Ally Masson

Disaster! at Burlington County Footlighters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bright Star at Burlington County Footlighters

“Is it better to hope or to know?” Jimmy Ray (played by DJ Hedgepath) asked.

When Burlington County Footlighters announced their 2018 – 2019 season, Darryl Thompson, Jr. issued a statement via Facebook. Mr. Thompson lamented that he had to wait a year to bring Bright Star to the stage. With over 12 months to plan, organize and prepare this show, was he better off “hoping” audiences would remember it as a spectacular piece or is he now better for “knowing” the answer? I discovered for myself when I attended the opening night performance on May 3rd.

Legendary performer Steve Martin wrote the book and Edie Brickell composed Bright Star’s music. Critics heralded this show. It received myriad award nominations including one for a Grammy. It won the 2016 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music, the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Score and the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Musical. To bring a show of this caliber to the Footlighters stage, Mr. Thompson utilized that year of preparation very effectively.

Bright Star contained a very rare combination of theatrical elements. It featured excellent choreography, catchy Bluegrass musical numbers and an extraordinary story. As Alice (played by Caitlin Alvarez) sang in the opening number:

If you knew my story

You’d have a good story to tell.

The show contained two alternating plot lines. One followed the star crossed love affair between Alice (Caitlyn Alvarez) and Jimmy Ray Dobbs (DJ Hedgepath). The second showed aspiring writer Billy Cane (Robert Stoop) in his pursuit of Margo (Rachel Comenzo) while trying to get published in the Ashville Southern Journal. The latter became the harder challenge. The journal’s editor read new writers with fastidious discernment. This portion of the story occurred twenty years after the first. An older Alice worked as the journal’s editor.

It shows Steve Martin’s brilliance in that he managed to make the life of a writer sound interesting.

Mr. Thompson selected many Footlighters legends as cast members. However, he selected a newcomer to the company’s stage for the lead role. Caitlyn Alvarez earned her place among performers such as DJ Hedgepath, Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Star-Renbjor.

Ms. Alvarez’s character appeared in two different incarnations. In one story line, Alice was both the “black sheep” of her family and a love struck teenager. In the other her character became an unemotional, jaded professional more comfortable with texts than with people. Ms. Alvarez animated both aspects of Alice’s personality with equal dexterity.

Ms. Alvarez also possesses a beautiful voice. She opened the show with a wonderful performance of “If You Knew My Story.” Her duets with Mr. Hedgepath on “Whoa, Mama”, “What Could Be Better” and “I Can’t Wait” expressed the hopeful optimism of youth beautifully.

Even allowing for the high standards audiences have for Mr. Hedgepath’s work, he still managed to exceed them. One has to credit him and Ms. Alvarez for their chemistry. That’s quite an achievement for two people working together for the first time.

Several years ago DJ Hedgepath’s mother commented on one of my reviews. She expressed her pride in her son. The way I praised his abilities in my article made her cry. I replied that Mr. Hedgepath is an immensely talented actor. I suggested she start stockpiling boxes of tissues.

I’m not sure whether or not Mrs. Hedgepath accepted my advice. If she did, I’d ask that she donate some of those boxes to Burlington County Footlighters for this run of Bright Star.

Mr. Hedgepath delivered his strongest vocal performance to date in the form of “Heartbreaker.” Through his emotive signing he made an affecting scene even more intense. He and Ms. Alvarez performed a duet on “I Had a Vision” that was even more moving. Mr. Hedgepath’s performance made the audience experience the same emotions as his character. That’s genius.

In the role of Billy, Robert Stoop delivered a stellar version of the show’s title track. In addition, Mr. Stoop had a witty interaction with Ms. Alvarez. He handed her a letter claiming that author Thomas Wolfe wrote a letter praising his writing. Using a monotone voice, Ms. Alvarez informed him that Mr. Wolfe passed away several years prior.

Mr. Stoop also performed an excellent number with Nicholas French (as Daddy Cane). The two sang a banjo accompanied funeral dirge for Billy’s mother with the somber “She’s Gone.”

In the playbill, Rachel Comenzo thanked Mr. Thompson for “the opportunity to sing again.” Audiences should express their appreciation to the director, as well. Ms. Comenzo proved herself quite the country crooner with her rendition of “Asheville.” She accompanied Mr. Stoop on a wonderful duet of “Always Will.”

Ms. Comenzo has that rare gift where she truly becomes the characters she plays. In her performance as Margo she always found the proper facial expressions to accentuate the scene. Her subtle wincing whenever Max (Christian DeCola) expressed his interest made their interaction more engaging.

Fans know Burlington County Footlighters for the comedy team of Al Krier and Dan Brothers. Performers Stephen Jackson and Alex Davis showed they may be the next great comedy team to originate from that company. The two provided a much needed catharsis to the intense drama that occurred in the show. In addition to their humorous interactions, they performed a catchy song and dance number with Mr. Stoop on “Another Round.”

Audrey DiEnno-Lacroce coordinated spectacular choreography. Several numbers involved the ensemble. The cast executed the intricate maneuvers well. Their skill made an entertaining performance into an awesome one.

Thomas Stone played the villain, Mayor Dobbs. He personified Larouchefoucault’s admonition that: “the evil wouldn’t be so dangerous if it weren’t for the good in them.” Mr. Stone’s character wanted his son, Jimmy Ray, to live a rewarding life. He erred by pursuing that end with unrestrained cruelty. Mr. Stone expressed that sentiment through his excellent rendition of the “A Man’s Gotta Do” reprise. His baritone repetition of the line “a man must protect his family” made it ominous. This brings me to my one criticism of the show.

When Mr. Stone took his curtain call I heard hissing from the audience. Folks: MR. STONE IS A GIFTED ACTOR. HE PLAYED THE ROLE AS WRITTEN BY THE PLAYWRIGHT. HE DID A SUPERB JOB OF IT.

Please do not confuse performers with the characters they play. In that sense, Mr. Stone should take pride in the fact audience members found his performance as Mayor Stone so authentic.

The following performers rounded out the cast: John Romano, Jillian Star-Renbjor, Matt Maerten, Tony Flores, Becky Crunk, Ally Masson, Rachel Ricci, Audrey DiEnno, Lena Dougherty, Shaina Eagan, Gabrielle Hansson, Mark Henley, Riley Rancani, Mackenzie Smith, and Luke Szyskiewicz. Michelle Foster served as Musical Director and Chuck Jackson designed the set.

Ms. Davis’ character described the task of a writer as: “to drink alcohol and feel sorry for yourself.” After watching Bright Star at Burlington County Footlighters, theatre critics will struggle to follow that follow that advice; at least the second part of it. Mr. Thompson and his team receive this critic’s praise for giving this phenomenal show the presentation it deserved. We can all drink to that.

Bright Star will shine at Burlington County Footlighters until May 18th.