. In addition to the usual multi-colored square and rectangle decorum, the organizers added a few items to create a spooky ambiance. They included a series of chains draped about the stage, along with cuffs and a dark hued tombstone. A metal tub of water set upon a pedestal. It had a more eerie purpose than serving as a means for apple bobbing, but more on that later.

For the third consecutive time tickets to a Hotspurs! performance at Footlighters sold out. The group made the announcement 48 hours before the show. So would this performance justify the hype? Or would the audience feel like they were the ones in cuffs and chains throughout the evening?

The Hotspurs! set the comedic tone upon entering the stage. All five members wore Halloween costumes. The most outrageous were Mr. Rucci in a dress and Mr. Hager disguised as a banana. The performers explained they each thought the group decided upon different Halloween themes.

The opening served as the only scripted portion of the evening. The Hotspurs! improvised all the other sketches they performed.

The team commenced their spur-of-the-moment hijinks with their classic improv game: “Half-Life.” The audience provided Disney World as a location that someone wouldn’t expect to find haunted. Performers Sean O’Malley and Andrew Snellin had one minute to enact a sketch based on that suggestion. Following that, they then had to perform it in 30 seconds, then 15 seconds, then seven seconds, then three seconds and, finally, one second. Funny (and quick) banter between Goofy and Mickey resulted.

The four members of the group then combined for another improv game. They called this one “Pan Left.” It entailed a team of two members each performing a sketch together. When Mr. Rucci yelled: “Pan left”, they would rotate and two different Hotspurs! members would act out the next sketch. Based upon the audience’s suggestions, one pair performed a scene in a church, another did one involving the internet and the last one did a routine that included a snake. As much as this challenged the performers, they executed the added task of keeping the dialog comical.

The Hotspurs! revisited their classic “Press Conference” routine for this performance. John Hager, Evan Harris, Brenden Rucci, and Andrew Snellin played reporters. The audience provided the scenario: “Hannibal Lechter becomes vegan.” Without knowing that, Sean O’Malley had to guess what the spectators suggested based upon the reporters’ questions. In addition to providing creative responses, Mr. O’Malley guessed his character.

The team also reprised their “Scenes from a Hat” routine. Prior to the performance, audience members wrote down scenes. Andrew Snellin showed that there’s a place for dark, high-minded humor even in improvisational comedy. He came up with the best line of the evening. In response to the prompt: things you would say to your best friend, but not your partner, he replied, “You’re my best friend.”

As unique as these routines were, the Hotspurs! opted to push the comedy envelope on this evening. Evan Harris and Sean O’Malley played a skit called “Pillars.” They had to improvise a sketch based on the audience’s suggestion. In this case it recommended: “crystal ball.” The group added a twist with this one.

They invited two audience members to come on stage. The participants would move the performers’ arms and legs. Mr. Harris and Mr. O’Malley would adjust the dialog based on the posture the audience members set for them. The latter proved pretty creative. One has to credit the performers for getting through the sketch without laughing: unlike the spectators.

The Hotspurs! added a dramatic scene to their repertoire. This one included a twist. Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Harris performed opposite one another while the other group members placed marshmallows in their mouths. Their comments included some of the most intelligent things this reviewer has heard in weeks.

The team included a skit called “Bartender.” Andrew Snellin played the lead role. Mr. Hager, Mr. Harris and Mr. O’Malley portrayed his customers. Each told him of a problem they had. Mr. Snellin provided advice. While a difficult endeavor to execute spontaneously in front of a live audience, the team included an additional complication: they performed all of this in song. Mr. Rucci accompanied on the keyboards. Andrew Lloyd Webber couldn’t craft as witty a take on clown assassins: and he’s had an entire lifetime to do so. The Hotspurs! pulled it off in a few minutes.

The sell-out crowd at Footlighters showed the group’s real-life skills at salesmanship. It seemed fitting that they applied them within a comedic framework. Mr. Hager and Mr. Harris acted out an infomercial. The purpose was to help people stop biting their nails. The two used a box of props. They didn’t know its contents until they opened it on stage. One must credit the performers themselves for not biting their nails when faced with this uncertainty.

As this was a Halloween themed show, the team concluded with a bit of terror. They utilized the metal tub mentioned earlier as a prop for their “Bucket of Death” routine. The audience provided the topic of “doppelganger.” Mr. Harris explained the set-up. One member of the team would have his head submerged in water at all times; they would alternate who that was throughout the sketch. The others would enact the scene until either: “it comes to a good conclusion or one of us drowns.” I guess that explains why the Hotspurs! were performing the “Bucket of Death” for the first time.

During a Jeopardy! Style game called “Nouns” the answer posed to the four group members was Hotspurs! Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Harris both came up the same question: “What is a way to waste $10?” This reviewer and the audience would disagree. The group once again provided wonderful comedy entertainment to a full house. The real question is: “What’s a bargain for improvisational comedy entertainment?”