Amanda Frederick

Theatre Review – Leap of Faith at Haddonfield Plays and Players

DJ Hedgepath achieved the impossible. This skillful thespian followed-up his recent portrayal of Judas Iscariot by playing an even more despicable figure associated with Christianity. In the role of “Reverend” Jonas Nightingale, Mr. Hedgepath played a greedy, selfish, prurient huckster who prayed on others’ desperation for his own financial gain. As in his performance of Judas, he still managed to bring about empathy for his character. Through his skillful interpretation of the “Reverend” he transitioned Jonas into a respectable and even a likable figure by Leap of Faith’s conclusion. This alone made his return to the stage extraordinary.

It figured that Mr. Hedgepath would mark his reappearance with something this remarkable. As one of the most active members of the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit, I worried something had happened to him. It seemed odd when I attended two consecutive shows without seeing his name in the playbill. Fortunately, I received an early Christmas present watching him star—and hearing him sing–in this production after a four month hiatus. * (Please see note at bottom of article.)

The cast and crew of Haddonfield Plays and Players made it difficult for Mr. Hedgepath to stand out the way he did. Director Craig Hutchings, Musical Director Robert Stoop and Choreographer Jen Zellers coordinated an entertaining show with a phenomenal cast. I experienced the pleasure of Leap of Faith on December 3rd.

The show featured outstanding vocal numbers. The tracks in this musical sounded to my ears a hybrid of both soul and gospel. The director cast the perfect singers for such songs. Toni Richards (as Ida Mae) drew me into the story with her section of “Rise Up.” Kahil Wyatt (Isiah) crooned a fantastic “Walking like Daddy”; the most melodically challenging tune of the production.

Various songs required multiple cast members to perform together. These alone justified the cost of admission. My favorite ensemble piece “Are You on the Bus?” allowed Beatrice Alonna (Ornella), Jennifer Fisher (Sam), Toni Richards, Kahil Wyatt, and Mr. Hedgepath to showcase their skills together. The Angels of Mercy (Maggie Hartboard, Lorraine Iaquinta, Chris Jewell, Lindsey Krier and Faith McCleery) worked as an outstanding choir on “Step into the Light”, “Lost” and “If Your Faith is Strong Enough” among others. Their dance routines added to the fun.

A series of moving duets enhanced the evening. John Sayles (Jake) played a wheelchair bound child who begged Jonas to heal him. Mr. Hedgepath and Mr. Sayles displayed great chemistry together. The “Like Magic” track provided them with the perfect musical vehicle to express it. These performers took full advantage of the opportunity.

Amanda Frederick played Marla; a complex role for musical theatre. Ms. Frederick’s character required her to fill the multifarious parts of Jake’s mother, the local sheriff and Jonas’ love interest. While displaying the disparate traits of toughness and tenderness, she brought all this character’s qualities to life brilliantly.

Ms. Frederick and Mr. Hedgepath complimented each other well. The two expressed the characters’ evolving relationship through different musical styles. The upbeat “Fox in the Henhouse” described the prurient aspects of the reverend’s personality. “I Can Read You” provided a tender and intimate exploration of each character’s history. These performers managed to adjust their emotions to convey the feelings behind these songs. Due to their characters’ changing views of each another, this required skill and flexibility.

In Ms. Frederick’s playbill bio, she quoted Oscar Wilde. “The self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression,…Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.” This performer took that opportunity during her moving renditions of “Long Past Dreamin’” and “People Like Us.” She delivered a somber reading of the latter with such emotive force that I could feel Marla’s pain.

The ensemble also deserves credit for their contributions. Andrew Chaput, Bridget Hartshorne, Brittany Halzman, Mike Werner, and Tami Gordon Brody played the Sweetwater, Kansas crowd that became the reverend’s de facto personal cheering section. It’s a testament to their collective skills that they managed to show even more enthusiasm than the real audience.

The show contained one scene I found objectionable. It occurred when Sam (Jennifer Fisher) confronted Jonas regarding his tryst with the sheriff. She delivered a line intimating Marla could use her handcuffs for an erotic purpose. This bothered me. I understand that the original Leap of Faith musical premiered in 2010. That line is much more inappropriate today. I fear it could inspire those contemplating a musical version of Fifty Shades of Grey. What Christian wanted to do to Anastasia, a musical based on the book would do to theatre.

Leap of Faith began by Mr. Hedgepath pointing at me and shouting, “Sinner!” The fact I still liked the show after the self-described “King of Sin” character berated me as such shows how phenomenal this performance. For those who’d like to take the “leap of faith” and check it out: your “last chance salvation” is December 17th. “Are you on the bus?”

(* For all those so-called “artists” out there, please keep in mind: not actively practicing one’s craft for four months is an extremely long period of time for some people. It should be noted that during Mr. Hedgepath’s “down time” he directed another show.)

Theater Review – Rent at Bridge Players Theater Company

Johnathan Larson must’ve had a profound hatred for actors when he wrote Rent. This musical presented the most challenging material I’ve ever witnessed on a live stage. Watching it performed by a community theater group really impressed me. I enjoyed the stellar performances even more.

Rent featured an extraordinary array of musical styles. Tracks such as “One Song Glory” harkened back to standard Rock and Roll. “Tango: Maureen” was just that: a tango. “Seasons of Love” took me back to the age of Aquarius. The musical also had some numbers for more ‘traditional’ theater fans. I thought the titletrack probably the closest to a standard ‘show tune’ sound.

The vocal routines by this cast were mind blowing. Leilah Murphy (as Mimi Marquez) qualified for a Gold Medal in gymnastics with her performance. It’s hard to sing in front of a group of people. It’s harder to sing and dance in front of group of people. During her rendition of “Out Tonight” Ms. Murphy did these things, while swinging from a beam and then sliding down a pole. It impressed me even more that she pulled all this off without getting hurt.

Mike Wemer (as Tom Collins) also displayed some exceptional vocal skills. The reprise to “I’ll Cover You” showcased his vocal prowess the most. Mr. Wemer began the song as a baritone. A high note came in at the end that he nailed flawlessly. I should also point out that this number came up at the most somber moment of the play. Mr. Wemer sang while nearly crying. All I can say is, “Wow.”

Kiara Rodriguez (as Joanne Jefferson) gave Mariah Carey a run for her money as a singer. Several times during the evening Ms. Rodriguez hit notes close to dog whistle territory. As I told the lady sitting next to me, “She hit those notes better than I would have.”

The most challenging aspect of performing Rent involved the subject matter. It followed a group of bohemians through a year of their lives. Their struggles and heartbreaks served as the crux of the story. Most of the characters suffered from HIV or AIDS. It took a very special group of actors to animate this story in such an entertaining way. Kudos also to Amanda Frederick (as Maureen Johnson) for getting the audience involved with “Over the Moon”.

I also have to give credit to Jonathan Mosesku’s performance as Angel Schunard. (For those unfamiliar with the play, the latter character is a drag queen.) Any man who can run around a stage in high heels and not fall down certainly deserves respect. I struggle walking in flip-flops. I don’t know how the hell he pulled that off.

Matt Dotzman (as Mark Cohen), Mike Reisman (as Roger Davis), and Zack Treusch (as Benjamin Coffin III) turned in fine performances, as well.

I also credit director Chris Focarile for pulling the whole thing together. Gina Petti did an exceptional job as choreographer. (Ms. Petti also played a number of roles in the play.) Those two should qualify for a PMP for staging this production. With all the different characters and the host of intricate musical numbers, they did a phenomenal job.

Jonathan Larson may not have liked actors, but I liked the ones in the Bridge Players Theater Company. In addition, I always enjoy seeing Pulitzer Prize winning plays at community theater groups. This way my wallet doesn’t get ‘rent’.