Angela Rose Longo

The Fantasticks at the Ritz Theatre Company

When I read the title of the Ritz Theatre Company’s latest production, The Fantasticks, I figured it referred to the cast.  The show featured South Jersey community theatre legends Alan Krier, Bruce A. Curless and Michael Pliskin among other notables. While the show didn’t focus on their personal stories, it sure lived up to the title. I attended the opening night performance on June 1st.

To add to the billing, Matthew Weil (with the assistance of Siarra Ingram) directed this musical. Mr. Weil has a history of organizing the stage very creatively. For The Fantasticks, he utilized a similar set-up to the one he used for Brighton Beach Memoirs. In this show, however, the audience didn’t sit around the stage: they sat on the stage. This allowed the actors to mingle a bit with the spectators while taking their places for the opening scene.

The set-up also gave the thespians the opportunity to make eye contact with the audience while performing. I didn’t just feel like the players spoke to me: they did speak to me. It made the theatrical experience much more personal.

The Fantasticks told the story of teenage beaus Luisa (played by Kristy Joe Slough) and Matt (AJ Klein). The two lived next door to one another, but their feuding fathers Hucklebee (Alan Krier) and Bellamy (Charles J. Gill) kept them apart. The dads did so both figuratively and literally. They erected a wall (played by Brian Gensel) between their properties to keep the two separated…or so they wanted their kids to believe.

In the witty duet “Never Say No” the fathers explained that kids always do the opposite of what they’re told. The audience learned these men wanted their children to marry.

Realizing that a physical boundary and a fake quarrel wouldn’t suffice to bring their scheme to fruition, the dads enlisted the aid of a professional. A man who called himself El Gallo (Michael Pliskin) offered to enact an abduction. After recruiting one time Shakespearean actor Henry (Bruce A. Curless) and his sidekick Mortimer (John Nicodemo) the gang feigned an attempt to kidnap Luisa. Following a brief sword fight, Matt ‘saved’ her and emerged the hero.

At this point in the play, I became confused. The act’s final number “Happy Ending” befuddled me even more. Matthew Weil has directed such innovative dramas as The Pillowman and The Heiress. Those plays featured some mind bending plot twists experienced by complex characters. This story concluded much more neatly than I expected.

Then Mr. Pliskin announced the show included a second act. After intermission, then it turned into what I expected from a Matthew Weil directed show. The story arcs in The Fantastics rivaled the other two shows’ I cited. I’ll spare theatregoers spoilers. They deserve the opportunity to experience Mr. Weil’s theatrical journey for themselves. As a teaser, I will note that Act II began with Ms. Slough, Mr. Klein, Mr. Krier and Mr. Gill arguing in song about a plumb being “too ripe.”

The lighting (operated by Stage Manager Sara Viniar) fashioned a spectacular ambiance. The blue shade created a perfect simulation of moonlight. The yellows illuminated the stage just like sunshine. The colors accentuated the tinsel Mr. Gensel dropped on Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough to simulate rain and the paper he fluttered to mimic snow. The lighting also made me feel like the scenes occurred during the time of year indicated by the narrator.

Here we go with ‘the narrator’ thing again. I’ve often ranted about how much I loathe when a playwright makes ‘the narrator’ a character. That was until I experienced Michael Pliskin’s performance in this show. Mr. Pliskin possesses a gift for storytelling. While the show featured excellent dance routines (choreographed by Angela Longo), stellar singing (vocally directed by Robert Stoop) and outstanding acting, Mr. Pliskin’s narration impressed me the most. No one can tell a story like Michael Pliskin. If he’d like to expand his artistic horizons, I’d suggest he consider narrating audio books.

In addition to that role, Mr. Pliskin also played the villain, the deceptively intricate El Gallo. (Phonetically that’s gah-yo, as the character would tell you.) He delivered his lines with a Spanish accent embellished just enough for comic effect. The performer also delivered the most humorous death scene ever portrayed on stage. To balance out his evening, he also sang a moving “Try to Remember” that those who heard will never forget.

Kristy Joe Slough showcased extraordinary operatic vocals throughout the evening. She performed a wonderful solo number “Much More.” Ms. Slough sang duets beautifully with both Mr. Pliskin and Mr. Klein. While doing so, she chose the perfect facial expressions to enhance the lyrics. This performer displayed great dexterity with the ballet moves she performed, as well.

AJ Klein animated Matt’s love for Luisa through both his singing and his mannerisms. He displayed great energy in utilizing the entire stage for one of his dance numbers. Mr. Klein portrayed his character’s growth very credibly. One also has to respect a performer willing to wear both a sweater and a leather jacket on a muggy evening.

The highpoint of the evening occurred when Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough sang “They Were You” together. Both performers sat in front of me while doing so. With the passion in their voices and the yearning in their eyes, they made me feel the love between the two characters.

Alan Krier and Charles J. Gill teamed up for some solid duets of their own. While doing so, they made an exceptional comedy team. Mr. Pliskin even joined them to provide a musical answer on the cost of staging a fake kidnapping. In the “It Depends on What You Pay” number, the trio brought out some pretty hearty laughter from the audience.

Bruce A. Curless and John Nicodemo played two of the funniest henchmen in the history of theatre. Brian Gensel made the most memorable surprise entrance I’ve ever witnessed. (I won’t spoil it for future theatregoers.) I’d compliment Steve Weber for providing wonderful accompaniment in the form of his piano playing. I’d also commend Brennan Diorio for the costuming and Melissa Harnois for her work as assistant stage manager.

I encountered a gentleman in the audience who’d seen The Fantasticks numerous times. As Mr. Pliskin sang the final note of the “Try to Remember” reprise, he moved this fan. One could hear this gentleman’s simple observation: “beautiful” resounding through the theatre as the lights faded. After the show I asked this theatregoer what he thought of this performance compared to the others he’d attended. Without hesitation he told me, “This is New York.” Is there any better theatrical compliment?

Perhaps, there is. With the superlative nature of this performance, it’s possible that someday Broadway audiences will say, “This is The Fantasticks at the Ritz.” That would truly be a “Happy Ending” for this run.

South Jersey Community Theatre fans can watch The Fantasticks live up to its name through June 16th.

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Theater Review – The Who’s Tommy at Burlington County Footlighters

From “behind blue eyes” I watched the cast of Burlington County Footlighters “join together” for their production of The Who’s Tommy. I felt the “sensation” of being a kid on “Christmas” at the “welcome” opportunity to watch a theatrical encomium to Pete Townshend’s masterpiece. I love The Who’s music; especially the 1969 album that inspired the show. Why? “I don’t know myself.” “I can’t explain” the reason, but Tommy is still one of my favorites. “Is it in my head?” “You better you bet.” “It’s not enough” to tell me that “the music must change” and I should listen to a “new song”. I don’t care if “too much of anything” is bad for me. “I’m free” to turn on to this classic rock masterpiece as often as I like. I started “shakin’ all over” at the chance to see the first Rock Opera performed live on stage as a musical.

“It’s hard” to put on a production this complex. Director Jessica Sawyer did a phenomenal job turning “another tricky day” at the theater into a “success story”. Footlighters has a history of staging high tech productions such as Bonnie and Clyde and Avenue Q. Tommy featured many similarities. A movie played in the background during much of the show. The cast and crew brought out and put away bulky props such as a bed and pinball machine. They executed all of this while singing and dancing in-synch with a live band (conducted by Cameron Stringham). I marveled that they performed all these feats flawlessly.

As if these variables didn’t challenge the cast, Tommy featured a very unusual story to convey. Captain Walker (played by Paul Huntington) disappeared during the Second World War. Proving the old adage that “love ain’t for keeping”, Mrs. Walker (played by Angela Rose Longo) remarried. At this point the captain returned to catch his wife with her new spouse. In a fit of jealousy, Captain Walker killed the new suitor in front of four year old Tommy. (Colin Becker)

Tommy entered a catatonic state; becoming deaf, dumb and blind. This is where the show became really interesting. “Imagine a man” who witnessed such a scene as a child. I enjoyed watching the interplay between the adult Tommy (played by Ryan PJ Mulholland) and the younger version of the character played by Colin Becker. They performed an outstanding duet on “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me”.

Tommy proved a tough role for all three of his incarnations. (Aaron Levan played the ten year old one.) Sometimes it entailed staring straight ahead with a blank look; on one occasion while being slapped in the face. I have to give Mr. Becker and Mr. Levan credit: I don’t remember seeing them blink the entire show. The remainder of the time Tommy required singing songs written by a visionary songwriter. I’ve heard Who lead singer Roger Daltrey struggle with “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me” and “I’m Free”. I give a lot of credit to Mr. Mulholland for his perfect diction and intonation on these tracks.

This show featured many performers in difficult roles. Brian Gensel turned in a fantastic rendition of the sadistic “Cousin Kevin”. He and the Ensemble also did an unforgettable job running around Mr. Mulholland singing “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?” Eileen Lucarini (aka Lena Luke) played and sang the Acid Queen role as well as Tina Turner and Patti Labelle.

Angela Rose Longo’s mellifluous singing is always a pleasure to hear. Last year I watched her perform the role of Rosemary in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.” I remember her tender rendition of “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm.” Ballads suit Ms. Longo’s vocal style exceptionally well. She really shone in the mellow portion of “1951” and the soft recitation of the line “Tommy, can you hear me” in this show.

Paul Huntington impressed me the most at the beginning of the show. He acted out Captain Walker’s war time service in unison with a movie. At one point he even changed into a different uniform on stage. That showed phenomenal poise in front of a live audience.

Who purists would say there’s no “substitute” for Keith Moon in the role of Uncle Ernie. Al Krier convinced me otherwise. I liked his giddy, high-energy prance around the stage while singing the “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” number. I recall that during the 1989 Tommy tour Pete Townshend complimented Elton John on his red suit. I found the bright green suit Mr. Krier wore much more unique.

I also give Lindsey Krier credit for the exceptional choreography. In her role as Sally Simpson, Ms. Krier brought me much closer to the action than I’d expected. The character fell off the stage in front of me. Mr. Mulholland and the Ensemble congregated a foot or so from my seat and continued performing the song. That’s one thing I really admire about Footlighters: they utilize the whole room for their productions. As an audience member I appreciated feeling like a part of the show.

That’s why I really enjoyed the performance’s conclusion. Mr. Mulholland and the cast led the audience in a “Pinball Wizard” sing along. I have to acknowledge that their crooning sounded more “pure and easy” than mine. I still had a lot of fun joining in.

For the first time in all my visits to Footlighters I may have witnessed a technical glitch. To the “naked eye” it seemed like there were lines on the video screen at times. It could have been a “trick of the light”, though. At any rate, it didn’t cause me any “melancholia” with respect to the performance.

If I may borrow a song title from the last Who album: “We Got a Hit.” This show was a “bargain” at under $20.” “Relay” the message to friends and family. You can “cry if you want”, but the final showing is on May 21st. “Run, run, run” to Burlington County Footlighters to see the Who’s music brought to life. I’d watch this cast’s performance “anyway, anyhow, anywhere.”