Aaron Wachs

Seussical at The Village Playbox

The Village Playbox proved that imagination isn’t just for kids. Using Seussical’s opening number “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” as inspiration, Director Anita Rowland along with the cast and crew used all their powers of creativity to bring this show to the stage. The script required that they transform the set into the worlds of Whoville, the Jungle of Nool and into the realm of everyone’s favorite troublemaking tabby, The Cat in the Hat. I attended the Saturday, May 4th performance at the First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights.

To borrow a line from The Cat in the Hat, “Folks, this ain’t Mother Goose.” Upon encountering The Cat in the Hat (Sidney Manfred Maycock III) Young Jojo (Presley Terch) took an amazing journey. The Cat transported him to the miniature world of Whoville. In this place, he became the son of the Mayor (Doug Cohen) and Mrs. Mayor (Debbi Heckman). A teacher chastised Jojo for using his imagination too much. In order to discipline the boy, the Mayor and Mrs. Mayor placed him in the army. General Genghis Khan Schmitz (Christopher Schmalbach) vowed to make him conform.

Horton the Elephant (Shawn Simmons) discovered Whoville on a speck of dust. He placed it on a clover for safety. First the Wickersham Brothers (a group of monkeys) and then Vlad Vladicoff the eagle (Steve Allen) took the clover. The latter dropped it into a clover patch.

Horton’s quest to relocate Whoville became interrupted by Mazie LaBird (Rachel Smith). She asked Horton to sit on her nest for “an afternoon.” After Horton agreed, Mazie abandoned her egg.

A group of hunters captured Horton and placed him in the Circus McGurkus.  Gertrude McFuzz (Haley Schmalback), another bird, struggled to locate Horton’s clover for him. Her desire for his affections served as her motivation.

This plot summary doesn’t adequately explain the level of imagination needed to present Seussical. Much to their credit, the team at The Village Playbox made this fantastical premise very believable.

Director Rowland utilized the entire room for this production. During several numbers, the ensemble left the stage and performed in the rows surrounding the audience. I liked the stereo effect it provided. It also allowed those in the show to interact with the audience. During one number The Cat made eye contact with me as he passed. “Now there’s a man who likes to mambo,” he said to me.

I normally don’t like it when performers break the fourth wall. In this case I felt flattered that someone acknowledged my ruffled shirt. I paid good money for that thing.

Donna Allen, Nikki Zane and Amy Bannister did an excellent job with the elaborate costuming. As someone who’s color blind, even I could appreciate their intricate use of color. The Cat’s bright colored red and white striped hat looked authentic. The different shades of the Bird Girl costumes added a nice visual effect against the varying hues of the backdrop. The yellows worn by the Mayor and his wife enhanced the cartoonish ambiance.

Jan Johnston performed extraordinary work designing the set. Even though based on a fantasy world, I found it very realistic. The stage became the domain of Dr. Seuss. The cartoon trees looked as though they’d been transplanted out of the pages of his books. Mazie’s nest perched several feet above the stage. In front of it was a multi colored clover field. Credit goes to Gary Kochey and Christine Dziczek for constructing this wonderful set.

In addition to transforming the theatre into the world of Dr. Seuss, I also thought musical director John Demchak and choreographer Haley Schmalbach turned Haddon Heights into Motown. The numbers included sophisticated melodies, elaborate background vocals and stellar dance moves. Jessica Shockley delivered soulful vocals on “Biggest Blame Fool” and during “The People Versus Horton the Elephant.” Rachel Smith sang a sultry version of “Amazing Mazie” accompanied by Haley Schmalbach, Haley Melvin, Nikki Zane, Jayne Colotti and Madeline Johnson.

Upon seeing Sidney Maycock’s in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels I wrote that he possessed a genius for comedy. With his performance in Seussical, he personified Arthur Schopenhauer’s observation that, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Mr. Maycock took a high-energy approach to a demanding role. He spent most of the show on stage; either pantomiming reactions or leading the action. The entire evening he wore a fur covered cat suit. I attended on a humid night. Mr. Maycock never showed any signs of fatigue. He pranced around the room like a performer impassioned with his role.

When Act Two opened, The Cat impersonated an orchestra conductor. During the scene, the character sat down out of exhaustion, took a drink of water and patted his forehead with a towel. Mr. Maycock put a lot of energy into that maneuver, too.

Mr. Maycock utilized a series of voices for the role. Employing a Texas accent he ran an auction. He mimicked a doctor with a Russian dialect. Using The Cat’s voice he performed excellent renditions of “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” and “It’s Possible” with Presley Terch and “How Lucky You Are.”

Seussical included many outstanding musical numbers. Shawn Simmons and Mr. Terch sang the most beautiful song in the score. They sang a beautiful rendition of  “Alone in the Universe.” Mr. Simmons and Haley Schmalbach delivered an equally poignant version of the track towards the end of Act Two.

I marvel at the barrage of rhyming couplets playwrights Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty included in the script. The most challenging came during Mr. and Mrs. Mayor’s initial interaction with Jojo. Doug Cohen and Debbi Heckman impressed by delivering these tricky tongue twisters clearly and without stumbling over the words.

I found one concept in the show dated. General Genghis Khan Schmitz launched a war against people who buttered the bottom side of their toast. With the current state of American foreign policy, that concept won’t seem as bizarre to American audiences as it did when Seussical first appeared in 2000.

The show contained an extensive cast. I’d like to compliment everyone for their work on this production: Sidney Maycock, Shawn Simmons, Haley Melvin, Nikki Zane, Jayne Collotti, Madeline Johnston, Aaron Wachs, Paul Rather, Gabrielle Allen, Daniel McDevitt, Steve Allen, Lily Allen, Colin Becker, Margo Mullin, Amy Bannister, Jennifer Campbell, Rachel Grodzielanek, Madelyn Grodzalinek, Nicolette Malinowski, Audrey Mitros, Juliette Pacana, Ella Samuel-Siegal and William Young. Steve Allen assistant directed and Ed Frazer designed the lights.

Seussical played to a sold out house during its opening weekend. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll bet you feel “alone in the universe.” I’m “havin’ a hunch” you’d like to watch it. Before saying, “how lucky you are” to those who have, get your tickets now. Don’t “monkey around.”

So don’t you lament and come to grief.

See Seussical at the Village Playbox no later than May 18th.

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Spring Awakening at Burlington County Footlighters

South Jersey community theatre fans experienced an historic evening on Friday, September 14th. Both a mother and son directed shows that opened on the same day. Tami Gordon Brody, the matriarch of the Brody acting family, directed a second run of Love, Loss and What I Wore presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players. Following his mother’s lead Evan Brody made his directorial debut with Spring Awakening. I attended the latter.

With the waning days of summer upon us, Burlington County Footlighters opted to open their 81st season with Spring Awakening. This show contained elements that would appeal to a wide variety of theatrical fans. It included a unique interpolation of the Aeneid, the music reminiscent of mid-1990s pop along with a whole lot of teenage angst added for dramatic effect. The story combined Nihilistic philosophy with myriad references to onanism. I have to admit: I never would’ve expected someone to fuse that kind of range into any medium; especially a dramatic production. For a show set in the bland days of the late nineteenth century, this musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik sure didn’t lack for diversity.

Several years ago I attended a performance of Marsha Norman’s ‘night Mother at Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage. At the time I didn’t think it possible to present a show more intense than that one. Well, Footlighters raised that bar again. Imagine something like ‘night Mother put to music with a passionate ill-fated love affair worked into the story. Then add the moral universe of Grimm’s Fairy Tales where children who disobey authority face brutal retribution.

As harsh as all that may seem, Spring Awakening presented a solid exploration regarding the tragedy of the human condition. The music (under the direction of Anthony Sinigaglio) and dancing (choreographed by Tiara Nock) made the heavy themes easier to process. The gifted actors who brought the story to life with such passion required it to balance out the mood.

Spring Awakening told the story of star-crossed lovers Melchoir (Evan Newlin) and Wendla (Jenna German); he an idealistic intellectual driven by reason and she a repressed and isolated young lady with little understanding the world’s ways. They attended unisex schools in Germany during an era when authority figures viewed any nonconformity to society’s mores as anathema. In spite of this bleak background, Melchoir and Wendla developed a friendship that evolved into a deep passionate relationship.

At this point I understood why Footlighters decided to present this show in September. With all the ragweed in the air, people in the South Jersey area have been stocking up on tissues. After processing this set-up I knew they were going to need them. I did not expect the story to end well. The cast and crew’s skill in presenting these characters’ tragic journey allowed me to enjoy the voyage.

Both Mr. Newlin and Ms. German played complex roles to perfection. They exhibited profound capability to bring out the suppressed aspects of their characters’ personalities. These two performers expressed Melchoir’s and Wendla’s inner conflict with holding back their feelings very believably.

Mr. Newlin and Ms. German proved just as adept with their musical numbers. Ms. German delivered a somber rendition of “Mama Who Bore Me” to open the show. It sounded absolutely haunting and established the mood that dwelled over the performance. Mr. Newlin changed tack and showed strong comedic skills, as well. He and the cast added a humorous take on hopeless situations with the “Totally F*cked” number.

Vincent DiFilippo delivered another awesome performance. He nailed the essence of the jittery Moritz. Mr. DiFilppo transitioned from playing the role as a comic character with a nervous disposition to a tragic figure overwhelmed by circumstances. He turned in one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen.

Rachael Grodzielanek and Michael Sheldon played evil authority figures brilliantly. The military style marches they employed when approaching each other added to the characters’ malevolence while adding just a slight touch of the comic.

I liked that the playwright provided opportunities for the supporting characters to perform solos. I’d credit everyone in the ensemble for their contributions to a strong show. Paul Sigall, Evan Hairston, Aaron Wachs, Jerrod Ganesh, Melany Rosa, Alexis Short, Shannon Forbes and Cynthia Reynolds added their talents to a wonderful production.

The visual atmospherics gave this show an exceptional ambiance. During the climax, the stage became eerie. Lighting Designers Naomi Burton and Rebekah Macchione (who also assistant directed) crafted flawless illumination for this moment. While providing a sensual atmosphere a sense of doom pervaded during this pivotal scene. The candles held by the cast members made the moment absolutely ominous.

I must caution theatre goers that Spring Awakening is a show for mature audiences. It includes adult themes, language and an explicit love scene: all of which are legitimate artistic means to present a story. With all that material I’m a little surprised they let me in the door. I would strongly advise those offended by any of the above to avoid this show, but to get out of the house more often.

Set in a world devoid of love yet rife with mindless conservatism, Spring Awakening presented an excruciating take on the tribulations of adolescence. Even though the story took place over a century ago and a continent away, the concepts and themes give it a chilling relevance in our own era. That’s what makes it so impactful. To quote Nietzche, “Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.”

Spring Awakening goes into eternal slumber at Footlighters after September 29th.