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Lecture Review – Joseph Grabas: Land Deeds and the Illumination of History

What genealogist wouldn’t want to know how contemporaries viewed his/her ancestors? Even better, what family researcher wouldn’t crave a source that described his forebears as either a “lunatic” or a “spinster”? How about a primary document in which a forefather bequeathed to a relative: “a good stout rope to hang his Irish wife”? These historical sleuths owe Joseph Grabas some serious gratitude. As part of the New Jersey History Speaks Lecture Series, presented by the Historical Society of Moorestown and hosted by the Moorestown Library on March 15, 2017, Mr. Grabas revealed a veritable “Holy Grail” of source material for such scholars.

It seemed fitting that such an unusual nature of information would come from an atypical type of historian. Mr. Grabas described himself as, “your premier forensic title expert.” Based on his extensive background in the subject, his self-designation seemed rather modest. For the last forty years he’s researched property records in the Garden State. He served as the president of the New Jersey Land Title Association. In addition, he founded the Grabas Institute for Continuing Education and instructs realtors, lawyers and insurance professionals on the nuances of land records. Somehow he found time to write Owning New Jersey: Historic Tales of War, Property Disputes and the Pursuit of Happiness which The History Press published in 2014, as well.

Mr. Grabas explained that historically American society placed more importance on land ownership than home ownership. His book opened with a witty observation from Mark Twain that explained why: “Buy land. They’re not making it anymore.” In fact, possession of land held such prominence that statutes require many records regarding it to be retained forever.

Historians and genealogists should rejoice. Mr. Gabas explained that a county surrogate’s documents are “land records.” A diverse array of sources qualifies as such. They include, but are not limited to: financing statements, deeds, mortgages, leases, inventories, liens and even manumission records. This source provides researchers the data needed to trace a chain of title, which details the ownership history for tracts of land. It allows investigators to determine how owners obtained the real estate in the form of deed recitals. Some documents also provide witty anecdotes for those exploring family histories. For example, a deed he displayed referred to a man named Zaccheus Dunn as a “lunatic” in five separate places. With this wealth of information among so called “land records,” it’s surprising, as Mr. Grabas commented, that genealogists tend not to consult them.

Many professional researchers tend to focus on theory when explaining their craft. Mr. Grabas got into the practical aspect of his work. Using how he would investigate when a particular building was erected as an example, he showed the group his process. In the eighteenth century insurance companies began using Sanborn Maps to evaluate the insurability of properties. The speaker used a series of these documents to confirm the old Masonic Hall on Main Street in Moorestown’s date of construction. The edifice’s cornerstone read 1914. The Sanborn Maps from the years prior to and after that date were consistent with the keystone.

Mr. Grabas described his goal to “educate and entertain” the audience upon beginning his lecture. He did indeed. (Forgive the pun.) With all the unusual things uncovered from the documents he discussed, I’ve decided to try something original. I’m adding a clause to my will instructing my executor to shred all my land records upon my death. Let future historians, genealogists and title researchers wrap their minds around what that means.

The Critique Compendium Interview: Gaby Affleck

gabrielle-affleck-headshotGaby Affleck advises those starting out in the arts to “never stop learning.” As she’s established a remarkable career as both an actress and director throughout the South Jersey community theatre circuit, performers would be wise to study what follows. Ms. Affleck kindly provided readers the opportunity to learn some things about her. We conducted this interview via email during the winter of 2017.

 

Critique Compendium: What first interested you in the performing arts?

Gaby Affleck: Way, WAY back when I was in 7th grade, I saw my sister’s friend, Joan Kratowitz Tenaglia, play Julie Jordan in Carousel in a high school production. I was so enamored by her performance that I knew that’s what I wanted to do! But, alas, I was terribly shy.

When I enrolled at St. Hubert High School for Girls, I joined Glee Club, following in my sister Melissa’s footsteps. I found I could perform, but just be a face in the crowd. That was until my Glee Club instructor, Sr. Pat Cashman, encouraged me to audition for The Wizard of Oz, our Spring Musical. I was cast as part of the ensemble, and had a small role. AND…I was bitten by the Acting Bug!

 

Critique Compendium: In addition to acting, you also direct. Which do you prefer? Why?

Gaby Affleck: I don’t have a preference, per se. I like them both for different reasons. I like to act because it gives me an opportunity to show off my talents, and hone my craft. To quote one of my favorite characters, Ursula in The Little Mermaid, “It’s what I LIVE for…” Okay, let’s be honest, I do it for the applause. Applause is like a drug. Once you experience it, you want it over and over again.

Directing, on the other hand, like putting together a puzzle. It’s making sure all of the moving parts are working properly. It’s also “the thrill of the chase” finding the perfect actors, costumes, props & set pieces. I do so love working with the actors to push them to dig a little deeper and find the heart and soul of their characters. I also enjoy collaborating with the set designers and the tech gurus, the costume designers and producers, and together, as a team, building the final product! Then I get to take the credit for everyone’s hard work. (I KID! I KID!)

Directing is a different kind of satisfaction. It’s being able to look at the final outcome and say, “That’s my vison come to life!” It’s a proud moment.

 

Critique Compendium: What types of things interest you in prospective projects? Why?

Gaby Affleck: In the acting department, I like two kinds of roles: Ones that allow my current wheelhouse of talents to shine. BUT, I also love to play roles that are far from the “real me” and make me really work hard for the outcome. They are actually more fulfilling.

In the directing department, I like scripts that scream out “direct me, Gaby!” They must have meaty characters that need to be brought to life! I prefer to direct shows that aren’t often produced. I also tend to lean towards thrillers. In short, I’m drawn to scripts that speak to my soul.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s the most challenging show in which you’ve participated? Why?

Gaby Affleck: That’s a tough one. I’ve been involved with many challenging shows, from both sides of the stage.

I think I it would be when I directed Dracula at Burlington County Footlighters. Dracula was the most technically involved show I’ve ever worked on. We had a plethora of special effects: On-stage transformations, disappearing vampires, creatures with glowing eyes, books opening of their own accord, vampire stakings (complete with a geysers of blood,) crosses that caught fire, exploding coffins…just to name a few!

To accomplish all of that, you need the BEST OF THE BEST on your team! I’m looking at you, Jim Frazer (Set Design,) Bob Beaucheane (Tech. Design,) Torben Christensen (Producer,) Pat Frazer (Assistant Director,) Jasmine Chalfont (Blood FX Specialist,) Valerie Brothers (Makeup and Hair Design,) Lynne Johnson (Costumes,) Kristina VanName (Props) and Sarah Flanagan (Stage Manager.) I could not have done this show without them, and I can’t thank them enough for having faith in my ability to stage this show!

Dracula also boasted a brilliant cast, with whom I’m honored to have had the opportunity to work.

We also won a few awards that year. Best child actor (Lisa Krier as The Girl,) Best Supporting Actor (Bernard DiCassimiro as Renfield,) Best Technical Show, and Best Show! So, yeah, I’m very proud of that one!

 

Critique Compendium: Describe your most memorable theatrical moment: either performing or directing.

Gaby Affleck: Just one? That’s not easy.

I’d have to say playing Mama Rose in Gypsy to sold out houses. I’ve been lucky enough to play Rose twice, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Rose is the role of a lifetime, and she is larger than life. And based on a REAL PERSON, with so many layers to peel back. I think I’ve a lot more to learn about her.

 

Critique Compendium: In addition to acting and directing, you’re also an excellent vocalist. What inspired you to learn singing?

Gaby Affleck: I’m going to give St. Pat Cashman another shout-out here. I grew up singing for my own personal pleasure, but it was Sr. Pat who convinced me that I actually had talent. She encouraged me to audition for the school play, gave me my first solo, had me sing “God Bless America” for the Rotary Club, and she even submitted my audition tape for the 1988 Coca-Cola World Chorus (for which I went on to be a semi-finalist.) She really was my guiding force.

 

Critique Compendium: What performance artists have influenced you? Why?

Gaby Affleck: I don’t think there is any one in particular. There are some wonderful actors out there that I just adore watching because I know they always deliver. Some of them are (in no particular order): Meryl Streep, Gary Sinise, Liev Schrieber, Denzel Washington, Helen Mirren, Kathy Bates, John Malkovich…

I always enjoy when I’m watching someone perform and they deliver a line, or make a physical choice, that is so NOT what I was expecting! I think to myself “Wow! That was a fantastic choice. I never would have thought to go that way.” Then I wonder, “Was that their choice or something the director asked them to do?” I’m constantly watching from both sides.

 

Critique Compendium: If you had the opportunity to work with any actor either living or dead, whom would it be? Why?

Gaby Affleck: Again, just one?

Meryl Streep because she is an amazing actress and I think I could learn a lot from her. There’s nothing she can’t do!

I want to be Meryl Streep when I grow up!

 

Critique Compendium: What do you do when you’re not on stage? What are your hobbies and interests?

Gaby Affleck: Sleeping is a favorite. The occasional adult beverage. (stop laughing)

 

Critique Compendium: How do you balance a career, family and other activities with the demands of participating in community theater productions?

Gaby Affleck: I don’t. Theatre wins. Every time.

 

Critique Compendium: How do you prepare to direct a show?

Gaby Affleck: I read several scripts until I find one that speaks to me. Then I read it again to be sure. Sometimes I give it to other people to read to get their opinions. And, if it’s a tricky script, like in the case of Dracula, I put together a team before I even submit the show to a theater for consideration.

Then I read it about 20 more times, taking character, set, costume and prop notes.

If the script is based on a book, I will read that book. But, I don’t like to watch the movie, or other performances as I do not want to be influenced by other director’s choices. I want my show to be my own. (For better or worse.)

 

Critique Compendium: What do you bring to your roles that other performers don’t?

Gaby Affleck: I’m big on character development and honesty.

I develop a new character for each production I am in. I’ve never re-used a character, though I do occasionally borrow bits and pieces to create others.

For me a character is not just a voice affectation. It’s everything: demeanor, style of dress, posture, gait, how do they respond to different situations/people, what is their backstory? All of these things factor into creating a believable character.

I’m also big on research. I will scour the internet for information about eras to learn how people looked, dressed, behaved, wore their hair.

As for honesty, I believe one must literally become the character to be believable in the role. You cannot just deliver lines. You can’t pretend to cry or laugh. An audience knows when you are not being honest, and they will find you boring or stilted. To be true to the character, and the author, you must live the role. You have to feel what they are feeling, and react as they would. That’s what makes a performance believable.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult part of performing in front of a live audience?

Gaby Affleck: Going up on lines. Sometimes there is just no graceful way to recover.

Oh, and there was that time I walked out on stage with my dress tucked into my pantyhose, but, I’d like to forget about that.

 

Critique Compendium: How would you like audiences to remember you?

Gaby Affleck: Well, I don’t want to be remembered as the girl who walked out on stage with her dress tucked into her pantyhose.

I’d like to be remembered for making the audience feel something. Whether I make them laugh, or cry or become angry, I want the audience to leave feeling differently than when they came in. (Same goes for when I direct.)

 

Critique Compendium: If I asked people with whom you’ve either performed or directed what it was like working with you, what would they tell me?

Gaby Affleck: As an actress I’d like to think that they would tell you I’m a hard working actress, who comes prepared and is enjoyable to work with. And that they CAN’T WAIT to work with me again!

As I director I hope people would tell you that I’m a dedicated director who has a vision, and who has the creativity and know-how to bring her vision to the stage. Also, that I’m serious, but lots of fun to work with….and that they CAN’T WAIT to work with me again!

 

Critique Compendium: What advice would you give to young people interested in the performing arts?

Gaby Affleck:

1) Never stop learning!

2) Take something away from every experience.

3) If you don’t push yourself, you won’t grow!

4) If it doesn’t scare you a little, you’re not doing it right!

 

Critique Compendium: What adjective best describes your theater career?

Gaby Affleck: Eclectic!

 

Critique Compendium: I’d like to ask a bit of a personal question involving two characters with whom you’re familiar. If you were available with whom would you rather take a Hawaiian cruise: Count Dracula or Aldolpho from The Drowsy Chaperone?

Gaby Affleck: Tough choice.

Dracula is sexy on a cerebral level. Adolpho is pure physical sexual attraction.

Dracula would hide from the sun, making it difficult to enjoy the daylight hours. While Adolpho would “keep me awake” all night, also making it difficult to enjoy the daylight hours.

I think when it comes down to it, I’d pick Dracula. He’s a man (?) with whom I could enjoy intelligent conversations and long walks on the beach (after sunset.) He’s a snappy dresser, he owns his own castle, and he won’t drink any of my…wine.

 

Critique Compendium: And the big question I know readers are curious about: are you related to Matt Damon in any way? Just kidding. Any relation to Ben Affleck?

Gaby Affleck: Me personally, no.

As to whether he is a relation of my husband…well, we don’t receive a card from him at Christmas, so….

 

Critique Compendium: What’s next for Gaby Affleck?

Gaby Affleck: (Squealing with excitement) I’m going to be playing Ursula in The Little Mermaid! A Dream Role! She’s evil yet witty, with a little sexy tossed in for good measure. And she sings the best villain song every written: POOR UNFORTUNATE SOULS!

Come see me and the rest of this amazing cast! May 26, 27, 28 June 2, 3, 4 Yardley Players Theatre Company at The Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College.

 

The Critique Compendium Interview: Michael Melvin

michael-melvin

A lot of people like to complain about how busy they are. These people would be well advised not to say that to Michael Melvin.

Mr. Melvin wears so many hats that pretty soon he’s going to need more heads. He recently played Joey in Haddonfield Plays and Players production of Sister Act this February. In a few weeks he will be casting for Sister Act which he will direct at the Maple Shade Arts Council this summer.

During the day, Mr. Melvin works as an Eighth Grade Math and Science teacher in Edgewater Park, NJ. He concurrently works towards his Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership at Montclair State University.

In addition to performing and directing in South Jersey Community Theatre productions, he is the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council; a 501[c]3 non-profit organization. Its membership includes educators, parents, and the general public. The group provides entertaining, educational, and inspirational artistic programs and events for the community. Through the Arts Council, Mr. Melvin has had the privilege of directing the summer theatre campers, as well as directing the adults in the summer musical.

In the past Mr. Melvin served as a board member with Burlington County Footlighters in Cinnaminson, NJ. He also played the drums in musicals such as 13 and Avenue Q.

While Mr. Melvin is very passionate about the performing arts and education, his heart truly belongs to his fiancee, Nicole Traino. He anxiously awaits their wedding day in March 2018 and looks forward to spending the rest of his life with his high school sweetheart.

Despite an exceedingly busy schedule, Mr. Melvin genially agreed to be interviewed on February 22, 2017. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Critique Compendium: You’re a math teacher. So I’m sure you won’t mind taking a little test to prove how well you know your subject. What’s two plus six?

Michael Melvin: Eight.

Critique Compendium: (Long, long pause.) I’ll take your word for it.

Critique Compendium: You’ve taken on leadership roles with both Burlington County Footlighters and The Maple Shade Arts Council. You’re also working towards a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. What’s your definition of leadership?

Michael Melvin: To me, there are the people who sit behind the desk and then there are the people in the trenches. When I become a school administrator I’ll want everyone to know I’ll be there for them. I’m there to help them succeed.

I’m in the Arts Council because I want to see people achieve. My role is to help others achieve greatness.

Critique Compendium: What interested you in stepping up and taking on leadership responsibilities?

Michael Melvin: It all started when I was a young kid. I did summer theatre in Maple Shade. I wasn’t into sports. I was the type who liked to eat cheese fries in the stands! My mom said to try summer theatre. I did and got hooked. I continued doing theatre in high school. In college I focused on math.

In 2012 I got involved with Footlighters performing in the Wedding Singer through friends. At the time there was an opening on the board for a secretary. They asked me if I would be interested in doing it. Taking notes seemed like something I could handle so I said, “Okay.” After that was like a snowball effect.

Critique Compendium: You’re the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council. How did you get involved with that organization?

Michael Melvin: I was in their summer theatre program through the community alliance. A friend told me that the Maple Shade Arts Council was still in existence. In 2013 the Arts Council existed under the township, but no one was running it.

Due to changes in funding and the camp no longer being able to be done in the summer, I wanted to find a way to keep the summer theatre camp as is to better accommodate our campers. I wanted to keep the program I loved and grew up doing as is.  Since then it has blossomed. It’s been a blessing.

Critique Compendium: Could you describe some of the programs the Maple Shade Arts Council sponsors?

Michael Melvin: We have the summer musical for adults, as you know. The first one we did was Urintetown. I’ll say this: it made people aware of us.

We also do cabarets. We did art workshops before and we’re looking to do them again. We’ve done a Holiday heirloom workshop. We present a teen show, too.

The new thing is the junior program for kids in Kindergarten through third grade.

We’re focused on theatrical shows, but I don’t consider the Maple Shade Arts Council a “theatre organization.” We’re hoping to branch out into other performing arts.

Critique Compendium: How does the Maple Shade Arts Council select the shows it’s going to present?

Michael Melvin: We try to pick something the community hasn’t seen before. We want to do something unique that will interest people.

For our first show we figured we needed to attract actors first. We decided on Urinetown with the: “If you build it they will come philosophy.” We wanted to create a spark in the town. We created a conflagration.

The Addams Family had wider appeal. The Drowsy Chaperone featured old style music. We like to put on shows people can relate to. We picked Sister Act because a “summer show should be a fun show.” We present happy-go-lucky, make you feel good musicals for the summer.

As the Arts Council grows we’ll add more variety.

Critique Compendium: Did you perform in the Haddonfield Plays and Players version of Sister Act to get a “practice” Sister Act under your belt?

Michael Melvin: I wasn’t in Sister Act to learn about the show. I read Phyllis Josephson’s Facebook post about the auditions. I wanted to do a show with Phyllis. I sent a video submission. (Director) Chris (McGinnis) got back to me right away. I didn’t tell anyone about the Maple Shade Arts Council.

I wanted to get back to acting. I had fun diving into the role.

Now I have to delete that memory of the show. I’m working with a new production team. Darryl (S. Thompson, Jr.) is the Assistant Director. We’ll give the show a new twist.

Critique Compendium: How did the council decide to do The Drowsy Chaperone? That show was outstanding.

Michael Melvin: Thank you. It was the first time I knew I wasn’t going to direct. I asked (director) Brian Padla what he wanted to do. I knew we had a “unique space.” (Since Maple Shade High School was under renovations) we had a smaller forum (in Nolan Hall at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.) I had no clue about the show myself. When Brian suggested it I said let’s look into it. I liked the cool music. When I watched the Aldopho scene on youtube I loved it!

Critique Compendium: What are some of the challenges in running a small non-profit volunteer organization?

Michael Melvin: The key is the word volunteer. People’s lives are hectic. The hard part is how to strike a passion with people to put in that extra effort. I believe in the organization. Over the last three years I’ve seen a lot of parents putting in their efforts.

We’re doing something great in the community. We’re bringing people to Maple Shade.

It’s very challenging to rally the troops to see the vision and then get them to buy into the vision. When I see that happen is the best part.

Critique Compendium: What makes you interested in playing a role?

Michael Melvin: I’m a character actor. I like comedic parts. I know I’m not going to play the ingénue. When I played Joey (in Sister Act) I grew a crazy moustache. I like weird characters. I love comedies. I enjoy becoming somebody who has no similarities with myself.

Critique Compendium: What’s been you’re favorite role that you’ve performed so far?

Michael Melvin: I’d say Legally Blonde. I was Professor Callahan. I’d never played a villain before. That character never changed the entire show.

When I told Jill (Starr-Renbjor, the director) I was going to try out for the part she said I was, “too nice.” When I went to the audition I dressed professorial and sang a song from the musical. I got the part.

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult role you’ve played?

Michael Melvin: In my senior year of high school I played Jean Valjean. To show how much I knew about theatre at the time, I’d never heard of Les Mis! I didn’t understand the nuances of theatre then. I did a lot of research for the part. Vocally it was a challenge. The role is a tenor and I’m a bass/baritone. That was hard as was being on stage the entire show and singing the entire show.

Critique Compendium: You’ve both performed as well as directed. Which do you prefer?

Michael Melvin: After being in Sister Act I prefer directing. I feel like I get more nervous when I’m on stage. Will I forget my lines? Will I forget the music? As an actor you’re concerned about yourself.

As a director you put yourself in every actor’s shoes. It gives you the opportunity to work with people. I love directing.

Critique Compendium: Describe your most memorable moment on stage so far.

Michael Melvin: I would probably say, my senior year in Les Mis. The coolest moment was knowing it was my last show in high school. I was the last one out for curtain call. I remember the emotions that went along with that. I’d worked with these people so long. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do theatre again.

Critique Compendium: How long was it until you performed again?

Michael Melvin: I spent four or five years off stage.

I didn’t perform in college. In college theatre was for the majors. They had phenomenal talent, anyway. I was focused on math and education at the time.

Critique Compendium: You’re also a gifted singer. Who influenced you musically?

Michael Melvin: My parents brought me up listening to 60s, 70s, and 80s music; the older music. I’m not into modern music. I wasn’t influenced by one person vocally. I listen to a weird mix such as country, Hamilton (the soundtrack), and Frank Sinatra.

Critique Compendium: What actors have influenced you?

Michael Melvin: I like to look at actors I’m similar to. I’d say Kevin Chamberlain who played Horton in Seussical and Fester in the Addams Family. I like Broadway performer Brian D’Arcy James. I can relate to Patton Oswalt’s personality.

I tell kids to know your type, know who you are. Having a niche is helpful.

Critique Compendium: If you had the opportunity to work with any other actor either living or dead, who would it be?

Michael Melvin: Robin Williams because of his comedy background. You can’t figure out his mind. He keeps you on your toes. He could look at a prop and turn it into a bazillion things. He forced you to up your game or say, “I can’t keep up with this!”

Critique Compendium: What do you do when you’re not on stage?

Michael Melvin: I love watching Philly sports: the Phils, Eagles, and Sixers. I collect Funko Pop. I don’t have as much free time as I used to. It’s important for me to spend time with my fiancée.

Critique Compendium: I’ve heard that you chose a very unique way to propose to her. Could you tell us about that?

Michael Melvin: I told her they were going to do a read through at Footlighters for a script a friend of mine wrote. I let her know about it months in advance. Actually, I wrote the play. Each scene was something that happened during our relationship.

On the night of the “read through” we had heart candles all around the stage. As we went through the script she realized that all the scenes were familiar. Then I proposed to her on stage. The lights came up and there were 50 to 60 people in the audience.

We both have a passion for theatre. I feel like Footlighters helped me reconnect with friends and my high school band director, which led to me accepting a coaching job at our old high school marching band. We ended up coaching together and that ultimately led to us reconnecting and getting back together. I’m grateful BCF gave me the opportunity to propose on their stage.

Critique Compendium: How do you prepare for a role?

Michael Melvin: The biggest thing is: when going into auditions don’t soley focus on one role. An actor should be diverse and understand all the parts. I read through script several times. I read it from the other characters’ perspectives. I’ll write down the line before and the line after my character’s on notecards. That helps me get a better understanding.

Critique Compendium: What do you bring to your roles that other performers don’t?

Michael Melvin: I bring dedication. When you work with me I’m all in. At Haddonfield Plays and Players (production of Sister Act) I was very quiet. I wanted to prove that I wanted to work hard. I didn’t mention anything about the Maple Shade Arts Council.

I’ll push myself in ways I don’t normally. I’ll push through things, such as singing tenor with a bass voice, even if it doesn’t come naturally to me.

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult part of performing in front of a live audience?

Michael Melvin: When I do comedy: not breaking character and laughing.

Haddonfield Plays and Players’ stage is close to the audience. It’s difficult with that smaller space not to laugh when you see your friends laughing.

Holding that character is tough. Becoming that other character is hard, too. Not letting Mike break through is the hardest part.

Critique Compendium: How would you like audiences to remember you?

Michael Melvin: As an Arts Council leader: I hope at the end of the day people see that I love what I do. I hope they see the passion and why I do what I do. My intentions are pure and my desire to help people is evident. I want to see the kids go off and succeed. I want to see them grow.

I want other people to find that passion that I found. That’s the ultimate gift you can give someone.

Critique Compendium: If I asked people with whom you’ve performed what it was like working with you, what would they tell me?

Michael Melvin: He’s a great guy. He can be slightly undiagnosed OCD. He’s slightly perfectionist, but in the nice way. He’s very open when he works with people.

Mike’s a “worker.” Mike does too much work. He needs to relax. I would have more of my hair this way. I need to relax.

The good news is that I’m self-aware of all this.

Critique Compendium: What adjective would best describe your theater career?

Michael Melvin: Wide ranging or diverse. I’ve had a lot of unique experiences: Directing kids, adults, shows, stage crew, and building sets. It’s always been something different.

Critique Compendium: What’s next for you?

Michael Melvin: Sister Act auditions for the Maple Shade Arts Council are on April 2nd and 4th. We’ve received a lot of great feedback, so far.

Music Man, Jr. takes place over the summer. We have 60 kids in the program.

I’m finishing my master’s program. I’m also getting a wedding together for next March.

Critique Compendium: What advice would you give to young people interested in participating in the performing arts?

Michael Melvin: Without a doubt take a chance. Take the most out of every opportunity. If you’re in the lead or ensemble every opportunity can build you up. Everything is meaningful and impactful. Stick with it.

You will never meet as many great people as in the arts. It’s a lifelong blessing for anybody who sticks with it.

More information about Mr. Melvin is available at his website: www.michaelanthonymelvin.com.

In Memoriam – Clyde Stubblefield

One of the soldiers on the forefront of the 1970 funk revolution has left us. The original “funky drummer” himself, Clyde Stubblefield, passed away on February 18th.

Mr. Stubblefield earned the distinction of being the most listened to, but least recognized performers in the history of music. His stellar instrumental break on the appropriately titled James Brown 1970 masterpiece, “The Funky Drummer” became legendary. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business called it when he instructed the drummer: “Show the people what you got. Don’t turn it loose, ‘cause it’s a mother.” The break later became the most sampled drum track in the Hip-Hop genre. It even crossed over into to pop music when Sugar Ray’s drummer mimicked it on their 1997 hit “Fly.”

It would be unfair to call Mr. Stubblefield a “one grove wonder.” The title of one of the songs on which he performed, “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved”, could have described his approach to drumming. He laid down superb beats during his tenure with the Godfather of Soul. Some of the most notable included “I Got the Feelin’”, “Mother Popcorn” and “Cold Sweat.” Perhaps his phenomenal sense of rhythm inspired Mr. Brown’s decision to “give the drummer some” on the extended version of the latter.

While not as famous as the “Funky Drummer” break, Mr. Stubblefield’s re-entry with the congas on the simulated live version of “Give it Up or Turn It Loose” deserved more recognition. In that moment, he challenged Motown session man Benny Benjamin for the title of heaviest Rhythm & Blues drummer. At the same time, he presaged the more assertive approach to R & B style drumming later associated with Chic’s Tony Thompson.

It seemed fitting that Mr. Stubblefield contributed his talents to “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I’ll Get It Myself).” Whenever Mr. Dynamite provided him the opportunity to showcase his skills, Mr. Stubblefield took advantage. Because of that, and thanks to the practice of digital sampling, he just may have played on more tracks with more artists than any other session man in history. That’s a great accomplishment for someone who started out as nothing more than a “funky drummer.”

I extend my deepest condolences to Mr. Stubblefield’s friends and family.

 

The Critique Compendium Interview: Lori A. Howard

lori-howardTen years ago Lori A. Howard left the prosaic New York area to re-settle in the cultural cornucopia we know as South Jersey. At the time, she worked as the Assistant Development Director at the Walnut Street Theatre. Since then she’s transitioned from schmoozing donors to wowing community theatre audiences. They’re glad she did. Fans will no doubt remember Lori’s moving performance of Kate Jerome at the Haddonfield Plays and Players recent production of Brighton Beach Memoirs. Audiences will also recall her comical work in The Drowsy Chaperone and The Addams Family Musical, both presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council; an organization where she volunteers and gives back to a community for which she has unparalleled passion.

Ms. Howard graciously agreed to be interviewed on February 6, 2017. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

 

Question: I figure you’ll be a big success one day since you’re such a talented performer. Normally, I’d ask for an autograph. Since I’d just end up selling it for big money some day: could you give me ten thousand dollars now?

 

Answer: (Laughs) If I had it, I’d give it to you.

 

Q: Tell me a little about yourself.

 

A: I live in Marlton with my husband, Edwin, and my son and daughter.

 

Q: How old are your children?

 

A: My son is ten. My daughter’s six.

 

 

Q: What first interested you in the performing arts?

 

A: Oh, I’ve been doing it since I can remember. I always loved singing, dancing and performing.

 

Q: When did you start performing?

 

A: At five or six. I took dance classes. I grew up in North Jersey so I saw a lot of Broadway shows.

 

Q: Why did you come to South Jersey?

 

A: I got a job at the Walnut Street Theatre in the Development Department. I had a wonderful boss. I taught at the theatre school and worked there for 10 years. I taught kids acting class for five, six and seven year olds. We did fairy tale plays and told jokes. We worked on art projects, too.

 

I do a similar class with the Maple Shade Arts Council. This is their pilot year. My husband builds sets for us. Anne-Marie Underwood and I did class with 29 kids last Saturday. (2/4/17)

 

Q: How did you get involved with the Maple Shade Arts Council?

 

A: I worked at Maple Shade High School.

I was cast in the Maple Shade Arts Council’s production of The Addams Family. It was the first time I’d been on stage in 15 years.

 

Q: Why the long hiatus?

 

 

A: Family life came first for me; then my career. I also understudied at the Walnut Street Theatre, but people were always healthy!

 

 

Q: What types of things make you want to play a role?

 

A: Well, a great script. There are a lot of rich characters in theatre. I also like to work with a great production team. Working with Matthew Weil and Sarah Viniar on Brighton Beach Memoirs and To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind.

 

Q: Why did you want to be in The Addams Family?

 

A: I liked the show and soundtrack. I wanted to give theatre a shot again. I had a lot of fun with my character.

 

Q: What’s been you’re favorite role that you’ve performed so far?

 

A: In a play: Kate in Brighton Beach. We had a small cast. We really became like a little family. Kate Jerome was a juicy part. She did what she had to do to keep her family’s heads above water. She was feisty. I loved her!

Into the Woods was my favorite musical. I played the Witch. The theme is what happens after you get your happily ever after; when your dreams and wishes change.

 

 

Q: What’s the most difficult role you’ve played?

 

A: I played Katerina in The Taming of the Shrew. Learning the language was a challenge. So was the physicality.

 

Q: Describe your most memorable moment on stage so far.

 

A: It would be at the end of Brighton Beach. Kate called for Eugene to come down and join the family. The family members in Europe escaped Poland. It had a happy resolution.

My family is Bronx Italian. Bronx Italian and Brooklyn Jewish seem to have very similar family dynamics. With the way the characters and script are written, I heard echoes of my grandmother’s kitchen table.

 

Q: What actors have influenced you?

 

A: From Broadway I’d have to say Bernadette Peters. She has a distinctive voice. I love how she performs Sondheim. She speaks to my heart.

 

I also appreciate Kate Winslett’s depth. She captures characters so brilliantly.

 

Q: If you had the opportunity to work with any actor either living or dead, who would it be?

 

A: Dustin Hoffman. He’s a good everyman with a little quirkiness. He’s very identifiable. He’s in so many of my favorite movies. I’ve always been a big fan. It would be fun to banter with him.

 

Q: You have a tremendous enthusiasm for community theatre. Why?

 

A: It’s something that you can do at any age and on the local level. It gives artists that can’t pursue it professionally the opportunity to come together. The passion and talent are there. I’ve met amazing people through it. My whole family and I do it together. The brilliant people I’ve met have brought joy and richness to my life.

 

Q: I didn’t recognize you playing one of the gangsters in The Drowsy Chaperone. What was it like performing in that show?

 

A: A lot of fun. I didn’t expect to play a male. Debra Heckman (the other gangster) and I ran with it and had a lot of fun.

 

Q: Brighton Beach Memoirs featured an unusual set-up as the audience was seated both in front of and behind the stage. How did you like working with that format?

 

A: It was a wonderful challenge. (Director) Matthew (Weil) wanted the audience to feel as though they were in the house. It would’ve been hard to create that effect with a regular stage set-up. Also, the actors don’t have to worry about putting their bad sides to the audience. Matthew did an amazing job. I cannot credit him enough for it.

 

Q: During that show, the actors remained on the stage even when they weren’t part of the action. What was it like being on stage while not participating in the action?

 

A: I didn’t have issue with sitting on the stage. It gave me the chance to watch the whole show.

 

Q: What do you do when you’re not on stage?

 

A: I’m a stay-at-home mom. I keep busy with my kids. I take them to karate, ballet, and I volunteer at their school. I run the science fair there every June.

 

Q: How do you prepare for a role?

 

A: It depends. If the script is of particular time period, I might look at books, fashion styles and see what was going on at the time. I immerse myself in the script. I might voice lines to my husband or in the mirror, too.

 

Q: What do you bring to your roles that other performers don’t?

 

A: I’m very passionate. I’m very committed to getting something right. I will work with director until everything is “as it should be.”

I have a good sense of humor. I try to say hello to everyone. My daughter and I bake and bring cookies to rehearsals.

 

Q: What’s the most difficult part of performing in front of a live audience?

 

A: Never quite knowing how they’re going to react. You never know if the laughs will come from the same spots. Different audiences may respond to different lines. You can’t assume that the audience will react in a certain way. It’s their experience. The audience will interpret. You have to respond accordingly.

 

Q: How would you like audiences to remember you?

 

A: I hope they think I did my job. It’s important as actor to understand the role in the greater scheme of the play. I don’t want to stick out in a bad way. I want to fit into the puzzle as the author intended.

 

Q: Have you ever worked with a script that contained bad writing?

 

A: Every actor comes across something that doesn’t come across the way they want. You need to find way to identify with an aspect of it and make it your own.

 

Q: If I asked people with whom you’ve performed what it was like working with you, what would they tell me?

 

A: I ask too many questions about the script, character, and time period. The more of a background I have the more real I can try to make it.

I’m also committed to playing off them well. I hope they would say they had as much fun as I did.

 

Q: Joseph Conrad said that he always kept one fact about his characters out of his novels. This way it was known only to him. Do you take a similar approach with the roles you play?

 

A: Backstory is always helpful. If you can create one or can get information from the rest of the script or if you can answer questions that the audience doesn’t have to know: it adds to the script and the circumstances. It gives you more to work with. A great director can help with that, too.

 

Q: Have you ever thought about directing?

 

A: I was a co-director at Maple Shade High School. I directed in college. I went to Flagler College in Saint Augustine Florida. It’s a small liberal arts college with a good theatre department.

 

Q: What advice would you give to young people interested in participating in the performing arts?

 

A: Go for it. Absolutely. It can bring you so much. It can boost your confidence. Plays have historical value. You meet amazing people. No matter what field you’re planning on going into, there’s an aspect of the performance arts you will benefit from. You will walk away with invaluable experiences for the rest of your life.

 

You don’t have to do it professionally. If it’s in your heart, you’ll be a richer person for it.

 

Q: What adjective would best describe your theater career?

 

A: Varied.

 

Q: I’d like to ask a bit of a personal question. It involves two characters featured in shows you performed. If you were single and available, with whom would you prefer to take a romantic cruise: Lerch from The Addams Family or Aldolpho from The Drowsy Chaperone?

 

A: (Laughs) The same actor (Antonio Baldassari) played both of them! He’s a friend of mine. Funny guy.

I would say Lerch. He’s a man of fewer words and I would enjoy the vacation more. Aldolpho would talk about himself the whole time.

 

Q: What’s next for you?

 

A: To Kill a Mockingbird opens at the Ritz on March 2nd. It runs through the 19th. Matthew Weil is directing. I’m thrilled to be back on his team. 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.

I’m on the board of the Maple Shade Arts Council. I’m the Director of Fundraising. My son did their camp. My daughter is performing in Annie.

They present a summer musical, a teen show in fall, and a show for the youngest group in the winter. This is in addition to the summer camp. I’m proud to be part of their organization.

I’m grateful to be part of the community. South Jersey has so many local theatre companies. There are so many people giving their time and talents to such a rich community.

Book Review – War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk

But these Germans are different. Orders do not seem merely to guide their actions; orders, as it were, fill their souls, leaving no room for a human flicker in their faces or eyes. They are herdsmen, and we are cattle; or they are soldier ants, and we are aphids. The orders cut ties between them and us. All. It is eerie. (Loc 11365)

This chilling paragraph serves as a good summation of Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance. While the sequel to The Winds of War took readers along the Henry family’s continuing journey, the ‘remembrance’ portion focused on the Holocaust. That made reading this novel much more uncomfortable than perusing its predecessor.

As in the book’s precursor the war’s impact on the Henry family played a key role in the overall narrative. I enjoyed reading about Victor Henry’s ascent to two-star admiral. Aside from the Second World War’s effect on his career, Mr. Wouk described how the conflict generated much disturbance in his private life.

The tales of his son Byron’s development into a proficient submariner made for engaging reading, as well. I liked the character’s continuing transition from a carefree, directionless kid into a mature leader of men. The author enhanced this portion of the drama by adding a personal conflict for him to battle, as well. His wife Natalie—a Jewish woman, no less—and newborn son found themselves stranded in Fascist Italy at the war’s outbreak.

The author crafted extraordinary secondary characters for this novel. I’ll refrain from giving away spoilers. I will note that both Leslie Slote and Aaron Jastrow would have made for great protagonists in a shorter tale.

As in The Winds of War, the author inserted the German perspective on the war. This gave the story more balance than I’m used to reading in historical fiction. Mr. Wouk utilized the histories of fictional General Armin von Roon as one source. To allow readers a sense of how trustworthy this member of the German General Staff, one comment in his book read, “From Adolf Hitler alone proceeded the policy regarding the Jews.” (Loc 2876)

In War and Remembrance, the author took the German point-of-view even further. He added a priest’s thoughts on the German mindset.

 You must understand Germans, Herr Slote.” The tone was calmer. “It is another world. We are a politically inexperienced people, we know only to follow orders from above. That is a product of our history, a protracted feudalism.” (Loc 2730)

The author also included actual historical figures in the book. Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, appeared as a character. Mr. Wouk used his point-of-view in expressing this figure’s thoughts regarding efficient means of execution.

No, the poison gas in rooms of large capacity has always been an idea worth trying; but which gas? Today’s experiment shows Zyklon B, the powerful insecticide they have been using right along at the camp to fumigate the barracks, may be the surprisingly simple solution. Seeing is believing. In a confined airtight space, with a powerful dose of the blue-green crystals, those three hundred fellows didn’t last long! (Loc 2310)

To provide even sharper insight into the character’s mind, the very next paragraph opened with the words: “Well, time for Christmas dinner.” (Loc 2323)

Mr. Wouk added some exceptional use of language throughout the narrative. Some notable examples included, “Laughing into each other’s eyes” (Loc 4598), “…Things happen once then roll away into the past, leaving one marked and changed forever.” (Loc 3412) “Forbidden fruit has its brown spots, but these are not seen in the dusky glow of appetite.” (Loc 6953) “A look like a long conversation passed between them.” (Loc 9807)

My favorite occurred in these poetic thoughts regarding the British Empire’s dissolution.

When an empire dies, it dies like a cloudy day, without a visible moment of sunset. The demise is not announced on the radio, nor does one read of it in the morning paper. The British Empire had fatally depleted itself in the great if laggard repulse of Hitler, and the British people had long since willed the end of the Empire, by electing pacifist leaders to gut the military budgets. (Loc 1936)

Mr. Wouk performed exceptional research on the time period. I found many of his descriptions very realistic; at times, frighteningly so. At one point the author crafted a passage that depicted the scene from inside a gas chamber as the poison filled the air. He wrote it in such detail that I felt like I was in the room suffocating. It bothered me so, I can’t bring myself to quote it here.

I had two criticisms of War and Remembrance. One involved its scope. I read the digital version of its nearly 1400 pages. The inclusion of so many characters involved in so many events of the Second World War necessitated the book’s size. This segues into my other issue.

To hook readers, the author used an exceptional technique; perhaps too well. Mr. Wouk often concluded chapters by placing his characters in horrible situations. Of course, I wanted to know the outcomes. He would follow such scenes with several chapters concerning the other characters’ stories. Those would also leave off at their own harrowing endings.

I understand that a writer must keep his/her readers engaged. Because of the nature of the character’s peril, this became annoying at times. I don’t mind the “cliff hangers.” I do have a problem when I have to wait several hours to discover their resolutions.

Mr. Wouk did something extraordinary in War and Remembrance. In it, he crafted both a great sequel and a fantastic work of historical fiction. It’s difficult to do either of those things. This author did them in the same book. That’s why some have referred to him as “an American Tolstoy.” That’s quite an encomium for a Jewish kid from the Bronx who simply wanted to be a writer.

In Memoriam – John Wetton

On “days like these” I “lament” that I have “nothing to lose.” Vocalist, bassist, and all around Progressive Rock musician extraordinaire, John Wetton, passed away this January 31st. Only “Providence” can explain why we shall hear his innovative bass lines and stellar vocals “nevermore.” I wish someone would “hold me now.”

I’ve been listening to Mr. Wetton’s music for over “thirty years.” Whenever I had “time kill” “in the dead of night” I’d pass the time listening to his live work with King Crimson. Upon discovering the band’s live box set, The Great Deceiver, I’d never felt both so inspired and intimidated by a fellow bass player. I’d marvel at the myriad different arrangements to the classic “Easy Money.” His improvs would rival those of any jazz musician. His capability to push the boundaries of an already revolutionary genre exhibited the scope of his proficiency.

Mr. Wetton’s innovative approach to the bass guitar could only be rivaled by legendary Motown session man, James Jamerson. Like the latter, he chose an early 1960s Fender Precision Bass as his means of expanding the instrument’s traditional boundaries.

In an encomium to the legendary Motown session man, bassist Anthony Jackson explained the three components of genius:

  1. Original style.
  2. The technical proficiency to execute that style.
  3. The persistence to push that style onto an unreceptive world.

For that reason, Mr. Wetton earned a place in music history among the likes of music’s luminaries. Yes, he even deserves to be ranked with James Jamerson.

While a laudable achievement in itself, Mr. Wetton even expanded pop music into an art form. The most memorable musical moment of my life occurred the first time I listened to Chasing the Dragon. Like many of his fans, the band Asia served as my first exposure to his talents. This 1994 live album opened with “Heat of the Moment.” Instead of the high power rock anthem I knew, Mr. Wetton performed it as an acoustic ballad. I never could’ve imagined delivering it this way. His slow somber vocals gave the track a new character. To my amazement it even sounded much better than the original.

As a performer who spent most of his career playing progressive rock, many of his songs are unfamiliar to the larger public. It’s truly a shame that more people haven’t been exposed to such outstanding tracks as “Rendezvous 602”, “Battle Lines” and the greatest instrumental track ever recorded, “Red.” The eponymous UK album is still one of the best recordings released in any genre.

What King Crimson fan doesn’t hear John Wetton’s lugubrious vocal from “Starless” run through his/her mind while watching the setting sun?

            Sundown. Dazzling day. 

            Gold through my eyes.

            But my eyes turn within; only see

            Starless and Bible Black.

            This seems a fitting epitaph for those of us who adored his music.

I extend my deepest condolences to Mr. Wetton’s friends, family and fans.

Lecture Review – “New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness” by Michael DiCamilo

The preeminent of all American ideological conflicts found a fertile battle ground in the Garden State. The debate over a Hamiltonian approach to big government versus the Jeffersonian preference for more localized administration ended in favor of the latter. It resulted in New Jersey spawning 566 municipalities: even more than California. Just what caused this northern state to adopt the political philosophy of the gentleman planter from Virginia?

Historian Michael DiCamilo set out to elucidate this phenomenon as part of the History Speaks series on January 18, 2017. The Elizabeth Tuttle Fund, the Historical Society of Moorestown and the Moorestown Library sponsored the event which the latter hosted. Professor DiCamilo teaches American History at LaSalle. He’s also on the Historical Society of Moorestown’s board of trustees where currently serves as Vice President.

Mr. DiCamilo utilized the work of former Garden State politician Alan Karcher’s 1989 work New Jersey’s Municipal Madness illustrate this phenomena. The former Assembly Speaker explored the reasons why myriad towns and boroughs incorporated in the state. He discovered five key reasons: street fights, railroad towns, school district boroughs, dry versus wet towns, and exclusive enclaves. Mr. DiCamilo took the audience through each one.

The portion on “street fights” intrigued me the most. With the advent of the automobile road maintenance became a major political issue. Residents of a community elected “road superintendents” to represent their interests at the municipal level. They argued to secure the most funding for their streets. When these officials couldn’t acquire the municipal money they wanted, they’d return to their constituents with an interesting proposition. They’d encourage the “street” to form its own town. Of course, these road superintendents would play prominent roles in the new polis; even serving as their mayors.

I found this outcome rather interesting. A road superintendent would fail in his duties to his constituency. The populace would proceed to elect them to govern the new town; a much more complex challenge than fundraising. In essence, these officials would receive a promotion from the same people they disappointed. As historian Richard Hofstadter observed, “Politics has a logic of its own.”

I also enjoyed Mr. DiCamilo’s discussion of the conflicts leading to dry and wet towns. He described how the “camp meeting movement” inspired people to exit the cities in favor of country life. These new communities would serve as places of worship where residents could avoid the excesses of modern life. A number of these municipalities such as Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach and Avon-by-the-Sea developed along the coast. More locally, the towns of Bellmawr and Delanco began as part of this phenomenon.

The disparity between pro and anti-prohibition forces masked more nefarious motives, as well. One of the rationales for the “camp meeting movement” germinated from a desire to control rowdy youths and immigrants. Latent and, at times, overt racism even led to the development of some municipalities.

While the pursuit of a moral life free of vice caused many communities to form, the rejection of these principles inspired others. Centre Township prohibited playing golf on Sundays. It also rigorously enforced prohibition. Some individuals rejected these mores to such a degree they decided to form their own town. Thus, Tavistock incorporated in 1921.

In a fitting move, Mr. DiCamilo made his discussion of local history hyperlocal. Founded in 1688, Chester Township experienced numerous splits before the name disappeared from South Jersey in 1945. Cinnaminson left in 1860. Delran broke off from the latter in 1885. Riverside separated from Delran in the same year. Riverton left Cinnaminson in 1893 then Palmyra did the same a year later. In 1922 Moorestown parted from Chester Township. The remaining community changed its name to Maple Shade in 1945. Interestingly, with the exceptions of Moorestown and Riverside (which incorporated over street fights) all the others were “railroad towns.”

Mr. DiCamilo focused his talk on the political aspects of the subject; which he delivered exceptionally well. Throughout the lecture he presented balanced analyses of the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian visions. With respect to the latter he explained as one positive: the smaller the community, the easier for citizens to become part of government. While correct, not everyone has an interest in being an active member of the political process. In addition many individuals who live in the same area share the same political views. I’d encourage another historian to follow-up on this lecture with a discussion of the social implications of so many municipalities.

Mr. Camilo presented a solid case that the Jeffersonian vision of government entrenched itself in the Garden State. While no new municipalities have incorporated in New Jersey since 1957, to his knowledge, only Princeton Township and Princeton Boro chose to consolidate over the last two decades.

The monument on Mr. Jefferson’s grave describes him as the author of the Declaration of American Independence, author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia. Had the third President lived long enough, he just may have added: “instrumental inspiration for the municipal system of government in New Jersey” to his legacy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre Review – The Producers at Collingswood Community Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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